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.

Selling Camden Town

Selling Camden Town property in 1919

On 17 and 18 July 1919 The Times recorded an auction sale, by Daniel Witney and Sons, of ‘numerous shops, factories, wharves, houses, licensed premises, situated in Great College Street, Lyme Street, Camden Road, Canal Terrace, Prebend Place, King’s Road etc (151 lots)….’ The combined price over two days, adding in four pubs on Royal College Street – The Eagle Tavern, The Old Eagle, The Prince Albert and The Falcon – was £93 865.

On 14 and 15 July 1920 there was a second sale, of ’14 or 15 acres … ground rents of £11,000 a year and … leases expiring from now until 1993′. These were around Pratt Street, with ‘one of the great new repositories of Messrs Maple & Co Ltd towering above everything around it and without rivals as to height and dignity nearer than St Pancras Station…’ and yielded altogether £112,000.

In the Camden Town Act of 1813, the (then) 2nd Lord Camden and the Rev. Thomas Randolph were made joint owners of the prebend of Cantlowes. Randolph was the last of the 30 St Paul’s prebendaries to hold  his title for life: when he died in 1875, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners took over the legal title. However, the (then) 5th Lord Camden, John Charles Pratt, was an infant as his father had died prematurely and the estate ownership was put to Chancery for arbitration. Agreement for division on a 2:1 basis was made in 1880 and the full valuation (by Cluttons) and listing of properties published in 1883. The estate ground rents were valued at £4892 per annum.

Partition book LMA: E/CAM/2

[Compare the Camden Town estate’s value for 220 acres with the rest of the Camden family’s lands in Kent, Sussex and Brecon, then totalling 17,400 acres and gaining £16,380 a year (Complete Peerage 1889).]

The valuation coincided with the end of the first leases of the estate – which had been set for 99 years in 1789 – at the north end of Camden Town High Street, which was substantially rebuilt in the later Victorian style of red-brick and stone. But the reversions for much of the south of the estate, originally in the large ‘Kirkman and Hendy‘ lease and developed across fifty years up to the 1840s, were both piecemeal and later. This led to impoverishment of the tenancies as the landlords waited and the lessees had little incentive to improve their properties.

Selling the leases in the commercial market was one way of managing this transition. It was not optimum for the estate, as it evaded the controls of style and materials that had been set by the nineteenth century agents, particularly Joseph Kay. Moreover, the new leases were much shorter – between 25 and 40 years in the south of the estate – with continued instability. On the other hand, land gained other uses, such as the parish washhouse, the school in Camden Street and Maples’ large warehouse noted by The Times.