Public Housing in Poplar: The Inter-war Years

Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1994.

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'Public Housing in Poplar: The Inter-war Years', in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (London, 1994) pp. 23-37. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]

In this section

Housing the Heroes and Fighting the Slums: The Inter-war Years

Homes Fit for Heroes

In September 1917 Poplar Borough Council learnt from the President of the Local Government Board that when the war was over, far more reliance would be placed on local authorities to provide houses, and that substantial (though at that stage unspecified) financial assistance from the public purse would be necessary. (fn. 4) The Council's response shows that it was still thinking in pre-war terms, arguing that the LCC should be responsible for council housing across the whole of London. (fn. 5) The new Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 (known as the Addison Act, after Dr Christopher Addison, Minister of Health) made mandatory what had been permissive under the 1890 Housing Act: local authorities were now required to survey the housing needs of their areas within three months and to carry out plans for the provision of the houses needed, subject to the approval of the Ministry of Health. All losses in excess of a penny rate incurred by local authorities were to be borne by the Treasury, again provided the Ministry approved the scheme. Until 1927 (when it was anticipated that the housing crisis would be over) rents of council houses were to be fixed independently of the costs involved and generally in line with the controlled rents of existing working-class houses. (fn. 6)

In July 1919 the Borough Council, acting on a general recommendation of the Local Government Board, elected a Special Committee on the Housing of the Working Classes. (fn. 7) This Committee and the announcement of generous state housing subsidies (rather than Labour's assumption of power on the Borough Council in the following November) seem to have been responsible for the rapid change in the Council's attitude towards building its own houses. Certainly it was already committed to erecting its first housing scheme, the Chapel House Street Estate, by October 1919. (fn. 8) The estate was actually designed and built for the Borough Council by the Office of Works. Completed in 1921, it was a worthy inauguration of the Borough Council's housing programme and there was great pride at Poplar's first 'Garden City'. (fn. 9) These 'Homes fit for Heroes' set a standard which was scarcely surpassed, and all too often never reached, by later council developments; the quiet, almost villagey atmosphere provides a pleasant oasis and is a lasting testimony to the Garden City spirit (Plate 124d).

Figure 5:

Inter-war cottage estates in Millwall. Plan based on the Ordnance Survey of 1937 Key: A Chapel House Street Estate (1919–21): B Locke's Housing (1920–1): C Manchester Grove Estate (1925–6):D Hesperus Crescent Estate (1929–30)

A series of cottage estates on the Isle of Dogs followed in the 1920s, although the commencement of the next one was delayed by a sudden change in government policy. Addison's Act had been conceived in the belief that, unless working-class aspirations were quickly met after the war, Britain might experience a revolution similar to that in Russia. By 1920 that fear was beginning to recede and Addison's policy was being regarded as extravagant. (fn. 10) An immediate victim of the new attitude was the Borough's Kingfield Street scheme, provisional plans for which were approved in September 1920. (fn. 11) Much to the Council's surprise, the Government's Housing Board deferred the scheme, 'having regard to the Council's present commitments and the money available at the present time', (fn. 12) and in May 1921 the Government announced a drastic curtailment of the housing programme, cutting the housing target by half. (fn. 13) It was not until May 1923, despite characteristically vigorous protests from the Borough Council, that approval was given for the Kingfield Street scheme under the rather less generous terms of the Housing Act just introduced by the new Conservative Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain. (fn. 14) The estate was finally completed in 1924.

In January 1924 the first Labour Government came to power and later in that year the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, known as the Wheatley Act, after the then Minister of Health, John Wheatley, was passed. Where the Chamberlain Act had sought to encourage private builders to provide most of the new workingclass housing, the Wheatley Act not only provided higher subsidies, but it also envisaged a 15-year programme of housing built by local authorities at rents affordable by the working classes. (fn. 15) Under this Act, seven housing schemes, comprising 330 dwellings, were built by the Borough Council within the parish, together with a further scheme which was built partly under this Act and partly under the 1930 Act. Of these, two were further cottage schemes of the Garden City type and adjacent to the Chapel House Street development on the Isle of Dogs, at Manchester Grove (1925–6) and Hesperus Crescent (1929–30) (Plate 124 fig. 5). Not only were the densities noticeably higher than at Chapel House Street (as they were at the Kingfield Street Estate), but there was also a marked shift towards two-bedroom accommodation 133 out of 280 houses contained two bedrooms. (fn. 16) No drop in standard was intended, rather it reflected the Council's view that accommodation of that type was the most urgently needed. (fn. 17)

The greenfield sites in the Isle of Dogs, which had allowed Poplar to build cottage estates (only 13 out of the 28 Metropolitan Borough Councils provided any cottages under the Wheatley Act), were then exhausted. (fn. 18) Away from the Island, sites usually involved the clearance of slum properties and the Borough had little option but to erect flats, such as Heckford House in Grundy Street (1920–1), and East India Buildings in Saltwell Street (1924–5). Indeed, even on the Isle of Dogs, when the site of the Universe Rope Works in Glengall Grove (now Tiller Road) was taken over for housing purposes in 1926, it was used for a mixed development of two terraces of cottages and four blocks of flats (Plate 124c).

The effect of the Government's new housing initiative on the LCC was far less dramatic, for the Municipal Reformers (later the Conservatives) – who had been in power since 1907 – were convinced that the majority of the County Council's new housing should continue to be in the form of cottage estates built around the edge of the capital. Among the large estates of that type built in the 1920s and 1930s were Becontree in Essex and Downham in Kent, both of which were considered by the County Council to be suitable for rehousing people from Poplar. Although Poplar Borough Council urged the LCC to proceed with the Becontree Estate 'with the utmost rapidity', in view of the great unemployment in Poplar and outer London, (fn. 19) the problem remained that for many local people the need to be near their work, the cost of travel from the suburbs, and the higher rents charged, made the LCC's suburban estates impracticable. In 1931, for example, the inclusive rents on the LCC's White Hart Lane Estate, Tottenham, were between 18s and 23s, whereas for comparable council accommodation within Poplar the range was only 12s 6d to 18s. Rents charged for premises adapted for housing purposes by the Borough, such as No. 5 Bridge Road (now Westferry Road), could be as low as 5s 10d a week. (fn. 20)

Between 1919 and 1930, the LCC provided only 40 flats, of the 532 council dwellings erected within the parish; while 361 cottages and 131 flats were built by the Borough Council.

The 1930s

The emphasis on slum clearance (see below) and the extra subsidy for flats under the Greenwood Act meant that local authorities built flats rather than cottages in the 1930s. Though other trends supported that change, (fn. 21) there was in fact little alternative when rebuilding on slum clearance sites in Poplar. The Borough Council showed no reluctance to do so where necessary, and even the LCC committed itself, from the late 1920s, to build blocks of flats in central London to rehouse those from slum or overcrowded dwellings. (fn. 22)

From 1931 to 1939 the Borough Council erected 341 flats, but only two cottages, in Poplar parish, and a further 692 flats were built by the LCC in four- and five-storey blocks. (Some of the flats were maisonettes, although not termed such at the time.) In many cases the new blocks were erected on sites created by demolishing slum properties and were used to rehouse families displaced by other slum clearance schemes. In Millwall both Councils were able to purchase redundant industrial sites: two by the Borough in what is now Tiller Road, for Dunbar and Hammond Houses, and one by the LCC, Phoenix Wharf for the Millwall Estate. As a result, and with the addition of the LCC's West Ferry Estate, the local authorities were able to provide well over 400 new flats in Millwall during the 1930s, slightly more than 40 per cent of the new Council flats erected in Poplar during the decade. In Limehouse Hole, the LCC's Garford House marked the start of the St Vincent Estate, which was largely built after the Second World War, while nearby the Borough built Providence House.

Elsewhere on the Isle of Dogs there was only Alberta House in Gaselee Street – a late addition by the LCC to the housing it had erected in the Preston's Road area as a result of the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel – and Cubitt and Roffey Houses in Cubitt Town, an opportunist piece of infilling by the Borough Council. Otherwise the main area of public development in the 1930s was along Poplar High Street, where a series of housing schemes by the two local authorities began the disintegration of the fabric of the old street, and laid the basis for its almost total transformation after the war: Dolphin House and the first five blocks of the Will Crooks Estate by the LCC, and Cruse, Collins, Commodore, Constant, and Holmsdale Houses by the Borough Council. Incidentally, Cruse House included nine flats for 'aged persons', the only occasion during the interwar period when either council made specific provision for the elderly. In terms of size, the LCC's Will Crooks Estate (210 flats) and West Ferry Estate (202 flats) were the largest housing developments of the period.

