26 Chittys Lane looks like many other houses built on British council estates to provide “homes for heroes” following the First World War. But the presence of a Blue Plaque on the front of this Becontree property suggests there is a specific story to tell. It wasn’t however the home of a famous novelist or a future prime minister; instead it signifies a much more humble episode in that it was the first of 26,000 houses built by London County Council (LCC) on at the time was the largest municipal housing estate in the world. Built between 1921 and 1936, once complete Becontree would have a population of around 100,000 people and make a significant contribution in improving the living conditions for the working classes. And over the years it has been home to some very famous names, ranging from Dudley Moore and ex-Arch Bishop of Canterbury to Alf Ramsey and Terry Venables.
While there are of course many 20th century council estates across the country, the reason I’ve travelled out from central London along the District Line to Barking & Dagenham is of its scale. The LCC built a number of cottage estates across Greater London following the 1919 Housing Act which permitted local authorities outside their own territories, but Becontree was the largest. In fact, Becontree was larger than many existing towns (such as Oxford) when it was built. And with novelties such as indoor toilets, running water, kitchens with stoves and private gardens, the completed homes were a far cry from the crowded slums that those from the East End and other London areas they escaped from.
I am particularly interested in Becontree given that in recent blogs I’ve been following in the footsteps of Reverend Thomas Beames who, in 1852, wrote a book called the Rookeries of London. He documented the terrible living conditions in six inner London slums, but optimistically hinted that he believed that change was on the way. While there were some private housing reformers in the latter part of the 19th century like George Peabody and the LCC built the first housing estate in Shoreditch (the Boundary) in 1893, the problem of providing better housing for all was far from resolved. A 1920 government report showed that 184,000 people lived in “unhealthy” districts and over half a million in “unsatisfactory” ones.
Would building Becontree be what was needed to help solve the housing crisis?
Built on 3,000 acres of market gardens, cottages and country lanes beyond the LCC’s eastern borders in Essex, the estate was officially completed in 1935. The occasion was marked by the ceremonial opening of Parsloes Park by MP Christoper Addison on the 13th July, one of a number of recreational areas that tenants could enjoy. In total the estate consisted of 600 acres of open space and parkland which were bordered by tree-lined streets with privet hedges maintained by the LCC. For early tenants there was an additional novelty in that they could pick rhubarb, peas and cabbages from the abandoned market gardens that were yet to be built on. It was quite literally a breath of fresh for householders.
Becontree was populated by the lowest classes of society; almost all residents in the early days were relatively prosperous working class and had jobs in factories. In a 1934 report for the Pilgrim Trust, Terrence Young noted that 95 per cent of the adult male population were “employees”; 80 per cent were manual workers – a large majority working in manufacturing or transport and communications, a majority defined as “skilled”. And residents generally enjoyed living there: a survey in 1947 found 85 per cent of tenants liked their houses and 63 per cent liked the neighbourhood. One quote summed up the feeling of early tenants: “As far as my Mum was concerned, it was heaven with the gates off.”
And outsiders were impressed with the estate as well, as Young noted in his 1934 report:
“If the Becontree Estate were situated in the United States, articles and news reels would have been circulated containing references to the speed at which a new town of 120,000 people had been built. The work of the firm of contractors would have been shown as an excellent example of the American business ideal of Service to the Community. If it had happened in Vienna, the Labour and left Liberal Press would have boosted it as an example of what municipal socialism could accomplish…If it had been built in Russia, Soviet propaganda would have emphasised the planning aspect…But Becontree was planned and built in England where the most revolutionary social changes can take place, and people in general do not realise that they have occurred.”
The LCC’s objectives for Becontree estate sound very self-fulfilling for residents: “Tenants shall be as free as possible to order their lives in their own way, so that they may preserve their originality and that self-reliance shall not be weakened.”
But the reality was quite different. Prospective residents needed to be interviewed by LCC officials to check they were the right fit for the estate, in terms of size of family, domestic standards and resources. And if they passed the test, they then needed to comply with the strict rules set out in the Tenants’ Handbook; 20 conditions ranging from parental responsibility for the “orderly conduct” of children to requiring that no washing was hung from windows. Four sample rules highlight the extent of the LCC’s social control:
4. The tenant shall keep the front garden of the premises in neat and cultivated condition…
8. The tenant shall clean the windows of the premises at least once every week.
16. The tenant shall be responsible for the orderly conduct of his children on any part of the Estate, for any nuisance or annoyance they may cause to other tenants or to members of the public; for any damage to or defacement of any building, wall, fence, gate, or any other property of the Council, and shall replay to the Council the cost of making goods any such damage or defacement.
19. The tenancy may be determined [terminated] by the Council at any time by seven days’ notice in writing.
The LCC also attempted to discourage heavy drinking of alcohol by allowing very few public houses to be built on the estate. In central London there was one pub for every few hundred people but there were just six on Becontree, so it was closer to one per 20,000. And they promoted soft drinks and family areas. George Orwell was outraged about the trend developing across Britain:
“As for pubs they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor palaces fitted out by the big brewery companies and very expensive. For a middle-class population this would be a nuisance, it might mean walking a mile to get a glass of beer; for a working-class population, which uses the pub as a kind of club, it is a serious blow at communal life.”
While there were many things that residents couldn’t do, what was encouraged through competitions was gardening. Rent collectors from the LCC picked out potential candidates for prizes during their weekly rounds before a committee decided the final winners. Tenants could win up to £20 which was no small amount given that an average week’s rent in 1953 was about £1 18/- (£1.90). They also had the prestige of having a notice placed in the centre of the lawn so that passers-by could see they had won the competition.
But aside from entering gardening competitions, there was very little for residents to do – and essential facilities like schools, shops, health centres and community were in short supply. “The first tenants were pioneers, colonists in an area which had no urban facilities,” noted Terrence Young in 1934. One early resident even spoke about people going to the local church to see if there were any burials on as a means of something to do. Work was initially lacking on the estate as well so many made the daily bicycle commute to factories in the East End.
The LCC launched a promotional campaign to attract employers to Becontree, highlighting the extensive space available for factories. Two major coups for the area was the arrival of Ford Dagenham in 1931 and then May & Baker pharmaceuticals in 1934. In the same decade a new shopping area was built at Heathway, vastly improving the previously limited retail offer for the area. And with the extension of the District Railway (now the District Line) from Barking to Dagenham transport connections were improved as well in 1932; Heathway (now called Dagenham Heathway) was a brand new station and two extra platforms were added to Gale Street Halt (now Becontree) which had been opened in 1926.
But while Becontree did provide decent homes for numerous people, the wider housing crisis was far from over. Many of the working class simply couldn’t afford homes where rents were typically higher than in the inner city slums. It would take building programmes from local authorities both before and after the Second World War to finally get a grip on the housing situation.
After the Second World War, 600 homes were built by the LCC in an area adjacent to the Becontree estate called Heath Park. For Becontree itself, little has changed with the housing stock overall since the development was completed. But following the Right To Buy scheme in the Eighties, which transferred ownership of properties to their tenants, many householders have done all they can to make their homes look like they weren’t built by council. They’ve used pebble-dashing to cover up the uninteresting exteriors, installed new front doors and windows, and swanky driveways have replaced front gardens so they have somewhere to park their cars. The LCC rent collectors would be horrified.
Clearly more facilities and amenities have been added over the years (although Becontree still seems to be lacking in pubs), but from a day spent wondering around the streets the estate as a whole comes across as soulless and boring. And while there’s nothing wrong with the appearance of the houses, the shopping centre on Heathway is tacky at best. All in all, Becontree remains a very functional place to live.