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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Cromwell Buildings, Redcross Way

Tucked in by the railway viaduct on Redcross Way, Cromwell Buildings, built in 1864, was an innovative form of housing that offered the lower paid good quality accommodation and also brought a modest but steady return to those who had invested.  The model housing companies were formed against a background of a rapidly rising population in London where many had been made homeless by the building of new roads and railways, a problem that was intensified by huge numbers arriving from rural areas to seek work. This led to massive over-crowding in often insanitary living conditions. Just one room in a run down court or alley often accommodated a whole family and many of these ‘homes’ were not fit to live in.  

Cromwell buildings

There was a growing awareness among the upper and middle classes of how the poor had to live and there was much discussion about ‘The Housing Problem’. The model, or industrial, housing companies, whose intentions were part philanthropic and part commercial, became known as the 5% philanthropists. One of these companies was the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, founded in 1863 by Sydney Waterlow.  He and his brothers had inherited a stationery company which under his leadership expanded and grew in prominence.  He entered politics, starting as a city councillor, became an alderman, Lord Mayor of London and entered Parliament and had received a knighthood.  


His first building project was as a private philanthropist with a development in Mark Lane, Finsbury.  After this proved successful he launched the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (IIDC) with the aim of developing easily built housing for artisans to be let at rents that would produce a steady return of 5% to investors.  This proved attractive to many investors and in 1864 Cromwell Buildings, the first IIDC block, was built in Red Cross Street, just off the newly built Southwark Street and facing the newly built railway viaduct.  Compared with later model dwelling blocks, the scale was small and is described in the IIDC Register of Estates as “One block having a basement storey and five storeys above and containing 24 tenements viz 10 of four rooms, 12 of 3 rooms and 2 shops.”


From the beginning the IIDC pursued a policy of building only self-contained flats, then considered a luxury, and were complete with a scullery for cooking and water closet.  So keen was Waterlow that the WC received sufficient ventilation they were built in a pier that jutted out at the back from the rest of the building which led to criticisms that other rooms suffered from lack of light as a consequence.  


There is still something very eye-catching about the building today with its brightly painted iron balconies that provide access to individual flats via a central staircase from street level.  The building is Grade II listed and the flats are a mixture of privately and council owned