Model Housing

The demolition of houses necessary to build London Bridge Station, the extension of the railwayto Charing Cross, and the line between Elephant and Castle and Farringdon in the mid 19th century, together with road building schemes made huge numbers of the poorest people in Bankside and Borough homeless. This, combined with huge numbers arriving from rural areas seeking work, led to massive over-crowding in often insanitary living conditions. Just one room in a run down court or alley often accommodated a whole family and many of these homes were not fit to live in. There was a growing awareness among the upper and middle classes of how the poor had to live and there was much discussion about The Housing Problem.

The model dwelling companies were formed against this background and their aim was to build housing for the poor that would produce a modest but steady return to investors, becoming known as 'Five per cent Philanthropists.' One of these companies that built housing in Borough was the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, founded in 1863 by Sydney Waterlow. He and his brothers had inherited a stationery company which under his leadership expanded and grew in prominence. He entered politics, starting as a city councillor, became an alderman, Lord Mayor of London and entered Parliament and had received a knighthood.

Peabody Square

Peabody Square, Blackfriars Road, 1871

His first building project was as a private philanthropist with a development in Mark Lane, Finsbury. After this proved successful he launched the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (IIDC) with the aim of developing easily built housing for artisans to be let at rents that would produce a steady return of 5% to investors. This proved attractive to many investors and in 1864 Cromwell Buildings,the first IIDC block, was built in Red Cross Street, just off the newly built Southwark Street and facing the newly built railway viaduct. Compared with later model dwelling blocks, the scale was small and is described in the IIDC Register of Estates as One block having a basement storey and five storeys above and containing 24 tenements viz 10 of four rooms, 12 of 3 rooms and 2 shops.

From the beginning the IIDC pursued a policy of building only self-contained flats, then considered a luxury, and were complete with a scullery for cooking and water closet. So keen was Waterlow that the WC received sufficient ventilation they were built in a pier that jutted out at the back from the rest of the building but a criticism of this design is that the other rooms suffered from lack of light as a consequence. Cromwell Buildings is served by a central staircase and individual flats are accessed via balconies. There is still something eye-catching about the building today.

In 1862, George Peabody, a wealthy American banker, gifted a total of 500,000 for the benefit of the London poor administered by a Board of Trustees. Peabody did not stipulate the money should be spent on housing, but the Trustees followed a policy of providing low cost housing at the suggestion of Lord Shaftesbury. Reflecting Victorian attitudes, the Peabody Trusts design policy was austere, the thinking being that the poor were not used to embellishment and refinement and would not be able to deal with it, feeling more at home in an environment not too dissimilar to that which they came from. The Peabody Trust too followed a policy of making a modest return on investment, not as a dividend for investors, but so the Trust could fund itself for the benefit of future generations, a policy that is still celebrated 150 years later.

In 1871 the Peabody Trust built Peabody Square in Blackfriars Road on the former site of the Magdalen Hospital. The land was cheap and two courts were built at angles to one another with a total of 16 blocks of four floors. The site was large enough for the planting of trees and today the trees have grown taller than the buildings. Unlike the IIDC, Peabody did not, at that stage, build self contained flats, instead providing 1, 2 and 3 rooms flats with communal WCs and sinks for washing dishes on each floor. The Trustees believed that communal lavatories made sanitary supervision easier and it was healthier to locate them away from living areas. The Blackfriars Estate had separate laundry buildings and provided baths on the ground floor of each block. The Peabody Trust built estates all over London, and completed an estate in Southwark Street in 1876 on land that had previously belonged to a vinegar works. It was in the parish of St Peter'sand the vicar described the Southwark Street estate as the best in the parish.

An article in The Standard of 10 December 1869 compared Peabody Trust developments with IIDC developments and came down on the side of the latters properties. The writer of the article considered that Peabody rooms were too small for the comfort and enjoyment of the tenants. The article criticized Peabody for its unplastered walls which were painted blue or yellow straight over brickwork, whereas IIDC apartment walls were plastered and papered (though Peabody maintained its policy was more hygienic). Peabody flats had enormous stone staircases with iron handrails reminiscent of the workhouse and long gloomy corridors whereas IIDC buildings had neither. It condemns Peabodys communal dish-washing facilities as invasion of privacy whilst applauding flats in IIDC developments for having their own WC and scullery. Overall the article concluded IIDC flats had an air of comfort, even elegance, and the rooms were spacious and airy.

The Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Act 1875 made provision for slum clearances by Boards of Works and this legislation was responsible for the demolition of 16 slum sites in London which were replaced by model housing estates. Its workings were that if a local Medical Officer of Health reported an area within their parish as unfit for human habitation, and if the local Board (in London the Metropolitan Board of Works) agreed after holding a local enquiry, the owners would be compelled to sell to the Board who would compensate them. Leaseholders and tenants would also be compensated. The Board then demolished the area and sold the land, which worked out at a lower price to what they had paid, to a commercial company who were bound by the Act to only use the land to build housing for the poor.

Henry Bateson, the Medical Officer of Health for St George the Martyr Parish in Borough, reported to the Board that three sites in the parish were unfit for human habitation including one in the Mint that included part of Mint Street, Blue Ball Alley, Star Court, Mitre Court and Suffolk Court. In 1882 the cleared site was sold to the IIDC. Those tenants who were dispossessed by the demolition were not accommodated elsewhere and made the problems of over-crowding worse. The Times on 19 February 1883 reported that at the half yearly general meeting of the IIDC there were comments on the great delay of the Board of Works in returning the plans sent by the Company for the buildings in Mint Street. Lloyds Weekly Newspaper of 17 February 1884 reported a meeting of the General Committee of the Homes of the Southwark Poor which complained that the extensive site had been in the ownership of IIDC for two years but building had not commenced. The Board of Works denied they had been responsible for any delay and Douglas Buildingswas completed in 1886. Ilfracombe and Monarch Flatswhich are close by were built a couple of years later and, with Ilfracombe on the south side and Monarch on the north side, follow the line of the newly constructed Marshalsea Road. Built by James Hartnoll, who built many other blocks in London, the Peabody Trust acquired Ilfracombe and Monarch Flats in 1970 having already purchased Douglas Buildings in 1964. The three blocks are now called the Marshalsea Estate.

Very few tenants who had been evicted to make way for the new blocks returned to live there, either moving onto another slum close by or moving further out to the new Victorian suburbs. The rents charged were too high for those in greatest need and the stringent selection criteria used by the Peabody and the IIDC excluded the many in casual employment. The practice whereby great areas of houses where the very poor lived were pulled down and demolished and the gound sold at under market price to a company that did not build dwellings for the class who had been dispossessed but to a superior class was condemned in many quarters. The IIDC justified this behaviour by claiming that the habits of the very poor entailed too heavy an outlay for repairs, that it would be difficult to receive prompt payment and that the expense of collecting rents from a large number of poor tenants would be too high. They believed that charitable organisations and the Peabody Trust should be responsible for housing the very poor. The Homes for the Southwark Poorwas formed in 1883 with a view to improving the living conditions of the poor in Southwark. For a full, unsensational discussion of the issues and conditions, both locally and London-wide, see their Report dated 1884.

The IIDC visited prospective tenants in their home to ascertain their moral nature and employment prospects, and all tenants of model dwellings had to abide by a list of rules and regulations at pain of being evicted, which though quite normal today was a new experience for tenants at the end of the 19th century. A look at the 1891 census for Douglas Buildings shows the heads of households in the main to be a mixture of skilled, semi-skilled and clerical, such as book-binder, tailors assistant, shoe-maker, accountants clerk, brick-layer and hatters warehouseman, and a large number of policemen who must have been the ideal tenant for the model dwelling companies: in regular employment, an adherent to the rules and a deterrent for bad behaviour in the block.

The increased over-crowding that occurred as a result of the delay between demolition and opening of the new block was one problem, another was the grimness and barrack-like appearance of the new blocks. Interviews conducted with the clergy in connection with the compilation of the Charles Booth Poverty Maps revealed another interesting social outcome of model housing. Discussing the problem of terrorism by gangs of "larrikins" (hoodlums) one vicar of a local parish believed "life in the models, through grouping together large number of youngsters of the right age lead to a good deal of this nuisance."

