Early Council Housing in Exeter: ‘decent houses for the working class’


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Labour increased its majority on the council in May this year but before 1945 Exeter was a conservative and mostly a Conservative city. That, nevertheless, it was in the forefront of early town planning efforts before the First World War and built some 2200 council homes between the wars is proof that many in all parties believed in the duty of the state and local government to ensure decent housing for the working class.

Back in 1907, though, it was a Liberal administration which erected the city’s first council housing – on Isca Road, a by-product of slum clearance on nearby Alphington Road. The 49 plain two-storey, two-bed, red-brick terraced houses with gardens to the rear cost £149 each to build. A petition from tenants saw weekly rents reduced from 5s to 4s 9d; just enough, it was calculated, to repay construction costs. (1)

Isca Road

Isca Road

Thompson ground and first floor plans Isca Road

Floor plans of the Isca Road houses from W Thompson, Housing Up-to-Date (1907)

Though the Conservatives gained a majority on the Council in 1908 they kept for twenty-five years, a reforming politics still held sway, led by the chair of the Town Planning Committee, Alderman FJ Widgery and the Town Clerk, Hubert Lloyd Parry.  The Council hosted a regional town planning conference in 1912 and approved plans for further slum clearance and building in the years before the war.

In the event, a scheme for new housing in Pinces Garden was dropped in October 1914 due to high costs and in the mistaken anticipation of ‘prices falling within the near future’. (2) Perhaps they expected the war to be over by Christmas.  The war was to last much longer but it did in the end redouble the drive to build.

The Local Government Board’s Circular 86/1917, ‘Housing after the War’, promising ‘substantial financial assistance’ to councils ‘prepared to carry through without delay at the conclusion of the War, a programme of housing for the working classes’, marked that shift.  In Exeter, where the Town Clerk in response reported that there were ‘at present practically no vacant houses suitable for the working classes and in all respects fit for human habitation’, the need was urgent. (3)

Buddle Lane Estate

Buddle Lane, Buddle Lane Estate

The Council responded swiftly, buying land for housing on Buddle Lane in July 1918 and, in December, endorsing plans to build 300 homes.  A deputation from the Trades and Labour Council protested that such plans fell far short of what was needed. It wanted 1000 new homes and demanded, in a sign of the times and its expectations, that the new houses: (4)

should comprise two living rooms, a scullery in which the cooking could be carried out, a bathroom and three bedrooms [and] should be built away from the centre of the City with the provision of ample garden space [at rents] within the means of the labourer as well as the skilled mechanic.

Their case was backed by the City’s Medical Officer of Health. He reported 106 families displaced through proposed slum clearance schemes, some 600 back-to-back houses in the city and around 500 on which repair orders ‘should be served’. One thousand new homes ‘would not be excessive’, he concluded. The Council accepted the case, amended its plans and purchased additional land for building near Polsloe Bridge.

Pinces Gardens

Pinces Gardens 2

Pinces Gardens

The 27 houses at Pinces Gardens proposed before the War, were completed rapidly and the white-rendered homes with their imposing doorways set around a substantial green remain among the most attractive of the Council’s early schemes.

A further 161 houses on the Polsloe Estate and the first thirty homes by Buddle Lane were also completed under the generous terms of the 1919 Housing Act. At a price – reflecting inflation and shortages of materials and labour – approaching £900 each, the new houses demonstrated the cost of the Council’s earlier decision to delay their construction.

Widgery Road, Polsloe Estate

Widgery Road, Polsloe Estate in the 1930s

Bennett Square, Polsloe Estate

Bennett Square, Polsloe Estate

Higher costs in the mid-1920s may also have reflected a ‘builders’ ring’ – a conspiracy of local contractors – to maintain their profits. The Exeter Master Builders’ Federation submitted a joint tender in November 1923 for the construction of 45 houses and the Council was informed that brick was three times more expensive than before the war.  One councillor, however, alleged discussions within the Federation where ‘in a whisper it was suggested that it might be got cheaper but that no mention must go outside’.  The Federation protested its innocence of any wrong-doing but the Ministry of Health stated such joint tendering practices – accepted as necessary in the immediate post-war period – were no longer approved. (5)

Buddle Lane Estate concrete houses

Laing ‘Easiform’ concrete houses, Buddle Lane Estate in the 1930s

Even without any dirty dealing, shortages compelled Exeter (like many other authorities) to investigate alternative, non-traditional, means of construction and a contract was agreed with Laings in 1926 for the building of 154 Easiform concrete homes on the Buddle Lane Estate. Despite long-running problems with their steel reinforcements, these homes survived many decades. One hundred were rebuilt in the 1990s; currently there are plans to demolish and rebuild the remaining 20. (6)

Burnthouse Lane (c) Historic England

‘Housing off Burnthouse Lane and environs from the north-east, 1933’, EPW04117, Britain from Above (c) Historic England

Traditional building methods dominated in the Council’s major interwar schemes to the south-east of the city in Burnthouse Lane, commenced in 1928, and northerly extensions in Wonford and St Loye’s from the mid-thirties. The city’s 2000th interwar home was opened by the Minister of Housing, Sir Kingsley Wood, at no. 10 Lethbridge Road in St Loye’s in March 1937. (7)

Burnthouse Lane

Burnthouse Lane in the 1930s

Milton Road, Burnthouse Lane Estate

Milton Road, Burnthouse Lane Estate

City Architect, John Bennett, oversaw their design and construction.  The layout along Burnthouse Lane was a very geometric expression of garden suburb ideals which were more sensitively applied in the St Loye’s Estate which followed. Miss Barber, an early resident, complained that: (8)

the tedious straight main line [of Burnthouse Lane] and the parallel Hawthorn, Chestnut, and Briar Crescents, suggest that the planners had very little imagination and little eye for anything more pleasant.

Recent attempts to make the area more pedestrian-friendly have brightened it but left it looking a little cluttered.

Burnthouse Lane Hawthorn Road

Hawthorn Road, Burnthouse Lane Estate

In both estates, the houses, almost all in semi-detached pairs, are individually attractive – with a distinct Exeter house-style of patterned red and darker brick – but they’re repeated with such little variation that the whole suffers from that council estate uniformity criticised after the war. The 1948 Committee on the Appearance of Council Estates, for example, later slammed ‘the depressing appearance’ of some estates which resulted from their ‘monotony in design and layout, and the repetition of the same architectural unit in dull, straight rows or in severe geometrical road patterns’.

St Loyes Hoker Road

Hoker Road, St Loye’s Estate

Typically also, other facilities followed rather slowly on the housing and – in language often repeated of these early suburban council estates – Miss Barber remembers that:

Burnthouse Lane for a long time while in the process of developing had almost nothing except houses and fields, so cold and bleak people said, especially in winter, it was just like Siberia.

Paul Street area before redevelopment

The Paul Street area was one of three areas ‘represented’ for slum clearance in 1919

Inner-city Exeter (the connotations are not inappropriate) suffered other problems. In the 1932 municipal elections, Labour activists in Trinity Ward (south of the cathedral) claimed ‘housing conditions in that part of the city…were a disgrace’.  One house, they stated, was occupied by 14 families each paying 5s a week rent.  They continued: (9)

There were rack-renters in Exeter and they would have to go. These miserable hovels would have to be pulled down and decent houses provided for the working class – the class that produced the wealth of the nation.

Labour won that contest and became the largest single party in 1945 though still – for the time being – excluded from power by the more or less formal Conservative-Liberal coalition that had operated since 1919.

Labour was at pains to claim credit for recent rehousing efforts but, in fairness, there were others, notably Councillor Shirley Steele-Perkins (a local doctor and the son and brother of two Exeter Medical Officers of Health), who also made the case: (10)

S-PIn the clearance area the population was 410 to the acre, by which it would be seen the congestion that was going on…in one case a man, his wife and five children were living in one room…Was that a condition which the Council should tolerate?…

I think I have shown you that if the time is ripe for us to put these people into houses where they can live a decent life and the children have a decent chance of being brought up in healthy surroundings, we should take every advantage of it.

With such sentiments in Exeter, slum clearance efforts, also encouraged by central government in the 1930s, continued but the question of the form of housing to replace them remained, particularly for the lower-paid working class who needed to be near central places of employment.

Preston Street

Preston Street rear

Preston Street flats, front and rear

A small three-storey tenement block of twelve homes (since demolished) had been built in Coombe Street in 1924 and a Housing Subcommittee was set up in January 1932 to investigate the viability of flats in the inner-city.  In Exeter, where schemes had of necessity to be small, there were no economies of scale and no savings to be made but some rather bijou two-storey flats (some surviving) were built to the west of Fore Street. In all, of those 2200 interwar council homes, just 44 were flats.

Walking those same streets now, of course, much has changed, not least as a result of the bombing raids which devastated central Exeter in May 1942. Some 1500 homes were destroyed, another 2700 severely damaged; 161 people lost their lives.  Post-war Exeter faced new problems of rebuilding but the success, failure and aborted hopes of that ‘Exeter Phoenix’ form another story. (11)

The narrative of interwar Exeter is less dramatic but it’s a reminder of a time when our duty to provide decent homes for those who needed them was widely accepted across the political spectrum. Those efforts were imperfect, the results unspectacular perhaps, but they provided good, secure and affordable homes for many.


(1) Alderman W Thompson, Housing Up-To-Date (1907) and Exeter City Council, Workmen’s Dwellings Committee minutes, March 13 1907

(2) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, May 26 1914

(3) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, October 23 1917

(4) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, May 7 1919

(5) ‘Building Rings and Housing’, The Times, November 30 1923; the Federation’s response came in a letter from EC Lea (president of the Exeter Master Builders’ Federation) in The Times, December 3 1923; and the Ministry of Health’s comment in The Times, December 3 1923

(6) ‘Rebuilding plan for old Exeter council homes’, Exeter Express and Echo, February 24 2016

(7) City of Exeter, ‘Housing. Opening of 2000th Post-War Municipal House by Right Honourable Sir Kingsley Wood, 9 March 1937’

(8) Miss K Barber, ‘The Development of Burnthouse Lane’ (1990). Unpublished manuscript in the Devon Archives and Local Studies Service.  You’ll find more detail on the early Burnthouse Lane Estate on the Exeter Memories website.

(9) Quoted in Bob Morley, Sam Davies, County Borough Elections in England and Wales, 1919–1938: A Comparative Analysis: Volume 4: Exeter – Hull (2013)

(10) Steele-Perkins, June 1932, quoted in Julia Frances Neville, Explaining Variations in Municipal Hospital Provision in the 1930s: A Study of Councils in the Far South West, PhD in Politics, University of Exeter, 2009

(11) Catherine Flinn, ‘“Exeter Phoenix”: Politics and the Rebuilding of a Blitzed City’, Southern History, vol 30, 2008

Collage picture archive: ‘tired of London, tired of life’

This is an unashamed plug.  Collage, the picture archive managed by the London Metropolitan Archives, has always been a wonderful resource.  The good news is, it just got better. The new website is more user-friendly and includes added features – a geo-tagged location map and, using newly digitised content, a zoom function allowing you to get to the finer detail.  You’ll find some short film clips too for the first time.


