Urban Surbiton owes its existence to the coming of the railway in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the railway was an important factor in the development and location of Surbiton Court: a mansion-style block of service flats emulating similar mansion blocks in central London. Surbiton’s proximity to London by fast electric railway was a vital factor in developing this concept of in-town service flats on the periphery of London, simultaneously enjoying the advantages of country living. In the words of the marketing literature of the time Surbiton Court was promoted as ‘London’s finest flats at country rentals’ with ‘West End comfort’ and ‘quiet country living’ yet only 18 minutes from town. Great emphasis was given to this juxtaposition of accessibility to town and country living. Prominence was also given to the very favourable rentals: considerably lower than those of London mansion flats, a fact that the developers were quick to point out to prospective tenants, at the same time assuring them that, notwithstanding the lower rentals, the ‘social status of the residents [would be] fully maintained’. Service flats generally provided a range of facilities such as porterage, constant hot water, restaurant, rates, domestic service and guest rooms: some of these were optional and at additional cost. Surbiton Court’s location outside the confines of central London, where open space was more readily available, allowed for additional amenities such as hard and grass tennis courts, miniature golf, a rockery, and extensive ornamental gardens and grounds. In other words, Surbiton Court projected itself as exclusive residential flats combining ‘old-world charm’ with twentieth-century comforts, that is, tradition with modernism.
The provision of space and light were the hallmarks of the architect JBF Cowper FRIBA who designed Surbiton Court. He came to prominence as a specialist designer of flats after winning a competition in 1923 for the construction of Heathcroft adjacent to Hampstead Heath: a neo-Georgian style building, with projecting doorways, canted bays, and recessed balconies, comprising 90 flats laid out in nine blocks around a large inverted T-shaped courtyard, which has many similarities to Surbiton Court. Cowper also designed The Pantiles in 1934, a block of 40 flats in Hampstead Garden Suburb that follows the Italianate or hacienda style that had a short-lived popularity in the 1930s. The Pantiles and Heathcroft were both designated Grade II Listed Buildings by English Heritage in April 2003.
The architect James Bertram (Bertie) Francis Cowper FRIBA was born in 1887. He received his architectural education at the Manchester University School of Art, and as an improver under Sir Percy Worthington, Hon Litt D, FSA, FRIBA, a noted architect in the classical style, distinguished by an enlightened adaptation to modern uses of the traditional Georgian style. Before the First World War, Cowper worked in the London County Councils architects’ department. He served in the war with the Royal Engineers and returned to civilian life in 1919 as a Staff Major. For three years he was Superintending Architect for the South of England for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. As a student he won the Pugin Studentship and was Aspital Prizeman (both in 1911), and in 1912 became Arthur Cates Prizeman. Winning a competition for 90 flats in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Heathcroft, Cowper set up private practice and designed a number of buildings including a power station for Bexley Urban District Council. He died at Heathcroft in 1964.
Osborns (Surbiton) Estates Limited was the company that developed and managed Surbiton Court. It acquired the land formerly occupied by two large houses, ‘Tangerby’ and ‘Palmyra’, for £4,500 in 1928, an area of a little over 4 acres. The cost of building and developing Surbiton Court, comprising 70 flats (68 for residents, and 2 for residents’ guests, the latter located above the restaurant, now Surbiton Court Mews), 50 garages, restaurant, porter’s lodge, and the layout of grounds, amounted to £56,000. Among the contractors and suppliers involved in the development of Surbiton Court were H Eldred & Co, heating engineers, and The Victoria Simplex Floors Limited who supplied the fireproof floors. The Claygate Brick Company provided the facing bricks, which were picked out in Atlas White Cement, and the Ferro-Concrete Roof Plate Company supplied the artificial stone. Sanitary fittings were by A Goslett & Co, and the metal casements by Crittall’s Manufacturing Company. The flats were ready for occupation in 1930 as evidenced from the rental schedule; the first agreements were signed in March 1930, and were for 7 years. The rents ranged from £155 per annum, for a one bed-roomed flat, to £260 per annum, for larger, two or three bed-roomed flats. Additional charges were levied for domestic service and the restaurant. Garages were also available at a cost of £25 per annum.
