ECP Monson: A Thoughtful and Proudly Municipal Architect

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I’m very pleased to feature another guest post from Andrew Parnell who wrote an earlier post on Charles Dickens House in Bethnal Green. Andrew is a walking tour guide with Footprints of London and East London on Foot who leads walks on architecture and housing history in Tower Hamlets. These include walks in Bethnal Green which take in buildings designed by ECP Monson. More information and tickets for Andrew’s walks can be obtained from the Footprints of London website

The architect Edward Charles Philip Monson (1872-1941) designed over 25 London housing estates in the first half of the twentieth century. He worked in private practice but dedicated his life to public building, the overwhelming majority of it housing. In a period when housing provision for the less-well-off grew from its 19th century philanthropic beginnings to the inter-war surge in local authority building, he worked for a variety of housebuilding bodies which reflect that progression.

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ECP Monson

Monson remains relatively unsung in architectural circles, his work overshadowed by that of more celebrated, sometimes flamboyant, figures who came to prominence later in the century. His practice – in partnership with his brother Harry and son John – has been described as ‘capable, prolific but perhaps rather stolid.’ That may be true, but his work can also be seen as highly accomplished, adapting stylistically to changing trends and tastes whilst placing residents’ needs – practical and psychological – before architectural display.

After starting off professionally working in the practice of his architect father, Monson set up in his own right in 1904. Among his early commissions were several of the early estates built by the William Sutton Trust, a philanthropic body founded in 1900 with a huge monetary endowment by a wealthy benefactor. It joined a group of similar housing bodies formed by wealthy individuals in the mould of the Peabody Trust which had been operating since the mid-19th century. The estates Monson designed were ‘grand and impressive places,’ in a relatively mellow, decorated style which distinguished the Sutton Trust’s work from that of the other philanthropic bodies which were variously criticised as ‘barrack-like’, ‘cliff-like’ and ‘prison-like.’ At the Sutton Estate in Chelsea, completed in 1913, for example, he used rustication, stone wreaths, swags and Corinthian colonnades to add ‘liveliness’ to the massive five-storey blocks. According to one resident, ‘the pointing [of the estate] was said to be so perfect that people used to come specially to see it.’

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Sutton Estate, Chelsea

An attempt by the current owner to demolish most of the century-old Chelsea estate’s buildings was fended off by residents and others in 2018 on the basis not only of their architectural but also of their historical significance as early examples of large-scale social housing. That case brought to light another, much earlier conflict which arose around the time the estate was built between the Sutton Trust and the London County Council (LCC) which was then the ‘new kid on the block’ in the housebuilding world. The LCC criticised what it saw as the low level of spending, and the consequent basicness of the accommodation, created by the Trust which was operating under the financial constraints of a ‘no-profit’ approach. The fledgling local authority had levelled this criticism at the work of other philanthropic bodies – which it saw as competitors – and it was referred to in the recent case by the would-be demolishers to question the merits of the estate’s design.  

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Sutton Estate, Chelsea, rear view

The argument failed when the context of the tension between the LCC and the philanthropic bodies was taken into account. The housing Monson designed for the Trust may have been very simple but it was intended to be affordable: by keeping building costs down, rents could be kept down. Ironically, the LCC in its first great housing project – the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green – found itself obliged by financial pressures to charge high rents to recover its relatively lavish expenditure on building the estate with the result that the new buildings were occupied not by residents of the slums they replaced but by more affluent tenants. The Chelsea Sutton Estate, whatever its limitations, continues to provide 383 badly-needed social housing units (compared with 237 which the proposed redevelopment would have included).

After World War I, the rate of house-building by London’s Metropolitan Boroughs increased substantially, boosted by the introduction of housing subsidies and other measures contained in the Housing Act 1919. Monson attached himself to the Metropolitan Boroughs in two areas: Bethnal Green and nearby Stepney, both later absorbed into the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, in London’s East End; and Finsbury and next-door Islington, which later merged to become the single London Borough of Islington, in North London. He would go on to design a stream of estates for these councils in the 1920s and 30s.

One of Monson’s early projects for Bethnal Green, which was known as the Parmiter Estate during construction, gave rise to an amusing controversy when, as it was nearing completion in 1927, the left-wing (part-Communist) council voted to call it the Lenin Estate.

At the Parmiter Estate, Monson’s style had moved on from the gigantic blocks of the philanthropic period to a version of the neo-Georgian style widely used by the LCC and other local authorities by that time: simple, orderly and well-proportioned with windows taller than they are wide. However, at Parmiter Monson added decorative flourishes, such as venetian windows in the gables, which were uncharacteristic of this ‘house style.’ This may have reflected the Bethnal Green council’s desire to make a splash with the first estate to be designed by its ‘own’ architect. A splash it certainly made, with right-wing newspapers expressing outrage at the extravagance of ‘luxury’ flats built with public money by a left-wing council.

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Parmiter Estate, Bethnal Green

In fact, during his career Monson adopted, or showed touches, of a variety of styles, reflecting latest trends, but sometimes seeming to jump back and forth across time, perhaps reflecting his clients’ preferences, or what they thought residents would prefer, or his own perception of what would be appropriate. As well as Neo-Georgian, the labels Queen Anne (itself a sort of potpourri of past styles), Arts and Crafts, Edwardian Renaissance/Baroque, Art Deco and Modernist have been used in relation to his various works.

For example, later in Bethnal Green he produced the Delta Estate (1936-7), a gem of a building which, with elegant curved-ended balconies and semi-circular concrete door canopies, discreetly adopts elements of the Art Deco-influenced style, used by other local boroughs in the 1930s, which they sometimes called ‘Moderne’ (everything sounds better in French!). Delta has what the architectural bible Pevsner calls ‘jazzy Expressionist brickwork’ over the doorways.

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Brickwork and balconies on the Delta Estate, Bethnal Green

Lively brickwork can also be seen in another of Monson’s Bethnal Green projects, the Digby and Butler Estates (1936 and 1938), which, like the Delta Estate, have the wide windows (wider than they are tall) characteristic of the 1930s.  

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The Butler Estate, Bethnal Green

However, another of his Bethnal Green works of the 1930s, Claredale House (1931-32), has windows which would look more at home in the old neo-Georgian style and even features a high brick archway entrance which seems to hark right back to the huge, stern archways found in some philanthropic blocks of earlier decades.  

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Arches at the Sutton and Claredale Estates

In Bethnal Green and the other boroughs he was associated with, Monson worked for some radical councils implementing a huge social programme of public housebuilding. But from the limited information we have, it is hard to imagine he was a socialist firebrand. His photo shows him with big moustache, pince-nez spectacles and wing collar, looking every inch the Edwardian bank manager or solicitor. His curriculum vitae lists memberships of just about every relevant professional body, to many of which he devoted copious amounts of time voluntarily in committee and executive work, including as President of the Institute of Structural Engineers. A keen and senior member of the Territorial Army, he was also, as his father had been, a prominent Freemason.  

Whatever we may think of these associations, it should not detract from the fact that his professional life was overwhelmingly focused on what contemporaries referred to as ‘the Housing of the Working Classes.’ The output of estates by his small firm would have done credit to the whole architects’ department of a local authority.

Islington was the area where Monson was most prolific. His work there shows a variation and progression of styles, as in the East End. But there is one estate which, for me, represents an epitome or culmination of Monson’s work. The Brecknock Road Estate (1938-9) was recently added to Islington’s Local List of Historical Assets. It was nominated as being:

an evocative example of a thoughtful and proudly municipal conception of modern architecture.

