The London County Council built over 89,000 homes between the wars. Over half – some 47,000 – were built in out-of-county ‘cottage suburbs’. The Watling Estate, then in the urban district of Hendon, was the third largest of these (after Becontree and St Helier) with a population of 19,000 by 1939. But not everyone was sympathetic to the drive to rehouse Londoners from the crowded inner-cities, at least not in their backyard: (1)
Isn’t it time that Mill Hill woke up and tried to save itself from being trampled to death? Already the raw, red tentacles of that housing octopus, the London County Council Watling Estate, are pushing their way through the green meadows, devouring everything in their path…LCC wooden bungalows face houses that sold a few years ago for over £2,000. This surely is a scandal.
Scandal or not, Mill Hill’s fate had been sealed by the extension of the Northern Line to Edgware in 1924. The LCC acted quickly to purchase 387 acres of farmland adjacent to the new Burnt Oak station. The plans, drawn up by the LCC’s Chief Architect, George Forrest, set aside 46 acres for allotments and parks and 16 acres for schools and public buildings. The rest was for housing.
Building began in February 1926. The first family moved in in April 1927; 2100 more followed within twelve months. By 1931, the Estate – 4021 dwellings in total – was complete, aside from 34 larger homes for letting at higher rents added in 1936.
Most were traditional brick but the total includes 252 ‘Atholl’ steel and 464 timber-frame homes built as the LCC experimented with methods it hoped would be cheaper and quicker. The timber homes were apparently supplied with 12 feet of rubber hose due to the inadequacy of local fire services. (2) Most were larger family homes, a mix of parlour and non-parlour; around 320 were flats.
Other facilities came more slowly: ‘No shops, no schools, the kids were running wild’, as one resident recalls; or another of the Estate’s early years: (3)
At that time there was nothing but bricks and mortar and acres of mud. The main thoroughfares were narrow lanes – little more that footpaths and cart-tracks in part.
The first school opened in 1928, the large Watling Central School in 1931. The main shopping parade on Watling Avenue was built in 1930 – a welcome relief to local housewives who had previously had to travel to Edgware for their groceries.
Housing was the priority and the LCC’s architects were attentive to its design and detail, providing a range of Arts and Crafts touches across the Estate – in the predominant use of traditional brick and tile, timber window framing and doors, porches and canopies, and the deployment of dormers, eaves and bays adding visual interest and detail.
Compared to pre-war schemes such as the Tower Gardens Estate in Tottenham and the Old Oak Estate in Hammersmith or the early post-war Dover House Estate in Putney, Watling is plainer but it was good quality housing and a fine environment for Londoners escaping the inner city.
It is the Estate’s overall layout which is more striking. Garden City ideals, albeit modified for scale and economy, were implemented in a range of the Estate’s features. Streets were designed to make the best use of the undulating site and offer vistas and views.
Buildings at corner sites and some of the short terraces were set back to open out the streetscape, provide variety and add greenery. Greens and cul-de-sacs also reflect the contemporary idiom of Unwin-inspired cottage estates. Unique to Watling was the Silk Stream – a meandering brook preserved to create a 45 acre open space running through the heart of the Estate. (4)
So who were the ‘colonists’ of this fine new estate? Thanks to Ruth Durant’s 1937 survey we have a pretty good idea. One in five of the male heads of household were skilled workers, almost the same proportion worked in transport and almost one in ten were ‘blackcoated’ workers – clerical and administrative employees. Around 25 per cent were semi-skilled or unskilled labourers.
This was then, typically for the new housing estates of the day, a relatively well-off though overwhelmingly working-class population. Over half the men earned between £3 and £4 a week in wages. Small families predominated and almost half the population was under 18.
As Durant concluded, ‘only artisan families from London, in certain phases of their lives and possessing certain incomes, are eligible to live here’. It was this selection that accounted for ‘the comparatively well-to-do aspect of the Estate’ though looks could be deceiving.
Take the case of Mrs Miller ‘down the top of Horsecroft’: (5)
she used to pawn her washing every, every Monday. Her laundry, bed sheets, bed linen. And take it out again on Friday night…she used to cart it down to Harvey and Thompsons, who were the big pawnbrokers in Watling…they were the lifeblood of many people in Watling.
Durant herself understood that the economic respectability of Watling’s residents was precarious, subject as they were to the vicissitudes of personal life and the market and to the additional expenses of the Estate:
Watling itself makes new demands upon the pockets of those who move there. Shopping is more expensive when the market is unfamiliar. The rents on the estates are a great financial burden, especially to those who formerly lived cheaply…The new house needs new linoleum, new curtains and even new furniture, and all is bought on hire purchase… Husbands have longer journeys to their work, are forced to eat more meals outside and to spend more on fares.
The lowest rent on the Estate (for a two-room flat) was a little over 50p; for a five-room parlour home it stood at around £1.44. These were often twice the rents people had previously paid.
Then, she claimed, there were the new pressures of keeping up with the people next door:
In the old ‘mean street’, people were not tempted by example of their neighbours to acquire fresh impediments. At Watling, where more households with better incomes have settled, the wireless next door becomes an obligation to bring home a wireless.
There were those too who found the isolation and lack of facilities of the Estate in its early days difficult to cope with: (6)
My husband thought it was terrible…’Godforsaken hole, miles away from anywhere’.
My mother wasn’t too happy because in Marylebone we were just down the road from Selfridges but when you got to Watling it was just fields plus fields.
All this helps explain why in its early years almost one in ten of households left the Estate annually, mostly to live more cheaply and closer to work or friends and family in central London though some left to buy their own homes nearby.
For Durant, this turnover of population was one of the major reasons why Watling failed to be the type of community she wanted: ‘in the long run’, she concluded, ‘Watling is not much more than a huge hotel without a roof’.
There was also the problem of demography. Watling didn’t house independent younger people with, typically, lower incomes; in other words, its own children. Still, the fact that ‘frequently Watling boys marry Watling girls’ – as she put it rather sweetly – and that both often found local employment did suggest that the population would stabilise.
In next week’s post I’ll look more closely at the type of community insiders and outsiders wanted Watling to be and the type of community it actually was and I’ll question a few assumptions along the way.
(1) A letter to the Hendon and Finchley Times, 11 November 1927, quoted in Daniel Weinbren, Hendon Labour Party, 1924-1992. A Brief Introduction to the Microfilm Edition (1998)
(2) Alan Jackson, Semi-Detached London Suburban Development, Life and Transport 1900-1939 (1973)
(3) Ruth Durant, Watling, A Survey of Life on a New Housing Estate (1939). Ruth Durant is better known, after her second marriage, as Ruth Glass.
(4) London Borough of Barnet, Watling Estate Conservation Area Character Appraisal Statement (July 2007)
(5) A Watling resident quoted in Darrin Bayliss, ‘Building Better Communities: social life on London’s cottage council estates, 1919-1939’, Journal of Historical Geography, Vol 29, No 3, July 2003
(6) Quoted in Bayliss, ‘Building Better Communities’