The Chinbrook Estate, Lewisham: a ‘tremendous improvement in environment and standard of living’



We’re looking at ‘Corporation suburbia’ – less eye-catching and less controversial than the high-rise which disproportionately grabs people’s attention when it comes to public housing but actually its most representative form.  A small corner of south-east London helps us tell this story.  Last week’s post looked at the Grove Park Estate, one of the best of the ubiquitous interwar cottage suburbs.  This week’s focuses on the Chinbrook Estate, planned by the London County Council from 1961 and completed by the Greater London Council after 1965, representing, in my view, one of the most attractive and thoughtfully designed post-war estates.

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‘Chinbrook Estate, Grove Park: residential tenements’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

Last week, we left Lewisham and the country in 1939 about to be plunged into war.  The Borough, industrial to the north but with extensive residential districts on the bombers’ flightpaths, suffered more than most.  Of Lewisham’s 56,000 homes, 10,303 were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by enemy action; almost 9000 further were seriously damaged but judged habitable.  By November 1945, there were 11,945 families on the Council housing waiting list of whom 4541 had been rendered homeless by the Blitz. (1)

The first duty of central and local government was to alleviate the unprecedented housing crisis.  A crash programme of repairs was an immediate priority, beginning before the war’s end.  The Council reckoned that, at peak between 1944 and 1946, 6400 ‘workmen’ (and perhaps a few ‘workwomen’ at this time) were repairing the Borough’s war-damaged homes. (2)

As of March 1947, 3806 private houses had been requisitioned, providing homes now for around 5000 households.  Conservative legislation in 1955 ended councils’ requisitioning powers and required properties be returned to their owners by 1960.  Many of the almost 1400 properties held by Lewisham into the late 1950s were purchased by the Council. (3)

The housing crisis provoked less official responses too. As part of a national wave of squatting action, 30 huts on an anti-aircraft site in Blackheath were occupied by homeless families in September 1946 and 19 huts next to Ravensbourne Station, formerly in military use, shortly after. The Council laid on water and electricity and provided ‘sanitary conveniences’.  Twenty-one military huts on a site at Hilly Fields in Brockley were officially allocated to the Council.  Some 125 wooden ‘hutments’, built to last two years, were also built in the Borough.

The other major element of the emergency response were the prefabricated bungalows – factory-built, rapidly erected, planned to provide modern, well-equipped family homes for an anticipated ten-year life-span.  The 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act committed £150m to the programme which ended in March 1949 and a total of 156,623 prefab homes were erected across the country, allocated to local authorities according to housing need.

Marnock Road prefab

A Lewisham prefab; this one was sited on Marnock Road in Brockley (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

Lewisham’s needs were pressing and a total of 1484 prefabs – 660 by the LCC and 824 by the local council – were provided across the Borough on 70 separate sites.  One of the largest – and certainly the most persistent of those – was the Excalibur Estate; 187 homes built on former parkland to the north of the LCC’s Downham Estate. Here and elsewhere in Lewisham, most were of the Uni-Seco Mark I and Mark III type, constructed of resin-bonded plywood or light timber framing clad in flat asbestos cement sheeting with a wood wool core.  A small number were of the steel-framed Arcon Mark V model.

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Kingsley Wood Drive, Coldharbour Estate (c)

Permanent post-war reconstruction was marked by Nye Bevan’s opening of the first new home in Woolwich’s Coldharbour Estate in July 1947, built to the east on the last remaining farmland within the LCC’s borders.  It comprised around 1700 homes on completion in the mid-1950s.

Meanwhile, the prefabs remained.  One of their largest sites – with around 209 homes – was an area of farmland between Grove Park Road and Marvels Lane acquired by the LCC.  They seem to have provided decent homes and for children – with a recreation ground, Chinbrook Meadows and the River Quaggy close to hand – a happy childhood. (4)  As they grew up, the Chinbrook pub (later the Grove Park Tavern) on the opposite corner offered more grown-up entertainment. The pub was demolished in the 1990s, replaced by retirement flats (though, confusingly for newcomers, the local bus stop retains the name).

Those prefabs were demolished in the early 1960s. In their place, the LCC projected and the GLC completed an attractive, predominantly low-rise estate – a modest, small estate at first glance but one which in its own terms was a state-of-the-art fulfilment of the latest planning and architectural thinking.  The Chinbrook Estate deserves a closer look.

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‘Grove Park Youth Club: exterior’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

Firstly, the 1961 plans show sites set aside for a youth club and an old people’s clubroom.  The great criticism of the earlier (and much larger) cottage suburbs had been their lack of community facilities, their dormitory feel.  Here, a conscious attempt was made from the outset to provide social amenities which would support community and local identity. (We’ll come back to this.)

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‘Chinbrook Estate: residential tenements’ (1968) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

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‘Chinbrook Estate, Grove Park Road: residential tenements’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

The estate’s pedestrianised layout wasn’t innovative – Radburn-style plans (which separated cars and pedestrians by a system of cul-de-sacs, feeder roads and walkways) had been recommended in the Ministry of Housing’s 1953 Manual.  But, on a smaller estate such as the Chinbrook, with garaging and parking spaces reasonably integrated with the housing, they seem to have worked better though they look neglected at present. Those 1961 plans which allocated parking to around half the estate’s households must also have seemed pretty forward-looking at the time in their anticipation of a more affluent and car-owning working class.

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To the left: ‘Chinbrook Estate, Grove Park Road: residential tenements’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, To the right, a contemporary image of the same block, Kingsfield House, from the rear (c)

The mixed development which Chinbrook embodies – a range of housing types and forms to suit a varied mix of households – was also an established concept by the early sixties but the estate provides an impressive cameo.  There are two eleven-storey point blocks – Merryfield House to the north next to Grove Park Road and, tucked away in the south-east corner of the estate, Kingsfield House, together comprising 177 of the estate’s 395 homes.

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Homes on Lambscroft Avenue (c)

These are attractive blocks in landscaped grounds, ‘in keeping’ with the wider estate and a fine fulfilment of mixed development’s aesthetic ideals.  The rest of the Estate comprised some 218 two-storey terraced houses which provided family accommodation while low-rise flats were built for couples without children and elderly people.

What was exceptional – and what is even clearer from the early photographs of the Estate before the depredations of Right to Buy – is the overall architectural and design quality of the Estate.  It’s an intimate space on a human scale with its mix of homes and its footpaths, service roads and open spaces forming an integrated whole.  In contemporary terms, placemaking is the prized ideal.  The built environment of the Estate and its cherished community facilities seem, to me, to fulfil this ideal.  As the mass rehousing drive of the sixties took off – on a scale and in a form often much criticised since – Chinbrook is a reminder of the best that might be achieved with proper investment and careful planning.

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‘Chinbrook Estate: completed housing development’ (1963) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

That was certainly the belief of the Civic Trust who commended the Estate in 1967. In their words: (5):

The elevations have been consistently and simply handled in red brick and white shiplap boarding forming a pleasant and bright background to the well-proportioned pedestrian ways and squares formed by the layout. The landscaping, both hard and soft, is well detailed and has been carried through with functional simplicity. The design, heights and interrelated use of screen brick walls and railings very successfully interplay enclosure and openness as one walks through the area.

As a reminder that even the best estates need continued upkeep and investment, we might note the regret they also recorded that ‘the high standard of detailing in the landscape has been rendered widely ineffective by poor maintenance’ but the favourable comparison with the nearby and more traditional cottage estates remained.  Chinbrook illustrated:

the tremendous improvement in environment and standard of living which results through the segregated layout, open-space amenities, well-proportioned pedestrian streets and effective landscaping, compared with the front access and unsympathetic layouts of the earlier housing estates adjacent.

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Kingsfield House and flats along Lambscroft Avenue (c)

The Greater London Council’s justifiable pride in the Estate was shown when Chinbrook was selected – alongside two other GLC showpieces of the day, the Pepys Estate and Thamesmead – for a visit by delegates of the Housing Centre’s annual conference in 1969. (6)  The Estate was also featured in a celebration of the Council’s work, GLC Architecture 1965/70, published in 1970.  The latter reminds us too – as housing responsibilities within the capital itself were increasingly devolved to the new London boroughs – of the GLC’s housing schemes in the expanded and overspill towns of the later 1960s, many of which resembled Chinbrook in form and ethos.


The Span estate of Corner Green, Blackheath (c) Twentieth Century Society

Another significant point of comparison is with the much admired Span housing of the period.  Span was a private property development company formed in the late 1950s by Geoffrey Townsend and the architect Eric Lyons which built around 2000 homes in London and the Home Counties with some of its most notable schemes in nearby Blackheath.  These were homes intended, in the company’s own words, ‘to span the gap between the suburban monotony of the typical speculative development and the architecturally designed, individually built residence that has become (for all but a few) financially unattainable’.(7)

The genius of Span was to combine modernist design – open plan interiors, large windows, flat roofs – with traditionally more ‘suburban’ features in the use of brick, tile-hung walls and timber panelling. Of equal importance was a setting designed ‘hand-in-hand with the design of the dwelling’, integrating roads, car parks, play spaces and aspiring to create ‘an ambience and scale hitherto unknown in housing for ordinary people’. (8)

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Mirror Path

That, to me, is strongly reminiscent of both the design and ambition of the Chinbrook Estate – with one key difference.  Span’s ‘ordinary people’ were aspiring professionals whereas one of the earliest residents of Chinbrook (who had moved from a post-war prefab) recalls that ‘most of [its] families were young and came from New Cross, Deptford, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Blackfriars and other inner London suburbs’ – hence, it was said, the huge support for Millwall on the Estate. (9)  I’m guessing that no-one liked Millwall on the Span estates.

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Old people’s bungalows (c)

I can’t trace any direct association between Span and the GLC’s schemes and, unfortunately, I can’t name the individual architects and planners directly responsible for the Chinbrook Estate.  With the public service ethos strong, the Estate is credited more collegiately to the GLC’s Department of Architecture and Civic Design; KJ Campbell, was Principal Housing Architect at the time. (10)

By the 1980s, public service had become – in the mind-set of the governing Conservative Party at least – a discredited concept.  Right to buy was a deliberate attempt to break up and shake up council estates and its legacy is plain to see on the Chinbrook Estate. The quality of Span’s middle-class housing is preserved by covenant; no such restrictions have conserved the design sensibilities and architectural consistency of Chinbrook.


The effects of Right to Buy

There’s no snobbery at all in decrying the fashion for pebbledash and other such accretions which seems to have afflicted many of the newly owner-occupied homes in the 1980s.  In fact, even in market terms, one can’t help but think that the value of that private housing would be enhanced had the overall look and ‘feel’ of the Estate been better maintained. Ironically, the fittings and fixtures in the communal areas of the tower blocks have been superbly preserved and provide a wonderful glimpse of in-situ 1960s modernism.

We’ll give the current landlords of what we must now call the Estate’s social housing some credit for that although – from my talks with local residents – there is little affection for London and Quadrant (L & Q) in general.  A ‘large-scale voluntary transfer’ of some 1099 council properties and 350 leasehold in Chinbrook and adjoining Grove Park estates took place in 2008.  On a 55 per cent turn-out, 77 per cent of those balloted, supported the transfer from the council to the housing association.  It was, as was the way, an offer that was hard to refuse.  Decent homes upgrades were required by law, security and environmental improvements were desired by residents, and Lewisham – in common with other councils – was denied the necessary public funds to carry out the work.

L & Q, which now owns and manages around 70,000 homes in London and the South-East, is now the largest landlord in the capital.  It’s also one of the most aggressively entrepreneurial of the new breed of housing associations, self-described as ‘one of [London’s] largest residential property developers’. It’s small wonder, then, that parts of the Chinbrook Estate might look and feel somewhat neglected.  The shine of that promised investment rapidly dissipated.

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‘Chinbrook Estate: exterior of clubroom’ (1968) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

Typically, given the drive to monetise assets, one of L & Q’s first actions was to demolish the old people’s clubroom.  The Estate’s ageing population now has to attend a nearby general purpose community centre.  The superb building has been replaced by two plain and undistinguished semi-detached houses which make little reference to surrounding architecture.

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The youth centre today (c)

The purpose built youth centre on Marvels Road was closed by Lewisham Council in 2013 and residents fear that it could be demolished and the land sold for housing.  It has been neglected since this closure but, look more closely, remember its past and imagine its future, and you will see an outstanding community facility.  It was designed for the LCC’s Education Department by some of the most distinguished public architects of its day and created as an adaptable and flexible space incorporating the ideals and practices of some of the key architectural movements of the twentieth century.

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‘Grove Park Youth Club: interior’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

With a design eye, you’ll see the influence of the Bauhaus movement and its credo ‘truth to materials’; you’ll see too the ‘people’s detailing’ of Swedish modernism.  As a local resident, you might remember the centre as a community hub – not only a valued resource for the young people of the estate but, as I was told, a regular venue for wedding receptions and many other community functions.

But, ultimately, this isn’t about architecture (though the loss of such a fine building would be criminal) and still less is it about nostalgia.  This is about a facility which is needed by local children and teens and which could, in the imaginative but highly practical plans of the community group campaigning to save it, serve the wider community in many ways. (11)

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Charlesfield (c)

When the Chinbrook Estate was built five decades ago, the GLC – as a progressive and innovative council – took care not only to provide good homes and a decent environment but also the amenities to support and sustain community. Such values have been eroded and the reforming role of local government disastrously curtailed.  Nowadays, it seems we must fight these battles again.


