(Much of the source paperwork for this article is in the Leigh Historical Society archive, including the plans for Garden Cottages by both Smith & Brewer and Stanley-Barrett and Driver)
In the Parish Council Minutes between April and August 1903[i] the subject of ‘more cottages for working classes’ was raised and a sub-committee was set up. Unfortunately, although the report of this sub-committee is mentioned in the May minutes, the only outcome appears to have been that a notice be published asking those who wanted a cottage to give in their names to the Clerk and that the applicants should say whether they would publicly support the ‘scheme’ and also what rent they would be prepared to pay. Penshurst had also appointed a Sub-Committee on the same subject which reported back that it thought a cottage could not be built at the present day to let under 4 shillings per week.
However, the report of the Leigh Sub-Committee was approved and fifty notices were to be printed as mentioned above. In July 1903 the Parish Council said there were eight applications for a cottage, but very little discussion on the matter took place as so few members of the Council were present and it was decided to postpone the question until the next meeting. In August, the chairman of the meeting read out the applications for a cottage, but the question was again adjourned. Following this there is no more mention of cottages in the Minutes during this early period.
Whether the above-mentioned report did eventually lead to the building of Garden Cottages is not known and as, in the end, they were not built by the Parish Council or the Sevenoaks Rural District Council but by a private venture is probably the reason. No approvals were given at the Parish Council meetings for the ‘Garden Cottages’ project.
The building of a model village in Leigh was undertaken independently by the Kent Cottage Company and the project lasted from 1906 until 1914. The purpose behind this scheme was to provide affordable housing for the people of the village and to build to what was then a high standard. According to one source[ii], Mr Alfred Paget Hedges[iii] (who lived at Upper Kennards in Leigh) and Dr Frank Fraser of Park House in Leigh had formed the company in around 1908. However, sources differ. Another source said that on 2 August 1905 the Kent Cottage Company Ltd signed a building agreement with Lord de Lisle and took a Lease on the land – a field of a little over two acres – down Powder Mill Lane[iv]. The involvement of another person in the scheme, Harold Cox – who lived at Kennards Cottage (Old Kennards) – was not mentioned in these sources and has been discovered through reference to local newspapers at the time.[v] An Old Tonbridgian, an economist and journalist as well as at one point an MP, he also became director of the Kent Cottage Company.[vi]
According to Lawrence Biddle’s book “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900”, the architects appointed to design the ‘model village’ were Smith and Brewer, of Richmond.[vii] However, information recently passed to the Leigh Historical Society[viii] has contradicted this and copies of the Smith and Brewer plans clearly have the words ‘cancelled’ written on them – so for some reason, perhaps price, their plans were not adopted. It appears that the architects of Garden Cottages were probably a firm by the name of Stanley-Barrett and Driver (of York Place, Baker Street, W.). They had exhibited at the Letchworth Garden City, Cheap Cottages Exhibition in 1905[ix] but were not so well known as other Arts and Crafts architects. Their architectural style was for sloping buttresses and a half moon window – all of which feature at Garden Cottages – and their designs for the ‘Model Village and Cheap Cottages, Leigh’ match those that were built at Leigh – copies are in the Leigh archive – along with details of the proposed homes.[x]
The intention of the Leigh scheme was to build cottages to let at low rents (it was never intended as a charity – something that the various owners have generally aimed to do since then) but to return 5% on the capital. The building of the cottages would have started in 1905/1906 and some were already built by September 1906. They were grouped about a central green, around which is an 8ft wide private road, with gravel paths to the front and back doors of cottages. The roads and paths would cost only £80 to compete. The drainage and water main for the whole village would cost £205. The plan was for thirty-two cottages to be erected on the site. Fourteen were erected initially according to the plans in one group of six, and two groups of four, at a cost of £126 per cottage – for a five roomed cottage. Some would cost £175 to build. Rents were 3s6d to 3s9d per week to provide a 5 per cent return on capital when the village is complete. The plan shows twenty-two cottages around the central green and alongside the private entrance road there are an additional six on one side and four on the other. The plans also contain detail of the layout of the cottages and description:
Accommodation: parlour 12’4” x 9’6”; kitchen: 12’4” x 9’6”; scullery 7’ x 6’ – with sink, cooper and larder; WC and covered way, coal cupboard 4’x4’. Enclosed porch. The plans and sections will show the ingenious arrangement for utilising space over stairs by constructing a baulkhead (sic) in the corner of a bedroom. Three bedrooms 12’4” x 9’6”; 9’6”x7’; and 7’9” x 6’8” respectively. There are no passages, therefore no waste of room. The space in the roof is used for boxes etc. The walls 9” brick, cemented outside and rough-casted. The architects claim that this method of finishing makes the wall as weather-proof as an 18 inch wall, faced with red bricks. The roof is tiled with thick, patent tiles, which keep the rooms at an even temperature. Solid ground floors on the architects’ special system, 9” of brickwork all round the building, are warmer than the usual floors, and cost less. All rooms have picture rails and picture hooks, thus saving the plaster from being knocked about, and the ceilings are whitened down to this rail, thus giving a greater area of reflected light. The walls are distempered inside with washable sanitary water paint. The woodwork is stained with wood preservation green and brown and varnished. This costs much less than paint and lasts better. Kitchen ranges are self-setting, with Eagle Pattern, raising fire.
