Archibald Cameron Corbett - the man and his houses -synopsis of film

Thursday, 21 June 2018

We have written extensively before about Forest Gate's Woodgrange estate and the builder behind it, Archibald Cameron Corbett (see here, here and here). Corbett was one of the most prolific house builders in late Victorian/Edwardian Britain and the Woodgrange estate was simply the first of seven large estates he was responsible for.

The young Corbett
Residents in one of his other estates, in Catford, last year secured Heritage Lottery funding to make an hour long documentary about the man and his houses - and fascinating it is, too.  An early screening recently took place at the Gate library. An audience of around 80 enjoyed the viewing, which was rounded off with a Q&A with filmmaker, Ben Honeybone.

The film is now available for viewing on You Tube, and a link to it can be found in the footnotes, below. This article is a synopsis of it and is illustrated by screen grabs from it. The film was well researched and made by Ben, a professional BBC film producer, with Lucy Mangan, a Guardian journalist, as its narrator.

At the end of the 19th century, Corbett was the biggest house builder in suburban London and he made a fortune from his ground-breaking, healthy estates he developed.  Born in Scotland, he was, in turn, a property developer, MP and philanthropist, who finally bought large tracts of Scottish land and handed them over for public use and pleasure, long before the days of the National Trust, national parks and other such bodies.

He remains an elusive figure, however. Almost the only contemporary direct reference to him in, or near, any of the seven estates he built, is the water trough at the foot of Forest Gate's iconic clock (see below). He did not seek public recognition, or fame, and it is doubtful whether 1% of the estimated 40,000 residents currently living in his houses today will have heard of him.
His elusiveness just adds to the fascination.

The "empty" Forest Gate,
before Corbett started building
... and the drinking fountain and trough he
left Forest Gate - almost the only feature
with his name on it by any of his seven estates.
He was born in Glasgow on 23 May 1856 to the son of a prosperous trader, Thomas Corbett, and very strict Presbyterian mother, who had no time for frivolity and modern pleasures. He was named after his maternal grandfather, and was christened Archibald Cameron Corbett.

Corbett, getting older ...
He was largely educated at home. In the late 1860's the family moved from Glasgow to Clapham, in London. Aged 14, he went on a European tour that took in Rome and he was much affected by the classical architecture and sculptures that he saw. Some aspects of the Woodgrange estate may well have been influenced by this (see a future post on the estate's design).

In the late 1870's Thomas - Archibald's father - bought 110 acres of market garden in Forest Gate from the Gurney estate (see here), and began constructing a housing development named after the principal house on the land - Woodgrange.

Thomas died three years after the building started and Archibald and his older brother, Tom, took over the mantle.  Tom soon lost interest and sold his share to Archibald.

By 1884 sales on the 700+ house Woodgrange estate were going so well, that Archie bought land further to the east, for another development. The following year became an MP for a constituency in his native Glasgow. He remained in the House of Commons for the next six elections and 25 years, until he was ennobled. Although he switched parties, he pursued the same interests throughout his membership of Parliament.

A cartoon of Corbett campaigning for Parliament -
he was doing a Scottish dance and splashing
out cash to those in attendance - in the days
when political bribery was taken
less seriously than today
He was firmly opposed to Irish Home Rule, probably influenced by his mother's Presbyterianism, which would also have accounted for his championing on Temperance. (the houses on the Woodgrange estate, like most of his others, had restrictive covenants on them prohibiting the sale of alcohol).

Corbett participating in a
Temperance meeting in Forest
Gate, as he was building
the Woodgrange estate
In other respects, however, he could considered to be very socially progressive.  Against his own economic interests, he urged heavier taxation on property developers - for the sake of social equity; he was a fierce supporter of women's suffrage , when it was a minority pursuit, and a champion of shorter working hours for shop workers, proposing stiff regulation to enforce them.

Soon after entering Parliament he met, and later married, Alice Polson, daughter of the wealthy parents behind the famous Brown and Polson cornflower. The couple lived in Knightsbridge, close to Harrods, and had nine servants to look after them and their three subsequent children.

John and Alice Polson, Corbett's in-laws ...
... and the cornflour for which they were famous
and their daughter, Alice -
 the later Mrs Corbett
The Woodgrange estate was completed in 1892 and he switched his attentions to developing the farm and estates he had purchased in Ilford - which at the time was a small county town.

First, in 1893, came the St Clements estate, just south of Ilford railway station and a year later construction began on the Grange estate, just north of the station. In 1897 work commenced on the Downshall estate - a little to the east, and finally to the Mayfield estate - next to Downshall, in 1899.

Ilford's Grange estate, today
These latter two estates were a couple of miles from the nearest railway station.  So, Corbett - applying his formula of a successful estate: cheap land, good houses, appeal to aspiring middle class -  set about ensuring the last bit of his jigsaw puzzle: securing  handy overland trains station to the City.

This mix worked in Forest Gate: the Forest Gate station was his initial bait.  By the time the Woodgrange estate had been completed, the old Little Ilford and Manor Park station had been enlarged, and renamed Manor Park (see here), complete with cheap "workmen's" fares to London, and Woodgrange Park and Wanstead Park stations had been opened on another line (see here), all convenient for the Woodgrange.

