Stow Road, Ixworth: ‘Thingoe’s Follies’ UPDATE


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Another repost! I think it’s a post worth a re-visit in its own right (or it may be interesting to new readers of the blog) but I’m also able to include some new photographs and a brief chronological update.

They called them ‘Thingoe’s Follies’ – the eight homes built on Stow Road in Ixworth, Suffolk, which formed the first council housing built (in 1894) in the English countryside. And so they were if the attempt to provide decent homes for some of the poorest in England – the agricultural working class of the day – was folly.

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Four of the Stow Road council houses

In reality, they are a site of struggle.  Depending on your perspective, it’s a story of rural class struggle, pitting an oppressed labouring poor against the entrenched Tory landowning class which ruled village England before the Great War. Or you might see in it an enlightened Toryism – more Downton than Tolpuddle – that remembered traditions of noblesse oblige and adapted the local state to its purpose. Most dramatically, it could be taken to mark the rise of modern Liberalism, a radicalism mobilised by and personified in the unlikely figure of the village’s new vicar, FD Perrott, who believed that his care of souls extended to the tortured bodies of his poor parishioners.

'A Cottage with Sunflowers' at Peaslake, Surrey by Helen Allingham. Undated, probably 1890s

‘A Cottage with Sunflowers’ at Peaslake, Surrey, by Helen Allingham. Undated, probably 1890s, made available through Wikimedia Commons

In telling it, we can begin by forgetting any notions of pastoral idyll we might entertain: (1)

You pass through our quiet villages and you see old cottages covered with honeysuckle, roses, and ivy; you think how beautiful! how restful!  But you little imagine what sad decay and misery the outer beauty covers.

British agriculture was suffering an unprecedented depression (largely caused by grain imports from the opening of the American Mid-West) in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  The rural population was falling – fuelling the growth of the cities which has been the main concern of this blog – but conditions for those who remained were often abysmal, as bad as any in the cities.  In Ixworth, with a population of about 850 in 1901: (2)

There is a row of houses, the total number of inhabitants is forty-four, and there are three closets for their use. In one house, consisting of two rooms, there are ten in family… Doors are very bad, and the walls tumbling down.  When it rains much, the water runs from the back kitchen into the sitting-room, and forms a pool in the centre.

Such conditions were shocking to Perrott who arrived in the parish in 1888, finding that ‘the Church had scarcely anything to do with the people and the people scarcely anything to do with the Church’.

St Mary's Ixworth: Perrott's church © Wikimedia Commons

St Mary’s Ixworth: Perrott’s church © Wikimedia Commons

One of his first acts was to help form – at a time when agricultural trades unionism was a growing though embattled force in the country – the Ixworth Agricultural Labourers’ Association.  The Association surveyed local housing needs – both the sorry condition of existing homes and the desperate need for new – and petitioned the local Rural Sanitary Authority (the Thingoe Board of Guardians at this time) to take action under the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act.

The Sanitary Authority responded by evicting existing tenants under Part II of the Act addressing unfit accommodation.  Perrott and the Association mobilised – ‘meeting after meeting was held’ – to halt these evictions (which would only exacerbate a local housing shortage) and press for action under Part III of the Act, permitting the building of new homes.  Reluctantly, the Authority asked the Local Government Board to organise a local inquiry which could compel – if the need for proven – the County Council to grant the permission Thingoe needed to adopt Part III.  (This laborious procedure was a major reason for rural authorities’ inaction on housing – and also a fine pretext for it.)

High Street, Ixworth, Suffolk © Andrew Hill and made available through a Creative Commons licence

High Street, Ixworth, Suffolk © Andrew Hill and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The Inquiry was chaired by Lord Francis Hervey, the local Conservative MP with – before you leap to conclusions – great care and sympathy. (3)  He concluded the case was clearly proven and went further in arguing, against those who railed at the expense to rate-payers: (4)

A certain number of families will be removed from unwholesome lodgings, devoid of proper conveniences, to healthy dwellings with a sufficiency of garden ground; and it is reasonable to suppose that there will not only be less poverty arising from sickness, but that there will be also an addition to the family resources from the sedulous cultivation of the soil, in both cases with results favourable to the ratepayers…Upon economical grounds alone, therefore, the putting in force of Part III of the Act is capable of being justified; but it is impossible to forget that we are in presence of other considerations, social and moral, which, though not susceptible of being gauged by money values, are intrinsically of still higher importance.

There (with just a little archaism) you have the economic and ethical case for council housing – as true now as then – made by a Tory aristocrat.

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This contemporary image shows the allotment space to the side of the homes still being put to good use.

Still, the question of finance remained.  Hervey had assumed the expense would be borne by the wider district rather than the parish of Ixworth. The Sanitary Authority seized on this alleged unfairness to its ratepayers to secure a second inquiry, ostensibly to tackle the question of funding but in practice used to re-open the entire question.

Perrott’s response was fierce; he attacked the Sanitary Authority: (5)

They were not and had not shown themselves to be guardians of the poor. They had simply been guardians of the rates…They had not treated this case as a poor man’s one but as only as one touching their own pockets… Could there be a body in England so fatuous?

Perrott – by now dubbed the Radical Vicar of Ixworth – also clashed with the local lord of the manor, Captain RN Cartwright, an opponent of the new housing and owner of three quarters of the parish’s 1700 acres and 14 of its run-down cottages.  He had earlier attacked Cartwright for evicting an elderly widow in order to house an estate worker. The rhetorical flourish of Perrott’s published address to the Labourers’ Association had a clearly local resonance: (6)

Under the shadow of the luxurious ‘Hall’, at the gate of the tenant-farmer’s comfortable homestead, the labourer (upon whose work both live) drags out a hard life, compelled with wife and children to find shelter and make ‘home’  under a roof beneath which neither squire nor farmer would stable their very cattle.

The inquiry, under Colonel Frederick Pocklington, was convened at 3pm in a deliberate attempt to exclude local workers – though a newspaper report records (after its list of the local great and the good) that ‘a few labourers stood at the back’. (7)  It overturned the result of the first inquiry.

At this point, Hervey returned to the field.  He secured legal opinion that – as no new evidence had been adduced – Pocklington’s decision was invalid.  The verdict of the first inquiry decision stood – the Thingoe Sanitary Authority was compelled to build. Elections to the Authority in 1892 returned a reforming majority and Perrott (as chair) served for one meeting to secure the housing’s final go-ahead.

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A contemporary image of the eight council homes on Stow Road

After all that sound and fury, the results might seem disappointing.  Eight cottages, designed by Mr F Whitmore, Suffolk County Surveyor, were built on four acres of land at a cost of £1700.  They comprised four semi-detached, two-storey houses with a single-storey extension at the rear, housing kitchen, washhouse and lavatory.

With its homes let at £5 5s a year and an additional charge for their large, allotment-style, gardens, financed on a short thirty-year loan, the scheme was not a financial success and the houses proved too expensive for the poorest of the local people for whom they were originally intended.

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A side view with a glimpse of the rear extension.

But they were the first fruits of a hard-fought struggle by which the rural working-class would escape a reigning near-feudalism.  By 1900, just six rural district councils (the new bodies of local government established in 1894) had adopted part III of the 1890 Act and Thingoe’s eight cottages remained its sole concrete fruits.  A 1900 Act, intended to support council housing in the countryside by allowing county councils to build where district councils refused and formally giving parish councils the right to petition for action, had little impact.

Still, Ixworth was a harbinger though, in practice, it would be a new post-war politics that made the difference.  The 1936 Housing Act, providing rural councils with a subsidy of up to 80 per cent for the construction of agricultural labourers’ cottages, was crucial. By 1939, 159,000 council houses had been built by England’s rural district councils. (8)

These and their successors were to become a vital component of village life. They are now, sad to say, under unprecedented threat from the Conservative Government’s extension of Right to Buy to Housing Association properties and we’ll need a new generation of middle-class reformers and working-class activists to defend them. (9)

The Reverend Perrott left Thingoe in the year of victory, 1892, and resigned from the priesthood four years late.  Re-qualified as a barrister, he remained active for some years as a campaigner for housing reform and, as Frank Duerdin Perrott, the unsuccessful Liberal candidate for the safe Conservative seat of Clapham in the 1900 General Election.  He died in 1936, bequeathing funds to support parapsychological research at his alma mater, Trinity College, in Cambridge. (10)

As for the ‘village Hampdens’ of the Labourers’ Association, I can provide neither names nor details.  The houses remain their monument, one pair, no’s 1 and 2 Stow Road, are now Grade II listed – a reminder of the struggle of working people to secure decent housing and its continued necessity.


Visiting the 1894 homes, it was good to see the story of council housing brought closer-to-date with an attractive post-1945 development immediately behind on Peacock Rise –  some modern semi-detached homes from the 1960s (?) and some of the bungalows for elderly people found so often in our villages.

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(1) Jane Escombe, quoted in Moritz Kaufmann, The Housing of the Working Classes and of the Poor (1907)

(2) George Francis Millin, Life in Our Villages (1891)

(3) Lord Francis Hervey (1846 –1931), educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford; a barrister and Conservative MP from 1874-80 and 1885-92.  However, he had also served for three years from 1876 on the London School Board as a member for Finsbury and this perhaps gave him a better understanding of working-class conditions.  He went on to become head of the Civil Service.

(4) Quoted in William Walter Crotch, The Cottage Homes of Old England (1908) – the fullest guide to the intricacies of the process.

(5) ‘The Ixworth Labourers’ Association’, Bury Free Press, 19 December 1891

(6) ‘The Vicar of Ixworth on the Ixworth Houses’, The Bury and Norwich Post and Suffolk Standard, 6 October 1891

(7) ‘The Ixworth Housing’, Bury Free Press, 26 September 1891

(8) Trevor Wild, Village England: A Social History of the Countryside (2004)

(9) Andrew Motion, ‘Forget Shoreditch: It’s our rural villages most at risk from gentrification, Daily Telegraph, 26 October 2015. The Rural Housing Alliance published Affordable Rural Housing: A practical guide for parish councils in December 2014.

(10) Perrott became a committee member of the London Reform Union and published three pamphlets in 1900 – The Demand for Fair Rent Courts, Overcrowded London and the less snappily titled but descriptive The Housing of the Working-Classes Act, 1890. An Account of the Solitary Instance of the Putting Part III of the Act Into Operation in an English Village where the Labourers Were Rack-rented and Overcrowded in Dilapidated and Insanitary Dwellings


Nissen-Petren Houses: ‘Not obnoxious and the people would be delighted to pay an economic rent’ UPDATE


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I don’t usually re-post old blogs but I’m pleased to add here some interesting information and insight provided by Mark Swenarton. 

If you’ve travelled along the A303 in Somerset, you may have noticed, like many thousands of others since the mid-1920s, a rather strange sight to the north of the village of West Camel. Amidst the green rolling English countryside, four chimneyed semi-circular red roofs add a touch of rolling exoticism.  They look like a domesticated version of the army Nissen huts familiar to older generations and that, indeed, is pretty much what they are. This is their story; the story of one of the most unusual attempts to provide the cheap and decent council housing our country has needed.

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West Camel

The four pairs of semi-detached homes in West Camel were erected in 1925. Their prototype was developed by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen of the 29th Company Royal Engineers some nine years earlier in April 1916 in the midst of the Great War whose execution demanded such economic and easily assembled buildings to house its personnel and services on an enormous scale.  Production began four months later and by war’s end some 100,000 of these eponymous Nissen huts had been erected. (1)

The end of the war saw an unprecedented commitment to provide ‘homes for heroes’ for those whose sacrifice had secured victory but the idealism and financial generosity of the 1919 Housing Act was short-lived – quashed by austerity measures imposed in 1921. And while new Housing Acts passed in 1923 and 1924 were intended to boost council housing, shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour continued to hinder its construction.  The search for new cheaper and labour-efficient methods was on and in 1925 the Ministry of Health (also responsible for housing) allocated £34,000 to support the building of demonstration homes using non-traditional methods in 86 local authorities across the country. (2)

Ten councils were already pioneering such efforts.  A bewildering variety of systems was on offer though broadly differentiated by those using steel, timber or pre-cast concrete factory-made components for on-site assembly and those using pre-cast or in-situ concrete components manufactured on-site.  (3)

The Somerset houses were designed by John Petter and Percy J Warren, a local architectural practice appointed Borough Architects to Yeovil Town Council in 1911.  The obvious debt to Nissen was acknowledged in their formation of Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd – a company established to market their new design to local authorities – with Nissen on the board of directors, alongside Sir Ernest Petter, a Yeovil industrialist and founder of Westland.  (Petren was a compound of Petter and Warren as you’ve probably worked out.)

My thanks to Mark Swenarton whose investigations have added further important context here:

One of the foremost promoters of non-traditional methods was Neville Chamberlain who served briefly as Minister of Health and Housing in 1923 during Bonar Law’s short-lived government and again in Stanley Baldwin’s government of 1924-29.  The clauses promoting non-traditional construction in Labour’s 1924 Housing Act (the Wheatley Act) were inserted purely at Chamberlain’s instigation.