My thanks to Rob Clayton for his guided tour of the Estate and his photographs.

Thanks again to the London Metropolitan Archives for permission to use images from Collage, their wonderful on-line picture archive.

(1) Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham, Housing: Report of the Housing Committee on the Post-War Housing Activities of the Council up to 31 March 1947

(2) The Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham: the Official Guide of Lewisham Borough Council (1948)

(3) The Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham: the Official Guide of Lewisham Borough Council (1958)

(4) Various recollections of the Mottingham prefabs can be found on the Francis Frith site here and here.

(5) Civic Trust Awards, ‘Chinbrook Estate, Lewisham/Bromley’ (log-in required)

(6) ‘Conference Study Tour, 9th July 1969, to Thamesmead, Pepys and Chinbrook Housing Estates’, Housing Review, vol 18, no 3, September-October 1969. (The Housing Centre Trust was a voluntary organisation which acted as a meeting ground for organisations and individuals engaged in housing and as an information centre on housing issues.)

(7) Quoted in Modern Architecture London, ‘Span Blackheath

(8) Eric Lyons quoted in Barbara Simms, ‘Landscape Conservation on Span Estates’, Landscapes of the Recent Future: Conserving the 20th Century’s Landscape Design Legacy, Docomo E-proceedings April 20101

(9) ‘Paragonslate’ comment on Francis Frith, ‘Mottingham Prefabs: a Memory of Mottingham

(10) One little known fact is that Eric Lyons adopted a lot of standardised building components for Span schemes which were originally developed by Oliver Cox for the LCC which then commissioned their manufacture by private companies. My thanks to Tom Cordell of Utopia London for this information (personal communication, 13 February 2017).

(11) You can read more of these plans in An Alternative Plan for Grove Park Youth Centre: A Community-Led Plan to Regenerate Grove Park and should visit the website of the Grove Park Youth Club Building Preservation Trust set up to save the youth club for further information on the campaign.

The Grove Park Estate, Lewisham: ‘a real “Garden City”‘


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In 1928, Southern Railway advised ‘there is so much open country all around Grove Park that no one need fear for the present it is going to become a part of London’. (1)  This was ironic given that its book was intended to promote the growth of suburbia (and lucrative commuterdom) on London’s fringes. It was also dishonest given that London County Council’s Downham Estate – over 6000 homes when completed in 1930 – was being built just to the west of Grove Park station.

Britain from Above Downham.JPG

‘The London County Council Downham Estate from the south-east, 1929’ (c) Britain from Above, EPW028496  (Grove Park station is on the bridge on the right edge of the image.)

Speculative housing built for middle-class owner-occupation did spread rapidly but the remarkable feature of this area of south-east London – for the purposes of this blog at least – is its swathe of what Martin Crookston has called ‘Corporation suburbia’. It stretches west to east, almost uninterrupted, from Downham itself to Lewisham’s interwar Grove Park Estate, to the GLC’s 1960s’ Chinbrook Estate, to the LCC’s 1930s’ Mottingham Estate, and finally Woolwich Council’s Coldharbour Estate, begun in 1947.

Beaconsfield Road, Mottingham (c) Rob Clayton.jpg

Beaconsfield Road, Mottingham Estate (c) Rob Clayton

A brisk 45-minute, two and a half mile walk provides a potted history of a form of housing – the garden suburbs – that, by Crookston’s reckoning, accounts for around one-sixth of English homes and some 40 per cent of the country’s current socially-owned housing stock. Here this amounts to over 11,000 homes.

This post and the next will concentrate on a smaller area and two of the smaller estates – Grove Park, a fine example of interwar planning and construction, and the unsung but remarkable Chinbrook Estate, one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished estates of the 1960s.

Lewisham Metropolitan Borough Council was securely Conservative throughout the interwar period and its housing efforts were modest. There had been short-lived plans, instigated by Deptford Borough Council and in cooperation with Bermondsey, for a jointly-owned ‘garden city’ on land owned by Lord Northbrook in Lewisham. Lewisham withdrew its support in 1920 and the plans fell through. Later the land was acquired by the LCC and would form the basis of the Downham Estate. (3)


Romborough Gardens

Lewisham’s contribution to the ‘Homes for Heroes’ drive of the immediate post-war era was limited therefore but it did build a small estate of 86 houses – solid, stripped-down neo-Georgian, two-storey terraces – under the terms of the 1919 Housing Act in Romborough Way, near Lewisham Park.  The short cul-de-sac and enclosed green of Romborough Gardens forms a particularly attractive enclave.

In February 1925, the Public Health Committee, alarmed by the Medical Officer of Health’s reports of increased overcrowding in the Borough, passed on its concerns to the Housing Committee. The latter identified a 43 acre site, east of Grove Park, as suitable for building. It had been bought speculatively by a local builder from Lord Northbrook in 1923 for £3600. In July 1926 it was acquired by the Council by Compulsory Purchase Order for an arbitrated price of £8825 – almost two and a half times what Mr Durbin had paid for it three years earlier. A reminder of how land values and the market distort our housing provision and how readily private interest profits from public need.


Grove Park Estate layout (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

Building on the site, undertaken by three local contractors, began in August. Eight acres were set aside as a recreation ground and 1.5 acres for allotments. A site was provided to the LCC for a new primary school; the rest was allocated to housing.  And to its credit, the Council determined to build well; to erect ‘the best possible type of house that could be provided in a municipal undertaking’ and at the largest size permitted under the 1924 Housing Act.


An early image of the Grove Park Estate (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

It appointed the eminent architect-planner WR Davidge – an early supporter of the Garden City movement, elected President of the Royal Town Planning Institute in 1926 – to design the Estate. Davidge’s pedigree is first seen in the use of existing topography – an undulating terrain which added, in the words of a Council brochure, ‘a pleasing feature to the general appearance’ of the new estate’.  Moreover: (4)

In the preservation of some of the old trees on the estate and the green in Roseveare Road, and more particularly by encouraging the cultivation and upkeep of the gardens, the Council have endeavoured to ensure that the Estate shall become a real ‘Garden City’.

An annual best-kept garden competition with a victory shield and prizes provided some of that encouragement; the rent collector’s weekly visit possibly provided some discipline. As Pauline Payne, who moved onto the Estate as a child in 1939, recalls, if he spotted an untidy garden or a hedge that needed cutting, ‘you would get a polite notice reminding you of the conditions of your tenancy agreement and a certain time limit to put things right’. (5)

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An early image of the Grove Park Estate (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

Davidge also ensured that the housing was of pleasing and varied appearance – as many as six types on a single street, it was said.  With justifiable pride, it seems, the Council concluded that:

The completed estate has the merit of combining convenience in the planning of roads, spacious and well-appointed houses and harmony in the design and conception of the whole.  Roofed with red hand-made sandfaced tiles, the walls of the houses have generally been externally dressed with cement left rough from the plasterer’s float and treated with various shades of colour wash. Doorsteps, window sills and chimney stacks have been carried out in purple and red facing bricks, which blend with the colour of the roofs.

In terms of accommodation, two blocks of what the Council called ‘storey flats’ provided 32 of the Estate’s homes but the bulk were solid three-bedroom houses; 136 of the so-called Type B with parlours and 336 Type A, non-parlour.  Internal arrangements included, to modern eyes, perhaps some surprising mod cons.  Pauline Payne noted an ‘enormous walk-in airing cupboard on the landing’, cupboards under the stairs and, either side of front door, a walk-in cloakroom and a walk-in larder.


An early image of the Grove Park Estate (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

In the first phase of construction, gas provided lighting for both housing and streets.  In the second, electricity was used – the first streets in the Borough to be lit by electricity.  In other respects, arrangements were much more of their time although still, presumably, a vast improvement to most new residents.

Pauline Payne describes ‘a large iron pot-bellied copper in the kitchen [which] provided hot water for the whole house’. The bathroom (‘absolutely freezing in winter’) was next door to the kitchen with hot water ladled by hand from copper to bath.  The toilet stood next to the back door.


Mayeswood Road, Grove Park Estate, contemporary image

Payne’s experience was, as she recognises, perhaps exceptional.  She was an only child (she recalls families of eight and thirteen children living either side of her new home in Cobham Street) of lower middle-class parents. The family moved to the estate when their own home was bombed and her first impressions were, perhaps for that reason, underwhelming:

Upon getting the keys for our first sight of our new home was gloomy indeed as the whole house was painted chocolate brown.  For years we had to live with that colour…and even after the war the council only varied the colour to bottle green.

This was the other side of municipal housing – the dull uniformity it could sometimes impose on its residents.

Public transport was poor in those days as well and local shopping limited but she has happier memories too – Chinbrook Meadows nearby (declared a public park in 1929) were ‘a paradise for children’; the tunnel under the nearby railway another play spot.


Leafy Oak Road, Grove Park Estate, contemporary image

By 1939, Lewisham could declare proudly that the borough was ‘notably progressive in the matter of Housing’.  In terms of numbers, the Council had provided 558 houses and 211 flats (in 1930 60 flats were built in five blocks – since demolished – along Winchfield Road in Lower Sydenham).  This was a relatively small number but, in general, the standard was high. (6)

The war which broke out in 1939 would change much.  Its destruction forced the Borough and the capital to build on unprecedented scale.  A new politics emerged too, one that – for a time at least – placed the needs of the country’s working class to the fore.  We’ll see both play out in next week’s post.


My thanks to the Grove Park Community Group and John King for generously supplying some of the historical information within this post.  John King’s history of the area provides more detail.

My thanks also to Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre for providing additional useful resources and for permission to reproduce some images from their collection.

(1) Southern Railway, Country Homes at London’s Door (2nd ed, 1928)

(2) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow?  A New Future for the Cottage Estates (Routledge, 2016)

(3) John King, Grove Park Revisited (2011)

(4) Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham, Grove Park Housing Estate (ND – probably 1929)

(5) Pauline Payne, A Council House Kid, 1939-1957: Growing Up at Grove Park (typescript manuscript, ND, Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre)

(6) The Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham: the Official Guide of Lewisham Borough Council (1939)

Berlin’s Modernist Interwar Estates II: ‘Light, air and sun’



Last week’s post examined two of Berlin’s strikingly modernist interwar estates and the politics which created them.  We’ll examine two more this week, built just before Weimar Germany’s famously progressive politics succumbed to Nazism.

That politics was, of course, always fiercely contested and the cultural battle for the German soul is clearly seen in the so-called Dächerkrieg (or Roof War) which erupted in Berlin in 1928.


An early image of Großsiedlung Siemensstadt

The point at issue resided in an apparently arcane architectural debate between the relative merits of flat and pitched roofs.  The social democratic and trades union building cooperative GEHAG had constructed a modernist (and therefore flat-roofed) estate in the southwestern Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf.  The Gemeinnützige Aktiengesellschaft für Angestellten-Heimstätten (GAGFAH building society), representing the salaried, lower-middle classes, opened a combined architectural exhibition and more traditional, pitch-roofed housing estate adjacent to it.


The Roof War’s competing estates (with thanks to Atlas Obscura)

A battle royal ensued.  Modernist commentators berated the GAGFAH estate and argued that it – in its failure to build simple, functional homes – lacked public spirit and should be denied public funds.  Their opponents defended the estate as representing a specifically German style of architecture.

In other contexts, the question of roof forms might be seen as a simple and practical issue and certainly one susceptible to compromise. In interwar Germany, no such compromise was possible – ‘opinions as to what was the appropriate architectural style for the German home were essentially irreconcilable between progressives and conservatives’: the Roof War represented an existential struggle ‘of traditional versus modern, the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat, rural versus urban, the former regime versus the current republic’. (1)


Weiße Stadt: head-building at entrance to estate by Bruno Ahrends

The Weiße Stadt (White City) Estate with its flat roofs, cubical forms and white walls, built between 1929 and 1931, represented modernist architecture in stark form.  It was built by the Gemeinnützige Heimstättengesellschaft Primus mbH, a municipally-owned housing association, on a greenfield site in the northern suburb of Reinickendorf, funded by a municipal grant of 15m Reichsmarks as tax receipts from the housing interest tax dwindled.  That space allowed a more extensive design than that of the inner-city Carl Legien Estate but the emphasis – as the Great Depression hit – remained on economy.  Of its 1268 flats, four fifths comprised just 1½ to 2½ rooms. (2)


Weiße Stadt: bridge house by Otto Salvisberg

Designed by the Swiss architect Otto Rudolf Salvisberg and two Berlin architects Bruno Ahrends and Wilhelm Büning, it reflects the functional efficiency championed in the architectural style dubbed Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).  It presents a striking appearance, seen most notably in the five-storey portal buildings marking the entrance to the estate and the impressive Brückenhaus (bridge house) erected across Aroser Allee.  The spare white appearance of the blocks is at once offset and highlighted by their brightly coloured guttering, window frames and entrance doorways.


Weiße Stadt: Schillering – blocks by Büning to the left and Ahrends to the right

The apartment buildings are characteristically long four-storey ribbon blocks, including one of 230m length beyond the bridge house facing a school and an open terrain of sports fields.  Greenery and open space, designed by landscape architect Ludwig Lesser, remained a key element of the overall design with communal garden courtyards with benches and playgrounds between the housing.


Weiße Stadt: Emmentaler Strasse community building by Ahrends

Heating and hot water were supplied by a central plant.  Twenty-four shops, dotted around the estate, a pharmacy, kindergarten and health centre provided the estate with the facilities and community identity for which its planners strove.

