Municipal Greenwich, Part II

We began our municipal trail in Greenwich last week although we halted at some pre-municipal social provision, the alms-houses of Queen Elizabeth College on Greenwich High Road.  Walk on a little further along the High Road and look to your right.

SN West Greenwich House

West Greenwich House

Here is West Greenwich House, now a local community centre but formerly, until 1939, the Metropolitan Borough’s Town Hall. It started life, in 1877, as offices for the District Board of Works – what passed for local government in the capital until the establishment of the LCC in 1889 and the 28 metropolitan boroughs in 1900. It was designed by local architect William Wallen and, although only ‘thinly Italianate’, once looked a little grander with a clock tower, dome and portico. The photograph below captures some of that shattered glory after a V1 bombing raid on 12 July 1944. (1)

West Greenwich House blitz

West Greenwich House, July 1944. With thanks to Blitzwalkers.

SN Maitland Close 3

Maitland Close Estate

It faces the Maitland Close Estate which I can’t tell you much about.  It’s a post-war Greenwich estate, I think – with earlier and plainer three-storey blocks around Maitland Close itself and higher, more stylish blocks lined along the High Road.  But if anyone knows more, do let me know.

SN Greenwich Police Station

The former Greenwich Police Station

To finish off, we’ll cut through the estate, heading back to Greenwich South Street. Head north on the latter before taking a right-hand turn along predominantly Georgian Circus Street.  At the end you reach Royal Hill and, facing you, the rear of Swanne House, a 1960s’ block of flats formerly owned by the Metropolitan Police.  It was linked to Greenwich Police Station next door fronting Burney Street, a solid modernist building of the same era now emptied and on the market.   Borough Hall and the former Town Hall lie directly opposite.

SN Royal Hill

Royal Hill: Swanne House (to left) and the Royal Hill School

Looking the other way, at the top of the hill you’ll see the imposing bulk of the Royal Hill School, designed for the London School Board by its chief architect TJ Bailey and completed in 1899. (2) It’s representative of around 400 built by the Board between its foundation in 1870 and 1904 when its functions were taken over by, who else?, the LCC.  To Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (in the person of Sherlock Holmes) they were ‘Lighthouses…Beacons of the future!’, presaging ‘the wiser, better England of the future’.  It’s served a range of educational roles over the years but it’s currently a campus of the James Woolf Primary School.

Gloucester_Circus,_Greenwich_(geograph_3997748) Chris Whippet

Gloucester Circus, south (c) Chris Whippett and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Cross over into Gloucester Circus to see, on its southern side, one of Greenwich’s showpieces – the Georgian terrace, built between 1791 and 1807 and designed by Michael Searles. It’s a shallow three-storey terrace with mansard roof, intended as one half of a grand ensemble encompassing the private gardens in the centre which remain. Searles never got to complete his grand design though plainer, though large Victorian middle-class homes were added to the north around 1840. (3)

The homes themselves, intended for large families with household staff, had declined in status by the end of the century, divided by then into tenements for poorer working-class families.  In 1975, a Borough of Greenwich housing survey designated it as Category B housing; ‘an area of continuing improvement’.  Conversely, the Council’s Meridian Estate (discussed last week) – a solid five-storey,walk-up, balcony-access tenement block – was Category A.  The survey noted that 16 of the occupants of the Circus’s self-contained flats were on the waiting list for council accommodation.  (4)

SN Gloucester Circus and Marinor Estate

Gloucester Circus: private gardens and the Maribor Estate

We can assume that ‘improvement’ did indeed continue.  A recent agent’s listing describes it as ‘one of the most exclusive and prime locations of west Greenwich’ and a six-bed property was sold as long ago as 2012 for £2.75m.  Evidence of the area’s harder times is provided by the fact that a short terrace of the later Victorian homes is owned and managed by the Beaver Housing Society, a housing association formerly part-funded by the Borough now absorbed by the behemoth London & Quadrant.

SN Maribor Estate front

The Maribor Estate

But all this, for us at least, is just the appetiser for the main item on our municipal menu – the Maribor Estate which occupies the north-western corner of the Circus – a Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich scheme completed in 1960.  Greenwich had built 1486 council homes between the wars, of which 1115 were houses.  By 1958, when post-war building was in full swing, the Borough had added 1576 new homes.  It’s a sign of the times and evidence of diminishing open land that of these only 133 were traditional two-storey houses. It’s another sign of the times – the priority given to the pressing need to accommodate those without homes – that into the late 1950s, some 1086 families were living in housing requisitioned by the Borough under emergency wartime and post-war legislation. (5)

Such land as was available for new build now required clearance but, in some cases, that had been achieved earlier by Nazi bombing.  The photograph below shows Burney Street after a V1 attack in June 1944. The Victorian County Court building (since demolished) stands front and centre; behind it lies the heavily damaged northern terrace of Gloucester Circus. (6)


Burney Street, June 1944, with thanks to Blitzwalkers

As redevelopment options came to be considered, it was concluded that it was ‘too costly and an extravagant use of space’ to rebuild the housing in its prior form: (7)

Proposals were discussed with the Royal Fine Arts Commission, and it was agreed that by keeping to the same scale as the existing buildings, and by carefully detailing the elevations, the new building could be brought into harmony with its neighbours.

The outcome was the attractive (to my eyes) six-storey block of flats and maisonettes you see today – yellow stock brick for the most part, with striking glazed stairways at each end and balcony access to the rear.

SN Maribor Burney Street

Maribor Estate, Burney Street frontage

‘Generous open space’ (in the words of the Council brochure) separates this block from its visually dissimilar partner on Burney Street. This is a starker block, grey rendered, intended to harmonise with the police station and planned comprehensive redevelopment of the Central Area.  The damaged or destroyed homes it replaced were ‘tall, narrow-fronted buildings of the later Victorian period with few pretensions to architectural merit’.

In all, the new estate, designed by the Borough Architect’s Department, comprised 16 bed-sitter flats, 37 two-bed maisonettes and one three-bed maisonette and they came with the mod cons now expected – ‘each kitchen has a ventilated larder, a dresser unit and a porcelain enamelled sink with drainer’, all flats were centrally heated, and a drying room with tumble dryer was provided in each block.  A Maternity and Child Welfare Centre was located in the Burney Street building.

Maribor plaqueIf you’re wondering about ‘Maribor’, the estate was named after the Borough’s twin town in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (this part now Slovenia) and, in fact, it was officially opened by in June 1960 by Mr Stane Knez, President of Maribor Town Council. (I found the image above of the commemorative plaque on Twitter but couldn’t locate it when I visited the estate personally.)  A few months later, Greenwich’s mayor, Cllr HA Tatman, ‘at a gay, colourful and musical ceremony, opened a new housing estate in Maribor which has been named Greenwich’.  That estate survives and, courtesy of Google Streetview, you can see it below.

Greenwiska cesta, Marbor

Greenwiška cesta, Maribor

And we’ll conclude things there.  You can find you way home in London by privatised Southeastern railways from nearby Greenwich station if you have to or take the DLR or one of the many buses run by Transport for London in the vicinity.

It had been an informal Sunday morning ramble and the mix of monuments to municipalism it threw up was diverse but each, in their way, was a testimony to the incalculable contribution local government has made to the betterment of our lives and community.

Sidney Webb commented satirically of another perambulation taken by an ‘Individualist City Councillor…along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water’ (in those halcyon days at least). That councillor concluded thus: (8)

‘Socialism, sir,’ he will say, ‘don’t waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities. Self-help, sir, individual self-help, that’s what made our city what it is.’

We, better informed, might disagree.


(1) English Heritage, London’s Town Halls. The Architecture of Local Government from 1840 to the Present (1999) and Blitzwalkers, Wartime Greenwich & Woolwich (31 January 2014)

(2) Victorian Schools in London, 1870-1914, Royal Hill School, Greenwich (2011)

(3) The Greenwich Phantom, ‘Gloucester Circus’, 17 February 2017

(4) London Borough of Greenwich, Housing in West Greenwich: London Borough of Greenwich house condition survey. Report no. 3 (1975)

(5) Borough of Greenwich, The Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Official Guide (1958)

(6) Blitzwalkers, ‘Out of the Ruins’, 12 December 2016

(7) Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich, Maribor Greenwich (ND but c1960). The following quotations and detail are also drawn from this source.

(8) Sidney Webb, Socialism in England (1899)


Municipal Greenwich and a bit of the Isle of Dogs, Part I

This blog began with a walk – just a ramble through some local streets and, with it, a realisation of just how much we owed to local government.   This post marks another walk. It wasn’t planned as an excavation of municipal heritage – the route’s a bit random and its ‘sights’ are eclectic to say the least – but, as a reminder of the breadth and depth of municipalism’s contribution to our lives, it’s probably hard to beat.

We start at the Island Gardens DLR station at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs.  Turn to your left on exit and you’ll see Millwall Park.  Poorly drained and unattractive to speculative builders, the area remained predominantly pasture land into the late nineteenth century though Millwall FC occupied a couple of sites from 1885 till their move south of the river in 1910. In 1919 the London County Council (LCC) bought the land and created a playground and park.  In 1925, they added an open-air swimming pool but that was destroyed in the Blitz and not rebuilt. (1)

SN Dobson, Woman and Fish, Millwall Park

‘Woman and Fish’ by Antonio Lopez Reche after Frank Dobson

At the edge of the park there’s a statue of a woman holding a fish. An adjacent plaque tells you it’s by Antonio Lopez Reche and was placed there in 2007 but it has a back-story.  It’s a replica of an artwork – ‘Woman with Fish’ – by the sculptor Frank Dobson, bought by the LCC in 1963 in the year of his death.  It was originally located on the Carpenter Estate in Stepney, part of the Council’s ‘Patronage of the Arts’ scheme which saw over 70 works of art placed in estates and schools across the capital for the pleasure and edification of working-class Londoners.  Here it is in its original setting.

Cleveland Estate Dobson, Woman and Fish sculpture by Frank Dobson 256455 London Collage

‘Cleveland Estate: “Woman with Fish” sculpture by Frank Dobson’ (1962) (c) London Collage

The original provided drinking water too but it was badly vandalised in the late 1970s and removed, originally for restoration, in 1983.  Then it was destroyed.  Fortunately, we have this replica to remind us of that progressive past though its present rather isolated position and backdrop seem to speak to different values. (2)

SN Greenwich Power Station and OLd Naval College

Greenwich Power Station (to left) and the Old Royal Naval College

Wandering over to Island Gardens themselves, you get your first grand vista of the River Thames. A few of you might first notice the impressive buildings of the Old Royal Naval College immediately across the river but true municipal dreamers will be more taken by the powerful bulk of Greenwich Power Station lying just to the east.  It was designed and built by the LCC between 1902 and 1910 – an early example of a steel-frame building with a stone-clad brick cover – to provide power to the Council’s tramways.  Coal, oil and gas-fired over the years, it’s now one of the oldest operational power stations in the world and recently converted to generate low carbon power for the Tube and local homes and businesses. (3)

SN Greenwich Foot Tunnel 4

SN Greenwich Foot Tunnel 3

Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Naturally, we’ll use the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to cross the river, designed by the civil engineer Sir Alexander Binnie and constructed by John Cochrane and Co. but commissioned by the seemingly ubiquitous LCC. The 370 metre-long tunnel was opened in 1902, after a campaign by Will Crooks (docker, trade unionist, councillor and Labour MP), to provide reliable access from south of the river to workers employed on the Isle of Dogs.

SN Meridian Estate and Cutty Sark

Meridian Estate and Cutty Sark

SN Meridian Estate

Meridian Estate

As you emerge on the south bank, the first thing you’ll notice (apart from the Cutty Sark) is the Meridian Estate, a traditional LCC estate of five-storey, walk-up, balcony-access tenement blocks, begun by in 1933 with its westernmost buildings completed after the end of the Second World War.  It must now be among the best-sited estates, commanding some of the finest views, of any in the capital.   Today, riverside locations are the prerogative of the well-heeled. Back in the day, when first acquired by the Council, this was unattractive industrial land – a mix of docks and allied trades and humble terraced homes – and it was deemed good enough for working people. (4)

SN Greenwich Town Hall 2

Greenwich Town Hall

We’ll ignore the tourist hustle and bustle of central Greenwich and walk on up along Greenwich High Road.  As you turn the corner past Hawksmoor’s St Alfrege Church, completed in 1718, you catch a first glimpse of Greenwich Town Hall or rather, initially, its 50 metre tower and look-out platform.  This was a complex designed by the architectural practice, Culpin & Son. The father Ewart was a Labour alderman and vice-chair of the LCC in the interwar period and, together with his son Clifford (chiefly responsible for the Greenwich building), he had also designed Poplar New Town Hall opened in 1938. Greenwich followed one year later.

SN Greenwich Town Hall 1

Entrance and commemorative tablet. The mosaic is almost certainly by David Evans.

