The Development of Battersea
Sean Creighton, - January 2005
The history of Battersea's built environment is fascinating: the
public buildings, streets, houses, shops, leisure facilities, open spaces,
railways and roads are interesting. Concern about the built environment must
include concern about the effect changes to it have on people, because it only
exists so that people can live, work and move around. Whatever part of Battersea
you live in your neighbourhood has been evolving and been shaped through a
continual process of interaction between local needs and aspirations, local and
national, and sometimes international political and economic power.
This photograph epitomises the 250 years of
change in Battersea. On the one hand the building of Montevetro can be seen an
extreme example of the way economic and political processes interact to change
the built environment of every community in this country, trampling over the
wishes of local residents and politicians. On the other hand it can be argued
that the fight against Montevetro
was lost back in the 1980s when the local
politicians approved a policy for riverfront heights that enabled stepping up
from one scheme to another.
Monevetro is the result of modern planning
law. Seemingly there to mediate conflicts of interest, that law is not neutral.
It is determined by the predominant political view at the time through the
legislation and through local political interpretations. It is determined by the
fact that different interest groups have different levels of influence. The
least influential are ordinary residents acting by themselves. Organising
together in groups like Battersea Society can from time to time have some
influence. This is of course a political point - but not a party political
The building environment we inherit is not the
product of some past neutral process, it has been created by similar processes
to those underway today.
Leaving aside minor changes Battersea has
boundaries over the last 250 years were set by the Church, sand then became
political administrative boundaries. The Thames to Clapham Common, from Wix's
Lane to Wandsworth Common, plus the part that formed a wedge down south to
As you go around Battersea what would you say
are its main features.
Battersea Park Rd/York Rd
Hill/St Johns Hill
Battersea Power Station
Shaftesbury Park Estate
Battersea Town Hall
Battersea and Albert Bridges
I am sure you can add more. Obviously the
project will become one.
These details (left and below) with permission from the
excellent site you will find more Montevetro photographs both exterior and
Photographer: Richard Bryant
Architect: Richard Rogers/Hurley Robertson
, Battersea , London , SW11
View from across river with barge Modern
block of flats glass steel stepped riverside exterior lifts exterior lift shafts
terracotta tiles terracotta cladding Chelsea power station.
the literal translation from Italian of Glass Mountain (Monte - Mountain and
Vetro - Glass
I wish to give you a feel for the way
Battersea has changed over the last two hundred and fifty years.
St. Mary's Church
Back in the 17th and 18th Centuries St Mary's
serves a large Parish. Most of its residents live in the Village near the
riverside, winding along Battersea High St and up to the Church. The Church is
re-built in 1775-77. It becomes a fashionable Church supported by people like
William Wilberforce when he lived on Battersea Rise. William Blake married the
daughter of a local market gardener in it.
But Anglicanism is not the only religion
supported by local residents. There was the Battersea Chapel on York Road.
Because Battersea did not have a bridge until
1771 it was a sleepy rural village on and near the North-east Surrey shore of
the Thames. The Lord of the Manor decides to build a bridge, and it opens on 28
November 1771 to pedestrians and vehicles in 1772. The bridge opens up
Battersea as a Surrey riverside parish for the well-to-do of London to have out
of town houses, especially around Clapham Common. The Bridge was later re-built
and opened in May 1890.
The main economic activity is farming and
market gardening, servicing London's need for food. One of the by-products of
the produce processed at the Horizontal Mill is feed for cattle on their way to
A smattering of other industries develops,
mainly along the riverfront, linked to boats, transporting goods by river,
processing foodstuffs and milling.
By the early 1800s Battersea's riverfront has
sufficient industrial development for Isambard Brunel's father Marc to set up a
factory to make boots for the English armies. His leak proof boots help
Wellington to win the Battle of Waterloo.
