William Sutton, head of a firm of carriers, died in 1900 and left the modern day equivalent of £80 million to found a charitable trust to ‘provide model dwellings and houses for occupation by the poor of London and other towns and populous places in England’
In 1909 the Sutton Dwellings Trust, which was founded by William Sutton, acquired an acre of land on the west side of James Street, (once North and later Sceptre Road) in Bethnal Green, East London. This land was formerly part of Kirby’s Castle estate, part of Bethnal House Lunatic Asylum.
Having cleared ‘one of the worst slums’ the company applied to build the estate in 1907.
The first of eight, red brick blocks, containing one hundred and sixty tenements, each with its own sanitation, opened in 1909.
On 20 May 1900, William Sutton died, leaving a generous bequest to the poor of London. A huge sum, the equivalent of £80m today would found the Sutton Model Dwellings Trust and build a string of estates for the poor, beginning in Bethnal Green, then Chelsea, Islington, Rotherhithe, Plymouth and Birmingham.
If generous, the bequest wasn’t unusual. The Victorian philanthropist-businessman, building a fortune through hard work only to disburse it to those less fortunate, able or motivated, became an archetype. There was landed aristo Lord Rowton, with this Rowton Houses, later patronised by George Orwell. American financier George Peabody was sufficiently appalled by housing in the East End after settling in London in 1837 that he endowed the Peabody Trust. In other parts of Britain, businessmen were building whole towns of model dwellings for their workers, places like New Lanark, Saltaire, Bournville and Port Sunlight.
The bequest did come as a nasty shock to his family though. For unlike those fellow worthies, Sutton had shown no taste for philanthropy during his life. While the Victorian businessman added to the wealth of the country, he also degraded it. The poor were pressed into poorly paid, dirty and often dangerous work, children too. They increasingly squeezed into ever-more crowded London slums. And alcohol (Sutton made a fortune from brewing and distilling) was both a curse and a necessity with no drinkable water in the towns. But during his lifetime Sutton showed no interest in social or sanitary problems. He held no public office and did no charity work. In these dark days before a welfare state, survival depended on the beneficence of rich men and women putting something back. Sutton, it seems, stubbornly kept it all to himself.
William Richard Sutton wasn’t quite a self-made man – his family had enough money from trade to give him a start – but he did show extraordinary industry and foresight. He was born in 1836 at his father’s inn, The Fountain, which stood at 5 Foster Lane, just off Cheapside in the City. His father died when William was just 16 or so, and the family decamped to his mother’s childhood home of Merton in Surrey. His education, at the City of London School, had already ended: William had to get out and earn some money.
Sutton founded Sutton and Co Carriers while he was still in his teens and he showed a sharp eye for business. He turned his eye to the booming businesses of the Victorian era – the new ‘manufactories’, the postal service and the railways – and cleverly put it all together. He had observed that the Post Office, though splendid for letters, didn’t carry parcels. Not that there wasn’t a demand: individuals and small businesses had to trail off to their local railway station and organise carriage, and then inform the recipient, who would travel to their local station to take collection.
Madness thought Sutton. Pubs such as the Fountain had existed as coaching inns for centuries, and the coaches had always transported goods as well as people. The young entrepreneur’s plan was to get country traders to order a delivery from Sutton. He would then bulk everything for a town together into large packages and put it on a train. When they arrived in London, Manchester, Birmingham or wherever, his agents would split the bundles and distribute them. The basement of The Fountain, appropriately enough, served as his centre of operations.
He had founded the firm in the late ‘fifties. By the mid-1860s, he had smart new premises at 35 Aldersgate Street, a business partner in Thomas Watson, and a reputation as ‘carriers to the principal towns in the UK, colonial and foreign parts’. By 1899, the company had a Royal Appointment. The firm was now resplendent in purpose built offices in Golden Lane (close to the modern Barbican). An appalling slum had been cleared to make way – indeed a plague pit needed to be covered with 10ft of concrete before the £33,000 building could be raised.
The scale of Sutton’s business was breathtaking. The freight business alone was so large that the Great Western Railway tried to limit its activities, charging Sutton more than his competitors. The indefatigable Sutton took to the road, employing new-fangled motor lorries, as well as the reliable horse and cart. And he rode out the railways’ resistance, with the business eventually being absorbed into the nationalised freight industry in the 1950s.
Sutton also bought into 11 brewing, bottling and distilling firms. With water unfit to drink, booze was considered essential to keep working people willing and able to work (as well as helping them to forget the horror of their lives). Sutton then diversified into wines, cordials, mineral waters, tea, coffee and tobacco, and then into inns and hotels. And Sutton had money in railway and mining companies throughout the Empire – as these fledgling businesses grew, Sutton’s wealth grew with them. Back in London he invested in the building of warehouses and factories.
