Holborn, created in 1900, was at just 403 acres the smallest of the London boroughs. With a population to match – declining from 59,000 when established to barely 22,000 on abolition in 1965 – and an overwhelmingly Conservative council, neither was it in the forefront of council housebuilding. Still, it has a rich council housing history and after 1945, with Sydney Cook as Borough Architect (who would go on to make his name in the same office at Camden), it stood in the forefront of modernist design.
This first post will look at its earlier history and begins with what the Survey of London describes as ‘the first council housing in England’. In fact, Corporation Buildings on Farringdon Road, completed in 1865, were built by the City of London, largely at the initiative of Alderman Sydney Waterlow, better known as the founder of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. For that reason and given the nature of the City of London Corporation, I place it more strongly in the Victorian tradition of philanthropic housing and, like most of these early ‘model dwellings’ and their relatively high rents, its 168 tenements housed the better-off working class and the lower middle class. The buildings were demolished in 1970. (1)
The City of London built another block, Viaduct Buildings containing 40 tenements, in 1880 but it was the London County Council (LCC), created in 1889, that built most of Holborn’s council housing proper before the First World War. The LCC’s first scheme was a small one, intended to clear and improve a run-down area between Brooke Street and Leather Lane. Completed in 1897, Cranley Buildings (unusually three-storey tenements rather than the five that was the norm) comprised just twelve two- and three-roomed tenements, housing 60 people. Only 55 had been displaced by slum clearance but the usual problem of high rents ensured that these new residents too were the better-off rather than the poorest who had previously lived in the area. (2)
The LCC’s next scheme, the Bourne Estate, south of Clerkenwell Road, was a much grander affair: eleven principally five-storey blocks containing some 763 homes: (3)
designed by the LCC Architect’s Department in a free Classical style, with Arts and Crafts touches … [of] international significance as the model for the much admired and highly influential public housing erected in Vienna immediately after the First World War.
It’s the grand arches which find their greatest echo in the later Austrian schemes but the attractive green courtyards of the Bourne Estate contain little of the communal buzz sought by Red Vienna.
Holborn was far from alone among the metropolitan borough councils in building no council housing of its own before 1914 but its overwhelmingly Conservative membership no doubt made that decision easier. Two Labour councillors were elected in 1919 but they soon lost their seats and through most of the 1920s the Council was wholly Conservative.
The First World War and its aftermath – and specifically the promise of ‘Homes for Heroes’ – had changed much in 1919 and the celebrated Housing Act of that year required that all councils not only survey local housing needs (within three months!) but actively prepare schemes to meet them. Holborn went through the motions, going so far as to inspect four possible sites for council housing, but finally concluded that: (4)
Although from a purely public health point of view there is at present necessity existing in the Borough for better housing accommodation for the working classes, many other factors have to be taken into consideration by the Council.
To be fair, there was some truth in the factors identified: population movement from central London, cheaper and better housing in suburban districts, cheaper commuting, and Holborn’s growing significance as a business centre. But they didn’t obviate the pressing problems of the day, not least the 611 unadapted large family houses now in multiple occupation. Clearly, political opposition to public housing remained the determining factor for the Council’s Conservative majority.
The 1919 report identified a precise total of 999 LCC flats in the borough. This number was not added to in the interwar period but Holborn itself did in the end build some 92 council homes by the early 1930s – only Chelsea and Paddington Metropolitan Boroughs provided fewer in the period.
Holborn’s first council housing was built on Betterton Street in Covent Garden. Betterton House was opened in 1927 by Prince Arthur of Connaught, a small, five-storey infill block of 15 tenements designed by Borough Surveyor JE Parr, replacing buildings declared derelict. The arched front entrance led to a stairway providing balcony access at the rear. Fifteen further tenements were added in a 1930 extension. A small but active Labour opposition group on the council were denouncing the flats as ‘slums’ by the later 1930s. (5)
The Council’s next scheme – Boswell House in Boswell Street, Bloomsbury – also designed by Parr, comprised 62 flats and was opened in 1932. There were over 400 applicants for the new homes; the lucky few selected were: (6)
Holborn residents living in unsatisfactory conditions, in a number of cases being large families in single room tenements. Many of the tenants are employed in market work, in hotels and restaurants, or other occupations where the hours of work necessitate residence near to the place of work.
