Public Housing in Poplar
The Years to 1919


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Hermione Hobhouse (General Editor)

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'Public Housing in Poplar: The Years to 1919', Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs (1994), pp. 21-23. URL: Date accessed: 20 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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A Slow Start: The Years to 1919

The Early Years

From about 1842, when Edwin Chadwick's influential Report on an Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain was published, there was increasing concern about the living conditions of many working-class families, especially in London. By the end of the decade the acutely poor housing and high rents experienced by dock labourers 'very much occupied the public attention' and, as a result, in 1849 the East and West India Dock Company sent a deputation, including H. D. Martin, the Company Engineer, to see the lodging— and family-houses erected by the newly formed Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes. Following this, Dock Cottages, 70 dwellings in terraced and back-to-back, two-storey blocks, were designed for the Dock Company by Martin and his colleague, John S. Adams, and were built in 1849–50 on the south side of Poplar High Street, to the west of Dolphin Lane (see fig. 11, page 56). Regulations for the estate were taken from the Society, which thought that Dock Cottages presented 'altogether a most comfortable appearance'. The 46 four-room dwellings were designated as 'first-class' and the 24 two-room ones as 'second-class'. While the first-class houses were initially over-subscribed, the second-class ones proved difficult to let and 'galleries in the nature of balconies' had to be provided for the upper tenements. (ref. 2) The latter were paired, with a recessed centre, suggesting similarity to Henry Roberts's model cottages of 1851. The cottages eventually passed to the Midland Railway Company and were pulled down in the 1930s by the LCC, ironically as part of a slum clearance scheme (see page 93).

The dock company's motives for building the cottages concerned security as much as philanthropy; labourers' cottages within the dock estate would be an advantage in the event of disturbances or mob attacks. More positively, it was thought that 'the opportunity should not be neglected of combining with this measure of protection, a provision of convenience and comfort for the Laborers'. By keeping rents low (4s a week for first-class dwellings, 2s 3d for ground-floor second-class, and 1s 9d for firstfloor second-class) (ref. 3) the company was able to use the houses to reward good conduct. The first lettings went to foremen and the 'best' labourers, particularly those who had evening jobs or whose wives worked. (ref. 4) Apart from these cottages, the dock companies made little effort, beyond a few charitable donations, to take any responsibility for the immense housing problems generated by the docks.

More surprisingly, none of the philanthropic housing societies built or acquired properties in Poplar in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Parish Trustees approached Lord Stanley in 1862, even before the Peabody Trust had been legally established, and his lordship 'hinted' that Poplar 'was essentially a district intended to be benefited by the Gift'. (ref. 5) In 1870 they made further representations, since 'several eligible sites for the erection of Peabody Buildings can be found in the parish and their use as such would clear away many very dilapidated dwellings now totally unfitted for human habitations'. (ref. 6) Nothing came of their approaches, because the Trust and the other societies were dedicated to the principle of 'five-per-cent philanthropy' — that is, they aimed to demonstrate by example that decent workingclass dwellings could be erected and a five-per-cent profit made. It was hoped that this would convince builders of the profitability of constructing further speculative blocks to an equally satisfactory standard. Interestingly enough, the dock company had managed to obtain a return of six per cent on Dock Cottages, but this was helped by the fact that it already owned the land on which they were built. There was also no specific contribution to the rates included in the rents because the company negotiated an overall sum for the whole of its estate. Another factor was the low cost of construction owing to the very poor building work (which meant that expensive repairs were soon required). (ref. 7)

As far as the philanthropic societies were concerned, rents had to be sufficiently low to attract working-class tenants, but high enough to ensure the five-per-cent return. In such a finely balanced equation, Poplar had two serious drawbacks. One was that the price of land there was relatively high. (ref. 8) Thus, in 1899 the directors of the East End Dwellings Company hoped to lease land in the Docks on which to build workmen's dwellings. The Millwall Dock Company initially offered the land at £200 per acre and eventually decided to accept £150, but the Dwellings Company refused to pay more than £100 per acre. (ref. 9)

Yet more discouraging to the philanthropic societies were the notoriously high rates in Poplar, which would inevitably have been reflected in higher rents. Between 1901 and 1914, for example, Poplar had the highest general rate of any Metropolitan Borough. (ref. 10) Even the LCC, when constructing some of its early tenement blocks in Cotton Street in the 1890s, had difficulties in producing an economically viable scheme because of the high rates, amongst other things. (ref. 11) Similarly, in 1900 a member of the LCC complained that in Bromley and Poplar land was 'lying idle because the rates are so high — 8s. or 9s. in the £ — that people are afraid to build'. (ref. 12)

Poplar's First Council Housing

The Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890, passed largely because of pressure from the LCC, effectively allowed local authorities in London to build their own housing. It rationalized the existing housing and slum clearance legislation, making it much easier for local authorities to carry out clearance schemes, and, under certain circumstances, build dwellings with the dual purpose of rehousing and to increase the supply of working-class housing. Nevertheless, there were no state housing subsidies and local authority housing was not supposed to put a charge on the rates. (This latter point was another of the LCC's difficulties with the Cotton Street scheme.)