Two journals specialising in architecture and the building industry, Building in December 1930, and The Brick Builder in March 1933, devoted articles to the construction and layout of Surbiton Court. Building magazine described the scheme as having ‘a general feeling of breadth to which the touches of intimacy provided by the treatment of the doorways and loggias give just that character of quiet charm which one likes to associate with the idea of an Englishman’s home’. It goes on to pose the question of living in a flat, as opposed to the more accepted British form of house dwelling, by a declaratory statement that ‘we have often been told that the flat is the solution of the housing problem; yet few people, except those at the extremes of affluence and poverty, have so far been tempted to live in them, and outer suburbia especially has given strong support to the opposition’. The article goes on to suggest that the ‘uniquely British dilemma’ of flats versus houses may now be viewed in a different light with the advent of Surbiton Court which offers a new dimension in suburban living: ‘but now a block of flats has got into Surbiton, and one can only say that one hopes it recommends itself to the inhabitants, as it surely ought’. Both Building and The Brick Builder pay tribute to the location and accessibility to the country, and emphasis is given to the light and airy rooms ‘planned to admit the maximum amount of health-giving sunshine’, a soubriquet that would later be used extensively in advertising literature promoting Surbiton Court as ‘sunshine flats’. The collegiate layout around a sunken garden is noted as forming its major feature, and was the result of excavations for sand and gravel which were found on the site. The amenities available to residents are outlined: extensive grounds, tennis courts, restaurant, and guest accommodation, which are coupled with labour-saving devices for middle class families, offering ‘servantless operation’ which they suggest ‘would recommend it to cultured occupants’. In a series of articles in The Sunday Times entitled ‘Our Surburbs: A Candid Survey’, the writer J B Sterndale Bennett MC wrote, in April 1931, a somewhat critical review of Surbiton in general, but had this to say of Surbiton Court:
It is only fair to give due praise to a block of flats designed by Mr JBF Cowper, known as Surbiton Court. This, which is planned on the collegiate principle, surrounding a great court with a sunk garden, must become even more desirable as it grows older. It is really one of the best pieces of modern architecture to be seen near London.
The first advertisements for Surbiton Court appeared in January 1930, shortly after the flats had been completed, with a series of classified ads in The Times and The Sunday Times. In July and August, The Illustrated London News ran a series of quarter page display adverts featuring a black and white sketch. There appears to have been a concerted effort of intensive marketing to woo prospective residents to suburbia. How successful this was can only be gauged by the intensity of the marketing and the change in the level of the rentals, which fluctuated over the years. In addition to the usual accent on facilities and services, prominence was also given to such factors as health and sunshine, emphasising Surbiton Court’s location ‘high up on gravel and sand sub-soil which ensures perfect dryness’ and ‘away from noise, dust and smoke’. Sunlight, a quality increasingly promoted in the 1930s as conferring health benefits in its own right, was used liberally in these advertisements representing Surbiton Court as ‘Sunshine Flats’.
According to records, by September 1930, a little over one third of the flats had been let. Does this mean that, apart from the reasonable rentals and closeness to town, people who would normally consider service flats as a place to live were reluctant to move out to Surbiton? We have no evidence to support this but can, perhaps, draw conclusions from such factors as the drop in rentals: similarly, the constant promotion in various newspapers and magazines may indicate that the developers faced a challenge in attracting potential residents to the suburbs. For example, by 1935 an advertisement in The Observer was promoting flats from £110 to £200, a significant drop from the initial rental rates. It is interesting to consider that for the yearly rent of a two bed-roomed flat at £200, one could, over a five-year period, purchase a semi-detached house similar to those in The Mall and other areas of Surbiton, that is, for £1,000, or even less. Service flats were more likely to appeal to a niche market, possibly more inclined to living in central London rather than suburbia. Regardless of Surbiton’s proximity to town, Surbiton was not town but suburb. Additionally, the inter-war years, 1919 to 1939, witnessed a revolution of house building and home ownership. In this period, notwithstanding the global recession of the 1930s, which actually had little impact on London and the South East, over four million houses were built in Britain, seventy per cent of which were for private ownership. Later, during the war years, the advertisements for Surbiton Court were to extol the merits of being outside London, away from bombing, in such terms as ‘safe out-of-London flats’ and ‘safety from town targets’.
