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So Long, Samuel House

February 4, 2014
by the gentle author

Elam Forrester says goodbye to Samuel House

Once in Haggerston, there were Lovelace, Pamela, Lowther and Harlowe – handsome, robustly-constructed thirties housing developments, named after characters in Samuel Richardson’s didactic novels of eighteenth century London. The literary derivation of their names offered a cultural reference in tune with the buildings’ neo-Georgian architecture and promised a future based upon ideals of social enlightenment. Now the final tenants are moving out prior to the imminent demolition of Samuel House – named after Samuel Richardson himself – the only block still standing on the Haggerston Estate, and so Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I went along to meet the last residents as they said farewell to their former homes.

Elam Forrester moved out with her family last week and returned yesterday to hand over the keys, but first she showed us around the empty flat. “I moved in here in 1995, when I was five, and ever since then it was supposed to be temporary,” she revealed, as we surveyed the empty rooms permeated with an unmistakeable smell of damp and blemished with a sinister mould. “When we moved in it had been a squat and the walls were black,” she recalled, “My mum asked the council if we could have it because it was vacant and we painted it up.”

“I thought I was going to feel sad but I’m not because I’ve spent so long preparing for this move,” she explained, referring to the decades of uncertainty and conflict that have found their outcome in the demolition of the council estate and its replacement by a new development with a mixture of private and social housing. Even though the current buildings could have been refurbished, 75% of the residents voted for the change, encouraged by the complete lack of maintenance and total neglect by the council over recent years, which inspired widespread grief among the occupants. “When I went to the Housing Office to request a repair, the man behind the desk told me my best hope was to take legal action against the council to demand they fulfil their responsibility,” admitted Steve Hart who moved here in 1984, at first squatting a vacant flat in which the lease had lapsed before becoming the legal tenant, “Ever since I arrived, there has been talk of getting us out.”

A deep melancholy prevails over Samuel House today. Now the empty flats have been bricked up and the windows sealed, it resembles some kind of gargantuan mausoleum. Yet the demise of the estate brought the residents together in an unexpected way that manifested a last flowering of the egalitarian spirit in which it had been built. “When we heard that we were finally being moved out, a new sense of community developed here,” Steve told me, “We came together to take joint legal action and get compensation for all the delays.”

Andrea Zimmerman, who moved here in 1997, agreed. “Because I have no family, I have never felt a sense of belonging before and this was the first place I felt at home, in which the older people became like family to me. The interesting thing was that, as people began to leave, those of us left behind became closer. I’ll really miss that feeling.” In collaboration with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fennel, Andrea took large portraits of the residents which were posted upon the windows of vacant flats, presenting the brave face of Samuel House to the world, and she is now editing a feature-length documentary with David Roberts celebrating the people of Haggerston Estate. “They claim the new development is going to be a diverse community but it has always been everyone from everywhere here,” Andrea assured me, “We had Africans, Caribbeans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Israelis and more, even some East Enders. We had parties and bonfires, and everyone brought a dish from their own country.”

Over time, the decline of the Haggerston Estate attracted a population closer to the novels of Daniel Defoe than Samuel Richardson. “When I came here there was a lot of Irish and Jewish,” recalled Eric Phillip, the oldest tenant at eighty years old, a native of Grenada who came here at twenty and worked as a wood machinist at D.J.Simons in the Hackney Rd. “There were pubs all around and the Irish would drink and be cursing and fighting in the yard,” he remembered fondly. I visited Eric in his new flat just across the yard from Samuel House, where he had not had time yet to hang up his pictures. No stick-in-the-mud, Eric started smoking after the age of sixty. “I got a girlfriend who smoked, so I smoked too,” he bragged,“but my children, they said, ‘Dad, what you doing?’ I said, ‘Things change!’

Yet, from each of my conversations, I drew a sense of regret that Samuel House could not have been restored and reused, and those who had taken good care of their flats and wanted to stay, resented the enforced loss of their homes, voted out by those who had not made the same financial and emotional investment. Even though I encountered a consensus that the replacement flats were better than the decayed estate, I sensed a suspicion that the architecturally enforced hierarchy between tenants and owners in the new scheme will divide the community. It is a distinction manifest in small yet telling details – such as white cookers versus steel cookers, and recessed lighting in the private flats versus hanging bulbs in the social housing.

For the time being, the close bonds which were formed over these recent years of upheaval endure and have permitted the residents to support each other through the transition. “I’m happy here, but I’ll miss the canal,” Eric said to me in conclusion,“You could see people going up and down. It was busy and you could speak to them from your window.”

Elam takes a last look at her childhood home

Vacant flats have been bricked up

Steve Hart lived at Samuel House since 1984

Former residents of Samuel House

Andrea Zimmerman outside the entrance to the flat where she lived since 1997

Portraits by Andrea Zimmerman, Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fennel

Eric Phillip at home in his new flat, across the yard from Samuel House

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. February 4, 2014

    Great portraits. Sorry that these too will soon be gone.

  2. Colin Allen permalink
    February 4, 2014

    Dear GA
    What a sad occasion !
    I was born in Samuael House in 1947 and lived there with my parents till my Dad died in 1958. It was the first funeral I had ever seen on the estate. We then moved to Dagenham.
    I went to primary school around the corner (Laburnum School) and regularly swam at the local baths (now closed). I often pass the baths, look up and see the fabulous weather vein in the form of an old galleon atop the building and reflect on how I watched it as a child.I have lots of photos of that time at Samuel House.
    Must try and get round there and say goodbye

  3. February 4, 2014

    Sorry that the people who lived there have been treated so shabbily by the council. The huge photos on the windows have made this to a fantastic memorial. Valerie

  4. February 4, 2014

    “WHY MUST ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END??”

