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Between the Ladbroke and Norland estates there extended northward from the Uxbridge Road a lane which provided access to the half-dozen fields between the northern boundary of the Norland estate and the southern boundary of Notting Barns Farm (later the St. Quintin estate). In the eighteenth century this lane was known as Green’s Lane, perhaps from the Greene family, then the owners of the Norland estate, but after the establishment of tile and pottery kilns near the northern part of the lane in the first half of the nineteenth century, it became known as Pottery Lane. The site of the southern part of the lane is now occupied by the southern part of Portland Road. From the mid 1830s onwards the south-eastern part of the district served by the lane was commonly referred to as the Potteries, and after the cholera epidemic of 1848–9 the conditions of filth, disease and insanitation in which its inhabitants were found to be living and dying gave the area a notoriety perhaps unsurpassed by any other district in London.
The Potteries are situated on the flat, lowlying, stiff clay ground at the bottom of the hill now surmounted by St. John’s Church. According to Mary Bayly, authoress of Ragged Homes and How to Mend Them (1859), the first migrant to this desolate place was Samuel Lake, whose noxious trades of scavenging and chimney-sweeping compelled him, in the early years of the nineteenth century, to remove from his premises in Tottenham Court Road to a more solitary spot. He took a lease of land off Green’s Lane, and there he was soon joined by one Stephens, a bow-string maker, who was compelled to remove for the same reason as Lake. When building development began on the Bishop of London’s estates in Paddington in the 1820’s the pig-keepers of Tyburnia also had to find a new home. Stephens himself changed over to this trade, and soon a little colony of pig-keepers had established itself in the district. Meanwhile some sixteen acres of adjoining land to the west were being dug for brick earth by Stephen Bird, one of the principal brickmakers in London and also a builder active in Kensington; and with the arrival of the potters several of the principal ingredients for the making of the hideous future of the district were already present.
The manufacture of pottery appears to have been established here before 1827 by Ralph Adams of Gray’s Inn Road, brick- and tilemaker, who between 1826 and 1831 was the building lessee for most of the houses in Holland Park Avenue between Ladbroke Grove and Portland Road, the earth for the bricks having been no doubt dug from the Potteries area. The ratebooks first refer to this locality as ‘the Potteries’ in 1833. The tithe map of 1844 shows what appears to be a kiln on the east side of Pottery Lane near the present No. 34. The only kiln shown on the Ordnance Survey map surveyed in 1863 is that which still stands on the east side of Walmer Road opposite to Avondale Park. The Adams family’s business was chiefly concerned with the production of drain-pipes, tiles and flower-pots, and in 1856 it was said that ‘there seems to be no other manufactory of the kind in the neighbourhood’.
Until the establishment of the Office of Metropolitan Buildings in 1844 there was no public control whatever over standards of building in Kensington, and in the absence of any private supervision by the ground landlord either, sheds and shanties of the most deplorable kind could be erected with impunity. As early as 1838 conditions at the Potteries had already attracted the vigilant eye of the Poor Law Commissioners, who stated that some of the cottages there were actually built over stagnant pools of water. ‘In some instances the floors have given way, and rest at one end of the room in the stagnant pool, while the other end, being still dry, contains the bed or straw mattress on which the family sleep.’ The formidable combination of large quantities of semi-liquid pig manure and other organic matter with the great cavities dug by the potters and the brickmakers, all in an area anyway difficult to drain, provided problems which the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers were incapable of solving. To the complaints which they received from 1834 onwards from the parish poor law authorities and adjoining property owners they replied that the drainage channel at the Potteries ‘was a private Ditch and not under the control of the Commissioners’, and when Richard Roy, the principal building promoter on the adjoining part of the Ladbroke estate, who also owned a small piece of land in the Potteries, called their attention in 1845 ‘to the disgraceful and neglected state’ of the district, he was curtly told that ‘he must himself take measures for the proper drainage of his property’.
In December 1847, when fear of an outbreak of cholera in England was giving sanitary reform fresh urgency, all the ancient district commissions of sewers throughout London (except that of the City) were superseded by a single new authority, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, upon which extensive new powers were conferred in the autumn of 1848. During the three years 1846–8 living conditions at the Potteries had become so appalling that the average age at the time of death among the 1,056 inhabitants was only 11 years and 7 months, compared with an average age at death throughout the whole of London of 37 years. Under Edwin Chadwick’s aegis the new Metropolitan Commissioners immediately ordered their surveyors to investigate the drainage of the locality, and in March 1849 a preliminary report was presented, which was followed in September by an engineering survey.