For Chamberlain, part of the appeal of new methods was that they cut out the union-controlled building trades and put the unions and the public into opposed camps (in contrast to Wheatley’s programme, which had placed them on the same side).  Non-traditional methods were also a central plank in the housing policy of the ‘New Conservatives’ in the party’s 1924 election manifesto.

Chamberlain’s particular ally was the armaments manufacturer Lord Weir and, in fact, though Chamberlain did not state this publicly, his initiative was centred on the timber-framed, steel-clad ‘Weir House’ whose components were manufactured in Weir’s Glasgow shipyards.

Sir Ernest Petter was very much a local counterpart to Weir and probably the driving force behind the West Country initiative. Westland had manufactured over 1000 planes for the Government during the First World War and Petter believed he could produce 100,000 houses a year using the Nissen system!

In 1927, Westland got a large order for its new Wapiti biplane which may explain Petter’s loss of interest in the housing proposals.  Chamberlain himself lost interest in the new methods as their problems (not least cost) became apparent.  But he had, in the meantime, overseen the expansion of the Building Research Station and its move to Garston near Watford where it remains today.

Mark discusses Chamberlain’s espousal of non-traditional methods more fully in chapter 11, ‘Houses of Paper and Brown Cardboard’ in his book Building the New Jerusalem:  Architecture, Housing, and Politics, 1900-1930.

NP advert Times 7 April 1925 SN

Times advert, 7 April 1925

The Nissen-Petren homes were steel-framed houses, obviously so given their dominant feature – the semi-circular steel ribbed roof (covered with ‘Robertsons’ Asbestos Protected Metal’) bolted on to concrete foundations – with, in this first iteration, pre-cast concrete cavity walls. The company’s advert in The Times proclaims the advantages of this revolutionary and unusual design – it required only half the skilled labour needed to build traditional brick-built homes and could be erected in half the time.  Another benefit: the early erection of the roof enabled ‘the work of filling in the walls and building the fireplaces and chimney backs to be proceeded with independently of weather conditions’. The estimated cost of construction, at £350, was reckoned £100 less than that of traditional housing. (4)

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Goldcroft, Yeovil

The first two of the Nissen-Petren houses, commissioned by Yeovil Town Council, were erected on Goldcroft in the town in 1925 and the Council’s pride in its pioneering role was amplified when it was visited ‘by a large and distinguished company’ including ‘representatives of the War Office, the Air Ministry, various municipalities and members of the London Press’ in March. The delegation was conveyed by car to the Borough Restaurant where it was addressed by Sir Ernest Petter who stated his hope that the experimental houses ‘would prove to be the solution of the housing problem of the country’. (5)

There were cavils about the appearance of the new homes (to which we’ll return) but these were swept aside by the Mayor:

when the model of the new houses was first shown to the Council many of them were not enamoured of them but they felt that there was something far more important in Yeovil than mere outward appearance of the houses.  The great problem which confronted the local authorities today was to build a house, the rent of which the ordinary wage-earner could afford to pay.

In those terms, their estimated rents – at 5s (25p) a week plus rates and reckoned to be well within the reach of the average working man – were a critical advantage.

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Howell Hill, West Camel

The same point was argued strongly by the chairman of Yeovil Rural District Council, JG Vaux, and, given the low wages of the rural working class, was judged even more important. (Yeovil Town Council was an urban district council; the surrounding countryside was administered by its rural counterpart):

Whatever their appearance, they were better than some of the brick hovels existing today.  If they could put up 200 of these houses they would be able to demolish some of the hovels in their district. He believed that with regard to the dome-shaped roofs they had been just a little prejudiced against them and that if a number were erected away from the brick houses that people would soon get used to them.

The semi-detached Goldcroft houses were non-parlour homes with a living room, bedroom, scullery, bathroom, larder and coal store on the ground floor and two bedrooms and two box-rooms on the upper floor. Despite this rather unconventional layout, they were judged (by one observer at least) as ‘cosy and comfortable’:

The rooms are wide and airy, being well lit and properly ventilated. It would seem to the layman that the new roof far from restricting inside space, has allowed of more room.

Later, the tenants themselves were said to be ‘very satisfied with the accommodation provided’. (6)

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Higher Bullen, Barwick

This then was an optimistic period for the promoters of Nissen-Petren housing in a context where they appeared to offer a genuine solution to a very real need.  Yeovil Rural District Council followed up its initial interest with a decision in April to invite tenders for six Nissen-Petren parlour houses in Barwick, four (two parlour and two non-parlour) in South Petherton and six non-parlour in West Camel. But only after a ‘heated discussion’.  One member had declared himself personally ‘very much against these things’ (‘I call them “things”’) and there were allegations of water leakage in some of the houses built to date. (7)

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Fairhouse Road, Barwick

A compromise ensued in the next meeting in which the Council agreed to proceed only where desired by the local parish councils.  Some remained enthusiastic. Barwick ‘urged the erection of houses in that district with the utmost speed’, knowing that ‘it was impossible for an agricultural labourer to pay a rent of 8s or 9s a week’ that traditional homes cost. West Camel now asked for eight Nissen-Petren homes and South Petherton said it could take more. But Montacute refused them and, one month later, Ash requested brick or stone houses in preference to Nissen-Petren. (8)

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Ryme Intrinseca

A pair of Nissen-Petren houses was also built in the beautifully named north Dorset village of Ryme Intrinseca –  it features in a John Betjeman poem – by (I assume) Sherborne Rural District Council but clearly taking its inspiration from Yeovil six miles to the north.  In their idyllic setting, Lilac Cottage and the Lilacs look quite bucolic and the facing of the concrete cavity walls has a patina of age not dissimilar to that of adjacent cottages in local stone.

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Frog Lane, Bampton (Google Streetview)

Interest in the new homes had spread further, however.  Petter and Warren’s design had been worked up in conjunction with DJ Dean, the Surveyor for Bampton Urban District Council in Devon and that council built a block of three semi-detached Nissen-Petren houses in Frog Street. The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in which the Palace of Engineering (overseen by Sir Ernest Petter) featured seven prototype new homes including a model of the Nissen-Petren houses, was still running and the locals apparently nicknamed them Wembley Terrace, a name which has stuck unofficially. (Or perhaps, more likely, it was a reference to the twin domes of the then new Wembley Stadium.)

A subcommittee of the adjacent Tiverton Rural District Council visited Yeovil and returned ‘favourably impressed’ though Mr New, the chair of the Council, felt it incumbent to ask ‘the members to set aside prejudice’ – ‘the houses were not obnoxious and the people would be delighted to occupy them and pay an economic rent’.  That might sound a little like damning with faint praise but a tender for 16 Nissen-Petren houses in Uffculme was accepted for a contract price of £5000 in December 1925.

At £312 each, that was low but problems of water percolation were reported in the new homes in the course of erection in 1927. (9)  The local contractors erecting them stated that had followed the specifications set by the Nissen-Petren Company (to whom they paid royalties) and the Company claimed this was the first time they had had a complaint (though, as we’ve seen, water seepage was reported in the Yeovil Rural District). Presumably, a damp course inserted took care of the immediate problems but the houses themselves have, to the best of my knowledge, subsequently been demolished.


Edward Road, Queenborough (Google Streetview)

Meanwhile, councils beyond the West Country were expressing an interest in the potential of the new homes. Ipswich appears not to have taken this further but a delegation of two councillors and the Borough Surveyor from Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey (who had visited Yeovil in May 1925) were, having investigated a number of other options, keen to proceed.  It was agreed to build three semi-detached ‘specimen houses’ on Edward Road, numbers 6-8 and 10-12 as parlour houses, and 2-4 as non-parlour. On this occasion the external walls were constructed of roughcast brickwork. (10)

The final authority to investigate the Nissen-Petren houses was Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex where an initial tender was accepted for homes on the Sidley estate and a further tender for 36 homes in the new Buxton Drive housing scheme in July 1927.  A final tender from Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd – but not the lowest – was received in September 1928.

By this time, things were going downhill for the enterprise.   The final bill for the Goldcroft houses in Yeovil was received in September 1925 and came to the grand total of £1028 – over £513 per house and more expensive than conventionally built homes of the time.  The architects waived their fees and the builder accepted a £100 loss but – despite reassurances that costs would be lower in larger future schemes with consequent economies of scale – that was essentially the end of the experiment.  The Council congratulated itself on its initiative but licked its wounds. (11)

Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd was wound up in September 1928 and a bankruptcy notice issued in 1930. (12)  I’m not clear that any of the Bexhill houses were built – I can find no further record of them. Does anyone know?

That is almost the end of the story so far as Nissen housing in Yeovil is concerned but for two quirky codas.  In 1946, in the midst of an unprecedented housing shortage, a wave of squatting spread like wildfire across the country. By October an estimated 1038 military camps had been commandeered as emergency homes by almost 40,000 activists.  Two of these unlikely radicals were – as named by contemporary press reports – Mrs Frank Ward (her husband was a dustman for Yeovil Town Council) and Mrs Kenneth Bowley (whose husband was serving with the RAF in Egypt); each had a three-year old child. They jointly occupied ‘the better of two Nissen huts off Eliott’s Drive’, a local site for barrage balloons, cleaned them out, hung curtains and got the stove going. (13)

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Goldcroft, Yeovil

Finally, to return to the Nissen-Petren houses proper, many are now listed, beginning with 172 and 174 Goldcroft in Yeovil in October 1983 despite their being described at the time by local councillors fighting their preservation as ‘eyesores, abysmal and shocking’. (14) Those in Barwick, Ryme Intrinseca and Bampton are also listed; those in South Petherton had been previously demolished.  The pair in Queenborough survive without protection for the time being.  (15)

Of around 4.5m new homes built in Britain between the wars, it’s estimated that not more than 250,000 were of non-traditional construction.  Most of these, despite their unconventional construction, mimicked a more or less traditional form.  The Nissen-Petren houses, of which there were around 24 in the Yeovil district and not more than 50 nationally, stand out.  Their distinctive appearance wasn’t always well liked but many survive to provide an eccentric addition to some of our towns and villages and an arresting footnote to our wider housing history.


My thanks to all those people who responded to an earlier Twitter exchange on Nissen-Petren homes.  The ‘Nissen-Petren Houses’ are also discussed by Bob Osborne in his A-to-Z of Yeovil’s History and Yeovil in Fifty Buildings.

(1) ‘FWJ McCosh, Nissen, Peter Norman (1871–1930)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (September 2004) [Subscription needed]

(2) ‘Steel Houses’, The Times, 18 June, 1925

(3) Harry Harrison, Stephen Mullin, Barry Reeves and Alan Stevens, Non-Traditional Houses. Identifying Non-Traditional Houses in the UK 1918-1975

(4) Nissen-Petren Advert, The Times, 7 April 1925 and ‘Steel Houses at Yeovil’, The Times, 11 March 1925

(5) ‘The Nissen-Petren House’, Western Chronicle, 13 March 1925. Quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.

(6) ‘Nissen Houses’, The Times, 29 May, 1925

(7) ‘The “Nissen-Petren” Houses. Heated Discussion by RDC’, Western Chronicle, 24 April 1925

(8) ‘The “Nissen-Petren” Houses’, Western Chronicle, 22 May 1925 and ‘Yeovil Rural District Council’, Western Chronicle, 17 July 1925

(9) ‘Housing in Tiverton Area’, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1 May 1925, ‘Tiverton Rural District Council’, Western Times, 11 December 1925 and ‘Complaint Concerning New Buildings Being Erected’, Western Times, 4 February 1927

(10) Susie Barson, Jonathan Clarke, Geraint Franklin and Joanna Smith, Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey, Kent Historic Area Appraisal (Research Department Report Series no 39/2006, English Heritage)

(11) ‘The Nissen-Petren Houses Houses’, Western Chronicle, 25 September 1925

(12)  The Times, 17 August 1928 and The Times, 11 September 1930

(13) ‘Families in Army Huts. Squatters in the West Country’, Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 17 August 1946

(14) ‘Nissen Huts Not Needed’, Building Design, no 677, 17 February 1984

(15) You can read the Historic England listing details for these buildings on their website.

The Newlyn Clearances, part II: ‘the modest homes that make a nation’



Last week’s post provided the background to the clearance of Newlyn’s slums and described the modest council estate built to replace them. Far more dramatic events ensued as the broader scope of Penzance Borough Council’s intentions became clearer. The five-day public inquiry into its plans in July 1937 was the locus of a housing protest which briefly gripped the nation.

Rosebud Westminster

The Rosebud at Westminster, October 1937

There were, to begin with, perhaps justified complaints that the Council had been less than open about its plans.  The clearance orders had been passed by the Council without it having seen the wider proposals of Borough Surveyor Frank Latham.  Latham’s wish to widen the harbourside road through the village (and the demolition of homes not deemed unfit this required) drew further criticism and the sardonic observation that the regular traffic to Mousehole comprised merely a local bus.

Duke Street demolished 1937

Duke Street, Newlyn

The most vocal complaint centred on the issue of compensation.  Owners of homes officially designated as unfit for human habitation and subject to demolition (marked pink on council plans) received only their site value. Homes marked grey on the plans (to be cleared to allow rational reconstruction), on the other hand, were not classified as slums and their owners were to be compensated by their full market value. This difficult demarcation proved controversial in both respects.

