The Site and its History
The area between Gray’s Inn Road and St Paul’s was broken into a series of hills and dales by the Fleet River and its various tributaries. This may have been an advantage when the Romans were looking for a strong defensive point, protected by natural barriers but it was a real problem in a busy, commercial city. The streams had long been culverted. They were out of sight so people could forget them. Houses had been built in the valleys but the road still had to go down into one river valley and up to the next ridge time and again, like a switchback. It was very slow, and a great strain on the horses. The traffic became so slow that High Holborn Viaduct and Rosebery Road were built to sail over the existing houses and give quick travel.
The building of Holborn Viaduct1
When Islington heard of the plan to build High Holborn they point out that The Angel area was separeted in the same way and asked for a similar bridging road. This was built as Rosebury Road and one can look down from various points at the buildings which had lined the old tributaries. Standing on a bridge the buildings tower above but they start from several floors down.
Looking West showing the road bridge on Rosebury Ave over Warner Street. Warner Street was built in one of the valleys of the Fleet River.
These pictures show exactly the same setup as Harold Lloyd used for his famous clock scene. The clock was mounted on the side building with a padded safty platform below and the camera was on the bridge.
The Spa Green Estate site has interesting associations. The New River Head, the terminus of the canal constructed by Sir Hugh Myddelton to supply Northern London with water, is just below Sadler's Wells Theatre.
In Clerkenwell, many "wells" and "spas" were developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Long before the Reformation the monks of the Priory of Clerkenwell had pronounced the waters of one well (later known as "Sadler's Wells") sacred. At the Reformation it was bricked up as being “altogether superstitious" and was forgotten. When the well was re-discovered by Sadler in 1683 it became famous and for its arbours and avenues of trees. It had its good and bad periods for over 200 years, at one time being patronised by Royalty and at other, being eclipsed by rival attractions.
The waters, supposed to be efficacious for gout and arthritis, were also taken as a cure for the after effects of intemperance. In addition to the medicinal waters, wine was sold at the new "Spa" for an annual subscription of a guinea, or at sixpence a glass.
The chief entertainments were the Ducking Pond, angling in the New River , and musical and theatrical performances. An additional reason for popularity can be found in Colman's ejaculation,
"Oh, the watering-places are the only places to get young women, lovers and husbands!"
This pleasure resort was called "The New Tunbridge Wells" and in the 20th Century, became part of the site of this modern housing estate.
Over the years the area became built over until by 1915, it was full of houses. These had been built for single tenancy, with one kitchen and a WC outside the house or inside, but very few would have been built with bathrooms. Quite quickly many had been split up into floor ad even single rooms, with shared cooking arrangements and improvised bathing facilities. Many would have gone to public baths once a week.
The area on the 1915 OS Map.
Slum Clearance in the Nineteen-Thirties
After the First World War there was an enormous demand for clean, affordable housing in London . In 1930 the Royal Institute of British Architects had carried out a devastating survey of how poor people were housed. It found overcrowding, vermin, whole families living in one room without access to their own lavatory, no bathroom, nowhere to store food so that they had to buy every day for that day, disease and all the other troubles of living in a slum. Everyone knew the conditions were bad but this Survey shocked even the most hardened.
Link to Slum Clearance
Building The SPA Green Estate
This was not a new problem. There had been Booth's Study of London Poverty in 1889 which showed that over a million people in London lived in poverty. There had been the ‘Homes for Heroes' movement at the end of the First World War and the 1924 Housing Act which led to Council Building . Five storey blocks had been built in the centres of towns and cottages in the country, but the problem was still acute. Thousands still lived in slums. Now had come this devastating RIBA Report and there was new impetus.
One thing had changed. New ideas were beginning to seep into Architecture.
The New Architects Who Sought Refuge in Britain in the 1930s
Berthold Lubetkin had left Russia to study architecture in 1922. He studied in Poland , Berlin and Paris and came to Britain in the 1930s. By 1935 Hitler was in power in Germany , so that many architects sought refuge in Britain .
In the 1930s Lubetkin's fellow Russian, Serge Chermayeff, Hungarian-born Ernö Goldfinger, the German-born Erich Mendelsohn and the former Bauhüsslers, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer all came to Britain . The Beauhaus had already had some influence on British design, but this flood of talent caused a step change in Britain and America .
