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History of Honor Oak

Spiritual Keys to Honor Oak

Until the latter part of the 19th century almost the whole of Lewisham was open farmland. Some parts of the area around the Honor Oak Estate were still open land until the mid 1920s. Housing development across the whole area did not begin in earnest until the coming of the railways.

The estate; poverty, broken families, disunity and crime

The Honor Oak estate was built between the wars to provide housing for the poor from the East London slums. When the estate was built it was cut off from the surrounding areas by three railway lines and a cemetery. There was no school, no doctor and no church. The children had to walk a mile or so to the nearest school. Early attempts to set up a Community Association were a failure because of the apathy of the local residents. Various Christian organisations tried to gain a foothold on the estate, all failed because they did not address the needs of the people for health care and education. The local authority at the time did want to build a church but the idea was abandoned when the various denominations could not agree between them as to who would run the church. The Honor Oak Estate has been associated with criminal activity ever since it was built. There have been stabbings, murders, muggings, drug misuse and thefts all of which is rooted in dysfunctional families and poverty.

There is a more extensive history of the estate at the end of this note.

Spirit of Death

The first serious ‘development’ in the area was the construction of two cemeteries in the 1850’s. The nearby Nunhead cemetery was opened in 1840. The Camberwell New Cemetery, opposite the Honor Oak estate was opened between the two World Wars. If you look at a small scale map of London you will find that there is not another part of London that is so surrounded by cemeteries. The whole area is overloaded with symbols of death and is founded on the two cemeteries built in the 19th century. A few years ago Southwark council took back part of the Honour Oak recreation ground to extend the cemetery. A spirit of death is one of the spiritual keys to this area.

Occult activity

One Tree Hill is one of four hills that surround our area. There have been persistent rumours that the top of the hill has been used for satanic worship. Some years ago two Christian leaders went to pray against this on the top of the hill and, a day later, were both taken to hospital suffering from internal bleeding. No reason for this could be found. As a result of this we have tried to research the history of the hill. It has been suggested that the hill was a site of Druidic worship but there is no evidence for that other than the fact that it is a high place. There is also a legend, which says that Queen Boudicca fought her last battle against the Romans and committed suicide on the top of the hill. This is not historically true but the legend is quite deeply rooted. The legend is consistent with the spirit of death, which we identified earlier.

Conflict

The name Honor Oak takes its name from the oak tree that used to stand alone on the top of One Tree Hill (the trees we see there now are all recent). The tree was called the Oak of Honor because Queen Elizabeth the first is supposed to have picnicked there in 1602. This is almost certainly true. The land was open heath land and was treated like a public park, fairs were held there and people would walk on the hill after church on a Sunday. In 1896 a local golf club bought the land and fenced it in. There was a public outcry. on 10 October 1897 15,000 people gathered on the hill and tore the fence down. On the following Sunday 75,000 people met there again, this time there was a confrontation with 500 police and there was some violence. This hints at another spiritual key, conflict.

The biggest event to hit this area, literally, was the second world war. Lewisham’s war was a war from the air and the link with the Prince of the Air (i.e. one of the titles of Satan) is obvious. In fact the North of the area had been bombed, and people had been killed, by Airships in the first world war. The main part of the “blitz” took place between September 1940 and June 1941. In that period the whole area was extensively bombed with high explosives, napalm, incendiaries dropped in large clusters and delayed action bombs and mines. Not one house escaped damage. 39 families that were killed when a bomb struck Hilton House on the estate on March 19, 1941. Later in the war the area was extensively attacked with V weapons, the worlds first guided missiles. Two specific incidents will help you to understand what happened. On 16 August 1944 a V1 or flying bomb dropped at the end of Buckthorne Rd. The extent of the damage can still be seen, St Hildas vicarage and the house immediately next to it are all new and were built on cleared bomb sites. Early in the evening of 16 August 1944 a V1 landed in the roadway at the junction of Brockley Rise, Ackroyd Road and Duncombe Hill. A ton of high explosive detonated in the road flinging up debris and tearing into the nearby buildings. If you stand today by the green at the bottom of Duncombe Hill the new houses built in a circle around you become obvious. As well as the houses the Methodist church that stood at the junction of Ackroyd Rd and Brockley Road was also destroyed. Britain, and especially the old, is still obsessed by the war. People remember these things as though they were yesterday. The spirit of fear that was born then stays with us today.

