Red Vienna, Part I: ‘Useful instalments of socialist work’

Tags

,

Back in early February, we travelled to Vienna on holiday.  Ironically, the only thing affecting our travel was Storm Ciara which disrupted the return journey.  This post is published in very different circumstances.  Stay safe and stay well. 

The Gemeindebauten (municipal tenement blocks) of Red Vienna are probably the most celebrated council housing in the world – epic in conception, construction and, in 1934, conclusion.  When the programme ended, one in ten Viennese citizens – around 200,000 people – lived in municipal housing: the city had built some 61,175 apartments in 348 tenement blocks and around 5250 houses on 42 more suburban estates.

Red Vienna Map

A contemporary map depicting the extent of Vienna’s urban programme in the 1920s

Whilst the numbers are impressive, Vienna’s ambition went further.  This was not merely a housing programme. In the words of Eve Blau, its foremost chronicler, this was ‘a comprehensive urban project that set itself task of making Vienna a more equitable environment for modern urban living’; beyond housing, it provided: (1)

a vast new infrastructure of health and welfare services, clinics, childcare facilities, kindergartens, schools, sports facilities, public libraries, theatres, cinemas, and other institutions.

Reumann Hof Kindergarten SN 1

The kindergarten at Reumann-Hof

The dramatic context for this unheralded experiment lay in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.  The population of the rump Austrian state which emerged stood at 5 million, less than a tenth that of the former empire. Vienna itself, the erstwhile imperial capital, had, at peak in 1910, a population of 2,031,000.  A post-war coalition was formed of the Christian Social Party and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria (SDAPÖ) to cope with the immediate crisis. And in the May 1919 local elections, Vienna became the first major city in Europe governed by socialists; Jakob Reumann, of the SDAPÖ, its first socialist mayor.

Otto Bauer

Otto Bauer

The party’s leader and chief theoretician was Otto Bauer. Bauer today is chiefly remembered today – alongside other leading thinkers such as Max Adler, Karl Renner, Friedrich Adler, and Rudolf Hilferding – as a proponent of Austro-Marxism. This, they believed, was a corrective to the narrow economic determinism of ‘vulgar Marxism’ – a revised theory and practice that ascribed an active role in social development to ideology and culture; a ‘Third Way’ that envisaged the possibility of revolution through reform. The Gemeindebauten were to be its practical expression.

Siedlung am Wasserturm 1928

Siedlung ‘Am Wasserturm, 1928

Initially, however, the Viennese municipality under Reumann pursued an architecturally more conservative strategy though a series of peripheral garden suburbs. Some of these Siedlungen were built by the municipality, some by cooperatives; they were inspired by both the established Garden City ideals of Ebenezer Howard and the contemporary practice of Weimar Germany.  In 1921, however, the housing shortage remained severe with over 30,000 families squatting public and private land on the city fringes in a series of so-called ‘wild settlements’. (2)

Breitner

Hugo Breitner

The major – political and financial – shift occurred in 1922. Austria’s new 1920 constitution had created a federal state and, within that, a Province of Lower Austria comprising both Vienna and rural hinterlands. It suited both conservative and radical politicians that Vienna became a wholly self-governing province in 1922. Crucially, this allowed the municipality to pursue an independent taxation policy. Under Hugo Breitner, Minister of Finance, it did so with daring and finesse.

Breitner inaugurated a progressive tax regime with levies on luxury goods and services and, most notably, a Wohnbausteuer (Housing Construction Tax) on rents, so powerfully skewed that the largest 0.5 percent of residences accounted for 42 percent of revenues; the 90 most expensive properties paid as much tax as the 350,000 least expensive. (3)

Wohnbausteuer SN 2

One of the many plaques recording the contribution of the Wohnbausteuer to Vienna’s building programme. This one is on a block in Langenfeldgasse

By 1927, Breitner’s taxes provided almost 20 percent of the City’s income. They also enabled rents – calculated to cover only regular maintenance and repair costs – to be kept low; a typical semi-skilled household in a municipal flat paid an average of 3.5 percent of income in rent. Combined with efficient borrowing and administration and the economies of scale enabled by Vienna’s huge construction programme, this made for a highly successful economic model for the ambitious City Council.

That ambition became clear in 1923 when the council announced its intention to build 25,000 new homes in five years. For the first time, these were very largely urban tenements. There were practical reasons for this change of policy – the difficulty of building beyond city limits and the expense of infrastructure at those fringes – but it was, principally and ideologically, a positive decision.  As Robert Danneberg, president of the new Provincial Assembly of Vienna, declared: (4)

Capitalism cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful instalments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.  A socialist majority in a municipality can show what creative force resides in Socialism. Its fruitful labours not only benefit the inhabitants of the city, but raise the prestige of Socialism elsewhere.

The Gemeindebauten were conceived as the ‘social condensers’; this was ‘architecture as a way to forge radical new kinds of human collectivities’ in the words of Michał Murawski and Jane Rendell.  Urban living – and the socialised infrastructure to be provided – was seen as a means to transform a traditional Volkskultur (popular or folk culture) into a new Arbeitskultur (working-class culture).  Karl Seitz, who replaced Reumann as mayor in 1923, was clear that the goal was:

to educate our young not as individualists, outsiders, loners. Rather they should be raised communally and be brought up as socialised individuals.

A broader cultural programme augmented these efforts – a Workers’ Symphony Orchestra, a weekly cultural magazine named Der Kuckuck (a cuckoo heralding a new proletarian spring presumably) and organised programmes of workers’ sports and dancing, for example.

Opening march of the 1931 Workers' Olympiad in Vienna Wikimedia Commons

The opening march of the 1931 Workers’ Olympiad held in Vienna. The banner reads ‘Workers of all the world unite in sport’.

Architecturally, however, the new blocks disappointed interwar modernists. These were not the sleek Zeilenbauten – slab blocks oriented north-south away from the street and toward sun and greenery – favoured by the Congrès Internationale d’Architecture Moderne.  The new schemes were inserted directly into the existing urban fabric and were, superficially at least, more reminiscent of Vienna’s traditional perimeter blocks (though with a nod too to the earlier municipal housing of the Amsterdam School). Decoratively, they sometimes echoed features of even older Baroque Habsburg building. (6)

Ringstrasse_02_Metzleinstaler_WSKMH

An early photograph of the first of the Gemeindebauten, Metzleinstaler-Hof.

But this was a knowing cultural appropriation and one that differed in key respects from those earlier models. Critically, and in contrast to the privatised inner spaces of the traditional perimeter blocks, grand entrances led from the public space of the street to the semi-public and communal space and facilities of the large inner courtyards which often took up to four fifths of the schemes’ overall area. This was, to quote Eve Blau yet again, ‘a new kind of commons, a new form of communal space in the city’. And whereas working-class tenements had previously been situated along long central corridors with shared toilets at their end, these were replaced by stairwells serving just three or four apartments.

Karl-Marx-Hof (c) Wien Musem

An early photograph of Red Vienna’s most celebrated housing scheme, Karl Marx-Hof

Around 190 architects were involved in the planning and design of the Gemeindebauten but a large number were shaped by the example and teaching of Otto Wagner – ‘a modernising imperial architect who pioneered a rationalistic, stripped-down approach’ – at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts before the First World War. (7)

It’s time for a closer look at the schemes themselves but for that virtual tour – the  best we can manage for the time being – you’ll have to wait for next week’s post.

Sources

(1) Eve Blau, Re-Visiting Red Vienna as an Urban Project

(2) Andreas Rumpfhuber, ‘Vienna’s ‘wild settlers’ kickstart a social housing revolution’, The Guardian, 8 April 2016

(3) See Eve Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna, 1919-1934 (MIT Press, 1999) and Liane Lefaivre, Rebel Modernists: Viennese Architects since Otto Wagner (Lund Humphries, 2017). See also Jannon Stein, ‘The Propaganda of Construction’, Jacobin, 10 March 2014.

(4) Quoted in Eve Blau, ‘From Red Superblock to Green Megastructure: Municipal Socialism as Model and Challenge’, in Mark Swenarton, Tom Avermaete and Dirk van den Heuvel (eds), Architecture and the Welfare State (Routledge, 2014)

(5)  Michał Murawski and Jane Rendell, ‘The social condenser: a century of revolution through architecture, 1917–2017’, The Journal of Architecture, vol 22, no 2, 2017

(6) Anson Rabinbach, Red Vienna: A Workers’ Paradise

(7) Owen Hatherley, ‘Vienna’s Karl Marx Hof: architecture as politics and ideology’, The Guardian, 27 April 2015

Book Review: Jon Lawrence, Me, Me, Me: The Search for Community in Post-war England

Tags

, , ,

Jon Lawrence, Me, Me, Me: The Search for Community in Post-war England (Oxford University Press, 2019)

A myth of ‘community’ became a dominant motif of post-war planning, significant both for the partial truth it contained and the ‘truth’ it created. Planners, taking their cue from the sociologists of the day, criticised the sterility of the interwar cottage suburbs. They hoped through the creation of ‘neighbourhood units’ and the provision of more community facilities to foster the intimacy and sociability believed to be a feature of the slum areas from which many of the new council tenants were being displaced. Later, after the 1960s era of high-rise and mass public housing, council estates were held peculiarly responsible for the anomie and social breakdown widely decried by media pundits and social commentators. The reality, as ever, was far more complicated.

9780198779537We are fortunate, therefore, to have this new book by Jon Lawrence, an historian at the University of Exeter, to provide an informed and nuanced guide to the debate. The book, in his words:

challenges many of preconceptions about community and individualism in recent English history … It seeks to overturn simplistic assumptions about the ‘decline of community’ since the Second World War.

Lawrence’s method is to re-examine the surviving field notes from ten major social science studies conducted between 1947 and 2008. In doing so, he does indeed challenge much of the conventional wisdom that has surrounded discussions of community since 1945. What follows is not a comprehensive review – the book is a richly detailed and wide-ranging survey – but rather an analysis of his account and conclusions where they touch upon themes and issues raised in my own study of council housing.

green-street-bethnal-green

Green Street, Bethnal Green

The Holy Grail of sociological research and planning was working-class community, never more so than in the early post-war years. Lawrence looks at Raymond Firth’s study of Bermondsey and the more well-known research of Michael Young on Bethnal Green. For both and particularly for Young (a co-author of Labour’s 1945 General Election manifesto), a clearly political agenda was in play.  They went, Lawrence argues:

in search of ‘community’ – or, to be more specific, in search of the community spirit they believed had animated people’s defiant response to the Blitz and had underwritten Labour’s decisive electoral breakthrough.

In this context, Young’s published work – written in conjunction with Peter Wilmott – made much of the matrilocal kinship networks held to sustain family and community life in the East End. But, of these, Lawrence comments mildly, ‘one struggles to find supporting evidence in either his field-notes or in Firth’s’. (1)

Lawrence, using Young’s research data, found married daughters resentful of their mother’s role or neglectful of their duties towards it and mothers themselves equally keen to be shorn of their supposed family responsibilities. There were countervailing examples too, of course, but there was little overall to sustain Young’s argument.

the worsley project p12

New housing at Little Hulton on the Worsley Estate

Tellingly, when Barry Cullingworth came to study Salford’s new and distant council suburb in Worsley in the late 1950s, he found: (2)

Separation from ‘Mum’ has not been the hardship which some sociologists have led us to expect; on the contrary it has often allowed a more harmonious relationship to be established.

Young’s defence of an imagined traditional working-class community was matched by his active disdain for the new ‘out of county’ council estates many former slum-dwellers were moving to. He praised the East End’s ‘sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries’, contrasting it positively to, a later case-study, the ‘drawn-out roads and spacious open ground’ of the London County Council’s new Debden Estate in Essex.  The latter, he argued, represented a shift from ‘a people-centred to a house-centred existence … relations are window-to-window not face-to-face’.

eaw031776 Debden Estate 1950 Britain from Above

The Debden Estate under construction, 1950 © Britain from Above, eaw031776

Lawrence finds instead a ‘fierce culture of domestic privacy’ common among working-class households in both districts – a desire to resist intrusion into the home.  And, in relation to the migration to the new council estates, he notes, many ‘wanted the chance to withdraw from forced sociability – to socialize instead on their own terms, with the family and friends of their choosing’.

