We began our municipal trail in Greenwich last week although we halted at some pre-municipal social provision, the alms-houses of Queen Elizabeth College on Greenwich High Road. Walk on a little further along the High Road and look to your right.
Here is West Greenwich House, now a local community centre but formerly, until 1939, the Metropolitan Borough’s Town Hall. It started life, in 1877, as offices for the District Board of Works – what passed for local government in the capital until the establishment of the LCC in 1889 and the 28 metropolitan boroughs in 1900. It was designed by local architect William Wallen and, although only ‘thinly Italianate’, once looked a little grander with a clock tower, dome and portico. The photograph below captures some of that shattered glory after a V1 bombing raid on 12 July 1944. (1)
It faces the Maitland Close Estate which I can’t tell you much about. It’s a post-war Greenwich estate, I think – with earlier and plainer three-storey blocks around Maitland Close itself and higher, more stylish blocks lined along the High Road. But if anyone knows more, do let me know.
To finish off, we’ll cut through the estate, heading back to Greenwich South Street. Head north on the latter before taking a right-hand turn along predominantly Georgian Circus Street. At the end you reach Royal Hill and, facing you, the rear of Swanne House, a 1960s’ block of flats formerly owned by the Metropolitan Police. It was linked to Greenwich Police Station next door fronting Burney Street, a solid modernist building of the same era now emptied and on the market. Borough Hall and the former Town Hall lie directly opposite.
Looking the other way, at the top of the hill you’ll see the imposing bulk of the Royal Hill School, designed for the London School Board by its chief architect TJ Bailey and completed in 1899. (2) It’s representative of around 400 built by the Board between its foundation in 1870 and 1904 when its functions were taken over by, who else?, the LCC. To Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (in the person of Sherlock Holmes) they were ‘Lighthouses…Beacons of the future!’, presaging ‘the wiser, better England of the future’. It’s served a range of educational roles over the years but it’s currently a campus of the James Woolf Primary School.
Cross over into Gloucester Circus to see, on its southern side, one of Greenwich’s showpieces – the Georgian terrace, built between 1791 and 1807 and designed by Michael Searles. It’s a shallow three-storey terrace with mansard roof, intended as one half of a grand ensemble encompassing the private gardens in the centre which remain. Searles never got to complete his grand design though plainer, though large Victorian middle-class homes were added to the north around 1840. (3)
The homes themselves, intended for large families with household staff, had declined in status by the end of the century, divided by then into tenements for poorer working-class families. In 1975, a Borough of Greenwich housing survey designated it as Category B housing; ‘an area of continuing improvement’. Conversely, the Council’s Meridian Estate (discussed last week) – a solid five-storey,walk-up, balcony-access tenement block – was Category A. The survey noted that 16 of the occupants of the Circus’s self-contained flats were on the waiting list for council accommodation. (4)
We can assume that ‘improvement’ did indeed continue. A recent agent’s listing describes it as ‘one of the most exclusive and prime locations of west Greenwich’ and a six-bed property was sold as long ago as 2012 for £2.75m. Evidence of the area’s harder times is provided by the fact that a short terrace of the later Victorian homes is owned and managed by the Beaver Housing Society, a housing association formerly part-funded by the Borough now absorbed by the behemoth London & Quadrant.
But all this, for us at least, is just the appetiser for the main item on our municipal menu – the Maribor Estate which occupies the north-western corner of the Circus – a Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich scheme completed in 1960. Greenwich had built 1486 council homes between the wars, of which 1115 were houses. By 1958, when post-war building was in full swing, the Borough had added 1576 new homes. It’s a sign of the times and evidence of diminishing open land that of these only 133 were traditional two-storey houses. It’s another sign of the times – the priority given to the pressing need to accommodate those without homes – that into the late 1950s, some 1086 families were living in housing requisitioned by the Borough under emergency wartime and post-war legislation. (5)
Such land as was available for new build now required clearance but, in some cases, that had been achieved earlier by Nazi bombing. The photograph below shows Burney Street after a V1 attack in June 1944. The Victorian County Court building (since demolished) stands front and centre; behind it lies the heavily damaged northern terrace of Gloucester Circus. (6)
As redevelopment options came to be considered, it was concluded that it was ‘too costly and an extravagant use of space’ to rebuild the housing in its prior form: (7)
Proposals were discussed with the Royal Fine Arts Commission, and it was agreed that by keeping to the same scale as the existing buildings, and by carefully detailing the elevations, the new building could be brought into harmony with its neighbours.
The outcome was the attractive (to my eyes) six-storey block of flats and maisonettes you see today – yellow stock brick for the most part, with striking glazed stairways at each end and balcony access to the rear.
‘Generous open space’ (in the words of the Council brochure) separates this block from its visually dissimilar partner on Burney Street. This is a starker block, grey rendered, intended to harmonise with the police station and planned comprehensive redevelopment of the Central Area. The damaged or destroyed homes it replaced were ‘tall, narrow-fronted buildings of the later Victorian period with few pretensions to architectural merit’.
In all, the new estate, designed by the Borough Architect’s Department, comprised 16 bed-sitter flats, 37 two-bed maisonettes and one three-bed maisonette and they came with the mod cons now expected – ‘each kitchen has a ventilated larder, a dresser unit and a porcelain enamelled sink with drainer’, all flats were centrally heated, and a drying room with tumble dryer was provided in each block. A Maternity and Child Welfare Centre was located in the Burney Street building.
If you’re wondering about ‘Maribor’, the estate was named after the Borough’s twin town in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (this part now Slovenia) and, in fact, it was officially opened by in June 1960 by Mr Stane Knez, President of Maribor Town Council. (I found the image above of the commemorative plaque on Twitter but couldn’t locate it when I visited the estate personally.) A few months later, Greenwich’s mayor, Cllr HA Tatman, ‘at a gay, colourful and musical ceremony, opened a new housing estate in Maribor which has been named Greenwich’. That estate survives and, courtesy of Google Streetview, you can see it below.
And we’ll conclude things there. You can find you way home in London by privatised Southeastern railways from nearby Greenwich station if you have to or take the DLR or one of the many buses run by Transport for London in the vicinity.
It had been an informal Sunday morning ramble and the mix of monuments to municipalism it threw up was diverse but each, in their way, was a testimony to the incalculable contribution local government has made to the betterment of our lives and community.
Sidney Webb commented satirically of another perambulation taken by an ‘Individualist City Councillor…along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water’ (in those halcyon days at least). That councillor concluded thus: (8)
‘Socialism, sir,’ he will say, ‘don’t waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities. Self-help, sir, individual self-help, that’s what made our city what it is.’
We, better informed, might disagree.
(1) English Heritage, London’s Town Halls. The Architecture of Local Government from 1840 to the Present (1999) and Blitzwalkers, Wartime Greenwich & Woolwich (31 January 2014)
(2) Victorian Schools in London, 1870-1914, Royal Hill School, Greenwich (2011)
(3) The Greenwich Phantom, ‘Gloucester Circus’, 17 February 2017
(4) London Borough of Greenwich, Housing in West Greenwich: London Borough of Greenwich house condition survey. Report no. 3 (1975)
(5) Borough of Greenwich, The Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Official Guide (1958)
(6) Blitzwalkers, ‘Out of the Ruins’, 12 December 2016
(7) Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich, Maribor Greenwich (ND but c1960). The following quotations and detail are also drawn from this source.
(8) Sidney Webb, Socialism in England (1899)