By this late stage of his life and career, Monson had visited Europe and seen how some designers of mass housing there (for example in the Weimar Republic and ‘Red Vienna’) were adopting a modernist approach. At Brecknock Road, Monson used this style, but in a characteristically restrained manner. By this time, he may well have been working with his brother and son who continued the practice under his name after his death.  

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The Brecknock Estate, Islington

Modernism at Brecknock Road can be seen in the rectangular balconies which now have 90 degree corners (no curves) and in corner windows at 90 and 135 degree angles in the two-faceted and three-faceted bay windows. The horizontality of long balconies and rows of windows is cut through by the vertical lines created by the bay windows and rubbish chute ‘chimneys.’ But this modernism is tailored to its context. The estate – comprising 225 flats in 16 perimeter blocks around two internal courtyards – makes a virtue of the sloping topography and irregular shape of the site. The blocks have stepped rooflines and their arrangement is not entirely symmetrical, so they occupy the space ‘in a relaxed way.’ The slate roofs are not flat – as strict modernism would dictate – but slightly pitched to match the Victorian roofs of surrounding streets. Between the blocks are glimpses into the attractively planted sloping courtyards. The outward-facing sides of the blocks are predominantly red brick punctuated by the white rendered balconies. The inward-facing sides are predominantly white and pale green, producing a light, airy feel.  

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Brecknock Estate, Islington, rear view

Altogether this creates an environment in which you feel that people can live comfortably. One resident and (art) critic has written that the blocks are not monolithic but each ‘is a knowable community,’ and the lack of grand and large-scale effects mean residents can ‘feel more entitled to be there.’ It has a ‘sense of refuge and quiet.’ For an architect of social housing, those comments, coming from a resident of one of his estates, could be seen as the highest praise, an accolade as satisfying as a Grade I listing.

Monson’s work now stands in the shade – physical and critical – of that of more radical individuals with perhaps greater socialist credentials such as Denys Lasdun (whose Keeling House of 1957 in Bethnal Green towers over Monson’s Claredale House across the road) and the emigres from eastern Europe Berthold Lubetkin and Ernő Goldfinger. But Monson’s comparatively quiet, gentle and sensitive approach, expertly using changing styles but without letting any design imperative stand before the wellbeing and contentment of residents, could be said to have produced housing that has stood the test of time and fulfilled its primary function at least as well.

Sources

Royal Institute of British Architects, Biographical Files: Edward Charles Philip Monson and Edward Monson (father)

‘E. C. P. Monson, English Architect’, The Structural Engineer, October 1932, p 413

P. L. Garside, The Conduct of Philanthropy: William Sutton Trust 1900 – 2000 (Athlone Press, 2000)

Letter from The Victorian Society to The Planning Inspectorate re: William Sutton Estate, Cale Street and Ixworth Place, London, 28 March 2018

Ian Hunt, ‘Modernism for sociable living’, Journal of Islington Archaeology & History Society, Spring 2013, Vol 3, No.1

London Borough of Islington Planning Committee Recommendation, Brecknock Road Estate, 4 December 2012

P. Garside and T. Hinchcliffe, ‘E. C. P. Monson in Islington: local authority housing in 1919-65’London Architect, October 1982, pp 8-9

Modernism in Metro-Land, In House – Part 4: Islington, April 2017

Book Review: Seán Damer, Scheming: A Social History of Glasgow Council Housing, 1919–1956

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Seán Damer, Scheming: A Social History of Glasgow Council Housing, 1919–1956 (Edinburgh University Press, October 2018)

In 1919, Glasgow, with a population surpassing one million, was the ‘Second City of the Empire’. It was also, by some distance, Britain’s most densely settled and poorly housed city; two thirds of its people lived in two rooms or less; one fifth in ‘single ends’, a single room.  The Council estimated that 57,000 new homes were needed immediately. In the event, some 54,289 council homes were built by 1939.

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Seán Damer’s book is a vital guide to the new estates – called ‘schemes’ in Scotland, hence the title – built between the wars and those built in the decade after 1945. It’s a deeply engaged social and political history, of interest not only to Glaswegians but to anyone seeking a critical understanding of council housing, its successes, failures and complexities.

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Mosspark, 1927 © Britain from Above (SPW019519)

Damer begins his story with Mosspark, built a couple of miles to the south-west of the city centre on land purchased as far back as 1909; its plans approved in April 1919. It was not the first of Glasgow’s post-war housing schemes but it was by far the most prestigious.

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Mosspark’s plan clearly shows the influence of garden suburb ideals

Built under the generous terms of Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act, this was a scheme which fulfilled Tudor Walters ideals with generous landscaping and a density of around nine houses per acre. The homes themselves were of similar quality; cottage homes, almost two-thirds of which were (in Scottish parlance) ‘four-’ or ‘five-apartment’ houses containing three or more bedrooms.

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An early image of Mosspark

The homes – as was typical of ‘Addison houses’ – were expensive to build (at around £1150 each) and had high rents to match.  The rents were sufficient themselves to bar the average workingman but the latter’s exclusion was ensured by the zealous gatekeeping of those in the council responsible for housing allocations. As one resident later recalled:

This place was full of professionals – teachers, government officers, and Corporation workers. Everybody knew that you had to be earning £5 per week to get a house.

The average wage for a skilled worker stood then at £3 a week and in the mid-1920s council records show professional, skilled white-collar and white-collar workers formed around three-quarters of heads of household.

This was, then, a self-consciously affluent and ‘respectable’ community; one, in Damer’s words, ‘with more than a hint of the ‘unco guid’ [excessive self-righteousness] which can be the hallmark of the Scots Presbyterian’.  The church, bowling club and tenants’ association formed the pillars of that community and helped ensure the solid Tory affiliations of its earlier years.

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An early image of Hamiltonhill

Damer goes on to discuss Hamiltonhill, an unusual scheme built under a slum clearance provision of the little-known 1921 Housing Act, but the thrust of his analysis is provided by the two succeeding chapters, examining the West Drumoyne and Blackhill schemes.

By the mid-1920s, Glasgow’s powerful labour movement – whose organisation and agitation had, of course, been essential to the ‘Moderate’ (Tory) controlled council’s willingness to build in the first place – was protesting the Corporation’s failure to provide council housing for the average working-class householder, many still living in appalling conditions in the inner city.

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West Drumoyne shops and housing

West Drumoyne, built under the terms of the 1924 Housing Act (championed by local son, Labour’s Minister of Health and Housing, John Wheatley), was the Moderates’ response – and a defeat for the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP had wanted cottage homes; the eventual scheme offered two- and three-storey tenements at a density of over 26 houses per acre. The latter – rightly or wrongly – became stigmatised as slum clearance housing though, in practice, West Drumoyne comprised overwhelmingly skilled and semi-skilled workers, many working in the Govan shipyards.

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An image from Blackhill in 1976 capturing some of the raucous self-entertainment that Damer describes © The Herald

Blackhill, on the other hand, was explicitly built as a slum clearance estate. Approved in 1933, it was a product of the 1930 and 1935 Housing Acts which targeted for the first time slum clearance and rehousing.  It won’t be a surprise to learn that its design reflected its origins – early housing comprised tenement blocks and, another distinctively Scottish form, ‘four-in-a-block’ tenement blocks (four flats under a hipped roof block of more or less cottage appearance).  Almost a half of heads of household were classified as labourers and average wages were £2 a week though many more were unemployed.