This finding is echoed by Stefan Ramsden’s work on Beverley. He found: (3)

The decline in older-style neighbourhood sociability and mutuality was compensated by new forms, frequently conducted between relatives and friends who did not live on the same street but were scattered across the town.

What some decried as ‘increasing “privatism”’, Ramsden concludes, was, in fact, ‘a more expansive sociability’.

Lawrence identifies another change in the early post-war years:

For the first time, the vast majority of working people believed that it was their birthright to enjoy a decent standard of living ‘from cradle to grave’.

The enhanced role of the state in ensuring just that was nowhere better seen than in the programme of New Towns and expanded towns that developed in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Lewis Silkin, Labour’s Minister of Town and Country Planning, addressing a town hall meeting in 1946 in the first designated New Town, Stevenage, proclaimed they were ‘building for the new way of life’. In 1959 the town came under the critical eye of Raphael Samuel, then working as a researcher for Michael Young’s Institute of Community Studies.

Town Square, Stevenage postcard

Stevenage

This was an era of rising living standards for the many, not (just) the few. But some middle-class socialists worried that all this affluence might be corrupting; that, in particular, working-class people might start voting Conservative.  After a third consecutive Conservative election victory in 1959, this concern had some apparent validity and it was the focus of John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood’s study of Luton in 1961-62.

Writing of Stevenage in 1963, two New Town advocates may have unwittingly encouraged such fears: (4)

The people have had well-paid regular jobs in the factories and this has conduced to producing a feeling of contentment. It has enabled them to furnish their homes well, to acquire television, cars, and domestic gadgets, so that many who came as habitual grousers were transformed into contented citizens in a few years.

In fact (and further supported practically by Labour election victories in 1964 and 1966), the evidence gathered from the social surveys was heartening.  Of Stevenage, Lawrence concludes that it was:

striking how many people displayed a strong sense of being part of a shared project of self-improvement and self-making as residents of the new town … [At] least in Stevenage, people’s ambition to ‘better’ themselves … was intertwined with an awareness that this was also a collective endeavour.

Residents understood post-war prosperity as ‘something that was at last to be shared by “people like us”. Its ethos was as much communal as individualist.’

broad_walk_mid_1950s_mid 'Pram Town'

Broad Walk, Harlow, in the mid-1950s when it became know as ‘Pram Town’

Later recollections of another New Town, Harlow, though possibly suffused with nostalgia, seem to attest to the same feeling. The journalist Jason Cowley remembers Harlow as ‘a vibrant place, with utopian yearnings’; another recalls the town he left in 1971 as one marked by ‘youthful energy, enthusiasm, and social sharing’. ‘I guess the Great Dream was still alive and thriving’, he concludes ruefully.

Marymead, Broadwater

Marymead, Broadwater, Stevenage

In their early decades, most New Towns residents lived in social housing built by the Development Corporations. This was, in effect, council housing built for ‘general needs’, the classless vision upheld in Labour’s 1949 Housing Act (albeit one overturned by Conservative legislation in 1954).  Gary Younge, another journalist brought up in a New Town, remembers that there ‘was no sense of incongruity in Stevenage between being a young professional and living in social housing’.  Lawrence notes more broadly the lack of stigma attached to living in council housing in the 1950s.

But this was changing. By the early 1960s, a majority of workers both in Luton and Cambridge (another subject of study) owned their own homes and many more wanted to.  Their collectivist attitudes notwithstanding, many Stevenage residents also expressed support for a Right to Buy their Corporation homes.

Before any of the widely publicised (and usually exaggerated) problems of council estates in the 1970s and beyond, a significant psychological shift had taken place in popular attitudes towards council housing.  It came to be seen as inferior to home ownership.  Stefan Ramsden noted this in the comment of one estate resident in Beverley: ‘I think because you got a stigma with it … you were seen to be a lower class of people if you were in a council house’.

Attitudes towards new council homes more generally were positive though there seems a widespread dislike of flats. ‘You don’t get privacy in flats; everyone knows all your business’ and ‘they mix you up with all sorts’, according to two Bethnal Green residents in Young’s study. In Stevenage too, the Development Corporation found incomers expressing ‘their desire to get away from communal staircases, balconies or landings, and to have a house with its own front door’.  It’s a reminder of that desire for privacy already noted.

Kitchen Harlow NT

A Harlow kitchen as featured in the town’s publicity material.

Almost unanimously, of course, people were grateful for the cleanliness, conveniences and comfort of their new council homes. Those carrying out the surveys could sometimes fail to properly appreciate this step change in working-class life. In summarising the words of one new resident settling into life as Debden, Michael Young, seems almost disdainful :

There was the usual stuff about more shops, better bus services, greater privacy, value of garden, improvement in children’s health and in particular the advantage of a new house was stressed.

On that matter of health, as an aside (though it should hardly qualify as such), at the South Oxhey Estate (another of the LCC’s out-of-county estates, in Hertfordshire), 55 percent of new tenants had initially been re-housed on health grounds.  In Harlow New Town, the mortality rate of newborns in 1964 stood at 5.5 per 1000 compared to the national average of 12.3.  Some people literally owe their lives to this ‘social engineering’.

In comparison, the acquisition of new stuff – televisions, washing machines, furniture and the like – might seem trivial. It was sometimes seen as corrosive. Some of the social survey interviewers seem to have wanted their working-class respondents to emulate their own more Bohemian life-styles. Raph Samuel lamented the purchase of new (not second-hand) furniture by one Stevenage household as a ‘pattern of mass media-imposed misery’.  Some decried these improved living standards as embourgeoisement, a belief that working people were adopting middle-class lifestyles and values. We, I hope, will see it simply as poor people getting less poor.

Barnham Cross Common early

Barnham Cross, Thetford

As for the friendliness (or otherwise) of the new estates compared to the former slum quarters, the story is naturally mixed but a significant proportion of new residents – probably a preponderance – describe them as more sociable. In the expanded town of Thetford in Norfolk (another destination of some Bethnal Green residents), some residents believed that ‘there was a much friendlier atmosphere than in London and that one got to know one’s neighbours better than in a big city’. (5)

One disgruntled resident even compared the large overspill estate of Houghton Regis near Luton to, irony of ironies, ‘a chunk of Bethnal Green on a bright evening, with kids committing hopscotch and vandalism and grannies leaning over the garden-gates or sitting on the step’.  (That children might be thought guilty of ‘committing hopscotch’ perhaps tells us more about the interviewee than the estate.)

Lawrence goes on to discuss later social surveys conducted in the north-east and Sheppey in changed and generally harsher circumstances. There’s much of interest here too – on occupational cultures, gender relations and social attitudes – but I’ll stick to my housing brief and draw this post to a conclusion.

Lawrence’s conclusion from the early post-war social surveys can stand more widely: what they revealed was a ‘remarkable diversity of lifestyles and attitudes’ – a diversity, he argues, that ‘exposes the absurdity of imagining that there was ever such thing as a single “working-class culture” or “working-class community”’.

We might, therefore, ask why middle-class professionals took such interest in this alien territory. Ostensibly, it reflects a laudable concern for the less well-off. But it could also be seen, by more caustic observers at least, as an extension of the elite anxiety that has seen the working class as a fit subject (‘subject’ being the operative word) for study and improvement since Victorian times.

There were sometimes more clearly political agenda at play too as we’ve seen. Here perhaps it reflects one of the foundational myths of left-wing politics – that working-class people should think and behave in a certain (i.e. broadly left-wing, communitarian) way. The agonised debate over the last general election and the fall of Labour’s supposed ‘Red Wall’ of working-class constituencies reflects this too with many on the Left seeking to blame malign external forces rather than examine Labour’s own political failings or contend with the complexity of the actually existing working class.

Lawrence’s conclusion (written well before the election) makes its own more thoughtful contribution to this debate. He argues, rightly I think, that:

that any new politics of community has to enhance, rather than erode, the personal autonomy and independence that the majority of people have fought hard to secure for themselves and their families.

But, in a challenge to the alienated and self-centred atomisation this could represent, he also argues that this new politics ‘needs to re-focus on promoting the aspects of public life and culture that are open to all’ (art galleries, libraries, museums, leisure venues, etc.) in ways that ‘help us facilitate social connection and promote a general sense of living in an interconnected, shared social environment’.

Given the purpose of this blog and my book, I could hardly disagree with that though a small part of me wonders if it isn’t a (cautiously expressed) continuation of the improving, rational recreation agenda promoted by middle-class professionals in earlier times. At any rate, it’s a great book which you should read and assess yourself. For a hardback book with academic heft, it’s fairly reasonably priced and, hopefully, there will be a paperback edition in the near future. Or better still, borrow it from a library!

Jon Lawrence, Me, Me, Me: The Search for Community in Post-war England (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Notes

(1)  Michael Young and Peter Wilmott, Family and Kinship in East London (1957)

(2) JB Cullingworth, ‘Overspill in South East Lancashire: The Salford-Worsley Scheme’, The Town Planning Review, vol. 30, no. 3, October 1959

(3) Stefan Ramsden, Working-class Community in the Age of Affluence (Routledge, 2017)

(4) Frederic J. Osborn and Arnold Whittick, The New Towns. The Answer to Megalopolis (1963)

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

Council Housing in Holborn, Part III: ‘infill sites that fitted the street scene and suited the tenants’

Tags

, ,

Sydney Cook had been appointed Holborn Borough Architect in 1947, as we saw in last week’s post, but the borough – densely built up and from 1949 securely back under Conservative control – gave him few opportunities to shine, so far as housing was concerned at least.  This post looks at the smaller housing schemes that were possible before examining the later history of Holborn’s council housing in the London Borough of Camden created in 1965.

Bomb damage map around Red Lion Square

This excerpt from the LCC’s map of bomb damage shows the extent of devastation around Red Lion Square, classified from Total Destruction (Black), through Seriously Damaged (Dark Red) to Clearance Areas (Green).  Taken from the Layers of London website.

One rare opportunity for a larger housing development, however, did exist – on Red Lion Square which had been heavily bombed during the war. Plans for Culver and Brampton Houses – five and six storey blocks squeezed into the south-east corner of the square – were approved in 1952.  The steel-frame construction was concealed by a light brick facing – now overpainted in an eye-catching lilac – with private and access balconies (to the rear) in a contrasting white.  Existing frontage lines were retained: (1)

to retain the enclosure of the Square as an existing open space, but daylighting angles dictated the siting of Culverhouse which is set back from Princeton-street, and in order to preserve as great a sense of space as possible this block has been built upon ‘stilts’, leaving the basement area open.

Culverhouse, The Builder 1955

This image of the Culver and Brampton Houses shows the open basement area to the rear and the estate in its original style.

Culver and Brampton from Red Lion Sqaure SN

This photograph from Red Lion Square, taken in 2019, shows the estate after refurbishment.

Other infill schemes were fitted into smaller sites. The modest five-storey block at 37-39 Great Ormond Street, completed in 1952, made it into the pages of The Builder – just 10 flats in total (four one-bed and six bedsits) with a ‘small area to the rear laid out as a rock garden with terrace’. Winston House, a six-storey block on Endsleigh Street, followed in the later 1950s. (2)

Great Ormond Street SN

37-39 Great Ormond Street, not much changed in these two images, the first taken from The Builder in 1953 and the second last year.

