Sunday 8 September 2013

The Secret Gardens

Improved Industrial Dwellings flats on Wicklow Street
The Improved Industrial Dwellings Company was established in 1863 by Sir Sydney Waterlow (now best remembered for his gift of Waterlow Park to the metropolitan public) to build affordable flats for working men and their families. You may well have seen some surviving IIDC buildings. This example, right, lies on a back street in King's Cross but others are more prominent.  

The IIDC was a philanthropic venture - building clean, self-contained and affordable flats for the working man - but with a wider mission. The aim was not merely to house Londoners, but to convince property speculators that building homes for the working class could yield a decent return. This was a period when many of the capital's workers lived in overcrowded slums; and the idea of custom-made housing for the working man was a novelty. Waterlow hoped to persuade capitalists to pour money into housing for the masses - and free the lower classes from the tyranny of slum landlords. He was not alone - there were numerous 'model housing' ventures along similar lines both before and after the IIDC (including the flats of the American philanthropist George Peabody).

This, however, is not a tale of the slums, but a very different type of 'model housing' aimed squarely at the middle-classes, the work of Matthew Allen, the builder and de facto architect for the IIDC. It is also a story of the origins of the purpose-built London flat.

Many Victorians took rooms in multiple-occupancy houses,  but, prior to the 1880s, purpose-built flats were considered foreign - worse - ah, the horror! - Parisian. The fact that model dwelling companies, like the IIDC, built flats as affordable high-density housing confirmed this innate suspicion - flats were for foreigners or the poor.

Allens' houses, corner of Bethune and Manor Road, N16
Matthew Allen, however, having extensive experience of flat-building for the IIDC, determined to change the minds of middle-classes, and he made the attempt in Stoke Newington in the mid-1870s, at the corner of Bethune and Manor Road, He came up with a version of what is sometimes referred to as 'cottage flats' - i.e. flats disguised as houses.

The buildings you can see, left, are Allen's creation. The picture, stolen from an estate agent, does his work little justice. There is actually a rather fetching row of a dozen identical 'houses'. All are replete with unusual second-floor front balconies, fronted with iron railings. On a sunny day, they are some of the best-looking Victorian properties in the district (well, that's my opinion).

The cottage flat idea is itself intriguing - the need to camouflage flats as houses to make them acceptable . I attended a talk recently [click here] and it seems that very little study has been made of them. But what's really interesting about Allen's development is that it was decidedly aimed at the middle-classes - I think cottage flats were normally more lower-middle - and, in the rear gardens, offered a peculiar sort of communal experience.

Now, let's be clear, there were no objectionable communal facilities here - the sort of thing which middle-class Victorians disliked - no shared entrances, hallways or toilets. The flats themselves had all the latest conveniences, including their own lavatories, and, in the slightly more expensive ones, dedicated bath-rooms (still a novelty in this period). But they had shared gardens - and what gardens they were!
'There is a large croquet-lawn in the rear, which is approached from the drawing-room by means of a French casement ... a long gravelled walk, having on one side flower borders, and on the other side lean-to greenhouses, vineries, &c. Behind the wall of the greenhouses are the gardener's cottage, potting sheds, coach-house and stables; and in a line with these is a row of wash-houses (one for each tenant) fitted with washing coppers, troughs &c. The roofs of the washhouses are flat, and they form a long terrace walk with steps at each end. In addition to the croquet lawns, there is as long bowling-green, skirted by flower borders, and a row of standard roses, and a large playground for the children. All the tenants pay a sum quarterly in addition to the rent, for the keeping in order of the grounds, which require about 10,000 bedding plants annually. In the centre of one of the vineries is a large garden-room which is much frequented by the tenants, and being provided with a pianoforte, is used at stated intervals for dancing and evening entertainments of various kinds. Above the garden-room is a billiard-room, under the management of as committee of the tenants, who also regulate the affairs of the garden-room. The kitchen-garden is at the rear of the vineries and greenhouses, about 1 acre in extent. All the tenants have free access to it, and they can purchase any of its produce on application to the gardener. who calls at every house daily for orders.
    The arrangement of the buildings ... are partly on the Scottish principle; whilst the laying out of the grounds is after the French system; but Mr. Allen claims to have retained the all important feature of an English home - perfect privacy. The ceilings between each flat being constructed of concrete with iron joists running through the centre of the same, are fireproof. It is stated that little or no sound penetrates ...' [The Builder, 24 June 1876]
Privacy indoors, yes - but a sort of middle-class pleasure-garden at the rear - potting sheds and pianos. This was a majestic, typically Victorian vision of ideal living for the middle-class.

Did it prosper? The flats were certainly in high demand, and Allen built more along the same stretch of road. But, ultimately, most Victorian flat dwellers would live in mansion-blocks in the crowded West End.  One suspects that most of those who dreamed of the suburbs wanted their own gardens, and, regardless, few were offered anything quite so grand as this.

What became of the magnificent gardens? There are now, in large part, a peculiarly hidden public park - 'Allens Gardens' - resorted to by N16 mums with kids and, I rather think, as night draws in, more degenerate characters.

For more information see here - [link]. If anyone has nice pics of the gardens, please forward and I'll add to the blog.

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