During the First World War, the British government recognised the need for better housing to be provided for workers. Little house-building had taken place since 1910 and there was a severe shortage of suitable accommodation. The Russian Revolution in 1917 provoked fear that the same could happen in Britain when servicemen returned to overcrowded slums in the inner cities, or had to share with relatives.
As a result, the Prime Minister, Lloyd George made housing policy one of the main issues of the December 1918 election, declaring a few days after the Armistice in November: ‘What is our task? To make Britain a country fit for heroes to live in’. Adapted to ‘Homes fit for Heroes’, this became one of the most memorable political slogans of the twentieth century. The government accepted that the scale of the problem was too great for either the private sector or housing associations to deal with. Lloyd George’s election victory was followed by legislation which for the first time required local authorities to survey the housing needs in their areas, submit plans for development, required them to provide working-class housing (previously it was at their discretion) and made central government subsidies available to cover losses. The Ministry of Health took over responsibility for housing with the aim of improving not just the quantity but also the quality of new buildings. Homes should be ‘fit’ for heroes, constructed on garden city principles like those built before the war in Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb. There were to be no more terraces on straight roads, but instead small groups of cottage style houses laid out on tree-lined curved roads or cul-de-sacs with green areas. More generous interior spaces were to be provided than found in older working class housing. The policy was set out in a Housing Manual issued in 1919.
The new Garden City ideas also influenced the Dulwich Estate. Their general policy was changed so that builders were no longer charged for land according to the width fronting onto the road; the calculation had resulted in the construction of many late Victorian and Edwardian houses on narrow strips of land with long back extensions. From 1919, the overall size of the plot determined the cost. As an example of what was required, one of the Estate Governors, the architect Edwin Hall, drew up plans for the development of three new villages at the northern end of the estate where land on both sides of Red Post Hill could be used. One site, that of the former Casino House on Herne Hill, had been available since the house was demolished in 1906, and in 1909 a garden city development had been proposed by local resident, Frank Trier, the prime mover behind the creation of Ruskin Park. Despite the Dulwich Estate agreeing for the first time to a 200 year lease, sufficient funds could not be raised by the developers at the time.
The new plans, approved in principle by the Governors in January 1919, included innovative features such as provision for tennis courts, a Montessori Nursery and a public hall. The houses were not intended for the working classes but for ‘those engaged in the City, in banks and offices of all kinds, shops etc, and generally for the poorer middle classes of whom many thousands are now in the Army and Navy’. Because of the shortages of materials and the high price of labour at the time, the Governors were not at all sure how the scheme could be financed. They proposed that architects should design the houses and residents of Dulwich who were willing to build twelve or more houses should try and arrange a subsidy from the government. This turned out to be not possible and in September, the Governors transferred the land to the Dulwich Estates Public Utility Society, a form of housing association, to take advantage of potential subsidies.
Shortly afterwards, control of Camberwell Borough Council, the local authority for the area, changed to a Labour majority for the first time and work was started on the Survey of Housing Needs that the government had requested several months earlier. The Survey found that the Council needed to provide 2183 new houses in the borough. This figure took into account the increase in population since before the war and did not include the number of properties that it was estimated could be built by private builders or housing associations. The Ministry was told that, apart from some small sites in Nunhead, only Dulwich in the borough had sufficient land available for building. The Council was advised to use its powers of compulsory purchase if the Dulwich Estate was not prepared to hand over suitable sites.
The Ministry was so anxious to see building take place that the Office of Works, was asked to draw up a plan for flats on the 16 acre site of the former Casino House and gardens. Its first scheme in January 1920 proposed 1700 dwellings, some in eight storey blocks. This proved highly controversial and was soon rejected after the Ministry of Health set out the principles it wanted adopted in Camberwell. These stated that the Casino House site should be developed by the Council on a long lease from the Dulwich Estate, if purchase of the land was not possible; and the layout should accord with the Estate’s proposals. A cottage development of up to 20 dwellings per acre with some three storey tenements was recommended. The Ministry also said that the Office of Works should undertake the work, Raymond Unwin, the architect of Hampstead Garden Suburb and adviser to the Ministry, would have to agree the site layout, and the house plans should use the standard types set out in the government’s Housing Manual. S B Russell, chief architect at the Ministry, would have to approve them.
