In Whitecross Street and Golden Lane
Do strapping lasses dwell
And so, there do in every street
Twixt that and Clerkenwell.
At Cowcross and at Smithfield
I have much pleasure found,
Where wenches like to fairies
Did often trace the ground.
‘Roxburghe Ballads’ – Anonymous poem from the 17th century
After the Second World War, the City needed to provide housing for people on the housing register. This meant the workers who provided all the services in the City, and their families. The City Corporation provided accommodation already, but well outside the City, in areas like the Old Kent Road and Sydenham Hill. But, to provide more such housing, they decided to create a new council estate near Golden Lane at the boundary with Finsbury.
The Voting Issue
It is said that the decision was triggered by a new Government policy. Hardly anyone actually lived in the City. The City’s ‘elected’ councillors were mainly elected by businesses which had votes and the City’s plan was to reduce the residential vote even further. But the Government understandably didn’t approve of councils with no local electorate. It threatened to introduce a law which would effectively extinguish the City unless it could quickly manufacture some sort of credible electorate. But if that was the case, how was the situation improved by creating an estate at Golden Lane, which, until well after the estate was built, was in Islington. The residents had no vote in the City.
Before the Second World War the Golden Lane area contained Victorian warehouse and factories. The Luftwaffe levelled these buildings in a single night of incendiary bombs in 1940, leaving only rubble and basements.
The original 4.7 acres for the Golden Lane Estate were bought by compulsory purchase in February 1951. In May 1954, the City bought more land so that the site covered a total of seven acres, and extended the site to Goswell Road.
In 1952 the Royal Institute of British Architects organised an architectural competition for the City. The challenge was to create a design for an estate with 940 residents at Golden Lane. There were 187 entries. Peter and Allyson Smithson were among the entrants. They were the most well-known of the architects later called Brutalists. They went on to build Robin Hood Gardens housing complex in Poplar, East London. Another scheme was submitted by Jack Lynn and Gordon Ryder. Lynn later designed the Park Hill flats in Sheffield.
But the competition was won by an unknown architect, Geoffry Powell, who was declared the winner on 26 February 1952.
Chamberlin, Powell & Bon
Geoffry Powell was a lecturer in architecture at the Kingston School of Art. He and two fellow lecturers, Peter Chamberlin and Christof Bon, had each submitted designs to the competition. They had agreed that if any of them won, they would all leave the Kingston School of Art and form an architectural practice. That is what they did. The partnership of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon was formed. Chamberlin Powell & Bon supervised the building of the estate in detail. They later went on to design and build the Barbican estate to the south.
It took 9 years to construct the estate. The original design was modified over the period, partly to accommodate an additional 7 acres of land which was added to the original proposed site. The swimming pool, for example, was a later addition to the project.
The completed estate
The first parts were completed by 1957. Crescent House was completed in 1962. As completed, the estate contained 1,400 flats and maisonettes, a swimming pool and badminton court, a bowling green (now tennis courts), a nursery and playground, a community centre and club room, and a line of shops facing Goswell Road terminating in a pub, the Shakespeare.
The original plan was to create mainly flats for workers such as caretakers, nurses and policemen who worked in the City and had to live within striking distance. The original plan assumed some family units, but in the end none were built and the estate was designed for single people and couples There are no large family units.
Originally the estate was intended to provide housing for families from the Borough of Finsbury. In the end only 12% of the first lettings were for Finsbury residents.
Becoming part of the City
Boundary changes in 1994 transferred the Golden Lane Estate from Islington to the City.
The estate now
The Golden Lane Estate remains almost exactly as it was built, except that a pub operator with typical good taste gave the Shakespeare Pub under Crescent House an ‘olde worlde’ makeover. Some glazing in of the staircases of terrace blocks was carried out in 1987.
Golden Lane remains one of the most successful of England’s housing developments from the early 1950s.