Housing is not Enough

Somers Town became an overcrowded area over the course of the nineteenth century, with people drawn in to build the railways and canals. It was full of sooty courtyards and dusty backyard industries. The once decent housing had deteriorated and lives lived there were sometimes bleak. Children, it was reported early in the twentieth century, were as likely to play ‘Funerals’ as ‘Father and Mother’. The West London Mission was on Chalton St, surrounded by filthy hovels up until the 1920s. Policemen feared to pass there, but the Mission sisters’ moved unimpeded, helping the poor.

The Magdalen Mission was also in Somers Town. Stemming from Oxford University, it was concerned with improving the lives of the poor, under the auspices of a Christian welfare ethic. The Mission recognised that housing reform was needed. In 1921, Rev Ivo Hood, Magdalen College Missioner, proposed a housing scheme in Little Clarendon Street, or ‘Little Hell’, with the idea that an investment company be established, providing 4% interest. Basil Jellicoe, an Anglican priest, arrived as Missioner in 1921 and developed this proposal.

The St Pancras House Improvement Society transformed the landscape of slums. St Mary’s Flats, opened in 1928, were followed by St George’s Flats in 1930 – the first all-electric block in the United Kingdom. The site of St Christopher’s Flats was inaugurated through a huge bonfire of wood from the demolished buildings onto which were tossed cardboard and straw effigies of a cockroach, a rat, a bed bug and a flea. 

St Pancras House Improvement Society was founded by Fr. Basil Jellicoe, but he drew around him a team of people to help carry the project forward. Jellicoe was well-connected  from his days at Magdalen College and through the Church. He was able to draw on both the wealth of those he persuaded to invest in the project and the talents of those committed to housing reform. 

Amongst their number  was Edith Neville, who had a private income, and devoted herself to unpaid charitable work related to family welfare. She encouraged Irene Barclay to pursue a career as a surveyor in what was then an all-male profession. 

Barclay, in turn, came to work for nearly forty years as secretary for the SPHIS. This developed from her structural surveys of slum areas, including Somers Town in 1925. A socialist and passionate about housing issues, her role developed into that of a housing manager, who looked out for the pastoral care of her families.

In 1938, St Michael’s and St Anthony’s, were ready for inhabitation, after Basil Jellicoe’s untimely passing in 1935. The homes were of a good standard and with an affordable rent, and they completed the set of blocks adorned with Gilbert Bayes’ specially commissioned window lunettes and washing posts topped by charming finials in the multiple courtyards. 

Art in Everyday Life

The St Pancras House Improvement Society believed that working class people deserve to be surrounded by things of beauty to brighten the lives of residents: gardens, large courtyards and ornaments.  Ian B.M. Hamilton, a friend of Jellicoe, since university at Magdalen College, was engaged as architect for the blocks. 

On the Sidney Street Estate in Somers Town, the Camden Town based sculptor Gilbert Bayes provided art integrated in everyday life. Working with Royal Doulton on new procedures for polychrome salt-glazed ceramic designs, he devised geometrical clusters of washing line posts, topped by finials, sculptures of birds, ships, dragons and more. He also composed illustrative roundels for the spandrels of windows, each block featuring a different motif. These elements drew on themes from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, nursery rhymes and Biblical stories. 

In the centre courtyard of the Sidney Street Estate is Bayes’ clock, surrounded by brightly-coloured images representing the seasons. A public timepiece in a working class estate, it is the democratic counter-clock to Selfridge’s ‘Queen of Time’, made by Bayes in gilded bronze and polychrome relief, in 1931. Bayes’ frieze of the seasons suggests that, through its presence at the heart if a handsome estate, a certain natural order is restored, with the distorting impact of slum life annulled. It presides over a rural idyll, an Arcadian ideal, brought into the city, with the rhythms of planting, harvest, feasting and winter sheltering returned to the folk. 

Nowadays the finials are all lost, stolen or broken. There are a few lower quality replicas in some blocks, giving a sense of what the washing poles were like. Happily, the roundels depicting The Tinder Box, St George and the Dragon, The Little Mermaid and more still beam down. There are also fine iron work details.

Social Housing

This museum is in a  building within the Ossulston Estate. This estate, formed of Chamberlain, Walker and Levita Houses, was built between 1927 and 1931, overseen by architect  G. Topham Forest. The  design sensibility derived from the developments in public-housing in Vienna, specifically the Karl-Marx Hof. The ideas behind it were by no means as radical as those in Austria. The original design from 1925 imagined shops at street level, offices at the next and then two levels of superior flats and five floors of working-class accommodation above, segregated from their wealthier neighbours. The 1927 scheme held onto a mixed social profile, but was less divisive and built around the supply of light and air for all and a rooftop play area. Economic subsidy rules meant that the final scheme was exclusively for the working-class. Neville Chamberlain, Minister of Health and Housing, lent his name to one block, where we stand now, and laid the foundation stone on 1 February 1928.

A model estate, with central heating, it was a fine place to live. Over the years, it sank into and out of disrepair. In the 1980s, the Camden Journal and the St Pancras Chronicle, have story after story about tenants’ dissatisfaction with the state of homes. The Camden Journal of 17 October 1980 reported drainage problems at Levita House. Chalton Street was losing its small shops and becoming derelict. In Walker House, half of the flats were empty and boarded up. In the Camden New Journal, on 30 September 1982, there was a report of forty angry residents marching to the town hall with a jar of cockroaches from the Ossulston Estate. Squatters moved into empty flats. The inevitable eviction orders came, once the funds for renovation were received in 1984 from the GLC. But the battle to remove squatters was protracted. By the early 1990s, these blocks in Somers Town were refurbished and reopened. Now they are soon to be overshadowed by more major building projects to follow the Francis Crick and the British Library.