History: Building Raynes Park

Building Raynes Park: Part 1


Part 1.


by John Tarling


All around London are building projects that never came to their full flower: Crescents that did not grow beyond quadrants, Parades that stopped at three shops and a flank wall with toothing bricks, First Avenues that never begat a Second or a Third.

Anyone coming through the tunnel under Raynes Park Station on Armistice Day 1918 and looking up The Grand Drive as it was originally called, might have thought this was another example of frustrated optimism. Between the backs of the houses built ten years earlier in Gore Road and the beginning of Grand Drive, much of the approach to Prince George's Playing Field had been converted into allotments during the war. On the left, on the eastern, side of Grand Drive stood about twenty Arts and Crafts villas with St Saviour's Church opened in 1907 standing in some isolation opposite. Beyond them were the bigger houses on the ridge where Blenheim Road is, and beyond those Grand Drive dwindled to a path to Bijou Villas and then across farmland with Battersea Cemetery and St Anthony's Hospital as features in the distance.


The Golf Club

George Blay, the man most responsible for changing this rural landscape to the suburb of today, was born in Devon in 1880 but by the outbreak of World War one had a business in New Maiden making and selling timber buildings. In September 1924 he bought the Raynes Park Golf Club that had been on the western side of Grand Drive plus the Cannon Hill Estate.  He acquired smaller adjacent areas very soon afterwards and even after selling Cannon Hill Park, which was renamed as Cannon Hill Common, had an estate of 250 acres which he planned to develop with houses and sports grounds.


Homes for Heroes

By 1924 there was a great pent-up demand for houses. The building industry had been in a trough before 1914 and most building stopped after 1915. Lloyd George had announced a plan immediately after Armistice Day that became known as "Homes for Heroes" mostly carried out by Councils with Government subsidy; but in 1922 the programme was terminated abruptly because of soaring costs. After ten years' quiescence private enterprise tentatively began to build again. Local stimulation for Blay's decision might have been the activity of Sidney Parkes who had been building in New Malden and was now erecting houses in Adela Avenue in Motspur Park and, on a much larger scale, the purchase of the John Innes estate in Merton Park by the Housing and Land Development Corporation Ltd, one of whose directors was Sir Edwin Evans the Battersea estate agent and a conspicuous figure in estate development before the War.


What set Blay apart was the size of his scheme and his anticipation of the interwar suburban housing boom. While estate developers like Edwin Evans acquired and planned the layout of the estate, arranged for sewerage and then sold parcels to various builders, Blay formed a company, Cannon Hill Estates Ltd, and did all the preliminary works, building and selling through that company. His co-director Harold Turner was an architect who had worked on local government schemes. Blay was ahead of many other builders in the London area. Wates at Streatham Vale, Costain at Neasden and Suburban Developments Ltd. who took over the huge unfinished City of London housing estate at Gants Hill north of llford; all entered into major commitments in 1924 and 1925 but Blay's contract preceded these.


Firstway, Bushey Road and the Sports Grounds

The trade magazine "Master Builder" reviewed the Cannon Hill estate in October 1927. By then Firstway had been entirely built up, houses erected on the south side of Bushey Road west of Grand Drive and some in Fairway.  Blay tried to preserve the surroundings of the original bigger houses by imposing covenants and any houses fronting Grand Drive and Blenheim Road had to be set back at least thirty feet and to be of a higher minimum cost (£850). The estate plan is reproduced in the magazine and shows only houses and sports grounds. The existing and proposed open spaces were a big selling point. Blay also imposed a covenant across the whole estate that no ornamental trees were to be cut down. No space was reserved for schools, churches or other public buildings except for shops. These were built on the end of Approach Road but the other shops intended for the west side of Grand Drive between the station and Bushey Road never materialised. For some years that land was used as a miniature golf course.


The market for sports grounds in the area seems to have reached saturation point earlier than the housing market. Some of the proposed sports grounds were built over e.g. by Crossway, Meadway, Oakway and Woodlands. Crossway appears to be the result of pressure from the Council on town planning grounds to ensure that the roads on the estate linked up with West Barnes Lane. Anyone stuck at the traffic lights in Crossway now could spend the time reflecting on the delays that would occur if the only roads at that point were Greenway and Westway as originally intended. In the 1920s people were expected to walk and cycle. There was no bus service along Grand Drive till 1934. By October 1927 only 20% of the houses had garage space and for those tenants who were not provided for there was the battery of forty garages off Firstway available for rent.


