John Scurr House still looks quite special as you glimpse it from the DLR at Limehouse but it has an even more extraordinary history, both in its politics and its architecture. It started life as a design showpiece – a daring example of municipal modernism and an exemplar of high quality tenement living for council tenants. It came near to ending it as a slum but for its recent rescue and striking refurbishment. This blog tells that story, one involving many of the leading names in social housing and addressing many of its key issues.
The scheme was officially opened in July 1937 but the journey to that proud day for the Borough of Stepney was a complex one. That the densely populated industrial borough needed new housing was not in doubt but what was desirable and what was practicable were fiercely controversial.
Labour first swept to power in the Borough in 1919 but the local party felt its housing plans thwarted by government red tape, so much so that the mayor wrote to The Times: to Clement Attlee, it was clear that ‘either there is some influence at work endeavouring to prevent local authorities carrying out their work…or that Messrs Dilly and Dally have not yet been demobilised’. (1)
Ministry advice to make best use of the London County Council’s new suburban estates was also rejected – local dockers needed to be near their place of work and the Borough’s Jewish population near synagogues and kosher markets. (2) However, it was estimated that there were just four acres of undeveloped land in Stepney and this in scattered pockets. At this time London Labour firmly opposed what might seem the inevitable solution to this quandary – multi-storey blocks. The Party’s members believed working-class families needed – and deserved – cottage homes.
In the event, Labour narrowly lost power in Stepney in 1922 to an anti-Socialist Ratepayers’ grouping whose leading figures were unusually both idealistic advocates of slum clearance and supporters of good quality tenement building. These combined in the Limehouse Fields scheme – an officially declared Unhealthy Area of ten acres and the largest borough slum clearance project in the capital – in which they proposed to build a ten-storey block of maisonettes.
To counter the usual opposition to such ‘barracks-like’ constructions, this was to be a model of its kind, designed by leading housing reformers, Major Harry Barnes and William Robert Davidge. (3) Their plans included lifts, wide access galleries (almost a prefiguring of much later deck-access schemes) as well as private balconies, decorative facades and two acres of playground. The development’s principal supporter, Councillor JD Somper, even suggested that ‘fowl runs’ might be added to the drying areas and communal laundries that the scheme already included.
Despite such ambitions, Labour remained opposed to flats and scuppered the scheme when they regained power in Stepney in 1925. Still, the scale of local problems and the impossibility of building cottage estates in the Borough demanded some pragmatism. The new Labour council commissioned Ewart G Culpin and Steuart Bowers – one of the most important architectural practices in public housing in the interwar period – to design a model six-storey maisonette block.
Riverside Mansions in Wapping included lifts, clubrooms, laundries and drying areas as well as an on-site shop, maternity and child welfare centre and gymnasium. Its appearance was softened by the use of different exterior brick treatments and a mansard roof.
The battle over high-rise was not over yet however. When Stepney Labour lost power in the debacle of 1931, a Conservative-led council commissioned another of the leading architectural partnerships of the day, SD Adshead and Stanley Ramsey, to draw up plans for another showpiece project. The ten-storey scheme selected was opposed by Labour but it would form the basis, when Labour regained power yet again in 1934 (securely this time, winning all 60 seats on the council) of the modified six-storey project which would become John Scurr House.
John Scurr House was named after the Poplar councillor – imprisoned for his part in the 1921 Rates Revolt – and former Mile End MP who had died in 1932. It was built at a cost of £88,358 and contained 119 one to four-bedroom flats in two separate blocks but it was a more impressive scheme than the dry figures suggest. The local press celebrated ‘Stepney Council’s New Luxury Flats’ – as well they might: the modernist scheme became the first municipal development to be accepted for the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy.
In functional terms, the report praised the: (4)
automatically controlled passenger lift in each block; a system of refuse disposal by means of chutes from all floors into central containers, a splendid children’s playground on the roof of the north block; a gravel courtyard with tarmac pathways surrounding; a large window lighting the central staircase made of concrete and glass; hot water supply to each individual flat.
In design terms, it was the light steel frame construction and appearance which attracted attention, particularly the sweeping access galleries running around the outside of the building (rather than being hidden at the back as was the practice in most contemporary LCC tenement blocks) in true modernist fashion. Most flats also enjoyed small private balconies.
Meanwhile, in the vital social context, it was estimated in 1937 that over 8000 Stepney families were living in overcrowded conditions and the Borough still contained 6134 illegal underground rooms.
Stepney’s housing programme of that year – the Borough also opened the impressive 76-flat Arbour House in Arbour Square – could only make a small dent in a problem of such scale. The LCC, which rehoused 280 families (233 of whom outside the Borough, mostly on the Becontree Estate), could do little more. (5)
slums and overcrowding were tragedies and the greatness of the country lay in the houses of the people. It was sad to think that many people in Stepney had places not fit to be called houses.
Nor is it surprising that London Labour, in power in the LCC since 1934, had by this time shifted decisively in favour of multi-storey tenement building. A housing research group, set up by Herbert Morrison prior to that election, concluded that in London ‘block dwellings [were] inevitable’ and that, furthermore, it would be unwise to be ‘dogmatic’ regarding their height. Among its members were Harry Barnes and Ewart Culpin and, no doubt, the Stepney experience had played its own part in changing opinions.
But while John Scurr House had played a significant role in London’s wider housing history, its own longer-term future was a troubled one. We’ll examine that story next week.
(1) Clement Attlee, ‘Housing in Stepney’, The Times, 12 April 1920
(2) Simon Pepper and Peter Richmond, ‘Stepney and the Politics of High-Rise: Limehouse Fields to John Scurr House, 1925-1937’, London Journal, vol 34, no 1, March 2009
(3) Harry Barnes was a Liberal politician who would briefly serve as a Labour chair of the LCC’s Town Planning Committee before his death in 1935; WR Davidge was President of the Royal Town Planning Institute in1926-27.
(4) Eastern Post and City Chronicle, July 31 1937
(5) Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health FR O’Shiel, 1937
The contemporary photographs are taken from the official opening programme placed on the Facebook page of Tower Hamlets Community Housing. My thanks to them for sharing this resource and to the invaluable Tower Hamlets Local History Library.