One of the most important companies to move in
is Prices Candles. Its candles light Britain and other parts of the world. Its
workers set up the local retail co-operative movement, out of which grew the
Co-op Permanent Building Society, now Nationwide, and the Workers Education
Battersea Fields and Park
To the east of the Village is a large area of
farm and marshland called Battersea Fields. The riverside stretch is used by
Londoners as an out of town leisure area, especially by lovers. Drinking and
pigeon shooting takes place at the Red House.
Battersea Park Gates
a dual in the Fields. Campaigning to suppress vice, the Vicar and the local
Church establishment seek to end these uses of the Fields. A deal is struck
under which Thomas Cubbitt, the Victorian builder, becomes a major landowner in
the Fields, and with the aid of an Act of Parliament in 1846 constructs the Park
which opened in 1858, and housing around it. Later the mansion blocks of today
are built. The Park enables the control of leisure activities through park
keepers and night-time closure. It becomes a venue for public events. Much
later as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain the Pleasure Gardens are laid out.
The Railway Network and Industry
The year is 1838. The Park is not yet in
existence. Battersea is slowly developing in population, housing and industrial
1838 sees the completion of the railway line
from the South-West in a deep cut through Wandsworth Common, through the area
that became Clapham Junction and along to its Nine Elms Terminus, opened the
The Parish finds itself divided in half. The
railway is designed to link London with the important port town of Southampton.
Nine Elms to the north-east of the parish is the nearest it is allowed to get to
London. Later it is given permission to extend to Waterloo. Although not
immediate it is to have a much more major effect which turns Battersea into a
dense, congested industrial area by 1888.
There are several stages and impacts. As the
railway network south of London is developed the competing companies want to get
as near London as possible. Additional lines begin to feed through Battersea.
The problem of accessing London leads to co-operation between the companies and
a deal with the Duke of Westminster to use his canal basin on the Grosvenor
Estate to build Victoria Station. The southern and northern companies co-operate
again to develop the West London Extension Line.
And so the Battersea tangle of railway lines
develops. Given Battersea has plenty of land that is not built on; the companies
begin to develop engineering works and depots.
The new industry employs large numbers of
people. So begins a process by which job creation stimulates the building of
housing and shops. Subsidiary industries develop as well, also needing workers
who need housing. Battersea becomes a specialist area for large scale industrial
Not only are the farms and market gardens
taken over, but the large estates attached to the out-of-town houses, and many
of these houses are demolished as well. As well as housing and shops, churches,
chapels, schools, pubs and places of entertainment. The latter include the
Shakespeare Theatre, Washington Music Hall and The Globe.
Clapham Junction itself develops into the busiest interchange
station in the country. Inevitably the station stimulates the development of a
shopping centre into which comes Arding & Hobbs. There is a constant process of
change with businesses moving in, moving out or collapsing.
Wandsworth and Clapham Commons
Battersea has parts of both Commons within its
boundaries, Clapham and Wandsworth.
Edwardian Postcard of
Much of Wandsworth Common has been eroded
through sale to developers by Earl Spencer, the Lord of the Manor. London's
Commons only remain with us today because of campaigns in the 1860s against such
encroachments culminate in Acts of Parliament in 1871 protecting them. The
campaign to save Wandsworth Common involves direct action and mass
demonstrations. A prominent leader is John Buckmaster, who grew up as an
impoverished agricultural worker's son, became a trained carpenter and joiner, a
paid campaigner for the anti-Corn Law League, trained to be a teacher in
Battersea, and went on to be a lecturer in arts and culture and education, and a
supporter of progressive causes. His son becomes a Cabinet Minister and a Lord.
Shaftesbury Park Estate
One of the new housing estates that is built
in the 1870s is not only unusual architecturally, but also socially and
politically. It is developed by the Artisans, Dwellings and Labourers Company.
Set up by a group of small builders and workmen with limited liability status,
it sees itself as part of the co-operative movement. Its aim is to provide
healthy housing for working people. It builds low rise houses with gardens and
facilities for the estate residents. The better-off workers and clerks are
attracted to live on it are politically radical, including the young John Burns.