It’s a building whose form and style consciously reflects local government with a progressive agenda – the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich came under Labour control in 1934 as did in the same year the LCC itself: (5)

Avowedly modernist in its uncluttered and irregular elevations, juxtaposing verticality, through a clock tower, with the horizontality of flat-roofed, low-rise office blocks. For Pevsner in 1951, this was ‘the only town hall of any London borough to represent the style of our time adequately’

Clifford Culpin was clear on his inspiration, Willem Dudok whose Hilversum Town Hall in the Netherlands (1931) provided a model:

I was a devoted admirer of Dudok, and when I had the Greenwich building to design, I went to Hilversum and though the great man had a house full of guests, he devoted a very long day to showing me his best buildings.

SN Greenwich Town Hall Borough Hall

The Borough Hall

Aside from the council offices and Council Chamber, the complex contains two public halls, including the principal Borough Hall, originally with seating for 534 (and 259 on the balcony) on its sprung maple dance floor.  The Council ‘hoped that the new Civic Centre will become the focus of the social life of the Borough’.  Older residents can tell me if that were ever the case. As of now, sold off in the early 1970s, the Borough Hall is occupied by registered charity Greenwich Dance (‘the home of dance in South East London’) whilst the former civic buildings (now Meridian House) house the Greenwich School of Management and some private flats.

SN West Greenwich Library

West Greenwich Library

Immediately adjacent to the south is West Greenwich Library, built in 1905-7 and designed by HW Willis and J Anderson according to Pevsner and Sir AB Thomas by Historic England.  We’ll go with the latter’s detailed description of ‘the three-bay building, of modest baroque appearance’.  It was – as a central tablet records – ‘The gift of Andrew Carnegie Esq’; one of 660 libraries in the UK (there are 2509 worldwide) paid for by Carnegie, a Scots-born US steel magnate who dedicated $350m – some 90 per cent of his personal fortune – to philanthropic causes in the closing years of his life.

SN Salter tabletFollow the road south as it branches east on Greenwich South Street and look up above number 23.  Here there’s a plaque marking the birthplace in 1873 of Alfred Salter – doctor, Bermondsey councillor and MP and (with his wife and fellow councillor, Ada) one of the leading and most idealistic municipal reformers of his generation. (The work of the Salters and Bermondsey’s Labour council in the interwar period are extensively recorded in my earlier series of posts on Bermondsey.)

SN Queen Elizabeth College

Queen Elizabeth College

Across the road is something which isn’t municipal but it worthy of note for both its architecture and social purpose.  Queen Elizabeth College is (despite its name) an example of the earliest form of social housing – alms-houses originally endowed by landowner and antiquarian William Lambarde in 1576 who entrusted their management to the Drapers Company which still runs them.  The buildings you see now fronting Greenwich High Road were built in 1818 and provide 40 self-contained one-bedroom cottages.

SN Lambard House Queen Elizabeth College

Lambard House, Queen Elizabeth College

Lambard House (William seems to have lost an ‘e’ somewhere along the line) on Langdale Road is an attractive extension, maintaining that mission by providing 28 further flats in 1967. (6)

We’ll walk on in next week’s post to follow this municipal trail further.


(1) For this and much more on Millwall Park, see Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives, Millwall Park (10 August 2015)

(2) Sally Williams, London Park and Gardens Trust, ‘Looking out for Art – LCC’s Patronage of the Arts

(3) BBC News, ‘Low Carbon Plans Announced for Greenwich Power Station’, 8 January 2015

(4) Greenwich Industrial History, ‘The Old Loyal Britons, 62 Thames Street, Greenwich, SE10’ (20 August 2014)

(5) English Heritage, London’s Town Halls. The Architecture of Local Government from 1840 to the Present (1999)

(6) The Greenwich Phantom, Almshouses (3) Queen Elizabeth’s College (3 July 2008)


Aylesham and the Planning of the East Kent Coalfield, Part II


We left Aylesham last week – a new town and still a small one but with much riding on its success.  It represented new planning ideals and ambitions; it heralded – many hoped – a new industrial Britain whose prosperity was reflected in the healthier and happier homes of its working people   In practice, none of this would be easy.

There were, initially, high hopes for the East Kent coalfield, near to the prospering markets of south-east England at a time when much of the country was mired in a long-term industrial decline or hit by Great Depression of the early thirties. Kent’s miners increased in number from just over 2000 in 1925 to almost 7500 ten years later as the national mining workforce fell by a third.

That overall decline was complemented by the appalling industrial relations of the privately-owned industry, highlighted by a national mining strike in 1921 and the nine-month stoppage in 1926 which underlay the General Strike.  The new collieries of Kent seemed to offer a fresh start.

Whit Sunday walk King's Road, Aylesham SN

Whit Sunday Parade, King’s Road, Aylesham – a later image showing more prosperous and settled times, with thanks to Aylesham Heritage Cente

Many of Aylesham’s early families arrived heavily in debt and their children often suffered ‘various illnesses, including rickets and impetigo, largely attributable to insufficient nourishment resulting from the father’s unemployment before coming to Kent’. They came from depressed mining communities across the country – ‘so widely separated are they that some of the men can scarcely understand the language of others’. (1)

One early settler later recalled these dark days: (2)

They was trampin’ down here from Durham, Scotland – every village you could mention in Britain, I bet they knowed where Snowdown was. There was only Snowdown would sign them on and that wasn’t a pit, it was a pity – it were red ‘ot. Men had been so long unemployed Snowdown was killing them off … Men were breaking down with boils, pimps, carbuncles – the heat. Well, they was working in 98-100 was nothing.

Mr McEwan also pointed to a local difficulty.  Snowdown was nicknamed ‘Dante’s Inferno’ by the miners. At 3000 ft, it was one of the deepest pits in the country and one of the hottest with temperatures reaching 38°C (100°F) and 80 per cent humidity.

Although a strong and proud community developed later, these were inauspicious beginnings:

For the first three or four years the Welsh stuck to the Welsh, the Derbyshire stuck to the Derbyshire and the Geordies stuck to the Geordies. If they went into a pub they weren’t friendly – there was more trouble than anything else. Everybody used to fight each other over nothing many a time.

Snowdown Colliery end of shift 1972

Snowdown Colliery, end of shift, 1972

But there was one particular source of contention – the butty system employed in Snowdown by which the company employed a subcontractor (the butty) who was responsible for organising a team of workmen and delivering coal to the surface at so much a ton.  Disputes around the butty’s cut and the wages he paid to his team were inevitable and bitter.

With apologies to current residents who know the town very differently, it was seen then as a rough sort of place: ‘If you put a towel on the line or a rug, you got to keep your eye on it for if you come inside it’d gone’; ‘if anybody wanted to light a fire, they just went out and pulled the fences up’, according to later testimony.  And a poor place with local shopping costly and irregular transport expensive.

For all that, the men in employment – with work to occupy their time and provide status – had an easier time of it than their wives.  Mrs Unwin arrived in Aylesham in 1931 and found it hard to settle:

I didn’t like it, I used to cry, used to cry night after night for a long time, I broke my heart to go back, but what could you do? We was married and we had a baby then. I missed my home life and there was nothing in the village you see, and we couldn’t afford the train fares to go out. Everything seemed to be so quiet here, being used to living in a town and going round the shops even – window shopping see. We just couldn’t do that here – there was no shops, there was only one co-op.

It was reckoned that 300 hundred families left the town in its first two years and those departures continued, frequently in the form of moonlight flits where debts had become unsustainable. (3) Snowdown suffered a particularly high turnover of labour. Often, as Gina Harkell concludes:

the decision of families to return to their previous home was initiated by women. The conditions in the pits were so appalling that many miners needed only a gentle prod from their unhappy and discontented wives to get them on the move back home.

Patrick Abercrombie’s good intentions had, it seems, come to nothing.  The larger ambitions for the East Kent coalfield had faltered and the planners’ dreams faded, buffeted by the economic difficulties which ensured only their partial fulfilment and the near impossibility of creating cohesive community in such embattled and fractious circumstances.

Kings Road Aylesham 3 SN

King’s Road, Aylesham

By the mid-thirties, only 500 houses had been built on a layout designed for some 2000.  The houses themselves were solid and decent: (4)

Every house has three bedrooms of reasonable size and a bathroom, containing a washing basin with hot and cold water. The living room in every case is excellently arranged, having two windows and being fitted with a fine cooking range. There is electric light in every room and the cupboard accommodation is ample.

But even the provision of bathrooms had proven controversial.  Some of the women thought that ‘in order to save the defiling of bedrooms with grimy clothes, the baths should have been on the ground floor’ – though the same journalist (accurately or merely conveying a trope of his time?) reported that, where baths had been provided on the ground floor in neighbouring villages, these were often used for storage with the miners preferring to use the scullery basin.  Perhaps this difficulty at least was solved by the first provision of pithead baths (by the Miners’ Welfare Committee) in 1935.

St Peter's Church Aylesham SN

St Peter’s Church, Aylesham

In overall terms, however, one contemporary observer concluded in 1933 that ‘the whole village has a depressing air of arrested development’. (5)  And although a new estate of 104 homes was developed by the First National Housing Trust in 1935, another stringent local critic found almost one in ten homes unoccupied: ‘Aylesham does not strike one as a happy place. Why?’ Ironically, he blamed the stranglehold on new development wielded by the very public utility society, Aylesham Tenants Ltd., charged with overseeing the town’s growth and prosperity. (6)

Central School Aylesham SN

A contemporary image of Aylesham Central School

Seemingly, little had changed in Aylesham by the end of the Second World War.  A survey conducted by the Ministry of Fuel and Power concluded in a precise echo of that earlier assessment that: (7)

the settlement suffers from arrested development, with many of the sites in the centre of the town still rough grassland. There is no public building of any architectural significance, except the central school, while the houses present a marked degree of monotony.

Much else had changed. For one, the mines themselves had come into public ownership in 1946. That was part of a larger shift heralded by Labour’s landslide victory in 1945. Planning ideas and goals, pioneered in East Kent in the 1920s, became mainstream in the wake of the catastrophic regional impact of the Great Depression and were further boosted by the machinery of war.  Aylesham hoped to benefit.

Aylesham 1952 Heritage Centre

Aylesham in 1952, with thanks to Aylesham Heritage Centre

The Ministry of Fuel and Power agreed that the town needed to expand – 400 new homes were needed, it estimated, to return to pre-war levels of production and 400 more to achieve maximum output. New housing development was to be left largely to the local authorities and in 1947 Eastry Rural District Council accepted a £14,500 tender from Costains to build 46 of their Airey homes in the town.  Some 46,000 of these prefabricated reinforced concrete houses were erected in the early post-war years in the bid to build quickly and overcome shortages of labour and traditional materials.

Further housing was developed to the west of the original town centre in the 1950s and 1960s.  This is typical council estate housing of its time – spacious, well-built and well-equipped, and generally attractive.  In Aylesham, some of the street names capture a local labour politics and pride.

Attlee Avenue Aylesham 2 SN

Attlee Avenue, Aylesham

Cripps Close Aylesham SN

Cripps Close, Aylesham

Another innovation came in 1948 with the opening of the Rego Shirt Factory, initially employing some 160 and the first local industry to provide work for women. There was a consensus view among planners and politicians that Aylesham was an ‘unbalanced community’ and needed light industry not only to attract a wider range of the population but to provide work for miners retiring from pneumoconiosis.

Bevan Way Aylesham SN

Bevan Way, Aylesham

The new road projected in 1950 was to be part of this but there were larger hopes that Aylesham might receive a proportion of the London population which Abercrombie (in a later guise as co-author of the 1943 The County of London Plan) had recommended be dispersed from the overcrowded capital ‘beyond the Metropolitan influence’. In 1950, the County Council tried to get the town added to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning’s list of ‘expanded towns’ – existing towns tasked with receiving an overspill population from the major conurbations. (8)

Newman Road Aylesham SN

Newman Road, Aylesham

Those unfulfilled hopes remained into the 1960s.  The Kent Development Plan suggested Aylesham should grow to 40,000 within twenty years.  This was an ambition embraced by locals; as the chair of the Parish Council stated: (9)

We welcome anybody and everybody. We want light industry and houses, because that is the way to get more shops and services for our people. We want a balanced community. The miners want to meet and talk to people in other jobs and with other interests.

The failure of these plans is simply told: in 1961 the population of Aylesham stood at 4142; in 2011 at 4999.

Boulevard Courrieres Aylesham 2 SN

Terraced housing in Boulevard Courrières, the street named after Aylesham’s twin town in northern France

Boulevard Courrieres Aylesham 3 SN

Elderly person’s housing in Boulevard Courrières

That’s not quite the end of the story. Further expansion, now in the hands of private developers, is taking place and projected. A new Masterplan was adopted in 2004 and outline planning permission granted for up to 1200 new homes. By 2016, the first 200 homes of a new ‘Aylesham Garden Village’ were constructed; 400 were planned for 2018.  Whether Barratt Homes and Persimmon Homes will fulfil the ‘Garden Village’ ethos they claim is a moot point but, ironically, it is just that ‘feel of modern urbanism in the rural idyll’ that Patrick Abercrombie had sought back in the 1920s. (9)


A recent image, looking south, showing new development on the fringe of the original town.

