Council Housing in Winchester – Part II post-1945: ‘Visually pleasing and economic in development’

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Winchester City Council’s proud record of housebuilding between the wars discussed in last week’s post might surprise some who forget the broad political consensus which has supported local authority housing for much of its life.  The drive to rehouse the population decently was even stronger after 1945 and Winchester would go on to build new estates of the highest quality. Moreover, it continued to build council homes even as a wider politics trampled the ideals and suppressed the means which had provided (to quote Theresa May no less) the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’. (1)

Planning for the new Britain began early across the country and Winchester entrusted the design of its post-war housing programme to local architects AET Mort and P Sawyer as early as 1942. Their successors presented plans in 1944 and the first construction works – the laying out of roads and sewers carried out by prisoners of war in an extension to the prewar Stanmore Estate – began as the war officially ended with the surrender of Japan in August 1945. (2)

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Prefabs, The Valley, Stanmore

By 1946, there were 1100 households on the local waiting list for council housing. An immediate response to this national housing crisis had been the programme of temporary prefabricated bungalows intended to last ten years inaugurated in 1944. Of 153,000 erected across the country, 50 were allocated to Winchester – placed in The Valley, Stanmore, aptly named.

For all their Heath Robinson appearance, these were state-of-the-art homes with fitted kitchens and units, valued by most of their residents. Ernie Nunn moved into his prefab – no. 37, The Valley – in 1947:

It was brilliant. We had built-in wardrobes – all you really wanted was a table and chairs; most things were there for you.

Winchester was and remained a major centre of the military but such were the housing needs of the time that the Conservative mayor of the city (Alderman CG Sankey who 17 years earlier had been elected Winchester’s first Labour councillor) protested against the conversion of an American Red Cross Centre on Christchurch Road into offices for the Ministry of Labour and National Service rather than flats, complaining ‘of old Winchester families living “more or less like gypsies”’. (4)

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A contemporary advert for Scottwood houses

Permanent prefabricated housing was seen as another quick means of providing housing and Winchester – which had experimented with its use in the interwar period but now preferred traditional brick-built construction – erected 50 steel BISF and 50 timber Scottwood houses on the new Stanmore estate.  The latter, manufactured locally by the British Power Boat Company in Southampton, were the more unusual with only 1500 built in total.

Turning to the Stanmore Estate and the 624 new homes projected in 1946, the newbuild was built up the hill in what became known as Upper Stanmore to the south of Stanmore Lane. The 1940s’ housing resembles that of earlier Lower Stanmore, redbrick but plainer, cleaner; later housing is recognisably more ‘modern’ in style.

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Somers Close, Upper Stanmore

In 1951, just as the Conservatives took office and Harold Macmillan became Housing Minister, the new estate was awarded a Housing Medal and Diploma by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Construction continued but whereas the earlier post-war homes had two toilets (one upstairs, one down), residents moving into the Somers Close, completed in 1959, lamented the fact their new home had just one. This, presumably, marks the shift from Nye Bevan’s expansive vision of high-quality council housing to the more economical ‘People’s Houses’ promoted by Harold Macmillan in the early 1950s.

Stanmore Estate 1952 plan

A 1952 plan of the enlarged Stanmore Estate. The interwar Lower Stanmore is seen to the right and centre; post-war Upper Stanmore to bottom left. The Valley prefabs are marked at the top.

The most striking aspect of the newer estate is its siting and layout: (5)

The new Stanmore Estate site is hilly, and the layout of roads has been designed to take advantage of the natural shape of the ground to give an effect which will be visually pleasing and at the same time economic in development. Roads have been designed to give interest to the layout and provide a variety of views.

Upper Stanmore

These early mages capture the sweeping lines and open terrain of the Upper Stanmore Estate

Wavell Way provides a grand sweeping boulevard through the heart of the estate with wide green verges and now mature trees but the estate as a whole with its generous spacing (just 5 to 6 houses per acre) and broad vistas impresses with the imagination and vision applied.

Weeke Manor Estate 1952 plan

A 1952 plan of Weeke Estate

As the new Stanmore housing was taking shape, Winchester embarked on another, even more ambitious development when, in 1948, it purchased land in Weeke Manor to the north-west of the city centre. The new Weeke Estate was projected to comprise some 650 new homes.  Here the land was flatter and there was a desire to build at greater density: ‘The layout is therefore of a more formal type, although it is felt that the resulting road pattern avoids monotony and gives interest’. (5)

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Fromond Road, Weeke

Some of that interest was provided by the wide dual carriageway, Fromond Road, forming the entrance to the estate and, off it, the semi-circular site allocated to a new church (the church itself, St Barnabas, wouldn’t be opened until 1966):

This will provide an attractive open space and advantage of this has been taken in designing as a background a three-storey terrace block to for what will undoubtedly be the most impressive housing group on the Estate.

Even the lampposts received attention, the City Engineers favouring ‘a square-section tapered column with a post-top mounting lantern of Perspex and alloy’. The roads were initially of concrete, deemed more economical.

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A section of Trussell Crescent, Weeke

Trussell Crescent, the curving three-storeyed flat block is, as planned, the largest housing feature of the estate. Most of the other homes are semi-detached houses with some longer terraces. Most (63 percent) of the homes were three-bed but the 60 one-bed homes, many bungalows for older people, mark the post-war attempt to cater for a wider demographic cross-section of the population. In another sign of the times ‘ample garage accommodation at the ratio of one to every four dwellings’ was planned.

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The Weeke Estate under construction

The earliest post-war housing in Stanmore had been (excepting the non-traditional homes) architect-designed.  After that the City Engineers took over but they seemed to have maintained reasonable – if simpler – standards. The City Engineer himself, PH Warwick, paid tribute to Alderman Ernest Clifford Townend, chair of the Housing Development Committee from 1941 into the mid-fifties: ‘it is very true indeed to say that the successful issue of the programme is very largely due to his energetic efforts and personal interest’.

From 1939 to 1951, private builders in Winchester had built just 103 new homes for sale; the City Council some 736 for council rent. By 1951, of the city’s 6701 homes, 1678 – 25 percent – were council-rented.  This reflects post-war rationing and the priority given to local authority housing but, even as those restrictions were finally withdrawn in 1954 (when private housebuilders were freed from the obligation to secure building licences), the Council’s ambitions to build remained.

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Winnall Manor Road, Winnall

Land had been purchased at Winnall for a further 400-500 homes in 1952. A new estate of generally semi-detached homes and curving streets emerged on both sides of Winnall Manor Road.  And in 1961, the Council undertook its one foray into (modest) high-rise with the construction of four eight-storey point blocks at the head of Winnall Manor Road, built by Wates, officially opened by the mayor in August 1963.

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Flats at Winnall

Thus, with its modestly large peripheral estates and its similarly modest high-rise, Winchester echoes, in microcosm, the housing developments typical across the country in the 1950s. And while the term inner-city Winchester might seem a misnomer, there were the same pressures to clear slum housing.  By 1958, it was reported that 533 houses had been declared unfit under the terms of the 1951 Housing Act, most in the central Brooks area. Of 342 houses taken over by the Council, 170 had been vacated and 56 demolished.  (The Winchester City Trust was formed in 1957 to oppose these clearances and it’s probably true to say that a later generation would have preserved and rehabilitated the area.) (6)

By 1971, 39 percent of Winchester households rented from the council – a high figure challenging common stereotypes of the city. (7)  There were changes in the housing stock too. The prefabricated Monolithic Concrete Homes (described in last week’s post) were finally demolished in the late 1970s, replaced at Bar End by a sheltered housing scheme and low-rise flats and, in Fairdown Close, by new council houses.

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Penton Place sheltered housing (left) and Test House on Milland Road, Bar End, built to replace the Monolithic Concrete Homes in the late 1970s and mid-1980s respectively.

A reorganisation of local government in 1974 (the council was amalgamated with the largely Tory Winchester and Droxford Rural District Councils) and, nationally, Margaret Thatcher’s accession to power in 1979 might suggest this story is drawing to a close. In fact, something extraordinary happened. As council housing nationally was sold off and new build virtually halted, Winchester developed around 1000 new social-rent homes from the late 1980s.

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John Cloyne

A fortuitous combination of factors explains how Winchester was able to buck the trend.  The Council fell into No Overall Control in 1987 which left a small but activist Labour group – it comprised at peak just six members of a 54-seat council – holding the balance of power.  An exceptionally able and energetic Labour councillor, John Cloyne, became chair of the Housing Committee; Jock Macdonald, a Liberal Democrat, was a supportive vice-chair. (8)

Cloyne was determined to build social housing to address the needs of the 3500 on the Council’s waiting list. The means devised was to channel receipts from Right to Buy sales – otherwise untouchable for housing purposes – to a new Council-controlled private company (Saturn Management No. 1 but more commonly known as SATMAN) where they could be used to support finance council-supported building schemes.

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Sheltered housing in The Valley, Stanmore

The results were impressive. In the new climate, housing associations (whose homes were exempt from Right to Buy), funded by SATMAN, played a vital role. The Winchester Housing Group (Cloyne became a board member) was established in 1989 and was responsible, for example, for a development of around 150 new homes at Turnpike Down in Winnall and the Octavia Hill scheme in Stanmore.  A significant number of new council homes were built directly or acquired through purchase and conversion.

It required determination and imagination to build new social housing in this era and, a few years later, it transpired that the SATMAN scheme – cleared by officers and approved by full council – was illegal.  There was no question of individual wrong-doing but Winchester City Council had to pay around £14m back to the Treasury. The legacy of sorely-needed, decent and affordable housing remained, however.

Housing departments haven’t always acted perfectly and, as a housing activist and opposition councillor from the 1970s, Cloyne himself had been highly critical of the council’s repairs service. In office, he improved it and even kept it in-house against government rules on competitive tendering intended to privatise local services. This was significant in the next struggle to retain and develop Winchester’s council housing.

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The Labour leaflet, with thanks to former Labour councillor Chris Pines

Nationally, the Conservatives wanted council housing transferred to housing associations. Funding rules ensured that there was little that was ‘voluntary’ in so-called Large Scale Voluntary Transfer but they made it an attractive option to some officers and unsympathetic councillors. When a new Director of Housing (with the support of a Tory and Liberal Democrat majority on the council) proposed the transfer of Winchester’s housing, the local Labour Party mobilised in opposition, leafleting every council home in the district. In the ensuing tenant ballot, around 96 percent voted to stay with the Council. A second ballot a few years late produced a majority of around 90 percent.

Alternating since between Conservative and Liberal Democrat control, the Council has rarely matched the level of ambition shown in the late 1980s but it has a record of continued innovation that might be surprising to some.  Despite its affluence – in fact, because of it – genuinely affordable social housing is desperately needed in Winchester.  As of 2011, only 15 percent of households in the enlarged Winchester City district, lived in social rented homes. Currently, you need an annual income of £60,000 to purchase the cheapest of the city’s housing and £50,000 to rent a decent home – figures that exclude 50 and 40 percent of local households respectively. There are almost 1700 people on the city’s social housing waiting list. (9)

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A council scheme of 21 new homes on the former site of the New Queens Head pub on Stanmore Lane

The City Council has recently announced plans to build 1000 new ‘affordable’ homes by 2028 and is planning to set up – déjà vu – a housing company to deliver some of these. (10)  The devil may well be in the detail and I hope that direct investment in genuine social rent homes will form a major part of this ambitious programme.  It’s unfashionable but it worked.  I’ll leave the final word with the estimable local newspaper, the Hampshire Chronicle, and its 2017 editorial endorsement of the sentiments of a local Tory councillor: (10)

What is needed … is a carefully-planned creation of new ‘council’ estates. Winchester has a fine record. Stanmore, Winnall and Weeke were well-designed, with good-sized homes with gardens and, when built, a strong community spirit.

Many people will disagree, saying the city would be under threat. It’s nonsense. Winchester has always evolved. The truth is that for the last 40 years the biggest threat to the city has been the lack of council house building.

Sources

My thanks to Patrick Davies and John Cloyne, friends and former colleagues in Winchester Constituency Labour Party, for providing detail and resources to inform and illustrate this post.

(1) Theresa May, PM speech to the National Housing Federation summit,19 September 2018. She was almost certainly quoting Chris Matthews from his book Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses (Nottingham City Homes, 2015)

(2) PH Warwick, ‘House Building in Winchester, 1920-1952’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1952

(3) A Postcard for Stanmore, Ernie Nunn at the prefabs, 1947, YouTube

(4) ‘Offices Instead of Flats Mayor’s Regret’, West Sussex Gazette, 1 August 1946

(5) PH Warwick, ‘House Building in Winchester, 1920-1952’

(6) ‘Winchester Whispers’, Hampshire Telegraph, 10 January 1958

(7) 1971 Census reported in ‘A Vision of Britain through Time: Winchester Housing Data

(8) Much of following section is drawn from private communication with John Cloyne, 17 June 2019

(9) Winchester City Council, Winnall Flats Consultation Boards 17 July 2018 (pdf)

(10) Michael Seymour, ‘Backing for council’s housing company plans’, Hampshire Chronicle, 1 April 2019

(11) ‘Chronicle Comment: City council leadership on social housing’, Hampshire Chronicle, 12 October 2017.

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Council Housing in Winchester – Part I to 1939: ‘these houses will be the most sought after in Winchester’

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If you know Winchester – or think you do – you probably think of its cathedral or maybe the College; a county town and one-time capital of England. It’s a beautiful city which I know well and one of the country’s least affordable places to live where the average house costs over £555,000. (1)  You probably don’t know it as somewhere with award-winning council estates and a long and proud council housing history.

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Cromwell Road, Lower Stanmore

It’s worth pointing out from the outset that Winchester – even Winchester – was essentially a working-class city for much of the last century.  A housing survey in 1919 – we’ll come back to this – estimated that 76 percent of its homes (for a population of around 23,000) were working-class housing. (2)

And, though it lacked large areas of slum housing, some of those homes were in very poor condition. In June 1914, a report of the Medical Officer of Health to that effect had galvanised the City Council to appoint a subcommittee to oversea the ‘erection of not more than 25 houses suitable for the working classes’. Typically, the intention was, in the words of Councillor Hayward, not to provide the cheapest houses but ‘something decent at about 6 shillings [30p] a week’.  Whatever the intentions, the war which broke out three months later put paid to such ambitions and the scheme was deferred in March 1915 owing to the increased cost of labour and materials. (3)

Four years later, as that war ground to its bloody conclusion, it provided new pressures but this time to build the ‘Homes for Heroes’ promised by prime minister Lloyd George.  It was the 1919 Housing Act which required the survey of housing needs already mentioned and the obligation to meet those needs where necessary.  In Winchester, an average of just 33 houses had been built annually in the five years before the war and none at all through its duration.  Nonetheless, there was little overcrowding reported but 73 houses were listed as insanitary and requiring demolition; a further 374 could, it was thought, be brought up to standard. The report concluded that 560 new or renovated homes were needed to meet local demand.

