Imagine knocking down some old Nash Regency terraces to build council houses. If that idea fills you with horror, you should probably stop reading now. If, on the other hand, it might capture a democratic moment, a time when we wanted to build houses for the people and cared less about the interests of the few, read on.
This was the vision of Eric Cook in 1944. Cook, a left-wing journalist, was the vice-chair of St Pancras Borough Labour Party. (Elected to the Council in 1945, he died aged only 42 just three years later.) Admittedly, his idea had had some help from the Luftwaffe but the buildings were poorly built (‘by Regency jerry-builders’, he said) and thought at the time to be beyond repair. Modern bulldozers, he went on, could easily create ‘one of the finest building sites in all Britain…the ideal site for the careful planning of a great sweep of working-class flats, catering for the main bulk and backbone of our people’. (1)
Meanwhile, the Crown Commissioners, who owned the land, were planning luxury flats. (Does that sound familiar?) To Cook, this was ‘a plan which must be fought and beaten’:
The people of St Marylebone and St Pancras and their borough councils must persuade the Crown Commissioners…that something better can be done with this site. What an inspiration it would be for the hundred of thousands who come to Regent’s Park every year… if they saw, instead of a restricted number of luxury flats for the very wealthy, right around the ‘outer circle’ of the Park a magnificent sweep of modern flats where people like themselves, service couples and families, had their homes overlooking one of the loveliest of London’s parks.
These initial ideas were too radical and soon watered down but it’s a sign of the times that modified plans were supported by a public meeting of planners and architects held in the nearby headquarters of RIBA and endorsed by Patrick Abercrombie himself. (2)
The Gorell Committee established by the new Labour Government in 1946 to investigate the future of the Regency terraces was, as might be expected, a little less gung-ho. It recommended seven of the terraces be preserved but accepted the demolition of Someries House (which would later become the site of Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians’ building), Cambridge Terrace (Nash’s least accomplished work, it said) and Cambridge Gate (a later, 1876, construction ‘of no architectural merit’). The removal of the latter two would have the: (3)
advantage of opening up the Park for the immediate enjoyment of the inhabitants in a redeveloped area of terraced houses around Munster Square, Clarence Gardens and Cumberland Market [and] would remove a feeling of isolation and of living behind a barrier of more favoured property.
If you wander up the Outer Circle now, you’ll notice that those buildings survive and do, indeed, create a barrier separating the council estate behind from any view – indeed from any sense of adjacency to or ‘ownership’ – of the park which lies so close to hand.
The world wasn’t turned upside down after all. Normal service was resumed; the privileges of the elite maintained. Still, St Pancras Borough Council did build its Regent’s Park Estate and we’ll turn now to what was achieved.
The Crown Commissioners agreed to sell some of the land to the east of the Outer Circle and the Council acquired some 69 acres for clearance and redevelopment. Two elements of Nash’s original scheme – Munster Square and Clarence Gardens, speculative housing for the middle classes gone bad and almost obliterated in the war – were demolished.
In their place the first plan, approved by the Council in 1946, envisaged, in classic Zeilenbau form, a ‘straight, uniform, high block system of flats spaced at intervals of approximately 55 yards’. (4)
Given that even the Council report approving the plan concluded ‘the whole effect is inclined to be one of regimentation’, it’s perhaps not surprising that this scheme was abandoned. Frederick Gibberd was called on to design a revised lay-out and construction of the first phase of the Estate – Zone A with buildings designed by Gibberd himself – began in 1951.
These are the nine-storey T-shaped blocks running along Stanhope Street. Interspersed among them – at a time when the principles of neighbourhood planning were running strong – were three-storey maisonettes, a nursery, two pubs and a small shopping centre. The taller buildings were of reinforced concrete frame construction but Gibberd made some effort to add visual interest and variation, using brickwork facings in a chequer-board pattern as well as patterned tiling varied across the blocks.
The second phase south of Cumberland Market, along and off Robert Street – actually Zone C – was begun in 1954: 245 flats and six shops and three blocks of 11 storeys, all faced with yellow stock brick, designed by the Davies and Arnold partnership.
