93 year-old José Gray spent her childhood in Holyoake Terrace, off Oakhill Road and tucked away behind Sevenoaks station, and she has recorded her recollections of that time for the newsletter. Although residents of the town may be aware of this Edwardian row of terrace houses, they may not be familiar with their history, their origins as an early example of a social housing project and their place within the co-operative building society movement.

In 1903 the Sevenoaks Cooperative Society, formed in 1895 and based in The High Street, set up a philanthropic organisation, Sevenoaks Tenants Estate, to address the problem of providing good quality homes for working class people to rent in the area. Tenants would become shareholders and receive a dividend on their rent from any surplus.

Mrs Laura Gilchrist Thompson, a Liberal member of Sevenoaks Urban Council and wife of the vicar of St Mary’s church, Kippington, donated two acres of land off St Botolphs Road, and in 1904 work began on building 25 three-bedroomed houses in what is now St Botolph’s Avenue, under the supervision of the consulting architect Raymond Unwin.

Francis Swanzy, another Liberal councillor and one of the town’s great benefactors (he paid half the cost of the Hollybush recreation ground), then offered another strip of land – an awkward, heavily wooded plot of almost three acres off Oakhill Road. Despite the project’s laudable aims, the decision to build more houses here was not popular with everyone: a 1907 report mentioned “a certain class prejudice among some of the well-to-do inhabitants of Oak Hill to the idea of dumping cottages in such close proximity to fashionable villadom”. However the cottages were built, with Unwin again acting as architectural adviser. The row was named Holyoake Terrace, after George Holyoake, a pioneer of cooperative housing.

Through the generosity of another great philanthropist, Mrs Muriel Rogers, wife of Colonel John Rogers of Riverhill House, more land was acquired in Weald and Kemsing. Eleven cottages designed by Harry Sinclair Stewart were built in 1910 around Weald village green. Two blocks were named after the Rogers’ daughters, Patience and Felicity, with a third block called Prudence. 59 homes had now been built in all.

These benevolent schemes in Sevenoaks should not be seen in isolation. Nationally the years 1900 to 1914 witnessed the growth of a powerful social movement of housing co-partnerships – developed alongside the Garden City movement promoted by Ebenezer Howard. Whereas almost all previous planned settlements in this country had been created by a single aristocratic landowner, such as Grosvenor, Russell and Cavendish, or philanthropic businessman e.g. Cadbury, Rowntree and Lever, creations such as Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb were socially, politically and spiritually a new kind of entity: a joint co-operative endeavour by a group of like-minded citizens. (Despite the founders’ original intentions, Hampstead Garden Suburb is now considered to be one of the wealthiest areas in the country!).

In 1901 the first true housing co-partnership was established: Ealing Tenants Ltd, under the aegis of Co-Partnerships Tenants Ltd, an organisation founded to promote, finance and build affordable social housing, providing a unique form of tenure that combined the features of tenant cooperatives and a limited dividend company. Its inspirational chairman, Henry Vivian, a prominent trade unionist and later politician (elected Liberal MP for Birkenhead in 1906), believed that the ordinary working man, as well as having a good quality home in pleasant surroundings “conducive to both health and pleasure”, should share in the profits of house ownership. In 1907 he called in the Derbyshire architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, advisers to the Garden City Association, cementing the link with the development of garden suburbs and the emergence of organised town planning. Together they created Brentham Garden Estate for Ealing Estates Ltd.

Unwin was a visionary, promoting affordable homes designed in the Arts and Crafts style and keen to play his part in the improvement of society. With Parker he had already designed New Earswick, near York, for Joseph Rowntree, and the Garden City of Letchworth and Garden Suburb at Hampstead. Before Ealing, co-partnerships had been established in Leicester (1902) and here in Sevenoaks (1903). By 1910 there were eleven similar companies in operation in towns including Stoke-on-Trent, Keswick and Liverpool. It is estimated that in all there were around 50 co-operative housing societies, and the movement spread overseas to Germany, Russia and Canada.

