Chapter 1

The origins

Snowsfields, Bermondsey

Date: 2008

Exterior of the Snowsfields housing estate.

© Felix Clay

In 1890, philanthropist Sir Edward Cecil Guinness, the great grandson of the founder of the Guinness Brewery, gave £200,000 to set up The Guinness Trust in London, with an additional £50,000 to establish a fund in Dublin. This is the equivalent of £25 million in today’s money. He wanted to help improve the lives of ordinary people, many of whom couldn’t afford decent homes.

The state of housing

Like health and social care, housing provision for the poorer classes in the mid to late-19th century was not comprehensive. Conditions – particularly in cities like London – were cramped and dirty, and population growth had led to overcrowding. Diseases spread more easily and safety regulations were non-existent. (Malpass, 1998) The quote below gives some indication of the desperate state of housing in London before new model tenements began to replace slum dwellings.

“We do not say the condition of their homes, for how can those places be called homes, compared with which the lair of a wild beast would be a comfortable and healthy spot? . . . The buildings are in such miserable repair as to suggest the thought that if the wind could only reach them they would soon be toppling about the heads of their occupants. . . . Every room in these rotten and reeking tenements houses a family, often two.”

Reverend Andrew Mearns, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, 1883

Public concern and debate was growing over the lack of decent housing, but any improvements to housing conditions were usually carried out by charitable organisations, without government help. It was into this philanthropic system that The Guinness Trust was born, with the ambition of “the amelioration of the conditions of the poorer of the working classes”.

Setting up the Trust

The Times

20 November 1889

“We have the greatest pleasure in announcing this morning the most splendid act of private munificence that has been contemplated and carried out in our time by any Englishman [sic].”

On 23 November 1889, Sir Edward Guinness and the Trustees met for the first time. They were the Honourable Secretary Lees Knowles, Lord Rowton and Rt Hon C T Ritchie MP, and their only action that day was to rent an office and hire a clerk and a boy, Mr Winch and Mr Gray (Malpass, 1998), who you’ll hear more about in Chapter 4. You can read the minutes from the first meeting below.

The Trustees met frequently and were extremely active as the Trust began its work, securing the land for its first scheme at Brandon Street, Walworth after an approach from the architect, N. S. Joseph in March 1890. The Deed of Trust was signed on 4 February 1890 and can be read below.

Sir Edward Guinness was not the first philanthropist to provide better housing for working class Londoners; at least 30 other charitable organisations, including the Peabody Trust, were establishing model estates and developments. But Guinness had the funding to move quickly, building eight tenement estates in the first 11 years, providing 2,597 homes for London’s working class.

The Trustees were also resolute that rent should be affordable for even the poorest families, with the Minutes of 24 July 1891 stating that, “preference should be given to working men earning about 20 shillings a week”.

The first developments

The earliest estates were built with “health, morality and social stability” in mind. Red-brick blocks with four to six floors, they were associated tenements with communal sculleries and toilets. Glazed bricks and tiles were used to prevent disease spreading and tenants were expected to scrub the corridors and their own quarters frequently.

“It is not too much to say that the sanitary arrangements in the four sets of Guinness Trust dwellings are little short of perfection.”

The Times, 26 December 1893

You can find out more about early tenement living in Chapter 2.

By 1895 Guinness’s original capital had been spent on the considerable building work of the first six estates. The Trust borrowed money from the Union Bank and the Public Works Loans Board to fund the next two developments, paying them back quickly from 1903.

Statement of Trust buildings

Date: 1898

Information on the buildings owned by The Guinness Trust, including dates of opening.

Brandon Street

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Brandon Street in Walworth was the Guinness Trust’s first estate. The initial rents ranged from 2 shillings and 6 pence for one room to 5 shillings for three rooms. The site was sold to Southwark Council in 1967.

Brandon Street, Walworth Est. 1891
Number of tenements 190
Cost of land £3,775
Architect Joseph & Smithern
Builders Peto Bros

Columbia Road

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The Trust’s first East London estate was completed in Columbia Road. With 258 units, the estate was met with favourable reviews of the living conditions.

Columbia Road, Bethnal Green Est. 1892
Number of tenements 258
Cost of land £7,000
Architect F Pilkington
Builders J Glover & Son

Draycott Avenue

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Draycott Avenue, our second estate, was built on land that came from Lord Cadogan, who offered the Trustees a one-acre site ‘as a free gift for the purpose of providing dwellings for the poorer classes of that district.’

Draycott Avenue, Chelsea Est. 1892
Number of tenements 303
Cost of land nil (gifted by Lord Cadogan)
Architect M Macartney
Builders JT Chappell

Fulham Palace Road

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Fulham Palace Road in Hammersmith was completed in 1901, with modernisations in the 1950s and between 1977 and 1983.

Fulham Palace Road, Hammersmith Est. 1901
Number of tenements 364
Cost of land £12,000
Architect Joseph & Smithern
Builders Brown, Son & Blomfield

Lever Street

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Lever Street in Finsbury Park received a £25,000 donation from the Goldsmith’s Company in order to give preference to workers in the gold trade. The estate was improved in the 1950s.

Lever Street, Finsbury Park Est. 1893
Number of tenements 338
Cost of land £12,000
Architect Joseph & Smithern
Builders Perry & Co Brown, Son & Blomfield

Page’s Walk

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Pages Walk was by far the biggest of the early estates, with 457 tenements. It had major developments work done throughout the 1950s and had a new tower block added to it in the 1970s.

Page’s Walk, Southwark Est. 1895
Number of tenements 457
Cost of land £11,000
Architect Joseph & Smithern
Builders Brown, Son & Blomfield


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Snowsfields in Bermondsey was built using £4,000 funding from the South Eastern Railway Company, and was modernised in the 1950s and 1970s.

Snowsfields, Bermondsey Est. 1897
Number of tenements 355
Cost of land £16,682
Architect Joseph & Smithern
Builders Brown, Son & Blomfield

Vauxhall Walk

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Vauxhall Square (later Walk), was built on land purchased from the London and South Western Railway Company, providing housing for those whose houses were demolished by new railway lines. The site was sold to the General London Council in 1971.

Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth Est. 1894
Number of tenements 332
Cost of land £5,250
Architect M Macartney
Builders J Glover & Son