One of the earliest efforts ‘to ease the housing difficulty in Winchester’ was to take over hutments provided as married quarters at the now redundant military camp on St Giles Hill.  Fifty-seven huts were taken over to provide homes for between 30 to 40 civilian families. They were expected to last between five to ten years.  At the same Council meeting in August 1919, it was reported that construction work on land acquired in the south-west of the city at Airlie Road for some 250 houses could begin in October. (4)

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‘Stanmore Housing Scheme’ from the article by W Curtis Green in The Architect, 1923

The Stanmore Estate was to be a far more prestigious affair. Underway by 1920, the plans expanded to build some 556 houses and eight shops in what’s now known as Lower Stanmore around Cromwell Road, Stuart Crescent and King’s Avenue.  The contractors, Messrs Holloway Brothers, built a railway siding on the adjacent mainline to bring materials to the site (horse and cart served to transfer it up the hill) but were hampered by the post-war shortage of skilled labour – it was said 20 bricklayers were working on the scheme which could have employed some 150.

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‘Stanmore Housing Scheme’ from the article by W Curtis Green in The Architect, 1923

In bare figures, the new estate occupied 110 acres, of which just 53 acres were set aside for housing at 10 houses per acre.  The houses, ‘built of brick and roofed in tiles in keeping with the city’, ranged from a single cottage to blocks of six, from two-bed to four bed, with and without parlours. The gardens were small but there were ‘convenient allotments adjoining each group of houses’. (5)

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‘Stanmore Housing Scheme’ from the article by W Curtis Green in The Architect, 1923

The Council’s laudable commitment to quality was evidenced not only in their choice of contractors but by their appointment of the notable architect William Curtis Green, who designed the houses, and a landscape architect William Dunn responsible for their layout.  Dunn made imaginative use of a hilly site, with curved roads and cul-de-sacs centred around a ‘village green’ and shops.

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St Mary Street, Stanmore

A fulsome article in the local press praised the estate and admonished those locally who would look down on the estate: (6)

It is a safe forecast that in five years’ time these houses will be the most sought after in Winchester for several reasons. First, because the site is a most healthy one and beautifully placed, then because the amenities will be such as will scarcely be equalled in any other part of the city.

These included a bathroom supplied with hot and cold water in every home and ground floors ‘finished on concrete with a lino-like substance, which will make all who now occupy dry-rot houses  envious … such a thing as a rat or mouse beneath the floors will be a physical impossibility’.  Plans of this ‘model estate’ were shown at the Wembley Exhibition in 1922.

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Battery Hill, Upper Stanmore

Curtis Green himself later provided further detail in the architectural press, pointing out the estate’s variety – ‘no houses of the same plan are on both sides of the same street’ – and an ingenious internal design which avoided ‘back elevations’:

In nearly every case a back porch is provided in which are placed the doors to the scullery, the WC, and its fuel store, an arrangement that saves the appearance of three external doors. It shields the WC door, forms a convenient place for boot scraping under cover, and it enables the scullery door to be left open in bad weather.

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The Prince of Wales visits the Stanmore Estate, 1923

It’s doubtful that the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) noted this particular aspect as he was driven ‘through cheering crowds to the Garden City at Stanmore’ in November 1923 but the commemorative tree he planted to mark the formal opening of the estate remains. (7)

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The tree planted by the Prince of Wales at Cromwell Road, Stanmore

The rents, ranging from 11s 6d (58p) for a two-bed house to 15s 3d (78p) for a three-bedroom parlour home, were typically of council housing of its time relatively high and, in normal circumstances, excluded the less well-off working class.  An exception, when in 1922 the rent and rates of two or three unemployed tenants were being met by Poor Law relief, caused much resentment among the local Board of Guardians: ‘the payment is, of course, much in excess of what is usually paid by persons in this position, and consequently the relief given is much higher scale’. (8)

epw032310 Housing at Stanmore along Stanmore Lane and Battery Hill, Winchester, 1930

This image from 1930 shows the Stanmore Estate in 1930, Lower Stanmore to the bottom right with Stanmore Lane and Battery Hill reaching up to Romsey Road EPW032310 © Britain from Above

They went on to suggest that the Council, whilst it could not be responsible for changes of circumstance, should avoid letting homes to those on relief ‘unless it is absolutely necessary in consequence of being unable to obtain a house elsewhere’. The Housing Committee responded curtly that it felt ‘quite competent to let their own houses, without assistance from the Guardians’. (8)

If the Council seem the ‘good guys’ in this exchange, the complexity of relations and the competing sensibilities involved are further illustrated by another dispute between the two authorities in 1929.  Mr and Mrs Balding and their children had been granted one of the ex-military hutments in 1921 when their then home was condemned as unfit.

There they remained until the last of the hutments was demolished in 1927. Balding, it was said, was ‘a satisfactory tenant in one respect only, that he paid his rent’.  Now the husband and wife were occupying ‘for work purposes a disused bakehouse, and had sleeping accommodation elsewhere’; the seven children ‘were kept by the Guardians’. (9)

The Board of Guardians urged the Council to provide a council home and, in this instance, it seems to occupy the moral high ground – though, presumably, it was a solution that also favoured them financially.  The Housing Committee’s refusal to rehouse Balding led to a full debate in Council and the opposing positions were expressed concisely. Councillor Hayward stated they ‘were bound to provide houses for the poorer classes. Colonel Ross said their first duty was provide houses for people of satisfactory character’. The latter view prevailed with just two dissentients.

It’s a fascinating insight into the character of earlier council housing and a stark reminder that decent housing must not only be supplied but be made affordable to all that need it, irrespective of supposed character. The Boards of Guardian were abolished in 1930, the last vestiges of the hated Poor Law system in 1948.  A discretionary system of rent rebates for council housing began in 1930 but a national system of rent allowances, covering local authority and privately-rented housing, was not introduced till 1973. Recent so-called ‘welfare reforms’ continue to make this a fraught issue.

By 1925 those St Giles Hill hutments were already ‘showing signs of serious dilapidation’; many were not waterproof, many were ‘excessively filthy’. With some 511 houses in the city occupied by more than one family and 101 houses unfit for habitation, the Medical Officer of Health estimated Winchester needed a total of 485 new homes. (10)

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This poor quality image gives some indication of the construction and appearance of the Monolithic Concrete houses.

Prefabrication had been touted as a cheaper and more efficient way to meet housing needs since the end of the war – the steel-framed Dorlonco system, Airey’s Duo-Slab concrete homes, even a form of adapted Nissen hut, to name but a few.  Winchester chose a form of system-built housing which, so far as I know, was unique in Britain – the concrete homes built by Monolithic Concrete Houses, Ltd.

A trial concrete bungalow, ‘built in 14 days by liquid cement poured into moulds’, was opened by the mayor in July 1925. A favourable press report described the new home: (11)

Attractive in appearance, with its green sliding shutters, white stuccoed walls, and red tiled roof, there is nothing at first sight to show that there is any difference between this and ordinary brick and plaster house. Economy, speedy building, and durability are the three essential features of this new invention.

Encouraged and apparently persuaded by the company’s claims that building costs were 18 to 20 percent lower than equivalent brick- and steel-built houses, the Council agreed a contract with the company to build 42 houses at Bar End for £16,212.

EAW008848 The city, Winchester, from the south-east, 1947

The white Monolithic Concrete houses are shown here towards the bottom left in this section of an image ‘The city, Winchester, from the south-east, 1947’ EAW008848 © Britain from Above

The new homes on Milland Road were opened in 1927 and were apparently good enough to persuade the Council to adopt a further scheme of 40 at Fairdown on St Giles Hill where the hutments were about to be demolished. Twenty-eight two-bed houses and 12 three-bed were agreed despite the arguments of the ‘lady members of the Council’ who wanted the proportions reversed. A little later, plans were made to expand the Stanmore Estate; in April, the Council agreed a contract to build 40 three-bed, non-parlour brick and tile houses on Battery Hill. (12)

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St Martin’s Close

This was a solidly Conservative council – its first official Labour representative wasn’t elected till 1929 (and he ended up a Conservative mayor but that’s another story).  And yet the duty to build council homes and to build at least as well as financial conditions allowed was accepted.  Sixty-three three-bed houses were built off Beggar’s Lane in 1929 – St Martin’s Close was agreed as a more suitable name for the new development – and 80 more to the east in Highcliffe from 1932. (13)

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Gordon Avenue, Highcliffe

There were, in fact, few ‘beggars’ in council homes before the war and the ‘respectability’ of those lucky enough to earn the right to a council tenancy was well policed – by the residents themselves but also by the housing authorities.  In 1937, the Council appointed Miss May West as Housing Supervisor. Miss West – the eldest daughter of Mrs Randall Hasking and the late Lieut-Colonel F West – was a member of the Society of Women Housing Estate Managers and a graduate of the Octavia Hill school of housing management. She was recruited from Lancaster Corporation where she must have been schooled by the formidable Miss Baines discussed in an earlier post. (10)

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Portal Road, Bar End

In all, Winchester City Council had built 1128 houses by 1939 – over 700 on its flagship estate at Stanmore, 300 on the Highcliffe and Bar End side of town and a total of 92 at the two smaller sites near St Giles Hill. Seventy-nine percent of these were three-bedroom family homes as was typical of the time.  About one in five of the local population lived in council housing. (14)

Winchester would survive the war unscathed but it too took a significant part in the post-war housing drive and would go on to build much more high quality council housing.  We’ll talk about that in next week’s post.

Sources

(1) Charlie Bradshaw, ‘Housing prices: Winchester one of the most expensive cities in UK’, Winol, 10 May 2019. According to a recent survey, Winchester is the third least affordable town in Britain: Myra Butterworth, ‘Where could you climb the housing ladder?’, Daily Mail, 2 February 2019

(2) RW Breach, ‘Winchester: the community on the eve of the General Strike, 1926’, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club Archaeological Society, vol 39, 1983, pp213-222

(3) ‘Winchester Municipal Matters’, Hampshire Advertiser, 6 June 1914 and ‘The Housing Question’, Hampshire Advertiser, 6 March 1915

(4) ‘The City Council’, Hampshire Advertiser, 9 August 1919

(5) W Curtis Green ARA, Architect, ‘Stanmore Housing Scheme’, The Architect, 2 November 1923

(6) ‘Winchester Housing Plans’, Hampshire Advertiser, 12 June 1920

(7) ‘Prince of Wales at Winchester’, Western Morning News, 8 November 1923

(8) ‘Stanmore Estate Houses: Guardians Resent Winchester Council’s Letter’, Portsmouth Evening News, 31 July 1922

(9) ‘A Difficult Housing Problem’, Hampshire Telegraph, 28 December 1928 and ‘Family Without A Home. Winchester Housing Problem’, Portsmouth Evening News, 8 February 1929

(10) ‘Winchester Housing. Important Report to City Council’, Portsmouth Evening News, 3 April 1925

(11) ‘A Concrete Bungalow Economy, Speedy Building, And Durability’, Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 14 July 1925

(12) ‘Replacing Temporary Hutments’, Portsmouth Evening News, 7 January 1927 and ‘New Building Scheme’, Portsmouth Evening News, 8 April 1927

(13) ‘Another Building Scheme’, Portsmouth Evening News, 2 August 1929 and ‘More Housing Provisions’, Hampshire Telegraph, 13 May 1932

(14) PH Warwick, ‘House Building in Winchester, 1920-1952’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1952

Book Review – ‘Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses’

The publication of a new and revised edition of Chris Matthews’ fine book is a good reason to re-post this earlier blog. As noted (in a later addition to the original post), it was probably Chris’s judgement in the book (which I endorse) that council housing provided the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’ that was favourably quoted by then prime minister Theresa May in a speech to the National Housing Federation last year. 

For publication and purchase details, go to this Nottingham City Homes webpage.

Chris Matthews, Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses (Nottingham City Homes, 2015; revised edition 2019)

It’s a pleasure to see this fine account of Nottingham’s council housing history.  It’s a story well worth telling and one – in Nottingham and elsewhere – that this blog has sought to share.  Above all, it is a people’s history, a history of homes and communities but it encompasses high (and low) politics too, architecture and planning and much, much else: a history of concern to anyone interested in the fabric – in the broadest sense – of our society.

Cover snip

If all that reads like a shameless plug for this blog, it is also a very definite recommendation for Chris Matthews’ new book.  It’s a warts and all history, recording the highs and lows of Nottingham’s council housing and Nottingham City Homes is to be congratulated for commissioning a serious and well-researched account.  There’s a place – a very proper place at a time when social housing’s past is traduced and its future near written off – for a more straightforwardly celebratory history but this is a book which anyone interested in a nuanced understanding of our housing history should read.

Chris Matthews provides a thorough chronological account which I won’t attempt to replicate in this brief review – the illustrations alone (over 120 carefully selected and well reproduced black and white and colour images) tell a compelling story.  But I will pull out a few of the themes which struck me in my reading of it.

Victoria Dwellings, now the Victoria Park View Flats under private ownership

Victoria Dwellings, now the Victoria Park View Flats under private ownership

We’ll begin with the need for – the absolute necessity of – council housing.  In this, Nottingham was a comparatively slow starter despite a problem of slum housing which was – as a result of the Corporation’s failure to expand into the open land enclosing the city’s historic core – amongst the worst in the country.  Early efforts, notably the Victoria Buildings on Bath Street completed in 1876 (and second only to Liverpool), were not followed through and it was the large peripheral cottage suburbs built in the 1930s which constituted the city’s first serious attempt to rehouse its slum dwellers.

Narrow Marsh, 1919

Narrow Marsh, 1919

Council plans for the redevelopment of the Red Lion Street area of Narrow March, 1920s

Council plans for the redevelopment of the Red Lion Street area of Narrow March, 1920s (with thanks to Dan Lucas)

What is more easily forgotten is the persistence of unfit housing.  As late as 1951, 43 per cent of Nottingham homes lacked a bathroom.  Into the 1960s, in the long neglected St Ann’s area most houses lacked an inside toilet and bath; 53 per cent had no proper hot water supply.  All this provides a context for the mass housing programmes of this later period which we are quick to condemn – for their undoubted deficiencies – but so little understand.

