The Artizans, Labourers and General Dwellings Company Ltd was founded by William Austin, a drain laying contractor, in 1867 to meet the demand for housing in London for the industrious poor. Money was required to build the houses and in the beginning houses were resold to recoup working capital. The letting of houses was only possible when larger resources were available.
The workmen employed by the Company had a co-operative interest in their work as they received a share of the profits. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, the philanthropist, was attracted by this scheme and gave the Company his support in its early years, resigning as President in 1875.
The first houses were in Rollo and Landseer Streets, Battersea, and as soon as they were completed they were sold and the money raised was used to buy land at Salford, Greater Manchester, on which 78 houses were built by 1879. In 1871 sites were purchased in Liverpool, Birmingham and Gosport, Hampshire and by 1874 there were also properties in Baildon, Leeds. Although the Company's main activities were subsequently carried out in London its early initiatives were in the provinces. By 1868 offices, mainly for raising money, had been established in Manchester, Oldham, Greater Manchester, Huddersfield, W. Yorkshire, and Plymouth, Devon
In 1872 40 acres in Battersea were purchased which was to become the first of four Park Estates (Shaftesbury, Queens, Noel and Leigham Court) which were to make notable contributions to London's housing needs. Shaftesbury Park was conceived and executed as a 'Workmen's City' by Robert Austin, a carpenter on the Rollo and Landseer Street houses who was the Company's Architect and Surveyor from 1872 until his resignation in 1877. It consisted of 1,200 two-storey houses "cottages" with gardens laid out in wide tree-lined streets. There were four basic types of houses and street frontages were varied in order to avoid monotony. The houses were sold where possible on 99 year leaseholds at £170-£310 spread over 5-21 years or let to tenants at 5/9d to 10/- per week. There were no public houses on any of the estates as William Austin and others were against the evils of drink.
Benjamin Disraeli opened the southwest portion of the estate in 1874 which gave the Company a boost as it was a very unusual event at that time for a Prime Minister to open a working class housing estate. Another Estate, twice the size of Shaftesbury Park - Queens Park in Westminster - was purchased in 1874 and 61 acres at Stratford - Cann Hall Estate - was bought in the following year. The Company, however, was over-reaching itself and allegations were made by an auditor that there had been irregularities in the payments of dividends. Protracted debates and demands led to the resignation and arrest in 1877 of the Chairman and Secretary for fraud, making illicit profits from the purchase of Queens Park Estate and taking commissions for the purchase of goods at excessive prices. The old board was replaced by a Committee of Investigation, chaired by Lord Shaftesbury's son, Hon. Evelyn Austin MP, who led the Company to financial stability and order.
In 1882 a new estate of nearly 100 acres was purchased at Hornsey which became the Noel Park Estate but it was not wholly completed until 1929 although most of it was finished by 1907. The Artizans Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875, however, produced the first slum clearance schemes and the need for block dwellings of 5 and 6 storeys to rehouse the occupants, and so between 1885 and 1892 the Company built 1,467 block dwellings in the West End and Central districts of London.
The block dwellings followed the 'associated pattern', that is 2 or 3 flats shared a common WC and sink. They were cheaper to build and were occupied by the labouring poor rather than the artizans who predominated on the cottage estates. The first Block Buildings Estate, Portman Buildings in Lisson Grove, Marylebone, was opened in 1888 by Lord Rosebery.
In 1889, 66 acres at Leigham Court, Streatham, were purchased, which became the fourth Park Estate. The house design was superior to earlier types and included fitted baths and the Estate consisted of 539 maisonettes, 18 flats, 37 shops and 427 houses. It was completed in 1928. A programme of special repairs was started in 1908 and continued until 1915 when the First World War intervened. At this time the Company was just behind London County Council in the provision of cheap housing.
The Provincial Estates had been reorganised in the 1870s and small estates had been retained at Liverpool, Birmingham, Smethwick, West Midlands, and Salford. The Liverpool property was sold in 1911 and the remainder in 1922.
