Pioneer Cottages, Penshurst: ‘three pairs of pretty dwellings’ UPDATE


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Having recently visited Penshurst, I’m able to include some better images of the original Pioneer Cottages and a little more history and illustration of later developments.

Last week, we looked at the very first rural council housing to be built – in Ixworth, Suffolk.  Its pioneering efforts did little to ease the path of its few successors.  It took five years to build the six council homes built in Penshurst in Kent in 1900.  That achievement was very largely due to the tireless efforts of one of our first women councillors – ‘perhaps the most stubborn woman councillor’ – Miss Jane Escombe. (1)

Penshurst, an early undated postcard

Penshurst, an early undated postcard

Escombe seems an unlikely hero of housing reform.  Born in India in 1839, the daughter of an official of the East India Company, she lived in Penshurst in an all-female household as a lady of independent means.  Still, she was a more radical figure than this conventional façade might suggest.

(c) Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘An Etcher Biting’ by Jane Escombe © Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service

She had been an accomplished artist in her younger years, exhibiting several times at the annual shows of the Royal Academy. (2) And when the 1894 Local Government Act created elected parish councils and rural and urban district councils and permitted women to serve on them, she secured election to the village’s new parish council.

Penshurst was an attractive village and an apparently affluent one, already within commuting distance of London by 1900 when it had a population of around 1600. But Escombe knew it was no rural idyll for many of its poorer citizens.  In one of her first actions as councillor in November 1895, ‘joined by a workman who knew where the shoe pinched’, she called on the parish council to build its own housing under Part III of the 1890 Housing Act which allowed local authorities to build where unfit homes had been condemned. (3)

That motion was rejected and, in any case, the Parish Council had to secure permission from higher authorities.  In the following year, however, backed by local GP Louis Wood, the Parish Council called upon the Sevenoaks Rural District Council to support their demand.  To press the case, the Parish Council conducted a survey of employers and workmen regarding local housing needs. It concluded 20 new houses were needed to accommodate local families without homes of their own.

In response, the District Council first canvassed local landowners on their willingness to build.  As low-rental working-class housing was not – then as now – of interest to profit-driven private enterprise, the response was negative and the Council had, reluctantly, to accept the necessity of council building.  It had first, however, to prove the need by means of a public inquiry.

The March 1897 inquiry also concluded the case proven and the District Council followed the next step of this laborious process by applying for permission to build from Kent County Council.  Four months later, approval was granted but the District Council dragged its heels until – under the continued prompting of Miss Escombe – a joint committee with the Parish Council was formed to forward the process.  Wood and Escombe (its honorary secretary) were members.

Penshurst, an early undated postcard

Penshurst, an early undated postcard

Progress was boosted by the decision of the local vicar to sell three-quarters of an acre of the church’s glebe land on Smarts Hill for £130. Escombe was clear though that good quality and attractive housing was necessary: (4)

Our village is one of the most beautiful in Kent, full of picturesque old buildings and cottages; to build brick boxes with slate lids would have been desecration.

Sixty architects rose to the challenge but, while they reckoned ‘the erection of three pairs of pretty dwellings’ would cost £1140, the lowest builder’s estimate came in at £1729.  Eventually, a lower estimate of £1463 was secured and the Parish Council applied to the Local Government Board for approval of a loan of £1800. After a third enquiry, this was granted but construction delayed until an adequate water supply guaranteed.  A well was sunk and water pump supplied.  In fact, Wood and Escombe went further, securing in 1902 the village’s first piped water supply with a reservoir built by the Parish Council, also at Smarts Hill.

Pioneer Cottages Thompson

Pioneer Cottages Thompson 2

These two images of Pioneer Cottages are taken from William Thompson, Housing Up-To-Date (1907)

Finally, construction began in November 1899 and by December the following year the aptly-named Pioneer Cottages were built and fully occupied.  They contained two ground floor rooms with a separate entrance and hallway and an extension to the rear containing a scullery and washhouse with three bedrooms on the second floor.  At this time, separate earth closets were provided at the back of the houses.

This high-quality accommodation came at a price – a rental of 5s a week which Escombe candidly acknowledged was affordable only to ‘the higher class of workmen’ but she hoped – as was typical among housing reformers of the day – that a trickle-down effect would occur and that ‘they would move into our better cottages and leave theirs at a lower rent to the agricultural labourer’.