St Ann's, an image taken from the City Council's redevelopment brochure, 1970

St Ann’s, an image taken from the City Council’s 1970 redevelopment brochure ‘St Ann’s: Renewal in Progress’ (with thanks to Dan Lucas)

New housing in St Ann's © John Sutton and made available through a Creative Commons licence

New housing in St Ann’s © John Sutton and made available through a Creative Commons licence

It follows, therefore, that these new homes were embraced by their residents: ‘the sheer luxury of four bedroomed houses with an inside flush toilet…a really big bath’ as a tenant of the interwar Broxtowe estate recalls.  But even high-rise dwellings, later condemned (literally so and demolished in many cases), were welcomed.   One new tenant of the maligned Hyson Green flats describes ‘an indoor bathroom, beautiful kitchen. It was paradise, absolutely paradise’.  Marcia Watson, a young black woman (now a city councillor) remembers:

High rise was popular then. People weren’t fussy back then. The view was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.  I loved it…for me, moving in and living there, it was the first home of my own.

Council homes were important for providing a disadvantaged minority community with their first decent homes and a step up, as they did for so many others.  Matthews argues, rightly, that council housing provided the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’.

It was good to see this quoted – and hopefully sincerely endorsed – by prime minister Theresa May no less in her keynote speech on social housing made to the National Housing Federation in September 2018. The speech was taken to herald a sea change in contemporary Conservative attitudes towards both the past value and present necessity of social housing.  We’ll wait and see.

This looks like a 1950s development but the privet hedges and greenery are in keeping with Howitt's ideals © SK53 and made available through a Creative Commons licence

This looks like a 1950s development but the privet hedges and greenery are in keeping with Howitt’s ideals © SK53 and made available through a Creative Commons licence

We might take those sanitary essentials celebrated by Marcia Watson for granted now (though too many can’t) but the quality of much council housing is striking too, how much could be done ‘by the steady and consistent exercise of careful thought and skilled imagination’.  That was Raymond Unwin, no less, praising Nottingham’s interwar council housing, recognised – thanks to the visionary leadership of City Architect TC Howitt – as some of the best in the country.

In fact, most Nottingham council homes – even in the 1960s – were solid, well-built terraced and semi-detached two-storey houses which, though sometimes lacking the aesthetic of Howitt’s work, continued to provide decent family homes for many who could not afford or did not wish to buy.  It’s an irony that some of the very best council housing up and down the country was built in the 1970s when, with lessons learnt from recent mistakes, low- and medium-rise, predominantly brick-built estates were erected.  Nottingham built more council housing in the 1970s than in any previous decade.

Osier Road the Meadows

Osier Road, the Meadows

The Meadows scheme was built with such intent, its Radburn-style cul-de-sacs and greens incorporating the planning ideals of the day by their separation of cars and people.  Those ideals are now held to have ‘failed’ and there are proposals to restore a more traditional streetscape to the estate.  You can take this as an emblem of planning hubris or, more properly in my view, as a reminder of how transitory the ‘common sense’ of one age can seem to another.  Posterity should perhaps be a little more humble and not quite so condescending.

This brings us, inescapably, to the politics of council housing.  There has in the past been – these seem now like halcyon days – a broad consensus on the topic.  William Crane, a Conservative and building trades businessman, was chair of the Housing Committee from 1919 to 1957, surviving several changes of administration and building over 17,000 council homes in the interwar period when Nottingham was among the most prolific builders of council housing in the country.

Edenhall Gardens, Clifton Estate © Alan Murray-Rust and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Edenhall Gardens, Clifton Estate © Alan Murray-Rust and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Then there is the politics of the post-war period when Labour and Conservative governments vied to build the most houses with council housing as a central element of the mix. The Clifton Estate, a scheme of over 6000 homes housing 30,000 built to the south of the city between 1951 and 1958, encapsulates some of these ideals, not least in its focus on neighbourhood.  Planning ideals are not always fulfilled, particularly in local authority building where they nearly always conflict with budgetary constraints, but still the Estate’s early isolation, expense and lack of facilities probably didn’t merit its description (in a 1958 ITV documentary) as ‘Hell on Earth’ and certainly didn’t do so in the longer term.

The house-building ‘arms race’ came to a head in the 1960s when high-rise and system building were seen as the modern means to build on a mass scale and rid the country, once and for all, of the scourge of its slums.

The Woodlands group of high-rise blocks in Radford © John Sutton and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The refurbished Woodlands group of high-rise blocks in Radford © John Sutton and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Here Nottingham provides some salutary lessons.  The city embraced these methods, these ambitions and, yes, these ideals.  High-rise and deck access developments were adopted; major contractors, notably Wimpey and Taylor Woodrow, employed to build their off-the-peg schemes across the city.  Matthews is candid in acknowledging the defects of these estates whilst rightly noting the legislative and economic changes which were also afflicting disproportionately the communities which lived in council homes. Equally honestly, he addresses the dissatisfaction with the council as landlord in this period, particularly in relation to repairs. The combination was stigmatising – ‘no longer was renting a council house aspirational’.

A part of the Hyson Green scheme prior to demoltion

A part of the Hyson Green scheme prior to demolition

Beginning with the deck-access Balloon Woods Estate (a Yorkshire Development Scheme completed in 1969) in 1984, with point blocks at Basford and deck-access at Hyson Green following shortly after, many of the troubled developments of the later 60s and early 70s have been demolished.  Low-rise traditional housing has mostly taken its place.  Others have been thoroughly refurbished through Estate Action programmes and suchlike.  One hundred per cent of current stock now meets Decent Homes standards.

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Tony Crosland as Sec of State opening Nottingham’s 50,000th council house in The Meadows with Chair of Housing, Cllr Bert Littlewood, 1976 (with thanks to Dan Lucas)

By 1981, almost half of Nottingham’s people lived in council homes; some 50,000 had been built in preceding years.  But the bomb had dropped. In fact, a Conservative-led administration in Nottingham had sold off 1635 homes to existing tenants by 1977 (for more detail on this, do read the comment by Dan Lucas below) but the Right to Buy enacted by Mrs Thatcher’s government in 1981 would see 20,761 homes lost to the Council in the next quarter-century. The Labour chair of the Housing Committee in the 1990s describes its role as simply ‘trying to hold the fort’.  There was as the title to chapter 6 declares a ‘Right to Buy but no Right to Build’.

Nevertheless, a lot – in terms of the demolitions and rebuilding noted above – was achieved.  The Decent Homes programme was a positive ‘Blairite’ achievement though marked by an unwonted antipathy towards local government.  The latter led – a necessity if central funding for improvements was to be secured – to the creation of a new arm’s-length management organisation in 2005.

An impression of some of the new council housing to be built, in Radford

An impression of some of the new council housing to be built, in Radford

Nottingham City Homes would be one of the largest ALMOs in the country, managing 28,000 homes.  After a troubled start, it seems justifiably proud of its recent achievements, not least a building programme of 400 new homes to be completed by 2017.  Indeed, as Matthews argues, the commissioning of this history itself marks a ‘renewed confidence in Nottingham’s council housing’.

It’s desperately sad that this – in broader terms – is not a confidence shared by the current government, driven by an ideological hatred of social housing and a fantasy of owner occupation for all – though even that, perhaps, is to give it too much credit. The reality is that this government is willing to consign our less affluent citizens to an increasingly marginalised and diminished social housing sector and the tender mercies of private landlordism.

That makes this honest, intelligent and informative account of Nottingham’s council housing all the more important.  As Chris Matthews concludes:

The history shows that, alongside other tenures, council housing can and does transform lives, providing a solution to a wide range of housing problems.

Buy the book, spread that message.

Notes

This webpage provides full details on how and where to purchase the book.

My thanks to Dan Lucas, Strategy and Research Manager for Nottingham City Homes and a key contributor to the book, for providing some of the images used in this post.

Alex Ball, a Labour Councillor for Nottingham City Council with responsibilities for Housing and Regeneration in the city, contributed an earlier guest post to the blog: Nottingham’s Early Council Housing: ‘Nothing like this had been seen before in the city’

Since writing this post, I visited Nottingham. This later, fully illustrated, post describes my visit: Nottingham’s Council Housing by Bus and Tram.

Addison Streets – a celebration of the 1919 Housing Act

On June 4 1919, Christopher Addison cut the first sod on Bristol City Council’s new Sea Mills Estate.  The city’s lady mayoress planted an oak tree which today bears his name. At the time, Addison was still President of the Local Government Board. His flagship Housing and Planning Act received the Royal Assent on July 31st and he then became the first Minister of Health and Housing. One hundred years later to the day, I was proud to be part of a community event celebrating Addison and the estate he inaugurated.

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Speaking to an appreciative audience under the Addison Oak at Sea Mills. Christopher Addison, in the person of Cllr Paul Smith (Cabinet Member for Housing, Bristol), looking on to the right.

The Addison Oak is, so far as I know, the only tree named after him but, across England, Scotland and Wales, there are streets of council housing which mark Addison’s formative role in arguably the most important housing legislation of the last century.

Christopher Addison (1869-1951) was a doctor and surgeon and a Liberal MP for Shoreditch in London, one of the most overcrowded districts of the capital.  He brought that expertise and experience to his vision and drive for housing as the first Minister of Health and Housing.

Christopher Addison

Christopher Addison, MP

When he spoke in Bristol that evening of June 4th, he told his audience:

They did not want houses built in dismal streets. Until they had houses with air about them, so long would they have to spend enormous sums annually on sickness…They wanted big production and they were prepared to pay big prices.

In the event, those ‘big prices’ were a problem and his housing programme fell victim to the austerity of the day when public spending was cut in July 1921 with only 176,000 of the promised 500,000 ‘homes for heroes’ completed that prime minister Lloyd George had promised.  Addison resigned and went on to a distinguished career in Labour ranks, serving as Leader of the House of Lords where he helped secure the legislation of another reforming Minister of Health and Housing, Nye Bevan, in Attlee’s post-war Labour government.

But his own 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act had set a vital precedent. Firstly, by providing generous grant regime (not in any meaningful sense a subsidy – as Addison knew council housing pays for itself); secondly, by its requirement that councils not only survey local housing needs but prepare schemes to actively meet them – the first time local authorities were compelled to build council homes; and, thirdly, by its commitment to quality. The wartime Tudor Walters Report which provided the template for interwar design had recommended ‘cottage homes’, no more than 12 to the acre, with front and back gardens, many with parlours.

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Addison Road, Allenton, Derby – an interwar development

It is, then, entirely fitting that we not only celebrate Addison and the centenary of his 1919 Housing Act this year but the roads and streets across the country that continue to provide the concrete legacy of his housing revolution.

The map below identifies all those streets named to commemorate Addison’s role.  They are formed, without exception, of council homes.  I have made the assumption that these streets are named after Christopher Addison and that other streets named Addison are very likely so named for other reasons.  Please let me know of any mistakes or omissions you find.

 

At the moment, just a few of the entries have photographs attached – just Derby, Swindon, Enfield and Cardiff (marked in red on the map).  It would be wonderful to crowd-source photographs of each and every one to provide a lasting record of the rich and diverse legacy of council housing that Addison did so much to create.

Note

I could not have created this map without the data and cartographic skills of Jerry Clough.  You can follow Jerry on Twitter @ and his blog, Maps Matter, at https://sk53-osm.blogspot.com/.

The People’s Park, Banbury, Part II: ‘The Brightest Spot Throughout the Whole History of the Borough’

As we saw in last week’s post, Sidney Hilton, Banbury’s multi-disciplined and talented Borough Surveyor from 1925 had turned the People’s Park in Banbury into a well-used and popular green place for fresh air, recreation and light exercise.  While the council totted up their expenditure on and income from the tennis courts, the putting green and the bowling club annually – and acknowledged their overall losses – they knew that the park offered invaluable green space.

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A contemporary map of the park, courtesy of Sacha Barnes Limited

Neithrop House, part of the Council’s purchase from the syndicate in 1918-19, became vacant in 1929.  The Education Committee took on a lease of the first floor at £100 per year as an Infant Welfare Clinic and a school clinic.  In the 1940s this included the treatment of cases of scabies and pediculosis.  Countless schoolchildren went to Neithrop House for eye tests, vaccinations and to the dentist – and to the playground and paddling pool afterwards.  Parents collected orange juice, dried milk, cod liver oil and gas masks.

The cottages in Paradise Square, also part of the original Neithrop House estate, were more problematic.  Paradise was a misnomer.  There were many cases of drunkenness and breaches of the Elementary Education Act, one tap served about 20 households. (1) The Council had other rental streams by then and Hilton had no time for it.  Soon after the Medical Officer had issued closing orders he saw to it that the cottages were demolished and the tenants rehoused in brand new council houses.  Paradise was lost when a new shrubbery and a car park was created on the site of the square.

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Hilton’s stone pillars at the entrance to the park from Horse Fair.  Originally there were wrought iron gates.  Photograph May 2019

The design and execution of Hilton’s plans for new walls and paths perhaps best demonstrate his understanding of what the People’s Park is for and how it is used.  The outer boundaries of the park are encircled by paths.  Those in a hurry can walk the length of the park without being distracted by flowers and trees.  Hilton put in dwarf stone walls along the edge of these paths in place of the old high walls and fencing that had surrounded the Neithrop House estate.  Barely noticeable now, it is easy to think that they serve no purpose.  I don’t see it as an exaggeration, however, to say that Hilton’s provision of these walls was the physical confirmation that the park was open for everyone to enjoy.  Originally there were railings set into the top of the walls and some now have privet or hawthorn hedging alongside them.  Even when the park gates were locked, the people of Banbury could see into their park.

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An example of Hilton’s dwarf walls allowing a clear view into the People’s Park on the right.  Public footpath towards The Shades on the left.  Photograph May 2019

Hilton demonstrated great foresight too in his provision of paths within the park.  There are no muddy ‘desire lines’; people in 2019 use the same routes provided by Hilton.  He respected the old footpaths in place before the Enclosures – The Leys, for instance – and his paths take people where they want to go: to each exit, to the aviary, to the playground.

And, since 1912, people have treasured the park as a convenient route to the town centre; a pleasant short walk accompanied by birdsong.  What makes the People’s Park so useful to local people then and now is its dual function: a place for leisure and recreation and a quick cut through to work or into town.

As Hilton’s new houses and streets added substantially to the residential population to the north-west of the park, the greater the value of its location.  The Banbury Advertiser in July 1939 carried a headline ‘The Quickest Way to work from King’s Road District’. (2)  

Plans for a new path across the park were described as a plea for something that would save 60 yards and cost £60.  Councillor Jones had carried out his own informal census one sunny afternoon and found that 348 people had walked across the grass.  He felt his research proved that: (2)

the majority of people living in that district were of the working class, who had only a limited time to get home to meals and back to their place of business …..unless a footpath is made there will always be the present eyesore of a mudpath across the field.