The meat of the ensuing struggle was contained in the legalistic wranglings which resulted but its emotional heart lay elsewhere.  That was provided in the beguiling image of simple Cornish fisherfolk battling bureaucratic and unfeeling modernity.  Newlyn was its ideal site.

Home-Along Evening Stanhope Alexander Forbes

Stanhope Forbes: Home-Along: Evening (Newlyn Harbour, 1910) © Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

One major factor in this was the presence of an artists’ colony, active in the village since the 1880s. Stanhope Forbes, the grand old man of local artists, regarded: (1)

the idea of demolishing any part of our priceless village as a piece of sheer vandalism and folly. To me and thousands of holidaymakers the prospect of new and ugly buildings will be ghastly.

Local artists such as Geoffrey Garnier played a leading role in the Newlyn Housing Committee formed to oppose the clearances; Phyllis Gotch (the Marquise de Verdières since her 1922 marriage) was the daughter of two Newlyn-based artists and the instigator of some of the campaign’s more imaginative protests.  Her letter to the Manchester Guardian (complete with an ‘authentic’ local voice) is worthy of lengthy quotation and captures some of its most romantic imagery: (2)

Newlyn, by an astonishing order of the Penzance Town Council under the Slum Clearance Act, is to be swept away. Her cobbled streets, where Perkin Warbeck strode in his glory, her ancient manors and moulded ceilings, her secret lifts and smugglers’ passages are all to go…

Many of the houses are owned by the inhabitants, who are of a fine and independent spirit, scorning outside help if they can possibly help themselves, and facing hardship with dumb and gallant courage…

A deputation came to me to-day. The spokesman was a grand, old fisherman. God-fearing and wise. He said:

Miss Phyllis, for we shall always call ee that, we’ve been thinking that if you was to tell England and Scotland and Wales and the people over to Ireland what was happening to we, how the homes we’ve laboured for are being took away, and how there be’nt no money to pay lawyers to help us. Surely there’d be some as would plead for us, some as would say ‘This must not be?’

A petition of Newlyn women to the new Queen played on some of the same tropes in its plea ‘to the first lady in the land, our kind and beautiful Queen’ who would know ‘so well what the love of home means and…understand above all what the Celtic people feel about the soil on which their forefathers have dwelt for centuries’. (3)

Life class at Newlyn, Picture Post 15 October 1938

‘Life class at Newlyn’, Picture Post, 15 October 1938

It’s altogether tempting, in this context, to see elite manipulation at play in such presentation but that would merely add another patronising depiction to a more complex, multi-layered story.  It ignores, as Tim Martindale argues, the ‘extent to which members of the fishing community of Newlyn actively participated and performed in the construction of their representation’, the socially embedded role of local artists, and a powerful sense of Cornish identity among local residents. (4)

This was wonderful stuff for a national (indeed international) press looking, then as now, for human interest stories to tug their readers’ heart strings.  Punch took up the baton and took a side-swipe in its doggerel at Penzance, the villain of the piece: (3)

Each to his own. Penzance may sleep,
Swaddled in palms and sanitation
So Newlyn (and the country) keep
The modest homes that make a nation;
If not, both reason and romance
(if England study either school in)
Tell us we might not miss Penzance
But cannot do away with Newlyn

PZ87 Rosebud in Westminster Charles Hoyland in Margaret Perry Collection

PZ87 Rosebud in Westminster, an early colour image by Charles Hoyland © Margaret Perry Collection

All this provided the context for the campaigners’ most inspired and theatrical protest – the voyage of the 50-foot Newlyn lugger, Rosebud in October 1937 to Westminster and a meeting with the Minister of Health and Housing, Sir Kingsley Wood.  The skipper Cecil Richards, a Newlyn fisherman and a resident of one of the condemned homes, and his crew were met by local MP Alec Beechman. His speech avoided controversy but Billy ‘Bosun’ Roberts made it clear that the ‘Cornish boys [were] here to fight for their homes!’

Crew with Alec Beeman

The crew of The Rosebud with Alex Beechman MP

Then, in the words of Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle, ‘the grizzled fishermen…cap in hand’ met Wood and told the Minister ‘how much they loved their picturesque cottage homes, how unhappy they would be in the new houses “over the hill”.’ (5)  Wood, clearly an early master of PR, provided the deputation with a Cornish cream tea and a thoroughly sympathetic hearing.  His verdict would come two weeks later but, for the time being, the Cornishmen were impressed by his apparent honesty and understanding.

Daily Express October 18 1937

Coverage from the Daily Express, 18 October 1937

For all the resonance and power of this campaign, opinions in the village were divided. We saw Reverend George Richards’ opinion of the new council homes on the Gwavas Estate last week – he had described them as ‘among the monstrosities being condemned by architectural experts’.  A Daily Mirror article contrasted pictures of the old village and the new estate under the headline ‘What Would You Rather See?’.

But such attitudes angered many in the village. ‘A Tenant’ who called into the offices of the Cornish Evening Telegraph described his family’s experience of living in a one-up, one-down cottage with a single bedroom, a solitary, rapidly filled bucket which served as a toilet, and a washbasin shared with three other households. He commented caustically that ‘the most militant in defence of the old village already lived up the hill’ and reckoned:

eighty percent of the working people of Newlyn welcome the building of the new houses and are longing for the day when they will have a chance to live in them.

Gender and generational differences emerged.  Some women – as wives and mothers – seemed to favour new and better-equipped homes as their husbands, out at work and relieved of domestic duties, defended the old.  A petition from ‘Younger Residents of Newlyn’ urged the Minister to sanction the clearances and expedite an early move to more sanitary accommodation. Its advocates were outspoken:

We say that Newlyn is no longer a fishing village – granted a few elderly men and a few out-of-date boats…they will soon disappear. The sons of these men are not going fishing. No sir, they are finding employment in Penzance and elsewhere.  We say that far too much has been made of a small grievance which the few fishermen might have, for after all they represent a very small minority in Newlyn.

That petition was signed by some 400 people; a rival petition protesting ‘the wholesale destruction of our village [and the] ruthless appropriation of private property’ attracted 1093 local signatures.  You can make your own judgement on the balance of forces in play.

Gwavas Chywoone Avenue 4 SN

Chywoone Avenue, Gwavas Estate

To be fair to the Newlyn Housing Committee, they were clear that defence of the old homes did not require opposition to the new and it avoided criticism of the new estate. Still, in what was a compelling narrative, it became natural to juxtapose the two.

The Newlyn Housing Committee also commissioned Professor Stanley Adshead (a leading architect and planner and the designer of significant council housing developments in Norwich, Stepney and Brighton amongst others) to review the clearance scheme. He took an advanced position in opposing its road widening element (‘Is it not conceivable that reduction in the size of the cart is better than improvement in the strength of the horse?’) and concluded firmly that the Housing Acts should be amended ‘to make special provision for dealing with cottages and villages possessing historic interest and peculiar charm’.  In the present, however, all hinged on Sir Kingsley Wood.

Wood pronounced in November 1937 in a letter to Penzance Borough Council. In the rush to headlines, the press initially greeted a victory for the protesters.  One block of homes was to be saved, some frontages preserved, and he called on the Council to: (6)

to rehouse the fishermen and the older people near the harbour and to cooperate with all those who would help them secure a redevelopment which will meet the legitimate interests of those affected and also preserve the amenities of the village.

Navy Inn Court

Navy Inn Court

In a follow-up letter to the Council in December, he commended its cooperation with the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and RIBA and the priority given to rehousing fishermen and the elderly at Navy Inn Court. (7)

It was a masterly political response. Woods had saved only 23 of the homes slated for demolition; he had transferred 54 from ‘pink’ to ‘grey’ thereby ensuring more generous compensation, and he offered more cash to those whose homes were still condemned as ‘unfit’.

Chapel Street 2 SN

Chapel Street, Newlyn

The Fragdan SN

The Fragdan, Newlyn

Disillusion soon set in among the campaigners but the battle was essentially over and it was, in the end, a qualified victory for their cause. A guerrilla war, fought over legal issues of designation and compensation, delayed clearance. The Council, wary of the storm it had created, was, in any case, in no hurry to proceed. Only 58 demolitions had taken place by 1940, some more in 1943, and larger clearances in 1951 and 1955. By 1974, 130 of the homes originally condemned still stood and many were now part of a conservation district. Times had changed.

Harbour SN

The harbour, Newlyn, 2018

For one, those younger residents were wrong about Newlyn’s fishing industry – in 2016 it was the largest fishing port in England in terms of quantity of landings. It remains a busy, bustling harbour and, not far away, lie the narrow lanes and traditional cottages beloved of tourist Cornwall – now with all mod cons and, presumably, a great many of them occupied as second homes or holiday lets.

Rosebud Court and Plaque SN

Rosebud Court and plaque

As a visitor myself, it seems impossible to lament their survival and the failure of the rational modernism once threatened.  But their current situation highlights housing realities, both interwar and contemporary. There are rightly a number of monuments in Newlyn to the Rosebud and the struggle it represented. Ironically, one of these, Rosebud Court, is social housing; a block of four flats completed for the Penwith Housing Association in 2000.  And, above the old village, the Gwavas Estate continues to offer the decent and affordable housing that – with over 900 on local waiting lists – private enterprise seems incapable of providing. The Newlyn clearance saga, often romanticised as the struggle of the ‘little man’ against faceless modernity, offers complex lessons.


(1) ‘The Newlyn Slum Clearance Scheme. RAs Fight to Save a Village’, Cornishman, 22 October 1936

(2) The Marquise de Verdières, ‘Letters to The Editor: Slum-Clearance in Cornwall’, The Manchester Guardian, 18 October 1937

(3) Quoted in Michael Sagar-Fenton, The Rosebud and the Newlyn Clearances (Truran, 2003). Other detail is drawn from the same source which offers the most comprehensive coverage of the extended saga.

(3) Punch, 27 October 1937. Quoted in Michael Sagar-Fenton.

(4) Tim Martindale, ‘Livelihoods, Craft and Heritage: Transmissions of Knowledge in Cornish Fishing Villages’, PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London 2012

(5) ‘Britain Gets Rid of Slums. Five Year Clearance Programme Meets Some Protest in England’, Reading Eagle, 28 November 1937

(6) ‘Cottages at Newlyn’, The Times, 4 November 1937

(7) ‘Rehousing at Newlyn’, The Times, 28 December 1937

The Newlyn Clearances, part I: the Gwavas Estate – ‘among the monstrosities being condemned by architectural experts’



The 1930s’ Gwavas council estate on the hill above the fishing village of Newlyn in Cornwall doesn’t look anything out of the ordinary but it was to play its part – alongside the controversial slum clearances which accompanied it – in one of the most resonant housing protests of the interwar period.  Matters came to a head when a Newlyn lugger, the Rosebud, and its local crew sailed up the Thames to Westminster in October 1937 to demand an end to the demolition of their traditional village homes. This was romantically portrayed as a protest of the ‘little man’, epitomised in the press images of Cornish fisherfolk, against modernising bureaucrats. As ever in reality, matters were a little more complex.

Newlyn Trail Guidebook

An example of the romanticised imagery that attracted artists to Newlyn

Newlyn’s role as a fishing port dates at least to the 1400s but it’s been a chequered history. If you watch Poldark, you’ll know the significance of the pilchard catch but it waxed and waned.  The port was boosted by the completion of the Tamar Bridge in 1859 (and a direct rail connection to the capital) but the village was a quaint, rather backward backwater when first ‘discovered’ by the artists Walter Langley and Stanhope Forbes in the early 1880s. By 1887, there were 27 artists living in the village. Its place as an artistic centre of the en plein air movement (a form which stressed working directly in nature and subject matter drawn from rural life) was cemented by Forbes’ foundation of the Newlyn School of Art in 1899.

Forbes, Fish Sale

Stanhope Forbes, A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885)

In fact, the village was changing.  Large new piers to expand the port were constructed in 1887 and 1888. And there were riots in 1896 as local, staunchly Methodist, fishermen protested against rivals from the north landing fish in the port on a Sunday.  Tradition and modernity were already vying as one of the Newlyn artists, Norman Garstin, noted as early as 1909: (1)

The Newlyn of today and that of the first artist settlers twenty-five years ago are two quite different places. When Mr Stanhope Forbes painted his fish sale there was no harbour; today there is a spacious one, which large as it is, [is] crowded with fishing boats, steamers, sailing vessels and craft of all descriptions. All this has brought a life and animation that no one would have dreamt of a quarter of a century ago.

