I’ve been meaning to write this story for over three years now, ever since we first moved into the block of flats we now live in. But I knew it would be a long piece to write (it was!) and I’m only just getting back into the ‘writing for fun’ thing after an unintentional hiatus with my blog (where do the years go?!). It’s essentially an exploration into the building’s local and architectural history, bound together with a love for modern design and architecture. Once I began delving into its history, I literally couldn’t stop writing. I kept discovering more and more interesting, related stories and got sucked into a wormhole of research. Not only about the architecture and building design, but also about the area and the architects – all fascinating for different reasons…
My personal link to Passfields came about in late 2016. After a bit of fluke and luck with cash and (no) deposit etc, my husband and I bought a three-bedroom flat in an ex-council development located 1 mile south of Catford, SE6. Sounds shit yeah?! We looked at one flat only. We don’t mess around. Passfields is a small-ish housing development built in 1950, located in the Borough of Lewisham, South East London. We knew immediately it was exactly where we wanted to live. I had seen the flat online and despite that fact the interior looked like a 1970s social history museum, I was pretty certain before we even saw it that it would be the right flat for us. Large rooms, high ceilings, two balconies, Crittal windows (upgraded to double-glazed in 2012), and situated on the top floor of a low-rise, three-storey housing block containing only six flats. As it happened, the previous owners had lived in the property for over 60 years ever since it was built in 1950-51. Back in the middle of the 20th century, a young couple moved in as the first council tenants, raised a family and later bought it under right-to-buy in the early 1980s. The husband had died and the wife was moving into a care home. Their daughters, who had grown up in the flat, were selling the flat on their mother’s behalf. Passfields is Grade II listed and was designed by Fry, Drew & Partners (1949 – 51). This is where it gets interesting…
The development is one of only two listed council estates in Lewisham. The area in which it is located is called Bellingham – an area that draws a blank with almost anyone in London you mention it to. This is hardly surprising as there is very little there. Even now in 2020, there is just one pub, a couple of restaurants, a few takeaway food outlets and a handful of convenience stores. Catford, a 20 minute walk away, is the nearest area with anything resembling amenities. It’s not a particularly ‘polished’ area but it’s pleasant enough – fairly green with wide streets and no high rise blocks. Unbelievably, it was a quiet country village until the 1920s and had been mostly farmland until just after World War One. The name Bellingham can be traced to the name of a medieval manor in the area, which later survived in ‘Bellingham Farm’. After the First World War, London County Council began to build large estates on the edge of the built-up area of London to ease overcrowding and assist slum clearance. One of these new estates was Bellingham Estate, which was built between 1920 – 1923, made up of two-storey houses with gardens on wide streets interspersed with open spaces and trees. The map below from 1904 shows the empty farmland used for the original London County Council estate of the early 1920s, defined by the irregular triangle of Southend Lane and the two railway lines.
Passfields is located on the opposite side of Bromley Road to the Bellingham Estate and was built nearly 30 years later in 1950. Like Bellingham Estate, Passfields was also built on old farmland on the site of ‘Whitehouse Farm’, which you can see on the map just to the east of the South Eastern Railway line and Bromley Road. By the outbreak of the Second World War, while the farm buildings remained, the surrounding land had been sold and the ‘regular’ (non-council) streets around Conisborough Crescent and Daneswood Avenue had all been built. Whitehouse Farm was demolished after World War II to make way for Passfields, designed for the Borough of Lewisham as council housing in 1949-50. A development of four blocks set in landscaped gardens, there are 101 homes including a mixture of flats, bedsits and maisonettes across three small 3-storey blocks and one large 5-storey L-shaped block.
Knowing the development was listed and therefore of special architectural and historic interest, I delved into masses of research to find out why this particular estate was considered so important. I found Passfields featured in a stunning book – England’s Post War Listed Buildings, published in 2015, just one year before we moved there. Compiled by Elain Harwood and James O.Davies, the book is a fantastic directory of listed buildings in England designed after 1945. I discovered through the book that Lewisham Council had acquired the site on which it was built before World War II but the development was constrained by the bustling Bromley Road, then still carrying trams and due to be widened, so the development was delayed.
