The Simpsons – Forest Gate’s jerry builders and slum landlords

Friday 24 May 2024

Local historian and housing specialist, Peter Williams, considers the story of probably Forest Gate’s most significant jerry builder and slum landlord families – the Simpsons.  For most of their time locally - from the 1860s until the 1890s – they lived in a property in what would now be the Sidney/Woodford Road junction, adjacent to Wanstead Flats and they acquired a considerable number of properties neighbouring it.

They came to own over 180 properties in east London – 26 of them in Forest Gate and were prosecuted over a dozen times for jerry building and slum landlordism in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. This is their story.

They hailed from Commercial Road, Whitechapel and by the middle of the nineteenth century had already been involved in a number of business ventures. David Caldow Simpson snr, who seems to have been the driving force in the family, was described as a painter, a blind maker and a “provision agent” when he was declared bankrupt in 1851. By 1857 he was back in business with his brother, and took out a patent for an improved roller blind.

Within two years he began to be identified as a slum landlord, with complaints made by the sanitary inspector of the Poplar Board of Works that he had rented out a property with without adequate toilet facilties which was causing a public nuisance to neighbours (Morning Advertiser 31 August 1859).

By the mid 1860s he was being prosecuted for insanatary conditions in:

 “fifteen filthy and dilapitated houses in Bartlett Street, Bromley … in which fever and sickness abounded ... dark, dismal, filthy … no ventilation … the stench was most noxious … No medical man or person of common sense could go to the houses without saying they were not fit for human habitation.  … Mr Simpson’s tenaments were abominable and a blot upon our civilisation.”  (Stroud Journal 10 February 1866)

Simpson was ordered to rectify the defects by the magistrates he was facing, within 14  days.

This press report is significant not just for describing the scale of Simpson’s slum landlordism, but also for the fact that it registered his new address as being in Forest Gate. It was Graydon Cottage, a spacious dwelling on the edge of the Flats (the 1871 census described the house as being on the Flats) – near what is now Sidney Road. Graydon was his wife’s middle name, and came from her maternal grandmother’s side (see map, below).

1873 Ordnance Survey map showing the location of Graydon cottage (later Villa) where the present day Sidney Road is located. Graydon was his wife’s middle name, and came from her maternal grandmother’s side.

The house was sold in 1884, see extract below, and it seems probable that the Simpsons bought it, as sitting tenants -a not uncommon move. It is interesting that the estate agent’s advert described the property as being in Sydney Road and “fronting Wanstead Flats”.  By 1891 the cottage had been renamed Graydon Villa – a more fitting name for an upwardly mobile family’s home! 

Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser - 1 November 1884

Simpson’s slum landlordism had clearly enabled him climb the social ladder, by moving from the crowded Commercial Road in Whitechapel to the pleasant suburban area of the up and coming, prosperous Forest Gate. And his businesses expanded almost unabated. Within three years he was advertising for lodging house keepers for “one of the largest (property) in London” (Clerkenwell News 2 October 1869). And in in 1881 the family were providing “educational opportunities for young ladies”, at a fee of 20 guineas (£21) – per year or per term is not clear – from their Graydon Villa home (Daily Telegraph 24 September 1881).

Clerkenwell News 2 October 1869

Daily Telegraph 24 September 1881

The family certainly were litigious, apparently treating local offialdom and courts with little more than contempt. Earlier in 1869 they engaged in legal action, which was dismissed as being frivilous, against the East London Waterworks company for not providing an adequate water supply to houses they owned in Canning Town (Essex Times 30 June 1869).

A dozen years later, a, clearly cocky son of David snr, William Simpson, was fined for being insulting to a local building inspector, in a case where he was labelled a “fashionably dressed young man”, and was clearly assumed by the court to have attempted to “hinder” the officer “in the execution of his duty”. (Leytonstone Express and Independent 2 December 1882). 

David Caldow Simpson jnr (Ancestry)

This bullying and arrogant behaviour exemplified the contempt with which the Simpons held the statutory authorities who attempted to enforce decent building and housing conditions, even in the 1880s, as the following series of episodes demonstrate:

1.      * January 1884. David Caldow Simpson jnr was summoned to West Ham police (magistrates) court by the local board of health for using unsuitable and inferior materials in houses he was constructing in Silvertown, at variance with the plans that had been approved for their construction. His father and brother were both called by him to say that all was fine with the construction. He was fined the maximum of £5 for the offence. Contemptuously, he pleaded “poverty”, on the grounds that he was not a householder, but was told by the court that if he did not pay the fine, he would be sent to gaol for a month. (Western Daily Press 28 January).

2.    *  November 1884. David Caldow Simpson jnr was found against at Bow county court for shoddy building workmanship and had a judgment of £11/6/9d, plus costs awarded against him. Interestingly, the press reported: “there were several members of the (Simpson) family, and they tried to shift responsibility from one to the other”. (Leytonstone Express and Independent, 1 November).

3.    * August 1886. David Simpson (not clear from the report whether this was snr or jnr) found guilty at Stratford police (magistrates) court of using inferior mortar in the construction of some houses in Leyton Road, for which he was fined £2. (Hackney and Kingsland Gazette. 27 August).