The artists, of course, loved Newlyn for its ‘old world’ charm but some of those picturesque cottages were clearly unfit for human habitation. Paul Urban District Council condemned 18 homes in Newlyn in March 1915 and in 1920 a ‘lady inspector’ found 30 unfit houses and two unhealthy areas in the district. One of these was the birthplace of the working-class radical William Lovett which was demolished in 1921. (2)

Penless water shoot 1890 Penlee House

Newlyn Street scene, 1890, water shoot to the rear left  © Penlee Gallery

Paul was by no means an activist authority.  Matters were to come to head after 1934 when Newlyn (alongside Mousehole, Paul village, Sheffield and Heamore) came within the newly extended borders of the Borough of Penzance.  It was said – it was certainly felt by many in Newlyn – that Penzance had little regard for its smaller, poorer neighbour but housing conditions in the village spoke for themselves.  Most Newlyn homes had neither running water nor sewerage.  Water was drawn from the many ‘shoots’ in the village; toilet facilities often consisted of an Elsan bucket emptied ‘over cliff’ at night. (3)

Penzance’s Medical Officer of Health, Richard Lawry, made his first foray into Newlyn in 1935. The first clearance order followed with little controversy.  The former Navy Inn now comprised flats accommodating some 29 people. It and neighbouring properties in Factory Row and Factory Square were decanted by 1937 and cleared by 1939. Navy Inn Court, comprising 32 one- and two-bed flats) and Bowjey Court were built on the cleared sites.

In his official report to the Council in the following year, Lawry stated he had visited 100 houses in the village, nearly all of which he judged unfit for human habitation. This time sensing possible controversy, he requested back-up on a follow-up visit and was duly accompanied by an alderman and two councillors.

St Peters Sq since demolished

St Peter’s Square, since demolished

The first tranche of compulsory purchase orders under the 1936 Housing Act for the properties deemed slums duly followed – for Lower Green Street, Fore Street, Vaccination Court (the name itself is a reminder of cholera epidemics which hit Newlyn in 1832 – when over 100 people died – and 1873), St Peters Hill in 1936, and Fore Street, Gwavas Road, Boase St and North Corner in 1937.

Chapel Street 1937

Chapel Street, 1937

In total, some 350 properties were earmarked for demolition in the original orders. Not all were slums. Those marked in pink were and their owners were offered site value only in compensation; neighbouring properties (marked grey) whose clearance was administratively necessary were offered market price.  Around 6.75 acres of the old village were affected including areas to be cleared for a proposed road widening scheme at the harbour’s edge.  A five-day official inquiry into the proposals began in Penzance in July 1937.

Meanwhile, the Borough was moving ahead with the construction of an estate of ‘workmen’s dwellings’ to replace those homes scheduled for clearance.  Twenty acres of land had been acquired on a greenfield site above the village, enough the Borough Surveyor, Frank Latham, estimated to accommodate some 250 homes at 12 per acre. In the event, 242 were built on the new Gwavas Estate by local contractors at a cost of £95,380.

Gwavas Higher Gwavas Road SN

Higher Gwavas Road, showing the steep ascent to the estate

There were some complaints about the location. It’s a stiff 350 feet climb up the hill to the Estate. Alderman Treganza objected that ‘they were taking people 79 and 80 years of age to the top of Paul Hill. How were they going to get there!’  A comment from the audience in the council chamber on the ‘good air there’ only drew his riposte that it would ‘take an aeroplane to get them there’. (4)

Gwavas Chywoone Avenue 2 SN

Chywoone Avenue, Gwavas Estate

The homes themselves – block-built and characteristically rendered in local style – were solid and laid out, along curving roads and crescents, in a miniature version of the garden suburb style favoured in its time.  Some disliked their appearance. The Reverend George Richards had condemned them as ‘among the monstrosities being condemned by architectural experts’ at the earlier public inquiry.

But they came with toilets, bathrooms, hot water – the basic facilities so conspicuously lacking in the cottages of old Newlyn. The first residents (from Navy Inn Court and Factory Row) moved in just before Christmas, 1937, and the estate was substantially complete by May 1938. For many of the new residents this was a huge and welcome improvement in their standard of living.  Still, there were some complaints.

Gwavas Chywoone Crescent 2 SN

Chywoone Crescent, Gwavas Estate

The climb up to the estate was, naturally, one of these, alongside the high bus fares paid by those who required transport. Typically, the rents were significantly higher, sometimes double, than those charged in the old cottages – over 8 shillings (40 pence) in some of the larger houses.  Tenancy regulations which banned trades or business in the new council homes were also a problem to some who had supplemented their income with needlework, net-mending, laundry work and so on.

The biggest grievance – for the 124 potential residents who signed a petition to the Council in March 1937, at least – was the decision to install gas cookers rather than the Cornish cooking ranges which they favoured.  (These cast iron ranges provided heating as well as an oven and stove top.)  The Council stood firm that the new facilities – ‘provided for the convenience and comfort of those who would have to live in the houses’ – would prove more economical though some residents were to complain about cold and damp in the new homes. (5)

This, of course, is only half the story.  Dramatic events were unfolding down in the village as the clearance process moved on and the estate itself was drawn into that controversy.  We’ll examine all this in next week’s post.


(1) Quoted in Stef Russell, Cornwall & Scilly Urban Survey, Historic Characterisation for Regeneration: Newlyn (Cornwall Archaeological Unit, October 2003)

(2) Joanne Mattingly, Penwith Project: Housing Issues 1914-34

(3) Michael Sagar-Fenton, The Rosebud and the Newlyn Clearances (Truran, 2003). Much following detail is drawn from the same source which offers the most comprehensive coverage of the extended saga.

(4) ‘Penzance Town Council. £95,380 Housing Scheme for Newlyn’, The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph, 16 January 1936

(5) ‘Penzance Town Council. Reduction of 8d in the Rates’, The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph, 11 March 1937

‘The London Borough of Thetford’?



In the 1960s, Thetford was the fastest growing town in the country; almost two thirds of incomers came from London and a further 15 percent from the wider south-east. (1)  Some even called it ‘the London Borough of Thetford’.  By any standards, this was a seismic shift.  The last post examined the nuts and bolts of Thetford’s transformation from moribund rural town to, in effect, modern New Town; this will examine how it all worked out.

Abbey Farm opening with Greenwood

The official opening of the first housing on the Abbey Farm Estate, June 1968. Labour’s Minister of Housing, Anthony Greenwood, stands second left (I think)   © Archant

It was, in the first instance, a strongly working-class town.  Even after the social and economic shifts of the Thatcherite era, almost 62 percent of the workforce were categorised as skilled manual, semi-skilled and unskilled workers (compared to an English average of 48 percent) whilst only 38 percent belonged to the professional, managerial and administrative classes (52 percent).

And in the early years, it was difficult to persuade those new executives to live in the town; the managing director of Danepak stated rather unguardedly that, ‘with the 95 percent of council housing’ (an exaggeration), he thought the schools ‘rather oikish’.  Many preferred to live in the county town surrounds of nearby Bury St Edmunds. (2)

A shared complaint was the lack of hospital facilities (the nearest were in Bury) but for many of the new population it was the lack of recreational facilities – swimming pools and dance halls, for example – that rankled.  Some even preferred London’s parks to the open countryside which now surrounded them. All this was spelt out in some detail in a survey of incomers conducted by the local Rotary Club in 1963.

Mostly the picture is mixed. Locals called the incomers ‘smoggies’ apparently and some of the latter: (3)

thought that the local people were not particularly friendly towards them, whereas others said they had been received most warmly and that people had gone out of their way to make them feel at home.

Given the prevalence of young families, some missed having relatives close at hand to help with baby-sitting.  If that would gladden the hearts of Wilmott and Young (who had celebrated Family and Kinship in East London in 1957), they might have been surprised to learn that many thought ‘that on the housing estate there was a much friendlier atmosphere than in London and that one got to know one’s neighbours better than in a big city’.  (As an aside, it’s worth noting that many of the new settlers didn’t want to be housed – as was the practice – next to their workmates; there could be too much familiarity, it seems.)

Redcastle Furze Anglia SN 2

The Redcastle Furze Estate. These are system-built ‘Anglia’ houses.

Almost all saw benefits in the move – better housing and lower rents the most significant, alongside improved health and less time travelling to work.  Surprisingly, at first glance, the overall cost of living increased for most that moved. This reflected the lower wage rates for some, the higher prices of local shops and, sometimes, new hire purchase commitments taken on to furnish new homes. What was, almost universally, a higher standard of living did not come not cost-free.

These were, of course, the pioneers and new amenities would be added as the town grew.  And Thetford worked hard to encourage and welcome new arrivals. As Jeyes considered its move from east London, the Town Clerk, William Ellis Clarke, ‘gave an illustrated talk on the town’s attractions’ to a meeting of employees in an Ilford cinema. Over the following weeks, the company brought coachloads of workers and their families to see those attractions – or otherwise – for themselves. (4)

GLC showhome Ideal Home 5

A GLC showhouse on the Abbey Farm Estate

So most adapted. John Gardner (a warehouse supervisor at Jeyes), his wife Jean and their two children moved to the Abbey Farm Estate – as did most of the firm’s employees – in 1969. His new rented council home was a bargain compared to the house he had been purchasing in East Ham and the children were healthier. But, financially, they were worse off, not least because now they were running a car (in London ‘a luxury; here it is a necessity’). Jean faced giving up her weekly bingo.   The same calculus of cost and quality of life played out but the longer story was clearly positive: the longest settled were happiest with Norfolk and those ‘who grew into their teens in Thetford seem contented enough’. (5)

Abbey Farm SN3

Canterbury Way, the Abbey Farm Estate

With hindsight, these seem the problems of affluence in an era of full and generally secure employment. Roll forward, thirty years in the new deindustrialised Britain where such new jobs as existed were often insecure and poorly paid, Thetford presents a different picture. In the new jargon we’ve learnt to apply, by 2004 three out of four Thetford wards were in the top quintile of most deprived wards for multiple deprivation across the country; likewise for income deprivation and child poverty. All four wards were in the top quintile for education, skills and training deprivation. (6)

Kimms Belt Barnham Cross Common SN 2

Kimms Belt, Barnham Cross Common

Naturally, well-meaning local initiatives emerged to tackle this downturn in the town’s fortunes.  A ‘Healthy Thetford 2000’ project to improve training, education, job opportunities, housing, environment and community life in Thetford was succeeded by a ‘Thetford Partnership’ which received £2.5m of Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) funding to support ‘a broad and holistic scheme focusing on a range of initiatives to benefit people living in the western areas of the town in particular’.  (This was, predominantly, Abbey Farm; now the poorest area of Thetford.)  By 2007, under the continuing aegis of the Keystone Development Trust, some £8.5m of SRB funding had been allocated.

It’s not helpful, it might even seem a little snide, to point out that all this tinkers with fundamentally changed economic realities.  Thermos closed its Thetford factory in 2000 and moved to China.  The Tulip meat processing works (formerly Danepak) laid off 170 full-time employees in 2003. They were: (7)

replaced immediately with agency staff, most of them migrants on poorer terms – lower rates of pay, mostly just the minimum wage, less overtime money, less holiday, more antisocial shift patterns, uncertain hours. The full-time employees had no pay rise for three years and watched as their incomes were eroded by inflation.

It closed completely in 2007.  The furniture manufacturers Multiyork closed just before Christmas 2017.

All this makes Thetford seem less like the new Britain once envisaged and more like the ‘left behind’ country with which we are all now familiar. The local authorities have ‘washed their hands of us’, one local woman told an academic researcher in 2009.  The same research, unsurprisingly perhaps, identified other resentments directed towards outsiders. But: (8)

In Thetford … it was the Polish and Portuguese migrants disliked by white British people, who identified black and Asian people on their estate as part of the ‘we’.

Officially, according to the 2011 Census, Thetford’s population stood at around 21,000. Few locally believed this figure; the data of local GPs and the Fire Service suggested a figure approaching 29,000 which seemed to accord more closely with local perceptions (including some in the migrant community itself). (9)

We’re on tricky territory here and sometimes things can get ugly. There was certainly less contentment. After England’s defeat against Portugal in the 2004 Euros, there was an attack on a Portuguese-owned pub and its predominantly Portuguese clientele. It is also the case – and I am not eliding the two phenomena here – that Breckland (the local authority area of which Thetford is now a part) voted by 64 percent to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum.

SN Abbey Farm 1

Townhouses on the Abbey Farm Estate

Against these stark headlines, closer analysis presents more complex realities: a Portuguese resident critical of eastern European migration; people in all communities wanting better integration; even, in a strange cameo of the new multiculturalism, a Polish and Lithuanian food store owned by an Iraqi Kurd.  In any case, some of the migrants are leaving already. (10)

All this paints a bleak picture and maybe one that will be unrecognisable or distasteful to local people who know the town better and experience it very differently.  The aim is not to portray dystopia but to draw a contrast – between the expansive ambitions of an earlier era and a state and economy working for ordinary people and our country today where so many feel abandoned and exploited.  As a famous son of Thetford, Thomas Paine, once said in a different context. ‘these are the times that try men’s souls’.

Meanwhile, life goes on and Thetford seeks to adapt to a new economy.  Thetford was awarded Growth Point status by central government in 2006. The latest Thetford Area Action Plan, adopted in 2012, projects 5000 new homes and 5000 new jobs by 2026.  A new enterprise park, first mooted thirty years ago, is perhaps finally getting off the ground. (11)

Mainwaring Keith Evans

Captain Mainwaring © Keith Evans and made available through a Creative Commons licence

And in the new, old Britain, there’s heritage to be celebrated – a lot of genuine history as well as the invented tradition of Dad’s Army, filmed locally and marked by an unlikely statue of Captain Mainwaring in the town centre and a small museum.  There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Dad’s Army, its cast of characters and its bumbling patriotism but personally (and this might mark me out) I’d put statues up to the politicians and planners who sought to create a modern country and a healthier, better housed and more affluent population. They didn’t get everything right but we might use some of that will and action in our present beleaguered times.