Slum Clearance in the 1920s and 1930s

Slum clearance in Poplar was very slow in the 1920s, mainly because the construction of new dwellings failed to ease the shortage of housing which had built up during the First World War. Nevertheless, it was an area where the LCC and Poplar Borough Council worked in close co-operation, with one council sometimes providing alternative accommodation for those displaced from a slum clearance area declared by the other. (fn. 23) In 1919 the Borough Medical Officer of Health submitted to the LCC details of suggested improvement schemes for ten insanitary areas (eight of which lay within the parish), comprising some 470 houses inhabited by 2,820 people, plus 35 other buildings and vacant sites. (fn. 24) But during the 1920s the LCC was unwilling to draw up a definite programme of clearance areas, preferring to act when an opportunity arose, (fn. 25) with the result that by the end of the decade only three areas had been dealt with: Birchfield Street by the County, Lower North Street and Sophia Street by the Borough. Paradoxically, the reluctance to act was due largely to the acute lack of housing, for in spite of the government-subsidized council-housing programme, the LCC's calculations show that between 1919 and 1926 the shortage of houses in London actually increased. (fn. 26) Individual houses unfit for habitation were the responsibility of the Metropolitan Borough Councils and the number of demolition and closing orders in London dropped sharply after the First World War, as did the number of underground rooms closed. (fn. 27) Even the building of new blocks of flats to replace slums usually caused a considerable reduction of the housing stock. For example, in Grundy Street the Borough Council's first block of six flats (Heckford House) replaced the 12 minimal houses of Oriental Terrace. (fn. 28)

The pressure on the two local authorities to provide accommodation was enormous. Throughout the 1920s the LCC had a housing waiting-list of 20,000 or more applicants. (fn. 29) In April 1923 the Borough Council claimed (in support of its case for low rents) that it had received 3,150 written local applications for housing, and verbal applications were averaging 30 per week, but it had been able to grant only 150 places. (fn. 30) By 1924 the number seeking accommodation on the Council's housing register had reached 1,850, (fn. 31) and by June 1926 the list had grown so long that the Council felt compelled to close it temporarily. (fn. 32)

When contemplating slum clearance schemes, it was extremely difficult to find alternative accommodation which those displaced could afford. When the Borough Council was carrying out the clearance scheme for the Sophia Street Area in 1929, it had intended to accommodate some of the occupants in flats near completion in Naval Row. However, four of the six families concerned were receiving poor relief and could not be expected to afford the increased rent. Eventually the only way the Council could rehouse these families and thereby allow building work to proceed, was to purchase further private property and divide it into two-flat dwellings. (fn. 33) The LCC experienced similar problems, and in 1928 its Housing Committee argued that unless special steps were taken to provide accommodation for rehousing, it would be unable to complete the slum clearance schemes then in hand within a reasonable time. It was the difficulty of persuading slum dwellers to move to the outer cottage estates that finally persuaded the County Council to change its housing policy. (fn. 34)

Both Councils did some vetting to ensure that 'suitable' tenants were recruited. For example, the LCC's Valuer wrote to the Borough Council in December 1925 saying that he anticipated difficulties in finding 12 suitable tenants from the Birchfield Street clearance area to nominate to the Borough's houses on the Kingfield Street Estate, especially as a number were 'Asiatics', that is, Chinese (who the Borough Council did indeed refuse to accept). (fn. 35) The LCC had passed a resolution in June 1923 giving preference to British subjects in the allocation of its dwellings. (fn. 36) As more tenants were rehoused directly from slums to council dwellings, first the Borough and then the County Council instituted a degree of social surveillance and regular inspections. From 1924 the Borough's 'Lady Sanitary Inspector' began to make regular visits to its dwellings and submitted regular reports to the Housing Committee. (fn. 37) She also visited the homes of prospective tenants and her assessments were taken into account when considering the allocation of the Council's properties. (fn. 38) In 1934, with a greatly increased housing stock, the Council appointed a Housing Welfare Officer to carry out those duties. (fn. 39) For the years 1925 to 1928, it was estimated that 43 per cent of those on the LCC's housing list accepted an offer and became tenants, 23 per cent refused an offer, and 34 per cent were rejected. Of this last group, 82 per cent were rejected on the grounds of their inadequate income. (fn. 40) In contrast, the Borough Council argued that it had to select tenants according to their needs and not their ability to pay a particular level of rent. Unskilled or semi-skilled men with dependent children, who were unable to obtain adequate privately owned accommodation, were selected as tenants by the Borough Council, and in 1922 it pointed out that of 135 tenants in its dwellings, 26 were unemployed and in receipt of Poor Law Relief. (fn. 41)

National housing policies in the 1920s had been aimed at rectifying the general housing shortage. By the 1930s that aim was presumed (mistakenly) to have been accomplished, and it was the condition of older housing which then became the great concern. The 1930s therefore saw a massive effort to clear away slums and eradicate overcrowding. (fn. 42)

The Housing Act of 1930 (known as the Greenwood Act after Arthur Greenwood, the Labour Minister of Health) introduced, for the first time, a state subsidy specifically for slum clearance. Moreover, the subsidy was related to the number of people displaced and rehoused, rather than, as in previous Housing Acts, the number of houses built. There was an additional subsidy when the cost of acquiring sites was unusually high, as it was in Poplar, and where rehousing would therefore have to be in flats. (fn. 43) The 1930 Act stated that, in deciding whether a dwelling was unfit for human habitation, local authorities were to take into account the extent to which sanitary conditions or repair of a particular house fell short of the local by-laws or the general standard of working-class housing in the district. This was still far from providing a precise definition of the slum, and there were many who felt that this lack was one of the chief failings of the Greenwood Act. (fn. 44) William Nicholls, the Borough's Deputy Town Clerk, thought differently and argued in 1929 that 'it is fairly obvious that, taking into account the variety of defects which are likely to occur to make a house or group of houses in an area unhealthy, it would be impossible to formulate a legal definition that would be of any practical value'. (fn. 45)

Because of the national economic and political crises, the scheme proposed in the Greenwood Act did not begin properly until 1933. In November 1931 the LCC resolved to limit its capital expenditure over the next three years, (fn. 46) and the Phoenix Wharf site off Westferry Road, on which the Millwall Estate was eventually built, was a victim of those financial restraints. In May 1931 the LCC had decided to acquire the site for rehousing in connection with clearance schemes in East London, despite the high costs of using such a difficult site. (fn. 47) Plans were prepared, just over £2,200 was spent on preliminaries, and the scheme actually reached the stage of a tender being accepted for the foundations of the three blocks of flats to be erected there. (fn. 48) But the work did not go ahead, (fn. 49) and, with slum clearance in full swing, the Millwall Estate was finally built there in 1936–7. (fn. 50)

In 1934 the new LCC Housing Committee, now Labour-controlled, felt that a definite programme of slum clearance schemes should be drawn up. It outlined briefly the number of larger clearance areas to be dealt with. After Stepney and Southwark, the Borough of Poplar was considered most in need of attention, with 11 clearance areas involving the displacement of 5,650 people. (fn. 51) Agreement was reached that the LCC would deal with the larger areas to provide sites for rehousing, while the Borough would be responsible for the smaller sites unsuitable for that purpose. For these smaller sites, the LCC was either willing to help with, or to make a financial contribution towards, rehousing those people displaced. By 1935 the Borough Council was already cooperating with the LCC in dealing with the small areas whilst, at the same time, declaring areas and undertaking rehousing schemes. (fn. 52) The problem for the Borough Council was to find sites suitable for rebuilding schemes. Of the previous ten areas declared throughout the Borough, only four could be used in this way, and as the areas got still smaller the problem became more acute. (fn. 53) In spite of this, by 1938 (when slum clearance ceased until after the Second World War) (fn. 54) significant progress had been made in Poplar in the fight to eradicate slums.

The declaration of a slum clearance area involved long legal and administrative processes, even after the 'simplifications' of the 1930 Act. It was vital to synchronize the declaration of unhealthy areas with the progress of building operations. The LCC's London Housing (1937) makes it clear that the sequence of priorities for declaring a clearance area began not with the unfitness of a particular area, but with the availability of suitable permanent accommodation elsewhere for the first families to be displaced. (fn. 55) The Council's Valuer informed the Medical Officer of Health where and when such accommodation could be provided and its approximate extent. Only then would the Medical Officer suggest, from his existing list, a suitable clearance area which he was prepared to 'represent' as unhealthy. (fn. 56) The Council would formally 'declare' the clearance area and then the Minister of Health's confirmation would have to be sought. If there were any objections, he would hold a local inquiry. While the Minister was very unlikely to refuse confirmation, he might well insist on modifications to the area. If the area was considered unsuitable as a site for new housing, the local authority would proceed to serve clearance orders on the owners, requiring them to demolish the unfit buildings within a specified time after they had been vacated by the tenants. The Council would, of course, have to rehouse tenants and could also impose restrictions on how the cleared site might be redeveloped. If the area proved suitable as a site for a rehousing scheme, the properties would have to be acquired by the Council, either through agreement or compulsory purchase orders.

