If you have read the introductory article to our Building Becontree project, you will know we have been using architectural and building plans to look at the layout of the estate and the type of housing built. Here is a look at how the estate came to be.
As mentioned previously, the 1919 Addison Act allowed for 3000 cottages to be built at Becontree. This was cut back in 1921 by the incoming government, however the Ministry of Health allowed the London County Council to build a further 1000 houses. The first tenants moved in on Chittys Lane towards the end of 1921, as soon as their houses were ready. The 1923 Act gave provisions for 2000 more houses, followed by the 1924 Housing (Financial Provisions) Act. This was an important act. A subsidy of £9 per house per year was to be provided for 40 years (as well as local government contributions), with assurance that certain provisions were met. This included ensuring each house were to have a fixed bath, and that the density should not exceed 12 to the acre. This was to allow an appropriate amount of daylight into each living space. The Becontree Estate was officially completed in 1935, but a further 800 houses were built in 1937. The LCC built a further 600 houses after 1945 (the Heath Park extension), and later Dagenham Borough Council built 4000 houses, mostly for the children of London County Council estate tenants. There were also 4000 private houses projected to be built for the middle classes.
The Becontree Estate was designed by the Department of the London County Council Chief Architect, George Topham Forest. The idea was to create a township complete in itself, with schools, transport, shops and parks. It was to consist of cottage estates designed for the factory working man, whose family could experience the fresh air under semi-rural conditions while the husband worked, even including a garden to occupy their time outside. This was reflective of the Garden City movement – an attempt to improve the quality of urban life.
The estate was designed to incorporate existing country lanes, relying on wide roads running throughout. However, the estate was also designed to have many cul-de-sacs, often referred to as ‘banjos’, and curved or circular roads. This was to create some variety, whilst also allowing for traffic to slow once off the main roads. This design is obvious if you were to look at an aerial view of the Becontree Estate. The cul-de-sacs were also to create for a more intimate, closer community, in comparison to the busy main roads and traffic flow separating houses on opposite sides. Those living on the estate were aware of this difference, often speaking positively of this shared space.
As mentioned, there were 91 different house types on the Becontree Estate. It was mostly minor variations between the houses, which would often go unnoticed by the ordinary eye. The most common house type was S3 – 3 upstairs bedrooms, a living room, kitchenette, bathroom, larder and coal store. Having a separate bathroom and kitchen was standard in all the houses on the estate, however more expensive plans were offered for those wanting greater separation of functions, such as a front parlour. Most houses were 2 storied, with a few 3 storied. There was a minimum of 70ft between opposing houses to promote sunlight penetration, beneficial for good health. Around a quarter of the houses were also built with a shared porch, acting as a shelter to the two adjacent front doors, with a shared step. This often-forced neighbours into a closer relationship, much more so than the use of banjos. If the neighbours got on well then this would lead to even greater friendship, however there was also the risk of conflict over issues such as cleaning if not!
The London County Council experimented with various material types, including brick, concrete, and timber, purely due to the fear that the supply of bricks may run out! In 1925, Colonel Levita (chairman of the Housing Committee), Mr Humphries (chief engineer), and Mr Topham Forest (chief architect) visited Norway and Sweden to investigate timber houses built there. A year later, more than 20 timber houses were imported and built on the Becontree Estate, arousing interest within the architectural and building quarters. Now, harking back to a major event in 1666, you might be thinking timber houses may not have been the wisest of choices. For this reason, the London County Council took many precautions dictated by insurance considerations. These precautions included building timber houses in pairs, with brick or concrete houses surrounding them either side, as well as fitting all houses with a fire hose long enough to reach each room. The hose was even kept in a sealed glass fronted cupboard in the kitchen, in which one would need to break the glass to remove it – a measure to ensure it was not used for everyday unauthorised purposes such as watering the gardens. The insurance policy ended up costing over double the insurance for brick houses, making one wonder whether using timber was worth the additional precautionary costs. However, there was some praise in its use – the ability to provide a bright and colourful appearance, thought to be a welcome relief to the thousands of similar brick houses already being erected. Similarly, Portland Cement was also proposed as it could be obtained in various shades or brown, buff, red, and white, again providing a difference to purely using red brick.
What are your thoughts on the Becontree Housing Estate? Have you experienced a sense of community, living either in the cul-de-sacs or on a main road? Have you spotted any difference between house types, or those built with different materials?