In the meantime, the original raison d’être of the town had been destroyed.  At peak, Snowdown employed 3500 men. By 1981, when the National Coal Board announced an annual loss for the pit of £9m, it employed just 960 and it was slated for closure alongside 22 others. A three-day walk-out of miners in Kent, Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire and Durham forced a temporary rethink but the words of the Snowdown National Union of Mineworkers branch chair, Morris Bryan, were prophetic: ‘There are millions of tons of reserves. If this pit is not safe, no pit in the country is’. (10)

Scargill, Snowdown, November 1983

Arthur Scargill at Snowdown Colliery, November 1983

As the threat of wholesale pit closures across the country strengthened in the early eighties, a year-long miners’ strike occurred in 1984-85.  It ended in heroic failure and the Kent miners – 96 percent struck in November 1984 and 93 percent were out when the action was finally called off – were among its staunchest supporters. Before the war, many miners blacklisted for union activity elsewhere had moved to Kent; that militant heritage remained.  Nevertheless, Snowdown was closed in 1987; Betteshanger, the last working Kent pit, followed in 1989.

Miners Statue Aylesham SN

‘Payday at Snowdown Colliery’ – designed by Derek Garrity and sculpted by Steve Melton

Though its proud mining heritage and traditions remain, the town had perforce to reinvent itself and in 2014 its unemployment rate stood at 2.8 percent, fractionally under the rate for Britain as a whole, a little higher than the South-East average.  The previous census revealed that a quarter of the local labour force now worked in managerial, professional or associate professional occupations though 40 percent of these worked 10 km or more from home. (In housing terms, 59 percent of households were owner occupiers, compared to the then English average of 68 percent.) (11)

It had been quite a journey.  The bustling industry envisaged for East Kent had never taken off and the healthier and happier model settlements envisaged for its projected workforce – Abercrombie had suggested that up to 278,000 would move to the area – withered on the vine. For all that, we should celebrate that early attempt to create working-class homes and communities suitable for the modern age. Aylesham is a decent place to live and it boasts a strong community which has overcome many difficulties.  Our subjection to the economic forces which govern our lives for good or ill apparently remains.


(1) ‘The Kent Mining Community’, The Times, 22 March 1930

(2) Gina Harkell, ‘The Migration of Mining Families to the Kent Coalfield between the Wars’, Oral History, vol. 6, no. 1, Spring, 1978.  Other direct quotations from residents are drawn from the same source.

(3) David Jeremiah, Architecture and Design for the Family in Britain, 1900-70 (Manchester University Press, 2000)

(4) ‘Growth of a New Town’, The Times, 27 April 1927

(5) MBA Churchard, An Analysis of the Agricultural and Industrial Life of South-East England with Especial Reference to the Effect of the Developing Kent Coalfield Thereon, PhD, University of London, 1933

(6) ‘Aylesham Calling: Another View’, Letter from Richard Carter, Missioner, Dover Express and East Kent News, 28 January 1938

(7) Ministry of Fuel and Power, Kent Coalfield Regional Survey Report (HMSO, 1945)

(8) ‘County Council and Aylesham’, Dover Express and East Kent News, 22 February 1946 and ‘Discussions of Future of Aylesham’, Dover Express, 24 February 1950

(9) Aylesham Village, ‘Welcome to Aylesham Garden Village

(10) Richard Ford, ‘Snowdown Colliery men are in fighting mood, The Times, February 16, 1981 and Nicholas Timmins, ‘Case of the untypical pit’, The Times, 7 September 1982

(11) Keith Kintrea, ‘Imagined communities? Contextualizing claims about the White working class’, Dialogues in Human Geography, vol 6, no. 1, 2016

Kent History and Library Centre have produced an excellent timeline of Aylesham’s history which is worth consulting for further detail and illustration.


Aylesham and the Planning of the East Kent Coalfield, Part I


For two thousand years, the ‘peaceful undulating country of East Kent’ had pursued ‘an agricultural and seaside existence, perturbed by nothing more agitating than an ephemeral military conquest or so!’  But in 1931, as Patrick Abercrombie noted, a new coalfield seemed destined to change all that: (1)

That deep peace is now permanently invaded; for, however much we may minimise the ugly effects of industrialisation, and however well-planned the new additions may be, so as to conform to the genius of the locality, a change fundamental and complete will have taken place from the peace of the country to the busy hum of men.

That ‘busy hum’ never quite had the impact anticipated by Abercrombie and others in the interwar years but it did, nevertheless, change significantly a bucolic corner of rural England.  Though the last mine of the East Kent coalfield closed in 1989, a significant residue remains.  This post and the next will focus on Aylesham, planned by Abercrombie, Britain’s foremost contemporary town planner, as a model settlement, and assess how successful these planning visions were.

Milner Crescent Aylesham 2 SN

Milner Crescent, Aylesham

The existence of coal in the area – a continuation of the seams heavily mined in northern France – had been surmised for some time but was proven in 1882 when trail borings for the first, abortive, Channel Tunnel, were made under the Shakespeare Cliff in Dover.  The Shakespeare Colliery, operational from 1896, was never successful – indeed, in a tragic reminder of the human costs of such enterprise, eight men were killed in an explosion in 1897 – and it was closed on the outbreak of the First World War.

MIlner Road Elvington SN

Milner Road, Elvington – larger homes built for colliery managers?

Arthur Burr, the most ambitious of local mining entrepreneurs, opened a second pit at Tilmanstone, west of Deal, in 1906, which enjoyed a longer existence. The village of Elvington was developed in the interwar years to house its workforce – 230 three-bed houses, each with a parlour and living room plus scullery and bathroom, built by the Tilmanstone Miners Dwellings Syndicate. (3)

Snowdown Colliery 1930

Snowdown Colliery, 1930

Burr followed this up with a second pit, five miles to the west, at Snowdown in 1907. Twenty-two men were drowned when the first shaft hit water but, by 1912, the colliery had turned its first profit.  A small number of miners’ houses were built in nearby villages but the pit closed for two years in the period of industrial slump and troubled industrial relations which followed the First World War. Purchased by Pearson & Dorman Long in 1924, an ambitious modernisation programme ensued, this time complemented by idealistic plans to create homes and community appropriate to the new, large workforce envisaged.

Planning was by now an emergent discipline.  It combined in East Kent with the powerful fears and hopes occasioned by both the threat – manufacturing blight and housing squalor – and opportunity – commercial profitability and remunerative employment – seemingly promised by a new coalfield in a country grown old industrially.  That this should occur in the relatively undeveloped South-East, in the so-called ‘Garden of England’, added to the sense of urgency and concern widely felt: (4)

It may well be that Coal and Iron in Kent is the biggest industrial happening in England of this quarter-century. Kent is not Durham or Lancashire or Glamorgan – distant spots glamoured in gloom: it is in the eye of the world. Coals in Kent are not coals in Newcastle: they are at London’s door.

The first planning conference for the new coalfield took place in Canterbury in 1922, followed in May 1923 by an East Kent Joint Town Planning Committee meeting attended by representatives of the seventeen local councils directly or indirectly affected.  As evidence of the interest of the Great and Good in planning matters affecting their backyard, a meeting, convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, occurred in Lambeth Palace the following month attended, amongst others, by Lord Beauchamp (Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports), Lord Alfred Milner and John Jacob Astor, MP for Dover.

Neville Chamberlain I

Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain, a scion of the Birmingham manufacturing family, had a less gilded
background and, as both a Birmingham MP and, from 1924 to 1929, Minister of Health and Housing, a more informed and practical interest in planning matters.  But his speech in 1926 captures the good intentions and nimbyism which characterised some of this anxiety around the East Kent Coalfield.

The good intentions focused on building better industrial communities than those allowed to develop in the nineteenth century, in Chamberlain’s words, ‘without plan, without thought, without foresight, just as happened to be the whim or the caprice of particular individuals’. And they focused, in particular, on healthier and more balanced mining settlements: (5)

You are getting away, on the one hand, from the straggling kind of development … and, on the other hand, from those pit-head villages which are an unfortunate feature of many of our mining areas. You are proposing a series of towns which are not to be at the pit-heads, but which are, nevertheless, near enough to serve them; and you can give the miners who will occupy these towns a social life of a far fuller, wider and more interesting character than they can ever hope to get in those mining villages in Wales.

The nimbyism, not unreasonably, stressed that ‘the utmost care [be] taken to preserve as much as the rural charm of the hinterland (much used for charabanc excursions)’ – ‘it is easy to imagine how disastrous to them would be the background of a smoke-grimed and dishevelled Black Country’.


Patrick Abercrombie, 1942 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Patrick Abercrombie – as a founder and honorary secretary of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and professor of civic design at the University of Liverpool – commissioned by the Joint Town Planning Committee in 1925 to prepare plans for East Kent was exceptionally well placed to address these concerns.  His first report, co-written with John Archibald, was issued in 1925.

The report projected large-scale industrial development in East Kent: 18-20 pits and a mining population (including wives and children) of around 180,000.  Associated steel works and ancillary trades were anticipated to bring a further 278,000 people to the area. Besides the necessary focus on new infrastructure, Abercrombie wrote at length on residential growth.

Birds eye view East Kent 1926 II

This 1926 map shows the projected extent of the coalfield.

He concluded that the ‘general result’ of company-developed schemes ‘would be deplorable’.  He looked rather to the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn where Public Utility Societies controlled all aspects of planning and ensured land value gains accrued to the community. They were better, he argued, in providing public utilities and buildings as well as shops and entertainment. Existing pit villages were not romanticised in this analysis. ‘Of equal and, to many minds, superior importance to the economic gain of grouped sites’, he concluded, ‘is the opportunity they give for a fuller social life’.

An estimated 55,600 new homes would be needed, divided (in Abercrombie’s final, 1927, report) among seven new towns and a number of smaller villages. In terms of their overall layout, Abercrombie thought a ‘certain formality of treatment … inevitable in an artificially planned and quickly built community’ though one ‘which is instinctively tempered by the natural features of the site’. (Abercrombie tended, in any case, to favour rather formal Beaux Arts-style schemes as we’ve seen in his post-Second World War plans for Plymouth and Hull.)

Kings Road Aylesham 4 SN

King’s Road, Aylesham

In terms of housing design, he suggested there were ‘many local examples for inspiration’ and cautiously advanced:

a simple Georgian, modified into a provincial touch with somewhat high-pitched roofs, and with a further local flavour of the Flemish influence in its brickwork.

Aylesham, a new settlement next to the Snowdown Colliery and close to new mines envisaged (though never opened) in nearby Adisham and Wingham, was to be the canvas for Abercrombie’s grand designs.  The Aylesham Tenants Ltd was formed, as a Public Utility Society, by Eastry Rural District Council and Pearson & Dorman Long in July 1926; Kent County Council joined in the following year.  With a 600 acre site and £600,000 to spend – drawn in part from an Exchequer subsidy of £90,000, a £350,000 loan from the Public Works Loan Commissioners and £70,000 from a debenture stock issue – the company embarked on the construction of 1200 homes, envisaged as the first phase of a town planned to accommodate some 15,000.

Aylesham plan 1926 Abercrombie

Abercrombie’s 1926 plan for Aylesham – the first built homes are shown in black.

Abercrombie’s layout provided for a grand central tree-lined boulevard with a shopping centre at its centre where roads from the collieries crossed the main axis.  Churches, schools and plentiful open space were located at focal points. It was a ‘scientific’ plan, showcasing, according to its authors, the ‘beauty of efficiency and congruity’ and intended (in contrast to much of the local authority building of the time) to provide the essentials of community life ‘long before their actual need is felt’.  Abercrombie allowed himself one flight of fancy – the layout of the town emulated the shape of a pithead winding frame. (6)

Aylesham Kings Road 1926-27 (Heritage Centre)

Steel frame and concrete homes under construction on King’s Road (with thanks to Aylesham Heritage Centre)

Housebuilding commenced in September 1926; the first four pioneering families moved in May the following year. The homes themselves did not live up to Abercrombie’s hopes. Of the first phase of 400, half were of traditional plain brick construction, half of steel-frame and poured concrete. The latter were heralded as an innovative means of building quickly and circumventing shortages of building materials and skilled labour. In Aylesham, their use probably reflected more the commercial interests of Pearson & Dorman Long whose Dorman Long Housing Company subsidiary was the chief promoter of such housing.

Hyde Place Aylesham SN

An early photograph of Hyde Place, Aylesham – one of the first streets to be developed

Other facilities followed in relatively short order.  A temporary school and library and Co-op had opened by the end of 1927 (when Aylesham’s population stood at around 1000). The first pub (the Greyhound Hotel) opened in January 1928 and Anglican, then Nonconformist and Roman Catholic churches all within the next year. As a marker of emergent community and workforce, the first parade of the Snowdown Colliery Welfare Band took place in June 1929.  The centrepiece new Central School opened the following year.

Aylesham Market Square SN

Market Square, Aylesham

The town, however, remained embryonic and parts had a desolate air.  These were early days but what form of community did emerge and how fully and how successfully were the grandiose plans for Aylesham and the East Kent coalfield fulfilled?  Next week’s post takes the story forward.