Economic failure

The Croydon Canal was built across the area in the early part of the 19th century, it was opened in 1809 it followed the line of the railway from New Cross Gate to Forest Hill. The idea was that this canal would link Croydon with the Thames. There were 25 locks along the canal and progress along it was so slow that the journey could take a week. The Canal failed and was sold to the railway companies in 1836, the railway was opened in 1839. The railway divides our area into two parts and is a very clear barrier between the Honor Oak Estate and the rest of Brockley. The failure of the Canal hints at a history of economic failure which had become more noticeable as little as ten years ago with the local shops gradually closing down and the local pubs being run down

The retreat of the church

We’ve already mentioned the fact that there is no church on the estate. Almost all of the churches in Lewisham were built in a 40 year period between 1870 and 1910 many of them were built to accommodate hundreds of people. Old maps of the area show many churches locally some of which had closed down and some that have disappeared. To take another estate as an example the Ewart Road Estate at the bottom of Brockley Rise originally had several churches on it. A Baptist chapel, now a store; a Presbyterian mission, now completely gone; a Salvation Army Citadel, latterly a club now closed and due to be demolished; as well as a Methodist Church (now Balm of Gilead Ministries) a London City Mission Drill Hall, now the Hope Centre run by Forest Hill Community Church and St Saviours Anglican Church. This repeats a pattern seen all over London of churches shrinking and closing down.

In recent years this has turned round. There are now at least two churches operating on the estate and a new church occupies every other available hall in the area. In many cases new churches are renting space from old churches, including a parish of the Celestial Church of Christ which meets in the old scout hut just on the other side of the railway line.

The changing face of London

The area has changed much since the end of the last war. There has been an influx of immigrants, especially into the Honor Oak estate, and the area has residents from many parts of the world. The tensions this has created have spilled over into violence in other areas of London, mercifully that has not happened here. There has been a movement of life out of the area, community spirit has died and neighbours have become estranged from one another. There has been a growth in crimes of robbery and violence and people go in fear. God has begun to turn this round. I have already mentioned the growth in the whole church. God is also mixing churches up and helping them to break down the barriers that exist. There is also new life in the community. We need, by the power of the Spirit, to contribute to this and to exploit it for the Kingdom

A history of the Honor Oak Estate; with acknowledgements to Municipal Dreams

To some, the Honor Oak Estate is better known as Tenement Town, one of the London County Council’s largest interwar block estates and one of its worst.  Criticised for its location, its facilities (or lack of them) and for its low standard of design, it became ‘A Warning for Planners’ – an example of what to avoid as rehousing efforts redoubled after the Second World War.

The LCC acquired the 30-acre site in Brockley, divided between the Metropolitan Boroughs of Deptford and Lewisham, in 1932. Construction of what would become a 27 block, 1104 dwelling estate began shortly after.  The context was two-fold: one, the acceptance that in inner London there was little alternative but to build flats for those who needed to be near work and couldn’t afford the expense of the cottage suburbs and, two, the 1930’s drive against slums and overcrowding.

In Honor Oak, 725 of the tenements were allocated to those displaced by slum clearance and 378 for those moved through overcrowding. Typically, this predominantly poorer working class could not afford council rents.  The solution for the Municipal Reform Party (the Conservatives in a London municipal guise) was to build more cheaply and thus rent more affordably.

Four of the early blocks were of the so-called ‘Modified Type B’.  These were around one fifth cheaper to build with rents reduced to match and represented, according to an LCC minute: “a successful endeavour to provide suitable hygienic accommodation for the poorer classes at a substantially lower rent than that charged for accommodation of the ‘normal’ type”. ‘Suitable’ in this context meant a shared washhouse (fitted with bath, copper and sink) between every three flats.  There were other economies too – stained, rather than painted, woodwork and unplastered walls in hallways and kitchens, smaller rooms, and ceilings lowered six inches to a height of 8 feet.

One of the next blocks built, Turnham House, had baths in the kitchen.  A resident allocated to Turnham had the good fortune to meet the local postman on her way to inspect the flat: she took his advice to move instead to Kentwell House – nicknamed ‘the Mayfair block’ as all its flats had their own bathroom. In 1934, Labour took control of the LCC and moved quickly to drop the so-called ‘modified’ tenements.  But Honor Oak suffered other disadvantages, not least its location – bounded on north, east and west by the Southern Railway and on the south by a cemetery – and split between two local authorities.

This isolation was compounded by the lack of community facilities.  The Estate’s harshest critic was scathing about this “Removed from all their own associations – from their neighbours and friends, their favourite pubs and cinemas, from the whole environment in which they had grown and to which they had adapted themselves – the people were left to their own resources, and had practically none.” Elsewhere, Len White wrote – with unconscious if compassionate condescension – that ‘the Honor Oak Estate, far from raising the standards and developing the capacities of its erstwhile slum tenants, has stunted their social development’.

Those tenants themselves recall ‘there was no proper road – it was all sleepers’ and, before a small terrace of shops opened on the ground floor of Turnham House, that ‘the Salvation Army used to come round with basins of soup [or] a van come round where we could buy things and pay at the end of the week’.  When those shops did open in 1936, another early resident complains ‘you couldn’t touch the prices, they were sky high.  I used to go off the estate to do my shopping’.

