Image above: Lithograph of Bath Road 1882 by Berry F Berry
The first ‘garden suburb’
Acknowledged as the earliest garden suburb, Bedford Park was described by Sir John Betjeman, the first patron of the Bedford Park Society, as “the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably the most significant in the Western World.”
Bedford Park’s buildings and community spirit were an inspiration and model for the creators of later garden suburbs and cities. Creator Jonathan Thomas Carr (1845-1915) provided the Club, with a stage for theatricals and a billiards room; a church with adjoining parish hall; stores and The Tabard Inn.
The suburb attracted painters and illustrators – quite a few houses had studios – writers, actors, poets (the Yeats family rented various houses over the years), general free-thinkers and even the odd Russian anarchist. At the same time, the small cottage-style houses and terraces were also home to more modest wage earners, such as clerks and tailors.
Photographs above: Jonathan Carr; Edward Godwin
Architecture inspired by the Aesthetic Movement
Jonathan Carr was a cloth merchant who was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement of the 1870s and influenced by men such as John Ruskin and William Morris. He wanted to develop an ideal suburb for the artistically inclined middle classes who could no longer afford Chelsea.
His opportunity came in 1873 when he married Agnes, daughter of Hamilton Fulton, a civil engineer who lived in Bedford House and owned 24 acres of surrounding land. Thanks to nearby Turnham Green Station, the City was only 30 minutes away providing the area with good potential for development.
In 1875 Carr bought Fulton’s 24 acres and started planning a new kind of estate in which aesthetically acceptable houses at cheap rents would be set in an informal layout that preserved as many mature trees as possible.
His first architect was Edward William Godwin (1833-86) who had designed houses for Oscar Wilde and James McNeil Whistler in Chelsea. As well as being prominent in the Aesthetic Movement, Godwin had also designed cheaper houses elsewhere.
Carr commissioned designs from Godwin and the firm of Coe and Robinson. As with all his architects, Carr bought the designs outright and retained control over where and how they were built with limited input from the originator. However, when the first house designs were published in the architectural press they attracted severe criticism for perceived defects in their internal planning.
Not wishing to jeopardise his project at such an early stage, Carr parted company with Godwin and Coe and Robinson and had his surveyor/architect William Wilson adapt Godwin’s design for a detached house. He then turned to another leading architect of the time, Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912).
Images above: Norman Shaw; large house in Bedford Park
Designed by Norman Shaw
Shaw’s first designs for Bedford Park, produced in 1877, were built next to Godwin’s houses at the bottom of The Avenue. Carr was delighted with them and with their reception in the press and commissioned further designs. It was these, which established the architectural character of Bedford Park that we recognise today.
Shaw had no role in the actual planning of the estate, in deciding which houses should be built where in supervising its construction. The essential ingredients were the ad hoc nature of the planning, which replicated the organic growth of a village, the retention of mature trees, and the architecture itself, using materials that gave created an established look in a short period of time.
Shaw also designed the Church of St Michael and All Angels, and Tower House, the impressive home of Jonathan T Carr, now replaced by St Catherine’s Court, a 1930s block of flats.
Images above: Maurice Adams; design for terraced houses
‘The healthiest place in the world’
Maurice B Adams (1849-1933, an architect and editor of the influential Building News, lived in Bedford Park for many years. He was a passionate promoter of the estate and thought to be the person who first suggested that Bedford Park was the earliest garden suburb. He designed several houses on the estate and the School of Art (destroyed by a World War II bomb and now the Arts Educational Schools), although Shaw amended his drawings.
Carr was a skilled promoter, marketing the new estate as “the healthiest place in the world” and by the early 1880s the heart of Bedford Park was complete. At that time he was steadily acquiring more land, and was still building.
The development entered a final and different phase, prompted by the resignation of Shaw as the estate architect, and the refinancing of the enterprise as a Limited Liability Company. Shaw had wearied of Carr’s demands and, it is thought, of his reluctance to settle his bills.
He set up his pupil and protégé Edward John May (1853-1941) as his successor and the essential style of the houses remained unchanged. The houses in Priory Gardens date from this handover period, and stylistically could be from either architect.
Advertisement for housing in Bedford Park when it was first built, courtesy of St Michael & All Angels Church
Bigger and grander
In the 1880s, the emphasis of the development changed, leading to bigger plots with larger houses and a higher proportion of individual houses for individual purchasers in response to changing demand. The most striking example is The Orchard, where most houses are one-offs, designed largely by May, on plots as much as four times the size of those in Woodstock Road built a few years earlier.
Jonathan Carr’s larger scale scheme for Bedford Park, including a proposed westward extension to be designed by May, came to an abrupt end in 1886, when the company, formed in 1881 to finance the project, failed.
From 1887 until the start of World War I construction proceeded on the remainder of the land, which had been sold to various other developers. Although they built similar houses, they did not use previous designs, so this turned out to be the end of Bedford Park’s distinctive design in both houses and layout.
By the end of World War II Bedford Park’s glory days were over. Many of the houses were in multi-occupation; the old Club building was a club for CAV workers (now the Buddhist Vihara), and when Tom and his wife Eleanor Greeves moved there in the 1950s it had become known as “Poverty Park.”
Both the Greeves were architects who appreciated the spacious houses, and when demolition threatened some of these Tom co-founded the Bedford Park Society in 1963 to protect the amenities of the suburb.
This brief history of Bedford Park, edited by Kate Bowes, has been provided by the Bedford Park Society.
Photograph above: Houses in Bedford Park by Ellen Rooney – Ellen Rooney Photography
A more detailed version of the history and its architects can be found here on the Bedford Park Society website.
More about the exhibition that saved Bedford Park can be found here on the Bedford Park Society’s website.
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See also: Bedford Park’s famous historical figures
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