Such social divisions, often reflected in a similarly differentiated quality of housing, could be found in estates across Britain but, as Damer charts with rigour and some anger, Glasgow Corporation took it a stage further.  This was a rigid three-tier system: ‘Ordinary’ schemes built under the 1919 and 1923 Acts; ‘Intermediate’ schemes built under the 1924 Act; and ‘Slum Clearance and Rehousing’ schemes built under the legislation of the 1930s.

The prejudice of housing officials – in their judgments about who ‘deserved’ higher quality housing and in their allocation of such housing  ensured – as Damer argues, that:

any council tenant in Glasgow could tell at a glance into which category a housing scheme fell, and to which category he or she could aspire.

The stigma attached to slum clearance estates affected Blackhill in particular, built on cheap land adjacent to a gas works and chemical plant, geographically isolated; even its name contained its own ‘black mark’.

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Prestwick Street, Craigbank, 2004

Whilst, in principle, post-Second World War schemes – Damer discusses Craigbank, in the huge new peripheral Pollok estate, and South Pollok – were intended to supersede such rigid social segregation, the so-called ‘New Ordinary’ estates were little more than a re-branding of the former ‘Intermediate’ category. Meanwhile, allocations policies ensured that Craigbank catered for the better-off working class and South Pollok for the least well-off. They soon acquired corresponding reputations.

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Cowcaddens – the area of Glasgow from which many of the residents of Hamiltonhill moved

It’s worth pointing out, however – not as a form of special pleading but as a simple record of fact – that the new tenants, both interwar and post-war, were, overwhelmingly, delighted with their new council homes. South Pollok, later labelled by some outsiders as ‘the White Man’s Grave’, built (badly) in 1947-48 and demolished in 1973, still represented in housing terms a huge step up:

It was like heaven! It was like a palace, even without anything in it … We’d got this lovely, lovely house. Well it was lovely to me! When I got into that big empty house and the weans were running up and doon mad and – it was just like walking into Buckingham Palace because I had a bath!

For Damer, as he states in his introduction, ‘­the story of council housing in Glasgow is the story of class-struggle’. Damer feels that the Glasgow working class itself – as a potentially unified political force – was splintered by these imposed divisions. Depending on their political perspective perhaps, others will come to their own conclusion as to whether it was actively splintered or just splintered in the first place.  It’s undeniable, at least, that the story was shaped by class divisions and class prejudices; in particular, by the bigotry directed towards the so-called slum working class by politicians and officials.

Those attitudes were reflected in the rigorous policing of the new estates by the council’s Resident Factors, female housing inspectors and public health nurses – a troika dedicated to ensuring decent, respectable and sanitary living particularly among poorer residents not trusted to behave well.

A real strength of Damer’s book is its rich anecdotal record gathered from interviews conducted with residents in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And it’s clear, for all the disrespect addressed to officialdom, there was a strong sense – at least in hindsight – that this supervision had helped create a respectability (self-policed as well as imposed) that had been lost in more recent years.

That record – and Damer’s sympathetic eye – also creates a vivid picture of community on the various estates. If Mosspark is treated somewhat caustically, the ‘lower’ working-class estates are painted empathetically and the variety of informal means of working-class self-help and neighbourliness delineated in some detail – from the ‘menodges’ (local savings clubs), to various forms of money-lending, to ‘nicking’ as a form of resource redistribution.

Damer’s summary of Blackhill can stand for his broader perspective. It was, he says:

an impoverished, largely unskilled, manual working-class community characterised by a variety of familial and social survival strategies, including elaborate collective self-help mechanisms largely organised by women, and thieving, largely organised by men … It was a tough place, where one had to be tough to survive. But the real violence was that of poverty, which Blackhill tenants combated with humour, imagination and resilience.

And one interviewee, recalling the role of his mother on the estate, can speak to that matriarchy:

My mother came from Ayrshire, a very, very hard-working woman. Tremendous intelligence but no skills. When I say no skills – no skills that she could work with but was respected in the community, she was the one who helped people through a birth, was sent for – in those days when a child was not well they gave them a mustard bath – she was the sort of local witch doctor. She was unbelievable. Her organisational sense was unbelievable for somebody that was supposed to be semi-literate.

Much of this finds echoes in estates across Britain – the inter- and intra-class divisions, the role of officialdom, the means of getting by in often hostile circumstance.

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Blackhill, 1986 after redevelopment in the 1970s; image Alex Glass

But Glasgow was council housing writ large. By the mid-1970s, almost seven in ten of its population lived in ‘Corporation housing’; the City Council was the largest public sector landlord in western Europe and in many ways a problematic one.  Damer does not shy away from addressing this issue and his final chapter asks ‘Why was Glasgow’s council housing so dire?’.

You can read his answer for yourself but the sheer inhumanity of existing conditions and a drive to alleviate them which all too often emphasised quantity over quality, the legacy and persistence of prejudiced attitudes towards poorer residents, and the divisions that the latter caused all played their part.

I recommend the book not only as rich and challenging account of council housing built at scale in one of our major cities but as a significant contribution towards our wider understanding of how to build badly and how to build well.

Purchase and publication details can be found on the Edinburgh University Press website

Note

For a good account of Glasgow’s later housing history, you can read Gerry Mooney’s guest posts on this blog, Glasgow Housing in Historical Context and Failed Post-War Visions?.

Mapping Pre-First World War Council Housing

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My apologies for a lack of recent posts. The good news, I think, is that there is huge interest now in council housing – both a far more sympathetic appraisal of its past and a renewed commitment to its future  – and I’ve been talking to a wide range of people on the topic across the country.

The centenary of Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act has been another reason to celebrate council housing.  You will know – despite loose media commentary to the contrary – that the 1919 Act did not begin council housing. But it was hugely important in the generous financial support it offered, in the high standards it set and, crucially, in the requirement local authorities build where the need was proven.

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Sanitary Street (now Anita Street), Manchester, built by the City Council in 1897

Around 1.1 million council homes were built between the wars; some 24,000 before 1914.  This was a housing revolution. But the period before the First World War was vital in setting the template for what followed – the machinery of national and local state that built and the legislative means that enabled.

The 1866 Labouring Classes Dwellings Act allowed municipalities to purchase sites and build and improve working-class homes. As importantly in the longer term, it allowed local authorities to borrow at preferential rates from the Public Works Loan Commissioners – in effect, the first government ‘subsidy’ for public housing.

The breakthrough legislation was the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act which, initially in a London context, required that at least 50 per cent of housing demolished in clearance schemes be replaced and gave councils the power to build these homes.

This pre-war period also established the debate about the form of housing to be built that would dominate council housing’s history: broadly speaking between the multi-storey flats and tenements seen as a necessary means of housing the inner-city poor and the two-storey cottage homes and garden suburbs favoured by most housing reformers.

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Holt Road, Edgefield, Norfolk, built by Edgefield Parish Council in 1912

There is also evidence that the pace of local authority housebuilding was quickening significantly in the years immediately before the war.  Whilst it’s hard to imagine the sea-change of 1919 without the impact of war, that great locomotive of history, there is a case to be made that council housing would have expanded significantly without it.

Anyway, all that is by way of introduction to my attempt to map and record pre-First World War council housing.  The maps marks these homes: an orange icon where they are still standing; purple where they have been demolished. I have also included a photograph wherever possible and links to the relevant blog posts where I have previously written on these schemes.

