The newly privatised Royal Mail’s proposal to build luxury apartment blocks on part of its Mount Pleasant Sorting Office site and the Mayor of London’s decision last month to override the local authority planning process by ‘calling in’ the application has focused attention on how urban communities are coming increasingly under threat from property developers out to cynically squeeze as many units as possible on prime real estate in order to maximise profits.
If they get the go ahead, the 700 new homes, many contained in blocks of 12 and 15 storeys high, will cast a shadow, both literally and figuratively, over those living in the area, towering above the neat Georgian terraces that characterise the place.
Within walking distance of the City and on the edge of both Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell, this area has gone through many evolutions, from home to the minor gentry in the 1820s to derelict squats in the 1970s. More than once, the bulldozers were poised to move in to knock parts of it down.
In the last 20 years, it has come up in the world again as those with money snap up its highly desirable properties, moving in alongside ordinary families who still live in social housing. You can’t tell which is which, a fact that seems to bother some people these days.
Now, with Royal Mail developers knocking on its back door, the area is entering yet another uncertain phase. Can it survive the greed and philistinism of the present age? A brief look at its history through the eyes of someone who lived there in the turbulent days of the 1980s and ‘90s suggests that it can and it will.
The house in Calthorpe St stood in a gently curving terrace of Georgian houses off the Gray’s Inn Rd. It was part of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area and the aged edifice before me was in fact a Grade ll listed building. Camden Council had bought the entire street in the early ‘70s to do them up but ran out of money before completing the job. Many of the houses were passed over to Community Housing Association (CHA), which had just been established. Eight were handed to SCH to rent on a temporary basis, while, for reasons unknown, the rest were left empty. By the time I arrived, they were either squatted or derelict, and several became 'shooting galleries' for drug addicts, bringing the street down further.
It was true, to get to where I lived I would walk past a terrace of houses at the top of the street that had been restored to their former glory, but I learned later that these had also lain derelict for a number of years before work was started on them in the late '70s. If this was the future, then it seemed far away.
At the far end of the street, at its junction with King’s Cross Rd, loomed the red brick structure of the former Rowton House, a Victorian hostel built for 700 single men, big sister of Arlington House in Camden Town. In 1961 it was sold and became the Mount Pleasant Hotel, offering rooms at budget prices. But it could not escape its history. Within 20 years, Camden and other local authorities were using it house homeless people, many of them families with small children but also youngsters just released from council care and mentally ill patients discharged into the 'care of the community'. In 1986, following alarming tales of drugs and violence, a toddler died after falling from one of its spiral staircases. When I moved into the street, the hotel had been closed down and would be demolished to make way for the King's Cross Holiday Inn, voted soon afterwards as one of the ugliest buildings in London.
Although a bit of work had been done on them, the shortlife houses stood out like sore thumbs. The street also served as a rat run and at rush hour would be jammed with a shuddering line of traffic. The noise meant you could never open your front windows, but you’d keep them closed anyway to prevent the black soot from the car exhausts settling in your rooms. I used to call it the fag end of Bloomsbury but I gave thanks that it remained intact in all its glorious shabbiness. How long it would be before the council took the shortlife properties back, I had no idea, possibly no more than two years. But for now I had a roof over my head.
The flat was arranged over the two lower floors with a 40ft garden at back, and was the size of a small house. The kitchen and front room were in the basement, which blocked out the noise of the traffic but cut out a lot of the light. I remember the kitchen being lovely and bright in the morning and, as the sun moved over the roof, it would light up the front room from early afternoon till dusk. I almost subconsciously arranged myself in each of them accordingly.What passed for the bathroom had been built out of the basement well, so was little more than a shed really, and freezing in winter. It was the sort of makeshift arrangement that was typical of shortlife properties. Everything else was equally basic. The only fitted cupboard in the kitchen was the sink unit, and the toilet had no washbasin. It goes without saying that there was no central heating either, just two old fashioned gas fires, in the front room and main bedroom, and winter saw us rushing from room to room and being extremely quick on the toilet.
The plumbing was ancient. Every time the toilet was flushed in either of the flats, or a bath was run, it was if a percussion band had struck up a performance. The orchestration would go on for several minutes before shuddering to an abrupt halt. Over the years, I had a fairly intimate knowledge of my neighbour’s movements, their comings and goings, bath times and visits to the toilet. My bedroom lay beneath their kitchen and I was also familiar with every twist and turn of their machine’s wash cycle.
