The Cedars Road Estate: A tale of two ambitious architects

Estate agents all love the Shaftesbury Estate – and it’s easy to see why, with hundreds of oh-so-desirable little cottages just waiting to be snapped up by well-heeled buyers. There’s a lot less said about our other estates like the Cedars Road Estate, at the eastern end of Lavender Hill. But there’s rather more to it than meets the eye, and while it may not have Victorian charm, it’s been a remarkably successful development we felt it was time to look at in our occasional local history series.

The Cedars Road Estate isn’t the first thing built on the Cedars Road. The original Cedars Road was a row of very large and grand detached houses, with generously sized front and back gardens (pictured above). These were built by local resident and Victorian property developer James Knowles, and were the first part of what he wanted be a much larger development called the Park Town Estate, going most of the way to the river and directly connecting Clapham Common with Chelsea Bridge.

James was building an extremely high-end development, and doing it at considerable cost. His aim was to create a really upmarket ‘Belgravia of the South’ neighbourhood, that would have rivalled parts of Chelsea.

The two large blocks of what were originally really giant terraces of seven-storey townhouses at the south end of Cedars Road, facing the Common and with their own separate stable blocks, set the scene for the development as a whole, and are still probably the largest terraced houses ever built in Clapham or Battersea.

No self respecting estate at the time could be built without its own Church, and half way along Cedars Road roughly where 190 Cedars Road stands today, James had built St Saviour’s Church as its grand centrepiece – pictured above in a photo from Lambeth Borough Archives. It started life in 1864 as chapel of ease (a sort of outpost, where a nearby Church – in this case Holy Trinity – would run services for those who struggled to make it to the main church), going on to become a fully-fledged Parish Church in 1876.

As the map extract shows, these really were large houses with large gardens. Cedars Road was built in style, and so were some of the show homes half way along the south stretch of Queenstown Road (around the church). The next phase of the project was supposed to see a similar sort of development built along Queenstown Road and in the Queenstown Diamond – and James acquired a huge plot of land to continue the development, shown in grey on the map below.

Everything looked good for this upmarket new neighbourhood, with its grand houses and big green spaces far from the crowds north of the river. But things didn’t go to plan for James – thanks to the railway builders. They were pretty powerful and had the ability to compulsorily purchase land, and did just that to buy the top end of James’ huge estate, and buy a vast tangle of railways and bridges near Queenstown Road station. This was a huge headache for James – because it chopped up the northern end of his large estate in to several rather useless small triangles, but above all because it introduced a messy set of criss-crossing railway bridges right in the middle of the grand avenue he had planned between the estate and Chelsea, ushering in precisely the sort of smoke, noise and industrial uses that they had tried to avoid. He battled the railways or as long as he could, but quickly realised that rather than catering to the upper classes, his grand development was going to be in the middle of a dense industrial area – and that he’d need a new plan if he was to make any money out of it. The original plans for the buildings along Queenstown Road were radically redesigned to replace grand mansion terraces with red-brick blocks of flats, and the streets around to small terraces. The way the Park Town estate to the north ultimately got built is a fascinating story that we’ll cover in a future article (and it’s well worth a look at Silver Linings, a lockdown project by local architects daab design who created a guided walk round the estate).

But for the following 60 years the Cedars Road remained – as an impressive street that somehow didn’t fit in with its neighbours, and a sign of what this corner of Battersea might had been without the railways. These large houses in an otherwise unglamorous bit of town had not attracted the wealthy residents James had originally envisaged, and with time they became increasingly occupied by other uses. The photo above shows 3 Cedars Road in about 1930 – which by then was in use as the Gregg School. Number 9 was an auxiliary military hospital, while three houses half way down the road were joined together as one large institution – pictured below – and became the Cedar’s Road Home Institution for the Elderly (also known as Cedar’s Lodge), run by London County Council to provide a home for elderly men as part of its work to care for the poor. These three are still in place; for some years they were a ‘wet’ hostel for recovering alcoholics, which acquired a bit of a local reputation as a magnet for antisocial behaviour. The houses remain part of the charity but have been converted to self contained flats, with more peaceful residents.

