Lynne has been researching the Well Hall Estate, in particular the families and daily lives of those who moved into the Estate from 1915.
Garden City for Arsenal Workers:
The Well Hall Estate
The Well Hall (Progress) Estate and the Great War
This part of the blog gives some background to the design and building of the Progress Estate, Well Hall, during the period of the First World War when it was known as the Well Hall Estate. It is not going to be a comprehensive history of the first few years of the estate’s existence – that is covered in other places. For those who would like to have further background history, there’s the entry on the Ideal-homes website about the estate http://www.ideal-homes.org.uk/case-studies/progress-estate. Alternatively local historian Keith Billinghurst contributes items to a blog as part of the research he
is doing into the history of the Estate over the hundred years of its life. Here is the link http:// progressestate.blogspot.co.uk/. Keith is writing a book which will be published later in the year.
A housing shortage
No doubt sooner or later the agricultural land at Well Hall would have been submerged beneath housing in the period between the two world wars when London’s suburbs grew and grew. The First World War speeded up that process for 90 acres of the land and helped create about 1300 distinctive, publicly owned houses in the form of an attractive and highly regarded estate. The Well Hall Estate, Eltham, which was also called the Well Hall Garden Suburb or City, was not so much ‘homes fit for heroes’ – those came later – as homes fit for workers, workers at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. We owe its presence, ironically, to the generally destructive First World War which led to the huge expansion of production at the Arsenal during the first months of the war in 1914. By the end of the
year Woolwich Borough Council was petitioning the Local Government Board a central government organisation, for housing for the vast numbers of workers newly arrived or about to arrive in the area. In January 1915 the council highlighted the need for housing for the working classes. Employment at the Arsenal had risen from 13,266 in August 1914 to 28,000 by the end of the year and was expected to rise another 7,000 in the next three months. There was reported to be no vacant accommodation in Woolwich suitable for persons of the working class. The shortage of housing in Woolwich had also been exacerbated by the pressure for married quarters for army families. As it was, thousands of workers travelled to the Arsenal from both north and south of the river. This need for housing was supported by the War Office. Once a decision was made to build the houses by the Office of Works, things moved incredibly swiftly. The Office of Works’ principal architect, Frank Baines, and colleagues visited the chosen site of 90 acres of agricultural land and within days a plan had been drawn up. The land chosen was used for market gardening on either side of Well Hall Road which a decade or so before had been Woolwich Lane. Astonishingly, within twelve months the estate was completed.
The estate owes its character to its principal architect, Frank Baines, later Sir Frank Baines, who also designed the MI5 building on the Thames as well as many other housing estates, including one at Roe Green for workers in the nearby aircraft factory. In his training he was influenced by the arts and crafts movement (William Morris is perhaps the most famous name associated with this approach to the design of houses and household objects) and the ideas which led to the creation of garden cities and suburbs. Already by 1915 a number of settlements had been built based on these ideas: Letchworth, Bournville, Port Sunlight and Hampstead Garden suburb. The houses at Well Hall were designed in keeping with the principals of the arts and crafts movement and were in a range of traditional English rural styles. There were as many different styles as possible, especially of the roofs, and building materials, to give the impression of a settlement which had grown naturally rather than having been planned as a whole. Tiles were used and timber in the form of weather boarding, as well as plaster work and pebble dashing. Some people have attributed this variety to the general shortage of building materials during the
war. There were four different classes of houses ranging from two to four rooms. One class
consisted of self contained flats arranged in two storey buildings to look like houses. There were also many different arrangements of the rooms – perhaps a dozen in all. The houses were arranged in small groups, in pairs and in short terraces. The roads – apparently almost four miles of them – were narrow and winding and some passageways were created between groups of houses. There was a feeling of spaciousness, in spite of the narrow, curving roads, with each house having 100ft of land and quite a few houses having side gardens. Trees and hedges of the agricultural landscape were kept. Two open spaces were included, Lovelace Green and Sandby Green providing a visual focus for two areas of the estate and adding to the village feel of the area. Work on building began on 8th February just a few weeks after the decision to build had been taken and the first houses were completed on May 22nd and occupied not long after. The whole estate was completed by December with a reported 3,700 names on the waiting list.