There are many fascinating digital records online and I was recently looking at the Medical Officer of Health reports for West Ham, digitised by the Wellcome Foundation. I came across a family called Simpson who lived in Forest Gate and who seemed to be prosecuted by the authorities a number of times for poor housing standards in the nineteenth century.

Newham Council who took over from West Ham in 1965 also have a significant record of prosecuting poor landlords.

Newham was the first local authority in the UK to introduce in 2013 a borough wide property licensing scheme for private landlords.

By the end of 2014 they had already prosecuted 350 landlords. By the end of 2016 there have been 960 prosecutions, more than the rest of the country put together. Concerted action against bad landlords is nothing new however.

The first record I came across was in 1895 is a report from the West Ham Medical Officer of Health (MoH) who dealt with housing and other public health matters at this time and it was about 98 Chestnut Avenue. What is remarkable about this is that the authorities are saying these two houses are so bad they have to be closed down completely and cannot have tenants living there, although they must been only 20 years old.

98 and 98A Chestnut Avenue E7 today. These were built by DC Simpson and closed down by the authorities after just 20 years.

The Simpson family originally came from the Whitechapel area and seem to have been involved in a number of different businesses. David Caldow Simpson, house painter, is recorded in 1851 as bankrupt. DC must have soon been back in business because in 1857 as he and his brother took out a patent for an improved roller blind. In fact the records shown for a short while that he was with other family members as blind makers.

1859 sees the first complaint against David Caldow Simpson as a landlord in Poplar. He then gets into major trouble with the Poplar authorities again in the mid 1860s.

By this time he has moved to an address in Forest Gate – Graydon Cottage, which was a spacious dwelling right on the edge of Wanstead Flats – in a street now known as Sidney Road. This was a move up in the world from the Commercial Road.

Forest Gate was then a posh rural village with large houses and 'well-to-do' owners.

This area was right on the parish boundary and with undisturbed views to the east.

It seems he was also renting out lodging houses and “one of the largest in London” so he was obviously investing his money in properties. In the 1880s the Simpson family got in trouble with a number of local authorities in North East London and the Leyton borough takes them to court for using inferior building materials. It seems they were deliberately reducing the amount of mortar they needed but using ‘dirt‘ in the mixture.

In 1884 they were accused directly in court for the first time of being jerry builders. This time it is David Caldow Simpson junior who was born in 1860 and seems to be following in his father’s footsteps of being a dodgy landlord and builder.

David Caldow Simpson Junior

There are many extraordinary things about their next court appearance in 1884 concerning some houses of theirs in Silvertown. The main walls of the houses are not bonded together. The Simpsons are accused of trifling with the court (taking the mickey we might say) and then at the end have the audacity to say they have no money to pay fines and costs. In the very same month they were up to the same tricks in Forest Gate.

In 1891 Graydon Cottage Forest Gate becomes Graydon Villa, and presumably the family were pretty aspirational. It was called 31 Woodford Rd in some records but this does coincide at all with the current site of 31 Woodford Rd, E7 but is some three hundred yards to the north.

In late 1884 the property seems to have been put up for sale. It is likely that the Simpson family had been renting there up to this point. Even wealthy people commonly rented in the Victorian period where owner occupation was far less common. The house was probably sold with them as sitting tenants.

1873 Ordnance Survey map showing the location of Graydon cottage (later Villa) where the present day Sidney Road is located. Graydon was his wife’s middle name, and came from her maternal grandmother’s side.

During the 1890s they were prosecuted a number of other times and come 1895 the Simpsons were operating as slum landlords on their own doorstep in Forest Gate. There was a case involving 33 Woodford Road that must have been very close to their own home.

David Caldrow Simpson Senior died January 1899. His wife died a couple of months later and their property was sold for building materials.

Forest Gate was a rapidly expanding London suburb and there was money to be made from selling off building plots to build the terraced housing in Sidney Road that survives.

There are also records of his will. He leaves nearly £60,000 to his sons, that is £9.3m in today’s values so the family made an enormous amount of money from their property dealings and speculative building between 1850 and 1900 when London was expanding so rapidly.

By 1911 David Caldow Simpson Junior had moved to Snaresbrook. Wealthier families would find the new suburbs further out more attractive. Forest Gate was not as rural and posh as it had been.

Peter and Mark are the authors of the 2022 book 'Forest Gate - a short illustrated history' available from Number 8 Emporium and stay tuned for 'Wanstead Flats - a short illustrated history' that's due to be published summer 2023