If you’re exploring the map, have a look for St Martin’s Cottages in Liverpool, built uniquely in Britain under the terms of the 1866 Act and the country’s first council housing.  In Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom, Dublin Corporation built three tenement blocks under the terms of the 1866 Act. Stow Road, Ixworth represents the  first rural council housing, built in 1894.

All this is very much work in progress and I would love to expand and develop this resource with your support.  It would be great to have images of any of the schemes which aren’t currently illustrated (preferably not Streetview) and please let me know of any pre-1914 schemes not yet marked.  Just leave a comment, use Contact Me at the top left or you can find me on Twitter @MunicipalDreams.

Open House London 2019: Town Halls – Civic Pride and Service

My second post marking Open House London 2019 offers a broadly chronological, whistle-stop tour of the municipal seats of government featured, in various forms – some grand, some humble – on the weekend of 21-22 September. (Open House venues are picked out in bold with links to their web page; the links in bold blue relate to previous blog posts.)

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City of London Guildhall © 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.

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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.

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Old Vestry Offices, Enfield © 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 principally related to public health and safety.  London’s first city-wide administration was created in 1855 in the Metropolitan Board of Works.  This was initially a body of 45 members, elected indirectly by 43 London districts: the Vestry in 29 of the larger parishes and 12 District Boards of Works in which smaller parishes were combined (plus special bodies in the City and Woolwich if you’re counting).

The Limehouse District Board of Works building, White Horse Road, Ratcliff

Limehouse District Board of Works, now the Half Moon Theatre

The Limehouse District Board of Works built headquarters on White Horse Road in Ratcliff.  The building, erected between 1862 and 1864, was designed by the Board’s surveyor, CR Dunch – a ‘liberal interpretation of Italian Renaissance’ according to Pevsner.

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Within four years the Board was grappling with one of the latest and largest of the cholera outbreaks to afflict London in this period – its sound advice to locals to avoid drinking potentially unsafe water availing little against the terrible sanitary conditions of the area.

Appropriately, after 1900 the building would house the Borough of Stepney’s Public Health Department.  In 1994, it became the home of the Half Moon Theatre, committed to giving ‘young people an opportunity to experience the best in young people’s theatre’.

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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.

Old Hampstead Town Hall

Old Hampstead Town Hall

Old Hampstead Town Hall was, in inception, another vestry hall – designed by HE Kendall and Frederick Mew in Italianate style and claimed as ‘a decided ornament to that part of Haverstock Hill’ by the local press when opened in 1878. The Metropolitan Board of Works was abolished in 1889 and replaced by the London County Council. London Metropolitan Boroughs were established in 1900.  The building became the headquarters of the new Metropolitan Borough of Hampstead and was extended in 1910.

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Limehouse Town Hall

Another building to undergo this transformation was Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881 and designed in Italian palazzo style by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston as  ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’.  The vestry hall  became the offices of 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.

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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 into 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.

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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.

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

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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. Some further images here.

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Lambeth Town Hall

Lambeth Town Hall can’t compete with that but it’s a fine building, also Edwardian Baroque, whose redbrick and Portland stone facades are capped by an imposing corner tower. It was the work of Septimus Warwick and Austen Hall, and was opened on 29 April 1908 by the then Prince and Princess of Wales. Its dignified council chamber and some lavish interior rooms remain impressive.

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Bethnal Green Town Hall, now the Town Hall Hotel and Apartments

Bethnal Green Town Hall, now a hotel, was opened in 1910 to Edwardian Baroque 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.)

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The UK Supreme Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall © 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 and opened in 1913.  It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.

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Islington Town Hall © 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.

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Kingston Guildhall, 1935 © Kingston History Centre

Kingston Guildhall was opened in 1935, designed for the Royal Borough of Kingsto-upon-Thames by Maurice Webb in contemporary neo-Georgian style though, more unusually in red brick with dressings in Portland stone. Two extensions were added in the 1970s and 1980s after the creation of the new London Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames and its incorporation into the area of the Greater London Council.

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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.  The Town Hall was 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.

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London City Hall © Garry Knight and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Finally, we can bring the story up to date by referring to the latest iteration of London local government.  Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in 1985; the The new Greater London Authority  was established in 2000. City Hall, the home of the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly, was opened two years later – 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.

Open House London, 2019: 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 – and the fact, of course, that most council housing is happily ‘ordinary’ – that explains why few council estates make it into Open House London, the annual celebration of built heritage taking place this year on the weekend of the 21-22 September.

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Open House itself has, to put it kindly, an ambivalent relationship to social housing. It features, as we will see, genuine celebrations of council housing’s past and present but too often controversial regeneration schemes are showcased with no reference to the disruption of established communities and the loss of social rent homes they entail.

This post offers a chronological tour of the Open House London venues which do mark council housing’s progressive history and present necessity.  This year, the Open House locations will be picked out in bold with the relevant link to the venue’s webpage and I’ll add links (in bold blue), where possible, to past blog posts which provide further information.

We’ll begin, however, with a brief reference to some of the early garden suburbs which, while overwhelmingly middle-class in character, did provide a model for later council schemes.

Fowlers Walk, Brentham Garden Suburb

Brentham Garden Suburb

The bohemian Bedford Park Estate, begun in 1875, might be described as the first cottage suburb.  Gidea Park, promoted by several Liberal MPs (including Sir Tudor Walters of the famous wartime report on post-war housing) from 1897, is notable for the architectural contribution of a number of architects who would go on to design council schemes including Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin.  The latter were the chief architects of the Brentham Garden Suburb in 1910 – important as a co-partnership scheme intended to cater for at least the more affluent of the working class.

Hampstead Garden Suburb, founded in 1906 by Henrietta Barnett, was intended as a mixed community though it rapidly – given the quality of its design and build and relatively high rents – became a rather select middle-class enclave. Unwin and Parker were again key figures and the guided walk offered focuses on the Suburb’s ‘Artisan Quarter’.

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Tower Gardens Estate

Turning to council housing proper, it’s good to see Tower Gardens (or the White Hart Lane Estate) featured – 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.

Cottage Flats in Roe Lane

Roe Green Village

Roe Green Village wasn’t a council scheme – it was designed by Frank Baines in 1916, chief architect of the Office of Works, as housing for workers engaged in First World War armaments production.  He had earlier designed the exemplary Well Hall Estate in Eltham for the same purpose. Both provided important inspiration for the ‘Homes for Heroes’ and council estates which emerged at the end of the war.

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The Becontree Estate

In terms of size and ambition, there was no more important such estate than Becontree in east London.  The LCC built 89,049 council homes in the capital between the wars; some 26,000 of these in the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919. 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.’  Take the opportunity, if you go, to visit the Valence House Museum which contains interesting exhibits on the estate.

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An early photograph of the Fellowship Inn

The Bellingham Estate in south London was another large interwar LCC estate with over 2000 homes and a population of 12,000, largely complete by 1923.  The Fellowship Inn, now repurposed as a community venue including bar, cinema and café by Phoenix Community Housing, is an interesting example of the ‘improved public house’ that the Council hoped would ‘improve’ council house tenants.

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Eastbury Manor and estate

It’s a stretch to include 16th century Eastbury Manor House in this listing but I’m fond of it and it has a rich municipal history amongst other things. It’s incongruously but delightfully situated plumb in the middle of another interwar council estate.