A letter in the Kent and Sussex Courier of 3 January 1913[xi] (see below) refers to twenty having been built and another six to be built. Plans for further new cottages at Leigh were deposited by the Kent Cottage Company with Sevenoaks Rural District Council in July 1913 and passed.[xii] These seem to have been completed by 30 April 1914 when the company took a conveyance of the freehold of the twenty-six cottages from Lord de Lisle. In 1924 the Kent Cottage Company bought some extra land, possibly for the allotments at the back of the cottages.[xiii] Therefore, it appears that the original concept for thirty-two cottages was not achieved in the end.
As mentioned above, the Kent Cottage Company and its project do appear in the local press.[xiv] A gentleman giving his initials as J.S.T. wrote to the Kent & Sussex Courier, letter printed on 21 September 1906, criticizing the Kent Cottage Company:
To the Editor
The Kent Cottage Co. Ltd – Is a General Election Imminent?
Being in want of a country cottage, and hearing of the above Company’s enterprise in Leigh, I went over last Saturday to view same. I found extremely suitable cottages, with drainage and water supply complete, and, best of all, phenomenal low rents.
I had no difficulty in making up my mind but, on enquiry, was informed that no Tory need apply. On further enquiry, I learn that Mr A P Hedges is Chairman of the Company and Mr Harold Cox a director.
May I ask whether the above gentlemen consider the letting of 8s a week cottages at 3s6d as practical politics, or as useful philanthropy in view of forthcoming disaster?
Your obedient servant, J.S.T.
This raised responses in the 28 September 1906 edition from Harold Cox and another correspondent.
Sir, I am glad to see that your correspondent “J.S.T.” is of the opinion that the cottages built at Leigh by the Kent Cottage Company, and now being let at 3/6 a week are well worth 8/- a week. If, however, he really wanted a cottage for himself, it is a pity that he should have been deterred from applying in the proper quarter by the absurd fiction that the cottages are only let to Liberals. It is true that my friends Mr Hedges (who is not in America) and myself are both directors of the Company, and it is true that we are both Liberals; but it is not true that either of us is such a fool as to allow a business enterprise to be ruined by the introduction of politics. As a matter of fact, the actual work of letting the cottages is managed by our co-director, Dr Fraser, who happens to be a Unionist. He has never dreamt of asking what politics any applicant for a cottage professed. His only concern is to secure respectable tenants who will pay their rents and rate regularly and conduct themselves courteously towards their neighbours.
If “J.S.T.” can produce satisfactory references on these points, and if he is willing to become a shareholder of the Company to the extent of at least £1, his application for a cottage will be as favourably considered as an other (sic). But the application must be prompt, for there is only one cottage at 3/6 still unlet. Others at slightly higher rentals are being built, and more will be built as fresh capital comes in.
Let me add that “J.S.T.” is mistaken in supposing that the scheme is, or is intended to be, charitable. On the contrary the object of the directors is to show that comfortable cottages, with good gardens, can be built to let at low rents, and yet to return 5 per cent o the capital invested. For the pleasure of proving this, and for the pleasure of supplying a felt want in this neighbourhood, the directors have given their personal service to the Company without fee. That is the only philanthropy that enters into the scheme.
The other correspondent, signing as SENEX (old man)
Dear Sir, I have read J.S.T.’s letter with great interest and amusement.
We have always understood that our present member is a very astute man; but surely, even he, will fail in his undertaking if his object in building these cottages is to import a sufficient number of faggot voters to stem the tide at the next election. If my memory does not deceive me, the late W. H. Gladstone initiated this political plan of procedure in his first great campaign in Midlothian.
I have nothing to say against the cottages themselves, which I have seen and greatly admired, not only for their artistic appearance, but their many little contrivances adapted for the comfort and elevation of their future occupants. Apart from those on private estates, they are quite the best I have seen, and if the scheme could be extended to other less favoured districts than Leigh, and run on proper business lines, other than as Radical refuges, they would certainly go a long way in solving the housing problem in our rural district.
I do not quite agree with J.S.T.’s assessments. I noticed at the later exhibition of the Garden City cottages at Lichfield, several types of cottages similar to those Leigh ones, the builder’s estimate for which ran about £200 per cottage; so if land was procured on an equitable basis, there is no reason why they could not be let at say 5/- to 6/- per week, and give 5 per cent return on the outlay.