They influenced young British-born architects, such as Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew, Francis Skinner and Denys Lasdun. This movement of architects and engineers influenced Britain in the same way as the Huguenots expelled by Louis XIIII, influenced British Industry all those years ago, by introducing new ideas and technologies to this country.
Penguin Pool, London Zoo, Regent's Park, 1933-1934,
Design: Berthold Lubetkin , Lindsay Drake, the brilliant young Dane Ove Arup, Tecton
In the Penguin Pool Lubetkin and Arup built wafer-thin cantilevered walkways in the shape of a double helix, which illustrated the sculptural qualities of concrete and created a sensation.. The quality of the work seen is still startling. We all know today of some later concrete work in Britain , where fine cracks in the concrete has allowed water to penetrate to the steel below and rust the steel. When steel rusts it expands and forces layers if concrete to flake off. Even more water penetrates and the rust becomes worse. This has led to the collapse of ferroconcrete buildings. I doubt if any architects would dare to make such thin sections as these today or to be able to rely on good enough supervision of the work as was needed here.
Highpoint I, in north London, designed by Berthold Lubetkin, completed in 1935.
Photo: Morley von Sternberg
With thanks to Wikipedia
At the same period as the Penguin Pool, Lubetkin built the famous High Point flats in Highgate, so when the Cement Marketing Co. Ltd. announced a competition for blocks of concrete flats opposite Sadler's Wells, he entered his design.
The Lubetkin and Tecton Design for Spa Flats
This article gives a good account of the original five-storey design. It was not the one actually built because the Second World War intervened. By 1945 bomb destruction had made the demand fot housing even greater, so the height of the flats was increased to eight-storeys. The final decision was to build a curved block five storeys high and two more blocks eight storeys high, on the larger site opened by the bombing. However the construction principle described above, remained the same.
The original competition for the Spa building
THE BUILDER, March 22 1935
COMPETITION FOR WORKING-CLASS FLATS
IN RE-INFORCED CONCRETE
By MESSRS. B. LUBETKIN AND TECTON, Architects,
in collaboration with MR. OVE ARUP, Engineer.
First Premiated Design.
‘This competition for working-class flats in reinforced concrete, promoted by the Cement Marketing Co., Ltd., shows practical progressive enterprise on the Company's part at a time when, despite the large amount of working class dwellings erected and in progress, the shortage of accommodation is still acute. The competition elicited a good response, some 123 sets of designs being received for the £600 cash prizes offered, many being of considerable merit. Cost being the dominant factor, it would appear from the assessors' report that the first prize design, in addition to winning on plan and general arrangement, was also one of the most economical in cost, which is essential when only a small rent can be expected. The net area available for development was approximately four acres, and the height of the buildings was limited to five storeys and the density per acre was not to exceed 50.
[Note. Five storeys had been the traditional height for London flats because they were heated by coal and there were no lifts. People could not be expected to carry coal any higher than this. When the later flats were built to eight storeys height, they wre not heated with coal.]
A provision in the conditions of the Competition stated that:
| "The designs will be judged from the engineering standpoint as well as from the architectural, with due regard to practicability, fire resistance, acoustics and durability, and to encourage collaboration between the architectural and engineering professions, joint entries are invited."
This clause was almost bound to produce good results at a time when the engineer is so much in evidence in constructional work.
The Winning Design
Spa Green Perspective View.
The Original Design for the Five Storey Spa Green Estate.
A section through a block showing the extremely thin ferro-concrete walls.
Design No.112 - Messrs, B. Lubetkin and Tecton,
Mr. Ove, Arup, engineer:
The following are direct quotations from the competition judges‘ report.
"This scheme places the blocks on the site in such a manner as to ensure a maximum of sunshine. the whole of the bedrooms facing east and the living rooms west. The approach, by means of staircases arranged within the block, removes the numerous disadvantages of the long external approach halcony, and the cost of the scheme is one of the most favourable submitted."
"The approach to the staircases themselves forms a continuous covered way, obtained by recessing the ground floor, which, provided as it is with pram and bicycle sheds, and not overlooked by any of the living rooms, is a most attractive arrangement. The private balconies, which are of ample dimensions, are arranged in such a manner as to obstruct as little as possible the penetration of the sunshine into the living-rooms. They are so arranged that the mother, working in either the living-room or the kitchen, would have the children on the balcony under constant supervision."