Queens Buildings in Scovell Roadwere built in 1881 on the site of the former King's/Queen's Bench Prison which had closed in 1869. Building was commenced by Mr J W Hobbs as a private speculation but the site acquired by the National Model Dwellings Company in 1881 (Building News) but the Report of the Committee of Homes for the Southwark Poor in 1883 states the estate was built by the Industrial Dwellings Company. Situated to the north of Borough Road, the estate does not appear to have been as well designed as others and comprised large imposing blocks of seven storeys, higher than most, and justifies a common criticism that model dwellings blocks were barrack like. An entry in St George the Martyr's Annual Report of 1898 described the estate as being built over three acres of land and comprising 700 tenements, a tenement being a "suite" comprising 2, 3 or 4 rooms. The residents were described as nomadic and half the people visited by the church were no longer there seven months later. A quick look at the census shows a mix of artizans, police, the semi-skilled, and labourers. The seven storey buildings blocked out the sun on every side, and rendered the lower floors gloomy on bright days. The estate suffered some bomb damage in World War II and was demolished as unfit for human habitation in 1977.

In 1885 the Victoria Dwellings Association purchased three already completed blocks in Red Cross Street from the Ecclesiastical Commission and by 1895 there were a total of eight blocks on the same site, four called Stanhope Buildings and the other four called Mowbray Buildings. The buildings were described as looking like large warehouses or a good class factory and housed 1,200 people. There was a wash-house, sink and WC on each floor which accommodated three to four families. In 1887, the managing of the estate was handed over to Octavia Hill (see below) and as it was now recognised that Labouring Classes in more casual employment than those housed by the Peabody Trust of the IIDC were in desparate need of housing, the majority of the tenants were costermongers, market porters and building and dock labourers.

In 1895, St Saviour's Vestry prosecuted the Victoria Dwellings Association, also known as the Metropolitan Industrial Dwellings Company Ltd, for nuisances under the Public Health Act 1891 in connection with their buildings in Red Cross Street which included passages so dark it was not possible to read a door number any time of day; the rubbish shoot was imperfectly closed which emitted foul odours throughout the building; the WCs were foul and of a bad type and that the buildings were insufficiently clean and not well looked after. The Metropolitan Industrial Dwellings Company were convicted but the conviction was quashed on appeal. Not put off, St Saviour's again prosecuted in 1897 and a further conviction obtained. As yet, I have been unable to find information regarding any appeal.

Stanhope and Mowbray Buildings were still standing in 1972 but by 1977 had been demolished and the Cathedral School of St Saviour's and St Mary Overie built on the site.

The IIDC Chairman, Sir Sydney Waterlow, complained to William Smart about the competition of the speculative builder who had appropriated the name "model dwellings" and often constructed shoddy buildings. It is possible that that is what happened to the development at Gun Street / Friar Street (now called Boyfield Street / Webber Street) which had been built on land compulsorily purchased at the same time as the land in the Mint Street area in 1877 under the Artizans' and Labourers' Dwellings Act 1875. It has been very difficult to discover who purchased the land and constructed the buildings. There were two separate owners and developments on this comparatively small site: one at the south west corner of Gun Street simply called Blocks 1 and 2 Artizans' Dwellings, the other with an entrance in King James Street called Sussex House. A quick look at the census for 1891 shows a large proportion of labourers and women in occupations such as skin puller, rag sorter and char-women.

