Council Estate Pubs: ‘Never drink in a pub with a flat roof’



I’m very pleased to feature this week a guest post – a meditation on the estate pub – from Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. Jessica and Ray blog about beer and pubs at and their new book, 20th Century Pub, is out now.  (A thoroughly researched, informative and enjoyable read – I recommend it.) They’re on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @boakandbailey.

Since we started working on our book 20th Century Pub which includes a chapter on post-war estate pubs we’ve had one line quoted at us more than any other: ‘Never drink in a pub with a flat roof.’ It’s generally attributed to comedian Sean Lock but has the quality of a well-worn aphorism – an ultra-condensed summary of all the problems and perceptions of pubs built to serve social housing. That is, that they are ugly, probably half-rotten, and too dangerous for anyone halfway respectable to consider entering.


The Valley, Colleyhurst, Manchester

Depending on who is expressing this point of view it can sound like snobbery but, equally, there is perhaps a tendency among aesthetes – the kind of people who swoon at tower blocks as sculptural objects – and nostalgic sentimentalists (like us) to ignore the human reality of the situation.

Lynsey Hanley’s 2007 book Estates touches on pubs only briefly. Emotionally over-attached to pubs as we are, however, we found ourselves bridling at a commentary which identifies the pub near her East London flat as a nexus for anti-social behaviour. Its car park, she writes, is a ‘slump of dead space’; she and her fellow residents resent ‘the noise pollution pumped out by the pub’ – the breaking of bottles against its walls, the fighting, the sirens. We wanted to argue with her: the pub isn’t the problem! The pub could be part of the solution! Pubs, targeted relentlessly by the great and good of the temperance and improvement lobby for the last 150 years, don’t need the people who live alongside them to join in the kicking.


The Crane, Basildon

That feeling is all the more acute because of the fact that when many estates were built a prime complaint levelled against them, by both residents and critics of planned communities, was the lack of social amenities. City slum dwellers were left stranded on estates and in new towns where there was no third space between work and home.


The Crane, Basildon: interior

Writing in his 1964 book The Other England journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse reflected on why people in Durham seemed to prefer the old slum district of Shotton, ‘close and compact and ingrowing as a defective toenail’, to the ‘sweeping, lofty and wide open’ new town of Peterlee:

At the moment, whereas Shotton has five pubs, five working men’s clubs, and a cinema, Peterlee hasn’t even got a cinema. The ones who do come, so they say in Peterlee, very often stay for only a year or two, until a cottage becomes available in their old village, and then they’re back off to it with without any apparent regrets of the exchange of a modern semi for a period piece straight out of the industrial revolution.

The lack of pubs on estates in the first part of the 20th century was often a direct result of the temperance instinct: pubs were of the slum and if people were to be rescued from that environment and culture, the drier the sanctuary the better. That debate continued in the period after World War II with serious consideration given to nationalising any pubs to be built in new towns and a determined lobby that thought building any pubs at all was on par with providing, say, council-sponsored opium dens.

But, in the absence of pubs, people learned to live without them, developing new routines centred round the home, the garden, the allotment, the church, or the community centre.


The Willow Tavern, Failsworth, Manchester

When pubs did arrive on post-war estates, if they ever did, there were usually fewer per head than the old neighbourhoods the residents had known, and they were often fatally plain. In the abstract, or through a nostalgic filter, there is much to appreciate in a straight-edged modernist pub building designed to let in the light and wipe clean with ease. In practice, most were designed that way not out of idealism but pragmatism – a response to lingering wartime building restrictions, and the desire of breweries in an ever more aggressively competitive climate to quickly, cheaply replenish their arsenals of pubs. But drinkers don’t want pubs to be bright, boxy and modernistic – they want corners, cosiness, umbered shadows and a patina just one degree south of outright grot. Character, in other words.


The Willow Tavern: lounge bar

And so many of these unlovely, unloved pubs became tattier but no more charming, the preserve of the hardest and hardest drinking – less welcoming to women and children than even the backstreet pubs they were intended to improve upon. The Flying Shuttle in Bolton, to pick just one example, was named ‘the roughest pub in Britain’ when in 2012 it was finally raided by police in the wake of persistent drug dealing and evidence that staff were allowing drinkers to stay long past the scheduled closing time, afraid to offend violent customers by calling last orders. Pubs can be wonderful centres for communities but they can’t fix or form a community where one has collapsed or failed to coalesce for other reasons.

Of course not all pubs on estates are like this but struggle nonetheless. When an ordinary pint of beer in a nondescript pub cost at least £3, most of it tax, it becomes effectively a luxury purchase – a hard sell to those who might be struggling to pay for essentials and who, anyway, can buy cheaper (possibly better) beer at the supermarket, or in Wetherspoon’s on the high street. The unpretentious pub among the chimney pots is squeezed from every direction.

In 2015 Historic England began a project to catalogue surviving post-war pubs and raise awareness of their fragility. Based on our observation in various parts of England while researching the book it feels as if they might be too late. In the last decade or so many estate pubs have finally reached the end of their short lives and have burned down, closed down, collapsed, or been converted into supermarkets or nurseries – amenities that are perhaps more useful on many estates, and certainly less likely to lead to anti-social behaviour.


Customers in the public bar

Still, it is sad to see these symbols of a more optimistic time go, especially when, as at Sydenham in Bridgwater, Somerset, entire estates are quite suddenly left entirely publess. Estates with no pubs might be quieter and easier to police but only in the same way bricking up windows saves on the cost of cleaning them.

You’ll find full details on the book and how and where to order it here on Jessica and Ray’s blog.   

20th C Pub



North Oxfordshire: The ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ and their first council houses, Part II


I’m pleased to feature the second of Jane Kilsby’s superbly researched and illustrated guest posts on some of the finest rural council homes in the country. Last week’s post examined the background to their construction; this week’s details their form and tells the story of those who designed and built them.

Banbury Rural District Council (BRDC) in North Oxfordshire did not build any council houses before 1914.  In part I, we saw how the council members, the ‘Foxhunters, Farmers and Parsons’, made a decision to build before the outbreak of war but were overtaken by events. (1)  Then, with the Addison Act of 1919 to spur them on and in the space of 18 months, they built 170 houses for the benefit of local farmworkers and returning soldiers.

Courtington Lane

Courtington Lane, Bloxham. Photograph June 2017

BRDC’s first council houses are only a fraction of the 170,000 or so completed in the early tranche under Addison, but they were described at that time as ‘the best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country’. (2)  Let’s have a look at who designed and built these stylish, comfortable houses.

BRDC had clear ideas about the type of houses they wanted to build.  They wanted to see stone, not bricks, and local Hornton stone at that.  They wanted the houses to be in or very close to each village with attractive views over the countryside and large gardens.  High ground was their preference for ‘healthy homes’.

Sanitary Inspector, Mr Gander put himself forward as architect.  He had done some training in an architect’s office before the War and had valuable local knowledge.  The Housing Committee was pleased to make him their architect on a salary of £150 per year on condition that he appoint his son – still in the army – full time to help with all of his duties: Surveyor, Sanitary Inspector and now architect.  The Committee’s appointment, however, was very quickly revoked.  Councillor Crawford-Wood said:

 the public are disgusted with this piling up of dual and triplicate offices on one man when other men require jobs.

The Local Government Board’s Housing Inspector agreed with their decision.   His advice was to take on a qualified architect; any additional salary that would have been paid to Mr Gander would not be covered by the Local Government Board loan.   As Councillor Dr Thorne put it, we will ‘have to get an architect with a grand brass plate in front of his house’.

And so they did.  The council decided to appoint an ‘architect who has served in HM Forces and whose work has been interfered with so doing’.  They approached the Architect’s War Committee – set up by RIBA to find work for architects returning from the War – and received ‘the names of four gentlemen recently demobilised to carry out the architect’s work’.  Mr T Lawrence Dale of Richmond produced his drawings and testimonials at interview.  Very impressed, the Council appointed him with the proviso that he could start at once and would open an office in Banbury.  The Council agreed to pay him the RIBA-recommended fees (£2500) and reimbursed him his first class rail fare from London.  Dale opened an office at 6 Horse Fair and took on an assistant at £6 a week.

Thomas Lawrence Dale (1884-1959) was born in London.  He trained at The Architectural Association School of Architecture, the AA.  He qualified in 1906 and became an Associate of RIBA the following year.  In 1914 he had his own practice in Bedford Row.  A Captain with the Army Cyclists Corps, he was mentioned in despatches.  Before the War his commissions included houses in Hampstead Garden Suburb and Horn Park in Dorset, now Grade II listed.

Drawing T Lawrence Dale

A drawing by T Lawrence Dale of a terrace of four houses appeared in the Banbury Guardian in 1919. A terrace of four houses was built for BRDC in 1920 by Henry Meckhonik of London.

Lawrence Dale's name

Lawrence Dale’s name in the render of one of the houses in The Firs, Wroxton

The summer of 1919 was a whirl of activity.  The Housing Committee met fortnightly with an earlier start time of 10.30AM.  Mr Dale’s plans were approved by the Local Government Board, BRDC appointed a Housing Clerk and land deals were done across the district.

The council had an initial loan of £122,270 for the building work and the land.  Terms of repayment were variable; a 60 year repayment period at 6 per cent interest was typical.  The Council needed temporary loans from its own banker, however, pending the raising of permanent loans, indicating the pace and extent of their activity.   Rents needed the Ministry’s approval; in 1920 the rent for a parlour type house was 7s 6d a week, non-parlour houses were 6s a week.

Dr Addison, MP and Minister of Health wrote to the Council in July expressing his appreciation of their progress.

Ten houses Upper Wardington SN

The ten houses in Upper Wardington were the first to be completed. They were let by Christmas 1920. Photograph June 2017.

Housing Committee tour SN

The Housing Committee had made a tour of these houses in August 1920

Lawrence Dale designed at least two distinct types of houses for BRDC: the ‘A1 south’ type and the ‘Cropredy’ type.  The A1 south type has ‘a parlour, large living room, kitchen range grate, cement-floored scullery, a washhouse with a boiler and space for a bath and a shed for fuel and potatoes.’  There were rainwater tanks with a capacity of 200 gallons outside at the back of each house.  The Cropredy type has a larger entrance hall and steel window frames.

Three pairs of semis South Newington SN

There are three pairs of semis of the ‘A1 south’ type in South Newington. BRDC bought the land from Magdalen College for £175 in 1919. The building included the provision of a septic tank. Photograph June 2017.

A ‘cottage’ non-parlour style was also used, for example, in Adderbury.  Some of the developments contain a mix of styles, at Hook Norton, Drayton and Milcombe, for example.

Cropredy type Barford St Michael SN

The ‘Cropredy’ type houses in Barford St Michael have flank walls of brick. A well was sunk here by the contractor, another local builder, A Hopcraft and Sons of Deddington. Photograph June 2017.

Cottage style semi East Adderbury SN

Cottage-style semi in The Crescent, East Adderbury. 200 men from Adderbury and Milton went to the War. These houses were let specifically to returning soldiers and their families. (6) Photograph June 2017.

