Ian McInnes recounts the extraordinary story of Dulwich’s Post-War D.I.Y. builders
This article is based on a memoir put together by Ronald A Dalley, one of the original members of the housing society. In the spring of 1952 he saw an advertisement in the South London Press asking for individuals interested in forming a self-build housing group to come to a meeting at the Enterprise Pub in Camberwell. At that time it was difficult to obtain a new house anywhere in London due to the housing shortage caused by the war - you had to apply to the local council to be included on a waiting list, either to rent a council house or to obtain a permit to build. There were a limited number of permits and there was no chance of receiving one if your existing accommodation was considered adequate.
He reported that attendance at the meeting was very good, and the society was set up there and then - a Chairman and Secretary were elected, and the attendees agreed to call the group 'The Enterprise (Camberwell) Housing Society Ltd' - after the pub.
The first thing the group had to do was to find a vacant site within commuting distance of the majority of the members’ homes. Small search units were formed but they had little initial success and membership numbers started to fall. It seems that one of the more persistent groups finally made contact with the Dulwich College Estate and received a positive response. Following a meeting with the Estate Chairman, three sites were identified, a large area in Jasper Road and smaller areas in Dulwich Wood Avenue and Red Post Hill by North Dulwich Station. A detailed survey established that twenty houses could be built at Jasper Road, two on Dulwich Wood Avenue, and three at Red Post Hill, making a total of twenty five. The members knew that the Estate would be very concerned with the design of homes and, to facilitate approval, they decided to retain the services of Austin Vernon & Partners, the Dulwich Estate architects, to prepare some initial plans.
While waiting for planning permission, the members formed a training programme to help train those members with no building experience. A site was located in Church Street, Camberwell and the tradesmen members provided instruction at weekends in plumbing, bricklaying and carpentry, using text books. This enabled the less experienced to become familiar with the various building terms and tools. At this point the membership was three short and the remaining members agreed to choose new ones on the basis of their skills - a general foreman to lead the group, together with an additional carpenter and a plasterer.
Following a further meeting with the architects the design of the houses was agreed - Ronald Dalley emphasises that the wives were in attendance! The majority preferred a conventional house layout, though there were a few advocates for open plan, and there was a preference for a central heating system, hardwood doors, a separate toilet and bathroom upstairs, an airing closet and an attached garage. Confident that the Dulwich Estate would approve the chosen house design, the group approached the London County Council (LCC) for a mortgage loan to purchase materials - the land was acquired on a 99 year lease term so no money was needed for land purchase. The mortgage was £28,000 to cover the total estimated list of materials and the group agreed to control their withdrawals to avoid the payment of interest. Members agreed that the Society would remain solely owned by them, each member was to purchase a share valued at £100 to be redeemed only when and if the group disbanded. The group registered with the ‘National Federation of Housing Societies' and the General $ecretary, a Miss Merrylees, was apparently a great help with dealings with the local council. At that time the group were the only self-build group in the Greater London area to be registered with the Federation.
Enabling works started In February 1953 with the purchase of some used fencing and steel posts for a security fence around the Jasper Road site. Some site clearing was needed and there was an old house on the corner of Jasper Road and Farquhar Road which had to be demolished - though initially it served as a site office/tea room. The first building to be constructed was a store for bags of cement and this apparently proved a good way to practise laying bricks.
Pending confirmation of the financial arrangements for the LCC mortgage, initial tasks were restricted to those that did not require any financial outlay. Hand excavation of the main sewer pipe and the pipe excavation to connect each house was completed early in May 1953 and the ground was then levelled to make it easier for marking out the foundation excavation. At this time the group was working weekends only and Dalley reports that the bricklayers were very keen to keep up their practice sessions. They proceeded to build walls to greater heights (lifts) using scaffolding and boards (which had been purchased second hand). They also obtained a used cement mixer which proved to be a considerable advancement on mixing by hand. A bonus was a scale model of the timber roof rafters and supporting beams which the carpenters found very helpful.