Winston House, Endsleigh Street

Winston House

Hyltons on Red Lion Street – a three-storey mixed commercial and residential development; a scaled-down version of the earlier Red Lion Square scheme – was completed in 1955 with Beaconsfield, a six-storey block adjacent, shortly after.  Three ten- and twelve-storey blocks dotted around the small borough followed in the late 1950s and early 1960s – Langdon House in Hatton Garden and Laystall Court and Mullen Tower in Mount Pleasant. (3)

Beaconsfield and Hyltons SN

Beaconsfield with the three-storey Hyltons scheme to its right.

Laystall Court and Mullen Tower SN

Laystall Court (to left) and Mullen Tower

Beckley, a sixties’ scheme at the corner of Eagle Street and Dane Street south of Red Lion Square, was designed by John Green who followed Cook to Camden where he became his no. 2 (his ‘Mr Fix-it’) and Acting Director on his departure. (4)

Beckley SN

Beckley

All these small schemes squeezed into the interstices of Holborn’s dense urban fabric are a reminder of how council housing provided genuinely affordable accommodation for working-class people in central London in the past – and how  much it is needed in the present.

In Frank Dobson’s affectionate remembrance of Cook (Dobson was leader of Camden Council from 1973 to 1975 and MP for Holborn and St Pancras from 1979 to 2015), these were ‘’small infill sites that both fitted the street scene and suited the tenants’: (5)

Then and when he later worked for Camden, his profound commitment to quality homes for all was combined with a quiet and apparently tentative demeanour.

There was no scope in Holborn for the extensive low-rise, high-density housing that Cook was to favour in Camden after 1965 but Cook, now aged 55, was appointed Borough Architect and the new borough provided him a fertile terrain for the architectural style and quality that became his hallmark.  It was, for one thing, a comparatively wealthy borough – the third richest in London – due in part at least to the business rates paid in Holborn. It was also a politically ambitious and progressive borough which had identified council housing as a key priority. Of the 34 Labour councillors that formed the majority in the newly-elected council, none came from Holborn but – as others have commented – Holborn’s money, St Pancras’s radicalism and Hampstead’s brains provided a politically potent combination.

For a full understanding of Cook’s work in housing in Camden, read Mark Swenarton’s superb book (noted below in the sources) or read some of my earlier posts. In the remainder of this post I’ll concentrate on the afterlife of some of the earlier Holborn schemes. (6)

One early controversy arose through the rent rises imposed by the Conservative Government’s 1972 Housing Finance Act. Alf Barrett – the chair of the Tybalds Close Tenants Association, a former member of the Communist Party who had left the party to take up tenants’ activism – led a rent strike in 1975. (7)

Right to Buy and the near cessation of newbuild in the 1980s of course wrought its own damage.  The central London locations and quality of Holborn’s council housing made it particularly vulnerable. A flat in 37-39 Great Ormond Street sold for £500,000 in 2015; another was available for rent when I visited – over 40 percent of Camden homes lost to Right to Buy are now privately let. (8)

Affordable housing has always been in short supply in London in particular and that created tensions in the 1980s.  When in 1986 Camden Council moved to evict a resident of the Tybalds Estate who had failed to notify it of the death of his mother (his mother had been the legal tenant; he had moved back to the home after the break-up of his marriage), a major protest ensued; some 200 tenants disrupted a council meeting, chanting ‘Labour Out’ and singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. (9)

As that might suggest, at this time the question of council house allocations had become uneasily confused – in some eyes at least – with the rights of ethnic minority members to council homes as strictly needs-based allocations increasingly superseded local connection policies.  That controversy was exacerbated by what some in the white working-class community saw as a council whose progressive policies on race favoured those in ethnic minorities. Alf Barrett complained:

All we hear is the amount of racism in the borough. The streets of Camden are not running with blood. You are placing ethnic minorities on a pedestal so that you can knock them down.

Barrett stood unsuccessfully as a ‘Tenants Rep’ [sic] in the local elections that followed on a platform that reflects the fraught housing politics of the time: (10)

The Government threaten to sell off whole estates to property developers and the Council have done nothing about it … The present council have taken away the right of people born in Holborn by saying ‘it doesn’t matter where you are born’. This is rubbish, and I intend to fight it … People must take their turn on the waiting list irrespective of where they come from.

A report by Council officers in 1987 accused tenants’ associations (TAs) of excluding ‘blacks, gays, lesbians and young people’ and specifically stated, no doubt with the previous years’ protest in mind, that ‘people purporting to represent the Tybalds Close estate were racist and sexist and these views were expressed in the council chamber’. The report drew its own rebuttal from a local councillor who condemned the blanket criticism: (11)

The possibility that TA members might have some positive contribution to make in the fight against racism and they may already be doing some serious anti-racist work seems not to have occurred to the authors of this report.

I – as a white male removed in time and place from the original controversies – am not going to adjudicate on the rights and wrongs here. The simple conclusion is that housing scarcity creates tensions that should be avoidable.  Alf Barrett himself ran a local youth football club and campaigned to improve housing provision for young couples and the single homeless in the borough so is very far from the pantomime villain of the piece. His housing activism is commemorated in the naming of the Alf Barrett Playground on Old Gloucester Street close to the Tybalds Estate.

Later, these high emotions subsided and the concerns of Tybalds Estate residents came to revolve around more mundane problems (though real and significant to those affected) such as ‘dog nuisance’, vandalism and general upkeep. Unusually for the time perhaps, three full-time caretakers remained on the premises and the Council addressed some of the concerns at least by installing the first entryphone system in the Blemendsbury block. Others followed. (12)

More recent housing controversy has centred on the issue of regeneration.  Modernisation and improvement of ageing council homes and estates after a long period of neglect is, of course, necessary and worthwhile. But the practice – all too often shaped by public-private partnerships and often involving the loss of social housing for homes at so-called affordable rent or private sale – has been highly contentious.

In Holborn, two contrasting estates were slated for regeneration: the Edwardian Bourne Estate and post-war Tybalds Estate. Planners noted that both were ‘in highly sought-after central London locations’, highly beneficial when it came to ‘funding the schemes through the sale of a small proportion of private sale units’.

Another shared characteristic was the aim, reflecting the current conventional wisdom that estates as such are somehow problematic: (13)

to reconnect the estates with surrounding areas and to respond more sensitively to their historic contexts, while maximising the amount of affordable housing.

The original plans for the Tybalds Estate proposed 93 new homes, 45 of which would have been council homes. The current plan, under consultation, projects 23 new homes, 17 of which will be council homes  – a ‘mews’ scheme, one new block and some underbuild at Falcon. That detail is probably a little hard to decipher on the image below but it can be found online. (14)

Tybalds plan SN On the Bourne Estate, 31 of the new flats form part of the Camden Collection described on the council’s marketing website as ‘an exciting selection of private sale and private rent developments in London, delivered by the London Borough of Camden’. Two-bedroom flats are on sale for £1.3 million; in return it’s been possible to fund 35 new council flats and 10 at ‘intermediate’ (below market) rents. (15)

Bourne Extension SN 2

Bourne Extension SN

Front and rear shots of Matthew Lloyd’s extension to the Bourne Estate

I’ve severe misgivings about such public-private partnerships – this is a relatively benign example – but what does seem clear is that here ‘densification’ (the use of existing publicly-owned land, existent estates usually, to increase housing stock) has been applied with skill and sensitivity. At the Bourne Estate extension, opened in March 2018, where the new blocks of 75 homes were designed by architect Matthew Lloyd, the architectural commentator Oliver Wainwright writes that: (16)

the buildings exude a quality rarely found in developer-built flats – handsome proportions and crafted details mirroring the love and care that went into the surrounding estate, only brought up-to-date with bigger windows, higher ceilings and more generous spaces.

That bravura is not possible at the Tybalds Estate though the overall project as envisaged in 2013 has won awards for its master-planning and brings additional benefits of improved public realm and an increase in community space.  Alex Ely, partner at mæ, has praised the council for ’their dedication to design, [building] on Camden’s excellent heritage from the Sydney Cook era’. (17)

It’s good to be writing about council housing as something other than heritage and a proud past.  Camden has a 15-year Community Investment Programme planned to invest over £1 billion into schools, community facilities and some 3000 new homes, half at social and intermediate rent. It remains – even in these desperate times for local government – a relatively wealthy borough.

But it’s also obvious and necessary to draw the contrast with that past.  In Holborn, council homes were built at scale even in the relative poverty of the Edwardian era and more so in the genuine austerity of the early post-Second World period. We understood then that such spending was not a cost but a value – a cost-effective, cost-saving investment in personal and community well-being. I’m grateful for the crumbs but the historical record shows what more could be achieved just as the present housing crisis shows how much more is needed.

Sources

(1) ‘Flats at Red Lion Square, Holborn, The Builder, July 8 1955

(2) ‘Flats at 37-39 Great Ormond Street, WC1’, The Builder, August 7 1953

(3) For details of the Holborn schemes, see the University of Edinburgh’s Tower Block website.

(4) Mark Swenarton, personal communication,

(5) Frank Dobson quoted in Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2017) – the definitive account of Cook’s later career in Camden.

(6) My posts ‘Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing’,  ‘The Whittington Estate, Camden’ and successor posts, ‘The Branch Hill Estate, Camden’ and the ‘The Alexandra Road Estate, Camden’.

(7) See ‘Tenants’ Leader who made the Council Quake. Alf Barratt dies at 60’, Camden New Journal, 2 August 1990 (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: Fiche 75.1 Alf Barratt)

(8) Tom Copley, Right to Buy: Wrong for London The impact of Right to Buy on London’s social housing (London Assembly Labour, January 2019)

(9) See St Pancras Chronicle, 21 March 1986 (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.841 Fiche Tybalds Close Tenants Association)

(10) Leaflet for local elections May 8th (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.89 Ephemera File Tybalds Close Estate)

(11) ‘Tenants “Wrongly Accused” on Race’, Camden New Journal, ND but 1987 (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.69 Tybalds Close Estate.

(12) ‘Estate Agreement for Tybalds Close Estate, April 1991’ (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.69 TYB) and Camden Council Press Release, ‘Unique Security System Televise to Camden Tenants’, 14 December 1991

(13) Tom Lloyd, ‘Quality Streets’, Inside Housing, 6 June 2013

(14) Camden Council, ‘Tybalds Regeneration Programme – Information Page‘, 30 October 2019

(15) Oliver Wainwright, ‘Council housing: it’s back, it’s booming – and this time it’s beautiful’, The Guardian, 20 January 2019 and the Camden Collection website

(16) Oliver Wainwright, ‘Council housing: it’s back, it’s booming – and this time it’s beautiful

(17) ‘Holborn estate regeneration plans triumph at London Architecture Awards’, architectsdatafile, 2 August 2013

Council Housing in Holborn, Part II: ‘Diminishing the Tenement Atmosphere’

Tags

, ,

We left Holborn last week in 1945, in a ruinous state and with a new Labour council.  That council, radical in its politics and ambition, was under no illusions about the task it faced – a mission, as described by its leader Irene Marcousé (better known later as Ina Chaplin), ‘to win the peace [for] the ordinary citizens of Holborn’.

Holborn’s population had fallen during wartime to around 18,700 (it rose to near 25,000 by 1951) and the impact of the Blitz, as we noted, had been devastating.  The new Council, however, was clear that the borough’s housing problems were not mitigated by its size, nor solely the consequence of the war: (1)

the existence behind the facades of modern buildings on Kingsway and High Holborn of streets comprising old and derelict property, lacking normal amenities and badly overcrowded. Indeed, the scenes presented today in localities such as Seven Dials are unchanged from the day when they inspired Hogarth to produce his famous masterpieces of London life and John Gay to write the ‘Beggar’s Opera’.