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. February 4, 2014

    I love those buildings, I am sure they could have been restored. There is something about the bricks, the symmetry and height which makes them quite lovely and sympathetic. I think one flat or very similar is featured in an old British bw film I watched recently, when it comes back to me I will post it.

  6. February 4, 2014

    Dear Colin, I would love to speak with you about your time at Samuel House. We will make a final farewell when the building is coming down, which will be sometime this spring, and would be wonderful if you came.

  7. February 4, 2014

    Wonderful portraits. How sad these properties were not maintained properly.

  8. Terry Fitzpatrick permalink
    February 4, 2014

    As a bricklayer the demolition of these estates is sheer vandalism to me. They are what are called LCC walk up flats, built by the old London County Council under Herbert Morrison who, when he said he was going to build the Tories out of London, actually launched a Keynsian/New Deal pump priming operation.

    All over London, and I mean out as far as Roehampton on one side Dagenham on the other and down to Croydon and up to Finchley there are examples of exactly this kind of architecture.

    Massively solid Flemish bond walls with loads of detailing and most importantly inside toilets, baths and hot water for people who had come out of multi-occupied private houses sharing toilets and with a common cooker and cold water sink on the landing.

    In their place we now have lego land structures of Staffordshire blue bricks and either garish plastic cladding or cheap Maple that is already looking stained and worn. A typical example of this is the monstrosity on the corner of Queensbridge Road and Whiston Road.

    What the designers didn’t realise, and if they did they didn’t care, is that in order to keep the wood cladding in some sort of reasonable appearance every five years the entire building has to be scaffolded up the cost of which borne by the leaseholders.

    We are seeing all over London, and I suppose the rest of the country, a rash of ugly buildings that are dated and in need of repair even before the project is completed.

  9. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    February 4, 2014

    Down with the old and up with the new! Sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s worse, and sometimes they get so bogged down in lawsuits and hearings and delays, that nothing happens except the weed seeds float in and start a new ecosystem, and then the birds and rodents are happy.

    My town is like that, too, without the literary houses. Boston, Massachusetts has an apartment development with all Ivanhoe names. I had a friend who lived in “Womba”.

  10. Pete permalink
    February 4, 2014

    No doubt the site will be developed for expensive flats at rip off rents, all conceived to make the massively rich even massively richer….the thoroughly honourable decent folk ( amazing for politicians ) who made up the post war Labour government would be turning in their graves…

  11. Colin Allen permalink
    February 4, 2014

    Dear AZ
    I would be interested to talk. thanks. As I said I have lots of photos.
    I intend to travel there this weekend and take some images and try to duplicate some scenes in the photos some 60 years on!
    Regards

  12. Stephen Barker permalink
    February 4, 2014

    I have never understood the lack of maintenance of public properties, I can only assume that money is available for new projects but not for ongoing costs. I am surprised that they were not sold off to the private sector for refurbishment.

    I used to live in Market Harborough where on the post-war housing estate on the Southern Estate all the road names were taken from commanders from the Battle of Naseby which was fought not far from the town. King Charles 1 stayed near the town before the battle and Cromwell stayed in the town after the battle.

  13. Sam permalink
    February 6, 2014

    Some of my best memories are of living in Samuel House c.1995-2000.The front door would stay open all summer as people would come and go. I’m sad to hear of it’s demise as I’m sure whatever will replace it won’t even have a fraction of Samuel House’s community spirit.

  14. Julie permalink
    February 9, 2014

    Colin Allen, I can see our flat in one of the pictures. My family lived there from 1937 – 1977. Colin, I’m wondering if your Nan lived on the top landing in the corner . (Picture under Steve Hart)

  15. Cherub permalink
    February 9, 2014

    It seems such a shame when councils fail to maintain what started off as good housing. I’m about to move to a flat on a part of the edge of my town that is a historic coastal village. It’s currently undergoing regeneration, so the council decided to knock down all the 60s houses and flats in favour of building small family houses with gardens that would blend in with the old. They went ahead and demolished but 4 years on the ground lies fenced off and bare. The council now want to build a halfway house for under 16s with a variety of social problems, but a village with nothing on offer in terms of entertainment is not the right place. Makes me wonder where councils get their ideas from.

  16. Colin Towning permalink
    June 11, 2015

    Hello Julie,

    I’m not sure if you will receive this e-mail, as this article may have been withdrawn. i happened to come accross your e-mail as i was looking to see if the Duke of Sussex Pub was still standing. you asked Colin Allen who i do remember as children. It is not a name i would forget, as my Christian name is Colin & my Brother is Alan. (Towning) you asked if his nan lived on the top floor in the corner of Samuel House. i do beleive you were refering to my grandparents. Mr & Mrs Wilson who lived there from the opening of Samuel House until about 1974. We lived at 23 Samuel House up until 1970.i also came across anther e-mail you may have sent in regarding the shop’s & owners in Haggestone. As being the oldest grandchild i had to do my nan’s shopping so i remember this well.

    Regards Colin Towning

  17. Jan Green permalink
    March 27, 2016

    My grand parents lived at 33 Samuel House. I remember, at the age of three, the coronation all the flats had bunting hanging from the balconys. I have such fond memories of looking out at the canal with my grandfather, they moved out in the mid fifties.

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