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Cass House, the Gascoyne Estate

The guided walk I’m leading which starts at the 1948 Gascoyne Estate (yet another LCC scheme in inception) takes in other similar interwar tenement blocks as well as some representative modernist high-rise. Vaine House and Granard House on Gascoyne II were inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation and would provide a model for the more famous Alton West scheme.  It’s an eclectic mix and the walk sets out to illustrate a tapestry of London’s council housing over the years rather than present any of its better-know showpieces. (Please note numbers are strictly limited.)

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Acton Gardens Estate

The Acton Gardens Estate was formerly known as the South Acton Estate or even (as a reference to a local laundry industry) ‘Soapsud Island’.  Begun under a post-war slum clearance and redevelopment programme in 1949 and built over 30 years, South Acton became, with almost 2100 homes, one of the largest council estates in west London and it reflected that history in its range of housing and, in particular, the high-rise blocks that emerged from the later 1950s. It became a ‘problem estate’ and comprehensive regeneration was planned from 1996; the 21-storey Barrie Tower was demolished in 2001. You’re invited to admire the very significant changes that have taken place in the design and form of the estate since then and perhaps rightly so but it’s worth noting that the new estate contains 900 fewer affordable homes than its predecessor. (1)

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Golden Lane Estate

The Golden Lane Estate, inaugurated in 1950 and designed for the City of London by Powell, Chamberlin and Bon (who went on to design the neighbouring Barbican), is rightly celebrated for the innovative thinking and architecture which provided a model for the best of post-war council housing, particularly in the facilities intended to sustain ‘community’ and create ‘neighbourhood’ in an urban setting.  Note that current plans to ‘densify’ the estate are opposed by many residents.

© Stephen Richards and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Balfron Tower

The fight to save Balfron Tower is already lost. Designed by Ernő Goldfinger for 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 Grade II-listed block’s flats are in the hands of property developers Londonewcastle and being marketed to the affluent and hip middle classes. Visit Balfron Tower by all means but please don’t disregard this betrayal of the social purpose that built it.

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Trellick Tower

Fortunately, Balfron’s younger sister, Trellick Tower, opened in 1972, remains – despite the depredations of Right to Buy – in council ownership.

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The World’s End Estate

Another landmark estate, this one created by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in happier times is the World’s End Estate. It’s an estate set on the banks of the Thames, completed in 1977 when the working class were still permitted river views.  Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms World’s End 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.

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Cressingham Gardens

In some respects, World’s End marked the end of an era of large, high-rise construction. 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 the Cressingham Gardens Estate.

Cressingham Gardens was described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’. 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’.

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, the threat of demolition.

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.

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Central Hill

A second signature Hollamby estate, also featured in Open House this year, is Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973. It’s 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 too is threatened with demolition. The residents of both estates 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.

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West Kensington and Gibbs Green

West Ken and Gibbs Green are two neighbouring estates of 760 homes in total in Hammersmith (built in 1974 and 1961 respectively) which have been fighting against demolition as part of a massive commercially-led redevelopment scheme since 2009. Residents are now campaigning to form a community-owned housing association which can protect their homes and community. As importantly, their ‘People’s Plan’ (created in collaboration with Architects for Social Housing) shows that necessary regeneration can be achieved not only without the loss of social housing but with its expansion – in this case, with 250 new homes built for sale on the open market to pay for the estate upgrades and seventy new social rented homes.  Visit the residents’ website West Ken and Gibbs Green – the People’s Estates for further information.

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An early photograph of Thamesmead

Thamesmead on the south bank of the Thames Estuary represented planning and construction in an earlier era of high ambition. 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. 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 now delayed arrival of Crossrail in 2019, it’s on the up now and worth visiting for both its past and future promise. The tour, led by the Twentieth Century Society, will allow you to visit some of the highlights of the original architecture of the GLC 1968 masterplan, some of which sadly are now under threat.

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The Brunswick Centre

From the late 1960s, a new era began in council housing design as discredited tower blocks were replaced by new forms of low-rise, high density housing.  The Brunswick Centre, completed in 1972, was originally planned as a private development. Due to financial difficulties, the residential section was leased to the London Borough of Camden for use as council housing while the developer retained ownership of the structure and shopping areas.

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Stoneleigh Terrace, the Whittington Estate

Though not a Camden scheme as such, the Centre fits well with what became the celebrated signature style of Camden Borough Council into the 1970s. This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, a young architect then in his mid-twenties. It’s a scheme in typical 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.

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Alexandra Road

Another Camden scheme is widely judged to be one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, Alexandra Road, listed Grade II* in 1993.  The Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate was the work of Neave Brown, awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in October 2017. He sadly died three months later. The estate is 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’.

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The Page High Estate

Despite knowing the area pretty well, I have to confess the Page High Estate in Wood Green was new to me.  It’s social housing, designed for a consortium consisting of Haringey Council, Sainsbury, Woolworth’s and World of Housing Property Trust (later Sanctuary Housing) by the Dry Halasz Dixon Partnership in 1975.  To be fair, the estate is easy to miss – built six and seven storeys above the ground on top of a car park and store. The Tenants’ Association offering the tour was set up in 2017 to improve repairs and maintenance and campaign for the improvement of the estate. Please support them.

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Dujardin Mews with the Alma Estate to the read

Finally, we come to post-1979 schemes and all of you reading this will understand the changed world that council housing – social housing as we must now call it – has inhabited since that date.  Dujardin Mews in Ponders End is an Enfield Council scheme designed by Karakusevic Carson Architects. The first phase, completed in 2018 is lovely and multiple award-winning while the scheme as a whole is part of the larger Alma Estate regeneration.  Despite researching assiduously, I’ve not discovered the tenure details of Dujardin Mews (I will amend or add to this if anyone can tell me) but the larger scheme offers the usual mix of ‘affordable’, shared ownership and properties for sale – an increase in homes and a net loss of social rent homes.

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The Kings Crescent Estate

The Kings Crescent Estate was originally built by Hackney Council in 1969. The estate’s two nineteen-storey tower blocks were demolished in 2000 and 2002 alongside some of the lower blocks, around 357 homes in all.  The current regeneration scheme creates 273 new homes overall but of these only 76 are social rented; a further 101 social rent homes will be refurbished. It is a further reminder of the twisted economics of current social housing finance.

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I’m sorry not to be more positive. There is a small uptick in council housebuilding. Councils are being allowed to borrow and many new schemes are underway but, almost invariably, they are small-scale and financed – through both necessity and choice – through public-private partnerships which too frequently prioritise non-social rented homes. 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 exemplars of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.

Notes

(1) For further detail on the South Acton Estate, read the excellent chapter by Peter Guillery in Guillerry and Kroll (eds), Mobilising Housing Histories: Learning from London’s Past (RIBA Publishing, 2017)

Council Housing in Gateshead, part II post-1945: ‘The world has moved on’

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Last week’s post examined the huge growth of council housing that took place in Gateshead in the aftermath of World War One. Although some 10,500 children were evacuated at the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939, the town – despite being a major industrial centre – suffered very little from the wartime bombing anticipated.

The war, however, exacerbated an existing housing crisis and in 1942 it was estimated that 5620 people in the town were living in homes scheduled for demolition.  One early response to that crisis was the temporary prefab programme though only a relatively small number of the 156,623 erected nationally were allocated to the Gateshead area – 25 on Sunderland Road and 55 at The Drive in what was then part of Felling Urban District Council. (1)  The Borough of Gateshead itself had declared against temporary housing.