Pair of semis Milton

A pair of semis in Milton, with very large front gardens, built by the Harpenden Building Co.  Photograph June 2017

Houses in Mollington

The houses in Mollington are in the centre of the village and on higher ground. Lawrence Dale grouped houses together as much as possible ‘on the assumption that neighbours should also be friends’ (2). Photograph July 2017

Some of the cottages have names carved in a stone lintel above the front door.  Thisbe and Pyramus Cottages are in Wroxton and the six in Cropredy were all named to commemorate the Battle of Cropredy Bridge, 1644.  Charles, Cleveland, Cavalier, Culverin, Kentish and Waller Cottages are in Chapel Close.

Every house had a garden of not less than a quarter of an acre, double the Ministry of Health’s requirement for new rural houses.  Council-built housing was a brand new concept in these villages: there was a concern that a lot of people thought that they would not be allowed to build pig sties.  The Banbury Advertiser reported the Chairman’s insistence that:

where there was a large garden there should be a sty.  He hoped the Press would note that there were no conditions of any kind whatever which prevented tenants putting up pig-sties.

The Banbury Guardian of 26 August 1920 was very complimentary:

The old idea of building a modern cottage was to put up four straight walls with a sort of box roof, the whole being severely plain, and, if economical, was exceedingly ugly.  The council set out to resist the promulgation of these atrocities and the Housing Committee through their architect, Mr Dale, have produced cottages which do not detract from the picturesqueness of the villages, as was dreaded would happen when new buildings were called for.

The article noted too the striking form of the new houses:

the fronts, sides, and in some instances the backs, are of stone up to the roof, which is the mansard type, that is it breaks the front and back lines and is continued down over the first floor, but at a greatly reduced angle so that it does not curtail the space inside.

Walton Close, Bodicote SN

Walton Close, Bodicote. This site was one of the very few that had a water supply before the houses were built. Photograph June 2017

Mansard roofs Horley

All of the Lawrence Dale houses have mansard, ‘cat slide’ type roofs. The houses in Horley have Hornton stone on all sides. Photograph June 2017.

There is no need to describe the interior of the houses when we have the film. The Hook Norton Village website includes 24 Square Miles Re-visited made in 1992.

This shorter film of highlights includes footage of the houses in Tadmarton.  At about 9 minutes 22 seconds in, the film stresses that in 1944 the houses still had sinks but no taps and indoor toilets that were only a bucket.  As BRDC knew only too well, good houses are only as good as their location and their water supply. (3)

Tadmarton houses

The Tadmarton houses are on the hill in the distance, as in the film Twenty Four Square Miles. Mrs Summers, a widow who lost two sons in the War, was the first tenant of no 6. Photograph July 2017

Henry Boot steps into our story in 1920.  Joiner and builder from Sheffield, he set up his company in 1886 and achieved rapid expansion.  The company was the first building company to be listed on the London Stock Exchange.  In the same year, 1919, Boot’s eldest son, Charles, took the lead.  With a keen interest in house building, his company’s prospectus of 1919 refers to the ‘immense field for commercial enterprise opened up by this enormous volume of construction’. (4)

Henry Boot

Henry Boot (1851-1931). Photograph with the kind permission of Henry Boot PLC.

Building contracts under the Addison Act started with an average size of 40 dwellings and, for contracting purposes, most local authorities split any planned large estates into small lots and this suited the building firms operating at the end of the War.  As more councils began to build – there were 4,400 ministry-approved council housing schemes by 1922 – they needed economy of scale and speed.

With inflation and a scarcity of labour and materials, many smaller firms struggled to get finance.  The work was there but they needed capital to get their schemes off the ground.  BRDC had some experience of this; there were no difficulties with quality but some tender advertisements had a poor response.

Crucially, £300,000 raised as capital through their flotation gave Henry Boot & Sons the edge.  The company was able to take advantage of the option to submit prices for groups of villages.

Banbury Guardian noticeIn April 1920 the Housing Commissioner received a proposal from Henry Boot that the company take on all of BRDC’s remaining sites and those of adjoining districts, including Towcester RDC.  Boot’s offer was accepted.  Charles Boot hosted a meeting at his London office in July attended by the Housing Commissioner, Lawrence Dale and Mr Fisher to thrash out details of the contract, including an agreement that the council would pay for building materials as and when they were delivered on site.

Boot & Sons built 128 of the 170 houses.  Operating concurrently on 16 sites, the value of their contract was £126,934.  Their work included the larger sites e.g. at Hook Norton (26 houses), Tadmarton (14), East Adderbury (22).  Local carpenter, Percy Alcock, quickly became Boots’ foreman and then site agent for all 16 sites.

Houses under construction Horley SN

Houses under construction in Horley, 1920. Percy Alcock, Henry Boot’s site agent, is on the far left. One of the first lettings was to a Mr Green who had lived in an old cottage on this site. Photograph with the kind permission of PR Alcock and Sons.

Henry Boot and Sons render

Henry Boot & Sons (London) Ltd in the render of a house at The Firs, Wroxton

Pointing by Mr Cronk

Distinctive ‘snail-creep’ pointing by stonemason Mr Cronk (employed by Boot & Sons) on the front of one of the houses in Shutford Road, North Newington. This is said to be very high quality ‘snail-creep’, an unusual technique in buildings faced with Hornton stone. There are BRDC 1921 plaques on many of the houses.

With so much going on, transport became an issue.  Mr Gander was already using a council-owned motor-bicycle; the council bought a Ford light van and a motor-bicycle and side-car for Boots’ foremen on condition that they would be auctioned at the end of the contract.

Three pairs of semis Great Bourton

There are three pairs of semis in The Close, Great Bourton. BRDC acquired this site under a compulsory purchase order. A shortage of tiles led to a delay in completion. Photograph June 2017.

By August 1922, all 170 houses (106 parlour type and 64 non parlour) were complete and let.  Notices were put up in the villages asking anyone who was interested in a tenancy to get in touch with the Clerk to the Council, Mr Fisher.  The council tried to offer the houses to local people from the same villages, with preference given to people who had served in the War.

And what did they all do next?

The ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ continued to build council houses.  Their later additions made use of the Ministry of Health’s standard house designs.  Their successors, in tweeds, are portrayed towards the end of Twenty-Four 24 Square Miles.

Mr Gander retired through ill health in November 1921.  BRDC was so appreciative of his loyalty that they kept him on as a Consulting Surveyor at £75 per year.  What’s sauce for the goose?  He died in 1925.

Edward Lamley Fisher, MBE, BRDC’s first Clerk, retired after 55 years of service.  As Superintendent Registrar he had officiated at over 3000 marriages.  In January 1945 at a party to celebrate his 50th anniversary at the council, his colleagues recalled the ‘extremely interesting and happy days just after the last great war…working with Mr Fisher on matters appertaining to the selection of sites for council houses’.

Lawrence Dale had a successful career; he became Oxford Diocesan Surveyor in the 1930s, designing and renovating parish churches.

Ickford Village Hall

Ickford Village Hall, Buckinghamshire, designed by T Lawrence Dale and Simon Dale in 1946; a style that will be familiar to residents of BRDC’s first council houses.

Charles Boot died in 1945 but not before Henry Boot & Sons had built more houses between the wars, public and private, in the UK than any other company.  They built 20,000 council houses before 1930.  With offices in Paris, Athens and Barcelona, the company diversified very successfully into building hospitals and bridges.  They built Pinewood Studios in 1935.  Henry Boot plc today specialises in commercial buildings and plant hire.

Laid off at the end of the Boot contract, site agent Percy Alcock formed his own company in 1922 with Cronk, the stonemason.  PR Alcock & Sons continues today from their Banbury yard, carrying out high quality restoration and joinery works on period houses and churches and for the National Trust.

The houses themselves stand in settled peace.  Most of them have been sold under the Right to Buy and change hands infrequently, the parlour types at a minimum of £450k.  Sanctuary Housing Group manages those available for rent, for Cherwell District Council.  There are interesting examples of the use of the huge plots but most of the gardens remain intact.  Some of the houses are in Conservation Areas.

Wykham Lane, Broughton

Wykham Lane, Broughton. The 1920s gardens were wide enough to accommodate new bungalows built in the 1950s. Photograph June 2017.

So, are these the ‘best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country?’  They are probably not the cheapest.  The 1920 Fabian Tract on Housing puts the average cost of a parlour-type house, at January 1920, at £803 per house, excluding the cost of the land, road-making and sewerage. (5)

BRDC had a ‘rule of thumb’ – house and land price – of £1,000 for each architect-designed cottage.  The council’s accounts were done separately for each site: the Sibford Gower site of six parlour-type houses, for instance, cost a total of £4,945 15s 1d – that’s £824 5s 10d per house – very close to the Fabian average.  Whether BRDC’s costs were included in the Fabians’ calculation is unclear.  Value for money?  Certainly.

South Newington

South Newington. Photograph June 2017.

Thisbe and Pyramus Cottage Wroxton

Thisbe and Pyramus Cottage, The Firs, Wroxton. Photograph June 2017.

Old council houses, Horley

The Old Council Houses, Horley. Photograph June 2017

The best?  I can do no more than continue to quote from the Banbury Guardian’s description in August 1920, when the first houses were nearing completion:

the use of the word cottage seems hardly correct…the new houses might be called bijou villas.


(1) A phrase used by Arthur Gregory of SW1 in a letter to the Banbury Advertiser published 13 March 1919.  ‘The foxhunters, farmers and parsons have monopolised the councils far too long, and it is time the co-operator, smallholder and the officials of the Agricultural and Workers’ Unions took their place and do what they can in the interest of progress’.

(2) Banbury Guardian, 26 August 1920

(3) 24 Square Miles Re-Visited a film made by South News, distributed by Trilith Films, 1992

(4) RPT Davenport-Hines (ed), Business in the Age of Depression and War (Routledge, 1990).  Includes Cash and Concrete: Liquidity Problems in the Mass Production of ‘Homes for Heroes’ by Sheila Marriner.

(5) CM Lloyd, Housing, Fabian Tract No. 193 (1920), p11

(6) Nicholas Allen, Adderbury: A Thousand Years of History (Phillimore & Co.Ltd, 1995)

Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser and Banbury Guardian between 1911 and 1925 held by the British Newspaper Archive.

My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for making available the BRDC council minutes from 1921.

North Oxfordshire: The ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ and their first council houses, Part I


I’m very pleased to include, this week and next, guest posts by Jane Kilsby. They feature some great research and, as you’ll see, some quite exceptional rural council housing.  Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury four years ago.  She wrote about Banbury’s first council homes in an earlier post

‘The best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country.’  This was the verdict of ‘one who has had opportunities of seeing many of the housing schemes in progress in different parts’. (1)

I don’t know who paid this astonishing compliment; I like to think it was one of the Local Government Board’s Housing Commissioners, sent to North Oxfordshire in August 1920 to check on progress under Addison’s council house building programme.  This is the story of how they came about.

North Oxfordshire has a quiet beauty.  Its ‘hummocky hills’ are set among vast fields of green and gold, interspersed with villages and grand estates.  Banbury’s fertile, rural hinterland is a place of calm prosperity.  Since the Civil War, nothing of any significance has happened here.

Fields near Tadmarton SN

Fields near Tadmarton. Photograph July 2017

Farming has always been the chief activity.  In the 19th century, grain, hay, straw, malt and beer went to London and Birmingham via Banbury’s canal and railway.  Until the 1920s, carriers’ carts provided the only link with Banbury market and great droves of cattle and sheep made their way to the Market Place, as they had done for centuries.

