Cooper Close Cooperative

'The First and the Best'

Cooper Close History


Melanie Bunch's History of the Location

 In the context of the long history of London, this part south of the river was late in developing, because before it could be built on, much of the land needed to be drained. The land on which Cooper Close is now sited was once within an area of open country known as St. George’s Fields, which has its own interesting history as a place both of recreation and lawlessness.

The opening of Westminster Bridge in 1750 and Blackfriars Bridge in 1769 led to the improvement of the land in order to build the approach roads. This in turn prompted speculative house-building, to meet the demand created by the rapidly-expanding population.

Curiously, the shape of our estate is not unlike the shape of a piece of land appearing on the 1799 edition of Horwood’s map, largely as a blank space. Whether due to a legal or physical problem with the land, or some other factor, the blank space suggests that most of our site was first built on slightly later than the surrounding streets. In any case, after the building of the Waterloo Road, (following the opening of the Bridge in 1817), the boundaries of the site stayed constant enough to enable me to make an estimate of the number of people living here at different times, and the number of properties that they occupied, based on the censuses. The figures are extraordinary.

For example, in 1841, there were 100 houses and a police station in the same area now covered by the Close, with a total population of 654, including 213 children under the age of 13. In 1891, much of the site was occupied by one set of large tenement blocks, with part of another tenement development slightly overlapping the south-west corner. I calculated that on the “footprint” of our site there were about 244 flats, (37 of which were unoccupied), with 18 old houses and a public house. The total population I estimated at 1,052, including 395 children under 13. For comparison, Cooper Close has 63 flats and probably fewer than 100 residents, including a small number of children, varying in recent years from six to eight or nine.

These figures are from research which I carried out in 2008. On 7 June that year I mounted an illustrated display in our estate office, and was able to include more detail and background information than is given here. What follows is a selection from my findings.

From the end of the 18th century onwards, the greater part of our site became edged around with housing terraces. In time, especially in Tower (now Morley) Street, most of the ground floors were in use as shops or businesses, with tenant families on the upper floors. Almost all the residents belonged to the labouring or artisan classes, although this may not have been the case when the houses were first built.

A narrow street known later as Little Duke Street ran across the site roughly from where the vehicle entrance now is, across to Webber Row. (It continued as the rest of Duke Street, now Dodson Street). On the 1799 Horwood map the south side only of Little Duke Street is already lined with houses. South of these houses there was a police station from about 1840 or slightly earlier, until 1873 or 1874. Its location now corresponds to the southern part of Cooper Close car park. Judging by the 1881 census, the same buildings were later in use as two lodging houses.  

The inner part of our site now contains areas of grass, trees, hedges, flowerbeds, paths, a stretch of roadway and parked cars. For about half of the 19th century, in roughly the same area, were 26 tiny houses, with courtyards and alleyways, the whole maze being completely surrounded by the outer terraces. This is graphically shown in the large-scale Ordnance Survey of this locality dated 1872. Due, I suspect, in particular to inadequate drainage and sewerage, this was probably a slum for decades. In 1876, under the Cross Act of 1875, it was designated an Improvement Area known as the Elizabeth Place Improvement Area after the narrow path than ran through the centre. By 1883, a large part of our site had been demolished, although some of the oldest houses remained.

To replace the demolished houses, the Metropolitan Board of Works had recommended two five-storey blocks of tenements, spaced well apart. Instead, eight six-storey blocks known as Quinn Square, later Quinn Buildings, were built. Many of the apartments received a poor amount of daylight, partly because the blocks were too close together and partly because some were built in the shadow of other substantial buildings. The latter stood on an awkwardly-shaped triangle of land between Quinn Buildings and the Waterloo Road. This piece of land had not been included in the earlier Improvement Area.

Incidentally, the builder, Thomas Quinn, turned out to be unexpectedly interesting. As well as being a serial bankrupt, he was an Irish MP who was active in the Home Rule movement. He became a target in the intrigues against Charles Parnell, a tale too convoluted to tell here.

A friend of a Cooper Close resident lived in Quinn Buildings, happily enough, between 1938 and 1961. As she described them, the 234 flats, mainly two-roomed, had no separate kitchens or bathrooms, only a sink and a cold-water tap, and there was a communal wash-house for doing laundry. Yet by the standards of the day, Quinn Buildings , managed with the help of a caretaker and strict rules for the tenants, provided adequate accommodation for a large number of people. The Buildings stood here between 1884 and 1971. In 1971 the Greater London Council condemned the buildings on the grounds of “the bad arrangement on site” of three-quarters of the flats.

I carried out a detailed analysis of occupations in the 1871 census of our site and a brief survey of those in the 1891 census. In 1871, the largest occupational group amongst men and boys were policemen, simply because there were 21 of them, all single men, resident in the station. The next most numerous in 1871 were bootmakers and shoemakers, and printers. There were also representatives of a wide range of unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled occupations. Amongst women and girls, the great majority who had a stated occupation were involved in some aspect of clothes-making (26 individuals). In contrast, a further two women were described as sewing machinists, who would have been earning far higher wages than the hand sewers, most of whom were probably trapped in the sweated labour system. Most of those in the second largest occupational group, laundresses, were widows.