... and older ...
He now incentivised the Great Eastern Railway company to open two more stations east of Ilford - Seven Kings and Goodmayes - to accommodate his new estates. The maps below show the locations of the Corbett estates in the Ilford area before and after railway extensions.
The original Ilford station, that was
part of the local appeal for Corbett

The spread of Corbett's Ilford estates,
 in relation to the sole local railway
station, when he started construction
... and Seven King's and Goodmayes
 stations, whose construction he sponsored
Seven King's station ...
Goodmayes Farm, on which
the Mayfield estate was built ...


Floor layouts of houses
on the Mayfield estate

... and an advert for houses built
on the farm - the Mayfield estate

Details of the easy instalments
payments Corbett pioneered
The four Ilford estates were slightly different in character: Clementswood, mostly 3-bed houses, Grange, more double and triple fronted, Downshall , hundreds with two storey bay windows and Venetian blinds (see photos, below) and Mayfield.

Looking at the housing developments in Ilford at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries - and with the Corbett estates marked in red in the map, below - Corbett could, were he not so modest, have a good claim to be the founding father of modern suburban Ilford.

Indeed, the vice-chair of Ilford Town council, in 1902 said: "The impetus to Ilford was given by Mr Corbett". Despite this, there is barely the trace of his name or influence displayed anywhere in the town.

Ilford in 1900, with the Corbett estates
highlighted in red. Clear to see why Corbett
could be considered the father of modern Ilford
Corbett switched his estate building attention south of the river in 1896 and bought the St German's agricultural estate and began constructing the largest of his seven developments - the St German's estate, with 3,200 houses, in the Catford/Hither Green area.

He built solid middle class houses and sold them, leasehold, at cost price, on 99 year leases.  The profit for Corbett in the deal was the 5% leasehold payment he got each year from them.  At a time when 90% of British families lived in rented accommodation, Corbett played a key role in laying the foundations for what was later to become known as a "property owning democracy". He had a strong faith in the power of owner-occupation in establishing healthy communities.

Corbett's legacy was substantial. His houses were well built, to high specifications - the fact that only bomb damage has destroyed any of the 9,000 that he built, over a century later - is testimony to this.

... and older ...
The houses on all his estates were spacious, in low density developments, usually with parklands incorporated into, or nearby, them.

The Catford estate took longer to build than the others - but the same formula was at work - including the construction of improvements to local railway stations - to make the developments more attractive to that newly born breed,  "commuters" - city workers who wanted to live in the leafier, healthier suburbs and travel to work.

Corbett's last great development began at the end of the 19th century. In 1899 he bought 330 acres of farmland in Eltham - quite near his Catford development - for £50,000 and began construction of the Eltham Park development, applying the same formula.  So, the construction of Shooters Hill and Eltham Park railway station followed soon after - in 1908.

Shooters Hill and Eltham Park railway
station, built at Corbett's behest

This estate is more Edwardian-looking in style, hardly surprising since it was built almost totally during the reign of Edward V11.

Promotional brochure, marketing
both the Ilford Mayfield estate
and the Eltham Park one
In his personal life, Corbett bought a 6,500 acre estate, Rowallan, in Scotland for his family in 1901, but his wife died soon after, aged only 34. Archibald Cameron Corbett began to withdraw a little from housing construction, but as is often the case, put some of his time and much of his money into philanthropic endeavours.

Rowallan - the Ayrshire estate that
Corbett bought for the family

So, he bought 143 acres of land in Glasgow and turned it into Rouken Glen Park - which survives and in 2016 was awarded the accolade of "The UK's best Park". He later bought 15,000 acres of the Scottish highlands, Lochgoilhead,  and endowed it as a "gift to the nation", before such gestures were common.

It is now called Ardgoil and has been incorporated into the Trossachs and Loch Lomond National Park.

Glaswegians enjoying Corbett's "gift"
to the nation, which was, naturally, alcohol-free

Film narrator, Lucy Mangan, commenting
from Ardgoil - Corbett's legacy to
the Scottish people

Corbett was awarded a peerage in 1911, as part of George V's coronation celebration, and became Lord Rowallan of Rowallan. He began to withdraw even more from public life.  In 1915 he gave up his London mansion, to be a hostel for Belgian refugee families and retired to a Brown's hotel, in Mayfair - where he was to spend the remainder of his life.

... and old

He died on 19 March 1933.

The Corbett memorial, built
on his family estate in Scotland

Corbett's housing legacy was not as a pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap house builder.  He saw good housing as a keystone to a better society. Although less dramatic, his estates are as socially innovative within the housing movement as the rather better promoted  "model villages" of entrepreneurs, such as Lever , Cadbury and Titus Salt, and the grander garden suburbs such as Hampstead - on that they were build with the residents in mind, and not just the bank balance.

And the Woodgrange estate - the only one with Conservation Area status - proved to be the foundation of his impressive building legacy.

Footnotes

 1: Archibald Cameron Corbett, the Man and his houses can be viewed, free of charge on You Tube, here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_GdkNvDjKs&t=3040s The film lasts one hour.


2. We will follow this article with three others on the Woodgrange estate.  The first will look at some of the important external architectural features in this conservation area. The second will examine some of the interior features that remain in some of the high spec buildings that survive on the estate.  The third will look at the Woodgrange through the medium of two rare collections of mainly Edwardian postcards of the area. Watch this space!

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