We left Holborn last week in 1945, in a ruinous state and with a new Labour council. That council, radical in its politics and ambition, was under no illusions about the task it faced – a mission, as described by its leader Irene Marcousé (better known later as Ina Chaplin), ‘to win the peace [for] the ordinary citizens of Holborn’.
Holborn’s population had fallen during wartime to around 18,700 (it rose to near 25,000 by 1951) and the impact of the Blitz, as we noted, had been devastating. The new Council, however, was clear that the borough’s housing problems were not mitigated by its size, nor solely the consequence of the war: (1)
the existence behind the facades of modern buildings on Kingsway and High Holborn of streets comprising old and derelict property, lacking normal amenities and badly overcrowded. Indeed, the scenes presented today in localities such as Seven Dials are unchanged from the day when they inspired Hogarth to produce his famous masterpieces of London life and John Gay to write the ‘Beggar’s Opera’.
If the rhetoric was powerful, the cold statistics were more so. At a Town Hall meeting on housing in April 1947, Marcousé revealed that some 3500 families in Holborn lacked a bathroom, 2000 had no separate toilet and 1700 lacked their own water supply. (2)
In this context, the 20 temporary prefabs erected between Topham Street and Baker’s Row identified by the estimable Prefab Museum were welcome luxury but provided only a stopgap and small-scale solution to the wider housing crisis. (3)
Requisitioning (begun under wartime emergency powers granted in 1939 but extended into peacetime) offered another emergency response and here Marcousé, as Frank Dobson later recalled, was typically forthright: (4)
Councils had the power to requisition empty property to let to the homeless. Holborn officials told Ina it would be too difficult to implement. So she told the Town Clerk to sign 500 requisition notices. Armed with these and a bag of nails, Ina set out, accompanied by a carpenter and hammer to identify anywhere that looked vacant and requisition it. Between Ina and a bag of nails, 500 families got somewhere to live.
In May 1946, the Tory opposition on the Council proposed that requisitioning be halted, responding – in part at least – to the genuine problem of preparing this number of homes for habitation. Marcousé told them: (5)
It is ridiculous to suggest that we are requisitioning too much. We shall requisition everything that is available. If the old Council had done this the people of Holborn would be much better off by now.
By 1951, there were 1042 requisitioned properties providing homes for Holborn’s homeless.
The goal, of course, remained, high quality permanent housing but building new council homes in Holborn in the immediate post-war years presented its own huge problems. The high cost of land was one: in Holborn, land sold for up to £150,000 an acre at a time when the London County Council (LCC) had set a value limit of £60,000 on land for housing purposes. The zoning of the entire borough for commercial purposes was another. Shortages of building materials and skilled labour affected the country as a whole.
Undaunted, in 1946 the Council began negotiations with the LCC to make use of the one large area of land available to them – a site to the south of Great Ormond Street largely cleared by wartime bombing. The plans, drawn up by architects Robert Hening and Anthony Chitty, were ready in three months; detailed negotiations on land purchase, finance and planning regulations took a further eight. (6)
Construction itself was hampered by supplies difficulties and required on-the-job adjustments. Initially steel for the steel-framed construction was in good supply; ‘later in the job the reverse became true and brickwork was substituted for concrete walling when the shortage of shuttering carpenters became acute’. (7)
Here, the indomitable Marcousé came to the fore again. According to Dobson:
she used to go personally to harass Nye Bevan (the health minister then responsible for housing) until he authorised the building work – just to get rid of her.
In commissioning the Dombey Street scheme or what became known as the Tybalds Estate, the Housing and Planning Committee’s instruction to the architects, mindful no doubt of Labour’s earlier criticism of interwar schemes, had been to ‘diminish the tenement atmosphere’. (8)
To this end, the estate was envisaged as part of a ‘neighbourhood unit’: a residential district of some 4000 people with its own shops on Lamb’s Conduit Street, community centre, schools, open spaces and service roads. It’s hard not to see it nowadays – in a good way – as anything other than part of inner London’s dense urban fabric but the ‘neighbourhood unit’ and its quest for community was a key ideal of post-war planning.
Additionally, the architects provided: (9)
a generous layout of gardens between the blocks with shrubs and flowering trees, cobblestones and a shady place with pleached limes for sitting out upon. The gardens are so planned as to give facilities to the rather dreary pre-war housing scheme (Boswell House) which adjoins. Dombey Street is to be closed and to form part of the garden layout.
