Peabody Estate, Pear Tree Court

From: Survey of London: Volume 46, South and East Clerkenwell.Originally published by London County Council, London (2008):

“A characteristic group of tall, severe artisans’ dwellings, this was one of six such estates built by the Peabody Trust in the late 1870s and 80s on sites cleared by the Metropolitan Board of Works as part of a London-wide scheme of improvements initiated in 1877 under the terms of the first ‘Cross’ Act, of 1875.

By the time of the Act the scarcity of cheap ground had virtually halted the Peabody building campaign begun in the 1860s. When the first of the MBW’s improvement sites under the Act, at Whitechapel, failed to let or sell at auction, the trustees made a ‘take it or leave it’ offer of about £120,000 for six of the eight sites—a fraction of the estimated market value—stressing that the offer was ‘solely from considerations of public utility’. Despite the heavy loss to ratepayers, the board felt obliged to accept, in effect providing the Trust with an indirect form of public subsidy. To help meet construction costs, the trustees also arranged a £300,000 Treasury loan.

The houses in the Pear Tree Court area had been condemned as unfit for habitation by the local Medical Officer of Health, Dr J. W. Griffith, in 1875. Dilapidated and insanitary though they were, many had a picturesque quality, including a brick-and-timber group jutting out into the Close, removed to widen the roadway.

As built, the estate occupies a much larger area than at first envisaged. Originally, the improvement scheme was confined to the courts and alleys on the north-west side of the Close—in and around Cromwell Place, Pear Tree Court and Yates’s Rents—it being understood that the adjoining land to the west fronting what is now the northern half of Farringdon Lane, which had been cleared for work on the Metropolitan Railway’s ‘widened lines’, would in time be built up with tall warehouses like that already erected for John Greenwood & Sons (No. 34 Farringdon Lane). The four-storey dwellings intended would thus have been hemmed in to the west by commercial buildings.

The Farringdon Lane site was owned by one of the Pear Tree Court landlords, John Earley Cook, and it was he who suggested to the MBW and the Home Office that taller, longer blocks could be built across his land, improving light and ventilation, and access as well. Cook argued that these larger blocks could also accommodate workingclass residents being displaced from another MBW improvement at Gray’s Inn Road, leaving that site free for more lucrative commercial buildings. And so the board acquired Cook’s land, and passed it with the original improvement area to the Peabody Trust in 1882.

Pear Tree Court was the last of the six MBW sites purchased by the Trust to be developed. Construction of the eleven five-storey blocks was begun by William Cubitt & Co. in August 1883, and had been finished by the summer of 1884, the buildings being fully occupied by the end of the year. Peabody dwellings were aimed at the ‘respectable’ labouring-classes, and so few of the new residents were of the same class as those displaced for the development.

In its layout the estate follows the Peabody architect Henry Darbishire’s usual preference for rectilinear planning, with eight of the blocks (A—H) arranged in a square around a central court on the west side of the Close, the other three (J—L) situated at its northern end, where it abuts Robert’s Place. By this period Darbishire had devised a standard unit of five ‘associated’ flats (i.e., having shared lavatories and sculleries) off a central staircase, which could be repeated within a block as required. At Pear Tree Court blocks A—H are of this type, the others being modifications of the standard pattern to fit the more awkward areas of the site. Elevations are of stock and white Suffolk brick, in the Trust’s customary barrack-like style.

The improvement extended to the surrounding streets, and included an extension of Clerkenwell Close northwards to meet Roberts Place, where a wall was removed and steps constructed for pedestrian access to Bowling Green Lane, where the ground level is higher. All the paving and sewerage work was carried out for the MBW by John Mowlem & Co.

Blocks G and H, next to Farringdon Lane, were badly damaged and tenants killed during an air-raid in December 1940. Block G was later cleared and replaced by a row of two-storey dwellings, Nos 1–5 Peabody Terrace. An air-raid shelter in the central courtyard was removed in 1985 as part of an improvement scheme.”

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