The First Bungalow Estate
By Alan Kay
Many readers will know that England's first bungalow was built in Westgate in 1867. But Birchington may lay claim to having the first bungalow "estate". This was mainly due to the restrictive covenants imposed by Edmund Davis, the autocratic developer of the new "private estate" at Westgate. Consequently only two bungalows were ever built there.
The original builder, John Taylor, then moved along the coast to where John Pollard Seddon, a well-known London architect, had bought land along the cliffs at Birchington at the time of the great railway boom of the 1860s.
The Kentish Gazette of 1870 advertised 240 plots of freehold land for sale by Ventum, Bull and Cooper in the ‘rural simplicity of Birchington’. That year saw two small bungalows built each side of Coleman Stairs, later named ‘Fair Outlook’ and ‘Poets Corner’. In 1872 two more bungalows were built close by, ‘Delmonte’ and ‘White Cliffs’, with ‘Skyross’ added in 1873. These five bungalows were assured of “perfect privacy as there is no private right of way along the cliff”. They were also cut off from each other "by a desert of mud and mire from all chance of Christian intercourse".
By 1880 this estate of bungalows had become fully established, benefiting from the pioneering efforts of a decade earlier. Between 1881 and 1882 four more bungalows were added to the line along the edge of the cliffs, as is shown by the contemporary map.
By now Taylor appears to have relinquished his part in the bungalow development. He died some time between 1879 and 1885. J.P. Seddon then designed what became known as the Tower Bungalow Estate, ending with ‘Haun’ and ‘Thor’ on what was later to become the Beresford Hotel site.
Among the collection of some 2000 drawings by Seddon in the Victoria and Albert Museum is one sheet titled the "Cliff Estate" showing how he planned to develop and expand the site to incorporate the recently-constructed railway station, renamed Birchington-on-Sea in 1878, with the present Station House also designed by Seddon. The site of the bungalows was some distance from the historic rural village of Birchington around the Parish Church and the development of the surrounding open fields did not come until much later. By 1891 some 13 bungalows had been established making the estate the first in this new form of building design.
The first 13 bungalows were intended as second homes for "gentlemen of position and leisure", enjoying the class distinctions of Victorian times. In 1881, Athol Mayhew wrote, "Here there are no German bands in the gardens, no distressing minstrels on the sands, no revolting donkey drivers on the roads. Birchington offers absolutely nothing, not even a solitary tea garden." Shorn of these attractions the cheap excursionists from London shunned the spot and travelled on to Margate.
The medical profession advertised that nowhere was to be found a cooler, healthier or more bracing spot by the sea. Sir Erasmus Wilson felt that Birchington air was unequalled anywhere along the whole of Britain's coastline. He calculated that "during a period of twenty-four hours a person would consume twice as much air at Birchington-on-Sea as he would given the same time in London."
The Birchington bungalows were well-built and incorporated novel features such as a lockout tower, a damp-proof course and patent interlocking roof tiles. The whole contents of the larder could be lowered sixty feet into the chalk - an early example of refrigeration.
Prohibitive financing was used to keep the area exclusive and select. Prices ranged from 1200 to 1800 guineas for 11 rooms. This was at a time when experienced clerks only received about 100 a year and most of the working class between 25 and 100.
In 1882 a young sculptor, George Frampton (later Sir) was brought from London to decorate the outside of "Ye Tower Bungalow". This decoration is still visible today. Frampton later made his reputation with statues of Peter Pan and Nurse Edith Cavell in London.
By this time Seddon had produced a plan of Birchington showing how he proposed to develop the site around the original bungalows. Seddon planned a cliff estate along what are now Berkeley and Cliff Roads of bungalows facing the sea with stables and servants' quarters behind.
He established the Monarch Estate Company, but unfortunately, many of his plans never came to fruition. He enjoyed many contacts with literary and artistic circles and his bungalow estate along the cliffs "attracted persons of refinement and artistic sympathies", although records show that many properties were unoccupied during the cold winter months.
These leanings towards literary and artistic circles are shown in the naming of the nearby grid of roads which were later built, although there is no connection with the bungalow estate. The names of Shakespeare, Spenser, Constable, Gainsborough, Wilkie, Leslie and Nasmyth show this, whilst the names Darwin, Lyell, Berkeley and Herschel honour scientists.
The 1885 Directory shows that the bungalow estate along what is now Spenser Road consisted of 16 properties. ‘Thor’ and ‘Haun’, ‘Roding’, ‘Ingoldsby’, ‘The Hut’, ‘Dilkoosha’, ‘Llanadern’, 4 Tower bungalows, ‘Orion’, ‘Cliffside’, ‘Swiss’ and two others un-named.
However, by the 1887 period Seddon was concentrating on building two and three storey houses which could be sold more easily. His Monarch Estate was developing very slowly, mainly due to competition from the newly-established Birchington Bay Freehold Land and Estate Company formed in 1885 to develop the land in Minnis Bay to the west.Seddon did not actually give up on the Tower Bungalow area. In July 1887, he advertised 74 plots for sale on his "Cliff or Bungalow Estate" and hired a special train to convey some 300 ladies and gentlemen from Holborn Viaduct to Birchington-on Sea for the sale. It appears that even this innovation was not too successful. However, for the next 20 years or so most building developments were of the more traditional kind and the seaside bungalow did not regain popularity until the turn of the century. By now the idea of living at ground level had moved inland from the seaside and bungalow developments were part of most residential towns. Over the last 50 years bungalow estates have moved back to the seaside, where they started in the 1880s, as more and more retired residents found them an ideal form of housing.