Downham Estate: Its Origins and Early History

by Alistair Black

The Rural Vision

The LCC inter-war housing achievement was not just a question of numbers. It was also about the building of much improved dwellings. The desire to improve quality was a key characteristic of the Garden City movement, which in the decades before the First World War proclaimed a new concept in housing: a rejection of the city and a search for an alternative based on the countryside and the village.

The way had already been shown by the work of philanthropic employers in providing good quality housing for their labour force, as in the case of the soap manufacturer W.H. Lever at Port Sunlight (1888), and the cocoa king Joseph Rowntree at New Earswick (1901).

The aim of the Garden City movement was to avoid the high densities and squalid living conditions which so characterized the nineteenth-century city by creating towns of a limited size (around 30,000 in population) separated ftom other urban areas by an agricultural green belt.

The estate at Downham, though satisfying this plan by virtue of size of population, did not quite fit with the Garden City concept in terms of satellite status. It was created, unmistakably, as a suburb of London, linked to the metropolis economically, socially and politically. However, at the level of the estate, Downham typified the environment which the Garden City promoted. Homes were designed in the vernacular cottage style. Small areas of turfed land created the village green effect.

It was argued that lower housing density could be provided for the same numbers but at lower cost, because road construction costs, which made up such a high proportion of total construction expenditure, could be cut by efficient design in layout in the village tradition: for example, by the clever use of the cul-de-sac.

Dwellings at Downham met Garden City standards - standards which were endorsed by the Ministry of Health between the wars as the official guidelines for local authority housebuilding. They included many luxuries which nineteenth century planners could barely have envisaged: a living room which was sun-lit; gas or electricity; hot and cold running water; large gardens; baths; a cooker or range; and the all-important indoor lavatory.