I don’t know how long the house had been empty before SCH took over, but whatever makeover it had received was superficial, just enough to make it legally habitable. The house had been built in the 1840s as part of a large estate owned by the Birmingham-based Gough-Calthorpe family. Sadly, it had been stripped of all its original features. Only the walk-in fireplace in the kitchen remained. Still, I always wondered about all those that had passed through it over the years, about the people who lived there first of all, well heeled enough to have a servant, I discovered. How over the years the house came to be home to more than one family and a succession of lodgers. Now it had entered another era.
My overactive imagination feasted on the discovery that Calthorpe Street was the scene of the Clerkenwell riots of May 13 1833, which resulted in the stabbing of three policemen, one of them fatally. At an inquest held at the Calthorpe Arms, which still stands on Gray’s Inn Road, jurors unexpectedly returned a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’, saying that the police had aggressively attacked the peaceful assembly. In modern parlance, the unfortunate constable had been 'lawfully killed'.
The meeting had been called by the National Union of Working Classes over the question of voting reform. As the thousands of demonstrators headed towards Cold Bath Fields, just north of where Mount Pleasant sorting office now stands, the police tried to disperse them.
At the Old Bailey trial of George Fursey, who'd been accused of wounding two of the policemen, Calthorpe St resident Nathaniel Stallwood, describing himself as a "gentleman living on my fortune", recounted how he witnessed events from the balcony of his house at 13 (now 21): "Up to the time that I heard the word charge [from the police], everything was peaceable on the part of the people – on that order being given, the police bodies charged immediately, making for the chairman, knocking down everybody indiscriminately that they met with."
The close hand-to-hand fighting moved towards Calthorpe St, where the constables were stabbed. One of the them, PC Robert Cullen, ran into the Calthorpe Arms and died in the arms of a barmaid. It is thought the jurors’ verdict reflected the public’s dislike of the new Metropolitan Police force, established by Robert Peel four years earlier, the first Home Office run security force. Fursey was eventually acquitted.
Mount ‘Unpleasant’ gets a makeover
When all this occurred, Calthorpe St was work in progress, and only the part between Gray’s Inn Rd and Gough St had been built, explaining why the houses look so different in style. Beyond lay open meadows – a semi-rural idyll partly bordered by the River Fleet. Today a subterranean sewer, the Fleet flowed from Hampstead Heath to join the Thames at Blackfriars via King’s Cross and Clerkenwell. A couple of hundred metres to the back on Calthorpe St there’s even a small viaduct over the river’s pathway to Farringdon.
A vast rubbish dump had dominated this riverine landscape in the early 18th century, ironically termed Mount Pleasant, before being cleared to make way for Cold Bath Prison in 1794, where inmates infamously walked a treadmill to grind corn and pump water. It was sold to the Post Office in 1889 and vans hurtling in and out of Mount Pleasant Sorting Office at breakneck speed during the night 100 years later were a constant source of annoyance to me and my neighbours.
Calthorpe St marked the southern boundary of the 23-acre Calthorpe Estate and had been leased for development to the master builder Thomas Cubitt in 1821. At the time, Britain was becoming an industrial powerhouse and the most visible sign of material prosperity was an increased population and a great improvement in the standard of living. More homes were needed for London’s aspiring middle classes particularly in St Marylebone, the most prosperous of the metropolitan boroughs in which the estate was located. Cubit, whose works were in Gray’s Inn Rd, had been responsible for grand developments in Bloomsbury like Tavistock and Gordon squares. His new terraces, though more modest, were still pleasing to the eye and included Ampton, Frederick, Arthur (now Cubitt) and Wren streets. Before World War ll, the latter was known as Wells St because of its proximity to Bagnigge Wells, one of the many fashionable spas associated with the River Fleet in the 18th century as it meandered its way down to the Thames.
