Downham Estate: Its Origins and Early History

by Alistair Black

Infrastructure, Transport, Leisure and Services

The housing problem in London, even in the 1920's, was greater than elsewhere because most of the vacant land for building was in outlying districts, and often too far ftom people's place of work to be at all convenient. London was at a disadvantage compared with smaller cities where land for new housing estates was available not more than 15 minutes train ride from where people might have to work in the inner areas.

For the early residents of Downham good travel facilities were essential. This was especially true in view of the fact that the expansion of light industry around London's periphery, and the prospects for local employment which it brought with it, did not really get underway until well into the 1930's. Residents on the estate were served in the east by Grove Park Station (opened in 1871) with its direct link to central London. As a result of the estate's construction the number of tickets issued increased ftom 71,133 in 1924 to 929,626 in 1934. This latter figure includes 12,041 season tickets.

Western and southern areas of the estate were served by omnibus and tram. Because most of the estate was situated within the LCC's administrative boundary, the Council could itself provide the tramway service. This was extended from Rushey Green (Catford) to Southend Village in April 1914; and from Southend Village to a terminus along Downham Way in September 1926. The final link with Grove Park Station was made in November 1928. A bus service for the estate was to come only much later.

A number of open spaces were provided an the estate. The land on either side of Spring Brook (32 acres at the southern edge of the estate), because of waterlogging, was unsuitable for house-building, but improved drainage rendered it suitable for playing fields. Some 21 acres were also reserved for playing fields off Whitefoot Lane to the north; and in the centre of the estate steep slopes, again unsuitable for building purposes, provided a further 31 acres of open space.

Moreover, just outside the northern boundary could he found the 24-acre Forster Park, opened in 1922. In 1930 the spacious Downham Tavern was opened. This was the only public house included in the plan of the estate. It is true that just a single public house was hardly adequate to serve a population of 29,000, but one must view this in the context of the temperance orientation of the LCC at the time. It was hoped that facilities like the Downham Tavern could evolve into family establishments rather than the drinking dens of the past.

Downham boasted a large cinema, The Splendid, opened in July 1930 with 2244 seats. In the late 1930s other important facilities emerged, including a local branch library and a swimming pool.

As education authority for the greater part of the estate, the LCC built seven elementary schools for 5,816 children, a central school for 800 children, an open-air school for 130 children, and by 1930 had reserved a site for a secondary school. In addition the borough of Bromley provided on its section of the estate a school for 1,040 children.

Five sites on the estate were sold off for the construction of churches and chapels.