If the rhetoric was powerful, the cold statistics were more so. At a Town Hall meeting on housing in April 1947, Marcousé revealed that some 3500 families in Holborn lacked a bathroom, 2000 had no separate toilet and 1700 lacked their own water supply. (2)

In this context, the 20 temporary prefabs erected between Topham Street and Baker’s Row identified by the estimable Prefab Museum were welcome luxury but provided only a stopgap and small-scale solution to the wider housing crisis. (3)

Requisitioning (begun under wartime emergency powers granted in 1939 but extended into peacetime) offered another emergency response and here Marcousé, as Frank Dobson later recalled, was typically forthright: (4)

Councils had the power to requisition empty property to let to the homeless. Holborn officials told Ina it would be too difficult to implement. So she told the Town Clerk to sign 500 requisition notices. Armed with these and a bag of nails, Ina set out, accompanied by a carpenter and hammer to identify anywhere that looked vacant and requisition it.  Between Ina and a bag of nails, 500 families got somewhere to live.

In May 1946, the Tory opposition on the Council proposed that requisitioning be halted, responding – in part at least – to the genuine problem of preparing this number of homes for habitation. Marcousé told them: (5)

It is ridiculous to suggest that we are requisitioning too much. We shall requisition everything that is available. If the old Council had done this the people of Holborn would be much better off by now.

By 1951, there were 1042 requisitioned properties providing homes for Holborn’s homeless.

The goal, of course, remained, high quality permanent housing but building new council homes in Holborn in the immediate post-war years presented its own huge problems. The high cost of land was one: in Holborn, land sold for up to £150,000 an acre at a time when the London County Council (LCC) had set a value limit of £60,000 on land for housing purposes. The zoning of the entire borough for commercial purposes was another.  Shortages of building materials and skilled labour affected the country as a whole.

Tybalds under construction

A photograph of the Tybalds Estate under construction. © A London Inheritance

Undaunted, in 1946 the Council began negotiations with the LCC to make use of the one large area of land available to them – a site to the south of Great Ormond Street largely cleared by wartime bombing. The plans, drawn up by architects Robert Hening and Anthony Chitty, were ready in three months; detailed negotiations on land purchase, finance and planning regulations took a further eight. (6)

View of flats at Dombey Street from s-w AD 1948

The image from Werk in 1949 shows the newly completed Blemendsbury block.

Construction itself was hampered by supplies difficulties and required on-the-job adjustments. Initially steel for the steel-framed construction was in good supply; ‘later in the job the reverse became true and brickwork was substituted for concrete walling when the shortage of shuttering carpenters became acute’. (7)

Here, the indomitable Marcousé came to the fore again. According to Dobson:

she used to go personally to harass Nye Bevan (the health minister then responsible for housing) until he authorised the building work – just to get rid of her.

In commissioning the Dombey Street scheme or what became known as the Tybalds Estate, the Housing and Planning Committee’s instruction to the architects, mindful no doubt of Labour’s earlier criticism of interwar schemes, had been to ‘diminish the tenement atmosphere’. (8)

Blemendsbury SN

Blemendsbury in 2019

To this end, the estate was envisaged as part of a ‘neighbourhood unit’: a residential district of some 4000 people with its own shops on Lamb’s Conduit Street, community centre, schools, open spaces and service roads. It’s hard not to see it nowadays – in a good way – as anything other than part of inner London’s dense urban fabric but the ‘neighbourhood unit’ and its quest for community was a key ideal of post-war planning.

Additionally, the architects provided: (9)

a generous layout of gardens between the blocks with shrubs and flowering trees, cobblestones and a shady place with pleached limes for sitting out upon.  The gardens are so planned as to give facilities to the rather dreary pre-war housing scheme (Boswell House) which adjoins. Dombey Street is to be closed and to form part of the garden layout.

The ‘tenement atmosphere’ was further diminished by the quality of flats’ internal design and provision: each had central heating and a private balcony, choice of gas or electricity for cooking and refrigerators.  ‘Each flat [was] compact and arranged to give the housewife the minimum of work and yet provide a home of which the family can be proud.’ That workload – before most families came to own their own washing machine – was further reduced by utility rooms on each floor in some blocks and in others a larger basement laundry room containing washing machines, double sinks and mangles. (10)

Windmill SN

Windmill

Blemundsbury and Windmill were the first two blocks completed, in 1949. At ten storeys, the former was briefly the highest residential block in London and it caught the eye for its striking modernist design – ‘not lavish, but of delicate precision and agreeably devoid of mannerisms’ according to Pevsner in 1952 –  at a time when the housing schemes of the LCC in particular (then under the unimaginative control of the Valuers Department) were heavily criticised for their old-fashioned plainness. When JM Richards launched a fierce attack on the LCC’s designs in the pages of the Architects’ Journal in March 1949, his critical article was accompanied by a highly complimentary review of the Holborn scheme to offer point and contrast. (11)

This quality – particularly in Holborn – came at a price. At a cost of £2100 per flat, the scheme was reckoned among the most expensive ever passed by the LCC. Rents to match – up to 35 shillings (£1.75) a week – attracted criticism from the local Communist Party. The Labour Council countered that ‘tenants’ savings in the cost of fuel, heating of water, laundry charges, etc.’ would more than compensate for the additional expense. (12)

Sydney Cook Camden New Journal

Sydney Cook © Camden New Journal

In 1947, however, the Council’s continuing commitment to high quality housing was demonstrated by its appointment of Sydney Cook as Borough Architect. Cook’s first job had been as an architect for Luton Borough Council but from 1945 he had worked for the Bournville Village Trust, a significant player in contemporary discussions around post-war reconstruction. (13)

Holborn Central Library SN

Holborn Central Library

Before moving on to housing in next week’s post, we should note Cook’s contribution to the leisure and cultural provision that was an important element of the Council’s politics. Here Holborn’s new Central Library, opened in 1960, stands out – ‘a milestone in the history of the modern public library’, according to the Twentieth Century Society. Typically, it was designed not by Cook himself but by his deputy and assistants (Ernest Ives and assistants ID Aylott and EL Ansell to give them due credit). As many of you will know, Cook went on to become Borough Architect for the newly created Camden Council (incorporating Holborn) in 1965 and here he guided and managed a team of architects that would create some of the finest council housing in the land. (14)

Chancellors Court SN

Chancellors Court

The Tybalds Estate itself grew further in the 1950s and 60s. Two fourteen-storey point blocks, Babington and Chancellors’ Court, were opened in 1958 – constructed by Laings, their design credited to Cook. Though probably designed by members of his team, they are a reminder that Cook was not always committed to the low-rise, high density format that became his signature in Camden. Devonshire Court, a five-storey development of shops and flats fronting Boswell Street at the edge of the estate was completed in 1962.

Devonshire Court SN

Devonshire Court

Returning briefly to 1949, the May local elections were catastrophic for the Holborn Labour Party which lost 23 seats and retained a single solitary councillor. The Borough would remain under solid Conservative control until its abolition in 1965. It was an awful year for Labour generally in electoral terms but in Holborn in particular the results seem to indicate the exceptionalism of 1945.  However, a strong, cross-party consensus remained that councils should build homes and we’ll examine Holborn’s further efforts in this regard in the next post.

Note 

My thanks to A London Inheritance for permission to use the earlier photograph of the Tybalds Estate under construction.  The post ‘Building the Tybalds Close Estate’ provides a fuller and longer history of the area. The blog as a whole is a wonderful record of London past and present.

Sources

(1) Holborn Borough Council, ‘Tybalds Close: the Holborn Housing Scheme’ (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.69 Tybalds Close Estate)

(2) Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s

(3) They are recorded on the Prefab Museum map.

(4) A transcript of Frank Dobson’s obituary of Marcousé published in The Guardian, 9 April 1990, can be found in the online archives of Woolverstone Hall School.

(5) Quoted in Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s.

(6) Holborn Borough Council, Tybalds Close: the Holborn Housing Scheme (60.69 Tybalds Close Estate)

(7) ‘Housing in Holborn: Blemendsbury House, Theobalds Road WC for the Holborn Borough Council’, The Builder, March 4 1949, pp267-270

(8) Quoted in Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (1993)

(9) ‘Housing for London Boroughs’, Architectural Design, vol VIII, no 11, November 1948, pp229-242

(10) Holborn Borough Council, Tybalds Close: the Holborn Housing Scheme (60.69 Tybalds Close Estate)

(11) See Nicholas Merthyr Day, The Role of the Architect in Post-War State Housing: A case study of the housing work of the London County Council 1939 – 1956, PhD, University of Warwick 1988

(12) See Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s and Holborn Borough Council, Tybalds Close: the Holborn Housing Scheme (60.69 Tybalds Close Estate)

(13) Mark Swenarton, ‘Geared to producing ideas, with the emphasis on youth: the creation of the Camden borough architect’s department under Sydney Cook’, The Journal of Architecture, Volume 16, no 3, 2011

(14) Susannah Charlton, Twentieth Century Society, ‘Holborn Library, Building of the Month, July 2013’. On Cook’s later schemes for Camden, see my posts ‘Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing’,  ‘The Whittington Estate, Camden’ and successor posts, ‘The Branch Hill Estate, Camden’ and the ‘The Alexandra Road Estate, Camden’.

Council Housing in Holborn, Part I: Early Council Housing to 1945

Tags

, , ,

Holborn, created in 1900, was at just 403 acres the smallest of the London boroughs. With a population to match – declining from 59,000 when established to barely 22,000 on abolition in 1965 – and an overwhelmingly Conservative council, neither was it in the forefront of council housebuilding. Still, it has a rich council housing history and after 1945, with Sydney Cook as Borough Architect (who would go on to make his name in the same office at Camden), it stood in the forefront of modernist design.

Map

Holborn can be seen near the centre of this interwar map of the Metropolitan Boroughs. Together with St Pancras and Hampstead, it would form the London Borough of Camden from 1965.

This first post will look at its earlier history and begins with what the Survey of London describes as ‘the first council housing in England’.  In fact, Corporation Buildings on Farringdon Road, completed in 1865, were built by the City of London, largely at the initiative of Alderman Sydney Waterlow, better known as the founder of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. For that reason and given the nature of the City of London Corporation, I place it more strongly in the Victorian tradition of philanthropic housing and, like most of these early ‘model dwellings’ and their relatively high rents, its 168 tenements housed the better-off working class and the lower middle class.  The buildings were demolished in 1970. (1)

Corporation Buildings, Farringdon Road

An early engraving of Corporation Buildings, Farringdon Road

The City of London built another block, Viaduct Buildings containing 40 tenements, in 1880 but it was the London County Council (LCC), created in 1889, that built most of Holborn’s council housing proper before the First World War.  The LCC’s first scheme was a small one, intended to clear and improve a run-down area between Brooke Street and Leather Lane. Completed in 1897, Cranley Buildings (unusually three-storey tenements rather than the five that was the norm) comprised just twelve two- and three-roomed tenements, housing 60 people. Only 55 had been displaced by slum clearance but the usual problem of high rents ensured that these new residents too were the better-off rather than the poorest who had previously lived in the area. (2)

Cranley Buildings SN

Cranley Buildings

The LCC’s next scheme, the Bourne Estate, south of Clerkenwell Road, was a much grander affair: eleven principally five-storey blocks containing some 763 homes: (3)

designed by the LCC Architect’s Department in a free Classical style, with Arts and Crafts touches … [of] international significance as the model for the much admired and highly influential public housing erected in Vienna immediately after the First World War.

It’s the grand arches which find their greatest echo in the later Austrian schemes but the attractive green courtyards of the Bourne Estate contain little of the communal buzz sought by Red Vienna.

Bourne Estate SN

The Bourne Estate

Holborn was far from alone among the metropolitan borough councils in building no council housing of its own before 1914 but its overwhelmingly Conservative membership no doubt made that decision easier.  Two Labour councillors were elected in 1919 but they soon lost their seats and through most of the 1920s the Council was wholly Conservative.

