From country to suburb: The why and the how of suburban development. A universal phenomenon with examples from south-east London.


Speculative development

Involvement in the process of building suburbs has been a very risky thing indeed. The process of building has relied on a number of intricate relationships that have both spread the risk and made it more complicated. The key players in the process are the freeholder, the builder, the financier, sometimes a development company combining some of these functions and, of course the, consumer.

The typical process was for a freeholder to decide that housing would offer more profits over the longer term than agriculture, then for land to be let to builders, or sold or let to a managing agent or development company, which then let to builders. Many factors could influence freeholders in this decision. A depressed agricultural market, as in north Kent in the inter-war years, stimulated development in much of Bexley and Bromley. The enclosure of common land as at Dulwich in 1805 and 1808, or on Bexleyheath in 1812 and 1814, when land as distributed amongst the area’s freeholders, brought new land into the market and gave the new freeholders the confidence to speculate. In the case of Bexleyheath this was a safe speculation as the common was already being squatted by settlers working in the developing cloth industry in nearby Crayford. The building of new infrastructure, sometimes by the landowner, as in the case of the building of the Bexleyheath Railway by Alfred Bean of Danson, Bexley, in the 1890s and sometimes by others such as the Surrey Canal in Peckham and Camberwell, were also important considerations.

Some freeholders stood resolutely against development. The Dulwich Estate resisted the temptation to allow development even though it could have brought them spectacular profits. Occasionally estates were ready for development, but the estate managers were unable to set up building leases due to existing leases on farms or big houses. This was the case with the Haberdashers’ Estate at New Cross where 150 year leases made in the 18th century delayed development until the 1880s.

In the Victorian period there was usually a large number of small building firms were involved, and this reflected in the slight variation in style of different terraces of houses in the same area or street. East Dulwich and Plumstead provide good examples today. There were some larger firms. Edward Yates was a dominant name in Walworth and Nunhead in the late 19th century and New Ideal Homesteads in the 1930s in Bexley and Bromley. In the Victorian period building leases were typically 99 years and when this time was up the freeholder took outright ownership and direct management of the houses. In the intervening years the builder or his agent or the development company managed the houses and took as much in rent as the market allowed.