(1) Patrick Abercrombie, ‘The Kent Coalfields’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, no 409, vol 79, April 17, 1931

(2) Subterranea Britannica, Site Name: Tilmanstone Colliery (January 2011)

(3) JP Hollingsworth, ‘Those Dirty Miners’: a History of the Kent Coalfield (Stenlake Publishing, 2010)

(4) Patrick Abercrombie and John Archibald, East Kent Regional Planning Scheme Survey (University Press of Liverpool and Hodder and Stoughton, 1925). Later quoted detail is from this source.

(5) ‘Town Planning in East Kent. A Speech by the Right Hon Neville Chamberlain MP (Minister of Health) delivered at Canterbury, July 24 1926’ (PD Eastes and Co Ltd, Canterbury, 1926)

(6) MBA Churchard, An Analysis of the Agricultural and Industrial Life of South-East England with Especial Reference to the Effect of the Developing Kent Coalfield Thereon, PhD, University of London, 1933

Kent History and Library Centre have produced an excellent timeline of Aylesham’s history which is worth consulting for further detail and illustration.


Duncan Bowie, ‘The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning’ Book Review: ‘the State, the Municipality … doing what men cannot do, or do so well’


Duncan Bowie, The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning: From Puritan Colonies to Garden Cities (Routledge, 2017)

Duncan BowieDuncan Bowie is an esteemed figure in housing and planning circles, both until recently as an academic at the University of Westminster and, over the years and in a variety of roles, as a hands-on practitioner in London local government.  As a politically engaged figure with an unusually profound historical knowledge of his subject, he is the ideal person to write this important account of what he describes as planning’s prehistory.

Bowie sets out his stall clearly in the book’s introduction. He laments the fact that ‘we have largely lost any concept of social purpose for planning’. His book, by contrast, seeks:

to use the historical record as a basis for challenging the dominance of neo-liberal perspectives within contemporary discourse [and] to reassert the positive role of planning as understood in previous historical periods.

He asserts a Benthamite perspective ‘that planning should be about achieving the greatest good in terms of benefit to the greatest number of people’. To this, he adds an explicitly socialist goal – that it also be used:

for redistributive purposes – to advance the interests of households with less wealth and income and access to the market, to mitigate the negative impact of the free market in land, property and development and to seek a more egalitarian society.

Wren, LondonAt first glance, the book’s earlier chapters might seem of more antiquarian interest.  Early settlement planning in the British Isles and colonies was heavily inspired by religious principles. John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously proclaimed in 1630 that the new community would be considered as ‘a city upon a hill’ and its prosperity dependent on fealty to the one true God. But it’s suggested that even Christopher Wren’s proposed remodelling of London after the Great Fire was influenced by contemporary ideas of the form and nature of the biblical Jerusalem.

A strength of the book is Bowie’s comprehensive excavation of earlier, often neglected, texts and, for all that their language and beliefs may sometimes seem archaic, it’s striking how many echo later concerns and foreshadow more recent ideas.  For James Stuart, in his 1771 pamphlet Critical Observations on the Buildings and Improvements of London, it was clear that ‘people accustomed to behold order, decency and elegance in public, soon acquire that urbanity in private, which forms at once the excellence and bond of society’.  As a critique, suitably modified, of later criticisms of the slums and a defence of their rational replacement, that would be hard to beat.

Attempts to limit London’s growth (a key element of Patrick Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan) were anticipated under Queen Elizabeth I and Cromwell. James Claudius Loudon, in Hints for Breathing Places (1829), provided the first explicit proposal for a Green Belt; a few years later, he called for a ‘representative municipal government’ for London.  Sidney Smirke, in Suggestions for the Architectural Improvement of the Western Part of London (1834), advocated that land ‘be purchased by public money and appropriated for the use of the labouring classes’ to build subsidised working-class housing.

Buckingham, Victoria SN

The new settlement of Victoria, as envisaged by James Silk Buckingham

A following chapter discusses Utilitarian thinkers, concerned with both, in the title of the Radical MP John Silk Buckingham’s 1849 work, National Evils and Practical Remedies.  Buckingham proposed a new settlement (he called it Victoria in honour of the monarch; we might call it a New Town or Garden City) with sanitary and spacious working-class housing, free education and healthcare, careful zoning of its separate functions, all owned and managed by (in modern terms) a development corporation which reinvested profits.  Ebenezer Howard acknowledged his influence.

Robert Owen and the French Utopian Socialists are treated in succeeding chapters. The weakness of these communitarian theorists, as Bowie suggests, was their:

failure to challenge in any practical sense the contemporary domestic political and economic structures. The focus of the communitarians was on transcendence rather than reform – there was no attempt to take power within the existing society and state, only to escape from it.

He points out, however, that their followers and foot soldiers often played more practical and influential roles.

This brings us to a central thrust of Bowie’s analysis, the importance of pressure from below: reform has too often been seen as ‘something gifted by altruistic businessmen or reform politicians in parliament and in government’.  The conventional narrative, for example, focuses on the apparently humiliating failure of Chartism’s last big push in 1848; Bowie reminds us that its influence lived on in the plethora of organisations populated by former Chartists in the years which followed.

Boon SN

Martin James Boon and the title page of his pamphlet Home Colonization

Here land nationalisation and home colonisation emerged as key ideas.  In 1869, for example, Martin James Boon, a secretary of the Land and Labour League, published a detailed schema for the latter – a £120m investment to buy up 20m acres of wasteland, creating 310,000 new farms and providing, in total, employment for 1,920,000.  We might, in these jaded times, see that as fanciful but it is also an anticipation of the now unfashionable Keynesianism which did once promise full employment and a reminder of what even a more moderately interventionist state with will and vision might achieve.


The London Trades Council meeting the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), a member of the 1884 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes

Towards the end of the century, Christian socialism, positivism, the emerging social sciences provided new sources of middle-class reformism but, again, it was labour activists and organisations that concentrated attention on slum housing and its remedy. George Shipman, secretary of the London Trades Council, giving evidence to the 1884 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, was clear that:

It is totally impossible that private enterprise, philanthropy, and charity can ever keep pace with the present demands…What the individual cannot do, the State municipality must seek to accomplish.

Fred Knee SN

Fred Knee

That view became increasingly accepted, advocated for example by the much neglected Workman’s National Housing Council headed by the tireless activist and propagandist Fred Knee. Others accepted a greater role for private enterprise and non-state agents. Ebenezer Howard, despite socialistic influences, needed the sympathies of landowners and liberals to implement his Garden City vision.

The archetypal statists of the Fabian Society responded that they did ‘not believe in the establishment of socialism by private enterprise’. And Sidney Webb asserted that the Cooperative Commonwealth would ultimately be achieved through ‘such pettifogging work as slowly and with infinite difficulty building up a Municipal Works Department under the London County Council’.

That might seem the very definition of ‘municipal dreaming’ but, significantly, radicals and socialists, Lib-Labs and trades unionists were increasingly engaging with a state which, for a variety of reasons, was belatedly showing an interest in tackling slum conditions.

Much more could be said about the range of ideas, individuals and organisations arguing for a spectrum of housing and planning reform in the years leading up to the First World War. Bowie covers them fully and judiciously and I won’t attempt any summary in a brief review.  There’s also an interesting discussion in the book of the currents and cross-currents around land value taxation, long advocated as a fairer and more progressive tax, supported by most reformers before the 1914 war and interestingly revived in Labour’s 2017 General Election manifesto.

William ThompsonI’ll put in a word too for William Thompson, councillor and alderman and later chair of the National Housing and Town Planning Council – the man who masterminded London’s first completed council homes, in Richmond, in the mid-1890s.

The book throws up some surprising gems.  William Morris is known as a central figure in the Arts and Crafts movement and less celebrated as a revolutionary socialist but few have seen him as an early proponent of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. Here he is writing in 1884 on ‘Homes for the Poor’ in the Social Democratic Federation journal, Justice:

It might be advisable, granting the existence of huge towns for the present, that houses for workers should be built in tall blocks in what might be called vertical streets…This gathering of many small houses into a big tall one would give opportunity for what is also necessary for a decent life, that is garden space round each block.

From the 1890s, two key and lasting shifts in the housing and town planning field were taking place.  One was the central role increasingly advocated for local government, first significantly formalised in the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act.  Even Howard’s Garden Cities Association recognised this when it organised a conference on local authorities and town planning in 1907 – over 100 councils participated. Howard’s eventual successor and later chair of the Town and Country Planning Association, Fredric Osborne, acknowledged this more forcefully.


Sir Albert Rollit in an image by Spy captioned ‘Municipal Corporations’ from Vanity Fair, 1886

To some this was Socialism but, in essence, it was, in the words of Sir Albert Rollit (Conservative MP and sometime chair of Association of Municipal Corporations) in an 1889 speech to the revolutionaries of the National Union of Conservative Associations, a simple acknowledgement that:

Men must meet Socialism itself. It stalks abroad and we must look in its face. Not shirk from it as a spectre only to be avoided. In its one sense of the State, the Municipality or public bodies, doing what men cannot do, or do so well, for themselves, the principle has been adopted in many of those statutes which are our own work…

We would wish that present-day Conservatives in the face of the current housing crisis would forsake their current free market dogma for this practical truth understood better by their predecessors.

The second shift was the professionalisation of the field as RIBA and the Institution of Municipal and County Engineers took up the gauntlet, as various practitioner organisations were formed, as the subject became the focus of university teaching.

Municipal Housing John Burns Signature

This copy of Thompson’s pamphlet on municipal housing, signed by John Burns and presumably from his personal library (now held by UCLA), illustrates the cross-play of ideas and personnel in the pre-1914 era

The pivotal moment, for Bowie, was the 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act; legislation championed by John Burns, former trades unionist and socialist firebrand, as President of the Local Government Board in Asquith’s Liberal government. It further extended the planning role of local government and ensured that new settlements were no longer the preserve of philanthropy or private initiative.  (The legislation’s role in relation to council estate layout and design is discussed in my earlier post on the London County Council’s Old Oak Estate in Hammersmith.)

When it comes to public housing, the political and social impact of the First World War is usually taken as decisive.  Bowie’s analysis offers an important corrective by showing how widely accepted core principles of state support and local government agency in housing and planning had become before 1914.

In doing so, he rescues the role and ideas of these early pioneers. Though, as he acknowledges, much of their work comprised polemic and campaigning, by the turn of the century, radical and socialist ideas had become influential and increasingly accepted as both necessary and practical.

For Duncan Bowie:

the lesson of history is that arguments for change can sometimes actually lead to the change taking place. Such positive outcomes are not achieved without passion, belief and hard work. Change does not come quickly – nor is it inevitable.  That would be a lesson well learnt.

It’s a lesson well taught in his book too and it should be an inspiration for the current generation of housing and planning activists and practitioners fighting to ‘reassert the core Benthamite principle of planning for the public good against the practice of planning to enable private gain’.

Publication and purchase details of the book are available on the Routledge website


Duncan has created an invaluable website containing links to a podcast, images and many of the primary sources related to the book.

Anyone concerned with our current housing crisis and a progressive response to it will also be interested in another of his books, Radical Solutions to the Housing Supply Crisis, on sale from Policy Press for £7.99.


Council Housing in Walsall, Part IV: from 1979 to the present


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This is the last of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall.  Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing.  That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.

We left Walsall’s council housing last week at its peak – literally so in terms of the high-rise blocks built in the late sixties but numerically too when, in the early 1980s, the Council managed around 42,000 homes in the expanded borough.  This final post concentrates on the politics of council housing in more recent decades, including some radical attempts to decentralise local government with an idiosyncratically local flavour.

Firstly, however, Right to Buy.  The sale of council homes to sitting tenants legislated by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 saw the Council’s housing stock decline dramatically but it was a policy pioneered by her Conservative predecessors in Walsall as far back as 1967.

Hot cake sales

Birmingham Post, September 1967

In that year, the council offered its council houses (flats were excluded) for sale to sitting tenants at a discount of 20 per cent with a flat rate fee of £40 to cover expenses.  One hundred applications were received with 500, it was said, in the pipeline, incentivised by the 15s (75p) a week increase being proposed for council rents. (1)  The real damage to council housing stock, however, came in the later iteration of Right to Buy; by 2003 only some 23,000 homes in Walsall remained under council management.

There were other winds of change too. Estates up and down the country fell on hard times in the 1970s. At the same time, minority communities – often previously excluded from council housing by local residency rules yet frequently in greatest need – were, as needs-based allocations became the norm, being granted tenancies in greater numbers.

Pleck Tower Bloc

Pleck flats, 1987. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

The two currents collided in ugly fashion on the Pleck Estate in Walsall.  In March 1977, a newly-formed tenants’ association called for the vetting of new tenants as a means of countering vandalism.  This became explicitly and straightforwardly racist a few months later when the chair of the association stated his belief that ‘on the whole Asians will not conform to our way of life…the way things are going in Pleck flats they are going to be turned into ghettos’. The Commission for Racial Equality found the Housing Department to have colluded in this discrimination. (2)


Caldmore Green

Other far more benign but controversial localist currents were emerging in in Walsall politics at this time. A left-wing Caldmore Residents’ Group  (Tribunite in its politics for older readers) established a Caldmore Advice Centre and Caldmore Housing Association to campaign for the depressed community’s interests. They were intended to represent and promote a radically devolved vision of local government and its services, focused on the neighbourhood.

