The Progress Estate
HM Office of Works
- Original design
- HM Office of Works, 1915
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The Progress Estate was built in 1915 as a Government Housing Scheme for selected workers at the Royal Arsenal munitions factory in Woolwich. Originally named the Well Hall Estate, the architect was HM Office of Works whose Principal Architect at the time was Mr. (later Sir) Frank Baines. Herbert Samuel, then President of the Local Government Board, informed the Treasury – ever concerned about project costs – that the scheme was to be of the highest quality. It was to be built along the best town-planning lines and generally should show what could be achieved under the auspices of the Government.
The ability of the Royal Arsenal to produce the requisite quantities of munitions was of paramount national concern. In the opinion of the War Office, this meant the scheme was beyond the abilities of any public utility society or local authority which would have been the normally-preferred development channels. Thus the estate went from the drawing board in January, 1915 to a garden suburb of 1,298 homes by December of the same year.
The desired outcome was achieved at what was, for the time, a great cost. By 31st March, 1916 the Government had spent £806,660/16/11d on the scheme which amounted to an average of £621 per dwelling of which land accounted for only £31. Even the smallest houses cost £465. By way of comparison, three-bedroom cottages with comparable amenities had been built in Letchworth’s Garden City immediately prior to the First World War for between £150 and £200 each.
The requirement for speed (the original desire had been to complete the Estate in only six months) was a major contributor. HM Office of Works utilised a huge array of materials as is obvious from the exterior appearance of the Estate’s houses. It is said that no two are identical; even those that look alike externally can be markedly different inside. The only common material was fletton bricks, used as backing bricks in most of the houses.
Overtime, Sunday and night-work were utilised and the latter alone added 25% to the wage bill. The building contracts were let to Mowlem and Leslie on a cost-plus basis, requiring detailed records of materials coming to the site to be maintained which in itself generated an additional expense. Future wartime housing would be of a more standardised design, and cheaper.
For all these reasons, the Estate is described in Pesvner’s Buildings of England as ‘The most remarkable public housing in South London [that was] built for munitions workers during the First World War: [The] Well Hall Estate achieved surprisingly varied and picturesque effects with a very rapid building programme … architecturally the result was a tour-de-force of picturesque design’.
Upon completion of the Estate in December, 1915 HM Office of Works handed its management to the London County Council.
The Estate was re-named The Progress Estate in June, 1925 when HM Office of Works sold it to Progress Estates Ltd, a subsidiary of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, for £375,000.
The historical and sociological value of the Estate was recognised in 1971 when it was designated as one of the then Greenwich Council’s earliest conservation areas. As, excepting War-time damage, no houses had been demolished prior to 1971, the Estate was transferred virtually intact into conservation area status. Even the war-damaged houses were rebuilt to their original appearance, courtesy of the War Damage Act, 1941.
Houses on the Estate began to be sold off to individual owner-occupiers as a result of the Leasehold Reform Act, 1967. Greenwich Council consequently sought, and obtained, an Article 4 Direction in 1973 which gave them the power to control building works that would otherwise have diminished the Estate's architectural integrity.
The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society’s remaining interest in the Estate, some 500 houses and flats, was sold on 31st October, 1980 to the Hyde & South Bank Housing Association Ltd., a company that now forms part of The Hyde Group.
Keith Billinghurst, Progress Residents Association,
Keith Billinghurst, The Origins and Evolution of the Progress Estate, Brown Dog Books, 2017
D. T. Jones, The Well Hall Estate, Eltham, unpublished dissertation, 1975, Greenwich Heritage Centre
John Kennett, Progress Estate,
accessed 20th June 2016
Mervyn Miller, Letchworth: The First Garden City, Phillimore, 2002
Mark Swenerton, Homes Fit for Heroes, Heinemann Educational Books, 1981
1916 (149) Housing Act 1914, Account, 1915-16, Parliamentary Archives