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Three hugely inspirational figures who led with inspired belief in their purpose.
Mrs Chesterton, founder of Cecil Houses, spent 2 weeks on the streets of London in the early 1920’s, so that she could understand what it would feel like to be a woman, homeless and alone.
From her experiences on the streets she wrote her book ‘In Darkest London’ recounting her stories with deep emotion and she made her experiences count – by taking action.
Mrs Chesterton’s Lodging House would provide clean beds and washing facilities, unlike the soiled beds, dirty sheets and cold water for washing that she had experienced on her travels. She felt strongly that homeless women deserved the same facilities as homeless men.
On October 21st 1926, Mrs Chesterton held a meeting at 25 Park Lane. At the meeting she explained that ‘the municipalities refuse to run women’s public lodging houses on the grounds that women are difficult to manage, and the provision of clean beds and hot water might be held to subsidise immorality’.
This was a statement of ‘horrible and loathsome hypocrisy’ in the view of her brother in law G K Chesterton, a famous writer.
On the evening of that first meeting, Mrs Chesterton’s passion and belief was persuasive and engaging. Her proposal was met with enthusiasm and support and Cecil Houses was formed. In this very building and through other events, Mrs Chesterton raised her £5,000.
As a result, in March 1927, the first Cecil House opened its doors to 44 women and 2 babies. Less than a year later, in January 1928, her second house was opened in Kings Cross, providing shelter for 58 women and 12 babies. In March 1929, the third house in North Kensington, for 60 women and 18 babies. In November 1930, a property in Harrow Road opened for another 60 women and 18 babies. And in March 1934, the property that is today our Central Office in Waterloo was opened for 49 women and 2 babies.
By 1935, Mrs Chesterton had received letters from all over the world, all promising help.
Mrs Chesterton’s Lodging Houses had one important rule – ‘no questions asked’ of any women needing shelter. The very absence of interrogation gave many poor souls the courage to share their trouble, with Matrons ready to help and counsel when asked.
Cecil Houses, were self-supporting, with a shilling a night covering the cost of running the service.
Cecil Houses became a registered Housing Association in 1974.
Miss Marjorie Rackstraw
In 1947, while Mrs Chesterton was busy building Cecil Houses, Miss Marjorie Rackstraw, another inspirational figure was working hard in Hampstead.
Following much voluntary work during and after the war, she noticed during her visits to the older community, that many people were living in empty rooms with just a few sticks of furniture. Poverty was as rife as the confusion around how to draw a pension.
She wanted to help and searched for a suitable house where ‘lost’ older people could move to and be cared for. She found a house in Fitzjohn’s Avenue and negotiated funding and support to get a service up and running.
She encouraged the residents to do their share around the house and recognised ‘the contribution of the old people to the work of the place is considerable’.
Miss Rackstraw’s first house was set up as a post-war emergency shelter to meet a desperate need, Hampstead Old People’s Housing Trust was established.
The Trust’s first home was in Eton Avenue, purchased on a 43 year lease for £6,000, and funded through grant donations.
The property is known to us as Rathmore House today.
Lord Harold Samuel
Whilst Cecil Homes and Hampstead Old People’s Housing Trust were firmly progressing their plans to improve housing for people in London, another inspirational figure was busy at work.
In 1944, Harold Samuel, founder of what we know today as Europe’s largest property company, bought Land Securities Investment Trust Ltd. By March 1948, the growth of the company was reported to be ‘meteoric’.
Harold Samuel was known as a private, shy, highly astute business man and brilliant financier. He had an eye for detail and for buying the right sites - cheap.
He was a hard task master but an honourable man who built a loyal team and a highly successful business. He was knighted in 1963 for his public and charitable services.
He was approached by Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Social Services who complained that there were too many office buildings in central London and not enough Social Housing. He challenged Lord Samuel to do something about it.
Central London Housing Trust was formed and 6 large buildings, providing Sheltered Homes for older people were planned. At the time, having a self-contained bedsit was a huge improvement for many people who were still seriously affected by wartime bomb damage.
We know Lord Samuel’s developments today as Dora House, Ada Court, Edna House, Oldfield Estate (Jaqueline, Marion and Carole), Vivian Court and Phillip House - all named after his family.
He ran over 1,000 flats with 1 part time colonel and a secretary and accepted all nominations from the council – people used to fight to get into one of the Trust’s properties.
Staff working at Land Securities were expected to help out and provide services to the Trust in their spare time. One member of staff recalls having to do the Trust’s accounts on the train on his way home from work.
The Trust encountered and overcame many problems. The rent freeze of 1974 meant that rents could not be increased but costs were rapidly increasing with inflation – their business acumen and resilience got them through this. Eventually the Trust came to realise that it needed another dimension.
The ambition to look after people was very strong, but they felt that people needed better care than they were able to provide. They sought to merge with a partner who could offer this and came together with Cecil Houses to form Central & Cecil in 1993.
Lord Samuel died in 1987 and left 84 pieces of perhaps the best Dutch art in Britain to the Mansion House – where you can see them hanging today for everyone to enjoy