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Orlit flats, Saltwell Road

Permanent prefabricated housing was another attempt to solve the housing crisis and deal with the shortages of materials and skilled labour which persisted into the 1950s. A precast reinforced concrete Orlit block of 18 flats survives on Saltwell Road; 150 semi-detached Dorran houses, formed of concrete panel walls, were built on Rose Street and Carr Hill Lane at Black Hill and elsewhere in the early part of the decade. Most of the latter, still in council ownership, were refurbished and reclad in the 1990s and more thoroughly renovated in 2014.

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Dorran houses on Carr Hill Road, the one on the left presumably in private ownership and unrenovated

A longer-term product of war and the politics of post-war reconstruction was the planning movement, exemplified in the formation of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the New Town movement.  However, proposals in the Pepler-MacFarlane, North‐East Area Development Plan of 1949 to develop a New Town of 80,000 population in Barlow, eight miles to the west of Gateshead, were stymied by its distance.

Meanwhile the Council had announced ambitious plans in 1945 to build 1000 permanent homes within two years.  In practice, in unprecedentedly difficult post-war circumstances, only 171 new homes were completed by 1947 and a further 387 by the end of the following year in new estates at Highfield and Blue Quarries.

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Hawkshead Place, Beacon Lough Estate

Another 1300 homes were built at the Lobley Hill and Beacon Lough Estates by 1950.  The latter was ‘a large and sprawling low-density estate’ according to Simon Taylor and David Lovie: (2)

typical of the large brick-built cottage estates constructed in many parts of the country in the years immediately after the war. With its numerous winding side roads and culs-de-sac, it was recognised by the Minister of Health as one of the best laid out housing estates in the country.

The ‘Wrekenton Neighbourhood Unit’, just south of Beacon Lough, of 1372 homes was another large-scale project. The Cedars Green Estate, on the other hand, was a deliberate contrast – small and secluded, comprising just 59 homes and regarded locally as a prestige development.

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Slum clearance and the new Barn Close flats in 1955

By 1956, the Council had built 5482 new homes since the end of the war but pressure on land and new opposition to urban sprawl was forcing consideration of new approaches as the drive to finally clear the slums intensified.  This huge rebuilding drive was overseen by Labour Alderman Ben Nicholson Young who served as chair of the Housing Committee from 1945 to 1974. Leslie Berry was appointed Chief Architect in 1958 and the Borough Architect’s Department gained a national reputation for the novelty and quality of its designs.

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Brisbane Court, Sydney Court, Adelaide Court and Melbourne Court , Barn Close, from the south, 1987 (http://www.towerblock.eca.ed.ac.uk)

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A contemporary image of Regent Court

The Council’s first high-rise blocks – four ten-storey slab blocks – were completed at Barn Close in the centre of town in 1955. Three eight-storey blocks – Priory, Peareth and Park Courts – were completed on East Street and the ten-storey Regent Court two years later as a further element in central area redevelopment. (3)

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Chandless clearance, 1956

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Chandless Estate, St. Mary’s Court in foreground, 1987 (http://www.towerblock.eca.ed.ac.uk)

The Chandless Redevelopment Area nearby was approved in 1960. The three 16-storey towers, providing 384 flats, built in Phase I of the scheme were designed by the Architect’s Department and built by Stanley Miller Ltd – a major local contractor – using an innovative in situ concrete system.

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A contemporary image of Bensham Court

Berry also oversaw the design of the 16-storey tower, Bensham Court, completed in 1963 and the four 12-storey towers at Beacon Lough in 1967.  Redheugh and Eslington Courts, completed in the Teams Redevelopment Area in 1966 were the tallest Gateshead blocks at 21 storeys.  Further high-rise continued across the borough.

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A contemporary image of Redheugh and Eslington Courts

In sheer numbers, the results were undeniably impressive.  Gateshead built over 1000 new homes in 1965 and, in that same year, its 10,000th council home.  By 1970, as the municipal borough’s historian recounts with some civic pride, 10,686 homes had been built since the war, at a rate of almost two each working day and three times the national average. (4)

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‘Gunnel houses’ Beacon Lough East Estate

Beacon Lough East Estate, Gateshead The Studio 1970

Beacon Lough East Estate, 1970 (Photographer, The Studio; Gateshead Libraries, GL002509)

And, amidst the drive to build big, were attempts to create innovative mixed development schemes.  One such was the extension to the Beacon Lough Estate, built in the mid-sixties in which four 12-storey blocks in a parkland setting were accompanied by 165 flat-roofed ‘gunnel houses’ (named after the passageways connecting the semi-detached homes), patio bungalows for older people as well as some conventional brick-built terraced housing. A primary school, pub and shops completed the ensemble. The Estate won a Government award for ‘Good Design in Housing’ in 1968.

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Prime minister Harold Wilson opening St Cuthbert’s Village, 1970 (Gateshead Libraries, LS000214)

The most novel was St Cuthbert’s Village, completed in 1969, comprising: (2)

a maze of low- and medium-rise linking ‘scissor blocks’ with roof gardens, on either side of Askew Road and, radiating from the centre and linked by various communal walkways and steps around open communal areas.

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St Cuthbert’s Village, 1987 (http://www.towerblock.eca.ed.ac.uk)

It was planned as a self-contained community of 3500 people, largely young single people and couples, and opened, to much fanfare, by prime minister Harold Wilson in April 1970. But facilities followed slowly and residents felt isolated.  The estate’s high-density living, far from promoting the neighbourliness intended, seems to have created dispute and ill-feeling. By 1992, a local press report was describing St Cuthbert’s Village as ‘as estate plagued by soaring crime and poor design’. Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council reckoned each flat cost £1000 a year to maintain compared to the borough average of £424.  A survey of residents concluded that fully 85 percent wanted to move out. (5)  By 1995, all but the 18-storey point block had been demolished.

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Clasper Village plan

A general disenchantment from high-rise was manifest from the late 1960s, reflecting – practically – its failure to deliver promised cost-savings and problems with construction and design, notably on system-built estates.  One early local response to this was the construction of Clasper Village in 1970 though the choice to build low-rise cluster blocks also reflected the existence of underground mine workings in the Teams area which precluded high-rise construction.

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Clasper Village, c1975

In 2004, observers commented on the popularity of its ‘intimate scale’ – ‘accommodation there has always been in high demand; it remains an attractive and well-maintained residential unit’. (2)  Seven years later, the Gateshead Housing Company found little to praise, complaining of its lack of housing mix (the estate comprised only two-bed flats), a void rate of 21 percent, an annual turnover of lettings of near 15 percent, and problems of condensation and water penetration affecting most of its homes. Levels of anti-social behaviour were said to be about average but perceptions were as significant: ‘the stigma and reputation has significantly affected demand for properties on the estate’. (6)

All that goes to remind us that all judgements are necessarily temporary and that reputational damage can be as harmful to estates as design flaws as real as the latter were in the case of Clasper Village.  Demolition of the estate commenced in 2014. In May,. this year, as part of a £1.8 million funding deal with Homes England, the Council committed to a £30 million regeneration of the 12 acre site. (7)

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A contemporary image of Priory Court

Other high-rise estates suffered less dramatic problems – the lack of play areas at Barn Close was said to have caused problems of antisocial behaviour, Priory Court was apparently plagued by beetles breeding in heating ducts – but the shift from high-rise was now complete. (2)

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Nursery Lane demolitions (http://www.towerblock.eca.ed.ac.uk)

System building was part of the problem. Four ‘Ronan Point-type’ tower blocks at Nursery Lane, built using the Larsen Nielsen system and designed by John Poulson for Felling Urban District Council in 1968, were demolished by the new metropolitan authority in 1987. (8)

In 2004, Gateshead Council transferred its entire housing stock of some 20,000 homes to the Gateshead Housing Company, an arms-length management organisation (ALMO).  The promise was to improve housing services; the practical necessity was to secure funding needed to carry out the Decent Homes Programme announced by the Labour government four years earlier.  The ALMO’s initial ten-year life-span was extended by a further five in 2015.