Penshurst St John the Baptist (11)

The memorial to Jane Escombe in Penshurst parish church

Escombe’s efforts were rightly celebrated – Sidney Webb himself commending ‘the energy of a lady councillor’ which had secured the Penshurst housing – and she became an acknowledged housing expert and campaigner. (5)  She died, aged 64, in 1905 ‘loved and honoured’, her memorial tablet states, ‘by those to whose welfare she ministered with untiring zeal, sympathy and devotion’.

For all that, her speech at annual conference of the National Union of Women Workers in 1900 marks her as a woman of her time and place: (6)

It behoved women, now that the privilege of serving on public bodies was granted to them, to use that privilege; they had more leisure than fathers, brothers and husbands and ought to work: sanitary matters appealed especially to them and the housing problem was at the root of all sanitary reform. Badly built, badly drained, insanitary houses led to disease, to the spread of infection, and to lessened vitality.  Lessened vitality in its turn tended to the liability to fall an easy prey to disease and the drink habit.  On children, bad housing had the most serious physical, mental and moral effects, and this from a race point of view was most harmful and damaging.

I’m sure the many working women of her day did not enjoy such greater leisure – in fact, they were probably working a double shift – and some of her concerns reflect a typical Victorian preoccupation with working-class morality.  That uncomfortable reference to ‘race’ echoes the pre-1914 discourse of National Efficiency – a eugenicist concern, which united many on the left and right, with the fitness of the British working classes to work and, if necessary, fight in a world perceived (rightly as it happens) as more competitive and threatening.

Pioneer Cottages (1)

Pioneer Cottages (2)

Pioneer Cottages: contemporary images, February 2018

After Jane’s death, her elder sister Anne – in what looks like a local variant of the Octavia Hill method – collected the rents of the cottages for the Parish Council.  She was proud to claim in 1907 that the cottages had been continuously occupied and only six weeks’ rent lost throughout and that only when tenants had changed occupation.


Penshurst Plan Thompson 2

Floor plans of Pioneer Cottages taken from William Thompson, Housing Up-To-Date (1907)

Her only misgiving – a demonstration of an upper-class ignorance of the significance of the parlour kept ‘for best’ in respectable working-class homes – was that: (7)

The tenants mostly live in what we meant for a scullery, but has now become a small living room, the larger room being used only occasionally. Otherwise, the cottages are, I think, satisfactory.

‘We should plan differently now’, she concluded, and that revised plan was presumably implemented in a second scheme of eight cottages let at lower rents built before the war.  The Warren Cottages formed the nucleus of what became a larger interwar council housing scheme at Glebelands.

Penshurst Smart's Hill (1)

Interwar homes on Smarts Hill

Pioneer Cottages (6)

This image shows both the original and later council homes.

In the interim, there was further development on Smarts Hill with what looks like an interwar development of three semi-detached pairs and one short, three-house terrace immediately to the north of Pioneer Cottages towards Penshurst itself. These homes are notable for their tile-hung first floors – a clear homage to the local vernacular and quite a common feature of council housing in the area.


Post-war council housing in Glebelands, Penshurst

At Glebelands, the post-war estate, the homes are the ‘brick boxes’ that Escombe decried but they are attractively laid out amidst spacious gardens.

Penshurst Forge Close (4)

Penshurst Forge Close (2)

Forge Close

The sheltered housing at Forge Close in the village itself is also post-war but thoughtfully designed to fit into its historic surrounds.  There’s a lot of council-built housing for older people in the countryside.  It reflects, presumably, the financial regime operational after 1954 when central government support was limited to slum clearance redevelopment and homes for the elderly as well as the particular needs of country people often dependent on tied housing linked to their employment during their working lives.

All this, of course, is mere history but history has a habit of repeating itself.  In 2014, the Parish Council – one hopes with memories of its illustrious predecessor in mind – conducted a new survey of local housing needs: (8)

High property prices and a predominance of privately owned homes means that some local people are unable to afford a home in the parish of Penshurst. At the time of writing the report the cheapest property available was a 2 bedroom house for £295,000. For a first time buyer to afford to buy this property a deposit of approximately £44,250 is required along with an income of approximately £71,643.