Clearance and rebuilding were carried out piecemeal: tenants from the first section were rehoused elsewhere to allow clearance to begin and to provide a site for the first block of dwellings; thereafter, tenants could be moved from the next section into the latest block on site. The LCC reckoned that the complete reconstruction of an area from the initial decision to represent it could take between three and four years. (fn. 57) In fact, it took the County Council about five years from the time of official declaration to complete the West Ferry Estate, and about four-and-a-half years to complete the Will Crooks Estate after the declaration of the Sophia Street Clearance Area. Even the rather smaller clearance areas of about an acre or less developed by the Borough Council in the 1930s – such as Collins and Commodore Houses, Constant and Holmsdale Houses, and Providence House – took between three and four years from declaration to completion. Local authorities could also purchase, compulsorily if need be, additional adjoining lands considered necessary for the satisfactory development or subsequent use of the cleared area.

Undoubtedly, slum clearance did break up existing communities, but there was little alternative. Some cleared sites were simply not usable for rehousing, while, on those which were, the first group of people had to be removed elsewhere in order to allow initial clearance and redevelopment. Not surprisingly, there is plenty of evidence that many slum dwellers did not welcome their enforced move. Among these were two of the occupants of Spring Gardens Place, Millwall, declared a clearance area by the LCC, who did not want to move from their existing cottages to new flats on the nearby West Ferry Estate, the loss of their gardens and privacy being their main concerns. (fn. 58) Very often it was the small businessmen and shopkeepers who suffered most from such clearances, for they frequently relied on the reputation they had established in the area. At the local inquiry into the Orchard House Area objections came from three tenants: a spinster and her sister whose only livelihood was the running of a coffee-house and dining-rooms; a shopkeeper, trading in cooked meats 'and stuff', who had built up a good business over 25 years and depended for much of his trade upon the nearby factories; and a man who had a small boat business and went shrimping, and needed to have premises by the river. However sympathetic the LCC might be, all three were going to suffer by having to move. As the Inspector at the inquiry said, 'I do not see how any of these things can be done without hurting people to some extent. That is an unfortunate thing we cannot help'. (fn. 59)

The Campaign against Overcrowding

The 1921 Census revealed a high level of overcrowding in the Borough of Poplar, with 33,104 people, or 21.2 per cent of the population, living at more than two people per room. (fn. 60) Nevertheless, virtually nothing was done in the 1920s to abate overcrowding, although the County Council's scheme of allowing the Borough Council to nominate some tenants to its cottage estates was in part an attempt to alleviate the problem. When that scheme was introduced in 1924 the allocation for each borough was based on the degree of overcrowding indicated by the census figures. (fn. 61) By November 1934 the LCC's Becontree Estate, to which most nominations from Poplar were allocated, had been completed, and thereafter nominations from the Borough were only accepted where there was some special hardship (especially in relation to slum clearance or the abatement of overcrowding). The scheme continued to operate on that basis throughout the 1930s. (fn. 62) In 1932, however, the Borough Council claimed that overcrowding in Poplar was being made worse by families returning from Becontree and other outlying districts because of the expense of travelling, reduced wages, or the general inconvenience of being a long way from their place of work. (fn. 63)

As the result of its London-wide survey in 1933 (based on the assumption that anything over one-and-a-half persons per room represented overcrowding), the Architects' Journal calculated that in the Borough of Poplar 7,992 people were living at over three persons per room and 62,799 at over one-and-a-half persons per room. It estimated that 9,000 new dwellings were required to solve the problem. (fn. 64) An official survey to ascertain the levels of overcrowding was carried out by Metropolitan Boroughs in 1935–6, as a requirement of the 1935 Housing Act. (fn. 65) The standards set by the Act were not as generous as those adopted by the Architects' Journal: (fn. 66) generally speaking the permitted number of persons per room (counting livingrooms, as well as bedrooms) was two, but children under one year were not counted and those aged between one and ten each counted as a half. (fn. 67) In the Borough of Poplar, 4,080 out of the 37,102 families surveyed were found to be in overcrowded conditions, that is, 11 per cent of workingclass families. (fn. 68) The LCC made some adjustments to the Boroughs' figures in order to produce a set of comparable statistics. The level of overcrowding in Poplar was marked up to 16.8 per cent, making it the sixty most crowded Metropolitan Borough, after Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Finsbury, Stepney, and Bermondsey. In terms of sheer numbers of 'overcrowded families', only Stepney, Islington, St Pancras, and Southwark were higher. (fn. 69) The 1935 Act had laid down that, following the survey, the Minister would fix an 'appointed day', after which the local authority would be able to take action against the owners of overcrowded properties, with the threat of possible fines. Those Metropolitan Boroughs like Poplar, with the highest degrees of overcrowding, were left until last. As no action had been taken by the Minister by November 1936, the Borough Council, although at first inclined to leave matters to the LCC, (fn. 70) agreed to make available some new and existing larger dwellings for rehousing victims of overcrowding. (fn. 71) The 'appointed day' for Poplar was eventually fixed as 1 October 1938, but this left insufficient time for that part of the legislation to be implemented before the outbreak of war. (fn. 72)

High percentages of overcrowding, even in modern dwellings built by the Borough and County Councils, (fn. 73) emphasized the fact that overcrowded properties were not necessarily slums. In an attempt to avoid further overcrowding, both authorities generally refused to allow tenants to take in lodgers. (fn. 74) Even though a family might move into perfectly adequate accommodation, the births of further children could soon lead to overcrowding. (fn. 75)

Borough Council Rents in the Interwar Years

From the time of its first housing developments, the Borough Council had protracted arguments over fixing rent levels acceptable to the Ministry of Health and the LCC, both of which had to give their approval. For example, in 1925, when the question of proposed rents for the Kingfield Street Estate was under discussion, the Council found itself under pressure from the LCC to raise the rents in order to limit the annual loss per house to £4 10s, which was the amount per dwelling to be contributed from the rates under the 1924 Housing Act. The Borough Council argued that its proposed rent of 12s 6d per week for a two-bedroom house was that charged for similar accommodation on other Council estates. (fn. 76) Eventually, the LCC not only accepted that figure, (fn. 77) but also agreed that the rents on the Isle of Dogs should be treated as an exception, and as late as 1932 it was still the only area in the whole of London enjoying such a concession. (fn. 78)

In fact, in 1924 the LCC admitted that, owing to increased building costs and higher rates of interest, it was by then not possible in the London area to restrict the loss on each house to £4 10s per year after receipt of the state subsidy (as envisaged under the 1924 Act), while at the same time charging a rent 'such as persons of the class for whom the houses are intended can reasonably be expected to pay'. To bridge the gap, the LCC began to make a grant not exceeding £2 5s per house per year in respect of new housing schemes by the Borough Council. (fn. 79) Although this amount was altered at various times, the LCC continued to make such supplemental contributions to the Borough's housing schemes throughout the rest of the 1920s and 1930s. (fn. 80) More exceptionally, in the case of Ditchburn House in 1927, where the LCC considered that the rents proposed by the Borough Council were too low, a compromise was reached whereby the LCC agreed to a fixed supplement of £1 per tenement per year for 40 years, subject to the rents charged being no lower than 8s 8d a week net. (fn. 81)

A comparative study carried out by the LCC in 1932 highlighted the Borough Council's success in keeping down its rents. Not only were Poplar's rents lower than the LCC's, but overall they were probably lower than those of any other Metropolitan Borough Council. The results of the survey showed that Poplar charged the cheapest rents for three-, four-, five-, and six-room cottages, while in the ranges of rents for three-, fourand five-room flats no borough charged less than Poplar's lowest rent. However, the LCC did point out that the average annual loss for the cottages provided by Poplar Borough Council was over £19 a house. (fn. 82) In fact, the Borough Council's rent structure simply reflected the ad hoc way in which it had evolved, rather than any consistent policy. The rents charged depended on the individual circumstances of each estate or block the terms of the grant-aid of the particular Act under which it was built, the costs of the site and of construction work, and the rateable value. Consequently, by the mid-1930s, the weekly rent of a three-room house in Chapel House Street was 12s 6d, compared with 13s 6d in nearby Hesperus Crescent. A flat offering the same amount of accommodation in Naval Row might be 13s 6d a week, while a similar flat in the newer Providence House was only 11s 6d. Similarly, a council tenant might pay between 13s 6d and 21s weekly for a four-room dwelling. (fn. 83) Anomalies continued to be created, as in 1937, when the Council decided it would have to fix the rents for two new blocks of flats, Constant and Holmsdale Houses, at a higher rate than for other recent housing schemes (inclusive weekly rents of 13s for three rooms, 15s 6d for four, and 18s for five). (fn. 84) In fact, no attempt was made to rationalize the situation or to adjust the anomalies until after the Second World War.