The inhabitants of the Potteries were found to be living at a density of about 130 to the acre, and the number of pigs was ‘upwards of 3000’. The whole district was skirted by open ditches, ‘some of them of the most foul and pestilential character, filled with the accumulations from the extensive piggeries attached to most of the houses. Intersecting in various parts, and discharging into the ditches on the north and west, are many smaller but still more offensive ditches, some skirting houses, the bedroom windows of which open over them; some running in the rear and fronts of houses, others at the sides and through the middle of the streets and alleys, loading the atmosphere throughout their course with their pestilential exhalations.’ The streets themselves were unpaved and full of ruts, their surface was strewn with refuse and often they were wholly impassable. Most of the houses were ‘of a most wretched class, many being mere hovels in a ruinous condition’, filthy in the extreme, and containing vast accumulations of garbage and offal. The water provided by the wells in many yards was ‘so contaminated by the percolation of the foul drainage as to be wholly unfit for domestic use, the inhabitants being compelled to fetch water from a pump at some distance, belonging to Mr. Bird, paying a yearly rent for the privilege’. Much of the surrounding locality was pockmarked by the excavations made for brick-earth, which were now filled with stinking stagnant water. The largest of these pools, an acre in extent, occupied part of the present Avondale Park, and was known as ‘the Ocean’. Several adjacent houses discharged their drainage direct into this slimy sea, upon whose western shore stood the National Schools of St. James, Norland, attended by some 150 pupils.
The only covered sewer in the area extended along the modern Kenley Street and Walmer Road, but at too high a level to provide drainage for the houses there. The only possible outfall was to the main Counter’s Creek sewer, some 1,300 feet to the westward, and by September 1849 the building of this line was in progress. In the winter of 1850–1, when this work had evidently been completed, the Metropolitan Commissioners began to build over 3,000 feet of sewers in the streets of the locality.
By this time cholera had broken out in the Potteries, and in the first ten months of 1849 there were 21 deaths there from either cholera or diarrhoea. With 29 other deaths from typhus and other causes during the same period the mortality rate reached the enormous figure of 60 per 1,000 living, compared with the average for all London of 25–4 per 1,000 in the years 1846–50. Goaded by their medical officers, and by those of the General Board of Health, who insisted that efficient drainage alone would never remove the evils connected with the piggeries, the Kensington Board of Guardians of the Poor at last agreed to prosecute a number of the pig-keepers. At a case brought before the magistrates at Hammersmith Police Court in September 1849, the court ordered the immediate removal of the pigs from one particularly offensive spot, and it was also announced that orders would be issued for the gradual removal of all the pigs in the locality. But the presiding magistrate stated that ‘he wished the Orders to be executed in such a way as would be attended with the least injury to the Poor People to whom the Pigs belonged’. With this encouragement the inhabitants of the Potteries promptly presented a petition to the Guardians protesting against the intended removal of the pigs, and in October the Guardians (one of whom owned property in the Potteries) decided that no further penalties would be enforced, provided that the premises in question were kept clean.
When another case was brought in 1853 the ‘Islanders’, as the pig-keepers now regarded themselves, were defended by their own lawyer, who (according to an account published in The Builder) asserted that his clients had a prescriptive right to their piggeries, and that they had settled in the district before the surrounding streets had been built. ‘If a pig was a nuisance, why we should have no more pork. It was a nuisance to the pigdealer to have a respectable neighbourhood, and the best thing the complainants could do would be to remove.’ The magistrates’ order was evidently not rigorously enforced, and although the total number of pigs declined by about half between 1849 and 1856, the mortality rate of the Potteries showed no corresponding fall. Deaths from cholera during the outbreak of 1854 totalled 25 (compared with 21 in 1849), and in 1856 the general death rate there was said to fluctuate between 40 and 60 per 1,000 living, 87 per cent of deaths being among children under five years of age. The statement made in 1850 by one of the medical officers of the General Board of Health, that the ‘amount of sickness and death’ in the Potteries ‘may be equalled, but can scarcely be exceeded by any part of England’ was probably still true six years later.
In 1855 the administration of London was reorganized by the Metropolis Management Act and the reconstituted vestries and new district boards became responsible, under the overall supervision of the Metropolitan Board of Works, for local sewers. They could compel owners of existing houses to construct drains into the common sewer, and no new houses were to be built without proper drains. They were to be responsible for street paving, lighting and cleansing, for the regulation of underground vaults and cellars and for the enforcement of the cleansing of houses. It was also their duty to enforce an important new Nuisances Removal Act, and they were to appoint their own medical officer of health and inspectors of nuisances.
The Potteries at once became the principal target of the Kensington Vestry’s first medical officer, Dr. Francis Godrich. In his first reports to the Vestry and its Sewers Committee he stated that the inhabitants in general looked ‘sallow and aged, the children pale and flabby, their eyes glistening as if stimulated by ammonia’. Many of them lived in converted railway carriages and vans, the water supply was exiguous, and smallpox was ten times more fatal than in the surrounding districts. The principal sources of livelihood were the rearing and fattening of pigs, which in April 1856 numbered 1,041 beasts, and the preparation of pig wash. This consisted of refuse and offal (‘blood, sheeps’ entrails, liver and vegetable matter, all undergoing decomposition and often in a state of putrefaction’), which was collected from the hotels and club-houses of the West End as well as from local slaughter houses, and boiled down in huge coppers which emitted the ‘most sickening’ odours over the adjacent locality.
