Dufferin Court is an interesting building with a strange history. It wasn’t built like most the surrounding buildings for ordinary folk. It was built for costermongers – specifically the costermongers of Whitecross Street. Costermongers were what they called market traders and stall holders in Victorian England.
In the 1870s the authorities were clearing slums in the most downtrodden parts of London, and the general rule was that the displaced slum dwellers would be rehoused in new buildings. So, when the costermongers of Whitecross Street came to be moved out of their slum premises, they started to agitate for new premises to be provided for them. The Metropolitan Board of Works was the organisation responsible for such matters, and the costermongers agitated to get the Board to agree to find them new premises. In those days, without railways, motor vehicles, or even made-up roads in many places, costermongers didn’t just need housing for themselves but also for their carts and their donkeys – which were the only practical means of moving produce sold on the markets.
It seems that the Metropolitan Board of Works was not intending to rehouse the costermongers. But the costermongers succeeded in launching a successful campaign, led by a local tobacconist, Mr Hibbert. The Metropolitan Board of Works had some land available– the site of the future Dufferin Court – which they agreed to sell to the committee.
After some legal wranglings, the land was sold to the Watch Committee of the St Luke’s Costermongers, as they were called, in 1888. The document stipulated that the building to be erected on the site had to be used as tenements for costermongers, along with sheds for their donkeys and carts.
The Watch Committee awarded the building contract to William Kellaway, a builder from Marylebone. He agreed to build the costermongers’ new homes for just under £10,000. Kellaway was either a crook or a fool, or both. He got the money, and built the properties, but then when bust. The local council, who had to approve the building for occupation, were unhappy with the standard of work and valued the entire building at just over £7,000. So, it was already worth less than the Committee had paid out. What was worse, it turned out that Kellaway had let most of the rooms already to tenants who were not costermongers.
The only way out of the scandal was for the local council to use statutory powers, which they had been given by the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act, to buy the building from Kellaway for £6,300. The council then let the building exclusively to costermongers for the next 10 years. The building provided accommodation for 174 people in 29 one-room, 23 two-room, and four 3-room tenements. At the bottom of the building there were specially-built stables for the donkeys and sheds for the carts.
In the first decade of the 20th century, many of the small rooms were combined to make larger units. There had originally been 55 tenements, but the combining of some units resulted in a new total of 34 tenements. Although the building had originally been rejected as substandard both by the Watch Committee for the Costermongers of St Luke’s and by the local council, Dufferin Court still stands today without any apparent signs of falling down. Perhaps they just had much higher building standards in Victorian times.
The spaces allocated at the back of the building for donkeys and carts are still evident, although residents today might be very surprised to discover what the real purpose of those storage areas was.
In 1967, Peabody took over the management of Dufferin Dwellings from the London County Council. It is now known as Dufferin Court.