Thursday, 30 September 2010

London Loves.....Tea Parties

Jane and Joan Ash, a mother and daughter who lived on the Liverpool Road estate from 1955 to 1983, are peering at old photographs on the wall when suddenly a loud cry makes them both jump. "I remember you!" Swivelling round they are met by a familiar face beaming with excitement. Rose Copsey also lived on the estate for almost forty years and has come back to mark the milestone occasion.

Jane and Joan Ash lived on the estate for 28 years

Within seconds the Ash and Copsey families are embracing their former neighbours and reminiscing about old times.
It is one of many touching moments that occur throughout the day at the Centenary celebration of this hundred year old London housing estate.

Former residents Wendy and Rose Copsey

Built in 1910 by Samuel Lewis founder of the Southern Housing group, Liverpool Road estate is an enduring success story in a city where many social housing experiments have tried and failed to provide a hub for communities. On this estate, unlike many owned by the local authority Islington council, the community are encouraged to be at the heart of things. Tyrone Willis, the estate’s facilities manager, remembers a time when the tenants association met every week and virtually ran the place. “They were fundamental to getting things done here, they had authority and when they spoke the housing association listened.” Nowadays its core members are getting older and the younger generation are less inclined to vocalise their needs, but the tradition of close community continues. A few years ago the former washhouse was re-built as a community centre where kids come to play and adult learning sessions take place.

Tyrone Willis and family

While many residents have come and gone over the last century, the estate looks like it will still be here in another hundred years, thanks largely to the maintenance that has gone into it by a housing association that seems, more than most, to care about the wellbeing of its residents.

To mark the centenary Tall Tales, a community art collective, have recreated an Edwardian era tea party and displayed art work around the estate including hundreds of yards of bunting the residents helped to make.

A band plays the Charlestown while battling with the wind blowing away their sheet music. Inside the community centre, Helmut Feder from Tall Tales is in charge of the fancy dress party in which residents dress up as characters from the period – soldiers from the Great War, doctors, even Samuel Lewis himself – then have their photograph taken against a backdrop of the estate in black and white. Feder tells me many of the costumes are borrowed from the National Theatre’s costume department and are authentic. “Some of them are actually very valuable,” he says with half an eye on the kids crashing around in bowler hats and army uniforms “it’s my job to make sure I get it all back in one piece.” I wish him luck and leave him to his fretting.

Dressing up as Edwardian characters

Tall Tales have also gotten hold of the original residency books; thick volumes detailing the families living in each apartment, the occupation of the father, how much rent they pay in shillings and a note keeping track of their movements. Rose Copsey moved to the estate as a child in 1948, her daughter Wendy was born here in the mid-1960s. Both of them have now moved on but Wendy’s brother still lives here. “Looking through these records is so interesting. We’ve seen so many people we knew from our time here. Log books seem like an archaic way of doing things now but much more romantic than just typing it into a computer.”

Tenancy book for Block B Tenement No.8 from 1910-1955

Everybody here – artists, housing officers and tenants – recognises the importance of the event, but where does the money for such things come from and will it still be possible with the looming government cuts on housing and other public services?

Tom Dacey, chief executive of Southern Housing group explains that while his organisation are not for profit, they are still required to make a surplus each year, most of which is brought about through property sales. “This surplus, funds our Economic and Social Regeneration work such as the celebration at Liverpool Road. We also get grant assistance from external agencies and occasionally the state. Every pound of surplus generated is ploughed back into our core business.”

Tom Dacey, CEO of Southern Housing, addresses the crowd

Southern Housing’s resident profile policy equates to around 80% of residents paying affordable rents 5% intermediate rent and 15% low cost home ownership, a model that allows maintenance and rebuilding work to be carried out without government subsidies. But Dacey is more worried about the impact of housing benefit cuts for some of his residents than the risk of the government spreading housing association subsidies more thinly by reducing the grant rate per unit. “This could be the most challenging environment we have ever experienced but I would like to see the fine print of the spending review before going overboard with criticism – nobody disagrees we need much more affordable housing so why would the Coalition damage the only volume providers?”

While Dacey is still pondering the meaning of ‘Big Society’ as most people are, he feels events like the Liverpool Road celebration are vital. “In urban locations, residents in high density estates may not know their neighbours or the broader community. Ways have to be found of breaking the ice and getting people to see the value of working together to achieve common aims.”

Breaking the ice with inner city communities is what Tall Tales and its creative director Gadi Sprukt are all about. Having already curated the magnificent Market Estate project, this centenary event constitutes another notable success. As Sprukt finally takes a seat to relax over a cup of tea and scones he surveys the scene and feels satisfied. “This was meant to be more intimate than the Market Estate. This project wasn’t for tourists or hipsters or art directors, it was for the residents – a way of saying ‘thank you’.”

The full extent of housing cuts remains to be seen but housing minister Grant Shapps would do well to heed the warning of Tom Dacey that sacrificing community events like this one would be a counter productive step in the coalition’s duel aims of creating a big society and revolutionising the future of social housing.

Click here to see Tall Tales' photos of the whole project.


  1. Fab article Mr Surtees. It's making me all nostalgic for Southern

  2. It's always a pleasure to receive the links to your London blogs Josh. I guess I appreciate them because (like the majority of people who live here?) I am an outsider who fetched up in this great city and has appreciated his luck ever since.

    It would be hypocritical of me to rage against the fetish with home ownership since I stopped being a tenant when I took out a mortgage on a tiny flat in Glasgow 25 years ago, but your blog reminds us that there are reasons for pride in places like Liverpool Road when housing association estates sometimes get treated as if they are synonomous with slumland.

  3. You know it really does warm the cockles of the heart to see a community come together, especially in the wake of rises in housing prices and cuts in public services.