The Estate’s children were also badly served.  The local school was nearby – just 200 yards away – but across a closed railway footbridge which forced a circuitous mile hike to get to the school.  When the authorities relented, the footbridge was opened for just two twenty-minute periods in morning and afternoon. The children may not have felt that welcome on arrival.  To the school’s head teacher, they stood out ‘“like red pillar boxes”…identified every time by their inferior physique, manners, speech and dress’.

Open space comprised asphalted courtyards between the blocks and one rough-surfaced playground.  Small strips of grass in front of the blocks were railed off and ‘no longer green’.  At least the Lewisham infant welfare centre was situated within one of the blocks but neighbours in Deptford had to travel a mile to reach their centre. Some of these deficiencies were recognised.  There were plans for a community centre as early as 1938 – an ambitious £22,000 scheme to include ‘an assembly hall, dressing rooms, canteen, lecture rooms, gym and shower baths’.  But the war intervened and it wasn’t until 1981 that the Honor Oak Community Centre was finally opened.

The social dislocation experienced by Honor Oak’s earliest residents was real enough but for middle-class observers, the problems were compounded by the character of the tenants who, having ‘lived narrow and circumscribed lives in their old environment’, were ‘deeply conservative and ill-fitted to adapt themselves to new conditions’.  There was also, it was said in an early use of the term, ‘a considerable proportion of problem families’.

What is objectively the case is that on average over one in five of tenants moved out of the Estate in the years before 1939.  Those who didn’t vote with their feet, as it were, and those in particular who remained on the Estate to reminisce forty years later bring their own set of biases, of course but it’s worthwhile to honour their experience and insights too.

To one woman, her new home ‘was like a little palace. ‘Everything was new’.  And they remember high standards, not a ‘sink’ community: “We had rules and regulations on our landing and on our rent cards. You had to have your mat swept and cleaned by 10 o clock and your balcony cleaned.  Each person did the stairs when it came to their turn.  They had to scrub them on their hands and knees but you could eat off them”.

And dignity: “If somebody was getting buried, all the washing in the Square was taken down.  All the lines were taken down, both gates were opened for the hearse to come in. It was swept up early, just before the funeral. It used to be dead quiet. And everybody used to pay their respects from the balcony.”

You can find your own ‘truth’ among these competing perspectives.

1945 brought the defeat of Hitler; the struggle to achieve decent conditions for all our people would be longer-fought.  In this and for the new generation of planners, the Estate would feature as a warning of what to avoid.  The ‘neighbourhood units’ and ‘mixed developments’ favoured – in principle rather better than in practice – in the post-war years were a conscious reaction to the design failings of interwar council estates, of which Honor Oak was taken to be a prime example.

The General Election of 1945 saw a Labour landslide and a shift, it seems, in the politics and identity of the Estate too: ‘After the war we all went voting for Labour’, largely, as remembered, through the efforts of one party activist. ‘And it was only Mr Cooper who did it.  He went round this estate, “Vote for Labour”. He got everybody out’.

In a poignant turn of phrase, another resident recalls: “They had what was called the Labour Party then.  They used to come round and collect our money each week and see what could be done.  The majority of the estate was in it and it was that man who came round collecting who got all our action otherwise we had got nobody.”

How you read that particular account will depend on your politics.More concretely, additional shops and a pub arrived in 1948 – the pub, the Golden Dragon, in the ground floor of a new housing block.  (It closed in 2009 and the building has been demolished.)

There were other changes too.  The first black and ethnic minority residents, mainly of African-Caribbean origin, moved into the area in the sixties and racial tensions were strong.  Nesta Wright and her three young children moved on to the Estate in 1970. Her son Ian, seven at the time, remembers a difficult childhood and a struggle against the racial bigotry and antagonism that sought to hold him back.  Fortunately, he met a teacher at the Estate’s Turnham Primary School – ‘my mentor and my major, main man’, he says – who made the difference (as good teachers can).  Let’s hear it for that teacher, Sidney Pigden, and Ian Wright of Arsenal and England.

These tensions dissipated only slowly.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation instigated a ‘Partnership Initiatives for Communities’ (PICs) project on the Estate in 1998.  At a time when about half the residents were of black African and African Caribbean heritage, the project found little contact between them and their white neighbours and a sense that an older-established and more conservative white community monopolised community facilities. Ironically, these ‘rival’ groups actually shared similar concerns and problems and both felt that the Estate was neglected and its people disrespected: “The way the council looks at people on the estate, their perception of the people they are housing reflects the service that we are given. Most of them think we are brain dead.” “Sometimes you go in to the council office and as soon as you say you are from Honor Oak you can see what they are thinking.”