The new path went ahead quickly.

Aviary

The aviary was first put up in 1927 and rebuilt in 1992.  Photograph May 2019

People had enjoyed listening to bands playing in the park since the early days of the syndicate’s tenure.  The council acknowledged public pressure for a bandstand and there were, of course, numerous others up and down the country.  The People’s Park bandstand was opened in June 1932.  A rather grand affair, the money for it was donated by a charitable trust.  Hilton’s design was tailored to the site – on falling ground that forms a natural amphitheatre near the centre of the park.

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The bandstand is in the centre of this aerial photograph taken in 1947.  Photograph courtesy of Richard Savory.

Hilton supervised the entire construction by the council’s direct labour force. The rectangular bandstand with a bow-shaped front could house 40 musicians.

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The opening of the Bandstand, June 1932 (2)

Fete after fete, rally after rally, parade after parade, a war time nursery and a British Restaurant kept spirits up in World War II.  With little physical damage in Banbury, a shortage of deckchairs in the People’s Park kept the council busy.

With its new facilities in place, the People’s Park was, by the late 1930s, well established as a place of leisure and relaxation.  The reduction in average working hours during the 1930s through to the 1960s only increased its popularity; Hilton’s facilities in the People’s Park are good examples of well-designed facilities provided by local councils to meet a need for local, safe and ordered recreation.

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Sidney Hilton photographed in 1954 and close to his retirement.  Plans for his housing schemes are in the background. (2)

The People’s Park had become Banbury’s most popular outdoor venue.

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Banbury Grammar School’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed in the bandstand in June 1951.  The council gave a grant of £50 towards this production. (2)

Concert

Summer music festival 1973, photograph courtesy of Michael Amor

The post-war borough council’s thoughts turned to horticulture.  In the gloomy and cold late 1940s there was a new appetite for municipal horticulture and landscaping.  Mindful of the extent of Hilton’s new housing estates under construction, the council asked the Institute of Landscape Architects for an outline scheme to improve all of their present and proposed parks and recreation grounds, the People’s Park included.  For a fee of 100 guineas the Institute sent a Miss Crowe of London to produce a report. (3)

In April 1947 the council considered her more detailed recommendations and decided that

having regard to the abnormality of the times and the fairly heavy capital expenditure likely to be involved … the further consideration of (Miss Crowe’s) report be adjourned and … that the matter must probably lay in abeyance for a period of at least two or three years.

Miss Crowe’s report is not included in her archives and we do not know her thoughts on the People’s Park.  She had a reputation for producing rushed scruffy sketches bursting with ideas; we can imagine her sketching plans for new trees and flowerbeds in the park, perhaps with Hilton in tow.

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Part of Sylvia Crowe’s plans for the Garden of Rest at St Mary’s Church Banbury, adjacent to the People’s Park.  Her plans were implemented by the council in 1950.  Drawing courtesy of the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading.

Sylvia Crowe was born in Banbury.  From the 1930s and in private practice she took on many commissions including projects for nuclear power stations, hospital grounds, colleges and new housing estates.  In 1948 she was the landscape consultant for Harlow New Town bringing Sir Frederick Gibberd’s masterplan for urban green spaces to life.  With an international reputation she is considered one of the great landscape architects of the second half of the 20th century.  She wrote several books; The Landscape of Power (1958) is her best known.

The 1950s was to see a shift in policy: the Council made a specific decision to designate the People’s Park as an ornamental flower garden while investment in new playing fields went on elsewhere.  The Council appointed a superintendent of horticulture in 1953: an expert gardener with planning and administrative capabilities to take charge of all of their parks.  Tommy Jackson from Winsford, FRHS, was their man.

The People’s Park became the nerve centre of Jackson’s responsibilities.  A new mess room, potting shed, and greenhouses were built.  New lighting and heating systems meant that work would not stop during the winter.  He asked for and was provided with a Land Rover and a garage for it was built next to the potting shed.

Jackson soon had a staff of 17 looking after Banbury Borough Council’s 69 acres of parks and recreation grounds, verges and 16 acres of land in the cemetery.  Three of the men were qualified horticulturists.  In 1958, 4500 geraniums and 32,000 annual bedding plants were grown from seed.  They created extraordinary flower displays in the town’s libraries, public buildings and for the tables at council meetings.  Still something of a blank canvas, thousands of bulbs were planted in the People’s Park.

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Jackson created several new flowerbeds in the People’s Park.  Photograph 1958 courtesy of the Oxfordshire History Centre

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The Cuttle Brook fed the paddling pool until the water was piped and Jackson turned the course of the stream into an herbaceous border.  The park shelter is in the background.  Photograph courtesy of Banbury Museum Trust.

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Council gardeners in the People’s Park greenhouses, photograph from 1965 reproduced in the Banbury Cake 24 July 2003 (2)

An expert horticulturist and perfectionist, by 1965 Jackson needed more skilled gardeners to grow top quality flowers for public displays.  The council received numerous compliments for his spectacular floral displays in the People’s Park.  His influence on the Borough’s housing policy was such that new council housing was offered to three green-fingered applicants to join Jackson to ‘keep Banbury blooming’. (2)

The Council never did revisit Sylvia Crowe’s work.  Her naturalistic designs may have proved more durable and cheaper in the long run but is unlikely to have been as popular as Jackson’s colourful, high-maintenance style during the 1950s and 1960s.

Local Government reorganisation in 1974 put the People’s Park in the hands of Cherwell District Council.  The national government’s Standard Spending Assessment excluded spending on parks and the district council’s approach appears to have been one of damage limitation only; with a scaled down presence in the park there were no real improvements to speak of. (4)

By then there had been a sea-change in the nation’s leisure habits.  Like other medium-sized towns within reach of London, Banbury had become an expanded town; a high proportion of the 1960s suburbs’ first occupants were either from sub-standard or bomb-damaged housing in North London or beneficiaries of slum clearance schemes in Solihull and Coventry.  Households had sole occupancy, security of tenure and good sized gardens.  People enjoyed spending their spare time at home, took up gardening and enjoyed sport and music on television. A trip to the shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon became, in many cases, a new walk in the park. (4)

Hilton’s facilities had a lifespan of roughly fifty years. The paddling pool proved too expensive to clean, the timber shelter was torched, some incidents took place in and around the public toilets leading to their closure. Bands played to smaller audiences and the council demolished Hilton’s graffiti-strewn bandstand in 1988.

The new Banbury Town Council took on the People’s Park from 2000.  A Green Flag was awarded in 2001 but has since lapsed.  The Town Council appears to dislike anything too contemporary; there is no coherent policy on the planting style or the provision of facilities.  CCTV was installed in 2015.  Hilton’s walls and paths are intact; the quality of the infrastructure he laid out for the park in the 1930s is borne out by the hundreds of people who crisscross the park as part of their daily routine.

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Neithrop House – Grade II listed – under renovation and conversion to flats and townhouses, photograph 2019

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Renewal of paths in the People’s Park, May 2019

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Banbury Town Council’s beautiful tulips in May 2019

Financially speaking, Banbury Town Council has no difficulty maintaining the People’s Park at present. (5)  Whether this is publicly acknowledged or not, the park is able to play its part in increasing biodiversity and mitigating the effects of air pollution and, in an era of growing concern about the nation’s physical and mental well-being, it has a positive impact on local people’s health in encouraging short walks with or without the dog, and as a meeting place that can foster social ties. (6)  Above all it is still a place for relaxation – as important to people now as it was to those who joined in the celebrations in 1919.

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The People’s Park, Banbury   Photograph May 2019

On 14 July 2019 a Fine Lady on a White Horse will once again make her way through Banbury’s streets to the People’s Park.  A small and peaceful market town in the middle of England will celebrate the park’s 100th birthday.  It has a name that someone could have come up with yesterday; a name that has never been a nickname but one that was set by its first benefactor, George Ball.  Let’s celebrate the achievements and generosity of its founders and designers.

Sources

(1) Banbury Museum Trust’s Reminiscence Group on memories of the People’s Park, October 2018

(2) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1897 and 1955 held by the British Newspaper Archive.

(3) Banbury Borough Council  Baths, Parks and Markets Committee minutes, 18 November 1946

(4) Travis Elborough, A Walk In The Park (2016)

(5) Heritage Lottery Fund report, The State of UK Public Parks (2014), warned that local authorities faced larger budget cuts for parks than in the late 1970s.

(6) CABE Space, The Value of Public Space (2004)

The People’s Park, Banbury, Part I: ‘The Brightest Spot Throughout the Whole History of the Borough’

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I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Jane Kilsby who has previously contributed excellent articles on pre-First World War council housing in Banbury and interwar schemes in north Oxfordshire. Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury over five years ago. Here she writeon the People’s Park in Banbury, a public park celebrating one hundred years of municipal ownership in 2019. 

Lady White Horse

From the Banbury Advertiser (1)

On 19 July 1919, a Fine Lady on a White Horse led a stunning procession through the streets of Banbury.  In a gown of brocaded plush with an ermine border and a veil of valenciennes lace and in pouring rain, the Fine Lady made her way to the People’s Park to celebrate peace and a new beginning for the park.  Her horse, a white arab charger, had served throughout the Great War and wore the Mons ribbon on his brow.  She was followed by wounded soldiers and sailors, Red Cross hospital nurses, the Fire Brigade, boy scouts and guides, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the Co-operative Society and many, many more representing the town’s public services and commercial interests.

Unlike a majority of towns in England and Scotland, Banbury did not have a public park laid out in the Victorian period.  Banbury’s Aldermen felt that there was so much open countryside surrounding their town that there was no need for one.  But, as Banbury’s population and industrial activities grew, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions became more common and a place for fresh air began to be seen as an essential.

There are several People’s Parks in England: some of them have proper names too such as Victoria Park in East London and there are larger and much older People’s Parks in Halifax and Tiverton, for example.  Banbury’s People’s Park came about through a combination of late Victorian benevolence, imagination and a sense of public responsibility on the part of the town’s council in the early 20th century.  Let’s return to the decorated wagons and the large crowd in the park in July 1919 to hear how the story began.

The Town Clerk read out the will of the late George Vincent Ball.  Ball had left a legacy of approximately £3,200 for the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of Banbury:

to be applied by them in the purchase of land in some suitable situation near the town as a Park for the recreation of all classes during every day of the week from sunrise to sunset all the year round, to be ornamentally laid out, and called the People’s Park.

Born in Banbury in 1814, George Ball owned a chemists shop from 1844. (1) A borough councillor from 1858 to 1864; the provision of accessible stiles into fields around Banbury was among his achievements.  He died in 1892.

In response to his legacy the borough received offers of land but rejected all of them either because they were too small or the locations were not quite right.  In any event Ball’s legacy was deferred until his sister’s death.  The burgesses were reluctant to raise money via the rates before the legacy was available.  It was to be eighteen years before the perfect opportunity presented itself.

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Central Banbury 1882 indicating the location of the People’s Park and the Neithrop House estate. The ‘Old Flower show Ground’ was rejected as a potential site.  Map courtesy of Banbury Museum Trust

The Neithrop House estate came up for auction in October 1910.  The lot comprised the house, gardens and pleasure grounds – about three acres – and six and a half acres of rich turf, stabling, gardener’s and coachman’s cottages, and 19 cottages in Paradise Square.

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Neithrop House, a hunting box built for the Croome family in 1839.  Photograph c1988 courtesy of the Oxfordshire History Centre

As a site for their people’s park this was irresistible.  The Council had no funds to bid and did not expect the Local Government Board to grant a loan; the rules on councils taking on mortgages to buy land at that time only applied to sewage disposal schemes.  But, the week before the auction, the Mayor, Joseph Chard, called for the formation of a syndicate.  The People’s Park Syndicate was the only one in Banbury which announced, from the outset, its intention to give no interest or profits to its subscribers. (1)

Within days, the syndicate received a donation of £500 and went ahead in the knowledge that there was no better location and price for a people’s park.  The estate did not meet its reserve; the syndicate bought the whole lot privately shortly afterwards for £5,250.  Ball’s sister, Mrs Luckett, was 83; the syndicate assumed the council would be able to use Ball’s legacy to buy the estate from them before long.

By December 1910, total subscriptions from the great and good of Banbury, including several councillors, were £990 and the final purchase account including conveyancing was £5,305 17s 6d.  A bank loan made up the difference.

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People’s Park Syndicate certificate, 1910.  Copy courtesy of Oxfordshire History Centre.

Syndicate members set about managing their estate with competence and efficiency.  They put up sanitary conveniences and did some repairs to the cottages.  Members were able to visit the parkland; some were a little resentful of the 2s 6d they had to pay for a key.  The park was not open to the public; new fencing protected their investment.

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The syndicate held some enchanting garden parties.  Photograph 1912 courtesy of The Banbury Museum Trust

Councillor Brooks, elected Mayor in November 1910 and then Chairman of the People’s Park Syndicate, nevertheless saw the syndicate solely as the park’s temporary caretaker.  By February 1912 the syndicate offered the council:

a rent of £80 per annum to include all liabilities… the syndicate will apply any balance of income arising year to year to reduce the ultimate purchase price of the estate.

Councillor Herbert Payne , local housing campaigner, pounced on the syndicate’s proposal.  In the council’s debate on it, Payne pronounced: (1)

three things were wanted in Banbury: a public lavatory, a people’s park and a public library…The place could be made a very pleasant outdoor pleasure resort….  It was easy of access and the splendid trees and undulating turf made it a delightful spot and they (the Council) should encourage the present tendency of taking pleasure in the open air.  There would be no first class, second class or third class; the youngest and oldest, the richest and poorest could meet here.

His fellow councillors agreed that this was a very good deal; some expressed their embarrassment that Banbury did not already have a public park. With a joint committee of council and syndicate representatives set up the council took on the rent of the parkland.

A ceremony was held on 25 June 1912 to mark this landmark in the park’s history.  The Mayoress, Mrs J.Bloomfield, planted an oak tree and, as a symbol of the park’s opening to the public, she was presented with a key.

Only a week later, the Banbury Guardian reported: (1)

The People’s Park is evidently going to verify its name.  Ample evidence of this was given on Sunday afternoon when there was a very large number of the inhabitants taking advantage of this charming ‘rus in urbe.’  Strangers from a distance – as well as residents – were loud in their praise of the foresight of the public-spirited gentlemen who had secured such a sylvan spot for the recreation of the people.

The council continued to rent the park from the syndicate until 1918.

