Walk the streets of any London borough and you’ll see council housing. Look more closely and you’ll see its story unfold. In this, Wandsworth offers a particularly rich history – a range of forms and types, some innovatory, some all too typical, the best and the worst; and through these too it reveals the conflicted politics of council housing – high ideals, low politics and partisan agenda.
Before we begin, some geographical and political background. The present day borough, formed in 1965, comprises the former Metropolitan Boroughs of Battersea and Wandsworth, less an eastern slice (made up of Clapham, Streatham Hill and Streatham) lost to the new Borough of Lambeth. Above this local politics lay, at first, the London County Council, formed in 1890 and, from 1965, its larger successor, the Greater London Council. All these bodies play their part.
Before 1914, Conservative Wandsworth built nothing but the Progressive LCC and Battersea – the so-called Municipal Mecca – built some of the most best new council housing of their day. The Totterdown Fields Estate in Tooting, begun in 1900, was the first (alongside Norbury in Croydon) of the LCC’s cottage suburbs – a modest municipal Arts and Crafts embodiment of the garden city ideals being pioneered by Ebenezer Howard.
Battersea was a more densely-settled industrial borough but the council’s Latchmere Estate sought on a more compact scale – the Estate, with 315 houses and tenements was around one quarter the size of Totterdown – to emulate these same ideals though, given local politics, with a more radical twist. The latter was seen practically in the insistence on including ‘what had once been regarded as luxuries’ – ‘baths, combined ranges and electric light’. It was seen more symbolically in the naming of the streets – for ‘Freedom’ and ‘Reform’, after local labour leaders and, most provocatively, after General Joubert, the leader of the Boer forces in the recently concluded and unpopular (on the left) Boer War.
Another war, far larger and more terrible, brought about a decisive political shift in favour of council housing. Lloyd George and, legislatively, the 1919 Housing Act committed the state – as reward or sop (take your pick) – to building ‘homes for heroes’. This was a policy that, initially at least, commanded support across the political spectrum and in the interwar period, Wandsworth Metropolitan Borough Council – still Conservative dominated – built on a large scale, in total over 2800 homes.
The Magdalen Park Estate had originally been planned as a middle-class garden suburb by private builders, the Holloway Brothers. Those plans were scuppered by the war and, in the changed post-war climate, the Council purchased the freehold and built the Openview Estate on its western side: by 1922, 376 terraced and semi-detached houses of which 89 per cent were parlour homes. Their cost – averaging £1099 for a parlour home (around three times the amount of equivalent pre-war housing) – was an indication of labour and materials shortages of the era and a symbol, for the time being, of the priority given to building high-quality working-class homes. (1)
This was seen at its absolute peak in the LCC’s contemporaneous Dover House Estate in Putney. This was the Council’s first post-war estate, begun in 1919 and completed in 1927, and it remains one of its finest, outstanding for the richness of its Arts and Crafts detailing and its greenery and layout. It was, as Mark Swenarton reminds us, a ‘showplace in its day…visited by many from all over the world’. (2)
But even here, as a contemporary equivalent of austerity kicked in from 1921, the size of homes fell as government subsidies and prescribed standards fell. This was seen also in the second of Wandsworth’s estates, Furzedown, where (at 30 Beclands Road) the then Minister of Housing Neville Chamberlain opened the Borough’s 1000th post-war home. The Estate enjoyed tennis courts and a bowling green provided by the Council but, of its 464 homes, just 17 per cent possessed a front parlour.
On the Southfields Estate, erected in the mid-1920s under Chamberlain’s parsimonious 1923 Housing Act, Wandsworth also built the first of its maisonettes which were to be a feature of its later schemes.