By 1914 Oxfordshire was suffering the full impact of the agricultural depression which had begun in the 1870s.  With cheaper imported grain and meat and a run of poor harvests, the county slipped from being one of the richest to one of the poorest; farm workers’ wages were the lowest in England.  In summer, life in these villages could be very pleasant indeed.  But, for many farmworkers, there were times of insecurity and isolation.

The local building stone is Middle Lias marlstone, containing iron and known as Hornton stone.  It is this that gives this district its distinct appeal.  Many villages had their own quarries.  Thatched cottages are still common.

Villages were pretty
The villages were, and still are, undoubtedly pretty. Many cottages survive from the 17th century. Wroxton.  Photograph July 2017

The Agricultural Economics Research Institute of the University of Oxford made a thought-provoking film in 1944, Twenty-Four Square Miles, directed by Kay Mander. (2) It examines farming and village life in this area during World War II.  Life here during World War I was surely very similar, if a little harsher.

The film highlights how time-consuming and physically demanding it was to collect water for domestic use and the complete absence of plumbing as we know it today. Until the 1950s most of the North Oxfordshire villages did not have a piped and safe water supply.  Villagers used wells, the one or two public taps in each village, springs and shared earth closets.

Footage of the district council’s first council houses appears at about 19-21 minutes in, but more of that later.

Banbury Rural District Council (BRDC) was formed as a result of the Local Government Act of 1894 and comprised most of what was previously the Banbury rural sanitary district.  The Council was made up of 33 representatives from 31 parishes.  In 1911 the population was 11,457.  BRDC was dissolved and became part of Cherwell District Council in 1974.

Rev Blythman

Rev Blythman, chairman of the BRDC 1902-1917, was rector of Shenington for 57 years. Photograph by courtesy of the Oxfordshire History Centre.

The Council members – the ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ (3) – were well-connected.  Rev. Arthur Blythman, was the Chairman from 1902 to 1917.  Rector of Shenington, a Balliol man, magistrate and lifelong friend of the Earl of Jersey, Blythman was described in the local newspapers as a man who ‘unremittingly gave every possible attention, in every detail to every section of the community, whatever their political or religious creed.’

Chief foxhunter among them, James Crawford-Wood of Alkerton House, was a columnist with The Field.  Colonel North of Wroxton Abbey, Lord North’s family seat, spent years away on active service and returned to his council duties in 1919.  In the early 20th century the Rural District Council had its offices in Horse Fair in Banbury.  Council meetings were always on Thursdays, market day.

Party politics and policy statements do not feature in newspaper reports of the council’s meetings.  However, improving living conditions in their district appears to have been the councillors’ general aim and they were interested in practicalities.  Their first two decades were spent grappling with drains, sewers, cesspools, flooding, pumps, springs and wells. MapThe council’s first Clerk was Edward Lamley Fisher.  He was appointed in 1895.  Solicitor, Registrar and Clerk to the Poor Law Board of Guardians, he is credited in the local newspapers for his knowledge, humour and urbane manner.

Initially, poor housing conditions in rural areas received little attention at Government level; politicians of both parties were accused of ‘neglecting absolutely the agricultural question and were intoxicated with industrial success’ but the housing of agricultural labourers and rural poverty was a matter of longstanding concern to the reforming Liberal Government of 1906-1914. (4)

Lloyd George conceived the Land Enquiry in May 1912 and part of its remit was to establish what the stumbling blocks were in improving conditions for farmworkers.  It had little difficulty in establishing that rural housing conditions were appalling.  Wages were lower than in urban areas, rents were relatively high and landlords were often unable or unwilling to improve living conditions.  Its report of 1913 put forward a number of solutions ranging from a reformed Land Tax, subsidies for Councils to build cottages and the wider encouragement of smallholdings.  The Great War was to intervene before a coherent set of reforms on the ‘land question’ could be put in to practice.

The ‘land question’ was a complex subject of much debate in rural areas.  Through Lord Saye and Sele of Broughton Castle, a Liberal, there was a local connection with the National Land and Home League, a non-party organisation formed in 1910 that wanted to improve rural life.  He organised and chaired a number of the League’s meetings held in Oxfordshire to discuss rural development policies.

The Housing Acts were in place and applied to rural areas.  The 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act allowed councils to clear slums and draw up improvements of their own.  The 1900 Housing of the Working Classes Act extended the 1890 Act of the same name to places outside London, allowing councils to build houses.  Importantly, the 1910 Housing and Town Planning Act made it easier for councils to borrow money cheaply.

Between 1910 and 1914 there were some 1300 cottages built by councils in English villages.  Not many councils made use of their new powers to build and let out their own houses.  There are, however, some interesting examples of cottages built for rural workers by councils and through the strenuous efforts of local reformers.  For example, in Ixworth, Suffolk, and Penshurst in Kent.

BRDC, however, had only a growing awareness of its poor housing.  By 1913 Henry Gander, Sanitary Inspector and Surveyor since 1900, was doing house to house inspections in every village, with particulars of over 1000 houses in his ‘housing book’.  The Medical Officer for Health, Dr Morton, reported regularly on sanitation and housing; outbreaks of diphtheria and scarlet fever were not uncommon and the council issued some closure orders on old cottages.  The work of the Sanitary Inspectors is explained in earlier posts by Dr Jill Stewart.

The ‘Foxhunters, Farmers and Parsons’ of BRDC were well-meaning and perhaps unaccustomed to outside opinion.  It took a government inspection of the condition of the district for the council to adopt its housing powers.  A fresh pair of eyes on the housing conditions, in the form of a housing inspection and a report from the Local Government Board, was what led the council to decide to build.

In April 1913 the Clerk, Mr Lamley Fisher, received a letter from the Local Government Board asking the council why it had not built anything yet.  Without a satisfactory answer, the Board wrote again in January 1914:

An Inspector was to make an inspection of the District with the purpose of obtaining ‘information respecting the housing accommodation.  He should commence his inspection on Tuesday 27th inst, and would call at Mr Fisher’s office.

OFSTED-like, the Inspector expected Dr Morton and Mr Gander to meet him there.

BRDC Offices

The offices of the Banbury Rural District Council, built in 1900 and now a nursery, are in Horse Fair, Banbury, opposite Banbury Cross.  Photograph August 2017.

Mr Gander reported on the Inspector’s visit to the Council’s next meeting.  He had shown his housing book to the Inspector and hoped that the Inspector had seen that he was doing the work as it should be done.  Councillor Page remarked:

I suppose the Local Government Board have not very much for these Inspectors to do, so they send them round for exercise?

But, on 30 April 1914 Courtenay Clifton –  the Local Government Board Inspector who had overseen the achievements of BRDC’s municipal counterparts at King’s Road in Banbury in 1912-13 – sent his report to Mr Fisher.

It put an end to BRDC’s dithering.  In the Board’s view, there was an urgent demand for more houses in Cropredy, Hornton and Wardington.  A house in Hornton had been closed by the council as unfit for human habitation three years ago but re-occupied in its same condition because the tenants were unable to find other accommodation in the parish.

The Board urged the District Council to provide accommodation themselves, under Part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890, adding that ‘it should be possible at these places to devise schemes that would be nearly, if not quite, self-supporting.’

Further, the Board knew about cases of overcrowding in Barford St John, Barford St Michael, Bloxham, Milton and West Adderbury and expected the Council to take immediate action.  There was disrepair: damp walls and floors in Bloxham, East Adderbury, Shutford, Epwell and North Newington.  Councillor Pettipher remarked:

in all probability we will have to face the music in one or two of the villages before long.

Almost every parish was named in the Board’s report.  The council spent the summer debating where houses were most needed and how to pay for them.  Parishes overburdened with the cost of sewerage schemes were reluctant to agree that ‘the cost of any new houses not met by the rents be charged to the parish concerned’.

By the time war had broken out, the Local Government Board had written to BRDC another three times asking for progress.  Rev Blythman had been to several sites but negotiations on land prices proved tricky.  The council decided to wait until June 1915 which they felt would be ‘a more propitious time.’

War memorial SN

The memorial in Alkerton is a simple piece of Hornton stone. The population of the village in 1911 was 102. Cllr Crawford-Wood lost both his sons in the First World War. Photograph August 2017.

The Local Government Board began working on reconstruction as early as August 1917.  Dr Addison, MP was Lloyd-George’s Minister for Reconstruction during the latter years of the War and then from June 1918, as Minister for Health, it fell to him to put into practice an extensive programme of state-led house building.

Addison aimed to put an end to the country’s poor housing stock and provide decent homes for those returning from the War.  The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, known as the Addison Act, gave local councils powers to build unlimited numbers of new houses at low, controlled rents with any losses on their building costs met by government subsidies.  Loans raised by councils did not have to cover the whole cost of housing schemes; this was the start of publicly-funded housing.

ln North Oxfordshire, local opinion anticipated Lloyd-George’s cry for homes for heroes: in June 1918 Clement Gibbard, late of the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry, wrote to the Banbury Guardian:

I suggest, to commemorate victory in this awful war, every village should place a brand new cottage for every man who has been out to fight for liberty, so that the health and comfort of the rural community would be happier and healthier in the future than it has been in the past.  In comparison to the number of people per acre there is as much illness in the rural districts as there is in large towns.  The Irish recruits have been promised land if they will join up, then why should not we England lads get a victory sanitary cottage for helping to save the Empire.

The Local Government Board’s Housing Commissioner wanted a new survey of every District detailing for each parish i) the present estimated shortage of houses, ii) the actual state of overcrowding, and iii) the number of houses that should be condemned if there were no other houses available for accommodating the persons displaced.  BRDC was ready for this and duly complied.  By July 1918 the Housing Committee was able to confirm that, ‘on the assumption that financial facilities will be afforded by the Government, that a scheme be prepared for submission to the Local Government Board at an early date’. 

There was no more procrastination or debate: the council knew they were on a tight timetable.  Poor housing conditions in the district before the War had become critical; a pent up demand for farmworkers cottages and for returning soldiers and their families had become a necessity.  The day after the Armistice, the Chairman, by then Joseph Pettipher, went out with Sanitary Inspector, Mr Gander, making use of Mr Gander’s motor-bicycle and petrol:

to ascertain what land is suitable for building purposes, reporting to the Clerk from time to time in order that he may be in a position to put himself into communication with the owners of such land and the terms on which such land can be acquired.

It may not be quite true that you can walk from Oxford to Cambridge without leaving land owned by the colleges, but the Oxford colleges owned a lot of land in North Oxfordshire.(5)  The colleges co-operated and a number of housing sites, such as in Milcombe, were purchased directly from them.

Building was underway very quickly.

South Newington builders 1920

The houses in South Newington under construction in 1920. Built by Wheeler Bros. of Reading, two of the builders appear to be in uniform. Photo with kind permission of Laurence Carey.

House building by councils was one of the numerous aspects of society changed forever by the Great War.  In a remarkable burst of activity, BRDC had built and let 170 houses by 1922; it had a rent roll of almost £3,000 and outstanding loans from the Local Government Board of £178,000.

Cropredy Close SN

In early 1919 a letter signed by 25 discharged soldiers and the vicar in Cropredy urged the Council to speed up a housing scheme in the village. Three pairs of semis were built in Chapel Close in 1921. Photograph June 2017.

In part II, we will look in detail at who designed and built BRDC’s first council houses and wonder whether these are indeed the ‘best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country’.


