Harold James Dyos, late Professor of Urban History at the University of Leicester, wrote that London underwent three distinct periods of growth: an increasingly dense build-up of the population in the centre, its spill-over into the outer districts of London, and the development of the outer suburbs of Greater London into the hinterlands of Middlesex, Essex, Surrey, and Kent.
The Corbett Society celebrates the latter phase, drawing its membership from the residents of seven large late-Victorian and Edwardian housing estates in south London – some 10,000 properties in all – built by Archibald Corbett (1856-1933) between 1880 and 1910.
Corbett was one of the principal developers of Forest Gate, Ilford, Catford, Hither Green, and Eltham. He inherited his first development project from his father and used the profits to buy further large acreages of cheap agricultural land from impoverished gentry, laying out street grids and building row after row of identical houses. He made his estates more attractive to commuters by persuading railway companies to build new stations along pre-existing lines and to offer discounted season tickets to estate residents.
He had lofty ideas about improving society as a whole, too, and aimed his advertising at the new army of clerks employed in the rapidly expanding City of London: the respectable, self-reliant, aspiring middle classes who wanted to save and buy their own homes rather than renting, and to bring up their families in a healthy environment – one that promoted churchgoing and temperance, for there are schools, churches, and chapels of various denominations, but no pubs on any of his estates.
The Corbett Society suggests that his developments can be compared to garden suburbs and even to the Queen Anne-style delights of Chiswick’s Bedford Park. That is a forgivable exaggeration, but the Corbett estate houses do have some distinctive architectural features, which the Society seeks to preserve by developing neighbourhood conservation plans. They also organise guided walks, undertake local history research, help to run the local library and heritage centre, and lobby local councillors to resist the conversion of houses on the estate into flats for rent – arguing that they deteriorate fast once in multiple occupation.
Who knows whether Corbett’s vision of a sober society was realised. Undoubtedly, though, he succeeded in fostering a lasting sense of community.
Further information: thecorbettsociety.org.uk
IMAGES: The Corbett Society
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