Design and Standard of Accommodation

The housing erected by both the LCC and the Borough Council in the 1920s was architecturally unimaginative. All the Borough's housing schemes during the 1920s and early 1930s, with the exception of the Chapel House Street Estate, were designed, nominally at least, by the Borough Engineer and Surveyor. The post was held by Harley Heckford (1867 1937), until his retirement in 1933. (fn. 85) He arrived in Poplar in 1902, having gained considerable experience in municipal engineering. He was already an Associate of the Municipal Institute of Civil Engineers, though he does not seem to have had any architectural training or qualifications. However, a municipal engineer was expected to design and supervise the erection of almost any building required by the council, and Heckford had experience of such work in his previous position as Surveyor of the eastern division of the Borough of Finsbury, including the preparation of plans for alterations to Finsbury Town Hall. (fn. 86) The most important buildings which he designed in his first 18 years at Poplar were an electricity sub-station and a mortuary (see pages 443 and 67). (fn. 87) It was not until 1925 that an architecturally qualified member of staff was employed in the Surveyor's department, initially as an 'Architectural Draughtsman'. (fn. 88) On the evidence of what was built, this appointment seems to have had little immediate effect on the design of the Council's housing schemes (but see below). Heckford was able to copy the accomplished and urbane Georgian of the Chapel House Street Estate – designed by Sir Frank Baines (1877– 1933), who was chief architect of the Office of Works – when he came to design his own first cottage scheme, the Kingfield Street Estate. Thereafter, the Borough Council's cottage estates were only very minimally Georgian, in a style echoed by contemporary council houses all over the country. The blocks of flats built by the Borough and County Councils during this period were in a more overtly (although simplified) neo-Georgian style developed before the First World War by the LCC, which in 1928 commented very tellingly about such blocks: 'In the architectural treatment of the buildings the aim has been to maintain an appearance of domesticity, whilst keeping strictly within the bounds of economy'. (fn. 89)

Figure 6:

Chapel House Street Estate, house plans. Designed and built by the Office of Works for Poplar Borough Council, 1919–21

The dwellings erected by the Borough Council were better provided in certain respects than either contemporary LCC dwellings or the normal working-class housing of the period. This was particularly so with regard to electricity supply and the provision of bathrooms. During the 1920s and 1930s the Borough Council strongly promoted the services of its own electricity undertaking. (fn. 90) From the outset it installed electricity in all of its housing developments, although gas was still generally regarded as adequate for lighting council housing, (fn. 91) and the Council struggled hard before persuading the Ministry of Health to allow electric lighting in two early schemes, the Chapel House Street Estate and East India Buildings. (fn. 92) In 1923 the Borough's Electrical Engineer reported that electric cookers were then so efficient that flues and chimneys could be eliminated from the Kingfield Street scheme, and, although his suggestion was not implemented, one of the houses in the scheme, in Billson Street, was actually built as an 'all electric house'. (fn. 93) However, it seems that many tenants found electricity too expensive and some would even have preferred a coal-fired cooking range to a gas cooker. (fn. 94) To serve the interests of the tenants, the Council installed gas as an alternative lighting supply in many of its developments in the 1930s, (fn. 95) even though the gas came from a private company. From 1932, all the Council's new houses and flats had electricity power sockets as well as those for lighting, (fn. 96) and by 1934 the Council was also making provision in some of its flats for electric cookers. (fn. 97)

In this respect the Borough was ahead of the LCC, which provided only gas in Birchfield House (1926–7). (fn. 98) The LCC defended its policy on financial grounds, although as the cost of gas and electric installations dropped it adopted a policy of using electricity for lighting and gas for cooking and heating. In 1928, therefore, the LCC gave permission for the Fixed Price Light Company to wire its existing dwellings in Poplar so that electric lighting would be available to those tenants who wanted it, subject to the proviso that the Council should be put to no expense. (fn. 99) In 1931 it resolved to extend the options so that, wherever possible, tenants should be able to choose to use gas or electricity, or both, for lighting, heating and cooking. (fn. 100)

For many tenants the provision of a bathroom was the most welcome improvement in their new council dwelling. In 1927 a Borough official reported, 'Generally speaking the baths are well kept and frequently used; housewives repeatedly remark that they "are a blessing"', (fn. 101) and the same officer stated very firmly: 'In no case has it been found that "the bath is used for coal" as is so often alleged.' (fn. 102) Even when the Government began to reduce housing standards, the 1923 Act required subsidized dwellings to have a fixed bath, which under the 1924 Act had to be in a bathroom. (fn. 103) However, the Minister of Health could in specific cases allow a dispensation to this condition. Thus the 'normal' and some of the 'modified' flat types of the LCC in the 1920s and early 1930s did not have a separate bathroom, merely a bath in the kitchen with a syphon-system to feed water from the copper into the bath. (fn. 104)

Birchfield House was intended to rehouse people from clearance areas and was one of the LCC's euphemistically named 'simplified' five-storey blocks of flats. It had a communal washroom/bathroom shared between every two or three flats, and containing a copper and bath with the same syphon-system to transfer hot water between the two (fig. 7). (fn. 105) Although all tenants had their own w.c. and scullery (with a sink), these were not usually within the flat but situated adjacent to the bathrooms and, like them, were reached across a common passage or landing (exceptionally, one flat on each floor did have its own integral scullery). The gas stove stood in the living-room, alongside the fireplace, and a gas fire was provided in the corner of one bedroom in each flat. In general terms, the capital cost for such a block worked out at about £8 a room less than the Council's 'normal' type of dwelling and so the rents charged could be on average about 1s 6d to 2s a week less. (fn. 106) Nevertheless, the initial weekly rents charged for Birchfield House were 8s 11d to 10s 4d for a one-bedroom flat and 11s 11d to 14s 10d for a two-bedroom one (fn. 107) – hardly a favourable rate compared with that of the Borough Council, which offered two-bedroom flats with electric lighting and their own bathrooms at 13s a week. (fn. 108)

Figure 7:

Birchfield House, Birchfield Street, first-floor plan. A 'simplified' block of flats, built by the LCC, 1926–7

A garden was often both a welcome innovation and something of a challenge. Of the Borough Council's tenants in their new cottages it was reported, rather patronizingly, that 'many gardens are well kept and are good examples of what can be done by persons with no previous experience of gardening'. (fn. 109) The tenants of Council flats were less fortunate; all they might hope for was at best a window-box or occasionally a communal garden. A notable exception was the Borough Council's Thermopylae Gate flats on the Chapel House Street Estate, where from the outset each dwelling had an individual garden.

In some respects the inter-war Council developments in Poplar did not reach the standards of the 1919 Housing Manual, issued by the Local Government Board for the guidance of those building subsidized housing. This was particularly true in respect of densities. The Manual recommended building at 12 houses to the acre in urban areas and this officially remained the figure until the Second World War. In practice, none of the public housing built in Poplar during this period managed to attain such a low figure. The lowest was the Borough Council's Chapel House Street Estate at 15 dwellings to the acre, but its subsequent cottage estates were at 26 or 27 to the acre. Because the Manual did not favour flats, and did not envisage great numbers being built, it did not give any suggested densities for them. Of the Borough's flats built at this time, Heckford House had a density of 41 dwellings to the acre, Naval House had 74 and Cruse House 132, while the rest of those completed in the 1930s had densities of over 50, with the exception of Hammond House, where it was 46. In the case of the LCC, Birchfield House had about 70 dwellings to the acre and the Will Crooks Estate (built in the later 1930s) had 56.

The Manual also recommended minimum measurements for rooms and dwellings. (fn. 110) Yet in a three-bedroom house at No. 15 Chapel House Street the floor area was only 675 sq.ft, compared with the 900 sq.ft suggested in the Manual (fig. 6). The actual figures for individual rooms were, for the living-room, 165 sq.ft (the recommended figure was 180 sq.ft), and for the bedrooms 131, 92 and 54 sq.ft, although the Manual recommended 150, 100 and 65 sq.ft.

By 1921 the Ministry of Health was making plain to local authorities that the measurements intended by the Manual to be minima should now be taken as maxima. (fn. 111) This was made explicit in the 1923 Housing Act, which laid down that to qualify for state aid two-storey cottages had to have a floor area between a maximum of 950 and a minimum of 620 sq.ft, while for flats the maximum area was 880 and the minimum 550 sq.ft. In special circumstances the Minister could reduce the minimum figures by a further 50 sq. ft. This meant that the local authorities had a statutory obligation to meet these limits if they were to obtain a housing subsidy. Thus, houses built by the Borough on the Manchester Grove and Hesperus Crescent Estates had superficial areas of 727 and 891 sq. ft respectively (fig. 189, page 491). Similarly, a three-bedroom flat at the Borough's East India Buildings had an area of 729 sq. ft. Even such minimal standards were only satisfied at the LCC's Birchfield House by resorting to some rather unusual calculations. The superficial area of a two-bedroom flat was only 483 sq. ft if all the rooms for the exclusive use of that particular letting were counted, but the inclusion of the washroom/bathroom brought the figure above the minimum to 532 sq. ft. However, the bathroom was shared between three flats and, in order that they should all exceed the minimum figure of 500 sq. ft, the same room had to be counted three times (fig. 7).