The sheer numbers testify to the breadth of the collection – over 250,000 photographs, prints and drawings, over 1000 maps, plus some 6000 images of paintings, watercolours, drawings and sculptures from the Guildhall Art Gallery collection.

Most are London-related in some shape or form but, if that sounds too narrow for readers beyond the capital, they’re worth another look. The collection provides a social history of much wider relevance – covering schooling, the workhouse, pubs and popular entertainment, religious observance…basically, you’ll likely find something of interest whatever your focus. Use the map to search your neighbourhood if you have a local interest, use the search box to look up specifics, or just browse – the list of subject tags covers an enormous range of topics

Since this blog is principally about council housing, that’s going to be my particular focus here and, since there were 769,996 council homes in Greater London by 1981, there is, as you can imagine, plenty to see.  The tag ‘Housing estates LCC/GLC’ throws up over 17,000 images.  That’s practically a lost weekend for me!


‘Andover: children playing on a housing estate’ (1973) (c) Collage, London Metropolitan Archives

To prove the point about looking beyond London, let’s begin by using ‘New and expanding towns’ as a search term – from Andover to Wellingborough, you’ll find over 5500 images of the London County Council and Greater London Council’s post-war overspill programme.


‘Wellingborough: interior of a new build property’ (1971) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

The particular strength of the collection is the variety of images and moments captured. There are plenty of photographs of the high-quality housing that London was proud to build for its displaced population, of course, but factories, shopping centres, playgrounds and schools, and interior images feature too – the latter providing an insight into the lived lives so rarely captured in the architectural record.


‘General view of the Britwell Estate’ (1964) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Or look up the Britwell Estate in Slough, home to Alan Johnson when our former Home Secretary was just a jobbing postman and fondly remembered by him as ‘Arcadian’. (1)  Or Sheerwater, or Harold Hill.  These are just three of the thirteen out-of-county estates (with 45,500 homes in all) built by the LCC before its abolition in 1965.  A strength of many of these images is that they are not striving for architectural effect.


‘Sheerwater Estate: shopping centre (1960) – anchored by the Co-op as was typical (c) London Metropolitan Archives


‘Boundary Estate: Arnold Circus’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

But for anyone seeking an architectural record of housing history, the archive does, of course, provide a wonderful record.  There are 228 photographs of the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, the LCC’s very first housing estate, opened in 1900.  There are fine external shots of the dignified and attractive housing the Council provided but later photographs too showing unmodernised interiors, reminding us just how basic this early municipal housing was.  (Look up ‘slums’ and you’ll have another reminder; this time that council housing was, almost without exception, immeasurably superior to the working-class housing which preceded it.)


‘Boundary Estate: old lavatory’ (1959) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Moving on to the interwar period, you’ll see some of the LCC’s major schemes, for example, the Becontree, Watling and Downham Estates – three of the so-called ‘cottage estates’ which provided just over half of the 89,000 homes built by the Council in the 1920s and 1930s.  For all the criticisms of their suburbanism, the images testify to the quality and essential decency of these new homes.


‘Watling Estate: 1 Dean Walk’ (1931) – obviously proud winners of the LCC’s competition for best-kept gardens (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Meanwhile, in the inner city, walk-up, balcony-access, five-storey blocks provided the bulk of the Council’s new build.  The Honor Oak Estate in Lewisham was typical.


Honor Oak Estate, Cayley Close: residential tenements’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

The Ossulton Estate in St Pancras, completed in 1931, was a rare LCC foray into more modernist design though its innovative exterior concealed a more conventional tenement block form.  Rather charmingly, a number of these photos cover refuse disposal.  Such is the unglamorous nitty-gritty of local government service.


‘Ossulston Estate: woman entering rubbish into a chute’ (1936) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

In the post-Second World War period, 162 images celebrate the ‘before and after’ of the Lansbury Estate and the thoughtful planning which went into it.  Here was a portent of the emerging, more democratic world to which the nation aspired and, though it too was criticised by some architectural critics of the day as too modestly suburban, its housing looks as attractive and neighbourly as its architects intended.


‘Brandon Estate: Warham Street looking west to estate’ (1962) (c) London Metropolitan Archives


‘Pepys Estate: construction work progress’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

With the later emergence of high-rise and mixed development schemes, though, there was more scope for architectural daring.  The archive provides a superb record of the planning, construction and opening of the Brandon Estate in Southwark and the Pepys Estate in Deptford, for example.


‘Alton Estate: aerial view’ (1964) – Alton East in the far background, Alton West in the foreground (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Let’s conclude by focusing on one estate I’ve never quite summoned up the courage to write about in detail yet – the Alton Estate in Roehampton, described by a contemporary American commentator as ‘probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world’. (2)  Alton East, the earlier half of the Estate, constructed between 1952 and 1955, retained a Lansbury-esque ‘picturesque informality’ in Pevsner’s words, reflecting the New Humanist, Scandinavian influences which inspired its design team. (3)  Alton West was more uncompromisingly modernist in aesthetic – Brutalist as the newly-coined term would have it – and took its inspiration from Le Corbusier.


‘Alton Estate, Roehampton Lane: artist’s impression’ (ND) (c) London Metropolitan Archives


‘Alton Estate, Hyacinth Road: architectural model’ (1965) (c) London Metropolitan Archives


‘Alton Estate, Hyacinth Road: architectural plan’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

That detail is elsewhere or for another time but browse the archive and you’ll find the artists’ impressions and plans and a range of images which capture the excitement and hope – and careful design – which underlay the new scheme. You’ll see clubrooms too and an old people’s day centre, children playing in generous open space – a testament to the community being built – and, above all, interior shots of the living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms which made this Estate, like so many others, a good home to its new residents.


Alton Estate: architectural model of interior of flat (1957) (c) London Metropolitan Archives


’22 Hinstead Gardens, Alton Estate, living room’ (1960) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

All this has barely scratched the surface but I hope it’s whetted your appetite.  Local history libraries and archive services across the country provide a wonderful resource whether you’re researching a family or local history or something more academic.  We must cherish and – in this time of cuts – defend them.  My thanks to the London Metropolitan Archives for providing this fantastic on-line resource. Do check it out.

You’ll find Collage at http://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/ 


My thanks to the London Metropolitan Archives for supplying and allowing use of the images used in this post.

(1) Alan Johnson, Please, Mr Postman (2015)

(2) GE Kidder Smith, The New Architecture of Europe, an Illustrated Guidebook and Appraisal (Meridian Books, Cleveland and New York, 1961), p42

(3) Bridget Cherry, Nikolaus Pevsner, London 2: South (Yale University Press, 2002) p689


Harlow New Town: ‘Are you going my way?’


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Last week’s post looked at the origins of Harlow New Town and the architectural and planning ideals – sharply criticised by some – which inspired it.  It was, in every sense, a young town but it’s grown up since then.  This post explores what became of the high hopes.


Frederick Gibberd ‘showing the New Town plans’, 1952

By 1954, the first of Harlow’s major neighbourhood areas – Mark Hall North – was largely complete and it boasted a population of 17,000.   The work on the town centre began – belatedly it might seem – the following year.  Within a further five years, as the Great Parndon and Passmores districts were built, around three-quarters of the New Town was complete and a further 35,000 had made it home.  Further construction followed more slowly – the 24,000th new home of the Harlow Development Corporation (HDC) was opened in Little Cattins, Sumners, in 1974.   Harlow’s population peaked in 1974 at 81,000 and fell slightly thereafter until a more recent surge which has seen that figure narrowly surpassed.

Little Cattins, Sumners and 24000th house

The 24,000th HDC home, Little Cattins, Sumners

The first residents came principally from north London, from the then boroughs of Edmonton, Tottenham, and Walthamstow (it’s still a disproportionately Spurs-supporting town).  Sometimes whole factories transplanted and: (1)

parties of workers came down in a charabanc with their wives and spent the day looking at the town. The morning was spent in doing the sights and the afternoon in looking at possible houses. ‘Everyone was always still pretty fed up by lunch-time,’ one girl on the Corporation staff told me, ‘but once we got to the houses they cheered up.

2000th New Home

‘The 2000th new family are presented with the keys to their new house in Orchard Croft, 1953’ (c) Museum of Harlow

One new arrival, Laura Lilley, who came to Harlow in 1957, was ‘immediately struck by the cleanliness of it and the brightness of it’ compared to where she lived in London: ‘I had a garden and I also had something that I didn’t have in London, my own front door’. (2)

Unsurprisingly such celebratory accounts make no mention of the ‘New Town Blues’ that many new arrivals, particularly the women not in paid employment, were said to have suffered.  Various studies had suggested that those uprooted to new out-of-town estates and the New Towns in particular were prone to various ‘neuroses’ or ‘emotional disturbances’ as a result of their move.

JR James Archives Broadway Avenue

Broadway Avenue (c) JR James Archives and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Harlow, keen to flag the benefits of its careful community planning, commissioned its own study which concluded, in the words of Mark Clapson, that ‘any neurotic symptoms manifested by the newcomers could not be accurately ascribed to the new town, but to the general experience of moving house and district’. (3)  This hardly disposed of the problems that some undoubtedly experienced but the evidence is that the difficulties were transitional.

Another survey of Harlow conducted in 1964 reported that mortality rates of newborns stood at 5.5 per 1000 compared to the national average of 12.3 and for those under four weeks at 6.0 compared to 14.2. (4)  It’s not facetious therefore – and far from trivial – to suggest that there are many who owe their lives to the New Town.


Paddling pool, Potter Street, Harlow c.1963

Interestingly, the same study stated that 40 per cent of the town’s householders had relatives living in Harlow (the HDC had made efforts to house elderly relatives): ‘four generations of one family living in the town was not now unusual’.   This is a worthwhile corrective to the common view that new housing schemes automatically broke the family ties which had bound working-class families together in their previous homes.