The later section of Calthorpe St where my flat was situated was built between 1842 and 1849. From the census records of 1851, it was home to the well to do, with a “civil engineer”, “glass manufacturer” and an “attorney at law”, together with their housekeepers and servants. According to Camden History Society publication The Streets of East Bloomsbury, Royal Mail stagecoach builder Joseph Wright lived at No 26 in the 1830s, the corner house conveniently backing on to his works in Gough St. This closed in 1852 when Wright moved to the Midlands to concentrate on building railway rolling stock. The land it occupied, which extended “as far as the river [Fleet]”, became a stables, and is now used as a Royal Mail car park, [the main site today of its luxury apartment block plan]. The eminent lawyer Thomas Chitty lived at No 2 Calthorpe St, where his two sons, Thomas Edward and Joseph William, who also became famous barristers, were born in 1827 and ’28 respectively.
Fast forward to 1900, when Calthorpe St came under the administration of St Pancras Borough Council, and a slightly different picture emerges. Britain may have possessed a vast empire, but uncontrolled industrial and urban development and the coming of the railways locally, had brought poverty and squalor in their wake, encouraging a whole army of Victorian philanthropists to arise. Among them was Lord Rowton, whose hostels soon became dotted around London, including the aforementioned Rowton House, built in 1894. The Fleet, parts of it having degenerated into a “stinking ditch”, had been bricked over to become part of the highway.
Calthorpe St may no longer have been the place it once was but it had managed to escape the wretchedness of King’s Cross. Although the gentry had moved on, it still attracted affluent people like William Lethaby, a founding principal of Central St Martin’s art school, who, as the blue plaque on the house indicates, lived at No 20 between 1880 and 1891; and George Hoare, a manufacturer of early photographic equipment, who lived at No 26 around the same period. The street was also popular with skilled artisans like compositors and watch makers, Clerkenwell being a centre for both trades.
According to the census records of 1881, Sarah Bristow, a woman of “private income”, lived in my house in 1881 with her three children and two other families. Ten years on, the property consisted, again, of three households, including a jeweller and his wife from Austria, probably Jewish (Jacob and Rachel), while Robert Ditcham, a carpenter, lived next door, with his wife and eight children plus five borders.
In the 1901 census, Ireland and Scotland are frequently cited as places of birth alongside the St Bride’s and Hoxtons, indicating that the street represented a step up in the world for many. Indeed, in Charles Booth’s poverty map of 1898-99, the Calthorpe Estate is mostly coloured pink – code for the “fairly comfortable” – but with a smattering of red to represent the well off.
The Gough-Calthorpe family disposed of the estate in 1899 and by the 1950s it had largely become home to a settled population of extended families and lodgers. Much of the housing had become run down and Calthorpe St, in particular, on the edge of the city but on the wrong side of Bloomsbury, was being eyed up as a lucrative redevelopment site. But when locals got wind of a plan by landlords Lyons to knock down one side of the street as well as the whole of Wren Street in the 1960s to make way a for a Grand Metropolitan hotel overlooking St Andrew’s Gardens, there was a huge outcry and nothing came of it.
A few years later Times newspapers, which was then based in Gray’s Inn Rd along with its print works, wanted to demolish Nos 2-24 Calthorpe St to expand its headquarters, describing the terrace as only being of “slight architectural interest”. It was at this point that the council stepped in to end the speculative free for all. It bought up the entire street and, after granting the houses Grade ll listing status, began refurbishing them as maisonettes.
When a house is not a home
To make matters worse, as we were not considered bona fide tenants, we were not entitled to go on the council’s housing waiting list, even though we had been shortlifers for years. As a kind of consolation prize, CHA carried out basic maintenance work on each house. Although this didn’t amount to more than a few thousand pounds for each flat it did make quite a lot of difference – in our case, a damp course for the basement and the front of the house painted. We took heart form the fact that this meant they were not planning to kick us out yet.
CHA managed 40 shortlife ‘street properties’ across Camden borough, divided into South and North Houses depending on which side of the Euston Rd they were situated. The core of South Houses Residents Association lived in Calthorpe St, the rest were scattered in the immediate neighbourhood. We would meet every month upstairs in the Calthorpe Arms, and it was clear we would have to be especially alert following the handover to CHA. Variously dubbed Capitalist Housing Association and No Community Housing, it had a reputation for poor management and high handedness towards tenants.