The design details provided by the Medical Officer of Health suggest the Council took some pride in the scheme: (7)
All the flats will have a well-ventilated larder, sink, draining board, dresser-cupboard, gas cooker, copper-boiler, bathroom and W.C., coal bunker, cupboards, shelving, hat and coat racks, etc. … A playing yard is provided for children, and the blocks of flats have been so arranged as to provide the maximum amount of sunshine, light and air for the dwellings. The flats, balconies, staircases and the yard will be lighted at night by electric light.
This was, unusually, a seven-storey scheme (the top two floors were maisonettes), necessary to make fullest use of the restricted, one-third of an acre, site. Almost uniquely, for a council housing scheme before the 1946 special lifts subsidy, it contained two service lifts. In this, at least, Holborn was ahead of the game.
That does, however, represent the peak of its pre-war housing record. The context is important – a population that by 1937 was estimated to have fallen to 34,600 – but on other measures housing need remained severe. From 1930, housing legislation focused on slum clearance and rehousing. The 1935 Housing Act required all local authorities to undertake a survey of overcrowding in their districts. In Holborn, by the modest criteria of the day, 700 families were found to be living in overcrowded conditions, over nine percent of the local population. This placed Holborn tenth among the capital’s 28 Metropolitan Boroughs for overcrowding. Much therefore remained to be done.
Much more after the devastating impact of the Blitz. Some 650 buildings were destroyed in Holborn (one seventh of the Borough’s total) and 426 people killed. Around 282 high explosive bombs fell at the height of the Blitz in April-May 1941 and a number of V1 and V2 rockets in a second wave of attacks in 1944. Per head of population, Holborn was reckoned the worst hit administrative district in the country. (8)
The political impact of the war seems almost as seismic. In the general election of June 1945, Irene Marcousé, elected a local councillor in 1939, stood for Labour in Holborn. She posed the all-important question of the day: (9)
Who is going to win the peace? Are you – the ordinary citizens of Holborn and Britain? Or are THEY – the privileged few who have always cheated you and the peace and plenty you have earned?
Marcousé didn’t win but she came within 925 votes of the victorious Conservative candidate on a 19-point swing in a two-horse race. This was a very creditable result in Holborn where business voters – those with a vote through ownership of business premises in the constituency – represented around 6 percent of the electorate. (Plural voting was abolished for parliamentary elections in 1948 but remained in local elections – and significant therefore in Holborn – till 1969.)
Across the country, Labour gained 239 seats to form its first (landslide) majority government. This was a harbinger of the November local elections in which Labour took control of the Borough for the first and only time, winning 24 seats to the Tories’ 18. Marcousé became leader of the Council and chair of the Housing Committee.
It’s worth a pause here to take a look at Marcousé and the new council. Marcousé was born in East Prussia in 1900 and educated in Belgium before graduating from the universities of Heidelberg and London. Frank Dobson, Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras in later years, recalled she could sing The Internationale in English, French and German. She had married Hugh Chaplin (Principal Keeper of the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum and a fellow Labour activist) in 1938; together they lived in Russell Square. But she was, in Dobson’s words, ‘a hard-bitten, awkward and effective old socialist’. Better known as Ina Chaplin, she would represent the party on the LCC, Greater London Council and Inner London Education Authority till 1977. (10)
Under Marcousé’s leadership, in what almost might be described as the ruins of Holborn, the Council opened information and social centres in disused and bomb-damaged premises, created new children’s playgrounds, organised open-air entertainments in local squares, and published a regular council newsletter. It was a broad and cultural programme that seems in some ways to prefigure the New Left politics of later years.
But the key issue was housing and we’ll examine its record on that and the longer post-war story next week.
(1) Philip Temple (ed), Farringdon Road‘, Survey of London: Volume 46, South and East Clerkenwell, (2008)
(2) Fuller detail is provided in Martin Stilwell, Housing the Workers Early London County Council Housing 1889-1914, 10: Brooke’s Market, Holborn Scheme (pdf)
(3) Historic England, Bourne Estate (Northern Part), Denys House, Frewell House, Ledham House, Radcliffe House, Redman House, Scrope House, Skipwith House: listing details
(4) Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1919 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports, 1848-1972)
(5) Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1927 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports, 1848-1972). On Labour, see Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s.
(6) Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1933 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports, 1848-1972)
(7) Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1932 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports, 1848-1972)
(8) A Walk in History, Friday 30th May – The Blitz
(9) Quoted in Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party (Random House, 2010)
(10) See Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s. A transcript of Frank Dobson’s obituary of Marcousé published in The Guardian, 9 April 1990, can be found in the online archives of Woolverstone Hall School (an out of London boarding school founded by the LCC in 1951 where she was a governor until 1986).