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Demolition of Chandless Estate, 2015 (photograph by Sharon Bailey, courtesy of the Spirit of Chandless website)

The decision to demolish the Chandless Estate, a system-built estate suffering structural issues said to prevent economic repair, was taken in 2010.  As the 16-storey Monk Court block in Chandless was being prepared for demolition in 2013, Councillor Catherine Donovan (Gateshead Council’s Cabinet member for Housing) concluded ‘the world has moved on and families expect different things of their homes’. (9)  Demolition was complete by 2015.

Two years later, Gateshead Council committed to building its first new council homes for thirty years – seven homes in Dunston and 14 in Winlaton and Blaydon. The Council also announced plans to 36 homes through its wholly-owned business, the Gateshead Trading Company though just 15 percent of the latter were categorised as ‘affordable’. (10)

All these were a modest component of a larger plan to build 11,000 new homes across the Gateshead area by 2030. The larger target would be met principally through cooperation with so-called ‘volume providers’ (including a joint venture between the Council and developers Galliford Try and housing association Home Group) as well as by support given to small and medium-enterprise building companies. (11)

Amidst ongoing policy changes and recent modest moves giving local authorities greater powers and financial freedoms to build, all this is – to say the least – shifting terrain.  It’s also well beyond my comfort zone, both practically and ideologically.  Suffice to say, that a relatively straightforward and highly cost-effective model which built what we must now call social-rent homes in huge numbers in Gateshead and across the country has been replaced by a system of complex public-private partnerships, opaque finances, and ‘mixed developments’ which all too often fails to deliver the genuinely affordable homes most required.

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Central Gateshead, 1971

As we’ve seen, local government didn’t get everything right but it’s hard not to applaud the ambition or admire the scale of what was achieved. That ambition and scale could be a little intimidating, perhaps overreaching, at times as the above image suggests. Nevertheless, it’s entirely proper, in my view at least, to envy an era when the local and national state invested heavily to secure decent homes for all whilst, of course, we learn its lessons, both positive and negative.

Sources

My thanks to Gateshead Libraries for providing several of the images used in this post.

(1) According to the invaluable and comprehensive Prefab Museum website.

(2) Simon Taylor and David B Lovie, Gateshead. Architecture on a Changing English Urban Landscape (English Heritage, 2004)

(3) For further detail, see the incredibly useful and informative database provided by Tower Block UK.

(4) FWD Manders, A History of Gateshead (Gateshead Corporation, 1973)

(5) Andrew Smith, ‘Estate to be Demolished’, The Journal, 3 September 1992

(6) Minutes of The Gateshead Housing Company Asset Management Committee, 30 June 2011

(7) Gateshead Council, ‘£1.8 million to boost development of new homes in Gateshead‘, 22 May 2019

(8) ‘Gateshead to demolish four towers’, Building Design, no. 832, 17 April 1987, p44

(9) Katie Davies, ‘Gateshead’s Chandless Estate is demolished bit by bit’, Chronicle Live, 12 September 2013

(10) Peter Apps, ‘Gateshead Council to build first homes for 30 years’, Inside Housing, 24 November 2017

(11) Gateshead Council, Housing Delivery Test Action Plan (ND, c2017)

Council Housing in Gateshead, part I to 1939: ‘The liberty of the subject’

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JB Priestley visited Gateshead in 1933. It’s fair to say he wasn’t impressed: (1)

If there is any town of like size in Europe that can show a similar lack of civic dignity and all the evidences of an urban civilisation, I should like to know its name … No true civilisation could have produced such a town.

I’ll annoy some locals today by harking back to that pejorative view and, unsurprisingly, at the time the town’s politicians and press were outraged. The Journal noted that Priestley ‘was accompanied by vile weather and a severe cold in his head’ and lamented that the latter hadn’t ‘kept Mr Priestley confined to his hotel’.  Others, more objectively, pointed to the contemporary impact of the Great Depression. (2)

Of course, in defence of Priestley, his English Journey was intended to highlight exactly the inequality he described so damningly; the poverty of parts of England which might already have been described as ‘left behind’.  And his social commentary would play its own part in the project to build a better Britain in the aftermath of World War Two.

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Nineteenth-century Gateshead slums: Bankwell Stairs leading to Pipewellgate in 1886 (to the left), and Friars Dene Road, Old Ford, not dated

There had, in any case, already been attempts to improve local conditions, seen in the Borough’s slum clearance schemes and grand new housing estates. These would continue and Gateshead, both in terms of scale and innovation, would be among the leaders in efforts to better house the working class. It was not, however, among the pioneers and, naturally, as we shall see, it didn’t get everything right in its own journey.

Gateshead was another of the boom towns of the Britain’s nineteenth-century industrial revolution, growing from a population of 8597 in 1801 to 85,692 just ninety years later: a municipal borough in 1835 and a county borough in 1889.  That breakneck growth created the slum conditions one might expect but the regular appeals of the borough’s Medical Officer of Health to use the building powers granted by the 1890 Housing Act went unheeded. A committee of the Council convened to consider the issue in 1899 concluded: (3)

They saw no reason for the building of workingmen’s dwellings by the Corporation as there was always plenty of that class of house to be procured within reasonable distance.

If that were an apparently practical objection to state intervention, personal and ideological opposition were perhaps stronger. The Liberal alderman William Henry Dunn believed ‘dirty people made dirty houses’; he ‘would not interfere with their pleasure in filth’.  A few years later, Alderman Robert Affleck, whose family were among Gateshead’s major private developers, opposing a later housing bill suggested that it would:

filch away the liberty of the subject. Occupants of lodging houses, people who often would make no effort to better their environment, were by this Bill to be given the same privileges as ordinary citizens.

In fact, the Council did close almost 390 tenements as unfit for human habitation under sanitary legislation prior to the First World War. But the hostility to outside intervention was extended even to private philanthropy when, in 1911, it rejected a proposal by the Sutton Trust to build its own ‘model dwellings’ for the working class. They were built in Newcastle instead.

Ellison Square built 1851

Ellison Square, central Gateshead, built c1851

In a similar fashion as late as 1917, the Council peremptorily rejected the offer made by the Local Government Board promising ‘substantial financial assistance from public funds’ to local councils prepared to implement approved programmes of working-class housing.

Yet, just two years later, the Council acknowledged the need to build 1950 houses in three years.  The explanation lay, firstly, in the changed politics of the post-war era and the commitment made by prime minister Lloyd George – but seemingly accepted across the political spectrum – ‘to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in’.  Secondly, the Council was now subject to the legislative mandate of the 1919 Housing Act which required all authorities not only to undertake a survey of local housing needs but prepare concrete plans to meet them. In Gateshead, one in three working-class families was found to be living in overcrowded conditions.

