History of housing in Battersea

When it comes to tales of regeneration, the once industrial area of Battersea is an undoubted success story. The banks of the river in this corner of south-west London are now flanked by modern steel and glass structures capturing views of the Thames and offering underground parking, gyms, pools and concierge services. 

The regeneration of Battersea is a work in progress, which took a giant step forward in late 2014 when the third phase of development at Battersea Power Station received the green light from Wandsworth Council.  

Work to breathe new life into the iconic power station, which is the flagship development of the Nine Elms regeneration – a combination of 20 separate projects covering 560 acres of south London riverside – is based on a masterplan that was designed by Rafael Viñoly and is being carried out by the Malaysian-owned Battersea Power Station Development Company.

battersea power station

The landmark redevelopments, which include multimillion pound schemes Riverlight and the glass-fronted Albion Riverside project, will add about 30,000 homes to Battersea’s housing stock plus new footpaths, cycle lanes, parks, a public square and riverside paths.

But they are not the only signs of change in the SW8 and SW11 postcode areas. Strict conservation regulations ensure the majority of building work is restricted to conversions rather than delivering an expanse of new-build developments.

This is why former warehouses that provide a permanent reminder of Battersea’s industrial heritage, schools and even a former police station now sit near turn-of-the-century mansion blocks and villas offering views over Battersea Park and picturesque cottages on tree-lined streets and squares that make up the Shaftsbury Estate – a late-Victorian grid of roads to the south of the railway line that carves a swathe through the area.

First and second-time buyers also favour the one and two-bedroom Victorian conversion flats, while families tend to go for the Victorian terraced houses with high ceilings and bay windows or the smaller Victorian terraces either side of fashionable Northcote Road.

To understand why Battersea offers such a diverse mix of properties, some of which have risen in value by 52% between 2009 and 2015, you have to travel back to a time before the area was a hive of industrial activity. 

London’s larder

battersea village Northcote Road may today be home to the neighbourhood's weekend farmers’ market, but in the mid-18th century much of Battersea was farmland that provided food for London. Lavender Hill takes its name from the fact the area was also known for the production of the crop.

Record show that Battersea village, which lay along the Thames and the High Street, contained about 170 houses in 1740. The rest of the parish had only 150 houses, many in clusters representing medieval hamlets.  

But by 1890, the market gardens and piggeries for which Battersea had been noted were largely a thing of the past.  

Battersea's housing stock grew from 335 in 1790 to 1,130 in 1840 as wealthy Londoners crossed the river and commissioned the building of villas and mansions around the commons that still surround the district.  

But Battersea was to change significantly after 1838 when the London and Southampton Railway Company engineered a track from east to west through Battersea, which terminated at the original Nine Elms station. An additional five lines were built in the area over the next 22 years, leading to the development of industry on the banks of the Thames.

Before 1840, most new houses were built around existing settlements, or infilling of gardens and other spaces. But the vast majority of the new dwellings built after 1845 were two or three-storey terraces with large frontages. The only significant departure were the flats around Battersea Park. 

From terraces to mansion blocks

In 1846, the Commission for Improving the Metropolis acquired 320 acres of Battersea Fields, of which 198 acres became Battersea Park.

The original idea was for Battersea Park to be surrounded by middle-class villas, as seen in other contemporary parks in Britain. Land was allocated for housing, but little was built until the 1890s when Cyril Flower, 1st Baron of Battersea, began to acquire vacant land to the south of Prince of Wales Drive.  

mansion blocks

After Flower commissioned his first mansion block in 1893, others quickly followed. These blocks were under construction, by different builders, at much of the same time, and are of a style inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement.

The creation of Battersea Park, which not only took more than 200 acres of potential building land off the market it affected the type of development of 60 more acres, prevented the industrialisation of the whole riverfront. 

Building of a suburb

With the opening of Clapham Junction Station in 1863, the focus of Battersea changed from the riverside to St John’s Hill and Northcote Road, which became the main shopping area.  

The construction of railways in the Victorian period saw the population of Battersea increased from 6,617 in 1841 to 168,907 in 1901, by which time it was a Metropolitan Borough.

battersea park After 1870 streets of better quality suburban houses were built along Battersea Rise, and beyond, within reach of the commons. However, social conditions in the north of the parish were severely impoverished.

In all these periods of housebuilding, one factor distinguishes homes in Battersea from other parts of London. Residential property in what is now in the SW8 and SW11 postcodes was not built by a single landowner, architect or builder.

Excluding a few homes built along existing roads and within existing settlements, the majority of new building between 1790 and 1914 was on greenfield sites developed as “building estates”, ranging in size from less than 10 to more than 1,000 houses.

One notable example is the Shaftesbury Estate off Latchmere Road. Built as social housing in the 1870s by the Artizans, Labourers & General Dwellings Company, the 1000 plus homes estate is now a Conservation Area owned by the Peabody Housing Association, although many of the properties are owner-occupied.

Victorian enterprise

The Builder lndex includes 1423 individuals or firms, who built 24,351 houses, flats and maisonettes, an overall average of just 17 each, reinforcing the view that the Victorian building world in London was pre-eminently the preserve of the small operator.

victorianThis explains why the Victorian housing that remains in Battersea has a character quite different from the uniform streets and garden squares found in other parts of the capital.

But it fails to provide a clue as to why high quality residential property in Battersea is in such short supply. Part of the reason for this is Battersea’s industrial heritage made it a target for the German Luftwaffe in World War Two.

Bomb damage during the Second World War was particularly severe in Battersea. In just seven raids carried out in February 1940, an estimated 3000 homes in the district were destroyed and you don’t need to go far to find buildings that are out of keeping with their surroundings, providing an immediate contrast between post-war architectural styles and their Victorian neighbours.

But the German bombing raids did little to affect the number of new-build homes. Records show little housebuilding took place in Battersea between late Victorian times and the 1950s. The once exception is the historic Latchmere Estate, which escaped the attention of the Luftwaffe.

This now popular area of Battersea was the first council estate in Britain to be built by the local authority’s own workforce.    

Sited on an area of allotments on the former Latchmere Common, when the 315 tenements and houses on the estate were completed in 1903 they were among the first in the country to come with luxuries, such as baths, combined ranges and electric light.  

When the estate was granted Conservation Area status in 1974, it was said the houses’ good quality stock brick, decorative red band courses, window quoins and entrance canopies with moulded brackets and Welsh slate roofs capped with red terracotta ridge tiles merit attention.

Sowing the seeds of regeneration

Prime property in Battersea remains in short supply because attempts to plug the gaping hole in the area’s quality housing stock left by the Luftwaffe proved largely unsuccessful. Blocks of municipal flats replaced much of Battersea’s Victorian housing before and for several decades after the Second World War, while most of the 18th century and older buildings standing at the start of the 20th century had gone by the end of the 1960s.  

battersea station

Battersea’s long road towards regeneration – which will be completed when the Northern Line extension opens at Nine Elms in 2020 – started when Battersea Square Conservation Area was designated in 1972.

However, it was not until the late 1980s that sufficient improvement took place to dispel the long-standing down-on-its-uppers air of the square itself.  

At the same time, the riverside industries west of Albert Bridge began to close down or relocate. This opened the door for the creation of high quality housing, such as the Trade Tower on Plantation Wharf and, most significantly, Nine Elms.

Image credit: flickr.com (Jenny Louri, Adam Grey, L.P Whites)