The Council also wanted Blay to widen Grand Drive to 45 feet, but he asked what the point of that would be when the road led to the tiny tunnel under the station.   The Council said that any improvement to the tunnel would have to wait until the station was rebuilt.


Blay planned to build about 150 to 200 each year. One advantage of his large scale of operation was his ability to introduce buyers to Building Societies who would offer 85% mortgages which was a higher percentage than many lenders would offer at that time



The house styles were conventional for the 1920s with plain leaded lights and three vertical timbers in the gables over the bays. The more dramatic designs of the 1930s were to appear in other suburbs in a more crowded market. The only houses on the estate that differ from the general pattern are the two white rendered green roofed houses at the junction of Southway and Parkway. This junction was not part of the original plan. Southway, which would have been called Paddocksland, was supposed to form a T junction with Elm Walk. The link between Elm Walk and Parkway would have been on the line of Meadow Close where the footpath now runs. Meadow Close itself would have been the entrance to a sports ground but as the land was used for houses Meadow Close was extended to Elm Walk and so became what is possibly the only Close in London not to be a cul-de-sac.  While the road layout on the west side of Grand Drive was affected by traffic proposals, on the other side of the road Blay had to work around some houses that had already been built in Heath Drive and the beginning of Elm Walk by Bessant Brown Ltd, a company that was formed about a year before Cannon Hill Estates Ltd


The Bessant Brown houses can be recognised by the corbelled brick oriels under the third bedroom window, whereas Blay houses support that bay either by a projecting strut that lies flush with the underside, or especially on bays on the side elevation, by a cabriole strut.  The Bessant Brown houses are also at the beginning of Parkway which, according to one source, would have been called South Drive, though according to the estate plan that name would have been given to the farther half of Elm Walk.


Court Case

In 1931 Cannon Hill Estates Ltd. had the misfortune to be the losing party in a leading case. Late 1929 had been exceptionally wet and windy and one new house owner found that the exposed wall was penetrated by damp. There is correspondence preserved in the National Archives in Kew between Blay and his solicitors and the Building Research Station about damp-proofing walls. The Station said that there had been numerous complaints and enquiries about damp around that time. At the Court hearing the expert witness from the Building Research Station who had been subpoenaed said that his house leaked. The Station recommended 11 inch cavity walls as the only reliable form of damp proofing. The irony is that the Building Bylaws of Merton and Morden UDC at the time prohibited anything but solid walls.


There was some publicity about the case but the houses on the estate continued to be sold as soon as they were built. To compensate, Blay was a pioneer of a benefit to buyers. Sewerage and road-laying are the main precursors of building a housing estate. The sewer in Grand Drive was in such a poor condition that it had to be replaced before the work on the main part of the estate was begun. Originally the roads were to be sleeper roads that would be made up to the proper standard after the houses were completed. The cost of that would fall on the house buyer a few years after he (usually he in those days) moved in. About 150 tons of materials are moved in the construction of the average house including 15,000 - 20,000 bricks. Working on such a large scale Blay found that sleeper roads were totally inadequate and he adopted the system already begun in the area by Bilton on their estate off Burleigh Road, Stonecot Hill, of laying concrete roads before the houses were built. This reduced the problem shown by one writer to the Wimbledon Borough News who complained that she had been marooned in her house for a week because she could not manoeuvre her pram through the mud on Grand Drive. It also meant that the Council could take over the roads once construction work was finished and by 1928 a buyer could sign an agreement that the house would be sold free of road charges.



The Cannon Hill Estate was mostly complete by 1934, By then the market for three bedroom houses in the suburbs was almost fully catered for and many builders were turning to flats and maisonettes. Blay built a small block, Bushey Mansions, at the corner of Grand Drive and Bushey Road and then a much bigger block, Merton Mansions, of 132 flats with a swimming pool at the corner of Bushey Road and Martin Way. This must be one of the last blocks built in London to bear the name "Mansions".


Blay had bought a few shops in the area and the Blay style was also exported to the upper slopes of New Malden at Buxton Drive and Cromford Way, off Clarence Avenue, which is the only venture of Cannon Hill Estates outside Raynes Park that I know of.


George Blay died in 1936 at the age of 56. The land on the west of Grand Drive that had been intended for shops was sold to New Ideal Homesteads who promptly built a range of their typical designs. They also built some terraces on Bushey Road east of Merton Mansions. Other builders developed the remaining sites on the far side of Cannon Hill Lane. His legacy is that after eighty years when the names of many suburban developers have been forgotten his houses are still known and described by his name.



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