Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Tucked behind the shops at the bottom of Denmark Hill is a social housing estate owned and managed by the Southern Housing Group. The organisation was born out of the Samuel Lewis Housing Trust, a charitable housing trust set up with a bequest from financier and philanthropist Samuel Lewis.
Samuel Lewis’ story is one of rags to riches. Born in Birmingham in 1837, his father died when he was 13 years old. To support his family, he became a travelling salesman selling steel pens and watch parts and later moved to London where he set up a jeweller’s business in Cork Street. He then went on to become a money lender and became very wealthy in the process. When he died in 1901, he bequeathed over £1 million pounds to various hospitals, charities and other organisations and left a large sum (some sources say £670,00, others £400,000) for the setting up of a charitable trust to build houses for the poor. His widow Ada died in 1906 and she too was concerned with housing issues, in particular the housing of single working women in London. One of the hostels built from a bequest in her will was Ada Lewis House in Old Kent Road that later became Driscoll House.
The first estate built by the Samuel Lewis Trust for Dwellings for the Poor was built in Liverpool Road, Islington in 1910 and soon fully tenanted. Shortly after the completion of the Islington estate, the Trust purchased sites in Chelsea and Camberwell, the latter a site in Warner Road, Camberwell together with an adjoining small court, Bloxham Buildings, enclosed by houses in Warner Road and Denmark Hill. Bloxham Buildings consisted of 14 old sub-standard houses, in the late 1840s it was reported there were 11 to 14 living in each house with poor drains, privies and cesspools at the front. At the end of the century, the Charles Booth investigator described the court as “poor cottages; garden fronts; costers etc. some loafers; rather rough, drinking lot.” The entire site acquired for the new estate consisted of approximately 100,000 square feet and cost £19,000.
The building of the estate in Chelsea made good progress and the first apartments let in 1915 but the Camberwell estate ran into delays which were compounded by the outbreak of World War I and the shortage of labour that brought. By 1917 14 blocks had been completed but nine of these had been taken over by the military authorities. By 1919, 17 blocks had been completed and the military had handed back the accommodation they had commandeered with the exception of two blocks which they retained for housing married non-commissioned offers and their families.
By 1920, the estate was fully let and the population recorded as:
Men - 183
Women - 233
Male children (under 14) – 221
Female children (under 14) - 238
The first three Samuel Lewis estates were built to a similar design and comprised self contained flats of 1, 2 and 3 rooms with a bathtub under a table top in the kitchen and the bath water heated by a copper boiler. Apartments with separate bathrooms were not built until the 1920s. There was a solid fuel range in the kitchen and when not in use for cooking the heat could be diverted to the next door living room. The estate had communal drying rooms, pram sheds and dustbins.
The Trust’s estates were built for the working poor and only let to those who were in employment. The estates were run by superintendents, always ex-military men, who, assisted by porters, ensured the strict rules were adhered to by the tenants. The superintendents and porters also lived on the estates.
By the second world war, a total of eight estates had been built in London by the Samuel Lewis Housing Trust but after the war the nature and scope of the organisation changed and in 2001 changed its name to Southern Housing Group to reflect this. In October 2010 a single charitable housing association, Southern Housing Group Ltd, was formed from the amalgamation of Southern Housing Group Ltd, James Butcher Housing Association Ltd and South Wight Housing Association Ltd.