Downham Estate: Its Origins and Early History

by Alistair Black

Early Residents and the Ambience of the Estate

Who were the people who came to live at Downham in its early years? As agreed before the estate was built, a significant number of residents came from the boroughs of Deptford and Bermondsey. It is also likely that many residents originated in other inner London areas and came to Downham in an attempt to escape the severe housing deprivation existing in those areas.

Most residents did not belong to the lowest income groups. That is to say, a high percentage could be classed as skilled or semi-skilled: clerks, drivers, compositors, printers, postal workers, civil servants, railway workers, engineers, firemen, bricklayers and tram workers; although there was also a solid number of labourers among the early residents. The respectability of early residents meant that most took the cue to maintain their properties in the condition they first found them. In order to encourage this further, in 1930 the LCC launched an annual competition for the best-kept garden.

There appears to have been a correlation between the relatively high rates charged at Downham and the ability of residents to pay. This was similar to the general experience of inter-war state housing. The market for local authority houses was confined to a limited range of income groups. Certainly at Downham it proved difficult for the LCC not to favour reliable, 'respectable' tenants who were likely to be good rent-payers. However, it is certainly the case that a small number of residents, many no doubt afflicted by the plague of unemployment, drifted back to the inner city areas because of the high rents: the 'moonlight flit' was not an uncommon occurrence.

A more common reason for some residents deciding to return to inner-London districts than an inability to pay their rent was lack of familiarity with, and alienation from, the new environment they found at Downham. An observer writing in 1949 gave this indictment of the estate at Downham:

'The estate, as a measure of the level of thought put into a model housing scheme, is disappointing. Twenty years after its construction this much heralded scheme looks as outmoded as the dodo. Strung together in rows, little street leading into little street, dun- coloured, mouselike, humble, the estate is the most colourless collection of box dwellings that one could find. Each house is in itself a very long way from the slums of Bermondsey, but in view of the opportunity offered by such a scheme, the place is a crushing disappointment.'

By importing into the design the urban characteristics of uniformity and a rigid building line, planners denied the possibility of accident and natural growth that is inherent in the idea of the village. Attempts were made to scale down monotony by building roads curved or straight, long and short, wide and narrow, and by adding squares, crescents and circuses. However, on balance, a critic may have suggested that it was the similarities, not the differences which impressed. Further, in order to economise and save time, it was found to be all too easy to clear away shrubs and trees, instead of building around them. The result, in general, was a lack of greenery on the estate, although some trees were in evidence and privets provided much welcomed relief from bricks and mortar.

Some residents undoubtedly drifted back to the close-knit communities and to the crowded tenements and terraced housing they had left behind. Here would be found the accessiblestreet corner shop or pub and, perhaps more important, a cohesive community of relatives and friends.

After a time, of course, Downham did begin to assume some of the characteristics of the inner district neighbourhoods, developing a tentative but identifiable sense of community and kinship, solidified by the emergence of a first generation born and bred on the estate.