Cottingham’s Council Housing, Part I to 1930: ‘Simple and Harmonious as a Whole’



I’m very pleased to feature the first of two posts from Peter Claxton on housing in the village of Cottingham just north of Hull. Peter rekindled his love of history at university following his retirement having spent 40 years working in IT. He now focuses most of his research time on Kingston upon Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. He is currently researching the contentious relationship between private interests and public improvements with regards to health and housing in Kingston upon Hull between 1854 and 1914.

Much has been written about the provision of local authority housing in our towns and cities but we should not overlook the fact that of the 1806 local authorities questioned by the Local Government Board in 1918 regarding their housing requirements, many were small urban or lightly populated rural district councils. (1) 

With a population of 5133 in 1921, Cottingham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was one such urban district council (UDC). Today, in part, it butts up to the city of Kingston upon Hull, but at the start of the nineteenth century with just 1927 residents it was one of a number of satellite villages that semi-circled the then port town.

Cottingham, circa 1905

Situated just five miles to the northwest of Hull, by the end of the eighteenth century it had acquired a reputation as an ideal place for the ‘well-heeled’ to relocate to and in so doing build their grand houses and lay-out ornamental gardens.

Elmtree House, built around 1820
Newgate House, built in the late 19th/early 19th century

The arrival of the railway in 1846 accelerated this process, with a number of villas and terraces built to house the emerging middle class. Yet there was a problem for all those that relocated. Keen as they were to escape the pervasive smells of Hull’s multifarious processing industries, distance offered them no such guarantee.

With market gardening Cottingham’s primary economic activity – there were 71 nurserymen in and around the village just before WW1 supplying the markets of both Hull and Leeds – the  daily transhipment of night soil from Hull to the fields around the village ensured that no matter how wealthy or upwardly mobile the incomers were, they could never completely leave their pasts behind them!

Low agricultural wages stifled the ambitions of many village residents, yet the desire for improved housing, just like the inhabitants of its much larger neighbour clearly existed. The reduced number made it of no less importance, it was simply a matter of scale. The village was unaccustomed to change, and in general, the UDC – set up under the 1894 Local Government Act consisted of just 12 members – busied itself approving the erection of private dwellings, undertaking nuisance control measures, tarring the roads and maintaining the street lighting.

As elsewhere, following cessation of hostilities in 1918, there was evidence of change. The laying out of new streets extended the built-up area far beyond the village’s traditional nucleus. (2) And as with the vacating of large properties in Hull during the nineteenth century in favour of Cottingham, the same fate now befell a number of those former imposing residences in the village. The vacant properties complete with their large gardens together with numerous unworked smallholdings in and around the village became ideal plots for local builders. Between 1918 and 1939, 1237 houses were built in Cottingham by 95 builders.

In 1918 when it came to the crunch, Cottingham UDC like so many other local authorities, had no experience of building or renting out houses. Enthusiasm could only achieve so much, which in the case of Cottingham, amounted to the purchase of 9.5 acres in April 1919 of the Westfield Estate at the fashionable west end of the village from Archdeacon J Malet Lambert. Viewed by many as a local philanthropist, he also had something of chequered past.

He was however a former and influential member of the Hull & District Sanitary Association, that had continually questioned the efficacy of Hull’s Local Board of Health, pressing for improvements to housing and sanitation within the Borough. So effective were its methods that a Local Government Board enquiry took place in 1888, subsequently making a number of recommendations for the sanitary improvement of the town.(3) Yet Malet Lambert’s philanthropy had limitations, originally offered £125 per acre, he refused to settle for anything less than £200. (4)

Purchasing a piece of land is one thing, populating it with houses is a different matter entirely. The appointment of Hull architect Harry Andrews on a project-only basis was a sound first move by the council. The first phase was for the provision of a modest 50 houses, yet this relatively small number, would in no way be the guarantee to a trouble-free build. Tenders approaching £10,000 for street works and sewerage had an immediate impact on the project. To reduce the civil costs the architect modified the lay-out of the houses positioning them all adjacent to the main road. Costs were trimmed but so was the number of houses, now down to 36. Built by Hull firm Holliday & Barker, they took the form of a single meandering row of 18 pairs of semi-detached houses.

Yet according to a local newspaper, the 12 parlour and 24 non-parlour three bedroomed houses were reported to be: (5)

One of the finest sites in the district, it has been developed to allow the erection of 98 houses, only 16 of which will have a northerly aspect … while somewhat severe in appearance in conformity with the Ministry of Health’s instructions, are exceedingly simple and harmonious as a whole …

Simple and severe certainly, but in no way were they harmonious, not according to many of the locals whose abhorrence towards the stark appearance of the dwellings, had two weeks earlier, prompted an irksome response from a council member who retorted: (6)

There was a most extraordinary and widespread misconception in Cottingham … The people seem to think the council were entirely responsible for the architecture of the houses which had been put up, and for the quality of materials used. This was not so. They had been entirely over-ruled by the authorities at Leeds.

The Southwood Estate, featured in the Hull Daily Mail, 27 October 1921

This was a direct reference to the Leeds-based Regional Housing Commissioner of the Ministry of Health and Housing who held sway over all matters relating to the provision of local authority housing in Yorkshire under the terms of the Housing & Town Planning Act, 1919.

First impressions clearly mattered, and for some of the class-conscious residents at the west end of the village, their dissatisfaction was all too apparent. The first ‘council houses’ were not detached from the village as in many large conurbations where those re-housed would be beyond the tram terminus or omnibus service, and therefore out of sight and out of mind. This was simply an extension to the western end of the village and therefore contiguous to existing properties. Snobocracy appeared to be alive and well in Cottingham and the neighbours were clearly not happy!

Southwood Villa © Bernard Sharp and made available through a Creative Commons licence
Southwood Hall © George Robinson and made available through a Creative Commons licence

No one in the village could question the need for additional housing, it was simply a matter of predetermined expectations. Inside each house the council had dutifully considered the needs of the soon-to-be tenants. All featured hot and cold water, cupboards, a space for a cycle or perambulator and the fitting of a tiled fireplace, and not just a cast iron mantlepiece. The metal window frames – cheaper and more readily available than wooden ones at the time – included a pivot mechanism on the upstairs frames that facilitated easy cleaning of the glazing. In addition the parlour houses had a window to the side to throw light over the shoulder of anyone sitting reading by the fire.

Yet these features did little to assuage the feelings of the neighbours, whose distain was based solely on the external appearance of the dwellings. Through the use of poor-quality commons and their box-like appearance, the houses were deemed to be an incongruous addition to the village. In an attempt to mollify dissenting voices, the council adopted a course of action which at the time was an earnest attempt to remedy the situation. The solution to the dilemma was to hide the brickwork. Each house was to be covered with a roughcast and colour-washed white with Tungaline paint.

An advert for William Jacks & Co Paints © The Priya Paul Collection, Universitätsbibliothek, Heidelberg

And to further improve matters, the exteriors were to be enhanced by the tasteful application of a contrasting dark brown gloss paint to the woodwork!

Southwood Estate houses facing south
Southwood Estate houses facing east

For a time, all was well until the gradual and increasing appearance of brown blemishes to the white-washed walls. To the council’s horror, it was discovered that ironstone chippings constituted part of the roughcast mix and rust had started to leech through to the surface resulting in the mottled finish.

Continuing evidence of rusting

Yet again with good intentions and financial ramifications, the council attempted to remedy the situation by the removal and re-application of the roughcast. Unfortunately the remedial work was not carried out to an exacting standard and the problem is visible to this day. Recently applied external insulation masks the rusting on those properties still part of the East Riding of Yorkshire County Council housing portfolio.

The generous proportions of the ‘Addison Houses’ and high build costs were reflected in the weekly rents. Many early tenants were employed in local agriculture, and at the time of construction, the first cut of what by 1923 amounted to an overall 35 percent reduction in agricultural wages had taken place. (7)  With wages reduced to 24 shillings per week by 1923 there was little wonder that many tenants fell into rent arrears within the first 12 months of occupancy. An appeal to the Ministry of Health secured a reduction of 1/6d per week for each type of house. But with weekly rents of 11/6d or 9/6d excluding rates, it was still necessary for distraint warrants to be issued against persistent defaulters.(8)

High maintenance costs and difficulties with the collection of rents impaired the council’s judgement regarding further housing provision. Finding the whole experience exceedingly troublesome, it had within a matter of 18 months placed on record that an offer for the remaining land it held lay on the table. At 2/6d per square yard (£605 per acre) some three times the price paid in 1919, it proved too tempting an offer. Parcels of land were duly sold to private developers including the North Eastern Railway Cottage Homes. For the remainder of the decade, the council restricted activity to the authorisation of subsidies to private builders under the terms of the 1923 Housing Act. By the end of the decade, 30 ‘subsidy houses’ had been built in the village.

Reticence towards further provision was of course futile. At the start of the 1930s, a modest 12 houses were built on one of the remaining parcels of land. Gone were the generous terms offered in 1919, replaced by the more circumspect grants of the 1924 Housing Act. With a long memory and a Yorkshireman’s vice-like grip of the purse strings, the council did not repeat the mistakes of old. Tucked away behind the rusting white-washed ribbon development, variations in design improved the prospect of the new houses. Yet again commons were the order of the day but thankfully, the temptation to apply a roughcast finish had been resisted.

Phase 2 facing the NER Railway Cottage Homes
NER Cottage Homes

For the council – with still a little land in reserve – it was now a time for reflection. Builders were ‘ramping-up’ private provision locally and those who had ‘Dunroamin’ settled down at ‘Mon Repos’ and ‘Chez Nous’. (9) But, as a follow-up blog will suggest, even in a relatively quiet village things never stay the same for very long.


(1) Stephen Merrett, State Housing in Britain (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979). Cottingham UDC was one of the 400 authorities that had replied to the LGB by December 1918

(2) KJ Allison, ‘The boom in house-building between the wars: the example of Cottingham’, East Yorkshire Local History Society, Bulletin, No. 55, Winter 1996/7

(3) During this period the town was often referred to (in print) as ‘Squalid Hull’.

(4)  From the minutes of Cottingham UDC, 2 April 1919, East Riding Archives

(5) ‘Cottingham Housing Scheme’, Hull Daily Mail, 27 October 1921  

(6) ‘Cottingham’s New Houses’, Hull Daily Mail, 13 October 1921

(7) Martin Pugh, We Danced all Night: A Social History of Britain between the Wars (Bodley Head, 2008)

(8) ‘Cottingham Council Houses, Distraint Warrants Issued for Unpaid Rents’, Hull Daily Mail, 9 August 1923   

(9) Allison, ‘The boom in house-building between the wars …’

The Role of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee: ‘Homes Fit for Heroines’

I’m delighted to feature today the second of two guest posts by Lynne Dixon examining the work of some of our early female housing campaigners and reformers. Lynne has a background in historical geography, town planning, the environment and education. Over the last few years she has been researching and writing about different aspects of woman’s history and local history. Her interest in women and housing in the early years of the nineteenth century has evolved from a U3A shared learning project on the origins of the organisation Women’s Pioneer Housing.  She has contributed to blogs on women in World War 1 and extensively on the Well Hall Estate and is currently writing a book on a woman architect/builder, Annabel Dott

Having outlined one mechanism through which women hoped to influence first rural and then urban housing at local levels in the post-war period in my earlier blog, this contribution deals with a group of women who could have had a more significant influence on housing at a national level: the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee (WHSC) of the Ministry of Reconstruction.

The recent centenaries for the women’s suffrage movement and World War One have ensured that we now know more than before about some aspects of women’s history for this period but there is still much more to know about women’s involvement in public life at this time. Many women were working for social change, not least in the field of housing, both during and then after (and indeed often before) the war.  The achievements of Florence Hamilton in my previous blog are just one example.  In parallel were the efforts of a group of women who were given the opportunity to influence at a national level the design of state houses – the ‘homes fit for heroes’ or, as more aptly named by Caroline Rowan, ‘homes fit for heroines’. (1)

The origins of the WHSC lie with the Ministry of Reconstruction which was established in 1917 to oversee the rebuilding of national life for the better at the end of the war. It established many committees each on different aspects of national life. The Minister of Reconstruction was the radically minded Dr Christopher Addison, later to be responsible for the 1919 Housing Act.  When the WHSC was being established it was said that, ‘it had been represented to us, both by societies and individuals, that women should be consulted about the construction of the new houses after the war’. (2)

The committee’s official purpose was to comment on the design of the working-class houses already built with public money and on plans put to the architects’ committee for future homes. They were to give special reference to the saving of labour for the housewife – very much a concern of the moment – and the convenience and well-being of the family generally. In other words, they were to offer a perspective on house design from the point of view of the housewife. Following the publication of the interim report the women were also asked to report on the conversion of middle-class houses into tenements for the working class. (3) 

The cover of the 1912 Fabian pamphlet on which Round About a Pound a Week was based

Membership of the WHSC included women from a range of backgrounds. Three women would already have been known to government through the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Women’s Advisory Committee: Lady Gertrude Emmott, Maud Pember Reeves and Dr Marion Phillips; the latter two also well-known for their previous work which included the publication, Round About a Pound a Week, a study of the spending of poor housewives in Lambeth. 

Gertrude Emmott was appointed ‘chairman’ and as such it is likely that she was able to help select other committee members.  She was a woman with a liberal and nonconformist background who had been involved in social and political work in the north-west of England, was a friend of Henrietta Barnett and had developed an interest in housing. The women she was perhaps influential in selecting had backgrounds in the garden city movement and town planning (Sybella Brandford, Ethel Lloyd and Mary D Jones); housing management (Maud M Jeffery, Annette Churton, Dr Janet Lane Claypon, Gerda Guy, Dorothy Peel); while others were politically active in the Labour Party or the Cooperative movement (Eleanor Barton, Rosalind Moore, Averil Sanderson Furniss, Alice Jarrett and Annie Foulkes Smith). 

Women had, of course, been involved in housing, town planning and architecture for some time as professionals – Octavia Hill in housing management from the 1880s; Ethel Charles, the first woman to pass the RIBA exams in 1898; the women sanitary inspectors who were involved in aspects of public health in housing; women such as Henrietta Barnett, a key mover in the garden city movement. Most recently in October 1917 one organisation, the Women’s Labour League, had started a housing campaign aimed at working class women and led by Averil Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips.  The work they did was to influence the work of the committee and may even have overlapped in time and content. (4)

Gertrude Emmott and Averil Sanderson Furniss

The committee and its two women secretaries first met in February 1918 and their work over the next few months was phenomenal.  As well as the focus on labour saving for the housewife, they were determined to seek out the views of working women.  A key part of their work was visiting working-class houses across the country with a standard set of twenty questions about each property – internal arrangements, room size, built-in features, rent, natural light and air, etc.  The first estate they visited was the Duchy of Cornwall’s housing estate in Kennington. 

A contemporary image of Courtenay Square, part of the Duchy of Cornwall’s housing estate in Kennington

In March 1918 they visited houses on the Well Hall Estate built for the munition workers of the Woolwich Arsenal. Averil Sanderson Furniss was one of those who visited the estate.  She commented on the headed paper of the National Women’s Labour League in a letter to Miss Leach the secretary of the committee: (5)

I think my main objections to the houses was that in practically all cases the windows were not large enough and did not give enough light.  I think they should have been higher in the bedrooms and lower in the sitting rooms allowing in the latter case for a window seat which would have much improved the rooms. Also I do not think that the baths in the scullery are good and if they must be downstairs which I recognise has to be the case in some instances they should be in a separate room.  In many cases I noticed that the bath was in a different corner of the room to the copper which must surely be most inconvenient when every drop of water has to be baled out of the copper into the bath.

This copper and bath in a home in the Cadburys’ model village of Bournville, c1905, addressed some of the problems addressed by women housing reformers but retained both in a downstairs scullery.

This theme of the covered bath in the scullery featured in the final report: 

Problems arose from ‘the practice of having the bath in the scullery with flap table over it … [which] meant that the housewife must clear everything from it before the bath could be used’ and prevented further use of the scullery for food preparation during bath times.’  The women were adamant that there should be a separate bathroom.  

Averil Sanderson Furniss continued in her letter, ‘these I think were two main points but I wish we could have had Mrs Barton with us as her practical experience would have been far more valuable.’

As a northerner and with her practical knowledge as a working-class woman, Eleanor Barton was clearly a significant member of the committee whose experience was highly valued; most of the other women in contrast were middle class.

An original ground floor plan of a home on the Well Hall Estate, reproduced with the permission of the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust
An early image of Lovelace Green on the Well Hall Estate

A further aspect of their work was to seek the views of both individual women and of organisations and one of the National Archive files contains many of these letters – usually handwritten but sometimes typed and some including diagrams to illustrate points being made – from across the country. (6)

The Sub-Committee had advertised in newspapers for women’s views and as a result local organisations had held meetings and conferences and competitions to gather opinions to pass on to the Sub-Committee and so responses came from a wide range of organisation such as the Derby Women’s Citizen Association; the Sutton Sisterhood; Flowers Farm War Gardens Association; the National Union of Women Workers, Howard St Club, Sheffield; the West Surrey Society; and the Women’s Votes Association of New Earswick. The Sub-Committee’s approach in doing this may be contrasted with the Tudor Walters Committee who, remaining in one place, saw a 127 witnesses only fifteen of whom were women. Their approach was surely innovative: an early example of public consultation. (7)

A sketch plan of a suggested layout for a workman’s house, hand copied from the National Archives original

The needs raised in the letters were wide-ranging – plenty of light in all rooms; simplicity in the joinery; special attention to housing large families, the aged and the poor; a sink in the scullery 14 inches deep; well protected water pipes to prevent freezing; minimum size of living room 15ft by 12ft; fixed cupboards in every room. 

It is not at all clear how the women of the committee, or more likely the two dedicated secretaries, processed the hundreds of comments received and data accumulated.  Within a few months, their work resulted in a lengthy interim report dated May 1918.  Two parts of the report were not published including comments that the women had made – uninvited – on the proposals of the Local Government Board (LGB). (8)  

The final report was finished a few months later in January 1919.  However, these final findings were also heavily suppressed resulting in another delayed publication.  The relationships between the LGB, the Ministry of Reconstruction and perhaps Addison himself were delicate.  There seem to have been divisions within the government of which these were part. (9)

In the end the Final Report was in effect overshadowed by the report of the Tudor Walters Committee which had been published in December 1918. (10) The LGB found the women’s findings ‘extravagant’ and treated with particular disdain the work the women had done on communal facilities.  Nevertheless, there was much in their work that was in agreement with the Tudor Walters conclusions and it was perhaps mainly in emphasis – what was seen as essential and what as desirable – that there were differences.  It is interesting to note that the only line of communication between the two committees had been informally via the secretary of the Tudor Walters Committee although four members of the WHSC did give evidence to the Tudor Walters Committee.

Central to the women’s findings, published or not, was the idea of the kitchen and the scullery as the workshop of the home where all hard and dirty work was done.  In most homes the internal layout of both these rooms was poor, with the consequence that endless short journeys were required for each simple task. Cooking a meal involved transferring food from inadequate storage facilities to a preparation area and then back to the cooker, with little ease of movement.  Analysing women’s work in the home was crucial to designing for labour saving.  In this there was no question that housework should be shared between husband and wife.  It was believed, even by those forward-thinking women who had campaigned for the vote, that housework was women’s work.  However, their time needed to be freed up so that they could be active citizens.

A majority of the women giving evidence to the Sub-Committee wanted a parlour in their homes, although they differed as to why it might be needed. In some districts, investigators found that the wish for a parlour was connected to customs surrounding death. At a time when most people died at home, death could raise practical challenges in small, badly designed and overcrowded houses. Housewives in Camberwell in contrast wanted parlours for their husbands ‘because there should always be somewhere for “him” to go and sit to rest himself’. 

This early image shows a working-class parlour on the London County Council’s Dover House Estate, one of the finest estates built under the 1919 Housing Act

Many mothers felt that the parlour was most needed when their eldest children wanted to bring friends home, or when it offered young courting couples a location ‘preferable … [to] the street corners or public house’.  The parlour may also have had a symbolic value, a status, which was important to many women.

In short, the women giving their views tended not to claim a parlour for themselves, but saw it as a way of providing a more pleasant environment for other members of the family. In contrast, the women writing the interim report promoted the idea that a parlour should provide an area for a woman who needed space for intellectual work, or work connected with her new role as a citizen. (11)

If officially sidelined, the report was at least appreciated by some.  As well as positive comments in the suffrage press, a critique of the report in The Town Planning Review commended that the report be read by ‘every architect designing houses and every member of a housing committee studying schemes’.

It is difficult to say exactly how much influence women had on national housing policy at this time because of the way their report was dealt with by the government. One writer has concluded that although they were able to form and even publish recommendations for national policy this in itself did not give them the power of decision making.  Their conclusions might be accepted as advice and were of particular use if they reinforced existing policy or official recommendations. (12)

Innovative or more challenging ideas were ignored. However, it is certainly possible to suggest that their involvement had other more enduring effects especially as they were part of a wider picture of women’s increasing involvement in housing provision and design. Some of this involvement was about guidance, advice and campaigning; some of it was to be a more active involvement. 

In 1919, Averil Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips published The Working Womans House, a short booklet illustrated with plans and photographs.  The report could be more explicit than the report of the Sub-Committee in linking labour saving to citizenship. They were able to link the traditional view that the home was a ‘woman’s place’ with the recent call by Prime Minister Lloyd George’s for new houses ‘fit for heroes to live in’. Phillips and Sanderson Furniss suggested that post-war reconstruction offered an opportunity for these two positions to be combined so that it should be possible for a woman to want her house to be: (13)

fit for a hero to live in and also wants to free her from the hard domestic work which is the result of the bad housing conditions and has prevented her from taking her full share of work as a citizen, wife and mother.  

The cover of The Working Woman’s House

In April 1919 the LGB, not long before its demise, set up the Housing Advisory Council to provide advice on housing policy.  Eleanor Barton, Averil Sanderson Furniss and Gertrude Emmott from the WHSC were included among its members.  When the board was abolished in June of that year, the Advisory Council seems to have continued in some form or another although it is clear that some women felt frustrated at its role and at the long delay in organising meetings.

One organisation which supported the role of women in influencing housing design was the Garden and Town Planning Association which had a short-lived women’s section run by Etheldred Browning. It produced a number of reports full of advice, one devoted to labour saving in the home, and it was also involved in commenting in late summer 1920 on public housing built by the Ministry of Health. Not surprisingly it was particularly critical of the lack of parlours, the small and badly shaped sculleries, the small third bedroom – ongoing themes.  They strongly recommended that before house plans were finally approved they should be submitted for criticism to a committee of women. (14)  

At a broader level, the legacy of the women’s suffrage movement seems to have been the continued proliferation of small organisations promoting women’s viewpoint and their desire to be involved in decision making. The involvement of women in housing was a part of this bigger picture.  For instance, housing was an issue for the Consultative Committee of Women’s Organisations which was established in 1921 and had a housing subcommittee for a number of years. (15)    

There were in the 1920s and 1930s a number of housing conferences and congresses organised by women or dealing with women and housing.  An international one was organised, for instance, by the National Housing and Town Planning Council in April 1924.  In these and other ways, women would continue to try to influence housing policy and design throughout the interwar period.

I think it is impossible to tell for certain if women had more influence nationally or locally.  It is possible that there was more likelihood for them to influence housing at the local level where they had some opportunities to make recommendations about internal arrangements and facilities. (16) There are a number of different references to promises for women to be involved in this way and to mechanisms whereby this could happen. 

In February 1919 The Times pointed out that the President of the LGB had promised that representatives of working woman should be consulted on municipal housing schemes and this eventually seems to have been enacted in the circular issued in December 1919 – just a few months after the Ministry of Health had taken over responsibility for housing from the LGB.  At this point Christopher Addison, the newly appointed minister, appears to have encouraged the involvement of many local women’s organisations in commenting on the design of housing schemes. Amongst these would be the already established Women’s Village Councils. There is research to be done at local levels to establish just how much influence these women went on to have and undoubtedly more to be found out about the role of women in housing generally and state housing in particular at a national level as the 1920s and 1930s progressed.

Unlike the Women’s Village Council movement, the work of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee has become somewhat more visible in recent years.  As well as original research using archives and online research in newspapers, I have therefore been able to draw on the research of academics such as Krista Cowman, Elaine Harrison and Lynn Pearson who have written specifically about the role of women in housing or in government at this time, as well as the broader texts of writers like Mark Swenarton in Building the New Jerusalem: Architecture, Housing and Politics 1900 – 1930.


(1) Caroline Rowan, ‘Women in the Labour Party, 1906-1920’, Feminist Review, no 12, 1982, pp74-91

(2) The National Archives (TNA), RECO 1/618. IV. 7374, p1, quoted in Calum W White, “‘The foundations of the national glory are in the homes of the people”: the Addison Act, the First World War, and British housing policy’, University of Oxford PhD Thesis, 2018

(3) Krista Cowman, untitled paper.  She has also written ‘”From the housewife’s point of view”: Female Citizenship and the Gendered Domestic Interior in Post-First World War Britain 1918-1928’, English Historical Review, vol 130, no 543, April 2015, pp352–383 

(4) See, for instance, Christine Collette, For Labour and for Women: the Women’s Labour League 1906 – 1918 (Manchester University Press, 1989)

(5) This and the following quotations are drawn from TNA, RECO 1/622

(6) TNA, RECO 1/633

(7) Alongside the listed witnesses are the names of two all-male deputations and a further 61 experts, again all male.

(8) The Interim Report is available online.

(9) Mark Swenarton, Building the New Jerusalem: Architecture, Housing and Politics 1900-1930 (IHS BRE Press, 2008)

(10) ) ‘The Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider Questions of Building Construction in Connection with the Provision of Dwellings for the Working Classes’ (The Tudor Walters Report, Cd 9191), 1918

(11) Krista Cowman, untitled paper

(12) Lynn Pearson and Patricia White, Architectural and Social History of Cooperative Living (Springer, 1988)

(13) AD Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips,  

(14) Etheldred Browning ‘Women and House Planning: a Protest to the Ministry of Health’, The Women’s Leader, 3 November 1920.  Etheldred Browning also established Women’s Pioneer Housing in 1920 to provide housing for professional women. She later invited Florence Hamilton of the Women’s Village Council Federation to join its committee. Florence felt she could achieve more on the National Town Planning and Housing Council.

(15) ME Blyth ‘The Women’s Housing Movement: Housing Councils’, The Common Cause, 28 September 1923 

(16) Krista Cowman, untitled paper

‘Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’: Women’s Influence on State Housing in the Era of World War 1 and After


I’m delighted to feature today the first of two guest posts by Lynne Dixon examining the work of some of our early female housing campaigners and reformers. Lynne has a background in historical geography, town planning, the environment and education. Over the last few years she has been researching and writing about different aspects of women’s history and local history. Her interest in women and housing in the early years of the nineteenth century has evolved from a U3A shared learning project on the origins of the organisation Women’s Pioneer Housing.  She has contributed to blogs on women in World War 1 and extensively on the Well Hall Estate and is currently writing a book on a woman architect/builder, Annabel Dott

The words of Blake which I have chosen as part of the title are more usually associated with the Last Night of the Proms or perhaps with the Women’s Institute.  What they represent for me is the determination of women to be involved in the design of state housing a century ago.  The words and music were first used by women at an event promoting the National Service for Women scheme in March 1917 and were then chosen by Florence Hamilton to represent the spirit and purpose of her Women’s Village Council movement in 1917.  The strapline first appeared in her article in The Common Cause in November of that year.

The role of the influential Tudor Walters Report of 1918 has been mentioned several times in contributions on this site.  The committee which prepared it was established to assist in dealing with the shortage of housing which was seen as a cause of industrial unrest during 1917. It was swiftly appointed following the announcement in July 1917 of the Local Government Board’s housing scheme and its resultant report laid down guidance on ‘building construction in connection with the provision of dwellings for the working classes’. (1) 

What is perhaps less well known is the role of women in discussing housing design throughout this wartime and post-war period.  This included their participation in contributions to the Tudor Walters report; their attempts to influence the quality and quantity of publicly funded housing, often in rural areas at a local level; and the report of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee (WHSC).  The recommendations of this latter’s report were ultimately eclipsed by the relatively more pragmatic and politically acceptable report of the fifteen-strong, all-male committee led by Sir John Tudor Walters.  In this blog, I will discuss women’s attempts to influence publicly funded housing at local levels and in a second contribution I will outline the role of the WHSC in more detail.

The Tudor Walters Report received evidence from 127 named witnesses of whom only fifteen were women.  A number of these women were linked to key organisations such as the Women’s Labour League, the Association of Women Housing Property Managers and the Rural Housing and Sanitation Association. Others appear to be individuals from across the country with no easily identifiable links to campaigning or professional groups. (2)

This undated image shows a Women’s Freedom League publicity caravan
A postcard image of Muriel Matters, an Australian-born actress and leading member of the Women’s Freedom League. Reproduced courtesy of The Muriel Matters Society Inc., Adelaide, South Australia

It was shortly after the creation of the Tudor Walters Committee and the publicity surrounding the government’s housing policy in the summer of 1917 that Florence Gertrude Hamilton – Mrs F.G. Hamilton – together with her sister Maud Rose Raey MacKenzie established the Findon Women’s Village Council, the first organisation of its kind. If Florence had some prior involvement in housing issues I have not been able to identify it but she had been a campaigning suffragist in the Women’s Freedom League in the pre-war period in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, when she had been a tax resister. (3)

By about 1913 she had left Wendover, eventually settling in Findon, Sussex, with her unmarried sister Maud. When the Local Government Board in July 1917 announced in a circular letter to councils that financial assistance was on offer to local authorities building workmen’s dwellings after the war, the two women felt that their Rural District Council was not preparing adequately for this. (4)  

A date of 15th October had been given for the completion of a form issued by the Local Government Board on which local authorities could provide details of the number of houses needed.  Perhaps Florence’s idea to contribute to this through the influence of women was based not only on her involvement with the suffrage movement, but also on the success of the relatively new Women’s Institute in the southern counties.  She might have seen an opportunity to encourage women’s participation in local affairs through the initial mechanism of becoming involved in housing.

Within three months of the circular to local authorities, she had evolved and then promoted her idea of an organisation and a meeting was held on October 2 in the Wattle House at Findon which was suitably decorated with national flags for the occasion. It seems to have been well attended. (5)

The Wattle House today; photo credit Richard Bell, Findon
A meeting of the Findon Women’s Village Council (from a private collection)

At this inaugural meeting, the Findon Women’s Village Council (WVC) stated its aims as being: (6)

to assist the State-aided Housing Scheme of the Local Government Board by obtaining first-hand information on rural housing, with the present acute shortage of cottages, and bad conditions

to promote Maternity and Infant Welfare, and the cause of Education

to enable working women to educate themselves to take their place on Parish, Rural District, and County Councils.

Inaugural meeting poster; reproduced with the permission of the People’s History Museum

Florence was particularly keen to involve ‘the genuine rural working woman’ in her organisation but she also referred to the usefulness of involving suffragists with their ‘trained cooperation’. With missionary zeal she wanted to seize the opportunity to help remedy the lack of rural cottages and to influence the quality and quantity of new ones. Like a growing number of women, she felt that women were best placed to advise on the design of houses because of the time they spent in them and the work they did there. (7)

And so a resolution was passed at that first meeting in Findon and sent to the Local Government Board: (8)

We have pleasure in reporting to the Local Government Board that the Findon Village Women’s Council (for the purpose of collecting evidence for the State-aided Housing Scheme) has been started, and we beg that we may be recognised and consulted in all reforms and schemes connected with State-aided cottages in our village.

Just a few months later Florence had established a small advisory group to support the newly forming village councils and was making links with the plethora of other women’s organisations in their shared premises at 92 Victoria Street.  She enlisted amongst others the support of Annette Churton, Secretary of the Rural Housing and Sanitary Association and a former member of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee.

In a description reminiscent of language we would recognise today, an article of 1918 explained that the views on rural housing would come from people themselves: ‘the village women, the farmers’ and the labourers’ wives; it is not superimposed from the top’. The idea for forming such village councils spread across the counties of south-east England and beyond and women were encouraged to organise surveys of their local housing and also to give their own opinions on the ideal design of new cottages. (9)

In Findon: (10)

the headings of the Survey were drawn up by a professional surveyor, and dealt with such points as the materials of the roof (whether tiled, slated, or thatched), the water supply (whether laid on, brought from a distant well, or rain-water; and if the last, whether it was filtered), the number of occupants (how many over, and how many under, the age of sixteen), the sanitary arrangements. 

With the involvement of the local vicar, a report was produced and presented to the Rural District Council outlining the need for 50 new cottages.  I have not as yet been able to research further specifically what happened to their recommendations.  However, on September 1 an article appeared in the Worthing Gazette referring to the building of sixteen houses in Findon by Thakeham Rural District Council under their scheme for fifty-eight houses in their area.  Because 42 applicants for these sixteen houses had been received, the article commented that this was ‘a long way from a complete satisfaction of the demand’.  I have identified a possible group of houses on the north side of the village, The Oval, which might be those built in the late 1920s but have yet to verify their origins.

The ideas of Florence Hamilton were broadly idealistic, going beyond the scope of the quality and quantity of housing into the area of other rural problems. Ultimately, she hoped to educate women in effective roles as citizens with a wider involvement in parish councils.

In Florence’s own words: (11)

The immediate work of the women’s village councils is to demonstrate beyond doubt the tremendous need for state-aided housing and the almost inconceivably bad conditions of many agricultural labourers’ homes; to combat existing opposition and indifference; to suggest the possibility that garden villages need not be ‘blots on the landscape’; to tell of the marvels promised by reconstructive use of science for lighting, water supplies and cooking, and to do death to the legend that the only use likely to be made of the fixed bath would be the coal cellar.  All Women’s Village Councils are asking for third bedrooms, that boys and girls may have a chance of growing up with modesty; they also ask for parlours … The success of the Local Government’s Maternity Bill and the Continuation Classes of the new Education Act depends largely on the co-operation of village women, who have hitherto had small say in their children’s interest and education.

Florence Hamilton conducted her own campaigning at a broader level.  In December 1917, she had met with Henry Aldridge, secretary of the Town Planning Council, who may have provided a vital direct link with the LGB and who went on to invite her to a housing conference in December 1917.  Although she herself did not give evidence directly to the Tudor Walters Committee, it is highly likely that at least one of the other WVC women did.  In 1918 she went on to form a federation of the village councils as the movement grew.  Although it was focussed initially in the south-east, there were other councils which formed elsewhere. They had spread into nine counties by 1919 including some in the Midlands, and reportedly into fifteen by March 1919. (12)

The village councils were said to give women the opportunity of working with the ‘experts’ – in planning, housing and sanitation. A March 1919 Manchester Guardian article pointed out that housing schemes were perhaps more important in rural areas than they were in towns.  Concern about rural depopulation had already led to a rural reconstruction movement and the lack of houses and the poor quality of the housing stock in rural areas were seen as crucial factors. However, there was also a need in urban areas and complementary organisations, the Women’s Housing Councils, were established in those areas from about 1922. This urban equivalent, influenced by their rural sisters, began in North Kensington.  This comment about one of their meetings clearly demonstrates the need for housing improvement, arguably one which still exists: (13) 

Meetings were held, and the residents of the wealthy borough were made aware of the terrible conditions under which their poor neighbours were living – almost at their doors.  Public opinion was eventually aroused, and £7000 has already been subscribed for putting tenement dwellings into habitable conditions.

It should be said that in deference to the more widely known Women’s Institute, which was founded at about the same time as the WVCs, that this organisation also, at least in some areas, attempted to influence the government housing schemes.

By 1923 the urban and the rural organisations had merged and were known as the Women’s Housing and Village Council Federation and later as the Women’s Housing Council Federation before perhaps finally merging with the National Housing and Town Planning Council (NHTPC). It has been impossible to track down any archives from these organisations: the National Archives gives a reference of the NHTPC merging with ROOM which is now part of the Royal Town Planning Institute.  The RTPI cannot find any relevant records.

Florence Hamilton probably remained active at a national level for the last decade of her life.  She was a founder member of the Electrical Association of Women (1924) and continued to be involved in the National Housing and Town Planning Council.  Her involvement in housing was acknowledged in her obituary written by fellow suffragist, Muriel Matters, which appeared in The Vote in April 1932. The inscription on her tombstone in Brompton Cemetery must surely be a reference to her commitment to citizenship: ‘Our Citizenship is in Heaven’.  She was one of a group of women who had developed an interest in housing during the First World War and sometimes earlier, who continued to try and influence the design of housing into the post-war period.  Many of these other women were members of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee and this will be the subject of my second blog.


(1) ‘The Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider Questions of Building Construction in Connection with the Provision of Dwellings for the Working Classes’ (The Tudor Walters Report, Cd 9191), 1918

(2) The witnesses are listed in the report.

(3) Florence was baptised Florence Gertrude MacKenzie but on her marriage was often referred to as Florence Gardiner Hamilton so that her initials F.G. could stand for either middle name. For extensive information about the suffragists in Buckinghamshire, Colin Cartwright’s book, Burning to Get the Vote (Legend Press Ltd, 2013) is a mine of information

(4) ‘Working Class Houses’, The Times, 30 July 1917 and Florence G Hamilton ‘Findon Women’s Village Council’, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917

(5) There are several accounts of this meeting; see, for example, The Spectator, 15 June 1918, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917, and Worthing Gazette, 24 October 1917

(6) From a poster for the Findon Women’s Village Council, undated, People’s History Museum, ref cc/s.16.

(7) The quotations are drawn from Florence G Hamilton, ‘Findon Women’s Village Council: An Experiment in Local Organisation’, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917, and further analysis from Women Correspondent ‘The Village Council of Women: their Contribution to Housing Reform’, The Manchester Guardian, 11 March 1919

(8) Georgina Home ‘Findon Village Council’, The Spectator, 15 July 1918

(9) C Osborn, ‘Women’s Village Councils’, Charity Organisation Review, vol 43, no 256, April 1918 

(10) Georgina Home, ’Findon Village Council’, The Spectator, 15 July 1918

(11) Mrs Hamilton, ‘Women’s Village Councils Federations for State-Aided Housing and Rural Problems’, The Common Cause, 19 July 1918

(12) Women Correspondent ‘The Village Council of Women: their Contribution to Housing Reform’. I have managed to establish the names of some thirteen councils: West Sussex; Findon, Storrington, Durrington, Wiston, Rustington, Broadwater, Washington, Wiston, and elsewhere Ellesborough (Buckinghamshire) Solihull and Aldridge (Walsall Rural District); Runton (Norfolk); Sarisbury (Hampshire)

(13) ME Blyth, ‘The Women’s Housing and Village Councils Federation’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 13 July 1923

Council Housing in Greenock, Part III after 1945: the ‘Hong Kong of the Clyde Coast’


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As last week’s post illustrated, Greenock’s housing problems were among the most severe in the country and exacerbated by severe wartime bombing. Besides a housing shortage, housing conditions remained dire; in 1951 over one-third of the town’s homes shared an outside toilet and 45 percent lacked a fixed bath.  Britain may have won the war but ‘winning the peace’ required unprecedented action to tackle the housing crisis.

Prefabs, Thom Street and Old Inverkip Road, 1971

Prefabs, Thom Street and Old Inverkip Road, 1971

In Greenock, as elsewhere, one response took the form of temporary prefabs with perhaps around 300 erected across the town. Those imported from the United States were soon found wanting as ‘not suitable for the Greenock climate’ – ‘the latest complaint is of swollen floorboards through damp’. British Arcon and Uni-Seco models were apparently more successful. (1)

Cedar Crescent Swedish Houses SN

‘Swedish Houses’ on Cedar Crescent

Another import, the ‘Swedish Houses’ – permanent prefabs assembled from flat-pack timber kits – were more successful. Forty-two pairs were built on Mallard Crescent, more along around Cedar Crescent and Fir Road in the Gibshill district; 3500 in Scotland as a whole. The steel-framed BISF (British Iron and Steel Federation Houses), of which around 40,000 were built across the UK, feature in significant numbers in the South Maukinhill district of Greenock. Both survive to provide good homes to the present, the BISF houses in Greenock thoroughly renovated from 2006.

Greenock Plans Ahead SN

Stills taken from Greenock Plans Ahead (1947)

In the post-war re-imagining of a better Britain, the proposals of Frank Mears, who had been appointed planning consultant to the Burgh in 1940 – enshrined in Greenock: Portal of the Clyde published in 1947 – received considerable publicity. A documentary film entitled Greenock Plans Ahead, directed by Hamilton Tait, was commissioned to accompany an exhibition in the Municipal Buildings. (2)

View of estate and river - Kip Valley scheme including Cowdenknowes and Cornhaddock

Housing in the Kip Valley including the Cowdenknowes and Cornhaddock schemes

Mears aimed to capitalise on the town’s strategic location on the Firth of Clyde and address the deficiency of open space in the lower town identified by the Clyde Valley planning survey carried out under the auspices of Sir Patrick Abercrombie. He proposed lower density redevelopment, zoned industrial areas and, most strikingly, a ‘federal Garden City’ on American Parkway lines formed of new neighbourhoods dotted along the Kip Valley.

Larkfield housing scheme CC Thomas Nugent

Larkfield housing scheme © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Whilst that vision may seem unfamiliar to current residents, major post-war housing developments in Penny Fern, Branchton and Larkfield to the south-west of the town owe something to Mears’ thinking (though the A78 hardly lives up to a Parkway billing).  Such large-scale developments – 690 homes were agreed for the Penny Fern estate in 1950 – also reflected the availability of building land in the area.

The Council completed its 1000th post-war house in 1950 – an impressive record in an era of genuine austerity. Additional housing – 564 houses in Pennyfern and Larkfield – was built by the Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA). (The SSHA was originally set up in 1937 to provide employment and housing in Scotland’s most depressed districts. Its remit was later extended to cover the whole of Scotland when it became, in effect, a government housing agency operating within the Scottish Development Department.)  By 1960, 5000 new post-war homes had been built in Greenock. (3)

Mears, Council Flats on the Vennel

Council flats on The Vennel as envisaged by Frank Mears

A major redevelopment of the town centre proposing 600 homes in six-storey blocks and some 150 shops proposed in 1960 was implemented from 1968.

cathcart st

An undated postcard marking Greenock’s redeveloped town centre

If low-rise suburbia was the predominant form of 1950s council housing, high-rise seemed the flavour of the 1960s. Whilst that popular perception was not always accurate, it was true for Greenock where shortage of land, a difficult hilly terrain and pressing housing need combined to impel high-rise as an apparently unavoidable solution to building at density. Some 32 multi-storey blocks were constructed in the town between 1962 and 1975. Some dubbed Greenock the ‘Hong Kong of the Clyde Coast’.

Grieve Road 1983 TB

Grieve Road tower blocks, 1983 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

Three 16-storey blocks on Grieve Road were the first approved, followed by lower blocks in Upper Bow Farm and Cartsdyke in 1964 and 1965. In the latter year, the Burgh also bet big on system-built construction, approving the 15-storey Ravenscraig and Rankin Courts and six further blocks of 16- and 15-storeys in the comprehensive development area of Belleville Street. All were constructed using the Bison system, a rapid construction method using pre-cast concrete panels. (4)

thumbnail_2008.72.416 7-5-1968 building of Belville St flats and stilts

This image taken by Eugene Jean Méhat in the mid-1960s captures the Belville Street area under construction, including ‘The Stilts’ centre-image. © Inverclyde Libraries, McLean Museum and Inverclyde Archives

Belville Street, the Stilts SN

A contemporary image of ‘The Stilts’ on Belville Street

Greenock’s steep terrain forced some innovative and daring design solutions to the creation of high-density housing, as seen in what are now dubbed ‘The Stilts’ and in the lower-rise blocks cut into the hillside further along Belville Street. Not all were to stand the test of time.

Belville Street (CDA 4) TB 1983 SN

Teviot, Ettrick and Duns Place, Belville Street, 1983 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

Ambition peaked in 1970 with the approval of Lynedoch and Antigua Courts, 18 storeys high, and Regent Court, another 18-storey block, system-built using the Camus system of large panel construction.  The final high-rise block approved was the 16-storey Kilblain Tower, approved in 1975 by Inverclyde District Council, the larger successor authority to Greenock Burgh created that year.

Belville Street 1989

The Belville Street area in 1989

In that respect, Greenock had challenged the marked shift against high-rise construction that was apparent from the later 1960s, marked symbolically by the partial collapse (and loss of life) of the Ronan Point tower block in east London in 1968 but given political weight by growing concerns at the cost of multi-storey building and questions over the housing density it achieved.

Octavia Court 2010-11

Octavia Court demolition, February 2011

Subsequently, Greenock has followed trends across the UK in demolishing much of its high-rise; the first to come down – in 2002 – were the first built, those 16-storey blocks on Grieve Road.  Currently, 13 remain. That fall from grace has been spectacular; literally so with the demolition by explosives of Octavia Court in February 2011 and the removal between 2013 and 2015 of the six tower blocks that once dominated Belville Street.

Broomhill Court before after SN

Broomhill Court, before and after renovation

It’s also a fall that will confirm many prejudices though, as ever, the fuller story is more complicated.  The tower blocks initially provided good homes for many – Broomhill Court (which survives) can provide a template. According to a local housing manager, ‘back in the 60s, you had to wait seven years to get a flat here’ but later, in the words of journalist Dani Garavelli, the picture darkened: (5)

From the 80s onwards … there was little investment. Families started to move away, often to bought properties elsewhere in the town. The fabric of the buildings degenerated along with their reputation. By 2012, anti-social behaviour was rife. Two-thirds of the flats in Broomhill Court – the most troubled of its three 15-storey tower blocks – were empty and residents were wary of walking around at night.

Design and construction flaws could certainly play their part (though it may be significant that in Greenock two of the eight Bison-built blocks and the Camus system block remain) but the overall story is of accreting ‘failure’: poor maintenance, a hard-to-let status that increasingly confined such buildings to more troubled tenants, problems of anti-social behaviour, and thus a spiral of decline.

Broomhill Mural Greenock (6)

The Broomhill heritage mural by local artist Jim Strachan, completed in 2018

Broomhill Court’s continuing story allows a different ending: a £26m regeneration project begun in 2014 which saw selective demolition of some lower-rise blocks and major renovation work, resident participation and substantial environmental upgrades (including a neighbourhood art project) that have restored place and community. One current resident commented:

A few people asked why I was moving to Broomhill, which had a reputation, but I couldn’t have afforded to buy a two-bedroom house in the private sector. My flat was needing done up, but once the regeneration started, I got the feel of the place. There’s a real sense of community here. I would never move. Never.

As Garavelli concludes, ‘the fortunes of social housing have risen and fallen … buffeted on the shifting winds of design trends and ideological orthodoxy’. But its necessity – and the need for investment that properly meets that necessity – remains unchanged.

Broomhill Court and Cartsdyke Court (renamed Cartsdyke Apartments) both now provide secure and independent living for the over-60s, part of River Clyde Homes’ ‘Silver Lining’ stock: a reflection of Greenock’s changing demographics and a reminder that high-rise flats can provide desirable homes for many.

Cartsdyke Court

Cartsdyke Court

In this final chapter (to date), Greenock illustrates another shift – towards what we must now call ‘social housing’. In 2007, Greenock Burgh’s housing stock was transferred to River Clyde Homes (RCH), an example of the ‘large-scale voluntary transfer’ that was forced on many councils barred politically from accessing the capital required for new investment (a restriction that did not apply to housing associations).  It currently owns and manages a little over 5800 homes. As a not-for-profit, locally based membership organisation, RCH represents a model that has sadly been increasingly marginalised as housing associations have merged and become more commercially minded.   

In the interests of full disclosure, I should acknowledge I was a guest speaker at RCH’s 2018 staff Christmas Party (they may have enjoyed the comic more) and I’m very grateful for the hospitality shown me on the day. That’s not even a footnote in Greenock’s housing history but I hope I’ve done some justice to its story in these posts. A £17 million pound investment programme announced by RCH in 2018 and a £10 million programme announced last year – upgrading homes and improving energy efficiency –  remind us that this story continues and that social housing continues to provide much needed homes and to yet higher standards. (6)


My thanks to Keith Moore, Communications Manager at River Clyde Homes, for his support and friendship in providing resources and images and casting a critical eye over my copy.  Any errors that remain – which I’m happy to correct – are my responsibility.

The McLean Museum and Art Gallery has a very extensive collection of archive images of Greenock which can be viewed online.

Additional thanks to Thomas Nugent for photographing Greenock so assiduously and allowing his photographs (uploaded here to Geograph Britain and Ireland) to be reproduced.


(1) ‘No More U.S. Prefabs for Us, Says Greenock’, Daily Record, 15 December 1945

(2) The film, Greenock Plans Ahead, can be viewed on YouTube.  For more on Mears, read Graeme Purves, Frank Mears – a Pioneer of Scottish Planning (October 2014). See also Graeme Purves, Greenock Plans Ahead (September 2016)

(3) Joy Monteith, Old Greenock (Stenlake Publishing, 2004)

(4) See the comprehensive records of the University of Edinburgh’s Tower Block project.

(5) Dani Garavelli, ‘Insight: Why Scotland must invest more in social housing’, The Scotsman, 25 August 2019

(6) ‘River Clyde Homes outlines £17m investment plans‘, Scottish Housing News, 4 April 2018 and ‘Improving Lives and Places‘, River Clyde Homes, 8 May 2019

Council Housing in Greenock, Part II, 1918-1945: their ‘Ain Wee House’



We left Greenock last week in the unusual circumstance of building new council homes in 1916 in the midst of war. Across the country, war’s end brought a unique combination of pressures and ideals to build anew at quality and on unprecedented scale. The pressure, for ruling-class politicians, came from their fear of working-class unrest, even revolution (given local force by the political turmoil on ‘Red Clydeside’).  The professed idealism came in prime minister Lloyd George’s stated ambition ‘to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in’.

Nowhere was the need for new council housing stronger than in Greenock: a reflection of the burgh’s appalling existing housing conditions and its continued growth – Greenock’s population peaked at 82,123 in 1921 when it was sixth largest town in Scotland. (Its current – 2011 – population of 44,248 tells you something of the hard times it has suffered subsequently as its traditional industries have declined.)

Scotland’s 1919 Housing Act required all local authorities to survey housing needs and build where need was demonstrated. In Greenock, a 1919 survey claimed that new or improved homes were required for some 26,818 inhabitants. The Council acted promptly by purchasing 154 acres of land in July that year and preparing plans for 480 houses, albeit partly in a style and form reflecting local circumstance and tradition: (1)

They would be allowed to build from 12 to 24 houses per acre and special privileges would be granted Greenock, owing to the scarcity of land, to erect tenements as well as houses.

Across Britain, the Tudor Walters report had set cottage homes at no more than twelve to the acre as the housing gold standard.

Nimmo STreet CC Thomas Nugent 2017

Nimmo Street, Cowdenknowes Estate © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The Cowdenknowes Estate, centred around the new main road of Dunlop Street one mile south-east of the town centre, was laid out on a greenfield site on cattle pastures owned by the Ardgowan Estate and, nevertheless, mostly comprised solid, white-rendered, two-storey semi-detached houses with front and back gardens as prescribed by Tudor Walters.

Cornhaddock Street Date Stone reads 1920 CC Thomas Nugent

Cornhaddock Street, the date stone reads 1920 © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

With further estates of similar size at Bridgend and Cornhaddock, Greenock built 436 homes under the 1919 legislation. This impressive rate of construction was maintained under subsequent legislation with substantial numbers unusually – 552 new homes – under the 1923 Act and a total of 625 under the more generous Wheatley Housing Act in 1924. (Wheatley, appropriately, was a ‘Red Clydesider’ and MP for Glasgow Shettleston.)  The later 1920s Bow Farm Estate included a larger number of flatted blocks as the housing drive continued. (2)

There remained, certainly among more left-wing members of the council, considerable urgency to the building drive. A proposal from the Housing Committee to delay construction of homes on Bow Farm in 1927 led to a special meeting of the council and what The Scotsman cautiously described as ‘particularly lively scenes’. The threat made by a Labour member, Mr D MacArthur, to take one opponent outside and ‘paralyse him’ may have been unparliamentary but it was apparently effective. The meeting agreed to proceed with construction by 17 votes to seven. (3)

The problem remained that the relatively high rents of council housing excluded the poorest who needed it most. This was true across the UK but was peculiarly and powerfully so in Greenock whose staple industries – shipbuilding, ship repair and marine engineering – suffered grievously in the economic downturns of the interwar years. One-third of working women worked in textiles, many in ropemaking which also served the town’s maritime trade.  Greenock’s final major employer – of both men and women – also reflected this history. The town was Britain’s second largest sugar refining centre (after London), processing raw sugar cane and molasses from the West and Est Indies. (4)

Such was the extent of unemployment and poverty that for some ‘home’ became the poorhouse (the Scottish equivalent of the workhouse) and they suffered the full severity of a Poor Law regime that we sometimes imagine had been abolished years previously. Some 1349 individuals entered the Greenock poorhouse in 1925-26 where they were set to work ‘sawing trees and repairing furniture, assisting tradesmen and scrubbing wards and such like’.

Back court, Market Street query

Back court, Market Street, c1935

Housing conditions for many of those who escaped that final indignity remained appalling. Housing density in Greenock reached 717 persons per acre; almost half the population lived in one-room accommodation.  A council enquiry into Market Street in 1931 revealed that, of 630 homes, only two had baths and none had hot water; on average, seven to eight families shared toilet facilities.

In 1925, the Greenock Housing Council, comprising ‘well-known ministers and social workers’, drew particular attention to the scandal of so-called ‘farmed-out’ houses – a system in which slum tenements which could not be let ordinarily were leased by a ‘farmer’ and then subdivided into single rooms rented for short periods.  They estimated there were 229 ‘farmed-out’ houses in the burgh and gave graphic examples of the appalling circumstances suffered by their unfortunate tenants: (5)

Five persons besides husband and wife over ten in the same sleeping compartment … water flows from WC above, coming through ceiling; walls falling in. Bed without bedding; one table, three stools, two beds in one room; one female lodger in same room as subtenant’s sons.

Naturally, such conditions led to ill-health – recurrent typhus outbreaks and increased incidence of scarlet fever, smallpox and poliomyelitis, for example. Greenock was also ‘the tuberculosis capital of Britain, with twice the number of cases per capita as the national average’.  By 1932, the burgh’s infant mortality rate – at 307 deaths per thousand – was the highest in Scotland, twice the national average.

If the statistics seem abstract, take the case of Mary McLaughlin who endured more than 20 pregnancies between the wars, 14 full-term. Of her 14 children, ten died before the age of seven from diphtheria, polio and scarlet fever.

Whilst little happened to improve Greenock’s economic circumstances until rearmament and war at the end of the decade, the 1930s did at least see substantial efforts – instigated under the Scottish Housing Acts of 1930 and 1935 – to improve housing conditions. A programme of 3000 new homes was agreed in 1933, including a scheme of 840 in the eastern Gibshill area of the town. In total, some 2085 new homes were built under the 1930 and 1935 legislation and a further 383 under a 1938 Act. In all, the Burgh built 4033 new homes between 1919 and 1939. (6)

Westburn House CC Thomas Nugent 2012

Westburn House, 2012 © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The 1930s legislation also prioritised slum clearance, which included in Greenock the belated demolition of the Market Street area (now King Street). Another, unusual benefit of central area clearance was the opening of a hostel for single women in Westburn Street, opened in 1933; the Burgh boasted it was the first in Scotland initiated under the 1930 Housing Act.  The hostel comprised 40 apartments, let at 5 shillings (25p) a piece, each containing a living room, scullery and toilet; baths and washhouses on each wing were shared by seven households. The local press claimed it was not really a hostel; each tenant enjoyed their ‘ain wee house’. (7)

Westburn House gutterbox SN

The Westburn Buildings commemoration of Mary Slessor

There’s another unusual feature to be found in the Westburn building (renovated in 2012 by River Clyde Homes as contemporary social housing): a celebration of feminism marked by the sets of initials on the building’s 14 gutterboxes, each celebrating a notable woman including Flora MacDonald, Florence Nightingale and (illustrated above) the missionary Mary Slessor.

John Street

John Street tenements prior to renovation

Elsewhere, Greenock’s hilly terrain and shortage of land promoted interest in other unconventional solutions to its housing crisis. In 1936, the Council considered plans for ‘a new and revolutionary type of tenement building’ proposed by Scotland’s leading architect and planner, FC (Frank) Mears. (8)

The buildings will be roughly circular in shape, and of four storeys. From a circular stairway in an open well in the centre three wings radiate like the three leaves of a shamrock. Each wing has two houses per flat, making a total of 24 houses per block.

Following the programme of slum clearance, adapted versions of Mears’ proposals were built in the John Street area from 1939.

Baxter Street blitz

The impact of the Blitz on Baxter Street


Frank Mears

In the following year, after the outbreak of war, Mears was appointed planning consultant to the Council and whatever ideas he may have entertained for the burgh were given sharp focus and even greater urgency by the tragic events of 6-7 May 1941. Greenock was a major shipping centre but the Greenock Blitz fell most heavily on its residential areas. Around 280 people were killed, 1200 injured; 10,000 houses were damaged, 1000 beyond repair.

We’ll follow the story of Greenock’s post-war council housing in next week’s post.


(1) ‘Greenock Housing Scheme’, The Scotsman, 30 July 1919

(2) TW Hamilton, How Greenock Grew (James McKelvie and Sons, 1947)

(3) ‘Greenock Housing: Town Council Scene’, The Scotsman, 2 February 1927

(4) Much of the information which follows is drawn from the detailed account provided by Annmarie Hughes in ‘The Economic and Social Effects of Recession and Depression on Greenock between the Wars’, International Journal of Maritime History, vol 18, no 1, June 2006

(5) ‘Greenock Housing’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 31 August 1925

(6) Hamilton, How Greenock Grew

(7) ‘Hostel for Women’, Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, October 25 1933

(8) ‘New Type of Tenement’, The Scotsman, 6 February 1936

Council Housing in Greenock, Part I to 1918: the ‘Unhealthiest Town in Scotland’


Greenock’s geography was both a blessing and a curse. Its location on the Firth of Clyde made it a major port and shipbuilding centre. The first harbour was constructed in 1711, Scotts shipbuilders were established one year later and Greenock prospered from the Atlantic trade (and slave economies) of sugar and tobacco. But the town’s situation – a narrow strip of flat land to the shore backed by steeply rising hills to the south – made expansion difficult and helped bring about some of the worst housing conditions in Scotland. The first response was simply to build housing at density; a later one was high-rise. Both, as we shall see, were found wanting.

Greenock 1856

This 1856 map of Greenock gives some idea of its confined topography

In 1800, Greenock’s population approached 18,000; by 1901, it was 67,645. Its commercial wealth and elite ambition were demonstrated in the burgh’s Municipal Buildings, completed in 1886, whose Victoria Tower stands 75 metres tall – a proud one metre higher than Glasgow’s own City Chambers. The £197,000 cost was enormous – the debt was finally cleared in 1952 – but political responses to the town’s slum housing problem were far more dilatory.

View from above Cathcart Street over Cathcart Square to the Municipal Buildings, with the Victoria Tower to the right of Cowan's Corner and the Mid Kirk spire of 1781 to the left Dave Souza

The Municipal Buildings and Victoria Tower (to right) and Mid Kirk © Dave Souza and made available under a Creative Commons licence

That problem was well documented. In the 1860s, when its crude death rate was peaking at 420 per 10,000, the Registrar-General described Greenock as the ‘unhealthiest town in Scotland’ with the highest numbers dying from diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera, and ‘Fever’ (typhus and typhoid) in the country.  Cowgate, in central Greenock, was described by the Workingmen’s Sanitary Association, founded in 1865, as: (2)

one continuous privy from one end to the other. One could hardly believe its disgusting state. Literally it would be difficult to walk on the foot pavement without soiling one’s feet with human ordure.

The Association found half the homes it surveyed comprised one room with an average of six occupants.

Back court, West Quay Lane

This image of a backcourt in West Quay Lane dates from 1935 but serves to illustrate the continuing appalling housing conditions suffered by those living in inner Greenock

Official responses were, as we shall see, legion but often equivocal. A 1864 Privy Council report prompted by a typhus epidemic believed it: (2)

fair to say that there is every disposition of the part of the authorities to do something to remedy the sanitary evil. It so happens that their very prosperity has produced a state of things that has caused the high mortality. The increase in population in fifteen years is more than 30 percent. In spite of this increase there has scarcely been any rise in the number of registered poor, but no proportionate increase of houses for working men.

An 1865 report from Dr Buchannan, a Government Inspector, blamed ‘excessive mortality’ on the ‘deaths of children … produced in Greenock in remarkable numbers’ and the outbreak of typhus on ‘overcrowding and the dirty habits of the people’.  A ‘Ladies Sanitary Association’ proclaimed its mission ‘to redeem the humbler classes from low tastes and squalid habits’.

We might forgive those alleged dirty and squalid habits given that Buchannan’s own figures estimated 9414 people crammed onto 20 acres in Greenock’s Mid Parish, the equivalent of 300,000 per square mile. (As a point of comparison, the figure for Manilla, currently the world’s most densely populated city, is around 120,000.)

The overcrowding at least was real and government legislation – albeit permissive and largely ignored – was emerging to deal with the problem of urban conditions nationally. The 1866 Labouring Classes Dwellings Act allowed municipalities to purchase sites and build and improve working-class homes. It also allowed councils and philanthropic housing associations to borrow money at preferential rates from the Public Works Loan Commissioners.  These powers were strengthened in the 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act. Greenock itself had secured a private Police and Improvement Act in 1865.

Morton Terrace SN

Morton Terrace

The political disposition of those who ruled the Burgh of Greenock was to favour private provision through the model dwellings promoted by philanthropic housing associations and their patrons.  The foundation stone of the first tenement built by the Greenock Provident Investment Society was laid by builder and Burgh Provost (mayor) James Morton in 1865. The impressive terrace that emerged was named after him. (The local football club also took the name Morton, either in recognition of Morton’s early patronage or because many of its earlier players lived in the terrace.)

Octavia Cottages SN

Octavia Cottages

Another benefactor was Sir Michael Robert Shaw-Stewart: a baronet, heir to the local Ardgowan estate – still in family hands – and Conservative MP for Renfrewshire until 1865. Shaw-Stewart feued* land at Hillend at the low rate of £16 an acre for the erection of 28 cottages on East Crawford Street. In the event, most of the Octavia Cottages (presumably named after his wife, Lady Octavia Grosvenor) soon ‘came to be owned and occupied by those in a higher position in life than the working classes they were intended for’. (3)

Shaw-Stewart also supported a scheme of ‘six divisions of self-contained cottages of brick, English-style, with a small garden and green attached’ at Bridgend in east Greenock. This too, despite larger ambitions, failed to develop from small beginnings. However ‘model’ the dwellings, it was obvious that philanthropic housing could not build housing either at the scale or in the form required by those who needed it most.

In 1877, the Burgh became the first in Scotland to apply the slum clearance and rebuilding provisions of the 1875 Act although it did so with some reluctance. The land acquired for slum clearance was unsuccessfully offered for private redevelopment leaving the council with no option but to undertake the scheme itself which commenced in 1886.  Twenty-one blocks were built in Dalrymple, Shaw, Duff, and Brynmer Streets containing 197 one- to three-room tenements, 290 rooms in total. With WCs shared by up to three families, washhouses by six to twelve, this was by even the normal standards of the day basic housing – but housing conditions in Greenock were far from normal. (4)

Royal Naval Torpedo Factory Greenock Scotland

An early image of the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory

Those standards came under further unexpected scrutiny in 1910 as a result of what some dubbed ‘the English invasion’. Due to a Government decision to centralise production (and presumably reflecting fear of the growing military might of Germany), the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory was opened in Greenock in 1910. This involved the transplantation of around 700 workers from the Woolwich Arsenal in south-east London. The incomers, it was said by one local historian: (5)

brought many prejudices with them. Prejudices about our Churches, our climate, our habits and customs and, perhaps most of all, about our houses.

A Woolwich View of Greenock published in 1910 would seem to confirm their negative views at least: (5)

many of the so-called houses … are, in our view, quite unfit for habitation by our people. We think for our purposes they may be considered non-existent. The great number of bare-footed and bare-headed children who frequent the streets at all hours of the day and late and night was, to us, a pitiful sight.

The Greenock Telegraph replied that ‘Scots boys nearly all run barefoot in the warmer months of the year’ and, with less sympathy to the hardiness of working-class natives, that ‘our slumdwellers are not always the poor, to a large extent they are the improvident’.

The Admiralty acknowledged the genuine discontent existing among its transplanted workers – the undeniable shortage of housing of all sorts and the reality, as one commentator noted mildly, of ‘the tenement system of the district not meeting with the southern ideas’ – but hoped initially that the private sector and housing associations might fill the breach. (7)

Around 56 two-storey houses were built by the Scottish Garden Suburb Tenants Limited and the Gourock and Greenock Garden Suburb Tenants Limited before the war but, objectively, as the town’s population reached 75,000, the housing crisis remained severe. Of 14,500 occupied homes, just 30 were vacant and some 686 were acknowledged – presumably by standards lower than those of the Woolwich workers – unfit. An estimated 1373 new houses were required.

Serpentine Walk II

Serpentine Walk

In 1911, the Corporation resolved to build new homes and 41 were completed in a large tenement block on Serpentine Walk by 1913. Pressure to improve and build was maintained by a Workers’ Housing Council formed in 1912 and, with the greater powers and resources of officialdom, by a Royal Commission on Scottish Housing instituted in 1912 and a Housing Enquiry into Greenock carried out by the Local Government Board in 1914.

The latter found 780 currently occupied houses (accommodating 3300 people) unfit for human occupation and some 469 so-called ‘back properties’ or ‘backlands’ – infill development to the rear of already overcrowded and substandard tenement homes. It called on the Burgh to renew its housebuilding programme by committing to a further 250 new homes immediately with 250 built annually in succeeding years.

Roxburgh Street

Roxburgh Street housing in the 1960s, part of the Kennedy Collection at the McLean Museum  © Inverclyde Libraries, McLean Museum and Inverclyde Archives

The outbreak of war in August 1914 and the priority given to military production generally stymied such ambitions but the significance of Greenock as a naval supplier secured it favourable treatment. A new municipal housing scheme opened in east Greenock in November 1916 featuring ‘houses of the cottage type’ at around 13 to the acre.  The Government paid 12 percent of the scheme’s total cost with the stipulation that the 144 houses on Roxburgh Street (since demolished) would be let to Admiralty employees for at least two years. Further homes on the site were promised after the war. (8)

Grenville Road, Gourock

Grenville Road, Gourock © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

In 1916-17, 200 more houses and flats were built in Greenock and neighbouring Gourock at the instigation of the Local Government Board for Scotland, half of them directly provided by the Government’s Office of Works in the Reservoir, Rodney and Grenville Road areas of Gourock. The latter took their inspiration from the larger ‘Garden City’-style development sponsored by the Admiralty in Rosyth where a new naval dockyard had been established in 1908. Among these were the first houses built directly by central government, a precedent fulfilled on far greater scale under the pressures of total war by the 1000 new homes built in 1915 on the Well Hall Estate in Eltham to accommodate the expanded workforce back in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal. (9)

The promise to build anew at war’s end was one that would be fulfilled and its implementation – in Greenock and across Britain – would owe something to the example of the burgh before and during the First World War. We’ll follow the ongoing story of Greenock’s council housing in the interwar period in next week’s post.

* The Scottish system of feu holding, eventually fully abolished in 2000, required that those who acquired land were required to pay an annual sum for its use to its original owner. Feu duties in Greenock, ranging from £20 to £70 per annum, were – in a reflection of the shortage of suitable land for construction – unusually high which caused additional problems for new housebuilding.


My thanks to the McLean Museum and Art Gallery of Greenock for permission to use the image of Roxburgh Street.


(1) This quotation and other details are drawn from TW Hamilton, How Greenock Grew (James McKelvie and Sons, 1947); the statistic and causes of death from Michael Anderson, Corinne Roughley, Scotland’s Populations from the 1850s to Today (Oxford University Press, 2018).

(2) Robert Murray Smith, The History of Greenock (Orr Pollock and Co, 1921). An online edition has been provided by Inverclyde Council Libraries, Museums and Archive Service.

(3) Smith, The History of Greenock and the report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Industrial Population of Scotland Rural and Urban (1917)

(4) William Thompson, The Housing Handbook (National Housing Reform Council, 1903)

(5) Hamilton, How Greenock Grew

(6) Republished in Greenock Housing Conditions, 1885-1914 (Jordanhill College 1978). The responses of the Greenock Telegraph are drawn from the editions of March 24 1910 and October 28 1912.

(7) Ewart G Culpin, The Garden City Movement Up-to-Date (The Garden Cities and Town Planning Association, 1913)

(8) ‘Greenock Municipal Housing’, Daily Record, 22 November 1916

(9) On Greenock and Rosyth, see Henry Roan Rutherford, Public Sector Housing in Scotland, vol 3 1900-1939, University of Glasgow PhD 1996

Council Housing in Oxford, Part II after 1945: ‘a Sense of Space and Freshness’


, , ,

Last week’s post looked at Oxford’s interwar council housing programme. Currently, the city is judged Britain’s least affordable city for housing; an average house price of £460,000 is over twelve times local average annual earnings. (1)  We’ll come back to Oxford’s present-day housing crisis later in the post but at the end of the Second World War that crisis was a national one. A 1945 White Paper estimated that the country needed 750,000 new homes immediately and some 500,000 to replace existing slums. In Oxford, the council house waiting list stood 5000-strong.

Barton SN

New signage on the Barton Estate, 2017

One of the solutions touted for our contemporary housing shortfall is MMC – Modern Methods of Construction. The term is essentially a bit of conscious rebranding as there is certainly nothing new in the idea that prefabrication offers a practical means of building quickly. Back in 1945, one response was a programme of temporary prefabs. Of the 156,623 erected nationally, some 150 were built in Headington and 62 on Lambourne Road in Rose Hill. (2) These boxy but actually rather high-tech bungalows had an expected life-span of ten years – though many were to last much longer.

But there was also a large-scale effort – instigated by the Burt Committee (properly the Interdepartmental Committee on House Construction) as early as 1942 – to build permanent prefabricated homes and these featured heavily in Oxford’s early construction.

Howard Houses Brampton Rd Barton SN

‘Howard houses’ on Brampton Road in the Barton Estate, 2017

The Barton Estate (the site of the Headington prefabs) was begun on a small-scale in 1937 – just 54 council homes added to an existing hamlet of six to eight cottages and two pubs. It took off after 1945, expanding to over 1000 new homes by 1950. A large number of these were permanent prefabs, mostly BISF houses (British Iron and Streel Federation houses: steel-framed with characteristic steel cladding on the upper floor) and Howard houses (named after the civil engineering company that promoted them, of light-steel frame and asbestos cladding). Both were designed by renowned architect and planner Sir Frederick Gibberd.

Barton Estate Mogey

An early image of the Barton Estate taken from JM Mogey, Family and Neighbourhood (1956)

The rush to build provided an initially unpromising environment documented in a social survey by the sociologist JM Mogey published in 1956 and based on an Oxford Pilot Social Survey begun in 1950: (3)

First impressions of Barton are rarely favourable: areas left in their original state for later erection of public buildings, or for lawns, tennis courts, bowling greens and so on are covered with tough bunchy grasses and criss-crossed with many muddy paths. The place is almost bare of trees: the dominant colour is asbestos grey. The painted doors, the steel upper storeys of houses painted in dull brick-red or pale buff, do little to relieve this grey tint which is picked up and echoed by cement and plaster, by garden posts and by cement roadways.

The photograph used by Mogey in his book seems to illustrate this well (though in this case the houses shown appear to be another form of permanent prefab, the Orlit house, designed by émigré Czech architect Ervin Katona and built of precast reinforced concrete). A less grey-scale photograph might have shown them to better advantage.

Burchester Avenue Barton SN

Burchester Avenue, Barton Estate

Mogey himself acknowledged that ‘second impressions [were] more encouraging’:

Although many house exteriors look drab and neglected, the gardens are on the whole well cultivated … Bright curtains in the windows, flowers in the gardens, a sense of space and freshness begin to counteract the uniformity revealed at first glance.

The thrust of Mogey’s survey, however, was to assess the social impact of the new estate and contrast it with the more traditional and ‘close-knit’ inner-city community of St Ebbes from which at least some of the new residents were drawn.

At first glance, his analysis seems to reflect and reinforce some of the arguments – one might say clichés – that characterised sociological thinking of the day, epitomised in the writing of Willmott and Young in Family and Kinship in East London, published in 1957. (Much of this has been effectively debunked by Jon Lawrence in his recently published book, Me, Me, Me: The Search for Community in Post-war England, reviewed in an earlier post).

New Barton residents lamented that ‘we stay in more than we used to’ and that ‘we never see anyone now, we feel very isolated on the estate’.  Mogey himself commented ‘in Barton everything is new and there is no neighbourlihood’ (sic).

Underhill Circus Barton SN

Underhill Circus shops, Barton Estate

But the bigger picture was more complex and, in many ways, more positive, In Barton, there were fewer families ‘in which relations between husband and wife show disagreement’, more families expressed ‘loving attitudes towards their own children’, in more families ‘husband and wife help each routinely in domestic tasks’.  The ‘central change’, Mogey concluded, ‘may be interpreted as the emergence on the housing estate of a family-centred society instead of a neighbourhood-centred society’.

But even that conclusion might depend on your definition of ‘neighbourhood’. In Barton far more people belonged to a local voluntary association or trade union, more people reported themselves as having friends, and there was greater acceptance of next-door neighbours (though, in contrast to the romanticised views of community of Willmott and Young, ‘generally people in both estates kept themselves to themselves and were suspicious of people who were too “neighbourly”’).  As Stefan Ramsden found in Beverley, what might have been viewed as ‘increasing “privatism”’ was, in fact, ‘a more expansive sociability’.

Forsaking a crude environmental determinism, these findings might say more about the contrast between the type of people that had moved to the new estate and those who had stayed put. One final finding stands out: more people were critical of their homes in Barton than in St Ebbes. That might superficially – and surprisingly – reflect dislike of the new council homes but deeper analysis suggests it reflected greater ambition and expectation on the part of Barton’s residents.

This was an aspirational working class that wanted better for themselves and for their children.  Jon Lawrence has argued for this period that ‘for the first time, the vast majority of working people believed that it was their birthright to enjoy a decent standard of living “from cradle to grave”’. That Labour achieved its first majority on Oxford City Council in 1958 might bear this out.

Rose Hill, three miles to the south-east of the city centre, was the second of Oxford’s early post-war estates, begun in 1946 and growing to contain 690 houses on completion. It too contained a significant number of prefabricated homes – Orlit, Howard and the timber-framed Minox houses. Rose Hill’s 153 Orlit houses (designated as defective by the 1984 Housing Defects Act) in council ownership were demolished from 2005. The 131 council-owned BISF houses on the Barton Estate were thoroughly renovated after 2008.

BISF and Refurb Wilcote Rd Barton SN

An unrenovated BISF house stands next to a refurbished council home on Wilcote Road in the Barton Estate, 2017

The quest for suitable permanent housing in Oxford was hampered by a lack of available land (much was built upon, around a quarter was liable to flooding) and constrained by the creation in 1956 of the country’s first Green Belt outside London.  A 1949 Council report concluded that the only option open to it was to develop sites straddling the boundary or beyond it – between Cowley and Headington; beyond Cowley; towards Garsington; and around Littlemore. (4)

EAW049095 Wood Farm estate under construction and environs, New Headington, 1953

Wood Farm estate under construction, 1953 (EAW049095) © Britain from Above

The building of 510 council homes at Wood Farm on the eastern fringe of the city began in 1953. The attraction of prefabricated building remained, however, and many of the houses were of the Laing Easiform type, constructed of in-situ poured concrete. Laing’s 30,000th Easiform house was opened on the Wood Farm Estate in May 1953 by Ernest Marples MP, a junior housing minister, with Sir John Laing and a host of civic dignitaries in attendance.

Planning permission for Oxford’s largest estate, Blackbird Leys (in the far south beyond the ring road), initially projected to contain 2800 homes, was granted in the same year. I’ve written about the estate in a previous post.

Plowman Tower TB 1985 SN

Plowman Tower, 1985 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

As the move towards high-rise took off in the late-1950s, Blackbird Leys would feature the city’s first two tower blocks – two fifteen-storey blocks, completed in 1964.  Two more, of similar height, were approved in 1965: Foresters Tower on the Wood Farm Estate and Plowman Tower on the Northway Estate, a predominantly low-rise estate to the north, commenced in 1951.

Olive Gibbs Oxford Mail

Cllr Olive Gibbs

In general, however, Oxford eschewed high-rise and in 1965 the City anticipated the move towards housing renewal (rather than clearance and new build) that would be formalised in government policy three years later when it scrapped plans to redevelop the inner-city Jericho area. Labour councillor (and sometime chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the mid-1960s), Olive Gibbs, played a leading role. Jericho, apart from featuring in Morse, is now a highly-desirable area for young professionals with two-bed homes selling for upwards of £800,000.

The Laurels Tile Hill Close SN

Tile Hill Close, the Laurels

For those, then and now, who couldn’t afford such prices, Oxford continued to build council homes. The 260-home Town Furze Estate, near Wood Farm, and the 150-home Laurels, off London Road on the site of the former Headington Union workhouse, were both initially approved in the late 1950s.

Meanwhile pressures on land were forcing the Council to consider building further afield, in Bicester or Abingdon for example. But the one small scheme to materialise was a joint venture with Bullingdon Rural District District Council in the late 1960s in Berinsfield, seven miles to the south-east of Oxford. Berinsfield, built on a former airbase, claims – with its first new permanent housing begun in 1958 – to be ‘the first English village to be built on virgin land for over two hundred years’. (5)

By 1981, 29 percent of Oxford households lived in social rent housing, 52 percent in owner occupied homes and 16 percent in the private rental sector. By 2011, those figures stood at 21 percent, 47 percent and 28 percent respectively. (The latter figure is now said to have reached 33 percent.) Such has been the effect of Margaret Thatcher’s housing counter-revolution. Beyond the obvious impact of Right to Buy, perhaps the most notable features are the failure of Thatcher’s fantasy of owner occupation for all and the rise of private rental housing.

Gipsey Lane Estate SN 1

Private rental housing, Gipsy Lane Estate

Many former council homes lost to Right to Buy are now in the private rental sector; nationally the figure is around 40 percent. In Oxford, an estimated one-third of homes on the Gipsy Lane Estate are now Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Visually, this is starkly apparent in the large number of poorly maintained houses and estate’s scrappy overall appearance. A 2014 survey found 13 percent of the city’s private rented homes in a state of disrepair. The Council is currently proposing to extend its licensing scheme for HMO landlords to all 20,000 private rented homes in Oxford with increased powers to fine rogue landlords. (6)

Laurel Farm Close

Laurel Farm Close

Surprisingly, the City did build some new social rent homes in the 1980s in necessarily small but attractive, high-quality developments designed by the City Architect’s Department: 23 council houses in Laurel Farm Close, 54 in Mattock Close and 29 flats in North Place.

By the new century, it was clear, however, that Oxford’s growth and relative prosperity made newbuild on a far larger scale imperative; a 2011 Council report estimated 28,000 new homes were needed. One outcome has been Barton Park, on the north-eastern edge of the city just across the A40. It’s a mixed development scheme and a public-private partnership (between Oxford City Council and Grosvenor Developments Ltd) as – with local authorities precluded financially from large-scale construction themselves – is the way nowadays. Construction began in May 2015

Barton Park impression

A visualisation of the new Barton Park development

The scheme’s Design and Access Statement promises ‘a garden suburb designed for the 21st century; a perfect blend of high-quality urban living that is in harmony with its natural surroundings’. Practically, we can be relatively glad – in these straitened times – that 354 of the 885 new homes planned will be let at social rent, owned and managed by Oxford City Housing Limited, the wholly owned private company set up by the Council to deliver its social housing programme. (7)

It’s a far cry from the decisive state action and huge public investment directed towards the post-war housing crisis. As I write, the Conservative government is promoting planning reform as the means to boost housebuilding. In reality, the private sector has an inbuilt reluctance to build at the scale currently required for fear that market prices – and profits – would fall. Oxford’s history reminds us of the sometimes imperfect but overwhelmingly beneficent and necessary role of the local and national state in building homes for all that need them.


It used to be said that you could always tell the council homes sold under Right to Buy as they had been obviously ‘improved’ (often to the detriment of the cohesion and attractiveness of the estate as a whole). That’s true today but the roles are reversed as Oxford illustrates well. Nowadays, it is the council homes which have been improved – properly modernised and renovated – and Right to Buy homes often unmodernised as their owner occupiers or subsequent buy-to-let landlords are unable or unwilling to pay for renovation. With apologies to the residents who live there, Gipsy Lane is by some way the scruffiest ‘council estate’ I’ve seen – mainly because very few of its homes are now in council ownership and large swathes in the hands of private landlords.


Much of the detail on individual estates in Headington is drawn from the well-researched and informative local history website, Headington History and this page on the area’s newer estates.

(1) Lloyds Bank, ‘UK’s most and least affordable cities revealed’, 2 February 2019

(2) Prefab Museum, Map

(3) JM Mogey, Family and Neighbourhood: Two Studies in Oxford (Oxford University Press, 1956)

(4) On land availability, see CJ Day, Modern Oxford: a History of the City from 1771 (Reprinted from the Victoria County History of Oxford by Oxford County Libraries, 1983); on the 1949 proposals, see Alan Crosby, ‘Housing and Urban Renewal: Oxford 1918-1985’ in Kate Tiller and Giles Darkes (eds), An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire Record Society, ORS vol 67, 2010)

(5) Oxfordshire Villages, Berinsfield

(6) On Gipsy Lane, see Headington Neighbourhood Plan, Character Assessment: 8. Gipsy Lane Estate (ND); on the Council’s policies towards the private rental sector, see Oxford City Council, ‘Biggest Change to Private Rented Accommodation in a Decade’, 20th January 2020

(7) The first quotation is drawn from Mick Jaggard and Bob Price, ‘Active place-making – the Barton Park joint venture’, Town and Country Planning, vol 84, no 6, 2015 June/July; other details from David Lynch, ‘Eight new council houses rented out at Barton Park’, Oxford Daily Mail, 10 June 2020.

Council Housing in Oxford, Part I: ‘‘We don’t despise these people but …’



The Cutteslowe Walls in Oxford – built by developers in 1934 to separate their private estate from council housing next door – were infamous: a symbol of a contemporarily class-ridden society but also sadly a prejudice towards residents of public housing that has survived their demolition in 1959. This week’s post looks at that story and takes a broader, more nuanced look at the housing politics of interwar Oxford.

Cutteslowe Wall Aldrich Road

The Cutteslowe Wall seen from Aldrich Road on the council estate

Oxford was one of the fastest growing industrial cities in Britain between the wars. That takes us some way away from our usual image of the ‘city of dreaming spires’ (though they were to pay their part in this history) but the statistics are stark. Oxford’s population grew by 88 percent – from around 57,000 in 1921 to (with a significant border extension to absorb growing suburbs) 107,000 in 1941.

This breakneck growth was largely due to the rise of the local motor industry and allied trades. William Morris built his first car – the doubly eponymous Morris Oxford – in 1913; his workforce grew from 200 in 1919 to around 5000 from the mid-1920s. Pressed Steel, founded in 1926, employed similar numbers. The new trades provided almost a third of local jobs by the late 1930s when almost half Oxford’s insured male workforce were immigrants to the town, many from the local region but a significant number from the unemployment blackspot of south Wales. (1)

Cowley Works 1925

Morris’s Cowley works, 1925

This would affect the city’s politics in due course but it did so only slowly; for the time being the old order reigned. Oxford was a reformed corporation dating to 1835, a county borough from 1889, but its council retained university representation (nine councillors – three elected by convocation and six by college heads and senior bursars – and three aldermen) which persisted, incredibly, to 1974.

That said, it’s not clear that this affected the fundamentally conservative nature of the council: ‘Between 1918 and 1939 the distinction between Liberals and Conservatives on the council was said to have become almost nominal’. Against this, Labour representation – the first member in 1918, rising to 13 by 1939 in a council of 68 members – had little impact. (2)

Penson's Gardens St Ebbes Oxford History Centre

Penson’s Gardens, St Ebbes © Oxfordshire History Centre

Despite the depth of housing need and the prevalence of inner-city slum housing (St Ebbes was described as ‘a swamp converted into a cesspool’ as early as 1848), the Corporation was largely passive: (3)

Before 1914 undiluted laissez-faire predominated on Oxford City Council, in the field of housing as in other municipal activity. The council was notoriously unwilling to enforce sanitary improvements and impose building controls, and made almost no use of national legislation to deal with the worst unfit housing.

London Road council houses 1925

Headington’s new council housing, 1925

The First World War changed much, particularly in the field of housing. The first council homes in Oxford were actually built by Headington Rural District Council in 1920: 101 in total on London Road and Barton Road, designed by local architect James Wells and described by the Oxford Times as of ‘smart appearance, with their whitewashed fronts and red tiled roofs’. (Headington became an Urban District in 1927 but was incorporated into Oxford proper in 1929.) (4)

London Road SN

London Road council housing, 2017

But Oxford City Council could no longer afford to ignore local needs and national pressures though it did continue to follow its own path. In response to national directives leading to the 1919 Housing Act, the Council initially proposed to build 400 homes; in the event just 215 were completed by 1922.

These first estates were built at the fringes of the city on Iffley Road and Cowley Road, of high quality and architect-designed with ‘steeply gabled roofs and careful Arts and Crafts detailing [showing] a strong debt to the work of Parker and Unwin at Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb’. Their rents, though, were among the highest in the country as, perversely, the Council rejected Treasury funding, preferring to finance the schemes from its housing revenue account. (5)

It relented in 1924 when it acquired powers to borrow but the high standards remained as did the high rents. The latter were, apparently, a deliberate choice, intended to confine council homes to the better-off and more ‘respectable’ working class and allowing the worse-off to move from city slums to the slightly superior homes vacated by the new council tenants – the ‘filtering-up’ theory which was influential before the First World War.

South Park Estate, Oxford

An early view of the South Park Estate

The new, generously-sized, neo-Georgian-style homes were designed by Kellett Ablett who joined the City Engineer’s Department in 1925. (He went on to become Chief Housing Architect for Nottingham City Council and Chief Architect to Hemel Hempstead New Town.)  The South Park Estate and Morrell Avenue in particular, built between 1929 and 1931 on Headington Hill, is the showpiece, built on land formerly owned by the locally prominent brewing family; ‘as good as any of this kind built in England at the time’, according to Geoffrey Tyack.

Morrell Avenue, South Park Estate, Oxford

An early image of Morrell Avenue

That quality is first apparent in the streetscape – a curving, tree-lined road with verges separating road and footpath. It’s seen in the semi-detached and terraced homes in their brick banding, clay tiling and classical pilastered doorcases amongst other careful detailing.  Similar homes of the same quality and design can be found in the earlier housing of the nearby Gipsy Lane Estate.

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Headington Road, Gipsy Lane Estate

After a slow start, the Council had built 1647 homes between 1923 and 1930, its room for manoeuvre hampered by the city’s growth and pressure on land and the reluctance of Oxford colleges to sell land for public housing. The problem of slum housing – only 129 houses had been demolished by 1929 – and the rehousing of its residents remained, however.

1930 – the year of the Greenwood Housing Act targeting slum clearance – marked a sharp turn nationally and locally. By 1939, the Council had cleared 872 slum houses, most of them in St Ebbes and there were plans for the demolition of almost another 600 St Ebbes’ homes and their replacement by working-class flats.

Croft Road New Marston 1935Des Blenkinsopp

Croft Road, New Marston. The houses bear a plaque marking their date of construction, 1935 © Des Blenkinsopp and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The Council built several hundred more council homes in the 1930s (others were acquired through the expansion of its borders), principally on new estates in a constellation around the city fringes: Wolvercote to the north, New Hinksey to the south, and New Marston to the east.

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Abingdon Road, New Hinksey

Some were built to previously high standards, as seen above in the plans and finished housing on Abingdon Road but most, while solid, decent homes were notably plainer and smaller than their predecessors. This reflected the changing and less generous subsidy regime over the interwar period and a belief that the so-called slum working class might be housed more cheaply.  The contrast can also be seen clearly in the later housing built on the Gipsy Lane Estate.

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Later housing on the Gipsy Lane Estate

That prejudice lay behind one of the great causes célèbres of interwar Oxford – the Cutteslowe Walls.  The Council had bought agricultural land for housing in Summertown in the 1920s. The first Cutteslowe Estate was built between 1931 and 1932. Work on the second began in August 1933. Meanwhile, the city had sold part of the land to private developers, the Urban Housing Company.  Through some apparent miscommunication, Aldrich and Wolsey Roads on the new council estate joined up with their private estate counterparts. (7)

The Company alleged council tenants were responsible for vandalism on the private estate. It also claimed that the rehousing of former slum-dwellers on the estate breached an undertaking given by the Council that it wouldn’t be used for this purpose. Whatever the (not so) niceties, it’s not hard to see the naked class prejudice and commercial interest that lay behind the Company’s supposed grievances. It erected two-metre high, spiked walls – separating the council homes from their private equivalents – across the connecting streets in December 1934. They forced a 600-metre detour for council estate residents trying to reach the main road.

Cutteslowe Walls demo 11 May 1935

Protest, May 1935

This local class war provided an obvious opportunity for the city’s Communists led by Abe Lazarus but the Party’s attempt to lead local residents in the demolition of the walls in May 1935 was thwarted by the police and, in the words of another Oxford communist, the capitulation of ‘certain legalist members of the [tenants’] committee’. (8)

In this fight, however, the City Council was on the right side of history.  They wanted the walls down and, having pursued various legal avenues, they ended up taking what turned out to be their own form of direct action in June 1938 when Council workmen bulldozed both walls. A back and forth ensued between the workmen of both parties while Urban Estate residents looked on with some concern, as reported by the Daily Herald: (9)

‘We don’t despise these people’ said a Carlton-road dweller, ‘but …’ – and a finger was pointed at three cheerful urchins climbing a tree.

‘It is not that we look down on them’, said another, ‘but we live a different life from theirs’.

The High Court found the Council to have acted unlawfully and the walls were duly reinstated. And amazingly there they remained, despite a few mishaps, until demolished on 9 March 1959 – a sign of changing times perhaps but achieved by the legal manoeuvre of the Council buying the land on which they stood.

Cutteslowe Wall demolished

The wall demolished, March 1959

Class divides were not always so clear-cut. Oxford City Council had built over 2000 houses since the war; private developers around 7000.  We’ve seen an intra-class division operating within council housing – between the superior housing designed for a more ‘respectable’ working class in the 1920s and that provided for displaced slum-dwellers in the 1930s. Some of the new private housing would have been occupied by a more affluent working class too, notably the relatively well-paid car workers.

We’ll follow the post-war story of class and housing in Oxford in next week’s post.


I’ve written previously about a similar wall erected on the Downham Estate, south London, which stood between 1926 and 1950.

Surprisingly, the class divide reared its ugly head again in Oxford in 2018 when the City Council repaved ‘posh’ Wentworth Road and halted its resurfacing as it became Aldrich Road on the council estate at precisely the point where the wall had previously stood. At least one local saw this as ‘Class War’ and expressed the view in spray paint. The Council claimed it was a purely pragmatic decision based on need.

There’s been a fair amount written on the Cutteslowe Walls, notably Peter Collison, The Cutteslowe Walls: A Study in Social Class (Faber and Faber, 1963). Apart from the sources listed below, the Past Tense blog provides an interesting perspective in this post: Class Walls – Cutteslowe, Downham and roadworks.


Much of the detail on individual estates in Headington is drawn from the well-researched and informative local history website, Headington History and this page on the area’s newer estates.

(1) Eleanor Chance, Christina Colvin, Janet Cooper, CJ Day, TG Hassall, Mary Jessup and Nesta Selwyn, ‘Modern Oxford’, in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford, ed. Alan Crossley and C R Elrington (Victoria County History, 1979)

(2) CJ Day, Modern Oxford: a History of the City from 1771 (Reprinted from the Victoria County History of Oxford by Oxford County Libraries, 1983)

(3) Alan Crosby, ‘Housing and Urban Renewal: Oxford 1918-1985’ in Kate Tiller and Giles Darkes (eds), An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire Record Society, ORS vol 67, 2010)

(4) Stephanie Jenkins, Headington history: Miscellaneous

(5) The quotation is from Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998); the reference to funding from Crosby, ‘Housing and Urban Renewal: Oxford 1918-1985’

(6) Oxford City Council, Oxford Preservation Trust and English Heritage, Our East Oxford:  A Character Statement and Heritage Asset Register Survey for East Oxford (October 2014)

(7) Much of the detail here is drawn from Brian Robert Marshall, Cutteslowe Walls

(8) Duncan Bowie, Reform and Revolt in the City of Dreaming Spires (University of Westminster Press, 2018)

(9) ‘Rival Gangs in Wall Battle’, Daily Herald, June 9 1938.

Rêves Municipales: the Paris region’s tribute to the Garden Cities movement

It’s Bastille Day an appropriate occasion for Municipal Dreams to travel to France. Today, I’m very pleased to feature this fine guest post by Martin Crookston. Martin is the author of Garden Cities of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (Routledge, 2016) which featured in my Guardian Top Ten list of books on council housing.  He is a former partner at the Llewelyn-Davies planning consultancy and member of Richard Rogers’ Urban Task Force. 

Dotted around the immediate hinterland of the City of Paris – the ‘Petite Couronne’ – are a dozen « cités-jardins »: garden suburbs inspired by the British Garden City movement. They are both fascinating as municipally-built social housing, and unexpected – certainly to most of us, used as we are to thinking of the Parisian banlieue as an invariate sea of towers and slabs, the Grands Ensembles, of the sort you pass at Sarcelles on the final Eurostar approach to the Gare du Nord.

The cités-jardins are a product of a specific period, and a specific initiative: the interwar years, and the programme run by the Office Publique d’Habitations à Bon Marché de la Seine (OPHBM, founded in 1914) under the leadership of Henri Sellier. He argued for ‘social urbanism’ and for ‘a rational development of the suburbs, seeking to greatly reduce, for the working class, the burdensome consequences of urban overpopulation’.

Unlike in Britain, however, they did not become the basic model for thousands of housing estates nationwide: they rather sank into oblivion, though mostly surviving and now being rather more appreciated for their heritage value than ever before.  We’ll do a brief tour of some of them here – starting with one that is currently in the news because of a current threat to its continued existence in its present form.

La Butte Rouge (bus 195 from Robinson RER) is reminiscent of Roehampton in one respect at least: it’s miles from anywhere in the southwestern suburbs, a bus ride from the railhead, up against the huge Verrières forest.

It was built in three main phases (1931-35, 1949-50, 1960-65), to total nearly 4,000 homes on a 70-hectare site: the largest of the cités-jardins. The urban and landscape design was clearly carefully thought out by architect Joseph Bassompierre’s team, with main avenues interlacing winding walkways through a green setting of communal and private gardens. It was also a pioneering ‘eco-suburb’, thanks to a recycling /heating system and an early form of sustainable urban drainage (SUDS). Architecturally, it’s a sort of condensed history of French social housing: from brick to RC, and from individual homes and little blocks to 1960s slabs.

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La Butte Rouge: the main spine, Avenue Albert Thomas

Since 2012, though, it’s been threatened by a familiar (to Britain) story – the local authority of Chatenay-Malabry and ANRU (Agence nationale de rénovation urbaine) want to recast the estate, which currently accounts for 56 percent of the municipality’s social housing, as (yes, inevitably) a more mixed housing offer matching their vision for the area’s future. ‘Sauvons la Butte Rouge’ and the Association Citoyens Unis pour Châtenay-Malabry argue that this is pointless in housing terms – apart from needing better sound insulation, their homes are fine – and an act of vandalism in terms of architectural heritage, since the options being studied only guarantee retention of 20 percent of the original buildings.

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‘Sauvons la Butte Rouge’ explain their concerns

They have been joined by concerned architects in the region – the Ordre des architectes d’Ile-de-France – and the eminent historian Jean-Louis Cohen at a heritage conference in April 2019; and perhaps more importantly by the prefects of the Hauts-de-Seine department and the Ile de France region, who have notified the municipality that ‘it seems to us that the demolition of a significant number of this heritage ensemble should be reviewed downwards’.  A familiar stand-off …

La Butte Rouge was actually one of the later starts in the OPHBM programme.  This had begun with a bang in 1921 in five locations, one of which was the suburb of Suresnes, where Sellier was the (Socialist) mayor from 1919 to 1941, and where he had already been quietly buying land for the OPHBM during the war.

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Henri Sellier, commemorated in the MUS at Suresnes

Suresnes (T2 tramway from La Défense) is out to the west, just across the Seine from the Bois de Boulogne. Wikipedia says that of all of them « la plus emblématique est la cité-jardins de Suresnes » but this must be because it’s so intimately associated with Sellier: its physical form is not very ‘garden suburb’, and its total of 3000 homes is dominated by apartment blocks rather than individual houses (‘pavillons’ – 170 of them).

19.1 Cite-jardins, Jean Jaures & Judy

Suresnes: Place Jean-Jaurès (and there indeed he is)

The style is a sober municipal-block look, the layout more like the German Siedlungen with their open mansion-block form, than Hampstead or Welwyn; though with, for sure, much more garden space – both private and communal – than usual in French social housing. It still reflects the Sellier vision: architectural coherence, decent homes for workers, and high-quality public services.

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Suresnes: rare ‘pavillons’

Sellier’s programme

Henri Sellier expanded dramatically from his Suresnes base both organisationally – his OPHBM built all over the Seine départment over the next twenty years – and also politically: he was elected as a senator for Seine 1935-43, was health minister in Léon Blum’s great Popular Front government (1936), and ended his days in disgrace with the Vichy government and with a quotation from Robespierre on his office wall: ‘The hatred of the people’s enemies is the reward of the good citizen’.

The programme was in three main waves. In 1921 they began work on Suresnes itself, Arcueil in the south, Drancy in the east, Stains in the north, and Asnières a little downstream of Suresnes in the northwest industrial suburbs. Later in the twenties came Gennevilliers (1923), Le Plessis-Robinson (1924; another one where you could be in Kilmacolm, with its rendered facades and neat privet hedges) and Pré St Gervais (1927); in the thirties, Champigny and Butte Rouge (both 1931) and finally Vitry in 1935. These are dotted about the eastern and southern suburbs.

At Stains (bus 253 from St-Denis-Université metro), north about 10km from the city centre, we strike garden-suburb gold. Built between 1921 and 1927, it contains 1676 units: 456 houses, and 19 blocks of 4four or five floors. Practically unchanged since its creation (though with a very recent renovation), its heritage value was recognised in 1976 when it was listed. The departmental website describes it as ‘Directement inspirée par les réalisations britanniques et le mythe du « cottage »’, planned as picturesque village streets with winding roads and individual houses in a vernacular style with steep roofs and high chimneys. The ‘mythe du cottage’ is certainly realised as if we were in outer London. A long-standing tenant there told me that when she was bringing up her kids just outside the garden suburb, she used to say to them ‘come on, let’s go for a walk in England’.

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Stains: “Allons nous promener en Angleterre”

And not just the buildings: the layout too. If you know East London’s 1920s Becontree estate, there’s a shudder of recognition as you come along rue Rolland, and there’s a short cul-de-sac of the sort known in Becontree as a ‘banjo’.

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rue Rolland, Stains: echos of Becontree

Arcueil, back south again (RER B Arcueil-Cachan) to the cité-jardins de l’Aqueduc, only about 7 km south of central Paris, alongside the Aqueduc de la Vanne, a dramatic sweep of 19th century engineering on the alignment of its Renaissance and Roman predecessors.  If Stains is England, Arcueil is Scotland.  The houses are plainer than in Stains, and often rendered like Scots estates.

Arcueil 11 SN

Cité-jardins de l’Aqueduc: if Stains is England, Arcueil is Scotland

The original scheme, by the architect Maurice Payret-Dortail, was for 228 houses in groups of two to six, and they are at the core of the listing in the « Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel ». It has undergone rather more modification since it was built, and the layout is actually less coherent than Stains, both as layout and in individual groupings, and so less legible as you walk around. But it has one borrowing from the Garden Suburb – little back lanes – which must be great if you’re 7 or 8 (as very large numbers of its denizens seem to be).  I liked it: it seemed comfortable, mixed (socially and ethnically) and somehow familiar.

These three suburbs, and the rest of the Sellier interwar programme, are by no means all of the housing of this general type around Paris. The website of the Ile de France regional association of cités-jardins has a map on its website showing about sixty locations; they’re quite a mixture of forms, settings and target markets (both initial target market, and who now lives there).

In Paris

In Paris-Ville – the city proper, within the péripherique – the Sellier programme didn’t operate; presumably land was already too expensive, and in too short supply, for the lower density intrinsic to the garden suburb ‘product’.  What there is in the city itself is a collection of interesting contemporary, and earlier, schemes aimed at housing the working class before the big push by public authorities. Less of a trek out into the beyond, they include La Campagne à Paris, in the 20th arrondissement near the Porte de Bagnolet, built by a ‘Société anonyme co-opérative à personnel et capital variables d’habitations à bon marché’ –  at the outset, 60 percent of the co-operators were in manual occupations, and even today their descendants live alongside newer incomers attracted by the village atmosphere, perched above the traffic of the Porte and the boulevards des maréchaux.

Similarly the tight cluster of pretty terraces (called ‘Villas’, like the Villa du Progrès, Villa Emile Loubet, etc) off rue de Mouzaïa in the 19th (metro Danube), developed by the Societe anonyme des terrains et habitations à bon marché from 1899 on. This was not a philanthropic operation: it built small workers’ homes, with tiny gardens, using public loan funding, over a long period stretching up till the end of the thirties. Quirkiest of the lot is la Petite Alsace in the south side’s Butte aux Cailles (13th arr., metro Corvisart), 40 individual houses around a court, designed by Jean Walter in 1912 in a half-timbered style which wasn’t drawn from Letchworth but from Alsace – for the Habitation Familiale group founded by the priest Abbé Viollet.

La Petite Alsace

Opening day at La Petite Alsace, 1912

Gentrification has bitten deep into all three since the 1980s, and many houses have been added to, but all still retain a unity and some slight flavour of the Paris of a century ago. As for the suburban cités-jardins, even today you can feel some resonance of the purpose, and the feel, of Sellier’s ‘social urbanism’ of a century ago. They’re recognised as a heritage asset – not just by ‘le Patrimoine’, but by proud local residents too. As Michelin might say: “vaut le détour”!


Région Ile de France, Les cités-jardins d’Ile-de-France: une certaine idée du bonheur (Lieux-Dits, 2018); and Exhibition Suresnes MUS 2018

Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel

Association Régionale des Cités-Jardins de L’Ile-de-France Carte des cités-jardins d’Île-de-France

Henri Sellier, Les banlieues urbaines et la réorganisation administrative du département de la Seine, avec préface de Albert Thomas (M Rivière et cie, Paris 1920)

Wikipédia entries for Suresnes and Henri Sellier

Comité départemental du tourisme de Seine-Saint-Denis, Mettre les villes à la campagne avec les premières cités-jardins (2012)

Promenades Urbaines Promenade urbaine du samedi 19 octobre 2019 La cité-jardin de la Butte Rouge à Chatenay-Malabry   

Marjorie Lenhardt, ‘Châtenay-Malabry: seuls 20 % de la Butte Rouge sont sûrs d’être conservés’, Le Parisien, 4 July 2019

Charles-Edouard Ama Koffi, ‘Châtenay-Malabry: le maire persiste dans son projet de démolition à la Butte-Rouge’, Le Parisien, 18 December 2019

Julie Roland, ‘La Butte Rouge: d’un grand Paris social au grand Paris immobilier’, Chroniques d’architecture, 21 May 2019

Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, Paris Mosaique (Calmann-Lévy, 2001)

Amina Sellali, ‘Quartier Mouzaïa’ in Virginie Grandval and Isabelle Monserrat Farguel (eds), Hameux, villas et cités de Paris (AAVP, 1998)

La Petite Alsace, Le piéton de Paris  (April 2010)

Speke, Liverpool, Part II: Reflections on Time Spent


I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Tom, a past resident of Speke. It’s a follow-up to his earlier article, Growing up on the Speke Estate, Liverpool: a personal perspective, which, with almost 13,000 views, has been one of the most read and, in some ways, most controversial of the posts featured in this blog. The article reflects a personal experience and interpretation but seems to me an important contribution to our understanding of one of the country’s most significant ‘peripheral estates’. 

In August 2017, I submitted a posting to Municipal Dreams in response to two MD articles on the Liverpool suburb of Speke in April and May 2017.

As stated in the introduction to my posting, it was a personal perspective on my time spent growing up in Speke, from 1954 (aged 2) to 1974, giving my views on the Speke estate and what I perceived as its shortcomings. I spoke for myself alone but to judge from the volume of comments, I had resonated, not to say touched a nerve, with many current and former residents. My thanks to all who contributed.

Some agreed with my bleak analysis, but several comments took a contrary view. An increasing number of people had fond memories of Speke and disagreed with my findings. I found it no coincidence that most of those who had fond memories of Speke had lived in the more established, pre-war built part of the estate.

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Aerial view showing west end of Speke, looking south c. 1970 © Liverpool Echo

The photograph above shows the first section of the estate to be built, pre-1939. Centre left are The Crescent shops, now the site of Bargain Booze. The rough land to the right is the site of the demolished, post-war ‘pre-fabs’ (temporary, wooden, pre-fabricated housing), now the site of the Dymchurch Estate.

Confusingly for a pre-estate hamlet of only ‘400 souls’, old Speke was in two locations. One part was on the site of The Crescent shops, with Speke Town proper a short way to the west, under what is now the junction of Speke Hall Avenue and Speke Boulevard, approximately Dobbies’ car park. (1)

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North Central Speke (looking north) with newly constructed Ford Motor car factory top of picture. Aero films A108780 c. 1963 © Liverpool Record Office

The aerial photograph above shows the part of Speke of my teenage years in the 1960s. By the 1990s, half of what you see would no longer exist. The schools would be demolished, along with all the low-rise flats, centre left. The new Morrisons shopping precinct would replace the park and flats, top left. The road between the estate and the factory, Speke Boulevard (still referred to as Ford’s Road), eventually would be hidden behind a forest of planted bushes and trees.

The sprawling car factory of Fords (now Jaguar/Land Rover) replaced the 1950s’ farmland of my childhood years. It was in my teenage years that I found reasons to leave Speke and couldn’t wait to move out. It wasn’t the absence of childhood memories but the restricting isolation: anything I wanted to do was a bus ride away.

Perceptions differ, and I realise that some people may not have felt so isolated. My intention, then and now, is not to persuade people one way or the other but to confront what I perceived as problems in Speke’s construction: namely, Speke as a post-Second World War answer to a pre-Second World War problem.

The story of the Speke estate cannot be written without reference to the 1939-1945, Second World War: Speke’s design and planning was pre-war but its main construction was post-war. This had consequences.

Speke as a housing estate was planned and designed in the 1930s, but the full story of its origin dates back to Liverpool’s housing problems of the 1800s, if not earlier.

Figure 1. Liverpool District Total Population (2)

3 Figure 1

This one graph illustrates Liverpool’s population totals more eloquently than any page of statistics. In the century 1800 to 1900, Liverpool experienced a precipitous, seven-fold population increase, culminating in a 1930s’ peak of over 850,000 inhabitants, followed by an equally precipitous population decline to the year 2000.

The nineteenth-century growth in Liverpool was double the national average for England and Wales. The total population for England and Wales in 1801 was 8.87 million. The 1901 census gave a population of 32,526,075: approximately a three and a half-fold increase.

Liverpool’s population growth was attributable to three main factors: the Industrial Revolution, its expansion as a port to cater for the Lancashire cotton industry, and the influx of the Irish. These factors may not be exclusive but the total population figures speak for themselves.

In a post-Irish potato famine, twenty-year period from 1860 to 1880, there was a rapid population increase of 250,000 on an existing total of 400,000: an increase that inevitably would have led to severe overcrowding. This was followed in the 1890s by another thirty-year growth spurt of nearly 200,000, taking Liverpool to its peak 1931 population total of 855,688. (3)

the Irish population of Liverpool, always large, was enormously increased by the inrush of immigrants after the Potato Famine of 1845–9; over 90,000 entered the town in the first three months of 1846, and nearly 300,000 in the twelve months following July 1847. Most of these subsequently emigrated to America, but many thousands, unable to find the passage money, remained to swell the misery of Liverpool slums.  

By the 1930s, Liverpool’s housing planners were confronting the inevitable: the city population was approaching, if not already at, critical density. (4)

Behold the ‘Garden City Movement’; Sir Ebenezer Howard’s answer to overcrowded, city-centre slums. Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), published a book in 1898, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Reform, reprinted in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow, in which he detailed his philosophy for healthy urban living. (5)

Ebenezer Howard had no training in town planning, nor did he claim to have. His vision for urban living owed more to his Victorian sense of civic duty and the concept of philanthropic housing. The central tenet of Howard’s thinking was that city people would prefer to live surrounded by countryside and that purpose-built, self-contained satellite towns would fulfil the needs of both city and country. This ideology was influential for generations and produced Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities among others.

In 1930s’ Liverpool, the Garden City Movement found an advocate in Lancelot Keay, Liverpool Director of Housing and a knighthood for his efforts. A new development was planned for Speke, as a ‘satellite town’, ‘when complete’, for ‘22,000 people’. Old Speke, a farming community for a thousand years, would be erased from history. (6)

Figure 2. To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Reform (1898) – Ebenezer Howard

4 Figure 2 Howard

‘Group of Slumless, Smokeless Cities’ © Town and Country Planning Association

‘Group of Slumless, Smokeless Cities’ is a collection of circles on a hexagonal frame depicting a ‘central city’, with a proposed population of 58,000, surrounded by six smaller circles, two of which are for lesser populations of 32,000 each. The other circles are for ‘allotments’ and unspecified, potential population centres.

Six sections of land, or ‘wards’, between the inner and outer circles, are designated as follows; ‘New Forests, Large Farms, Reservoir and Waterfall, Insane Asylum, Home for Inebriates, and Home for Waifs’. Make of that what you will.

The six smaller circles in the Howard plan were the solutions to Sir Ebenezer’s aversion to sprawling suburban metropolises. Howard reasoned that once a city had reached a given capacity, then any increase should be accommodated in self-contained satellite towns; that is, the smaller circles surrounding the larger central circle but set within their own countryside.

The origin of the Speke estate was as one such ‘self-contained satellite town’.

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Speke Estate, Scheme No 1, Proposed Development, Sept 1936 © Liverpool Record Office

This September 1936 drawing authorised by Keay is the first in a series of plans, culminating in Speke’s eventual development. Speke ‘Scheme No 1’ displays all the hallmarks of a Howard ‘satellite town’. It’s not quite circular but satellite towns were never intended to be circular, that was only diagrammatic.

Speke ‘Scheme No 1’ exhibits the requisite, satellite town elements of a 50-yards wide perimeter dual carriageway with designated bus stops, and a 100-yards-wide central main boulevard with grass median. The interior is a gridiron of repeated rectangular blocks. The flat terrain of South Liverpool complemented the Howard ideal: no undue changes in elevation to interfere with the planned uniformity.

At the left of the central boulevard by the upside down ‘y’, is the pre-existing Church of All Saints, built in 1872-5. Despite its age and link to old Speke, the church was deemed, ‘not of such importance as to be made the focal point of the new development’, and subsequent plans were amended so that the church was relegated to Speke’s edge.

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Speke Estate preliminary layout March 1937 © Liverpool Record Office

This ‘preliminary layout’ above, dated March 1937, six months after the September 1936 ‘Scheme No 1’ plan, veers away from the circular design and begins to approximate the finished layout of the estate. The original perimeter road has morphed into a ‘New Arterial Road’ (now known as Speke Boulevard), taking traffic away from Liverpool, on the left, to Widnes, right.

The left and middle circles on the New Arterial Road represent roundabout junctions with Speke Hall Avenue and Western Avenue respectively and locate approximately with the top two roundabouts on the September 1936 plan. The roundabouts have long gone but the junctions still exist.

The third right-hand circle on the New Arterial Road was intended as a roundabout junction with Eastern Avenue but this never materialised. Top of the page, crossing the map from east to west, is a railway line that curves up at the left-hand edge as it heads off north to Liverpool centre, seven miles away. North of the Western Avenue roundabout, a road crosses the railway line at Speke Station, a station that had closed only in 1930 and easily could have been reopened. (7)

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Speke Estate preliminary layout March 1937 © Liverpool Record Office

Another preliminary layout, also from March 1937, shows the estate extending eastwards: over a mile long, and half a mile wide. From the two March 1937 plans, there are a number of features redolent of Garden City thinking which would not make it to the final August 1937 layout. The huge interior roundabouts, in Western and Eastern Avenues, joined by the equally wide Central Avenue/Central Way, would be replaced by more modest, utilitarian affairs.

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Speke Estate preliminary layout Aug 1937 © Liverpool Record Office

This August 1937 layout, less than a year after the ‘Garden City’ inspired original plan, is a good approximation to the size and shape of the post-war, 1950s estate. The Western, Eastern and Central Avenues, so dominant on earlier plans, are now reduced to much more moderate scales. The New Arterial Road (Speke Boulevard) only made it as far as the middle circle, Western Avenue, and would not extend eastwards until the Fords car factory was built in the early 1960s. The Eastern Avenue connection was never built.

The pre-Second World War section of the estate, the Western Avenue end, adhered to some of the pre-estate road system and incorporated what it could of old Speke.  Post-war sections of central and eastern Speke weren’t concerned with such details: not one tree or hedgerow line remained to link the estate to old Speke’s thousand-year farming history.

The original gridiron format dominates the central section with only the far eastern end showing any deviation from rectangular sub-divisions. The large circular road system in the centre of the plan would be redesigned to form an east-west rectangle incorporating The Parade, the main shopping precinct (demolished in the early 1990s).

Below this circular system, a road runs south from the estate to a promenade on the River Mersey. This shoreline extravaganza, a grand example of pre-war Garden City idealism, didn’t make it to post-war austerity.

In 1950s’ Britain, the schoolboy mantra was that ‘England had won the war’. Germany was indeed defeated but that defeat came at a cost, and that cost was America’s involvement. The price of America’s involvement was ‘Lend Lease’, a programme in which Britain was obliged to sell off its overseas assets. At war’s end, Britain no longer had an income to rely on. ‘England’ had ‘won’ the war, but Britain was bankrupt. (8)

On the post-war Speke estate, houses were built, but everything else was on hold; schools, shops, churches, libraries, civic buildings, factories, community centres, etc.

9 Speke City Architect SN

Speke: City Architect’s Department JL Berbiers, July 1946 (Looking NW) © Liverpool Record Office

This magnificent 1946 aerial perspective drawing by JL Berbiers shows the estate as it soon would become in the 1950s. Drawn one year after the war, it is noticeable for its post-war pragmatism of (imagined) factories on the outskirts versus pre-war optimism of (absent) ludicrously wide boulevards in the interior.

The New Arterial Road/Speke Boulevard can be made out just north of the estate (above), along with two roundabout junctions. The right hand, Eastern Avenue junction was never built, leaving the left Western Avenue junction as the main entry and exit point, connecting the whole estate to Liverpool City centre and beyond.

10 eaw047295 Speke Industrial Estate and environs 1952

Speke Industrial Estate and environs, 1952 (EAW047295) © Britain from Above.  Looking northwest, the Speke Estate lies to the bottom left.

Centre frame in the image above is the pre-1946 constructed Western Avenue/Speke Boulevard roundabout, with Western Avenue running to the left (south) and Speke Boulevard, a single carriageway at this time, running to the top left (west). The road running to the top right (north) is Woodend Avenue which crosses the railway line at Speke station, half a mile from the estate.

From the outset, this one junction would be the main entry and exit point for the whole estate which had a peak population of 26,000. (9)  The relocated Liverpool Airport in the 1980s took traffic westwards to the Speke Hall Avenue roundabout, just visible top left. The new shopping precinct in the 1990s gave Speke an extra access point east of Western Avenue but all the traffic from Speke converged on Speke Boulevard, the main arterial route from Liverpool to points south and east.

In Figure 2 above, Ebenezer Howard’s inclusion of Inter-Municipal Canals and Railways was quaint 19th century utopianism but from his plans, and writings it is clear that Howard understood one aspect of urban living: transport links.

In his compulsive manner, Howard detailed distances and times travelled by various means of transport. He understood that satellite towns had to be interconnected with each other and the main central city.  ‘Satellite’ did not equate with isolated.

In the August 1937 preliminary, but eventual, layout of Speke (above), Keay approved the plan that resulted in Speke having only one main exit and entry point at Western Avenue/Speke Boulevard.

11 Speke Boulevard buses

Speke Boulevard, looking west, 1950s  ©

The photograph above shows Speke Boulevard looking west as an original single lane, viewed from the Western Avenue roundabout: Speke estate left, Evans Medical Ltd, right.

Speke Boulevard initially stopped at the Western Avenue roundabout, and wouldn’t continue eastwards until the Ford Motor car plant was built in the early 1960s: the Eastern Avenue junction was never built. Additionally, the estate, on average, is over a mile away from Speke railway station, a station that had closed only recently but would have connected Speke with Liverpool City centre. Speke’s infrastructure was lacking from the day the estate was built.

In the half-century between the 1902 reprint of Ebenezer Howard’s book and the 1950s’ construction of the Speke estate, Britain had endured two world wars and the Great Depression of the 1920s/30s.

Expectations had moved on from such adversities but the blueprint for the creation of the post-WW2 Speke estate was a remnant of nineteenth-century utopianism. Lancelot Keay had failed to adapt his housing policy to the changing anticipations of a post-war world. Keay was assumptive in thinking that nineteenth-century idealism would transpose into the twentieth century. The Speke of Keay’s approval was not a ‘self-contained satellite town’ in the countryside: it was an isolated council housing estate set in farmland.

The ‘self-contained’ requirements of employment and leisure were slow to appear, if at all. Many thousands of people needed to work and socialise on an estate that barely catered for either. Initially there weren’t even any public houses in Speke: Liverpool Corporation excluded them from the estate. Breweries had to build their pubs on the outside of the perimeter road, namely The Fox, The Pegasus and The Dove & Olive Branch. The Pegasus and The Dove & Olive Branch have since been demolished.

The cottage industries that Howard contemplated in his 1902 plans were insufficient for twentieth-century needs. An uprooted labour force, transposed from the city centre to a satellite estate with poor transport links, needed a large workforce employer in close proximity. Speke would have to wait until 1963 for the Ford Motor car plant to be built: the new factory simultaneously eradicating a quarter of the surrounding ‘countryside’.

In that same year, 1963, Harold Wilson (Prime Minister 1964-1970) gave his ‘white heat of technology’ speech, in which he warned that to prosper, a ‘new Britain’ would need to be forged in the ‘white heat’ of scientific revolution. (10) Speke would struggle to find its relevance in the second half of the twentieth century.  Speke’s failings were, and are, its isolation. The Speke estate was built in the wrong place.

The author of the Pevsner Architectural Guide, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest’ is blunt in his assessment:

But by the 1960s it was clear that Keay’s ‘adventure’ had failed. Although he claimed Speke as a prototype New Town, in reality, it was an isolated, working-class suburb. There was no private housing, no trams (prohibited across runway approaches) [tram routes ended at Garston], the railway station never opened, and even the scaled-down shopping and public amenities were not completed until the 1960s.

The writing continues, in uncomplimentary style: ‘Speke is a vast housing estate of great monotony, so exploration is only for the committed’. (11)  

This book was published in 2006. One can only assume that the writer of such condescension was not acquainted with Speke of the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s. He would have had a fuller understanding of the term, ‘great monotony’.

Central Way SN

Ganworth Road (looking north), April 1953 (to the left) and Central Way looking east, April 1953. © Liverpool Record Office

The photographs above of Speke’s signature low-rise blocks of flats were taken in 1953 from the same corner, looking north and east. Identical blocks of flats occupied huge swathes of central Speke. Of 6000 dwellings in Speke, 1270 were flats.(9) Built in the 1950s, virtually all the flats would be demolished by the 1980s.

Speke residents of the past thirty years or so may not realise that early Speke was as devoid of trees as the photographs above show. The ‘garden’ in Garden City was lost in construction. Speke was an island of buildings in a sea of farmland. There were pockets of woodland outside the estate but Central and Eastern Speke were barren.

I am the same age as the post-war estate, and spent the 1960s trying to equate teenage life with Speke’s impoverished isolation. Time spent has granted me every entitlement to be critical of the failings in Speke’s construction as I saw them.

Some people came to terms with Speke and happily remain there. I wish them well. I didn’t, and left. Speke and I failed to bond in my teenage years. Yes, my childhood was idyllic, playing in surrounding farms and woodland but adolescence uncovered Speke’s deficiencies.

The requirements for Speke as a ‘self-contained satellite town’ surrounded by countryside were never met: circumstances dictated otherwise. Speke defaulted to a residential island, set in a sea of encroaching industry. The farmlands surrounding Speke, ‘some of the best wheat growing land in the hundred’, (12) were replaced by factories and distribution warehouses. The need for local employment replaced the given of countryside. Garden City ideology gave way to economic necessity and the countryside succumbed to industrial development.

An isolated Speke is mutating into a Dormitory Estate, a sleepy, detached suburb for Liverpool commuters lucky enough to have found inexpensive property within the city limits. Developers have seized upon defunct school playing fields to be converted into mini-housing estates: houses and plot sizes considerably smaller than neighbouring original properties but one and a half times the asking price.

The last time I visited Speke, I flew into Manchester Airport (the runway at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport isn’t long enough for transatlantic flights), walked to the connecting railway station, and took a train to Liverpool South Parkway. At South Parkway I waited an hour for a bus to Speke (Morrisons): two of the displayed twenty-minute service simply failed to turn up. I enquired at ‘Information’, only to be told that they were a railway station and weren’t responsible for bus schedules. Some things haven’t changed in seventy years: Speke is still an end of the road housing estate with poor transport links.

The ‘New Arterial Road’, Speke Boulevard, does ‘connect’ with Speke, but it takes people past, and away from the estate. No one drives through Speke, they never did. Post-1980s, there are so many planted trees and bushes on Speke Boulevard that people driving past don’t see the estate or even know it’s there.

Figure 3. Proposed Eastern Access Transport Corridor (2018)  

13 Proposed Eastern Access

Speke Estate with the airport runway, south © Liverpool John Lennon Airport Master Plan to 2050

The heavy line in the map above is Speke Boulevard, locally Ford’s Road but officially the A561. The blue line is the proposed Eastern Access Transport Corridor connecting the A561 with the airport. A to B would be a new road with the remainder a rebuild of the existing Hale Road. The blue area is Green Belt farmland.

The Eastern Access Transport Corridor map is taken from the 2017 Consultation Draft of the Liverpool John Lennon Airport Master Plan to 2050. This proposed corridor will be primarily an airport link road with the A561 but would serve a double function, alleviating the commercial traffic congestion on Speke Boulevard from the Estuary Business Park, west of the estate.

This intended airport relief road is only one of several ‘improvements’ sought for the airport by owners Peel Holdings. The Peel Holdings’ Master Plan for the airport proposes an extended runway for long-haul flights, double the passenger handling to 11 million per annum by 2050, and ‘to grow cargo throughput by 20,000–25,000 tonnes per annum over the period of the master plan’. ‘Up to 20 percent of revenue on a long-haul service can be generated from air freight.’ (13)

The Speke estate, the once-upon-a-time ‘satellite town surrounded by countryside’, is being choked by industry and losing the fight. Airport and commercial traffic pollution is replacing the ‘Garden City’ fresh air, with the remaining farmland sought for airport development by the Peel Holdings juggernaut. (14)

The Speke of my childhood, the ‘satellite town’ of the 1950s, was enclosed almost entirely in farmland. I have aged to see three-quarters of that surrounding farmland disappear to industry which leaves the question: How much of the remaining countryside, if any, will survive me?

14 Oglet Farmland SN

Oglet Farmland, south of Speke © Lynne Moneypenny: Save Oglet Shore & Greenbelt

The photograph above shows farmland at Oglet, part of the last remaining countryside south of the Speke estate, squeezed in between the airport runway and the River Mersey and sought for airport expansion by owners Peel Holdings.

The question remains: How much longer does the ‘countryside’ have before it succumbs to tarmac and concrete? 


Special thanks to the Liverpool Record Office for supplying many of the images in this post and allowing their reproduction.


(1) The Archi UK website here links to an 1894 Ordnance Survey 6 inch to 1 mile map of the Speke area. The slider top-left superimposes a current map of the same location.

(2) A Vision of Britain through Time, Liverpool District Total Population

(3) William Farrer and J Brownbill (eds), ‘Liverpool: Trade, population and geographical growth‘, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4, (London, 1911)

(4) The population density, and housing shortage problems would be compounded by war time bomb damage, and the post war ‘baby boom’ population explosion.

(5) A key extract of Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow is provided on this Cornell University webpage.

(6) George Mercer, ‘Speke as a New Town: An Experimental Industrial Study’, The Town Planning Review, vol 24, no 3, October 1953

(7) Disused Stations: Speke

(8) See Professor Stephen Ambrose, ‘From War to Peace’ in The World at War (Thames TV, originally broadcast in 1974: on Lendlease at 13:51 and Britain’s cost, 17:15. [This 22-minute film is mandatory viewing for anyone wishing to understand the geo-political legacy of the Second World War, as viewed from the early 1970s.]

(9) City of Liverpool, Tenants’ Handbook, undated c1962

(10) Wilson’s speech to the 1963 Labour Party Conference in Scarborough has been re-created by Manchester’s People’s History Museum and can be viewed on this Guardian webpage.

(11) Richard Pollard, Nikolaus Pevsner, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest (Yale University Press, 2006)

(12) William Farrer and J Brownbill (eds), ‘Townships: Speke’, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 3 (Victoria County History, 1907)

(13) Liverpool John Lennon Airport, Master Plan to 2050, Consultation Draft June 2017

(14) Guy Shrubsole, ‘Who owns the country? The secretive companies hoarding England’s land’, The Guardian, 19 April 2019