Say 'social housing' and people usually picture high-rise tower blocks and jaunty brutalist concrete slabs. Which makes it all the more odd that in the borough of Camden — a hub for brutalist council estates — there's a place that bucks the trend. Welcome to the Holly Lodge Estate; social housing with a mock Tudor exterior.
The history of the estate goes back to the 18th century. In 1798, Sir Henry Tempest built a villa on the land. His land included Traitor's Hill, which, legend has it is, was where the perpetrators of the gunpowder plot had arranged to meet to watch Parliament blow up. (What a romantic evening that would have been.) Traitor's Hill is better known today as Parliament Hill.
By 1837 the property had made its way to Angela Burdett-Coutts, heiress to the Coutts banking fortune. In the words of Edward VII she was "after my mother the most remarkable woman in the country." Burdett-Coutts was courted by many great men of the Victorian era, including a rumoured proposal from Emperor Napoleon III; but she initially turned them all down, seeing her philanthropic work as priority.
When she made Holly Lodge her permanent residence, it became the a focal point for a mix of famous Victorian characters. Hans Andersen stayed there as did Thomas Moore and the aforementioned Napoleon III. To top them all, Queen Victoria herself visited.
Much of Burdett-Coutts's time was devoted to charity: she subsidised the Ragged School Union, gave vast amounts of her fortune to the Church of England and started Columbia Market as a means for people in the East End to get cheap fish. The market famously remains today, but has a different primary product. Then, on the advice of her good friend Charles Dickens, she started building flats on her own estate.
These are the detached houses that populate Holly Lodge's aptly named Hillway, and were initially intended for workers. The houses are now privately owned, but Holly Lodge's social housing legacy continues. After Burdett-Coutts died, her estate was put on the market. Because of its proximity to the City it took nearly 15 years to sell. The original villa later was destroyed to make way for roads and more homes.
The Lady Workers' Homes Limited became involved in the project in 1923, building blocks of flats for single women to work as secretaries and clerks in the City. In 1964 the ownership of these blocks was transferred to the Borough of St Pancras, which the very next year became the Borough of Camden. It then became council-owned social housing, originally still with the aim of only housing women but this has slipped in recent years.
Today the estate is an odd mishmash. Middle class private housing, next to social housing is pretty commonplace in London — woven into the city's fabric because of the Blitz. But for it all to look so similar from the outside is unusual. Well, that excludes the odd extroverted house that stands out like a sore thumb.
Another intricacy of the estate is that at the top of its east side, the estate backs onto the western part of Highgate Cemetery. The two are divided by an unusually large wall. This looming tower might seem like overkill nowadays — we doubt many people are scaling the wall to avoid paying £12 for entry — but it had a specific purpose in the 19th century. It was to stop grave robbers and the thriving black market corpse trade. It might be possible to make it over the wall solo, but that same journey with a lifeless body in tow, sounds less agreeable.
All photos by the author.