Industrial area SN

‘Situated on the outskirts of the New Town: the factory area, planned to provide workers with as much space and light as possible’ (c) Illustrated London News, 15 November 1952

And Harlow was a predominantly working-class town, though with a lower than average proportion of semi- and unskilled workers: 19 per cent in the late fifties compared to the England and Wales average of 30. (Conversely, the figures – 63 per cent for Harlow, 51 per cent for England and Wales – show above average numbers of ‘unskilled non-manual’ and ‘skilled manual’.) (5)

In fact, conscious of this criticism – it was a criticism to the extent that the New Towns were held to have insufficiently benefited the least well-off workers – the HDC made early efforts to attract a range of factory employment to the town. In any case, it was argued that in Harlow ‘the so-called “social escalator” [was] at work whereby the unskilled rise up the ladder’. (6)

For all Harlow’s working-classness, the great hope invested in the New Towns was that a form of classlessness would emerge.  Nowhere is this better expressed than in the speech made by Lewis Silkin – the Minister of Town and Country Planning responsible for the programme – introducing the new legislation in 1946: (7)

Lewis Silkin New Towns BBC Broadcast August 1946I am most anxious that the planning should be such that different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated. No doubt they may enjoy common recreational facilities, and take part in amateur theatricals or each play their part in a health centre or a community centre.  But when they leave to go home I do not want the better off people to go to the right, and the less well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other ‘are you going my way?’

It’s one of my favourite quotations, capturing so much of the self-improving earnestness and essential decency of the Labour Party in its heyday.  (Silkin himself, the eldest of seven in a family of impoverished Jewish Lithuanian refugees, had begun his working life as a tally clerk on the London docks.)  You might point out that these are hardly revolutionary sentiments.  Rather what was envisaged was a form of levelling achieved as much by a ‘mass upliftment’ of working-class lives (a phrase that Bermondsey Labour Party had employed in the 1920s) and a psychological sense of cross-class community (that some perhaps had felt expressed in wartime) as by any economic radicalism.

JR James Archives Upper Park Harlow

Upper Park (c) JR James Archives and made available through a Creative Commons licence

In the New Towns, however, there was one form of social engineering – as much necessity in this time of rationing and private sector constraint as deliberate policy – that did conduce to classlessness: until the mid-1950s all Harlow’s homes were social rented, built by the HDC.   Even in 1971, only 12 per cent of homes were owner-occupied and that the result of later attempts to promote private development and the sale of around 4000 HDC homes.  Even in 2011 Harlow had – at 27 per cent – the third highest proportion of social housing of any English borough.


‘Illustrating the attractive brick-and-timber style of architecture: one of the residential streets in Harlow New Town, tree-shaded and spacious (c) Illustrated London News 15 November 1952

One contemporary journalist, explaining Harlow New Town to an American audience, described how ‘in this village green setting, the houses of the white-collar man and the factory worker stand side by side’ – there was to be ‘no wrong side of the track in Harlow’. (8)

Of course, class in this old and class-ridden country, is never quite that simple. For a start, the HDC built bigger houses for the middle-class and they all had garages.  And then, there were the middle class themselves.  Some saw themselves as idealistic pioneers in this new England – Monica Furlong singles out ‘teachers, social workers, wardens of community centres, probation officers, health visitors, doctors, clergy’ as well as the staff of the HDC itself.

Felmongers 1955

Rectory Field 1957

Harlow interiors: Felmongers, 1955, at top, and Rectory Field, 1957 – does the grand piano signify a middle-class household? (c) Museum of Harlow

In others, the yearning for older demarcations and signifying ‘standards’ was a little more recalcitrant.  Furlong describes the attitudes of an ‘industrialist’ who had moved to the town:

Among the things he missed in Harlow was the prevalence of the public school accent, of people from the ‘right’ universities, of people who he felt confident would not commit any frightful gaffe when he entertained them. What his wife missed was elegance in the shops and in her neighbours, the consciousness of money being spent around her by people with a sense of chic. In the medium to high income groups of the town they found instead young men who talked in grammar-school cockney, and who had acquired their high qualifications on the wrong side of the academic tracks. They had found, too, shops with something slightly gimcrack about them, which seemed aimed at a clientele buying labour-saving gadgets on credit. They had found a passionate intellectualism of an exceedingly earnest type; expressed in the huge piles of literary papers at Smith’s, the library’s non-fiction borrowing figures (the highest in the country), the vast enthusiasm for technical and scientific books, and the bewildering mass of evening classes and clubs. So they moved to Bishop’s Stortford.

It’s a lengthy quote but worth unpicking, I think, for all that it reveals of Harlow’s aspirations and the tenacious snobbery that would do them down.

Those aspirations were expressed for it by the establishment of the Harlow Arts Trust in 1953 and the unequalled programme of arts patronage which has distinguished the town since then.  I’ll write about those in a future post but, for now, let’s bring the story up-to-date.

Harlow Town Hall

The original Town Hall and Water Gardens

There have been changes. The Development Corporation was finally wound up in 1980.  The Town Hall, designed by Frederick Gibberd and opened in 1960, has been demolished and replaced by a new Civic Centre, not unattractive but with the retail outlets now deemed necessary to pay for public infrastructure.  The Water Gardens in front, built between 1958 and 1963 – a centrepiece of the landscape architecture Gibberd thought necessary to the beauty and culture of the town – have been drastically truncated (despite a Grade II* listing). (9)  Google them now and you’re directed to the new shopping mall which has largely replaced them.  I won’t draw the moral.

JR James Archives Harlow Town Centre II

Broad Walk towards Harlow Town Hall (c) JR James Archives and made available through a  Creative Commons licence

To Jason Cowley, raised in the town in the 1970s, Harlow was still ‘a vibrant place, with utopian yearnings’; The High – its central shopping area – ‘seemed to offer everything an energetic young boy could want in those days’.  Revisiting in 2002, to him, Harlow felt ‘like the kind of place you want to pass quickly through on the way to somewhere else: a place that has been forgotten, shut out from the swagger and affluence of the Blair years’. (10)

Broad Walk SN

Broad Walk

North Gate SN

North Gate

Current statistics bear out these impressions.  Long-term unemployment stood at just under ten per cent (compared to an Essex average of five per cent and a national figure of seven).  Wages for those in work were a little lower than the local average.  The town has a whole ranked 101st out of 326 local authorities in England for deprivation – there ‘are few affluent areas in Harlow but many that are relatively deprived’.  Educational attainment was below the county average.  Crime and fear of crime were relatively high – just 28 per cent said they felt safe after dark. (11)  The town centre itself looks tired and many of its flagship shops long since departed to malls and big box stores elsewhere.

Harlow voted by 67 per cent to 33 for Brexit in the recent referendum.  Belatedly, that’s a metric we’ve come to recognise as a powerful measure of disillusion with, and exclusion, from the more comfortable status quo enjoyed by many.

All this indicates a disproportionately working-class town and one, though set within the relatively affluent south-east, which suffers the inequalities and deprivations that class bestows.  What do we conclude?  Is this the failure of the Utopian dreams which inspired it or simply the mark of a society which has given up on those dreams?


(1) Monica Furlong, ‘Harlow: New Town’, The Spectator, 29 September 1960

(2) Quoted from a wall panel in the Museum of Harlow.

(3) Mark Clapson Invincible Green Suburbs, Brave New Towns: Social Change and Urban Dispersal in Postwar England (Manchester University Press, 1998)

(4) ‘Harlow New Town Death Rate Well Below Average’, The Times, 25 September 1964, p7

(5) BJ Heraud, ‘Social Class and the New Towns’, Urban Studies, Vol 5, No 1, February 1968

(6) Rosemary Wellings (Harlow Development Corporation’s social development officer), ‘Living in a New Town’, Housing, vol 17, no 7, July 1978

(7) Hansard, New Towns Bill, HC Deb 8 May 1946, vol 422, cc1072-184

(8) Christopher Chataway, ‘Transatlantic Teleview: New Towns in Britain’ (1956), East Anglian Film Archive

(9) You can read about the Water Gardens in their full finery in this 2002 post from the Twentieth Century Society.

(10) Jason Cowley, ‘Down Town’, The Guardian, 1 August 2002

(11) A profile of people living in Harlow, March 2016, Organisational Intelligence


Harlow New Town: ‘Too good to be true’?


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Harlow got a mixed press in the 1950s.  To some, it was ‘Pram Town’, a tribute to the preponderance of young families who had moved there and perhaps, by extension, to the new life that this New Town heralded.  To others, it was little more than an urban prairie, one which left an unfortunate pedestrian ‘with a feeling of hopelessness in face of a terrifying eternity of wideness’. (1)  Let’s look more sympathetically at the ideals which inspired it and, with the benefit of distance, at its successes and failures.

1957 Royal Visit

The Market Square during a royal visit, November 1957

Harlow, like Stevenage and the six other New Towns located around the periphery of London, was born in the confluence of two powerful currents.  The first, the belief in planning – that society and the economy should be rationally organised to benefit all – had emerged as the inhumanity of Victorian capitalism became manifest and was most idealistically expressed in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement, an early inspiration for the New Towns. Its reach and ambition grew when the very model of free market economics seemed in terminal crisis as the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.

Mark Hal North looking west 1951

Mark Hall North under construction, early 1950s

The second was Social Democracy, taking planning as its keynote but rooted in the working-class politics and more broadly shared ideals of fairness and equality which triumphed – too briefly perhaps – in Labour’s landslide 1945 election victory.  Leah Manning won the Epping constituency for Labour in 1945 (she lost the seat in 1950) and it’s a sign of the confidence of this new dawn that she believed even the benighted dwellers of village Essex would welcome the New Town to be built, in her constituency, amongst them: (2)

NPG x83751; Dame (Elizabeth) Leah Manning (nÈe Perrett) by BassanoI did not find people pleading and crying that they would be turned out of their shops, theirs houses and farms, but a great mass of people who looked forward to the day when a new town would arise in this very ill-served town educationally, culturally and industrially…

In fact, there was some local opposition.  A Harlow and District Defence Association was established but, fiercely attacked by the local Labour Party which criticised the self-interest of ‘those who live in comfortable homes and very large houses’, it made little impact. (3)


The board of the Harlow Development Corporation

Naturally, for all that, in Britain, this was a conservative revolution, waged by civil servants, fought out in committee rooms and offices rather than the streets and barricades, but it remains important to mark the moment and register the ambition. Sir Ernest Gowers, the first chairman of the Harlow Development Corporation, the government quango set up to build the New Town, wrote of the first, 1949, Master Plan that: (4)

Some who read these pages at this time may feel almost as if they had wandered into fairyland, that it is too good to be true, that such things can have no relation to the present bleak and troubled days.

The reality, he asserted, was that ‘what is sketched here is a practical and urgent task’; the task was to reduce the population of London – Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan  had suggested by 0.5m – and house those removed in decent and healthy surroundings.

New housing

New housing under construction

Construction began in 1949, the first 120 homes were built in Old Harlow – one of the small villages and hamlets that made up this rural, predominantly greenfield 6100 acre site with an existing population of just 4500.  These were allocated to the Development Corporation staff and contractors who would oversee the project.  By 1961, Harlow’s population stood at over 61,000.