(1) Banbury Guardian, 26 August 1920

(2) Twenty-Four Square Miles, a film by Basic Films, 1946

(3) A phrase used by Arthur Gregory of SW1 in a letter to the Banbury Advertiser published 13 March 1919. ‘The foxhunters, farmers and parsons have monopolised the councils far too long, and it is time the co-operator, smallholder and the officials of the Agricultural and Workers’ Unions took their place and do what they can in the interest of progress.’

(4) W Hills, M.P. for Durham, at his talk in Banbury on 9 April 1914 on ‘The Rural Worker: His Work, Housing and Wages.’

(5) What do the Oxford Colleges own?  25 September 2016 in Who Owns England?

Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser and Banbury Guardian between 1911 and 1925 held by the British Newspaper Archive.

My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for making available the BRDC council minutes from 1921.


Open House London 2017: Town Halls – Civic Pride and Service

This second post marking Open House London on 16-17 September offers a broadly chronological, whistle-stop tour of the municipal seats of government featured, in various forms – some grand, some humble – this weekend. (Open House venues are picked out in bold; the links related to previous blog posts.)


City of London Guildhall (c) Prioryman and made available through Wikimedia Commons

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


Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

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

Old_Vestry_Office_Enfield_(c) Philafrenzy

Old Vestry Offices, Enfield (c) Philafrenzy and made available through Wikimedia Commons

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

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


Shoreditch Town Hall

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


Limehouse Town Hall

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

Ealing Town Hall Champion SN

Ealing Town Hall (c) PG Chamion and made available through Wikimedia Commons

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


Battersea Arts Centre (former town hall)

Battersea Town Hall, begun in 1892 – an ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ design by Edward Mountford – survived a disastrous fire in 2015.  Fortunately, repairs and improvements have re-established what is now the Battersea Arts Centre as a wonderful local resource.  Its local government heritage survives, however – a worthy memorial to the time when Battersea’s radical politics earned it the title, the ‘Municipal Mecca’. (The Latchmere Estate, a fifteen minute walk to the north and the subject of my very first post, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour in 1903.)


Richmond Old Town Hall

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


Finsbury Town Hall

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

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


Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower

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


Redbridge (formerly Ilford) Town Hall (c) Sunil 060902 and made available through Wikimedia Commons

The first ‘free Classical’ phase of Redbridge Town Hall, by architect Ben Woollard, was opened in 1901 for Ilford Urban District Council. A new central library was built in the 1927 extension for the newly created Municipal Borough and further office space in the 1933 extension, contributing to the eclectic Renaissance of the overall ensemble. Since 1965 it’s served as the headquarters of the London Borough of Redbridge. The Council Chamber is one of the finest in London.


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


Tottenham Town Hall today

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


The Victoria Hall, Woolwich Town Hall

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

Bethnal Green SN 2

Town Hall Hotel, Bethnal Green 

Bethnal Green Town Hall, Edwardian Baroque, was opened in 1910 to designs by Percy Robinson and W Alban Jones.  Sculptures by Henry Poole adorn the exterior.  The growth of local government responsibilities in the interwar period compelled the opening of a large extension to the rear, designed by ECP Monson – restrained neo-classical outside, sumptuous and modern inside – in 1939.  (Monson was also a significant architect of the era’s council housing such as the briefly notorious Lenin Estate built in the 1920s when the Council was briefly under joint Labour-Communist control.)


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

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

IslingtonTownHall Alan Ford

Islington Town Hall (c) Alan Ford and made available through Wikimedia Commons

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

Kingston Guildhall Stevekeiretsu

Kingston Guildhall (c) Steve Keiretsu and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Kingston Town Hall, built ten years later for the then Municipal Borough of Kingston-on Thames and designed by Maurice Webb, displays another of the more traditional forms still favoured in the era – redbrick, neo-Georgian.  The Magistrates Courts, incorporated into the building, are now the offices of the Borough’s History Centre.


Hackney Town Hall

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

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

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


Havering (formerly Romford) Town Hall (c) MRSC and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Opened one year earlier, Romford Town Hall (now serving the London Borough of Havering) is a less elaborate building, designed by Herbert R Collins and Antoine Englebert O Geens in an architectural competition stressing the need for strict economy. But it’s an important representative of the International Moderne style increasingly in vogue at this time. Though its steel-framed construction is hidden here by brickwork and stone, rather than the white cement often favoured, this was a consciously forward-looking, more democratic architecture shedding the detritus of the past.

Dagenham Town Hall

Dagenham Town Hall

The former Dagenham Town Hall (now the Coventry University London Campus) was designed by E Berry Webber in 1937 for what was then Dagenham Urban District Council, undergoing massive growth as a result of the LCC’s nearby Becontree Estate.  It’s a modernist design of steel-framed construction – a quintessential civic building of the era. The full height, marbled ceremonial stairway in the building’s main hall is on of the most impressive in the capital.

Waltham Forest Assembly Hall SN3

Waltham Forest Assembly Hall

The consummation of this ambitious era of municipal construction is found in Walthamstow Town Hall (now belonging to the Borough of Waltham Forest) and the adjacent Assembly Hall – a magnificent civic complex fronted by sweeping lawns and a grand central pool and fountain. Both the Town Hall, not open this year, and Assembly Hall were designed by Phillip Hepworth in a stripped down classical style with Art Deco touches owing something to Scandinavian contemporaries.  The front of the Hall, famed for its acoustics and a favourite recording venue, is inscribed with the words of local son William Morris (which also provide the Borough motto), “Fellowship is Life; Lack of Fellowship is Death’.


London City Hall (ca) Garry Knight and made available through a Creative Commons licence

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


Brent Civic Centre

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

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


Open House London, 2017: A Tour of the Capital’s Council Housing

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

It’s partly this ubiquity and familiarity that means most council estates don’t make it into Open House London, the capital’s annual celebration of its built heritage taking place this year on the weekend of the 16-17 September. And, then – let’s be fair here – there’s the fact that not all municipal schemes have represented the very best of architecture and design.

Housing protest

Housing crisis and protest

But there’s another process in play – the marginalisation of social housing and its contribution to the lives of so many. We are asked to forget all that social housing has achieved, just as we are asked by some supporters of a boundless free market to discount it as a solution to the present housing crisis.

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

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

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

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

SN Dickson Road, Progress Estate

Dickson Road, Progress Estate

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

26 Chittys Lane

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

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

If you’re there, make sure to visit Valence House too, a 15th century manor house purchased to serve local needs by the LCC in 1926, and now a local museum recording the distant and more recent history of the area, including some interesting records and re-creations of Becontree.

Lansbury Neighbourhood map 1951

A brochure for the Lansbury Estate, 1951

The Lansbury Estate in Poplar would serve as a model for another era of post-war council housing when it was opened in 1951 to serve as a living ‘Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research’ for the Festival of Britain.  It’s easy to be unimpressed by its modest yellow-brick terraces and small blocks of flats and maisonettes – and much contemporary architectural opinion was – but take time to savour a moment when (in the words of the Festival’s on-site town planning exhibition) our politics were driven by ‘The Battle for Land’ and ‘The Needs of the People’ and the question ‘How can these needs be met?’.

Chrisp St Market Tower (1)The Estate epitomises the ‘neighbourhood unit’, a key element of post-war planning envisaged as a means of preserving and enhancing an ideal of ‘community’ which some felt betrayed by larger, more anonymous council estates such as Becontree.  Its centrepiece was Frederick Gibberd’s Chrisp Street Market and clock tower – the first pedestrianised shopping centre in the country.

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

Trellick 2

Trellick Tower

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


Berthold Lubetkin

This was an era when the ‘starchitects’ of the day were part of a social democratic vision of Britain’s future and for no-one was this truer than Berthold Lubetkin, the architect of the Finsbury Health Centre, who famously declared that ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’.  He fulfilled this vision in the Spa Green Estate, to the north, opened in 1949 and described by the Survey of London, not prone to hyperbole, as ‘heroic’ and by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time.

SN Bevin Court entrance

SN Bevin staircaseNeither of these appear in Open House but two of Lubetkin’s schemes for the Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council – one of the most progressive in the capital – are featured.  Bevin Court was opened in 1954; the Cold War having put paid to plans to name the building after Lenin (who had once lived on it site).  Its innovative seven-story Y-shape capitalised on its site and ensured none of the flats faced north but, visually, its crowning glory is its central staircase.  Visit to see that and the newly restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.

SN PG Kendal House and Reddington House

Kendal House and Reddington House, Priory Green Estate

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

SN Cranbrook

The Cranbrook Estate – old people’s bungalows and Elisabeth Frink’s Blind Beggar and His Dog (centre left) in foreground

Finsbury’s progressive counterpart to the east was Bethnal Green and Lubetkin designed the Cranbrook Estate, built between 1955 and 1966, for the Borough.  With 529 homes in total – arranged in a geometric ensemble of six tower and five medium-rise blocks artfully diminishing in scale to the single-storey terrace of old people’s bungalows on the Roman Road – it is one and half times the size of le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation.  Lutbetkin’s biographer, John Allen, rightly describes it as a ‘stupendous tour de force’ and only detracts from that compliment by seeming to lament the ‘domestic intricacies of municipal housing’ which lie behind it.  I’ll take those – as Lubetkin would – as, in fact, its crowning achievement.

SN Ladlands

Dawson’s Heights: Ladlands and the view to the north

When she designed Dawson’s Heights, in East Dulwich, for Southwark Borough Council, Kate Macintosh, aged just 26, was no such star though she’s since become one of the most renowned of council housing architects and a doughty defender of the sector’s value and continuing purpose.  Dawson’s Heights literally crowns its dramatic hill-top setting, so much so that English Heritage (in a listing proposal rejected by the Secretary of State) was moved to almost lyrical praise of the scheme’s ‘striking and original massing’ and its ‘evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’.  The Estate, two large ziggurat-style blocks designed to offer views and sunlight to each of their 296 flats, was built between 1968 and 1972.


The World’s End Estate

Another estate which capitalises on its superb setting is the World’s End Estate, completed in 1977, set on the banks of the Thames across London and built, in happier times, by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms it comprises seven 18 to 21-storey tower blocks, joined in a figure of eight by nine four-storey walkway blocks but the whole, clad in warm-red brick, possesses a romantic, castellated appearance, providing  great views within and without.

SN Silchester Estate Darfield Way

Darfield Way, Silchester Estate

Three miles to the north at the top end of the Borough lies the Silchester Estate, built in the early 1970s by the Greater London Council on land cleared of slums in Notting Dale. Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate lie immediately to the east. Grenfell offers its own tragic indictment of the marginalisation of social housing residents and cost-cutting regeneration – I won’t add here to the mountain of words and outpouring of grief that catastrophe engendered except to say that I hope lessons will be learnt.

Silchester offers its own lessons.  You are invited to view a ‘new development of 112 mixed tenure homes, community and retail facilities delivered jointly by Peabody and Kensington and Chelsea’.  It’s a symbol of the new world of social housing – new build financed by the construction of homes for sale and the mantra that mono-tenure (i.e. working-class, social rented) estates need to be ‘improved’ by an injection of middle-class affluence and aspiration. Some social housing has been replaced on a like-for-like basis; 70 percent of the new homes are said to be ‘affordable’ though that, as you will know, is a slippery and all too often duplicitous term.