Dr. Godrich recommended to the Vestry that the pigs should gradually be removed, that a water supply should be laid to each house and the open privies converted into closets properly drained, and that ‘the Ocean’ should be filled in. These policies were accepted, but the Vestry was impressed by the dependence of the inhabitants upon the pig industry, and therefore decided that the removal of the beasts ‘should be dealt with cautiously under the circumstances’. Proceedings were, however, at once taken against four pig owners, and during the four years 1856–9 a series of legal contests ensued. The result appears to have been inconclusive, for although large numbers of animals were annually removed at the behest of the Vestry, pigs breed fast, and by 1869 the total number of beasts (which was no doubt constantly fluctuating) had actually increased to 1,190.
There was, however, some improvement in other directions. As early as 1853 Mary Bayly, who lived in Lansdowne Crescent, had formed a Mothers’ Society in the Potteries, inter alia for the education of its members in the elements of hygiene, and between 1858 and 1863 the first makeshift schools in the area were replaced by permanent buildings—a ragged school, built under Lord Shaftesbury’s auspices, in Penzance Street in 1858, and St. James’s National Schools in Penzance Place in 1863. St. John’s Church was building a school on the west side of Walmer Road in 1861, while the Roman Catholics catered for the Irish element of the population with the Church of St. Francis (1859–60), followed by a school (1862–3), both in Pottery Lane. In 1865 a school was built beside the intended new church of St. Clement’s, Treadgold Street (consecrated in 1867), and several nonconformist congregations were also active in the area. These civilizing influences were accompanied by improvements in the drainage of the locality, which were effected during the 1860’s by the Vestry and, indirectly, by the completion of the system of main sewers by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The streets, too, were paved and taken over by the Vestry, and by 1863 even ‘the Ocean’ had at last been filled in. Despite the continued presence of the pigs Dr. Godrich felt able in 1869 to report that ‘the Potteries are in a more cleanly and healthy condition, principally owing to the improved drainage afforded by the Metropolitan Board of Works’.
In 1871 Godrich was succeeded as medical officer by Dr. Thomas Orme Dudfield, who held the post until his death in 1908. Despite the improvements made in the 1860’s, Dudfield was clearly aghast at the state of the Potteries. He found that the population was rising, probably due to an influx of people displaced from more central parts of London by the extensive railway demolitions of the 1860’s, and that ‘there were probably as many pigs as human beings in the place’. The density of population had risen to 180 per acre, compared with an average of 71 for the whole parish, and the death rate in 1870 was 31 per 1,000 living (21 for the parish), 63 per cent of these deaths being among children under five years of age.
Dudfield brought a new energy to the redress of the conditions which these figures represented. He at once persuaded the Vestry to appoint a third sanitary inspector to his staff, and in 1873 he touched on the heart of the problem when he used the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act of 1868 to certify a number of houses in the Potteries as unfit for human habitation. Some of these houses were repaired, and some were demolished, but others remained in the same condition, and little improvement in housing took place for many years. But with the pigs he was more successful. Seven hundred animals were removed during his first year in office, despite the insults and even violence to which the local sanitary inspector was subjected. Three years later ‘nearly all’ the pigs had been removed, though many of them had merely been taken a few hundred yards westward into the parish of Hammersmith, and prosecutions were being brought against the dealers in ‘wash’, the noxious effluvia of which now constituted the principal nuisance. The keeping of pigs in the Potteries as a regular business finally ceased in 1878, although short-lived attempts to revive it were made in later years, the last being in 1894.
By this time extensive new building was taking place on the ground to the west and north-west of the Potteries. Shortly before his death in 1865 Stephen Bird had started to build on the sixteen acres of his brick-field, and new houses were also springing up in great numbers on the land further north. Here the principal developer was James Whitchurch, an attorney from Southampton, whose Hampshire origins are still commemorated by Silchester and Bramley Roads. Under its Act of 1836 the Birmingham, Bristol and Thames Junction Railway Company had been required to buy intact some 130 acres of land belonging to the Bishop of London, and to sell those parts not required for the line. In 1841 Whitchurch, in association with two other gentlemen, one from Southampton and one from Banbury, had bought some forty-seven acres of this land in Hammersmith from the company, of which he had been appointed a director in the previous year, for c. £138 per acre. Four years later he bought forty-nine acres in Kensington, to the north of Bird’s brick-field, from G. Archer Shee of Manchester, esquire, for approximately £240 per acre. During the building boom of the mid 1840’s Whitchurch was making arrangements, on behalf of his associates as well as of himself, with the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers for the drainage of the whole of these lands. By the end of 1847 he had built over a mile of sewers in and around Latimer, Bramley, Silchester and Walmer Roads, the bow-shaped course of the latter extending along the northern extremity of his land, parallel with the adjacent boundary of the St. Quintin estate. A few of the small detached or paired houses built at this time still survive, in sadly dilapidated condition, but this first phase in the development of the area was halted by the financial crisis of 1847, and when building began to revive a year or two later it appears to have been under the auspices of the Frugality Building and Investment Society, with offices in the City.
