Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Well Hall Estate: The Architects

Original post: ww1greenwichwomenatwar.org/2016/10/04/the-well-hall-estate-the-architects

Since this project (Greenwich Women at War - "Here Come the Girls"), is about women, where do women feature in the design of the houses of the estate?  It does seem as if there is not one women to be seen amongst the architects on the scheme!

Those who are named are all men and there were very few women in the profession at the time.

The estate was designed by architects at the Office of Works, a central government department, where Frank Baines was Principal Architect.  (One source claims that the scheme was intended to be designed by the Woolwich Arsenal Engineering and Building Staff – how different it might have been then!)  Apparently Baines was elated at the news from the Ministry of Munitions that his office was to design the scheme.  Through his training he had been influenced by the ideas of the arts and crafts and garden city movements and had doubtless gathered around him architects of a similar persuasion.  It is likely that as these architects were in their thirties their earlier training and experience had been influenced by the arts and crafts style which was very much in vogue.

One account says that after Baines had visited the site he ‘set up a competition’ between four architects on his staff – Phillips, Pitcher, Bowden and Parker – and within hours they had all produced designs.  The “winning” design was done by Edward George Phillips who had not visited the site but who studied the annotated Ordnance Survey map that Baines had used on site, carefully identifying and taking into account all the existing geographical features.

Phillips and Pitcher went on to design the housing and the layout (Pitcher was the senior architect under Baines with responsibility for new build schemes).  Frank Baines would then have approved and ’signed off’ the final design as the principal architect and it is therefore his name to which the estate is credited.  Bowden and Parker were mainly responsible for the execution of the scheme. Although the Office of Works did not normally undertake housing schemes, apparently these four architects had all had prior experience of domestic architecture.  Throughout the period of design and construction all the architects were working long hours and a seven day week responding to the demands of building at such speed and adjusting plans to the shortages in some of the building materials.

The Greenwich Heritage Centre has a number of the original large-scale plans of the estate.  They include layout plans, one for each side east and west) of the estate.  On these the roads are numbered rather than named and then there were detailed designs for many of the groups of houses including plan views, elevations and cross sections.  These are all works of art in themselves drawn with a high level of technical skill.  They are credited to the Office of Works rather than to the individual architects. However, we know that Pitcher started work on the houses facing Well Hall Road; Phillips the details of the first layout and elevations and Bowden and Parker the detailed working drawings for the first contract.  These latter were ready within ten days.

And why no women?  Women were beginning to make inroads into the architectural profession during the late nineteenth century and the first woman member of their professional organisation, the RIBA, was in 1898.  She was Ethel Charles who did have some links with the design of houses for the working class, but was not working in the public sector. The garden city movement did have an appeal to middle class women, but there are many aspects of the wider garden city movement that are missing from the Well Hall estate especially in the provision of communal facilities.


Did this lack of a woman’s perspective make a difference to the housing designs?  Did the women newly arrived on the estate complain about or take delight in the arrangement of the rooms or the style of the kitchens?  Indeed, what did they think of their new homes and their new local area?  Are there any clues out there from individuals who have family stories or other accounts?

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