This blog began with a walk – just a ramble through some local streets and, with it, a realisation of just how much we owed to local government. This post marks another walk. It wasn’t planned as an excavation of municipal heritage – the route’s a bit random and its ‘sights’ are eclectic to say the least – but, as a reminder of the breadth and depth of municipalism’s contribution to our lives, it’s probably hard to beat.
We start at the Island Gardens DLR station at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. Turn to your left on exit and you’ll see Millwall Park. Poorly drained and unattractive to speculative builders, the area remained predominantly pasture land into the late nineteenth century though Millwall FC occupied a couple of sites from 1885 till their move south of the river in 1910. In 1919 the London County Council (LCC) bought the land and created a playground and park. In 1925, they added an open-air swimming pool but that was destroyed in the Blitz and not rebuilt. (1)
At the edge of the park there’s a statue of a woman holding a fish. An adjacent plaque tells you it’s by Antonio Lopez Reche and was placed there in 2007 but it has a back-story. It’s a replica of an artwork – ‘Woman with Fish’ – by the sculptor Frank Dobson, bought by the LCC in 1963 in the year of his death. It was originally located on the Carpenter Estate in Stepney, part of the Council’s ‘Patronage of the Arts’ scheme which saw over 70 works of art placed in estates and schools across the capital for the pleasure and edification of working-class Londoners. Here it is in its original setting.
The original provided drinking water too but it was badly vandalised in the late 1970s and removed, originally for restoration, in 1983. Then it was destroyed. Fortunately, we have this replica to remind us of that progressive past though its present rather isolated position and backdrop seem to speak to different values. (2)
Wandering over to Island Gardens themselves, you get your first grand vista of the River Thames. A few of you might first notice the impressive buildings of the Old Royal Naval College immediately across the river but true municipal dreamers will be more taken by the powerful bulk of Greenwich Power Station lying just to the east. It was designed and built by the LCC between 1902 and 1910 – an early example of a steel-frame building with a stone-clad brick cover – to provide power to the Council’s tramways. Coal, oil and gas-fired over the years, it’s now one of the oldest operational power stations in the world and recently converted to generate low carbon power for the Tube and local homes and businesses. (3)
Naturally, we’ll use the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to cross the river, designed by the civil engineer Sir Alexander Binnie and constructed by John Cochrane and Co. but commissioned by the seemingly ubiquitous LCC. The 370 metre-long tunnel was opened in 1902, after a campaign by Will Crooks (docker, trade unionist, councillor and Labour MP), to provide reliable access from south of the river to workers employed on the Isle of Dogs.
As you emerge on the south bank, the first thing you’ll notice (apart from the Cutty Sark) is the Meridian Estate, a traditional LCC estate of five-storey, walk-up, balcony-access tenement blocks, begun by in 1933 with its westernmost buildings completed after the end of the Second World War. It must now be among the best-sited estates, commanding some of the finest views, of any in the capital. Today, riverside locations are the prerogative of the well-heeled. Back in the day, when first acquired by the Council, this was unattractive industrial land – a mix of docks and allied trades and humble terraced homes – and it was deemed good enough for working people. (4)
We’ll ignore the tourist hustle and bustle of central Greenwich and walk on up along Greenwich High Road. As you turn the corner past Hawksmoor’s St Alfrege Church, completed in 1718, you catch a first glimpse of Greenwich Town Hall or rather, initially, its 50 metre tower and look-out platform. This was a complex designed by the architectural practice, Culpin & Son. The father Ewart was a Labour alderman and vice-chair of the LCC in the interwar period and, together with his son Clifford (chiefly responsible for the Greenwich building), he had also designed Poplar New Town Hall opened in 1938. Greenwich followed one year later.
It’s a building whose form and style consciously reflects local government with a progressive agenda – the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich came under Labour control in 1934 as did in the same year the LCC itself: (5)
Avowedly modernist in its uncluttered and irregular elevations, juxtaposing verticality, through a clock tower, with the horizontality of flat-roofed, low-rise office blocks. For Pevsner in 1951, this was ‘the only town hall of any London borough to represent the style of our time adequately’
Clifford Culpin was clear on his inspiration, Willem Dudok whose Hilversum Town Hall in the Netherlands (1931) provided a model:
I was a devoted admirer of Dudok, and when I had the Greenwich building to design, I went to Hilversum and though the great man had a house full of guests, he devoted a very long day to showing me his best buildings.
Aside from the council offices and Council Chamber, the complex contains two public halls, including the principal Borough Hall, originally with seating for 534 (and 259 on the balcony) on its sprung maple dance floor. The Council ‘hoped that the new Civic Centre will become the focus of the social life of the Borough’. Older residents can tell me if that were ever the case. As of now, sold off in the early 1970s, the Borough Hall is occupied by registered charity Greenwich Dance (‘the home of dance in South East London’) whilst the former civic buildings (now Meridian House) house the Greenwich School of Management and some private flats.
Immediately adjacent to the south is West Greenwich Library, built in 1905-7 and designed by HW Willis and J Anderson according to Pevsner and Sir AB Thomas by Historic England. We’ll go with the latter’s detailed description of ‘the three-bay building, of modest baroque appearance’. It was – as a central tablet records – ‘The gift of Andrew Carnegie Esq’; one of 660 libraries in the UK (there are 2509 worldwide) paid for by Carnegie, a Scots-born US steel magnate who dedicated $350m – some 90 per cent of his personal fortune – to philanthropic causes in the closing years of his life.
Follow the road south as it branches east on Greenwich South Street and look up above number 23. Here there’s a plaque marking the birthplace in 1873 of Alfred Salter – doctor, Bermondsey councillor and MP and (with his wife and fellow councillor, Ada) one of the leading and most idealistic municipal reformers of his generation. (The work of the Salters and Bermondsey’s Labour council in the interwar period are extensively recorded in my earlier series of posts on Bermondsey.)
Across the road is something which isn’t municipal but it worthy of note for both its architecture and social purpose. Queen Elizabeth College is (despite its name) an example of the earliest form of social housing – alms-houses originally endowed by landowner and antiquarian William Lambarde in 1576 who entrusted their management to the Drapers Company which still runs them. The buildings you see now fronting Greenwich High Road were built in 1818 and provide 40 self-contained one-bedroom cottages.
Lambard House (William seems to have lost an ‘e’ somewhere along the line) on Langdale Road is an attractive extension, maintaining that mission by providing 28 further flats in 1967. (6)
We’ll walk on in next week’s post to follow this municipal trail further.
(1) For this and much more on Millwall Park, see Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives, Millwall Park (10 August 2015)
(2) Sally Williams, London Park and Gardens Trust, ‘Looking out for Art – LCC’s Patronage of the Arts’
(3) BBC News, ‘Low Carbon Plans Announced for Greenwich Power Station’, 8 January 2015
(4) Greenwich Industrial History, ‘The Old Loyal Britons, 62 Thames Street, Greenwich, SE10’ (20 August 2014)
(5) English Heritage, London’s Town Halls. The Architecture of Local Government from 1840 to the Present (1999)
(6) The Greenwich Phantom, Almshouses (3) Queen Elizabeth’s College (3 July 2008)