4.    * April 1893.. West Ham Medical Officer reported that DC Simpson (again, not clear whether snr or jnr) charged for renting out houses “not fit for human habitation” in relation to two houses on Barking Road. Not only had had he ignored the demand to close the houses, but had put their rents up by 6d per week! The Public Health Committee resolved to close the houses and make Simpson rectify the defects. (West Ham and South Essex Mail 15 April)

5.   *    December 1893. West Ham Medical Officer of Health: Failure to rectify sanitary defects in three houses in Custom House. Fined £2, with 11/6d costs and ordered to rectify defects. Similar charges in relation to  four houses in Hallsville Rd, Canning Town,  and a failure to make them “fit for human habitation under the Housing and Working Classes Act”, for which he was ordered to pay £1 costs and make good the deficiencies. (Medical Officer of Health records at

6.    * January 1894 DC Simpson summoned to explain “why he should not be ordered to close four houses in Blue Road, High Street, Leyton”, which were alleged unfit for human habitation. He made no defence, and the bench ordered the houses be closed, and the defendant to pay £2.18s costs. (Essex Herald 2 January).

7.    *  January 1895 DC Simpson (not clear whether snr or jnr) charged by West Ham Town Council with “failing to render the premises 7 and 8 Victoria Dock Road fit for human habitation; closing order obtained”. (West Ham and South Essex Mail 12 January)

8.    February 1895 West Ham Medical Officer of Health, prosecuted DC Simpson with non-compliance with public health standards in relation to nos 98 and 98a Chestnut Avenue, Forest Gate. Conditions were so bad in the houses that they were ordered to be closed down completely and not tenanted, despite the fact that they could only have been built within the 20 years. ( The houses have clearly subsequently been considerably renovated, as they still stand today (see below).

98 and 98A Chestnut Avenue E7 today. These were built by DC Simpson and closed down by the authorities after just twenty years.

 .     *  August 1895 Medical Officer of Health records show Simpson to have been charged with a two notices in relation to a house on his doorstep (33 Woodford Road), including one of failing to ensure an adequate supply of water – for which he was fine £2 in total, with a further £1 2/6d costs and a demand to rectify the faults. (

1    * October 1896 Medical Officer of Health DCS fined £1, with 17s costs and a closing order imposed for non compliance with a previous order relating to rectification of defects at 14 Dames Road. (

David Caldow Simpson senior died in January 1899. His death seems to have brought to an end the convictions for jerry building and slum landlordism, but he left a considerable property legacy to two of his sons, Frederick James and David Caldow jnr – valued at almost £60,000 at the time (in excess of £9.3m in today’s terms).

His wife died a couple of months later and almost symbolising the end of an era, their property was sold for building materials. Forest Gate was a rapidly expanding London suburb and there was money to be made from selling off building plots to build the terraced housing in Sidney Road that survives.(West Ham and South Essex Mail 24 June 1899).

West Ham and South Essex Mail 24 June 1899

It is not clear how the portfolio was divided, but both sons continued to be described as builders and house agents, well into the twentieth century.

The portfolio at the time of David Caldow snr’s death was considerable, comprising 65 houses, 19 houses with shops, 57 shops, 30 cottages and seven plots of land, together with a factory and a warehouse in east London.

The 180 lots were to be found in: Forest Gate, Leyton, Leytonstone, East Ham, Upton Park, Canning Town, Custom House, Plaistow Silvertown, North Woolwich, Tidal Basin, Poplar and Bromley.

Twenty six of the houses and shops and one plot of land were in Forest Gate, clustered around Dames Road, Bignold Road Woodford Road and Chestnut Avenue. The precise details were: Dames Road: nos 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 26, 28, 30, 30a, 34, 34a, 36, 36a, 38, 40 and 42. In addition, there was land to the rear of Dames Road (on Bignold Road), plus nos 52, 58 and 58a Bignold Road. Almost adajacent were the properties at 33, 35, 37, 39, 41, 43 and 45 Woodford Road.

Almost all of those properties existed in a triangle of what would be from the junction of Dames Road and Woodford Road, upto Vera Lynne Close on one side and Carrington Gardens on the other, on a site which with justification could be called Simpson’s Triangle. See below.


'Simpson's Corner' today - junction of Dames and Woodford Roads

It is not clear how the sons divided their inheritance from their father, or whether it continued to be managed jointly by the two of them. Frederick, the older, moved to Wanstead, where he lived comfortably with his family and two servants and was described as a “house agent” by the time of the 1911 census. He seems to have died in Wanstead in 1932.

David Caldow jnr, similarly, had moved to Wanstead by 1911, and then to Woodford Green by 1939, when he was described as a “retired property owner”. He died as the second world war concluded, leaving £40,000 (about £10.5m today) to his unmarried daughter Helen Marjorie Simpson and his son, John Graydon Simpson. The family had clearly moved on from being grubby slum landlords. John was an architect who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery during WW2.

Almost all of the houses in “Simpson’s Triangle” were of low quality, as in the 1980s Newham Council pursued one of its last slum clearance CPOs and knocked them down. Whether the Simpsons’ properties alone were subject to the CPO because they were easy to acquire in one transaction, or whether they were in a particularly poor state of repair is not clear. The photo below shows the site left behind after demolition.

'Simpson's Corner' in the 1980s, after Newham Council had cleared in in a slum clearance move

The surrounding properties on Dames, Bignold and Woodford Roads remained untouched, and survive to this day – some 40 years later.

Footnote: Newham Council who took over from West Ham have a significant record of prosecuting poor landlords. It was the first local authority in the UK to introduce in 2013 a borough wide property licensing scheme for private landlords. By the end of 2014 they had already prosecuted 350 landlords. By the end of 2016 there have been 960 prosecutions, more than the rest of the country put together. Concerted action against bad landlords is nothing new in our area.

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