In 1926 the Company had 9,200 lettings, including 530 houses leased on ground rents, 443 shops and Wood Green theatre. In the face of Rent Restriction Acts and the subsidised competition from Local Authorities, the provision of houses for the working classes was no longer such a sound proposition and so it was decided to purchase a new estate and develop it for the middle classes. 324 acres at Pinnerwood Park in Middlesex were bought in 1931 and developed as a self-contained estate with about 2,500 houses and its own shopping centre. The houses were a mixture of detached and semi-detached with 3 or 4 bedrooms, and many had garages. While work continued on this new estate, modernisation of the older property had started again with the installation of electricity and baths, but all projects ended with the outbreak of the Second World War which damaged many of the company's properties and prolonged repairs because of war time and post war shortages of materials.
After the War formidable modernisation was undertaken, especially in block dwellings where bathrooms, WC and modern kitchen units were added to each flat, and the period up to 1955 was one of general recovery and repair coupled with high taxation.
The Company's name was changed to the Artizans and General Properties Company Ltd in 1952 and four years later it started to expand and diversify its interests by reinvesting in non low rented residential property, especially in commercial enterprises, and to sell vacant houses in selected parts of estates. Low rented housing had had to be abandoned because of rent restrictions which kept rents low, and taxation rates which discriminated against property companies.
Expansion and diversification led to additional office space being acquired at 4 Buckingham Palace Rd in 1957 and then in 1961 new premises were bought at 160 Brompton Road which brought the staff together. The old head offices at 1 Cromwell Road were let. Subsidiary companies were formed to carry out specific operations under the Artizans Group of Companies. These wholly owned subsidiaries consisted of:
a) Pinner Properties Ltd, a trading company formed in 1955 which had part of Pinnerwood Park Estate and the whole of Shaftesbury Park and Leigham Court Estates transferred to it after the decision to sell vacant houses in certain areas of the London and Pinner Estates.
b) Vista Flats Ltd and Vista Developments Ltd which carried out the Group's activities in Birmingham
c) William Brown & Sons (Builders) Ltd, which was acquired in 1959 and carried out much of the Group's smaller building work in London as well as competing for outside contracts. This Company ceased trading in 1966. Artagen Construction Ltd, the Group's previous building subsidiary, formed in 1955, was consolidated with Browns.
d) The Artizans Housing Association, which was set up in 1951 to build on war damaged sites at Shaftesbury and Queens Park, drawing loans from the Group and subsidiaries through Local Authorities. It built 22 flats and 2 houses which passed with the Estates to the L.C.C. in 1964 and 1966.
The 1957 Rent Act gave the Company increased revenue but it was too late to reverse policy and in 1958 it was decided to participate in the planned redevelopment of parts of the Calthrope Estate at Edgbaston, Birmingham, aiming at the building of some 1200 quality houses and flats for sale and letting and some commercial development.
From 1959 the Company also made property investments in Canada and USA where depreciation before tax was allowed to property investors and more office developments were made in London and its suburbs in the 1960s. During 1965 and 1966 the old residential estates were sold to the Local Authorities concerned who could manage the estates in the interests of the tenants, and only 604 residential units were left in the portfolio, 377 houses at Pinner, 117 flats in Birmingham and 110 flats in London.
In 1965 an Australian based subsidiary, Artagen Investments Proprietory Ltd, was established which undertook office and commercial development at Melbourne and Sydney, and by 1976 the Company also had subsidiaries in The Netherlands - Artagen B.V.; in Belgium - Artagen Montoyer; and in France - Artagen Immobiliere SA. Back in the United Kingdom, new investments were made in the Midlands, Northern England and Scotland although the major portion remained in South East England.
By 1976 Artizans & General Properties Co. Ltd had become Artagen Properties Ltd and in that year it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Sun Life Assurance Society Limited. On 3 Feb 1981 the company was renamed Sun Life Properties Ltd.