(1) Greater London Council, Department of Architecture and Civic Design, ‘Thetford: Case Study in Town Development’ (March 1970); DG/TD/2/96, London Metropolitan Archives

(2) John Gretton, ‘Out of London’, New Society, 15 April 1971

(3) Rotary Club of Thetford Norfolk, ‘Thetford Town Expansion: Report on Social Survey’ (March 1964); DG/TD/2/95, London Metropolitan Archives

(4) Michael Pollitt, ‘William Ellis Clarke, MBE: “Mr Thetford”: one of the architects who shaped the modern face of the town’, Eastern Daily Press, 9 January 2014

(5) Gretton, ‘Out of London’

(6) Keystone Development Trust, A Profile of Thetford (August 2004)

(7) Felicity Lawrence, ‘Poor Pay, No Rights: UK’s New Workforce’, The Guardian, 24 September 2007

(8) Garner, S., Cowles, J., Lung, B. and Stott, M. (2009) ‘Sources of resentment, and perceptions of ethnic minorities among poor white people in England’, National Community Forum/Department for Communities and Local Government quoted in Joseph Rowntree Foundation, White Working-Class Neighbourhoods: Common Themes and Policy Suggestions (November 2011)

(9) Ian Jack, ‘How many migrants does it take to change a Norfolk town?’, The Guardian, 29 September 2007

(10) Stephanie Baker, ‘This English Town Backed Brexit. Now the Poles Are Leaving’, Bloomberg, December 13, 2017

(11) Breckland District Council, Thetford Area Action Plan (2012) and Andrew Fitchett, ‘Hopes to resurrect troubled Thetford Enterprise Park as council look to kickstart £6m infrastructure scheme’, Eastern Daily Press, 4 January 2016

Thetford: ‘A Town Which Has Picked Expansion’


, , , ,

Apologies for the lack of recent postings – I’ve been up and down the country talking about council housing and my book.  That is, of course, a shameless plug for Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which is available from all good bookshops and can right now – just in time for Christmas – be bought for half-price from its publishers, Verso.

With the commercial break over, let’s get back to Thetford.  We left it a few weeks back in 1939, in a parlous state; both, to quote from that post, ‘a sleepy rural backwater’ and ‘a long-established borough with urban pretensions and ambitions’.

In the first instance and in the context of the post-war housing drive, those ambitions were met by a renewed council housebuilding programme.  Forty new homes were added to St Mary’s Estate, completed just before the outbreak of war, in the late 1940s and further new housing in the 1950s. By 1958, Thetford had built some 448 council homes and they formed almost 35 percent of the town’s housing stock. (1)  The town’s population stood at a little over 4600.

King Street Thetford 1963 Archant

An image of old Thetford: King Street in the 1950s © Archant

But fundamental problems remained: (2)

the town had come to a point where continued existence as an independent unit was hardly feasible. Firstly the population of the town had decreased; secondly the community began to lose its youth as they sought jobs and a fuller life elsewhere; and thirdly the rating load was becoming unbearable.

Thetford had to expand. And it seemed that the Council’s Town Development Committee set up in 1952 might just be knocking on an open door. A prime goal of post-war planning – anticipated in the 1940 Barlow Report on the Distribution of Industrial Population and the 1943 County of London Plan – had been the dispersal of population from London. The first means to this objective had been Labour’s 1946 New Towns Act (responsible for the creation of Stevenage and Harlow, amongst others) but an uncontrolled growth in the service sector and a rising birth rate had mitigated its impact.  An incoming Conservative Government was, in any case, unsympathetic to what they saw as the heavy-handed statism of such an approach.

Map of New and Expanded Towns

A map showing new and expanded towns in the south-east

In 1952, legislation was passed ‘to encourage Town Development in County districts for the relief of congestion and overpopulation elsewhere’.  Thetford’s initial approach to the London County Council (LCC) in 1953, proposing to receive some 10,000 Londoners, was rebuffed. A modified scheme, taking in some 5000, was suggested in 1955 but came to naught.

Its small-town air and distance from the capital may have hindered Thetford’s appeal but it held certain advantages, notably the existence of a single large landowner (the Crown) to aid expansion and its proximity to North Sea ports. Perhaps Thetford’s greatest asset, however, was its neediness – its desire for expansion: (3)

Legend has it that what finally won over the hearts of the London councillors was a plea by a Thetford woman councillor that ‘even taking on another dustman meant putting sixpence on the rates’.

London, in the meantime, was still committed to downsizing by the transfer of around 250,000 of its population and 400 acres of industry to new and expanded towns beyond the Green Belt in the late 1950s. (4)  Finally, in May 1957, agreement was reached. Thetford, the receiving authority under the 1952 Town Development Act, would agree to the LCC, acting as its agent, building some 1500 homes to house around 5000 moving from the capital.

Moving this story forward before looking in detail at its lived reality, these push-pull factors continued to operate.  By 1959, the Norfolk County Council was committed to a population for Thetford of 17,000 by 1980 with 60 percent representing an overspill population. The Borough Council and LCC themselves agreed an additional 5000 population transfer in 1960. The Government’s South-East Study, published in 1964, tasked the new Greater London Council with moving 110,000 families to Expanded Towns by 1981. (5)

By 1978, 3500 council homes had been built in Thetford in twenty years; they comprised near two-thirds of its housing stock.  In 1981, its population stood at 21,000.  These people needed jobs and another vital component of Thetford’s expansion was its ability to attract new employment.

Thetford map

A map from the mid-1960s with estate locations added

There were benefits to the move to Norfolk. For workers, the Industrial Selection Scheme inaugurated in 1953, guaranteed some on the LCC’s council housing waiting list both a job and a home. For companies, there was the lure of better (and cheaper) purpose-built factories and a relatively lower-paid workforce. (Skilled workers moving with London-based firms generally continued to receive London rates; those on the Industrial Selection Scheme fared less well.)

But there were difficulties too: (6)

It was found impossible to convince … early enquirers of the advantages of making this move, when there was nothing to show them but fields of poor quality sugar beet and some pretty coloured drawings.

And some initial encouragement was required.  In the end, the Borough Council kick-started the process by building and leasing two factories of its own. By 1966, there were 46 companies established in Thetford.  Around 52 percent of the local workforce worked in the manufacturing sector with no firm employing  over 200. This diverse economy was considered a plus given the catastrophic impact of the closure of the town’s single large employer in 1928. (7)  The larger manufacturers included such household names as Conran, Danepak, Thermos and, from the late 1960s, Jeyes, which had moved from East London.  That initial investment had paid off generously; by November 1973, 70 council-owned factories brought in rents of £176,000 a year and a penny rate was worth £20,000. (8)

Barnham Cross Common early 2

An early photograph of Barnham Cross Common

Back in time, the first house on the first overspill estate in Barnham Cross Common (appropriately off London Road to the south-west of the town centre) was officially opened in April 1959. Almost 300 new homes were completed by 1961: (9)

The first two or three hundred families who moved in were very much in the nature of pioneers, living on estates which did not have a bus service into town, no community centre, and where the shopping parade on the estate … had not been completed.

The shops on Pine Close opened the following year.

Barnham Cross Common early shops 3

The shops on Pine Close, Barnham Cross Common

Barnham Cross Common was a conventional estate of its time – existing belts of trees in the Breckland landscape characteristic of the area were retained; the houses themselves were conventional brick-built, two-storey homes built facing service roads around small greens and grassed courts.  The finished estate comprised 877 homes and – a  sign of the times – 523 garages.

Redcastle Furze 1972 2 (Osborne)

An aerial shot of the Redcastle Furze Estate in 1972, showing the Radburn layout

Redcastle Furze early 1

An early photograph of the Redcastle Furze Estate

Planning for a new estate across the road began in 1963 which would eventually, after 1970, provide another 800 homes.  The Redcastle Furze Estate was a very different animal, incorporating the Radburn principles (separating traffic and pedestrians) now in vogue.

Taylor Woodrow Anglian housing

‘Anglia Houses’ under construction by Taylor Woodrow, Redcastle Furze Estate

Redcastle Furze Anglia houses 2

Completed ‘Anglia Houses’, Redcastle Furze Estate

Some of the homes, reflecting another fashion of the era, were prefabricated. The Greater London Council’s ‘Anglia Houses’ were made of concrete crosswalls, supplied in up to four units, as well as factory-made timber panels forming roofs and internal partitions. Timber cladding panels were also supplied.  The intention was to minimise on-site work and the system, though designed for terraces, allowed variations in internal design and overall layout. (10)

Abbey Farm Estate plan 1

An estate plan of Abbey Farm

The final, major estate – Abbey Farm – was commenced in May 1967 and completed in February 1971. It represented a further evolution in design.  Initial plans for a Radburn-style layout were abandoned: (11)

Early experience with the Redcastle Furze Estate indicated that although this type of layout had much to commend it, it had some drawbacks, e.g. visitors found difficulty in finding their way around, and thought was given to improvement that could be made in the layout at Abbey Farm.

Abbey Farm 1971 Osborne 2

Abbey Farm maisonettes, rear

Abbey Farm 1971 Osborne

Abbey Farm townhouses

Instead the estate was equipped with a large spinal road, Canterbury Way, running through its centre.  Large four-storey maisonette blocks were laid out this main road while narrow-frontage two- and three-storey houses, mostly with inbuilt garages were laid out along small cul-de-sacs leading off it.  The Housing Minister, Anthony Greenwood, visiting the estate in July 1968, declared the layout and design of the homes ‘exceptional’ and the best he had seen. (12)

Elizabeth Watling Clise 1972 Osborne

The Ladies Estate

One other significant scheme remains: the so-called Ladies Estate, begun in 1974 and completed in 1979.  Elizabeth Watling Close and Sybil Wheeler Way commemorated two former mayors of the town; Boadicea, Edith Cavell and Elizabeth Fry were among other local female notables celebrated.   The 560 low-rise brick-built houses, bungalows and flats and curving streetscape created an attractive though undeniably suburban ensemble.

By 1979, Thetford had been transformed, by any objective measure, from its mid-century Slough of Despond into a successful and bustling expanded town. The next post examines how this shift played out, both for existing locals and the many thousands of incomers.  We’ll see too how far this apparent early promise has been fulfilled.


(1) Greater London Council, Department of Architecture and Civic Design, ‘Thetford: Case Study in Town Development’ (March 1970); DG/TD/2/96, London Metropolitan Archives

(2) John Gretton, ‘Out of London’, New Society, 15 April 1971

(3) Gretton, ‘Out of London’. A 1973 article was headlined appropriately ‘Thetford: a Town which has Picked Expansion’ (Built Environment, March 1973)

(4) ‘Town Expansion Scheme at Thetford’, The Surveyor, vol CXVI, no 3415, 5 October 1957

(5) Peter Jones (Town Development Division, GLC), ‘The Expansion of Thetford’, Era: the journal of the Eastern Region of the Royal Institute of British Architects, vol 1, no 4, August 1968, pp34-40

(6)  WRF Jennings (Borough Engineer and Surveyor, Thetford), ‘Some Aspects of the Expansion of a Small Town’ [ND c1966]

(7) Jennings, ‘Some Aspects of the Expansion of a Small Town’ and Greater London Council, Department of Architecture and Civic Design, ‘Thetford: Case Study in Town Development’

(8) Michael Pollitt, ‘William Ellis Clarke, MBE: ”Mr Thetford”: one of the architects who shaped the modern face of the town’, Eastern Daily Press, 9 January 2014

(9) Peter Jones, ‘The Expansion of Thetford’

(10) ‘Expanding Towns: Thetford, Norfolk,’ Official Architecture and Planning, Vol. 30, No. 10 (October 1967)

(11) Thetford Borough Council and Greater London Council, ‘Abbey Farm Housing Estate’  DG/TD/2/93, London Metropolitan Archives

(12) GLC Press Office, ‘Thetford Homes’ – “Best I have seen” says Minister’, 10 July 1968

Council Housing in Thetford before 1939: No ‘borough as small had done more’


, , ,

Often in London I shall think of Thetford and wonder if it is still alive … No one would notice if the whole town forgot to wake up one morning.

That, from Virginia Woolf in 1906, might have been a little unfair but it testifies powerfully to the town’s sad decline. (1)  In Saxon times, Thetford had been the capital of East Anglia. At the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, with a population of around 4500, it was reckoned the sixth biggest town in the realm. The same population, more or less, eight centuries later made it apparently one of the sleepiest.

SN Thomas Paine and Newtown

The town sign celebrates Thomas Paine, born in Thetford, in 1737. The interwar Newtown Estate lies to the rear.

Thetford had fallen on hard times.  In 1868, Henry Stevens, the borough’s new Medical Officer of Health, having ‘carefully inspected every part of the Town’, stated that he had found ‘scarcely any of the conditions necessary to the health and well-being of an urban population’: (2)

the soil is saturated with sewage and excrementitious matter. I found this contaminated soil pierced in every direction by wells … from which alone the inhabitants could obtain water.