At the same time and across the city to the south-west, Großsiedlung Siemensstadt was emerging. This was the most diverse of the modernist estates.  While Hans Scharoun was responsible for the estate’s masterplan and some of its housing, he commissioned a number of other architects to design individual blocks: Walter Gropius, Hugo Häring, Otto Bartning, Fred Forbat and Paul Rudolf Henning.  Like Scharoun, most were members of Der Ring (the Ring), an architectural collective formed in 1926 committed to modernist principles hence the name occasionally given to the scheme, the Ringsiedlung.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: ‘Der Panzerkreuzer’ by Hans Scharoun

For all this common allegiance, their designs – apart from the de rigeur modernist flat roofs – were diverse.  Scharoun designed the access to the estate with a grand head-building with retail outlets on the ground floor which became known as the Panzerkreuzer (armoured cruiser – it sounded less sinister before 1933) for its liberal borrowing of ship motifs: a ‘consciously anti-traditional, machine age aesthetic’ (3) Across the Jungfernheideweg he built a five-storey residential block with similarly deep-cut balconies and angles.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: Goebelstrasse – laundry building and apartments by Walter Gropius

Moving into the estate proper beyond the railway bridge, you reach two long blocks, in a palette of creamy white and grey, designed by Walter Gropius fronting Goebelstrasse: ‘sharply defined and crisp in their contours and dynamically elegant in the functional austerity of the rows of identical buildings’ (3) Gropius had founded the Bauhaus School some ten years earlier.  Here he applied its design ideals – ‘to create the purely organic building, boldly emanating its inner laws, free of untruths or ornamentation’ – to social housing.

Otto Bartning’s 388m-long block along Goebelstrasse marks the southern perimeter of the estate and acts as a buffer to the railway line just behind. It’s a similarly functionalist grey-rendered block, broken by patches of exposed brickwork and splashes of cerise framing.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: blocks on Goebelstrasse by Hugo Häring

Facing it along Goebelstrasse are nine blocks, aligned Zeilenbau-fashion on a north-south axis, designed by Hugo Häring, very different in outward form in which yellow-brown bricks, smooth beige plaster and dark brown main doors are used to complement the greenery of the open courtyards designed by Leberecht Migge.  Kidney-shaped balconies add an expressionist touch.  Six similarly disposed blocks to the north by Paul Henning echo Häring’s natural restrained shades.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: blocks by Forbat along Geißlerpfad

Along Geißlerpfad on the eastern fringe of the estate lie the two long blocks designed by Fred Forbat, white-walled but with cut-out and protruding balconies with yellow brick to add to their texture.

Each in their different way captured the modernist aesthetics and ideology of their time.  Gropius and Bartning, ‘in accord with the pragmatics of the factory assembly line or the aesthetics of the Tiller Girl’: (4)

created strongly rational and anonymous structures that used repetitive forms to generate a fixed number of forms in terms of size and occupancy…In contrast to this rigid adherence to the ideologies of mass production and mass entertainment, Scharoun and Haring produced housing blocks that, although fully committed to modernism, were also wilfully allusive and organic in their design.

This divergence of form represented, to one architectural theorist, ‘one of the most serious ruptures within the modernist movement’ but, as a simple place of residence, the estate forms a signified and attractive whole and represents an ambition to decently house the working class rarely matched in later years.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: apartment blocks by Scharoun on Goebelstrasse at the entrance of the estate

The average size of apartment in the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt was just 54 square metres, a reflection of contemporary austerity.  Later affluence would expect greater space and more mod cons but the estate and its counterparts across the metropolis provide an uncommon example of architectural ideology committed to social service and progressive politics.

Berlin’s five modernist interwar estates – I’ve covered perhaps the most celebrated, the Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) in Britz in an earlier post – were exceptional, providing only around 6700 of the 140,000 new social homes built between 1924 and 1932.  Most of the new-build was of more conventional form although it uniformly represented a huge advance on the ‘rental barracks’ which had been the lot of the Berlin working class before the war.

All were provided with significant, and often direct, support from the local and national state although, as noted, in a manner very different – though more common on the Continent – than that in the UK where central government grants and local government provision were the norm.  It’s another model, closer to the housing association model which has largely undertaken the provision of social housing in this country (such as it is) since 1979.

With the direct participation of social democratic politicians and trades unions it was a potent one, although not without its critics.  The increasingly powerful Communist Party welcomed the new homes and rationalist mass production which delivered them but argued – with some justice – that socialised housing remained too dependent on land and construction material prices dictated by a capitalist free market.


That cleavage in the left was one factor which eased Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.  After 1933, left-wing ideals and activism, in whichever form, were damned and dangerous. Scharoun remained in Germany under the Nazi regime in a form of internal exile.  He would return to prominence in the 1950s to design his most famous building, Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall.  Bartning too remained in Germany, retreating to the safer terrain of church architecture for the duration of the Nazism. Häring attempted to convince the new regime that the new architecture was German rather than international (6). Forbat moved first to Hungary and then Sweden where he died in 1948.  Gropius fled to Britain (where he designed Impington College) and ended his life and career in the US.

Of the chief protagonists of Berlin’s Neue Bauen (New Building movement), Taut, who died in 1938, fled first to Japan and then to Turkey. Martin Wagner too spent time in exile in Turkey, where he briefly resumed collaboration with Taut, and devised a new city plan for Ankara. He took a position with the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1938 and died, an American citizen, in 1957.  All this represented a tragic loss of talent and social purpose to the German nation; many millions of others paid a far heavier price.


The aim of Berlin’s modernist estates had been to bring ‘light, air and sun’ to its citizens.  What followed was among the darkest periods of human history.  In 2008, the five estates were granted UNESCO Heritage status – a fitting tribute to the energy and ideals which inspired them.  They are now a properly celebrated aspect of a prouder German history and well worth a visit.

You’ll find some additional images of the two modernist estates featured here on my Tumblr page.


(1) Mark Hobbs, Visual Representations of Working-Class Berlin, 1924–1930.  University of Glasgow Department of History of Art PhD thesis 2010 and this well-illustrated article on the Atlas Obscura website.

(2) Ian Boyd White and David Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin (2012)

(3) Ronald Wiedenhoeft, Berlin’s Housing Revolution. German Reform in the 1920s (1971)

(4) Jörg Haspel and Annemarie Jaeggi (eds), Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style (2007)

(5) Boyd White and Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin

(6) Eric Paul Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960 (2002)

You’ll find more detail online including this comprehensive record of the five estates:  Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style: Nomination for Inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  The architects’ images and the two colour images of Großsiedlung Siemensstadt are taken from this source.

Berlin’s Modernist Interwar Estates I: ‘Every German their own healthy home’


This post is a little different, inspired by a trip to Berlin last December and in celebration of our common European home.  I’ve written about perhaps Berlin’s most famous modernist estate, the Hufeisensiedlung (the Horseshoe Estate) in an earlier post.

Weimar Germany, the democratic state founded in 1919, emerged from the horror of world war and the collapse of the reactionary and authoritarian regime which had largely triggered it.  It promised, for a troubled and tragically brief period, an humane alternative to the brutality which both preceded and succeeded it and its social democratic stronghold Berlin – Red Berlin – pioneered some of the most progressive working-class housing of its time.  This post and the next examine four of Berlin’s most significant modernist estates and allow us to study both a model and form of social housing provision radically different from that which existed in Britain.


An early image of Siedlung Schillerpark

The constitution of the new state was promulgated in the town of Weimar, 175 miles to the south-east of Berlin, in August 1919 when the capital, in the throes of revolutionary upheaval, was considered too dangerous for the newly elected National Assembly.  This was a democratic constitution, proclaimed plausibly – with its protection of democratic norms and minority rights – as the most democratic in the world.  (That it succumbed to Nazi tyranny within fourteen years might be taken as a lesson to another contemporary proudly constitutionalist state.)

The constitution was especially radical in its guarantee of social rights, most notably in Article 155 which promised ‘Every German their own healthy home’ – an attack on the speculative building and private profit which had dominated housing provision and blighted working-class lives hitherto. Henceforth, the Article continued, ‘the allocation and use of land’ was to ‘be controlled by the state in a way which prevents its misuse’.  The Reichssiedlungsgesetz (State Settlement Law), passed at the same time provided the detail of this ideal, giving the federal states powers of compulsory purchase and requiring them to set up non-profit-making building societies which would finance the new housing programme.


Greater Berlin, 1920 (c) Maximilian Dörrbecker and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Greater Berlin itself was a product, in 1920, of the new regime – an agglomeration of eight towns, 59 rural communities and 27 rural estates with the political clout and financial power to implement the reforming ambitions of its social democratic majority.  With a population of 3.86m, it was the third largest city in world.

That population had risen fourfold since 1871 and most of its working class were housed in the so-called Mietskaserne (rental barracks) which ringed the centre.  These were generally five-storey blocks built around a series of enclosed courtyards – privately (and expensively) rented, grossly overcrowded, with tiny individual apartments and shared facilities.


Berlin ‘Mietskaserne‘ in the 1920s (c) Aaron Cripps

In the aftermath of war, it was estimated the city needed 100,000 new homes.  By 1923, however, only around 9000 subsidised homes had been built in Berlin. Two things were critical to the social housebuilding boom which followed. The Hauszinssteuer (housing interest tax) of 1924 was a tax levied on housing wealth created during the hyperinflation of 1922 and 1923; it provided revenues of around 750m Reichsmarks into the late twenties.  The Dawes Plan, agreed with the United States in the same year, was intended primarily to help Germany pay the punitive reparations levied after the First World War but it brought access to international loans and helped fund mortgages on housing projects.

The architect-planner Martin Wagner was the crucial figure in the Neues Bauen (New Building – a term encompassing lifestyle as well as bricks and mortar) programme which followed.  In 1924, he organised three of Germany’s largest trade union groups to form the Deutsche Wohnungsfürsorgegesellschaft für Beamte, Angestellte und Arbeiter (mercifully we can call it DEWOG) which undertook the overall coordination of the country’s socialised housebuilding industry. One month later, he helped found the Gemeinnützige Heimstätten-, Spar- und Bau-Aktiengesellschaft (or GEHAG) – a housing cooperative which built much of Berlin’s housing in the succeeding years.


‘In Berlin the essential partner for new house-building initiatives was  the trade-union movement’ (2) and Martin Wagner himself, a committed social democrat, served as the city’s municipal building director from 1926 to 1933 until forced out by the Nazis. The dominant architectural figure was the Jewish socialist Bruno Taut.  With the personnel, politics and finance in place, it’s time to look at the buildings.


Some of the earliest blocks of Siedlung Schillerpark along Bristolstrasse

The first modernist estate was Siedlung Schillerpark erected in the Wedding district north of the city centre for the Berlin Savings and Building Association and built by the construction workers’ guild, the Bauhütte Berlin.  It features 330 homes, predominantly built to Taut’s designs in three phases between 1924 and 1930, with landscaping by Walter Rossow.

The earliest blocks are located along Dubliner and Oxford Strasse, three and four-storey blocks, red-brick with bands of white plastering, enclosing carefully planned courtyards intended to fulfil Taut’s principle of ‘outdoor living space’.  Alternating balconies and loggias, facing the sun, were used to create striking facades. There is a strong influence here of the Amsterdam School which Taut had studied in the early twenties. (3)


‘Outdoor living space’, Siedlung Schillerpark

The actual apartments were of more traditional form and some of the earliest – where three homes accessed a single landing – were single-aspect, lacking cross-ventilation.  The flats varied in size too, from 1½ to 4½ rooms (the main figure refers to living rooms separate from kitchen and bathroom; the fraction represents a small box-room) and, though designed intentionally for different income groups, all enjoyed the same standard of fitting.  Low attics contained laundry and drying rooms. A separate bathhouse and new kindergarten were provided in 1930.


One of the estate’s doorways

It was intended to pioneer a new and civilised form of urban living at density both in its quality of accommodation and design aesthetic.  Clearly modernist in form, Taut included some personal signatures – a rich use of colours, textures and surface patterns – and some idiosyncratic expressionist elements seen, for example, in the reinforced concrete tapered pillars.

To one commentator, it was all a: (4)

bold statement of new site planning ideas and building forms, a forcefulness of expression, drawing attention to itself as something revolutionary. The preference for flat roofs, straight lines, and right angles is symptomatic of the will to express the social spirit of a new age.

Most new public housing of the time was not of such consciously modernist design but new building regulations, drawn up municipal building councillor Walter Koeppen, introduced strict zoning rules separating housing and industry and banning the use of side and rear blocks in future developments.  New blocks had to be arranged either around the plot perimeter (Randbebauung) or as open-ended terraces (Zeilenbau).  The Mietskaserne had been consigned to history. (5)

A desperate housing shortage remained, however; by 1926 it was estimated 174,000 homes were required to accommodate Berlin’s growing population.  One consequence was rising rents; between 1925 and 1929, they almost doubled – for a two-bedroom flat, from 23.10 Reichsmarks to 43.75.  Planners and architects looked to secure affordable rents by standardising schemes and reducing space standards; at worst, a so-called Existenzminimum (‘minimum existence’) home, condemned by Wagner, contained just 1½ rooms and 40 square metres of floor space.


Carl Legien Estate head-building

The Carl Legien Estate (named after the German trades unionist and social democrat who had died in 1920), built for GEHAG between 1928 and 1930 in the densely-settled working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg, reflected such economising measures.  Eighty per cent of its 1149 flats were of 1½ to 2 rooms but it was an attempt by Taut (in collaboration with Franz Hillinger) to provide high-density housing in a consciously modernist and progressive form: in the words of Kurt Junghanns (Taut’s biographer): (6)

to defeat the tenement building system on its own terrain and to prove that the new principles can also be used to build in a better way in an urban context.

