Vic Keegan’s Lost London 73: Prince Albert’s mansions for the poor

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 73: Prince Albert’s mansions for the poor

You could easily fail to notice this unassuming building in Kennington Park Road near the Oval, but it has a fascinating history and is of great relevance today. 

It was completed in 1851 by order of Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, and was intended to form part of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park as an example to the world of what a dwelling for the “labouring classes” could look like at a time  of social deprivation. This was a time when many of the workers who made the industrial revolution were living in distressed conditions, often with multiple families in one room. 

Albert had a genuine concern for the well being of the poor and this housing – a forerunner of experiments like the Peabody estates – had innovative features designed by its distinguished architect Henry Roberts. The building was divided into four flats and included such things as sound-resistant hollow bricks, which did not absorb water, and internal toilets.

But there was a problem. Although Albert was the brains behind the entire exhibition, his committee did not want the model building to be inside the gigantic Crystal Palace. They argued that a brick building would look out of place in a revolutionary iron and glass edifice which seemed to float on air. And there was a further reason: the exhibition committee felt that showcasing social distress was not, er, something they wanted to draw attention to in an exhibition heralding Britain’s industrial strengths. 

Eventually, Albert negotiated a compromise. The model dwelling was erected a just few hundred yards away from the glass extravaganza. It was to be of the Exhibition, but not in it. Despite this status as a sort of changeling child, it attracted over 250,000 visitors, including the queen, Charles Dickens and many from overseas. Roberts’s designs gave philanthropic housing a big boost, and influenced social housing in Britain, on the continent and  even in America. 

When the Great Exhibition had finished, the main structure was famously transported to Sydenham, where it remained until it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Meanwhile, Albert’s model dwelling was dismantled brick by brick and rebuilt a few miles away in Kennington Park Road. It is the only edifice from the Great Exhibition that has survived to this day. 

Albert’s house stands on the edge of Kennington Common, where thousands of Chartists gathered  in 1848 before presenting a petition to parliament demanding basic rights. The authorities feared violence and brought in tens of thousands of police and army personnel to quell a riot that never happened.

What did happen was that most of the Chartists’s demands – secret ballots, payment for MPs, equal constituencies and manhood (not yet womanhood) suffrage – have been achieved. But the problem of providing affordable homes for the London poor is still a big, unsolved one. Prince Albert would not be amused. Meanwhile, this model dwelling, currently occupied by Trees for Cities, stands as a true Albert Memorial of which the Chartists would surely have approved. For a detailed analysis, see this paper by Barbara Leckie.

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London are archived here.

Categories: Culture, Lost London

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