The Chapel House Estate

I went to Harbinger School, lived near Christ Church, and sometimes – when I was bored with walking home along Westferry Road and Manchester Road – I would take a longer route: Harbinger Road, Hesperus Crescent, through that funny footpath that went down hill to Chapel House Street, past Dockland Settlement into East Ferry Road, and then through Millwall Park to Stebondale Street.

What a difference! Westferry Road and Manchester Road were full of lorries and firms and smoke and noise; the longer route was quiet, with houses and gardens and trees – not like anything else on the Island. It felt more like the countryside (mind you, I had family living in Dagenham at the time – and I thought that was the countryside too).

The whole area around Chapel House Street and Hesperus Crescent is commonly known as the Chapel House Estate these days, but – formally – it was originally three different estates. This article restricts itself to the area covered by Chapel House Estate and Locke’s Housing in the following map; I’ll come back to Hesperus Crescent another time.

The estate was named after a medieval chapel (first mentioned in the twelfth century) and later farm which was located approximately at the corner of the present day Whiteadder Way and Spindrift Avenue – the highest point of the Island, and one of the few areas naturally above the level of the high tide of the Thames.

1745

The following image combines an 1862 map with a satellite photo. Just a few years after the map was made, Chapel House Farm was demolished to make room for Millwall Docks. The map also shows the original path of East Ferry Road (still known to many Islanders as Farm Road), which was rerouted further east on the construction of the docks.

In 1895 there was a short Chapel House Street, L-shaped and going nowhere.

1895

Survey of London:

In addition to grazing, there was some vegetable growing, notably on the Charteris (Mellish) land north of Chapel House Street, where W. H. Bradshaw had a market-garden in the late nineteenth century. A local man, born in 1869, recalled this ground producing cabbages and mangolds for the London markets. He also recalled sheep on the site of Glengall Road Board School in the early 1870s. How far back this market-gardening went is not clear. Various pieces of ground were vaguely described as ‘garden’ in the Commissioners of Sewers’ cadastre of 1817, and in earlier deeds and land schedules.

In 1904, Chapel House Street became a fully-fledged street from Westferry Road to East Ferry Road (but no houses were built along it). The short section of dead-end street heading east would later be renamed Chapel House Place (now known as Julian Place).

9 Chapel House Street (Photo: Island History Trust / Mr. Oliver)

This 1916 map is interesting for showing the football ground recently vacated by Millwall FC, who had moved over the water (see Millwall FC – The Millwall Year(s) for more information). Also interesting is the line of the ditch heading just shy of northwards from the corner of Chapel House Street and Westferry Road. Look out for this line in other maps and images; it doesn’t go away and it’s still there today!

1916

A procession passing the corner of Chapel House Street and Westferry Road in the 1930s.  (Photo: Island History Trust / Tony Atkinson)

“Homes Fit for Heroes”

Social Housing History (http://www.socialhousinghistory.uk/wp/index.php/homes-fit-for-heroes/):

Promises, promises, promises

After surviving the horrors of WW1, many returning soldiers, sailors and airmen were expecting the world to be a better place, where their life could return to some normality in a secure and safe environment and jobs for all. This expectation was raised by a speech by Lloyd George the day after the armistice where, amongst other promises, he said there would be “homes fit for heroes”. “Homes”, and not just houses; “fit”, implying built to a standard; and “heroes”, giving a sense of gratitude and deserving. Dreams never meet reality and what Lloyd George actually said was “Habitations fit for the heroes who have won the war”, which is a lot less punchy and emotive than the phrase everyone remembers, and the word “habitations” suggests something very basic. The press could not fit that sentence in a header in a newspaper column and so naturally shortened it to the phrase we now know. So, what was the result of this promise? Were those houses built all over the country immediately after the war? It will come as no surprise to historians that the reality fell a long way short of the promise, but for many reasons that even Lloyd George could not control. The legislation that followed his speech was well meaning and quite well thought through, but was hampered by two serious problems: the lack of funds; and the extreme shortage in the building industry of skilled manpower and materials.

It was only on the election of the first Labour Government in 1924 that Lloyd George’s ideas saw a chance of realisation, when the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, known as the Wheatley Act, after the then Minister of Health, John Wheatley, was passed. Survey of London:

The Wheatley Act not only provided higher subsidies, but it also envisaged a 15-year programme of housing built by local authorities at rents affordable by the working classes.