The estate comprised a series of four- to five-storey blocks along existing street lines but there the resemblance to the earlier tenement housing which surrounded it ended.  Two innovations stand out.


Carl Legien Estate courtyard

Firstly, Taut maximised the light and air of the new development by creating three large U-shaped open courts along its main artery Erich-Weinert-Strasse. Living rooms and balconies were placed on the inside of the blocks, facing the courts, to emphasise their communal, semi-public nature.


Carl Legien Estate side street

Secondly, Taut – who had famously urged that colour (he called it ‘this wonderful gift from God’) should have ‘absolutely the same rights as form’ – painted the exterior facades a sunny yellow which made the narrow side streets appear wider. Interior loggias were painted yellow too for emphasis and rear walls across the interior courtyards in pairs of red brown, blue or dark green.


Carl Legien Estate shops and facilities

Shops and two communal laundries were provided in the blocks’ impressive head-buildings and a central plant delivered heating and hot water to each of the tenements.  For all the necessary economies, the estate raised working-class living standards to a new level and it became ‘a very desirable residence’.

Ironically, the condition of blocks deteriorated sharply under the post-war socialist regime (Prenzlauer Berg found itself in East Berlin) and by 2005, within a united Germany, the estate suffered a 40 per cent vacancy rate.  A major refurbishment that year by a private real estate company has restored their former popularity but with the added irony supplied by a resurgent capitalism that it now caters for a ‘more affluent and wealthy clientele…Prenzlauer Berg, which used to be the epitome of poverty and overpopulation, has now become one of the most gentrified enclaves in Germany’.  (7)

It seems that each generation must fight anew the battle to secure good quality and affordable accommodation for its least well-off.  That struggle continued in innovative ways in Weimar Germany in the later 1920s and we’ll look at two more of Berlin’s modernist estates in next week’s post.

You’ll find some additional images of the two modernist estates featured here on my Tumblr page


(1) For more on these, see ‘Mietskasernes: Working Class Berlin, 1871-1922

(2) Ian Boyd White and David Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2012)

(3) Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style: Nomination for Inscription on the Unesco World Heritage List

(4) Ronald Wiedenhoeft, Berlin’s Housing Revolution. German Reform in the 1920s (1971)

(5) Mark Hobbs, Visual Representations of Working-Class Berlin, 1924–1930.  University of Glasgow Department of History of Art PhD thesis 2010

(6) Quoted in Jörg Haspel and Annemarie Jaeggi (eds), Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style (Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munchen Berlin, 2007)

(7) Ulduz Maschaykh, The Changing Image of Affordable Housing: Design, Gentrification and Community in Canada and Europe (Routledge, 2016)

The White City Estate, Shepherd’s Bush: ‘I like it but maybe it’s not for everyone’


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Last week’s post examined the origins of the White City Estate at a time when the state’s role in providing decent homes for working-class people was firmly embedded.  Those ideals remained – and can be seen in the further development of the Estate – long into the post-war era but from the 1970s there were some who argued council housing caused rather than alleviated poverty. The Estate would become a site of this struggle and even today – as its ongoing regeneration continues – it’s a symbol of how far contemporary ideas around the form and character of social housing have shifted from the earlier model pioneered by the London County Council (LCC).


‘Air view of the White City Estate, Hammersmith’ from The County of London Plan (1943) – showing the Estate as completed by 1939

Originally, the intention remained to improve the design and facilities of council estates. Hammersmith Park, built on the site of the Japanese Garden created for the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910, was reopened for the benefit of White City residents with added tennis courts and playground in 1954.  More recently, it has become a mark of our changing values when, in 2013, the then Conservative-controlled Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham proposed to lease half the park to Play Football, a private company intending to let pay-to-play facilities.  Some form of compromise appears to have been reached but one which will, nevertheless, see free public facilities hived off to the private sector. (1)  Given the swingeing cuts to local authority budgets, the incentive – hard-pressed councils might argue the necessity – to monetise community assets will continue. (2)


Malabar Court

While the White City Estate was substantially complete by the early fifties, the neighbourhood shows the continuing attempts to modernise and adapt council housing to changing times.  Malabar Court (at the corner of India Way and Commonwealth Avenue) was designed by Neil Moffett and Partners as sheltered housing for elderly people and opened in 1966. A ‘pile of ascending hexagons’, Pevsner thought it a ‘welcome respite’ to what he considered the dull uniformity of the rest of the Estate. (3)


White City Close

The small White City Close (or Wood Lane) Estate, east of White City just north of Television Centre, shows how far thinking around council house design had evolved by the 1970s.  In a conscious reaction to the high-rise boom of the 1960s and overbearing scale of some earlier local authority schemes, White City Close was designed as a compact series of two- to four-storey brown-brick terraces enclosing landscaped footways and courts.  Designed by John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke and opened in 1978, it’s a little echo of their earlier and successful Lillington Gardens Estate designed for Westminster City Council and their far more troubled (and since largely demolished) Marquess Estate built by Islington in the late seventies.

In 1981, ownership and management of the White City Estate was transferred to Hammersmith and Fulham Council from the Greater London Council but by the 1990s the Estate and its community had fallen on hard times.  In 1996, the Council (under Labour control from 1986 to 2006) successfully applied for an £8m grant from the Government’s Single Regeneration Budget to revive the Estate.


Commonwealth Avenue

Environmental improvements, housing upgrades and a renovated health centre followed but, if subsequent reports are to be believed, much remained to be done.  According to the Evening Standard in 2004, the Estate was ‘a blighted area where nobody wants to live’.  The rest is a masterclass in the demonising journalism which has so influenced perceptions of council estates in recent decades: (4)

When a man in a suit parks outside Canberra Primary School’s double-height wire fence, he cannot punch in the keypad security code and slip through the school’s fortified gates quickly enough.  Three blonde, pony-tailed girls pushing baby buggies display a similar heads-down, no looking left or right attitude, as they walk between the estate’s redbrick, five-storey blocks of flats. Nobody lingers on White City’s streets. Only a shuffling, middle-aged Asian man wants to chat, offering me a cigarette from an empty Marlboro packet.  “You live here?” he asks as I edge away. ‘No, just having a walk.’

One feels for the friendly (though ‘shuffling’) Asian man.  One wonders if the three young women with babies took such a hostile view of this stranger as she apparently took of them.  But, if you want to paint a picture of depressing anomie, the journalist had pressed all the right buttons.  Was it simply her brief or was she herself a product of how so many who didn’t live in council housing had been conditioned to understand it?


Champlain House

Five years later (and with, to be fair, some evidence of renewal taking place), rather more seasoned observers took a different view.  The Estate appeared – in contrast to earlier reports – ‘to be well provided for in terms of community facilities and amenities’ and ‘well maintained with evidence of repairs and maintenance work underway as well as new building’. (5)

Residents’ views were mixed.  Most would not recommend the Estate to others; some definitively (‘Not at all. Nothing to like about it’) but many rather more equivocally, as if reflecting how outsiders perceived the Estate as much as than their own experience:

It depends on what you’re looking for – for people who’ve got nowhere else to go it’s okay and they are upgrading it a lot, they are really doing a lot of work to it…

I love it. It’s where I know, I’ve seen it over the years. It’s my home…

I’ve been here twelve years so I like it but maybe it’s not for everyone, particularly if they want a house or need more space than these flats.

In general, the Estate’s actual residents ‘offered quite a balanced view’ of the Estate; some praising its quietness and convenience, many agreeing that young people in particular were poorly served.

Hard data provides another perspective.  By 2009, in terms of household income, White City was ‘among the most deprived areas of the whole country’, parts of it in the bottom five per cent nationally.  Three years later, another set of statistics gives chapter and verse.  Across the wider White City area, 29 per cent of households were single adults and 15 per cent lone parent with dependent children.  Members of ethnic minorities (mainly Black African, Somalian and Eritrean, and Black Caribbean) were also disproportionately represented, forming 46 per cent of the total.  Twenty-eight per cent of the population were under 18. (6)


Hudson Close

The point, of course, is not that these groups are the ‘problem’ but that they are the groups most likely to suffer problems.  To some extent, there was a continuity here; some had seen the Estate as ‘blighted’ from the outset by the large proportion of former slum dwellers who made up its first residents. Then most were probably in employment.  In 2012, 29 per cent of the Estate’s working-age residents received Income Support, Job Seekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance or Incapacity Benefits.

This reflected, of course, the residualisation of council housing that has occurred since the 1970s – the fact that it is increasingly confined to those with the most pressing and urgent needs.  This, in a sense, was an issue recognised by Stephen Greenhalgh who led Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservative Council from 2006 to 2012: (7)

Social housing was meant to help lift people out of the slums. Instead many social housing estates have become the very ghettos of multiple social deprivation that they were supposed to replace.

‘Ghettos’ isn’t a very nice word but we might see some truth in this statement. Greenhalgh’s starting point, however, was that social housing was now ‘welfare housing where both a dependency culture and a culture of entitlement predominate’.


The view of Greenhalgh and Moss, Principles for Social Housing Reform. Question the labels and ignore the arrows.

There are two difficulties with this. Firstly, straightforwardly, it caricatures estates and their communities. On the White City Estate (where 74 per cent of occupants remained council tenants), local Labour councillor Jean Campbell articulated some of the anger and insult felt by local residents: (8)

My community on the White City Estate is a vibrant one. My neighbours include people working in health care, people working as police officers or people who are simply doing their best to bring up their kids and look after their families.

Secondly, it reverses cause and effect. Council housing is no longer seen as a response to social problems – the ‘safety net’ that even its minimalist advocates recognise – but one of their causes.  In one leap, Greenhalgh moves from correlation – the reality that many poorer people do live in council housing (for all the reasons of public policy that this blog has charted and because, fundamentally, they have been failed by the free market) – to causation.

To do so, of course, suits a free market agenda ideologically opposed to state intervention in all its forms which is seen in his astonishing solution to these alleged difficulties.  Greenhalgh recommended that social housing rents should rise to market levels and that a single form of (so-called) Assured Tenancy – assured for six months – should operate across private and public rental sectors.  Documents secured by Hammersmith’s Labour MP Andy Slaughter under Freedom of Information legislation revealing a 2009 meeting between Greenhalgh, Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps (then shadow Ministers of Communities and Local Government and Housing respectively) show the influence of this radical thinking upon the incoming Conservative government. (9)

Unsurprisingly when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s 2011 Localism Act gave social landlords the right to introduce fixed-term tenancies, Hammersmith and Fulham were among to signal their acceptance of the offer, proposing five year tenancies for most but as little as two years for others, especially those under 25. It wanted, apparently, ‘to incentivise residents to make the most of the their lives’.  That actual tenants ‘better able to predict their housing future…reported being better placed to manage other challenges in their life’ (including employment) was not considered. (10)

Whilst the hard-core radicalism of that agenda has not yet been implemented, it was previewed in 2012 when the plans of Hammersmith and Fulham Council to relocate 500 of the Borough’s homeless families on benefits to the Midlands – to move them to rented accommodation elsewhere rather than prioritise them for local council housing. Tory Hammersmith wanted to favour ‘wealth creators’ rather than the ‘workless and dependent on benefits…not making a contribution that could help drive economic growth’. (11)

This was linked to a voluntary and accelerated programme of selling off council homes by Hammersmith and Fulham: of 256 homes sold between April 2011 and December 2013, 46 went through Right to Buy and 210 were sold at auction, mostly through Savills. (12)  The phrase ‘social cleansing’ might be overused but here it seems justified.

A surprise victory by the Labour Party in the 2014 Borough elections – the Party gained 11 seats and took control of the Council – has put paid to the most far-reaching and ideologically-driven of these proposals but they exist, of course, on a spectrum and ‘regeneration’ – in Hammersmith and across London – continues to be controversial and, in many cases, a threat to established communities. (13)


This view towards central London shows BBC Television Centre to bottom left and the Westfield shopping centre under construction

There should be nothing controversial in desiring and assisting the economic uplift of an area.  The White City Opportunity Area was first mooted in 2004 and has received broad cross-party support since then.  The project’s initial ‘Framework for Development’, produced jointly with the Greater London Authority, contains the laudable ambitions of most such documents: (14)

By the end of the decade, the White City Opportunity Area will have been transformed into a thriving new, mixed use urban quarter of the highest quality, with a strong sense of place and local identity shared with the surrounding community…The area will be recognised as an exemplar of sustainable urban development, successfully combining strategic and local aspirations.

It was also clear that in housing terms, ‘social rented accommodation should predominate and there should be affordable key worker housing’.

In later iterations, the emphasis has shifted to ‘affordable’ housing and most of you reading this will know that that is a very shifty term indeed – Boris Johnson, the former Conservative Mayor of London defined it as 80 per cent of market rates.  In 2013, the broad goal was ‘to increase housing choice’ in ‘White City West’ (including the Estate) and to ‘enable estate renewal and seek a mixed and balanced community’. (15)  If Greenhalgh represents the most extreme position, a broad critique of mono-tenure council estates has achieved wider political agreement.


An artist’s impression of the Westfield Centre and new housing

Back in 2004, it was projected optimistically that the regeneration of the White City area – the BBC Media Village, the Westfield shopping centre (opened in 2008 and currently being extended), the ongoing development of a new Imperial College campus, and more – might create 11,000 new jobs.  Training schemes for young people were part of the package.