Figure 8:

Montrose House, Millwall (now Kingsbridge) Estate, a block of Type 1934 (1 & 2) flats,ground-floor plan. Built by the LCC, 1936–7

In 1932, largely as a result of the renewed slum clearance drive (see page 26), the LCC decided to adopt 'a modified type of dwelling of simple design and cheap form of construction to accommodate the poorer class of persons', who could only pay low rents. The result was the 'modified' type of flat – so called because it was a modification of the LCC's 'normal' type – and there were two categories, 'A' and 'B'. The 'modified 'A' type had rooms of a reduced average area and all the rooms were only 8ft high. There was a lower standard of finish, including stained instead of painted woodwork, and the omission of plaster in lobbies and kitchens. Each flat was provided with a separate w. c., but a separate passageway was omitted in order to enlarge the kitchen and to allow the bath in it to be enclosed by folding doors when not in use. There were no drying-rooms and access to flats was by means of open balconies. The 'modified B' type omitted the kitchen, and a gas cooker, shallow sink and hanging shelves were provided in a recess off the livingroom. There were no individual baths, but one common wash-house – fitted with a bath, copper with syphon, and a deep sink – was provided to every three flats. It was estimated that these economies gave a saving in building costs of almost 20 per cent, and a reduction of 6d a week in the rent. (fn. 112) The flats on the LCC's West Ferry Estate on the Isle of Dogs (1932–6) were mainly of the modified 'A' and 'B' types (see page 490). Although, in the early to mid-1930s, many houses throughout the country, and especially council houses, were still being built without baths or bathrooms, (fn. 113) Poplar Borough Council persisted in providing a bathroom in each of its dwellings, and took every opportunity to attack the LCC's 'very disgraceful and disgusting economy' in this matter. (fn. 114)

Figure 9:

Montcalm House, Millwall (now Kingsbridge) Estate, a block of Type 1934 (3 & 4) flats, third-floor plan.Built by the LCC, 1936–7

When the Labour Party came to power on the LCC in 1934, it quickly dropped the 'modified' type of flat (fn. 115) and adopted new improved standard designs for flats provided for rehousing purposes. The four variations were again designed in the Architect's Department (figs 8 and 9). Type 1934 (1) was an improved version of the 'modified A' type; the floor areas were very similar, and the main improvements were a higher standard of finish, with the walls plastered instead of rendered, other walls rendered instead of fair-faced, and internal woodwork painted instead of stained. Two drying-rooms were provided in each block by the omission of a three-room flat on the first floor and a two-room flat on the third floor. There were also minor improvements to fittings, including a portable 'kitchener' – that is, an enclosed range using solid fuel to replace an open grate in the living-room, and a deeper sink in the kitchen. Initially the bath was still in the kitchen, supplied with hot water from the copper, although a pump was now provided instead of the syphon system.

The 1934 (2) type was similar to (1) but the copper and pump were omitted (hot water for the bath being provided by a water heater). Instead a wash-house was provided for every three flats and contained a washing trough, gas copper and a table. The 1935 Act repeated the stipulation of a fixed bath in a bathroom, and the LCC revised the 1934 (1 and 2) types to allow baths to be provided in separate bathrooms. (fn. 116) Incidentally, the LCC found that it was more difficult to install baths in its older tenement blocks, since bathrooms could only be created by reducing the overall number of flats in the blocks, which, given the desperate need for dwellings, was not a viable proposition. (fn. 117)

In the 1934 (3) type the room areas were slightly greater than in types (1) and (2). A gas water-heater in the kitchen provided hot water for the bath, the handbasin in the w. c., and the kitchen. Minor additions included a larder and dresser in the kitchen and a wardrobe cupboard in one bedroom. The 1934 (4) type was similar to (3) but there were no coppers or drying rooms. Like type (2) there was a common wash-house to every three flats and it was equipped in the same manner. In all four types the living-room had a coal fire, and one bedroom in every flat also had a coal fire and a point for a gas fire; the other bedrooms had sockets for electric fires. (fn. 118)

Usually flats of either types (1) and (2) or (3) and (4) were combined into a single block. The blocks were in the same neo-Georgian style as before, were normally of five storeys, but might vary in size and overall layout to suit individual sites. Though other plans were introduced by the LCC, all the blocks it erected in Poplar after 1934 (by far the majority of its inter-war flats) were of the 1934 types – seven (1 and 2) blocks and two (3 and 4). A further six post-war blocks of the 1934 (1 and 2) type, with a few minor improvements, were built on the St Vincent Estate.

The design of the Borough Council's flats changed during the early 1930s, when a number of details were adopted to create a style which was Modernistic or Moderne, rather than purely Modern. Although four men held the post of Borough Engineer and Surveyor during the 1930s, the changes in personnel did not coincide with the stylistic innovation. It hardly seems likely that Harley Heckford, then approaching retirement, could have been responsible for this new departure. On Heckford's retirement in 1933, he was succeeded by E. G. Timbrell, who came from Epsom Urban District Council laden with qualifications, but soon suffered a nervous breakdown and took early retirement in November 1934. (fn. 119) He was replaced in February 1935 by Rees J. Williams, who had previously been Deputy Borough Engineer and Surveyor of Battersea. Williams, as well as having engineering and surveying qualifications, was a registered architect. (fn. 120) He served as the Borough's Engineer and Surveyor until 1938, when he left for Tottenham. (fn. 121) His successor was S. A. Findlay, who had been promoted from Engineering Assistant to Deputy Borough Engineer and Surveyor only nine months earlier, in January 1938. Findlay was a chartered civil engineer and a registered architect (fn. 122) whose major contribution to Poplar's housing was to be in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

A look at the lower echelons, where considerable personnel changes took place in the later 1920s and 1930s, reveals the potential for younger men, such as D. L. K. Dick, E. W. J. Mitchell, Thomas Sibthorp, and A. E. Williams – who were all architectural assistants during this period – to play an instrumental role in introducing new designs. (fn. 123) The names of the last two appear as Architectural Assistant along with the Borough Engineer and Surveyor's name on plans for some of the Borough's Modernistic-style buildings of the mid- to late 1930s. (fn. 124) After the war Sibthorp was to become Chief Architect to St Pancras Borough Council, while Williams was to be successively Deputy Borough Architect of Newport, Monmouthshire, and Deputy County Architect of the West Riding of Yorkshire. (fn. 125) However, in 1931 both men would only have been in their early twenties.

What is certain is that the architectural and professional press in the early 1930s featured a number of articles on Modern flats, both those built on the continent and those being planned by such forward-looking British local authorities as Liverpool. (fn. 126) Ironically, the Deputy Town Clerk, William Nicholls (fn. 127) – who, although ostensibly responsible for the legal and administrative aspects of the Council's housing policies, was regarded as the general expert on housing matters – would have learned of the work of Liverpool and other like-minded British authorities at the annual overseas International Housing Congresses that he attended, as well as having opportunities to see at first hand some of the continental municipal flats. (fn. 128)

In fact, the Borough's change to a Modernistic style seems to have been gradual and ad hoc, brought about as much as anything by the adoption of solid parapeted concrete balconies. This change first appeared at Dunbar House, Glengall (now Tiller) Road (1931–2, since demolished), which represented a rather ungainly transition (Plate 126a). At the front of the building, plain concrete balconies were interrupted by equally plain brick verticals, with a central brick staircase tower. (fn. 129) The windows were wider than in previous blocks but were still wooden sashes with Georgian-type glazing bars. Roffey and Cubitt Houses, Cubitt Town (1932–3, since demolished), were much more fully fledged Modernistic in appearance. They had concrete balconies running almost the whole length of one elevation, interrupted only by two vertical brick staircase towers. Exposed concrete bands set in the brickwork indicated the floor levels and the top storey was given a smooth cementrendered face. However, the windows were still wooden sashes with glazing bars and both blocks had hipped roofs. (Roffey House was badly damaged during the Second World War and was subsequently rebuilt with a not inappropriate flat roof.) (fn. 130)