Under this Act, seven housing schemes, comprising 330 dwellings, were built by the Borough Council within the parish, together with a further scheme which was built partly under this Act and partly under the 1930 Act. Of these, two were further cottage schemes of the Garden City type and adjacent to the Chapel House Street development on the Isle of Dogs, at Manchester Grove (1925–6) and Hesperus Crescent (1929–30).

Houses in Chapel House Estate were designed – in a style described as Neo-Georgian – by Stepney-born Sir Frank Baines (1877– 1933), who was chief architect of the Her Majesty’s Office of Works from 1920 to 1927, and who also designed Thames House and Imperial Chemical House in Millbank.

Floor plans (Survey of London)

Originally, the council envisaged all-electric houses, but there were concerns that this would be too expensive for residents, and thus was gas also supplied (at that time even the lighting in most British houses was gas-fuelled, and less well-off people mostly had coal-fired ovens and heating). The houses also had a bathroom. This was quite remarkable for council housing at the time – a bathroom with fixed bath! Even better, each house had its own garden.

The houses were built on land acquired partly from the Charteris Estate and partly from the Strafford Estate, and were built by local building contractor, Griggs & Sons of 71 Manchester Road (location of Island Gardens DLR). Quite a job for a relatively small Island builder.

Survey of London:

Work began in December 1919, and on 30 January 1920 George Lansbury, Mayor of Poplar, ceremonially cut the first turf. The estate was complete by the end of 1921.

George Lansbury cutting the first turf.

Completion had been delayed by problems over the scarcity of materials and labour, and the consequences of these shortages soon began to manifest themselves. In July 1922 it was reported that several ceilings had collapsed, and in the case of one house this had happened no fewer than five times, while by 1924 all the properties required external painting.

Thermopylae Gate

Thermopylae Gate. Councillor  and local resident Mrs Nellie Cressal in white hat.
Photo: Island History Collection / Mrs J Snow.

The houses were designed without back extensions, as rear projections — a common feature of earlier speculative housing — were anathema to followers of the Garden City movement, because they shut out precious light to the back of the house.

Although the Locke’s houses look(ed) much like the houses west of Chapel House Street, they have a slightly different origin. When the lead firm, Locke, Lancaster failed to reach an agreement with the Borough Council in 1920 to house the workers from its lead works in Millwall, it formed a public utility society called Locke’s Housing Society Ltd. The Society built 36 houses, to all intents and purposes exactly the same as the Chapel House Street Estate designed by the Office of Works for the Borough Council. The tenancies were confined to its own workers (Survey of London).

1924, Millwall Park. East Ferry Road in the background. (Photo: Alice Hickman)

The inclusion of flats at the Chapel House Street scheme is almost certainly due to [the] conviction that there was a popular demand for such accommodation. The flats are arranged in three blocks of two storeys and attics around a cinder square or ‘quadrangle’ off Thermopylae Gate.  Unusually for flats, each dwelling is provided with its own back garden, albeit of differing size and shape.

Thermopylae Gate (Photo: Island History Trust)

Thermopylae Gate

As far as the houses on the estate were concerned, the Council agreed to provide one fruit tree for each garden, with the planting being done by unemployed ex-servicemen. The front hedges and trees overhanging the pavements are still an attractive feature. The chestnut paling fences needed repairing in the early 1930s and were replaced, on economic grounds, with wire-andconcrete posts.

Macquarie Way (Photo: Island History Trust, Tina Bennett)

Two public wooden shelters with seats and a sundial inscribed ‘No man lives for himself alone’ were erected in Macquarie Way, but these soon succumbed to vandalism.

1949, showing the foot bridge over a former factory railway line (which followed the path of the ditch mentioned earlier)

Unusually, some details of the early tenants on the estate, in 1922, survive, giving their occupations, any exceptional financial circumstances, and the size of their families. The impression given is that, generally, the 120 tenants were drawn from the upper echelons of the working classes. However, the most numerous single occupation, with a total of 22, is that of labourer — a vague description which might be applied to a multitude of activities and a range of abilities.

15 Chapel House Place. Chapel House Place, Isle of Dogs, pictured is the 1953 Coronation celebrations. Photo Includes: Doris Kirk, her mother Mrs Isabella Kirk, and Mrs Kirk’s brother-in-law Tom, Maureen Willing, Jenny Gillard, Josie Marshall, Alan Winch, Fred Winch, Colin Rogers, Keith Rogers, Tom Mathews and Billy Wootley. The man standing by the ladder is Jock Stewart. (Photo: Island History Trust)

Grouping individual occupations together, it is not surprising, on the Isle of Dogs, to find that the largest category was docks and shipping, with 28 who could definitely be assigned to this heading and another six who could probably be added to it. The next largest group consisted of the various industrial workers; there were at least 25 in that category, mainly skilled or semi-skilled. There were also about 12 who could be classified as clerical or professional, including a schoolteacher, a Labour Party secretary, and a trades union secretary.