It found 15 households – including 10 in unsuitable privately-rented accommodation, three who were sharing and one in tied housing – who needed some form of social rented housing or shared ownership.

Miss Escombe might be disappointed that such housing needs remained in the village and in such similar circumstances.  Given her enormous efforts to secure suitable affordable accommodation for the less well-off of Penshurst’s people, she would surely oppose the current Government’s intention to extend Right to Buy to housing associations which will further diminish the countryside’s stock of affordable housing. (9)  Sadly, then, this piece of history is as relevant to the continued struggle to house all our people decently as it was over one hundred years ago


(1) As described by Patricia Hollis in Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (1987)

(2) The portrait above was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877 and features Edwin Edwards who had married Jane’s sister in 1852.  It is wrongly attributed on the BBC Your Paintings website to Jane Esmond.

(3) William Walter Crotch, The Cottage Homes of Old England (1908)

(4) Quoted in Moritz Kaufmann, The Housing of the Working Classes and of the Poor (1907)

(5) Sidney Webb, Five Years’ Fruits of the Parish Councils Act, Fabian Society Tract, no. 105 (1901)

(6) ‘National Union of Women Workers Conference at Brighton’, The Courier, 26 October 1900

(7) Quoted in William Thompson, Housing Up-to-Date (1907)

(8) Tessa O’Sullivan (Rural Housing Enabler), Penshurst Housing Needs Survey, October 2014 with the support of Penshurst Parish Council and Sevenoaks District Council

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


Book Review: Catherine Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities. Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities

I looked at post-Second World War planning in my book, Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing, mainly in the context of housing in which much was achieved.  But there was another side to that idealism which lay in the ambition to rebuild and redesign the centres of Britain’s blitzed cities.  There, as Catherine Flinn painstakingly describes in her important new book, the picture is far less positive.

rebuilding britain's blitzed cities cover image snThe worst phase of German bombing in 1940 and 1941 was reckoned to have destroyed 75,000 shops, 42,000 commercial premises and 25,000 factories. By the end of the war the total cost of destruction was estimated at £1,150m. And the practical, and what some saw as the moral, commitment to rebuild the worst-affected towns and cities in particular began early – as early as 1940 when a Cabinet committee on reconstruction was established.

exeter blitz

The impact of the Blitz is shown dramatically in this photograph of Exeter

In December 1940, Sir John Reith, then Minister of Works and Buildings, presented a paper on the ‘Reconstruction of Town and Country’ to Cabinet. His memo referred to the public attention already directed to the issue:

not just because of opportunities in restoration of damaged property but in the hope of a fresh start in a new spirit of cooperation and with the high objective of a better Britain.

Flinn expertly charts the complex iterations of committees and ministries and legislation that followed but, throughout, the expectation remained that the blitzed cities would receive priority in the post-war era and that their reconstruction would indeed foreshadow and exemplify the new and better Britain to emerge.

Reith’s language was measured when compared to the extravagant heights reached by Thomas Sharp, one of the foremost planners of the day, quoted by Flinn.  In ‘Building Britain: 1941’ (which he billed as ‘Words for Pictures Perhaps A Film Script’ and not published – in the Town Planning Review – till 1952), Sharp proclaimed:

There is so much now to plan for, to prepare for,
A whole shining world is possible.
Is there for the asking if we choose to make it:
Is ours if we will.
We are the shapers of our environment.
We are the makes of our own destiny.
We are the creators of our own happiness.
If truly we desire it we can build
A new and noble world for generous living…

If that was a rhetorical outlier, it was only partly so. When We Build Again, a film commissioned by the Cadburys in Birmingham in 1943 and scripted by Dylan Thomas, declared ‘Nothing is too good for the people’.  And it’s interesting to note that in Britain, a country so often mired in tradition, that such plans were uniformly, in Flinn’s words, ‘modern, optimistic and forward-looking’ – an interesting contrast to Germany and Poland, say, where reconstruction often meant restoration.


Thomas Sharp and his book Town Planning, published in 1940. It sold 250,000 copies – a clear sign of the public interest in post-war reconstruction.

This range of promises of post-war betterment in a variety of forms and media is outlined in Flinn’s second chapter.  It’s hard to disagree with William Holford, another planner and architect, quoted later in the book, that ‘it is true that not only the planners but the Government itself had promised, if not a new heaven, at least a new earth at the end of the war’.