Typically, these were concentrated in the retail sector whilst the London Development Agency promoted a scheme ‘to train the estate’s 30 per cent unemployed to fill hospital jobs such as receptionists, ward clerks and security guards’. Mark Billington, Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s head of employment initiatives, was quoted as saying ‘Life is easier if employers tell us exactly what the skills they need are, and what type of people they want’. (16)


You can draw your own conclusions here but, given that almost one in three of the White City Estate’s working-age residents remained jobless eight years later, the impact has been less than hoped.  One wonders too how many of these relatively unskilled and non-unionised jobs are on zero-hours contracts.

Welcome to the new world. The White City Estate was born into an era of full employment where secure and decent homes were viewed as the necessary accompaniment to secure jobs. Now it seems that insecurity is seen as the necessary corrective to some perceived failure of personal enterprise and the market must rule.


(1) The Shepherds’ Bush Blog, ‘Reprieve For Hammersmith Park?’, 28 March 2014

(2) This is well documented in Tom Crewe, ‘The Strange Death of Municipal England’, London Review of Books, 15 December 2016

(3) Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, London 3: North West (1991)

(4) Susan Gray, ‘Great White Hope; What hope is there for a blighted area where nobody wants to live?’, Evening Standard, 22 March 2004

(5) Laura Lane and Anne Power (LSE Housing and Communities), Low income housing estates: a report to Hammersmith United Charities on supporting communities, preventing social exclusion and tackling need in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (September 2009)

(6) White City Neighbourhood Budget Pilot Project produced for London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham prepared by NHS North West London and Research by Design Ltd (2012)

(7) Stephen Greenhalgh and John Moss, Principles for Social Housing Reform (Localis, 2009)

(8), ‘Council Plotting to Get Rid of the Poor’, MP claims housing plans are ‘Shirley Porteresque’, 9 July 2009

(9) ‘Not Decent! The Evolution of Radical Tory Social Housing Policy: Full extracts from documents supplied by Hammersmith & Fulham Council in response to an FoI request from Andrew Slaughter MP’.  These documents can be found on the website of the site of West Ken and Gibbs Green – a Hammersmith and Fulham residents’ group fighting proposals to demolish their own Earls Court estate.

(10) Hammersmith quotation and residents’ views from D Robinson and A Walshaw, ‘Security of Tenure in Social Housing in England’, Social Policy and Society, vol 13 no. 1, January 2014. The damaging effects of insecurity of tenure are also discussed in John Bone, ‘Neo-Liberal Nomads: Housing Insecurity and the Revival of Private Renting in the UK‘, Sociological Research Online, vol 19, issue 4, 2014

(11) Randeep Ramesh, ‘Tory borough plans to move homeless away from London’, The Guardian, Wednesday 2 May 2012

(12) Dave Hill, ‘The great Hammersmith and Fulham council house sell off‘, The Guardian, 19 May 2014

(13) In Hammersmith, this is particularly true of the Earls Court scheme (mentioned in footnote 9) which has been extensively charted by Dave Hill in the Guardian.

(14) Hammersmith and Fulham Council, White City Opportunity Area: A Framework for Development (adopted 2004)

(15) Greater London Authority, Opportunity Area Planning Framework: Second Public Consultation, June 2013

(16) Susan Gray, ‘Great White Hope’

The White City Estate, Shepherd’s Bush: ‘the modern outlook in housing provision’



In 1939, the Times described the London County Council’s new White City Estate as ‘the largest and finest estate of flats which the council has yet built’.  By 2004, one jaundiced journalist was describing it as ‘a blighted area where nobody wants to live’. (2)  Now, in 2017, it lies at the epicentre of a regeneration project which has seen the local area transformed.  The White City Estate might look unremarkable at first glance but it contains a rich and complex history.

The first clue to that lies in the Estate’s designation and the unreconstructedly imperialist names of its main thoroughfares. In 1908, it had been the site of the Franco-British Exhibition.  Its whitewashed, stuccoed steel and concrete pavilions gave the later White City Estate its otherwise inapt appellation; the Exhibition’s celebration of Europe’s twilight heyday of empire (continued in four subsequent exhibitions held prior to 1914 before the site fell into disuse) explain Bloemfontein Road, India Way, Canada Way and Australia Road which bisect the contemporary estate.


The Franco-British Exhibition, 1908

Older readers will recall the White City Stadium, built for the 1908 London Olympics but chiefly remembered for its greyhound racing until eventual demolition in 1984.  (Today’s fun fact is that the official length of the modern marathon, adopted in 1921, derives from the distance between the starting point of the 1908 marathon at Windsor Castle and its finishing line in front of the royal box in the White City Stadium.)  Its site is now occupied by the buildings of BBC White City, now largely sold off as White City Place.  BBC Television Centre had been opened further south on Wood Lane in 1960.  The latter – Grade II listed in 2009 – survives but it’s been sold off too; a business and media centre now also containing some high-end accommodation.


This image shows BBC Television Centre under construction c.1960 bottom left and the White City Stadium to the right. The Estate lies behind.

But this is to jump ahead.  Back in 1935, the LCC bought 52 acres of the redundant exhibition site and plans for an estate of 2286 flats in 49 five-storey tenement blocks housing some 11,000 were in place by 1937.  In the event, only 23 blocks had been completed by 1939 when the war temporarily halted construction but in 1953 the finished estate – with 35 blocks and 2011 homes housing a population of around 8885 – substantially fulfilled this earlier vision.


An attack on tenement blocks from Bermondsey Labour Party in the mid-1920s

All this represented a significant shift for the London Labour Party which had wrested control of the LCC in 1934 having long been critical of tenement schemes, invariably described in the Party’s earlier propaganda at least as ‘barracks-like’.  Back in 1918, Herbert Morrison had declared the Party’s official position to ‘build no more tenements, or monotonous rows of houses, however much red and white and green there might be around them’; Labour backed ‘new towns where possible or Garden Suburbs where that was the best [it] could do’. (3)


The interwar two-storey housing along Bloemfontein Road and Bryony Road across from the Estate represents earlier Labour ideals

Such idealism could hardly survive the pressing practical necessities of slum clearance and reconstruction in the 1920s and the need to build at density for a poorer inner-city working class. By 1934, a Party Housing Research Group convened by Morrison had concluded, far more pragmatically, that on ‘the question of how many storeys there should be in Central London dwellings (for in such areas block dwellings are inevitable), it is unwise to dogmatise’.

But if flats were now seen as inevitable – even Ada Salter whose Bermondsey Borough Council had most fiercely opposed tenement building in the 1920s had come to accept that – the new onus was to make them attractive to tenants.  Modernist architectural advocates and some socialists also argued well-designed flatted schemes could promote community and offer far better amenities than conventional cottage estates. (4)  Ironically, as the preceding Municipal Reform (Conservative) majority pursued a policy of building more cheaply to secure more affordable tents, the standards and facilities of the LCC’s tenement schemes had deteriorated.

The 1923 ‘Normal’ flat combined kitchen and bathroom. The ‘Simplified’ design authorised in 1925 provided a detached (though private) scullery and WC and a bathroom and washroom shared between two flats. Most controversially, the ‘Modified Type B units’ introduced in 1932 (seen on the Honor Oak Estate, for example) saw bathroom and washroom facilities shared between three flats.  Further economies were achieved by lower standards of finish and reduced space standards – the ‘Modified B’ flat was one third smaller than the ‘Normal’ flat of 1925.


Lewis Silkin in 1947

In 1934, the incoming Labour administration quickly introduced a conversion programme to make the ‘Modified Type B’ homes self-contained. Larger ambitions were shown by the Continental Grand Tour of European urban housing schemes undertaken by Lewis Silkin (the chair of the LCC’s Housing and Public Health Committee) and two Council officers at the end of 1935 and its influence can be seen in the design of the White City Estate and some of its homes.

Silkin’s report concluded, for example, that there was: (5)

little doubt that staircase access secures greater privacy for the tenants and tends to make a flat more homely, better lighted and more attractive internally than one to which the only access is from a common balcony.

By 1937, the LCC was officially committed to bringing flat design ‘more to accord with the modern outlook in housing provision’. (6)  Here, the main thrust was to replace balcony-access – the basis of the existing five-storey walk-up blocks – with staircase access, each landing serving two to three homes.  Whilst most of the White City blocks were of traditional design, 312 tenements of the ‘New Flat’ design were prominently pioneered on the northern edge of the Estate.

With their higher standard of finishing and additional features, the Times concluded they:

sn-times-reportalmost qualify for the house-agents’ description ‘luxury flats’.  They are approached by internal staircases, each of which has a dust-chute for disposing of rubbish. The flats with three, four or five rooms each have their private balcony, with permanent concrete window boxes. The kitchen has direct access to the living room through doors which slide wide apart.

The downside was that their rents reached 24s 6d for a five-room flat compared to the 18s 3d charged for an equivalent flat of traditional design but the Council believed that ‘a proportion of the working-class population for whom it is the Council’s duty to provide accommodation…[were] able and willing to pay higher rents’. (7)

Meanwhile, all the flats had their own bathroom with tiled floor and wash-basin and the larger ones benefitted from ‘a lavatory in a separate compartment’.  Flats were not yet – if they ever were – the accommodation of choice for most but the economy drive which had prioritised affordability at the expense of working-class living conditions had been reversed.


This artist’s impression shows blocks with moderne and International Style influence. The completed blocks with squarer brick-faced  balconies were less contemporary.

Elsewhere the LCC had also experimented with a revised aesthetic – the 1936 Oaklands Estate in Clapham was distinguished by the strong horizontal lines of its moderne styling marked by its banded brickwork and wide steel windows and, most notably, its sweeping, ocean liner-style balconies.  Paler versions of this can be seen in some of the Estate but the blocks of ‘New Flats’ stuck more to the LCC’s established neo-Georgian form with only the prominent, slightly curved, glassed stairwells breaking with its conventional, somewhat boxy look. (8)


Canning House with moderne styling


Carteret House rear with stairwells

The White City Estate was, however, innovative in at least one other respect – it represented the Council’s first attempt to apply the new ideas of slum clearance and comprehensive redevelopment contained in the 1935 Housing Act.  Again, it also reflected (or was intended to reflect) best European practice; Silkin himself acknowledged that ‘facilities for social welfare, rest and recreation’ had been better provided in the showpiece Continental schemes than in London.


The reliefs on the exterior of Carteret House depicting idealised images of childhood and maternity capture some of the hopes of the new Estate. (Identical sculptures can be found at the Tulse Hill Estate built at the same time as White City along the same lines.)

The ‘desirability of a reasonable provision in respect of social services’ was recognised by the Council  by reserving sites ‘for 14 shops, an administrative building and possible schools, medical clinic, reading rooms, etc., and children’s playgrounds’.  Some heralded the Estate as a ‘new town’ and the British Commercial Gas Association entitled its promotional film (albeit promoting the use of gas as much as the estate itself), A Town in Born.


The 1937 plan gives a good impression of the blocks’ north-south orientation and open southern aspects of some of the courtyards

One other influence of Silkin’s tour (and broader contemporary architectural thinking) can be seen in the attempt to implement the fashionable Zeilenbau principles of layout pioneered in Germany. This prescribed, in Silkin’s words, ‘the adoption of a generally north-south line whereby access of available sunshine is made possible on both main fronts of the buildings’.  The ideal was only partially fulfilled on the White City Estate as it conflicted with another goal of the planners – the provision of attractive enclosed courtyards – but closed quadrangles were mostly avoided by leaving the southern side of the elements undeveloped. (9)


McKenzie Close showing courtyard and private balconies

On a bright winter’s day such as when I visited, the courtyards with their mature trees and greenery looked attractive but the overall Estate didn’t receive the critical acclaim this careful planning might seem to warrant.  The Architects’ Journal asked rhetorically: (10)

Why all the five-storey blocks? Why the soulless mechanism of the layout? Why not, with the golden opportunity of unhampered space, some really high blocks (with lifts instead of…dreary flights of stairs) making way for terraced houses for the larger families?

It wanted something more excitingly modernist and its call contains an anticipation of the mixed development ideas (demanding a range of housing forms to create greater visual interest) which took off in the 1950s.

Pevsner concurred, decrying what he termed ‘the deadening utilitarian ranks of the vast White City Estate’.  Writing later, he also noted how far the Estate – ‘built (like the out-county estates) with a singular lack of amenities’ – had fallen short of the ‘new town’ ideals proclaimed on its inception. (11)  Typically, housing was prioritised at the expense of community facilities.


‘The White City Estate and environs, 1947’ (c) Britain from Above, EAW005416. Loftus Road, home of QPR bottom right

For the time being, the LCC’s proclaimed aim in its treatment of housing ‘to maintain an appearance of domesticity whilst keeping within the bounds of economy’ held sway and another element of the planners’ description – they noted how ‘the repetition of blocks of similar size and arrangement lends itself to rapid and economic construction by a process of multiple contracts’ – seems more telling of the finished product. (12)

Nevertheless, the Estate, the flats certainly, represented a significant advance on the penny-pinching economies of Honor Oak and it’s provided a decent home to many thousands as at least one resident recalls: (13)

sn-douglas-grayI want to say how proud I am to say I lived on the estate…There was a wonderful sense of community on this estate and the flats were a design success apart from the small kitchens. My memories of living here are of children – lots of children,all playing in safety and in harmony (well as far as kids do!).

