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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Wilson Grove

“Prior to the first world war, [Bermondsey] Borough Council’s housing property consisted of 227 dwellings which were built in 1903, but despite the grossly overcrowded and insanitary condition of so much of the housing in the Borough, little was done in the way of slum clearance and the erection of new housing until 1922 when the Council made the improvement of housing in the Borough one of their principal aims.  Progress was slow until 1930 when the Housing Act of that year gave housing authorities the greatly increased powers necessary to carry through extensive slum clearance programmes and a separate housing department was established for the purpose.

Wilson Grove Salisbury Street 1914

“Between 1930 and 1940 when building operations ceased as the result of the war, 73 areas comprising a total of 63 acres were declared to be slum clearance areas and these were cleared and the houses demolished together with many other unfit houses.  In connection with these operations, 4,350 families were displaced and 3,500 new dwellings were erected.”

From the Official Guide to the Borough of Bermondsey 1960

Lying between Jamaica Road and the river, Wilson Grove is an anomaly, its houses in the style more likely to be seen in a garden city than in inner London. They represent a short-lived dream held by the Labour Party, perhaps partly influenced by Octavia Hill, to replace condemned Victorian slums with low-rise cottages. Their vision was to transform Bermondsey into a garden city and to build no more high-rise blocks of imposing and gloomy tenements where people were “warehoused”.

Salisbury Street area 1914

Salisbury Street, and the immediate surrounding area had been condemned at the end of the 19th century. It was home to 1300 people who lived in squalid conditions where the infant mortality rate was twice that of the London average.  The Labour Party gained a majority on Bermondsey Council in the elections of 1922 and made slum clearance and the building of new housing a priority.  There was though a conflict between the Labour plan for a garden city and the practicalities of re housing large numbers of people.

Plans were drawn up for the construction of 54 3-bedroomed cottages that would house a total of 400 people but leaving a large shortfall of desperately needed accommodation for those displaced.  Labour wanted to construct garden cities on the outskirts of London to encourage migration from the centre and reduce overcrowding.  The proposed building scheme for Wilson Grove met with opposition from the LCC and the Ministry of Health, and also from neighbouring boroughs who feared those made homeless by the slum clearance would add to their own problems of overcrowding.  

 

Howevever, the scheme was given the go-ahead by a Labour national government that came into power in 1924 and the estate opened in 1928.  Salisbury Street was renamed Wilson Grove after Captain Henry Wilson of the East India Company but the estate was known informally as the Salter Cottages after Alfred and Ada Salter who devoted their lives to the betterment of living conditions for the people of Bermondsey. Ada had first been elected councillor in 1909, the first female councillor in London, and was elected Mayor in 1922, the same year Dr Alfred Salter became MP for Bermondsey West.  Silver birches and roses were planted on the new estate as part of Ada Salter’s Beautification of Bermondsey campaign that used horticulture and gardening as a means of improving the lives of Bermondsey residents.  

 

The estate proved to be the only one built in Bermondsey that brought Labour’s vision into reality.  A second similar scheme was proposed but was blocked by the Ministry of Health who ordered the building of tenements instead.  “Unavoidable pragmatism and well-meaning ambition did, in the end, trump the principled resolution of Labour councillors such as those in Bermondsey to provide ‘cottage homes’ for all." (The source for this quote is the brilliant Municipal Dreams website which was a major source for this article.)