So, if you’re looking at the contemporary British city, you are probably wondering what became of this brave new world. With the significant exceptions of Plymouth (which I’ve written about in previous blog posts) and Coventry, the transformative impact of post-war reconstruction was paltry and often lamented. The rest of the book explains why.

plymouth sn

Corner  of Royal Way and Armada Way, Plymouth city centre – a product of 1943 Plan for the city. © John Boughton

The simple and established answer is that post-war priorities rapidly shifted from physical to economic reconstruction.  The great value of the book is not only to detail the processes by which this occurred but to delineate the myriad other obstacles to post-war rebuilding that facilitated this shift.

Taking that economic focus first, the little-known Investment Programmes Committee established by the Attlee government in 1947 takes centre-stage and, in particular and almost the villain of the piece, its chair, the civil servant FF Turnbull.  Turnbull repeatedly vetoed the building licence allocations that city centre reconstruction required; his widely-accepted rationale (in Flinn’s words) was that:

Resources going to the blitzed cities would necessarily draw on precious needs for industry and other business relating to exports and economic recovery.

Flinn also notes how a governmental ‘insistence on the maintenance of Britain’s world role’ and a ‘tendency to focus on global status diminished some of the discussions on the domestic agenda’.

abercrombie plan new city centre

The Abercrombie Plan’s zonal reimagining of central Hull

On the ground, the ‘overwhelming complexity in preparing and implementing reconstruction in the blitzed cities’ is amply illustrated by her three representative case studies of Hull, Exeter and Liverpool. Both Hull and Exeter had commissioned grand plans for post-war rebuilding, from Sir Patrick Abercrombie and Thomas Sharp respectively.  Liverpool, by contrast, pursued a more in-house process in closer collaboration with interested parties.

For all the differences between the three cities (in terms of history, local economy and political control), common themes stand out. The first and most crucial is the lack of central government support already noted, reflected not only in the issue of allocations (or lack of them) but in the sometimes obstructive, often critical attitude of Ministry officials who believed they knew better than councillors and planners on the ground.

abercrombie osborne street shopping area

The proposals for a new shopping centre envisaged here by Abercrombie around Osbourne Street were scuppered by trader resistance.

Beyond that, issues of existing property ownership and the competing financial interests they represented were uppermost.  In Hull, for example, the Council’s vision was challenged by a rival plan put forward by the city’s Chamber of Trade in 1947. In the end, Flinn concludes ‘the Abercrombie plans were not only controversial but, in practical terms, impossible to implement’.  Her forensic examination of the complex conditions operating in all three cities not only explains why so little was achieved but leaves you a little surprised that anything was built at all.

The final irony is that such reconstruction as did occur was often critically received.  D Rigby Childs, the editor of the Architects’ Journal, writing in 1954, thought that:

With the new permanent buildings one gets the impression that only too frequently the architects have been overwhelmed with frustrations of all kinds, allied with problems of finance, leading to a building which is, at best, humdrum and lifeless.

Rebuilding in Exeter, an historic city and victim of the Baedeker raids in April-May 1942, was described as ‘insipid’ and criticised by local residents.

exeter centre contemporary

A contemporary image of Exeter city centre © John Boughton

For all the subsequent disparagement of post-war rebuilding, it was decidedly not, in John Gold’s words, ‘the product of imposing utopia visions’.  While council officials were able to some extent influence the overall look of new developments, practical issues around finance and rationing played a greater role in what went up. It’s true, however, that the sparse, clean lines of modernist design also sat somewhat uncomfortably with popular taste.

jameson street paragon square sn

Jameson Street and Paragon Place are fruits of Hull’s post-war reconstruction © John Boughton

Flinn sets out, in a broader sense, to examine ‘why cities look the way they do’.  A large part of the answer in this instance, as explained in a later chapter which raises interesting questions for further research, lies in the role of private property developers. Here Ravenseft stands out; a company which began by building a small terrace of shops on a Bristol council estate and then expanded to develop large city centre schemes in Exeter, Hull and other blitzed cities. The firm was initially backed by Harold Samuel of the Land Securities Trust and acquired by that company in 1955. Landsec in its new incarnation is now the largest commercial property development and investment company in the UK.

