Friday, 22 July 2016

The Well Hall Estate: The First Tenants

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John Kennett has recorded that the first tenants to move onto the estate were a Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Aylward (Sidney and Jane) who moved into 238, Well Hall Road on May 22nd 1915.  This was a Class 2 house. What was it like, I wonder, to move onto what was essentially a building site?  Lines had been laid for a narrow gauge railway to transport building materials from the sidings at Well Hall station; the use of such railways were a common practice in the building of large estates at the time.  There were special trains daily and also fleets of ‘motor-lorries’ carrying materials at a rate of 1800 – 2450 tons per day.  At least 3,000 thousand men were employed in the building of the houses – this is certainly the number that went on strike in 1915 –  and I imagine it would have been noisy and dirty with everything being made on site and nothing pre-fabricated as would happen today.  Given that the shortage of materials meant a degree of flexibility was needed in carrying through the building, this was a helpful state of affairs.   We know that a lot of overtime was being worked, so there was no chance of the agreements today which can limit building on big sites to reasonable hours so as not to disturb nearby residents.  According to Frank Baines, the principal architect, writing in 1920, houses were completed at the rate of one every two hours.  There are some images of the estate being built which were published in the periodical ‘War Illustrated’ which you can see here.

In spite of all the hard work, the vision of the garden city was not going to be realised for a few months and the first tenants just had to put up with their less than perfect surroundings as they enjoyed the amenities and roominess of their new houses.  But perhaps this, as well as the work place they had in common at the Arsenal, helped the new tenants to form a community.  A number of those who were later to be so active in the social and community life of the estate lived on Well Hall Road.  Another family is recorded as moving into Congreve Road at the end of July and this reflects the fact this part of the estate on the east side of Well Hall Road was being built first.  However by June 1915 it was reported in the Kent Mercury that such good progress was being made on the eastern side that the western side had been started.

The first woman resident, Jane Aylward, was born Jane Reid on 16th August 1888 and like her husband was born and grew up in Hertfordshire where she lived in Croxley Green.  By 1911, at the age of 22, she was a dressmaker working at home with her parents and siblings.  Sidney was staying with members of her family in the village and about a year and a half later they married.  Sidney was an engineer working in a cement factory but a couple of years after this was clearly employed at the Arsenal.  Not long before their move to Well Hall their only daughter Joan was born in the registration district of Uxbridge, on the edge of North West London, so it looks as if their migration to South East London was in at least two stages, which wasn’t an uncommon pattern of migration into the capital.  The couple were in their twenties when they moved into their smart new house with their young daughter but both found time to be involved in the social activities on the estate.

On the eve of the Second World War the couple were still living in the same house and their daughter about to embark on her own married life.  It always seems as if the estate inspires a lot of loyalty among its residents so it would be interesting to see if residents have tended to stay longer here than elsewhere in the London suburbs.

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