There had been much propaganda but the movement had not gained momentum. Then, in 1862, George Peabody made a donation of £150,000 (later increased to £500,000) to be devoted by his trustees to the housing of the London poor.
In 1863 Sydney Waterlow formed the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, which was to build Miles Buildings in Penfold St, in 1884.
In 1865 Octavia Hill began her work of Housing Reform which had such an effect in Homer St, Ranston St, and thereafter, much further afield in Letchworth and other towns. Thus William Austin's Company was formed at a time when there was a movement towards practical housing reform. Much of the propaganda had been done, but capital was still not easy to raise.
Austin's principal colleagues were William Swindlehurst, Secretary, and John Shawe Lowe, Deputy Chairman. Their first houses, in Rollo and Landseer Streets, Battersea, were completed with a struggle. Austin's house was mortgaged and another director, Raynor, pawned his watch. At the end of two years the capital was still under £2,000. The Company built in Liverpool, Gosport, Salford and Birmingham. Most of the houses were sold as they were completed. They would have needed far more capital to build for renting.
By 1870, capital was £18,580 and Austin had been forced out. "I am no scholar, so they outvoted me." Some years later he said, "I was too honest for them, and it was for that reason that they hunted me out."
In 1872, 40 acres were purchased in Battersea for £28,000 and were to be the first of the four Parks built by the Company and still to be found in London Shaftesbury Estate in Lavender Hill, Queen's Park Estate, Noel Park in Wood Green, and Leighton Court in Streatham. Each estate had similar, two-storey houses in about four types, with small gardens, all laid out in wide, tree-lined streets. Their attractive cottage appearance contrasted with the contemporary block buildings of the Peabody Trust and similar bodies, but in all these estates the Artizans had the advantage of building on open land and not in city centres. When the Artizans built Portman Buildings, in the old congested Lisson Grove, they too had to build in blocks.
The Shaftesbury Estate was opened by the Prime Minister, Lord Shaftesbury, and on the crest of this success, the Queen's Park Estate of nearly 80 acres was purchased. It had belonged to All Souls' College, Oxford. Still in open country, yet within a 2 penny (when there where 240 pennies to the pound) return fare from London, the site was very attractive and it is reported that before a brick was laid, 1500 applications for houses had been received.
Starting with so little capital, the company over extended itself. 1000 houses in Battersea, 2,400 projected in Queen's Park, provincial estates, and 61 acres at Stratford, in East London, had exceeded the Company's resources. Yet to cut dividends would have dried up investment. There were allegations of interest being paid out of capital and, in 1877, an extraordinary general meeting was decisive. Swindlehurst resigned and was arrested. Both he and the Chairman were sentenced at the Old Bailey for fraud, for making illicit profits from the purchase of the Queen's Park Estate, and for taking commission for the purchase of goods at excessive prices. A new board reduced the dividend to 2%, sold off some of the estates and raised the rents of the Shaftsbury Estate twice in a single year.
The Artizans continued to build in the previous style, using their own labour.