The First World War and its aftermath – and specifically the promise of ‘Homes for Heroes’ – had changed much in 1919 and the celebrated Housing Act of that year required that all councils not only survey local housing needs (within three months!) but actively prepare schemes to meet them.  Holborn went through the motions, going so far as to inspect four possible sites for council housing, but finally concluded that: (4)

Although from a purely public health point of view there is at present necessity existing in the Borough for better housing accommodation for the working classes, many other factors have to be taken into consideration by the Council.

To be fair, there was some truth in the factors identified: population movement from central London, cheaper and better housing in suburban districts, cheaper commuting, and Holborn’s growing significance as a business centre. But they didn’t obviate the pressing problems of the day, not least the 611 unadapted large family houses now in multiple occupation.  Clearly, political opposition to public housing remained the determining factor for the Council’s Conservative majority.

The 1919 report identified a precise total of 999 LCC flats in the borough. This number was not added to in the interwar period but Holborn itself did in the end build some 92 council homes by the early 1930s – only Chelsea and Paddington Metropolitan Boroughs provided fewer in the period.

Betterton House SN

Betterton House

Holborn’s first council housing was built on Betterton Street in Covent Garden. Betterton House was opened in 1927 by Prince Arthur of Connaught, a small, five-storey infill block of 15 tenements designed by Borough Surveyor JE Parr, replacing buildings declared derelict. The arched front entrance led to a stairway providing balcony access at the rear. Fifteen further tenements were added in a 1930 extension. A small but active Labour opposition group on the council were denouncing the flats as ‘slums’ by the later 1930s. (5)

Boswell House SN

Boswell House. Richbell, a post-war block, lies to the immediate right set back from the previous street line.

The Council’s next scheme – Boswell House in Boswell Street, Bloomsbury – also designed by Parr, comprised 62 flats and was opened in 1932.  There were over 400 applicants for the new homes; the lucky few selected were: (6)

Holborn residents living in unsatisfactory conditions, in a number of cases being large families in single room tenements. Many of the tenants are employed in market work, in hotels and restaurants, or other occupations where the hours of work necessitate residence near to the place of work.

The design details provided by the Medical Officer of Health suggest the Council took some pride in the scheme: (7)

All the flats will have a well-ventilated larder, sink, draining board, dresser-cupboard, gas cooker, copper-boiler, bathroom and W.C., coal bunker, cupboards, shelving, hat and coat racks, etc. … A playing yard is provided for children, and the blocks of flats have been so arranged as to provide the maximum amount of sunshine, light and air for the dwellings. The flats, balconies, staircases and the yard will be lighted at night by electric light.

This was, unusually, a seven-storey scheme (the top two floors were maisonettes), necessary to make fullest use of the restricted, one-third of an acre, site. Almost uniquely, for a council housing scheme before the 1946 special lifts subsidy, it contained two service lifts. In this, at least, Holborn was ahead of the game.

That does, however, represent the peak of its pre-war housing record. The context is important – a population that by 1937 was estimated to have fallen to 34,600 – but on other measures housing need remained severe. From 1930, housing legislation focused on slum clearance and rehousing.  The 1935 Housing Act required all local authorities to undertake a survey of overcrowding in their districts.  In Holborn, by the modest criteria of the day, 700 families were found to be living in overcrowded conditions, over nine percent of the local population. This placed Holborn tenth among the capital’s 28 Metropolitan Boroughs for overcrowding. Much therefore remained to be done.

Much more after the devastating impact of the Blitz.  Some 650 buildings were destroyed in Holborn (one seventh of the Borough’s total) and 426 people killed. Around 282 high explosive bombs fell at the height of the Blitz in April-May 1941 and a number of V1 and V2 rockets in a second wave of attacks in 1944. Per head of population, Holborn was reckoned the worst hit administrative district in the country. (8)

Buckea's Bakers Shop, corner of Boswell Street and Theobalds Road 1945

An image of Buckea’s Bakers Shop on the corner of Boswell Street and Theobalds Road taken in 1945.

The political impact of the war seems almost as seismic.  In the general election of June 1945, Irene Marcousé, elected a local councillor in 1939, stood for Labour in Holborn. She posed the all-important question of the day: (9)

Who is going to win the peace? Are you – the ordinary citizens of Holborn and Britain?  Or are THEY – the privileged few who have always cheated you and the peace and plenty you have earned?

Marcousé didn’t win but she came within 925 votes of the victorious Conservative candidate on a 19-point swing in a two-horse race. This was a very creditable result in Holborn where business voters – those with a vote through ownership of business premises in the constituency – represented around 6 percent of the electorate. (Plural voting was abolished for parliamentary elections in 1948 but remained in local elections – and significant therefore in Holborn – till 1969.)

Across the country, Labour gained 239 seats to form its first (landslide) majority government. This was a harbinger of the November local elections in which Labour took control of the Borough for the first and only time, winning 24 seats to the Tories’ 18.  Marcousé became leader of the Council and chair of the Housing Committee.

It’s worth a pause here to take a look at Marcousé and the new council. Marcousé was born in East Prussia in 1900 and educated in Belgium before graduating from the universities of Heidelberg and London. Frank Dobson, Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras in later years, recalled she could sing The Internationale in English, French and German.  She had married Hugh Chaplin (Principal Keeper of the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum and a fellow Labour activist) in 1938; together they lived in Russell Square.  But she was, in Dobson’s words, ‘a hard-bitten, awkward and effective old socialist’. Better known as Ina Chaplin, she would represent the party on the LCC, Greater London Council and Inner London Education Authority till 1977. (10)

Under Marcousé’s leadership, in what almost might be described as the ruins of Holborn, the Council  opened information and social centres in disused and bomb-damaged premises, created new children’s playgrounds, organised open-air entertainments in local squares, and published a regular council newsletter. It was a broad and cultural programme that seems in some ways to prefigure the New Left politics of later years.

But the key issue was housing and we’ll examine its record on that and the longer post-war story next week.

Sources

(1) Philip Temple (ed), Farringdon Road‘, Survey of London: Volume 46, South and East Clerkenwell, (2008)

(2) Fuller detail is provided in Martin Stilwell, Housing the Workers Early London County Council Housing 1889-1914, 10: Brooke’s Market, Holborn Scheme (pdf)

(3) Historic England, Bourne Estate (Northern Part), Denys House, Frewell House, Ledham House, Radcliffe House, Redman House, Scrope House, Skipwith House: listing details

(4) Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1919 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports, 1848-1972)

(5) Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1927 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports, 1848-1972). On Labour, see Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s.

(6) Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1933 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports, 1848-1972)

(7) Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1932 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports, 1848-1972)

(8) A Walk in History, Friday 30th May – The Blitz

(9) Quoted in Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party (Random House, 2010)

(10) See Sean Creighton (Labour Heritage), Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s. A transcript of Frank Dobson’s obituary of Marcousé published in The Guardian, 9 April 1990, can be found in the online archives of Woolverstone Hall School (an out of London boarding school founded by the LCC in 1951 where she was a governor until 1986).

 

Council Housing in Shrewsbury, Part II: the Post-War Housing Drive

Tags

, ,

In last week’s post, we saw how Shrewsbury Borough Council had built homes even before 1914 and had built on a large scale after 1918. A second world war created new needs and ambitions in its aftermath. In fact, the Borough emerged from war largely unscathed – just two bombs fell on the town – but its population and significance as a manufacturing centre had grown and it faced the same housing crisis affecting most of the nation.

The local responses – driven in any case by national policy and direction – were similar too. This was seen firstly in the temporary prefab bungalows erected in the town, part of 156,623 nationwide – 50 at Harlescott (some for essential workers in the nearby Sentinel Waggon Works), 55 in Abbots Gardens, 30 in New Park Close and a smaller group for elderly people in the Old Heath Estate. (1)

BISF homes, Oakfield Drive, Crowmeole

BISF homes, Oakfield Drive, Crowmeole

Permanent prefabs seemed to offer another solution. The steel-framed BISF (British Iron and Steel Federation) House had been designed by Frederick Gibberd during the war; 50 were built on the new Crowmeole Estate from 1948. Of the 329 new homes planned for the Springfield Estate from December 1948, 150 were Wimpey No-Fines, a form of in-situ concrete construction.  Of 624 homes planned for the Meadows Farm Estate from autumn 1950, 212 were of Wates pre-reinforced concrete panel construction.

Oakfield Drive, Crowmeole

Brick-built homes, Oakfield Drive, Crowmeole

The majority of the homes, however, were traditional brick-built houses, most of conventional design, a few with a slightly more modernist aesthetic. Those built in the 1940s reflected the generous space standards of the Bevan era; those after 1951, the economising of the Macmillan era.

The occupation of disused military bases had been another – highly unofficial but practical – response to the post-war housing crisis. By October 1946 it was estimated that around 46,000 people were squatting some 1811 camps across the country. Similar direct action in Shrewsbury and vicinity came later – with reports of military buildings being occupied in 1948 in Monkmoor, Atcham and Forton amongst others – but testified to the same pressing need.

Occupation of Harlesott Camp, May 1948

Occupation of Harlescott Camp, May 1949

The largest and best-organised local squat, however, began in May 1949 when Thomas G Ryder, local leader of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, led a group (complete with seven to eight lorries of furniture) that occupied 22 huts at RAF Harlescott. The trigger here seems to have been the belief that the buildings were about to be allocated to single Polish men working at the Sentinel factory. Ryder declared:

We are not going to allow it to become a glorified camp for Poles paid for by the British tax-payer when British families have nowhere to go.

I’ll let you determine the balance between laudable working-class activism and xenophobia in that particular episode.  Ryder himself would go on to become, in modern terminology, a ‘centrist’ leader of the Labour Group on Shrewsbury Borough Council and a senior manager at Sentinel.

Stapleton Road, Meole Brace SN

Stapleton Road, Meole Brace

Construction of new housing continued apace with the commencement, in 1954, of the 500-home Meole Brace Estate on the south-eastern fringes of the borough. As other towns looked to high-rise, plentiful land and, presumably, political choice kept Shrewsbury building low.  The rather austere five-storey blocks built by Wimpey at Meole Brace seem to have represented the physical, height of its ambition.

Spring Gardens, Ditherington

Spring Gardens, Ditherington

As the immediate housing crisis declined, thoughts turned again to the slum clearance programme begun in the 1930s.  Between 1955 and 1959, the Council demolished 515 unfit homes – around 144 deemed individually unfit but a greater number (371) in designated clearance areas. Three-storey blocks replaced derelict housing around Ditherington Mill; passages and courts in Frankwell and the town centre were also cleared.

Ryton Close, Meole Brace SN

Ryton Close, Meole Brace

By 1956, the council housing waiting list had increased to over 1700 and the Council faced having to rehouse some 794 families from homes designated unfit. This pressure brought about the borough’s next major housing expansion – a further 143 homes on the Meole Brace Estate and a large new estate on agricultural land at Harlescott Grange. (2) By the summer of 1958, the Council had built 2382 homes since 1945 and boasted 857 underway or approved.

eaw017470 The Ditherington and Harlescott areas, Shrewsbury, 1948

Ditherington and Harlescott in 1948 showing Shrewsbury’s expansion to the north © Britain from Above, eaw017470

A local press report described Harlescott as ‘Shrewsbury’s industrial suburb’, a sign of the borough’s expanding manufacturing base. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government provided additional support to housing for skilled workers and the Council agreed that 20 of its ‘bonus’ 30 houses should be allocated to Rolls-Royce employees, the company having taken over the Sentinel works in 1956. (3)

Harlescott Grange, Bainbridge Green

Bainbridge Green, Harlescott Grange

Housing allocations, however, were controversial. Shrewsbury came late to a points-based system and, ironically, when it did in 1954, it downgraded what had previously been the sole criterion – overcrowding.  Now points were added for waiting time and local connection as well as obvious priorities such as number of children and medical need. Localism cam to the fore again nine years later when councillors across the spectrum unsuccessfully opposed the priority given to incoming skilled workers. (4)

Halcroft Court, Ditherington

Housing for elderly people was prominent in later schemes. Halcroft Court, Ditherington

Smaller schemes continued in the 1970s but the great age of council housebuilding was over.  Shrewsbury itself was amalgamated with Atcham Rural District Council (itself a significant housebuilder) in 1974 and together in 1994 – after the depredations of Right to Buy – the new council owned and managed 6205 council homes. Seven hundred fewer council homes – 5593 to be precise – were transferred by large-scale voluntary transfer to Severnside Housing in 2001.

