Poor housing

This month, Camden borough held a conference, A hundred years of council housing’. Its theme fits with my August blog describing the 1919 sell-off of parts of the Camden Town Estate. The government’s policy after the First World War was to build housing with public funds, providing employment and homes for returning soldiers as well as redirecting industry from war production. Camden Town was only lightly affected at the start of this period, with the mansion blocks of Highstone in Camden Road in the interwar period. But there was much more serious rebuilding happened after the Second World War, beginning with the St Pancras Way estate and then in the 1950s and 1960s when properties owned by the Church of England, around Camden Street, were sold to St Pancras borough.

Was rebuilding for ‘poor housing’ or ‘housing the poor’? Both – and they were linked. The first streets of Camden Town were set out east of the High Street in the 1790s. The main contractors, Kirkman and Hendy, had taken a large lease but after four years went bankrupt. Partial leases passed on their creditors, who slowly sold on to new builders. Under less control from the Camden Town Estate, some builders put up cheaper houses, without front areas and with small back gardens: they could be afforded by poorer people, but became overcrowded; and with shortish leases before redemption, there was little incentive for improvement by the owners. 

Any London Street, Richard Nevinson, 1920s.

I’ve recently come across this painting by Richard Nevinson which he titled Any London Street. Nevinson had been a friend of Walter Sickert at the time of the short-lived ‘Camden Town Group’ (1911-1913), but fell out with him and most of the rest of the art establishment. Although he is now remembered particularly for his paintings at the front in the First World War, during the 1920s Nevinson painted different aspects of London including street scenes. This painting, showing the work of women and the road as playground for children, has no specific location yet could well be Camden Town (see Museum of London and Tate Gallery). Nevinson included an etching of it as an illustration in his autobiography Paint and Prejudice (1937). The original oil painting sold for £63000 in 2011 at Sothebys.

It has been easier in Camden Town Local History to recall the architecture and development of Camden Town than it has been to recall the lives of people.  Nevinson’s portrayal is festive, pedagogic, humane – as successful as the words of an historian.