Whitchurch was, however, still concerned in the development of the area, and the impetus of the building boom of the early 1860s was no doubt greatly strengthened by the construction of the Hammersmith and City Railway line, of which he was a director. This railway, opened in 1864, was the first of the feeder lines to be connected to the Metropolitan Railway, which had been opened between Paddington and Farringdon Street in January 1863. It extended from its western terminus at Hammersmith through Shepherd’s Bush and Notting Dale (where there was a station at Ladbroke Grove) to its junction with the Great Western Railway at Westbourne Park, and there was also a connexion with the Birmingham, Bristol and Thames Junction (now renamed the West London Railway). With a half-hourly service it was now possible for residents in even such hitherto inaccessible parts of North Kensington as Whitchurch’s estate to reach the City in a matter of minutes.
But the construction of the great high arches upon which the railway strode across the halfcompleted streets of Whitchurch’s carefully contrived layout had an impact upon the existing social fabric of the locality exceeded only by that of the elevated motorway which was opened along much the same course in 1970. With Bird’s worked-out brick-field and the Potteries to the south, and the noise and dirt of frequent steam trains traversing the estate, the area had no attraction for middleclass residents. After the introduction of cheap workmen’s fares in the early 1860’s workingclass suburbs were beginning to be a practicable proposition, and in the ensuing decades Bird’s and Whitchurch’s remaining vacant lands were covered with densely packed rows of three- or four-storey houses and artisans’ cottages.
The southern part of this area quickly became an overspill for the Potteries, to which, it was stated in 1865, many working men were being driven ‘from other parts of Kensington, Paddington, etc., by the inroads of railways’. Migrants also came here after displacement by clearances at St. Giles in the Fields, Campden Place at Notting Hill (now Clanricarde Gardens) and Jennings’s Buildings in Kensington High Street. Hemmed in on the west by the West London Railway, and cut off from the more well-to-do parts of the Norland estate on the south by the houses in Darnley Terrace and St. James’s Gardens, it became an isolated backwater whose social problems could easily be forgotten at the Vestry Hall in far-away Kensington High Street. As early as 1872 Dr. Dudfield informed the Vestry of the high rates of mortality prevalent in the area now occupied by Henry Dickens Court, and in 1878 he referred in general terms to the existence of overcrowding. But after the elimination of the pigs from the Potteries in 1878, the Vestry’s concern seems to have declined. It had not bothered to use its powers conferred by an Act of 1846 for the provision of baths and washhouses until 1878 (when the neighbouring parishes, Paddington, Hammersmith and Chelsea, had all built such establishments), and subsequent progress was slow. The purchase of a suitable site proved troublesome, a special Act had to be obtained, and Kensington’s baths and wash-houses, built at the junction of Silchester and Lancaster Roads to designs by Thomas Verity, were not finally opened until 1888. Nor did the Vestry trouble to exercise its powers under an Act of 1866 for the regulation of the number of persons who might occupy a house let in lodgings, or inhabited by members of more than one family. When the Local Government Board at last compelled the Vestry to act in 1883, the staff of the sanitary inspectorate was not increased, and progress was extremely slow. Even in the one major public improvement made in the locality during these years—the purchase of four and a half acres of derelict ground known as Adams’ Brickfield, for recreational purposes—the Vestry was prompted by the vicar of St. Clement’s Church (who by means of a letter to The Times collected £637) and assisted by substantial contributions from the Metropolitan Board of Works and the Charity Commissioners. The Vestry’s original intention to install a refuse destructor was abandoned, the site was purchased from the Adams family in 1889, and after the excavations, seven feet in depth, had been filled in, the park was formally opened on 2 June 1892. It was called Avondale Park in memory of the recently deceased Duke of Clarence and Avondale.
Private agencies and the churches were, however, a good deal more active. The London City Mission and a rescue society were both working in the area, the latter being a temperance organization with its own ‘workmen’s hall’, opened in 1861. The Latymer Road Mission opened a ragged school two years later, and the West London Tabernacle in Penzance Place was built in 1864. At the corner of Queensdale and Norland Roads there was a Baptist chapel, later taken over by the Salvation Army, while at the diagonally opposite extremity of the area, an ‘iron’ church, St. Andrew’s, was built at the corner of Walmer and Lancaster Roads in 1862, followed by schools in 1865. After the destruction of this church by fire in 1867 a Methodist chapel was built on the site in 1878–9, but another church, St. Clement’s, had in the meantime been built in 1867 in Treadgold Street, within the site of Bird’s former brick-field, also two London School Board schools (Latimer Road, 1879, and St. Clement’s Road, 1880), a district relieving office and dispensary (later a workhouse) in Mary Place, and a police station (1878).