Towards the end of Battersea Park Rd another housing development is built at the
same time: Victoria Dwellings. It has tenements, with some sharing toilets. It
is several stories high. At the opening the editor of the Times extols the
virtues of building up to the sky as the only way to solve the housing problems
of the poor.
The fast expansion of the population, largely
workers in the factories and on the railways, is not a political problem for the
local middle-class and employer establishment who are politically divided
between the Liberals and the Tories, because up to 1885 Battersea is part of the
East Surrey constituency, and the restricted voting base means that on the whole
they control the Vestry and the Board of Guardians, the twin machineries of
1885 is a critical year in the development of
Battersea because new Parliamentary constituencies are created with more workers
having the vote. The two political factions have a difficult time re-organising.
The Liberal Octavius Morgan, one of the brothers who owns local employer Morgan
Crucible, is elected MP.
But in Battersea by 1885 it is too late to
weld to both parties large working class support. Battersea's working class has
been developing a vibrant and growing multi-faceted culture based on their own
organisations, including the Battersea & Wandsworth Co-operative Society, trade
union branches, and friendly societies. They have played important roles in the
formation of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters & Joiners in the 1860s, in
the formation of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1871, and in
building the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. In 1885 the radical socialist
engineer John Burns sets up the Battersea Social Democratic Federation, and is
attracting young and enthusiastic supporters like Tom Mann. Given the context
and by astute alliance building with the Liberals and radicals, he is elected as
a socialist as Battersea's first London County Councillor at the end of 1888.
Four years later he is elected as an independent socialist MP and remains so
until 1919. In the same period the local labour movement is instrumental in
launching the campaign for the eight hour working day, and in ensuring that May
Day is celebrated as a workers holiday. Local activists also campaign for new
Another two years and 1894 sees the formation
of the Trades Council, the Progressive Alliance with the Liberals and Radicals,
and electoral victory in the Vestry elections, followed by victory in 1900 for
control of the newly formed Battersea Borough Council. Radicals and socialists
have already made their impact on the pre-1894 Vestry, especially the decision
to build Battersea Town Hall. From 1894 the Alliance pioneers what was called
'municipal socialism' that is the provision of services run by local elected
Councillors and Alderman employing officials and workers on fair wages, rather
than contractors, aimed at meeting the health, physical, leisure, housing and
recreational needs of ordinary people. Battersea earns the title 'Municipal
Mecca'. A supporter of the Alliance
is elected as the first black Councillor to a controlling political group on a
London Council in 1906 and then is elected as Britain's first black Mayor in
1913/14 - John Archer in 1913/14.
And how does the Progressive Alliance change
the built environment of the Borough. Among its contributions are:
Latchmere/Burns Estate and the Town Hall flats
building labour depot
electric power station
During the First War World tensions between
the labour and liberal wings break the Alliance up, and from 1919 the Labour
Party takes control for most of the time until the merger with Wandsworth in
1964/5. The Labour Party continues the same approach as started by the
Progressive Alliance. It is no wonder that when it celebrates its 100th
Anniversary in 1994 the Battersea & Wandsworth Trade Union Council titles its
historical pamphlet 'Builders of the Borough'. However, the legacy has been
tarnished by the high-rise developments from the late 50s which continued into
the early 1970s. The rationale for these is caused by one of the most
devastating outside forces to affect Battersea: German wartime bombing.
The War and Post-War Housing
With a concentration of industry and because
of the railway lines in and out of London, Battersea is heavily bombed.
The post-war Council is faced not only with
completely destroyed housing, but housing that needs bomb damage repair. It also
faces the deterioration of other parts of the housing stock because it has not
been able to give any attention to it during the war years and in the period of
reconstruction. The Council faces a mammoth task. It sets about both bomb damage
repair and designing new housing. During the 1950s it experiences two twin
problems: Government restrictions on Inner London Councils like Battersea
building outside their areas, and a subsidy system that encourages estates to be
built upwards. And so the solutions chosen are the high-rise estates and blocks
through Rollo on the Battersea Park Rd to the Winstanley and York Rd estates to
name but a few.
