Homes for the Workers: Chiswick New Town

by William P. Roe

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 6 (1997)

The businesses that developed in Chiswick during the early part of the 19th century, market gardens, breweries and other trades, meant there was a need to provide houses to accommodate their workers. By 1838 seven streets of terraced houses had been built on land north of Hogarth Lane and west of the bottom end of Chiswick Field Lane (now Devonshire Road) where it joined Hogarth Lane and Burlington Lane on the west and Mawson Lane to the east.

The official name for the estate was Chiswick New Town but locals thought the word ‘town’ an inappropriate description for houses intended for poor working families, and the estate became known colloquially as New Chiswick to emphasise its separateness from ‘Old Chiswick’, the area around Church Street, Chiswick Mall, Pages Yard and Chiswick Square.

The new roads on which the houses stood were Devonshire Place, Wood Street, James Street, Furze Street, Bennett Street, William Street and Hogarth Avenue. Most of the street numberings were consecutive, numbered up one side of the street and down the other. This system of numbering was favoured in those days – Brentford High Street, for instance, has always been numbered consecutively.

Houses and occupants
The land on which New Chiswick was built seems to have been offered for sale in 1821. It appears as Lot 12 on a plan of estates for sale in Chiswick bearing this date. It is possible that the new development was financed by local business people, since the 1838 rate book shows that several owners in New Chiswick owned multiple properties. William Jackson, for instance, owned 20 tenements in William Street; Mr G W Dadd owned 19 in Devonshire Place and Furze Street; William Waterson, 18 in Devonshire Road; James Battersby 11 in Furze Street and Bennett Street and William Griffin, 10 in Bennett Street.

Apart from a Mr Charles Florey who was a grocer and owned five tenements in Bennett Street, the other ‘owners’ mentioned above do not appear in the 1841 Census under the street names of New Chiswick, presumably because they did not actually live there. There was though, elsewhere in Chiswick, a William Jackson living at Turnham Green (aged 50 and a carpenter) and a James Battersby, aged 59, was the publican of the Prince of Wales public house in Chiswick High Road. The author also remembers a boot and shoe shop trading in the name of Dadd in Devonshire Road.

The houses in New Chiswick were of poor quality and of mean measurement with the front doors usually opening directly onto the roadway, which was not made up until the 1880s.

The influx of new worshippers led to an increase in the congregation of St Nicholas’s church. This caused displeasure to the class-conscious residents of Old Chiswick and discomfort to the inhabitants of New Chiswick who found they were unable to afford the pew rents imposed by the church. The matter was resolved by the building in 1848 of the chapel of St Mary Magdalene in Bennett Street (destroyed by enemy action during World War II, but replaced by the church Hall built after the war).

An early mention of Chiswick New Town appears in the record of a parish meeting in April 1839 when, among the candidates to be considered for the office of Beadle and Sexton, was Mr John Hunt of Wood Street. At 54 years of age he was considered too old for that office. The Vestry Minutes of 22 October 1858 inform us that “Chiswick New Town consists exclusively of streets of small cottages inhabited by persons of the class of labourers, the majority, both men and women, being employed in the neighbouring market gardens. The number of houses is estimated at 261; the inhabitants as 800 adults and 600 children…”

Many of the corner houses in New Chiswick were turned into small shops, mostly greengrocers, although there were some grocers, a laundry and a furniture remover. In the 1930s Mr Bewley of 41 Furze Street advertised himself as a chimney sweep; Mr Bellchamber of 25 Bennett Street was in business as a coal merchant.

A colourful character was Mr Rogers of 37 Wood Street who traded in wet fish, mainly cockles, whelks, winkles, shrimps and prawns. He kept his barrow in an outhouse, the interior of which he regularly whitewashed. He also, each year, painted the entire exterior brickwork of his property with ‘boiled oil’, maintaining that this acted as a preservative.

In those days any form of gambling on the streets was strictly forbidden but street gambling was much favoured by the residents of New Chiswick, who posted ‘look-outs’ at the end of streets to warn of patrolling policemen. The cul-de-sac of Hunt Street was a favourite venue for a game that involved tossing coins onto the pavement.

The names of occupiers of the houses suggest that many members of the same family lived in adjoining or nearby properties. Families that became well-known locally were the Gurneys, Huxleys, Wakemans, Wells and Bennetts.

The end of New Chiswick
In view of the poor construction of the houses in New Chiswick it is surprising that they were still standing and still occupied a hundred years later. But these were the days before the onset of philanthropic or council housing schemes and accommodation for the lower classes was in short supply by the outbreak of World War I. This necessitated the imposition by the government of restrictions on rent increases and protection from eviction.

For some years after the War only a limited amount of house building took place and, whereas previously much new residential building would have been for letting purposes, the imposition of rent restrictions meant that any new house building was earmarked for sale. Accordingly, the need to continue the protection of tenants of lower class houses, such as those in New Chiswick, still existed by the time of the outbreak of World War II.

However, by the 1930s the need to ensure better housing conditions had become a matter of national concern and various housing acts were passed to end overcrowding and to clear away houses classified as unfit for human habitation, a process loosely referred to as slum clearance. The building of the Great West Road also influenced the life of the houses. This new road, revolutionary in that it provided two separate carriageways to avoid head-on collisions and a cycle track along each side, was opened with great ceremony by George V in 1925 and soon became the envy of other boroughs.

The London County Council along with the Middlesex County Council and the Borough of Brentford and Chiswick drew up plans to build a new road linking Cromwell Road with the Great West Road. In 1936 the Trunk Roads Act was passed enabling the Cromwell Road extension to proceed. This caused an outcry among Chiswick residents who foresaw their area being sliced in half, but the Ministry of Transport began to purchase, either by agreement or by Compulsory Purchase Order, not only those properties along the line of the road, but also those alongside it, which might have to be acquired to enable the work to proceed.

At the time the writer was a teenage junior clerk employed by Messrs Tyser Greenwood and Company, the old established Chiswick firm of surveyors, auctioneers and estate agents, which had been chosen by the Ministry of Transport to manage the various properties acquired. Once vacated, all the houses had their water, gas and electric light supply cut off and the flooring timbers were used to board up windows and doors.

The properties occupied by tenants, which included all the houses in New Chiswick, had a change of landlord and were retained until it became possible to rehouse the occupants, usually by the local council. However, the outbreak of World War II prevented any work beginning on the road and the harsh winter of 1939-40 meant that some of the New Chiswick properties became physically un-inhabitable. The occupiers had to be found emergency accommodation, either by the local council or by reinstating some of the already-boarded-up properties.

The writer recalls declaring on a number of occasions that if the enemy resorted to bombing during the war many of the New Chiswick premises would collapse solely from blast, due to their poor construction and lack of maintenance. Such proved to be the case when bombs were dropped in the area. However, some houses in New Chiswick still remained occupied when the writer returned from the War, including Mr Rogers of 37 Wood Street!

Financial and other considerations meant that work on the Cromwell Road Extension did not begin until 1957. By the late 1940s/early 1950s, the New Chiswick houses had all been demolished and blocks of council flats built in the streets which were not affected by the new road.

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