There was a certain excitement in the process which makes the dependence on private developers in the faltering new wave of supposed ‘garden cities’ such as Ebbsfleet look pretty shabby.  Lady Russell (wife of Bertrand), one of the Development Corporation boards’s first members, describes how its members: (5)

often had the feeling that we were playing at towns.  It was wonderfully exhilarating. Most of us were having the chance to put into practice ideals we had held all our lives, but never really expected to see carried out.

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Development Corporation staff, Eric Adams stands at the centre of the front row

Eric Adams, the Corporation’s first General Manager, is described arriving at the station with some of his staff, declaiming, ‘it’s all ours, it’s all ours’.

Gibberd 3But Harlow’s presiding genius, almost a City Father in the truest sense of the term, was Frederick Gibberd. Gibberd is perhaps a slightly overlooked figure now – a member of the Modern Architecture Research (MARS) Group in the 1930s but disdained by some of his erstwhile modernist colleagues for his wholehearted embrace of the Scandinavian-inspired New Humanist style which – through his influence – held dominant sway in this immediate post-war period (manifest in his work in the Lansbury Estate and some of Hackney’s schemes).

Green wedge

An early image of one of Harlow’s ‘green wedges’

The first priority for Gibberd was to ‘make the maximum possible use of existing character, genius locii’; in Harlow this meant exploiting what was held to be to be the most favourable landscape of any of the New Towns by use of four ‘green wedges’ reaching to the town centre and plentiful open space:

The Stow sign SNEvery possible use must be made of existing buildings, villages, trees and place-names to give a feeling of continuity with the past…I remembered my own youth in Coventry and Birmingham where it was a whole day’s excursion to get to the country…I didn’t want any of these children to grow up without having seen a cow.

Another key element of the plan – this central to post-war planning ideals – was the emphasis on neighbourhoods. Gibberd planned three neighbourhood centres or ‘clusters’ around what Sylvia Crowe – the landscape architect employed as a consultant – described as the ‘central massif’ of the town centre itself.  But he refined the idea further with eighteen sub-centres each with a small group of shops, a pub and ‘common room’ to serve as a focal point for their immediate communities.

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The plan of the Mark Hall neighbourhood

These ideas are best seen in the first of the neighbourhoods to be completed, Mark Hall North whose neighbourhood centre, The Stow, was opened in 1954.  Nettleswell and Great Parndon followed.  Other areas were set aside for industry.

Community space in front of Moot House

An early image of The Stow taken from the Moot Hall

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The Stow today

In terms of housing, Gibberd was clear that ‘the majority of the people want a two-storey house with a private garden’ (which had also the benefit of being ‘the cheapest form of dwelling’).  As an apostle of ‘mixed development’, however, he believed that around 20 to 30 per cent of homes should be flats and, in fact, he fought – against the opposition of the Development Corporation – to build the country’s first point block.  The Lawn, at nine storeys with 36 flats, would be a tiny prefiguring of what was to come. (For other examples and images of Harlow high-rise, check out my Tumblr post.)

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The Lawn

If you walk Harlow, which I (perhaps mistakenly) did, most of it is undeniably – some would say, boringly – suburban with a range of two-storey, mainly terraced housing and maisonettes which is practically a pattern book for the homes which dominated Corporation suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s. (Devotees can see examples in this Tumblr post.) However, a closer look and particular schemes can excite architectural enthusiasts and Gibberd made a point of commissioning a number of modern movement architects to design elements of the New Town’s housing.

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Tendring Road towards Coppice Hatch

The Chantry, built in the early fifties, was designed by the husband and wife team, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, also responsible for the Tany’s Dell scheme. It’s a restrained composition (‘flat fronts of coloured render and shallow monopitch roofs – all very Swedish’ according to Pevsner) but it makes good use of its location and its arched section gives an attractively framed view of  Mark Hall’s St Mary-at-Latton Church. (6)

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The Chantry

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The Chantry looking toward St Mary-at-Latton church

Northbrooks in Little Parndon, completed in 1957, was the work of Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya (the architects of the Churchill Gardens Estate).  It’s a mixed scheme, mostly two-storey houses with maisonette blocks striving for greater effect.


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Northbrooks maisonettes

HT Cadbury Brown (the architect of the World’s End Estate), designed housing and a junior school at Cooks Spinney; FRS Yorke housing at Ladyshot – ‘all variations on denser arrangements of two-storey stock brick terraces and proving the inherent difficulty of avoiding monotony over a large area’, Pevsner comments rather damningly.

Cooks Spinney

Housing in Cooks Spinny

By far the most architecturally exciting scheme is Bishopsfield and Charter Cross, the result of a competition won by Michael Neylan (who collaborated with Bill Ungless in the subsequent scheme) in 1961. A striking podium provided the roof for an underground car park (100 per cent parking provided – a sign of the times) and a pedestrian concourse ringed by flats.  Fingers of patio housing, separated by narrow lanes which earned the scheme its later nickname, The Kasbah, run down the hill to the rear.  (7)

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The Bishopsfield podium

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Charter Cross looking toward the podium, ‘The Kasbah’

Such tokens – and, to be fair, they take some finding – did little to appease the critics. Perhaps Harlow was unfortunate to have been selected for a site visit in 1951 from the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM).  At any rate, JM Richards was excoriating in a follow-up article for the Architectural Review describing what he believed was the ‘Failure of the New Towns’. The neighbourhoods lacked ‘the urban qualities required of them’ – ‘judging by results so far achieved, most of the new towns themselves are little more than housing estates’. (8)

Mark Hall terrace housing

Terraced housing in Mark Hall, 1950s

Gordon Cullen, in the same issue, was more colourful in his criticism:

It is as though the drive to the country has been undertaken by people all studiously avoiding each other and pretending that they are alone. The result is a paradox, the paradox of concentrated isolation, the direct antithesis of towniness, which results from the social impulse…[The] results are deplorable – foot-sore housewives, cycle-weary workers, never-ending characterless streets, the depressing feeling of being a provincial or suburbanite in an environment that doesn’t belong to a town or country…

Gibberd fought back, decrying what he saw as the ‘confusion between the word ‘new’ and novelty. Because the towns are new many people are disappointed that they are not novel’. In response, he asserted an English urbanism which: (9)

prefers segregation of home and work, which enjoys open-air exercise, which has an innate love of nature, which makes use of motor transport and which, although demanding privacy for the individual family, likes some measure of community life.

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From Abercrombie Way looking towards Third Avenue

Later, he was more astringent: (10)

It has been suggested that a correct aesthetic and architectural solution would, in the end, have been the correct social one – in other words, that people should have been given what they ought to have wanted.

It would have been fun to surround the town centre with a dozen or so tower blocks, as at Vällingby the new Stockholm satellite, but it was perhaps more important to encourage development of human personality and the English way of life.  The process was started by giving people more freedom, not less.

There’s probably no compromise judgment to be reached between these two competing visions; the one celebrating a contemporary urbanism, the other a more conservative suburban lifestyle.  The argument continues to play out among architects and planners although, as population rises, ‘densification’ is very much the current flavour.  Somewhere in the middle stood the new residents of Harlow, most of whom seem to have embraced the new town and a few who surely missed the ‘towniness’ of their former homes.

Pram Town Broad Walk SMALL

‘Pram Town’

A great many of Harlow’s new residents would know nothing of the latter.  In 1957, almost one in five of the population was below school age, two in five under 15.  The Daily Mirror headline of the 1950s which dubbed Harlow ‘Pram Town’ was more than justified as the image illustrates.

In next week’s post we look at what these new residents of Harlow (and their parents) made of the town and how it has fared since.


(1) Gordon Cullen, ‘Prairie Planning in the New Town’, Architectural Review, July 1953

(2) Quoted from a wall panel in the Museum of Harlow.

(3) Leafelts from both sides can be seen in the Museum of Harlow.

(4) Frederick Gibberd, Harlow New Town. A Plan Prepared for Harlow Development Corporation (Second edition, 1952; HDC, Harlow) which includes Gowers August 1947 foreword.  Gowers was the mandarin par excellence (though best known now for authoring Plain Words). He was succeeded as chair by the even less revolutionary figure of RR Costain of the construction group.

(5) Quoted in Monica Furlong, ‘Harlow: New Town’, The Spectator, 29 September 1960. Quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.

(6) James Bentley and Nikolaus Pevsner, Essex (2004), p457

(7) Ian Colquhoun, RIBA Book of British Housing (2nd edition, 2008), pp172-73

(8) JM Richards, ‘Failure of the New Towns’, Architectural Review, July 1953

(9) Quoted in ‘Design Problems in New Towns. Result of Building “for all classes”’, The Times, 6 February 1962

(10) Frederick Gibberd, ‘The Architecture of New Towns’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 106, No. 5021, April 1958

The image of Leah Manning is the copyright of the National Portrait Gallery and is used under the terms of a Creative Commons licence.

Municipal Dreams goes to Liverpool, part II

Last week’s post followed my walk exploring the housing history of Liverpool with Ronnie Hughes.  We had a long, gloriously sunny Bank Holiday weekend in the city and lots more to do so what follows is a little more eclectic but, naturally, it remains firmly municipal.

In fact, later in the same day, I took time to time to visit what must be – alongside Eldon Grove – the most spectacular symbol of Liverpool’s housing history, St Andrew’s Gardens (or the Bullring to locals).  I’ll let a couple of pictures do the talking first.

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St Andrew’s Gardens (The Bullring)

Impressed?  St Andrew’s Gardens, designed by John Hughes, was built by the Corporation between 1932 and 1935, the first of a stunning series of multi-storey tenement blocks (inspired by the cutting-edge public housing of Berlin and Vienna) built under the visionary leadership of City Architect and Director of Housing Lancelot Keay.

This, mark you, is a remnant of the original scheme and other similar grand blocks such as Gerard Gardens have been completely demolished.  To gain some sense of the scale and ambition of the latter, your best bet is to visit the Museum of Liverpool to admire the model constructed by Ged Fagan.

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Gerard Gardens model, Museum of Liverpool

Just to the left of the model you’ll see a couple of original artefacts from the building – The Builder and The Architect: two reliefs by local sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith, commissioned by Keay to adorn its exterior.

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The Builder and the Architect, formerly Gerard Garden now in the Museum of Liverpool

I’ve written in an earlier post about Liverpool’s unequalled interwar multi-storey housing. Now you just have St Andrew’s Gardens as a reminder of what was achieved – and it is student housing.  There are currently about 50,000 plus HE students in Liverpool and the city has bet big on their presence as a contribution to the local economy.  It had better hope that particular bubble doesn’t burst.

Back at St Andrew’s Gardens, you’ll see to the rear a more modern artwork depicting local people and their lives, created by Broadbent Studio in conjunction with the St Andrew’s Community Association and the Riverside Housing Association.  It was unveiled by the Queen in 1999.  It contains a biblical quotation from First Corinthians: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet I have no need of you’.  I’ll take that as a tribute to the value of the lives and labour of the ‘ordinary’ people who once lived in the Bullring.