The Group’s leading activist, Dave Church, spoke critically of the gap he saw that had grown between local councillors and the wider council bureaucracy and those they worked for: (3)

In the vastness of the civic centre, many [local politicians] had had little or no contact with the people they were supposed to serve; personal contact on such rare occasions that it had been unavoidable had nearly always meant some more or less frightening confrontation with a tenant driven to despair by neglect and indifference and who had somehow managed to evade the elaborate defences provided by the civic centre.

The Group became influential in the local Labour Party and in 1980 Walsall Labour fought the local elections on a far-reaching manifesto entitled Haul to Democracy which committed it to forming neighbourhood offices to deliver housing and welfare services and mobilise a community-based politics.  A Labour victory saw 35 such centres created but, ousted by an anti-socialist alliance within two years, it was a short-lived experiment.

Walsall Civic Centre

Walsall Civic Centre

Structurally, the issue remained dormant for the decade which followed but by 1995 Dave Church’s left-wing politics had triumphed within the Labour Group.  The Party’s manifesto in that year, Power to the People, went even further than the 1980s scheme in proposing the complete devolution of Walsall’s local government by the formation of 55 locally elected neighbourhood councils.

The Conservative Party characterised the programme as ‘loony leftism’ and the new neighbourhood councils as ‘mini-Kremlins’ but, more importantly, the council found itself at odds with Tony Blair’s Labour Party.  By the end of the year, the predominant left-wing faction within the Labour group was suspended from Party membership and Labour had lost control of the council.

It would be easy, and not wholly misguided, to see this defeat of a radical, grass-roots politics as a consequence of New Labour’s centralising tendencies and its crushing desire to earn itself the electoral respectability which would, two years later, lead to its 1997 landslide.  But the plans, however good their intent, were dangerously flawed.

Their promised job cuts and budget savings alienated local and national trades unions; the left-wing group was isolated even from other radical Labour councils of the time; and the proposals themselves were illegal under existing local government legislation. In essence, this was a voluntarist left-wing politics which lacked the grass-roots support it claimed to embody. The ‘Democratic Labour’ group formed by expelled councillors had lost all its seats by 1999 by which time more mainstream Labour representatives had resumed control of the council. (4)

Ultimately and ironically, a very watered down version of this devolutionist politics emerged in the regeneration schemes which followed. In April 1996, after his removal from office, Church’s bid for Single Regeneration Budget funding was rewarded by a £14.6m grant from its ‘Empowering Local Communities’ programme. Elected local committees were formed in the seven areas of the Borough to benefit from the funding. (5)  Other local committees were formed in the five areas which received City Challenge funding.  These, of course, were consultative, not executive.

SN Art Gallery

The New Art Gallery is a signature element of the town’s wider regeneration

These regeneration programmes were part and parcel of a very changed housing politics. The Conservative government which came to power in 1979 didn’t like council housing. Right to Buy was only the most blatant example of this.  Cuts in the Housing Investment Programme budget were another.  Walsall bid for £22m support from central government in 1980-81 but was granted £13m. One new council house was started that year.  In 1981-82, it bid £20m, reckoning that 1000 new homes were needed to make at least a dent in the 9000-strong waiting list. It received £7.5m. (6)

The various estate regeneration programmes, whatever their sometime positive effect and intention, were also a means of marginalising council-owned and managed homes as funding was restricted for the most part to third sector providers.

SN The Chuckery Estate

The Chuckery Estate

The Tenants Management Organisation (TMO) established in Chuckery 1988 was formed in response to an Estate Action bid.  Three others were founded around the same time to take over management of other high-rise estates.  TMOs were promoted as a means of allowing residents and tenant activists real management of their own homes.  In Walsall, at least, they seem to have been successful and poplar. By the end of the decade there were eight TMOs in Walsall. The Walsall Alliance of Tenant Management Organisations (WATMOS) was formed in 2002 and currently comprises eleven subsidiaries, including – in an interesting example of contemporary third sector entrepreneuralism –  two in the London Borough of Lambeth. (7)

SN Leamore Redevelopment Scheme

Providence Close, Leamore, run by a WATMOS TMO.

By this time, large-Scale Voluntary Transfer was the new game in town – a process initiated under the Conservatives in 1988 which took off under New Labour after 1997 – which transferred council housing stock to housing associations.  The rules which restricted new state investment in housing and regeneration to the latter made the process all but inevitable.

Walsall transferred the entirety of its housing stock in 2003 though the transfer ballot approval was underwhelming – 50 per cent of tenants agreed to transfer on a 71 per cent turnout. At any rate, the Borough’s 22,971 homes were transferred; around 21,000 to the Walsall Housing Group housing association and 1700 – the remaining tower blocks – to WATMOS.

The transfer enabled the implementation of the Labour Government’s 2000 Decent Homes Programme which has upgraded and improved many thousands of homes in Walsall and across the county.  Another very New Labour programme, the New Deal for Communities, was implemented in the Blakenhall, Bloxwich East and Leamore area of Walsall in 2005.

Tower blocks, which had once heralded a bright new housing future, were often judged incapable of improvement. In the 2000s, Walsall demolished nine of its tower blocks – including three 1950s blocks at Blakenall Gardens and two 1960s blocks in Darlaston.  Alma and Leys Courts, the last to be completed, were ironically among the first to be razed – in 2001. (8)

The Pinnacle (St Mary's Court) Willenhall

The Pinnacle (formerly St Mary’s Court), Willenhall

All that will confirm much conventional wisdom about the ‘failure’ of high-rise housing but a more nuanced view is justified.  The 16-storey St Mary’s Court block was closed by the council and scheduled for demolition in 1997. Instead, it was sold to the private sector, refurbished (and rebranded as The Pinnacle) and it survives to provide good homes – just no longer to social housing tenants.

It’s also true that high-rise council tenants had been unhappy.  In 2002, as demolitions were in full swing, a survey showed just 33 per cent of tenants in Walsall tower blocks satisfied with their landlord. WATMOS claims that a 2009 survey of the same homes showed 92 per cent satisfaction under their new management.  Taken at face value, the evidence suggests anger directed more towards poor management and neglect than high-rise living as such.

Sandbank Clarke House with Cartwright House in foreground (Tower Block)

Clarke House with Cartwright House in foreground, Sandbank Estate (1988). With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

That seems justified anecdotally by a 2013 press report (sparked by a government report calling for blocks to be demolished and replaced by ‘streets people actually want to live in’) in which residents of the Sandbank Estate challenged its authors to visit and enjoy its ‘1950s-style community spirit’.  One long-term resident stated, ‘even if I won the lottery tonight I’d still live here. I’d just get a butler in’. (9)  Such views – and a more complex story of high-rise living – are confirmed in the Block Capital’s Living in the Sky project, a history of high-rise council flats in the Black Country.

barracks-lane-01-1 whg

Barracks Lane, Blakenall – a scheme of 73 new social rented homes built by the Walsall Housing Group

Meanwhile, the majority of Walsall’s now social housing remains the solid two-storey housing built by the Council over many decades.  It’s a diminishing resource as more homes are privately purchased but it remains a vital and life-enhancing one for many thousands. The Walsall Housing Group has built some 530 new homes since 2003. In the current climate, that is an achievement though it’s one which pales into insignificance when compared to the building and slum clearance programme of its predecessors studied in previous posts.


(1) ‘”Hot cake” council house sales’, Birmingham Post, 26 September 1967

(2) CRE, Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council, Practice and policies of housing allocation (February 1985)

(3) Quoted in Mark Whitehead, ‘”Love thy neighbourhood” – Rethinking the Politics of Scale and Walsall’s Struggle for Neighbourhood Democracy’, Environment and Planning A, vol 35, 2003

(4) This account is drawn from Whitehead, ‘”Love thy neighbourhood” – Rethinking the Politics of Scale and Walsall’s Struggle for Neighbourhood Democracy’ and John Rentoul, ‘So, just how loony are they in Walsall?’, The Independent, 9 August 1995

(5) Pete Duncan, Sally Thomas, Neighbourhood Regeneration: Resourcing Community Involvement (Policy Press, 2000)

(6) David Winnick, MP, Housing (Walsall), House of Commons Debate, 30 July 1981, vol 9, cc1341-8

(7) Gene Robinson, ‘Taking control of Walsall’, Inside Housing, 15 April 2011 and WATMOS Community Homes: About

(8) The Block Capital Project, Living in the Sky: a History of High-Rise Council Flats in the Black Country (2015)

(9) ‘Walsall tower blocks high in satisfaction’, Express and Star, 2 March 2015


Council Housing in Walsall, Part III: Postwar Estates and High-Rise


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This is the third of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall.  Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing.  That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.

After 1945, the need for decent and affordable housing became one of the biggest issues in British politics and, in sharp contrast to the present, the local and national state mobilised on a massive scale to address this problem.  That meant in Walsall, as elsewhere, estates on traditional – though ‘improved’ – low-rise lines but it would mean in due course new and varied forms of multi-storey housing.

In reality, the former remained predominant.  Almost two-thirds of council homes built in the UK between 1945 and 1979 were two-storey houses in more or less ‘garden’ suburbs but in popular consciousness and media portrayal, the era became associated with high-rise flats, often described as ‘notorious’. In fact, multi-storey housing (of six-storeys or more) only surpassed one-fifth of new schemes in England and Wales in the short period between 1964 and 1967. (1) Walsall offers an excellent case-study by which to study the more complex and diverse realities of post-war public housing.

SN Southbourne Avenue Pleck

Southbourne Avenue

As we saw in the second of our Walsall posts, prefabs were adopted as a temporary ‘fix’ to an immediate post-war housing crisis but new permanent homes – in huge numbers – remained the goal. That goal, however, in an era of genuine austerity, first required the use of other non-traditional means. By 1950, 850 non-traditional homes had been built in Walsall, in a range reflecting the experimentation of the time.

Hawbush Avenue BISF

Partially refurbished BISF housing on Hawbush Road

The largest number, at 240, were BISF houses – steel-framed homes (to a design by Sir Fredrick Gibberd) manufactured by the British Iron and Steel Federation.  Next came the Orlit homes produced by the Edinburgh firm of that name; 198 of these precast reinforced concrete houses were erected. Wates offered a similar form of pre-cast concrete construction while Wimpey offered in-situ concrete housing; 100 of each were built in Walsall. Other steel-framed homes and some 50 permanent aluminium bungalows completed the list.

Heather Road Dudley's Fields 2

Non-traditional housing, Heather Road, Dudley’s Field Estate

Many disliked the appearance of these new homes; even Walsall’s Chief Architect, AT Parrott, guardedly admitted they presented ‘a subject for very sympathetic handling if happy aesthetic results were to be achieved’. (2)  Design and construction flaws emerged later.  As brick supply increased and skilled labour became more readily available, traditional brick construction was happily resumed.

Some 490 of these non-traditional homes were built on the Dudley’s Field Estate in Bloxwich, Walsall’s first new post-war estate begun in 1946. Parrott described it as ‘probably our least successful from the point of view of appearance, but…very valuable as an object lesson’.  Interwar estates had been widely criticised for their dormitory feel and lack of community provision. The 1944 Dudley Committee and the 1948 Committee on the Appearance of Housing Estates were intended to address these deficiencies but in the immediate aftermath of war, in Parrott’s words:

Speed was of prime importance and, whilst certain attempts were made to add interest to the layouts, the vital lessons which have been brought the design of Council housing today to a standard never before reached had yet to be learned.

The Mossley Estate, 1660 new homes on completion, just to the north of Dudley’s Fields, and the Gipsy Lane Estate (now Beechdale), of similar size, to the south followed in short order.  If the good intentions were to provide these new estates greater facilities, these were fulfilled belatedly.  Eight hundred houses had been completed on the Gipsy Lane Estate before any shops were open and the Chief Architect himself described it as a ‘large and isolated estate, and a very long journey for the housewife whenever there is shopping to be done’.

SN Mossley Estate layout

Mossley Estate

Another feature of most of Walsall’s new build that it was located on reclaimed, brownfield land containing coal, clay and gravel workings, slag and brickwork waste Over 500,000 cubic yards of materials were removed from the Gipsy Lane site alone. The risk of subsidence here and elsewhere meant that most of the new homes were restricted to semi-detached pairs.

Pershore Road, Mossley Estate CC Richard Vince

Pershore Road, Mossley Estate (c) Richard Vince and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Up to 1949, the focus on three-bed family homes remained total. Some two-bed homes followed and after 1954, a 25/75 two-bed/three-bed split was projected.  As part of the  the realisation of the waiting list’s varied needs, a site was set aside on the Mossley Estate for an old people’s home.  There were, as yet, no multi-storey homes though flats and maisonettes were said to be popular and some three-storey blocks were projected on outer estates.

SN Alumwell Road Pleck

Alumwell Road, Pleck

These were generously sized homes. Walsall’s three-bed houses averaged 963 square feet, some way over the 900 square feet minimum prescribed by Labour’s post-war Minister of Housing Nye Bevan.  The so-called ‘People’s Homes’ – at around 750 to 850 square feet – designated by his Conservative successor, Harold Macmillan, in the attempt to increase the rate of housebuilding, were significantly smaller.