Unsurprisingly, Thetford suffered a series of major epidemics – measles, dysentery, diphtheria and cholera – in the same decade and its mortality rate, at 30 per 1000, stood a little higher than that of Whitechapel in London’s benighted East End.

Stevens’ pleas secured an improved water supply but no sewerage system and a further outbreak of typhoid occured in 1873 and another, alongside smallpox and diphtheria, in the 1890s.

In 1909, the survey of a later Medical Officer of Health reported 731 ‘privy vaults’ in Thetford, ‘practically none of them watertight, most of them merely holes in the ground’. The Council, however, still rejected a sewerage scheme as too expensive; a decision backed by 478 votes to 26 in the public meeting which followed, dominated, one presumes, by middle-class rate-payers rather than those most in need. It’s all a salutary corrective to the temptation to romanticise working-class life in small town and village England.

SN AG MinnsAnd yet, in other ways, Thetford would surprise. Allan Glaisyer Minns, born in the Bahamas, a doctor at the local workhouse and cottage hospital, was elected to the council in 1903. In 1904, he became the first black man to be elected mayor anywhere in the UK.

The Council was also one of the very few to build council housing before the First World War and, in St Mary’s Crescent, it built one of the most remarkable of early schemes.

SN St Mary's Crescent 2

St Mary’s Crescent

Plans were first mooted in 1911 when the Town Council’s Housing Committee (itself an innovative step for a small borough council) recommended the appointment of a Norwich architect, SJ Wearing, to oversee the scheme.  Tenders for ‘the erection of 50 workmen’s dwellings on Bury Road’ were issued the following year. By 1914, the scheme was near fully occupied and, despite an overall cost of around £6666, said to be self-supporting. (3)

SN St Mary's Crescent 1

St Mary’s Crescent

Not only had Wearing created an economical scheme, he had created an attractive one, dubbed later by locals as the White City for obvious reasons.  As such, the estate garnered considerable regional interest, including a deputation of councillors from Ely: (4)

In each dwelling, there was one good living room and scullery and three bedrooms upstairs … All the dwellings had been passed by the Local Government Board who said it was the best scheme of dwellings they had seen.

SN St Mary's Crescent 3

St Mary’s Crescent

With rents set at between 3s and 4s 6d (15-23p) a week – the amount varied according to the size of garden – the homes were affordable to the less well-off working-class; the average wages of the male heads of household were said to be around £1 and £1.20.

For all that this housing progress went some way in alleviating working-class conditions – a full sewerage system for the town wasn’t provided till 1952 incidentally – it could no nothing to address Thetford’s underlying economic malaise.  The local economy deteriorated as traditional rural industry contracted and the Council instituted unemployment relief works in the post-war recession in 1921.

SN Burrells 1906

An advertisement for Burrell’s steam engines, 1906

Disaster struck, however, in 1928 when the major employer, the agricultural machinery and steam engine works of Charles Burrell closed.  It had employed over 600 at peak. The 1931 census recorded 800 people leaving the town in the preceding decade and its population fell below 4000. Outward migration continued until the end of the decade when new military bases were established nearby in preparation for impending world war. (5)

The first world war had, in the meantime, provided means and motive for a further expansion of the town’s council housing.   The 1919 Housing Act required local authorities not only to survey housing needs but to build to address them.  In housing at least, Thetford was progressive and it acted promptly. A special meeting of the Town Council in October unanimously agreed an application to the Ministry of Health for a £1000 loan and the purchase of land in military use on London Road for housing purposes. SJ Wearing was again appointed architect. (6)

SN Newtown Estate 1

The Newtown Estate

The land duly purchased, the 72 houses of the Newtown Estate were complete by 1924.  The mayor praised the achievement – ‘he did not think there was a borough in the Kingdom as small as Thetford that had done more’ – but it’s an interesting sign of heightened expectations that the scheme was criticised by some for not addressing the requirements of those in greatest need.

Councillor Isaac Aspland, politically unaffiliated but as manager of Thetford’s Labour Exchange, someone in close contact with the poorest of the borough, praised it as: (7)

a splendid scheme and very well carried through but he did not think it relieved very much the pressure on housing of the poorer inhabitants … to a large extent the houses built at Thetford were not for the poorer classes because that class could not afford to pay the high rents.

He referred to eight cases of overcrowding before him including a married couple with seven children living in one bedroom and a box-room and another where a family of 11 had only two bedrooms.  Given their relatively high rents, estimated as between 6s and 7s 6d (30-38p), the ‘Newtown houses were, he contended, middle-class dwellings’.

SN Newtown Estate 2

The Newtown Estate

The new politics – the new expectation that council housing should directly address the needs of the poorest – was seen in national legislation in the 1930s: the 1930 Housing Act tackling slum clearance and the 1935 Act attacking overcrowding.

There could be no ‘Clearance Areas’ as permitted by the 1930 Act, in small town Thetford but a survey showed almost 39 percent of its housing as in some way defective under the terms of legislation. In 1938, 18 families were found in need of rehousing under the terms of the 1935 Act. (8)

SN St Mary's Estate plaqueThe St Mary’s Estate of some 22 three- and four-bed non-parlour homes was built in consequence in the closing years of the decade.  The plaque at the entrance to the estate marks SJ Wearing as architect once more; the estate he has designed some 26 years earlier lies a few metres beyond.

SN St Mary's Estate 2

St Mary’s Estate

In total, Thetford had built 144 council homes by 1939 and they formed around 11 percent of its housing stock.  Council homes formed 85 percent of the new homes built in the town between the wars. The figures are surprising but they capture a creative tension in the town’s character. Virginia Woolf may have seen it as a sleepy rural backwater but it was a long-established borough with urban pretensions and ambitions.

Those ambitions were to be fully explored in the next dramatic phase of the town’s history and development which began in 1957. We’ll explore that in a future post.


(1) Quoted in Frank Meeres, Thetford and Breckland through Time (Amberley Publishing Limited, 2010)

(2) Quoted in Alan Crosby, A History of Thetford (Phillimore, 1986)

(3) ‘Thetford Town Council’, Norfolk News, 15 July 1911, ‘Borough of Thetford. Erection of Workmen’s Dwellings’, Bury Free Press, 13 April 1912 and ‘Councillor Oldman on Yarmouth Health and Housing’, Yarmouth Independent, 14 March 1914

(4) ‘Ely Urban Council’, Cambridge Independent Press, 1 August 1913

(5) Alan Crosby, A History of Thetford (Phillimore, 1986)

(6) ‘Thetford: The Housing Scheme’, Bury Free Press, 25 October 1919 and ‘Thetford Housing Problem’, Bury Free Press, 31 January 1920

(7) ‘Thetford Housing’, Bury Free Press, 6 December 1924

(8) ‘Thetford Housing’, Bury Free Press, 13 June 1931 and ‘Mayor Making at Thetford’, Bury Free Press, 14 November 1936

Open House London, 2018: A Tour of the Capital’s Council Housing

The most important buildings in London – those with the greatest social significance for the mass of its people and those which have made the greatest visual impact on the capital – are council houses. In 1981, at peak, there were 769,996 council homes in the capital and they housed near 31 percent of its population.

It’s partly this ubiquity and familiarity that means most council estates don’t make it into Open House London, the capital’s annual celebration of its built heritage taking place this year on the weekend of the 16-17 September. In fact, there are rather fewer this year than previously.

Housing protest

Housing crisis and protest

Let’s be fair here, not all municipal schemes have represented the very best of architecture and design.But there’s another process in play – the marginalisation of social housing and its contribution to the lives of so many. We are asked to forget all that social housing has achieved, just as we are asked by some supporters of a boundless free market to discount it as a solution to the present housing crisis.

This post offers an alternative perspective: a chronological tour of the Open House London venues which do mark an alternative and progressive history – council housing to savour and celebrate.  I’ve written on many of these in the past so click on the links to get to those earlier posts and further information. Open House locations are picked out in bold.

Houses on the Risley Avenue and Awlfield Avenue junction: a 'butterfly junction' of the type pioneered in Letchworth Garden City

Houses on the Risley Avenue and Awlfield Avenue junction, Tower Gardens Estate: a ‘butterfly junction’ of the type pioneered in Letchworth Garden City

We’ll begin, appropriately, with the Tower Gardens Estate in Tottenham – designed and built by the London County Council (LCC) before the First World War: a cottage estate for working people inspired by the Garden City and Arts and Crafts movements of the day.  Just under 1000 homes were built on the Estate before the war halted construction; a further 1266 houses and flats were added – in plainer style but in keeping with Garden City ideals – in a northwards extension to the Estate between the wars.

SN Dickson Road, Progress Estate

Dickson Road, Progress Estate

The Progress Estate in Eltham wasn’t a municipal scheme.  It was built by the Ministry of Works during the First World War and designed by the Ministry’s Chief Architect, Frank Baines; its role, to support the war effort by providing high-quality housing to the workers of the nearby Royal Arsenal Munitions Works.  Almost 1300 homes were built in the single year of 1915, showing what can be done when housing needs are prioritised. Originally named the Well Hall Estate, it was renamed in 1925 when the Government sold it to the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society.  Fifty-five years later, the 500 remaining social rented homes were sold on to the Hyde Housing Association.

26 Chittys Lane

26 Chittys Lane, Becontree, with a plaque marking it as the first house completed on the estate

The Estate was a crucial influence on the 1918 Tudor Walters Report which in turn did much to shape the form and nature of council housing in the interwar period when the LCC alone built 89,049 council homes in the capital.  Some 26,000 of these were built on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919 at the height of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ campaign.   It was the largest of the LCC’s interwar estates, housing by 1939 a population of 120,000.  Such size (and an unpromising site) led some – despite the planners’ best efforts – to criticise the mass and uniformity of the Estate but to many, moving from inner-city slums, ‘it was heaven with the gates off.’


Berthold Lubetkin

Becontree was born in the (brief) era of ‘Homes for Heroes’ which marked the end of the First World War. A second world war and a landslide Labour general election victory in 1945 inaugurated a  social democratic vision of Britain’s future and for no-one was this truer than Berthold Lubetkin, the architect of the Finsbury Health Centre, who famously declared that ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’.  He fulfilled this vision in the Spa Green Estate, to the north, opened in 1949 and described by the Survey of London, not prone to hyperbole, as ‘heroic’ and by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time.

SN Bevin Court entrance

SN Bevin staircase

Bevin Court

Neither of these appear in Open House but two of Lubetkin’s schemes for the Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council – one of the most progressive in the capital – are featured.  Bevin Court was opened in 1954; the Cold War having put paid to plans to name the building after Lenin (who had once lived on it site).  Its innovative seven-story Y-shape capitalised on its site and ensured none of the flats faced north but, visually, its crowning glory is its central staircase.  Visit to see that and the newly restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.

SN PG Kendal House and Reddington House

Kendal House and Reddington House, Priory Green Estate

A few minutes’ walk to the north, you can also visit Lubetkin’s Priory Green Estate, completed three years later.  It’s a much larger estate – 288 homes in seven large blocks but with similar attention paid to lay-out and landscaping and more striking, sculptural staircases.  The Estate was transferred from Islington Borough Council, Finsbury’s successor after 1965, to Peabody in 1999 and, having fallen on hard times, has since been renovated with the aid of a £2m Heritage Lottery grant.


Goldfinger at Balfron

Another leading architect of the day was Ernő Goldfinger who designed  Balfron Tower for the Greater London Council in 1968. Balfron is famous (or infamous according to taste) as one of the most imposing Brutalist designs of its time but it was, first and foremost, housing for working-class people being moved from local slums. Now the block’s council tenants have been ‘decanted’ and the flats are to be sold to those with the means to buy them on the open market. With a history of ‘art washing’ intended to sanitise this loss of social role and purpose, it’s perhaps a good thing that Balfron doesn’t feature in Open House this year.

Trellick 2

Trellick Tower without the heavy scaffolding currently in place for a major renovation

Fortunately, Balfron’s younger sister designed by Goldfinger, Trellick Tower and opened in 1972, does, despite Right to Buy, remain social housing built by the Greater London Council but owned and managed by the now infamous Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  You can visit a social enterprise, comprising furniture workshops and showroom and café on the lower floors.  I’ve not written on Trellick but the posts on Balfron will give you some background.


The World’s End Estate

Another landmark estate, this one created by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in happier times is the World’s End Estate. It’s an estate set on the banks of the Thames  completed in 1977 when the working class were still permitted river views.  Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms it comprises seven 18 to 21-storey tower blocks, joined in a figure of eight by nine four-storey walkway blocks but the whole, clad in warm-red brick, possesses a romantic, castellated appearance, providing  great views within and without.

Hollamby 1974

Ted Hollamby

In some respects, World’s End marked the end of an era of large, high-rise construction. As Chief Architect for the new (post-65) Borough of Lambeth, Ted Hollamby had concluded that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’.  Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments.  They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’.  His vision can be seen enacted in the Cressingham Gardens Estate.

Cressingham Gardens was described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’. It’s a beautiful estate nestling on the edge of Brockwell Park which manages superbly, in Hollamby’s words again, to ‘create a sense of smallness inside the bigness…and to get the kind of atmosphere in which people did not feel all herded together’.

It’s a well-loved estate with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, as part of Lambeth’s commendable pledge to build new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact, once more the threat of demolition.