Thereafter, the Borough Council's flats built in the 1930s all share a strong group identity, although there were further innovations. Providence House, Emmett Street (1933–5, since demolished), was strikingly Modernistic, with an almost unbroken series of concrete balconies wrapping around the outside of the main block, which had a V-shaped plan (Plate 126b). A jazzy motif consisting of four incised horizontals and two relief verticals decorated the balconies. Vertical emphasis was given by placing a staircase tower at one of the corners and making it a dominant feature. Providence House, however, had wooden sash windows and also hipped roofs. Indeed, all the Council's 1930s flats were given hipped roofs, although, starting with this block, high parapet walls were used in an attempt to disguise the fact and convey the same horizontal, cut-off effect as a flat roof. (fn. 131) Terrazzo facings were used for the staircases at Providence House, in an (apparently unsuccessful) attempt to prevent walls being defaced. (fn. 132)

Generally, the Borough's inter-war flats were four or five storeys high. The preference for low-rise was dictated in part by the wish to avoid the cost of installing lifts, supported by the widely held belief that people could walk up as far as the fifth storey, but no higher. In the 1920s and 1930s, with a few exceptions where access was straight off internal staircases, the Borough tended to follow the LCC's example and use common balconies to provide access from external staircase towers to individual flats on upper floors. The advantages of balcony access were that it made the cost of the accommodation less expensive, the flats were better ventilated and quieter, and the occupants could go out into the fresh air without having to walk down to ground level. It was argued that the usual disadvantages of balconies, that they darkened any room looking on to them and reduced privacy, were avoided by placing the living-rooms and bedrooms on the opposite sides of the building. (fn. 133) From 1927 the LCC decided to have solid parapet walls to their balconies instead of railings, and in the early 1930s the Borough again followed suit. It was thought that balcony walls gave more protection from the weather, gave the tenants more privacy, improved the means of escape in case of fire (an argument supported by the Ministry of Health), were maintenance-free (while railings had to be regularly repainted), had a more attractive appearance, and were safer for children. (fn. 134)

Sinuous balconies are a feature at Collins and Commodore Houses, Poplar High Street (1935–6), as are attractively curved streamlined staircase towers, which occur in all the Borough Council's flats of the later 1930s, and which made their first appearance here. Metal casement windows were also employed here for the first time and were to become a standard feature. Ironically, the name Commodore House, so appropriate for a 1930s International-style block, was actually inherited from Commodore Court, the slum property which it replaced. (fn. 135) Constant and Holmsdale Houses, Harrow Lane and Poplar High Street (1936–8), are very similar, except that Constant House has the right-angled corner windows favoured by the International style (Plate 126d). The last of the Borough's 1930s blocks of flats, Hammond House, Tiller Road (1937–8), is in many ways the most accomplished of all, though its merits lie more in its massing and proportions than in any innovatory features (Plate 126c).

Construction and Repair

From soon after its inception, the Borough Council had carried out some building works using its direct labour force under the supervision of the Borough Engineer and Surveyor. (fn. 136) For one of the first of the Borough's housing schemes, Heckford House (1920–1), the Engineer and Surveyor did tender on the basis of using direct labour, but the Ministry of Health insisted that a slightly lower quote by a local builder be accepted, despite the pleas of the Council. (fn. 137) The question of using direct labour for housing was not raised again for some years. Quite why this was so is not clear; possibly it was because the Council found the work of local contractors, especially Reader of Hackney, extremely satisfactory. (fn. 138) In 1931, however, the Council agreed that three schemes, including Cruse House in Poplar High Street, should be built by direct labour. (fn. 139) Thereafter, all of its housing schemes in the 1930s were built by that method. Initially there were some difficulties, perhaps exacerbated by the retirement of Heckford and the illness of his successor, Timbrell, so that it was left to Williams to prove that direct labour could be employed efficiently and generally within the cost limits of a contract. (fn. 140) Nevertheless, experience showed that some jobs, such as the laying of hollow-tile floors, were better done by specialist contractors. (fn. 141)

The low-lying and marshy nature of much of the parish meant that in some cases extra expense was incurred in the construction of foundations. The LCC, which generally built a storey higher than the Borough Council, particularly suffered in that respect (for example, in Garford Street and on the Will Crooks Estate). Only occasionally were more extensive site works necessary. At Hesperus Crescent, the Borough Council had to construct retaining walls and lay reinforced-concrete rafts for many of the houses, (fn. 142) while at Hammond House in Tiller Road a piled foundation supporting a reinforced-concrete floor slab was required. (fn. 143) Filling and levelling was necessary on LCC housing sites at Gaselee Street and Westferry Road, where a 710ft-long wall had to be built as well (see page 633). The Phoenix Wharf site for the LCC's Millwall Estate proved particularly expensive to redevelop because of the need to reconstruct the river-wall as a defence against flooding (see page 489).

During 1933–4 the Borough Council discovered that in blocks of flats on 15 of its inter-war developments, seven of which lay within the parish, the steel joists were corroding as a result of chemical reaction with the magnesite flooring, causing the floors to fracture and lift. The only solution was to remove all such floors and replace them with asphalt. The estimate for this work at East India Buildings alone was £3,400. (fn. 144) In 1934 eight of the flats then being built at Providence House, Emmett Street, were given 'Masonite' pressed wood flooring, (fn. 145) but that experiment was not repeated and asphalt floors were used for the rest of the decade. (fn. 146) One of the reasons for the adoption of asphalt floors was the need to have surfaces which offered no crevices for bed bugs (cimex lectularius) to settle in. (fn. 147) The dwellings of both the Borough and County Councils suffered serious infestations by these highly unpleasant insects in the late 1920s and 1930s. (fn. 148)

On the whole, there was not a great deal of vandalism or damage to council properties, although by 1938 the Borough was becoming worried about the number of windows being broken in its flats. (fn. 149) Of more concern were the high costs, by the mid-1930s, of keeping the Borough Council's housing in repair. The 1919 Housing Act allowed an amount equal to 15 per cent of the rents (excluding rates) as the provision for repairs ranking for subsidy. Poplar, along with many other councils, soon found that this was an unrealistic figure and adopted 25 per cent of exclusive rents as a new basis for providing for the costs of repairs. By 1936 even that percentage was proving quite inadequate, and it was agreed that £10,000, 39 per cent of net rents, should be included for housing repairs for 1936–7. But this left no balance with which to meet the heavier costs as the Council's housing stock got older. (fn. 150)

Housing Societies and Others: Alternative Sources of Public Housing

The 1919 Housing Act included what were termed 'public utility societies' in its subsidy scheme and allowed a Treasury grant of up to 30 per cent of their initial capital requirements. (fn. 2) It was the availability of subsidies to such societies under that and subsequent Housing Acts which belatedly allowed some philanthropic societies, and certain other agencies, to build or provide public housing in Poplar. The LCC regarded public utility societies as useful allies (fn. 152) and from 1925 agreed that under the 1924 Act, it would make a supplemental contribution of £2 5s per dwelling per annum for 40 years towards approved schemes by such societies and similar bodies. In return it expected that some or all of the new dwellings would be available to rehouse families displaced by its slum clearance schemes. (fn. 153) The Isle of Dogs Housing Society received a supplemental contribution from the LCC in respect of St Hubert's House, (fn. 154) as did Presbyterian Housing for Goodwill House.

Presbyterian Housing was the first of the philanthropic societies to build in Poplar. When it was formed in 1925 there were several Presbyterian churches and a Presbyterian Women's Settlement in the Poplar area. At the instigation of Dr A. Herbert Gray of Crouch Hill, Miss H. B. Mackay, the Warden of the Settlement, addressed an informal meeting in Hampstead. Offers of help were immediately forthcoming and a committee was appointed to implement what was at first simply called the 'Presbyterian Housing Scheme'. (fn. 155) Presbyterian Housing began its activities in Poplar in 1926 by converting properties in Poplar High Street into flats. It then moved on to build a new block of flats in Simpson's Road – Goodspeed House, opened in 1929. On 29 May 1929 the scheme became Presbyterian Housing Ltd, which was registered as a public utility society. A further block of flats was built in Simpson's Road (Goodwill House, opened in 1932) with the help of a supplemental contribution from the LCC (Plate 124a). (See below and page 94 for a more detailed account of this society's activities.)

The Bethnal Green and East London Housing Society also began work in Poplar by converting existing premises. Formed in 1926 (fn. 156) as the Bethnal Green Housing Association, in 1930 it was invited by the Housing SubCommittee of the Rural Deanery of Poplar to consider extending its activities to Poplar. A meeting was held in Poplar on 1 December 1930, presided over by the Bishop of Stepney and attended by George Lansbury, Ishbel MacDonald (the Prime Minister's daughter and an LCC member), the Mayor of Poplar, various local clergy, and the Rev. Nigel Scott of the St Pancras Housing Society. (fn. 157) As a consequence, 'and East London' was added to the Association's title in 1931, and people residing in Poplar became eligible for the Association's flats. In 1933 and 1934 two properties in Poplar High Street – an old public house and a large lodging house for men – were converted by the Association into a total of 35 flats. In 1935 Isle House and Nelson House in Coldharbour were leased to the Association by the Port of London Authority for 21 years, and they were converted into a further five flats.