SN The Eye Cannot Say

‘The Bullring’ artwork

On this day, the Queen was earning her pittance too, popping over the road to unveil what must be one of the most incongruously-placed plaques in the country at 19 Bronte Street. All this was to mark the area’s ‘regeneration’.

SN Bronte Street pair

19 Bronte Street

It all creates a strange mix (but Liverpool is a city of clashing contrasts) as the new build here in Gill Street and the older, 1960s (?) housing nearby in Dansie Street illustrates. Obviously Frederick Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral is a looming presence too.

SN Gill Street

Gill Street

SN Dansie Street

Dansie Street

OK, now for some unashamed tourism but you can’t visit Liverpool without ‘doing’ the Mersey and the Beatles…and, with eyes to see, there’s plenty of significant municipal history in those too.

Wikipedia probably isn’t the most reliable source but it claims the first Mersey Tunnel (the Queensway or Birkenhead Tunnel), opened in 1933, as the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken by a local authority. Its construction was driven (with the County Borough of Birkenhead in tow) by the Corporation of Liverpool and one of the most ambitious City Engineers in the country, John Brodie.  We’ll give credit too to the consulting engineer, Sir Basil Mott and the architect Herbert James Rowse who designed the most visually striking elements of the tunnel, its ventilation shafts.  Here’s the one on the Birkenhead side.

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Ventilation shaft, Queensway Tunnel

The Kingsway Tunnel (to Wallasey) was opened – by the Queen again! – in 1971.  I won’t force a municipal connection here – it was built by civil engineers Edmund Nuttall Limited but I know that the fans of Brutalism who follow this blog really like the ventilation shafts of this one too.  To the left here in Seacombe is Mersey Court, a council block built in the mid-60s.

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Ventilation shaft, Kingsway Tunnel

Just to the north, you’ll get the best view of the magnificent Wallasey Town Hall, designed by Briggs, Wolstenholme & Thornely – free Neo-Grecian in a Beaux Art tradition according to its Grade II listing.  Begun in 1914, it was used as a military hospital during the war and was finally opened for municipal purposes in 1920.

SN Wallasey Town Hall

Wallasey Town Hall

Travelling from the Seacombe to the Woodside Pier Head, the latter gives you a glimpse of Birkenhead Town Hall, opened in 1882 from a design by local architect Christopher Ellison. You’ll need to walk to the Georgian and Victorian Hamilton Square to see its Grade II* grandeur properly. It was used as municipal offices to the early 1990s and I visited it later when it was the Wirral Museum.  Now it’s closed and awaiting a new role. I hope something fitting is secured.

SN Birkenhead Town Hall

Woodside Pier Head with the former Birkenhead Town Hall to the rear

Back to Liverpool and the waterside view of Liverpool’s crowning glory, not municipal but unmissable – the Three Graces: the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building.  They’re maybe the reason that my wife’s ancestors thought that the ticket they’d bought to New York was genuine.  In the end, they made a good life in Liverpool. Towards the right of this picture taken from the Museum of Liverpool, you’ll see the ventilation shaft of the Liverpool end of the Queensway Tunnel, not looking a bit out of place.

SN Three Graces

The ‘Three Graces’

Liverpool 8, Toxteth, famous for the riots of 1981, may still evoke very different images of the city. In fact, the taxi-driver who dropped us off in the district asked if we were sure that’s where we wanted to be – ‘they’re tough as old boots round here’ was his parting shot. That was undeserved, unfair to its poorer residents (he didn’t mean it kindly) and ignorant of just what a mix the area contains – some of Liverpool’s finest Victorian housing, some of its humblest, and a couple of wonderful municipal parks.

We alighted in Granby Street and walked down to what is now known as the Granby Four Streets area.  I won’t begin to try to tell its story here – from good, solid Victorian housing to economic decline and dereliction, to the point when it seemed likely to be cleared as part of New Labour’s ill-judged Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder Programme, to the residents’ fight-back and the formation in 2011 of the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust. Ronnie Hughes has been intimately involved with much of this and you should read his A Sense of Place blog to learn more.

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Renovated homes in Cairns Street

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Awaiting renovation in Ducie Street

Now some of its houses have been beautifully renovated (with more to come) and famously the creative reconstruction work of the Assemble arts collective won it the Turner Prize in 2015.

The houses are next to Princes Park, designed by Joseph Paxton and James Pennethorne and opened as a private park in 1842 (Pennethorne also designed Victoria Park in East London) and acquired by Liverpool Corporation in 1918.  There are some fine houses, formerly belonging to Liverpool’s well-to-do, nearby too though most of the terrace below in Belvidere Road has been converted to flats and is social rented.  These juxtapositions are strong in Liverpool.

SN Belvidere Road

Belvidere Road

A short walk brought us to this house in Ullet Road, once the home of John Brodie. Is he the only municipal engineer to get a blue plaque?  As the brains behind the Queensway Tunnel, the designer of the UK’s first ring road, its first intercity highway and – apparently his proudest achievement – the inventor of goal nets in football, he deserves one.

SN Ullet Road Brodie

The former home of City Engineer, John Brodie, on Ullet Road

Down Linnet Lane at the edge of Sefton Park, you’ll see some dignified post-war council housing, notably Bloomfield Green, a scheme for elderly people which won a Civic Trust award in 1960.

SN Bloomfield Green

Bloomfield Green

The 231 acre, Grade I-listed, Sefton Park was opened by the Corporation ‘for the health and enjoyment of the townspeople’ in 1872.  This stunning photograph (from the Yo! Liverpool forum and used with permission) shows the beauty of the park and its urban setting.  You’ll see some surviving, now refurbished, council tower blocks in Croxteth, built from the late 1950s around the perimeter.

Sefton Park

Sefton Park (c) YO! Liverpool

That it was still providing for the ‘health and enjoyment’ of local people was obvious from the crowds in and around its most celebrated feature, the Palm House, opened in 1896, rescued from dereliction in the 1990s, and more recently more fully restored.

SN Palm House

I’ve written more than intended and I haven’t even started on the housing history of the four lads from Liverpool who forever changed the world of popular music.  That will be a bonus post coming soon.


I’ve added a few additional contemporary images of St Andrew’s Gardens and some historic images of other multi-storey flats schemes on my Tumblr page here.

For some lovely images of the St Andrew’s community in 1967 take a look at this page from the Streets of Liverpool website.

Municipal Dreams goes to Liverpool, part I


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This post is  a little different – a little more personal, a little more wide-ranging…but then that’s what Liverpool can do to you.  It’s my wife’s home town (she’s asked me to point out that it’s actually a city with, as they’ll tell you, a cathedral to spare) and a long weekend last month was an opportunity to meet old friends (and new ones), to enjoy the city’s amazing architecture and setting and, of course, in my case, to explore its unique housing history and a few other municipal dreams.

On Saturday morning, we were lucky enough to be given a guided walk through north Liverpool by someone who probably knows the past and present of Liverpool’s housing as well as anyone.  Ronnie Hughes writes the fine A Sense of Place blog and he took us from Anfield to Everton Park to…well, we’ll save the best for later.

Ronnie’s blog post on the walk tells the story better than I can, with a lot more images, so I’ll be selective here.  From Anfield and the new stand – and the blight it has inflicted on the nearby terraces for years – through streets of sturdy Victorian housing and mostly generic new build (and some striving too hard for effect), we came to Everton Library on St Domingo Road.

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Everton Library

Designed in 1896 by Thomas Shelmerdine, Liverpool Corporation’s Architect and Surveyor, a visually stunning red brick confection of Arts and Crafts and Jacobean, it looks beleaguered now and unloved. It’s Grade II listed and various plans have been floated and grants promised but, as yet, it’s awaiting rescue and a new role.  For the moment, let’s take it as a monument to a time when libraries and their cultural purpose were truly valued.

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Everton Library entrance

Down the road and across, we reached Everton Park – a new park created in the 1980s on the dust and debris of housing dreams gone (or thought to have gone) awry.  Now it gives you one of the best views of Liverpool city centre you’ll find; once it housed many of its people.

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From Everton Park

You’ll need to look closely to see that history now but sometimes a single image can tell a big story.

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View 146

At the back here, you’ll see two tower blocks called View 146 of privately-owned apartments (we’d call them flats elsewhere, of course, but these are private). Once they were known as  Brynford Heights and Millburn Heights, council blocks built in the sixties. Then Liverpool, the flats even more so, fell on hard times and the flats were sold in the 1980s to a private company which promptly did a deal with the Home Office to rehouse ayslum seekers. A hunger strike protesting against the appalling condition of the flats forced their closure and their revamp. (1)

There are circumstances which we as a community don’t control – though there are many we shouldn’t be persuaded to think ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ – but just think how thoughtfully-applied public investment might have supported not victimised the diverse people who lived in these blocks.

Look at the picture again and you’ll see a small paved square, centre-left.  This was The Braddocks (named after the formidable wife and husband team, Bessie and Jack, who dominated Liverpool politics in the post-war period) – another block of council housing. Down Netherfield Road, you come across another remnant – the entrance to what was formerly Netherfield Heights, a large slab block of council flats.

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Netherfield Road

All these were demolished in the 1980s – tumultuous times for a city gripped by economic decline and political turmoil and when broader currents decided that high-rise council housing had failed.  In Liverpool, where the population had fallen from a peak of 846,000 in the 1930s to 500,000 in the 1980s (it’s now around 466,000), the case for mass council housing had come to seem even harder to make.  Here’s Netherfield Heights (on the left) as they were in the 1980s in a photograph by Dave Sinclair. (2)


High-rise council housing in north Liverpool in the 1980s (c) Dave Sinclair and used with permission

The three ages of Everton – nineteenth-century, 1960s and contemporary are well illustrated in the model of the district in the Museum of Liverpool- from Victorian terraces to 1960s’ clearance and high-rise to the contemporary, very altered, streetscape and green (and not so green) space.

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Everton streetscapes, Museum of Liverpool

The right-hand image shows the impact of the massive house-building programme of the Militant-controlled council in the 1980s – a huge achievement in many ways as Thatcherism sounded council housing’s death knell elsewhere though not to everybody’s taste.

Here’s an example – Mazzini Close, just off Roscommon Street.  It’s trim and neat suburban-style housing and people got – what many wanted – their own front door and front and back gardens.  To critics such as Owen Hatherley – an advocate of the confident urbanism which Liverpool had practised in the 1930s – they just look ‘utterly wrong’, an undignified imitation of suburbia in a city centre setting. (3)

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Mazzini Close

From here, a few more steps and we came to, for me, the Holy Grail of this particular walk, Eldon Grove: the finest council housing built by the Corporation of Liverpool before 1914 and still – though desperately neglected and sadly derelict – a powerful, masterly presence.