Yet despite all these efforts the social problems of the area were soon to be publicly shown to be far from resolved. By the early 1890’s the principal causes for the original establishment of a slum here—grossly inadequate drainage, water supply and control of building, plus the presence of the piggeries and the brick-fields—had all been removed, but new forces ensuring its continued existence were already exerting their influence. We have previously seen that in the 1860’s and 1870’s migrants displaced from their dwellings elsewhere by the building of railways and by clearances in other parts of Kensington had found refuge here. In the 1880’s and 1890’s this process was continued, the fall in demand for casual unskilled labour in the central areas of London (caused by the decline of some industries there and the removal of others to the outskirts), and the demolition of more of the remaining slums there, being probably the principal reasons for more migrations into the Potteries.
The social situation thus created was first brought to the public notice in January 1893 through the publication in the Daily News of an article entitled ‘A West-End Avernus’. In this article the author denounced in the lurid language appropriate to the popular press the social conditions in St. Katherine’s Road (now Wilsham Street), William (now Kenley) Street, Bangor and Crescent Streets (sites now occupied by Henry Dickens Court) and part of St. Clement’s (now Sirdar) Road, and concluded that he had never seen ‘anything in London more hopelessly degraded and abandoned than life in these wretched places’. The incumbents of St. James and St. Clement and the chairman of the Kensington Vestry’s Works and Sanitary Committee all wrote letters to the editor, the clergy in support of the article and the chairman in bitter resentment at the ‘assumption that the Vestry of Kensington are indifferent to the state of the poor people inhabiting what is known as the “Potteries” district, Notting Dale’. In face of continued public interest the Works Committee held a special meeting on 2 March, to which a number of local inhabitants were invited, and the whole party subsequently made an inspection of the area.
Almost all the houses within the five streets in question (fig. 90) had already been registered by the Vestry as let in lodgings or occupied by more than one family, and were therefore liable to periodic inspection. There were also eleven common lodging-houses, providing accommodation for 723 persons, which were regularly inspected twice a week by the police. The population was in fact extremely migratory in character, and the Vestry felt able to claim that most of the houses were in fair structural and sanitary condition, the streets clean and the sewerage satisfactory; but that such defects as did exist were ‘of constant recurrence in houses occupied by the lowest classes, and are largely brought about by the dirty and careless or mischievous habits of the people themselves’. The remedy must therefore be increased house-to-house inspection, and a temporary extra sanitary inspector was accordingly appointed.
It is clear, however, that Dr. Dudfield, the medical officer, was taken aback by the extent of the problems which had been revealed. He admitted cautiously that there was ‘possibly a good deal of overcrowding’, and by the summer of 1893 he was making extensive use of his powers (which he had apparently only used once before, in 1873) to certify a number of houses as unfit for human habitation. (Most of these houses were subsequently repaired by the landlords under the Vestry’s superintendence.) He seems to have been unaware of the incidence of mortality within the ‘Avernus’ area, and in 1893 he could only report that the death rate in Notting Dale was probably ‘considerably in excess of the average for the whole Parish’. But he now began to make new calculations, and in 1895 it was found that in the whole of the sanitary district in which the ‘Avernus’ was situated, the death rate (33.3 per 1,000 living) was more than double that for the whole of the parish (16.4), while in the ‘Avernus’ itself the number was no less than 42.6 per 1,000. This last figure showed that the incidence of death in the ‘Avernus’ in the 1890’s was comparable with the rates which had prevailed in the pig- and disease-ridden Potteries in the 1850’s. Nor was this all, for in 1896 Dr. Dudfield published the first figures for infantile mortality within the ‘Avernus’, which showed that no less than 432 out of every 1,000 children born there died before reaching the age of one year, compared with only 176 per 1,000 births in the whole parish and 161 in all London. These figures must have come as a terrible shock to Dudfield, for as recently as 1888 he had been congratulating himself on the steady fall in the death rate of the parish taken as a whole. In his annual report for that year he had pointed out that whereas the death rate for all Kensington in the years 1866–1870 had been 20.2 per 1,000 living, ‘In 1871, upon my appointment, a more vigorous sanitary administration’ had been organized, ‘which soon began to produce good results’, culminating in the years 1881–7 in a fall to 16.1 per 1,000. He, at all events, was now determined to do everything possible to eradicate the shame of the ‘Avernus’.