IMG_0085 (a)

Cressingham Gardens

The principal driver of this policy in London is money or the lack of it – the pressure to sell council real estate and build private housing for sale in order to raise capital for social housing at best or so-called ‘affordable’ housing at worst.  A second is ‘densification’ – a belief that working-class homes must be built at greater density to accommodate the capital’s growing population.  Not all regeneration is bad but where it means the destruction of good homes and the wiping out of existing communities it should be opposed.

A second signature Hollamby estate, not featured in Open House this year, Central Hill, is also threatened with demolition. The residents of both estatea have active campaigns fighting to preserve their homes and communities.  See Save Central Hill and Save Cressingham Gardens to find out more and lend your support.


Thamesmead as envisaged in the mid-1960s

Thamesmead on the southern bank of the Thames Estuary represented planning and construction on a much grander scale. A gleam in the eye of the LCC from the fifties and then, from 1966, the Greater London Council’s ‘Woolwich-Erith Project’, it was envisaged as a ‘town of the 21st Century’ with a population of between 60- to 100,000 people.

621px-2017_Thamesmead_aerial_view_01 Kleon3

Thamesmead south and central, 2017 © Kleon3 and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Only 12,000 had settled by 1974 and the estate – with its difficult location, poor transport links and lack of facilities – was considered by many a failure. Taken over by Peabody in 2015, benefiting from new investment and the now delayed arrival of Crossrail in 2019, it’s on the up now and worth visiting for both its past and future promise.

Ferry_Lane_Estate_2 SN

Ferry Lane

New to Open House is the Ferry Lane Estate in Tottenham Hale, Haringey, designed by Jack Lambert for the GLC.  Completed in 1981, it’s another low- to medium-rise estate which marks the changed sensibilities of its era.  There’s an unusually full and detailed description of the design and history of the estate on the Open House website which will provide much fuller information.

The low-rise, high-density housing revolution of the later sixties and seventies was pioneered and most stunningly executed by the progressive borough of Camden under the enlightened leadership of Borough Architect Sydney Cook. Cook rejected the system-building then in vogue as the means to build as much as cheaply as possible – ‘I’ll use standardised plans if you can find me a standardised site,’ he said.

Sn Whittington Estate Stoneleigh Terrace (2)

Stoneleigh Terrace, Whitington Estate

This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, a young architect then in his mid-twenties. It’s a larger, grander scheme than those of Lambeth – in signature Camden style, six parallel linear stepped-section blocks of light pre-cast concrete construction and dark-stained timber.  It was designed to be a ‘form of housing…which related more closely to the existing urban fabric than the slab and tower blocks, and which brought more dwellings close to the ground’. Each home had its own front door and a walk through the front door of 8 Stoneleigh Terrace during Open House will allow you to glimpse the innovative interior design of the housing too, chiefly the work of Ken Adie of the Council’s Department of Technical Services.

Neave Brown

Neave Brown

We’ll conclude fittingly with another Camden scheme which is widely judged to be one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, Alexandra Road, listed Grade II* in 1993.  It was the work of Neave Brown, awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects  in October 2017. He sadly died three months later.

The estate is better seen than described but, in its scale and confidence, it marks (in the words of modernist architect John Winter), ‘a magical moment for English housing’.  Make sure to visit the recently renovated Alexandra Road Park and Tenants’ Hall (also featured in Open House), both integral to the design and original conception of the estate.

Rowley Way, the Alexandra Road Estate

Alexandra Road was completed in 1979 – the year in which such high ambition would be consigned to the graveyard of history.  It’s a sad irony that some of the very best of our council housing was built just as its near-century long story of practical idealism and shared social purpose was drawing to a close.

i-love-council-houses-south-london-1I hadn’t intended this tour of some of London’s finest council estates to be so elegiac but the contemporary picture of social housing’s marginalisation and market-driven ‘regeneration’ creates a poignant counterpoint to the energy and aspirations of previous generations.  If you visit any of the estates on show during Open House London, my plea to you is to think of them not as monuments to a bygone era but as beacons of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.


Open House London 2018: Town Halls – Civic Pride and Service

My first post marking Open House London 2018 offers a broadly chronological, whistle-stop tour of the municipal seats of government featured, in various forms – some grand, some humble – on the weekend of 22-23 September. (Open House venues are picked out in bold; the links relate to previous blog posts.)


City of London Guildhall © Prioryman and made available through Wikimedia Commons

It’s appropriate then to begin with the oldest and one of the most impressive of these, the City of London Guildhall and its present Grand Hall, begun in 1411 – the third largest surviving medieval hall in the country.  Externally, it’s probably the 1788 grand entrance by George Dance the Younger in – with apologies to contemporary sensibilities – what’s been called Hindoostani Gothic that is most eye-catching.  The adjacent Guildhall Library and Art Gallery are also open to view – great facilities along with others provided the City but, as the Corporation is hardly a triumph of democracy, we’ll move on.


Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

At the other end of the scale what is now the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow is a modest affair.  It started life in the mid-18th century as a workhouse but included a room set aside for meetings of the local vestry.  It was later adapted as a police station before becoming a very fine local museum in 1930. If you can’t make Open House, do visit it and Walthamstow Village at another time.

Old_Vestry_Office_Enfield_(c) Philafrenzy

Old Vestry Offices, Enfield © Philafrenzy and made available through Wikimedia Commons

The Old Vestry Offices in Enfield, a small polygonal building built in 1829, originally housed the local beadle – responsible for local enforcement of the Poor Law – and then, until the 1930s, a police station.

This was an era of minimal – so-called night-watchman – local government when ad hoc, largely unrepresentative bodies administered basic services largely related to public safety.  As towns grew and expectations – initially focused on health and, increasingly, on housing – increased, the more ambitious vestries took on enhanced roles and garnered greater prestige.  One such was Shoreditch.


Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall almost matches the Guildhall in its civic pretensions – chutzpah indeed for a building, designed by the impressively named Caesar Augustus Long and opened in 1866 for a vestry. But Shoreditch Vestry took particular pride in its path-breaking municipal electricity undertaking and here its motto, and that of the later Borough, ‘More Light, More Power’ took on more than merely metaphorical meaning.  You might recognise the figure of ‘Progress’ enshrined in the Town Hall tower too. After a long period of decline, the Town Hall was reopened in 2005 and is now a thriving community venue operated by the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust.


Limehouse Town Hall

Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881, is a humbler building despite the Italian palazzo styling adopted by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston. It also started life as a Vestry Hall but one intended nevertheless as ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’.  It went on to serve as offices for Stepney Metropolitan Borough Council – while its great hall hosted balls and concerts and even early ‘cinematograph’ shows.  It was well known to Clement Attlee, mayor of Stepney in 1919 and later the area’s MP.  It’s been run by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust as a community venue since 2004.

Ealing Town Hall Champion SN

Ealing Town Hall © PG Chamion and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Ealing had a local board of health from 1863 and didn’t become an urban district until 1894 under the Local Government Act of that year.  Ealing Town Hall, a grand neo-Gothic building, designed by Charles Jones and opened in 1888, replaced a smaller town hall (still standing, now a bank on The Mall) built just fourteen years earlier but now deemed too small for purpose.  The newer town hall was itself extended in the 1930s and includes an impressive double-height council chamber.

Battersea Town Hall SN

Battersea Arts Centre

Battersea Town Hall, begun in 1892 – an ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ design by Edward Mountford – survived a disastrous fire in 2015.  Fortunately, repairs and renovations have re-established what is now the Battersea Arts Centre as a wonderful local resource.  In fact, the grand scheme – building but adapting innovatively and excitingly  on its past – has been just been completed and is well worth a visit.

Its local government heritage survives, however – a worthy memorial to the time when Battersea’s radical politics earned it the title, the ‘Municipal Mecca’. For more images of the town hall, visit my Tumblr post here. (The Latchmere Estate, a fifteen minute walk to the north and the subject of my very first post, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour in 1903.)


Richmond Old Town Hall

Richmond, a municipal borough founded in 1890 in the County of Surrey, was a more conservative body although it can boast (since its incorporation into Greater London in 1965) the first council housing built in the capital. Richmond Old Town Hall, also designed in Elizabethan Renaissance style by WJ Ancell, was opened in 1893 and now houses (since the creation of the London Borough of Richmond) a museum, gallery and local studies archives amongst other things.


Finsbury Town Hall

Finsbury Town Hall was opened in 1895, another Vestry Hall at that time, designed by C Evans Vaughan in ‘free Flemish Renaissance’ style according to Pevsner.  Look out for the Art Nouveau entrance canopy and internal fittings too.  It’s a beautiful building making good use of a tricky site, subsequently home to one of the most radical of London’s Metropolitan Borough Councils.  Nearby, you can visit the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board, opened in 1920, just up the road at New River Head.

Back to Finsbury Town Hall, it’s been the home of the Urdang Academy – a school of dance and musical theatre – since 2006 and, in its words, ‘an inspiring and fitting environment in which to train’.  The Town Hall is still a local registry office for weddings and, for that reason, close to my heart and that of the woman who puts the ‘dreams’ into ‘municipal’.


Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower

Croydon, created a County Borough within Surrey in 1889, didn’t amalgamate with London until 1965 but the Town Hall, built to plans by local architect Charles Henman, was opened in 1896 to provide ‘Municipal Offices, Courts, a Police Station, Library and many other public purposes’. The Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower complex retains some local government functions – the Mayor’s Parlour and committee rooms – but also offers a museum, gallery, library and cinema.


Tottenham Town Hall, fire station and public baths illustrated in 1903


Tottenham Town Hall today

A visit to the Tottenham Green Conservation Area gives you an opportunity view a whole slew of historically significant buildings.  With my municipal hat on, I’ll draw your attention to Tottenham Town Hall (HQ of Tottenham Urban District Council from 1904 to 1965) and the other examples of local government endeavour and service adjacent – the public baths next door (now just the façade remaining but, as the Bernie Grants Art Centre supported by Haringey Council, still serving a progressive purpose), the fire station (now an enterprise centre), and technical college (built by Middlesex County Council). Passing the new Marcus Garvie Library, you’ll come across Tottenham’s former public library built in 1896 just up the road.  It’s as fine an ensemble of civic purpose and social betterment as you could find in the country. Some further images here.


The Victoria Hall, Woolwich Town Hall

And without doubt, Woolwich Town Hall, an elaborate Baroque design by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, is one of the most impressive town halls in the capital.  You’ll find more images of the town hall in this Tumblr post. Queen Victoria presides over the main stairway of the building’s staggeringly impressive central lobby but the building was opened, following Labour’s capture of the Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903 by local MP and dockers’ leader Will Crooks.  That take-over by one of the largest and most active Labour organisations in the country (don’t neglect the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society here) heralded a proud era of reform to raise the health and living standards of the local working class.

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Lambeth Town Hall

Lambeth Town Hall can’t compete with that but it’s a fine building, also Edwardian Baroque, whose redbrick and Portland stone facades are capped by an imposing corner tower. It was the work of Septimus Warwick and Austen Hall, and was opened on 29 April 1908 by the then Prince and Princess of Wales. Its dignified council chamber and some lavish interior rooms remain impressive.


The UK Supreme Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall © Pam Fray and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Moving to the immediate pre-war period, the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster – originally housing, amongst other things, the offices of Middlesex County Council – was an unusual building for its time, designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in free Gothic style.  It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.

IslingtonTownHall Alan Ford

Islington Town Hall © Alan Ford and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Islington Town Hall, opened in 1925, takes us into the heyday of local government as councils assumed ever greater powers and purpose. It was designed by ECP Monson again. Its neo-classical style has been described as old-fashioned for its time but it’s finely executed.

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Hornsey Town Hall

Conversely, Hornsey Town Hall, completed a decade later, captures stylish modernity in full flow and has been dubbed ‘the quintessential English modern public building of the decade’. It was designed by the 27-year old New Zealander Reginald Uren but owes much to the Dutch and Swedish influences of Willem Marinus Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall and  Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm Town Hall. (Dudok was also a direct influence of Clifford Culpin’s Greenwich Town Hall opened in 1938.)

The Town Hall lost its principal role when Hornsey was absorbed into the new London Borough of Haringey in 1965 and from 2004 was in a moribund state.  It’s in the process of being revived as an arts centre and hotel with some swish apartments thrown in.  That’s been controversial to some locally but it’s good to see the Grade II* building and its sumptuous interiors restored and put to use.  (You’ll find some images of the interior prior to restoration on my Tumblr post here.)


Hackney Town Hall

Hackney Town Hall, designed by Henry Lanchester and Thomas Lodge, is also formally neo-classical but its lines and styling are sleeker, more modern and, internally it’s a masterpiece of Art Deco.  When formally opened in 1937 by Lord Snell, Labour Leader of the House of the Lords, he described it as a building:

devoted to the business of living one with another to the benefit of all…It represented something more than mere stone and wood put together; it embodied the ideal of social living…a symbol of their idealism and a focal point for the services of their great borough, and he hoped they would find in it an atmosphere of quiet dignity, purity of administration and of love for the purpose to which it was devoted.

That’s an ideal of local governance that we would do well to remember and revive in these straitened times.

