The Further History of Champion Hill article in the winter 2014 edition of the Journal included a photograph, circa 1900, of an imposing villa behind the triangular field that is now mostly occupied by the car park of the Fox on the Hill pub. Officially designated No 3 Champion Hill, this was soon to be styled “Ruskin Park House” by its owner Edith Puckle, a generous contributor to local good causes who, in 1905, subscribed funds for the creation of the eponymous park on the other side of the main road.
In a pleasing piece of continuity, the name “Ruskin Park House” was bestowed on the flats that replaced the original house when the site was redeveloped. Today, Ruskin Park House is known for its attractive and well-maintained buildings and its carefully-tended mature grounds - a settled and calm atmosphere that gives no hint of the troubled construction of the estate or its pioneering role in one of the most significant changes in 20th century housing policy.
On Edith Puckle’s death in 1934, her house and the ones on either side were bought for redevelopment by the English and Scottish Co-operative Property Mortgage and Investment Society, which had just completed Rutland Court on Herne Hill. English
& Scottish was a friendly society, created in 1933, which invited the public to invest money which it would then use to fund various property development schemes. From the outset, it appears to have been a dubious enterprise. In November 1933 the Financial Times advised readers not to invest in it, and most of what is known about it today comes from Court records of fraud and insolvency cases. Raising funds in 1934 for its Ruskin Park House scheme, English & Scottish guaranteed prospective investors a 5% return every year.
The design of the Ruskin Park House scheme was entrusted to Alexander Stuart Gray (1905-1998) - then a young architect who had recently designed a housing estate near Bristol for English & Scottish, and best remembered today as the author of an encyclopaedic book on Edwardian architecture.
Gray’s design comprised two staggered blocks of flats, with bay windows at each step and decorative external sills and lintels which (in most instances) delineated the flats within, facing each other symmetrically across a central garden. It also included a single detached house in the same style, on the north western corner of the estate. The design was inspired by Belvedere Court, a block of flats designed by Ernst Freud (son of Sigmund) then being built in Hampstead Garden Suburb, close to where Gray lived.
Most of the 221 flats had either one or two bedrooms, but there were ten different types, ranging in size from studios to family apartments with three bedrooms and two reception rooms. All but one type had a private balcony. Heat was to be provided by gas fires and boilers in every flat. The scheme also included garages for private cars - indicative of the well-to-do market at which it was aimed.
English & Scottish commissioned its in-house construction firm, Whitehall Contractors Ltd, to build the scheme, and work began early in 1937. Over the next few months, the first block rose to the third storey, the foundations and ground slab were laid for the other, and all the garages were built. By the summer of 1938, however, work had stopped. Whitehall Contractors Ltd was bankrupt. Liquidators found that large and unauthorised payments had been made to the directors, and they concluded that English & Scottish was out of its depth financially. Their report was damning:
“The position of both English & Scottish and Whitehall Contractors was such as to render it impossible for them to hope to carry through the erection of blocks of flats in accordance with the contract … It appears that the Directors were guilty of rash and hazardous conduct in entering into a scheme of this kind.”
English & Scottish was reconstituted as a limited company in October 1939 with an entirely new set of directors, and Whitehall Contractors was finally wound-up a decade later. The Ruskin Park House site, meanwhile, was abandoned. It was to remain boarded up for a decade, although there is a colourful story that the unfinished buildings were used as an emergency mortuary during the Blitz.
In 1947, the site - now derelict and heavily overgrown - was bought by the London County Council, as part of its effort to meet the huge demand for housing in the aftermath of the war. For the most part, the LCC adopted the original scheme and appointed Gray to oversee its completion. A few modifications were nonetheless made.
The detached house, construction of which had not begun, was removed from the plan; in its place, Gray designed a third block of flats - smaller than the original two and markedly plainer, but echoing their design with a staggered footprint and stairwells that recalled the bay windows. The individual gas fires were replaced with an estate-wide central heating and hot water system, powered by a single large boilerhouse. A children’s playground and 110 pram sheds were added, as were 23 more garages (another 40 were built in 1960, on a strip of land behind Beaulieu Close).
With all the plans duly revised, the contract to build Ruskin Park House was awarded in 1949 to Thomas and Edge Ltd - a well-known construction company, based in Woolwich, which built several other estates, hospitals and schools (including what is now the Charter School) for the LCC and Borough Councils. What should have been a fairly straightforward project ran into problems almost immediately. Surveyors discovered that the unfinished buildings had deteriorated more than had been thought, in the decade when they had been exposed to the elements. On the first block, all the brickwork had to be taken down, and the top storey of exposed reinforced concrete columns and beams dismantled and re-done. More seriously, the foundations of the other block were condemned altogether and had to be dug up and re-laid.
Nonetheless, the western end of the first block was completed within a year, and tenants moved in in the early summer of 1951. The remainder of the block was completed by early 1952, as were the other two in the months that followed. By the Spring of 1954, with the gardens landscaped and planted, the estate looked complete, although another 18 months would elapse before it was fully occupied.
Internally, the flats were finished to a higher standard than most LCC homes. Fully fitted kitchens were installed; kitchens and bathrooms were tiled (with integral soap dishes, loo roll holders, and ashtrays in the tilework); and a telephone line and cable radio service were provided to each flat.
Ruskin Park House was designated as “higher rent accommodation”, a type of public housing that no longer exists, intended for the professional classes. Unlike ordinary council housing, such properties were let at unsubsidised market rents and tenants were responsible for their internal upkeep and decoration. They only ever comprised a tiny proportion of the Council’s total inventory. In 1965, the 241 flats at Ruskin Park House represented more than half of all the LCC’s 446 higher rent accommodation flats - in comparison with some 200,000 homes overall.
When the Council started allowing tenants to buy their homes in the early 1970s, higher rent accommodation was the first to be sold. In 1972 a majority of the Ruskin Park House tenants opted to buy - the price for a two-bedroomed flat was £6,000 - and an association was formed to own the head-lease and manage the estate. Other tenants bought their flats subsequently and, in line with an undertaking given as part of the original sale agreement, the Council has sold rather than re-let its flats as they fell vacant. Some 40 years on, just three flats remain in Council ownership.
The original sale was not without complications (or critics) and, with the time taken to assemble the requisite majority of tenants and prepare for assuming the management of a large and complex property, Ruskin Park House just missed out on the accolade of being the first estate to transfer from Council to private hands.
Today Ruskin Park House is run by an on-site estate manager, under the direction of an elected committee of residents, who keeps the buildings and grounds looking smart and the services working properly and renewed as necessary: the (original) central heating and hot water system is being replaced this year.
While, for all practical purposes, Ruskin Park House is now a private estate, one vestige of its Council heritage endures. To address concerns that owner residents should be subject to the same duties and standards of behaviour as the remaining tenants, the provisions of the LCC tenancy agreements were replicated as covenants in the new leases. As well as the usual prohibitions on putting out washing and beating carpets over the balcony, these lease covenants accordingly prohibit the sub-letting of flats - protecting Ruskin Park House from the twin curse of buy-to-let landlords and transient residents, and contributing to its notably house-proud and neighbourly community.