It all began with fields. These were turned into large houses with even larger gardens which were then turned into small houses with smaller gardens and blocks of flats with no gardens at all. And that is the history of St. Martin’s Estate. Of course a few things happened in between.
Up to the 1820s, Tulse Hill was a rural area, largely dominated by farms and small hamlets. Even then, however, London’s population was expanding and had already passed the 1 million mark. With a growing empire, a rapidly expanding industrial base and greatly increased international trade, Britain’s capital city was growing in proportion. More people need more space, an almost inevitable driving force that continues to this day.
It was intended from the outset, that the new development in the form of the roads of Tulse Hill and Upper Tulse Hill, planned in the 1820s, was to be a very upmarket area with a prohibition on the construction of houses costing less than £700, a lot in those days, though many were to cost a lot more like the £4,400 for Kenilworth at 157 Tulse Hill, a vast Gothic mansion of high Victoriana built in 1888, the last of Tulse Hill’s great houses. This was to be a grand area, what we might call today a stockbroker belt. Remember, cities then, and especially London, were frequently crowded, noisy, dirty, dangerous and smelly places: London was not get a proper sewer system until the 1860s. Cities were something to be escaped from, for those who could afford it. Driven by Britain’s rising economy, the middle class was rapidly growing and part of its aspiration was the acquisition of a large, impressive home that acted as a sanctuary from the workplace, housing not only the owner but his (it was nearly always a man) non-working wife and a complement of servants to tend to the house’s often not inconsiderable needs. In the days before mechanised public transport, an elegant house outside a city centre would also need its own stables. It was against this backdrop that the original houses in Tulse Hill were constructed, one at a time to satisfy the social ambitions of those who could afford them. Thus the area acquired very large houses with enormous gardens, gardens that could almost be described as grounds.
The first council estates
Times change. Attitudes change. Fashions change. Economic assumptions change. With the expansion and mechanisation of public transport, the Tulse Hill area was gradually enveloped by smaller, cheaper, late Victorian houses coming up from Brixton Hill on one side and Herne Hill on the other. It is interesting to note that these houses are still standing, whereas virtually all the original grand houses, with a few exceptions, have long been demolished. But it was the First World War that really changed everything. This caused a massive economic and social realignment. The grand houses that were once constructed to display the owner’s status, now looked like liabilities. Without the constant attention of servants to keep them tended, and some had separate servants’ staircases, these houses would not have been pleasant places to live: without a coal fire in most rooms, they would have been like ice-boxes in Winter. They were originally built on the unspoken assumption of cheap labour, cheap coal and cheap servants. After the First World War, these assumptions were increasingly under threat. But other issues played a part too. While it might seem strange now, all these grand houses were leasehold tenures! Some of the leases were not that long. In some parts of London, for instance, leases on newly built houses could be as little as 40 years. In any case, even on a 99 year lease, some of the original houses would have been nearing the end of their time. There were other factors too. These types of houses had simply fallen out of fashion, often appearing as gloomy relics of a bygone age.
But there was yet another factor that led to the first demolitions. There was a massive concentration of poverty, overcrowding and bad housing in the north of Lambeth – the very thing that the richer people once wanted to escape. Lambeth Council, or its predecessor, Lambeth Metropolitan Borough Council created in 1900, wouldn’t have existed even at the time of the construction of the last ‘grand house’ in 1888, but London was continuing to expand at a relentless rate requiring the creation of new councils and other systems of local administration. It had moved from a population of 1 million in 1800 to 8.6 million by 1939. Lambeth was under pressure. The big houses with their huge gardens in its jurisdiction seemed to offer a partial answer. Many were compulsorily purchased and then demolished. The first new large scale council housing development in the area was the Tulse Hill Estate, much of it completed in 1938. An area that might once have housed perhaps one hundred people was now housing possibly around 2,500.
This trend was to continue. World War Two, or more importantly its after-effects, provided a fresh impetus to social housing.
Building the estate
St. Martin’s Estate, under the auspices of London County Council, was begun in the High Trees area in the late 1950s.
- The 1950 electoral register, has 2-44 Abbotts Park, and 53 & 55 High Trees.
- The Ewen Crescent area, including Bell House, is shown on OS maps dated July 1957.
- Part of High Trees segment appears on 1959 electoral register. The remainder, including Burnell & Baldwin Houses then first appear in the 1960 register.
“We were one of the first families to move into St Martin’s estate” remembers Lynda. “We were in Morrison house in 58/9. They were still building a lot of the other blocks for quite a few years. They built the estate starting at the top of High Trees. The worked their way down from there. A year or so later I was admitted to hospital suffering with from Wile’s disease. The rats from the building site had peed on my skipping rope and I had somehow caught the disease. I was about 4 at the time”.