The Dulwich Estate refused to sell their land to the Council but the Governors did eventually accept a 200 year lease for the Casino site, aware that, if they did not agree, large portions of land in the centre of the estate could also be taken by Camberwell under its powers of compulsory purchase. A lease at least gave the Governors the opportunity to agree terms, such as that the land should only be used for residential purposes and 1½ acres of gardens at the southern end (now Sunray Gardens) should be maintained as a public open space, with the lake, which the Council wanted to fill in, retained. At the same time, Camberwell scored a considerable success in persuading the Office of Works to employ direct labour provided by the local trades council. The Town Clerk argued that this would reduce costs and local unemployment by eliminating the contractor. Work was able to start soon after the lease was signed in April and by June 1920 the Camberwell scheme for providing labour was hailed in Cabinet by the First Commissioner of Works, the chemical millionaire, Sir Alfred Mond, as ‘completely satisfactory from the start’ with no disputes.
Building work was completed by November 1921 a few months after two smaller sites in Camberwell, at Hawkslade and Lanbury Roads, Nunhead. 154 dwellings were built on what was then called the Casino Estate or just over thirteen to the acre if Sunray Gardens was excluded. 30 of these were Type A - three bedroom houses with a living room and scullery, 100 were Type B with an additional parlour and there were 24 three bedroom flats. The cost, however, exceeded the estimate by about 20 % as the price of labour and materials continued to rise.
Meanwhile, the Dulwich Estates Public Utility Society found it could not raise the funds to develop the adjacent 13 ½ acre Sunray Avenue site and was severely criticized by the Council for only building a few houses for sale in Turney Road (Roseway). Camberwell, on the other hand, was able to raise sufficient loans, most of the money coming from the Prudential at 6¾ % interest, and was granted another 200 year lease for the additional land.
On the Sunray Estate, work started by June 1921 and was finished by November 1922. Here the accommodation provided was similar to the earlier development, with 20 Type A three bedroom houses, 88 Type B with an additional parlour, but with the addition of 14 Type B4 larger four bedroom houses. 16 three-bedroom flats completed the scheme. The Office of Works broadly accepted the road layout proposed by Dulwich and its Estates Surveyor, C E Barry, but at a higher density of housing with 138 instead of 94 dwellings, or about 10 to the acre. The groups of semi-detached houses with long gardens proposed by the earlier Dulwich plans were replaced by a more imaginative mixture of housing. Archways and alleyways linked quiet cul-de-sacs to the main routes and generous landscaping and green open spaces added to the rural setting. The village atmosphere was enhanced by the two-storey cottage-style houses with steeply-pitched clay tiled roofs and small-paned casement windows.
The demand for council properties to rent was huge, and the waiting list for the Sunray Estate was closed when it reached 3,000 applicants. Properties were allocated to those with the greatest housing need rather than to returning servicemen. The Town Clerk described to the Ministry of Health the desperate situation of some of the applicants: a man, his wife and four children in one room in Peckham; six adults and three children in three rooms in Blackwater Street, Lordship Lane. He said many cases had to be turned down because, although families were living in unhealthy and overcrowded conditions, they could not afford to pay the rent fixed by the Ministry, a complaint also made by members of the armed forces.
Although a major step forward, the ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ campaign proved to be short-lived. Nationally, over 200,000 houses were built under the government’s assisted housing scheme, mostly by local authorities, but government subsidies ceased for new developments in 1921 because of the economic depression and rising costs. By the end of 1922, Camberwell had built 386 houses and 56 flats under the scheme, most of them on the Casino and Sunray Estates. However, in November, the Labour party lost control of Camberwell Council to the Municipal Reform Party and no more council houses were built in the borough over the next three years.
Main sources: The National Archives, Ministry of Health file HLG 48/33; Office of works file WORK 6/135/2; Dulwich Estates Minutes; Camberwell BC Minutes (Housing Committee minutes not currently available due to the Cuming Museum fire); Mark Swenarton, Homes fit for Heroes, 1981.