Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Devon Mansions are a row of 21 blocks of Victorian industrial dwellings built in 1885 along Tooley Street by developer James Hartnoll. Built of yellow brick and six storeys high, there were originally a total of 525 tenements. They were built as a result of the extension and widening of Tooley Street between 1875 and 1884 which had involved the demolition of various buildings including some very small back to back houses. After the completion of the roadworks, there remained a very narrow strip of cleared land between Tooley Street and Fair Street which was purchased by James Hartnoll where he squeezed in Devon Mansions. Originally the tenements were named Hanover buildings but this name was changed during the First World War.
James Hartnoll was a very successful speculative builder who constructed blocks of industrial dwellings throughout London including sites at Clerkenwell, Rosebery Avenue, Poplar and Charing Cross Road and also mansion blocks for the middle classes in the West End. He didn’t sell on the buildings upon completion but took on the role of landlord himself. While there were organisations like Peabody and Guinness who were building blocks of working class housing driven by philanthropic concerns and a desire to ease the overcrowding and appalling living conditions experienced by the working poor, Hartnoll appears to have been motivated purely by commercial reasons. In Southwark, apart from Devon Mansions, he also built Ilfracombe and Monarch Buildings, now part of the Marshalsea Estate owned by the Peabody Trust, and Ipsden Buildings just over the borough boundary in Lambeth, now also owned by Peabody.
But for a man who has left such a distinctive legacy throughout London, very little is known about him. He was born in 1853 in Harper Street in the parish of St Mary Newington in a dwelling occupied by other families as well as his own. His father, Thomas, was a carpenter. When James married in 1874 he described himself as a grocer but a year later, aged 22 he was a joiner living in Peckham. Just six years later, he was described in a report of a House of Commons Select Committee as one of only two speculative builders building housing for the working class in central London. He was very successful and became very wealthy. When he died at the relatively young age of 46 in 1900, he left £400,000, then a fortune.
He described himself to the London County Council in 1890 as “exceptionally experienced in the successful planning, erection and maintenance of Model Dwellings, as well as being the largest individual owner of this class of property in London.” As the Metropolitan Board of Works and its successor the LCC were demolishing slums using the powers under the Artizans’ Dwellings Acts, it could prove difficult for them to subsequently sell the cleared land for development as it was often an awkward and difficult shape and governed by statutory requirements. James Hartnoll, undaunted by these restrictions, was able to buy those sites that did not appeal to the philanthropic organisations at a very cheap rate. The tenements he built each had their own WC and scullery and Charles Booth considered Hartnoll’s work as among the best of its type and visually more attractive than the older buildings.
When Tower Bridge was built at the end of the 19th century, it was necessary to demolish one of the blocks in the row of Devon Mansions for the approach road, Tower Bridge Road, which cut right through the row of blocks. During the worst bombing raid by the Luftwaffe in World War II on 29th December 1940, a bomb exploded on one of the buildings and killed three people.
Southwark Council acquired the freehold to Devon Mansions in 1965: it seems at that time James Hartnoll Estates were selling many if not all their properties and perhaps they were unable to afford to carry out the much needed modernisation programmes required. Southwark Council decided to refurbish rather than demolish as the buildings were sound and demolition and rebuilding would have been very difficult on such a narrow strip of land. The modernisation programme was not completed until 1980 and with the introduction of bathrooms to each flat and reconfiguring work, the original 525 dwellings was reduced to 337. Many of the apartments are now in private hands and, with the regeneration of the Tooley Street area and its proximity to the centre of London, are in great demand.
Sources: Isabel Watson, Camden History Society Newsletter, No 58 (March 1980)
'Rosebery Avenue', in Survey of London: Volume 47, Northern Clerkenwell and Pentonville, ed. Philip Temple (London, 2008), pp. 109-139. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp109-139