Understandably, no action was taken on the option to buy the estate during the First World War.  In February 1918 the legacy became available on the death of Ball’s sister and, with a bank loan making up the difference, the council bought the park, Neithrop House and the cottages in Paradise Square for £5,186 18s 2d.  The land’s value had doubled during the syndicate’s ownership but no profit was paid to the subscribers.  The council anticipated that the rents from the cottages would, over time, clear the overdraft from the bank; the People’s Park came into local authority ownership without any funds from ratepayers.  The 1919 procession and garden party to celebrate the council’s ownership of the People’s Park was a huge success.

The Banbury Advertiser in 1932 described the whole process of the acquisition of the People’s Park by the council – with its combination of private generosity and public opportunism – as ‘the brightest spot throughout the whole history of the Borough.’ (1)

Municipal ownership brought in some talented and diligent municipal managers.  Recreational facilities, thoughtful planning and ordered cultivation turned approximately eight acres of green fields and trees into a recognisable and well-used public park.

But first there was the need for commemoration.

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The cenotaph in the People’s Park designed by T Gardner, FRIBA in 1922. (2) Photograph May 2019

In municipal ownership from 1919 and open to all, the people of Banbury were not the only occupants of their new park.

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In August 1917 four sheep were found dead beneath an elm tree after a violent thunderstorm.  Photograph from the early 1920s courtesy of Banbury Museum.

The syndicate had tendered for sheep grazers throughout their tenure of the park.  Equally loathe to waste money on a lawn mower, the council followed like sheep.

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Cicely Bailey describes how much she enjoyed the park during her childhood: (3)

there were sheep in the park then and … we children loved them.  They used to wander back and forth, eating the long grass which was sometimes as high as the smaller children.

It was not until spring 1926 that the council enjoyed showing off a new Ransome’s triple mower.

The council wanted to make its presence felt and instil some discipline.  Its byelaws for the People’s Park were approved by the Minister of Health in 1920.  Drying washing, beating rugs, singing, injuring birds, wading or bathing in the stream and playing any sports or games that needed a dedicated space were all banned with a £5 penalty payable for every offence. (4)

Tom Rawlings was appointed as Park Keeper in November 1926.  His wages were £3 a week with free accommodation in part of Neithrop House. Councillors found him an excellent worker and always ‘busily engaged’ (1); children thought him stern and feared his stick. (3)

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Banbury Borough Council’s first plan for the park’s facilities, drawn up mid 1920s (1)

The 1920s were a period of great interest and increased participation in sport, there was public support for new facilities.  The building of ‘homes for heroes’ was putting a strain on council staff’s time and expertise; the borough council needed someone to carry out their plans for the park.

Sidney Hilton was appointed as the new Borough Engineer, Surveyor and Architect in April 1925.  Born in 1891, the son of a King’s Lynn builder, the Banbury Guardian welcomed him:

Everyone will be most anxious for his success for upon him largely depends the welfare, development and expansion of the town.  His duties are onerous and it will be necessary to exercise some patience before Mr Hilton can possibly obtain a full knowledge of the many problems under his administration.

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Hilton photographed by the Banbury Advertiser, 1925 (1)

They needn’t have worried.  Hilton was one of the Borough’s most respected and talented employees.  Described as one of the old school of ‘dual-qualification’ men, Hilton was a member of the Institute of Municipal Engineers, a Registered Architect, Member of the Royal Sanitary Institute and a Fellow of the Institute of Housing.

Council housing was Hilton’s greatest interest and he designed 24 different types of houses, including houses built in 1933, when the Ministry of Housing demanded the utmost economy, for £260 each, a design used as a model of economical building by authorities across the country.  He was responsible for the completion of Banbury’s larger peripheral estates – about 1,200 houses – including the large post 1945 development in Ruscote.  Importantly, it was Hilton who designed the layout of these new estates, all with public parks, as well as individual house designs.  Hilton Road was named in recognition of his work.

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Hilton Road, Banbury, photograph May 2019

During Hilton’s career Banbury’s population increased from about 13,000 to 20,000.  In 1933 he designed an extension to Banbury’s sewage works that doubled the works’ capacity.  The Borough’s outdoor swimming pool, opened in 1939, is all Hilton’s work, as was an extension to the public library, town centre public conveniences and a new street lighting scheme.  He retired in 1955 after 46 years of local government service as the first Honorary Freeman of the Borough and the last man to wear a silk hat to civic functions.

But what did he do in the People’s Park?  A lot, as you might expect.  It was Hilton who designed and, as the director of the council’s direct labour force, built almost all of the park’s facilities in the interwar period.  He turned what was really a field full of sheep into a classic English well-ordered public park with soft grasses and trees, and plenty more besides.

Council elections in November 1925 threw up calls for action.  Councillor Allsopp expressed the public’s demands. (1)

there is a crying need for the provision of further opportunities for recreation for all classes of the community.  A bandstand and tennis courts would provide remuneration and an increasing attraction to Banbury without unduly burdening the rates.

If we note that Leeds, for instance, had 150 public tennis courts in its parks by 1924, Banbury’s initial plans – for three lawn tennis courts – seem unambitious.  But by the late 1920s Hilton’s comprehensive approach included a bowling green, a putting green, a park shelter, a pay office, new paths, a children’s corner with a swing, see-saw and giant’s stride, new entrances, seating, toilets and cloakrooms.  With estimates of £2,000 for these facilities the council received some donations and took on a Public Works Board loan: £1,170 repayable in 10 years and £520 in 20 years.  Well received by the public, these facilities were put in place during the next five years.

The tennis courts came first, in 1926.  Next, the park shelter, with a buffet at one end and then a new toilet block near Neithrop House.  Sanctioned by the Ministry of Health, the new block replaced the syndicate’s conveniences and was built by W & A Collisson of Banbury.  Hilton knew the high quality of W & A Collisson’s work – between the wars they built 216 council houses and a further 100 houses after 1945.  (5)  Hilton’s neat and clever design for the new block, in Banbury brick, incorporates the park’s boundary walls and provided access even when the park gates were closed at night.

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The old toilets in the People’s Park are currently vacant.  Photograph May 2019

The Oxfordshire Surveyors’ Association met in Banbury in July 1927. (1)  In reporting on his achievements Hilton added ‘we have no miracles to show you.’  He hadn’t, but the Councillors noted that their new facilities had attracted three times the number of visitors than previously.  They wanted more.

Banbury’s unemployment figures in 1930 were not as high as elsewhere but the council, urged on by central government advice, wanted to ease living conditions for unemployed men in their town.  With no large unemployment scheme to refer to the Minister of Labour, they set a budget of £1960 for the pool, playground, putting green and bowling green and, very unusually in Banbury, agreed to pay all of it from revenue with the levy of a separate rate.  Councillor Monks described the building of the bowling green as: (1)

it was much better to give the men work they could see something for rather than they should be on the dole.  About half the money would go in wages; they would employ about 50 men for eight weeks in the park.

Hilton planned the green for the Banbury Borough Bowls Club – founded in 1929.  It was built using direct labour.  Insisting on best quality turf – Lancashire sea-washed turf – he wanted people to use it.  90 percent of club members’ fees went to the borough council.

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Banbury Borough Bowls Club.  Photograph May 2019

The new children’s corner and a pool for toy yachts and paddling, the putting green and a drinking fountain completed this phase of new facilities.

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The paddling pool was enjoyed by generations.  A breach of the byelaws c. early 1970s.  Children over 14 were not allowed to use it.  Photograph courtesy of Sheila Evans.

Next week’s post will look at further improvements to the People’s Park and the council’s changing approach to horticulture during the post war period.

Sources

(1) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1897 and 1955 held by the British Newspaper Archive.

(2) K Northover, Banbury During the Great War (2003)

(3) C Bailey, Childhood Memories of Banbury 1922-1939 (1998)

(4) Byelaws made by the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Banbury with respect to the People’s Park, 31 August 1920 held at the Oxfordshire History Centre

(5) W & A Collisson, builders, Banbury 1874-1967, archive records held at the Oxfordshire History Centre

The Dursley Housing Scheme, 1912, Part II: ‘No Better Housing Scheme’

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I’m very pleased to host this second post by Chas Townley, a follow-up to his article last week which looked at the background to Dursley’s pre-war housing scheme. Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control; authority in Gloucestershire. He is currently chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing.  He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision.

Returning to Dursley and our 38 first houses, the decision to investigate providing housing started in January 1912 as a result of a circular letter from the Government which offered meetings with officials to assist the council. They also had information from Cirencester Urban District Council, which was already seeking to build houses with rents of 4 shillings a week. Dursley Rural District Council (RDC) members considered this to be far too much rent for ‘the workmen they were concerned about in the area’ – as the rents of those to be evicted from their closed hovels had very low rents. (1)

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The plaque marking the opening of the new scheme in Lower Poole Road

Despite such early negativity discussions proceeded and a news report of the Dursley Annual Parish Meeting addressed by Mr Sidney Bloodworth, Chairman of the Dursley Parochial Committee (DPC) and Vice-Chairman of the RDC presented a narrative on why they were looking to build council housing.

It is worth explaining the membership of the DPC which was a Dursley RDC committee consisting of all parish councillors and any RDC members representing the Parish of Dursley. I have come across this form of committee in several researches and it appears to have been a normal method of delegating purely local matters for action. Sadly, as they appear to have operated on an ad hoc basis their records have rarely made it into the official archives. In this case my account is based on occasional newspaper reports.

Bloodworth reports the dilemma that the RDC faced following the Housing and Planning act which ‘demanded the closing of houses which were declared unfit for human habitation’ and that the District Council ‘wanted to be assured that there was somewhere else for them to go’. It is stated that the condemned houses were let at a shilling or 1 shilling and 6d per week (5p to 7.5p). It was admitted that it was impossible to build at anything like that rental ‘without being a burden on the rates’.

They had approached the owner of a site on the Uley Road and ended up conducting discussions with Mr Vizard through his drawing room window overlooking the site with him posing the question pointing at the land ‘Now, if this was your house would you like to sell that field?’ Consequently, he was not prepared to sell at any price. The idea of compulsorily purchasing the site had been gone into but it transpired that compensation would have had to be paid for the devaluation in the house overlooking the site.  Another site was now under consideration and it was hoped to reach agreement with the two owners but it would be necessary to remove a rubbish tip.

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Sir Ashton Lister, Managing Director of R A Lister & Co and later Liberal MP for Stroud, 1918-1922

An argument against funding the housing was advanced suggesting that the ‘firm that imported the labour which overcrowded the town should provide the dwellings and the Parochial Committee should ask them.’ Counter-arguments claimed that workers should not have to live in houses provided by their employer.

Later in the debate Sir Ashton Lister spoke on behalf of the engineering firm stating they were not the only employer in the town and that ‘if the town did not think the building would be in the interest of the town, then they should not endorse the scheme’. In the discussion he commented that the firm had erected 64 houses and bought 20. Lister also believed there was a need for a further 50 houses in the town.

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Houses in the completed scheme on Upper Poole Road

Despite the passion and heat of the debate the meeting was brought to a close with a unanimous decision to request the DPC to prepare a scheme. (2)

By July an Inspector from the Local Government Board visited the town and was accompanied by a large group of local councillors and inspected some housing sites, the preferred site in two separate ownerships of a Mrs Poole and Bristol Corporation – hence the scheme being in Upper Poole Road.

Modern map Dursley from Know Your place mapping subject to OS copyright sites highlighted

This contemporary map shows the two sites eventually chosen for the scheme.

Agreement had been reached with Mrs Poole but Bristol Corporation were reported to want a ‘ridiculously high value’ on their land. The inspector was shown a variety of other sites including the garden of the workhouse. The report concludes by noting ‘the opinion of the Inspector was that there were two possible sites to choose from’ which are understood to be the Upper Poole Road site and the land they could not purchase at any price. (3)

It now transpired from an enquiry from a member of the House of Lords that the compulsory purchase powers could not be used to obtain the land from Bristol Corporation and John Burns had written that the Rural District Council had been advised to consider a smaller scheme or a slightly different site. (4)

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Lower Poole Road

Later than month, a press report referring to the DPC as the Dursley Housing Committee noted that they wanted to persevere with the Poole Cottages scheme and would enter further negotiations with Bristol Corporation. It is suspected that these were fruitless and the scheme was designed to fit the land available, but ironically four or five years later Bristol flogged off the whole of their Dursley land holdings by auction. (5)

It was reported in November 1912 that 150 architects had applied for particulars of the design competition. The rent was not to exceed 4 shillings and 6d (22.5p) and the accommodation was specified as being one living room, three bedrooms, kitchen, scullery with bath and also larder, etc. (6)

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Upper Poole Road

Later in the month Arthur Probyn, a 46 year-old architect and surveyor from Gloucester, was announced as the winner. It transpired later that his was one of 40 designs submitted. (7)  From newspaper reports, Probyn undertook works for various organisations mainly in Gloucester including the Gloucester Cooperative Society, the Gloucester Royal Infirmary (at their original Southgate Street premises) and he was one of seven architects engaged on the Tuffley housing scheme in 1920. He was also architect for a school hall for Dursley Tabernacle completed in 1914 and perhaps this scheme meant he was a known quantity. (8)

When it came to the official Board of Health loan sanction inquiry held in March 1913 before the same Inspector who had considered the appropriateness of the site chosen there were no formal objectors. However, Mr Loxton, a member of the Rural District Council who had provided critical challenge to the project, explained some of the deficiencies that had been considered to exist in the scheme including whether the site was sufficient for the number of houses and whether the scheme could be built within the estimated costs.

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Upper Poole Road

When the tenders came in in August 1913, all of the tenders exceeded the original estimates. As is often the case, the cheapest from S Williams & Sons of Bristol at £7030 did not represent good value as it excluded the cost of roads and drains. W J B Halls Gloucester £8050 was the next lowest with the highest of seven including being nearly £10,000. One bid had been from Lister & Co, suggesting they had their own building team. It is interesting to note that the actual tender costs all appeared in the newspaper, transparency indeed! Even with Halls’ tender the consequence was to increase both the loan for the scheme and the proposed rent from 4s 6d to as high as 6 shillings.

Given the high level of democracy attached to the scheme, a parish meeting was held to ascertain the views of ratepayers and this is reported at length in the Gloucester Journal. Much of the debate focused on the rental costs with, for example, Arthur Shand arguing that the ‘rent was too high for the working man of Dursley’ and Mr A S Adams suggesting ‘the council would be catering for an entirely different class of people to that which was originally intended’. There were some voices that the Council should abandon the scheme.