Silchester Estate Waynflete Square and Frinstead House SN

Frinstead House and Waynflete Square, Silchester Estate

Take a look at the adjacent, older estate while you there – four 20-storey tower blocks and a range of low-rise blocks set around the leafy Waynflete Square. It’s well-liked by residents who cherish their homes, their community and the estate’s attractive open spaces.  All, in recent years, have been subject to plans to demolish and rebuild.  A strong residents’ campaign and recent events at Grenfell may have postponed that threat but such estates and communities across the capital deserve our support.

Hollamby 1974

Ted Hollamby

Nowhere is this truer than in Lambeth. As Chief Architect for the new (post-65) Borough of Lambeth, Ted Hollamby had concluded that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’.  Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments.  They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’.  His vision can be seen enacted in two very fine council estates on show during Open House.

Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973, is a stepped development designed to make best use of its attractive site but it reflects Lambeth and Hollamby’s signature style in its intimacy and human scale.  It’s worked; it’s a well-loved estate with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, as part of Lambeth’s commendable pledge to build new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact, once more the threat of demolition.

Central Hill snip

Central Hill

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

IMG_0085 (a)

Cressingham Gardens

The plans to wreak this havoc on Cressingham Gardens, one of Lambeth’s finest estates – described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’ – have already been approved, its residents still fighting valiantly a rearguard action.  It’s a beautiful estate nestling on the edge of Brockwell Park which manages superbly, in Hollamby’s words again, to ‘create a sense of smallness inside the bigness…and to get the kind of atmosphere in which people did not feel all herded together’.


Thamesmead as envisaged in the mid-1960s

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

621px-2017_Thamesmead_aerial_view_01 Kleon3

Thamesmead south and central, 2017 (c) Kleon3 and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Only 12,000 had settled by 1974 and the estate – with its difficult location, poor transport links and lack of facilities – was considered by many a failure. Taken over by Peabody in 2015, benefiting from new investment and the arrival of Crossrail in 2018, it’s on the up now and worth visiting for both its past and future promise.

Meanwhile, across the capital, another progressive borough, Camden – under the enlightened leadership of Borough Architect Sydney Cook – had also developed its own striking house style.  Cook rejected the system-building then in vogue as the means to build as much as cheaply as possible – ‘I’ll use standardised plans if you can find me a standardised site,’ he said.  And he rejected high-rise, particularly the tower blocks set in open landscape popular at the time.

Sn Whittington Estate Stoneleigh Terrace (2)

Stoneleigh Terrace, Whitington Estate

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

Neave Brown

Neave Brown

Aside from Cook, Camden’s superb council housing of this era is chiefly associated with Neave Brown, the only living architect to have had all his UK work officially listed. This year’s Open House features, the Dunboyne Road (formerly Fleet Road) Estate (no. 36 to be precise), designed by Brown in 1966 and finally completed in 1977.

Its three white, stepped parallel blocks and now mature gardens provide a striking ensemble, noted by English Heritage in their 2010 Grade II listing for its ‘strong modernist aesthetic’ and a ‘simple, bold overall composition’ belying the scheme’s complexity and sophistication.

Dunboyne Road 2

Dunboyne Road Estate

The other Brown scheme in Open House is generally judged one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, the Alexandra Road Estate,  listed Grade II* in 1993.  It’s better seen than described but, in its scale and confidence, it marks (in the words of modernist architect John Winter), ‘a magical moment for English housing’.  Make sure to visit the recently renovated Alexandra Road Park and Tenants’ Hall (also featured in Open House), both integral to the design and original conception of the estate.

Rowley Way, the Alexandra Road Estate

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

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


The Silchester residents’ campaign to defend their estate can be found at Save Our Silchester. The residents of Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens also have active campaigns fighting to preserve their homes and communities.  See Save Central Hill and Save Cressingham Gardens to find out more and lend your support.

Municipal Dreams Goes to Hull, Part II: Civic grandeur, service and convenience

We left Hull in last week’s post standing, figuratively at least, in its civic heart, Queen Victoria Square.  We’re looking at municipal Hull – the plans and promises as well as proud accomplishment.

Queen’s Gardens, which lie beyond Queen Victoria Square to the north-east, fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.  The area was once the Queen’s Docks, the first Hull docks constructed in the 1770s.  Obsolete by the interwar period, they were sold to the Corporation, infilled and opened (by Labour MP Herbert Morrison) as a park in 1935 and, as such, were a key element of the 1930s’ redesign of the city centre.   The fountain at the western end survives from that time but the Gardens as a whole were remodelled by Frederick Gibberd from the 1950s, building on the earlier Lutyens and Abercrombie vision for a new grand civic space, including assembly hall and winter gardens, which incorporated the Guildhall to the south.

Queens's Gardens Kenneth Carter relief
– Kenneth Carter reliefs in front of former Central Police Station, Queen’s Gardens

Those larger ambitions remained unfulfilled and the Gardens remain poorly integrated into the wider cityscape – an issue addressed by a new masterplan issued in 2013 – but it’s a lovely space and walk into them to appreciate some fine past and present landscaping and public art. (1)  Amongst the latter are reliefs by Robert Adams by the pond at the eastern end and five panels by Kenneth Carter on a northern wall in front of the 1959 former Police Station, both commissioned by Gibberd (a great patron of public art as we’ve seen in Harlow).

Queen's Gardens SN
– Queen’s Gardens, Wilberforce Monument and Hull College

What will catch your eye is the grand terminal vista of the Gardens at their eastern end.  The Wilberforce Monument (local boy William Wilberforce was the town’s MP from 1780) was erected by public subscription in 1834, just one year after the slave trade against which Wilberforce campaigned tirelessly was abolished in the British Empire, and moved to its present site in 1935.

Hull College SN
– Hull College, Frederick Gibberd

Beyond it lies the Hull College of Technology (now Hull College), designed by Gibberd in Festival of Britain style in the 1950s, but completed in 1962.  Old Pevsner didn’t much like it – ‘run of the mill’ it thought – but the new guide is more complimentary of its ‘agreeable symmetry’.  A William Mitchell panel – depicting nautical and mathematical instruments – sits strikingly on the building’s façade.

Hull College Mitchell SN
– William Mitchell concrete and resin panel, c1960

From the College head south towards Alfred Gelder Street.  Alfred Gelder, an architect by profession, councillor and alderman for 43 years, was another of the nonconformist Liberals who left their progressive mark on the city.   The English Baroque-style Guildhall and Law Courts complex, designed by Edwin Cooper, on the street fittingly named after Gelder was begun on the latter’s initiative in 1905 and completed in 1916.  It’s a striking presence, monumental externally, lavishly decorated internally: a powerful statement of civic pride and purpose.Guildhall SN

Guildhall II SN
– The Guildhall

Facing the Guildhall on opposite sides of the road are the Maritime Buildings, a fine Edwardian office block, Grade II listed, awaiting new use and some TLC, and the former General Post Office, fully justifying its architectural descriptor, Edwardian imperial.  Buildings of their time just as their current redundancy or repurposing indicates changed times.  A Wetherspoons in the former post office building allows you to see some of its former grand interior. (2)

Wilberforce Museum SN

Wilberforce Museum

From here it’s a short walk to the heart of Hull’s Old Town (the new town of the 14th century) and at the top end of the High Street, the city’s Museum Quarter – three excellent museums run by the council and free to enter.  Wilberforce gets due recognition in the house, now museum, where he was born and grew up.

Streetlife tram SN

Municipal tram in the Streetlife Museum

But a shout-out here for the excellent Streetlife Museum which offered a great combination of transport and social history – and a chance, keeping to my municipal theme, to take a photograph of a Hull Corporation tram of pre-First World War vintage.  The trams were municipalised in 1896, converted to a trolley-bus system in 1945, and finally closed in 1964.

Tidal barrier, bridge, Deep open SN
– Tidal Surge Barrier with road and pedestrian swing bridges open

Walking further south along the River Hull, you come to some impressive infrastructure – Myton Bridge, a swing bridge carrying the A63 opened in 1980, and the Tidal Surge Barrier of the same year designed by Oliver Cox.  Cox made his name as a major figure in the housing division of the London County Council’s Architects Department so it was impressive to see the versatility displayed in this later work.

The Deep SN

The Deep, Terry Farrell

Further on is The Deep, designed by Terry Farrell and completed in 2002 – an aquarium and major visitor attraction intended to regenerate this redundant area of former dockland. Nelson Street PC SN

Nelson Street PC III SN

Nelson Street PC II SN

Nelson Street public conveniences

I should really spend more time on that bit of self-consciously showpiece architecture but we’re walking on, west along the Humber, towards Nelson Street and the now celebrated public toilets, Grade II listed (alongside the Tidal Surge Barrier and some other Hull landmarks) a few weeks ago. (3) Opened in 1926, the provision for women as well as men was innovative for the time and offers its own bit of social history as a mark of the greater independence allowed women in the interwar period. Otherwise, just enjoy the quality and beauty of the original Art Nouveau styling and fittings which survive to the present. (4)

Fruit Market SN
– ‘Thieving Harry’s’, Fruit Market

Finally, on this perambulation, you can stop off for some well-earned refreshment in the revitalised Fruit Market area around the corner on the eastern side of Princess Docks. Now rebranded as an arts and cultural quarter, not so long ago it was just what it said it was as some of the surviving shopfronts and signs on Humber Street testify.  The Gibson Bishop building on the corner – once a fruit and vegetable merchant and now Thieving Harry’s café – is another fine example of 1950s’ reconstruction.

All that represents a full day’s visit but, hopefully, you’ll take time to explore the city further.  I’ll conclude with another idiosyncratic, municipally-themed, selection of other highlights.

Holderness Road Library SN
– James Reckitt Public Library, Holderness Road

Heading east along the Holderness Road, you’ll find the James Reckitt Public Library (Reckitt was another local philanthropic Liberal industrialist), designed by Alfred Gelder and opened in 1889 as Hull’s first public library.

Holderness Road Baths SN

East Hull Baths, Holderness Road

Immediately adjacent are the more exuberant East Hull Baths, designed by Joseph H Hirst, then of the City Engineer’s Department, and opened in 1898.

Frederic I Reckitt Havens

Frederick I Reckitt Havens

A little under a mile further east, you reach the edge of the garden village developed before the First World War by Reckitt for the workers of his nearby works.  It’s a beautiful ensemble though now, for the most part, firmly for the more affluent middle classes.  The sweetly-named Frederick I Reckitt Havens, run by Anchor Housing, remain a not-for-profit enclave for elderly persons.

Khyber Pass SN
– The ‘Khyber Pass’ in East Park 

Next is East Park, originally 52 acres, now 120, designed by Borough Engineer Joseph Fox Sharp and opened by the Corporation in 1887. The Khyber Pass folly was constructed, possibly as a project for the local unemployed, between 1885 and 1888.  Not the worst reminder of Britain’s imperial past perhaps.

Beverley Road library II SN
– Beverley Road Baths (c) Richard Croft and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Alternatively head north along the Beverley Road, there are more examples of progressive municipal endeavour – the Stepney Primary School, a Queen Anne-style building of the Hull School Board erected in 1886 and, next door, the Beverley Road Baths, designed by Joseph H Hirst, again, in 1905.

Blitz site SN

The former National Picture Theatre blitz site

Further north along Beverley Road is Britain’s last surviving Second World War Blitz site. The National Picture Theatre, a 1914 cinema, was bombed in 1941 and has remained largely undisturbed since then as an unintended memorial to wartime destruction.  There are now plans to resurrect the listed building as a formal commemoration of the era.

