Downham Estate: Its Origins and Early History

by Alistair Black

Why the estate was needed

The Downham estate, like similar estates at the time, was conceived and developed as a direct result of the housing crisis and the emerging threat of social unrest that accompanied the First World War.

By the end of the war, about which time plans for the estate began to be formulated, the housing situation in London had reached crisis point. Even before 1914, demand had begun to outstrip supply. Between 1901 and 1911 the population of London grew by an astonishing 10%; the number of families increasing at an even faster rate, by nearly 13%. The pre-war house-building industry failed to meet adequately the increasing demand that resulted from London's population explosion.

The state too was slow to respond, for between 1891 and 1914, throughout Britain as a whole, an average of only 900 local authority dwellings were built annually.

The First World War turned what was a serious housing shortage into a crisis. As resources were diverted towards the war effort, an almost complete cessation of house-building ensued. The resulting overcrowding was particularly severe in London's inner ring of boroughs. In fact it was two of these boroughs, Deptford and Bermondsey, which first proposed the idea of an estate in the Grove Park area. However, Deptford and Bermondsey were not permitted under law to develop land in another district. It was therefore left to the LCC to consider their proposal and make reality of it. In overseeing the scheme, the LCC set aside around one-tenth of dwellings to families from Deptford and Bermondsey.

The genesis of the estate is also to be considered in the context of the social disaffection and volatile political situation that developed in the last two years of the war and in its immediate aftermath. Industrial unrest, deepening social problems (such as poor housing) and criticism of the conduct of the war, combined with the 'red scare' generated by the Russian revolution of 1917, produced a fear of social and political upheaval among the governing classes.

In response to this, and to improve the morale of soldiers and citizens alike, the wartime coalition government embarked on a policy of reconstruction, whereby promises for social and political renewal were laid before the people. One such policy was the 'Homes fit for heroes' housing initiative, which envisaged the construction of millions of affordable, high-standard council dwellings after the war.

A Housing Act, incorporating generous subsidies for local authorities, was passed in 1919. However, once the threat of revolution in Britain had subsided, which by 1921 it had done, such a generous housing policy was no longer needed, and subsidies were duly withdrawn. But Britain's dire housing shortage could not be ignored and so in 1923 subsidies were reintroduced - although at a much lower level. It was under these scaled-down subsidies that Downham was built.

Hence, the estate did not encompass the revolutionary high standards of design and the wide range of modem amenities which characterised the dwellings seen on similar estates built between 1919 and 1921. Many of the internal facilities did not match up to the high standards adopted in earlier schemes. For instance, sculleries were not plastered; some bathrooms were inconveniently situated on the ground floor; lighting was by gas only; and water had to be heated in a copper in the scullery and then transferred for the purpose of bathing by means of a small semi-rotary pump or syphonic apparatus.

This said, the dwellings provided at Downham were, for many residents, a world away from the dreadful, and in some cases insanitary, Victorian dwellings they had left behind.