Gibson Gardens, at the corner of Northwold Road and Stoke Newington High Street, is now a gated estate where many people start on the housing ladder, but the ideas behind the building, and the movement which led to it being built, go back to the early years of the nineteenth Century.
Dr Southwood Smith is not a familiar name today. His grand-daughter Octavia Hill, the founder of the National Trust, is far better remembered but she would have not done her work without his primary influence. Their stories are intertwined and he started it all. Gibsons Gardens is a tiny offshoot of the story and there is even a Hackney connection hidden in the tale, because Southwood Smith married a Hackney girl as his second wife.
OCTAVIA HILL'S UPBRINGING AND TRAINING
We tend to forget what a wealth of expert knowledge about healthy housing conditions Octavia Hill had absorbed, almost by osmosis, before she ever came into the field herself. When her father became too ill to support the family, her grandfather, Dr. Southwood Smith (1788 - 1861) the great Victorian health reformer, took responsibility for the family.
He was born in Mortock, in Somersetshire, began training to become a minister but could not accept all the church teachings and his grant was withdrawn. His family, which was narrowly religious, cast him off at once and for good. He married but his wife died young, leaving him at the age of 24 with two young children. In 1813 he decided to leave the children in the loving care of his wife's relations and study medicine at Edinburgh University. Passing his examinations in 1816, he married again, this time to a girl from Hackney, and came to London. He was appointed to The London Fever Hospital, then on site of the present King's Cross Station.
At this period, may years before Pasteur discovered the bacteria carried disease, fever was a mysterious subject. Doctors could not distinguish one fever from the other. This was before the realisation that there were many forms of fever, with different causes. It was also before the concept of immunity built up by the body. Everything was obscure. It would be generations before the different fevers were understood. In the meantime, Southwood Smith's thoughts were concentrated on how fevers in general might be prevented.
The Fever Hospital patients seemed to show a pattern. Patients (mainly women) came in with 'a low fever', were cured by rest and nursing, returned to their miserable homes, only to develop fever again. There seemed to be a connection between poor living conditions and ill-health. Men, who were not in the house all day, generally breathed better air for part of the time and seemed to suffer fever less.
Southwood Smith published reports on this. In 1833 he worked on the Factory Commission. In 1834 he published 'The Philosophy of Health', which was widely read. In 1837 there was a serious fever epidemic in London. Southwood Smith was appointed to report on East London. From this came 'The Report on the Physical Causes of Sickness and Mortality to which the Poor are particularly exposed and which are capable of prevention by Sanitary Measures.'
As a result of this and similar reports by Southwood Smith and others, the Contagious Diseases Act, The Public Health Act and The Metropolitan Sewers Act, were all passed before 1848, the year when he was appointed to the Board of Health.
The Great Housing Experiment which has been largely forgotten
Southwood Smith and his friends carried out a deliberately planned experiment to try to prove that good housing would help to produce good health. In 1842 a few individuals formed themselves into an Association to prove that health could be improved by building houses on well-drained sites; admitting light and fresh air into every inhabited room; abolishing cess pits (earth closets) and introducing water closets; supplying abundant clean water and removing rubbish regularly.
The Association thought some houses could be built on these principles, but money had to be raised from shareholders. This was before the Limited Liability Act. Therefore a special Act of Parliament had to be passed so that shareholders would be liable only for the value of their share and not for everything they owned (as Lloyd's shareholders still are today).
The Association took the name 'The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes' and its first venture was 'The Metropolitan Buildings' in Old Pancras Road, King's Cross. They consisted of 110 sets of rooms, 20 two-room and 90 three-room flats, in five-storey blocks.
The Results of the Experiment
Southwood Smith published a book on the results of the experiment. In the three years 1850-52, child deaths in the Buildings were only one third of those of the Metropolis as a whole. The contrast to The Potteries, in Ladbroke Grove, was even greater.
In 1861, Hollingshead described The Potteries as,
Southwood Smith wrote;-
This is the sort of information that Octavia Hill had heard discussed all her life. No wonder that she brought such a fund of knowledge and common sense to her housing work.
The Effects of the Experiment
This experiment led to the building of blocks of Industrial Dwellings for reliable working class families who would pay the rent regularly and give minimum trouble. Peabody and other philanthropists funded some of them. The Lewis Trust and others are well known. Numerous Building Societies were founded to provide clean, low–rent housing, but they expected to make 5% profit. People in regular work, like policemen and railway workers, found the Dwellings very convenient. They were for the deserving poor, in regular, if poorly paid, employment. Gibson’s Gardens was built for these reliable, deserving people. In Portman Gardens, Lisson Grove, a very similar block which I described in the Growth of St Marylebone and Paddington, the Salvation Army appeared in the central courtyard every Sunday. They may well have done the same in Gibsons Gardens.
This was the site before Northwold Road was fully developed. There was an Infants School on the site. West Hackney Almshouses and a British School were opposite and nearby was still Nursery land.
The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes, the organisation founded by Southwood Smith and his friends, built two rows of four-storey dwellings in an L shape and a row of cottages for the older relations of the people living in the block. A further block (the ‘paddle-steamer’ block) was built later.
They were tucked in behind the houses on the corner of Cazenove Road and built to a most thoughtful design.
The layout reflects the careful planning associated always with this Association. The two main blocks, set out in an L shape, held most of the tenants. Access was by stairway. There were no lifts as people were expected to be able to carry coal up four flights of stairs. Octavia Hill (driven by economic necessity) said that one cold tap was enough for each floor in her flats. I have no idea of the internal layout of the original flats, but they were probably austere by our standards. Walls were un-plastered.
The L shaped road was cobbled, as it still is today. Beside the cobbled road is a strong iron railing and a row of trees, which can be enjoyed by all. Behind the railings, with their several gates, is a courtyard with seats and then a row of small cottages with quite long gardens at the back. This enclosure has the air if a row of almshouses, overlooked by the tall blocks. These were designed for the parents and grandparents of the families in the flats, under the family eye, but with their independence preserved. It was Victorian social planning at its best.
This, in the 1980s, when the Mrs Thatcher said there was no such thing as Society and social purpose was thrown to the winds, the flats began to be put on the market. Then the un-plastered walls were considered to be trendy, but the original reasons had been to get rid or vermin, to reduce costs and keep down the rents. In the same way, the entrance doorways are in hard-wearing bricks, but they were shaped bricks, in a warm, welcoming colour, in a double order and excellently laid. They are still very attractive despite the scars of over a century.
The gates from the inside, showing the cross decoration in sheet iron.
Like similar blocks all over London, the flats were gated. These were not locked until late, if then, for some of the tenants might be on night shift, but they acted as a barrier. Many windows overlooked a cobbled road and a stranger was soon spotted.
The School is now closed and the building has become an office building and the gates have disappeared into the lost world of the antiques trade.
This was made by an engineer, not a blacksmith and shows how machine work was applied to reduce the costs of hand forging.