Pearson Park just to the west, originally the People’s Park, opened in 1862 – the city’s first public park – is a superb example of Victorian concern for working-class wellbeing and healthy recreation (even while the latter didn’t generally extend to their profit-making working lives or usually squalid homes).  The poet Philip Larkin’s home, another of the recently listed sites, is an attractive middle-class residence of the 1890s on the northern edge of the park.

Sidmouth Street School SN
– Sidmouth Street School

Larkin was famously chief librarian of Hull University which lies off Cottingham Road to the north.  If you cut across west from Beverley Road, you can take in another of the Hull Board’s fine schools, that on Sidmouth Street, erected 1912 and designed by the industrious Joseph H Hirst.

Court Housing, Sidmouth Street

Court housing, Sidmouth Street

Across the road and on Exmouth Street nearby you’ll see some rare surviving examples of the court housing – short facing terraces built as cul-de-sacs off the main roads – which dominated much of the city’s working-class housing before the First World War.  These are later, and better built, examples from the 1880s.  One of the residents we spoke to was pleased that a couple of people up from London had ventured beyond the city centre.

University of Hull Venn Building SN
– The Venn Building, University of Hull

On to the University and we’ll stretch a point here – though not too far – to make this our final example of municipal investment and innovation. The University was founded in 1925 on the back of a £250,000 donation from Thomas R Ferens and a £150,000 grant from the City Council.  There’s a lot of good architecture to be admired here but I’ll give you the Venn Building of 1928 (‘Neo-Early Georgian’ according to the experts) designed by William Forsyth to capture these interwar origins.

And that’s it. I’ve done a bit more than scratch the surface but all this is only really a taste of what Hull has to offer and a poor substitute for a visit in person.  Above all, it’s a reminder of the huge and important role that local government – as well as a broader civic culture supported by progressive actors – has played in the building and civilising of our cities.

Hull’s deserved status as the UK’s City of Culture in 2017 marks a later iteration of this same endeavour and I hope that the investment and interest it has attracted genuinely improves the lives of local residents as well as entertaining mere visitors such as myself.  I’ll end with a plea that this revival of municipal dreams is an exemplar, not a one-off – a testimony, like so much of what went before, to how a properly resourced and ambitious municipality can improve the lives of its citizens.


Much of the architectural detail in this post is drawn from the invaluable Hull (Pevsner Architectural Guides, 2010) by David and Susan Neave.

(1) Hull City Council Economic Development and Regeneration Department, Masterplan Guidance, Queens Gardens, Hull (July 2013)

(2) The website British Post Office Buildings and their Architects: an Illustrated Guide has informative description and illustration on Hull’s General Post Office.

(3) For fuller detail on all the new Hull listings, take a look at the Historic England webpage.

(4) Of course, the issue of public conveniences (or present-day inconvenience) isn’t merely a matter of historic or architectural interest. The provision of public toilets was an important part of municipal service in its earlier years and the withdrawal of such provision is a major concern to many sections of the community now.  This is well dealt with, past and present, in a Hull context, in Paul Gibson’s post on Public Toilets in Hull.

Jones the Planner offers a full and more critical perspective on Hull’s post-war planning and architecture in ‘Hull: City of Culture’ (9 February 2014) and, alongside other case studies, in the book Cities of the North (2016).



Municipal Dreams in Hull, Part I: The best laid plans…

Hull, as I hope you all know, is the UK’s City of Culture for 2017.  You really don’t need an excuse to visit the city but, if that’s an incentive so much the better, because it’s worth it – Hull is one of the friendliest and most interesting places I’ve been to in a long while. What follows – touching on the city’s civic planning and an eclectic mix of some of its municipal highlights (I’ll do some housing stuff in future posts) – can only be an appetiser but I hope it will encourage you to explore the city for yourself.  This first post looks, in particular, at twentieth century plans to reconstruct the city.

Edward I and Charter SN

Edward I and the city’s first borough charter commemorated in the Guildhall

Hull’s been a borough since 1299 and you’ll see some very early town planning in the grid-like pattern of streets off the High Street in the Old Town.  These were added to the original riverbank settlement by Edward I  who wanted the prosperous port as a base for his forays against the Scots and who renamed it formally Kingston upon Hull in the process.

The port – it was the UK’s third largest into the 1950s – and its associated industries expanded massively in the centuries which followed.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the Council – a reformed municipal corporation in 1835 and a county borough from 1888 – desired a civic presence which reflected the town’s importance and prosperity.  In the interwar period, new ambitions emerged to improve the city, a typically squalid product of breakneck Victorian-era urbanisation, as a living and working space for its broader population.  And then the Blitz – which hit Hull harder than any British city outside London – added its own necessity and aspirations to the task of post-war rebuilding.

Abercrombie City Centre before War

The city centre (west-east) just before the Second World War. The newly completed Queen’s Gardens dominate the top of the image; Paragon Station is bottom centre with Jameson Street heading up. (From Lutyens and Abercrombie, Plan)

Abercrombie 1943 RAF Reconnaissace Aerial View

A 1943 RAF reconnaissance shot (north-south) showing city centre bomb damage (From Lutyens and Abercrombie, Plan)

Arriving by rail at Paragon Station brings you to the heart of a new Hull planned by an ambitious Corporation from the 1930s.  Then, the city centre slums which dominated the area were described by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architectural eminence brought in to oversee the scheme, as an ‘eyesore and menace to heath…a disgrace to a progressive city’. He planned to replace the ‘irritating and unsightly jumble’ of older buildings with a neo-Georgian ensemble; the Council itself hoped that Ferensway, as the new thoroughfare was named, would take ‘its place among the famous streets of the world’.  (1)

Brook House SN

Brook Chambers, Ferensway

To be honest, there’s not much to vindicate such hopes now but look north to the junction with Brook Street and you’ll see a vestige of them in Brook Chambers, erected in 1934.  In the event, wartime devastation – almost half the city’s central shops were destroyed – created new urgency and new opportunity to rebuild on a larger scale.

Abercrombie Plan new city centre

The Lutyens and Abercrombie Plan’s grand zonal reimagining of central Hull

Planning for ‘this second refounding of the great Port on the Humber’ began in 1941 and were finalised by 1944, commissioned by the Council from the two foremost town planners of the day, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Professor Patrick Abercrombie. (2)  Lutyens had spent almost twenty years designing New Delhi; Abercrombie drew up influential post-war plans for London and Plymouth amongst others.  Although Lutyens died in January 1944, his imprint on the completed Plan for the City and County of Kingston upon Hull seems strong in the grand Beaux Art scheme devised though it’s a form also favoured by Abercrombie in Plymouth.

More broadly, the Plan incorporated, in the words of Philip N Jones: (3)

the three great themes of post-war planning in Britain – inner city redevelopment; commitment to the social ideal of neighbourhood planning; and the trilogy of Containment – Green Belt – New Town.

A satellite town was planned in Burton Constable eight miles to the east with a narrow Green Belt separating the new settlement from the Hull suburbs.  Neither emerged and the new centre planned, in Abercrombie’s words, as ‘something completely new in Shopping Centres’ –  ‘a highly specialised precinct, free from traffic but adjacent to the central traffic routes’ – also took a very different form from that originally envisaged.

Abercrombie Osborne Street shopping area

The sleek new shopping centre around Osborne Street envisaged in the Lutyens and Abercrombie Plan)

Abercrombie and Lutyens had hoped to create a new shopping centre centred on Osborne Street, adjacent to an expanded and re-formed civic quarter located around Queen’s Gardens. Established business interests and the prevalence of surviving buildings – despite the Blitz – stymied this vision.

A and L Shopping Centre Plan

The Lutyens and Abercrombie plan shows a re-sited main railway station and new shopping centre to the south-west

Chamber of Trade Plan SN

The alternative Chamber of Trade plan keeps a revamped shopping centre to the north. With thanks to Catherine Flinn.

The Chamber of Trade Plan – first mooted in 1947, drawn up by another eminent town planner, WR Davidge, and adopted in modified form in 1954 – was constructed on the foundations of the main existing shopping centre to the north and was seen as far less disruptive.  It incorporated ‘temporary shops’ on Ferensway which survived until 2013.

temp shops Ferensway

Temporary shops on Ferensway. With thanks to Catherine Flinn.

Still, something of Abercrombie’s influence remained, not least in the fact that the plan was overseen by Hull’s new planner, the grandly-named Udolphus Aylmer Coates appointed in 1948, who had been a student of Abercrombie’s at the Department of Civil Design at Liverpool University. (4)

Abercrombie himself thought that the Hull Plan was ‘probably the best report he had been connected with’ but, ironically, as Philip N Jones concludes, ‘no other wartime plan was so ignored or so apparently ineffective’. (5)

House of Fraser II SN

The House of Fraser store on Ferensway and Jameston Street

Nevertheless, the rebuilt streets that emerged offer an impressive testimony to the vision and design aesthetic of post-war reconstruction, most notably in the House of Fraser department store (originally Hammonds) on Ferensway and Jameson Street.  Designed by TP Bennett and Sons and opened in 1950, it’s commended by the new Pevsner for its unusual combination of 1930s and Festival of Britain architectural elements.  Like a number of businesses in the vicinity, it seems to have suffered from that later iteration of our commercial future, the indoor shopping centre, but the building itself remains, to my eyes, strikingly attractive.

Ferensway Jameson Street corner SN

Paragon Square towards Jameson Street

Across the road is a bit of more standard post-war neo-Georgian but, if you look very carefully to the bottom right of the image above, you’ll catch a glimpse of Tony, a local bus driver playing the spoons and giving a one-man band show before starting his shift. He wasn’t busking. As he told us, it was just a way of cheering people up and putting himself in a good frame of mind before work.  He gave us a brilliant introduction to Hull and its people.

Festival House duo SN

Festival House, Jameson Street

Just along Jameson Street is Festival House where a tablet marks it as ‘the first permanent building to arise from the ashes of the centre of the city’ after its wartime destruction.

Phone box SNIf you’ve just arrived, the telephone box in the centre of Jameson Street might be the first of Hull’s famous cream-coloured kiosks you’ll see.  This one looks like a Gilbert Scott’s K6 1930s’ design to me but experts can correct me.   The unusual colour (and lack of crown insignia) isn’t an affectation but a proud reminder that Hull Corporation inaugurated its own municipal telephone system in 1902 which remained free of General Post Office control and privatisation until finally sold off in 1999.  Hull’s telephone and internet services are now operated by Kingston Communications which controversially retains an effective local monopoly.

Walking on, there’s a mix of styles and ages until you come to South Street on the right where you meet Queen’s House, a huge neo-Georgian quadrangle occupying one whole block of the city centre, designed by Kenneth Wakeford and completed in 1952.

Chapel Street Queen's House SN

Queen’s House, Chapel Street

The photograph, of its Chapel Street frontage above, hardly does it justice but it does capture the decline of a commercial district which Abercrombie hoped would restore Hull to its pre-war eminence as a centre serving some 500,000 people.