The lack of financial support from government and the pressing need to replace rates income lost to wartime destruction left local authorities dependent on such economic muscle. The developers themselves, of course, were more interested in lettable space than aesthetics.

sn exeter phoenix

‘Exeter Phoenix’. The sculpture was placed on the original Princesshay shopping centre opened by the then Princess Elizabeth in 1949, subsequently demolished. It’s now on the exterior of the new precinct opened in 2007. © John Boughton

Flinn’s close empirical study provides much more detail, not only with regard to central government policy but also in relation to the local personalities, politics and issues in her three case studies. It is complemented by a range of relevant images – of plans, proposals as well as pre-existing and completed realities.  As such, it is essential reading to anyone interested in post-war reconstruction as well as that larger question as to why our ‘cities look the way they do’.

It’s an academic book and scholars in the field will be grateful for its apparatus of data and references. That means, of course, that it comes at an academic price and is probably out of reach to the general reader.  But it repays study at your local library –  or perhaps we can persuade the publishers to issue a cheaper edition for a wider readership.

Catherine Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams and Stark Realities was published by Bloomsbury on 27 December 2018. (Hardback, ISBN – 9781350067622).  Follow the link for further information. 

Grenfell and the Need for a Tenants’ Voice

This is a reblog of a post which I’ve written for the Housing after Grenfell blog published by the Oxford University Faculty of Law.  Do visit the blog to read a range of posts on  the many issues raised by this awful man-made tragedy. 

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has thrown up many issues but one of the most powerful has been that of the accountability and responsiveness – or lack of them – of its management to the blocks’ residents. Eight months before the disaster, one activist residents’ group accused the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation (in charge of Grenfell) of literally ‘playing with fire’. With horrifying prescience, the Grenfell Action Group contended ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord’. In the aftermath of the fire and as demands for a renewed social housing programme have risen on the political agenda, a broader debate has emerged about the reforms required to ensure that residents’ voices are heard and heeded.

Justice for Grenfell banner

Justice for Grenfell banner affixed to a wall on the Lancaster Estate © John Boughton

Beginning with Grenfell, it is clear that lines of accountability were attenuated and inadequate. Tenant Management Organisations (TMOs) had originally been established under the Conservatives’ 1988 Housing Act that introduced ‘Tenants’ Choice’. This was basically an attempt to transfer council housing stock to housing associations and other approved social landlords. The reform had strong ideological motives – an antipathy in particular to the Labour councils which owned and managed much social housing to this point – but there was also a genuine attempt to devolve management to bodies deemed more accountable and responsive than local authority housing departments considered bureaucratic and sclerotic. TMOs, intended as a grassroots initiative from tenants themselves (after further legislation in 1994, they could represent as few as 25 households) were the purest example of this. The Kensington and Chelsea TMO was an anomaly resulting from the Conservative council’s transfer of its entire housing stock, some 9700 homes, in 1996.

Formally, the new organisation – a limited, non-profit company with a board comprising eight residents, four council-nominated and three independent members – appeared representative but most subsequent accounts suggest residents experienced it as distant and unresponsive: a problem reflecting both its scale and ethos. The Council, meanwhile, which retained ownership of the stock and control of overall housing strategy, has been accused by its own new (post-Grenfell) chief executive, in a criticism accepted by the Council, as behaving like ‘a property developer masquerading as a local authority’.

In the light of the Grenfell tragedy, it’s tempting to see the behaviour of both the TMO and Council as particularly egregious. My fear is that, in many ways, it’s all too typical of what had become the new realities. Those realities encompassed, firstly, as we have seen, the loss of direct democratic control of housing (however imperfect in too many cases); and, secondly, as direct public investment was slashed from the early 1980s, the financialisation of housing in which public housing and land were increasingly seen as assets to be traded. However progressively intended in some cases, the latter has invariably seen social housing stock diminished in favour of properties for sale or let at dishonestly designated ‘affordable’ rents. The new breed of housing associations which have resulted from the many mergers and take-overs within the sector in the same period reflect both these trends – a growing distance and detachment from local and resident interests and a willing embrace of an entrepreneurial role far removed from their founding, philanthropic purposes.

