Abbey Orchard Street was the heart of a former slum area.
Abbey Orchard Street was build over a former orchard belonging to the monks of Westminster Abbey
The street was built up in the rapid expansion of London following the Great Fire of 1666, but there may have been a path here long before, trodden out by the Abbey’s local peasant tenants on their way to labour in the orchard.
In time, the street’s fortunes declined.
The Devil’s Acre was a notorious slum on and behind Old Pye Street
, Great St Anne’s Lane (now St Ann’s Street) and Duck Lane (now St Matthew Street
) in the parish of Westminster.
In the 19th century it was considered one of the worst areas of London - The Devil’s Acre. As with a number of streets at the time, the building of Victoria Street
was aimed at removing the slums in the area, and particularly the Devil’s Acre. The street was formally opened in 1851 and, as with other such projects, it displaced rather than removed the slum.
The street had been planned as an experiment in sanitary and moral engineering. In deciding the route of the street, the planner James Pennethorne’s objective "has only been to ascertain how best to improve the condition of the inhabitants of Westminster by improving the buildings, the levels, and the sewers, and by opening communications through the most crowded parts."
Pennethorne designed the street with a slight angle so that it would route through the Devil’s Acre. The slum inhabitants were displaced by the Victoria Street
developments, as the quantity of low-rent houses in the area declined and they were unable to afford the rents of the newly constructed flats. John Hollingshead reported at the time that Victoria Street
had divided "the diseased heart" in half, pushing inhabitants into the surrounding areas. The Bishop of London informed the House of Lords that Victoria Street
had displaced 5,000 people, 75 per cent of whom moved into already overcrowded areas south of the Thames, with the remaining people staying in declining low-rent accommodation in Westminster.
New blocks of flats were constructed along Victoria Street
and, according to Hollingshead, "While the nighmare street of unlet places was waiting for more capital to fill its yawning gulf, and a few more residents to warm its hollow chambers into life, the landlords of the slums were raising their rents: and thieves, prostitutes, labourers, and working women were packing in a smaller compas."
From the 1850s onwards the area around Westminster, including the Devil’s Acre, became the focus of a new movement of social housing, largely funded by George Peabody and the Peabody Trust. This movement had a lasting impact on the urban character of Westminster and many of the philanthropically funded social housing estates have survived into the 21st century.
In 1869 the Peabody Trust built one of its first housing estates at Brewer’s Green, between Victoria Street
and St. James’s Park. What remained of the Devil’s Acre on the other side of Victoria Street
was cleared and further Peabody estates were built after the Cross Act of 1875.
In 1882, the Peabody Trust built the Abbey Orchard Estate on the corner of Old Pye Street
and Abbey Orchard Street. The estate was designed by Henry Darbishire and built on former marshland. The buildings rest on arches, supported by a foundation of piles. Like many of the social housing estates, the Abbey Orchard Estate was built following the square plan concept. Blocks of flats were built around a courtyard, creating a semi-private space within the estate functioning as recreation area. The courtyards were meant to create a community atmosphere and the blocks of flats were designed to allow sunlight into the courtyards. The blocks of flats were built using high-quality brickwork and included architectural features such as lettering, glazing, fixtures and fittings. The estates built in the area at the time were considered model dwellings and included shared laundry and sanitary facilities, innovative at the time, and fireplaces in some bedrooms. The design was subsequently repeated in numerous other housing estates in London.