When the first residents moved in to the Totterdown Fields Estate, a 39-acre site close to Tooting Common, in the early 20th century, they would have found a standard of living that they could previously only have dreamed about. The new homes were well-built, with indoor toilets and bathrooms. It was a far cry from the slums that most would have known.
Such was the importance of this pioneering municipal housing development that the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary) visited in May 1903 as part of their trip to officially open the first section of London’s electrified tramway connecting Tooting Bec with Embankment. Crowds lined the streets in an attempt to greet the Royal couple.
After being shown a newly finished, unoccupied house at Totterdown Fields Estate, the Prince and Princess said they wanted to see one that was already being lived in. The house they visited in Ruislip Street, the first to be built, is now marked by a green plaque giving brief information about the development.
I’ve written before about the earlier Boundary Estate in Shoreditch which – built in 1893 hot on the heels of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act trigging better living standards – was pioneering in itself given the slums it replaced. But it consisted of tenement blocks, while Totterdown Fields set the standard for cottage housing. It’s certainly Britain’s first municipal housing estate (it could even be the world’s first, depending on your view of a case put forward by the Dutch).
Built by the London County Council (LCC) between 1901 and 1911, the Totterdown Fields development offered the benefits of being within reach of central London (thanks to the connection provided by London’s first electrified tram), while at the same time enjoying a proper house and a private garden. It was country living in the city, with existing trees retained where possible (sadly we don’t know today which are the original ones) along the newly-created wide avenues.
The completed estate of 1,229 homes consisted of four ‘classes’ of housing, which offered varying amounts of space and rents were priced accordingly. Its design was heavily influenced by William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement (as the green plaque on the first house notes), with Tudor-style chimneys and gables. The roads are all named after the English estates of the Abbey of Bec, which had controlled the manor of upper Tooting from the 11th century until the Reformation in the 16th century.
But the principal architect Owen Flemming was determined to have some variety in the homes so he employed a number of different building contractors. Walking through the streets of the original estate today, the diversity of styles, particularly around the doors and porches, remains apparent. Following Right To Buy legislation in 1980, homeowners (today about half of the properties are privately owned) have made their own modifications.
Tooting’s expansion only really started in the 1890s (it was described in 1876 by James Thorne in the Handbook to the Environs of London as “a region of villas and nursery gardens, very pleasant”), so many of the new residents would have come from outside the area. Applicants had to satisfy various criteria to be given a home by the LCC.
The 1911 census reveals that the majority of occupants of the Totterdown Fields were artisan, skilled labourers, clerics and those working in the service industry. Many would have used the new tram service to cheaply travel into central London (the Underground wasn’t extended south beyond Clapham till 1926). Others would have found work at one of the asylums or hospitals in the area. And a few heads of households found work through unskilled labouring.
What’s interesting is that the LCC was against allowing any public buildings, such as shops and pubs on the estate. They caved in on allowing the former on one specific crossroads (Lessingham Avenue and Franciscan Road) following protests from residents. Of the four retail units, two are now occupied by estate agents, while one is a convenience store.
The LCC stood firm on not allowing pubs. Drink was considered by many as evil at the time and there were establishments people could visit if they walked a little further afield. The main road stretching from Chichester to London Bridge had Roman origins and there is evidence for one particular tavern (today the site of the Kings Head pub) nearby dating back to the 1620s.
While churches were not permitted to be built on the estate either, the story of the nearby All Saints Church is particularly interesting. The building of the house of worship came as a result of a bequest from Lady Brudenell-Bruce, in memory of her husband, Lord Charles Brudenell-Bruce. The project was overseen by a Canon John Stevens who had known Brudenell-Bruce since university. The latter had no connection to the area, but it was thought appropriate given that the church would serve the residents of the pioneering Totterdown Fields Estate.
Stevens duly appointed the architect Temple Moore to work on the project who got to work on the building with a design that looks back to medieval times. But he walked out when the canon started interfering and insisted on objects he had collected from a lifetime of missionary work around the world were included. Another architect therefore needed to be appointed to finish it. The poet John Betjeman and architectural writer later described it as ‘the Cathedral of South London’.
Totterdown Fields Estate was declared a conservation area in 2008 which means this pioneering development will be kept just as it was intended for many years to come. It really is a fascinating place to visit, as it set the standard for countless municipal housing developments – such as the Becontree Estate – across London as well as the country as a whole.