I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Michael Passmore. Michael is a historian specialising in housing and town planning after a career in estate management. In 2015, King’s College London awarded Michael a PhD for a thesis on the politics of council housing between 1971 and 1983. Since 2015 Michael has been affiliated to University of Greenwich, first as a visiting lecturer and currently as a visiting fellow. He engaged in organising with Professor Mark Swenarton and others the successful 2019 Homes Fit for Heroes Centenary Conference at the Institute of Historical Research, London University.
Charlton in South–East London is known for its fine Jacobean mansion, Charlton House, and for The Valley football ground where Charlton Athletic first played in 1919. A less well-known part of the district’s heritage is the Guild Estate, part of Greenwich Council’s contribution to the Lloyd George government’s Homes Fit for Heroes campaign. It forms a section of Charlton Estate comprising some 440 cottage-style semi-detached and terraced houses.
An observant visitor to Charlton might notice a pointer to the significance of this 1920s estate from an ornate plaque (or tablet) on the front wall of a pair of semis at the eastern end of The Village. It records the names of some dignitaries of Greenwich Metropolitan Borough and others involved in developing the first phase of the estate during 1919–21.
The name of the construction company inscribed is ‘Guild of Builders (London) Limited.’ This was one of several building guilds, set up as part of a short-lived movement following the First World War. My research reveals that the homes in Charlton are the only ones that a guild erected in the former County of London, although the London Guild also built Higham Hill Estatefor Walthamstow Urban District Council just over the county border.
Initially, the proponents of the guilds had lofty expectations. During 1920, G.D.H. Cole, the Oxford academic and leading theorist of the guild socialist movement, saw the London branch in action and welcomed the contribution its members were making. He had hopes that “The guild system would develop into as great a movement as the co–operative movement.”
Guild of Builders
The guilds were created at a time of unrest among working people that had been fomenting since the First World War especially over poor working conditions and squalid housing. There were dreams of replacing private enterprise with a new form of business organisation through workers’ control. In April 1920, Richard Coppock, a young trade union official in Manchester, set up a national building guild with Samuel (S.G.) Hobson, a political idealist, who was one of the people involved in founding Letchworth Garden City. (Coppock later became Chairman of London County Council.) The guild was an alliance of several independent unions representing building workers and known as the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives (NFBTO). Hobson became General Secretary of the national guild.
The guild aimed to make decisions democratically, to improve the status of building workers and to achieve high standards by reviving artisanship in the industry. Echoing ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, the guild aspired to do work worthy of the Middle Ages. Workers formed self-governing branches including the one in the London area, although most were in the north of England. Unlike the prevailing practice on building sites, the guilds aimed to continue paying worker–members when bad weather prevented activity as well as during holidays and sickness. Many labourers and skilled workers responded enthusiastically to an opportunity to participate in the new venture.
The housing campaign associated with Health Minister Christopher Addison’s Act of 1919 generated plenty of building work and so presented an opportunity for newly formed building guilds to participate where local councils were prepared to engage them. Addison initially encouraged their involvement because private contractors showed little interest in building council housing.
The London Guild of Builders was set up on the lines of a model constitution recommended by the National Guild with Malcolm Sparkes as secretary. He was a Quaker who at one time ran his own building firm.
Political control changes in Greenwich Town Hall
Before municipal elections took place in November 1919, the Conservatives, who operated in London local government as the Municipal Reform Party, had controlled Greenwich Council for two decades. As in several London boroughs and to the surprise of many, the Labour Party became the majority party on Greenwich Council in 1919. If it had not done so, the inexperienced London Guild might not have succeeded in building the council’s first housing project. A close relationship quickly developed between the new council and the guild when it came onto the scene. Nevertheless, councillors across the political divide adopted a bipartisan approach over participating in the government’s Homes Fit for Heroes campaign.
The newly elected council decided to retain the experienced mayor, solicitor Sir Charles Stone, not least because there was no financial allowance at a time when most Labour councillors were in full-time employment. By the following year, when a stipend was available for the office of mayor, the council appointed a leading Labour member – Benjamin Lemmon, a marine engineer and energetic trades unionist.
Work starts on the scheme
By the time that the Labour leadership took on its responsibilities, the council had identified forty acres of greenfield land of irregular shape. Only a small part was in its ownership and most of the site was being acquired from Sir Spencer Maryon-Wilson whose family had owned Charlton House and much of the area for centuries. The development land skirted three sides of a 30-acre wood that Maryon-Wilson was in the process of donating to London County Council for use as a public park. This helped make the housing site attractive because Christopher Addison advised local authorities to build estates near open space so that tenants would have easy access for recreation.
In 1925, Greenwich Council was to acquire Charlton House from Maryon-Wilson with its 40-acre park opposite the new estate, thus adding to the local amenities.