Three Ships II SN

Alan Boyson’s Three Ships mural

By this time, you will have spotted what should be one of Hull’s most proudly iconic images – Alan Boyson’s Three Ships mural, completed in 1963 and commissioned by the Co-op to celebrate Hull’s fishing heritage.  The stats are impressive enough – it’s an Italian glass mosaic of 4224 foot square slabs, each made up of 225 tiny glass cubes affixed to a 66ft x 64ft concrete screen – but what I love most is the confidence of its bravura statement of local identity.  And I love that it was commissioned by the Co-op, reminding us of a time when that organisation’s consumerism with a conscience (and its ‘divi’ for its working-class members) occupied centre-stage in the drive to build a fairer and more democratic Britain.

Coop mural

The mural in its earlier pomp above the flagship store of the Hull and East Riding Cooperative Society

The Co-op moved on; the premises were taken over by BHS and it went bust in 2016. The building now offers a ‘redevelopment opportunity’ but, whatever happens, please support the campaign to preserve the mural by following @BhsMuralHull on Twitter and signing the petition for listing.

City Hall and Queen Victoria Square SN

The City Hall, Queen Victoria and the exit from the Gents toilets

From here, a right turn down King Edward Street takes you to the heart of civic Hull into Queen Victoria Square, created in 1903 some six years after Hull was granted city status. The 1903 statue of Victoria sits imperiously above some fine public toilets, added in 1923 and retaining their original earthenware stalls, cisterns and cubicles in the Gents.

Unless you’re desperate (and male), they probably won’t be the first thing you notice.  On your right, stands the Edwardian Baroque City Hall, designed by City Architect Joseph H Hirst, opened in 1910.  This was designed as a public hall for concerts, meetings and civic events; on the day we visited it was hosting a graduation ceremony for the University.

Ferens Art Gallery III SN

Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square

Across the Square lies the Ferens Art Gallery – a ‘simple restrained classical cube of fine ashlar’ in the words of the latest Pevsner.  It was completed in 1927 following a £50,000 endowment from Thomas R Ferens, a director of Reckitt’s (one of the city’s major firms) and one-time Liberal MP for East Hull.   One of several significant benefactors to the city, Ferens was honoured after his death in 1930 in the naming of Ferensway.

Ferens Art Gallery II SN

An artwork purchased by the Corporation, one of many.

The early support of the Council is clear too among the many fine works on show. The Gallery, free to enter, with some good temporary exhibitions while we were there, is well worth a visit.

Maritime Museum SN

Maritime Museum, Queen Victoria Square

The civic triumvirate is completed by the Maritime Museum facing which was originally built in 1868-71 as the headquarters of the Hull Dock Company – a rare British building by Christopher George Wray who had made his name as an architect for the British Government in Bengal.

Both the dock offices (they became a museum in 1975) and City Hall were scheduled for demolition in the Lutyens and Abercrombie Plan as part of its creation of a new civic quarter – one reason perhaps, despite Abercrobie’s recognition that a ‘clean sheet approach’ would not be welcomed,  why the major part of the Plan went unfulfilled.

Next week’s post continues this tour of Hull, looking at other elements of post-war replanning as well as some of its major municipal accomplishments in the city centre and beyond. And, if you’re new to the blog, I’ve written on the North Hull council estate in an earlier post.


(1) Blomfield is quoted in ‘Slums Cleared for New Cityscape’, BBC Legacies, UK History Local to You (ND). The latter quotation is from David and Susan Neave, Hull (Pevsner Architectural Guides, 2010).  Much of the detail which follows is drawn from the same, invaluable, source.

(2) The quotation is from the Preamble to Edwin Lutyens and Patrick Abercrombie, A Plan for the City and County of Kingston upon Hull (A Brown and Sons Ltd., London and Hull, 1945)

(3) Philip N Jones, ‘“…a fairer and nobler City” – Lutyens and Abercrombie’s Plan for the City of Hull 1945’, Planning Perspectives, no 3, volume 13, 1998

(4) RTPI, Rebuilding Hull: the Abercrombie Plan and Beyond (1940s) (2014)

(5) The first quotation comes from Abercrombie himself.  The second and further detail comes from Jones, ‘“…a fairer and nobler City”.

For an unusual but insightful perspective on the Abercrombie Plan for Hull, listen to this track from Christopher Rowe and Ian Clark in ‘Songs for Humberside’ (1971)

My thanks to Catherine Flinn for providing some of the images specified as well as supporting detail.  Her book on post-war city centre reconstruction in Hull, Liverpool and Exeter will be published next year.

Jones the Planner offers a full and more critical perspective on Hull’s post-war planning and architecture in ‘Hull: City of Culture’ (9 February 2014) and, alongside other case studies, in the book Cities of the North (2016).

Growing up on the Speke Estate, Liverpool: a personal perspective


, ,

One of the most important aspects of this blog has been to give voice to the experience and views of council estate residents, so often ignored, too often maligned. I’m pleased to feature today a post from Tom in response to posts on Speke on the blog in April and May this year – who describes his own experience of growing up on the Estate and his views on the mistakes that were made in its planning and design. 

Thank you Municipal Dreams for remembering the Liverpool suburb of Speke: a forgotten part of a forgotten city.

I was born in 1951 in, now demolished, Mill Road Maternity Hospital, Liverpool. My parents lived in the Dingle, a wartime bomb-damaged part of Liverpool 8, in a one-room bedsit with an outside toilet. They registered for a new city corporation rental house. For two and a half years my mother attended council surgeries for an update on the request. In 1954 we were allocated a two-bedroom house in Speke, on the city’s southern limit.

Properties in Speke were several orders of magnitude better than accommodation most of its residents had lived in previously. Houses were well built, brick throughout, and had front and back gardens. There were indoor toilets and plumbing for hot and cold water. If you wanted hot water however, you had to light the coal fire an hour before: electric immersion heaters were some time off yet.

Growing up as a child in Speke was idyllic. We lived on the northern perimeter road opposite a farm. Childhood was exploring woodland and playing ‘hide and seek’ in wheat fields. South of Speke was more farmland, more woods and the River Mersey, three miles wide at that point. The river was too polluted to swim in, but it had a sandy shoreline and off in the distance up river, an afternoon’s walk away, Hale lighthouse. What more could a child ask for?

Alderfield Drive SN

Alderfield Drive from Speke Boulevard, February 1972 (c) Tom Speke

Speke Town predates the City of Liverpool, and had been fertile farmland for centuries. The genesis of Speke as a Council Housing Estate dates from the 1930s when Liverpool City Planners became enamoured with the ‘Garden City’ concept as a solution to the problems of a post Industrial Revolution inner city full of overcrowded slums. Plans were made for a ‘self-contained satellite town’.

The desperate need for new housing was exacerbated by Second World War bomb damage and further hastened by the post war ‘baby boom’ population explosion. In the space of a few years (c.1938-1953), Speke mushroomed from a pre-war census of ‘400 souls’ to 25,000 people. In the process, any vestige of old Speke, or its farming history, was bulldozed off the map. Speke Town was buried under the intersection of the newly constructed Speke Boulevard and Speke Hall Avenue.

Close scrutiny of the 1952 photograph, Dunlop’s factory in an earlier post, reveals that large chunks of Speke had still to be built, specifically the central shopping area known as the Parade. From memory, I was nine or ten years old before there were any central shops to go to. There were vans driving around Speke selling groceries, a practice that lasted until the mid 1970s. I have a cine film record.

This ‘Garden City’ idealism never progressed beyond the drawing board. Houses were built and then the building stopped: schools, shops, churches and community centres, all took up to a decade to build. The promise of a ‘self-contained’ Speke went unfulfilled.

The ‘Garden City’ idealism also contained an ill-founded assumption that city people would prefer to live in the country and could be transposed en masse. The ‘self-contained satellite town’ of Speke degenerated into isolated, urban, frontier country, still within the city limits, but a bus ride away from its nearest residential city neighbour.

Rear NW corner SN

Rear north-west corner of Stapleton Avenue and Ganworth Road, 21 November 1973 (c) Liverpool Echo

This ‘open play area’ (above) had been left fallow since the day the flats were built, twenty years previous. Within another twenty years, all the blocks of flats would be gone.

Tenement blocks surrounding open play areas besotted Lancelot Keay, Liverpool City Council Chief Architect responsible for Speke, and a knighthood for his efforts. Watch Sir Lancelot make his case: Liverpool Tenements of the 1930s.

Lancelot Keay was a nineteenth century dinosaur trying to solve a twentieth century problem. Speke residents didn’t share his enthusiasm for living in tenement blocks. By the 1980s, just thirty odd years after they were built, low-rise blocks of flats in Speke lay abandoned and derelict awaiting demolition. Structurally they would have been good for a hundred years, but within less than two generations they were considered not fit for purpose. People didn’t want to live in them. People wanted to live in houses.

All the low-rise blocks of flats in Stapleton Avenue and Ganworth Road (photo above), East Mains, West Mains, Millwood Road, Alderwood Avenue, Central Avenue, Central Way and Conleach Road were demolished and replaced by houses with gardens. Testament that ‘tenement blocks surrounding open play areas’ was a failure.

In the mid ’70s I made a cine film record of Speke. It was an Art School rant intended to show the estate in a less than favourable light: not a difficult task. The irony is that it has become historically significant, as less than half of what was filmed still exists.

Ganworth Road SN

Ganworth Road looking south, October 1973 (c) Tom Speke

Above is a street view of Ganworth Road with Speke’s signature three storey blocks of flats either side. It may look odd, from a 2017 perspective, to see two children and a toddler wandering around unaccompanied, but it was nothing out of the ordinary in the 1960s and 1970s. The legacy of living in flats was that children had no back gardens to play in, and resorted to playing in the streets.

Speke Castle NW

A child admires ‘Speke Castle’, 13 November 1974 (c) Liverpool Echo

This concrete eyesore, above, is a 1960s’ interpretation of a children’s play area. By 1974 it was condemned by the National Playing Fields Association as grotesquely dangerous and only fit for demolition. The low-rise blocks of flats behind (West Mains) would soon join it awaiting demolition.

The 1950s and 1960s presented a paradox for Liverpool. The ring of housing estates that surrounded the city, of which Speke was but one, were overflowing with children, yet the population of Liverpool had been in steady decline since the 1930s, and continued to decline for the rest of the century. The inner city was being rehoused further and further afield, outside of the city. The population of Liverpool went from a 1931 peak of 855,688 to a 2001 census of 439,473.  (2)

The ‘baby boom’ years were followed by a shift to smaller families. This left a problem for Speke: what to do with all the three storey ‘large family’ houses, of which there were many. After abandonment, these were reduced to two storeys.

The section of Speke in the aerial shot (below) was built in the 1950s, but I doubt if anyone younger than forty can remember it as such. Half of what you see is no more. The white roofed rectangular buildings, centre, was All Hallows Secondary School, boys and girls, now All Hallows Drive houses. The school was demolished, not enough students.

The open space two blocks above the school was Speke Park, now Morrison’s shopping precinct. The retail hub of Speke shifted from the centre to its edge to access Speke Boulevard, top right diagonal. Fords [Jaguar/Land Rover] off picture, right.

To the left of Speke Park is the ‘open play area’ behind the flats, in the top photograph. The main road in the picture, top to bottom, is Stapleton Avenue / Alder Wood Avenue which runs east-west. Just visible at bottom right of the picture is Eastern Avenue. Check Google Maps and see what little remains.

