In the latest in the AJ’s ongoing series looking at influential housing plans, George Saumarez Smith looks at Henry Roberts’ house for destitute sailors in Whitechapel
A couple of years ago I was invited to a Livery Dinner at the Fishmongers Hall in London. The Fishmongers are housed in one of the grandest Greek Revival buildings in London, designed in 1831 by a young architect called Henry Roberts. It got me interested in the work of a rather underrated architect, and in particular at his work in providing homes for those with little or no income.
Roberts had trained in the office of Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum, and had won a competition to design the Fishmongers Hall when he was only 28. It made his reputation overnight and he could very easily have spent the rest of his career designing country houses for the wealthiest families of Victorian England.
After the Fishmongers Hall, however, Roberts’ career took a rather unexpected direction. In 1835 he was asked to design a building to house destitute sailors in Whitechapel in the east end of London, and from then on he devoted most of his professional life to designing houses for the poor. His model houses at the Great Exhibition in 1851 earned him international fame and his books on housing reform were translated into many languages.
Sadly within his lifetime Roberts was never properly recognised for his achievements, a result of having had an affair with a girl from a different social background. Two centuries on, Roberts should be celebrated now not only as a pioneer of low-cost housing, but as an example to modern-day architects – too often obsessed with trophy buildings - to direct their skills to the urgent issues of mass housing.
George Saumarez Smith is a director at ADAM Architecture
Henry Roberts’ home for destitute sailors