London’s Post WW1 Designs

With funds and skills in short supply immediately after WW1 it would be a surprise to find the design of local authority housing being anything but functional. To a certain extent this was true but the “Homes Fit for Heroes” was still a rally call and authorities wanted to build housing that was more than just a box with windows and a roof. It wasn’t just houses that were needed, but flats (the term came into use immediately after WW1) near city centres. These flats were still in blocks of no more than 5 stories – tower blocks were not built until the late 1950s. Few cities were building inner-city blocks of social housing because there was usually enough land close to the city centres to enable “garden estates” to be built. The obvious exception was London, with Glasgow also having a history of building inner city tenements.

Blocks of flats
In London, the LCC (and the separate Corporation of the City of London) continued to build blocks of flats very much in the same style as before the war but with a more functional and modern look, and with a preference for interior landings rather than external walkways. All these blocks were built of brick because technology was not ready for the use of concrete for 5 storey blocks, and unions preferred brick to protect the skills of their members. The rule on maximum height for London dwellings had not changed since before the war, which was 80 foot maximum plus 2 storeys allowed in the roof (leading to some interesting designs where the roof tiles came down below the top stories). Where the street was less than 50 foot wide the height of the top of the front wall could be no more than the width of the street between dwellings. In practical terms, all these rules restricted most block dwellings to be 5 storeys maximum.  The only blocks built in London immediately post war were in Southwark and Bermondsey and were the continuance of the large slum clearance in and around the Tabard Street area. Even though this was a continuation of a pre-War clearance, construction of the blocks were not started until 1924. The blocks built dominated the area, in a positive way, and still look impressive today if somewhat threatening. The LCC had 4 standard designs: “Normal”, “Simplified”, “Reduced Standard of Finish”, and “Modified”; each one being a cheaper-to-construct version of the previous. The first was the preferred design, if affordable by the LCC, and included maisonettes (again, a new term post WW1) in the top 2 storeys of a 5 storey block. All flats had bathrooms. The next standard down consisted of no maisonettes and tenants shared bathrooms. The third, with its rather worrying title, had woodwork stained rather than painted and cement on interior walls, not plaster. The last, the “Modified”, had less space for landings. The last two types must have been rather depressing places to live, and few were built. In 1934 the 4 standards were upgraded, with different descriptions, but followed the same reduction in standards (and costs).

Garden Estates
All local authorities wanted tenants to live in houses on garden estates where their lives would be improved to the benefit of the community and local industry. The between-wars designs started off trying to follow the “arts and crafts” style of cottage, but as schemes got bigger and funding became harder, the designs gradually became more functional and cheaper to build, but most authorities still tried to build for a minimum life of 60 years and this meant construction to a high standard. It also meant that the preferred building material was the well understood house brick, as the durability of concrete and steel was not yet proven. Surprisingly in the British climate, many of the houses built of timber have lasted well and those on the LCC garden estates look very good today.

As explained in the previous pages, the artificially low rents immediately after WW1 made garden estates difficult to cost-justify, and few authorities embarked on schemes. The LCC completed the pre-War Old Oak, Norbury and White Hart Lane estates, and to the credit of the West Midlands, Walsall and Wolverhampton Councils built Blakenall and Low Hill estates, respectively. All these estates use brick exclusively and have an “arts and crafts” feel to the designs. All have lasted well.

No one apart from the LCC and the aforementioned Walsall and Wolverhampton started to build large garden estates until the finances became more viable from about 1924. From the mid 1920s there was a massive building programme all across the UK. All house designs gradually simplifying and settling down to a fairly common theme of functional and spacious designs, built to as high as standard as could be afforded, but with structures made of a brick, concrete, steel and even timber. All houses had gardens of a size that many starter-home buyers would envy today. Brick was always preferred, but until the early 1930s the skills were in short supply and authorities turned to alternate structural methods to speed up the construction. In many cases the cost of non-brick houses was little different to brick ones, but they required lower skill levels and enabled the desired volumes to be built. Some estates were built entirely of alternate methods, particularly all concrete or all steel designs. An example is the LCC’s Castlenau Estate in Richmond where all houses were constructed using the Boot “pier and panel” system – one of the least successful of the concrete designs.