Island History Newsletter

There were five widows. The tenants included 11 who were on Poor Relief, a further 11 who were on reduced wages, and one who was unemployed. The largest family, occupying a six-room house in Chapel House Street, consisted of a widow on Poor Relief and 11 children, of whom five were wage earners. There was also a number of families containing nine or ten members, though the majority were smaller. Conversely, there were five dwellings occupied solely by a husband and wife.

Back garden of 29 Chapel House Street in the 1930s. (Photo: Island History Trust / S. Moyse)

The estate survived World War II remarkably unscathed, as this LCC bomb damage reveals. Not a single house on the estate was destroyed or seriously damaged; only the houses along East Ferry Road suffered minor damage, and the houses close to Westferry Road somewhat more.

LCC Bomb Damage Map (with that ditch again)

1949. “DRY DOCK” marks the site of the orignal Chapel (House Farm).

After the war, life carried on, and virtually nothing changed on the estate. It was occasionally used as the backdrop for TV programmes such as Prospects, but other than that……

Macquarie Way

A change that perhaps was noticeable was the right to buy council houses in the 1980s. Architectural observers noted later that the physical harmony of the estate changed as virtually everyone made individiual changes to their house: different doors, different window frames, different fences, extensions, satellite dishes…….

But still, it is remarkable how the estate looks so similar to how it was when built almost a century ago.

Recent satellite photo. Can you see the line of the old ditch?

 

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11 Responses to The Chapel House Estate

  1. Rich says:

    Brilliant article Mick
    I found it very interesting and it took me back to my younger days in Poplar and around the Island

  2. Nicholas Sack says:

    Very interesting, Mick. The course of the ditch and factory railway branch is visible on the left of the recent satellite photo. Rather surprising that the path between Chapel House Street and Hesperus Crescent remains – though presumably the footbridge seen in the 1949 photo has been demolished?

    • Thanks Nicholas. As you say, the path remains but the bridge is long gone (it was gone before ‘my time’ in the late 60s). It is/was a very important path – the only way to get from Hesperus Crescent to Chapel House Street (and thus East Ferry Rd and Millwall Park) without a long walk via Harbinger Road and Westferry Road

  3. Linda Tristram was Goodwin says:

    We lived at 32 with my family for many years from the 60s

  4. jacqueline S says:

    I love this — thank you. It really paints a picture of the island before I moved there (around 1998). We moved into new build terraced houses (Transom Square) just by Chapel House Street, virtually opposite The Ship. It’s amazing you’ve found so many old photographs of Hesperus Crescent and Thermopylae Gate and can track changes with the maps. We left 17 years ago and I’m sure it’s still changing now…

  5. Edward Sharp says:

    THis is very interesting Mick, thank you. My mum was evacuated to Bucks to have me, I was born in Jan 1944 and lived for a short period time in Thermopolae Gate square 1944-46. With my grandmother, uncle and mum, their names where Claydon. My dad was in the army. They lived on the top floor and I remember they used to have an allocated garden around the back, where my Nan used grow roses. I think my uncle and Nan lived there until the mid-fifties. Thanks again.

  6. Lesley says:

    So interesting!! My nan (Nanny Hall) lived at 28 Thermopylae Gate… right opposite the square, where, on a Sunday the seafood man would park his stall and we would all have winkles and shrimps for tea.
    Nan had 13 children and they had the largest garden in the street… the house was small, though, considering the size of the family. In the 1950s, when her kids were grown up, they would all congrgate at nan’s at the weekend with their own extended familes… there were New Year parties which were absolutely rammed in that little front room!! I remember the large range in the living room and a scullery out the back where there was a sink and a washing copper. Grandad had an aviary full of budgies and grew roses. Happy days back then!! But how it’s all changed…I bet there is no longer a 20 minute wait for the bridge to open to let ships through…
    My dad’s entire family lived on the island back then, but now I only have one cousin who still lives there… everyone else is long gone…
    Many, many thanks for this… and if you could find a clearer photo of the Coronation celebrations, I am sure that many members of my family were in that one taken opposite nan’s…I may even be in it myself, as a tiny baby!
    Lesley Diss (nee Hall)

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