Formed in the early 1970s, it was now the biggest housing association in the borough. It had been given a flying start by Camden Council, which granted it a £2.5m loan to ‘buy’ 83 houses on the former Calthorpe Estate to provide homes for “needy people”. The first person to hear of the plan was the late Charles Taylor who lived at No 27 Calthorpe and worked round the corner as a Times printer. “They thought they could keep it a secret but I spotted the story about the sale just as it was coming off the press,” he told me one day with a mischievous grin. “It knocked me for six, though.”Then a questionnaire from CHA was dropped through people’s letterbox asking them for details of their tenancies. “We’d never heard of this organisation and were in a complete state of flux. Old people were terrified,” he recalled.
Rents were immediately hiked but there were complaints that little was being done to improve the fabric of the buildings. In 1975, the campaigning Camden Tenant newspaper reported how CHA had unsuccessfully tried to evict an elderly tenant who refused to pay the increase in protest at lack of maintenance. Maggie Sinton, who had lived in Wren St since 1908, had not paid the previous landlords Lyons any rent for five years for the same reason. “Lyons were decent enough not to pursue her for it,” wrote Camden Tenant.
Residents launched a campaign to protect their interests. “We wanted to receive permanent tenancies or be re-housed in like-for-like accommodation locally – or be suitably compensated,” explained Charlie, a well-known trade union militant of the day. The campaign became a mini cause-celebre with the likes of journalist Paul Foot lending support. “In the end, we all got what we wanted except me,” said Charlie. “They kept offering me basement flats and that was not part of the deal,” he chuckled. With the eminent QC Andrew Arden poised to represent him in the High Court, CHA backed down and eventually moved Charlie to Ampton St. When I told him of our own troubles, his message was: “Be vigilant. Organise.”
Despite having its fingers burnt by this first skirmish with tenants, CHA was to continue as it began. Like other housing associations, it greatly benefited from Mrs Thatcher’s attack on local authority power. With town halls banned from replacing homes lost in the right to buy scheme, and unable to properly maintain existing ones because of lack of cash, council housing was going down the drain fast. It was left to privately run housing associations to pick up the pieces, helped along by generous funding from the government’s Housing Corporation and their ability to raise money from the banks. It all fitted in perfectly with Thatcher’s vision of a privatised Britain. At first councillors protested at these developments, particularly the right to buy, which saw public assets sold at knock down prices, but soon they would give up the fight altogether.
For the moment though, the council was trying to muddle along, offloading some of its housing on to the likes of CHA, but later attempting to sell some of it off on the private market. Politically it was a terrible development and spelt disaster for anyone living in short life housing. Among the properties councillors were considering was a six-storey house in nearby Doughty St, a grand Regency terrace built at the turn of the 19th century that was once the home of Charles Dickens, hence the Dickens Museum there. Now it was mostly offices, among them the prestigious Doughty Chambers, and a handful of millionaires’ homes. Tucked incongruously among them, at Nos 8 and 9, were two shortlife properties. The bombshell news that the council was proposing to sell one of them and two others in Belsize Park and Primrose Hill was announced at a hushed South Houses meeting in early 1997. The council agreed that these high value properties badly needed to be refurbished but claimed they did not have enough money to do so itself. These three had been picked because, out of all the borough’s shortlife stock, these were worth the most. However, we knew if the sale went ahead it would mean that more would follow. Indeed, three more were added to the list later on in the year even though nothing had been sold as yet.
Britain was in the midst of a property boom and it was supremely ironic that the very houses that the council had effectively abandoned years earlier were now, as listed buildings in central London, at the high end of the market. (One, No 49, had been so abandoned it had fallen off the council’s radar, only resurfacing in 2004 in a blaze of indignant press headlines when the three artists who had lived there untroubled since 1973 successfully claimed squatters’ rights. This meant that the council was legally obliged to hand over the freehold to them because of the length of time that had ensued. By this time the house was valued at £500,000.)
Suddenly, the council saw that it had a goldmine on its doorstep. For the moment, though, it hung its proposal in the air, perhaps waiting to see what the reaction would be, or trying to scare the tenants into moving out voluntarily.
We were further spooked by CHA’s decision at around the same time to sell off a number of its own properties. They included two in Calthorpe St – houses the council had effectively given it in 1972. No 41 went under the hammer for £196,000, despite the fact that its frontage had to be held secure by scaffolding. That was considered an enormous price in 1997. In the meantime, CHA put in a bid to purchase all of North and South Houses, but the council rejected it as being too low.