In June 1953 the LCC confirmed that financing was approved and the building permit was issued to enable work to start - the first task was the foundations which were excavated by hand.
The actual construction started in September 1953, concrete foundations were poured, and bricks delivered. The group had problems initially arranging for a Saturday delivery to suit them (in those days most people still worked on Saturday mornings) but managed to find cooperative companies that were willing to do it.
There was a good working relationship on the site and the members became good friends - everyone was encouraged to bring a sandwich and a hot drink and were asked to stop at the same time for a one hour lunch break - with 15 minute breaks in the morning and afternoon for a cup of tea. As the weather improved, the wives came to visit their husbands on a Sunday afternoon. The children also played with each other and Dalley thought it was very special to have the family involved, more so since all the members had all agreed to forego their annual summer holiday to spend it building the houses.
In July 1954 a small group started to clear the bushes on the opposite side of the road - a big task as the bushes were very large. Site preparation and excavation of foundations was started at the end of August and bricklaying commenced in September. At the same time work on the first sixteen houses on the other side of the road was progressing well and the interiors were underway. The plasterer was retained full time to provide the right quality of finish and the carpenters were busy installing the staircase, window sills, hanging doors and trim surrounds - the doors and stair panels were all mahogany plywood. They looked so good that one of Dalley’s friends, a French polisher, suggested he polish the doors, stair panels, hand rails and window sills - almost every house was finished this way. The final job was laying the Armstrong Asphalt floor tiles to the lower level of each completed house. The lower floor had to be a cement finish over poured concrete- due to a Government regulation, houses built at that at that time, could only have one floor of timber - possibly to conserve timber imports from overseas.
When the LCC was first approached with the mortgage application the group were asked to submit a list of all members - they presented this list by family grouping, which the LCC accepted. The group also decided that all houses would be allocated on family size. The first names drawn were for the two child families, followed by the one child families, and the final (and smallest group) were for families without children. Dalley was fortunate to have his name selected for the first house in the one child group and this enabled the task of choosing interior paint colours, floor tile patterns and fireplace tile surround design much sooner - it also boosted the enthusiasm of each member when he knew that he was working on his own house.
The Bruces were the first family to move in October 1954 (into No. 10 Jasper Road), followed shortly after by the Clarke family into No. 8 and the Ott family into No. 12. Dalley moved into No. 6 in December. He wrote “I remember it very well, as our four year old son Stephen, for most of his young memory had been living in a house building atmosphere. Most days he dressed in his pretend working clothes, putting his lunch into a paper bag, and rode his tricycle around the living room of our upstairs rented rooms, on his way to his pretend building site. Mrs Green, who lived below us, was I am sure, very pleased when we moved. My wife and I can still recall how excited $tephen was to be living in the house, which was surrounded by building activity, and couldn't wait to get outside.”
The building programme moved to Dulwich Wood Avenue - the site was much easier to work as it was a level cleared area. The team were only building one pair of houses and, with the experience gained, they were able to complete the houses much sooner. At the same time some bricklayers remained at Jasper Road and built walls along the garden frontage, using the same colour bricks as the houses - all incorporated brick piers for the house and garage entrances.
During the building period the site was visited by a number of newspaper reporters. They wanted details of the project and also took photographs of the members working on the site. Dalley reports that not all of the articles were reported correctly, and that, as a result of the articles, they often had interested people visiting the site and asking how to set up a similar group.
The last house was finished at Red Post Hill in the autumn of 1956 The houses were rented from the Society, and it was Dalley’s responsibility to collect rent payments, which he then passed to the treasurer who then made the monthly mortgage payment to the LCC. In 1962 he and his family moved to Canada – his most vivid recollection of the whole period was the moving of the cement mixer (it had steel wheels) from Jasper Road to Red Post Hill - towed behind a car, with a bicycle escort, and shattering the peaceful afternoon atmosphere in Dulwich village.