The ‘tenement atmosphere’ was further diminished by the quality of flats’ internal design and provision: each had central heating and a private balcony, choice of gas or electricity for cooking and refrigerators. ‘Each flat [was] compact and arranged to give the housewife the minimum of work and yet provide a home of which the family can be proud.’ That workload – before most families came to own their own washing machine – was further reduced by utility rooms on each floor in some blocks and in others a larger basement laundry room containing washing machines, double sinks and mangles. (10)
Blemundsbury and Windmill were the first two blocks completed, in 1949. At ten storeys, the former was briefly the highest residential block in London and it caught the eye for its striking modernist design – ‘not lavish, but of delicate precision and agreeably devoid of mannerisms’ according to Pevsner in 1952 – at a time when the housing schemes of the LCC in particular (then under the unimaginative control of the Valuers Department) were heavily criticised for their old-fashioned plainness. When JM Richards launched a fierce attack on the LCC’s designs in the pages of the Architects’ Journal in March 1949, his critical article was accompanied by a highly complimentary review of the Holborn scheme to offer point and contrast. (11)
This quality – particularly in Holborn – came at a price. At a cost of £2100 per flat, the scheme was reckoned among the most expensive ever passed by the LCC. Rents to match – up to 35 shillings (£1.75) a week – attracted criticism from the local Communist Party. The Labour Council countered that ‘tenants’ savings in the cost of fuel, heating of water, laundry charges, etc.’ would more than compensate for the additional expense. (12)
In 1947, however, the Council’s continuing commitment to high quality housing was demonstrated by its appointment of Sydney Cook as Borough Architect. Cook’s first job had been as an architect for Luton Borough Council but from 1945 he had worked for the Bournville Village Trust, a significant player in contemporary discussions around post-war reconstruction. (13)
Before moving on to housing in next week’s post, we should note Cook’s contribution to the leisure and cultural provision that was an important element of the Council’s politics. Here Holborn’s new Central Library, opened in 1960, stands out – ‘a milestone in the history of the modern public library’, according to the Twentieth Century Society. Typically, it was designed not by Cook himself but by his deputy and assistants (Ernest Ives and assistants ID Aylott and EL Ansell to give them due credit). As many of you will know, Cook went on to become Borough Architect for the newly created Camden Council (incorporating Holborn) in 1965 and here he guided and managed a team of architects that would create some of the finest council housing in the land. (14)
The Tybalds Estate itself grew further in the 1950s and 60s. Two fourteen-storey point blocks, Babington and Chancellors’ Court, were opened in 1958 – constructed by Laings, their design credited to Cook. Though probably designed by members of his team, they are a reminder that Cook was not always committed to the low-rise, high density format that became his signature in Camden. Devonshire Court, a five-storey development of shops and flats fronting Boswell Street at the edge of the estate was completed in 1962.
Returning briefly to 1949, the May local elections were catastrophic for the Holborn Labour Party which lost 23 seats and retained a single solitary councillor. The Borough would remain under solid Conservative control until its abolition in 1965. It was an awful year for Labour generally in electoral terms but in Holborn in particular the results seem to indicate the exceptionalism of 1945. However, a strong, cross-party consensus remained that councils should build homes and we’ll examine Holborn’s further efforts in this regard in the next post.
My thanks to A London Inheritance for permission to use the earlier photograph of the Tybalds Estate under construction. The post ‘Building the Tybalds Close Estate’ provides a fuller and longer history of the area. The blog as a whole is a wonderful record of London past and present.
(1) Holborn Borough Council, ‘Tybalds Close: the Holborn Housing Scheme’ (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.69 Tybalds Close Estate)
(2) Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s
(3) They are recorded on the Prefab Museum map.
(4) A transcript of Frank Dobson’s obituary of Marcousé published in The Guardian, 9 April 1990, can be found in the online archives of Woolverstone Hall School.
(5) Quoted in Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s.
(6) Holborn Borough Council, Tybalds Close: the Holborn Housing Scheme (60.69 Tybalds Close Estate)
(7) ‘Housing in Holborn: Blemendsbury House, Theobalds Road WC for the Holborn Borough Council’, The Builder, March 4 1949, pp267-270
(9) ‘Housing for London Boroughs’, Architectural Design, vol VIII, no 11, November 1948, pp229-242
(10) Holborn Borough Council, Tybalds Close: the Holborn Housing Scheme (60.69 Tybalds Close Estate)
(11) See Nicholas Merthyr Day, The Role of the Architect in Post-War State Housing: A case study of the housing work of the London County Council 1939 – 1956, PhD, University of Warwick 1988
(12) See Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s and Holborn Borough Council, Tybalds Close: the Holborn Housing Scheme (60.69 Tybalds Close Estate)
(13) Mark Swenarton, ‘Geared to producing ideas, with the emphasis on youth: the creation of the Camden borough architect’s department under Sydney Cook’, The Journal of Architecture, Volume 16, no 3, 2011
(14) Susannah Charlton, Twentieth Century Society, ‘Holborn Library, Building of the Month, July 2013’. On Cook’s later schemes for Camden, see my posts ‘Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing’, ‘The Whittington Estate, Camden’ and successor posts, ‘The Branch Hill Estate, Camden’ and the ‘The Alexandra Road Estate, Camden’.