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Hammersmith Town Hall

Over in West London, the new Hammersmith Town Hall (since 1965, the HQ of the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham)was begun the following year and largely complete by 1939. It’s been described as ‘Swedish Georgian’; another fusion of Scandinavian,  Dutch with English Regency motifs added.  It was the work of Ernest Berry Webber, a specialist in municipal architecture who also designed town halls in Southampton and Dagenham (see below).

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Walthamstow Town Hall

SN FellowshipThe consummation of this ambitious era of municipal construction is found in Walthamstow Town Hall (now belonging to the Borough of Waltham Forest) and the adjacent Assembly Hall – a magnificent civic complex fronted by sweeping lawns and a grand central pool and fountain.

The Town Hall, begun in 1937, was designed by Phillip Hepworth, after a competition attracting 70 entries, in a stripped down classical style owing something to Scandinavian contemporaries.  It was completed in 1942 under straitened wartime circumstances which curtailed the initially more sumptuous plans for its interior but its Art Deco touches remain impressive.

Do walk around the back of the building to see the five sculptures by John F Cavanagh, representing Education, Motherhood, Work, Recreation and Fellowship – the latter modelled appropriately on local son William Morris. There are further images in this Tumblr post.

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Walthamstow Assembly Hall

The Assembly Hall, also designed by Phillip Hepworth in similar style, is famed for its acoustics and has become a favourite recording venue. The front of the Hall,  is inscribed with the words of William Morris (which also provide the Borough motto), “Fellowship is Life; Lack of Fellowship is Death’.


London City Hall © Garry Knight and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Finally, we can bring the story up to date by referring to some 21st century examples of new civic architecture. City Hall, the home of the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly, was opened in 2002 – a high-tech building created by Norman Foster and Partners. Not everybody likes its appearance but the building is notable for reflecting current imperatives of sustainable design.


Brent Civic Centre

The new Brent Civic Centre, opened in 2013 near Wembley Stadium lets us end on a positive note.  The building unites Brent’s civic, public and administrative functions under a single roof – in the words of its designers Hopkins Architects, ‘a new hub and heart for the community where residents can meet, shop and eat’.  The latter, of course, is another reflection of changed times and priorities and an ethos in which public service is at best complemented by commercial imperatives and, at worst, subordinated to them.

I haven’t seen it but it looks, to be fair, a rather stunning building and, since it houses a community hall and library as well as a civic chamber and offices for the 2000 employees who keep the borough’s services going, let’s celebrate it as a worthy update to the civic heritage this post records.

Next week’s post takes a look at the council housing featured in this year’s Open House London.

The Jubilee Pool, Penzance: ‘Municipal modernity and faith in a brighter, more enlightened future’ UPDATE



I don’t normally update posts but four years ago, when I last visited the Jubilee Pool in Penzance, it was closed and storm damaged. A fundraising campaign was in place to secure its repair and re-opening.  Well, last week I saw that the campaign had succeeded magnificently so I’m pleased to add to that earlier post and bring things up-to-date. (The revisions are in italics.)

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Jubilee Pool, August 2018

Municipal Dreams is on holiday this week but the Jubilee Pool in Penzance is so municipal and so dreamy it just had to be shared. Opened in 1935, the pool is maybe the finest of Britain’s open-air lidos – a beautiful Arc Deco memento of a municipal commitment to health, fun and modernity that illuminated an otherwise gloomy decade.

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My original photos were taken in August 2014 and show the pool closed and awaiting repair.

Penzance became a borough in 1614 and seems over the years to have been a rather enterprising one – a reservoir to supply the town with water was constructed in 1759, the first gas lighting arrived in 1830. In 1849, the Corporation was one of the first to form a local board of health and numerous improvements followed.

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The Prom: originally built in 1843, this is the 1896 renovation with pink tinted slabs to reduce glare, August 2018

Fishing, minerals and trade formed the basis of its early prosperity but the Napoleonic Wars (which prevented the wealthy travelling to watering places on the Continent) opened new possibilities as one commentator praised the town for ‘the mildness of its air, the agreeableness of the situation and the respectability of its inhabitants’. He dubbed it ‘the Montpellier of England’. (1)

The Corporation built a seaside promenade to the west of the town in 1843 and the first Borough Surveyor built wide new roads to its rear from the 1860s. The rail link to London established in 1859 made these aspirations to resort gentility far more realistic. The first large hotel, Queen’s, opened in 1861. In its interwar resort heyday, Penzance was hailed as the ‘Cannes of the Cornish Riviera’. (2)

To its working population, Penzance was less idyllic. Battery Square – an area of run-down cottages and industrial works to the south of the town centre and adjacent to the promenade – was ‘one of the slummiest parts of the town’. (3)

In 1933, it was cleared. In a couple of years, large new municipal housing estates were built on the outskirts of town but meanwhile the Corporation focused on Penzance, the resort. Where Battery Square stood, the Borough Surveyor, Captain Frank Latham, created pleasure gardens and – a sign of the times – a car park.

At this time, Penzance was also lamenting the ‘unkind act of nature’ which had destroyed ‘the lovely beach which once ran from the Battery Rocks to the Tolcarne river’. A solution suggested itself – a lido built on the Rocks themselves.

The view from Tolcarne towards Battery Rocks and the Pool, August 2014

In this, Penzance was following the fashion of the day: (4)

By the early 1930s, open-air pools had become emblems of municipal modernity and of faith in a brighter, more enlightened future, in much the same way as public libraries had become a generation or two earlier.

Undated photograph © Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd.

The pools also reflected a greater independence enjoyed by women a cultural shift but, in this context, a practical one too made possible by new swimwear designs which allowed them to take up swimming in addition to the more sedate bathing previously judged more seemly. 

Opening Day, 1935 © Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd. 

As we saw in Victoria Park, East London, Herbert Morrison – leader of the Labour administration which ran the London County Council from 1934 – had declared London would be ‘a city of lidos’. In the year that the Jubilee Pool opened, the Tinside lido was opened in Plymouth, Saltdean in Brighton and open-air pools in Ilkley, Norwich, Peterborough and Aylesbury.
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The Jubilee Pool was officially opened on 31 May, 1935. It was, the programme stated, ‘ the consummation of one of the most important projects undertaken by the Borough of Penzance’ . The celebratory prose went on to praise the clearance of the:

slum property that had marred the eastern approach to the Promenade – today this depressing and unattractive scene has been swept away and a complete transformation effected.


‘Professor Hicks’ takes the first plunge at the official opening © Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd. 

A full programme of activities followed with the accompaniment of the Penzance Silver Band.  ‘Professor’ Hicks, ‘the Cornish Veteran’ and former West of England swimming champion whose swim career had begun in 1868 was present and his inaugural laps were followed by a ‘programme of aquatic sports and exhibitions’ including races for ladies and girls. The ‘Beauty Parade of Bathing Belles’ was perhaps less of a blow struck for feminism. SN Opening plaque

Prices, at 6d (2.5p) for adults and 3d for children, were relatively high but more controversial to some was the fact that the pool was to be open on Sundays and Councillor Birch went so far as to proclaim that ‘people in favour of Sunday labour were tyrants’.  The Mayor himself declared he would rather the pool be permanently closed than open on Sundays but later took part in the opening ceremony nevertheless. By 16 votes to 9, the Council overruled the primarily religious objections to Sunday opening (4a)


Members of the Penzance Swimming Association and Water Polo Club, mid-1950s (?) © Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd.

The Jubilee Pool was 330 feet long by 240 feet wide at its greatest extent, not the biggest of its time but, apparently, the largest by volume of water – seawater regularly replenished by seven sluice gates. The size was designed to meet national and international standards for swimming and water polo matches. 

August 2014

But beyond the dry detail, the pool is a thing of beauty, spectacularly sited on Battery Rocks with commanding views of Mount’s Bay, resting, in the words of the latest Pevsner:

sleekly like a liner at anchor projecting into the sea…a subtle Art Deco composition of curvilinear concrete terraces in cool blues and whites, separated to accommodate sunbathers below and spectators of the arena-like space within or views of the town without.

As the local press noted at the time, the pool wasn’t ‘only a fine piece of engineering’. It was also:

a work of art. The monotony of straight walls and right angles – the domain of the compass and ruler – has been entirely avoided. Instead there are graceful curves and pleasing lines.

The programme, in full awareness of these artistic credentials, commented conversely on ‘the cubist style … adopted in the interior in the matter of diving platforms and steps’. 

August 2014

The architect of this masterpiece was Borough Surveyor, Captain Latham. He usually gets a name-check in descriptions of the pool but I’m intrigued by him. He had been appointed to the post in 1899, aged 25. His rank came from a commission in the Royal Engineers during the First World War. He retired, awarded the Freedom of the Borough, in 1938 and died in 1946.

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Captain Frank Latham

In his younger years, he had written The Construction of Roads, Paths and Sea Defence, published in 1903. That expertise was clear in the skilful use made of Battery Rocks for the pool’s foundations. The same local press report was pleased, more prosaically, to record that, as a result, the whole project cost £14,000 whereas comparable pools elsewhere had cost over £100,000.

St Michael’s Mount to the rear and war memorial to right, August 2014

Latham – as I imagine him, this practical man and local government bureaucrat – somewhere possessed the soul of an artist. The design of the Pool was inspired, so he said, by watching a gull alight on the sea. Its architecture is a beautiful confection of Modernism and Art Deco, typical of its time but all of its own and making superb use of its site.

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August 2014

It represented too, in the fashion of its day, fresh air and healthy exercise. As the mayor opined at the pool’s opening, ‘there can hardly be any better form of bodily exercise than swimming’. In any case, he added, ‘people who live by the sea and those who live on the sea should be able to swim’.

But the pool – which had seemed such a benefit to the town and its inhabitants and visitors, ‘an event of the greatest importance’ as the headline proclaimed – had come by the 1960s to seem a ‘white elephant’.

The lido craze didn’t last. War broke out within four years. The post-war world of foreign travel and indoor leisure centres – and, always, the vagaries of the English weather – contrived to make these outdoor pools seem old-fashioned, even rather uninviting. Somehow, the Jubilee Pool survived but, by the 1990s a sceptical local council reckoned each swim cost the local ratepayer between £16 and £18 and the case for closing it seemed strong. (5)

The Friends of Jubilee Pool were formed in 1992 and they achieved their first victory in the following year when the Pool was Grade II listed. Major funding followed from English Heritage and the European Regional Development Fund and a grand re-opening took place in May 1994.

Now lidos and open-air pools up and down the country are enjoying a revival though many are still dependent on the voluntary efforts of local enthusiasts. The ups and downs of the Jubilee Pool itself continue. February’s storms caused significant damage to the Pool and have prevented its opening this year.

Catching the full force of a winter storm © The Friends of Jubilee Pool

The most recent news is positive, however. A joint bid from Cornwall Council, Penzance Town Council and the Friends of Jubilee Pool for £1.95m funding from the Coastal Communities Fund was approved by the Department for Communities and Local Government this month.

The Friends are continuing their own fund-raising campaign to ensure that the Pool will be reopened with a wider range of activities that should safeguard its future in years to come. Captain Latham and the enterprising councillors whose vision created the Jubilee Pool in the 1930s would be pleased.


A £3m renovation programme, supported by the Coastal Communities Fund and matching funding from local authorities and the Friends of Jubilee Pool, was completed in 2016 and the pool reopened in May that year.

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August 2018

The Pool is now owned and managed by the Friends of Jubilee Pool operating as a Community Benefit Society committed its survival as a community asset.  The latest stage in this is the drilling of a geothermal well to provide renewable energy which will enable part of the pool to be heated.  A fundraising share offer is in place to complement the grant funding provided by the European Union. (6)

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August 2018

Finally, that future is properly supported by a celebration of the Pool’s past. ‘Jubilee Pool Stories‘ is a project to create a digital archive as well as new media work and exhibitions. If you’re interested or can contribute your own memories, please follow the link.  My thanks to them for providing the historic photographs included in this post.


The amended post benefited from an exhibition in the Penzance Exchange gallery, ‘The Jubilee Pool: Then, Now, To Come’, which is running till 22 September 2018.

(1) WG Maton in 1794, quoted in Peter Beacham and Nikolaus Pevsner, Cornwall (2014)

(2) JH Wade in 1928, quoted in Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Cornwall and Scilly Urban Survey Historic characterisation for regeneration: Penzance (September 2003)

(3) The quotations are taken from ‘An Event of the Greatest Important’, The Cornishmen, a June 1935 newspaper report republished online in The West Briton, May 27, 2010

(4) Janet Smith, Liquid Assets: The lidos and open air swimming pools of Britain (English Heritage, 2005) quoted in Tom de Castella, review, New Statesman, 29 August 2005

(4a) ‘Penzance Town Council. The Bathing Pool’, The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph, 15 May 1935

(5) See Martin Nixon, ‘Jubilee Pool: Enormous Liability or Massive Opportunity?’ for some of this later history. The figures are taken from the de Castella review.

(6)  Visit the Jubilee Pool’s dedicated website for full details on past work and future plans.

With planning permission granted for the proposals, Dezeen have just published ‘Penzance could become “spa town of Cornwall” with revamp of art-deco sea pool’