To show how the social housing schemes developed both in size and style, the LCC’s garden estates provide a very good lesson of how to do it, and in some cases, how not to do it. By 1930 these estates had proved all the various building styles and methods and could be used as a blueprint across the UK.

Remember when reading the timeline below that the LCC was also completing the pre-war Old Oak, Norbury and White Hart Lane estates (completed 1922, 1922 and 1928 respectively).

Click on the map below to see a full-screen version


1920 – 1927 Dover House Estate, Roehampton
With commendable speed, the LCC resumed its pre-War plans with this well-designed estate. The costs proved high and it was a lesson of things to come. The site was a relatively small 147 acres on which were built 1,212 houses. The site was also a premium one (especially today) with good recreation and sports amenities close by. The estate took a long 7 years to build because of high costs and a failure of one of the contractors. All the houses are of brick and have hints of Arts and Crafts in their design. The main thoroughfare through the estate is wide and there are allotments and open spaces. The estate included a new school.

1920 – 1923 Bellingham Estate, Lewisham
At 2,177 dwellings (mainly houses) this estate is 1.8 times the size of the Dover House one. It has good transport links to the SE of London and to the City via London Bridge Station. Two schools were included in the plans. The houses are a little plainer than those in the Dover House Estate. All houses are of brick except for 6 experimental timber-framed houses which were built by the Tibbenham Construction Company. These had concrete external walls and asbestos-based damp proofing screed between the inner and outer walls. These very rare Tibbenham houses have now been demolished.

1920 – 1934 Becontree Estate, Essex
This famous estate, partly in Ilford and partly in Dagenham, has been described as the world’s largest social housing estate of the time. It would be difficult to prove or disprove this as it would depend on the measures and the time period. It is, without doubt, the largest estate of social housing before WW2 with 25,039 dwellings (mainly houses) designed for 115,000 people. Post WW2 towns and estates in the Eastern Bloc after WW2 would likely be larger in terms of dwellings or residents, but they would consist of flats. What is clear is that Becontree was a scheme too far for the LCC. The site was a massive 2,770 acres which, to put in perspective, is 3 times the size of the next largest LCC estate, St Helier, at 895 acres. It was too large and too far away from the ancestral homes of the new residents and their work places in the East End of London. Access was not good, with stations for trains to Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street not conveniently located. The earliest residents found no schools nearby, and many wives felt isolated when left alone at home during the day with no family members nearby.

As the estate was built over a long period the styles changes, but few had any architectural merit. Almost all the houses are in brick, but 890 are of concrete using the Fidler system (poured in-situ, not prefabricated) and 700 are of timber using the Scan House system. The latter was used on other LCC estates and they have all survived well and look excellent providing they have not been “improved” by misguided owners.

1924-1930 Downham Estate, Bromley
This estate has 6,054 dwellings, almost all houses. Although much smaller than Becontree, it should be noted that it was still 5 times larger than the first post-War LCC estate, Dover House. Clearly the LCC was full of confidence in its ability to build garden estates, and was able to raise the money to do so. To put the size of this “average” LCC estate into perspective, the large Castle Vale estate near Solihull in the West Midlands, built on the site of the WW2 Castle Bromwich airfield and factory had, at its peak, approximately 5000 dwellings, including a number in tower blocks; a thousand less than Downham.

Downham was typical of LCC housing estates of the time with houses mainly built of brick, with efforts made to keep some architectural features. Unlike other estates of the time it had no concrete of timber houses but had two designs of metal buildings, the “Atholl” and the “Telford”. The former are easy to identify as the steel panels that make up the external walls are clearly visible to the eye, whilst the latter have a smoother surface but with rounded corners to the building. The estate was well served by transport, and schools were built. The estate has weathered well and most houses look well cared for and in original condition and free from inappropriate “improvements”.