Apologising for so great an encroachment on your space.
Yours faithfully SENEX
However, on 5 October 1906 J.S.T. of The Slade, Tonbridge writes an apology to the Kent Cottage Company and that his source who had claimed “no Tory need apply” had been spoofing him.
On 3 January 1913, there is another article in the Kent and Sussex Courier. It reports that “Mr Harold Cox contributes an interesting letter to the “Spectator” on the solution of the rural cottage problem and describes the working of the Kent Cottage Company Limited, in the neighbouring village of Leigh. Mr Cox remarks that the results are so satisfactory that similar companies might be formed in other parishes and more shares taken up in the Kent Company to extend its work. One satisfactory feature is that every tenant is expected to take up at least one £1 share and can attend the annual meeting and discuss points with the Directors for promoting the comfort of the tenants. At present 20 cottages have been built at Leigh, and there are six more to be built. Rents at 4s to 5s6d show a return of four per cent”.
This letter in the Spectator by Harold Cox – which I have been unable to find in their Archives – is mentioned again in the Spectator on 18 January 1913 under the heading “The rural cottage problem”, in a letter from Guy Ewing of Edenbridge.[xv] A couple of paragraphs follow:
Sir,—Mr. Harold Cox may have solved the problem at Leigh. I hope he has, but I doubt it. As chairman of a Rural District Council Housing Committee for the very district of which Leigh is part, I have had to deal directly with the problem, and my Council is about to erect cottages, if the Local Government Board approves, in the next parish to Leigh, which at rentals of 4s. to 4s. 6d. a week will show an almost exact balance at the start if they are all let, as they will be, but no margin. So far, perhaps, so good, but the exact balance allows too little for repairs after the cottages cease to be new, and most of the calculations that I have seen fail to realize that after the first ten years of the life of even a well-built cottage—and I am not dealing with the others—the necessary periodical repairs absorb a very large proportion of the annual income … I do not know what provision is made for repairs at Leigh, but Mr. Cox is too good an economist to have fallen into the almost universal error of under-estimating this burden. It is, however, not quite safe, I fear, to take Leigh as a typical rural parish, as it lies too near to the considerable town of Tonbridge to be accepted as a standard, and agricultural wages are higher in that part of Kent than in many other parts of the county, to say nothing of Essex, Hampshire, Dorset, and, doubtless, other counties of which I have no personal or professional knowledge.
There is one further mention of the Kent Cottage Company in the Courier on 13 November 1925, when the annual meeting of the company held at Park House agreed a notice to be posted to the effect that cycling on the pathways round the square is prohibited. Of course later the pathways round the central green would be made into a road – but Garden Cottages was never designed for cars.
The occupants of Garden Cottages by head of household can be seen in the 1911 census. There appeared to be twenty-one cottages built of the final total of twenty-six (although the Kent & Sussex Courier letter of 3 January 1913 cited above refers to twenty cottages). The names appear in the order given and with the house numbers, where given; all have the address of Garden Cottages. All have five rooms which includes the kitchen, but not the scullery, landing, lobby, closet or bathroom etc) except the home of Mrs Hicks, which has six rooms. Unusual for the time, Garden Cottages had a flushing W.C. from the time that they were built but gas and electricity were not installed until later. Some housed quite large families; a few of the households even had boarders. In the village the development became known as the White City.
No number Mrs Hicks (6 rooms) Widow – private means (2 people)
1 George Atkinson and wife Retired (2 people)
2 Joseph and Emma Randerson Surveyor of Highways (2 people)
No Number Mrs Young Widow – school cleaner for council (6 people)
4 William and Harriet Sturt Grocers Assistant (2 people)
No number Thomas Hobbs and family Agent Prudential (5 people)
5 Mrs E Janes Widow (4 people)
No number Miss Martha Coast Private means (1 person)
7 James Pankhurst Domestic Gardener (4 people)
8 Walter Playfoot Agricultural Labourer (5 people)
9 Ernest Harry Brooker Cricket Ball maker (5 people)
No Number Richard Gardner Gunpowder maker (3 people)
11 James Martin Chauffeur (3 people)
12 William Ford Platelayer (4 people)
No Number Stephen Upton Bricklayer’s labourer (5 people)
14 Thomas Avery Farm Labourer (8 people)
No Number John Fielder Retired Grocer (2 people)
16 Jacob Playfoot Cricket Ball maker (4 people)
No Number Miss Abraham, c/o Mr Holman (absent)
17 Edwin Holman Winecellerman (sic) (3 people)
18 George Loveland Cricket Bat Finisher (4 people)
The 1915 Register of Electors shows 15 persons entitled to vote as tenants of these cottages.[xvi]
The Kent Cottage Company’s registered office was variously shown as Park House, 3 Garden Cottages and Applegarth. Dr Fraser, one of the Company’s founders, lived at Park House; Geoffrey Boby, who retired as headmaster in 1919, moved to 3 Garden Cottages: he became Clerk to the Leigh United Charities and was on the Parish Council and perhaps looked after the rents for Garden Cottages. Applegarth was built in 1933 by Dr Frank Fraser, probably with his son, Beaufort Fraser – as a doctor’s practice and was occupied by Dr Ernest Berkeley and family from 1933/34 and perhaps the management of Garden Cottages was passed on to him, but this is not known.