We have often seen it reported that the Cedars Estate took on so much damage in the second World War that it had to be destroyed. But this was one of the first surprises of writing this article: in the map below, drawn up by Ordnance Survey soon after the end of the war, we have highlighted the bombsites – where buildings were destroyed – in yellow. There are a pair either side of the corner of Cedars Road and Lavender Hill, which remained empty for several decades before being redeveloped as the buildings that now house Sainsbury’s and Caffe Nero. There was also extensive damage further along Lavender Hill, in what is now the Gideon Road Estate.

But the striking thing is that most of Cedars Road survived the war. Number 31 is a Ruin, and others will have seen some damage – but most of the street is clearly still standing. The most notable casualty was St Saviours, James Knowles’ first church, which is shown as a distinctly Church-shaped ‘ruin’ below. But there’s a bit of an open question as to what led the London County Council to pick this particular street in the early 1960s as a redevelopment site, as they started to rapidly buy up properties along Cedars Road and Victoria Rise – with plans to build a major new housing estate.

The houses had large gardens and the Council presumably realised it could fit a lot more flats in the space with a new building. This wasn’t the expensive bit of London it is now, and we understand that these houses which were a mixture of residential, institutional and business uses, weren’t in the best condition – so acquiring the buildings may not have been especially difficult. But the Council’s level of ambition was clearly enormous and it’s still quite impressive to compare the map above with the new estate below, as someone managed to get hold of almost sixty houses to clear enough space for the new estate – every house in the street apart and number 190 (which is mysteriously still standing, albeit much modified) and four houses (three of which are the old Cedars Lodge) on the west of Cedars Road.

This is also where our second ambitious architect enters the story. Local authorities aren’t the place you go now to see ambitious and creative building work – but in the early 1960s things were very different, and places like the Greater London Council were very actively developing huge new areas of housing, aiming to replace the tired and run down housing that covered much of London with something better. Colin Lucas – pictured – was an architect who had started his career building some impressive private houses, and could no doubt have carried on doing so, earning good fees and building his personal reputation – but he instead decided to join the Greater London Council’s architects department to work on the big new housing estate, working mostly anonymously in a bigger organisation, because he believed that building better social housing would enhance people’s lives.

By the time the Council was assembling the land at Cedars Road Colin’s group had already completed the ambitious (and now Grade II* listed) Alton Estate, which includes a series of giant blocks overlooking Richmond Park modelled on Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier‘s landmark building in Marseille. The Alton Estate had been built on a large open piece of land where anything was possible – but here at Cedars Road Colin was presented with a more complicated and oddly-shaped plot, crossed by two existing roads, scattered with large trees, and with a layout broken up by several buildings the Council hadn’t managed to get hold of – so he tried something a bit different.

Colin didn’t develop this single-handedly: Most of the estate was designed by architects Roy Stout and Patrick Litchfield, working in Colin Lucas’ architecture group within the Council – a duo who had also built a good number of interesting and unusual houses and flats.

Despite having 382 flats, the resulting estate was deliberately built in a low-rise and intimate scale, with small clusters of flats each with their own layout grouped round courtyards, echoing the individual houses they replaced.

Many of the flats are duplexes, spread across 61 interconnected three- and four-storey blocks of flats, many of which are dual-aspect. Most of the flats are duplex (two storey), but there are also a handful of blocks with single-storey smaller flats, as well as a entire terrace of sixteen more accessible bungalows with gardens at Lyncott Crescent on the western side of the estate.

From the moment it opened in 1966, the estate was a success: generously sized flats built with solid materials, lots of natural light, and around half of the flats having their own private outdoor gardens in addition to the generous public green paces.

The estate fitted together really well – with an impressively large central garden area that many of the flats have direct access to. By designing the estate around many of the 60-year-old trees from James’ original back gardens, rather than taking the easier path of cutting everything down and starting again, they had given the estate some immediate character.

