The first ever housing estate to feature private bathrooms in every flat, Peabody’s 1928 Cleverly Estate was a pioneer in social housing. Its gracious exterior, spacious rooms and expanses of outdoor space (including a children’s playground) distinguished Cleverly from all previous attempts at mass housing. Today, the estate still cuts an impressive figure - a fact officially acknowledged in 1991 when it was designated a Conservation Area.
In 1899 the site in Shepherd's Bush where Cleverly now stands was open countryside, located on the westernmost edge of Charles Booth’s poverty map of London. Peabody bought the site in 1926 and two years later the estate's first 246 dwellings were complete.
As at Cleverly, Peabody's previous housing estates were also often arranged around courtyards, creating safe areas for children to play. And like Cleverly, they also provided light and spacious rooms compared to the slums that they replaced. But Cleverly's grandeur and modern amenities engendered unusual pride among its residents, to whom the estate offered hitherto unknown levels of privacy.
Peabody's second ever estate, built on Greenman Street, in Islington in 1865, featured non-self-contained flats with shared sinks and lavatories on the landings. Termed 'associated dwellings', this design not only allowed Peabody to squeeze more people in but also facilitated regular hygiene inspections.
Not until the turn of the century did municipal housing begin to address the issue of privacy. Built in 1910, Peabody's Bethnal Green Estate installed sinks and lavatories inside each apartment. However, you still had to leave home for a bath - venturing down to the estate's bathhouse to commune with your neighbours while making your ablutions.
Peabody reached new heights of amenity-provision in 1912 at its Vauxhall Bridge Road Estate, where each flat had its own WC as well as a scullery – the precursor of the modern-day kitchen. Dedicating unprecedented consideration to comfort and convenience, at Vauxhall Road Peabody provided each scullery with a sink and draining board, a coal bunker, a washing copper and a gas stove. Each living room had a dresser, a ventilated meat-larder and a self-filling boiler. Hot water was even available from a tap in the courtyard. But if you wanted a bath, you still had to go to the communal bathhouse.
1926 saw the construction of the last Peabody estate to be built with a separate bathhouse, and then finally, in 1928, the Cleverly Estate's ground-breaking new design was unveiled. A bath in every home: complete privacy and convenience at last. But tragedy hit: the severe economic downturn of the 1930s - followed hard by WWII - meant cut-backs and the end of bathrooms-for-all. Victor Wilkins, architect-in-residence at Peabody, had to rein in his lavish architectural style during this era, resulting in plain exteriors with none of the high-class decorative flourishes of Wilkins' previous estates.
Today, all housing must meet national standards (as laid out locally in the London Plan). But today's architects can still learn from Peabody's historical designs. Like Wilkins, we can add value to new social housing designs by considering what might make residents' lives better and easier in myriad ways. Maybe no longer a ventilated meat-larder, but how about built-in balcony furniture, or flexible room layouts? Also, while bath-time has doubtless became a more convenient and private affair, the bathhouse had its merits as a place to strengthen social bonds. So instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let's bring the spirit of the bathhouse into our designs by creating multiple opportunities for positive social interaction. These include communal gardens and roof terraces, playgrounds and front porches with built-in seating – places that let us get to know our neighbours, but not their bathroom habits.