Battersea, Labour-controlled and committed to continuingly high standards, also faced the problem of a lack of suitable building land. It was forced to build three-storey tenements, rather than the single family houses it would have preferred, in its Holgate Avenue scheme started in 1924, but the homes remain impressive for their design detail, seen in their diapered brickwork, striking porches and slate mansard roofs. Internally, the provision of electric cooking and heating as well as lighting must have won the plaudits of a visiting delegation from Soviet Russia in 1925 who surely remembered Lenin’s dictum that Communism was ‘Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country’. (3)
Five-storey tenement walk-up blocks remained the most characteristic form of London council housing in the interwar period and beyond but the LCC’s East Hill Estate, built between 1925 and 1929, was outstanding for its grand scale and imposing design. It housed – in what would be the dominant motif of 1930s council schemes – 525 families decanted from slum clearance areas. If you look for it now, you’ll find only its former ceremonial entrance (complete with LCC coat of arms), itself inherited and adapted from the Fishmongers Almshouses which formerly occupied the site. The Estate was demolished and rebuilt from 1976 by the later Wandsworth Borough Council and then, under a Conservative administration in office from 1978, sold to the private sector. (4)
This New Right politics – a prefiguring of the Thatcherite politics of the 1980s – was seen even more controversially in the 1981 sale of another five-storey tenement scheme, the St John’s Estate in Battersea, built in the early 1930s. Its 272 flats and maisonettes had been Battersea Council’s principal interwar housing effort. A major modernisation programme was begun by a Labour-controlled Wandsworth Council in 1976 but in 1981 the reigning Conservatives sold the estate to Regalian Properties for £3.7m. It was thoroughly refurbished and its flats sold on the open market. Eighty per cent of homes went to first-time buyers but none to former tenants and, it is said, that Regalian reaped a handsome profit of £14m from the deal. (5)
Back in the 1930s, another Conservative politics held sway. In 1928, Conservative Wandsworth Metropolitan Borough had decided ‘to concentrate on the provision of accommodation which could be let at a rent the lower-paid worker could afford to pay’. This, it is true, represented one strand of right-wing thinking – that council housing should be built for the poorest rather than for general needs, but it acknowledged too a real problem of most of the housing built to date – that it was affordable only to the better-off working class.
Here, Wandsworth would anticipate the major thrust of 1930s housing policy – seen both in Labour’s 1930 Housing Act and the ‘National’ (predominantly Conservative) government’s 1935 Housing Act – which focused on slum clearance and rehousing.
Wandsworth built flats on Merton Road and Acuba Road for former slum dwellers and low income families in the early 1930s which, in appearance, are not dissimilar from the mansion blocks gracing middle-class areas.
Its eastern extension to the Magdalen Park development, the Fieldview Estate, looks as good as any middle-class suburb but a closer look at the front doors (two per unit) reveals that this later scheme is composed of flats, 344 in total.
Wandsworth also undertook a major slum clearance programme, demolishing unfit property (a 1930 survey of the Borough had revealed 758 houses unfit for human habitation and a 1935 survey 1801 local families living in overcrowded conditions) and rebuilding on Wandsworth Plain, Nelson’s Row/White’s Square and Felsham Road.
Its most important development, however, was the Henry Prince Estate in Earlsfield, formally opened in May 1938 by WE Elliot, the Minister for Housing. This 10 acre scheme with its long frontage along Garratt Lane, imposing brick archways and quiet inner courtyards comprised 272 flats. It was named, deservedly I think, after Henry Prince, a Conservative councillor who had served as chair of the Housing Committee from 1919 to his death in 1936.
Prince is remembered also in the clock above the Estate’s main entrance but the Estate is probably more strongly associated now with another, Labour, politician, Sadiq Khan, whose childhood home it was.
A cruder version of slum clearance would be applied by Nazi bombing in the years which followed. We’ll look at its impact and that of the very different politics which shaped council housing after the Second World War in next week’s post.
This map shows the location of all the estates mentioned in this week’s post and the next.
(1) Wandsworth Conservation & Design Group, Magdalen Park Appraisal & Management Strategy (2009)
(2) Mark Swenarton, Homes Fit for Heroes: the politics and architecture of early state housing in Britain (1981)
(3) Survey of London, Battersea, Ch 9 West of Plough Lane (2013)
(4) London County Council, London Housing (1937)
(4) Survey of London, Battersea: Introduction (2013) and Graham Towers, Shelter is Not Enough: Transforming Multi-storey Housing (2000)
Most of the other details come from the various Metropolitan Borough of Wandsworth Official Guides published annually in this period.