In post-war years there is no evidence of Surbiton Court having been marketed in the national press as in pre-war years. Can we construe from this a wane in the concept of service flats as the way forward for suburban living? The immediate post-war years were years of rebuilding and austerity, coupled with shortages and rationing, the latter only ending in 1954. Later, the late fifties and early sixties would herald a New Jerusalem, leading to the era of ‘white heat’ and ‘technology’. Certainly, in areas such as Surbiton, home ownership was considered preferable to renting. Inflation, a word only in the vocabulary of economists in pre-war years, was now an everyday word, both in the press and in everyday living. Secure employment, mortgages extended to twenty-five years, and increasing inflation encouraged people to buy rather than rent. It was most likely at this time that flats in Surbiton Court were let out to corporate entities to house their personnel. The Surrey Comet, at this period, ran numerous advertisements for accommodation for employees of the various companies surrounding Kingston. This may well have given rise to the myth of Surbiton Court having housed some of the stars of the silver screen and that Shepperton Studios rented accommodation for their staff. There is no evidence to support this: what is more likely is the accommodating of ancillary and technical staff. Nevertheless, a former resident of Surbiton Court claimed that Margaret Lockwood, of Wicked Lady and Hollywood fame, had been a former occupant of her flat.
The era of Surbiton Court as service flats came to an end in February 1964 with an advertisement in The Times announcing the sale, by public auction, of all 68 flats and outbuildings situated on three and three quarter acres, ‘ripe for redevelopment’ and with planning consent for 111 flats, 13 maisonettes and 22 houses. Two weeks later, The Times reported a price of £165,000 having been achieved. Fortunately, the proposed demolition and redevelopment did not materialise: instead, a partial modernisation of the flats took place which involved the removal of picture rails, the replacement of skirting boards, the installation of kitchen units and new bathroom suites. Letterboxes were cut into the doors of each flat: previously all mail and deliveries had been held at, and distributed from, the porter’s lodge. Another myth, which has formed part of Surbiton Court lore, is that, at the same time, some of the larger flats were split up into smaller units prior to their sale. This is inaccurate: in fact, the overall number of flats decreased from 70 to 68, with the sale of the two guest flats, together with the converted restaurant, as a completely separate entity, Surbiton Court Mews. Some flats did have dividing walls removed, to knock two rooms into a larger one, and evidence of this can be seen in the arched walls in some of the larger flats. Overall, however, the footprint of each flat remained the same as in the architectural plans of 1928.
Chalford Property Company was responsible for the refurbishment and sale of Surbiton Court to new tenants on one thousand year Leases from 1964. Nineteen flats were sold in 1964 and the remainder in 1965. Prices ranged from £3,000 to £5,950: the total sale proceeds for the 68 flats amounted to £312,700, a profit of £147,700 over the auction price of £165,000, less the expenses for refurbishment. Chalford would later build two separate blocks on ground formerly comprising Surbiton Court, the tennis courts and the rockery garden, Surbiton Court No 2 in 1965 and Surbiton Court No 3 in 1966. Although bearing similar names, these two blocks are entirely separate legal entities and managed separately. Surbiton Court Residents Association Limited (SCRA Ltd) was established and incorporated as a limited company on 06 July 1964. SCRA Ltd became fully operational and effective when all 68 flats were sold, and Chalford’s responsibilities for certain repairs were completed. On 06 January 1966, SCRA Ltd purchased the freehold for the cost of £20 per flat per annum in perpetuity, that is, £1,360 per annum. This Ground Rent is included in the maintenance.
Like all property in Surbiton, Surbiton Court has increased in value over the years and its unique collegiate ambience has no doubt contributed to this. The original concept of a tranquil environment within close proximity to London remains: this ideal of countryside living with strategic transport links is as relevant today as when Surbiton Court was conceived. To many people it remains a quiet oasis in suburbia. Looking back, Sterndale Bennett’s prescient words, in 1931, have certainly been borne out with the passage of time: ‘Surbiton Court [...] must become even more desirable as it grows older’.
Contracts, Counterpart Leases, Documents, and Papers, SCRA Ltd Archives
Gardiner, Juliet, The Thirties: An Intimate History (London: Harper Press, 2010)
Kynaston, David, Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice 1959-62 (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)
Lewis, Philippa, Everyman’s Castle (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2014)
Statham, Richard, Surbiton Past (West Sussex: Phillimore & Co., 1996)
The Brick Builder
The Illustrated London News
The Sunday Times
The Surrey Comet
Grateful thanks to the Mill Hill Golf Club for permission to reproduce the photograph of JBF Cowper FRIBA
The British Library
The London Library
The RIBA Library
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