The proposed sales put tremendous pressure on Doughty St tenants. CHA’s management lease for it had not been renewed, which meant that they could be given 28 days’ notice to quit at any time. The rest of us lived in properties whose leases were due to expire in 1999. In the meantime, the empty houses and drug dens had been gradually reclaimed by the council and the street was beginning to lose its down at heel look. The shortlife properties remained the only fly in the ointment. Now more than ever, we needed to take Charlie Taylor’s advice and organise.
To the barricades
The 40 or so South Houses members were typical as shortlifers go – among the sprinkling of creative professionals there were a couple of teachers, one doctor and a surveyor. Quite a few had joined SCH almost 20 years earlier as students, expecting no more than a six month ‘life’ in the properties. Now most of us had families whose kids went to local schools. We felt rooted in our neighbourhood and loved our homes, even if they were the worse for wear. To call us shortlife tenants seemed like a bad joke. Privately though, councillors mocked our plight, whispering that most of us were well off enough to buy a roof over our heads. Even if this were true of a few of us, after being treated so shoddily for so long, we were all determined to stick it out, come what may and not be bullied into moving out to the suburbs where we could perhaps afford to take on a mortgage. As far as we were concerned, we had earned the right to stay where we were.
Thanks to hard work and commitment, South Houses became a highly effective organisation. A small group of members would turn up to the Calthorpe Arms without fail every month as well as attend other meetings with the council, CHA and SCH (which now existed as a kind of monitoring organisation), produce newsletters and liaise with the press.
Members also did a lot of ‘outreach’ work, and attached themselves to various local bodies, like the Traffic Calming Group (to slow down traffic in Calthorpe St) and Friends of St Andrew’s Gardens (to refurbish it). And every September we held a small party in St Andrew’s Gardens to which the neighbourhood was invited. These were always well attended and helped anchor us in the community in a big way.
This was to prove crucial. At around the same time, other Calthorpe St residents were becoming restive. CHA was gradually refurbishing its properties in the street, which meant people had to move out for the work’s duration. But tenants felt they were being treated unfairly, often being given poor temporary accommodation. The pattern seemed to be, the more vulnerable the tenant, the more badly they would be treated. People were also upset about the two house sales. One of them was sold after the family that lived there was “temporarily” moved out. What did that mean for the rest?
Perhaps encouraged by the stand that South Houses was taking, CHA tenants began organising themselves. Among them were a few from Charlie Taylor’s 1970s campaign, including two middle aged women, Maria and Editha, who I knew as the ‘Italian sisters’. They had lived on the street most of their lives with their parents and brother, an overspill family from Clerkenwell’s Little Italy. Now there was just the two of them. “We’ve seen it all love,” the stouter of the two once said to me wryly. “It’s amazing how some things never change.”A meeting in Coram Fields’ Band Hut was held at which CHA reps were called to account. Naturally South Houses was present as well. It had the desired effect. CHA began to improve its behaviour and I was pleased to hear that the Italian sisters had been given a lovely garden flat.
In the meantime, the council’s controversial house sales were gathering pace, with more homes, shops and offices included in the proposal, not just shortlife. Obviously, there was dissension on the Labour back benches, which helped our own campaign, but leading councillors, faced with huge spending deficits, seemed in a hawkish mood. We were buoyed though by the election of Tony Blair on a glorious June day, ending 18 years of Tory government. Our jubilation was premature. Although we did not know it at the time, Camden councillors’ willingness to betray their socialist principals was a taste of things to come as New Labour began its unashamed drift to the right.
With financial support from SCH, which still had considerable funds, South Houses sought a legal opinion on our position from a lawyer attached to Doughty Chambers. We also employed a part time campaign worker to help investigate our idea of setting up a housing co-op, which would purchase the houses from the council. An alternative idea was for CHA to be the buyer and South Houses the manager. There was a third option and the most unpopular – to stick with CHA and put pressure on it to meet all our demands. The overriding aim was to keep the properties in social ownership and for us to be allowed to stay in them. The 70-page proposal that was drawn up was a detailed and professional document, which the council was forced to consider. We felt we were beginning to regain control of the situation.