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Eldon Grove today

Here’s how it looked in the original architect’s drawings (you can find this one in the library of Harvard University) and below in its heyday as a home – complete with gardens and bandstand – for some of the poorest of Liverpool.

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Imaging Department (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College

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Eldon Grove in its heyday

It’s Grade II listed but in an age when we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing its rescue depends on being made to pay. Ronnie has charted the recent plans to save it which, for the time being, seem have fallen through.  It must be saved – to me it’s as valuable a piece of heritage as Buckingham Palace but the real beauty of Eldon Grove, of course, is that it can still serve its original purpose as housing for the people.

Ironically, immediately adjacent, are terraces of sturdy council housing in Bevington Street and Summer Seat doing just that.  The gable ends of Summer Seat, inscribed 1911, show they were built at about the same time as Eldon Grove.

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Bevington Street

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Summer Seat

We walked on past the entrance to the Kingsway Tunnel – the second Mersey Tunnel, opened in 1971 – and through streets familiar to me by name as the site of yet more pre-First World War Corporation housing.  The tunnel itself marked the final nail in the coffin of another of Liverpool’s grandest early schemes, the Victoria Square Dwellings – a five-storey quadrangle of some 270 flats – opened in 1885.

Victoria Square 3


Victoria Square 1966

Victoria Square Dwellings

The first image shows them, as planned in 1885.  That immediately above shows the remnant of the scheme, when just two blocks remained, in 1966.

For all that grandeur, the bulk of Liverpool’s council housing before 1914 comprised modest two-storey terraced housing and three-storey tenements.  Liverpool had built the first council housing in the country in the country – St Martin’s Cottages, not far away in Ashfield Street – in 1869.  (They were demolished in 1977.)  By 1914, it had built 2747 flats and houses, a record of council house-building unequaled outside London. The Hornby Street scheme, for example, was made up of 23 blocks of 445 dwellings, accommodating 2476 in all. You can read all about this proud record in greater detail in my earlier post on Liverpool’s pioneering council housing.

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Hornby Street court, prior to demolition and rebuilding

Hornby Street 7

Hornby Street pre-1914 council housing

Similar housing was built around the turn of the century in Arley Street, Gildarts Gardens, Dryden, Kempston, Fontenoy, Kew, Newsham and Adlington Streets. Now most of that housing and some of those streets have gone. What you see instead are Militant-era streets and closes of two-storey houses, ‘even bungalows for God’s sake’, to Owen Hatherley’s chagrin.

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Gildart’s Gardens, pre-1914 council housing

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Gildart’s Gardens today

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Fontenoy Street today

By now we were close to the centre and a quick walk took us to the Municipal Buildings in Dale Street, designed by John Weightman and ER Robson, completed in 1866, and the parting of our ways. My thanks to Ronnie who had been a great guide and mentor on the rich history you’ve just seen.

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The Municipal Buildings, Liverpool

Down the road lies the Town Hall, built between 1749 and 1754 to a design by John Wood the Elder – the political and ceremonial headquarters of the  Corporation, Grade 1 listed and described by Pevsner as ‘probably the grandest such suite of civic rooms in the country…a powerful demonstration of the wealth of Liverpool at the opening of the C19’. (4)

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Liverpool Town Hall

That wealth, amidst massive poverty, would endure for some time and it was those extremes which both enabled and compelled – alongside more self-serving motives, no doubt – the Tory administration which governed Liverpool to 1955 to build housing at such scale and such ambition.  Labour, right and left, Liberal and Liberal Democrat councils have run Liverpool since but each has continued to grapple with the central issue of housing and each has reflected the circumstances and the fashions of their time.

We’ll follow that story in Part II of this post next week.  I’ve post a few more images of Eldon Grove on my Tumblr site.


(1) ‘Sold for 10p, the tower block where a flat fetches £250,000’, Liverpool Echo, 15 January 2004

(2) Dave Sinclair was a photographer for Militant at this time.  You’ll find this and many other powerful images of this phase of Liverpool history in his volume Liverpool in the 1980s (Amberley Publishing, 2014).  Ronnie’s post of the same name has more images from the time.

(3) Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), p336

(4) Richard Pollard, Nikolaus Pevsner, Joseph Sharples, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest (2006), p291

Leslie Martin and the Fitzhugh Estate, Wandsworth: ‘A Blueprint for Living’



I’m delighted to be able to feature another guest post, this by Sharon O’Neill.  Sharon is a photographer and curator. Her work and research explores ‘the ordinary and unexceptional’ but shows how, when we take time to pause, we can find the exceptional in ordinary lives and settings.  Full details of The Blueprint for Living exhibition and events celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Fitzhugh Estate are given at the end of the post. 

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Fitzhugh Estate (c) Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

The Flats series is a photographic exploration of one architect’s vision of the ‘modern world’ as told through the lives of the current inhabitants of one of his buildings.

Through a mixture of archive material and contemporary photographs the series delves into the everyday world of the occupants of a council block designed and constructed in the mid 20th century.

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(c) Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

The work attempts to frame the young architect’s principles of modernism from the perspective of his idealistic vision of the 1930s.  Using the building and interiors of the current inhabitants, it develops a photographic dialogue to illustrate his ‘modern world’, in essence, the realised future of his 1930s vision.

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The Flat Book (c) Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

In 1939, the architect John Leslie Martin and his wife, Sadie Speight, published The Flat Book, which outlined their principles of design when living in the modern apartment.  The introduction discusses the close relationship between planning and furnishing:

Furnishings…are affected in their design, like architecture itself, by similar radical changes in methods of production, changing social requirements and by the contemporary demand for convenience and efficiency.  It is in these basic conditions that all style has its roots.

The book, essentially a catalogue of furniture, fixtures and fittings, offered ideas and suggestions on planning the living space and touched on new developments in the design of the flat, e.g. less space given to kitchens and bathrooms to provide a larger general living area.

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Fitzhugh Estate interior in the Architects’ Journal (1956) (c) Architectural Press/RIBA Collections

In 1937, Naum Gabo, the Russian sculptor and painter, Ben Nicholson, the British abstract artist, and Martin edited Circle: international survey of constructive art, a book which aimed to highlight the British contribution to the European abstract movement and brought together their shared ideology that constructive art, architecture and design would improve people’s lives. The book included contributions from Piet Mondrian, Le Corbusier, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Barbara Hepworth and Walter Gropius among others.

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Sn p and P 1

Past and present: from the Architects’ Journal (1956) and Sharon O’Neill (c) Architectural Press/RIBA Collections and Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

In Circle, Martin wrote eloquently about the machine age and the idea that art, design, architecture and society were not separate entities, but were all elements of the same conversation.

Martin was one of a group of architects who truly believed a better society could exist where social problems could be solved through intelligent design based on the scientific approach of identifying the problem, research and analysis.

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Fitzhugh Estate point block from the Architects’ Journal (1956)(c) Architectural Press/RIBA collections

In 1953, work began on what was to be known as the Fitzhugh Estate, a collection of five eleven-storey point-block buildings set on the edges of Wandsworth Common and designed by Martin. Commissioned as part of the massive post-war building programme, the aim was to alleviate the desperate housing shortage.  This was in part due to bomb damage, but also as a wider initiative by the post-war government to provide decent, healthy homes for low-income working-class families.

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(c) Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

The architect and historian John McKean poignantly describes the mood in post-war Britain at this time:

The new social agenda centred on the concept of ‘fair shares’: the people’s war was to be succeeded by the people’s peace; its achievement would be seen in the national health and educational services and in popular housing for all.

Widely viewed as a significant period for British modernist architecture, modernism was embraced by the civic architects who were handed the task of rebuilding post-war Britain.  The jewel in the crown was the Royal Festival Hall, designed by Martin in 1948 whilst at the London County Council Architects Department.   The building is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of post-war British architecture and Martin received a knighthood in recognition.

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(c) Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

The LCC Architects department in this post-war period gained much admiration as the largest architecture practice in the world and with the brightest of British talent.  Martin was deputy and then head of the department at this time.

Architects like Martin were celebrated in the exhibition A Place to Call Home at the Royal Institute of British Architecture where their role was highlighted as ‘crucial in framing a modern view of the world…they provided new and idealistic plans for housing and blueprints for living’.

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(c) Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

The Fitzhugh Estate in Wandsworth, London, was part of this ‘blueprint’.  Martin and his team designed state-of-the-art social housing that was featured in The Architects’ Journal in November 1956 (written as the first residents moved in).  The building was lauded for its cutting-edge technology (using precast concrete and a 300ft tower crane to speed construction) and full central heating.

Originally the flats were built to provide homes for local working-class families, and were serviced by communal facilities to improve health, hygiene and provide a good quality of life.

Since their construction 60 years ago, the concept of the council estate has undergone a huge shift.  Originally perceived as a ‘step up’, since 1980, when the dismantling of the council housing system began, it is more generally regarded as undesirable.

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(c) Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

The block in Wandsworth is currently populated by a mixture of council tenants, those who purchased their flat through the Right to Buy Scheme and professionals who have bought properties on the open market either to live in or rent out, demonstrating a significant shift from the original demographic.

This series is an exploration of how the idyll of a young architect has stood the test of time as society has changed and how his ideas of design for the living space, as demonstrated in The Flat Book, may have permeated into the modern sensibility.

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Fitzhugh tiling (c) Flats series, Sharon O’Neill

The work acts as an interpretation of Martin’s blueprint for living, a visual letter from the future back to the young architect of 1939.

The Flats series is part of the Blueprint for Living group exhibition showing alongside a film installation by award winning film maker Marc Isaacs and archive photographs from the RIBA Collections at The Fitzhugh Estate, Fitzhugh Grove, Wandsworth SW18 3SA from Tuesday 31 May – Saturday 4 June 2016. 

Municipal Dreams will be in conversation with Owen Hatherley on Friday 3 June at 7.30 pm at the Blueprint for Living Exhibition. For more information on this and other events head to www.blueprintforliving.co.uk/events or http://architecturediary.org/london.

The exhibition is part of the London Festival of Architecture programme of events and the Wandsworth Heritage Festival. 

‘Somewhere Decent to Live: London County Council Estates in Photographs, 1895-1975’


A brief bonus post this week to mark the exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives celebrating the ‘housing designed and built for Londoners by the London County Council (LCC) and Greater London Council (GLC)’.  The exhibition runs till 26 May, full details at the bottom of the post.

