|The Webb Estate||Croydon|
The Webb Estate was laid out from 1888 onwards by William Webb, a chartered surveyor and horticulturist who purchased 260 acres of land in Purley. He developed this as an upmarket residential estate according to his 'Garden First' system whereby landscaping and infrastructure should be established before house-building began. He set up a nursery to grow hedging, trees, shrubs and flowers for the estate. Houses were gradually built from 1901 onwards when the landscape infrastructure was maturing and the estate was completed by 1925. All roads but one were curving and names given to 'floral roads' reflected their planting schemes, such as Silver Lane, Rose Walk, and The South Border. The garden aspect of the estate endures today and it remains an important example within early town planning that recognised landscape as an essential component.
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In 1888, Croydon-born estate agent William Webb (1862-1930) purchased around 260 acres of farmland near the village of Purley, formerly part of the Beddington Estate, in order to build a residential estate aimed at the professional classes working in the City, who 'seek to spend their leisure time and bring up their families at the nearest spot to their work where they can find a comparatively country home; and, the more countrified such a district can be kept, the better it fulfils their requirements.' The estate was developed according to a system Webb called 'Garden First' whereby the first elements to be established should be the planting, landscaping and infrastructure. Only when the hedges bordering the building plots and the trees within them were well-grown, did he begin to let them for house-building. Webb expounded his system and the first 30 years of the estate in his book, ‘Garden First in Land Development’ published in 1919: 'A distinctive attribute of Garden First development is the arrangement of the entire estate in such a way that the occupiers of houses not only have the enjoyment of their own premises in desirable seclusion, but that, both from their own upper windows and when passing along the roads, it may appear as though they are in one large garden of which their own holding is a part.'
Webb set up a nursery to grow privet for some 20 miles of hedging, and the ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers that were planted throughout the estate. There were to be no walls or wooden fences and some roads were laid out with grass footpaths to evoke country lanes. Roads likely to suffer heavier traffic were suitably surfaced, and all the services for the estate were placed underground at the time the roads were made. The first house to be erected was Upper Woodcote House, which Webb built for himself in 1903, and the first part of the estate to be developed was Upper Woodcote Model Village with Woodcote Village Green (q.v.) as its focal point, complete with a forge and village store. Rose Walk was laid out in 1907 and let for building from 1911, The South Border was laid out in 1912, and the estate of 280 houses was completed by 1925. The houses were designed by various architects working at the behest of the purchaser of the plot, although Webb provided a proportion himself in style in keeping with Garden First principles. He issued strict guidelines for both buildings and landscaping, which included stipulation of a minimum building cost to ensure a good standard of work. The house in its good-sized garden was to be set well back and Webb recommended fast-growing climbers to disguise the newness of the building. Until 1914 the blacksmith in the forge on the Green undertook much of the metalwork needed for the estate, including gates for Rose Walk, Silver Lane and The South Border as well as components for the houses. Like many of London’s park railings, much of the estate metalwork was later removed for the war effort, as were the trucks of the Garden First light railway that had been installed on the estate to aid building works.
Many of the estate roads were originally gated with small lodge bungalows built for the gatekeeper, most of which remain now as private houses. All but one of the roads was curving, and some were specifically designated as ‘floral roads’ for which Webb provided a specific planting scheme. The road names reflected their character: Silver Lane had four rows of silver birch on each side; Rose Walk, with a gate at each end, was planted with 6,000 roses of 400 varieties in wide flower beds along its half-mile length. The South Border was named for the wide herbaceous border of over 50 varieties of plants that ran along the sunny northern side of its third of a mile extent, with mature hedges planted on the shadier, southern side. While planning the estate, Webb was also mindful of features of the earlier landscape. Briar Hill, which he laid out with a profusion of flowering trees, was deliberately routed through an existing clump of 40-year old Scotch firs and Austrian and Weymouth pines in such a way as to preserve the majority of them. Webb took care to achieve all year round interest in his planting schemes across the estate. A mass of spring bulbs flowered from Christmas onwards in Silver Lane, leading to its nickname the ‘bulb road’; in summer the fine rose display soon attracted many visitors, including Queen Mary; autumn colour was provided in The South Border; and Briar Hill’s trees provided winter interest. A unique feature found within the Webb Estate is its Promenade de Verdun (q.v.), which Webb created in 1923 to commemorate French sacrifices on the Western Front. Responsibility for the maintenance of the Promenade had been vested in Croydon Corporation in 1925 while the rest of the Webb Estate remains an exclusive and self-contained area of private roads.
Although the Webb Estate was a commercial rather than a philanthropic or social undertaking Webb took into account the future well-being of the residents. By the time the houses were being built, Purley already had shops, banks and other facilities so there was no need to provide such amenities here, apart from those found in Upper Woodcote Village. Webb had proposed donating a site on the estate for a church although in the event an alternative site was selected for Purley’s new parish church, and there are two schools, both on Woodcote Lane, Downside School for boys founded in 1914, and Commonweal Lodge for girls founded in 1916, the latter at Webb’s direct instigation.
Today it remains the landscaping and planting of the Webb Estate that are of most interest and the estate as a whole was designated a Conservation Area in 1983, initially excluding Furze Lane as housing there differed from the rest of the estate and had largely semi-detached properties, but it was extended to include this in 1984. This was largely the result of efforts of the newly formed Webb Estate Society.
Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England, London 2: South (1983) p235; Andrew Saint (introduction), 'London Suburbs', Merrell Holberton Publishers 1999; Vanda Bouri 'A Century of Garden First'; William Webb 'Garden First', 1919; Sally Williams, ''Some Appendages to the City': A look at three of London's less well known Garden Suburbs', The London Gardener, vol.14, 2008-09; LB Croydon, Webb Estate and Upper Woodcote Village Conservation Areas Appraisal and Management Plan' (2007)