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Upper Poole Road

The result was that the DPC was asked to go away and find a way to build the houses for rents of 4s 6d, which was way off the original concern felt by Council members back in January 1912 – perhaps showing that the council by inclusion had taken the community with them. It is notable that, despite the contentious nature of the meeting, it was unanimous in thanking DPC ‘for their labours on behalf of the working men of the town’. (9)

In the face of community protest, which wanted low rents, local industrialist Sir Ashton Lister, owner of an expanding engineering factory and later a Liberal MP, dipped his hand in his pocket and gave £500 on condition rents were 5 shillings a week. (10)  Was this an act of ‘charity’ that his Party in Parliament condemned or enlightened self-interest – perhaps the latter as he had already supported the provision of housing by his company.  Consequently, when the matter came before the fortnightly meeting of the District Council, it was agreed to make application for an increased loan of £7852 to enable the housing scheme to be built. (11)

The contract which was let to Halls of Gloucester provided for the first block of four houses to be completed by 31 January 1914 and then two houses to be handed over every two weeks until the scheme was completed. An attempt was made to invite John Burns MP, President of the Local Government Board, to inaugurate the housing scheme but he advised the Council he was unable to attend. (12)

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Upper Poole Road

If you do your maths that means the last two were due to be handed over on 26 September 1914 but completion of the scheme wasn’t reported until January 1915, suggesting that there were some delay in completing the scheme. The newspaper columnist was able to report, ‘It has been stated on good authority that no better housing scheme has been formulated under the Housing and Planning Act anywhere in the country.’ (13)

To be frank, as the 38 houses had been shoehorned into the available land with 28 on one site between Upper Poole Road and Lower Poole Road and the remaining ten a short distance further up Upper Poole Road, it was not an adventurous design. It does not have the smart landscaping of later developments like the Circle in Uplands Stroud but this collection of eight terraces of four houses along with three pairs of semis, all built in very solid red brick, was a well-designed scheme with large windows to provide plenty of light.

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An early post-war scheme, built in the 1920s. The Circle, Uplands Stroud. The Gloucestershire and England cricketer Jack Russell learned to play the game on the green.

As such it is perhaps a story of opportunity and chance that Dursley was one of a handful of Districts in Gloucestershire to have built council housing before the war. In fairness, the actual numbers built were pretty small but it is important to recognise the widespread way in which councils of all complexions had started to develop the aspiration that they could respond to local needs by increasing the supply of homes for the working class.

I’m not such a curmudgeon that I don’t think we shouldn’t celebrate Lloyd George’s Homes Fit for Heroes or the sea change achieved by Addison’s 1919 Act. But we also need to celebrate the heavy lifting of John Burns and the pre-war campaigners that created the environment in which building local democratically-controlled council housing was accepted as the obvious policy choice for a post-war Government to encourage.

Chas Townley (chas.h.townley@gmail.com)

Sources

(1) Gloucestershire Chronicle, 6 January 1912

(2) ‘The Housing Question in Dursley’, Gloucester Journal, 16 March 1912, p3 

(3) ‘Dursley: The Housing Question’, Gloucester Citizen, 24 July 1912, p3 

(4) ‘Dursley Housing Scheme Local Government Board’s Suggestion’, Gloucester Citizen, 8 August 1912,  p5  

(5) ‘Dursley: Dursley District Council’, Gloucestershire Chronicle, 31 August 1912′  p2 

(6) ‘General News: Dursley Housing Scheme’, Gloucestershire Echo, 5 November 1912, p3 

(7) Gloucester Journal, 1 February 1913,  p11

(8) ‘Gloucester’s New Houses: Some Rapidly Nearing Completion’, Gloucestershire Chronicle, 4 September 1920, p6. Also Cheltenham Chronicle, 8 July 1914

(9) ‘Dursley Housing Scheme Parishioners Disapprove’, Gloucester Journal, 23 August 1913, p11 

(10) ‘Timely Gift of Sir A Lister Dursley Housing Scheme Rescued’, Cheltenham Chronicle, 6 September 1913, p7 

(11)’Dursley Guardians and District Council’, Gloucester Journal, 6 September 1913, p11 and also ‘Sir A Lister and Dursley Housing’, Evesham Standard & West Midland Observer, 27 September 1913, p6 

(12) Gloucester Journal, 21 February 1914, p10

(13) Berkeley Vale Gleanings: Dursley Housing Scheme’, Cheltenham Chronicle, 9 January 1915, p3  

The Dursley Housing Scheme, 1912, Part I: Housing Reform before the First World War

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I’m delighted to host this article by Chas Townley which is not only a fascinating account of some early council housing in Dursley, Gloucestershire but a significant contribution to the debate around the significance of a pre-war spurt in council house construction pre-dating the 1919 Housing Act. This first post examines the background to the scheme; the follow-up will examine the scheme in detail.

Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control’ authority in Gloucestershire. He is currently chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing.  He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision.

I have the privilege to be Chair of Housing at Stroud District Council which this year has been a housing provider for 105 years, despite still only being 45 years old!  This arises from the construction of 38 working class cottages by Dursley Rural District Council, one of seven pre-1974 rural and urban districts which served our patch. (1)

While it remains a housing provider the council has not built at scale since schemes were planned in the late 1970s, although we have delivered a programme of new council homes over the last five or six years, mainly to replace defective housing or utilise sites in Council ownership. We aspire to more but this isn’t the place to write about the future.

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Dursley at around the time of the First World War

As a local historian, I am presently trying to piece together the motives that drove at least four of our predecessors to actively contemplate housing schemes in their areas in the Edwardian era. In addition to the Dursley scheme, two other sites at Wotton-under-Edge and Stroud had been purchased already and active discussions were taking place elsewhere, before the skids were put on further progress by the chaos of war in August 1914.

While at first glance the Stroud District is very much a rural area with stunning landscapes in the Cotswolds and the world-renowned Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands on the Severn Estuary, it has an industrial heritage to compete with places like Ironbridge or the Black Country. Maybe I’m just a little biased but we have a fantastic industrial heritage story.

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The Budding lawnmower patent © Museum in the Park, Stroud (2972/2)

Near Stroud, Edwin Budding invented the lawnmower, developed from machinery in the cloth industry. If that wasn’t enough, he also gave us the adjustable spanner; What good toolbox is without one of those?

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Two coopers outside the Lister Churn works © Museum in the Park, Stroud (1975.131)

In the south of the District, the growth of Dursley had been greatly influenced by the development of RA Lister and Co as a major engineering company famed for its diesel engines which started life as an agricultural implements company in 1867. Sadly what little remains – not even based in Dursley – is a minuscule reminder of the past successes of its enterprise and innovation.

Much of the industry was linked to the woollen industry and our council offices are a converted mill – as is the headquarters of Renishaw, a world leading engineering and scientific company. The last remaining cloth firm, once famed for its scarlet for military uniforms, remains in production producing vibrant yellow and green for tennis and snooker.

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And perhaps it is worth remembering that the industrialisation of the weaving industry was the start of a long tradition of active trade unions defending the rights and working conditions of employees.

Collectivism also extended to strong support for the Cooperative movement and some towns and villages at one time boasted 50 percent participation. The main society in the area, the Cainscross and Ebley, in addition to renting out cottages also supported home ownership. Fifty loans had been granted, mostly in the Dursley area, perhaps indicating this was an area with enormous housing demand, but this activity was small fry – the neighbouring Gloucester society claimed to have given out 700 loans! (2)

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Bramwell Hudson, photographed in 1912 as General Manager of the Cainscross and Ebley Cooperative Society

The links of industrialists to our predecessor councils are well known but it is worth remembering that our councils represented all shades of opinion – as they do today. Bramwell Hudson, the inspirational general manager of the Coop for much of the early years began his sixteen-year stint as Chairman of Stroud RDC on his retirement from the Coop in 1928.

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Margaret Hills, photographed as a suffragist speaker and campaigner in Manchester, 1909

And, of course, we find amongst the women on our councils Margaret Hills, who learnt her political craft in the suffrage movement. She too was inspirational and could hold a packed Manchester Free Trade Hall audience in the palm of her hand. As Stroud UDC Chair of Housing, she developed housing for older people back in the early 1930s.

While this article is relatively early thoughts on our predecessors’ initiative, I am convinced they were responding to a housing crisis which is probably of as great an impact as we face today; Gloucestershire’s inspirational community action was not some isolated action but part of a national response to a growing crisis. For example, in the 1917 debate about whether Gloucester City should support an initial 200 dwelling post-war scheme, in response to Government requests, Councillor Fielding (a partner in the now lamented Fielding and Platt Company) highlighted a successful housing scheme undertaken by Hereford City Council. (3)

The Government Minister who created the impetus for action was John Burns, a trade unionist who served as President of the Local Government Board from 1905 until 1914 when he was moved to another Ministry. As a pacifist, he inevitably resigned from Government on Britain entering the Great War and never again played an active part in national politics.

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John Burns MP, President of the Local Government Board, c1911

Burns’ influence on housing policy and the wider ‘activist’ role for local government before the Great War is underrated. In part, this is because he did not make the transition to the Labour Party and remained as a radical in the Liberal Party. On the other hand, there are significant anti-Semitic character flaws which do not make for comfortable reading today.

In the period before Burns there had been considerable complacency about poor housing conditions. When Rider Haggard (Yes, he of King Solomon’s Mines) visited Gloucestershire as part of national agricultural survey in 1901, he interviewed Dr Martin, the Medical Officer of Health for a combined area covering three councils in the Stroud area. Haggard reported that: (4)

The cottages were fair with good gardens, and there were few cases of overcrowding; still he had been obliged to condemn some of them.

Martin’s own Medical Officer of Health reports for this period are similar in tone with a degree of blame on tenants for poor conditions. (5)

Burns, through the Housing and Planning Act 1909 (which our Dr Martin had claimed ‘was one of the most important public health Acts of recent years’), instigated systematic inspection of housing conditions in the whole area of each District. This had been actively opposed by one of the local government associations of the day and one of Dr Martin’s employers, Stroud Rural District Council, joined the campaign to oppose this as they thought it was an unneeded imposition on the council and there was nothing to see here.

Municipal Housing John Burns Signature

The personal interest in housing reform of John Burns is illustrated by this signed copy of an influential book of the time.

Systematic inspection had instant results. In Bristol over 1000 unfit properties were found in the first year, many were improved but 110 were closed, an astonishing increase on the average of just twenty in previous years. Perhaps, a lesson from history as to why we need to rediscover the zeal for high levels of inspections of housing standards? (6)

While it is difficult to be certain of the numbers in Gloucestershire rural districts the language used in annual reports of the Medical Officers of Health significantly changed to one of heightened concern with poor housing conditions and a failing housing market, with carefully crafted polite encouragements to members to act, usually based on external evidence. (7)

Such appointments were precarious before one of Burns’ reforms as they served at the (dis)pleasure of the council, often relying on annual reappointment. In Gloucestershire one such victim was Dr Thomas Bond who was sacked by Sodbury Rural District Council in 1905. He retained the confidence of other employers and had the temerity to write about his grievous injustice publicly. His cause was taken up nationally and eventually he was reinstated following Government action. (8)

Within Stroud area there is also strong evidence of political campaigns by Liberals, Conservatives and the relatively new Labour and Trades Council to advocate for council housing in the period from 1910 onwards rising with intensity to copy Dursley and also Cirencester. (9)

In the Stroud Rural District, under pressure of campaigning, surveys had identified an urgent need for additional lower cost housing in five of seventeen parishes. In the case of the village of Minchinhampton, the cause was blamed on the number of properties owned by ‘weekenders’ who then remodelled cottage properties to their needs – apparently at the expense of local manual workers. The impact of second homes remains of concern today across many rural areas like the Cotswolds. (10)

An odd feature of Rural Districts was the allocation of some costs as ‘special expenses’ rated on specific areas of the District – usually but not always a whole parish. This approach resulted in cost shunting the risk of deficits on specific housing schemes to relatively small groups of ratepayers. Consequently, schemes were limited to parishes that were prepared to meet the additional rate costs.

Frank Gwynne Evans, was the Stroud Constituency Liberal prospective parliamentary candidate for the impending 1915 General Election (which never took place due to the war). As a member of Stroud RDC and he argued that if the cost was spread across the district the amount would be ‘infinitesimal and would be repaid in short time by the relief of the poor rate, chronic rheumatism and consumption’. Such arguments as this for collective sharing of costs led to the creation of the Housing Revenue Account as the blessing and curse that we enjoy today.

On a national scale the support for council housing led to several attempts to provide better finance systems, including a recognition for the need for government grants to local authorities, rather than permissions to borrow on the security of the rates.

There are of course interesting modern ironies of positions then taken.  The debate on the Housing of the Working Classes Bill 1912, a private member’s bill sponsored by a Conservative MP, advocated subsidised rents, national grants, transfer of functions to county councils and a significant degree of central control. It was opposed in debate by a succession of Liberals who derided subsidies as ‘charity rents’. In one case a member arguing they would ‘destroy private enterprise altogether’. There were also references of returning to the dependency created by the old poor law some eighty years before. (11)

Some of the Conservative MPs argued that the level of new council housing building was too low to replace the houses lost under the compulsory inspection of housing conditions. In part this appears to be part of a strategy to question the justification of focusing on increasing standards at a time of housing shortage as well as trying to embarrass the Liberal Government for their failure to meet needs.

The relatively small number of Labour members described as occupying seats ‘below the gangway’ – which has been the traditional home of minor parties for generations – supported municipal housing with a passion and perhaps an ideological zeal. George Lansbury in his contribution stated ‘quite cheerfully I shall go into the [Tory] Lobby in support of the second reading.’ And, of course, the reason there are no female voices in this debate is that women were still fighting to be admitted to our legislature.

That bill, like so many private members’ bills even today, suffered the indignity of not making progress as the Liberal Government of the day refused to support a money bill, leading to its demise. A question I know not how to answer is whether, if progress had been made, would the Griffith-Boscawen Act have been a notable housing act? Perhaps it was bound to fail?

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A taster for next week’s post: some of Dursley’s completed housing on Lower Poole Road

Next week’s post, however, will examine the successful scheme commenced in Dursley before the First World War.

Chas Townley (chas.h.townley@gmail.com)

Sources

(1) These are the Urban Districts of Stroud and Nailsworth and the Rural Districts of Stroud and Dursley and parts of the Thornbury and Gloucester Rural Districts. Additionally, a 1991 boundary review transferred Hillesley and Tresham formerly in in the Sodbury Rural District from the Northavon District to Stroud.

(2) Unpublished research by Chas Townley on Cainscross and Ebley Cooperative Society based on society records at Gloucestershire Archives (D2754/2)

(3) ‘Gloucester City Council: The Housing Question’, Gloucester Journal, 29 September 1917 p7. This proposal eventually became the original scheme of 200 post-war homes built in Tuffley in the south of Gloucester. 

