It is generally accepted that many of the model dwellings of yesterday have become the problem areas of today. Multi-storey developments were encouraged through subsidies for dwellings over a certain height. This was followed quickly by industrialised building with little or no research into tenant satisfaction and cost-in-use. Whole communities were uprooted in the process of providing the largest number of dwellings in the shortest possible time. These economies in building forms together with the basic group errors in judgment have left a huge legacy of problems for council services in the ‘80s.
That was the verdict of Tony Babbage, Director of Housing for the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, on the Edward Woods Estate in December 1979. (1) Many, perhaps most, would endorse that view and see little to revise in it subsequently.
What we know – or think we know – about high-rise housing depends heavily on what we read and when we read it. Beyond that, confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret new evidence as corroboration of our existing beliefs – kicks in. An examination of the longer story of Edward Woods, the shifting perceptions surrounding it, and, above all, the lived experience and views of its residents allows us to tell a more complex and, in many ways, more positive story. That said, I’d prefer you to read this not as a ‘defence’ of high-rise housing but as a reminder of the competing ‘truths’ which define it.
Nowadays, the Edward Woods Estate lies east of the Westfield shopping complex, just across the dual carriageway A3320. Formerly, this was an area of railway lines and sidings and dense late-Victorian terraces. The latter were structurally sound for the most part but overcrowded, poorly maintained and lacking basic facilities. By the late 1950s, as the national drive to clear Britain’s unfit housing took off, they were considered slums. The site was compulsorily purchased by the Metropolitan Borough of Hammersmith and largely cleared by 1961.
A decade later, policy had shifted towards the rehabilitation of such so-called ‘twilight’ areas. Central government increasingly questioned the expense and efficacy of clearance and new build programmes; others, as we saw, had grown critical of the multi-storey estates which often replaced the inner-city terraces. The 1969 Housing Act, replacing redevelopment areas with General Improvement Areas and Housing Action Areas, confirmed this policy reversal.
Back in the early sixties, however, there were other modernising pressures in play locally. That elevated section of dual carriageway separating Westfield and the Edward Woods Estate is the West Cross Route leading to Westway, a completed fragment of the London Motorway Box planned in the 1960s. These plans, first mooted in Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan, were intended to adapt the capital’s creaking infrastructure to the modern age of motor transport. As public opinion turned against the cost and blight of the new urban motorways, the scheme was abandoned in 1973 but it had, in Hammersmith, provided another reason for clearance and redevelopment.
In the meantime, the drive towards high-rise housing was in full swing. For Hammersmith in the early 1960s, the ‘greatest obstacle to the Slum Clearance programme [was] the difficulty experienced in finding acceptable accommodation for the families to be displaced’. The same report spoke hopefully of new multi-storey blocks to be built in the Latimer Road (South) Clearance Area that might help solve this problem. (2)
Half a mile to the north, in the neighbouring borough of Kensington, the London County Council began the construction of the predominantly high-rise Silchester Estate in 1963 and, just to the east, the borough itself was planning the Lancaster West Estate and Grenfell Tower.
This was the era of high-rise (even as most council housing continued to be traditional two-storey housing). The seemingly common sense view that high-rise blocks provided greater housing density held sway and there was little appetite to re-create the congested, airless terraces. In fact, the surrounding open terrain tall blocks needed – to offset problems of shadowing and overlooking – ensured, by the prevalent people per acre metric, they offered little in the way of greater density.
Hammersmith initially proposed, at 31 storeys, two towers which would then have been the tallest residential blocks in London. Those plans was knocked back by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government which suggested a limit of twenty storeys. In May 1962 Hammersmith’s compromise suggestion of three 24-storey blocks and five 5-storey maisonette blocks was accepted.
Construction of the lower-rise Mortimer and Swanscombe Houses began in 1964 and the first part of the estate was officially opened in December 1966 by Edward Woods, OBE, JP. Woods had been a Hammersmith councillor for 40 years and leader of the Council from 1951. He had retired in 1964 and the naming of the Estate was taken as a fitting tribute to his many years of service. The council he had represented was itself replaced by the new Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham in the following year.