During its first six months, the new council made substantial progress with the housing scheme. Having obtained Whitehall’s approval to the site, the council appointed a Greenwich-based architect, Alfred Roberts, to draw up an estate layout (with the borough engineer) and design the houses. Roberts and the council settled on four building types ranging between two and four bedrooms and all were to have bathrooms.
On 10th July 1920, a customary ‘cutting the first sod’ ceremony took place to mark the start of construction works. Alderman Lemmon, who chaired the event, explained to the gathering that the Housing Ministry had approved plans for the scheme and that the necessary funds were available. He blamed the nation’s housing problem for much of the prevailing industrial unrest. Lemmon was delighted that the woodland next to the new homes was to become available for public use.
Meanwhile, a firm of private contractors began work on an initial phase of eighteen houses on a strip of land detached from the main site and fronting onto Kinveachy Gardens, an established residential road. The recently formed London Guild lobbied the council for the job but missed the date for submitting a tender price. They made sure that they met the conditions for the main contract.
As the London Guild submitted the lowest tender for building 164 houses on the main site, the council quickly settled the contract details with them. Most of the new homes were to have three bedrooms.
Included in the contract were another 26 homes on a strip of land to the west of Charlton Village that was to become Mascalls Road. The council agreed to pay for the work in stages as building progressed. This enabled the guild to raise the working capital needed for its operation from the Co-operative Bank that served trade unions. As Whitehall officials were slow in approving the terms of the contract, it was not until late 1920 that they gave Greenwich the go-ahead to start work. By this time there was a waiting list of workers wanting to join the guild and within a few months, a local newspaper reported that there were 300 on site.
Design of the homes
The authors of the South London volume of the popular Pevsner Architectural Guides recommend their readers to look at the estate to see what they describe as the ‘straightforward pantiled and roughcast cottage housing.’ This entry captures the more attractive features of the homes although in recent years alterations to many of the exteriors are out of character with the original designs.
When preparing the drawings for the new Greenwich homes, Alfred Roberts followed the official housing design manual issued to local authorities. This publication was in line with the report Sir Raymond Unwin edited on the Tudor Walters Committee, which the government set up in 1916 to improve the standard of working-class housing. The manual included plans of several types of model home but allowed for variations to suit local conditions.
Roberts would have been aware of the picturesque estate at nearby Well Hall, Eltham, designed during the war by Sir Frank Baines of H.M. Office of Works. However, the manual made it clear that designers should avoid the expense of unnecessary ornamentation, although the Health Ministry did not object to Roberts including the Arts and Crafts motif of a rising sun in brickwork on some semis. Again, to reduce costs, Unwin urged councils to use standardised building components where possible, so Roberts specified precast door hoods and steel casement windows. The council wanted the latter to be in wood, but the ministry ruled out this traditional material as it was slightly more expensive. There was variation in the roof coverings as the architect substituted slates when tiles were unavailable.
The event to celebrate completion of the first homes took place on Saturday 2nd July 1921. In readiness for the occasion, two departmental stores – the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society and Cuffs of Woolwich – each furnished a new home to show what tenants could buy. These show houses remained open to the public for several days as there was keen interest from local people.
At the crowded ceremony, the previous mayor Sir Charles Stone and others praised the high quality of the building work. Mayor Lemmon declared that he identified with others living in squalid conditions by revealing that he and his wife, belonged to the great mass of people who were cooped up in small rooms in bad surroundings’. He referred to a government announcement that they were halting the house-building programme when he criticised them for not doing enough to support the council in tackling the housing shortage.
Secretary of the London Guild, Malcolm Sparkes, proclaimed that the guilds were a new industrial system whose growth had only reached the stage of a year-old infant. Unfortunately, at the time of the formal opening, the national economic climate was deteriorating.
Events turn against the guilds
Alfred Mond, who replaced the progressive Addison as Health Minister, had earlier favoured the guilds, but now changed the way housing schemes were financed to the detriment of the guilds. Private contractors were putting pressure on the government by complaining that it favoured guilds unfairly.
In Greenwich, the London Guild put in a tender to build the next phase of the estate known as the Pound Park section, but private contractors undercut the pricing. The housing committee still preferred the guild because of its proven reliability, but ministry officials persuaded them to accept the tender from a Birmingham firm.
For a while, the National Guild and local branches merged, but by the end of 1922 the movement was failing financially. The Cooperative Bank was not prepared to make further loans without collateral that was beyond the organisation’s capacity. It signalled the end of the experiment and, sadly, the winding up of Guild of Builders (London) Ltd. took place in 1924. So, the growth of the industrial system that Malcolm Sparkes envisioned never reached maturity. Nevertheless, the London Guild completed its section of the Charlton Estate satisfactorily, leaving a legacy of well-built homes for future generations.
Geoffrey Ostergaard (ed. Brian Bamford), The Tradition of Workers’ Control (London: 1997)
Alison Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment (London: 2001)
Mark Swenarton, Homes Fit for Heroes (London: 1981/2018)