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Gainsborough Crescent, Carr Hill Estate

The changed times were obvious well before the new Housing Act received the Royal Assent in July 1919.  The Council had established a Housing Committee in February. A town hall meeting, convened by local churchmen in April and addressed by housing reformer Seebohm Rowntree, added pressure from below. The Council purchased 65 acres of land at Carr Hill and Sheriff Hill for building purposes and appointed local architect Richard Wylie to design the new schemes.

Then the Council faltered before initial plans for just 360 new homes were revised upwards to match the more ambitious proposals of other local councils.  A revised plan for 650 was then accepted by the Ministry of Health and Housing but only as a first instalment of a larger scheme.

The first homes were completed at Sheriff Hill, those at Carr Hill to the north-east a little later. Some 232 had been built by 1923. If the numbers were smaller than anticipated, the quality generally was not. These were the garden suburbs of the early post-war era when finance and politics briefly meshed to deliver the promise of ‘Homes for Heroes’.

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The Avenue, Sheriff Hill

Broadway on Sheriff Hill and its cross-streets best capture the ambition of the moment with their mix of parlour and non-parlour semi-detached houses and short terraces, the end houses treated as ‘pavilions’ and marked by steep gables and hips. The second phase which formed the Carr Hill Estate – a further 342 houses – used a harder red brick and sometimes render on the upper floor. (4)

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Broadway, Sheriff Hill

The generous programme of the 1919 Act had been halted by spending cuts in July 1921 and later estates characterise the more economical construction of later legislation. But the drive to build remained; at the end of 1923, the Borough reckoned 2839 new homes were needed to rehouse its population decently.

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Rawling Road, Field House Estate

The Field House estate in the Saltwell district was completed by the late 1920s and in the early thirties Gateshead was developing new estates at Old Ford, Victoria Road, Wrekenton, Deckham Hall and Lobley Hill. By 1936, the Borough had built around 2360 council homes.

But the 1930s introduced something which was surprisingly new in the sector – a determined attempt, spearheaded by national legislation, to rehouse those living in the worst conditions.  Generally, the relatively high rents of council housing and council expectations of ‘good tenants’ who could be expected to reliably pay them had excluded the poorest from council housing. Labour’s 1930 Housing Act targeted slum clearance and incentivised the rehousing of slum-dwellers.

The ‘National’ Government’s 1935 Housing Act added overcrowding to existing definitions of unfit housing. The survey it required that all councils take of local housing conditions revealed Gateshead as having the second worst housing of county boroughs in England and Wales (Sunderland came first) – almost 16 percent pf the population were living in overcrowded homes.  The continued prevalence of ‘Tyneside flats’ – single-storey flats upstairs and down in two-storey terraces estimated to form 60 percent of Gateshead’s housing stock in 1911 – was part of the explanation.

Demolition of Pipewellgate 1935

Demolition of the Pipewellgate area, 1935

In the early 1930s, a major slum clearance drive in Gateshead cleared some of its worst housing in the Barn Close, Pipewellgate, Hilgate, Bridge Street, Church Street and Old Fold area. By 1939, some 1654 families had been rehoused.

Estates built in the 1930s specifically to rehouse the slum population were often built more cheaply in the attempt to makes their rents more affordable. More intangibly, some would retain a certain stigma marking this origin, not least among better-off and longer-term council tenants who considered themselves more ‘respectable’.

Deckham Hall Estate

Aerial view of the Deckham Hall Estate

In the case of the Deckham Hall Estate, the former at least was certainly true.  Begun in 1936 by the North-Eastern Housing Association created for the purpose, it’s an estate of generally semi-detached two-bedroomed housing: (5)

The houses were of very uniform appearance compared with those built at Carr Hill and Bensham. Orange brick was used throughout and less attention given to landscaping, with only a few green spaces and evidently no tree planting, producing an austere effect overall.

The estate’s layout of irregular concentric rings earned it the nickname among locals of the ‘Frying Pan’ or, less politically correctly, the ‘African Village’.

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Chiswick Gardens, Deckham Hall Estate

The estate is still seen by some as a ‘bad estate’, undeservedly according to Martin Crookston and I’m sure to the resentment of many of its current residents. In 2006, the estate still suffered, in the Council’s words – the exclamation mark is in the original – from a: (6)

poor environment … caused by low grade boundaries and public realm materials, under-investment in upkeep and a lack of attractive landscaping in both public (!) areas and private gardens.

Low take-up of Right to Buy seemed to confirm its unpopular reputation. More to the point perhaps and certainly illustrating that interplay of negatives that characterises what used to be called ‘hard to let’ estates, the unemployment rate stood at 12 percent, compared to a local average of seven. (7)

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Hendon Road, Deckham Hall Estate

The photographs from my visit to the estate (now owned and managed by the Home Housing Association and Gateshead Housing Company) earlier this year show the environmental upgrades that have taken place since, part of a package intended also to address what was euphemistically described as ‘tenure imbalance’, in other words a perceived lack of owner-occupiers.  The estate looks neat and generally well-cared for, though still (to be honest) a little austere.

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Goodwood Avenue, Racecourse Estate, begun in the late 1930s

But we’re moving ahead of ourselves.  Back in 1939, Gateshead had built 3104 council homes. After a second world war with renewed demands to clear the slums, Gateshead would build on an even larger scale.  Some of the newbuild would replicate the ‘cottage suburbs’ of the interwar period but there was also a significant shift to high-rise.  We’ll follow that story in next week’s post.

Sources

(1) JB Priestley, English Journey (1934)

(2) Tony Henderson, ‘JB Priestley’s Views on the North East Examined Again’, The Journal, 26 October 2009

(3) This and the quotations which follow are drawn from FWD Manders, A History of Gateshead (Gateshead Corporation, 1973)

(4) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow?  A New Future for the Cottage Estates (Routledge, 2016)

(5) Simon Taylor and David B Lovie, Gateshead. Architecture on a Changing English Urban Landscape (English Heritage, 2004)

(6) Gateshead Council, Urban Design, Heritage & Character Analysis Report: Deckham, March 2006. The Right to Buy data is drawn from Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, Deckham Neighbourhood Housing Analysis (ND but c2006)

(7) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? 

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

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

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

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Prefabs, The Valley, Stanmore

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

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

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

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

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A contemporary advert for Scottwood houses

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

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

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Somers Close, Upper Stanmore

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

Stanmore Estate 1952 plan

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

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

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

Upper Stanmore

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

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

Weeke Manor Estate 1952 plan

A 1952 plan of Weeke Estate

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

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Fromond Road, Weeke

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

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

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

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A section of Trussell Crescent, Weeke

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

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The Weeke Estate under construction

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

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

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Winnall Manor Road, Winnall

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

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Flats at Winnall

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

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

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

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

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John Cloyne

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

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

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Sheltered housing in The Valley, Stanmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cromwell Road, Lower Stanmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St Mary Street, Stanmore

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

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

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

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Battery Hill, Upper Stanmore

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

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

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The Prince of Wales visits the Stanmore Estate, 1923

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monconc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Martins Close SN

St Martin’s Close

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

Highcliffe Gordon Avenue SN

Gordon Avenue, Highcliffe

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

Bar End Portal Road II SN

Portal Road, Bar End

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover snip

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

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

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

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

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

Narrow Marsh, 1919

Narrow Marsh, 1919

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Osier Road the Meadows

Osier Road, the Meadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A part of the Hyson Green scheme prior to demoltion

A part of the Hyson Green scheme prior to demolition

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

Crosland at 50,000 opening 1976

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy the book, spread that message.

Notes

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

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

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

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