Then Shrewsbury itself disappeared, administratively at least; absorbed in 2009 into the new unitary authority of Shropshire. An active Town Council (in fact, a newly created parish council) remains. By 2011, around 16 percent of the homes in the district were social rented, a little below the national average.

Shropshire Council is an overwhelmingly Conservative body but it’s a sign of the times and the new housing crisis that its 2017 Local Plan Review concluded that ‘the market is not, and will not, build the housing needed to meet the broad future needs of communities’.  Essentially, despite a significant building programme, private developers were failing to deliver the affordable and smaller homes that many local people required. (5)

It’s an uncomfortable echo of the case made by Shrewsbury’s first socialist councillor over a century earlier: ‘if it would not pay private enterprise to provide such houses, then the municipality must undertake the responsibility.’  (6)

The Council set up its own wholly-owned, private housebuilding company in February this year. It plans to build 2000 new homes, some for key workers, some for elderly people, some for younger people leaving care. Naturally today, ‘affordable homes’ and homes for sale are in the mix and it’s unclear what the proportion of social rent homes will be.  That market failure and local government intervention remind us that council housing as such – let at genuinely affordable rents – is as necessary today as it ever was when Shrewsbury’s housing efforts began. (7)

Sources

(1) WA Champion and AT Thacker (eds), A History of Shropshire, vol VI, Part 1 Shrewsbury General History and Topography (The Victoria History of the Counties of England, IHR, 2014). Other detail and quotations in this post are also drawn from this source.

(2) ‘New Housing Estate at Shrewsbury’, Birmingham Daily Post, 27 July 1956

(3) ‘Housing Tender for Shrewsbury Estate’, Birmingham Daily Post, 25 July 1958

(4) New Housing Points Scheme Proposed at Shrewsbury, Birmingham Daily Post, 24 July 1954 and ‘Allocation of houses criticised’, Birmingham Daily Post, 10 December 1963

(5) Dominic Robinson, ‘2000 homes planned as Shropshire Council to set up its own house building company’, Shropshire Star, 7 December 2018

(6) Councillor John Kent Morris quoted in ‘Shrewsbury Town Council. The Housing of the Poor’ and ‘Local Notes’, Shrewsbury Chronicle, 13 September 1907

(7) Shropshire Newsroom, ‘Building homes that people need: housing company gets Council go-ahead’, 1 March 2019

Council Housing in Shrewsbury, Part I: ‘Shrewsbury’s first garden suburb’

Tags

, ,

Tourists might know Shrewsbury as a town with over 660 listed buildings, ‘full of higgledy-piggledy streets with names you want to say out loud’. (1)  As a working town and somewhere to live, council housing has been equally important to its past and present and the council took an early, innovative role after some initial hesitation. This first post looks at this history up to the Second World War and the controversies surrounding it.

Shrewsbury-loop-slider

A contemporary aerial view of Shrewsbury. Ditherington lies to the north beyond the Severn loop enclosing the town centre.

In 1901, with a population of around 23,300, Shrewsbury was a medium-sized county town – an administrative and trading centre, not untouched by the Industrial Revolution (indeed Ditherington Flax Mill, built in 1797, was the first iron-framed building in the world) but still predominantly traditional in form and make-up.

Politically, this was reflected in a local politics largely ‘based on personality rather than ideology’. The town’s first Labour councillor, John Kent Morris of the Shrewsbury Trades Council (a trade union body) was elected in 1903 but the dominant figure was the Conservative Alderman Thomas Pidduck Deakin, a baker and hotelier. (2)

Shrewsbury 1900

This (literally) picture postcard image of Shrewsbury, taken c1900, belies the reality of working-class housing in its courts and passages.

That tradition was also reflected in slums – not the Victorian terraces of industrial England but in the words of the borough’s Medical Officer of Health in 1927:

small, isolated groups, scattered throughout the town in the form of small houses, huddled together in enclosed and shut-in courtyards, approached through a dark alley leading off the main street.

Back in 1907, the then Medical Officer of Health estimated there were 200 houses in Shrewsbury unfit for human habitation. A resolution that the Council adopt Part III of the 1890 Housing Act (allowing it to acquire land to build council housing) followed.  The debate that ensued is worth examining in some detail as representative of the arguments of the day.

Some councillors professed simple shock at the conditions suffered by many of the working class: Councillor Franklin: (3)

had no idea that there were such places for human beings to live in as there were in Shrewsbury … some houses were entirely devoid of light, others filthy in the extreme, and some without any back door; houses which were really a disgrace to civilisation.

From the left, Councillor Morris drew what seemed to him the inescapable conclusion:

The evils of the present system were so great that they could not be tolerated any longer, and he hoped the Council would step into the breach and say that the people must be properly housed at rents which they could afford to pay. If it would not pay private enterprise to provide such houses, then the municipality must undertake the responsibility.

To many, it won’t seem that too much has changed.

But some – as was common then and now – blamed the poor for their squalor of their homes. Councillor Pace, a Liberal, was ‘afraid in some cases the people themselves caused a great deal of the unpleasantness that existed by their own actions’. If just one drain and service pipe per group of dwellings were demanded, he suggested, the private sector would provide all the housing required.

Councillor How, a Conservative, decried municipal housing as ‘the road to socialism’. But his party colleague, Councillor Bromley, spoke to a  rival tradition of Tory Democracy that professed a concern for working-class conditions:

Mr How told them that the proposal might be ruinous to the country but was it not ruinous to the country to have an enormous infantile death-rate caused very largely by insanitary dwellings, and to permit the existence of slums which were undermining the health of the people. They were told that what they proposed was Socialism. If that was so then he was a Socialist – and he was among the Conservative Socialists because the Conservatives passed that act in 1890.

In the end, the motion was passed but, for the moment, the resistance to council housing prevailed. A few existing homes were declared unfit but in general efforts focused on reconditioning rather than demolition.

Raymond Unwin

Raymond Unwin

Agitation renewed with the formation of a Shrewsbury Housing Reform Council in 1911.  A public meeting in February 1912 – described as ‘one of the most important and representative gatherings in the history of Shrewsbury’ and addressed by Raymond Unwin, the leading housing reformer of the day – seems to have decisively swung opinion. (4)

Wingfield Gardens

Wingfield Gardens

The Council appointed a Housing Committee and purchased land north of Ditherington Mill. Wingfield Gardens was completed in April 1915 – 63 solid family homes arrayed around a generous green open space: ‘Shrewsbury’s first garden suburb’.  Alderman Deakin, now chair of the Housing Committee though previously sceptical towards municipal housebuilding, spoke of ‘an enormous demand for houses’ and concluded ‘the Corporation would have to provide other garden suburbs’. (5)

Wingfield Gardens 2

Wingfield Gardens

As a token of the seriousness of the Council’s intent, sanction was received for a further housing scheme in 1916 though without, in wartime, much prospect of it being built in the near future. However, thoughts were turning to war’s end and, perhaps in response to the Local Government Board’s circular of July 1917 ‘Housing after the War’, in October that year, the Council sought permission to build 400 houses. (6)

Deakin, whose conversion to municipal housebuilding was now complete, observed that building small houses for private let had ceased being profitable for at least ten years before the war and he became the driving force behind the Council’s interwar programme.  It’s a reminder that an uptick in council housebuilding began in the run-up to the First World War though its aftermath and the demand for ‘Homes for Heroes’ proved decisive.

The Council bought 19 acres of land in December 1918 and a further 38 acres at Coton Hill in March 1919 and was described, justifiably, as ‘one of the most forward in respect to its housing schemes’. (7)

That advanced thinking was evident in its detailed planning too. The new homes were:

to be on garden city lines – not more than ten to the acre, and the lay-out includes such amenities as village institutes, bowling greens, and open spaces, while tree planting is to be a feature of the two estates now being developed.

Naturally, the new homes included ‘such domestic facilities as a gas boiler and gas cooker’.  The location of the bath – in a cubicle off the scullery – caused some debate but the Housing Committee concluded that ‘that the balance of convenience for the working housewife [was] to have the bath downstairs’.

Longden Green

Longden Green

The Longden Green Estate was completed in 1922, the first stage of the Coton Hill Estate one year later.  The plans of both were closely based on the 1919 Housing Manual (written appropriately in a Shrewsbury context by Raymond Unwin) which accompanied Addison’s celebrated housing act of the same year. How, still a Conservative member of the council, now an alderman, was angry that the houses designed by ‘certain faddy architects in London’ cost £1000 each; Deakin countered ‘the ship should not be spoilt for a ha’p’orth of tar’.

Sultan Road SN

Sultan Road

Those high prices were a problem though, not least in rents affordable to only the most affluent workers. The generous funding regime of Addison’s legislation was axed in 1921; Longden Green’s community hall was not built. And the Council determined that their next building scheme would be built more economically at rents that lower paid workingmen could afford. The 70 houses built on Sultan Road cost around £370 each but the scheme was widely criticised for its austerity.  The 204-home Monkmoor Estate, built on land purchased in June 1925, reverted to garden suburb ideals.

White House Gardens 2 SN

White House Gardens

Nationally, the 1930s marked a shift to slum clearance and the targeted rehousing of slum-dwellers. Shrewsbury made small progress in this regard; in 1939, there were still 221 houses in town judged unfit for human habitation including 29 homes in Fairford Place deemed insanitary since the 1850s. However, the council’s building continued apace in smaller schemes at Judith Butts, White House Gardens, Wingfield Close (adjacent to the council’s first housing), New Park Road and Close, and Old Heath.

New Park Road SN

New Park Road

The Council’s 1000th home was opened in March 1937 – a proud record. The historian Barrie Trinder reckoned by this time that ‘the better-paid workman had been very nearly catered for’ but he acknowledged that many who were less well-off in Shrewsbury remained in squalor. (9)

The renewed housing drive after a second world war and its commitment to provide decent housing for all will be examined in next week’s post.

Sources

(1) Original Shrewsbury website

(2) This detail and the following quotation are drawn from WA Champion and AT Thacker (eds), A History of Shropshire, vol VI, Part 1 Shrewsbury General History and Topography (The Victoria History of the Counties of England, IHR, 2014)

(3) ‘Shrewsbury Town Council. The Housing of the Poor’ and ‘Local Notes’, Shrewsbury Chronicle, 13 September 1907

(4) Champion and Thacker (eds), A History of Shropshire, vol VI, Part 1 Shrewsbury General History and Topography

(5) ‘Shrewsbury’s Garden Suburb’, Liverpool Daily Post, 9 April 1915

(6) ‘The Housing of Shrewsbury Workers’, Birmingham Daily Post, 9 October 1917

(7) This and following quotations are drawn from ‘Shrewsbury Housing Schemes. Garden City Developments’, Kington Times, 14 June 1919

(8) Barrie Trinder, Beyond the Bridges: the Suburbs of Shrewsbury, 1760-1960 (2008)

Tayler and Green and Loddon Rural District Council, Part II: ‘a triumph of artistic patronage’

Tags

, , , ,

As we saw in last week’s post, David Green was appointed consultant architect to Loddon Rural District Council in March 1945.  Together with his partner Herbert Tayler, he would enjoy a relationship with the council described by one close observer as ‘a triumph of artistic patronage’. (1)  The architectural excellence of the housing commissioned by Loddon and designed by Tayler and Green is widely known but we’ll look too at the wider context in which their joint enterprise flourished.