In June 1892 the LCC Public Health Inspector conducted an inspection of both developments. Regarding Blocks 1 and 2, it was stated the height of 4 storeys was disproportionate to the width of the street. The staircases dark, the rooms not well ventilated and the blocks were badly constructed. It was reported the faults of construction were aggravated by tenants allowing refuse to accumulate and sanitary appliances being broken a few days after being repaired. In both blocks, only three out of the eight WCs were operational. In Block 2, three WCs were smashed to pieces which a tenant reported had been done by beating them with bricks. Sussex House was found to be in a similar condition but there the WCs were kept under lock and key, a seemlingly futile gesture as when the inspection was made the WC's were in the process of being repaired. The owner of Sussex House carried out works to bring the building into habitable condition but the owner of Blocks 1 and 2 was prosecuted and in November 1892, the British Medical Journal reports that two blocks of dwellings on the site "had been ordered to be closed by the magistrate. Model artisan's dwellings shut up by a "closing order"! The evidence of the sanitary officers was to the effect that the places were dilapidated, the dust shoots badly constructed, the cisterns filthy, the soil and ventilation pipes defective and stinking." The dwellings did not close and were still standing in the 1950s.

These "model" dwellings were located at the south end of Gun Street and earlier the same year, proceedings had commenced to compulsorily purchase as uninhabitable the houses at the north end of the street. The dwellings were cleared and the site used for one of the London County Council's first developments where Albury and Crandon Houses were built which are still standing today.

While the model dwellings movement was not without drawbacks, along with legislation and the work of statutory bodies, the living conditions of the artizan and poorer classes began to improve although it would be a long time before the area was free of slums and overcrowding. Much was achieved in establishing a basis for the housing of the working classes in the future as there was now an alternative to the poor renting from private landlords, and by the end of the century, the London County Council had begun to build and provide housing. The Peabody Trust developed the largest number of estates and still provides low cost housing, some in their original blocks that have been fully refurbished and others in newly built schemes. They have also bought and now manage many blocks built by model dwellings companies that are no longer in existence.

Octavia Hillwas an extraordinary woman of high energy and high ideals. She managed and developed many housing projects for the poor, and in addition to her housing reform work, was an advocate for open spaces and a co-founder of the National Trust in 1895. Whilst a supporter of five per cent philanthropy, having built her first development in Marylebone on money invested by John Ruskin who insisted on a five per cent return, her philosopy differed greatly to the model dwellings companies. Her approach was holistic in that she believed that moral reform and education of the individual went hand in hand with housing reform and that it was necessary for the character of the poor to improve for a lasting solution to the housing problem. To this end she had a network of fellow workers who visited the tenants in their dwellings and apart from collecting the rent would be on hand with advice regarding improvements to their home, cleaning and budgeting. She also accepted tenants from a lower strata, those in more casual employment, which were excluded by the other organizations but, like the other organizations, if rent was not paid and if the tenants were intemperate, they were evicted.

In 1884 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners asked her to manage a large portfolio of properties including some in Southwark. When the lease expired on land where poor housing had been built, she demolished the old buildings and built new cottages. Her developments include Gable Cottages in Sudrey Street, Winchester Cottages in Copperfield Street and White Cross Cottages in Ayres Street. In 1887 she built a community garden in Red Cross Way on the site of a derelict paper factory with flowerbeds and a pond with a fountain. A bandstand was erected for music and poetry performances and six cottages (Red Cross Cottages) with community hall were built along one side. Nature breathes in darkest Southwark said Octavia Hill upon opening the Garden.

She was a very vocal housing reformer who developed many contacts and was seen by many as the leading housing reformer of her day. She was against large blocks as they were ugly, did not allow for individuality and led to behaviour problems, believing that housing should be developed on a small scale on the pattern of houses and cottages. Neither did she agree with the mass clearances, believing a programme of refurbishment and patching was preferable. She opposed subsidized housing and also the working classes moving out to the surburbs as building there would conflict with her philosophy of open spaces. Whilst much of her philosophy and ideals were enlightened, without compromise they were just ideals and not a realistic solution to reducing the overcrowding of the poor or slum conditions. Both a higher density of housing than she envisaged and subsidies were to be necessary.

She has though left one of the nicest and picturesque legacies in the area in the form of Red Cross Gardens. By the 1950s it had become neglected and a victim to tarmac. The Bankside Open Spaces Trust received funding to restore the garden and thanks to their work it is now a lovely calm oasis in the midst of the bustle of the 21st century city.

Cromwell buildings

Cromwell Buildings


Douglas Buildings

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