Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

07 September 2013

Quiet please #2: Peabody estate, Victoria

ABBEY ORCHARD ESTATE, owned by the Peabody Trust, is tucked away behind the Westminster Abbey end of Victoria Street. Like many Peabody estates in London, the flats are organised into blocks identified by letters: L block, M block and so on. The blocks are laid out on three sides surrounding a central courtyard which only pedestrians can get in and out of.

Until recently, the courtyard was surfaced with tarmac and, along with the lettered blocks, it has a tidy but spartan aspect faintly suggestive of a workhouse. Flowerbeds and raised patches of turf have now been added but this old sign remains attached to a wall:

Peabody Estate sign forbidding various noisy activities

The sign is probably of post-war vintage given its simple, plain appearance. The reference to roller skates doesn’t help much as their popularity in Britain goes back to Edwardian times. The sign assumes two concentric spheres of concern. First, the interests of adult residents in not having to hear the noisy games of children echoing in the courtyard. Second, the interests of all residents against bothersome outsiders.

The Abbey Orchard estate was built in the 1880s as part of a slum clearance drive to transform a district known as the Devil’s Acre. A mid-19th century account paints a glum picture of it:

It is in these narrow streets, and in these close and unsalubrious lanes, courts and alleys, where squalid misery and poverty struggles with filth and wretchedness, where vice reigns unchecked and in the atmosphere of which diseases are generated and diffused.

In contrast, the Peabody estates were intended as havens of modest respectability. Each estate had a resident superintendent to collect rent and enforce rules of conduct, and the first tenants had to be vaccinated against smallpox. The sign has to be read within that enduring context: itinerant traders and buskers were not the kind of people the Peabody Trust wanted hanging around their properties.

The flats themselves have small rooms by modern standards but they’re otherwise well laid-out and fairly easy to keep warm in winter due to their thick walls. On each landing there’s a rubbish chute, and the clanking of the chute flap being raised and the rattling of tins, bottles and other refuse as they tumble down into large paladin bins is a distinctive soundmark of the estate.