(Unwin had grander plans for a Garden Suburb for Sevenoaks. But because of the piece-meal acquisition of the donated land, such ambitions went unfulfilled).

Sevenoaks Tenants Limited, now the name of the housing association, was wound up in December 2011, with its remaining capital being distributed to the 69 shareholders who were given the deeds to their houses. So ended a pioneering cooperative housing movement that through the compassion and generosity of its local founders and benefactors, the support of an inspirational national movement, and the appointment of visionary architects and builders, provided comfort and security to those in greatest need.

Below in her own words are the recollections of one of those whose family was in receipt of such far-sighted benevolence.

hollyoake

Holyoake Terrace in earlier times

Holyoake Terrace Remembered: Childhood Recollections of José Gray

“Seeing a copy of the report in the Chronicle in December 2011 announcing the demise of Sevenoaks Tenants as a Cooperative has brought back so many clear memories of Holyoake Terrace as part of my childhood.

Comprising about 30 three-bedroom cottages, the Terrace was inspired by the philanthropic movements at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, to help solve the need for more decent working class homes – required more than ever after the end of the 1914-18 World War. Other similarly planned developments took place locally, but the Holyoake Terrace project benefitted particularly from the parallel strip of woodland separating it from the privately-built middle-class homes and their possibly class-conscious owners in Oakhill Road. The railway ran parallel at the backs of the Terrace but gave easy access to the railway station too.

My parents, with me as a toddler and my sister “expected”, regarded themselves as extremely fortunate in being allocated one of the Terrace houses (in the early 1920’s). As a Cooperative project, tenancy required a financial contribution from prospective tenants and my father “put in” £20, this being a much larger sum then than now. They were excited at improving the house and garden. However sadly, unknown to them at the time, my father was already suffering from post-war undiagnosed T.B. He died in 1926 at a time when State benefits were much lower than now and as a widow with two young children my mother had difficulty in “making ends meet”.

However looking back I realise nevertheless how very privileged life was for me, growing up in Holyoake Terrace. I believe this was partly because of its unusual social and geographical position: as a result the tenants were a community apart, mutually supportive. And for the children the strip of woodland provided a safe, separated play-area.

At the lower end, before merging with Oakhill Road, there was quite a large, relatively open patch with a huge high chestnut tree – an area traditionally known as ”The Swings”. The actual swings must have been suspended from the chestnut tree, but even by the early 1920s they had been taken down, probably for safety reasons, although the name persisted. Today even the “open” space has been lost in favour of “car parking”.

In our day we even managed to play a form of cricket there. And once with amazing initiative we contrived a concert for the adults, including memorising with a “come-by” old wind-up gramophone and records a section of a popular wireless skit, “Mrs Buggins”, as well as dances – music was provided by using paper round a comb! We charged a ha’penny entrance and made about a ha’penny profit!

From “The Swings” a path led into the “Wood” which became more dense towards its far end – and more frightening, particularly for smaller children. There, because the Wood had probably been part of the Estate of a large house, there remained aged fruit bushes and a cherry tree “gone wild”. These yielded some sour fruit which we tried to eat if we were very hungry. But the chestnut tree provided a huge harvest of nuts in season. So we were ”gatherers” not “hunters”.

We also created a “play-house” from a hollowed out clump of bamboo bushes. We had special games, the rules inherited and “sacrosanct”. In fact we were, like the adults, a “nation apart” with, for us, its own sense of government and history. There was for example a legend about the boy who climbed to the very top of the chestnut tree. We knew which were the brave children, which spoilt by the parents, which over-cossetted, which had “funny twists” in their backgrounds, which little ones needed special protection. We let in one or two “outsiders” who lived near enough to join us. Our excited play must have been enviable to the children in Oakhill Road.

But in the end we all grew up and went our separate ways. However to this day, in a time of fractured communities and greater demographic instability, I value enormously what we had as a social education, much of which has been lost for children today.”

José Gray , September 2013