It’s a small show – just the tiniest glimpse into the rich photographic and documentary record held by the Met Archives – but it offers a representative overview and some stunning images.  There is also a ten-minute film show featuring excerpts from three LCC/GLC films – ‘The Changing Face of London’ (1960), ‘Somewhere Decent to Live’ (1967) and Thamesmead 1970 (1970). These put the human face onto a proud housing record and remind you of the high hopes and ideals, not always fulfilled, which informed the work of the Councils and their architects.  Thamesmead looks wonderful, by the way, ‘a city of the 21st century’ as the commentary claims – and maybe it will be yet.

Tabard Street

Tabard Street, Southwark (c) London Metropolitan Archives

The image of the slums of Tabard Street at the entrance to the exhibition reminds us why we built.  The LCC’s first estate was, famously, the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, opened in 1900.

© LMA 01 Boundary Street Estate 1890s

The Boundary Estate in the 1890s (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Whilst tenements – designed with fine arts and craft sensibilities – were necessary in the inner city, the Council also built cottage suburbs such as the White Hart Lane Estate in Haringey which captured the Garden City ideals of the day.

© LMA 02 White Hart Lane  Estate 1908

The White Hart Lane Estate, 1908 (c) London Metropolitan Archives

This 1934 map of LCC estates shows just how much was achieved in a short period as council house building in London took off – the LCC built around 10,000 homes before 1914 and over 89,000 between the wars, over half of these located in the new cottage suburbs.

1934 Map

London County Council Housing Estates, 1934 (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Flats were still needed in inner London and by the 1930s there were attempts to make them more attractive to would-be tenants.  The Oaklands Estate in Clapham with its sweeping, moderne, ocean liner-style balconies is one of the finest examples.

© LMA 03 Oaklands Estate 1936

The Oaklands Estate, 1936 (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Post-war construction saw some of most striking highs and lows – literally and metaphorically – of London’s council housing.  The Alton Estate built in two phases in the 1950s and early 1960s – Alton East reflecting the Scandinavian-influenced, ‘New Humanist’ wing of the LCC Architect’s Department; Alton West, the le Corbusier-inspired ‘Brutalists’ – represents the very best.


The Alton Estate (c) London Metropolitan Archives

In this period, the LCC  possessed the world’s largest architects’ office with, in 1952, a staff of over 1500 including 350 professional architects and trainees. This shot of an Alton home reminds us that equal care was given to designing comfortable, modern interiors.

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Alton Estate, 1961 (c) London Metropolitan Archives

By the 1960s, much new council housing was high-rise – the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in Newham in May 1968 is traditionally taken to mark the end of this fashion. The St George’s Estate, opened in Stepney in 1972, was among the last of the point blocks.

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The St George’s Estate, Stepney, 1972 (c) London Metropolitan Archives

In 1981 there were 769,996 council homes in Greater London, many built by the boroughs. Forty-three per cent of London households lived in council homes.  All this was a stupendous achievement, sometimes imperfectly executed but the solid mark of a state and society which believed in its duty to decently house all its people.

This is just a brief selection of the images – and a whistle-stop tour of the history – included in the exhibition.  My thanks to the London Metropolitan Archives for supplying most of the images above (a couple of the lower-quality ones were taken by me at the exhibition).

The exhibition is running from the 24 to the 26 May between 9.30 and 19.30 at the London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Rd, London EC1R 0HB.  Full details are posted on their website

Martin Crookston, ‘Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates’


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

I’ve used Martin Crookston’s book in the library so I’m delighted there’s now a cheaper paperback edition to make it available to a wider readership.  I’m even more pleased, truth be told, to have a free review copy but I can say honestly that hasn’t affected my judgment of what I think is a very good, useful and important book on the future of council housing.


Crookston’s endeavour is to make sure it has a future and he focuses especially on the cottage estates or ‘Corporation suburbia’.  These are a neglected, frequently disdained, component of a proud council housing record – lacking the glamour and ‘iconicity’ of some architect-designed estates and blocks perhaps but representing in his opening words ‘a mammoth achievement’.

‘Mammoth’ is uncontroversial.  By Crookston’s reckoning they account for around one sixth of England’s homes and around 40 per cent of the country’s socially-owned housing stock.  The pre-1945 estates – when Garden City ideals were in vogue – are generally the more celebrated and form over a quarter of such estates but half were built in the post-war period to 1964 and one fifth later.  Taking Leicester (we’ve looked at the Saffron Lane Estate as an example), the Corporation’s twenty-three cottage estates formed about a third of the city’s suburban land and, at peak, some 43 per cent of its suburban housing.

Saffron Estate Copinger Road c1930

Copinger Road on the Saffron Estate pictured in the 1930s

‘Achievement’ is contested and the book casts an unsparing but always sympathetic and humane eye on why that has come to be.  In this, Crookston avoids caricature and appreciates nuance (unlike much of what passes as commentary on council housing).

He begins with a useful typology of estates. His Type One estates are set in more prosperous regions – his two case-studies are both predominantly interwar estates covered by this blog: Tower Gardens in Haringey and the Becontree Estate in Dagenham.


The Tower Gardens Estate

Becontree Estate (7)

The Becontree Estate

Type Two are estates located in less prosperous areas – Deckham and Carr Hill in Gateshead (interwar) and Hylton Castle in Sunderland (post-war) are discussed in detail in the book.

Deckham Hall 1936

Deckham Hall (2015)

Hendon Road, Deckham Hall Estate, shown under construction in 1936 and in 2015 (c) www.gatesheadhistory.com

Type Three, he designates ‘Radburnland’ – built in the post-war era when (drawing from the example of Radburn, New Jersey, founded in 1929 as ‘a town for the motor age’) planners were determined to create neighbourly enclaves and to separate cars and pedestrians by a system of cul de sacs, feeder roads and walkways.  Bromford in Birmingham and Orchard Park in Hull form the case-studies.


The Bromford Estate, Birmingham (c) Smileyface http://www.skyscrapercity.com

Gildane, Orchard Park (c) Ian S

Gildane, Orchard Park (c) Ian S and made available through a Creative Commons licence

It’s fair to say – though many variables intervene and their relative poverty certainly doesn’t help  – that Crookston thinks these latter are generally the least successful and shares the consensus view that Radburn principles failed. Orchard Park is described with uncharacteristic sharpness as ‘unattractive housing in an unattractive environment’.  The North Hull Estate, adjacent to it, is a reminder of the finer design sensibilities of the interwar period.

But the cottage suburbs as a whole have problems and it is Crookston’s mission to understand and remedy these.  They are, perhaps, neatly if unwittingly captured by the pronoun confusion of Sir Peter Hall’s foreword. Hall points out, ‘some three million, one in six of us’ live on these estates and yet, he continues, these are ‘”council houses” on “council estates” – the places where none of us would ever dream of living’.

That unintended condescension speaks to a wider, largely reputational, issue that the cottage suburbs are unfashionable.  Some – though media misrepresentation is to blame for the sweeping stereotype many accept – have broader problems.

This is not a static picture, of course.  The estates themselves have changed significantly in recent decades, most obviously through Right to Buy.  Now around half their homes are owner-occupied but, if this (as Thatcher’s vision of a property-owning democracy presumably imagined) was intended to stabilise the estates it has, as Crookston makes clear, had the opposite effect.

Becontree rental

This three-bed, ex-council house in Becontree is currently available for rent at £1500 a month

Becontree offers a strong illustration: social renting declined from 38 per cent to 35 per cent between 2001 and 2011 while owner occupation declined from 56 per cent to 50.  Meanwhile, private rental rose from 6 to 16 per cent.  The growth of the private rental sector on council estates is problematic in many ways; the loss of genuinely affordable housing it represents is only the most obvious. Often privately rented homes are more poorly maintained and less well equipped; almost invariably their tenants are transient.

Yet Right to Buy (predating Thatcher as Crookston reminds us – over 250,000 council homes were sold before 1979) and the growth of working-class owner occupation from the 1950s have been crucial in shaping the declining image of council housing.  Once, without doubt, an aspirational step-up, it has increasingly become seen – I know that many proud council tenants and huge numbers on council housing waiting lists will rightly baulk at the generalisation – as housing for those who can’t afford to buy ‘something better’.

The stigma – obviously far stronger in relation to some so-called ‘problem estates’ than to the many far more ‘ordinary’ council estates up and down the country – attached to council housing is something that we who defend it must address and Crookston tackles the issue head-on.

Ryelands Estate Denny Avenue a

Denny Avenue on the Ryelands Estate in Lancaster

To begin with some historical perspective is vital, not as an exercise in nostalgia but as a corrective to those who would condemn the whole project and deny it any future.  Crookston’s memory of growing up in 1950s Lancashire is telling here:

What stigma there was probably attached itself to the visibly poorer and scruffier little terraced streets and – especially – back courts as yet untouched by ‘slum clearance’.  And mums on the estate were just as insistent on hankies and proper shoes (not tatty plimsolls) as any in the private semis.

There were separations, typically defined from around 16 when choices regarding employment and education and staying put or moving away were made:

However, the label of council tenant was not the key to that, or to our attitudes and experience in general.  The estate was different, but it wasn’t that different, and it wasn’t stigmatized.

As Ruth Lupton, quoted in the book, argues, ‘Four generations ago, families in social housing included almost the full social range’. (1)

Beddau estate

Council housing in Beddau

Crookston captures a later shift in a powerful chapter on ‘Attitudes’.  Take Beddau in South Wales. As one interviewee recounts:

There is more stigma than before…The growth of cheap home ownership around Beddau drained the council housing of its mixed community. And increasing worklessness amongst an unskilled population, when the mining went, has brought a divide within the working class…Now the area is split between a public-sector-employed ‘middle class, a few industrial workers, and a swathe of workless benefit recipients without skills or cars to access the jobs which exist.

Another interviewee, raised on a Manchester estate but now an academic in the US, recalls gradations within and between estates but says of his own more ‘respectable’ estate, ‘after the Right-to-Buy period, the estate came to be occupied by what seemed to me to be more marginal families’. Crookston notes this too of Norris Green in Liverpool, a case discussed in this blog.


An aerial view of the Norris Green Estate taken in 1939

These are subjective views and from, specifically, those who ‘moved on’ and moved away, but they speak to the undeniable fact of residualisation, that council housing became increasingly confined to a poorer working class.  Crookston reports that between 1981 and 2006, the nationwide proportion of owner-occupying households in employment fell by two per cent whilst in social housing the proportion fell by 15 per cent (and 21 per cent for full-time employment).

Council housing tenants have been hit massively by the deindustrialisation of Britain overseen or engineered (take your pick) by the Conservative governments of the 1980s.

There was another factor too of which Crookston is well aware but seems to me to underplay: that the concomitant decline in council housing stock and shift to needs-based allocations – instigated by Labour’s 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act but made wholesale by that decline in stock – did progressively reduce council housing to a safety net role.  Its new tenants, particularly on the less desirable estates, were typically ‘more marginal’ – those whose needs gave them priority to this increasingly scarce resource.