We can assume that many women and children who were not formally employed were helping the menfolk, or perhaps selling things in the street. In 1871 only four children under the age of 13 were identified as being employed: an 11-year old boy was a wood-chopper, and a 12-year old boy was a chairmaker. One 12-year old girl was a general servant, and another was a mantle braider.

In 1891, there were still many tailoresses, a 13-year old errand boy and a 15-year old servant. Elderly widows were still surviving by washing and charring, and there were many printers. By this time there were many sewing machinists and more factory workers than before. A few were in clerical jobs, suggesting an improved rate of literacy and numeracy.


Cooper Close was built by the Greater London Council in 1978-9. The name is taken from a public house called the Coopers’ Arms, which was at 24 Tower (now Morley) Street, on the corner of Frazier Street, just outside our site. It was there for over 100 years, but had gone by 1919. As well as land freed up by the demolition of Quinn Buildings, some adjacent land was also acquired, which had not been part of the Improvement Area of 1876 but had always been in what I have described as the “footprint” of Cooper Close for the purposes of my research. This adjacent land consisted of the ground once covered by the south side of Little Duke Street and most of the police station, and the awkward plot of land between Quinn Buildings and Waterloo Road.

The GLC at this time were involved in large-scale and wide-ranging attempts to improve London’s housing and seem to have been very open to consider new ideas. Whatever the original intentions may have been, it was not decided for some time whether the flats in Cooper Close should be sold to individual purchasers, nominated purchasers or on the open market, or instead let, and if so to whom. In October 1978 the GLC Minutes mention, in a reply to a question, that the suggestion had been made by Harold Campbell, the director of the Greater London Secondary Housing Association, that this development might be “eminently suitable for a new form of community leasehold which is fairly close to co-ownership or to co-operative housing, depending on which way you look at it.” This is not the kind of co-operative that we have now of course, but the small size and good design of the estate probably contributed to the idea that the occupants might be able to live together in a co-operative spirit.

In the event the flats were let and joined all the other GLC estates in being devolved to the Borough Councils, in our case to Southwark. (The GLC was eventually abolished in 1986.) The Housing Act of 1980 brought in the right-to-buy provisions for Council tenants which had far-reaching consequences for social housing. The tenants of Cooper Close set up the form of Co-operative that we still have, having first become a Tenants’ Management Organisation. The first AGM of the Co-op was held in October 1987. An enormous amount of voluntary work went into the setting-up and subsequent management of the Co-op by a few dedicated pioneers (see following section). For the exact sequence of all these events, you should speak to the residents who were there at the time and still live here, and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.  © Melanie Bunch 2012


 Grace Gunner and Jeannie Morrison recall the setting up of the Co-operative


The estate called Cooper Close was built in the late ‘70s and the first residents moved in at the beginning of the ‘80s, with the maisonette block the first to be occupied – we think that there are currently eight of those original ‘pioneers’ still living here!


The estate was part of the GLC Higher Rented initiative, to get a better mix of tenants on estates and was aimed at people who would not normally qualify for Council housing but who were, nonetheless in housing need, and who could afford to pay a higher rent that was normal for a Council tenant.  The rents were set at one and a half times or twice the normal Council rent.  The Higher Rented initiative also had an eye to the Right to Buy legislation enshrined in the 1980 Housing Act.  There were several higher rented estates around London.  


The other initiative to get more diverse tenants on estates was the Hard to Let scheme. Individuals applied for Hard to Let or Higher Rented via an advert in the local paper and a queue system.


Cooper Close was part of the GLC housing stock and was built to a very high specification. 


Early on in its existence, some residents, led by Anne-Maree Sheehan, Matthew and Jilly Borowiecki and Sue Hill, proposed becoming a Self-managing co-operative.  The GLC had already pioneered several co-operatives so discussions to make Cooper Close a co-operative were started.  Unfortunately the GLC was abolished and the management of Cooper Close passed to Southwark Council around the time of the abolition.  Southwark were less keen on co-operatives but they did  put the rents down.  


Photo shows arrival of birdbath in memory of Leroy - Councillor Hillary Wines is 4th from left

However, not to be outdone the Cooper Close residents took matters into their own hands and did their own cleaning of the estate and maintaining of the gardens.  Discussions with Southwark Council continued and the turning point came when, [date needed] a group arranged to attend a Southwark Council meeting and petitionto become a co-operative and be self-managed.  In this they were helped by John Carty, who along with Councillor Hilary Wines, was an early and consistent friend to the estate.


The first management committee included Leroy Arscott, the first Chair, Jeannie Morrison, Joyce Coughlin, Anne-Marie Sheehan, Delia Heffernan, Dorothy Plenderleith and Grace Gunner. 




Anne-Marie Sheehan


Since those early days, there have been five more chairs, Anne-Marie Sheehan, Doug Young, Errol Blake, Carol Riley and Zena Edwards, the chair currently.


 Perhaps most famous former resident -Tracey Emin - who used to live in the Morley Street Block - with two former residents - Dorothy Plenderleith on the right kindly supplied this photo and the one above of the birdbath ceremony.


(If anybody has any additions or corrections to the above, please drop them into the office for the attention of Doug Young)