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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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To this end she had a network of ‘fellow workers’ who visited the tenants in their dwellings and apart from collecting the rent would be on hand with advice regarding improvements to their home, cleaning and budgeting.  She also accepted tenants from a lower class and those in more casual employment who were excluded by the other organizations. Like other organizations, if rent was not paid or if the tenants were intemperate, they were evicted.  She was against large blocks as they were ugly, did not allow for individuality and led to behaviour problems, believing that housing should be developed on a small scale on the pattern of houses and cottages.  Neither did she agree with mass slum clearance, believing a programme of refurbishment and patching was preferable.  


In 1884 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the forerunner of the Church Commissioners who manage the Church of England’s investments and properties, were the subject of a scandal.  The middle and upper classes were becoming aware of the squalid and over-crowded living conditions of the poor and a committee was formed by residents of Brompton to visit poorer districts and to find out what practical steps could be taken to improve conditions.  They visited the parish of St George the Martyr in the Borough and, as reported in The Times on 3 January 1884, they found people “left to live like beasts, and they form the plague of social and moral life …The visitors saw wretched holes, the condition of which is horrible to think of in which workers were crowded into fever dens too shocking to describe in detail, and where they paid high rents … In one of these places 10 persons live.”  


It emerged the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were the owners and landlords of these properties.  This situation had arisen not through inaction and neglect on the part of the Church but because many of the properties had been built on land the church had let to private developers on long leases.  As the leases ended, the land and dwellings reverted to the Church who inadvertently found themselves owners of a great deal of property in appalling condition in the poorest parts of London.  Clearly the Church could not be slum landlords and the problem had to be resolved.


In 1884 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners met with Octavia Hill and asked her to manage a large portfolio of properties including some in Southwark.  They gave her a plot of land on Redcross Way where inititally she built a garden and a place for children to play followed by a Community Hall and six cottages.    Octavia was a prolific letter writer and she described the condition of the site when she took possession:























The architect for the cottages was Elijah Hoole who worked on many of Octavia Hill’s projects.  He incorporated her love of “quaint irregularity” in a Tudor influenced design and the completed cottages were  soon tenanted.  Red Cross Hall became the focus of the community and a meeting place for various groups including a working man’s club, a band and an army cadet corps.  Octavia persuaded Eton College to pay for some bright red uniforms for the cadet corps which she felt would be more cheery than the standard green when on parade.  The garden was laid out as part covered playground and part planted garden with were two plane trees with seats around them, a bandstand for music concerts and poetry readings, a bridge and a little pond with a fountain and goldfish.  A flower show was held there every year along with fetes and other community events.  “Nature breathes in deepest Southwark” Octavia declared when she opened the gardens in 1887.


Octavia Hill in The Borough

By the end of the nineteenth century, overcrowded slum conditions in the Borough had become a cause for great concern.  Many philanthropists and organisations took practical steps to alleviate the problem including Octavia Hill, a tireless reformer, to improve the living conditions of the poor.  Under her guidance, four rows of cottages with attractive architecture were built in the Borough and continue to provide homes today.  They bring a rural feel in the midst of a highly urban area, three of the four are Grade II listed.  

Red Cross Cottages and Gardens

(10 minutes from the  City of London)

Octavia Hill White Cross Cottages 2 Octavia Sudrey Street Octavia Hill Winchester Cottages

Left to right:  Winchester Cottages, Copperfield Street:  Gable Cottages, Sudrey Street:  

White Cross Cottages, Ayres Street

The Ecclesiastical Commissioners gave her more land at the rear of the cottages to build 6 further cottages, White Cross Cottages, and further Octavia Hill cottages were built locally in Copperfield Street and Sudrey Street.  Within what is the Borough of Southwark today, in 1905 Octavia Hill went on to redevelop a much larger area of 22 acres of slums in Walworth formerly owned by the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury.

They worked with local residents, businesses and historians to recreate one of the nicest and picturesque gardens in London, a calm oasis amidst the bustle of 21st century London.  It has a pond with bridge, winding paths and planted beds and now, since December 2014, it once more has a bandstand that has been paid for by Southwark Council.  Engraved into the paving of the bandstand, presumably copied from the original, is the motivational message “Do noble deeds, not dream them.”  

Time went by and by the end of the second world war, Red Cross Gardens had been asphalted over.  Gillian Darley in her biography of Octavia Hill published in 1990 described the garden as a “fly-blown patch of grass.”   Happily the garden has been rescued by the Bankside Open Spaces Trust. Today the garden appears long established but surprisingly the renovated garden only opened in 2006.   BOST (who also created Mint Street Park and will be creating the garden at Crossbones Graveyard) were awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery fund.

"It was, when handed over to me, a desolate place.   There had been a  paper factory on one half of it, which had been burnt down.  Four of the five feet of unburnt paper lay in irregular heaps, blackened by fire, saturated by rain and smelling most unpleasantly.  It had lain there for five years and much rubbish had been thrown in.  A warehouse some storeys high fronted the street on the other half of the ground, with no forecourt or area to remove its dull height further from the rooms in the modest dwellings which faced it.  Our first work was to set  bonfires alight, gradually to burn the mess of paper  This took about six weeks to do, though the fires were kept alight day and night.  The ashes were good for the soil in the garden, and we were saved the whole cost of carting the paper away.  Our next task was to pull down the warehouse and let a little sun in on our garden, and additional light, air and sight of the sky to numerous tenants.  


"Then came the erection of a covered playground for the children; it was the whole length of a huge warehouse which bounds the garden on one side.  It is roofed with timber from the warehouse we pulled down and the roof is supported by massive pillars.  The space is paved with red bricks set diagonally, so as to make a pretty pattern.  At one end of this arcade is a drinking fountain."

Octavia Hill was an extraordinary woman of high energy and high ideals.  She managed and developed many housing projects for the poor, and in addition to her housing reform work, was an advocate for open spaces and a co-founder of the National Trust in 1895. Her approach was holistic in that she believed that moral reform and education of the individual went hand in hand with housing reform and that it was necessary for the character of the poor to improve for a lasting solution to the housing problem.  

Red Cross Cottages 2 Red Cross Cottages 3

Red Cross Cottages and Garden