‘Messages from Meadow Well’, North Shields, Northern Architecture, 2014

In this context, Crookston is right to treat the prevalent reports of anti-social behaviour on estates – always dominant in outsiders’ criticisms and, to be fair, prominent in the disillusion of many residents too – with some caution as often isolated and always minority.  Now’s not the time to take on that issue – though I would add that I have yet to see a comprehensive explanation of why anti-social behaviour became such a problem from the 1970s and I’d be grateful if any readers could point me to one.  What is the case is that anti-social behaviour has dropped very markedly in recent years as each of Crookston’s case studies makes clear.

Why this is so is less clear. Perhaps the various design measures and estate management initiatives – some sensible and necessary – have had their effect.  Either way, the CCTV cameras on the Deckham Hall Estate have been switched off and the problem has declined overall.  That the perception remains owes far more, as Annette Hastings (also cited in the book) argues to the ‘pathologising’ of estates, most often by those who know them least well. (2)

Cranleigh Road, Hylton Castle (c) David Dixon

Cranleigh Road, Hylton Castle (c) David Dixon and made available through a Creative Commons licence

So the task, as Crookston sees it, is to overcome this stigma and stop the cottage suburbs being a ‘lazy asset’, one which is underperforming and failing to realise its full potential.  He examines a range of options to do just this, discarding some and endorsing others.

I’m pleased that he broadly rejects the idea that estates are failing as communities. This has been a long-running charge, principally from middle-class planners and sociologists who have felt, paradoxically, that estates have either failed to replicate the supposed neighbourly intimacies of the old slum terraces or to fulfil their own middle-class notions of improving self-organisation. Generally, estate communities work in their own terms – they are not, in Crookston’s words, ‘notably socially isolated or short of the “asset” of community resources and effort’.

He does recommend – though many councils, ALMOs and housing associations already have a good record on this – a series of case-by-case measures to raise the ‘feel’ of some of these estates, many falling within the broad category of urban management.  Many local shopping centres need ‘lifting’ and the estates’ public realm can be better cared for. ‘Problem’ tenants – they certainly exist – need to be better supervised.  ‘Soft’ measures such as re-branding (too often crudely applied) can be appropriate.  You can read the book for a better and fuller understanding of his balanced appraisal of such ideas.

Who gets to do this?:

The estate communities could very likely be much more involved, and on many of them that potential may be there.  But they need the ‘Corpo’ to be there alongside them, and to be resourced accordingly.

The role of the local authority, he argues and, of course, I agree:

needs stressing in Britain in particular: a country where the democratically-elected and properly-funded municipality has been regarded, it seems, as a luxury a poor struggling nation cannot afford.

The reality is – or should be – that this is investment we cannot afford to neglect.


Playing fields, Orchard Park (c) Paul Harrop and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Finally, he takes on more controversial issues of densification and social mix.  I think he makes a plausible case that a lot of the open space in many cottage suburbs – created well-meaningly in the low density idealism of Tudor Walters (the 1918 report which established the interwar conception of the cottage estates) and beyond – is poorly managed and under-used. There is a case for building good quality housing on some of this open space and using more intelligently that which remains.


New homes for sale on the Norris Green Estate

In terms of social mix, he favours the current mantra, tenure diversity.  That, in itself, should hardly be controversial as it reflects, as we’ve seen, a fact on the ground. It’s also worth pointing out that quite a few estates were built with homes for sale or, in some cases, larger homes for middle-class rental.  If Nye Bevan himself wanted ‘the living tapestry of a mixed community’, it shouldn’t frighten us.

What this doesn’t or shouldn’t mean, as Crookston argues, is ‘gentrification’.  It is really, I would suggest, about returning estates to an earlier condition in which a broad mix of the population were proud to call them home.

That, of course, would be best achieved by a fairer and more equal society and one in which, in particular, working-class people enjoyed better-paid and more secure employment – ironically the world we thought we were winning after 1945 and have so cruelly betrayed since 1979.

Pending that meta-economic shift, Crookston’s ameliorative measures are to be welcomed and embraced and the book itself deserves to be widely read by anyone with an interest in council housing and the future it deserves.

Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? can be purchased in good bookshops and online or directly at reduced price from Routledge. Enter the code FLR40 at checkout to secure your discount.


(1) Quoted from Ruth Lupton et al, Growing Up in Social Housing in Britain: A Profile of Four Generations from 1946 to the Present Day (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2009)

(2) Annette Hastings, ‘Stigma and social housing estates: Beyond pathological explanations’, Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2003

Clink on the link to see the many cottage suburbs featured in this blog over the years.

Lion Farm Estate: a Photo-Essay by Robert Clayton



I’m delighted to feature this guest post by Rob Clayton and some of his powerful and evocative photographs. I’ve seen Rob’s work for myself and the new film, based on his images, narrated by Jonathan Meades and highly recommend them.  Full details are posted at the end of the post where you’ll also find further information on the project, current exhibitions and Rob’s book.

Shot over 25 years ago on the Lion Farm Estate, in Oldbury, in the West Midlands, Robert Clayton’s images capture life on a housing estate in the early 1990s. The work on display masterfully exhibits the real lives of those living there during this time coupled with an appreciation of the architecture which surrounds them.

Rooftop Study Three

Rooftop Study Three (c) Robert Clayton courtesy of LA Noble Gallery, London

My work is social documentary; drawn to the aesthetic of place, Lion Farm Estate (LFE) presented itself to me. With its sense of dystopian dislocation, I explored, seeking a reason for this other place on the hinterland of Britain’s second largest conurbation. This imposing, faded, typical manifestation, of the utopian post-war housing consensus offered a feast of visual opportunity in its powerful topography; the challenge was to go deeper to capture its daily life, its humanity.

House Clearance

House clearance (c) Robert Clayton courtesy of LA Noble Gallery, London

This was 1990 and I wanted to communicate the hidden – what life was like on an estate for many people at this time. Housing was an issue then and evidence, over twenty years later, suggests there is no solution to the housing crisis. But how can this be? What evidence is there?

My work captures the estate at the point of transition, and over time, has taken on a new life with age. It captures provision of housing on a large scale – evidence of a national duty to provide – yet hints at its imminent destruction. Lack of maintenance then condemnation was a precursor to change of ownership models – social anthropological evidence that leads us to ask, has the state abandoned its duty of care?

Moving, One

Moving, One (c) Robert Clayton courtesy of LA Noble Gallery, London

My photography attempts to get into the heart and fabric of 1990’s Britain, when the new order was well underway, promising ‘trickle down’ benefits for all. The broken promise remains and the evidence of failure mounts; 25 years on can we hold our breath any longer for the ‘market’ to provide? In my lifetime so far, we have moved from state mass provision to state-sanctioned asset stripping and housing, and by its very nature therefore the vast majority of us, are all victims in this new global order.

Resident Discussing Accomodation Problem

Resident discussing accommodation problem (c) Robert Clayton courtesy LA Noble Gallery, London

During the 1980s, British culture was changing: the collective, the ‘consensus’ was being abandoned in a shift towards the self. The images catch moments of dystopia as the utopian-inspired modernist landscape and all the hope it contained, fades. The images capture more than a topographical transformation; Lion Farm Estate is caught in a moment of multi-agency, politically-driven change. The images offer the topography with the humanity, the provision and the provided for. The loss of provision to follow.


Playground (c) Robert Clayton courtesy LA Noble Gallery, London

Housing today is far more a political issue than a pragmatic one. The images in LFE espouse a watershed in post-war Britain; the move from consensus, modernity to fragmentation, post-modernity. The grand post-war housing utopian ambitions of both the Left and Right were over. Social housing was to move to a new era of social engineering and become a battleground of fragmented political ideologies. A new political era had already been forged under Thatcher and ten years later the aim to house UK citizens was no longer a common political cause.

Hometime, Teatime

Hometime, teatime (c) Robert Clayton courtesy LA Noble Gallery

A new industry, the ‘Third Sector’ had been born, ‘Right to Buy’ was very popular and the social housing stock had been vastly diminished. Housing was sold at a fraction of its market value and gave the new owners a new land-owning status and wealth beyond their normal means and expectations. Property was effectively given away in pursuit of short-term political gain, under the guise of an unfulfilled human need to own land to satisfy a vested political interest.

LFE carefully exposes the visual fabric of this transition, yet the location and its inhabitants were more gentle and passive than the harsh environment may suggest. Despite the ever present influence of low income, lack of opportunity and their associated social problems, a strong sense of cohesiveness and belonging existed.

Crusader Close

Crusader Close (c) Robert Clayton courtesy of LA Noble Gallery, London

This sense of community was threatened and struggled to retain its existence in the face of ‘beneficial redevelopment’. This is a cycle we know all too well today and one that dominates our urban transformations; perhaps the main difference being today that private developers’ interests trump all and the lack of political will to help the least empowered culminating in processes labelled ‘social cleansing’.

Shopping, Five

Shopping Five (c) Robert Clayton courtesy of LA Noble Gallery, London

A new era of ideology, a new industry employing a middle class of bureaucrats has grown in the last twenty-five years, supplying all sorts of exotic non-fixes to the housing issue: part-buy, part-rent, housing associations, incentive schemes, social housing quotas on private developments, help to buy…the list goes on.

Aeroplane Playground, Chiltern House

Aeroplane Playground, Chiltern House (c) Robert Clayton courtesy of LA Noble Gallery, London

Nothing has solved the housing problems in the UK. The grand housing schemes of post-war Britain have alarmingly been consigned to the dustbin at a particular point in our history when a new central government-funded grand housing plan could provide many solutions to today’s economic woes. The commitment and ideological ambition to do this, however, is a distant dream; as distant as the rubble and memories of the tower blocks of the modern, utopian-conceived, spacious, light filled, plentiful and once cherished homes of the Lion Farm Estate.

Yet, is it a dream we have abandoned? Perhaps, like this body of work, it will materialize again.

There are current and forthcoming shows of Rob’s Lion Farm Estate images in London.  Details as follows or click on the link:

  • Until May 29 at the Four Corners Gallery, 121 Roman Road, London, E2 0QN, Tuesday to Saturday, 11.00-18.00
  • From Friday 13 May to Sunday 22 May  at FIX Photo 2016, The Barge House, OXO Tower, South Bank, London SE1 9PH, every day, 11.00-20.30 (Monday 16 to 19.00)

You can view the film of Rob’s images with commentary by Jonathan Meades at both shows and catch a preview here on YouTube

You can buy the book at both shows. It is also available from online retailers or directly from Stay Free Publishing

For more on Rob’s work, see his website, Lion Farm Estate.  For prints, contact the LA Noble Gallery

Winter Sun

Winter sun (c) Robert Clayton courtesy of the LA Noble Gallery, London


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