The Webb Estate near Purley, Surrey, is an odd place, a exclusive-feeling village of ‘desirable’ houses, but with indications of something else behind the gates.
The official website of the company that run the estate: http://www.webbestate.co.uk/history-1
Here are some pictures of a wander around I went on in July 2017:
The monument to French soldiers who fell during the Great War is bizarre to modern eyes because of its location, hidden away at the end of the long Promenade de Verdun. It almost feels as if it’s a family monument, and a visit there if you’re not a resident is slightly unnerving, as if you’re trespassing.
The useful local history sign erected by the village green explains the history of this garden village.
“William Webb (1862-1930) a visionary local estate agent spent his lifetime developing his Garden Estate idea. he purchased land in 1888 and began to develop it in line with his own principles of housing development. The land was cleared of fences and fifty plots were laid out divided by privet hedges. When building began in 1898, houses were set on predefined plots separated by mature boundary hedges and established planting. Webb expressed these design principles in his book, Garden First in Land Development.
The Webb Estate covers about 260 acres and was designed with the character of country lanes and English garden villages. …”
“In 1903 a model village, Upper Woodcote Village was laid out in the south-western corner of the Webb Estate. The cottages surrounding the green were originally intended to be occupied by the men working on the Estate but proved too expensive and so were leased to private individuals.
…In 1921 William Webb transferred the land of the Green in perpetuity to Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council. He stipulated that it was to be used as a Village Green or Rural park for the enjoyment of the inhabitants of Purley and neighbourhood and as a memorial to those that had falled in the Great War. Webb also arranged for the provision of the Cornish Granite War Memorial that stands outside the Lord Roberts.”
The Garden Village was such a pervasive idea in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. The history of Ebeneezer Howard and the garden cities has been well told, (see also this Historic England booklet (PDF)), but these types of smaller developments are different even though their creators were inspired by similar principles. Whereas Howard saw cities holistically, and sought to embed the garden principle in whole town design, to create “a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation”, this type of garden village ended up being more of idyllic residential escape from London life for the upper middle classes.
Webb noted in 1916:
A few City men live at the West End but by far the greater number seek to spend their leisure time and bring up their families at the nearest spot to their work where they can find a comparatively country home.
The emphasis of the settlement, as enforced in restrictive covenants mainly to do with keeping the gardens well kept and from new buildings being erected, made this estate exclusive. In Garden First in Land Development, Webb expressed his intention that:
the occupiers of houses (should) not only have the enjoyment of their own premises in desirable seclusion, but that, both from their own upper windows and when passing along the roads, it may appear as though they are one large garden of which their own holding is a part.
Whereas Howard’s garden cities were designed to be inclusive (and also self-sufficient for facilities and light industry), this was purely a private estate, with the large iron gates across the roads in and out (still there) to enforce that feeling of privacy and exclusiveness.
Webb lived at Upper Woodcote House, completed in 1903, and the whole estate was completed by 1925. He was renowned for his philanthropy, and also held the summer show of the local horticultural society in the grounds of the house.
Transcribing the 1911 census, I get a different feeling than when I transcribe the working-class districts that are my other locales. This was solidly stockbroker commuterville, pleasant escape from the commute to the City. Most of these large houses were occupied by one nuclear family – a head of household and his wife, mostly from London or another part of Surrey, either retired early and with no children, or in their 30s with small children. Most of the houses have servants – a housekeeper, cook, governness for the small children – who usually have migrated from other parts of the UK.
As a historian, I shouldn’t say this, but I feel it hard to find an immediate connection with the residents – do I care about Horace Whitaker, aged 32, ‘of private means’, living with his wife, three children and 2 servants, in ‘Waveney’ on Rose Walk? Or William Jones O’Hara, a 43-year old stockbroker born in Ontario, Canada, living with his wife, 2 children and 3 servants, in ‘Keewaydin’ [sp?] a few doors down? I must confess I’m more interested in the servants – was this their first employment? Did they miss home? Did they tease each other for having different regional accents and dialect? Did they ever meet the other servants in the other houses? One suspects not, as the estate is designed around privacy: the hedges and long boulevards create the desired privacy, but mean that it would be much harder, for the servants at least, to meet their neighbours unlike in the hustle and bustle of, say, a row of London townhouses.
I don’t know enough about domestic service in the early 20thC, but here are the first places to start:
The other aspect that I’m going to develop is trespass and vagrancy.
This newspaper article from 1939 about a man charged with trespass and vagrancy (and indeed the column adjoining about Caterham footpaths and parks) reflect much on the sense of privacy in these estates, and the suspicion of strangers and vagrants:
Upper Woodcote Village
Finally, the issue of village greens and private space divided by class is another line of enquiry. The workers’ houses that were too expensive for workers to live in are also a historical parallel for many issues today.
The Lord Roberts was a former temperance inn. Here is the 1911 census entry of its occupants: