The Architect: John Smith
John Smith (1855-1926) was a controversial figure. Described as leading a quiet life and being connected with the Congregational Church on the Avenue, he was absorbed in his construction business. ‘By enterprise and keen business acumen’ he expanded his firm into probably the ‘largest of its kind in Southampton’. At his death, it was estimated that in over thirty years of activity, he was responsible for erecting more than 1000 houses in the suburbs of Southampton, notably in Shirley. He built many of the houses in Oakmount Triangle. His obituaries report that he was a ‘persistent litigant’, frequently in conflict with the City Council over the interpretation of building byelaws and permission for development.
For example, in January, 1920 he was found erecting two houses in Oakmount Avenue, even though the plans had been rejected in the previous October. Moreover, the joists were not of the quality and thickness required under the byelaws, while the road itself had not been laid out in accordance with the byelaws and no sewers had been provided.
The most celebrated case was over the erection of an apartment block in Devonshire Road. Smith ignored the building byelaws and the Council began to demolish the structure. Smith accused them of trespass and the case went to court in Winchester. He won and was awarded £1200 in damages, as well as an injunction to keep the Council’s men away from his property. The action seems to have caused him considerable stress. He died suddenly on 8 July, 1926. No fewer than 160 employees preceded the hearse from Avenue House to the Old Cemetery and formed into two lines when the cortège passed through the gates.
When John Smith and his associates bought the Highfield House Estate, it had been advertised as ‘offering to Building Societies, Syndicates, Speculators, and others a splendid chance of purchasing for immediate development, as the estate possesses, unquestionably, building features of a most exceptional and valuable character, rarely to be met with’.
Although the area was still considered to be largely rural, the tide of building advancing north from the old town of Southampton began to encroach upon the Highfield House Estate from the 1880s when development began on the Westwood House estate on its southern border. Further development could be anticipated when the tramway on the Avenue was electrified to the company’s stables at the southern end of Highfield Road (1904), in existence since at least 1888. The forces driving expansion in the built-up area were, first, the general growth in the population of Southampton (65,325 in 1891; 119,039 in 1911) and, second, the expansion of professional work in the city.
Unemployment and socio-economic distress were acute in the working–class districts at the beginning of the twentieth century, while labour disputes affected most activities. Paradoxically, however, the demand for professional and managerial skills increased with the coming of the trans-Atlantic liners, enhancement of the port facilities and the transformation of shipbuilding and repair activities at Woolston and in the dock estate.
Work commenced around 1910 at the southerly end (Blenheim Avenue) and continued for at least another fifteen years. John Smith’s yard and offices were on the southern side of Blenheim Avenue, presumably on the large L shaped area stretching down to Winn Road, visible on the 1933 map. This appears to have later been taken over by H.G.Lane who subsequently built on that plot circa 1947.
Most of the development in the Triangle took place between 1911 and 1930. Officers in the armed services, officials of the local council, clergymen, and other professionals found the houses attractive and affordable. More houses were built on vacant plots after the Second World War (notably along the south side of Blenheim Avenue, which is characterised by varied development), while those damaged by bombing were repaired and in a few cases rebuilt.
The social mix of the area began to change as multiple occupancy increased during the 1950s and early 1960s, and a private hotel (subsequently a student hostel) was established. New development also continued. Town houses were added at the west end of Oakmount Avenue in the 1960s, while a spacious house at the west end of Blenheim Avenue (Gallia) was demolished and replaced by local authority sheltered housing (Gallia Court, 1977).
By then, however, houses were being returned to family use, with the emergence of private restoration schemes. Nonetheless, No. 45 Blenheim Avenue was demolished and replaced with apartments (2001), while a small bungalow at No. 34 Blenheim Avenue was replaced with a house. New houses were built on double plot gardens (33 Blenheim Avenue, 5 and 6 Leigh Road) between 2001 and 2005.
The development of the Highfield House Estate began in January, 1911 when plans for ‘the laying out of roads and sewers’ were submitted by the architects, Weston and Burnett, to the Council’s Public Lands and Market Committee.
The original plans included a proposal to build roads across The Common to The Avenue. Although approved by the Committee, this aspect of the plan was rejected by the Council following letters of opposition from individuals and organisations in the town, including the Common Lands Protection Association (28 June, 1911). The architects finally withdrew it, and the amended application was approved (12 September, 1911).
Work on laying out the roads began before the end of the year, as revealed by dates on the fire hydrants. However, the Council remained concerned about the definition of the boundary between the Highfield House Estate and The Common. The records imply some encroachment by the Estate. Agreement was reached in April, 1912.
The owners of the Estate offered to give up ‘a strip of land westward of the existing iron boundary fence for the whole length of the Estate, subject to the Owners being allowed to provide a wicket gate entrance to the Common from the back garden of each house abutting on the fence’. The Council accepted this proposal ‘at their pleasure’ and subject to specified conditions. The design and colouring of the wicket gates had to be approved by the Public Lands and Markets Committee; the entrances were not to exceed 3 feet in width; a shilling a year was to be paid to the Council; and an agreement reached with the Town Clerk for each house.
Smith had already been forced to specify the minimum value of the proposed houses. This was to be £700 in Westbourne Crescent, ‘with the exception of a small portion near the tramway depot’, but £500 in Blenheim Avenue and Leigh Road. The difference is apparent today in the different size and character of the houses in the three roads. Kelly’s Directory for 1912-13 reveals that 6 houses were then inhabited, 5 on the north side of Blenheim Avenue and one, the Red House, on the west side Westbourne Crescent. Subsequent editions of Kelly’s Directory allow the progress of development to be traced, though inconsistencies in the data make this a misleading source with which to work.
Building began on the north-west side of Leigh Road in 1912 and continued there and in Blenheim Avenue and Westbourne Crescent in piecemeal fashion into 1913-14.
No attempt was made to build houses consecutively along any of the roads. Houses on the south side of Blenheim Avenue, the south-east side of Leigh Road and the east side of Oakmount Avenue were inhabited by 1914-15. Development continued during the First World War (1914-18), though the number of houses reported to be newly inhabited fell away in 1918-19.
No new residents appeared in 1920 and only three in 1921. This probably reflects the shortage of labour, the lack of buyers and problems over the supply of finance and building materials. Development picked up again during the rest of the 1920s.
Apartment blocks appeared in the shape of Oakmount Mansions (first noted in 1923) and Westbourne Mansions (1925). The construction of Leigh Mansions (first reported in 1925) involved the demolition of Highfield House, which survived, apparently uninhabited, until then.
By 1930 almost all of the present buildings in Oakmount Triangle had been constructed. Although intended for families, it is clear from Kelly’s Directories that some of the houses were divided into flats, while others were put to different uses. No. 28 Blenheim Avenue was used by the Rotary Club from 1924 to 1926, while No. 16 Leigh Road contained a school from 1925 to 1936-37 run by the Misses Weekes, whose parents had bought the house on completion in 1912.
Prominent residents before the Second World war included the Anglican priest, William Slater Sykes (1863-1951) at Balderstone (47 Blenheim Avenue); the Borough Electrical Engineer, William Gilbert Turner, at The Nook (44 Blenheim Avenue); and Major Thomas Kenyon Pardoe (born 1873) who had been commissioned into the Warwickshire Regiment and had served as Adjutant to the Indian Volunteers (1907-11) but in 1916 was Assistant Embarkation Officer and living at Woodlands (6 Oakmount Avenue)