Leman Grove, Loddon

‘Swedish Houses’, Leman Grove, Loddon. The vertical panelling on the left reflects the original form.

Before that, however, the housing crisis in Loddon district, as elsewhere in the country, presented more pressing issues. The Council had bid successfully for 30 temporary prefab bungalows in 1944; 20 were built in Loddon itself and 10 in Raveningham. Permanent prefabricated housing was another favoured solution. By 1948, 34 so-called ‘Swedish Houses’ (imported from Sweden and built of timber) and 62 pre-cast concrete Airey Houses had been erected across the district. (2)

Tayler and Green were closely involved with their construction, often presenting a list of defects to the Housing Committee to be corrected before new homes could be signed off. It was unsurprising that by February 1948 their report to the Housing Committee  concluded that: (3)

in their opinion non-traditional houses could not yet compete with traditional types as regards cost and finish and that their advice to the Council was to press for more brick and tile houses and not consider erecting any more non-traditional types.

In south Norfolk, decommissioned airbases presented another field of activity. In April 1947, the Council agreed to convert sick quarters and other disused buildings at Seething Airfield to provide 14 temporary dwellings; in the following month it was agreed to adapt six Nissen huts in Raveningham. There were 72 such ‘converted hutments’ by 1949.  Meanwhile, rationing and building materials shortages hindered new construction – even lavatory basins were rationed until June 1948. (4)

That a traditional building programme was needed was not in doubt: the Housing Committee’s 1949 annual report detailed 175 sub-standard houses in the district, 71 cases of overcrowding and some 194 households on the waiting list. (5)  Belatedly – and belatedly for those of you understandably keen to focus on the work of Tayler and Green – that programme was bearing fruit.

Thurlton College Road 2

College Road, Thurlton

Tayler and Green’s first schemes for the Council were completed in 1948 – in Leman Grove, Loddon, shared with some Swedish Houses, and College Road in Thurlton, an extension of a pre-war scheme.  Writing in 1947 as their schemes developed and thinking evolved, the partners asserted the obvious but neglected truism that rural housing should differ from urban. ‘Far too often the ordinary semi-detached urban dwelling is planted down in the countryside with all the consequent disadvantages to the occupier’. In contrast, their schemes resulted from  ‘a study of rural requirements’. (6)

A rural worker wears gumboots which ‘have to be taken off in a sheltered position without bringing mud into the house’; ‘he grows a certain amount of his own food’ and requires additional storage space for tools, potatoes, etc.’; ‘he requires to be able to wheel manure through to his garden’; he needs to store wood for fuel; ‘he makes greater use of his bicycle than does the townsman’.

For this reason, Tayler and Green replaced front and back doors with a single side entry which opened off a roofed passage connected to a large outside store: (7)

Thus the sequence of arrival, storing of bicycle, and then going indoors is completed under cover and in privacy … The kitchen without a back door ceases to be a passage for the whole household.

This might have been an architectural innovation rooted in prosaic reality (even down to the concrete floors lifted just three inches to ease the movement of bikes, prams and wheelbarrows) but it became part of the unique aesthetic that the architects brought to their designs.

Windmill Green, Ditchingham 2

Windmill Green Ditchingham

That was seen more dramatically at their next major scheme, Windmill Green in Ditchingham, the first phase completed in 1949, in the use of terraces; in Tayler’s words, ‘not used in rural districts since the 18th century, with their advantages of economy, warmth and restful appearance in the landscape’. (8)  Terraces also served to conceal what Tayler called the ‘rural scruff’ of back gardens from public view.

Windmill Green, Ditchingham

Windmill Green Ditchingham

The thirty houses at Ditchingham, arranged in a horseshoe around a large open green, seemed to Ian Nairn to be ‘an attempt to entrap the whole of East Anglian space in one great gesture’. (9) As Tayler acknowledged, in Norfolk ‘it is the land itself which competes with you, as it always competed with man before architecture existed’. (10)

Kenyon Row and Forge Grove, Gillingham

The junction of Kenyon Row and Forge Grove at Gillingham captures the range of Tayler and Green’s decorative techniques.

AR 1958 2

By coincidence, I found almost the identical image published in the Architectural Review in 1958. I think the later image shows how well the designs have aged.

Beyond this, there was a conscious attempt to capture the picturesque, not in the twee way this term often implies, nor in an ‘in keeping’ archaism.  This was modern architecture though Pevsner thought it might be better described as ‘post-modern’. Tayler was clear, however, that they had broken with the austerity of the international modern style. He felt: (10)

people lacked decoration and enjoyment in the look of the houses, so we introduced colours (different for each house), brick patterns, dates. The date of the terrace in raised brickwork was an immediate success. Everybody liked it, people do like decoration.

Colour wash was used in earlier schemes to disguise unattractive Fletton bricks and was later replaced by coloured facing bricks as these became available.  Open screens and trellises on walls and fretted bargeboards on gable ends followed.

As their portfolio developed, Tayler and Green emphasised how ‘each site is given a marked individuality and each is immediately recognisably different from the others’. This, as they argued, was ‘in itself, is a step forward for “Council housing”’.  Indeed, much of it is no longer council housing and that individuality has been further emphasised by the fact that in Windmill Green, for example, 60 percent have tenants have exercised their Right to Buy.

The first single-storey homes were built at Geldeston in 1949 and bungalows intended primarily for older people became an increasing feature of later schemes. This was significant in rural areas where farm workers often lived in tied housing, provided by their employers during their working lives.  By the later 1950s, bungalows formed around 17 percent of council stock by which time the Council owned and managed near 900 homes, around 20 percent of the Rural District’s total.

This reflected a broader demographic change apparent into the 1960s – a declining agricultural workforce, rural depopulation and an ageing population that remained. The great age of rural council housebuilding was over.

Housing Manual

Two images from the 1949 Housing Manual

The contribution of Tayler and Green to its heyday was widely recognised.  The Ministry of Health’s 1949 Housing Manual (in which rural housing featured surprisingly heavily) included no less than four illustrations of their schemes. Early schemes at Woodyard Square, Woodton, and Bergh Apton, completed in 1951, were widely praised, as was Forge Grove, Gillingham, built in the mid-1950s.

Davy Place plaques

Davy Place, Loddon, plaques

In all, Elain Harwood reckons the duo were awarded five Festival of Britain Merit Awards, three awards from Ministry of Health and its post-1951 successor the Ministry of Housing, two Civic Trust awards and a RIBA Bronze Medal. (13)

Woodyard Square, Woodton, bungalows

Woodyard Square, Woodton, bungalows

Woodyard Square, Woodton

Woodyard Square as seen in the Norfolk landscape in an image from Architectural Review, 1958

In 1958, Ian Nairn could already cast an almost valedictory eye on a programme (which would eventually total some 687 homes) that was ‘almost finished’. He concluded that the region was ‘more rural, more Norfolk-like than it was in 1945’ – ‘no other [Rural District] that the writer has been in could say that of itself’. (14)

This was achieved by interpreting the local spirit but doing so:

in purely twentieth-century terms, using twentieth-century industrial organisation, creating five or six standard types of each detail and ringing the changes on them according to the needs of each site … In doing so, they have been faithful to the genius loci in a deeper sense that that implied by a few design clichés.

Church Road, Bergh Apton

Church Road, Bergh Apton

More recently, the architect Charles Holland commented that the houses: (15)

unremarkable in some ways, still stand as an exemplary way to build sensitively and well in the countryside … It’s quiet and unassuming but in a generous rather than austere or hairshirt way. It convinces you that if you plan things intelligently and with beauty and care you can leave the rest to itself. The houses seem to cater for life rather than prescribe it, which is something that modern architecture finds incredibly difficult to do generally.

The Housing Committee minutes suggest very little of all this. A suggestion by Councillor Fairhead that downstairs toilets be placed outside the main entrance was brushed aside by Green and rejected by the Committee.  A suggestion that parlours (a second living room) be provided was opposed by Green as being £80 dearer than their present plans; they would also presumably have mitigated the bright, airy interiors of the south-facing living rooms that were integral to all their designs.  In general, the Housing Committee was simply ‘a good client’ as Tayler and Green were magnanimous in agreeing that ‘Loddon Council have undoubtedly been’. (16)

Scudamore Place, Ditchingham

Scudamore Place, Ditchingham

The councillors therefore occupied themselves principally with finance and management.  A comprehensive points system was devised to determine allocations; the fact of being an agricultural worker granted 20 points, living with relatives a further 20, and so on in some detail.  The Council also applied its discretion in charging agricultural workers reduced rents, typically 2 shillings (10p) less than the 12 to 15 shillings normally charged for its family homes. Agricultural wages were around 40 percent lower than the national average. (17)

Rural realities impinged in other ways too.  In 1947, the Committee informed Mr Hazell of no. 3 Council Houses, Woodton, that rearing pigs in his back garden contravened his tenancy agreement. But then they relented; by June 1948, it was agreed that pig-keeping regulations (stipulating sties ‘of brick and concrete construction’) be drawn up. (18)

The term ‘problem families’ was first used in 1943. By 1951, it had made its way to Loddon in uncompromising form when the Medical Officer of Health referred to around 100 families in the district characterised by ‘intractable ineducability [and] instability or infirmity of character of one or both parents’. These, he maintained, expressed themselves in: (19)

persistent neglect of children, in fecklessness, irresponsibility, improvidence in the conduct of life and indiscipline in the home wherein dirt, poverty, squalor are often conspicuous.

New issues of housing management – though articulated in ways not far removed from the nineteenth-century language of the ‘undeserving poor’ – were presenting themselves.

Forge Grove, Gillingham

Forge Grove, Gillingham

In many ways, Loddon Rural District Council was typical of rural authorities across the country. There were new demands to decently house the rural working class amidst harsh realities of rural life both persistent and evolving.  But in Loddon an aspirational authority combined with two architects, in Tayler and Green, uniquely committed to the design of high-quality council homes.  Together they bequeathed a legacy of decent, affordable housing which stands not only as a monument to past achievement but to present necessity.

Note

I’ve added additional images of some of the schemes on my Tumblr account: Bergh Apton, Ditchingham, and Gillingham and Loddon.

Sources

The best illustrated and fullest architectural online guide to Tayler and Green’s work is provided by Matt Wood in his Ruralise blog. The essential text is the Harwood and Powers volume referenced below.