By converting these old properties, which could be purchased or leased cheaply, the Bethnal Green and East London Housing Association aimed to provide for those who could not afford Council dwellings. The accommodation provided was very basic and not always fully self-contained, but it could be let at very low rents. This meant that its properties did not always attract a supplemental contribution from the LCC. Indeed, by 1934 the Association was experiencing more and more difficulty in obtaining such contributions, and, as the LCC tightened up its regulations, the Association found that there was less scope for it to develop as it wished and came to the conclusion that, if it were to accept a contribution from the LCC, it might prove impossible to help 'hard cases'. (fn. 158)

The Isle of Dogs Housing Society was formed as a public utility society thanks to the enthusiasm of the Rev. Basil Jellicoe, who, during his mission work in Somers Town, formed the St Pancras House Improvement Society. When he resigned from the Mission there in 1927 to concentrate on his housing work, Jellicoe was, reputedly, approached by a group of working men from Poplar who begged him to do something about the housing in their own area. The Isle of Dogs Housing Society Ltd was therefore formed in 1930, and interested members of the public could buy £1 ordinary shares, or acquire loan stock in multiples of £5 which gave interest at 2½ per cent, or simply make a donation. It was able to assemble an impressive Advisory Council which included Lord Balfour of Burleigh, the Bishop of London, George Lansbury, Ishbel MacDonald, and the writer and broadcaster Howard Marshall, as well as the Borough Medical Officer of Health and the Town Clerk. (fn. 159) The Society worked closely with the LCC, asking it to find the Society a suitable clearance area on which it might build. Despite difficulties in raising sufficient funds, in 1936 the Society succeeded in completing St Hubert's House, a block of 68 dwellings, for which it received a supplemental contribution from the LCC (see page 446) (Plate 125a, 125b, 125c, 125d). (fn. 160)

Having completed one block of flats, the Isle of Dogs Society was then eager to take on another site, but the LCC felt that there were no sufficiently large sites left on the Isle of Dogs. In any case the LCC's own Millwall Estate, which was nearing completion, would solve any remaining rehousing problems in the district. But by May 1939 the Council had granted the Society provisional planning permission to erect a four-storey block of flats on the site of Nos 68–116 Stewart Street and Nos 21–28 Samuda Street, in Cubitt Town. Again it was proposed that the LCC should declare the properties to be a clearance area, (fn. 161) but the Second World War brought these plans to an abrupt end and the Society was unable to carry out further developments until after the war.

Three other inter-war schemes received subsidies under the Housing Acts and may, therefore, be classed as public housing. (fn. 162) When Locke, Lancaster failed to reach an agreement with the Borough Council in 1920 to house the workers from its lead works in Millwall, it formed a public utility society called Locke's Housing Society Ltd. The Society built 36 houses, to all intents and purposes exactly the same as the Chapel House Street Estate designed by the Office of Works for the Borough Council. The tenancies were confined to its own workers (see page 494). In addition, there were the 29 cottages in Malam Gardens built by the Commercial Gas Company for its workers in 1935–6, and Jubilee Crescent in Manchester Road, a group of two-storey cottage-flats, built in 1935 by R. & H. Green & Silley Weir Ltd for retired shipbuilding workers or their families (see pages 158 and 543) (Plate 127a, 127b).

Summary of Public Housing provided 1919–39

During the inter-war period the total number of dwellings built by the two councils within the parish of Poplar was 1,567 (835 by the Borough and 732 by the LCC). The numbers of dwellings built by the two Councils under the different Acts is shown in the table:

Numbers of Dwellings built 1919–36
Act Poplar Borough Council LCC
1919 162 0
1923 61 40
1924 336 0
1930 188 202
1936 (Part III) (fn. 3) 59 317
1936 (Part IV) 29 173

The rehousing of Poplar families on LCC estates outside the borough has to be taken into consideration when assessing the LCC's contribution, for between 1926 and 1937 the LCC provided rehousing for no less than 7,079 families from the Borough of Poplar (there are no comparable figures for the parish). (fn. 163) In addition, 187 dwellings were erected in Poplar by housing trusts or similar agencies.