I also found out not only was Passfields listed but that it won a Festival of Britain Merit Award / Special Architectural Award for Civic and Landscape design for its mix of picturesque design and engineering innovation. When Passfields was developed, the architects sought to ensure that each dwelling had a view of trees and grass. The scheme made innovative use of a concrete frame construction and is noted for its balconies, walkways and shared garden areas. The inclusion of maisonettes was unusual at the time. Similarly, the cantilever balconies that are an important feature in the design were an architectural rarity before Passfields was built. It was granted listed building status in 1998. Historic England state that Passfields “is the most important public housing developments produced by Fry, Drew & Partners in the post-war period”, commenting that it “is a rich and complex development, the blocks carefully sited to give a maximum of open space, light and sunshine whilst reducing traffic noise”.
But one of the most interesting threads in the story behind Passfields is actually the people behind the project. The ‘Drew’ in Fry, Drew & Partners is Jane Drew (1911-1996) – a pioneering female architect who practiced from the 1930s unto the 1980s. She was in fact the first woman to qualify from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1933. In the early years of her career many of the architectural studios she applied to work at rejected her application on the grounds she was a woman. Thankfully it didn’t seem to take her too long to secure work and she soon became a well-respected, influential architect in a heavily male dominated industry.
As with Passfields, Drew’s projects are widely admired for their blend of innovative design and harmony with their environment. It’s noted that her anthropological approach to design always began with vigorous research to ensure the buildings would work practically for the people that used them. She valued residential architecture as a tool for social reform, to enable residents with access to education and health provision. Her obituary in the Independent newspaper in 1996 comments that she combined a “passion for architecture with humanitarian concern”, and “based her work on the principle that architecture should provide a space in which human beings can flourish, both physically and spiritually”. A celebrated Modernist, Drew helped establish the Institute of Contemporary Arts and worked on a number of significant design exhibitions, including the ‘Rebuilding Britain’ at the National Gallery in 1943 and ‘Britain Can Make It’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1946. In 1950, she co-founded Fry, Drew and Partners with her second husband, Maxwell Fry, as a studio which focused on housing design – which is when they worked together designing Passfields.
A year after Passfields was completed, Drew and Fry were appointed by the prime minister of a newly independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to design the city of Chandigarh – the new capital of Punjab. They were both involved in various other projects at the time, so Drew took the initiative to suggest Le Corbusier also be invited to help work on the project. Although Chandigarh is commonly referred to as a Le Corbusier project, it is likely that Le Corbusier would never have involved in the project at all without Drew’s influence – since it was Drew and Fry who suggested that Le Corbusier was also invited to help design the city. In fact, it was further remarked by her associates that Chandigarh would not have become a “great venture” had it not been for Drew’s enthusiasm and commitment to the project. Drew used Chandigargh to experiment with new housing strategies, and over time she managed to extend the design of modern housing throughout India.
There is little doubt that Drew was an idealist and a visionary. She was the first female to be elected to the council of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and in 1996 she was named Lady of the British Empire in recognition of her work in Africa, India and the Middle East. Since 1998 the ‘Jane Drew Prize’ has been named as a tribute, awarded annually by the Architects Journal and created to recognise innovation, diversity and inclusiveness in architecture. Though researching the work of Drew I discovered that Zaha Hadid won the Jane Drew Prize for her outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture in 2012.
In 2007, like all council homes in this part of Lewisham, the ownership and management of Passfields was transferred from Lewisham Homes to Phoenix Community Housing – a local not-for-profit resident-led housing association. As a business, Phoenix Community Housing is also pretty progressive. Their model empowers tenants and leaseholders to take a central part in decision-making and become shareholding members. So much so, that tenants and leaseholders elected by residents are the largest group on their management board. They organise and actively support local community initiatives to improve the environment and quality of life for everyone who lives and works in south Lewisham. As an advocate for progressing social reform through housing, I think Jane Drew would definitely approve.