But the sanitary record of the Kensington Vestry was marred in its closing years by indifference to the urgency of the problem. In 1896 a special committee of the Vestry was set up to inquire into what steps might be taken to remedy the deplorable mortal statistics revealed by Dr. Dudfield. In its report the committee, like its predecessor in 1893, ‘attributed the bad condition of the houses, and the evil state in which the inhabitants were found, or represented, to be, to the vicious proclivities and evil habits of the people themselves’, who were ‘largely made up of loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves, and prostitutes’. Again as in 1893, the committee ‘concluded that the necessity for frequent sanitary inspection can hardly be over-stated’. In fact, however, the Vestry reduced the sanitary staff from seven inspectors to six, thereby making each inspector responsible for the sanitary welfare of over 28,000 inhabitants—almost the highest ratio 24—S.L. XXXVII in all London. The yards and streets were paved with asphalt and minor improvements were made to the drainage, but all of Dr. Dudfield’s pleas for an increased inspectorate were resolutely rejected. His other remedy, that the Vestry should buy houses in the area and let them in lodgings itself, could not be achieved without a change in the law, for which he vigorously campaigned. Meanwhile the population of the Notting Dale Special Area, as Dudfield now termed the ‘Avernus’ district, was increasing at the rapid rate of 4 per cent per annum, many of the new immigrants being employed in the building of the Central Tube Railway, and the death rate was actually rising, to an average of 53.4 per 1,000 living for the years 1897–9.
In May 1898 the Local Government Board announced its intention to inquire into the sanitary administration of the parish, but before the inquiry could begin the London County Council instructed one of its medical officers to investigate. In his report, which was published by the L.C.C. in December 1899, he stated that ‘whereas in former years the Vestry of Kensington compared favourably with other London sanitary authorities in the exercise of the powers which they then possessed, they have not at the present time the staff necessary for the proper exercise of the additional powers which Parliament has in recent years conferred upon London sanitary authorities’. In Notting Dale it was impossible even to make a single thorough inspection in the course of a year of the houses let in lodgings, whereas the common lodging houses (now under the L.C.C.’s supervision) were inspected weekly. He flatly contradicted the Vestry’s views when he stated that ‘the condition of rooms such as those found in large numbers in Kensington can by no means be excused on the ground of the uncleanly habits of the occupants’, and concluded unequivocally that at least four additional sanitary inspectors were required.
Shortly afterwards the Vestry was superseded, under the terms of the London Government Act of 1899, by the Kensington Borough Council. The new authority quickly called for an inquiry into the nature and extent of overcrowding, and in 1901 four extra sanitary inspectors were appointed. Later in the same year the Council accepted Dudfield’s recommendation that it should adopt the powers conferred by Part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890, which the Vestry had been precluded from using. These empowered the Council to buy and renovate existing lodging-houses and also to build new ones itself. The Council decided to do both, in Kenley Street, within the Notting Dale Special Area, where the houses on the north side abutting on Avondale Park were deemed suitable for renovation, while those on the south side, on shallow sites with basements and inadequate ventilation, were to be totally rebuilt. The difficulties encountered in buying all the interests in a large number of properties were overcome by Sir Henry Seymour King, the first Mayor of Kensington, who made a large interest-free loan to the Council and accepted personal liability for all the purchases. On the north side of Kenley Street 26 houses were remodelled as 52 dwellings, with new sculleries, lavatories, stoves, dressers and larders, while on the south side 17 houses were demolished and replaced by six blocks arranged in 36 self-contained two-room flats. Nearby in Hesketh Place and Thomas (now Runcorn) Place 26 one-room tenements were also built, and by the end of 1906 120 tenements containing 245 rooms had been provided in the area, at weekly rents ranging from 3s. 6d. up to 8s. At a density of two per room there was accommodation for some 490 people, and the total charge to the rates was £1,231 per annum until 1929, decreasing annually by £28. The general level of the rents seems, however, to have been too high for the casually-employed, unskilled poor, for only one fifth of the families housed in Kenley Street after the Council’s building works had lived in the street before, and in 1912 it was generally acknowledged that the Kenley Street scheme had led to an extension of the furnished room trade to other parts of the Borough.
The Kenley Street scheme and the greatly improved system of house-to-house inspection which he was able to provide under the Borough Council’s aegis marked the culmination of Dr. Dudfield’s long career, and by 1907 (the year before his death) the number of deaths per 1,000 living had fallen in the Notting Dale Special Area from an average of 50.4 in 1896–8 to 30.2. The labours of the clergy, of the district nurses and district visitors and a number of other philanthropic agencies, coupled with those of the Board of Guardians and the sanitary department, had all contributed to produce what was in 1907 considered to be a ‘very marked improvement in the moral aspect of the place’ — a verdict endorsed by Octavia Hill, who since 1899 had been responsible for the management of a number of houses in the locality.