"The arrangement. of the back-to-back fireplace, arranged as it is with relation to the kitchen and bathroom, provides a most economical and appropriate solution to the heating and plumbing problem. The disposal of refuse has been most adequately dealt with by the placing of a vertical chute through the half-landings of the well-ventilated staircases, discharging into a container in an underground corridor, from which it is collected in a trolley."
"The scheme provides excellently arranged communal laundries, and shows considerable ingenuity in the solution of many of the smaller problems involved in this type of building, solutions which, without any material additional cost, would remove a lot of the nuisances which communal dwellings have hitherto suffered.
"The structure, being of a cellular nature. Is most appropriate for reinforced concrete, and the cost - namely, £94.81 per hahitable room, is extremely low - and is probably lower than has yet been achieved. The competitor states that firm quotations for the work, based on bills of quantities, have been received and our examination would tend to confirm this."
Today we take ferro-concrete construction for granted but in 1935, when the Spa Green Estate was first designed, it was new and the estate was part of a publicity development by the Cement Marketing Co., Ltd. The winning design was chosen in 1935. Due to delay and then the Second World War, it was not built until 1947 and then in a taller form.
This quotation from a pamphlet published at the Opening of the Rosebery Avenue Housing Scheme (now called The Spa Green Estate) shows what a new form of construction this was and completely new to Britain at the time. Secondly, it was fortunate that the consulting structural engineer was Ove
Arup (‘the brilliant Dane'), who introduced rising shuttering. This system lifts the shuttering by hydraulics. Instead of having to remove the shuttering when one level of concrete is dry and replace it higher up, the shuttering was moved up slowly as the concrete was poured. This saved an enormous amount of time, labour and cost.
This technique was new to Britain in 1935.and, although High Point had been a success, it had not been brought to general attention.
[Today this technique has been adapted into continuously moving shuttering , where that concrete is poured 24 hours a day and the shuttering always moves just ahead of it. The concrete is poured in one continuous flow from bottom to top. This means that the concrete sets as a single block, without the drying lines which occur when one concrete level is allowed to dry while the shuttering is being moved. These lines of weakness are dangerous to the structure and could be fatal in, for example, North Sea oil platforms. In Spa Green the moving shuttering stopped at the end of the day's work. In North Sea platforms it moves continuously from start to finish and the concrete is one solid block with no fault lines. But that is another and much later story.]
Part of a Contemporary Report on the Spa Flats
This is a quotation from a pamphlet published at the Opening of the Rosebery Avenue Housing Scheme, now called The Spa Green Estate.
Building, no less than other fields of human activity, was influenced by the development of new techniques. The introduction of the new structural materials, such as steel or reinforced concrete framing, allowed architects to design much lighter, and therefore higher and more open structures. Instead of the traditional bulky, cumbersome brick walls, with their restricted floor spans and small window openings, the introduction of the light skeleton made possible much freer planning, Larger windows and balconies, and opened the way to new and unexplored methods of design.
Scientific research into the technology of building materials, coupled with the rationalisation and mechanization of work on the site gave a considerable spur to building practice, a process which reached a new high point with the advances born of the national wartime effort.
Thus it became possible to reduce the weight, cost and time of erection of the carcass of the building, so that there was more to spare for a higher standard of equipment and finishes. The time, indeed, was ripe for just such a development, for, while equipment had been improved out of all recognition, the relatively high cost of carcassing had, until recently, put the advantages of modern equipment far beyond.
‘advances born of the national wartime effort', means more powerful earth moving machines, plenty of lorries instead of horses and carts, and more powerful fire engines which allowed blocks of flats to rise above five storeys which had been the limit of pre-war fire hoses..
This was the position in 1939 when the Second World War began. Building work stopped overnight as everyone concentrated on other duties.
The Spa Green Bombing Map
The Bombing Map of the Spa Green Area
This map and other smaller sections reproduced elsewhere,
are taken with permission, from
The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945.