Colin is also the man behind some of Battersea’s most recognisable tower blocks: working with Philip Bottomley, he developed a tower block plan that had three floors of two-bed flats, followed by a floor of one-bed flats, repeated five times; two of these towers are shown below in the Somerset Estate near Battersea Square. These buildings used the same robust materials – concrete and brick – as Cedars Road, and are in each case surrounded by lower-rise three- and four-storey buildings that definitely have something in common with Cedars Road; and again the generous spaces and good natural light mean these towers have remained popular.

More clusters of this design were built near Wandsworth Road station (the Durrington and Amesbury towers – pictured below), as well as in Canada Water, and a huge cluster in Camberwell. Colin was clearly happy to repeat what worked, and refine what didn’t, and looking at the lower-rise parts of these estates it’s clear that he liked the design of Cedars Road’s concrete-roofed and ridiculously robust storage sheds, as they are exactly the same – as is his preference for clusters of flats in courtyards rather than corridors and passageways.

Not everything Colin built worked: his next big project was the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, which was frankly a disaster. Just like Cedars Road, the Ferrier was huge and ambitious, but unlike Cedars Road it had none of the careful planning of spaces and flats that created a community in Cedars Road, and it became a notorious sink estate, plagued by crime. The Ferrier Estate has already been completely demolished.

Even Cedars Road has design faults – but they’re minor ones. While a good number of arched garages were carefully incorporated in to the design (as well as a generous number of ground-level storage sheds that can be rented by residents), it soon became apparent that demand had been underestimated and more were needed. A large group of rather shoddy, cheaply-built garages was therefore added in a rather haphazard courtyard in Wilderness Mews at the eastern edge of the estate, replacing what had (for the previous decade or so) been a rather short-lived British legion Clubhouse, whose original design is pictured below (from the surprisingly comprehensive Lambeth archives).

These garages gradually became a rather tight fit for modern cars, and the whole garage area now feels like a waste of space, and a missed opportunity to have built something more like the rest of the estate. Tellingly, the remote-feeling and poorly-laid-out garage area has needed CCTV while the rest of the estate hasn’t really had any problems.

But 55 years after it was built, there’s no doubt that Cedars Road was a complete success: carefully designed accommodation that has quietly provided a good place to live. It’s always been a popular estate, and a remarkably large proportion of the flats – about half of the total – have been bought by former tenants; a wise investment given that the two bed flats now sell for over half a million pounds.

Its location was always an advantage, being in what has become an ever more desirable bit of London just a stones’ throw from Clapham Common. Being sandwiched right between two consistently popular primary schools, Macaulay CofE and the unusual part-state, part-private, bilingual Wix school just across the borough boundary, has also been attractive to young families.

Today Cedars Road is run as a tenant management organisation, and compared to many of the other estates in Lambeth the high standard of maintenance is immediately apparent, with weekly gardeners and proper green landscaping. There’s a fully updated and well-maintained childrens’ playground, a basketball court, and a residents’ organic garden where plots are available to hire. A few years ago the entire estate was fitted with an external insulation layer to improve its efficiency; this was a slight shame in that it hid the original high quality white brick that had been used throughout the design, but it did make the estate cheaper to run. There’s been a steady flow of building improvements, including service upgrades, new boilers and repaving works. All in all the Cedars Road Estate may not be as well known as some of the others in Battersea – but it’s no ordinary estate, and that’s testament to James Knowles’ vision that never really came to pass, and Colin Lucas and his team’s vision that did – which have given generations of residents a good place to live.

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4 Responses to The Cedars Road Estate: A tale of two ambitious architects

  1. Simon Coan says:

    Absolutely fantastic article very informative
    I always presumed that most of the properties in Cedars Av we’re bombed during the war.Now I know that wasn’t the case.
    Well done


  2. Alan says:

    Such a great article. I pass this most days as I live in the diamond conservation area and had always presumed it’s was an infil from
    Bomb damage.


  3. billy hicks says:

    I agree this is an excellent article. It’s so good to find that at last someone with real research skills and architectural/urban planning expertise is putting so much effort into documenting this fascinating area. Thanks!


  4. Paul Riche says:

    But would we knock down those old villas now, with their high ceilings, ornate plaster, stained glass, Baltic pine floor boards, paneled doors etc, and replace them with concrete cubes? A retired demolition man told me about the bonfires of floor-boards. Ouch.


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