The outbreak of war and subsequent post-war austerity didn’t help fulfil the larger ambitions of its creation and in the succeeding decades, White City probably seemed a rather ordinary and even dull estate to some distinguished by its size but in other respects hardly reflecting the more extravagant claims which initially surrounded it.

By the turn of the new century, as the Estate grew old and its community fell on hard times, some politicians viewed council housing not as a solution to social problems but as one of their causes.  The Estate was ripe for regeneration but that would be, as we shall see, a controversial and contested process.


(1) ‘2,166 White City Flats’, The Times, 21 July 1939

(2) Susan Gray, ‘Great white hope; What hope is there for a blighted area where nobody wants to live?’, Evening Standard 22 March 2004

(3) Quoted in Simon Pepper and Peter Richmond, ‘Upward or Outward? Politics, Planning and Council Flats, 1919-1939’, The Journal of Architecture, vol 13, no.1, February 2008 which also provided much of the detail in the following paragraphs.

(4) These ideals were pursued by Director of Housing Lancelot Keay and Liverpool’s Unionist city council.  See Liverpool’s Interwar Multi-Storey Housing: Building an ‘A1 community in a properly planned township of flats’

(5) LCC, London Housing (1937)

(6) LCC, Working-Class Housing on the Continent and the Application of Continental Ideas to the Housing Problem in the County of London. Report by the Chairman of the Housing and Public Health Committee of the Council, Mr Lewis Silkin MP as the result of a visit to Continental Housing Estates in September and October 1935 (October 1936)

(7) LCC, London Housing

(8) Nicholas Merthyr Day, The Role of The Architect on Post-War State Housing: A case study of the housing work of the London County Council 1939-1956, University of Warwick Department of the History of Art PhD Thesis, June 1988

(9) LCC, Working-Class Housing on the Continent and the Application of Continental Ideas to the Housing Problem in the County of London

(10) Architects’ Journal, 27 July 1939 quoted in Pepper and Richmond

(11) Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, London 3: North West (1991)

(12) The first quotation is from LCC, London Housing; the second from in JA Yelling, Slums and Redevelopment: Policy and Practice in England, 1918-45 (1992)

(13) Douglas Gray who contributed his memories and this photograph to the Britain from Above website. Go to the page for extended memories of the Estate’s tradespeople and community in its earlier years.

Bradford’s Pre-1914 Council Housing: a ‘victory in one of the earliest of conflicts between property and life’


According to JB Priestley, a proud native of the city, ‘Bradford was considered the most progressive place in the United Kingdom’ before the First World War. (1)  He referred to the vibrant cultural life of the town as much as its politics but we’ll concentrate on the latter and, in particular, the struggle to build decent housing for its working people.


A Bradford slum, in the early 1900s

Bradford, capital of the UK’s woollen industry, was then one of Britain’s great industrial centres – a place where ‘wealth accumulates and men decay’ in the words of one critical local politician. (2)  Around seventy-five per cent of its housing was back-to-back and in the three poorest wards of the city the infant mortality rate reached 179 per 1000, twice the rate of the city as a whole. Fenner Brockway observed trenchantly that: (3)

these black areas were not only a prison to the spirit they were a slaughterhouse for their bodies…Herod, in the form of slum landlords and building speculators, massacred more infants in Bradford than he did in Bethlehem.

For his part, Priestley wondered why ‘those industrial workers, exiled from the sun and the fields, condemned to live their time between houses like barracks and factories like fortresses’ were not ‘sluts and brutes’. But he insisted that, despite such conditions, they were ‘yet among the salt of the earth…decent and kind, humorous and helpful’.

jowett-youngIf that was a romantic view of the lives and characters such circumstances spawned, it might at least be applied to Bradford’s great socialist leader, FW (‘Fred’) Jowett, described by the ever-quotable Priestley as ‘a figure compact of truth and integrity, utterly without pretence, and with the shining simplicity that belongs to the pure in heart’.  Jowett and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) founded in the city in 1893 led the campaign for better housing.

That politics was born initially in industrial struggle.  A tradition of progressive and, to some degree, cross-class Lib-Lab (Liberal-Labour) politics was broken by the great Manningham Lockout, instigated when the mill-owner Samuel Cunliffe Lister (in other contexts remembered as a paternalistic benefactor of the city) insisted, just before Christmas 1890, on a 30 per cent wage cut for his workers.   The bitter dispute lasted 19 weeks until Lister’s workforce was forced back to work under the new terms and conditions.


An early image of Manningham Mills (c) Esther M Zimmer Lederberg Memorial Website

The Liberal Council tried to ban rallies and meetings in support of those locked out; the intervention of the Durham Light Infantry caused a full-blown riot.  As the futility of relying on the goodwill of the Bradford’s middle-class employers became clear to many of the local working class, Jowett led the political fight-back.  He was a founder member of the Bradford Labour Union in May 1891 and later the same year of the Bradford Labour Church – a deliberate break with the nonconformist chapels patronised by the local middle classes which set itself the task of nothing less than the ‘the realisation of the Kingdom of Heaven in this Life by the establishment of a state of society founded upon Justice and Love to thy neighbour’. (4)


A modern mural (on the Priestley Theatre) celebrating the founding of the ILP in Bradford

Jowett was elected, aged just 18, to the Council in 1892 where he would serve fifteen years until first elected as one of the city’s MPs in 1906.  From 1906 the Bradford ILP held the balance of power and, at its pre-war peak in 1913, the Party polled 43 per cent of the vote and returned 20 councillors (29 Liberals and 34 Conservatives made up the remainder).

Jowett’s campaign for better housing began inauspiciously – his motion to the Sanitary Committee in 1894 that the Council take action to build housing under Part III of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act received just five votes – and would be stubbornly resisted for some years.  His first success was in persuading a sympathetic Medical Officer of Health, Dr Arnold Evans, to represent some of worst of local housing – in the Longlands district – as unfit for human habitation in 1898 but the Housing Committee’s proposal to clear the area was rejected by full Council.  Jowett persevered; a revised scheme was initially accepted by the Council the following year until that decision was rescinded by a newly elected Council (with a strengthened Tory presence) two months later.  Finally, in 1901 the scheme was given the go-ahead.


An early image of Faxfleet Street

The Longlands clearance scheme covered a little under five acres – about the size of two football pitches – and contained 254 dwelling houses, 10 lodging houses, two public houses, 16 lock-up shops, a bakehouse, a storeroom and some 1350 people.  The homes, according to Evans, were ‘in a dilapidated state…old…the vast majority built back to back; the population, according to Brockway, ‘mostly wretchedly poor Irish folk with large families’. The death rate from pulmonary tuberculosis was – at 7.4 per thousand – almost five times the city average. (5)


FEP Edwards

The first replacement housing built to accommodate those displaced, designed by City Architect FEP Edwards and completed in 1904, was in Faxfleet Street at some two miles’ distance but accessible by (municipally-owned) tramway. (6)   Sixty-six houses, each with a living room, scullery (complete with washing copper and bath), front and back bedrooms and an attic. These were, of course, ‘through’ houses, set back five feet from the footpath and with small backyards containing a WC, coal store and ash bin.




These images show the interior of the new Faxfleet Street houses – the respectable working-class homes envisaged by housing reformers (7)

The houses cost £247 each to build with rents set at the lowest level possible to both repay within sixty years the 3.25 per cent loan which financed them and be affordable to those who needed them.  To housing reformers, the scheme furnished important proof that ‘”through” houses can be provided in Yorkshire at low rentals and can be made self-supporting’. (8)  Twenty-three further Corporation houses would be built in the area before 1914.


Later pre-1914 council housing on Draughton Street

The local Labour movement celebrated this success in the municipal elections which followed. One ILP candidate, JH Palin of the Tramwaymen’s Society, declared ‘some of the men in their society were tenants of the Faxfleet-street property, and the only fault that could be found was a little shrinking of the woodwork’; ‘where, said Mr Jowett, can you get houses like those at 5s 6d a week clear of rates within a like distance of the Town Hall?’ (9)


Chain Street tenements

Such houses represented the ideal for most Labour politicians of the day but inner-city conditions dictated other solutions.  In the cleared Longlands district itself, the Council erected tenement blocks based on models pioneered in Liverpool – the major pioneer of municipal tenement housing outside London – and Manchester. The first were five three-storeyed blocks, completed in 1909, erected on Chain Street and Longlands Place, each with a living room, scullery, one or two bedrooms and a WC and coal store on the rear balcony.  A second phase of two-storeyed tenements was completed in 1912 in Chain Street and Roundhill Place.


A contemporary image showing the recently refurbished two-storey tenements on Chain Street

Some years later, it could be claimed that these undeniably modest homes could ‘compare very favourably with the best in England constructed for the occupation of the poor and needy’: their interiors presented ‘quite a cheerful and comfortable appearance’, it was said, and the tenants took ‘a keen interest in their homes’. (10)

Looking back in 1946, Brockway was familiar with the higher standards of later years; he admitted:

They are not comparable architecturally with the blocks of modern flats constructed by municipalities today but they are well-built, clean, healthy, and must have seemed palatial to those Irish families removed from cellars and vermin-infested rooms more than forty years ago.  To housing reformers they symbolise victory in one of the earliest of conflicts between property and life.

Several blocks were pulled down in the 1960s as Bradford built new roads to accommodate the increased traffic of a more affluent era but – though remaining blocks were refurbished and extended in the 1970s – such affluence itself had long departed by the turn of the century.  The area had become a haunt of sex workers and drug addicts; the homes were seen as ‘squalid hovels’ and the local press alleged that locals called the blocks ‘Death Row’. (11) In more measured terms, the City Council described the Chain Street area as suffering from ‘multiple problems including crime, the fear of crime, low income levels and higher than average levels of unemployment’. (12)

As one element of major plans to revive a city hit hard by deindustrialisation, a much needed £1.26m regeneration has ensued, supported by the Council, the Homes and Communities Agency and led, on the ground, by Incommunities, a social housing provider formed after a stock transfer of Bradford council housing in 2003.  Initially, 36 flats have been converted into 16 family-size homes. Thirty-two houses will replace a demolished 1925 tenement block; ten for sale, twelve let at market rents and ten at social rent. (13)  It’s the modern way – tenure mix and public investment part-financed by private profit.  Typically, there is a loss of social housing.


A contemporary image of Chain Street with new housing to the fore and the refurbished three-storey tenements at the rear left

In contemporary terms, an ambitious local council probably had little choice but to proceed in this way.  Jowett would be disappointed to see the beneficent power of the state so subordinated to the laws of the very free market against which he had campaigned but he would surely be impressed by the quality of this new working-class housing. There’s no doubt that the appearance and ‘feel’ of the area is much improved and, as part of a package which includes a new linear park and rejuvenated town centre, I hope it helps Bradford which has changed greatly from the prosperous city which Priestley described.

Jowett himself served in the first Labour government in 1924 but his principled socialism and consistent pacifism was too left-wing for the second.  He stood for the ILP (which had broken from the Labour Party) in 1931 and 1935 but, despite the affection his home city retained for him, was not re-elected.  He died aged 80 in 1944.   The houses on Faxfleet Street and the tenements on Chain Street remain both a monument to his practical idealism and a symbol of changed times.


(1) Priestley, Preface to Fenner Brockway, Socialism over Sixty Years. The Life of Jowett of Bradford (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1946)

(2) The words of a Liberal reformer and later chairman of Health Committee in Report of an Address delivered to Bradford City Council on October 9th 1917 by Mr EJ Smith on Housing Reform

(3) Brockway, Socialism over Sixty Years

(4) Quoted in David Jones, Bradford (Ryburn Publishing, Halifax, 1990)

(5) W Arnold Evans (Medical Officer of Health), ‘The Operation of the Housing of the Working Classes Act in Bradford’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, no 23, 1902

(6) FEP Edwards was Bradford City Architect between 1903 and 1908, the second (outside London and after Hull) to be appointed in the country. He is cited as the scheme’s architect in James Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country (Batsford, London, 1905) though an English Heritage report names W Williamson.

(7) These images are taken from Lucy Caffyn, Supplementary Series 9: Worker’s Housing in West Yorkshire, 1750-1920 (West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, HMSO, 1986)

(8) Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country

(9) ‘Bradford Municipal Campaign. Councillor Jowett defends the Faxfleet Houses’, The Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury, October 13, 1904

(10) Frank White (Superintendent and Chief Sanitary Inspector) in ‘Discussion on Town Planning and Improvement Areas at Sessional Meeting held at Bradford, February 5th, 1926’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol XLVI, no 11, April 1926

(11) Kathie Griffiths, ‘Bradford “Death Row” flats transformed into “little palaces”’, Bradford Telegraph and Argus, 4 July 2013

(12) Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Report of the Director of Regeneration and Culture to the meeting of Executive to be held on Friday 11 November 2011. Subject: AH1 Option Appraisal for the Regeneration of Sites around Chain Street, Goitside

(13) Homes and Communities Agency, ‘From “Death Row” to Family Homes’, Press release, 22 April 2014

The image of City Architect Edwards is from Bradford Timeline on Flickr and made available under this Creative Commons licence.

Brutal London by Simon Phipps


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There’s been a spate of books on Brutalism recently but I’m happy to recommend Brutal London by Simon Phipps to the many enthusiasts out there. It’s a lavishly illustrated, 192-page guide to 93 of the major examples of the genre in the capital, organised in an accessible borough-by-borough form.


Thamesmead (1967-74), Greenwich

Phipps’ powerful images – the heart and soul of the book – are in the monochrome which is de rigueur for a certain type of architectural photography but it works particularly well in capturing the stark power of Brutalist buildings: in the author’s words, providing ‘a stripped down aesthetic for a barebones architecture’.