The necessary regeneration of social housing stock and estates has taken place in this context, part-funded by private capital and executed by public-private partnerships and a cost-cutting, profit-driven agenda. Over 60 contractors worked on the regeneration of Grenfell and the Lancaster West Estate – itself a shattering of accountability – and it is claimed £300,000 was saved by substituting cheaper, less fire-resistant cladding for that originally commissioned. Some Grenfell residents believed – perhaps mistakenly but it’s a sign of the distrust existing – the entire regeneration process motivated by a desire to sell off the block.

Ironically, the marginalisation of tenants’ voices had created concern over a decade ago. The Cave Review of Social Housing Regulation, commissioned by the then Labour Government and published in 2007, noted ‘inadequate concern for tenant interests’ and ‘a strong case for regulation to protect tenants’. The Tenants’ Service Authority (TSA) – ‘a regulator that had the rights of consumers at its heart’ in the words of its first chief executive, Peter Marsh – was established the following year as an independent regulator. One early proposal of the TSA was to set up a register detailing whether social housing blocks had up-to-date fire risk assessments. Tenant Voice, created to give social housing tenants a say in national housing policy, followed in 2010.

Conservative MP Grant Shapps

Conservative MP Grant Shapps, formerly the Housing Minister in the early Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Image shared under the CC BY 3.0 license obtained by Wikimedia.

Both these bodies were abolished by Housing Minister Grant Shapps in the early years of the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. This must be seen as part of a wider government assault – what was once chillingly described before Grenfell as a ‘bonfire of red tape’ – on what was judged unnecessary and bureaucratic regulation. Building control was, in effect, handed over to hired guns when the Thatcher government introduced independent inspectors into the sector (previously overseen by local government) in 1984. The Building Research Establishment was part privatised in 1997 by John Major. David Cameron proudly proclaimed a ‘one-in, two-out’ rule for his 2010 Government – for every regulation added, two would be removed. In this context, the failure to outlaw flammable cladding – a deadly problem highlighted by the fire which killed six residents in Lakanal House (a social housing block in Southwark) in 2009 – becomes all too comprehensible.

Shapps passed on the responsibilities of the TSA to a Housing Ombudsman operating under the aegis of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). A ‘serious detriment’ test applied to tenant grievances and a focus on economic regulation ensured that it had little impact or visibility. The survivors’ group, Grenfell United, has stated that it was unaware of the regulator’s existence till after the fire.

In 2017, in a speech to the National Housing Federation after Grenfell, Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid, complained ‘too many people in positions of power saw tenants less as people with families and more as problems that need to be managed’ and promised government would ‘look again at the way tenants are listened to and their concerns acted on’; an apparent condemnation of his own party’s policy since 2010. The Government Green Paper on Social Housing issued in August 2018 made similar promises to empower tenant voices. The Shelter Housing Commission Report published in January 2019, Building for our Future: a Vision for Social Housing, has called for a new social housing regulator with enhanced powers.

As Ed Daffarn, of Grenfell United and a member of the Shelter Commission, has argued:

Social housing is not like choosing a doctor – you can’t just up sticks and move if your housing association gets a low rating. Much more is needed to put power in residents’ hands. We need a new regulation system that will be proactive and fight for residents, with real repercussions for housing associations or councils that fail in their duty.

It seems as if the unconscionable tragedy of Grenfell might, at least, result in a positive move in this direction. Had stronger forms of accountability been in place before Grenfell, had residents’ voices been listened to, it is possible that the fire might have been averted. But a caveat must be added. The residents did not complain about the cladding; they had no reason to believe that flammable cladding would be permitted. If the man-made disaster of Grenfell is not to be repeated, we need both to strengthen tenant representation and ensure that the state itself upholds and imposes its duty of care towards all its citizens, not least those who are often most marginalised.

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


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

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

sn ixworth stow road (12)

Four of the Stow Road council houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sn ixworth stow road (10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sn ixworth stow road (15)

A contemporary image of the eight council homes on Stow Road

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

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

sn ixworth stow road (7)

A side view with a glimpse of the rear extension.

