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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.