(1) The architect and critic Sherban Cantacuzino quoted in Norman Scarfe, ‘The Impact on a Layman of Tayler and Green’s Exemplary Housing’ in Harwood and Powers (eds), Tayler and Green, Architects 1938-1973: The Spirit of Place in Modern Housing (1998)

(2) Loddon Rural District Council, Housing Committee minutes, ‘Housing Programme’, 26 July 1948

(3) Loddon Rural District Council, Housing Committee minutes, 9 February 1948

(4) On ‘converted hutments’, see Loddon Rural District Council, Housing Committee minutes, 28 April 1947 and 1 May 1947; on materials shortages, see 24 June 1947 and 28 June 1948

(5) Loddon Rural District Council, Housing Committee minutes, 31 May 1949

(6) ‘Rural housing for Loddon RDC, Norfolk; Architects: Tayler & Green’, RIBA Journal, vol. 54, October 1947, pp607-09

(7) ‘Loddon Rural District Council, Norfolk: various schemes; Architects: Tayler & Green’, Architecture & Building News, 29 October 1948, pp358-363

(8) ‘Rural housing at Gillingham for Loddon Rural District Council; Architects: Tayler & Green’; RIBA Journal, January 1959, pp 98-99

(9) Ian Nairn, ‘Rural Housing: Post-War Work by Tayler and Green’, Architectural Review, October 1958

(10) Quoted in Elain Harwood, ‘Post-War Landscape and Public Housing’, Garden History, vol. 28, no. 1, Summer, 2000, pp. 102-116

(11) Quoted in David Gray, ‘Tayler and Green, Architects, 1938-1973’, AA Files, no. 37, Autumn 1998, pp. 65-68

(12) Loddon Rural District Council, Medical Officer of Health Report, 1957

(13) Elain Harwood, ‘Tayler & Green and Loddon Rural District Council’ in Harwood and Powers (eds) Tayler and Green, Architects 1938-1973: The Spirit of Place in Modern Housing (1998)

(14) Ian Nairn, ‘Rural Housing: Post-War Work by Tayler and Green’

(15) Charles Holland, ‘Kitchen Sink Realism’, Fantastic Journal blog, July 11 2012

(16) Loddon Rural District Council, Housing Committee minutes, 14 May 1948 and 17 January 1949. The final quotation is drawn from ‘Rural housing at Gillingham for Loddon Rural District Council; Architects: Tayler & Green’

(17) Loddon Rural District Council, Housing Committee minutes, 29 December 1949 and, rents, 6 August 1947. Wage figures from Alun Howkins, The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside Since 1900 (2003)

(18) Loddon Rural District Council, Housing Committee minutes, 13 October 1947 and 28 June 1948

(19) Loddon Rural District Council, Medical Officer of Health Report, 1951

 

Tayler and Green and Loddon Rural District Council, Part I: ‘a set of council houses unequalled in the whole country’

Tags

, , ,

The architects Herbert Tayler and David Green created in south Norfolk what Ian Nairn described as ‘a set of council houses unequalled in the whole country’ – 687 houses, bungalows and flats for Loddon Rural District Council. (1)  Much has been written about the architectural quality and influences of their designs by people better placed than me to explain them and I’ll reference that analysis in my posts.  In this first post, however, I’ve set out to provide some fuller context for their work and, in particular, the otherwise very typical rural local authority that provided their platform.

Tayler and Green

Herbert Tayler (1912-2000) to the left and David Green (1912-1998)

That context is provided firstly by local government: the county councils established in 1889 and the rural district councils five years later.  The initial role of rural district councils was limited, confined largely to matters of water supply and sanitation.  Dominated as they were by the local gentry and middle-class ratepayers, few ventured further. Despite, as we’ll see, the desperate need, very few built housing.  Ixworth in Suffolk and Penshurst in Kent, which built the first rural council housing in 1894 and 1900 respectively, were rare early exceptions.

While legislation in 1890 and 1919 at first allowed and then, to some degree, required councils to build housing, up to 1926 smallholder dwellings had been ‘virtually the sole means of public supply of rural housing’. (2)  The first Small Holdings Act of 1892 and its successors allowed county councils to advance loans to farm labourers and other landless villagers to purchase areas of land up to 50 acres in extent. By 1926, some 30,0000 such small holdings existed. The 1926 Housing (Rural Workers) Act provided another means of addressing the rural housing crisis by enabling local councils to provide loans to landlords to recondition unfit homes.

map1

Map of Loddon Rural District Council, taken from Harwood and Powers (eds), Tayler and Green, Architects 1938-1973: The Spirit of Place in Modern Housing

But the breakthrough so far as rural council housing was concerned did not come till 1936. Then new legislation declared not only ‘the duty of the council of every county … to have constant regard to the housing conditions of the working classes’ but also to ensure ‘the sufficiency of steps which the council of the district have taken, or are proposing to take, to remedy these conditions and to provide further housing accommodation’. The 1936 Act also gave rural councils the power to declare and rebuild ‘slum clearance areas’ which Loddon Rural District Council (RDC) did in Loddon itself and the villages of Ditchingham, Gillingham and Hales.

The bureaucratic language concealed a truly shocking picture.  We can take Loddon as an example.  In 1937, the council’s Medical Officer of Health found 139 homes surveyed unfit or ‘not to be in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation’.  Sixty-six homes inspected for overcrowding were found to contain 72 families and 446 people. (3)

The problem reflected far more than the dereliction of isolated properties.  Public health legislation since 1848 had addressed urban squalor but improving standards of sanitation and sewerage did not extend to rural areas.  Even in 1938, a scheme of 18 new council houses completed in Loddon was provided an external water supply (by means of a well sunk for the purpose and electric pump) but no internal supply or fixed baths. To have provided baths would have required connection to sewers for drainage and that, councillors lamented, was simply too expensive given the inadequacy of government grants. (4)

The 1944 Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act was a belated attempt to address this problem and Loddon RDC was the first council to adopt its provisions. Necessarily so. In 1950, only seven percent of the district’s homes were connected to sewers, fully 83 percent (3000 in number) were reliant on pail closets.  The council employed its own workers to collect what was euphemistically termed ‘night soil’ in three villages. (5)

The litany of statistics can get wearying but it’s worth recording that even by 1964 – after significant progress and in figures which underestimate rural deficiencies by their inclusion of more suburban areas on the Norwich fringes – that 22 percent of homes in the Loddon rural district lacked a cold water tap, 45 percent a hot water tap and 43 percent a fixed bath. Forty-two percent still lacked sewerage. (6)

Typically, after the war new council housing schemes that did eventually emerge were among the first to be properly equipped and connected to mains water and sewerage.  (The usual peripheral location of new council schemes on roads leading into villages made this process easier.) David Green himself took a close and practical interest in the provision of these basic services, looking after ‘engineering matters, such as footings and weight-bearing and drainage’ whilst Tayler was the principal ‘aesthetic arbiter’ of their schemes. (7)

Thurlton College Road

College Road, Thurlton

If pre-war standards weren’t, as we’ve seen, quite so exacting, the Council had nevertheless embarked on a significant housebuilding programme by the late 1930s.  It had pressed for increased government support in a resolution passed by the Housing and Town Planning conference of Local Authorities in the Eastern Counties in 1937. (8) Notwithstanding that, in 1938, the Council completed 118 new homes, contributing to a pre-war total of 262 council homes across the district. Land for a further 163 homes was purchased and provided the Council’s building programme a running start at war’s end.

Leman Grove, Loddon 2

Leman Grove, Loddon. The side extensions reflect later sanitary improvements.

As yet, there was no hint of architectural enterprise. These were the solid, boxy, red-brick houses that began to mark (some said blot) the English countryside in the era.  In 1955, Tayler was to comment caustically that ‘beauty is almost suspected by ratepayers as a fancy extravagance’ whilst advocating for precisely the design and planning then being successfully implemented in Loddon. (9)

Back in 1938, the Council was sufficiently proud of its unreconstructed schemes to include a plaque and date for each as the examples in Loddon and Thurlton show.  Tayler and Green would continue this tradition far more colourfully.

Loddon began its post-war planning in 1944. Tayler and Green had moved to nearby Lowestoft in 1941, following the death of Green’s architect father that year. Even recent biographical accounts are strangely reticent of the fact that they were a gay couple. No doubt, discretion was required in earlier years but it seems, to me at least, that today this is something we can celebrate.  They became significant members of an active East Anglian cultural scene which included, amongst others, Benjamin Britten and they lived together, having retired to Spain on local government reorganisation in 1974, till Green’s death in 1998.

As a business partnership, they received their first local housing commission from Lothingland RDC in 1943 for six houses in Blundeston and Wrentham in Suffolk. Housing for agricultural workers was then in great demand and being heavily promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture.  Such demand – allied with as yet relatively unmechanised farming techniques – was maintained into the 1950s. In 1951, of a local workforce in Loddon Rural District of around 2900, 53 percent worked on the land. (10)

Roger Jones Trees and Wheat Field near Fuller's Farm, Toft Monks CC

Trees and Wheat Field near Fuller’s Farm, Toft Monks © Roger Jones and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The area itself was low-lying and ‘very flat’ as Noel Coward might have said though gently undulating to those of more discerning eye.  Its beauty, if you saw it, lay in its open skies; apart from Loddon itself, just qualifying as a small town with a population of 1100, its other settlements were ‘queer loosely linked agglomerations of houses whose wayward charm is due more to light and air than to the buildings themselves’. (11)  Its overall population stood at a little over 11,800 across some 60,000 acres – just 2 per acre.

In 1945, the Council were looking around for a new consultant architect and in February a delegation inspected Tayler and Green’s work at Wrentham.  The design tweaks and innovations they had applied to the recommended standard design had already attracted attention and the councillors left suitably impressed. Green was appointed the following month.

The rest is history but it’s worth decoding.  Who were these councillors that gave free rein to Tayler and Green to produce such high-quality homes?  Well, they were not, in Ian Nairn’s words:

a miraculous Norfolk race of Men of Taste left over from the eighteenth century; they were just ordinary councillors who had to be argued with and convinced like any set of councillors anywhere.

In 1947, the Housing Committee comprised 15 councillors of whom six were women and four were clergymen.  The chair was Charles Hastings, a land agent at one of the big local houses, Gillingham Hall.  His niece, Mary Bramley, was the lady of the manor and a supportive chair of the RDC from 1962. Elain Harwood references ‘ex-officers, a builder and his wife’ too.  (12)

Beyond this and the implied noblesse oblige of some of the local upper classes at least, it’s hard to go but the local Norfolk Southern parliamentary constituency had returned a Labour MP in 1945 (Christopher Mayhew – he lost his seat in 1950) and the county as a whole was a stronghold of agricultural trades unionism. In 1957, Labour took control of the Council – a first for ‘a rural district council in a purely agricultural area’ as the Daily Herald proclaimed. (13)  One must assume that this working-class voice made its voice heard too.

The Council was at any rate, as Tayler claimed in 1960: (14)

an excellent client in every respect, but particularly in this, that they never fussed over architectural matters, but stated their opinions freely and then left it to us.

This, and the wider story of the district’s council housing, will be followed up in next week’s post.

Sources

(1) Ian Nairn, ‘Rural Housing: Post-War Work by Tayler and Green’, Architectural Review, October 1958

(2) Trevor Wild, Village England.  A Social History of the Countryside (LB Tauris, 2004)

(3) Loddon Rural District Council, Medical Officer of Health Report, 1937

(4) ‘Baths in Council Houses’, Yarmouth Independent, 8 January 1938

(5) Loddon Rural District Council, Medical Officer of Health Report, 1950

(6) Loddon Rural District Council, Medical Officer of Health Report, 1964

(7) Norman Scarfe, ‘Obituary: David Green‘, The Independent, 9 October 1998 and Alan Powers, ‘David Green, Modernist exponent of rural housing’, Architects’ Journal, 15 October 1998

(8) ‘East Anglia Housing Needs’, Yarmouth Independent, June 19, 1937

(9) Herbert Tayler, ‘Landscape in Rural Housing’, Housing Centre Review, no. 3, May/June 1955

(10) 1951 Census, Occupational Classification, Loddon RDC

(11) Ian Nairn, ‘Rural Housing: Post-War Work by Tayler and Green’

(12) Elain Harwood, ‘Tayler & Green and Loddon Rural District Council’ in Harwood and Powers (eds), Tayler and Green, Architects 1938-1973: The Spirit of Place in Modern Housing (1998)

(13) Daily Herald, May 13 1957

(14) Quoted in Harwood, ‘Tayler & Green and Loddon Rural District Council’

ECP Monson: A Thoughtful and Proudly Municipal Architect

Tags

, , , ,

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

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

Monson

ECP Monson

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

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

Sutton Replacement SN

Sutton Estate, Chelsea

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

SuttonRearView SN

Sutton Estate, Chelsea, rear view

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

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

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

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

ParmiterEstate SN

Parmiter Estate, Bethnal Green

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

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

DeltaBrickwork SN

DeltaBalconies SN

Brickwork and balconies on the Delta Estate, Bethnal Green

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

ButlerBrickwork SN

The Butler Estate, Bethnal Green

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

Arches SN 2

Arches at the Sutton and Claredale Estates

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

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

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

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

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

BrecknockFront SN

The Brecknock Estate, Islington

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

BrecknockRear SN

Brecknock Estate, Islington, rear view

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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