Walsall’s 10,000th council home was officially opened by the town’s Labour MP WT Wells at 65 Primley Avenue in Alumwell in June 1950.  The Council’s brochure to mark the occasion boasted of building an average of four houses every three working days since 1920 – an astonishing rate when compared to the present day’s faltering efforts and a tribute to the contribution public housing made (and could make again) to meeting our housing needs. (3)

SN St Matthews Close

St Matthew’s Close

There was little signature architecture and planning in these new estates though one later commentator remarked on their ‘carefully designed informal layouts with much greenery’ and the ‘steel casements, pantiled roofs and distinctive copper flashing’ of the Borough’s housing. (4) An exception to the decent but stolid output which predominated was the St Matthew’s Close scheme designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe and opened in 1953 as part of the now Grade II-listed Memorial Gardens on Church Hill – an area of open land resulting from the slum clearance drive of the 1930s. (5)

SN Alfred Street maisonettes

Alfred Street maisonettes

Halted by the war and delayed by the urgent need to build new housing after 1945, that determination to clear the slums took off once more in Walsall after 1954 when the Alfred Street area in Bloxwich was represented and new maisonette blocks erected (since replaced themselves, as best as I can tell). In 1958, there were plans to demolish 1500 unfit homes in the next four years.

Warewell Close, Lower Rushall Street

Warewell Close

For the first time, Walsall was looking to multi-storey replacements. This had begun modestly in 1955 with Warewell Close on Lower Rushall Street near the town centre – two five-storey blocks, their form and, particularly, their colourful, angular balconies reflecting the New Humanist/Festival style then in vogue.  (The work of Frederick Gibberd and Norman & Dawbarn in Hackney in the 1950s offers a close comparison.)

By the end of the decade, Walsall was clear that multi-storey blocks were a necessary part of its housing mix in the ‘endeavour to make the best use of the land available where this has been suitable for this type of development’. (6)  This new direction is best seen in an estate deserving of wider recognition completed just to the south of St Matthew’s Close in November 1961.

SN Orlando Estate 3

The Orlando Estate

When I visited the Orlando Estate last summer, one of the residents was initially a little suspicious of this stranger taking photographs. When I explained my interest, she understood immediately and described it herself as ‘a time capsule of the 1960s’; she’d even written on it as part of a university course. So it’s had some love. Let’s give it some more.

Orlando Estate prior to redevelopment

Orlando Street prior to redevelopment

The four acre estate – Walsall’s largest redevelopment scheme to date – replaced severely rundown streets of two- and three-storey terraced housing. The official description provides context and detail: (7)

Because of the severe housing shortage in the Midlands, it was necessary to redevelop at high density without giving an impression of overcrowding; this has been achieved by designing a mixed residential scheme with four blocks of eight-storey flats, one three-storey block of flats, two-blocks of three-storey terraced houses and eleven two-storey terraced houses

The detailing is more telling – internal stairways in the eight-storey blocks finished with terrazzo, stairs and landings with granolithic, prodoglaze tiling on the walls, and entrance porches and internal screens of West African mahogany. External interest was added by coloured panelling and hung tiling.

SN Orlando Estate 1

The Orlando Estate

Some 169 homes were provided in this compact and attractive £403,000 scheme, completed, as the Chief Architect proudly records, seven months ahead of schedule. We can give Wates some credit here, both for the design – jointly devised by the Borough’s architect’s department and GF Elliott, divisional architect for the company – and execution. (You’ll find additional images of the estate in this Tumblr post.)

SN Leamore Redevelopment Scheme 2

Providence Close, formerly the Leamore Redevelopment Area

Walsall’s second multi-storey estate was completed three years later as part of the Leamore redevelopment scheme which saw 180 properties demolished, replaced by 280 homes in a mixed development scheme of six nine- and twelve three-storey blocks.  The estate’s multi-storey car park was ‘believed to be the first of its kind in municipal housing’ and was another sign of the modernity these new developments represented.  This was another scheme built by Wates and jointly designed by the Chief Architect and Mr Elliott of Wates. (8)

Sandbank Estate, Walsall 2

An early image of the Sandbank Estate

Walsall’s ambitions grew, literally so in its next major scheme, opened in April 1965 at Sandbank, Bloxwich which featured one 16-storey and three 12-storey blocks – 253 homes replacing 44 including 18 surviving post-war prefabs. The scheme was built by Wates, this time, in another sign of the times, using a proprietary method of system building. (9)

SN The Chuckery from St Matthews Hill

The Chuckery Estate from St Matthew’s Hill

By 1965, Walsall Borough Council owned near 18,500 homes. When the borough expanded to incorporate Darlaston and part of Willenhall in 1966, it acquired a further 8500 but it continued to build.  The £1.5m Paddock Redevelopment Scheme in Chuckery, central Walsall was completed in 1969, comprising 357 flats in three 17-storey and two 13-storey blocks. (10)

SN The Chuckery Estate Millsum House

Millsum House, the Chuckery Estate

It was built – you guessed it – by Wates and again designed jointly by Wates and the Borough architect’s department; system-built using steel moulds which allowed the direct application of decorative wall finishes. In full production, the on-site factory produced one floor each day for both the 13- and 17-storey blocks.  System building gets, for good reason, a bad press but here it seems to have been efficient and the end-result attractive.  A £2.2m refurbishment in the mid-90s– with its added colour and pattern – seems even more reminiscent of the Scandinavian schemes which had provided a model for system building’s British adoption in the sixties.

As Glendinning and Muthesius note, in ‘the Black Country, Wates established itself as a trusty mainstay of medium-sized boroughs…by constructing in-situ blocks and building up a local work-force’.  Such reliance on a locally dominant company (McAlpine also built some Walsall blocks but far fewer) could lead to unfortunate and corrupting results – as was the case with Bryants and Birmingham) but here it seems to be very largely a case of mutual benefit.  When Walsall’s Conservative council leader Sir Cliff Tibbits tried to test the market against Wates, he failed: ‘Wates were giving such good service that nobody wanted to leave them!’. (11)

Leys flats, taken by Richard Ashmore Courtesy of John and Christine Ashmore

Alma and Leys Courts, Darlaston

By the late 1960s, the star of high-rise housing was waning but there was an inevitable lag as already planned schemes were fulfilled. The last tower blocks built in the Black Country, the 15-storey Alma and Leys Court flats in Darlaston, were completed in 1973.

Meanwhile, low-rise building continued apace until, by the early 1980s, Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council (created in the 1974 reorganisation of local government which amalgamated Walsall with neighbouring Aldridge-Brownhills) the council managed some 42,000 homes, including some 66 tower blocks.  Next week’s post examines the very different housing politics of this later period.


My thanks to the Walsall Local History Centre and Archives for providing some of the sources used in this post.

(1) See Patrick Dunleavy, The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain, 1945-1975. A Study of Corporate Power and Professional Influence in the Welfare State (1981)

(2) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954. The quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.

(3) Walsall Town Council, The 10,000th House (1950)

(4) Peter Arnold, A Guide to the Buildings of Walsall (2003)

(5) Historic England, Walsall Memorial Garden

(6) Walsall Town Council, The 15,000th House (1958)

(7) AT Parrott, ‘New Housing at Walsall’, Official Architecture and Planning, December 1961

(8) Walsall Town Council, Leamore Redevelopment Scheme Official Brochure (1964)

(9) ‘Sandbank housing scheme, Walsall’, Architects’ Journal, 3 September, 1969 and Walsall Town Council, Sandbank Redevelopment Scheme (1965)

(10) Walsall Town Council, Paddock Redevelopment Scheme (1969)

(11) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (1993)


Mark Swenarton, ‘Cook’s Camden’ Book Review: ‘to take forward the project of the welfare state – but to do it better’


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Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2017)

To Mark Swenarton, the work of Sydney Cook (Camden Borough Architect from 1965 to 1973) and his talented team represents ‘an architectural resolution unsurpassed not just in social housing in the UK but in urban housing anywhere in the world’.  Usually that kind of comment might be dismissed as hype but here I think huge numbers would agree. This fine book makes the case comprehensively and convincingly.

SN CoverCook’s big idea, shared and executed brilliantly by the architects he recruited to Camden, was for housing which was low-rise and high-density.  It directly challenged the architectural fashions of the day – the tower blocks which (in perceptual terms at least) dominated new council housing from the mid-1960s and the mixed development ideas which licensed them.  Equally, he rejected ‘off-the-peg’ system-building.

The new direction pioneered in Camden offered, in the words of Neave Brown, Cook’s best known recruit, an opportunity not only to re-engage with the ‘traditional social and physical form and virtues of the city’ but, crucially, ‘to try and improve on them’.  This wasn’t some pastiche revival of the old terraces but rather, as Swenarton claims, a ‘modern urbanism’; one that ‘could be generated without creating a rupture with either the existing grain of the city or the prevailing way of life’.

And then, essentially, there was the politics; unlike some historians of architecture Swenarton is good on the politics.  Camden was, by some way (excepting the Cities of London and Westminster), the richest borough in London, with a rateable value of £3,994,000.  Moreover, it was from inception a left-wing borough (despite a significant Tory interregnum from 1968 to 1971), determined, as one its leading members Enid Wistrich stated, ‘to be the tops’.  Housing was to be the chief expression of its progressive and innovative politics.


Fleet Road, image by Tim Crocker

Neave Brown, recently awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for lifetime achievement, takes centre stage. His first Camden project, Fleet Road designed in 1966-67, established the philosophical keynote of Camden’s new housing. In Brown’s words, the ‘primary decision’ was taken:

to build low, to fill the site, to geometrically define open space, to integrate.  And to return to housing the traditional quality of continuous background stuff, anonymous, cellular, repetitive, that has always been its virtue.

SN Alexandra Road

Alexandra Road, image by Tim Crocker

This was followed through on majestic scale at Alexandra Road.  Here there would be terraces, not the voguish streets in the sky which excited many architects of the day.  They would form, Swenarton says, ‘a continuous fabric…interspersed with public or semi-public squares’; ‘rather than the buildings being objects surrounded by space’, as was the case in the prevailing mixed development schemes, ‘the buildings should define the space’.

Much more could be said and it is covered in great detail in the book but Swenarton also gives due space and credit to other Camden architects.  Peter Tábori, though barely 27 when appointed by Cook to design the Highgate New Town development in 1967, brought an impressive architectural pedigree, having been tutored by Ernő Goldfinger (remembered by him as ‘a born educator’), Richard Rogers and Denys Lasdun no less.

Tábori was firmly opposed to the estate concept which dominated public housing at the time, taking his ideas of ‘through routes and visual connection’, self-policing public space and clearly defined private space from the newly influential writings of Jane Jacobs.

It’s a necessary – though sad – reminder of the limitations of architectural good intentions to learn that by 1983 the estate (because it was in essence an estate) was deemed ‘a haven for hoodlums…a warren of lonely walkways and blind spots’.  Fourteen years later, another journalist concluded ‘as an experiment in social housing, the Highgate New Town development has failed’. It hadn’t, of course, but it had gone through (and has since recovered from) troubled times. The simple fact – though complex reality – is that wider societal dynamics often influence our residential experience far more than design itself.

SN Branch Hill

Branch Hill, image by Tim Crocker

However, it was the Branch Hill Estate in Hampstead, designed by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, begun in 1971 and finally completed in 1978, which best captures both the increasingly fraught housing politics of Camden and the design brilliance.  Chapter 6 ‘Class War in Hampstead: the battle of Branch Hill’ describes the former – ‘it was a classic tale of privilege versus the people’ in Swenarton’s words.  Chapter 7 ‘The Poetics of Housing: Benson and Forsyth at Branch Hill’ powerfully evokes the latter.


Branch Hill, image by Tim Crocker

The Labour Group was determined to build council housing in leafy, affluent Hampstead; the Conservative Group (though internal differences existed) mostly opposed.  The cost of the project with respect to the initial purchase price of the land and the design and constructional fixes that a difficult site and restrictive covenant required, brought this conflict into sharper focus.  In the end, Labour – back in power in Camden in 1973 and nationally from 1974 – won out and the housing was built.

It was quite probably, as hostile commentary claimed, ‘the most expensive council housing in the world’ – 21 pairs of two-storey houses in three rows, costing in total some £2.8m.  But it is also, according to Derek Abbott and Kimball Pollit, ‘the most sophisticated semi-detached housing in the world’.  The covenant on the land insisted upon a two-storey maximum height and semi-detached homes. That Benson and Forsyth achieved a resolution in signature Camden style – stepped terraces, external walls of board marked and smooth white concrete, and dark-stained timber joinery – yet unique and distinctive is a tribute both to the architects and the political will and vision of the Council.

Underlying this, for Benson and Forsyth, was:

the fundamental belief that, while buildings must satisfy practical requirements empirically, they must also embody those abstract properties which arouse the senses and satisfy the mind.

Branch Hill, and Camden’s other architect-designed estates, fulfil this dictum with style and panache.