(4) Rider Haggard, Rural England: Being an account of agricultural and social researches carried out in the years 1901 & 1902 (Longmans, London 1902)

(5) See for example Dr H Martin, MOH Annual Report to Stroud UDC 1909 where he considers the condition of working class housing is generally good and notes “but of necessity in so large a town a certain number of houses are in an unsatisfactory state owing to neglect on the part of either the owners or the occupiers”. Wellcome Archive

(6) Dr DS Davies, Bristol City Council, Medical Officer of Health Annual Report 1912. Available online at the Wellcome Library

(7) Dr O Andrews,  Medical Officer of Health Annual Report 1913West Gloucestershire United Districts Housing and Planning Conference Report p14. Online at Welcome Library

(8) Dr Bond, letter concerning Chipping Sodbury Council and Dr Bond

(9) Petition to Stroud RDC by Stroud Trades and Labour Council reported in ‘Housing Problem in Stroud District Special Committee’s Report’, Cheltenham Echo, 24 April 1914, p3. Also Stroud  Conservative Workingmen’s Debating Society considered a paper on building council housing at one of their regular meetings in 1913.

(10) ‘Housing Problem in Stroud District  Special Committee’s Report’, Cheltenham Echo 24 April 1914, p3 

(11) Housing of the Working Classes Bill Second Reading Debate, Hansard Vol 35 Col 1414-1494, 15 March 1912. 

 

The Woodchurch Estate, Birkenhead II: ‘Not a mere assemblage of houses’

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Last week’s post looked at the controversy surrounding rival plans – one a more traditional cottage suburb submitted by Borough Engineer Bertie Robinson, the other an ostensibly more visionary re-imagining of community life proposed by the architect Sir Charles Reilly – for Birkenhead’s Woodchurch Estate.  The former had been preferred by the Conservative majority on the Council and they had appointed the Liverpool architect Herbert James Rowse to ‘to draw up designs for the houses to be erected on the estate’. (1)

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This plaque is placed at the main entrance to the estate on the side wall of a house on Ackers Road

To general surprise, Rowse, perhaps unwilling to work within the confines of a scheme suggested by the Borough Engineer, perhaps seeking some third way compromise, returned to the drawing board and, in January 1945, submitted an entirely new scheme.  Labour pressed for reconsideration of Reilly’s plans but in March 1945, the Council – dividing again on party lines – endorsed those of Rowse. Building of the estate, after a twenty-year gestation, finally began in 1946.

Woodchurch Plan Architecture and Building News 1950

Rowse’s 1945 plan from Architecture and Building News, 1950

Whilst he eschewed the social engineering proposed by Reilly, Rowse’s own proposals reflected the spirit and ambition of the time: (2)

The Woodchurch Estate is not a mere assemblage of houses placed on a plot ground in the maximum possible density and monotonous regularity of layout and pattern, after the manner of the vast unplanned and uncontrolled suburban development of the inter-war years: it is the architectural setting of a fully developed sociological conception of a community of people living within a defined neighbourhood, having a conscious identity of its own and equipped for the maximum possibilities of the full intercourse of such a community. The comprehensive character of this project makes it of outstanding interest.

For Rowse, the fulfilment of these promises lay in the layout, facilities and housing forms of his new estate.

The overall plan was ‘developed on the basis of the natural topographical features of the site’ with:

Every effort … made in the planning of the Estate to provide prospects of the attractive rural surroundings from every possible point and to allow the maximum amount of rural character to permeate the estate by means of planted green closes, forecourts, quadrangles, recreation spaces and allotment gardens.

Broad parkways divided the estate whilst a central square provided ‘for the social life of the community’ with shops, baths and assembly hall, community centre, cinema, library and clinic:

In contrast to the familiar monotony of streets or their suburban counterpart, the estate will present varied internal prospects of groupings of terraces and small blocks amidst trees and green spaces, having the general character of a contemporary version of the traditional English village scene.

For the 2500 houses of the estate, Rowse proposed brick of ‘good, common quality’ with ‘architectural interest … achieved by the application of lime-wash, pigmented in a range of quiet tones of yellow, blue, pink and grey, alternating with white’.  His interest extended to their interiors – those of the first homes completed being ‘decorated in warm ivory shade on the walls and a pale shade of blue on the ceilings’.  Criticism of this colour scheme led to a uniform white being applied externally by the early 1950s.

Woodchurch image 1 Architecture and Building News 1947

Woodchurch image 2 Architecture and Building News 1947

Rowse’s illustrations of Woodchurch housing from Architecture and Building News, 1950

The estate’s early housing reflects Rowse’s ambitions though, on a cold January day such as when I visited, those broad parkways can seem rather bleak.

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Shops on Hoole Road © Rept0n1x and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Rowse’s supervision of the scheme was superseded by that of new Borough Architect TA Brittain in 1952 who, in Pevsner’s astringent words, ‘continued building to inferior standards of design’.  The volume dislikes the estate’s early neo-Georgian-style shopfronts but reserves its greatest disdain for the Hoole Road shops, once planned as a centrepiece of Rowse’s central parkway. (3)

Woodchurch house 2 Architecture and Building News 1950

This early image closely resembles the 1000th house on the estate, opened in 1953

The estate’s 1000th home, no. 84 Common Field Road, was officially opened by local MP Percy Collick in 1953 – a gabled, tile-hung, arts and crafts-inspired design, clearly a legacy of Rowse’s tenure.

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Early photographs of the estate

Later housing was plainer but the biggest departure from Rowse’s founding vision were the two 14-storey tower blocks – Grasswood Gardens and Ferny Brow Gardens – built in 1960 on New Hey Road; the architect, ironically was HJ Rowse. (4)  By the end of the decade, three 14-storey blocks were added, built by Wimpey – Leamington, Lynmouth and Lucerne Gardens, at the Upton end of the estate.

SN Leeswood Road

Leamington, Lynmouth and Lucerne Gardens, photographed in 1987 from the Tower Block website

Typically, for all the preceding rhetoric, even the most basic community facilities were slow to appear: the first shops in 1953, a health clinic in 1954, and the first local library (at first housed in the new secondary modern school) in 1959. A community centre followed in 1965.

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St Michael and All Angels, January 2019

Church congregations met in private houses or local halls until the Methodist church opened in 1958 and the Roman Catholic St Michaels and All Angels in 1965. The latter was worth waiting for, at least with an impressive modernist design (by Richard O’Mahony), planned liturgically – in Vatican II style – to focus attention on the central altar and – in landscape terms – to provide a fitting climax to New Hey and Home Farm Roads.

 

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Home Farm Road, January 2019

All this, however, was some way away from the promises of Rowse, let alone Reilly, and that post-war vision of planned community.  Later academic studies of the estate allow us to examine the community which did emerge. They present a mixed picture, both reflecting and challenging standard interpretations.

The new residents were predominantly young families. A points system determined priority, favouring ex-servicemen, established residency and size of family. Additional points were awarded to those living in unfit accommodation. They were also judged by their ability to pay the rent though this was often a struggle: an average rent for a three-bed home amounted to £1.40 whilst local wages ranged from £3.50 for an unskilled male worker to £5 and above for semi-skilled and skilled workers. In the struggle to make ends meets, cookers were often bought from the Gas Board and furniture from Sturla’s department store on the ‘never-never’ (hire purchase). (5)

Woodchurch Ganney Meadows Road (3)

Ganney Meadows Road, January 2019

In support of the Wilmott and Young narrative of ‘missing mum’ (or, more academically, missing inner-city matrilocal kinship networks), there were the many young women who trekked back on an almost daily basis from this peripheral estate to their parents. Some walked, some struggled with their Silver Cross prams (‘normally second-hand, mind’) on an inadequate bus service. One young mother with school-age children cycled to the Mount Estate – where her parents now lived – every day at 10am, having got up at 6am to clean the house and prepare evening meals. (5)

But there were others pleased to place some distance between themselves and family:

One male interviewee explained how he and his wife were glad to get away from his mother-in-law because ‘she was jealous of my wife’ and he described how the friction caused by the situation had put a strain on other family relationships.

As for community – or, more properly, neighbourliness – that was found informally, often in the revival of established friendships:

There was a knock at the door. When I went to the door there was [name] standin’ there with a tray an’ a pot of tea. We just couldn’t believe it when we saw each other’s faces. We’d lived in adjacent roads up near Bidston, had been good friends … childhood friends for many years … before the war an’ she was my next-door neighbour! I couldn’t believe it, it was like bein’ with family

Given that many people moved to Woodchurch at the same time from similar areas of central Birkenhead, these connections are not surprising, and, in due course, family links might also be resurrected as parents or siblings also moved to the estate.

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Home Farm Road, January 2019

The much vaunted ‘spirit of a New Britain’ (discussed in last week’s post) seems absent but perhaps lived on in attenuated form:

It wasn’t just the fact that we were all from Birkenhead, we’d all been through more or less the same experiences … been in the same kind of housing … lost loved ones or our homes during the war. We were just glad to be alive an’ we weren’t goin’ to shut the door on a neighbour who needed a hand … where we came from it wasn’t the done thing.

But few came to look on the community centre as a centre of social life, still less civic engagement as had been hoped by post-war planners: a ‘number of the interviewees recalled that they only went there for Bingo “on a Tuesday night” or “when someone was havin’ a “do”.

In the end, ‘community’ developed very largely without the benign assistance of planners and politicians and, with hindsight, the would-be social engineering of the latter, however idealistic in motive, appears mechanistic in practice.  Real lives were led domestically, within the interstices of home, family and friendship, with little reference to formal institutions and with little desire to think or act more politically or civically.

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New Hey Road, January 2019

Meanwhile, older traditions of heavy-handed council paternalism lived on – though typically enforced by women housing  officers raised on the Octavia Hill tradition.  Miss Crook was clearly the local exemplar:

I mean, everyone I’ve spoken to about it remembers the way she used to check the beds – the sheets, the blankets an’ that – she’d run her fingers over surfaces to check for dust, an’ the look on her face if she found any! It was like ‘Not dusted today then, dear?’ … Well, she did congratulate me on the standard of cleanliness, but by the time she’d finished doin’ her rounds I was ready to explode. But we just had to put up an’ shut up. Y’didn’t argue with authority at that time.

Respectability and responsible tenancy were thus rigorously policed in these early years.

For all that, Woodchurch, in some eyes, developed a bad reputation.  As early as 1952, a local newspaper article was headlined ‘Vandalism Sweeps Woodchurch Estate. £500 damage to bulldozer’. (The combination of many young children living on what were, in effect, huge building sites made such reports quite common across the country, in fact.)

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Home Farm Road, January 2019

But as estates, such as Woodchurch, grew older, perceptions of them changed.  Press reports of crime on the estate in 1969 led the police to come to its defence: ‘The incidence of crime and disturbances on the estate is no more serious than in several other areas of the town … isolated incidents had been taken out of context’. (7)

By the 1980s, however, as unemployment and, in particular, youth unemployment rocketed, there were real problems.  Woodchurch (and even more notoriously, Birkenhead’s Ford Estate) became known as centres of heroin addiction: by 1983, it was claimed nine percent of 16-24 year-olds on the estates were taking the drug. ‘Woodyboy’ recalls the era: (8)

By the time my year finished our ‘O’ levels at Woody High in ’83 we well and truly knew what was going on around us. It seemed like everyone’s big brother or sister was a smackhead. They were the kids we remembered from primary school who were only a few years older. We knew kids in our year that had tried mushies or were into glue, but this was a whole different ball game.

The estate also became associated with wider problems of gang violence and antisocial behaviour.

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Three ages of housing with Brackendale House to the rear, January 2019

From this time, there have been concerted efforts to raise the estate.  In Birkenhead, tower blocks were seen as one cause of this new social malaise and the new Borough of Wirral (formed in 1974) had been the first in Europe to demolish some of its blocks – beginning with the central Oak and Eldon Gardens towers in 1979. On the Woodchurch Estate, the two New Hey Road blocks were converted to housing for elderly people and renamed in 1984.  Now, only one – Brackendale – remains.  Leamington, Lynmouth and Lucerne Gardens have also been demolished.

Today, the worst social problems of Woodchurch are over and, to this outsider, the estate looked generally well-maintained and cared for, and attractive in its older parts where Rowse’s vision was more fully implemented.  It’s a council estate which means in modern Britain it houses disproportionately a poorer population and unemployment levels remain high. Four areas of the estate are among the ten percent most deprived in the country. (9)

There are some who would blame council housing for that. For me, it’s a manifestation of what has been done to council housing and its community.  Whilst the Woodchurch Estate itself was one small part of the ‘New Britain’ to emerge after 1945, a wider element of that promise was full employment and reduced inequality. That is a promise betrayed and we have asked council estates and their residents to carry the burden of that betrayal.

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Ganney Meadows Road, January 2019

One early resident of the estate recalls it:

as being as good as any private housing … people didn’t realise it was a council estate … it was peaceful too in the early days. It was a good place to live and a good place to bring up the children.

That, I’m sure, remains true for many today.

Sources

Kenn Taylor, who was raised on the estate, has also written interestingly on its history and significance in The Memory of a Hope.

(1) Margaret H Taylor, ‘Creating a Municipal Gemeinschaft? Disputations of Community’, Manchester Metropolitan University MPhil, 2013.

(2) HJ Rowse, ‘Woodchurch estate, Birkenhead; Architect: H. J. Rowse’, Architect and Building News, October 14, 1950. The quotations which follow are drawn from this source.

(3) Nikolaus Pevsner, Edward Hubbard, Cheshire (1978)

(4) Tower Block (University of Edinburgh), Woodchurch: Contract 23

(5) Taylor, ‘Creating a Municipal Gemeinschaft’

(6) As argued in Young and Wilmott,  Family and Kinship in East London (1957). Woodchurch analysis drawn from Lilian Potter, ‘National Tensions in the Post War Planning of Local Authority Housing and ‘The Woodchurch Controversy’, University of Liverpool PhD, 1998. The quotations and later detail are drawn from Taylor, as is the following quotation.

(7) ‘Police Speak Up For Woodchurch Estate’, Liverpool Echo, 23 July 1969

(8) SevenStreets, ‘Smack City: Thirty Years of Hurt’ (ND, c2013). The statistic is drawn from the article; the testimony from comments below.

(9) Wirral Council Public Health Intelligence Team, Indices of Multiple Deprivation for Wirral 2015 (November 2015)

The Woodchurch Estate, Birkenhead I: ‘Repercussions over the Empire’

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If you’re not from Merseyside, you probably haven’t heard of Birkenhead’s Woodchurch Estate but in 1944 it featured in a Picture Post article which, it was claimed, ‘had repercussions over the Empire’. (1)  That might have been an exaggeration but for a time conflicting ideas around the estate’s design dominated not only local politics but generated fierce debate in wider planning and political circles.  This post examines that controversy.

