All posts tagged: Boundary Estate
The excellent BBC series “The Secret History of our Streets” ended last night with a look at Arnold Circus and the Boundary estate in Shoreditch. It should be essential viewing for every student of housing (which means everyone from the age of 18 to 80) since it embraces all the key issues that have shaped our housing world for the last 150 years.
Each episode started with the work of the indefatigable Charles Booth, a rich industrialist who set out to map the social history of London over a twenty-year period from 1880 to 1900. H.M.Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Foundation, had claimed that 25 percent of Londoners lived in poverty. Booth felt that this was an over-exaggeration and set out to prove Hyndman wrong by carrying our careful statistical analysis of London’s streets, going from door to door gathering data - Beatrice Potter/Webb was one of his assistants. But he found that the true figure was closer to 35 percent. Booth’s work was therefore the spur to social reform and intervention by local and national government. His colour-coded maps, now kept at the LSE, are works of art.
The opening episode on Deptford High Street was a classic. A 1943 public information film (from 6.40 onwards) showed a monocle- wearing Patrick Abercrombie (one of my bête noires) gazing out over the rooftops of London and decrying the streets and buildings all “jumbled up together in a hopeless confusion” (but that’s exactly what makes London so interesting today!) This was pure Mr Cholmondley-Warner as he declared: “All these bad things must go and the sooner the better.” What followed was effectively an act of class war, as middle class planners and “experts” swept away huge swathes of perfectly good housing in Deptford, along with the vibrant communities that lived in them, to be replaced by ugly, soulless council blocks. The programme also provided evidence that the council had deliberately distorted its housing reports, finding unfitness where none existed. People were paid piffling amounts of compensation to move away from properties that would now be extremely valuable. Meanwhile, the same properties in Chelsea of Fulham were left untouched. (However, I thought ex-Lewisham councillor and architect (and colleague at Camden when I worked there in the eighties) Nicholas Taylor was very unfairly treated by the programme. He appeared to take the rap for the Council’s slum-clearance when in fact he was an advocate of rehabilitation. His book, “The Village in the City” is an excellent read.)
In the last episode we saw the awful slums of the Old Nichol in Shoreditch, movingly portrayed in Arthur Morrison’s “A Child of the Jago”. The benefits of municipalisation were highlighted, as the area was compulsorily purchased by the London County Council who built England’s first council housing scheme, the wonderful Boundary Estate set around Arnold Circus, in 1900 (if you haven’t visited, go now.) The same happened at Reverdy Road in Bermondsey where, in 1960, a far-sighted council bought up an entire estate of 787 Victorian terraced homes for just £375,000 and created a mixed community that still survives, albeit under pressure from rising prices and gentrification. The estate was sold to the Council by its aristocratic owners because of the 1957 Housing Act, the same Act that de-regulated rents and led to the villainy of Peter Rachman in Notting Hill, portrayed in the episode about Portland Road. The impact of legislation upon individual lives and communities was made plain here, like the 1980 Act and its Right to Buy, which led to flats on the Boundary estate being sold, arguably with some benefit to the community there.
The series also highlighted the waves of immigration that have swept through London over several centuries, starting with the Huguenots in the eighteenth century, followed by Jews, West Indians and Bengalis. The squatting and short-life movement of the seventies and eighties was covered in the Arnold Circus episode, where Bengali families living in awful slums were shown taking up residence in empty GLC properties, with help from local white activists, and winning support from Horace Cutler, the GLC leader, in due course. It confirms the point that communities change, people move on. Visit Brick Lane today and you will be struck by the division between the indigenous Bengali community and the arty, white incomers, which turns the very notion of the word “incomer” on its head! The same is happening in Brixton.