Following the 1890 Act, the LCC almost immediately began to build new tenement blocks in London to rehouse families displaced by clearance or improvement schemes. Those in Poplar parish were erected as a result of the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel, which necessitated both the rehousing of many people and the purchase of a considerable area of land for the tunnel, much of which was subsequently available for housing development (see page 632). Council Buildings, Yabsley Street (1893–4), Toronto and Montreal Buildings, Cotton Street (1899–1901), and Baffin, Hudson, Ontario, Ottawa, Quebec, and Winnipeg Buildings, Preston's Road (1902– 4), were all five-storey tenement blocks, only marginally less barrack-like in appearance than those built by the philanthropic societies, or even private speculators (Plate 123a, 123b). The accommodation was more generous, however, and the flats were self-contained, better equipped and had improved sanitary arrangements.

The standards demanded by the LCC made it reluctant to allow other agencies to carry out its rehousing obligations. For example, in 1896 the East End Dwellings Company agreed to purchase from the LCC the Ann Street site in Poplar (just outside the parish) and to submit plans for blocks to accommodate 180 people. The LCC would only approve them if the company gave an undertaking that the proposed single-room dwellings would be occupied solely by childless married couples, two girls, or two elderly people of the same sex. The company refused, withdrew its offer to purchase, and the LCC itself built on the site. (ref. 13) Similarly, also in 1896, James Hartnoll, who had built the nearby Grosvenor Buildings as a speculative venture, offered to buy the Cotton Street site and erect suitable dwellings for 250 people. Negotiations dragged on for two years, chiefly because one faction in the Council was eager to take up his offer, while another, which eventually prevailed, was determined to reject it. The opposition to Hartnoll was based on the (probably correct) assumption that he would put up buildings with accommodation as unsatisfactory as that in Grosvenor Buildings (see page 192). (ref. 14)

Also included in the LCC's Preston's Road scheme were St Lawrence Cottages (1903–4), a terrace of 14 twostorey dwellings (see page 634) (Plate 123c). These were a portent of the County Council's housing policy in the immediate future, in response to a general reaction against tenement blocks, whoever might erect them. As James Ellis, the minister of the Cotton Street Baptist Chapel, wrote in about 1902, what was needed in Poplar was 'not more huge barrack-like piles of hideous red bricks devoid of lifts, but smaller buildings'. (ref. 15) In fact, the LCC was equally opposed to further block-dwellings and did not build any more at all from 1907 until after the end of the First World War. (ref. 16)

The LCC's solution was to build suburban cottage estates in the outer areas, where land was cheap and plentiful, and so it built no housing whatsoever in Poplar between 1904 and 1926. As a general policy, suburban estates may have offered the best answer to London's housing problem, but it was not particularly appropriate to an area like Poplar, and it caused at least one dispute between the County Council and Poplar Borough Council. In 1913 the LCC argued that a replacement housing scheme would not be necessary for houses to be demolished for extensions to two schools in the borough. (ref. 17) It did not want to build high tenement blocks and neither did it support further housing development in already congested areas like Poplar. In response, the Borough Council argued that additional housing was needed urgently within the borough because many of the local riverside workers and railwaymen had to live near their work and the houses provided by the LCC on suburban estates were not accessible from Poplar. The Local Government Board finally ruled that a housing scheme for 750 persons had to be provided in the neighbourhood of the East and West India Docks, but the LCC still refused to build in Poplar and, despite the Borough Council's protests, procured agreement for a rehousing scheme south of the river at Tunnel Avenue, East Greenwich. (ref. 18)

Poplar Borough Council was initially eager to build council dwellings, and in January 1901 decided to set up a Housing of the Working Classes Committee. (ref. 19) For nearly three years the Committee tried to devise a housing scheme for a site owned by the Council at the corner of Cottage Street and Poplar High Street. Finally, it had to admit defeat and abandon the project, having learnt, as it sadly acknowledged, that the provision of housing was 'a very difficult question'. (ref. 20) In 1904 the Committee was abolished, (ref. 21) and it was not until after the First World War that the Borough Council again considered the possibility of building its own houses. In the meantime it focused on the public health aspects of housing, such as the prevention of overcrowding and the closure or demolition of premises considered unfit for human habitation. (ref. 22) Thus, no public housing was erected in Poplar between 1904 and 1919.


2. EWIDC 440, pp.207–17, 266–9, 435–43, 460–3, 530; 441, pp.26–9. 230–5: B, 4 Oct 1851, p.632.
3. EWIDC 440, pp.435–43, 460–3, 530.
4. EWIDC 440, pp.207–17, 437–43.
5. Pop.474, pp.236, 245.
6. Pop.476, pp.136, 141–2.
7. EWIDC 454, p. 128.
8. ELO, 3 Feb 1900, p.6.
9. MDC 521, p.327.
10. LCC, London Housing Statistics, 1902–3, pp.156–9; 1914–15, pp.522–5.
11. LCC Mins, 1898, pp.1289–90.
12. ELO, 3 Feb 1900, p.6.
13. J.N.Tarn, Working-class Housing in 19th-century Britain, 1971, p.28.
14. LCC/MIN/7356, 6 May 1896, item 14; LCC/MIN/7362, copy of letter dated 18 Feb 1899, Clerk of Council to Home Dept.
15. Rev. James J.Ellis, A Short History of Cotton Street Baptist Chapel, Poplar, c, p.7.
16. LCC, Housing, 1928, p.57.
17. PBC Mins, 1912–13, pp.693–4.
18. PBC Mins, 1913–14, pp.106–7, 133, 658–60: MoHR, 1914, p.222.
19. PBC Mins, 1900–1, p.64.
20. PBC Mins, 1900–1, p.206; 1901–2, p.435; 1902–3, p.580.
21. PBC Mins, 1903–4, pp.632, 636.
22. PBC Mins, 1904–19, passim.