Sunday 20 October 2019

Celebrating 100 years of Council housing in Brent

Drawing of new Council houses in a Close, from a 1921 Willesden Council booklet.
[Source: Brent Archives]

Guest post by Philip Grant

Last month, a Brent press release announced that work had begun on 149 new Council homes in Harlesden. It was welcome news, but a drop in the ocean compared with the need for affordable social housing for local people to rent.

Almost a year ago, I added a comment to a blog about the Council’s plans for the St Raphael’s Estate LINK, saying that Brent’s officers did not know their history, as they said that the estate was mainly built between 1967 and 1982. I can now share some more information about that history.

This year is the centenary of the 1919 Housing & Town Planning Act, seen by many as the start of Council housing in this country. In following up a local history enquiry on the subject*, I revisited a document I had seen in the Brent Archives collection a dozen years ago. And yes, Council housing in what is now Brent did begin 100 years ago.

In fact, Willesden Urban District Council had been considering building some homes for rent before the outbreak of the First World War. By November 1918, it had prepared plans for an estate at Stonebridge, an idea which had already been approved by the government under the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act.

Although there was the promise of Government subsidies towards the cost of building these homes, the Council had to borrow money first. It asked the Norwich Union Life Assurance company, but they would not make loans for Council housing schemes. In fact, it was a loan of £20,000 from the National Union of Railwaymen which got their first estate started!

The site for “Brent’s” first Council housing estate, at Stonebridge Farm.
[Reproduced from the 1914 edition of the Ordnance Survey 25” to one mile map of Middlesex, Sheet XVI.1]

Work should have begun on the Brentfield Estate (so called after an ancient field name) in 1919. Interference by various government departments, and the need to redraw the plans after it was decided that the proposed North Circular Road would run right through the site, delayed the start until the following year. The Council’s own workforce began building the roads and sewers in February 1920, and the contract for the first phase of the planned 591 houses was signed in May, with work underway by July 1920.

All of the houses on the estate had three bedrooms, and every one included a bath (the larger ones in a separate bathroom!). They each had a garden, and each kitchen was fitted with a cooking range (chosen by a sub-committee of the three women on Willesden’s Housing Committee). Were the rents affordable? After a dispute between the Council (which wanted to charge less) and the London Housing Board, a compromise figure of 12/6 (twelve shillings and sixpence) was agreed.

You can read about the building of the estate, including plans and some pictures, online in a facsimile edition of a Willesden U.D.C. booklet, with an introductory note, “Homes fit for Heroes – Willesden Council’s Brentfield Housing Scheme, at the Brent Archives website LINK

The booklet was written for the official handover of the first 65 homes in June 1921. 32 families (chosen from more than 1,000 who had applied) had already moved into the first street to be completed. Priority was given to Willesden ex-servicemen, with families living in the most overcrowded conditions. The handover celebrations took place in the grassy square at the centre of the street, which was pictured in the booklet:-

Drawing of new Council houses in Square, from a 1921 Willesden Council booklet.
[Source: Brent Archives]

It is almost 100 years since local people moved into these first Council homes in what is now Brent. They were designed as good family homes, or as the slogan for the 1919 Housing Act proclaimed “Homes fit for Heroes”. Using information from the time, I have located these first homes, in Mead Plat, and they are still providing decent homes for families today:-

These original houses, in Mead Plat and Garden Way, are now part of the St Raphael’s Estate (the name for the Council housing on the west side of the North Circular Road comes from a Church of England  “mission church”, which opened in Garden Way in 1926). Let’s hope that as many as possible of Brent’s new Council homes will be family houses, with gardens, which will provide decent affordable housing for another century!

Philip Grant
* The local history enquiry that prompted my research came from Cllr. Janice Long, who has a real interest in Council housing. I was able to tell her that the first Council homes in the north of Brent had been Kingsbury U.D.C.’s High Meadow Crescent estate in 1924/25, and Wembley U.D.C.’s Christchurch / Lyon Park estate in the early 1930’s.


News Items Forwarded by Alan Wheatley said...

Thanks, Philip and Martin

By coincidence, there is now this at Taxpayers Against Poverty website: TRASHING NARRATVE Trashing of characters of council tenants since 1997 to justify the destruction of their homes excludes millions of citizens from a fair share of UK wealth

Alan Wheatley

Chris Coates said...

Really interesting! Thanks Philip. Do you know what was the purpose of the building called 'The Palace' at the bottom of the inset map?

Alison Hopkins said...

I'm not Phillip and I'd need to fish out the books, but I've a feeling The Palace was an early cinema.

Martin Francis said...

I thought that was liekly - ir a dance hall?

Philip Grant said...

Dear Chris., Alison and Martin,

I'm sorry my reply has been delayed, but I've been away visiting my Dad!

I believe that "The Palace" was a music hall, built next to the "Coach & Horses" pub by its landlord, William "Jolly Jumbo" Ecclestone, in the early 1900's. It may well have been used later as a cinema.

The "Coach & Horses" had been known by that name since around 1790, but began life as "The Stonebridge", built beside a bridge across the eastern arm of the River Brent which dated from the late 17th century, when most local bridges had been of wood.

Ecclestone is an interesting local figure, a former heavyweight boxer (who weighed in at between 37 and 39 stones, hence his nickname, and was said to be the world's second heaviest man). At various times he was the landlord of pubs in Kilburn ("Canterbury Arms") and Alperton ("The Chequers" and "The Horn") as well. He also trained and managed other boxers.

Jumbo Ecclestone was also into building and property development. He and his wife, Anne, had Ecclestone Place built in Wembley (1904-1906), as homes for the working classes to rent.

He died in 1915, aged 52 - a shortish life, but a larger than life character.

Philip Grant said...

... and the Tramway Depot on the map?

That opened around 1908, as the base for the electric trams which ran from Paddington Station to "The Swan" at Sudbury. The trams were replaced by trolley buses (using the same overhead electric power lines) in the 1930's ...

... and when these in turn were replaced by diesel buses in the early 1960's, it became the Stonebridge bus garage ... which in the 1980's was converted to become Bridge Park!