These programmes makes you realise that we need to take a long view of housing history. What may seem like an insoluble problem today usually sorts itself out over the long term, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But above all the programmes show that housing is about real people trying to make their way in the world, and we should never forget it. Every house and flat portrayed here had a rich personal history. We saw some great characters like Dave from The Farm on Camberwell Grove, Eileen Christie the pub landlady on Caledonian Road, the raffish and Council-dodging landlord Andrew Panayi who owns half of the properties on the Caledonian Road, Mrs Finkelstein who grew up on the Boundary estate and Dr Max Gammon and his family on Reverdy Road. It is people who should be at the heart of all our housing and planning decisions.
This was great TV. If you missed it, please go and watch it on iPlayer.
(Note: Graham Findlay at the CIH has alerted me to a wesbite set up by a resident of Deptford who challenges some of the issues raised in the first episode. See here: http://deptfordptrs.com/Default.aspx )
Watching Ian Hislop’s excellent BBC programme on bankers this week was a welcome reminder that some Victorian capitalists possessed philanthropic urges and a firm moral compass, unlike many of their present day counterparts.
George Peabody is a case in point. A single man, he had the reputation of a curmudgeonly miser, but late in life he suddenly decided to give away much of the huge fortune he had amassed through trade and banking. Most notably he set up the Peabody Trust in 1864 to provide housing for London’s poor. But the “undeserving poor” need not apply. Potential tenants had to be in work and of good “moral character” to obtain a flat. In the same year, another Victorian stalwart, Octavia Hill (the founder of our dear CIH) adopted the same approach. With backing from John Ruskin, she acquired a 56 year lease on 3 slum houses in Marylebone for £750 and set about improving the moral and spiritual character of her tenants. Again, the “undeserving poor” were excluded. She wrote, “I say to them, ‘You must either do better or you must leave; which is it to be?”
The Old Nichol in Shoreditch was one of the most notorious slums of Victorian London, immortalised in Arthur Morrison’s brilliant novel “A Child of the Jago.” It consisted of 730 houses and 5,700 inhabitants and had a mortality rate that was twice that of surrounding areas. In 1900 the London County Council cleared the slum and built the (now listed) Boundary Estate, the first council estate in London, comprising twenty blocks of five story flats around Arnold Circus. But the inhabitants of The Old Nichol could not afford to live in the new flats; they were the “undeserving poor” and were forced eastwards into the hovels of Dalston and Hackney.
Do you see where this is going? The new tenancy measures in the Localism Act have already been seized upon by some local authorities as a way of dealing with the “undeserving poor.” Fixed term tenancies will be granted conditional upon the tenant being in paid employment or training. Announcing the reforms this week, Grant Shapps said that they would restore the original purpose of social housing, “to provide a flexible alternative to help tenants achieve their aspirations.”
Now I’ve read a lot of housing history but I have never seen the “original purpose” of social housing defined in that way. Providing decent stable housing for the working classes to rescue them from the misery of the slums, yes, Homes Fit for Heroes, yes, but never a “flexible alternative to help tenants achieve their aspirations.”
Grant Shapps’ statement about the new tenancy arrangements also stated that, “Ministers believe the current system has failed…for too long social housing has been seen by many people as a byword for failure, a home for life in a dead-end street. I want to restore pride to social housing, so a social tenancy is once again seen as a launch pad to fulfil aspirations.”
You can trace this thinking back to Alex Morton’s 2010 Policy Exchange report “Making Housing Affordable” which forms the backbone of current Conservative policies on housing. Morton stated that “social housing is large, expensive and is failing its tenants” and that “social housing is “acting as a barrier to reducing poverty for its tenants.” I would urge everyone who has an interested in current policy to read it.
Make no mistake, social housing, with its proud traditions and heritage, is effectively dead under this government. Just as the slum-dwellers of the Old Nichol were pushed out to make way for the “deserving poor” I can guarantee that these tenancy changes, combined with the welfare reforms and a growing shortage of affordable homes will create a housing underclass that would be familiar to our Victorian forebears. Over the coming years you can expect to see more of this and this and even this. And then perhaps we will begin to re-discover the real original purpose and value of social housing.