The third phase (Zone B) – the work of Thomas Sibthorp, St Pancras Borough Architect – runs along the west side of Augustus Street: two six-storey blocks and one four-storey.
Peggy Duff – chair of the Housing Committee from 1956 – later described the new buildings of the Estate as ‘horrible, barrack-type structures’ but most contemporary architectural opinion was kinder. To the Times’ architectural correspondent, Sibthorp’s Zone C was the most disappointing of the scheme – ‘a step back even when compared with the 30-year-old work alongside’ but he praised other elements of the Estate as ‘far more agreeable’, particularly the designs of Davies and Arnold who had treated their façades more simply than Gibberd and been given greater latitude to vary building heights. (5)
It was the later phases of the overall scheme which most excited contemporary opinion. Here Edward Armstrong and Frederick MacManus were given scope to depart ‘from the more usual open type of planning with rather loosely sited, separate blocks’, allowing them, it was said, ‘to regain the traditional character of English urban planning which gives a more compact and intimate environment’. (6)
The matter of council rents in St Pancras is a whole other story (we’ll write about it another time) but it’s worth noting one oddity here. Labour had returned to power in St Pancras in 1953 (having narrowly lost to the Conservatives four years earlier), determined to revise the local differential rents scheme. Its solution was to charge tenants two shillings more the higher their flat was above ground level. Thus a tenant in one of the top-storey flats of Gibberd’s blocks was paying up to 18 shillings more than a tenant on the ground floor. Even at a time when high flats were not as reviled as they later became, this seemed a perverse decision and it was abandoned in 1956.
If you live on the Estate, you can tell me different but it looks in good nick – well-maintained, and attractive overall with its mix of design and aspect and with the ‘touches of colour’ that the Times correspondent noted back in 1955 though enhanced more recently. It does feel slightly cut off by the Regency terraces to its west and the rather desolate Hampstead Road to its east. This was an unintended consequence of the failure to ‘knock through’ to the Park but it was taken then to some extent as a positive in creating a ready-made neighbourhood unit.
Of course, there have been many changes since the 1950s. The new Borough of Camden spent £1m on environmental and safety improvements in 1986. In 1990 a ‘£7m Swedish overcoat’ was used to insulate eight renovated blocks. In 1994 – in a comic irony which probably escaped people at the time – the installation of new security doors was delayed by vandalism. (7)
Demographically, it’s a very different estate too with the ethnic mix you’d expect to find in an inner London borough and a more elderly population – one in five of residents are over 60 according to one sample survey. Around a quarter of the Estate’s homes are now privately owned.
Most dramatically, the north-western corner of the Estate is threatened by the proposed HS2 development out of Euston. A minimum of 168 homes face demolition to accommodate existing plans for new lines and station buildings; over 150 more are likely to be affected by the proximity of construction work. In its opposition to HS2 at least, Camden can make common cause with those in the leafy shires similarly impacted. (8)
There’ll be no elite outcry to save Eskdale, Ainsdale and Silverdale blocks in the Regent’s Park Estate from the planners and bulldozers as there was back in the 1940s to save Nash’s Regency terraces but let’s imagine a world where housing for the ‘main bulk and backbone of our people’ was our first priority as it was briefly in 1945.
(1) Eric Cook, ‘Big Building Opportunities around Regent’s Park. Will they be seized?’ North London Press, November 24 1944
(2) ‘Development East of Regent’s Park. Scheme to House 8000’, The Times, October 18 1945
(3) Gorell Report quoted in CS Bainbridge and Frederick Gibberd, Plan for Saint Pancras (1947)
(4) Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras, ‘Regent’s Park Redevelopment Scheme, 1946. A report adopted by the Borough Council on 17 April 1946′
(5) ‘Peggy Duff, Left, Left, Left (1971)and ‘Rebuilding In London: Efforts to Avoid Monotony’, The Times, November 28, 1955
(6) St Pancras Borough Council, The Story of the Regent’s Park Redevelopment Area (1955)
(7) London Borough of Camden, Press Releases, 8 September 1986, January 29 1990, 30 June 1994
(8) Camden Council, ‘Regents Park Estate HS2 proposals Regeneration profile’ (ND)
With thanks to the excellent resources and always helpful staff of the Camden Local Studies and Archives department.