The first of the three tower blocks, Poynter House (Stebbing and Norland followed), was officially opened, again by Edward Woods, in March 1968. At 72m, these were among the tallest residential blocks in the capital. Comprising reinforced concrete frames and solid brickwork flank walls, these were not system-built and were erected by the Council’s own direct labour organisation.
The opening brochure speaks of plans for eight shops, a doctor’s surgery and a housing office also located on or around the estate and six covered car parks with space for 584 cars and children’s play areas on their top decks. Some 814 homes were provided at an overall density of 136 people per acre which represented the London County Council’s maximum for such inner-city developments.
There’s an air of bright modernity around the whole project; the estate had: (3)
been designed to create as much space as possible and when complete the land between the blocks will be landscaped and groups of semi-mature trees planted. Between two of the twenty-four storey blocks, Poynter House and Stebbing House, an open ‘piazza’ will be provided.
Even the new flat-roofed Watneys’ pub, the Duke of Sussex opened in 1965 – ‘designed to blend architecturally with the Borough Council’s development’ – was a symbol of this optimistic futurism. (4)
Ten years later, the mood was very different. We’ll look at the big picture – previewed in the opening paragraph – in a second but let’s begin with some practical issues. Firstly, crucially, the lifts didn’t work properly. Two per block, they were criticised as too small, too prone to breakdown and too susceptible to tampering. (5)
There were some structural issues – water leakage into flats from podium slabs, falling tiles and so on – and there seems to have been considerable cost-cutting in relation to the promised landscaping and play areas. One critical observer noted only one ‘small tarmacked fenced-in area with 12 swings’ for some 500 children. The planned community centre was axed due to Council cut-backs; the top floor space of Norland House an inadequate replacement.
In design terms, the dark and insecure car parking spaces had been abandoned by tenants as ‘vandalism had run rife’ and ‘badly lit areas on stairways’ were ‘inviting to muggers’. Oscar Newman had published his critique of the larger public housing schemes in the US, Defensible Space – his concern was the lack of it – in 1972. Those criticisms were already crossing the Atlantic.
By 1979, a critical article in the Municipal Journal could conclude: (6)
By the Borough’s own admission the ‘Edward Woods Estate is monotonous to look at and its scale is oppressive’. Levels of vandalism on the estate are high. Deck access, for example, has produced the general problems of lack of security. All the underground communal garages are unused and bricked up.
The estate had ‘an air of hopelessness and decay’.
In this context, the damning verdict of the Director of Housing quoted above hardly looks misplaced. He continued in like manner that Edward Woods was ‘not a natural community but rather a polarised population – people don’t feel part of the estate and tend to be rather suspicious of their neighbours’. Some households, who might once found support in the ‘village atmosphere’ of less dense communities, were labelled as ‘problem families’. ‘Tenants generally’, he concluded, ‘have started to reject the estate as a good place to live’. (7)
That might seem the end of the story, and it will be for those who condemn high-rise housing in all its forms. In fact, even at the time, an opposing story-line was possible and the longer picture allows a very different narrative. We’ll follow all this in next week’s post.
My thanks to the Archives and Local Studies service of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for many of the sources used to inform this post and for permission to use the images credited. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My thanks also to Dave Walker at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies and Archives for permission to use images in their holdings
(1) Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, Report of the Director of Housing, Edward Woods Estate W11: Initial Assessment (December 1979)
(2) Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the Metropolitan Borough of Hammersmith, 1961 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972)
(3) Hammersmith Housing Committee, ‘Poynter House, Edward Woods Estate’ (March 1968)
(4) ‘The Duke of Sussex, St Ann’s Road’, Watney’s Red Barrel, October 1965 (My thanks to Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, authors of 20th Century Pub for this source.) Later renamed The Favourite, the pub was demolished in 2012 and replaced by a block of private studio flats.
(5) Kevin Withers, ‘A Comparison Made between the Lancaster West and Edward Woods Estates in West London’ (ND typescript, Kensington and Chelsea Archives). Detail in the succeeding paragraphs is drawn from the same source.
(6) ‘Vandalism: Municipal Journal Special Feature’, Municipal and Public Service Journal, 14 December 1979
(7) Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, Report of the Director of Housing, Edward Woods Estate W11: Initial Assessment (December 1979)