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.