The Colour Key to the L.C.C. Bomb Damage Map
|Colour Key References
||Black - Total destruction
||Purple - Damaged beyond repair
||Dark Red - Doubtful if repairable
||Light Red - Seriously damaged, but repairable at cost
||Orange - General blast damage, not structural
||Yellow - Blast damage, minor in nature
||V1 flying bomb
||V2 long range rocket.
There will be slight variations in the colours because the original maps
are old and the colour balance on computer monitors will vary
This map shows the extreme damage which happened to Spa Green and the immediate neighbourhood during six long years of war. Sadler's Wells and other areas nearby suffered blast damage. Two flying bombs landed on the other side of Spa Green and the houses in Rydon Crescent and Thomas Street, the two roads which used to run across Spa Green, also suffered ‘ damage beyond repair' (Purple) from some other form of bombing. The exact nature and dates of the incidents could be found today on the bombing cards still held at Islington Local History Archive just nearby.
LINK TO FLYING BOMBS A. POWELL AND BACK
Uses of the Bombing Map on this website
1945 and Finsbury's Housing Problem
By 1945 Finsbury presented an acute housing problem, this article shows:-
Prior to the war Finsbury was the third most overcrowded Borough in London according to the standards laid down in the Housing Act, of 1936. That grim situation has since been worsened by the total destruction of 11 per cent of its habitable dwellings by enemy action. A very high proportion of the remaining houses and flats in the Borough are ripe for demolition on account of dilapidation, through age and natural deterioration, to an extent which entirely precludes the possibility of reconstruction. The effects of bombing and the difficulties of maintenance during the war have added materially to the number of premises for which early replacement is essential.
Finsbury is a small Borough with a population of approximately 38,000. The Housing Waiting List includes 4,500 families and is increasing at a rate of approximately 100 families per month. The conditions under which the great majority of these cases are living are such that the necessity for rehousing is really urgent.
The problem of providing sufficient new accommodation to meet the situation in a short period would be difficult enough under present conditions. The Council has, however, been faced with a further obstacle still, viz., a serious shortage of building sites. A large part of the Borough consists of heavily built up commercial and industrial development while the residential areas are very restricted in size. Finsbury has hitherto of necessity been one of the most deficient Boroughs in London as regards open spaces, and its cramped schools require reconstruction and enlargement on modern lines. The sites for these must very largely be provided out of the residential zones. Land suitable for immediate erection of new dwellings and not rendered unavailable through the complex planning considerations and communication requirements which apply to Central London has proved very scarce indeed, but the Council is pushing ahead with schemes wherever practicable.
Article probably from The Builder c.1947
Forward Planning by the Council
Tecton had won the Concrete Marketing Competition in the 1935 Competition but it had not been built because of the War. During the War it became clear that the demand for housing would be even greater at the end of the War than it had been in 1939. Looking ahead, Finsbury Council asked for a larger scheme, eight storeys high, to house more people. The Council now wanted 129 flats containing 410 rooms. 56 x 4 room flats, 48 x 3 room flats, 17 x 2 room flats, and 8 x 1 room flats.
The whole project had to be redesigned. Heating with coal was now impossible as sacks of coal could not be carried to that height. The weights of concrete and foundation strengths had to be recalculated, etc, etc. All this took time and consultation, but finally everything was agreed on 12th April 1945 (i.e. before the end of the War) at an estimated cost of £200,000.
The new calculations and designs were made, so that although Spa Green was a bomb site by 1945, the plans for rebuilding were almost ready. Spa Green became the first Finsbury Borough Council post war housing success. The records show considerable delays and problems in respect of shortage of labour and materials, industrial problems and soaring prices, but when the three blocks were built they became a showpiece.
Building Spa Green Estate
The foundation stone was laid in July 1946 by the Rt. Hon. Aneurin Bevan MP, and the completion ceremony was presided over by Herbert Morrison.
On 14th of September, 1947 the Finance Committee agreed to increases in costs of £8,982 above the original £20, 000. Therefore the total cost at that time was estimated to be at least £28,982, or £1,775 per flat on average. This estimate seems ridiculous today and was well short of the final costs even then. Remember however that the average wage then was still only about four pounds a week. Our modern pound sterling is worth far, far less than in 1945.
The Enlarged Eight Storey Design
The original design quickly enlarged and building started
The three blocks will be called Tunbridge House; Wells House and Sadler House.