The tide, however, was turning.  The Conservatives’ 1972 Housing Finance Act stipulated so-called ‘fair rents’ closer to the market rents of the private sector (albeit offset by a comprehensive national scheme of rent rebates). Camden, alongside other Labour authorities, initially pledged to resist the legislation but capitulated. (Famously, only Clay Cross Council in Derbyshire fought the Act to the bitter end.)  The ensuing high rents were another problem for the Branch Hill scheme.

SN Mansfield Road

Mansfield Road, Gospel Oak – an example of ‘urban dentistry’, image by Tim Crocker

By 1975, it was Anthony Crosland, Labour’s Secretary of State for the Environment, declaring ‘the party’s over’. Economic hard times and financial crisis called time on the public sector expansion which had marked much of the post-war period. In Camden, there were other straws in the wind.  A middle-class, owner-occupier revolt had scuppered earlier plans for the comprehensive redevelopment of Gospel Oak back in 1966.  It anticipated a broader sea-change – a move against large-scale slum clearance (indeed, a questioning of what constituted a ‘slum’) and a drive towards rehabilitation of what were now called ‘twilight areas’.

In the 1970s, this change was reflected in an expanded policy of municipalisation – the Council’s acquisition and management of formerly private rental properties.   Its counterpart was what Swenarton calls ‘urban dentistry’ – selective demolition of housing deemed beyond repair and small-scale infill, often designed (though to typically high Camden standards) by private practices.

SN Maiden Lane

Maiden Lane, image by Tim Crocker

As noted by Swenarton, Labour’s 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act represented another shift – though its longer-term consequences were poorly understood – in the nature of council housing with its codification of needs-based allocation.  Another Benson and Forsyth scheme (though their original designs were significantly modified), Maiden Lane caught the brunt of this:

The result was that many of the tenancies…were channelled by social services straight to homeless families and others with greatest need. This was a social composition very different from most of the Camden estates.

Maiden Lane became notorious, one of those estates demonised by the media as dysfunctional and crime-ridden. The architects insist that its ‘architecture, quality of place internally and externally….was elegant, humane and economic’ and blame ‘ineffectual management, social conflict, and banal architectural intervention’ for the estate’s later woes.  There’s some truth in this for sure but it’s another reminder that architecture – whether deemed good or bad – is far from solely determining the lived experience of residents.

Maiden Lane has been substantially redesigned since and, if you’re seeking a symbol of just how far we’ve come from the heady idealism of Cook’s Camden, the Council has recently built 273 flats on the estate: 149 for sale on the open market, 53 for shared ownership and 71 new council flats. Those for sale reflect the new wisdom that private capital must be harnessed to finance the regeneration and expansion of social housing.  But, unusually, the development as a whole increased council housing stock and Camden Council continues to own and management most of its social housing. (1)

SN Alexandra Road 2

Alexandra Road, image by Tim Crocker

Alexandra Road, Grade II* listed in 1994, had its problems too though these related to the complex saga of its drawn-out construction and escalating cost. ‘Conceived in 1968, in the period of optimism generated by the post-war boom, but constructed during the crisis decade that followed’, the finished estate of 520 homes took twice as long to build as projected and cost, on completion in 1979, some £18.9m.  At the same time, it became a pawn in Labour’s internal politics as a ‘hard left’ faction (some may dislike Swenarton’s use of the term) led by Ken Livingstone wrestled for control against what had now become Labour’s old guard.

Livingstone, elected a Camden councillor in 1978, became chair of housing and used a Council-instigated public inquiry into what was now widely seen as the Alexandra Road debacle as a means of discrediting the former leadership.  In truth, the inquiry found no blame attached to the Architect’s Department (though it noted staff shortages, for which it was blameless, were a factor) and there were myriad problems – relating to the site, changing specifications and, above all, contemporary troubles in the building trades – which did account for the scheme’s financial difficulties.

However, at the last minute, the Council itself inserted a clause suggesting that some of the increasing costs might have been avoided ‘if the Architect himself had exercised more foresight with regards to the demands of the project’.  Livingstone moved on to the bigger stage of the Greater London Council. Incredibly, Neave Brown, so unfairly impugned, would not work in Britain again.

A sad end to what John Winter has called a ‘a magical moment for English housing’.  At the outset, for Sydney Cook and his team:

the challenge was to address the deficiencies of the housing that had been, and was still being, produced by local authorities across the country: to take forward the project of the welfare state – but to do it better.

By 1979, and decisively under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, it was, as Swenarton notes, ‘no longer the deficiencies of the form of housing produced by the welfare state, but the welfare state itself that was under attack’.  In the end, in this brave new world, Camden’s path-breaking housing programme had minimal domestic impact though it was influential on the Continent.  Alexandra Road, and the Borough’s other pioneering schemes, suffered ‘from having been released into a different world to that in which it was conceived…set on the very cusp of the change from socialism to the me-generation’. (2)

You’ll find all this discussed more fully in the book and much, much more – in particular a rich analysis of architectural influences and forms which I’ve barely touched on here. I’m sorry to gush but it’s hard to imagine a better book on its topic.  OK, I’ll earn my reviewer’s credentials by wishing for a bit more on the buildings’ after-lives (discussed a little more fully in some of my blog posts) but the book does what it sets out to do superbly.

SN Lamble Street

Lamble Street interior, Gospel Oak, image by Tim Crocker

The photography stands out – Martin Charles’ earlier images and Tim Crocker’s wonderful contemporary photographs of which I include a selection.  The schemes themselves are pretty photogenic in skilled hands but Crocker’s shots of lived-in interiors and real live people inside and out bring out their qualities in a more humane and personal way than is common in architectural photography. These are complemented by a profusion of maps, plans and architectural drawings.

Congratulations to Stefi Orazi for the book design, to the publishers Lund Humphries for their commitment to the highest production values, and, above all, to Mark Swenarton. His scholarship and hard work have surely produced what is and will remain the definitive account of Cook’s Camden.

Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, by Mark Swenarton, is published by Lund Humphries (HB £45) The book is for sale on the publisher’s website with free UK postage. If you insert the code CAMDEN10 on check-out, single copies will receive a £10 discount.   


(1) David Spittles, ‘It’s a game changer: Camden is first council to build homes to sell’, Evening Standard Homes and Property, 19 November 2014. The article incorrectly states that the whole of the scheme was built for private sale.

(2) Martin Pawley, ‘Living on the Edge of Time’, The Guardian, 2 April 1990


Council Housing in Walsall, Part II: The Interwar Period



This is the second of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall.  Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing.  That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.

As we saw in last week’s post, Walsall’s and the nation’s housing programme stalled in 1920 but the drive to provide decent working-class homes revived in the mid-1920s and in the 1930s was joined by a determined effort to address the slum conditions afflicting so many.  In both, Walsall took a prominent role though it was dominated by a Conservative-Liberal ‘anti-socialist’ alliance which outnumbered a growing but disunited Labour presence on the Council.

Neville Chamberlain’s 1923 Housing Act kick-started this process nationally but it was under the more generous 1924 Act passed by a short-lived Labour government that council housebuilding in Walsall took off.  In fact, the Borough built 4204 homes under the 1924 Act, a rate of housebuilding – at 40.8 homes per 1000 of its population – which placed it second among county boroughs only to Carlisle, ironically another council dominated by a self-declared anti-socialist alliance. (1)

SN Brockhurst Street

Brockhurst Street, Fullbrook

In January 1925, as the town’s housing shortage (blamed in the Council on the lack of skilled labour and building materials) became apparent once more, it was agreed to purchase land for housing purposes in Pleck.  Three months later the Council approved a large scheme of 1671 houses at a cost of over £750,000. (2)

By this time, cheaper non-parlour homes were preferred (parlour homes formed only 12 per cent of the new build compared to 40 per cent in the 1919 programme) but – at 98 per cent of the total – three-bed family homes dominated.  These early Walsall estates featured ‘a small range of standard designs, either semi-detached pairs or “triplets”’.  Their solid redbrick housing can be seen across Walsall, still providing good decent homes even if the purists will regret the replacement of their original wooden casement windows ‘by bland UPVC’. (3)

SN Poets Estate

Homes on the Poets Estate, Harden

A second wave of construction under the 1924 Act began in 1930.  In April, the Council purchased a 91.5 acre site between Field Road and Blakenall, sufficient for 1000 homes and three months later, the Council voted, without division, to build 500 immediately. (4)  Despite this ambition and a rapid scale of construction (2417 houses were built in the five years to 1930), Walsall was running to stand still and its waiting list for homes had actually increased in the same period by 1500 to 3500. (5)

In the late summer of 1930, a new Housing Act – the product of another brief and minority Labour government – received the Royal Assent which instigated a new direction for the national housing programme. Arthur Greenwood’s legislation focused on the slums which continued to blight working-class lives in huge numbers by providing financial incentives for slum clearance and obliging local authorities to rehouse all those displaced.

SN West Browmwich Road Palfrey

West Bromwich Road, Palfrey

Walsall responded rapidly. A special joint meeting of the Council’s Housing and Health Committees in December 1930 proposed a £1.8m five-year building programme for 5000 houses – 4000 to meet ordinary needs and 1000 for slum clearance.  In the end, a still impressive scheme of 4000 new homes was agreed. The first ‘clearance area’ (an area of housing designated ‘insanitary’ under the terms of the 1930 Act) was declared at the same time.

Alderman Hucker, the Labour chair of the Health Committee, stated that the Council had spent £28,000 in last five years dealing with epidemics: (6)

He believed the slum clearance question had never been tackled before in the borough but under the 1930 Housing Act they were able to make a start to give the people better living conditions.

In larger towns, central slum clearance typically required its replacement by multi-storey flats (still no more than five or six storeys so long as lifts were deemed too costly for working-class homes) if housing densities were to be maintained and people kept close to their work. Walsall was small enough for the time being to escape this fate and was able, as one councillor urged, to rehouse ‘people in spaces where there was plenty of fresh air’. (7)

SN Talke Road Fulbrook

Talke Road, Fullbrook

This time all the new homes were non-parlour but all were standard two-storey houses – yet again three-bed homes dominated – with the exception of the 344 one-bed bungalows constructed, reflecting the needs of elderly persons rather than the younger families to whom council housing had overwhelmingly catered for previously.

The Ministry of Health’s 1933 circular stipulating that henceforth all public housing subsidies were to be dedicated solely to schemes of slum clearance sharpened the Council’s focus.  By 1934, some 1159 houses were scheduled for demolition and some 5200 people rehoused. It represented one in twenty of the Borough’s total housing stock.

SN Dorsett Place Leamore

Dorsett Place, Leamore

Despite this, the Council’s Chief Sanitary Inspector, CA Stansbury defended the Victorian ‘jerry-builder’ (and supplied the quotation marks).  The houses they built were apparently already being described as ‘desirable working class investment properties’ and practically all, in his view, were ‘readily capable of being kept in a fit state for human habitation at reasonable expense’.  In this, he might be seen as prescient, anticipating both the rehabilitation drive of the later 1960s and the more recent cachet of some of these once condemned older terraces.

He challenged some conventional wisdom, however – that which we’ve seen in Walsall and elsewhere which blamed the personal failings of slum dwellers for their living conditions: (8)

A new spirit is abroad, these folk are getting anxious to move, and, what is more important, are reacting to their improved conditions ; they are now fit to take their place as worthy citizens in our towns. It is amazing to see how some of them set about getting their new house and garden in order. It is then that one realises that this programme is worthwhile. There are black sheep, of course, but there is high hope for the future.

Under the National Government’s 1935 Housing Act, the attack on slum living acquired a new metric – overcrowding. All local authorities were required to survey local conditions and in Walsall it was revealed that almost five per cent of its 26,894 households were living in overcrowded conditions.  Surprisingly, some 519 families living in the town’s 5491 council homes were found to be overcrowded; at 9 per cent a rate of overcrowding which exceeded that in private homes (3.6 per cent).  The anomaly was blamed on the slightly smaller rooms of council housing though it might reflect too the prevalence of young and larger families living in council homes. A proposal to build 500 new homes of which 350 would be four- to five-bedroom was made to address the point. (9)

SN 11 Walstead Road

11 Walstead Road, now privately owned.

In March 1935, Walsall’s 5000th council home was opened – at 11 Walstead Road West in Delves Green.  This was part of an extensive building programme in the town’s southern suburbs – some 400 homes had been completed by the mid-thirties in Fulbrook and Delves Green; around 1000 in Palfrey.

In a clockwise direction, new large estates were developed to the west between Wolverhampton Road and Pleck Road and to the north, where Walsall proper merged into Bloxwich, Leamore, Harden and Goscote.

There was little rebuilding in the centre but further slum clearance was agreed in 1936 around St Matthew’s Church and, further north, around Coal Pool.  A new estate was built in the latter in the late 1930s. By 1937, it was reckoned that 107 clearance areas had been declared in the town and some 2262 houses represented as unfit. (10) But much remained to be done. Although almost 11,000 people had been rehoused, around 556 condemned homes were still in occupation. And when war broke out and new construction was halted, only 2664 houses of the 4000 planned in the 1930s had been built. (11)

SN Nursery Road Leamore

Nursery Road, Leamore. The distinctive garden walls seem to have been a feature of most of Walsall’s interwar housing.