  • 1. He was born in Poplar and grew up with the job, attaining his ultimate position by dint of experience and proven ability, apparently without the benefit of formal qualifications.
  • 2. The Industrial and Provident Societies Act of 1893 allowed a housing company to register as a public utility society provided it limited its annual dividend to no more than five per cent. From 1909 such societies could borrow up to two-thirds of their initial capital from the Public Works Loan Board.
  • 3. The provisions of the 1930 and 1935 Acts were consolidated in the 1936 Housing Act, Part III of which dealt with slum clearance schemes and Part IV with the abatement of overcrowding.
  • 4. PBC Mins, 1916–17, pp.323–4: For the general background, see John Burnett, A Social History of Housing 1815–1970, 1978, pp.216–17, and Mark Swenarton, Homes fit for Heroes, 1981, pp.51–2, 67–79, 85, 112.
  • 5. PBC Mins, 1916–17, pp.323–4; see also 1917–18, pp.141–2.
  • 6. Marian Bowley, Housing and the State, 1919–1944, 1945, pp.16f: Burnett, op.cit., pp.221–2.
  • 7. PBC Mins, 1918–19, pp.172–3.
  • 8. Pop.1352, pp.29–31: PBC Mins, 1918–19, p.225: Noreen Branson, Poplarism 1919–1925, 1979, p.9.
  • 9. George Lansbury, My Life, 1928, pp.168, 223.
  • 10. Burnett, op.cit., p.222: Swenarton, op.cit., pp.129–30.
  • 11. PBC Mins, 1919–20, p.285.
  • 12. PBC Mins, 1919–20, p.307.
  • 13. Swenarton, op.cit., p.132.
  • 14. PBC Mins, 1920–1, pp.22, 78–9; 1922–3, pp.53, 220–1.
  • 15. 14 & 15 Geo V, c.35: Burnett, op.cit., p.228.
  • 16. PBC Mins, 1924–5, p.129; 1928–9, p.78.
  • 17. PBC Mins, 1923–4, pp.391–2.
  • 18. LCC Mins, 1932, i, p.414.
  • 19. PBC Mins, 1920–1, p.81.
  • 20. PBC Mins, 1930–1, p.146: Pop.1354, p.235; Pop.1284, pp.70–1.
  • 21. Alison Ravetz, 'From Working Class Tenement to Modern Flat', in Multi-Storey Living: The British Working-Class Experience,ed. Anthony Sutcliffe, 1974, pp.122–50, especially p.125.
  • 22. LCC Mins, 1928, ii, pp.234–45; 1934, i, p.728; 1936, ii, p.188.
  • 23. For example, PBC Mins, 1923–4, p.122; see also 1933–4, p.310.
  • 24. Pop.1352, p.169: PBC Mins, 1918–19, p.203; 1929–30, p.52.
  • 25. LCC Mins, 1922, i, p.729.
  • 26. LCC Mins, 1927, i, p.39.
  • 27. LCC Mins, 1929, ii, p.252.
  • 28. Pop.1352, p.66: OS 1895.
  • 29. LCC Mins, 1921, ii, p.279; 1928, ii, pp.394–5.
  • 30. Pop.1352, p.169.
  • 31. PBC Mins, 1923–4, pp.292–3.
  • 32. PBC Mins, 1925–6, p.286.
  • 33. Pop.1354, pp. 123–8, 147.
  • 34. LCC Mins, 1928, ii, pp.234–45.
  • 35. Pop.1353, pp.150–1.
  • 36. LCC Mins, 1923, i, p.979.
  • 37. Pop.1353, pp.12, 141.
  • 38. Pop.1283, b/w pp.39–40.
  • 39. Pop.1283, pp.205–6: PBC Mins, 1933–4, pp.230, 345–6, 389.
  • 40. LCC Mins, 1928, ii, pp.394–5.
  • 41. Pop.1352, pp.124–5, 130.
  • 42. Burnett, op.cit., pp.236–8.
  • 43. 20 & 21 Geo V, c.39.
  • 44. Burnett, op.cit., p.238.
  • 45. Pop. 1354, pp.114–15.
  • 46. LCC/MIN/7290, pp.1045, 1094–6.
  • 47. LCC Mins, 1931, i, p.988.
  • 48. LCC/MIN/7290, pp.722–3, 822, 851, 926–7: LCC Mins, 1934, ii, pp.31–2.
  • 49. LCC Mins, 1933, i, p. 199.
  • 50. LCC Mins, 1935, ii, p.316; 1936, ii, pp.77–8; 1937, i, p.739.
  • 51. LCC Mins, 1934, ii, pp.139–42.
  • 52. LCC Mins, 1935, ii, pp.305–8.
  • 53. Pop.1284, p.199.
  • 54. Fred Berry, Housing: the great British failure, 1974, p.160.
  • 55. LCC, London Housing, 1937, p.20.
  • 56. Ibid, p.20.
  • 57. Ibid, pp.17–24.
  • 58. EEN, 22 May 1936, p.4.
  • 59. LCC/MIN/7550, 20 Feb 1935, item 25.
  • 60. LCC/MIN/7291, p.288.
  • 61. LCC Mins, 1924, ii, pp.510–11: PBC Mins, 1924–5, p.40; 1925–6,
  • 62. PBC Mins, 1934–5, p.22: LCC Mins, 1934, i, pp.188–9; 1935, i, pp.186–7; 1936, i, p.600.
  • 63. LCC/MIN/7291, p.189.
  • 64. AJ, 26 Oct 1933, pp.508–9, 531–3, 546.
  • 65. 25 & 26 Geo V, c.40: PBC Mins, 1934–5, p.336: LCC Mins, 1935, ii, pp.317–18; 1936, i, p.400; 1937, ii, p.31.
  • 66. LCC Mins, 1936, i, p.577.
  • 67. H.W.Richardson and D.W.Aldcroft, Building in the British Economy Between the Wars, 1968, p.186.
  • 68. Pop.1284, b/w pp.143–4.
  • 69. LCC Mins, 1936, i, pp.400–1.
  • 70. Pop.1284, p.199.
  • 71. PBC Mins, 1936–7, pp.24–5.
  • 72. LCC Mins, 1938, i, p.427.
  • 73. Pop.1284, b/w pp. 143–4.
  • 74. Pop.1352, pp.139–41, 185–7, 197–8, 202, 204, 217–18, 260; Pop.1353, pp.142, 170; Pop.1354, pp.192–3, b/w pp.193–4: LCC/MIN/7301 (1945), p.93, but see LCC Mins, 1928, ii, p.30.
  • 75. Pop.1353, p.132.
  • 76. PBC Mins, 1924–5, p.129.
  • 77. PBC Mins, 1925–6, pp.26–7.
  • 78. LCC Mins, 1932, i, p.417.
  • 79. PBC Mins, 1925–6, p.364–5: LCC Mins, 1926, ii, pp.161–2.
  • 80. LCC Mins, 1927, i, pp.243–5, 298; 1932, i, pp.406–7; 1936, i, pp.407–8: PBC Mins, 1926–7, p.208.
  • 81. PBC Mins, 1926–7, pp.306–7.
  • 82. LCC Mins, 1932, i, pp.414–21.
  • 83. Pop.1284, pp. 68–71, 80.
  • 84. PBC Mins, 1936–7, pp.273–4.
  • 85. PBC Mins, 1932–3, p.703.
  • 86. Municipal Journal, 7 Feb 1902, p.117.
  • 87. ELA, 30 Sept 1933, p.5; 14 Oct 1933, p.3.
  • 88. PBC Mins, 1924–5, pp.95, 408.
  • 89. LCC, Housing, 1928, p.60.
  • 90. See, for example, EEN, 17 Nov 1922, p.3: ELA, 5 Feb 1927, p.7: Daily Telegraph, 23 Jan 1935, p.9: ELO, 26 Jan 1935, p.5.
  • 91. Ravetz, op.cit., p.142.
  • 92. Pop.1352, pp.37, 42, 45, 239.
  • 93. Pop.1352, pp.181, 251.
  • 94. Pop.1353, pp.125, 222.
  • 95. For example, Pop.1283, p.162.
  • 96. Pop.1283, p.2.
  • 97. PBC Mins, 1933–4, p.230.
  • 98. LCC Mins, 1927, i, p.704.
  • 99. LCC Mins, 1927, i, pp.127, 704; 1928, i, p. 180; 1931, i, pp.349–51.
  • 100. LCC Mins, 1931, i, pp.349–51.
  • 101. Pop.1353, p.393.
  • 102. MoHR, 1925, p.55.
  • 103. 13 & 14 Geo V, c.24, sect.1 (2): 14 & 15 Geo V, c.35, sect.13.
  • 104. LCC, Housing, 1928, pp.58–63.
  • 105. LCC Mins, 1925, i, pp.850–1.
  • 106. LCC Mins, 1928, ii, pp.28–9: DA 10,758.
  • 107. LCC Mins, 1928, ii, p.249.
  • 108. PBC Mins, 1927–8, p.37.
  • 109. Pop.1353, p.393.
  • 110. Local Government Board, Manual on the Preparation of Stateaided Housing Schemes, 1919, p.29.
  • 111. LCC Mins, 1921, i, p.729.
  • 112. LCC Mins, 1932, ii, pp.59–61.
  • 113. LCC/MIN/7551, 27 March 1935, item 5(4).
  • 114. ELA, 15 Oct 1932, p.7.
  • 115. LCC/MIN/7293, p.299.
  • 116. LCC Mins, 1935, ii, p.447.
  • 117. LCC/MIN/7291, pp.797–8.
  • 118. LCC Mins, 1934, ii, pp.283–4: LCC, London Housing, 1937, pp.39–42.
  • 119. PBC Mins, 1932–3, p.667; 1933–4, p.387.
  • 120. PBC Mins, 1934–5, p.114.
  • 121. PBC Mins, 1937–8, p.381: EEN, 30 Sept 1938, p.7.
  • 122. PBC Mins, 1937–8, pp.381, 415.
  • 123. Pop. 1390, p.210:PBC Mins, 1928–9, p.50; 1929–30, p.378; 1933–4, pp.99, 355.
  • 124. THLHL, uncat. plans.
  • 125. PBC Mins, 1946–7, p.231: RIBAJ, May 1948, p.305: Municipal Journal, 19 Sept 1952, p.1732.
  • 126. For example, Municipal Journal, 18 July 1930, pp.1287–8; 28 Nov 1930, p.2035; 31 July 1931, p.1024; 11 Sept 1931, pp.1399–1400; 22 Jan 1932, p.121; 11 March 1932, p.348; 28 April 1933, pp.527, 532: RIBAJ, 2 May 1931, pp.435–55: City of Liverpool, City of Liverpool Housing, 1934 and 1937 edns.
  • 127. ELA, 27 Jan 1939, p.5.
  • 128. Pop.1354, pp.197–8.
  • 129. THLHL, Whiffin Nos 742–3.
  • 130. PBC Mins, 1944–5, p.170; 1945–6, pp.25,45; 1946–7, p.81.
  • 131. OS 1937, LCC revision: THLHL, Whiffin No.503.
  • 132. PBC Mins, 1933–4, p.198: Pop.1284, p.56.
  • 133. LCC, Housing, 1928, p.61.
  • 134. Pop.1284, b/w pp.215–16.
  • 135. Pop.1284, p.171.
  • 136. PBC Mins, 1903–4, p.169.
  • 137. PBC Mins, 1920–1, p.22.
  • 138. For example, Pop.1353, p.64.
  • 139. PBC Mins, 1930–1, p.157.
  • 140. EEN, 30 Sept 1938, p.7.
  • 141. Pop.1284, p.35.
  • 142. PBC Mins, 1928–9, p.252.
  • 143. PBC Mins, 1936–7, p.308.
  • 144. PBC Mins, 1933–4, pp.45–6, 59, 229.
  • 145. PBC Mins, 1933–4, p.320.
  • 146. PBC Mins, 1934–9, passim: Pop.1283–6, passim.
  • 147. EEN, 17 April 1936, p.5.
  • 148. See, for example, MoHR, 1932, pp.139–46.
  • 149. PBC Mins, 1937–8, p.327.
  • 150. Pop.1284, facing p.141.
  • 151. Swenarton, op.cit., p.11.
  • 152. LCC Mins, 1930, ii, p.932; 1933, i, p.738; 1933, ii, pp.131–2, 199; 1935, i, p.760; 1936, i, p.84.
  • 153. LCC Mins, 1927, i, pp.244–5; 1933, ii, p.359; 1935, ii, p.26.
  • 154. LCC Mins, 1934, i, p.302.
  • 155. Outlook, The Magazine of the Presbyterian Church of England, Dec 1967, p. 12.
  • 156. ELA, 6 Dec 1930, p.5.
  • 157. ELA, 6 Dec 1930, p.8.
  • 158. The Further History of The Bethnal Green & East London Housing Association Ltd., 1936.
  • 159. DNB, pp.473–4: EEN, 22 Nov 1935, p.4: The Isle of Dogs Housing Society Ltd., c1936.
  • 160. LCC Mins, 1934, i, p.302.
  • 161. LCC/MIN/7295, pp.716, 885; LCC/MIN/7298, pp.353, 456–7, 506–7.
  • 162. Pop.1284, p.122.
  • 163. MoHR, 1926–37.