The estate consisted originally mainly of about 18 six-storey blocks and some two-storey houses. One block, Terry House, also included in its ground floor a series of shops and, as part of the same building, a library, which was opened in 1962 and now houses the High Trees Community Development Trust. The construction of St. Martin’s Estate as originally envisaged, appears to have been completed by the mid 1970s, consisting of approximately 1,300 dwellings housing an estimated population of approximately 5,000, the size of a market town
According to Lambeth Architecture by Bird and Price “Gill [one of the architects] also designed the County Hotel in 1940 and the Tavistock Hotel in 1951, both in Bloomsbury. He was in partnership with the traditional architect Sir Albert Richardson between 1906 and 1939”.
“My family moved in via a mutual exchange in 1967 and were the second family to live [in Harbin House]” remembers Laura. “We had communal launderettes on the estate back then (ours was in the scout hut)”
Under pressure from central government, the Greater London Authority was gradually devolving its responsibilities to local councils before its final dissolution in 1986, and so it was that St. Martin’s Estate was transferred to Lambeth Council around 1982. By this stage however, the quality of life of the estate was slowly and gradually deteriorating with a run-down appearance becoming more obvious. Repairs were taking ever longer, if, indeed, they occurred at all and the general administration seemed poorer than under the GLC. Lambeth Council, however, must have developed some awareness of the situation for around 1990, it built an estate office on Roupell Road. This appeared to mark a gradual turnaround: the rate of steady deterioration seemed to slow and things began improving a little. A programme of block renovation for at least the oldest part of the estate was drawn up. Lambeth began with Terry, Harbin, Godolphin and Sheppard Houses which had a full renovation, including new roofs, central heating and entryphone systems – and that’s as far as they got. The council had run out of money to complete the job – and that’s why to this day in 2014 these four blocks have different roofs to all the others.
In September 2002 the new roof of Sheppard House went on fire in a torrential rainstorm – assisted by thunder.
More minor changes were happening to the estate in the meantime. In the early 1990s, for instance, Neil Wates Crescent, a small development of mainly two-storey houses, was added to the estate. While technically this housing association development was not actually part of St. Martin’s, it might as well have been for all access was through the estate. Over the next few years a few three storey blocks were added to this little development, thus creating Gemma Knowles Close which required the demolition of an inter-war vintage four storey block.
In 1995 the library finally closed its doors and the building was boarded up.
It was around the late 1990s that the next major development occurred. In a campaign headed by Janice Owens, the whole estate was transferred, under a government backed regeneration scheme, to a group of three housing associations, Presentation, South London and Metropolitan, which became known as The St. Martins Community Partnership. It was eventually decided by ballot and there were many promises made at the time. The estate needed repairs but the regeneration money was only on condition of transfer to the coalition of housing associations formed to take over the estate.
The old library was brought back into use as an office to plan the major works and once it was no longer required for this role in 1998, it was handed over to the High Trees Community Development Trust. A new housing office was constructed at the junction of Upper Tulse Hill and High Trees which in turn was closed down around 2012 as a cost saving measure. At the time of writing in late 2014, it remains empty and derelict.
A full renovation was undertaken on the estate over the next few years. It is worth noting, however, that there was an attempt to renege on some of the promises such as the commitment to keep the garages: there was also an initial refusal to include balcony doors in the double-glazing programme. After considerable protest from the residents, the new landlords were pressurised into fulfilling their promises, at least in regard to the items above. The original commitment to keep a permanent estate office, alas, was eventually abandoned.
Overall, the renovation programme effected a considerable improvement in the quality of life, particularly in the fostering of some sense of community with had been almost entirely absent before. The coming together of many residents for the first time in the various associated consultation and training processes ushered in a hitherto unknown level of contact and communication. This development was further enhanced by the establishment of the High Trees Community Development Trust which also brought many local residents together on various training courses and other social functions.
Over the years the St. Martin’s Community Partnership logo has gradually disappeared to be replaced by that of Metropolitan Housing Trust who continue to manage the estate on behalf of the other two. Amicus Horizon, however, has replaced South London, and Notting Hill has replaced Presentation.
Almost inevitably with the passage of time on such a large estate, further developments and constructions took place. The old Roupell Road estate office was demolished to be replaced by a low rise block. Around 2005, Edwards House, a six-storey block adjacent to the shops on Upper Tulse Hill was constructed, though by a different housing association.
In January 2007 Michael Edwards was murdered on this estate. You can read the full story here
By far the largest development on the estate since its original construction however, was the erection of a large new school on the site of the old Fenstanton primary school which had stood for many years. The new building, completed in 2013, housed a new Fenstanton primary school and the City Heights academy. As part of this development, a long-unused wasteland bordered by Neil Wates Crescent and Maskall Close (the Dip Site) was converted to a multi-pitch, floodlit sports area complete with full changing facilities for use by school pupils and local youth. This entire development was carried out against strong opposition by local residents who feared disruption caused by cramming too many people onto too small a site. The protests prompted a very extensive consultation process by Lambeth Council once it had overcome its initial shock and it is possible that the lessons learnt resulted in a far lesser impact than was once feared. It has to be said, therefore, that at least at the time of writing (November 2014), virtually none of the fears once so strongly held by the residents have been realised.
St. Martin’s Estate lurches on.
The Life and Times of St. Martin’s Estate © Stephen Kearney November 2014
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