After 1945, St Pancras Borough Council built more council housing than any comparable London borough. That achievement looked unlikely in the early years of local administration which saw St Pancras dubbed ‘the foulest parish in all London’ but by 1914 the Borough, against initial resistance, had built the foundations of a housing record second to none.
To begin with, that resistance: the pre-reform St Pancras Vestry – which ruled locally until 1900 – was slow to respond to problems of slum housing among the worst in London, so bad that even the Prince of Wales urged reform after an incognito visit to one particularly notorious district.
The evidence presented to the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in 1884 by the local Medical Officer of Health, Dr Shirley Murphy, showed just how pressing was that need although Murphy himself resigned just one year later, frustrated by the inaction of the Vestry’s Moderate (Conservative) majority. (He went on to become the London County Council’s first Chief Medical Officer of Health – a position he used to pressure St Pancras to act.) (1)
Prospect Terrace, an area of poor Irish settlement, just to the east of Gray’s Inn Road, was the particular focus of concern – an area (almost uniquely in London) of back-to-back housing, with death rates twice the capital’s average. It was nicknamed – for reasons which are unclear but certainly not complimentary – Cat’s Meat Square. A contemporary newspaper comment that the ‘Cockney Irish…seem to have the dirty habits of the Irish and the English added together’ was more revealing of upper class callousness than of the hard lives lived by their poorest compatriots.
The Vestry, still unwilling to spend its own money and with a number of slum landlords among its members, at first pressed the London County Council to act under part I of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act as it had in Shoreditch where the first council estate in the country, the Boundary Estate, was planned. The LCC refused and pointed to local resources and responsibilities
Slowly and reluctantly the Vestry did respond. In 1896, it proposed its own scheme to clear Prospect Terrace – and Bantome Place to the east – and erect municipal housing on site. Belatedly, in 1898, it also agreed to build a new tenement block to the north (at the intersection of Great College Street and St Pancras Way) intended, in principle, to rehouse a greater number of the 1500 people to be displaced.
The Vestry’s response remained dilatory, however. When John Burns, the Lib-Lab MP, visited Prospect Terrace two years later he could still declare it worse than the Shoreditch area: in St Pancras ‘a new element was growing up: men who were living on women – the lowest of the low’.
One year later, the radical and campaigning journal Reynold’s News declared: (2)
St Pancras appears to be the foulest parish in all London. It is indeed a veritable slum….Shame on the disgraceful Vestry responsible for this outrage on civilisation! The whole of London must point the finger of scorn at such a disreputable public body and ask if it is league with the loathsome and criminal house-sweaters and rack-renters, most of whom ought to be in gaol…St Pancras is the Filth-hole and Sewage-yard of London.”
In the event, it was the Vestry’s successor, the St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council – still predominantly a Conservative body – formed in 1900, which would complete these projects. It resolved to construct its new northern tenement block first.
The Goldington Buildings were built between 1902 and 1904. Externally, the building had – and retains – a certain grandeur with its red- and yellow-stock brick, corner quoins, terra-cotta detailing, decorative gables and mansard roof. The opening programme boasted of its ‘large courtyard’ and ‘covered playing place for children’. (2)
Internally, it was far better accommodation than that which it replaced but it was basic – comprising 56 dwellings, mostly three-room tenements containing WCs, sculleries and coppers for hot water but no baths.
But though ‘housing for the working classes’ (as its foundation stone states), its rents were too high for most of the displaced slum-dwellers. Cheaper two-room flats let more readily but the three-room (at between 9s 6d and 11s 6d a week) were affordable only to the better-off. (3) Indeed one of the earliest residents, William Neave, was a commercial traveller and his daughter a short-hand typist…until she became better known (and renamed) as Ethel le Neve, Dr Crippen’s mistress.
Since then Goldington Court (also renamed) has been modernised several times over to suit higher standards and changing times. Most of the flats, but not all, had baths by 1935. A major 1964 refurbishment replaced that now ‘dreary asphalt courtyard’ with a garden and increased the number of one-bed flats. Now managed by Origin Housing, the most recent (£3.9m) renovation in 2011 increased the number of larger family-size flats: 21 of the 30 current flats are three-bedroom.
All that, I guess, is a tribute to the sturdiness of the original construction and the resilience and adaptability of social housing.
After building the Goldington Buildings, the Council cleared Brantome Place and built in its stead Flaxman Terrace – 84 flats and a caretaker’s lodge completed in 1908. Designed by architects Joseph and Smithem, it makes it into Pevsner where it is described as: (4)
Six storeys with much consciously pretty detail: roughcast top floor, domed corner towers and Art Nouveau railings.
It’s the Grade II-listed caretaker’s lodge, later transformed into tenants’ meeting rooms and currently being renovated once more, which is perhaps most striking. The flats themselves were adapted in 1964 and again in the mid-1980s (from 85 flats to 48) to provide the larger accommodation then in demand.
In 1906, almost twenty years after its demolition had first been mooted, and against the protests of residents who lacked alternative accommodation, Prospect Place was cleared. Its replacement, also designed by Joseph and Smithem, contained 34 two-bed and 36 three-bed flats and a shared bathhouse made available (at 2d or 4d a time including soap and towels) to other local residents.
The new flats were each contained a WC and a scullery doubling up as a kitchen, the latter: (5)
fitted up with a washing trough and an independent copper for washing clothes, a larder, dresser, coal bunk, a small gas cooking range, and also an improved form of range. By lifting up a shutter in the middle of this range the fire can be transferred into the living room which adjoins the scullery, so that the tenants need only light one fire, which will serve for cooking and heating purposes.
Bedrooms contained ‘a dress cupboard with shelves and pegs for hanging clothes’ and the buildings lit with ‘incandescent gas’.
With rents ranging from 7s (for two rooms on top floor) to 12s for three rooms with the best outlook, the new accommodation was mostly too expensive for the 621 residents displaced. As one local councillor declared on the tenements’ official opening in October 1909:
although they would not be able to take in the submerged tenth which were cleared out of them, of course a better class of working men and women would take them, and the others would be able to take their places.
This notion of ‘filtering up’ was common to advocates of council housing at this time but its practicality is debateable. Most of those displaced in fact moved to slum housing in the adjacent streets or to another area of very poor housing just to the north in Somers Town.
The new Prospect Terrace did not survive, destroyed by German bombs during the Blitz on the night of October 15/16, 1940. Thirty-two residents lost their lives and the buildings were rased. After the War, the LCC took over the land for its Kingsway College which occupies the site presently.
The Council had built 210 dwellings by 1914 – a not discreditable total in an era when so little council housing was being built but, as is evident, much remained to be done. That work would be tackled by more energetic councillors in the years to come when the responsibility of the local and national state to secure the decent housing of its people would be better recognised. These early years, however, provide a contrast and context for a later period when St Pancras – and its successor authority, Camden – would be among the leading housing providers in the country.
(1) Stephen W Job, Cat’s Meat Square. Housing and Public Health in South St Pancras 1810-1910, Camden History Society (2012). Other detail and later quotations, where not otherwise credited, come from the same source.
(2) Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras, Housing of the Working Classes: Opening of Goldington Buildings, Great College Street NW By Alderman Thomas Howell Williams Idris (mayor) on Saturday 4 June 1904
(3) Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Report of the Medical Officer of Health for St. Pancras, London, Borough of St Pancras 1912
(4) Bridget Cherry, Nikolaus Pevsner, London: North (1998)
(5) Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Report of the Medical Officer of Health for St. Pancras, London, Borough of St Pancras 1909
With thanks to the excellent resources and always helpful staff of the Camden Local Studies and Archives department.