The estate had a claim to fame in its wall. An 8 foot high wall was built across the southern end of Valeswood Rd in 1926 by the developers of the owner-occupier estate built the other side of it. This was to prevent Downham’s “undesirable” tenants from walking through the “posher” estate to get to the shops at Bromley. Amazingly, this wall remained in place until 1950. The fact that there were plenty of other routes to Bromley shops probably made the wall unimportant to most people and a fact of life.

1925 – 1928 Castlenau, Richmond
This relatively small estate is tucked inside a loop in the River Thames, just south of Hammersmith Bridge. It consists of only 644 houses, but on a site that is close to London. The downside of the location is that there are no rail stations nearby. However, Hammersmith, with its excellent transport connections, is just 1½km away from the furthest house. This estate is a bit of an anomaly for the LCC. The site was purchased using compulsory powers which suggests the Council had a definite need for the housing, despite the estate being relatively small and the much-larger Dover House Estate being a short distance to the south. The other reason for it being an anomaly is that all houses are built using Henry Boot’s concrete “pier and panel” system. This prefabrication method was popular across the UK and some countries in Europe. The Sheffield based Henry Boot Limited built many housing estates, but the prefabricated pre-stressed concrete materials have not lasted and this construction type is now classed as ‘defective’ by the UK’s Building Research Establishment (BRE). Some Henry Boot estates near the coast have all but been abandoned and demolished due to excessive salt corrosion of the steel reinforcing bars, and even the well-maintained houses on the Castlenau estate all need to be re-faced at some time (usually in brick) after chemical stabilisation of corroded steel bars. The houses themselves, especially the renovated ones, look good, and its location so close to London makes the estate a popular one.

1926 – 1930, Watling Estate, Edgware
The LCC were, by 1926, experienced at house design and construction and the Watling Estate saw all the experiences put to good use. The site was on the NW suburbs of London with Burnt Oak Underground station on the south edge of the estate, Mill Hill Broadway mainline station to the east, and the busy A5 road (the Roman Watling Street) on the western edge. The site wasn’t particularly large at 386 acres but resulted in 4,020 houses. The Council used all the construction methods with brick at 1,974 being the largest number, concrete in-situ (Fidler system) at 1,330, timber (Scan III) at 464, and steel (Atholl system) at 252. All the houses look in good condition and show signs of having been well looked after with little inappropriate “improvements” by owners. The wooden houses, in particular, look good with nearly all retaining the dark colour staining for the wooden cladding. Apart from an unfortunate mix of colours of the rendering of some concrete houses in the same terrace (which would have all been white when in Council ownership), there is only one house on the whole estate that has been the subject of completely inappropriate modifications. This estate marks the pinnacle of good use of the best constructions methods available at the time.

1928 – 1936, St Helier Estate, Sutton
By the time this estate was being planned the shortage of bricks and skilled tradesmen had been overcome and the LCC felt able to revert back to the house brick as the favoured building material. The estate is, in the opinion of the author, the pinnacle of between-wars council estates. The site was the second largest LCC estate at 825 acres, with rail links via the recently opened Morden Underground station to the north and St Helier station (from 1930) to the west. The large Wandle Valley industrial estate was to the east and must have provided much employment. The estate, when finished, consisted of 9,068 dwellings, the majority being houses. A further 15 acres was leased to the trustees of the Douglas Haig Memorial Homes for construction of dwellings for ex-servicemen (on proviso that 90% of the tenants had to work in the County of London). A further 10 acres were subsequently added. The estate can be considered to be a model of estate development with well-built housing, shops, pubs, churches and plenty of open spaces. The author’s uncle and aunt moved into one of the houses before WW2 on their marriage, and lived happily in the same house for the rest of their lives.

All subsequent between-wars construction followed the same patterns of block or house construction. All this changed post-WW2 when a severe housing shortage prompted many pre-fabrication schemes, using concrete or steel, to meet the urgency for new housing. The most famous outcome being the much-loved and much-missed (but expensive) single storey “pre-fab”.