In 1928, Southern Railway advised ‘there is so much open country all around Grove Park that no one need fear for the present it is going to become a part of London’. (1) This was ironic given that its book was intended to promote the growth of suburbia (and lucrative commuterdom) on London’s fringes. It was also dishonest given that London County Council’s Downham Estate – over 6000 homes when completed in 1930 – was being built just to the west of Grove Park station.
Speculative housing built for middle-class owner-occupation did spread rapidly but the remarkable feature of this area of south-east London – for the purposes of this blog at least – is its swathe of what Martin Crookston has called ‘Corporation suburbia’. It stretches west to east, almost uninterrupted, from Downham itself to Lewisham’s interwar Grove Park Estate, to the GLC’s 1960s’ Chinbrook Estate, to the LCC’s 1930s’ Mottingham Estate, and finally Woolwich Council’s Coldharbour Estate, begun in 1947.
A brisk 45-minute, two and a half mile walk provides a potted history of a form of housing – the garden suburbs – that, by Crookston’s reckoning, accounts for around one-sixth of English homes and some 40 per cent of the country’s current socially-owned housing stock. Here this amounts to over 11,000 homes.
This post and the next will concentrate on a smaller area and two of the smaller estates – Grove Park, a fine example of interwar planning and construction, and the unsung but remarkable Chinbrook Estate, one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished estates of the 1960s.
Lewisham Metropolitan Borough Council was securely Conservative throughout the interwar period and its housing efforts were modest. There had been short-lived plans, instigated by Deptford Borough Council and in cooperation with Bermondsey, for a jointly-owned ‘garden city’ on land owned by Lord Northbrook in Lewisham. Lewisham withdrew its support in 1920 and the plans fell through. Later the land was acquired by the LCC and would form the basis of the Downham Estate. (3)
Lewisham’s contribution to the ‘Homes for Heroes’ drive of the immediate post-war era was limited therefore but it did build a small estate of 86 houses – solid, stripped-down neo-Georgian, two-storey terraces – under the terms of the 1919 Housing Act in Romborough Way, near Lewisham Park. The short cul-de-sac and enclosed green of Romborough Gardens forms a particularly attractive enclave.
In February 1925, the Public Health Committee, alarmed by the Medical Officer of Health’s reports of increased overcrowding in the Borough, passed on its concerns to the Housing Committee. The latter identified a 43 acre site, east of Grove Park, as suitable for building. It had been bought speculatively by a local builder from Lord Northbrook in 1923 for £3600. In July 1926 it was acquired by the Council by Compulsory Purchase Order for an arbitrated price of £8825 – almost two and a half times what Mr Durbin had paid for it three years earlier. A reminder of how land values and the market distort our housing provision and how readily private interest profits from public need.
Building on the site, undertaken by three local contractors, began in August. Eight acres were set aside as a recreation ground and 1.5 acres for allotments. A site was provided to the LCC for a new primary school; the rest was allocated to housing. And to its credit, the Council determined to build well; to erect ‘the best possible type of house that could be provided in a municipal undertaking’ and at the largest size permitted under the 1924 Housing Act.
It appointed the eminent architect-planner WR Davidge – an early supporter of the Garden City movement, elected President of the Royal Town Planning Institute in 1926 – to design the Estate. Davidge’s pedigree is first seen in the use of existing topography – an undulating terrain which added, in the words of a Council brochure, ‘a pleasing feature to the general appearance’ of the new estate’. Moreover: (4)
In the preservation of some of the old trees on the estate and the green in Roseveare Road, and more particularly by encouraging the cultivation and upkeep of the gardens, the Council have endeavoured to ensure that the Estate shall become a real ‘Garden City’.
An annual best-kept garden competition with a victory shield and prizes provided some of that encouragement; the rent collector’s weekly visit possibly provided some discipline. As Pauline Payne, who moved onto the Estate as a child in 1939, recalls, if he spotted an untidy garden or a hedge that needed cutting, ‘you would get a polite notice reminding you of the conditions of your tenancy agreement and a certain time limit to put things right’. (5)
Davidge also ensured that the housing was of pleasing and varied appearance – as many as six types on a single street, it was said. With justifiable pride, it seems, the Council concluded that:
The completed estate has the merit of combining convenience in the planning of roads, spacious and well-appointed houses and harmony in the design and conception of the whole. Roofed with red hand-made sandfaced tiles, the walls of the houses have generally been externally dressed with cement left rough from the plasterer’s float and treated with various shades of colour wash. Doorsteps, window sills and chimney stacks have been carried out in purple and red facing bricks, which blend with the colour of the roofs.
In terms of accommodation, two blocks of what the Council called ‘storey flats’ provided 32 of the Estate’s homes but the bulk were solid three-bedroom houses; 136 of the so-called Type B with parlours and 336 Type A, non-parlour. Internal arrangements included, to modern eyes, perhaps some surprising mod cons. Pauline Payne noted an ‘enormous walk-in airing cupboard on the landing’, cupboards under the stairs and, either side of front door, a walk-in cloakroom and a walk-in larder.
In the first phase of construction, gas provided lighting for both housing and streets. In the second, electricity was used – the first streets in the Borough to be lit by electricity. In other respects, arrangements were much more of their time although still, presumably, a vast improvement to most new residents.
Pauline Payne describes ‘a large iron pot-bellied copper in the kitchen [which] provided hot water for the whole house’. The bathroom (‘absolutely freezing in winter’) was next door to the kitchen with hot water ladled by hand from copper to bath. The toilet stood next to the back door.
Payne’s experience was, as she recognises, perhaps exceptional. She was an only child (she recalls families of eight and thirteen children living either side of her new home in Cobham Street) of lower middle-class parents. The family moved to the estate when their own home was bombed and her first impressions were, perhaps for that reason, underwhelming:
Upon getting the keys for our first sight of our new home was gloomy indeed as the whole house was painted chocolate brown. For years we had to live with that colour…and even after the war the council only varied the colour to bottle green.
This was the other side of municipal housing – the dull uniformity it could sometimes impose on its residents.
Public transport was poor in those days as well and local shopping limited but she has happier memories too – Chinbrook Meadows nearby (declared a public park in 1929) were ‘a paradise for children’; the tunnel under the nearby railway another play spot.
By 1939, Lewisham could declare proudly that the borough was ‘notably progressive in the matter of Housing’. In terms of numbers, the Council had provided 558 houses and 211 flats (in 1930 60 flats were built in five blocks – since demolished – along Winchfield Road in Lower Sydenham). This was a relatively small number but, in general, the standard was high. (6)
The war which broke out in 1939 would change much. Its destruction forced the Borough and the capital to build on unprecedented scale. A new politics emerged too, one that – for a time at least – placed the needs of the country’s working class to the fore. We’ll see both play out in next week’s post.
My thanks to the Grove Park Community Group and John King for generously supplying some of the historical information within this post. John King’s history of the area provides more detail.
My thanks also to Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre for providing additional useful resources and for permission to reproduce some images from their collection.
(1) Southern Railway, Country Homes at London’s Door (2nd ed, 1928)
(2) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (Routledge, 2016)
(3) John King, Grove Park Revisited (2011)
(4) Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham, Grove Park Housing Estate (ND – probably 1929)
(5) Pauline Payne, A Council House Kid, 1939-1957: Growing Up at Grove Park (typescript manuscript, ND, Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre)
(6) The Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham: the Official Guide of Lewisham Borough Council (1939)