The Woodgrange Estate - the early years

Wednesday, 5 June 2013


The history of 110 acres that comprise the Woodgrange Estate can be traced back to the middle ages and we will return to this at a later date.

The origins of the estate, itself, however begin in 1877, when Thomas Corbett purchased Woodgrange Farm and part of Hamfirth Wood from the Gurney family (prominent Quakers and bankers to whom we, again, will return in future) for £44,000. 

The land, at the time, was a market garden, on which stood a solitary home - Woodgrange Manor House, with its outbuildings, which could be dated back to 1594.
Woodgrange Manor House, as it was in 1861


Between 1877 and 1892 Corbett and his sons oversaw the construction of more than 1,160 houses on the land. It was a perfect site for commuters, being served by the Forest Gate train station, built by the Eastern Counties Railway company, in 1839. The population of Forest Gate at the time construction started was less than 5,000 - by the time it was finished it was about ten times that size.



Houses on the estate were sold on 99 year leases.  The Forest Gate Weekly recorded the attractiveness of the estate as having "the three great essentials to the average city man of easy access, reasonable rentals and a first class local market."

1867 Ordnance Survey

The estate was built during a time of great expansion of the West Ham area generally, of which it constituted part.  In 1851 the district had a population of a mere 19,000, mainly in small settlements. Forty years later this had soared to 267,000.  Around 30,000 houses were built in the period, to accommodate the dramatic growth.
Forest Gate Weekly of 9 July 1897 described the Woodgrange development:

An effort of imagination is required to realise the Forest Gate of twenty years ago. A stranger emerging at the time into Woodgrange Road from the old wooden railway station would see market gardens directly in front of him as far as the eye could reach, and on his way to Romford Road would have these same market gardens on his left and only a few private houses on his right.

All there was on the opposite side of Woodgrange Road were Mr Fisher's house, the block of which Dr Miller's house forms one, the Almshouses, the houses behind the shops now occupied by Mr Hussey and others and the Princess Alice. To this last named building, considerable additions have however, since been made.  There was not a single shop on this side of Woodgrange Road, so recently as ten years ago, or even less than that.
One of the unusual features of the estate, when developed, is that it was built under the supervision of a single leaseholder/developer (Corbett), which led to the unusual uniformity of design for such a large estate at this period. So, despite the repetitive house styles, Corbett was able to incorporate a number of minor features, that offered variety within a theme. 

These details included the use of different types of brick, iron front railings and gates and other ornamental ironwork, stucco and artificial decorative features.  One distinctive aspect was the glazed canopies, with their ornamental iron columns, which provided an architectural link to the railway stations at Forest Gate and Manor Park, which the Corbetts did much to foster.

Thomas Corbett was a non conformist Scot with a deep interest in social problems and mass housing.  He had already built houses in his native Glasgow - to replace some of the overcrowded tenement blocks, aimed at alleviating deprivation, before he became involved in Forest Gate. 

His non-conformist religious beliefs led him to designate the estate "dry", which explains why, to this day, it does not feature a public house, or retail alcohol outlet.

Deed of covenance 1879, between 
Thomas Corbett (signature included) 
and the Church Commissioners

He began planning and building as soon as he bought the land, but died in 1880, having overseen the construction of houses in Windsor, Claremont, Osborne and Hampton and Romford Roads, to the western side of Richmond Road. On his death, the task of completion fell to his son Cameron Archibald Corbett, who was in his 20's at the time. 
Archibald gradually left the management of the estate to Messrs Strachan, Kydd and Donald, while he pursued a political career, as an Liberal MP for Glasgow, until 1911, when he was created Baron Rowallan. He was succeeded to the barony by his son Thomas, who married Liberal Leader Jo Grimond's sister and was in turn succeeded by his son Archibald. 

This Archibald was best known for his second marriage being annulled in 1970 on the grounds that his wife, April Ashley, was transsexual and thus, under then current British law, a man.

Cameron, meanwhile, went on to become one of London's most prolific property developers, building other large estates in Ilford, Goodmayes, Seven Kings, Hither Green and Eltham.
The Woodgrange estate building was completed by 1892, having survived a house building recession in the mid 1880s.  The houses were sold, many on 99 year leases, to private buyers and some organisations such as the Church Commissioners. 

The larger houses, to the west, had servants' quarters attached, set back slightly from the main frontage. The Corbetts also attempted to landscape the villas, by providing traffic islands in Richmond Road planted with trees and front gardens with hedges and lime trees.  

Added to these, 50 street trees were planted in Balmoral Road.  Some of the shops on Woodgrange Road were also built as part of the development.

One of the larger houses, typically, would have cost £530 for a 99 year lease, with an annual ground rent of £8.80, and a typical smaller house would have fetched £330 for the lease, with a ground rent of £6.30 p.a.
Census returns suggest, unsurprisingly, that the estate was occupied by residents in business, or of one of the middle class professions (see here for details of residents of Claremont Road in 1881).

Corbett built the Woodgrange estate for very early middle class commuters and he recognised the importance of the railway to it, so he was responsible for securing new and improved road bridges over the railway, the rebuilding of Forest Gate station in the 1880s. 

This provided a ready means of access to the centre of London, via Liverpool Street and Moorgate, and at one time Fenchurch Street. As part of his service to commuters, Corbett negotiated with the Great Eastern Railway for special "workmen's fares" from Manor Park station, for those living on the eastern end of the estate.

Two of the eight cottages in Romford Road
 that predate the Woodgrange estate
During World War II, the south west corner of the estate was badly damaged by aerial bombing (about which, more in future episodes!), with houses in Windsor and Claremont Roads having to be demolished and cleared.  They were replaced in the 1950s by council houses and flats.  The Woodgrange Estate was designated a conservation area by Newham Council in 1976.
Thanks to Newham Planning Department and The Newham Story  for much of the information here.

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