During the war itself, despite its importance as an industrial centre, Walsall suffered relatively lightly from the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids. In 1944, it even acted as a safe haven for around 1500 evacuees from the V1 and V2 bombing raids in London. (12)  Nevertheless, lack of maintenance and the cessation of new construction created in Walsall, as elsewhere, an immediate housing crisis as the country turned towards peacetime reconstruction.

Prefabs Alumwell Road

Prefabs on Alumwell Road

The 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act committed £150 million to a programme of prefabricated homes and Walsall was allocated some 446 of the 156,623 two-bed bungalows that sprung up across the country.  The first was erected on Alumwell Road in September 1945. With a projected life-span of ten years, many in Walsall survived into the 1970s.

Despite that longevity, the prefabs were understood as a temporary fix. In 1945, the local housing waiting list stood at 5000 and thoughts had already turned to the creation of the modern, permanent homes that its people both needed and – with expectations raised – demanded.

The next post after Christmas looks at Walsall’s extensive building programme in the post-war era.  Much of this built on earlier achievements and forms but by the later 1950s multi-storey and high-rise solutions entered the mix too and a new chapter of council housing history took off.


My thanks to the Walsall Local History Centre and Archives for providing some of the sources used in this post.

(1) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954 and John H Jennings, ‘Geographical Implications of the Municipal Housing Programme in England and Wales, 1919-1939’, Urban Studies, vol 8, No 121, 1971

(2) ‘Walsall Town Council. Housing Problems Discussed’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 17 January 1925 and ‘Walsall Town Council. Big Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 March 1925

(3) Peter Arnold, A Guide to the Buildings of Walsall (Tempus, 2003)

(4) ‘Walsall Town Council. Big Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 March 1925, ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Site Purchased’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 5 April 1930 and ‘Walsall Town Council. More Houses to be Built’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 19 July 1930

(5) ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Programme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 20 December 1930

(6) ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Programme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 20 December 1930 and AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954

(7) ‘Walsall Town Council. Slum Clearance’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 13 May 1933


Council Housing in Walsall, Part I: Before 1914 and the Impact of War



This is the first of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall.  Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing.  That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.

Walsall might seem a workaday kind of place to some, typical of many such towns in the North and Midlands which prospered as Britain industrialised but fell on hard times as that, by now, traditional manufacturing economy faltered. It has, however, amongst its other claims to fame, a rich council housing history. This first post will examine the earliest phase of this history – the debate around state provision of working-class housing that developed before 1914 and the impact of the war itself on a council housebuilding programme.

Statue of Sister Dora (c) Derek Bennett and made available under a Creative Commons licence

In 1800, Walsall’s population stood a little over 10,000; by 1901 86,430 lived in the town, employed in a diverse range of trades, most famously leather manufacture.  The town’s squalid housing reflected this rapid population growth but, at first, there was neither the will nor the power to tackle the problem of its slum housing.  There were cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1849 and smallpox epidemics in 1872 and 1875. The heroic role of the Anglican nun, Sister Dora (Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison) in tending to those affected in the latter outbreak is recognised in what is said to be the country’s first statue, erected in Walsall town centre in 1886, to a woman not of royal blood


Townend Bank, 1875, a photograph by WB Shaw (with thanks to A Click in Time)

Belatedly, the Victorian state and its elites moved to address the sanitary crisis caused by Britain’s breakneck urbanisation. The 1875 Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act allowed local authorities to compel the demolition of unfit properties (but made no provision for rehousing those affected).  One year later, Walsall’s first Medical Officer of Health, Dr James MacLachlan, ordered the clearance of the central Townend Bank area; ‘a conglomeration of abominations’ in MacLachlan’s view. One hundred and twenty dwellings, housing almost 600 people, were demolished. (1)

But the ambivalence – to put it kindly – of ‘respectable’ Victorian attitudes towards slumdom and its inhabitants lingered on and the tendency to blame the poor for their poverty and squalor remained. According to the local mayor: (2)

Many of the tenants have been for generations the sloth of the idle and the profligate and abounded in associations which are disgusting to public morality and common decency. The very soil on which they stand is known to be saturated with disease and death, while the whole district seems to be given over to drunkenness and dissoluteness.

Wider opinion was shifting, however, a change seen legislatively in the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act which strengthened the powers of councils to clear slums and, critically, permitted them to build new housing.

This reflected a changing political climate.  After 1884, working-class men formed a majority of the electorate and traditional parties had both to address this new electorate and contend with emerging socialist ideas. Haydn Sanders, an independent socialist, was elected to the Council in 1888, and the first Labour councillor, Joe Thickett, in 1913.

SN Thickett and Hucker

Cllrs Thickett (to left) and Hucker, 1915 (with thanks to Black Country History; made available under a Creative Commons licence)

Thickett was a railway signalman and he was joined the following year by his fellow railwayman, Henry Hucker.  The local press pointed out, when Thickett was succeeded by Hucker as mayor in 1924, that they worked alternate shifts in the same box.  That was a later sign of a changing party political balance but, before the First World War, Walsall, a County Borough from 1888, remained broadly Liberal in its politics.

Working-class housing conditions remained dire despite the Borough’s modest slum clearance programme, a problem compounded by the town’s population growth – up to 92,115 by 1911 – and the shortage of suitable and affordable homes. Belatedly, in October 1913, the Health Committee was instructed to: (3)

inquire into and report upon the whole question of housing conditions in Walsall, and in the event of appearing from such inquiry that there is a deficiency of housing accommodation for the working classes, to consider and report as to the steps to be taken to meet such deficiency.

The subsequent report by the Medical Officer of Health revealed just 148 vacant houses of up to 7s (35p) a week rental (obviously the figure taken to represent the maximum working-class households could afford), of which 49 were unfit. Meanwhile, 132 one-room tenements were occupied by 210 persons and 530 two-room tenements by some 1528. In all, it was estimated that over seven percent of the town’s population lived more than two to a room, taken as the benchmark for overcrowding.

1914 headline

The Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle headline of 14 February 1914

The deficiency was obvious and had a further impact on slum clearance efforts. As the Medical Officer of Health concluded the ‘present shortage of houses handicaps the Health Committee in dealing with houses which are unfit for habitation, because if the houses are closed the occupants may be unable to obtain other dwellings’.

The Health Committee concluded unanimously that there was ‘a pressing need for the provision of additional houses for the working classes’.  However, only a majority of the Committee supported the further recommendation that ‘a scheme should be prepared for the provision by the Council of about 200 dwellings under the Housing Act’.  That division gave rise to a fierce debate as to what the Council’s role should be.  And that debate – covered thoroughly in the local press – is revealing of the broader disagreements, then and now, on what the proper role of the national and local state should be in providing decent homes for the working class.

Conservative opposition to a council housebuilding programme rested on a number of propositions, the most basic being that private enterprise could be expected to step up to the plate. This ideological commitment to the free market ignored its failure to date and the fact that contractors’ profits lay in building more expensive homes for the middle class. (Plus ça change…)

It was perhaps in recognition of those realities that a second, superficially more humane, argument was advanced to oppose a council scheme – that the new homes would be unaffordable to those who needed them most, ‘the submerged tenth’ as one councillor described them.  It was true that council house rents lay beyond the means of the poorest; the new homes catered primarily for precisely the better-off working class, those most likely within the labour movement to be campaigning for them. (Some reformers argued that a ‘filtering up’ process would occur whereby the slightly better homes vacated by new council tenants would be taken over by the poorer moving from slummier quarters.)  In part recognition of this case, the Council eventually agreed a smaller scheme of 125 new homes of which 25 would be reserved for those affected by slum clearance.

However such apparent compassion coalesced uncomfortably with thoroughly unreconstructed attitudes towards the poor and their poverty. Alderman Walker claimed he would support building 200 houses for slum clearance purposes but he believed that the real solution to housing squalor lay in prosecuting those tenants ‘who would not keep their places clean’:

SN Alderman Walkerthat was the only way they would improve the condition of things. They might provide houses but some of the people were not fit to go into them.  In their homes, they found a three-legged stool and a broken chair; the women wore dirty dresses, and the children looked as though they had not been washed for days.

In the event, a progressive majority agreed to investigate the smaller scheme proposed but to opponents this obviously represented kicking the scheme into the long grass.

Trades unionists on the local trades council sought to maintain the pressure and were clear that the plea of affordability should not be an excuse to build low-quality housing. Joe Thickett (a railway trades unionist as well as a Labour councillor) urged that the Council ‘adhere to the scheme for the provision of artisans’ dwellings, and not build low-class homes or barracks which would eventually lead to the repetition of the present slums’ – ‘5s a week houses with a good garden attached’ were wanted.

He pointed too to the progress being made nationally. The Local Government Board had committed £1.75m to the provision of working-class housing: (4)

The number of houses to be provided throughout the United Kingdom was 7,700. That was a monument to municipal progress, and they in Walsall had not contributed one single brick to that magnificent pile.

In the end, such arguments were victim of the larger tides of history.  War broke out in August 1914, and eight months later it was agreed to defer the Walsall scheme until the end of the conflict. Councillor Thickett berated Lloyd George for sacrificing house building to the war effort but acknowledged ‘that if the Prussian Junkers had never been born they would have seen the municipal houses rising from the foundations’. (5) His ‘visions of town planning, and of garden cities springing up’ survived, however, and ultimately would be enormously boosted by the war which had, for the moment, put paid to them.

In this context, Walsall offers some evidence relating to the debate between those who argue between continuity and change in council housing history – between those who argue that a council housebuilding programme was substantially in place before 1914 and would have developed despite the First World War and those who argue that the war itself was a determinant factor.  We can conclude, safely perhaps, that council housing would have grown substantially without the war and, in some respects, was delayed by it whilst acknowledging, on the other hand, that the war and the pressures it engendered was undoubtedly at least a catalyst and more probably a significant accelerant to the emergent movement.

The Tudor Walters Report of 1918, outlining the Government’s recommendations for the form and layout of post-war municipal housing, embodied some of Thickett’s hopes and Addison’s 1919 Housing Act compelled, for the first time, a council housebuilding programme. The Act required councils not only to survey local housing needs but to implement concrete plans to address them.

SN Blakenall Lane

Homes in Blakenall Lane, amongst the earliest built by the Council

In the first flush of enthusiasm for this ‘land fit for heroes to live in’ promised by prime minister Lloyd George, Walsall committed to building some 1500 homes and the very first completed, at 98 Blakenall Lane, Bloxwich, was opened in June 1920.

SN East Street

Early council homes, East Street

At the same time, other homes – in modest but well-built terraces – were erected in Haskell Street and East Street to the south off West Bromwich Road. Priority was given first to ex-servicemen, their widows and children, and then the overcrowded.

Thereafter the going got tough.  There were already complaints about the construction costs of the new homes as post-war labour and materials shortages hit.   Under contracts let in February 1920, parlour homes were costing £840 to build and non-parlour £740 (about three times the pre-war figure). Unusually for the time, some 100 homes in Walsall were built by direct labour as a means of reducing expenditure. Rents were correspondingly high though the Council’s proposal to charge 9s a week for parlour homes and 7s a week for non-parlour houses was knocked back by the Ministry of Health. (6)

SN Haskell Street

Early council homes, Haskell Street

In September 1920, the Corporation retrenched.  The 1500 home target, it was said, had been ‘been inserted under strong pressure from the Ministry’ and, as one councillor concluded, the programme ‘had not provided homes at a reasonable cost, and the rents which had to be charged were greater than people could afford to pay’. It was agreed to cut the programme to 450 homes. (7)

In this, the Council was merely anticipating events at the national level.  The Government scrapped the generous subsidies of the 1919 Housing Act in April 1921. Nationally, only 213,000 houses of the half-million initially promised were built under the legislation. Walsall itself completed some 310.  That almost 40 per cent of these were the parlour homes advocated in the Tudor Walters Report was vestigial testimony to the higher ideals of war’s end. (8)

That fortunately was not the end of the story. New pressures and demands emerged, new legislation passed and Walsall would become proportionately one of the largest providers of council housing in the country during the interwar period and beyond.  The next phase of this history will be discussed in next week’s post.


The early images of Walsall councillors are drawn from the online archive, Black Country History.

(1)  AP Baggs, GC Baugh and DA Johnston, ‘Walsall: Public services‘, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part), ed. MW Greenslade (London, 1976)

(2) Quoted in Simon Briercliffe, ‘”Slums” of the Black Country: Town End Bank, Walsall’, 30 November, 2015.  Read the article for a fuller description of sanitary conditions and reform in Walsall in this period.

(3) ‘Municipal Housing. Health Committee to Prepare Scheme’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 14 February 1914

(4) ‘Municipal Housing Scheme. Discussed by Trades Council’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 14 February 1914

(5) ‘Municipal Housing. Proposed Shelving of Scheme’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 13 March 1915

(6) ‘Walsall Town Council. Progress of Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 February 1920 and ‘Walsall Town Council. Priority for Corporation Houses’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 February 1920

(7) ‘Walsall Town Council. The Housing and Abattoir Schemes’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 24 April 1920

(8) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing & Planning Review, July-August 1954