W. J. Collins Before He Bought Fortismere
W.J.Collins had been ati estate agent and builder for some time before he bought the Fortismere Estate. In January 1898 he advertised 'high-class residences near Crouch End Station, from £850 to £2000, for investment, with low ground rents, let to first class tenants, and paying 7-8% per annum.' These were substantial prices at that period. The northern suburbs of London were developing rapidly as a result of the railway expansion. In the same issue another agent advertised 90 freehold plots at moderate prices in Muswell Hill, Archway Road, Highgate, Wood Green, Finchley, Alexandra Palace, Edgware and Barnet.
How many of the houses Collins was advertising had been built by himself, and what proportion of his business was to act as the agent for others, we do not know. With the purchase of Fortismere Estate he certainly became a large developer in his own right.
Collins and the Fortismere Estate
Collins bought the Fortismere and Firs estates and created the modern street pattern bounded by Collingwood Avenue, Firs Avenue, Grand Avenue and Fortis Green. The edges of the Fortismere and Firs Estates ran along Fortis Green, Fortis Green Road aid Muswell Hill Road. The corner opposite St James's Church, now occupied by the cinema and shops, had been built earlier, as a crescent of Victorian Gothic houses, with long narrow gardens, only two of which remain. Highfield School, on the site of the present 1930s houses and telephone exchange, was still flourishing, and about to cause Collins difficulties, as it narrowed the entrance to his estate. Thus the shapes of the two old estates, Fortismere and Firs, dictated the boundaries, while the presence of the lake explains the order in which the streets had to be built. Collins wished to occupy Fortismere as a family home and enjoy the lake for as long as possible, so he built Collingwood and Grand Avenues along the borders and gradually built towards his own house. Lay-out and strategy were clear in Collins' mind from the start, but the details were to take years to complete.
Collins houses with their warm brick and generous woodwork are justly popular in Muswell Hill as they give an attractive feeling of warmth and solidity. He was building at the end of the Sweetness and Light period which had dispersed the Victorian gloom by using big windows, warm red brick and large areas of white woodwork. Collins and his sons continued to build into the Arts and Crafts period, with its stress on using 'natural' materials in a direct, honest way. This transition can be followed in the estates. Both styles allow the houses to conform to the landscape and hug it, giving most interesting roof shapes.
Classical architects always built up their foundation walls to produce a level surface, well above the surrounding site. Then they built a symmetrical house on this foundation. Collins houses have their foundations at all sorts of levels. Collins houses are rather like a group of people lying completely relaxed on uneven ground. Some lie with their feet and heads level; some have their feet lower and some have their feet higher thm their heads. Everything depends on the slope of the ground and the way they choose to dispose themselves.