North Central Speke SN

North central Speke estate, c.1963, looking west (c) Lancashire Records Office, Preston

For ‘Beatles’ cognoscenti, the street second from the bottom, on the left, is Ardwick Road, the McCartneys’ second residence in Speke (1950-1955). Half way up on the left is Upton Green, surrounded by three storey blocks of flats, and home to the Harrisons (1950-1962).

On 20th December, 1958, on the occasion of George’s brother Harry’s wedding reception, 25 Upton Green, Speke, was the venue of a pre-Beatles Quarrymen performance with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison – drummer, if any, not known. (2)

George Harrison and Paul McCartney spent most of their formative years in the Liverpool suburb of Speke (George 12 years, Paul 9 years), but you have to look hard in the plethora of biographies to find any mention of their early childhood in Speke. Phoney Beatle mania has produced two ‘Caverns’ in Mathew Street, but ‘Beatles’ tour buses don’t go anywhere near Speke.

In the early 1960s, the Ford Motor Company car plant [now Jaguar/Land Rover] replaced the farm on the northern side of Speke. Speke Boulevard, forever known to my generation as ‘Ford’s Road’, was extended to run between the car factory and the estate, for the full length of Speke and beyond. To compound Speke’s isolation, this arterial road prohibited pedestrians for five miles or so, all the way to Widnes.

Eastern Avenue bus SN

Eastern Avenue bus terminus from Speke Boulevard, February 1972. The sign reads ‘Any Person found damaging this fence will be prosecuted’ (c) Tom Speke

One of the consequences of this pedestrian prohibited road was that it separated the factory from the workers arriving by bus at the Eastern Avenue bus terminus. There was an underpass 200 yards away, but for whatever reason, people insisted on making their way through the fence to cross the road. This conflict persisted for thirty odd years until the terminus relocated to Morrison’s at the new shopping precinct. Progressively stronger fences were built with ever more ingenious ways found to get through them. It would have been cheaper to build a footbridge. I viewed this perennial conflict as individual protest against imposed isolation.

When I visit Speke, the difference I find most striking between now and even up to the 1980s, is not the missing or changed dwellings, but the amount of trees there are. Driving along Speke Boulevard is like driving through woodland. Trees now obscure all the sight lines of my childhood memories. Belatedly, the city has made amends for wiping a thousand years of history off the face of the earth in Speke’s construction. I cannot see, or remember there being, a single mature tree in the 1963 aerial photograph of Speke.

The 1960s’ Speke of my teenage years was a depressingly bleak, isolated, rectangular Gulag, devoid of any sense of history or community, built to house factory fodder. By the time I was sixteen, my life’s objective was to get out of Speke. Three years later I went away to Art School, never to return. I did visit, but never lived. My Mother, give her a medal, is still there: Speke resident for 63 years and counting. (RIP Father, 2010).

Speke as a Housing Estate did have two redeeming features:

  • All the properties were solidly built with brick throughout.
  • The estate was built before the advent of the ubiquitous high-rise tower blocks that blighted other estates.

The failings however were legion, chief among them was that it didn’t comply with the house buyers’ mantra of ‘location, location, location’: Speke Estate was built in the wrong place. Its isolation was, and remains, its handicap.

If there are Town Planners out there who still adhere to ‘self-contained satellite town’ thinking, I will happily maroon them on the eastern edge of Speke, without a car, to experience what isolation feels like.

Speke’s contribution to town planning dogma is a nail in the coffin of the ‘Garden City’ concept. Speke was designed as a solution to a problem, but resulted in generating its own problems. Speke planners may not have anticipated the changing shift in family sizes, but they are guilty of not ensuring that Speke would become a solution.


Speke could never develop as a community because Speke was never self-contained. If you wanted to do anything, you had find somewhere else that catered for your interest.

The founding vision of Speke as a township ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’ was as delusional as its ‘self-contained’ status. Speke, and all the other post war housing estates around Liverpool, were not communities, they were overspill.

In the absence of any community identity, people from Speke, and all the other Liverpool estates, were perceived differently. In a time of full employment, people living on estates were not accorded the ‘working class’ designation, but were thought of in the then unused demographic of ‘underclass’. Like the estates themselves geographically, people from the estates were regarded as ‘peripheral’, not part of the mainstream. You came from ‘an estate’. It didn’t matter which one, we were all tarnished with the same brush. I lived all my teenage years with this, and left at the first opportunity.

My parents tried for years to get out of Speke, but eventually resigned to staying when they were able to buy their house. My siblings left Speke, and Liverpool. I took it a stage further and emigrated.

I still talk ‘Scouse’. My accent was set in concrete by the age of six, and I have yet to find an alternative that I would want to emulate. I still follow Liverpool FC from a distance, but I could never live there again. Morrison’s precinct in Speke, and the Liverpool ONE complex, are commendable and possible turning point improvements. The irreconcilable is remembering the fifty years it took to get to there.

Orient II SN

The Orient public house, Eastern Avenue (December 2016) and bar (November 2013) (c) Tom Speke

The Orient is the last remaining pub in Speke, and worth a visit if just to see a bar dedicated to both Liverpool and Everton football clubs. It is difficult to say how much longer The Orient can last. For decades, supermarkets in Britain, Morrison’s included, have been underpricing pubs out of existence.

Speke Estate is suffering the malaise experienced by small towns after a bypass is built. The town slowly dies: people leave, schools close, pubs shut, churches downsize. Speke in the 21st century has half the population it had in the 1950s. St. Christopher’s Church (capacity 1,000) has the distinction of being built and demolished in a single lifetime. Schools are torn down as the numbers of children plummet. I had intended to show my film and photographs to the students at Parkland’s School, but it closed, only twelve years after it opened. Depending on whom you ask, it was either falling intake or falling standards. Either way, Speke no longer has a secondary school.

Speke’s fate was sealed on the drawing board: it was designed to have a bypass. No one ever goes through Speke: making a brief detour off Speke Boulevard to shop in Morrison’s doesn’t count. The problem was there from its inception. Speke, as the city planners envisioned it, should never have been built.


(1) A Vision of Britain through Time: Liverpool population

(2) Gratitude to the Quarrymen website for information.


A Long History of Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate

My article for iNews on the longer history of Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate to which it belonged was published yesterday. You can read it here:  A perfect storm of disadvantage: the history of Grenfell Tower.

When you visit Grenfell and the Estate, as I had to for the article, it’s hard not to feel intrusive. Taking photographs can seem even more insensitive but it seemed important to record something more than what, inevitably, have become our dominant images of Grenfell.  I hope the photographs which follow are a respectful tribute to the estate and its residents.

Grenfell Estate Sign SN

Barandon Court SN

Hurstway SN

Grenfell and green court 2 SN

Grenfell and green court SN

Grenfell tribute

Justice for Grenfell SN

Ian Waites, ‘Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time’



Ian Waites, Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time (Uniformbooks, July 2017)

This is a modest, gentle, elegiac evocation of an ordinary council estate of its time.  If that sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise, it shouldn’t.  I think this is an important little book – a corrective to our focus on the grand projects and architectural showpieces (for good or ill) and a reminder of the unassuming decency of the vast bulk of council housing.  Between 1945 and 1979, almost two-thirds of new council homes were located on so-called cottage estates.9781910010167Ian Waites moved with his parents to the Middlefield Lane Estate in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in 1964.  He brings that child’s experience, as well as the eye of his later incarnation as a lecturer in art and design at the University of Lincoln, to this account of Middlefield.

This ‘New Gainsborough’ (as the local press described it) was defined, as Waites tells us:

by the clean architectural lines of postwar modernism and by experimental ideas in planning which aimed to separate the car from the family.

This was an unfussy, humanist modernism – ‘the front of the house is plain, asymmetrical and rectilinear’ (though a parabolic concrete canopy over the front door adds a small high-tech touch). Wimpey were responsible for most of the estate’s design and build but the local council architect – ‘keen to keep Wimpey at bay’ – designed the maisonettes which made local children think they were living in Marineville (a Stingray reference to the uninitiated).

The Green grey

Waites points out too the small and easily overlooked detail: the Phosco P107 lampposts (‘the local authority lamppost of choice during the 1960s’); the large cobbles on some street corners designed to prevent cars and pedestrians from cutting across; the privet hedges, an earlier council favourite, delineating back gardens.  His photographs capture this detail and make us look at it anew.

cut-thru TheWalk

A ‘cut-through’ and privet hedges

That separation of traffic and people – recommended in the 1944 Dudley Report on housing design and layout and re-emphasised in the Government’s 1953 housing manual – was a more ubiquitous fashion of the age.  This was the Radburn style (named after the New Jersey town founded in 1929 as ‘a town for the motor age’) now generally excoriated for its loss of the ‘permeability’ and ‘natural surveillance’ of the street.  But in Middlefield it seemed to work: according to Waites, ‘the pedestrianised nature of the estate…gave its children an enormous space to play in’.

Another, more contemporarily, criticised feature of Middlefield and many like estates was its peripheral location – on the ‘distant rim’ of the town, in Waites’ words. This, in combination with the expansive, low-density nature of the estate, was the ‘prairie planning’ that architectural critics so despised in the new towns such as Harlow.  But early residents seemed to ‘have few complaints’ according to a 1964 press report, and most, apparently, liked the ‘fresh-air feeling’ of the estate.

The distant rim grey

The ‘distant rim’

The detritus of out-of-town suburbia has grown around the estate since then but a field remains, no longer growing wheat but providing grazing for a horse which nearby residents keep a solicitous eye on.  That space, that little bit of nature, remains valued.

In all, Middlefield epitomises what Waites calls the ‘paternalistic modernism’ of the post-war era.  And he cites, as a small but telling example of this, the communal aerial erected in 1965 intended to keep the estate tidy, free of the visual litter of individual TV aerials.  There’s no snobbery in pointing out that it is the individualism of Right to Buy which has done most damage to the ‘look’ and feel of estates since 1980.

And there, in essence, is the clash of values which has seen our council estates so scorned in recent years.  This ‘paternalism’ is often portrayed as heavy-handed, statist – a constraint on personal enterprise and freedom.  Waites should encourage us to rethink this lazy characterisation.

Trees grey

For one, ‘modernism’ had a personal meaning and value to those who experienced it first-hand on the new estates: ‘a bathroom and inside toilet, kitchen “tops”, hot and cold running water, a TV aerial socket, and a “picture-window”’. This was a new world to embrace; there was no romance in the slums.

And, furthermore, the residents:

were taking new decisions; they moved to the front.  In the old slum terraces, the front door was never used.  Everyone used the back door.  Now it was different. The residents began to live in the living room, rather than existing in the kitchen.

The baby park grey

The ‘baby park’

Much else, in Waites’ telling, is personal – the well-remembered and half-remembered friends, the playgrounds and dens of childhood.  And ‘open doors’:

People sat out in the sun on their doorstep while kids bombed up and down the footpaths on their bikes.

Maybe I’m being starry-eyed but this sounds like ‘community’ to me – paradoxically both the Holy Grail of post-war planning and allegedly its greatest victim.  Decent homes, salubrious surrounds, healthy play – everything the paternalistic social democratic state prescribed and, surely, what most of its citizens wanted.

I’ve provided a personal response to Ian Waites’ book. Do read it for more of Ian’s own recollections and insights and for the many well-chosen photographs which illustrate it.

Middlefield: a postwar council estate in time is available direct from Uniformbooks or from online booksellers and independent bookshops.

You can also follow Ian’s blog, Instances of a changed society.