Henry Roberts (1803 – 76)

Henry Roberts was an English architect whose designs influenced the provision of social housing throughout Europe, and whose ideas were shaped by projects that he observed as a young man in Italy and other continental countries.

He was born, the son of an English merchant Josiah Roberts (1773-1846), in Philadelphia in the United States, but the family moved to England while he was a child. He was articled to the architect Charles Fowler (1792-1867) in 1815, and ten years later began to work in the office of Sir Robert Smirke. On Smirke`s recommendation he entered the Royal Academy School, which enabled him to study in Italy where he was particularly impressed by the Alberg di Poveri, the philanthropic housing project in Naples begun by King Charles III in 1751.

On his return to England he designed churches, schools and lodge houses for great estates in several parts of the country, but his two major works were the Fishmongers` Hall, in the Greek Revival style built in 1832 in the City of London, and the terminus building at London Bridge station of 1841-44, both of which remain. He was best-known as the designer of apartments for the working class. In 1835 he built the Sailors` Home in Well Street, Whitechapel (now demolished), the prototype of many blocks of intelligently-designed tenements.

In 1844 he became a founder member of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring classes for whom his first projects were a group of model dwellings in Pentonville and a model lodging house converted from three existing dwellings in Charles Street off Drury Lane. Both have been demolished, but his next major work for the Society, the block of apartments completed in 1850 in Streatham Street near the British Museum, still stands. He built several other multi-storey blocks of apartments in central London, amongst them Thanksgiving Buildings in Portpool Lane off Gray`s Inn Road, of 1849-51 which was particularly influential, but has been demolished, and St George`s Buildings, Bourdon Street, Mayfair, built in 1852-53 for the philanthropic builder John Newson, which still remains.

Roberts designed the model houses for the working class that were displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851. It was acknowledged that the cottages set new standards for the accommodation of the poor. They were designed on modular principles, so that they could be extended horizontally in terraces or vertically in multi-storey blocks. After the exhibition the houses were re-erected in Kennington Park Road, while similar houses were built in several English towns, of which those in Abbots` Langley, Hertford, Tunbridge Wells and Windsor remain. He was particularly concerned with lodging houses, regarding the typical common lodging house as a reproach to Christianity in England` but none of his model lodging houses survives.

About 1853 when he was becoming more and more influential, Roberts`s professional career was cut short by an adulterous affair with a woman of lower social class that became public knowledge, and was particularly damaging to a man who was professedly a devout Evangelical. He spent much of the rest of his life in Italy, returning only occasionally to England, although he continued to influence policy on the housing of the poor through lectures and publications.

He advised on housing schemes in The Hague, St Petersburg and Brussels, and was acknowledged by Emile Muller of the Societe Industrielle de Mulhouse to have had a powerful influence on the design of the Cite Ouvriere in that city.