However, he adds a brief, thought-provoking foreword and a very useful end section of Building Information.  The latter includes details of when the buildings were built and their architects – this detail can be surprisingly onerous to track down so I’m grateful for his efforts – as well as some extended observations on selected examples. It’s good to see maps included too, not practical for navigation but a useful guide to location.

I’m not an enthusiast of Brutalism as such…before some of you stop reading just there, let me clarify. I do admire the bravura and sheer presence of many of the best examples but, as an historian, I’m more interested in a building’s social and political ‘story’, particularly that of the council housing which forms the mainstay of this blog.  Of course, architecture and design are very far from innocent of social purpose and ideology and, nowhere is this more true than of British Brutalism – ‘widely seen as the architectural style of the Welfare State’. (1)

Phipps himself notes how ‘certain design elements suggest the socially progressive politics of the post-war state made manifest in the minds of architects’.  In a particularly powerful phrase, he commends this ‘forceful, belligerent, conceptually considered and egalitarian architecture of social purpose that manifested itself across post-war London’.


Robin Hood Gardens (1969-72), Tower Hamlets

It’s interesting to note that a majority of the case-studies are of housing – a straightforward illustration of the argument – and salutary to note, as Phipps does, our loss of purpose in this regard with the demolition of the Heygate Estate and imminent destruction of the Robin Hood Estate.  (Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower and Lasdun’s Keeling House have been or will be sold to the private sector – a mark both of Brutalism’s now fashionably cherished status and our contemporary disregard for the high-quality working-class housing that was central to that post-war vision.)

Other flights of eloquence – reflecting his own arts and design background and a predominantly aesthetic appreciation of Brutalist architecture – leave me a little colder but I’m sure will speak powerfully to the movement’s fans.

Phipps adopts the seminal definition of Brutalism deployed by Reyner Banham in his path-breaking 1955 essay. (2)  The New Brutalism (as it was then) is characterised by:

formal legibility of plan, clear exhibition of structure and the valuing of materials for their inherent qualities “as found”.

It’s a broad definition and it allows Phipps to include a number of works that I wouldn’t personally have considered Brutalist. I’ve tended to assume that the use of concrete (particularly the béton brut often thought to have given the style its name) was a crucial component but I’m happy to leave this to be debated by the experts and enthusiasts and grateful that the wider perspective allows us to look anew at a number of significant schemes.


Paddington British Rail Maintenance Depot (1966-68), Westminster

You’ll find the expected showpieces here – the National Theatre, the Royal College of Physicians, the Institute of Education – and a few you may have overlooked – a fire station and British Rail Maintenance Depot, both in Paddington, for example.  In terms of housing, there’s the Barbican, of course, and in the genuinely social housing that interests me, Balfron and Trellick, a number of the wondrous Camden estates of the 1970s, and many others. (3)


Alexander Road Estate (1972-78), Camden


Alton West, Alton Estate (1955-58), Wandsworth

Alton West is included naturally – in Phipps’ words ‘a riposte to the tidy geometries and bland stylings of the Scandinavian-inspired modernists’ who had designed the earlier eastern phase.


Doddington and Rollo Estate (1969-71), Wandsworth


The Aylesbury Estate (1963-71), Southwark

Also in Wandsworth, it’s interesting to see the Doddington and Rollo and York Road Estates covered, built using the Laings Jespersen Large Panel System and generally considered (for good reason given early teething troubles) to be system-built disasters. Other system-built schemes covered include the first system-built housing estate constructed in the country, the Morris Walk Estate built by the London County Council in 1963-1966 using the Larsen-Nielsen system.  The troubled but maligned Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, another built using the Jespersen system and now subject to its own controversial regeneration, is also featured.  No poured, in situ, board-marked concrete here.


Lillington Gardens Estate (1964-72), Westminster


World’s End Estate (1969-77), Kensington and Chelsea

Nor in Westminster, where Darbourne and Darke’s Lillington Gardens was praised by some as an example of the ‘new vernacular’ – a point at which you might feel the definition of Brutalism stretched. Down the river in Chelsea, Eric Lyons’ World’s End Estate is also noted. Since both are concrete-built and only brick-clad and since both that possess the Brutalist ‘clear exhibition of structure’ that Phipps values their inclusion is probably justified.

Anyway, buy the book and make your choices – in inner London in particular, anyone interested in modern architecture will find much to pique their interest.  If you love Brutalism, you’ll love the book.  If you don’t, it might at least give you pause for thought. Brutalism may not have been pretty but it does look increasingly attractive – both as a monument to earlier ideals and as a rebuttal to what Phipps rightly describes as ‘the bright vinyl-clad Wendy houses that count for much of today’s banal and mediocre housing’.

Photography (c) Simon Phipps

Brutal London by Simon Phipps is published by September Publishing, £14.99. 

You can follow Simon Phipps on Twitter at @new_brutalism


(1) Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (2016) – an excellent and engaging academic guide to the subject which I’ve previously reviewed.

(2) Reyner Banhan, ‘The New Brutalism’, Architectural Review December 1955

(3) Of those I’ve written about: Alexandra Road, the Branch Hill Estate and the Whittington Estate.


Early Council Housing in Banbury, Part II: King’s Road and the Cow Fair Roarer



I’m pleased to feature the second part of this fine guest post by Jane Kilsby – a wonderful record of the struggle to build decent working-class housing in the early years of the last century and a proper tribute to a man who dedicated his life to the cause.

Banbury was one of the very few shire towns to build council housing before the First World War. That it did so, as last week’s post made clear, owed much to the energy and idealism of Councillor Herbert Payne, the ‘Cow Fair Roarer’. This week’s post takes the story forward: Banbury built some of the finest early council housing in the country but for Payne himself life took a far more sombre turn.


A contemporary map of Banbury; King’s Road is to the centre-left. From OpenStreetMap and used under the terms of this Creative Commons licence.

To secure high-quality design, the Council announced an architectural competition in December 1911.  The Council wanted 40 houses – 20 at no more than £175 each and 20 at no more than £135 each – but they also wanted entrants to avoid monotony and make best use of the land.  A local exhibition on the scheme was so popular that its opening hours were extended.


Early twentieth century municipal housing schemes provided new opportunities and challenges for architects. Some 63 architects from across the country participated in the Banbury competition, attacking (in the words of the Banbury Guardian) ‘the problem of designing a cheap form of dwelling so as to give a maximum accommodation and amenity with a good deal of spirit’. Unfortunately, none of these plans appear to survive.  Mr J Fisher of Wellingborough, the architect appointed to design the new school in Grimsbury, was selected as adjudicator.  The winning design was by Messrs Geoffry Lucas and Lodge of Bloomsbury Square.

Thomas Geoffry Lucas (1872-1947) is best remembered now for his work with the garden city movement, notably in Letchworth where he designed a group of cottages in Paddock Close.  Lucas said of this ‘£150 House’ that ‘although simple, an effort has been made to obtain dignity, and an architectural treatment, without extravagance’. He also designed for Hampstead Garden Suburb and his house at 54 Parkway won first prize in a competition at Gidea Park. Together with Thomas Arthur Lodge (1888-1967), articled to Lucas and later his partner, he designed the art deco Parkinson Building for the University of Leeds and Hackney Town Hall.


Paddock Close, Letchworth: the ‘£150 house’ designed by Geoffry Lucas in 1904-05. Now Grade II listed


The roofs in King’s Road are very similar to Lucas’s houses in Paddock Close

Lucas and Lodge were paid a premium of £20 for their winning design.  Their plans for King’s Road are missing – they are not held by the current Town Council or by Sanctuary Housing Association, the current freeholders and managers – but the Banbury Advertiser of 7 March 1912 provides us with a detailed description:

Messrs Lucas and Lodge’s plans for the £175 houses show two-floor structures with gabled fronts at intervals, the bedrooms of the remainder of the houses having dormer windows rising from the eaves.  On the ground floor is the porch and lobby, the front living room measuring 13ft 7in by 12ft 1½ inches.  At the back is a scullery, about 7ft 6 in by 10ft, with larder, copper, coal-house, table-top bath and gas stove, with yard and w.c. at the rear.  On the first floor are three bedrooms, the dimensions of the front room being 15ft 3in by 10ft 3in, those of the two back rooms being 10ft 10in by 7ft 8in and 7ft 6in by 7ft 3in respectively.

The £135 houses were smaller but otherwise of similar design.  The cottages as a whole were constructed as reversed pairs in four groups of ten, each with its own garden.  It was ‘proposed that trees be planted along the road, with grass in the front gardens, and a bed of flowers and creepers against the cottages’.


King’s Road in the 1960s with what appears to be larch lapping on the front elevation. Photograph courtesy of the Oxfordshire History Centre

The Council set out its budget and applied to the Local Government Board to borrow £7685.  An Inquiry into the Banbury Housing Scheme was held on 2 August 1912.  The Mayor, councillors, the Medical Officer, Gilletts’ representatives and others were all on message and the loan was confirmed two months later.  Messrs Bosworth and Lowe of Nottingham were appointed as contractors.


Lucas and Lodge houses in King’s Road, front elevation, in 2016


Three-bedroom Lucas and Lodge house in 2016

Councillors followed the progress of the scheme closely and in October 1913, when the houses were almost complete, the decision on the name was made: the Cow Fair crowd’s choice: King’s Road.  The houses were let at 5s 3d for the three bedroom houses and 4s 3d for the two bedroom houses.

The First World War changed the national politics of housing radically. From this point, Banbury’s housing policy was no different from numerous other towns: good housing was needed and quickly, and the council made use of national government’s substantial help and finance.

A total of 770 council houses were built between 1919 and 1940; 361 of these were in Easington, due west of the town centre, where the Council carried out extensive slum clearance.  The fields northwest of King’s Road, the streets now known as Hilton Road, Park Road, Boxhedge Road West and Townsend were also a high priority for new building.

By July 1926, a commentator in the Banbury Advertiser was able to say:

whatever Banbury lacks, it does not appear that the former shortage of housing accommodation can be levelled as a reproach against the town now.  The council of recent years has taken the bit between its teeth – a ‘bit’ that despite one of our Aldermen’s fears I believe is one that Banbury can chew – and houses are springing up in our midst like brick-built mushrooms.


King’s Road with its red roofs is at the bottom of the photograph. It lies southeast of the medieval village of Neithrop, about half a mile from Banbury Market Place. Photograph by kind permission of Steve Gold.

King’s Road, the council’s model street, was now fully developed.  For six years the forty Lucas and Lodge houses had stood in pretty isolation in their semi-rural setting.  In 1914 the Council had, wisely, and at Payne’s instigation, negotiated with Gillett on an extension of the option period to buy the remainder of the land in King’s Road.  The pre-war experience was invaluable and the Council’s post-war plans began in King’s Road.

By October 1919 land clearing operations had begun at the western end of the road.  The land was cleared and plans were made and a set of 19 ‘non-parlour type’ workmen’s dwellings were built at a cost of £18,050.  These houses were built in the late 1920s.  These houses are of brick and have three bedrooms, a bathroom and large gardens.  Making use of Addison’s 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, the council sold Local Housing Bonds of £5 upwards at 6 per cent interest.


Semi-detached house in King’s Road, one of the nineteen completed in 1921

A set of twelve semi-detached houses were built speculatively in 1928.


One of the twelve non-council houses in King’s Road in 2016

Finally, six more houses were built by the Council in 1929.  Councillor Monks’ remarked upon the:

extraordinary number of applications for these houses – 20 or 30 people have applied to me personally.  The Borough Accountant said he had about 50 applicants for the six 2 bedroom houses.  24 of the applicants were single and wanted to get married.  Only three houses could be offered, as the other three were offered to tenants in condemned properties.


The six council houses built in King’s Road in the late 1920s, photographed November 2016

The Council used ‘off the peg’-type designs available from the Ministry of Housing and the houses built in the 1920s have no remarkable architectural features.  They are solid, popular and durable, however, and King’s Road today is an unassuming, pleasant street with mature lime trees at its western end.  A residential street of less than 100 houses, it represents Banbury’s early municipal housing policy in microcosm and, you could say, a lasting memorial to our hero, Herbert Payne.


King’s Road in 2016. The forty Lucas and Lodge houses are on both sides of the road.

Let’s return to Herbert Payne and see what happened to him. He continued to serve on the Town Council for most of the Great War.  With local politics deferring to the national good, he sounds calmer and more conciliatory.  He had been re-elected as an independent in 1912 and became friends with the Liberals.  Housing activities were not on the agenda and, within the Council Chamber, Payne’s contributions were confined to the fine details of the Education Committee’s accounts and incremental improvements to the town’s sewerage system.

He continued with the cutlery business he had started in 1905.  Trading from his premises and home in Bridge Street, a stone’s throw from the Cow Fair, his customers were caterers, hotels and boarding houses.  He travelled the country extensively.  His turnover for 1915 is recorded at £3,000.


Herbert Payne, wife Florence and daughter Kathleen. Photograph with the kind permission of JR Hodgkins

He was, of course, young enough to join up.  He didn’t.  He was a pacifist to his core.  He was granted an exemption on conscientious grounds and in August 1916, the County Tribunal (on appeals for exemptions from military service) exempted him for a further three months on business grounds, with leave to apply again.

