Life is in the streets in old Somers Town. As bad a slum as any, policemen go in pairs to ‘Little Hell’ - an alley in Little Clarendon St. The St Pancras Housing Improvement Society begin a slum clearance programme and rehouse people in flats at low rents, without breaking up the communities. By the end of the 1930s they had provided over 600 new homes. Into this world George is born in 1935 to Ellen and Joseph in a slum in Stibbington Street, George is brought into this world by his Aunt Pol, an unofficial midwife, much to the annoyance of his sister Nelly who blames her for the boys, when she wants a sister.
Somers Town, bounded by railways of Euston, St Pancras and King's Cross resulted in a large transient population of labourers and the population density of the area soared. By the late 19th century most of the houses were in multiple occupation, and overcrowding was severe with whole families sometimes living in one room, as confirmed by the social surveys of Charles Booth and Irene Barclay.
Pubs were the life of the community - a living room when your house had none. There were two on every corner, 14 along Chalton Street alone, but now there are only 3 left. It was shrewd then of Jellicoe and the reformers to take over the pub - a locus of community life. In 1929 the ‘reformed pub’ taken over by abstemious priest Basil Jellicoe, who once lived there, and teetotal Edith Neville. They see pubs as the heart of the community. They had food to mitigate the evils of drink and so women could join in.
Pubs organised separate outings for men and women, called ‘beanos’. The charabanc groups left from outside pubs such as the Jubilee (now closed), Prince Arthur, and the Seymour Arms, now The Pack and Carriage. The day trippers threw coins to children who soon learned to wait.
Many women were instrumental in community in Somers Town, but one who should be honoured is a female social housing pioneer, Irene Barclay (1894-1989).
The first female surveyor in England in 1922, a short three years after the 1919 Act that enabled women to enter civil professions, she was a women who transformed the lives and wretched living conditions of thousands of poor people in London through her work in slum clearance and her surveys. This work ‘shaped the organisation of housing associations’.
Irene became a FRICS in 1931 and received an OBE in 1966.
She had a major impact and worked tirelessly over 50 years in the St Pancras Housing Association here in Somers Town. Her achievements have been a little eclipsed by the better-known figure of the charismatic priest Basil Jellicoe, who died young. When Irene retired in 1972, 830 homes had been created during her time as Secretary then Housing Manager from 1925.
Older locals feel the achievements of this group, who moved their immediate families from slum conditions, was nothing short of a miracle.
Their ethos ‘Housing is not enough’ meant that it was not only homes that were built, but that it was equally important that community be maintained and cared for, via social initiatives such as the ‘Mums clubs’, a panto only for women, and trips to the country.
She was part of a group of women who formed the backbone of this community, including Phyllis Hodges, Jessie Stripling, and Edith Neville, who became fondly known as ‘landladies’ by locals.
Magdalen College (Oxford) Mission was founded in 1896 and moved to Somers Town in 1908.
It established Clubs for boys and girls, helped people emigrate to Australia, ran a soup kitchen and established a Nursery School. In 1921 a young Anglican priest, Basil Jellicoe (1899 – 1935) was appointed Magdalen Missioner to be joined soon after by Percy Maryon-Wilson, Edith Neville and Irene Barclay.
Together they founded the St Pancras House Improvement Society in 1924.
At first, the Society repaired and renovated slum housing, but soon found that the property had deteriorated so far as to make renovation impractical. In 1926, therefore, they began a demolition / new build programme aimed at rehousing people in self-contained flats at low but economic rents without breaking up the communities. By the end of the 1930’s the Housing Association had provided over 600 new homes. St George’s Flats (Bridgeway St) were the first totally electrically equipped of their kind in the UK.
The Association continued the original Mission ethic by ensuring its estate residents had access to beauty, such as the drying posts for washing decorated by Gilbert Bayes glazed pottery finials at the top and community development with the organised pantomimes (‘Mums Clubs’).
The sculptor Gilbert Bayes was commissioned to create ceramic finials to top the washing-line posts in a number of courtyards. His main sources of inspiration were folklore, the Bible and medieval romances. Many of his finials symbolised episodes in the lives of saints, after whom buildings on the estates were named. Remarkably the finials survived World War II undamaged but today very few originals remain. Many of the finials in situ now are replicas.
Father Basil Jellicoe was a charismatic campaigner for the right of poor people to live in well designed and affordable housing, and used his work in Somers Town to demonstrate this. As well as running and living in a pub to reach people, he started and edited “Housing happenings”, in 1926, to record the work of the Society / Association which continued to be published long after his death, at the young age of 36.