The best known example is the Doddington
Estate. The contractors use building systems from abroad but skimp on materials
and costs. The contracts are lucrative, and corruption becomes a problem, viz.
the Poulson/T. Dan Smith scandals. Caught up in this is Sid Sporle the Labour
Councillor who masterminds Battersea's housing programme and continues it after
the amalgamation with Wandsworth. He is convicted of being bribed in connection
with the Doddington contract. The housing programme is overambitious, so that
earmarked for demolition and redevelopment are many other areas of housing which
can easily be renovated. The situation is further complicated by the 1960s
motorway box plan, which blighted areas like the Louvaine west of Clapham
Junction. Many of these areas are subsequently saved from demolition, partly
following campaigns, especially those in what became the Louvaine and Garfield
housing action areas, and Abercrombie St.
Battersea Power Station and Industrial Decline
An internationally known symbol of Battersea
is the Power Station. Imposed on Battersea by the Central Electricity Generating
Board which has taken over local authority electricity power activities and
closes Battersea Council's power station in Lombard Rd. For the first period of
its life it is only half its size, with two chimneys.
The four chimneys are only completed after the
War. It is a major employer. When it closes Battersea is already being hit badly
by the decline in industry in general and the contraction of the scale of the
railway industry. The lack of space to redevelop, contracting markets, and
re-location elsewhere stimulated by regional economic grants, leads to many
employers shutting down their operations like Morgans Walk and Gartons Glucose
Factory. Although a shadow of its former self Prices Candles remains as a sales
Workers either left Battersea or became
unemployed or forced into less skilled and lower pay jobs. With the industrial
base in decline, white-collar and public service workers come to the fore in the
trade union movement. Many former industrial areas become prime sites for more
up-market housing: Morgans Walk and Plantation Wharf being two examples, or are
redeveloped for other uses like the Homebase warehouse shop on the old Garton's
site. In replacing the former Rank Hovis Flour Mills, the Monevetro development
simply continues this trend.
Public houses have been important social
centres, and meeting places for working class organisations such as friendly and
loan societies and trade unions. But of course not everyone approved of drinking
or meeting in pubs. The temperance movement is strong in the 19th and early 20th
Centuries. Many of Battersea's leading working class activists are active
supporters. One of the drives behind establishing meeting places is to have
alternatives to public houses.
Important pubs over the years have included:
The Falcon – re-built c1882-3. Listed in the
1970s as part of the campaign against the wholesale redevelopment of the Clapham
Junction Station area.
Swan, Battersea Church Rd
Castle demolished built about 1600, demolished and replaced with a new pub in
Raven built late 17th Century
The Raven Public House diagonally with cars
the north side of Battersea Square
Other Forces for Change
There is no time to go into the other forces
for change in the last twenty-five years. These have included:
The decisions of private landlords to sell
their properties when their elderly tenants die or move in with their sons and
daughters or into retirement homes, are major motor force for the demographic
changes called gentrification and Chelseaification of Battersea.
The decisions of the post 1978 Conservative
Councils to sell off Council housing and land have added to those demographic
Some of those opposed to Montevetro who live in
some of the new housing developments, have probably found themselves working
with those who opposed the building of those developments.
Might you be working with Montevetro residents
at some stage in the future over the next generation of plans you do not like?
Civic amenity societies like Battersea and
Wandsworth Societies are interesting alliances. They bring together Labour,
Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Greens, and non-aligned individuals putting
aside Party political differences to influence the processes of change on the
built environment. One of the activists in the old Battersea Society was a
working class boy who became a leading Battersea Labour Councillor arguing
against high-rise estates - Young Jimmy Lane (his father was known as Old).
After a long break the formation of the new Society is a welcome development and
revival of that tradition.
based on a talk to the Battersea Society, edited