In February 1945 Tonbridge and District Properties Ltd acquired all the land when they purchased the twenty-six cottages.[xvii] A property investment company, it operated its properties on a strictly commercial basis and was free to sell or otherwise deal with the properties as it saw fit – the cottages did not have a charitable status. The managing agents for the company were Worrin and Lawson and because of a big flood at their offices many of the Deeds were damaged, hence the problem in tracing the history of the cottages. Since 1945, four of the original cottages have been sold. But it was difficult for Tonbridge & District Properties to keep rents low – particularly for people who had been there for years – and to keep everything up to scratch. In the year ca.2000 (when “We Had Everything …” was published) some of the tenants were still in the houses they had been in since well before 1945.
In 2016 Garden Cottages was purchased by Spurdown Limited, which plans to build some additional cottages on the site to adjoin the original cottages. There have been some concerns expressed in the village that the style of the new homes will not be in keeping with the original Arts and Crafts design, but at the time of writing the planning process is still on-going.
Lawrence Biddle “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900
Chris Rowley “We Had Everything …” (Publ. Ca 2000) – pages. 22/23, 63, 68, 291, 325
Parish Council Minutes: April to October 1903
Various newspaper articles on the Kent Cottage Company found via the FindmyPast website
Plans for ‘Model Village and Cheap Cottages, Leigh’ by Messrs. Barrett & Driver – provided by Spurdown Limited.
1911 Census via ancestry.com
[i] Parish Council Minutes 1903
[ii] Chris Rowley “We Had Everything …” p. 68
[iii] Alfred Paget Hedges 1867-1929 – a Methodist; married Florence Hicks; ran family tobacco business (Benson & Hedges Ltd). Liberal MP for Tunbridge 1906-1910 (source: Wikipedia)
[iv] Ibid. p.291
[v] Mr Harold Cox’s involvement with the Kent Cottage Company Ltd found in press articles: see Kent & Sussex Courier 21 September 1906; 28 September 1906; 5 October 1906; 3 Jan 1913; Spectator 18 January 1913.
[vi] Perhaps an influence on Harold Cox was a fellow journalist, John St Loe Strachey (1860-1927) who was proprietor and editor of The Spectator and The country Gentleman and became involved with the Garden City Movement which had been started in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard (Wikipedia).
[vii] Lawrence Biddle “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900” p. 136
[viii] Information obtained from the Victoria & Albert Museum archives by Mrs V E A Parker BSc MRICS, a director of Spurdown Limited of Goudhurst (now the owner of Garden Cottages). Copy of the Smith & Brewer plan for Leigh, which in fact shows a different layout to the final ‘village’, is in the Leigh Historical Society archive as are the plans for ‘Leigh Model Village and Cheap Cottages’ by Stanley-Barrett and Driver.
[ix] In 1905 John St Loe Strachey (1860-1927), proprietor and editor of The Spectator and The Country Gentleman and a supporter of the Garden City Movement proposed a Cheap Cottages Exhibition, which took place at Letchworth in 1905, with the intention of producing a cottage of a quality at a price that was affordable. The shortage of housing for agricultural workers had been a problem for some time, with few cottages being built, the cost of building making it prohibitive. (Source: Wikipedia). Perhaps it was this exhibition, that prompted Harold Cox, also a journalist, and his colleagues in Leigh to draw up similar plans for the village. Another architect involved in the Cheap Cottages Movement was Clough Williams-Ellis who was designing cheap cottages for labourers in North Wales using local materials. He later married Strachey’s daughter. Williams-Ellis went on to design two of the principal buildings at the Princess Christian Hospital in Hildenborough.
[x] The plans together with detailed layout and description of the cottages are in the Leigh Archive, but the text is reproduced in this article.
[xi] Kent & Sussex Courier 3 January 1913
[xii] Kent & Sussex Courier 4 July 1913
[xiii] Chris Rowley “We Had Everything …” p. 291
[xiv] Kent & Sussex Courier: 21 September 1906; 28 September 1906; 5 October 1906; 3 January 1913; 13 November 1925.
[xv] A transcript is in our archive but can be found at the Spectator Archives website
[xvi] Lawrence Biddle “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900” p.135
[xvii] Chris Rowley “We Had Everything …” p291