Payne’s career was all about making a difference to people’s lives and he did not give up easily.  Perhaps he thought he could change things, even in the War.  He took it upon himself to challenge the way the Oxfordshire County Tribunals were set up.  He lobbied hard for the County Tribunal to include employee representatives.  He went as far as organising and speaking at a public meeting – held in the Town Hall in full view of the military – to prepare a resolution for two representative trade unionists to be nominated for the Tribunal.  The handbills declared ‘ Attested Recruits, whether accepted or rejected, specially invited.  Ladies invited.’  In the Council meeting that followed, Payne presented the resolution that it was ‘imperative that [the County Tribunal] should have the confidence especially of the class from which the recruits are most likely to be drawn’.

By the time of the next appeal, casualty figures were catastrophic.  These were very dangerous times and, perhaps with some naivety, Payne told the County Military Tribunal that he refused to do non-combatant service but would be willing to do certain types of work of national importance.  The Tribunal ordered him to work on a farm.  He didn’t.

Details of the local appeals are set out in forensic detail in the Banbury newspapers, often on the same page as the lists of those who had fallen.  It’s impossible to know what his fellow councillors thought about Payne by then.  Some Town Council meetings start with expressions of sorrow for a councillor who had lost a son killed in action.  In any event, the knives were out for Payne.

His last Council meeting was on 2 April 1917.  True to himself, he spoke at length in congratulating the Medical Officer on a reduction in the infant mortality rate and badgered his fellow councillors on what further steps were being taken by the Water Company to improve the condition of the water supply.

A month later, he was arrested in Derby.  Handed over to a military escort, it is understood that he was sent to Winchester Prison.  Leading pacifist and conscientious objector, Fenner Brockway, remembered talking to Payne at the Martyrs Memorial in Oxford and that the next time they saw each other was in prison. (2)  He came home to Banbury in 1919.  There was no return to the Cow Fair crowds; he spent much of his time with the Congregationalists.  JR Hodgkins says that ‘he was a broken man and that the War had broken his heart’.  He died three years later, at 40.


Herbert Payne’s plain and unkempt grave is in Banbury Cemetery, Southam Road.  He is buried with his wife Florence who died in 1936. The inscription reads ‘Herbert Payne who fell asleep 23rd March 1922’.

Hodgkins pays tribute to Payne as a vigorous and successful pioneer of housing reform.  He ends his chapter on Payne with the hope: (2)

that one day Banbury can find the time and spare the energy to mark his memory.  Since his death, things have been going ‘Payne’s way’ all over the country.

They have indeed.


(1) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1905 and 1930 held by the British Newspaper Archive

(2) JR Hodgkins, Over the Hills to Glory: Radicalism in Banburyshire 1832-1945 (1978)

My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for their generosity in allowing the use of the credited images.

Early Council Housing in Banbury, Part I: King’s Road and the Cow Fair Roarer


I’m delighted to feature this week and next another guest post – a fascinating piece of social, political and housing history from Jane Kilsby in Banbury.  Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury three years ago. Thanks also to her husband Steve, another former housing professional, who first spotted the significance of the King’s Road houses. 

It’s amazing what turns up on eBay these days, isn’t it?  Recently, I bought this postcard: (1)


It’s a tribute to Herbert Payne, local councillor and advocate of social reform in early 20th century Banbury. Forty houses were built by Banbury Borough Council in King’s Road in 1913 and they came about largely as a result of Herbert Payne’s powerful commitment to the benefits of good housing for working people.


King’s Road in November 2016

Banbury is 64 miles from London; a prosperous market town with a large rural hinterland.  On the edge of the Cotswolds, much of its early prosperity was from the wool trade; later it became a centre for cattle sales, horse trading, weaving, printing, engineering and comfort food of all kinds.  Cakes, custard, cheese, chocolate and coffee have all played a large part in Banbury’s employment and charm.  Banbury lies more or less in the middle of England; it’s a long way from the sea and transport improvements in the 18th and 19th centuries made a dramatic difference to the size of the town.  The Oxford Canal connected Banbury to the Midlands in 1778 and the railways invigorated Banbury’s trading links to the North of England and to Paddington. The M40 maintains Banbury’s role as a distribution centre today.

Banbury is a hardly a hotbed of reform and revolt but its famous nursery rhyme provides an air of innocence which belies some notable instances of radicalism in its history.  The townspeople, strongly Puritan, destroyed the original Banbury Cross and, later, Cromwell’s men smashed Banbury Castle to smithereens.  In the 1840s there were agricultural workers’ riots.

With the coming of the railways, Banbury’s population grew by about 40 per cent between 1851 and 1881.  Rapidly constructed terraces and much older agricultural workers houses made of the local ironstone rubble left a legacy of sub-standard property.


Rag Row in Neithrop – a notorious slum pictured in about 1890. These houses lasted at most forty years. Photograph courtesy of Oxfordshire History Centre

Banbury was one of the boroughs reformed by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. The councillors and Town Clerk came from the local elite and, between them, the Liberals and the Conservatives busied themselves with matters of great importance such as new lighting for the Town Hall in time for the Hunt Ball.  They received regular reports from the Medical Officer of Health on the extent of insanitary housing but did nothing about it.

But the wider world was changing.  Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal landslide in February 1906 brought about a period of social reform and, with 29 Labour MPs elected, there was some impact on local affairs, even in Banbury.  A Banbury branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in 1906; Herbert Payne was among its early members.

One of the first ILP meetings, in September 1906, in Banbury took as its topic the ‘House Famine – its cause and cure’.  ‘The workers of Banbury are waking up’, it declared: (2)

In Banbury there was a scarcity of houses suitable for working men and high rents appeared to be the order of the day, and yet no attempt had so far been made by the Town Council to provide houses for the workers and their families, notwithstanding the utter failure of private enterprise.

The proposal to run two ILP candidates, one of them Herbert Payne, in the next Borough elections was met with acclaim and housing became a hot topic as the ILP renewed its case for municipal homes:

These cottages will be let as near cost as possible and would not cost a penny to the ratepayers.  Private builders are making fortunes.  Why then should it be a failure for the Council to build?

On 1 November, the two ILP candidates were elected.  With victory declared, Payne and William Timms were lifted up in chairs, cheered and paraded around the town, finally coming to rest at the ILP committee rooms, then in Parsons Street.

Herbert Payne was born in Uppingham in Rutland in 1882.  Nothing is known about his education except to say that he did not attend Uppingham School.  He came to Banbury in about 1901, working at Mawles, a large ironmongers in the Market Place. Dismissed for talking politics in the shop, he set himself up as a commercial traveller, selling cutlery, and that was his business for the rest of his life.  He lived in a terraced house in Queen Street, now Queen’s Road, later moving to Marston House, 37 Bridge Street, now demolished, where he had his business premises.  He was 24 when elected to the Town Council.

Payne was a respectable radical, a Congregationalist, a pacifist, a teetotaller and a vegetarian.  Above all, he was a great speaker, described as someone who could really hold a crowd, with a voice full of resonance and power.(3) It was not long before his opponents began to call him ‘the Cow Fair Roarer’.


The Cow Fair was the favourite meeting ground for local politicians. Cows were tethered and sold in the street until 1931. The Town Hall with its tower is in the background.

Payne lost little time in making his presence felt at the Town Hall.  In February 1907, his motion to increase the wages of Corporation workmen was agreed unanimously.  At the same meeting, he demanded the Council appoint a ‘Housing Investigation Committee…to enquire into…the sufficiency or otherwise of the existing supply of dwelling-houses’ for local working people. Furthermore, he requested that it look into the work of other councils under the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act and whether Banbury itself should build.

After a lively debate, Payne got what he wanted.  The Banbury Advertiser mentions that this Council meeting set a record, lasting three and a quarter hours.  The reporter must have been exhausted.

Payne kept up the pressure, chivvying the Town Clerk for news of progress inside the Council chamber and agitating outside it.  In Boxhedge Square in Neithrop, an area notorious for its squalor, stench and unruly behaviour (4 ), Payne roared to a large crowd about ‘the rotten and bad houses with foul drains, leaky roofs, small windows and dirty walls…only inhabited because the people had nothing better to go to.’

Payne’s campaign was supported by the local Co-operative movement and railwaymen.  Mr T Jackson, secretary of the Banbury Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, told the Council in December that many of his members:

who were sent to Banbury had to wait weeks or even months before they could bring their wives and families to the town owing to their inability to procure houses at a rent suitable to their earnings.

Local businesses added their own pressure.  An open letter from W Braithwaite, the president of the Banbury Borough Development Association formed in 1907, suggested that some firms had declined to set up in Banbury due to ‘the present and prospective insufficiency of housing accommodation for their workpeople’.


A house in the Tan Yard, photographed c.1903.  Banbury Borough Council issued a demolition order on it in June 1914 (from Barry Trinder, Cake  Cockhorse (the magazine of the Banbury Historical Society), vol 3, no. 6, 1966

The Medical Officer and the Inspector of Nuisances also reiterated to the Council the dire facts of Banbury’s housing situation.  The population was 13,483 by 1911 and the number of inhabited houses was 3085.  Rents for workmens’ dwellings ranged from two shillings to six shillings a week.  The former were mostly unfit for habitation – some had no backs and many were overcrowded – but six shillings was more than most workingmen in Banbury could afford when the average wage for unskilled men was 15 to 20 shillings a week.  The Medical Officer often stated that he would have condemned more houses had there been any possibility of alternative housing for the residents to move in to.

It was to be six years before King’s Road was built.  Most councillors were hesitant and they were anxious about costs – they wanted expansion but didn’t want to increase the rates.  Some of them were landlords and they worried that a larger pool of accommodation for working men and their families would reduce their rents.

Payne too was adamant that any house building should be done with a minimal impact on the rates. In 1908, he tried to persuade the Council to back the campaign of Huddersfield and other councils for land tax reform which would encourage landowners to sell land for housing:

Land is being held in Grimsbury and Neithrop – if people chose to hold their land idle, let them pay what they ought to pay for it in taxation.

The debate rumbled on.

JR Hodgkins mentions that Payne never enjoyed good health and it is tempting at this point to speculate that at times he was not particularly well.  Certainly he is absent from several consecutive Council meetings in 1909 and 1910.  By then he must have been working hard on his business which took him away from home for long periods.

It was the Housing and Town Planning Act, passed in January 1910, combined with Payne’s tenacity, which crystallised Banbury’s decision to build.  The Housing Committee also visited Newbury and returned impressed by the ten houses recently built by the local council:

Let at 4s.6d. per week each: these rents are rather lower than those charged by private owners for similar property and therefore there is no difficulty in obtaining tenants.

The death of both the Town Clerk and the Medical Officer – on whom the Council was heavily reliant for facts and advice – in August 1911 delayed progress but Payne, at last appointed to an enlarged Housing Committee, kept up the pressure.

In May 1911, he addressed a mass meeting – the Banbury Advertiser describes ‘a large assembly round the waggonette in the Cow Fair’ – alongside Liberal councillors Ewins and Viggers, and Mr Jackson of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants.  They accused councillors of slumbering ‘very peacefully’ and Ewins pointed to the example of Hornsey, which he had visited, where he found that ‘after six years the local authorities had 60 houses and were £360 to the good with which to put up two or three more houses’:

If other towns where land and labour were dearer than in Banbury, could go in for housing schemes and make them successful, why could not Banbury?  Were not Banbury workmen as good, as clever and as hard-working as those in any other place?

Payne and his comrades railed against complacency.  The crowd called for action:

people were in favour of having something practical and useful and why should the Council not build 50 or 100 houses, to start with, to commemorate the coronation of the King?

The question, however, remained where to build.  The Council already owned several acres of land in Grimsbury but there were problems of drainage and flooding.  Eventually the decision was taken to construct a new school and a mechanical sewerage system but no housing.

Thankfully, there were the Gilletts, Banbury bankers, Quakers and local philanthropists. In the mid 19th century many Oxfordshire farmers had their accounts with Gilletts Bank and, as farming profits fell, the bank acquired fields through forfeiture.  In 1895, Gilletts began a programme of land disposal, creating Queen Street in Neithrop (now Queen’s Road and parallel with King’s Road) by selling parcels of land to builders to build terraced housing for sale.


Queen’s Road.  The bay windows and house names are a token of its respectability.

Gilletts set strict rules on the quality of construction which ensured that Queen Street became an attractive residential area. Payne’s first family home was in Queen Street; his rent was £15 per year. (5)

Joseph Gillett approached the Council with a field northwest of Queen Street that was let out as allotments.  At just a shilling a square yard, the price, £1000, was considered reasonable but the councillors still saw a dilemma – the site was too large.  To everyone’s relief, a deal was struck.  The Council paid £500 for half the land with an option to buy the rest for the same amount three years later.  From then on, the whole project ran smoothly.

The Council elections of November 1911 saw cross-party agreement that ‘housing has become the most pressing requirement of our town’. This was a striking achievement for Payne, a councillor for just five years and still a young man under thirty. Next week’s post looks at the fine new homes which resulted and the personal tragedy which followed Herbert Payne’s early triumph.


(1) Postcard from Past Time Postcards

(2) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1905 and 1930 held by the British Newspaper Archive

(3) JR Hodgkins, Over the Hills to Glory: Radicalism in Banburyshire 1832-1945 (1978)

(4) Barrie Trinder, Cake & Cockhorse (The magazine of the Banbury Historical Society), Vol 3, no. 6, 1966, pp83-127

(5) Derrick Knight, Once Upon A Time, Queen’s Road: Its Origins, Its Growth, Its Character (2014)

My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for their generosity in allowing the use of the credited images.