The following year, CHA increased its own bid to buy and refurbish all of North and South Houses, which the council was poised to almost certainly accept. But before we could claim a victory of sorts, we were dealt a hammer blow. In a leaked confidential housing committee agenda paper to discuss the offer, the council outlined plans for our re-housing. Basically, it was to be “elsewhere in the borough” and we would be limited to one offer only, not the usual three.
At an emergency meeting held that night, our mood swung from confusion, despair and finally to defiance. By the end of the meeting we resolved that we would stand our ground. We were encouraged by an ongoing battle in the High Court in which seven tenants of shortlife properties elsewhere in the borough owned by the West Hampstead Housing Association were mounting a vigorous challenge to eviction notices. Supported by lawyers from the housing charity Shelter, they looked set to create an all important legal precedent.
We launched an immediate letters campaign in the local press, to which the housing chair, the late Cllr Brian Weekes, who seldom condescended to communicate with us, was forced to reply. In one of his missals, he stated that shortlifers had originally lived rent-free until 1990 and only now paid token rents of £13. It was £39 at the time. This was the sort of misinformation that town hall officers fed to councillors to bolster the idea that we were on some sort of gravy train and aiming to get council accommodation by “jumping the queue”.
On the evening the CHA sale proposal was to be discussed, we organised a noisy lobby of the town hall. Gratifyingly, many of our Calthorpe St neighbours also turned up to lend their support, several of them carrying banners. They had seen the neighbourhood improve over the years and did not want to see their community broken up either. In any case, they felt the council’s attitude towards us was illogical and unfair. This was the point we had to drive home come any negotiations, but we first had to decide whether we wanted to stick with CHA. While its renovation of the seven Hillview tenement blocks was impressive, the association lived up to its reputation as a poor landlord.
But all our moaning about CHA didn’t amount to much. There was a half-hearted push for going it alone from the ’70s diehards, but setting up a co-op was a financially high-risk strategy that meant a lot of hard work. We were now in our thirties and forties and fed up with the insecurity and having to go to endless meetings. Moreover, I suspected we didn’t really possess the cohesiveness for this sort of commitment. We concluded we should stick with the devil we knew and begin negotiations with CHA.
Our negotiating team was pretty impressive and included an architect and, as it happened, someone who worked at a fairly senior level in the council’s housing department. The council, fed up with all the bad publicity, also made it clear from the beginning that it wanted as much co-operation as possible between ourselves and CHA to ensure a smooth handover. This effectively put the litigious-prone CHA on a leash. It was poised to buy 40 properties for £3.25m – half their market value – and it was not about to jeopardise such a bargain. In 1999, after months of talks we came away pretty pleased with ourselves. We were all given permanent housing, either in our original homes or elsewhere within the impressive North/South Houses portfolio. The choice was ours.
There was a huge feeling of relief that, at long last, it was all over, or almost – our lives would be on hold for another two years a while a rolling renovation programme took place. In the meantime, we were to be decanted into temporary accommodation.
As a collective, we shortlifers had a lot celebrate. For years we had battled against the odds to secure a permanent roof over our heads, and ensured that the council’s original plan for the houses – refurbishment – was to be fulfilled. Above all, these beautiful properties would remain in public ownership.
In the years that have followed, the housing situation has worsened in a way that few would have envisaged, with people falling into a pit created by lack of council housing and being priced out of the property and private rental market. Changes in housing benefit rules means that many residents are being forced to move out. CHA, now part of a much larger housing association, has acted according to type, recently selling off another couple of homes in Calthorpe St and renting flats in Frederick St at market rents to raise funds, they claim, for refurbishment work elsewhere.
When we took on the might of the council, we believed victory was always in our sights, so long as we stood firm. But the dog eat dog culture that was rearing its head then is bearing its teeth all the time now. This year I was saddened to hear that a group of shortlife residents in Lambeth, south London, who believed they had a gentleman’s agreement from the council to stay in their homes, have been told they are to be evicted. Lambeth plan to auction the Georgian houses, which were in a near derelict state before being renovated by the shortlifers 30 years ago … Sounds familiar except that we in South Houses were fortunate enough never to be promised anything from our local council.