After the completion of the Kenley Street scheme in 1906, no more rehousing was undertaken by the Borough Council until after the war of 1914–18, but during these intervening years the problems of North Kensington were becoming increasingly complex. In 1901 the population of Golborne Ward, in the north-eastern extremity of the Borough, reached its virtual peak figure of 26,307, equivalent to a density of 233 persons per acre, or nearly double that of Norland Ward (120 per acre), in which the Notting Dale Special Area was situated. At that time the Registrar General regarded two as the standard number of persons who might occupy a single room without overcrowding it, and, despite the very high density, there was, by this standard, relatively little overcrowding in Golborne Ward—only 84 cases in single rooms compared with 343 in the Norland Ward. According to the Borough Council’s by-laws, which required 400 cubic feet of space for each adult, there were few cases of overcrowding anywhere, for many of the three- or four-storey terrace houses common in North Kensington contained rooms adequate by this standard for six persons. The population of Golborne Ward was evidently at this time more evenly distributed than that of Norland Ward, and the death rate there was still substantially lower (in the years 1905–7 17.5 per 1,000 living compared with 19.3). In his survey of social conditions published in 1902 Charles Booth only referred to one small part of Golborne Ward, Kensal New Town, and even here he found that there were only comparatively few ‘very poor’ inhabitants; whereas in Sirdar Road in Notting Dale he found extensive poverty ‘of as deep and dark a type as anywhere in London’.
Fresh pockets of poverty and overcrowding were nevertheless forming in areas away from Notting Dale during the first decade of the twentieth century—in Barlby Road and Treverton Street, near the Great Western Railway, and in Bolton Road, off Westbourne Grove, for instance—and this seems to have been directly related to a fall in the overall population. In the decade 1901–11 this fall amounted to 2.9 per cent in Golborne Ward and to 10.7 per cent in Norland Ward, many well-to-do people having evidently emigrated to better accommodation in the new houses being built on the St. Quintin estate and further afield.
The effect of this fall in population upon the social character of Golborne Ward was clearly stated by the medical officer in 1911. ‘As the difficulty of finding tenants for the lodgings in such Wards as Golborne increases, the housing problem becomes more and more perplexing. Landlords find themselves in a dilemma where the choice lies between receiving the lowest class of tenant and leaving their houses unoccupied. If they elect to take lodgers of doubtful character, their property is knocked about and the rent is not paid. On the other hand if no more than half the tenements in a lodging-house are let to persons who pay regularly, and the rest of the house stands empty, legitimate returns on the capital outlay are eaten up by the cost of necessary repairs. It will accordingly be understood that the task which is set the Council of securing satisfactory lodgings for the less fortunate of the working population in the Ward of Golborne and similar districts is one of the utmost difficulty, and further that no small part of the difficulty experienced has been directly due to an exodus from Kensington to districts where better accommodation can be obtained at lower rents.’ By 1914 there were over one thousand vacant rooms in North Kensington available for the working classes. Areas of extreme poverty prevailed in all four of the wards there, and in Golborne, where the whole population was now of the working classes, there were ‘large numbers of semi-destitute persons who have no regular employment’.
During and immediately after the war of 1914–1918 the decline of population was reversed, and the census of 1921 showed that the number of inhabitants in each of the four wards of North Kensington had risen since 1911—in Golborne to its absolute peak of 26,329. By this time there were over 5,000 houses in the Borough which were let in lodgings and occupied by some 55,000 of the working classes without having been adapted to this new use. Houses of this kind had been built for occupation by a single family but were now occupied by up to seven. Often they had eight or nine large living-rooms spread over three or more floors, but with only one watercloset and one water tap, both in the basement. There were no sinks upstairs, and clean water had to be carried up and dirty water down. An important part of the Borough Council’s housing effort was accordingly directed towards the unspectacular work of remedying conditions of this kind. This was done by continuing the registration of all houses let in lodgings (after 1923 at the rate of at least four hundred per annum), by the improvement of all registered houses, if necessary by compulsion, by closing underground rooms and by closing houses deemed unfit for human habitation. In 1923 the Council decided that landlords should be required to provide one water-closet for every twelve people, and a proper water supply. By 1926, when the Council promulgated new by-laws for the control of houses let in lodgings, over 3,600 such houses had been registered.
In the provision of new housing the Council decided in 1920 that 314 dwellings would be required within the next three years to meet the needs of the Borough, and by 1927 it had built 317 new flats or houses, most of them in the Notting Dale area or on the St. Quintin estate. As a matter of urgency it had also provided in 1919 another 102 flats or maisonettes by the conversion of a number of large old houses, of which twelve were in Powis Square. But in general the Council considered that ‘there are many objections to the local authority of any area becoming property owners on a large scale, and they have not felt disposed to acquire neglected and dilapidated houses except in cases where the dwellings could not be placed in good ownership by any other plan’.
