Downham Estate: Its Origins and Early History

by Alistair Black


The development of the Downham estate began in March 1924, and was complete by the summer of 1930. The estate covered an area of 522 acres, of which 461 acres were in the metropolitan borough of Lewisham, and 61 acres in the borough of Bromley; and extended from Old Bromley Road and Bromley Hill in the west to the Southern Railway and Baring Road in the east, a distance of about 1.25 miles.

Exactly 6,071 dwellings were provided, built at a total cost, inclusive of land and road costs, of 3,575,000. The majority of the dwellings were two-storey houses of brick construction, comprising 729 of five rooms (with parlour), 1,559 of four rooms (with parlour), 1,311 of four rooms (without parlour) and 2,060 of three rooms (without parlour). In buildings of two or three storeys, there were 64 flats of four rooms, 128 of three rooms, and 216 of two rooms.

By July 1930 the weekly rents for typical houses and flats, inclusive of rates and water charges, ranged from 12s Id (twelve shillings and a penny) for a two room flat, to 21s 5d (twenty-one shillings and fivepence) for a five room house. Each house and flat had a kitchenette and a bathroom in addition to the number of rooms stated.

The contract for construction was won by the London-based firm of Holland and Hannan and Cubitts, out of a total number of 33 tenders submitted. There were two main considerations in respect of the choice of this particular construction company. Firstly, they tendered the most economical price for the job. Secondly, because time was of the essence due to the fact that the state subsidy under the 1923 Housing Act was only payable on houses built by 1st October 1925 (though Downham was eventually built under the 1924 Act), it was thought that a single concern, promising the muscle and economies of scale large enough to carry out the task quickly and efficiently, should be appointed.

Holland and Hannan and Cubitts possessed the resources, diversity and experience to comply with the LCC's objectives for the estate. It was one of the country's largest building firms. The firm of Cubitts dated from the early nineteenth century and, amongst other ventures, had been responsible for the construction of the Thames Ernbankment. Following the merger between Cubitts and Holland and Hannan in the late nineteenth century, the new concern won large contracts in Liverpool and by 1913 had established an overseas subsidiary in South Africa.

By the inter-war period it was one of the relatively few numbers of large firms operating in the building industry, the complexion of the industry being dominated by small firms and subcontracting.

The only worrying construction problem which arose, other than the constant shortage of skilled labour, was that of access to such a vast site. The only points of access before the building of the main highway through the estate (Downhwn Way) were from the Bromley Road and Grove Park Station areas. Thus, it was decided to distribute the materials on the site principally by means of a standard gauge railway connected with the Southern Railway Company's system at Grove Park.

Holland and Hannan and Cubitts was responsible for the construction of the entire estate with the exception of some experimental houses of various types which were erected on the Bromley Road frontage of the estate. Amongst these were four steel houses at the foot of Bromley Hill which, said the promotional literature, could be made ready for occupation within three weeks of commencement. It was reported that the price of these steel dwellings compared favourably with that of brick dwellings.

Also, some concrete cottages were erected - four 'Prefacto' houses, built using a system of 'factocrete' units - by the London and Eastern Prefacto Company.

At Downham, as on all LCC estates, it was the policy of the Council's Housing Committee to use bricks as far as possible for building, but in view of the urgency of the housing problem, not to mention the scarcity of skilled labour, the opportunity was often taken to construct experimental houses of various types in the interests of possible future economics.

Unfortunately, we know little about the labour assigned to the construction of the estate over the six year period. However, we do know that by the end of 1925 some 1,500 men were at work on the site, and that dormitory accommodation for company workmen had been provided in a row of completed cottages at a weekly charge of six shillings each. It had been one of the recommendations of the Deptford and Bermondsey councils that 50% of the labour employed in the estate's construction be drawn from their districts, but it is not known if this early objective was met.