In fact, the Estate was subject to a plethora of initiatives.  Some of the flats, particularly those of the ‘modified type’ which shared bathrooms, had been rehabilitated in the early post-war period and later the railway line on the western border of the Estate was replaced by Coston Walk, a new low-rise scheme of flats and maisonettes built by the Greater London Council in 1970. But still, the Estate’s troubles and a sense of isolation continued: “Hopelessly out-dated and lacking in facilities by modern standards, cramped and comfortless, the flats were fair game for vandals, their tenants discontented and demoralised.”

When the Estate was transferred from the Greater London Council to Lewisham in 1971, the Borough declared it a General Improvement Area and major refurbishment followed.  In Skipton House, for example, one of the last to be renovated, forty flats were replaced by 28 with larger rooms, fitted kitchens and bathrooms and new gas heating at a cost of around £10,000 a unit.  Lifts were added and landscaping improved but the finishing touch was to invite Ideal Home to decorate a show flat.  This was the 1970s so naturally there was Laura Ashley wallpaper in the hallway.

The 1977 History I’ve quoted from, published by the Honor Oak Estate Neighbourhood Association, was another conscious attempt to support and strengthen the Estate’s community: “The writers of this book also want to let the authorities know how much better the estate was managed and serviced in the past. Thus they hope to create improvements.”

Such improvements were promised and partially fulfilled when Lewisham opted to participate in the Department of Environment’s Priority Estates Project in 1980 – one of twenty across the country.  The Project brought various local management initiatives and some improvements to security and the physical environment.

These seem to have increased residents’ satisfaction with the Estate and, though Lewisham’s bid for Estate Action funding in 1992 was unsuccessful, money was found to upgrade bathrooms and heating across the Estate.  That much remained to do is clear from the three-year PICs project mentioned earlier: “I look out of my window and I see abandoned cars, kids hanging around, dog dirt everywhere. What do I want to go out for?”

Honor Oak’s problems were far from unique, of course.  At this time, the residents’ complaints of ‘disaffected youth and out-of-control children, crime and vandalism, drugs and alcohol abuse’ were replicated in ‘problem estates’ nationwide. And, likewise, underlying such problems were economic difficulties felt with peculiar force in council estates increasingly housing a poorer working class. Of the families that made up half the Estate, almost two thirds were headed by lone parents.  (No disrespect to single mothers of course but a group that can be assumed to be peculiarly disadvantaged.) Around one third of the Estate’s adults were on benefits.

To some that might seem all we need to know.  Poverty blights any community and, in this regard, the quality of the Estate itself – its housing and environment – could be taken as almost irrelevant.  The PICs focused on ‘soft regeneration’ – an attempt (in its fashionable jargon) ‘to build capacity and empower, and hopefully integrate, a fractured and excluded estate community’.  A ‘citizens’ workshop’ was held and from it emerged a multiracial steering group to represent the Estate and lobby for improvements. This ‘soft regeneration’ was fortunate, however, in finding its aspirations backed by some hard cash. In 2000, the Borough Council promised £18.4 million to refurbish the ‘forgotten estate’.  The deputy mayor of Lewisham spoke with disarming honesty when he stated: “We’re finally going to do something about Honor Oak. It’s going to be the biggest programme of housing investment Lewisham has had for ten years.”

Over the years that followed, of the blocks that remain, all have been modernised with new kitchens, bathrooms and toilets, double-glazing and central heating.  Externally, a visit to the Estate shows a green and pleasant and well-maintained environment. Other initiatives accompanied and reinforced these physical improvements: in 2000 a £156,000 Home Office grant provided six wardens to patrol the Estate for a two-year period – ‘to reassure tenants, not act as security guards’, it was said, and wearing bomber jackets in a colour chosen by the residents. In the following year, a Sure Start scheme opened; in 2003, a neighbourhood housing management centre and in 2005 a one-stop centre offering a range of services and support.  Honor Oak’s first neighbourhood manager was one of the three unemployed single mothers who had joined the first steering group.  The neighbourhood association is now said to be a diverse and representative organisation. Even that security team and the local police beat officers won awards.  Either the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are brilliant self-publicists or something went right.

We can agree that money alone is not enough – but we might also conclude that it sure does help. The longer history of the Honor Oak Estate shows that the social costs of building cheaply far outweigh any short-term financial savings. The story is of catch-up and always, from the outset, exclusion – that buzz-word does capture something here. On the other hand, while money can’t create community, investment in its infrastructure certainly supports it. For the time being, the parting words of the residents’ history contain a plaintive truth that I can’t express better:

Why is it that housing continues to be geared more towards costs than the needs of the people

With acknowledgements to Municipal Dreams


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