Houses in bad repair were therefore often brought to the attention of the housing associations which became active in North Kensington in the 1920’s. The Improved Tenements Association Limited (now the Rowe Housing Trust Limited) had been founded in 1900 for the acquisition and improvement of poor house property, while the Wilsham Housing Trust had been established in 1923 to continue the work begun by Dr. Silvester in 1914 in both the building of new houses and flats and the improvement of existing tenements. This dual function was also performed by the Kensington Housing Trust Limited, founded in 1926 under the aegis of Lord Balfour of Burleigh, and a number of other similar bodies. Between 1914 and 1927 they provided a total of 422 new or renovated dwellings in North Kensington, almost exactly equalling the 419 provided in the same period by the Council. When the Sutton Dwellings Trust (established in 1900 under the will of W. R. Sutton, the carrier) bought some eight and a half acres of land on the north side of Dalgarno Gardens and built 540 flats there in 1929–30, the total stock of housing provided by these private agencies (1,054) amounted to almost double the number (558) provided by the Council, even including the pre-war Kenley Street dwellings.
In 1932 the Council acquired the last remaining building site of any size in the Borough, some nine and a half acres on the north side of Dalgarno Gardens to the east of the Sutton Trust’s flats. One acre of this land was sold to the Sutton Trustees, another acre was leased at a nominal rent to the Kensington Housing Trust, and the Peabody Donation Fund took some five acres of the remainder on similar terms. By 1938 some 545 flats had been built here by these three bodies. By the same year the total number of houses or flats provided by all housing associations amounted to 1,989, while that provided by the Council amounted to 708 (plus 16 houses acquired in 1938 in connexion with the redevelopment of the Becher Street area).
The close co-operation which existed between the Borough Council and the housing associations also extended to the complex rehousing processes involved in the Council’s slum-clearance and improvement schemes. In the eight years following the Housing Act of 1930 the Council dealt with thirteen clearance areas (mostly in Notting Dale and Kensal Green) in which 219 premises occupied by 1,117 people were demolished. In the three improvement areas, at Southam Street (Kensal Green), Treverton Street (on the west side of the north end of Ladbroke Grove) and Crescent Street (Notting Dale), unsatisfactory basements were closed, overcrowding abated and the houses thoroughly reconditioned. In the fifteen-acre Southam Street area, for instance, where there were no less than 390 persons to the acre, 778 basement rooms were closed, sinks, drains and water-closets etc. renewed, and the total population reduced by 29 per cent by the rehousing of overcrowded families, many of them in accommodation provided by the housing associations. At Crescent Street the Council decided in 1938 to redevelop the whole area, and the blocks of flats now known as Henry Dickens Court were built here after the war of 1939–45. Between 1922 and 1938 some 1,790 individual houses deemed to be unfit but capable of repair were also renovated at the Council’s instigation.
More stringent overcrowding standards were introduced by an Act of 1936, when a survey showed that in the whole of Kensington there were 2,529 families living in overcrowded conditions, of which 2,342 were in North Kensington. By the end of 1938, 740 overcrowded families had been rehoused, but meanwhile 138 new cases had been discovered. The census of 1931 had shown that Kensington was one of only four among the twenty-eight metropolitan boroughs where an overall increase in population had taken place during the previous decade. But whereas the other three boroughs were all on the peripheries of London and still possessed room for new migrants, in Kensington there was hardly any open space left. The principal cause of this inward migration was thought to be the relatively central situation of the Borough, attractive for different reasons for both rich and poor, and a factor likely always to aggravate the problem of overcrowding there.
This was to be particularly the case in the north-eastern part of the Borough, in Golborne Ward. Between the war of 1914–18 and that of 1939–45 a large proportion of the joint housing efforts of the Council and the housing associations had been concentrated upon Notting Dale, which with the Potteries had been the original centre of Kensington’s social problems, while many of the new dwellings built in this period had of necessity been erected in St. Charles Ward, on the St. Quintin estate and around Dalgarno Gardens, where the only remaining vacant land was situated. Except at Kensal Green, and in Wornington Road on the south side of the Great Western Railway, where the Kensington Housing Trust had soon after its foundation in 1926 bought and renovated forty-eight dilapidated houses, relatively little building or general improvement had yet been carried out in Golborne Ward. The censuses of both 1921 and 1931 had shown that both the density of population per acre and the average number of persons per room were far higher in Golborne than in Norland Ward. At the census of 1931, indeed, the density of population in Golborne (209.6 per acre) was the third highest of all the wards throughout London, and the Borough Council’s survey of overcrowding, made in 1935, had shown that one in every thirtyone families were overcrowded in Golborne, compared with one in every thirty-eight in Norland. From about 1934 onwards the average death rate in Golborne began to exceed that of Norland for the first time (in 1934–8, 14.8 per 1,000 living compared with 13.2). After the war of 1939–45 the erection of the Henry Dickens Court cluster of blocks of flats in Notting Dale completed the almost total rebuilding of the streets first exposed to the public gaze by the ‘Avernus’ disclosures of 1893, and the centre of gravity of the Borough’s social problems shifted north-eastward to Golborne Ward, which has become the principal field of more recent effort.
Citation: ‘The Potteries and the Bramley Road area and the Rise of the Housing Problem in North Kensington’, in Survey of London: Volume 37, Northern Kensington, ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1973), pp. 340-355. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp340-355 .