Elevation of one block
The Estate in 2010
See housing history file for foundation stone and completion ceremonies programmes.
A report on the final design
The Layout is as open as conditions in central London will permit. Closed court-yards have been avoided, and the greatest possible area has been thrown open for gardens and playing spaces, from which the three buildings rise clear-cut. Between the two high blocks a single storey Nursery School has been planned.
The isolated blocks running due North and South, ensure that every room has the maximum sun, air and view. The flats in the high blocks have the living rooms, kitchens and balconies along one elevation, with all the bedrooms facing the opposite way. As individual preferences as to aspect vary, the flats are designed to provide for different alternatives.
The large Entrance Halls in each block bring a sense of community into the buildings. Pram and bicycle stores are incorporated under cover in these halls. Individual lifts and staircases in the high blocks give access to two flats on each landing.
The living rooms are arranged next to the kitchens with a service hatch between. A private balcony is overlooked by the kitchen so that the housewife can supervise children playing. Long internal corridors have been avoided. The interior design provides well-proportioned rooms which are easy to furnish. There are no projecting columns or beams and no exposed pipes or conduits in the rooms.
At the top of each tall block there is a terrace with a fine view in all directions, with a specially designed aero-dynamic roof which induces a draught to pass through drying cubicles for the tenants' laundry.
[There had been laundries and drying areas on the roofs of blocks of flats in London from the end of the Nineteenth Century. This practice ended only when a child lost an arm in a mechanical dryerand the LCC had to acept liability in court. It could no provide supervision for all its blocks and reluctantly had to close the laundries. This was years before our modern washing machines of course.]
The large windows, clean lines and light colours of the exterior give expression to the main charcteristics of the design. The monotony so often evident in the elevations of tall blocks has been avoided by the patterning of the elevational features. The light coloured faience tiles on the exterior will ensure that even in the London atmosphere the buildings will retain a fresh appearance.
Both the architectural effect and the quality of equipment provided owe much to structural system which has been used. This consists of a series of flat reinforced concrete slabs forming the floors, and reinforced concrete cross-walls forming the divisions between the rooms. The whole of the walls is thus left free for windows and light non-structural enclosing walls. The simplicity and low cost of this method allowed [money for] a higher standard of equipment than is usual in such schemes.
Special attention has been paid to acoustical problems. The "box frame" structure itself, by its comparative rigidity reduces the transmission of through a structure. In addition, the staircase lift towers are structurally completelv isolated from the buildings by espansion joints, so the transmision of sound from footfalls on the stairs or from the operation of the lifts is reduced to the minimum. Throughout the flats a system of floating floors, whereby the floor surface is completely isolated from the structure by an acoustical quilt, has been adopted .
These two paragraphs are very impotrant as they foretell the brilliant career of Arap and his mechanical gifts. Arup later formed the world famous firm of structural engineers, Ove Arup & Partners. They have built all over the world and, incidentally, rescued the Sydney Opera House when its architect had no idea how to build it. Finsbury had the advantage of his skills at Spa Green very early on.
Heating and Hot Water.
There is a central underground boiler plant for providing heating and hot water supply for the flats. The main hot water pipe heats a calorifier in each flat which provides a limited but ample supply of hot water. The calorifier is placed in a linen cupboard where it also supplies the moderate heat required for drying linen, etc. The same hot water main supplies heat for radiators in the living room and hall of each flat, giving "background" heating during the heating season. The radiators can, if desired, be turned of by the tenant. For "topping up" in unusually cold weather or for cold spells in the summer, a go, or electric fire is provided in every living room. There is an electric point for a fire in each bedroom.
Refuse Disposal .
For the first time in London the Garchey system of refuse disposal has been installed. Vegetable or other refuse is placed in a container under the kitchen sink through a sealed hole in the bottom of the sink. From here it is flushed away periodically to underground collection chambers whence it is sucked by vacuum to a central disposal plant next to the heating chamber. Here the refuse is dried and burned, finally emerging as ashes which are carried away for disposal. The system is completely sealed from the public from the moment the refuse is placed in the container under the sink to its final removal as harmless ashes.
(It would be interesting to know if these two systems have survived and still function.)
- Illustrated London News, 23 April, 1864