In the late 19th century, there was growing pressure to clear the slums of London and replace them with new, more sanitary, homes for the poor. The Whitecross Street area contained some of the worst slums.
An American business-man and philanthropist, George Peabody, took it upon himself to try to improve the housing for the poor in London. He set up the Peabody Trust (originally called the Peabody Donation Fund) and endowed it with a large part of his own fortune so that it could start buying land and building the new model homes he wanted to provide.
Peabody Trust built ten estates in London in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1883, Peabody built two estates on either side of Whitecross Street. The estate on the east side of Whitecross Street was called ‘the Whitecross Street Estate’. It consisted of 21 blocks of flats on a site between Roscoe Street, Errol Street, and Dufferin Street. The estate on the west side of Whitecross Street was called ‘the Roscoe Street Estate’. This consisted of 11 blocks on the west side of Whitecross Street, as well as a single block ‘X’ on the east side.
The Roscoe Street Estate was completed in 1883 and consisted of 11 separate blocks. An interesting reflection of the social priorities of the time – there was no bathhouse, but the estate provided 32 pram sheds.
The blocks were designed by Henry Astley Derbyshire (1825-1899). The blocks near Whitecross Street were constructed round courtyards and were generally five or six stories high. Derbyshire used light coloured bricks. The design was regarded as being a severe form of Italianate style. It was used in most of the other Peabody estates in London.
The two Whitecross Street estates were known as ‘Peabody Town’. The various blocks were designated with capital letters. The Roscoe Street Estate contained blocks lettered ‘A’ to ‘L’ (omitting ‘I’). The blocks of the Whitecross Street Estate ran from ‘A’ to ‘W’ (omitting ‘I’ and ‘U’). When they were finished, the combined estates housed 4,000 residents and were the largest of the Peabody estates.
None of the blocks of the Roscoe Street Estate have survived. Eight of the original blocks of the Roscoe Street Estate were destroyed by German bombing in the Second World War between 1940 and 1941. The blocks which survived the War were too badly damaged to repair and were later demolished. The last four were pulled down in 1972 to make way for Banner House.
In the 1950s, when the City of London was considering constructing the Golden Lane estate nearby, the Peabody Trust set out to build a new estate on the site of the original Roscoe Street Estate. It also acquired some additional land in the form of the site of St Mary’s Church to the west of Whitecross Street, which had been built in 1868 but had been destroyed by bombing in the war.
Two blocks, each 13 storeys high, were completed in 1957. One of them, St Mary’s Tower, is named for the church which had been demolished. (The site of block ‘X’ on the east side of Whitecross Street was sold to the London Diocesan Fund in 1957.) Banner House was built in 1972 on the sites of the last four remaining Victorian blocks. The open space around the Peabody Court and St Mary’s Tower had been the burial grounds of St Mary’s church, so all the human remains which could be discovered had to be removed before work started.
The new Roscoe Street Estate consists of two 13-storey blocks, two 6-storey blocks, one 3-storey block and one 4-storey block. These buildings were completed in 1957. The architects were John Gray & Partners. Banner House was constructed much later, in 1972.
The only original Victorian buildings to survive the War were in the Whitecross Street Estate on the east side of Whitecross Street. But some of the original blocks there too were destroyed by bombing. Blocks C, O, P, Q and W were lost. After the War, Peabody decided to construct entirely new blocks rather than rebuild in the traditional Peabody style. In the Whitecross Street Estate, new blocks ‘P’ and ‘Q’ were constructed in 1956. The Victorian blocks on the Whitecross Street Estate were renovated in 1993. Blocks ‘H’ and ‘K’, which were dedicated to sheltered accommodation for elderly people, were renamed Alleyne House (after the promoter of the 16th century Fortune Playhouse and creator of Dulwich College).
In 1967, Peabody took over the management of the property known as Dufferin Dwellings from the London County Council. It is now called Dufferin Court. This building had been constructed in 1898, but not as part of the Peabody development of the time. It has an interesting back story.
The new Peabody Whitecross Street Estate comprises 26 blocks of flats over an area of 2.4 hectares (six acres). The Whitecross Street estate contains 543 flats, ranging from one- to three-bedroom flats. Officially nearly a thousand residents live there, but it is thought that there may be at least another 200 at any one time who are not officially registered. There is fairly high turnover of residents. One third of the residents stay for no longer than five years, but about 10% have lived here for more than 30 years.