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

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

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

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

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


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

sn ixworth peacock rise (1)

sn ixworth peacock rise (5)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

SN West Camel distant 2

West Camel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NP advert Times 7 April 1925 SN

Times advert, 7 April 1925

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

SN Goldcroft Yeovil

Goldcroft, Yeovil

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

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

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

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

SN West Camel

Howell Hill, West Camel

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

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

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

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

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

SN Barwick Higher Bullen

Higher Bullen, Barwick

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

SN Fairhouse Road, Barwick

Fairhouse Road, Barwick

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

SN Ryme Intrinseca 2

Ryme Intrinseca

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

Bamtpn Streetview

Frog Lane, Bampton (Google Streetview)

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

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

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


Edward Road, Queenborough (Google Streetview)

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

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

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

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

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

SN Goldcroft Yeovil 2

Goldcroft, Yeovil

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Rosebud Westminster

The Rosebud at Westminster, October 1937

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

Duke Street demolished 1937

Duke Street, Newlyn

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

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

Home-Along Evening Stanhope Alexander Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life class at Newlyn, Picture Post 15 October 1938

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

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

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

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

PZ87 Rosebud in Westminster Charles Hoyland in Margaret Perry Collection

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

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

Crew with Alec Beeman

The crew of The Rosebud with Alex Beechman MP

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

Daily Express October 18 1937

Coverage from the Daily Express, 18 October 1937

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gwavas Chywoone Avenue 4 SN

Chywoone Avenue, Gwavas Estate

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

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

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

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

Navy Inn Court

Navy Inn Court

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

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

Chapel Street 2 SN

Chapel Street, Newlyn

The Fragdan SN

The Fragdan, Newlyn

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

Harbour SN

The harbour, Newlyn, 2018

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

Rosebud Court and Plaque SN

Rosebud Court and plaque

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Newlyn Trail Guidebook

An example of the romanticised imagery that attracted artists to Newlyn

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

Forbes, Fish Sale

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

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

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

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

Penless water shoot 1890 Penlee House

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

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

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

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

St Peters Sq since demolished

St Peter’s Square, since demolished

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

Chapel Street 1937

Chapel Street, 1937

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

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

Gwavas Higher Gwavas Road SN

Higher Gwavas Road, showing the steep ascent to the estate

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

Gwavas Chywoone Avenue 2 SN

Chywoone Avenue, Gwavas Estate

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

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

Gwavas Chywoone Crescent 2 SN

Chywoone Crescent, Gwavas Estate

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

‘The London Borough of Thetford’?



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

Abbey Farm opening with Greenwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redcastle Furze Anglia SN 2

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

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

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

GLC showhome Ideal Home 5

A GLC showhouse on the Abbey Farm Estate

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

Abbey Farm SN3

Canterbury Way, the Abbey Farm Estate

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

Kimms Belt Barnham Cross Common SN 2

Kimms Belt, Barnham Cross Common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SN Abbey Farm 1

Townhouses on the Abbey Farm Estate

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

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

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

Mainwaring Keith Evans

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

(5) Gretton, ‘Out of London’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thetford: ‘A Town Which Has Picked Expansion’


, , , ,

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

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

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

King Street Thetford 1963 Archant

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

But fundamental problems remained: (2)

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

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

Map of New and Expanded Towns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thetford map

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

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

But there were difficulties too: (6)

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

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

Barnham Cross Common early 2

An early photograph of Barnham Cross Common

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

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

The shops on Pine Close opened the following year.

Barnham Cross Common early shops 3

The shops on Pine Close, Barnham Cross Common

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

Redcastle Furze 1972 2 (Osborne)

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

Redcastle Furze early 1

An early photograph of the Redcastle Furze Estate

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

Taylor Woodrow Anglian housing

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

Redcastle Furze Anglia houses 2

Completed ‘Anglia Houses’, Redcastle Furze Estate

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

Abbey Farm Estate plan 1

An estate plan of Abbey Farm

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

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

Abbey Farm 1971 Osborne 2

Abbey Farm maisonettes, rear

Abbey Farm 1971 Osborne

Abbey Farm townhouses

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

Elizabeth Watling Clise 1972 Osborne

The Ladies Estate

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

SN Thomas Paine and Newtown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SN St Mary's Crescent 2

St Mary’s Crescent

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

SN St Mary's Crescent 1

St Mary’s Crescent

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

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

SN St Mary's Crescent 3

St Mary’s Crescent

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

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

SN Burrells 1906

An advertisement for Burrell’s steam engines, 1906

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

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

SN Newtown Estate 1

The Newtown Estate

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

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

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

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

SN Newtown Estate 2

The Newtown Estate

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

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

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

SN St Mary's Estate 2

St Mary’s Estate

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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