A Victorian model then. He gained a reputation for hard work, diligence, energy, foresight … and for having on discernible sense of humour. The only thing missing was the philanthropy. Sutton had been writing and rewriting his will during the 1890s. Part of the problem lay in his complicated family life. He was twice married and apparently had no children, though the 1881 census has him as the father of his wife’s adopted daughter Kate. Wife Eleanor died in 1892, and Sutton married again in 1895, having remade his will. He had removed various of his brother and business partner Charles’s children from the will (Charles married four times and had ten children). He also struck ‘daughter’ Kate from the will and added his new wife. But the majority of the money would go to establish the ‘Sutton Model Dwellings’.
Sutton died in 1900 and his massive inheritance languished in Chancery while the arguments raged. It wasn’t just disgruntled and disinherited family members. Existing landlords, among them the London County Council were worried that these cheap and desirable dwellings would lower competing rents (and thus also cut the income from rates). Sutton’s generous bequest wasn’t going to enrich everyone. But within just a few years, most of the objections had been settled, and the Trust was busily building new homes. The first to rise was the Bethnal Green Estate, completed on 9 May 1909. Designed by architect ECP Monson, the flats had rooms 10 per cent bigger than the average tenement of the day, and most had baths. A century later all do of course … and the estate is still providing affordable homes for East Enders.
It wasn’t the ideal time to be moving into a new flat with your first child, but when is? Bombs were falling on Bethnal Green as a young Julia Richards and husband David moved into their new home on the William Sutton Estate on Roman Road. The new flat wasn’t a palace but it was a lot better than they had been used to. The estate had been completed in May 1909 and celebrates its centenary this year.
The couple had been squeezed into a tiny flat in Temple Dwellings on the Old Bethnal Green Road. There were no bathrooms there of course. Bathtime meant heading out into the concrete yard and fetching the tin tub down from the line. In winter that was pretty miserable. Summer, if anything was worse. ‘The smell from the rubbish was terrible; we had to keep all the windows shut,’ remembers Julia (known universally as ‘Ann’). ‘The Sutton flats weren’t all that good either – but they were cheap, and you had a bath inside. There was a long queue to get them.’
The facilities might seem eccentric by modern standards: the ‘bathroom’ comprised a tub shoehorned into the kitchen, and the living room fire served also to heat the oven. But the family were struggling to live on the couple of quid a week pulled in by David’s job driving a horse and cart. The rents on the Sutton Estate (11 shillings for a two-bedder, 7s and 6d for a one-bed and 5s for a bedsit) helped a lot. But if the flats were nothing special, the entry requirements were brutally strict.
‘You had to have children to get a flat here. I was expecting my first child in 1937 and we were on the list, but I lost it and so we were turned down,’ remembers Ann. The couple finally added to their family in 1941 with Patricia, and Eileen came along two years later. As was the custom with expectant mothers, Ann was evacuated to Northampton until the baby was born, and then, bizarrely, brought back to live in Bethnal Green, with bombs falling around her. The estate was never hit, though the enemy was never far away. Too close for some of the dads on the estate in fact. “On the other side of Roman Road there was an Italian prisoner of war camp. The men used to go off every day for demolition work, but when they were back in the camp you used to hear them singing – beautiful songs, lovely voices. They were good looking men too, and the dads from the estate used to patrol around to stop their daughters going over there!’
Ann has lived in Bethnal Green her whole life. Born in Commercial Road in 1913, she lost her father in the First World War and her mother in the 1920s. After being billeted with a succession of aunts during her teenage years, she married David at 21, ‘the best decision I ever made,’ she laughs.
Michael Jones, originally from Oldham and still with a broad Lancashire accent, is a relative newcomer, only moving to the estate in 1992. An artist, he was drawn by the artistic community that started to grow around Bethnal Green in the eighties and nineties. And moving from Chelsea, he found the Sutton Estate a much more affordable place to live. From his attic flat he has views west to the City and east to the new City at Canary Wharf, and he likes it so much he has no plans to move away.
Michael pulls out an impressive leather-bound rent book and ledger from 1950. The names each have a neat tick against them to say ‘rent paid’. Edwards, Rayment, Peake, Vallance, White, Smith – the surnames are a solid mix of Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Jewish. They don’t use the ledger now of course, but those names would today be mixed with names from the Indian sub-continent, from Africa, and from all over the world. “The estate has changed a lot, and it’s now a really good mix of indigenous East Enders and Bengalis … the new East Enders really. And it’s always been like that in the East End hasn’t it – Huguenots, Jews, Irish, we all become East Enders eventually!” The great thing for Michael is the way the community here is working together, with a sewing group in the estate’s Old Workshop just one of the ways people are meeting and sharing time, skills and memories.
Shahida Khanom’s family moved to the estate from Birmingham when she was just three years old. A quarter of a century on, she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. ‘There’s a lovely community spirit here – I just feel very safe. We go out to the countryside sometimes and I hate it … it’s too quiet,’ she laughs. ‘I love the activity and the noise round here. And my two sons go to school at Globe, just across the road.’ The same school that Ann Richards’s daughters, Eileen and Patricia, trotted across the road to 60 years ago. The names and faces may change, but some things on the estate stay constant.