First, some background because there had been little previously to suggest that Birkenhead would merit such prominence in housing policy.  Unlike its neighbour Liverpool (which had built the first council housing in the country and pursued grandiose housing schemes in the interwar period), Birkenhead’s housing efforts had been modest.

It had grown as a docks and shipbuilding town from the early nineteenth century; from around 200 inhabitants in 1820 to 77,435 when incorporated as a borough in 1877.  Eleven years later and 22,000 inhabitants larger, it became a County Borough.

Dock Cottages

The Dock Cottages

That rapid growth had created appalling housing conditions for Birkenhead’s working-class population. The Queen’s Buildings (better known locally as the ‘Dock Cottages’ or just the ‘Blocks’), constructed in 1846 and financed by the major local employer John Laird, had been one early effort to ameliorate such conditions – 350 dwellings in four-storey blocks; built to the ‘Scotch’ plan (Laird hailed from Greenock) and claimed to be the first multi-storey tenements in England. Despite their compact design and dense layout, the flats themselves – equipped with a cold-water supply, gas burner, two iron bedsteads and a WC – were advanced for their day.

Gilbrook Estate proposal 1917 2

The 1917 plans for the Gilbrook Estate

The later council, for its part, proceeded more cautiously, clearing some 388 unfit houses but building just 18 cottages and 88 tenements to replace them by 1910. (2)  Its first major housebuilding scheme – the Gilbrook Estate in Prenton, north Birkenhead – was planned in 1917 but completed, to modified design, after the war.  The Council also purchased and renovated the Dock Cottages to let as council housing in the 1920s.

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Vaughan Street, Gilbrook Estate, January 2019. (It was snowing!)

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Arkle Road, Gilbrook Estate, January 2019

The ideological preferences of the Conservative-controlled council –  or perhaps an early version of the current preference for ‘mixed communities’ – were shown by the development of the Tranmere Hall Estate in the 1920s where, unusually, 400 of the homes were built for sale, available for purchase from the Council under the advantageous terms offered by the Small Dwellings Act.

When it came to the purchase of an area of farmland in the centre of the Wirral peninsula beyond the then boundaries of the Borough – what would become the Woodchurch Estate – in 1926, the Council was even more ambitious. There was a suggestion that the area could be developed along Garden City lines (though without self-governance) with land sold to developers on a leasehold basis and revenues accruing to the local authority.  Meanwhile, the Council approached one of the most prominent architects and planners of the day, TH Mawson, a lecturer at Liverpool’s prestigious School of Civic Design, elected president of the Town Planning Institute in 1923.

Mawson’s first recommendations were made in 1927; a more complete illustrated and typewritten report in 1929. He promised: (3)

a scheme that shall be of benefit … to posterity – aesthetically, hygienically, practically and in every way … the nicest and most tasteful of its kind in the Kingdom.

It was a plan explicitly referencing the arts and crafts ideals of William Morris and Raymond Unwin and the principles of the 1918 Tudor Walters Report.  Mawson talked of wide grass verges and tree-lined streets, even the ‘somewhat unusual step’ of planting roses instead of trees along some of the best streets. As to the housing itself, it reflected the usual reality of a ‘mixed community’ – large houses for the wealthy, lesser versions for the middle class, and small, terraced homes (at council rent) for the working class though he suggested the latter be built around ‘little town squares’ to avoid monotony.

I could write more but the formal adoption of Mawson’s plans was deferred and then, at some point in the mid-1930s, quietly abandoned. That controversy I teased you with is yet to come though the ideas raised here around ‘community’ would be central to later discussion.

Elsewhere, planning continued.  By 1939, land for what became the Mount Estate in Prenton had been purchased and Borough Engineer Bertie Robinson drew up plans for a garden suburb of some 502 homes.  War would delay their implementation but the Corporation had built around 4500 council homes by the outbreak of war in 1939.

Birkenhead suffered heavily from that war; 2079 houses were destroyed by bombing and 26,000 seriously damaged. Some 3464 people lost their lives.  But planning for better tomorrow began early. In 1944, Bertie Robinson unveiled new plans for the Woodchurch Estate. At around the same time, the Council appointed Professor Charles Reilly as a planning consultant with a brief to produce an outline plan for post-war Birkenhead as a whole. Reilly had been Professor of Architecture at the University of Liverpool from 1904 to his retirement in 1933; a charismatic figure, better known as an influential educator than as practitioner.

Woodchurch Estate plan

Robinson’s 1944 plan for the Estate

Robinson published details of his scheme in The Builder in November 1944. He first described the site in the Fender Valley: 457 acres of which the large municipally-owned Arrowe Park, containing golf course, bowling greens and football pitches, would be retained and the ‘attractive suburb’ of Upton conserved. So far as the residential areas were concerned, he proposed ‘a garden city for the purpose of housing on the basis of a neighbourhood unit’. (4)

Woodchurch model Builder 1944

A model of Robinson’s Woodchurch proposals from The Builder

In terms of layout, he planned two 100-foot boulevards in the form of a cross in a central square – these had given, he claimed, ‘the scheme the title of the “Green Cross”’ – and a 60-foot boulevard from which the estate’s service roads would radiate. These should be laid out on ‘attractive lines with grass verges, shrubs, trees and gradual curves’.  There would be little encouragement to traffic ‘other than that serving the estate itself’.

The estate as a whole was conceived as containing 2540 homes, serving a population of around 10,800 – a range of two, three, four and five-bedroom houses ‘suitable for north or south aspect’ built in ‘blocks of two, up to terraces of eight’ and set back to ‘varying building lines’.

With a central and two subsidiary shopping areas and provision for 156 shops in all, a public hall and community centre, 22.5 acres of allotments, ten schools and a ‘Young People’s College’, and plentiful open space, it was an ambitious and considered scheme which reflected contemporary planning ideas around community-focused design to improve on the widely criticised form and character of the interwar cottage suburbs.

SN Sir-Charles-Herbert-Reilly Howard Coster 1943

Sir Charles Reilly, a 1943 portrait by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Enter Reilly. He described: (5)

not liking very much the look of this layout which was on ordinary garden suburb lines … I suggested to the Borough Engineer that we should make a new layout plan together.

Less emolliently, in an article in the left-wing journal Tribune, he called Robinson’s scheme ‘a damn bad plan’. When Robinson rejected his offer to collaborate, Reilly, in his own words, ‘explained the ideas I thought would be welcomed everywhere and told him he would make his name by it if he did’.

Details of Three Greens and Adjacent Toads, Reilly Plan

Reilly’s Greens, as envisaged in Wolfe, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life 

Reilly’s uninvited intervention and the spat, at least on Reilly’s side, which developed then became a much larger controversy. In essence, as they were further developed, Reilly’s alternative plans contained one big idea – the greens around which housing would be grouped.  He explained them in an April 1944 report in the Birkenhead News:

The motives of the scheme are the English Village Green and the small squares of the country town, where children can play and neighbours see one another and retain the friendliness of the little streets and slums. With pairs of semi-detached houses on the curved roads of the Garden Suburb type of plan this friendliness … turns to suburban snobbishness through not seeing and knowing one’s neighbours. The houses look away from one another and the people too.

Later, he expanded his attack on suburbia:

Why was there such a contempt with novelists for suburbia? It was because it bred a narrowness of outlook, in which the team spirit was not developed.  It lacked the intellectual development which came from sharpening one’s wits … allowing everyone to play with his own toy castle had produced an anti-social spirit.

In this, Reilly, of course, reflected much of the inverted snobbery directed towards the suburbs then and now.

He also articulated an architect’s disdain for tradespeople as represented here by the poor Borough Engineer:

Without being in any way personal, as an architect, I feel the layout of houses for human habitation is not in the first place an engineer’s job. The engineer’s training in steel construction in drains and such like inhuman things does not fit him for it. It is not humane enough. The architect however, is always thinking in terms of human lives. He, I suggest, should do the planning and the engineer keep him straight on the mechanical side.

Robinson kept his own counsel through all this though he had written thoughtfully – admittedly in measured bureaucratic tones – on housing in an article for a professional journal in 1936. (5)

However, beyond the interpersonal disputes, there were planning ideas. Reilly himself described his concept for communal greens as ‘a semi-new planning principle’. It owed much to Unwin’s quadrangles and had similarities to the bowling greens of nearby Port Sunlight.  His general critique of suburbia and, in particular, the Corporation suburbia of peripheral council estates, was certainly highly topical and gained traction from the publication in May 1944 of the government-sponsored Dudley Report on the Design of Dwellings which was similarly critical.

And beyond the planning talk, there was politics – a politics writ large by wartime conditions and post-war aspirations. At its simplest, this was party politics, and in Birkenhead the debate over the contending plans split along purely political lines.  The ruling Conservative Party favoured Robinson’s scheme and the insurgent Labour opposition favoured and campaigned powerfully for what had now become known as the Reilly Plan.

Here, it elided easily with the wider issue of housing shortage; by July 1945, there were 2300 on Birkenhead’s council housing waiting list and, it was said, 150 fresh applications weekly. The debate over Woodchurch was, crudely, a useful local wedge issue.

Central area, Reilly Plan

Central area as depicted in Wolfe, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life 

But it was much more than this. It spoke too to what was really a unique moment in British history – a time when passionate debate around a new, more modern and better Britain to emerge in peacetime conditions dominated.  Speaking at the annual Labour Conference in December 1944, Harold Laski declared that ‘for Socialists the war was each day more fully an ideological war’. The sacrifice it demanded of those who fought: (7)

can be justified in one way only. It will be justified by the degree in which the Socialist commonwealth becomes the inheritance of the civilisation we are seeking to reshape.

That conference went on to pass a resolution that ‘the community basis of town planning, as illustrated by Professor Sir Charles Reilly’s plan for Woodchurch estate, Birkenhead, would best serve post-war housing needs’.

In the Picture Post article referred to, Caradoc Williams, secretary of Birkenhead Trades Council, declared his own support for the Reilly Plan with the spirit, if not the rhetoric, of Laski:

I believe it is in accordance with the community spirit developed during the war. Public opinion here wants a progressive plan. After all, the men out there are fighting for decent homes, not only for houses.

Mary Mercer, a former Labour councillor, saw ‘a spirit in the Reilly Plan … the spirit of the New Britain’. Birkenhead Tories less so.

For Councillor Guy Williams:

The whole idea of Professor Reilly’s Plan is to foster community spirit. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. But if a man doesn’t feel community-minded, he should thank God for a 5-ft hedge around his house.

For Lawrence Wolfe, who must have read this article, there could not have been a clearer expression of the ‘isolationist way of life’ he believed so damaging to the British psyche and society. It was Wolfe who, in 1945, most passionately advocated The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life (as his book was titled). (8)

For him, it was a panacea to all psychological and social ills. The book provides a greatly expanded and highly prescriptive exposition of Reilly’s plans including the proposal that the Community Centre provide ‘a Restaurant and Meals Service’, supplying meals in large containers to nursery schools and ‘in small thermos containers’ to individuals. Wolfe went on to address contemporary concerns about the birth rate and sexual behaviour: ‘Under the Reilly Plan early marriage is easy and normal’; ‘sexual immorality outside marriage also diminishes’; venereal disease declines; and the birth rate would rise.

Single green with cricket match in progress, Reilly Plan

‘Single green with cricket match in progress’ from Wolfe, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life 

Wolfe went on, at his most fanciful, to evoke not only a New Britain but a Merry England:

In the village green world dancing is not confined to special times and places. People dance when they feel like it – and they often do. Impromptu merry-making would look crazy in the middle of an isolationist street; on the green it looks perfectly natural and the passer-by, far from being tolerantly amused or even scandalised, is more likely to join in.

Reilly’s introduction to the book rather disarmingly notes:

the many implications [Wolfe] has found in the plan which, I confess, I did not fully see when I drew it … he, I am glad to say, discerns many further advantages in what I thought was merely a natural expression of neighbourliness.

The reality is that this was very much Wolfe’s vision, the Reilly Plan his chosen vehicle, but the 71-year-old Reilly, ever the keen publicist of his own ideas and role, was happy to go along with it.

For all the storm and stress, the Council – dividing on party lines – had endorsed Robinson’s scheme in February 1944. A proposal from Labour leader Charles McVey for an inquiry into the rival proposals was defeated in July.

That, however, was not quite the end of the Reilly Greens. The idea was taken up enthusiastically, with Reilly’s active participation, in the Black Country boroughs of Bilston and Dudley. Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, no less, commended it in his major speech introducing the second reading of the New Towns Bill in May 1946: ‘the experiment was about to be tried in Bilston…and he would watch it with interest’. (9)  In the end, the concept was applied in much diluted form. (10)  Reilly himself died in February 1948.

Back in Birkenhead, in March 1945, the Council approved final plans for the Woodchurch Estate – not Reilly’s, nor Robinson’s, but new proposals drawn up by the Liverpool architect Herbert J Rowse.  Next week’s post examines this story and the longer story of the Woodchurch Estate that emerged from this extraordinary episode.

Sources

(1) Maurice Edelman, ‘Planning Post-War Britain: the Example of Birkenhead’, Picture Post, 8 July 1944

(2) William Thompson, Municipal Housing in England and Wales (1910)

(3) Margaret H Taylor, ‘Creating a Municipal Gemeinschaft? Disputations of Community’, Manchester Metropolitan University MPhil, 2013. Following detail is also drawn from this source.

(4) B Robinson, ‘Woodchurch estate, Birkenhead; Planner: B. Robinson, Borough Engineer’, The Builder, November 24, 1944

(5) Quoted in Lilian Potter, ‘National Tensions in the Post War Planning of Local Authority Housing and ‘The Woodchurch Controversy’, University of Liverpool PhD, 1998. The following quotation is drawn from the same source.

(6) B Robinson, ‘Some Snags in Housing Schemes’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol 57, no 1, 1936

(7) ‘Labour Policy’, The Times, December 12 1944

(8) Lawrence Woolf, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life (Nicholson and Watson, 1945). The author’s name is a nom-de-plume and, despite speculation, very little is known about him.

(9) ‘House of Commons’ The Times , May 9 1946

(10) This episode is discussed fully in Peter J. Larkham, New suburbs and UK post-war reconstruction: the fate of Charles Reilly’s “greens”, Birmingham: University of Central England, School of Planning and Housing, 2004,  and in Peter Richmond, Marketing Modernisms: The Architectural and Cultural Consequence of Sir Charles Reilly, University of Liverpool PhD, 1997.