We’ve tried to capture, in 60 photos, a typically quiet weekday morning on the Shaftesbury Estate – the maze of Victorian cottages occupying the low lying area north of Lavender Hill. Unusually the text isn’t ours – but instead, it’s a direct quote of the introduction to Wandsworth Council’s admirably readable “Shaftesbury Park Estate Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Strategy“. It’s a much better read than it sounds – if our quotes spark your interest, the strategy has lots more detail about the history of the estate, including maps and original photos, and is available on Wandsworth’s website here.
The detailed design of the Shaftesbury Park Estate is based upon the English Victorian worker’s cottage. The historic street layout and the relationship of built form to the railway and major access road via Lavender Hill define the framework of the area. War damage has led to infilling of gap sites throughout the estate, although this is generally in the form of small two storey plain modern cottages, distinct from the originals, these buildings have less of an impact on the wider area but do not detract from the overall quality of the estate. The traditional pattern of development, building lines and plot sizes are generally respected and has been used to dictate the scale of bomb-damaged sites.
The Estate was built by the Artisans, Labourers and General Dwellings Company, a housing co-operative founded in 1867 by William Austin, who was determined to build decent accommodation for the working classes, at a time when overcrowding and other related housing matters were a problem amongst the poor in London. Their first Estate in London was the Shaftesbury Park, which was completed between 1873 and 1877.
Properties within the Estate are generally two storeys (there are few exceptions such as the Shaftesbury Park Primary School and Shaftesbury Park Chambers, which are 3 and 5 storeys respectively) and constructed in London stock brick with red and black banded arches and are linked by a low stone-capped brick wall and piers.
Gothic detailing is expressed throughout the estate emphasising features such as porches, canopies and door arches. Corner buildings are also well detailed with Gothic features, many of which have an elaborate presence due to their location, thus adding further quality and interest to the conservation area.
A proportion of the houses are now privately owned but the majority are managed
by the Peabody Trust. This has resulted in limited changes to properties and the end
result has been a sense of consistency throughout the area, which continues today.
In the Middle Ages the area now partly covered by the Shaftesbury Park Estate was known as Pig Hill as it contained a large number of piggeries, and the lane called Pig Hill was roughly where the Latchmere Road is today, forming the western boundary of the estate. The land was enclosed for market gardening from about the C16, to feed the growing population of London, and later became known as Poupart’s Market Garden after the owner Samuel Poupart (the rail junction to the north is still known as Poupart’s Junction). In the 18th century the area became famous for its lavender fields, from which Lavender Hill derives its name.
The Shaftesbury Park Estate was built by the Artisans [or Artizans], Labourers and General Dwellings Company, a housing co-operative founded in 1867 by William Austin, who had started out as a penny-a-day bird-scarer. The company was dedicated to providing decent accommodation for the working classes at a time when overcrowding and squalid living conditions were rife amongst the poor. Money was raised to undertake small developments for sale, the proceeds of which were then invested in larger estates, like Shaftesbury Park, for renting.
At the same time as the conception of the estate, the social reformer and peer, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury was pushing legislation through parliament to improve the living and employment conditions of working people, and sponsoring philanthropic efforts to provide schooling for their children (the “ragged schools”). As a friend of William Austin, Shaftesbury was persuaded to allow the new estate to be named after him, and also came to have direct connections with the Artisans Co., of which he was a President from 1872-5.
The land for the Battersea estate was purchased in 1872; three other estates were developed in London. The original concept was to combine new housing of various classes with social facilities such as meeting rooms, school rooms, a wash house and baths in order to foster a strong sense of community within the estate, one of the guiding principles of the workers’ housing movement. Integral open space (3 acres of the 40 acres bought) was to be provided for a garden, but Lord Shaftesbury urged this to be used for football and cricket instead and for all ‘exhilarating games by which the healthy development of the body may be promoted and secured.’
One facility certainly not to be provided on the estate was a public house, which was an attempt by the reformers behind the scheme to avoid the social problems of cheap alcohol. In his speech, upon laying the foundation stone on the estate on 3rd August, 1872, Lord Shaftesbury, a keen temperance enthusiast and reformer, commented: ‘You have shown your wisdom in a moral point of view by excluding public houses and the tap-room; and you have done with them as the people did of old by the lepers, you have put them outside the camp.’ For this he reportedly received a chorus of ‘Hear, hear’ from the massed crowds, at a time when the temperance movement was gaining rapid influence.
The houses, built on the ‘most sanitary principles’, were divided into four classes, containing 5, 6, 7 and 8 rooms, the latter including a bathroom (the rest having to make do with the communal wash house). The rent in the 1870s was 6/6, 7/6 and 8/- weekly for the first three classes of properties, and £26 and £30 per year for the best. The houses could also be bought outright by their occupants, for prices between £170 and £360, leased under terms subject to payment of an annual ground rent.
The estate was formally opened by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, on 1st July 1874, who remarked ‘Stronger than my sympathy is my surprise at what you have done. I have never in my life been more astonished.’
This was vindication for Lord Shaftesbury’s doubts about the chances of success of this ‘great experiment’, which he had secretly held on the day he laid the foundation stone two years previously.
Disraeli also commented that the estate was a ‘workmen’s city rising out of the desert’, which drew the disgruntled reaction from a local newspaperman that this was ‘just the sort of exaggerated remark to be expected of people living north of the river.’
Financial difficulties caused by poor accounting led to the resignation and replacement of the founders and directors of the company and a change of approach during the construction of the estate. Rents and lease prices were raised, excluding many lower paid workers who were originally intended to benefit, and the planned area of open space was built over and became Brassey Square in the centre of the estate.
The estate was planned to be as attractive as possible, with the housing types subtly and carefully varied to prevent monotony along the lengthy tree-lined streets.
Residents were encouraged to grow their gardens with colourful plants and flowers, but long before prizes were announced for the best-kept gardens and shows of flowers the residents had engaged in healthy competition with each other in their horticultural endeavours.
Reports of thousands of people visiting this new model workers’ ‘city’ were received during the summer months, with crowds coming as much to see the flowers and gardens as to view the architecture and planning of the estate.
Although the estate has remained virtually unchanged since it was built, the area did suffer some damage during the heavy bombing of the Second World War. Plain and cheap post-war housing built to fill in the gaps hewn out by the bombs make a patchwork effect today, mainly around Brassey Square but also in other isolated locations.
The estate has been synonymous with the Peabody Trust, which has managed the housing for many years. George Peabody, an American, was offered a peerage by Queen Victoria for his philanthropy, but turned it down in favour of a personal letter from her.
He was also sent a special miniature likeness of the Queen, which she had specially made for him. When he was buried at Westminster, Queen Victoria attended his funeral, and William Gladstone numbered among the pallbearers.
Today, the continuity of involvement by the Peabody Trust in the estate has resulted in the sense of uniformity, which still prevails in this workers’ city.
Text: Shaftesbury Park Estate Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Strategy, produced by the Corporate Communications Unit and the Conservation & Design Group,
Images: Lavender Hill for Me, spring 2020