Gleadless Valley Estate, Sheffield: ‘Symbol of an emerging city’



Lewis Womersley, having made his reputation in Northampton, was appointed City Architect for Sheffield City Council in February 1953. Many of you of will know his most celebrated project Park Hill but some say his: (1)

supreme, but often overlooked, achievement … is the Gleadless Valley Estate which combined urban housing types and the natural landscape so effectively that it still looks stunning, especially on a bright winter’s day.

Today, we’ll give that scheme its due.

GV General View ND

An early, undated, view of the estate

The context, in this steel city, was firstly the appalling housing conditions created by the rapid urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution. Hitler was to add his own contribution: the Sheffield Blitz in December 1940 killed almost 700 and damaged some 82,000 homes, over half the city’s housing stock. As the city looked to rebuilding, its 1952 Development Plan estimated the need to replace 20,000 unfit homes and build a further 15,000 to cater for the natural increase of population.

Gleadless_Valley_OSM Gregory Deryckère

An OpenStreetMap of the estate created by Gregory Deryckère

Adding to the difficulties of the task were Sheffield’s hilly terrain and restricted borders. An attempt to extend the city’s boundaries in 1953 was rejected; Sheffield had to rely on its own resources. It bought land either side of the Meers Brook – the Gleadless Valley – lying two to three miles south-east of the city centre: ‘a beauty spot considered too steep and north-facing for development in the 1930s but purchased in desperation in 1952-53’. (2)

Elsewhere in the city, the Council looked to high-rise. In 1949, a deputation from the Housing Committee had visited multi-storey schemes in Copenhagen and Stockholm and concluded that these offered both a necessary and attractive way of solving some of the city’s housing problems. By the mid-1950s, density zones of 70 persons per acres had been agreed for greenfield sites, 100-120 for inner-city slum clearance areas and 200 for ‘one great project’ in the city centre. The latter would become Park Hill (and, less grandly, the Hyde Park flats). The Gleadless Valley would be, in its own way, another great project. (4)

The Gleadless Valley offered a rare opportunity for innovative and exciting design and layout but it required a strong council and enterprising Architect’s Department to harness it.  The leadership of the Council came principally in the form of two strong Housing Committee chairs, Councillors Albert Smith and Harold Lambert, who were prepared and able to give Womersley his head.


Lewis Womersley, pictured at Park Hill

Womersley himself – variously described as ‘domineering’ and ‘a no-nonsense Yorkshireman’ – added his own impetus and style. But, despite that powerful persona, Womersley’s key contribution – in an echo of the pluralism of the London County Council Architect’s Department of the day – was to give his team freedom and latitude to develop their own ideas and designs. By 1963 (just before Womersley’s departure for private practice), Sheffield’s Architect’s Department comprised a staff of over 200, of whom 80 were architectural. (5)

Firstly, Gleadless was part of a grand design encompassing the entire city: ‘Sheffield’s situation at the centre of a landscape of hills and slopes was to be visually integrated, united, through public housing’. Harold Lambert believed that: (6)

The careful exploitation of this topography – the building up of hill-top architectural compositions – is gradually producing something of the fascination of the Italian hill towns. It is stimulating; it is exciting!

View of Rollenstone blocks in Gleadless Valley TB 1984 SN

Callow Mount, photographed in 1984 © Tower Block, the University of Edinburgh

Herdings 1987 TB

Morland, Leighton and Raeburn, in the Herdings, photographed in 1987 © Tower Block, the University of Edinburgh

Tower blocks were placed at high points in the city to act as landmarks – in Netherthorpe east of the city centre, Burngreave to the north, and Norfolk Park to the south-east. Additionally, two complexes of point blocks were built in prominent points at either end of the Gleadless Valley scheme: six towers at Callow Mount (one of fifteen storeys and five of thirteen) at the top and three thirteen-storey blocks one mile to the south in the Herdings district. Here, as elsewhere, Womersley applied his favourite maxim from the eighteenth-century landscape architect, Capability Brown, to ‘flood the valleys, plant the tops’.

Callow Mount and cluster blocks SN

The re-clad towers of Callow Mount with cluster blocks in the foreground

When it came to the valley – ‘a piece of impeccable English pastoral landscape, everybody’s favourite summer-evening stroll out of south Sheffield’ – finesse was applied. The Council first carried out an aerial survey and slope analysis; gradients averaged one in eight, it was said. The planners concluded that the topography divided ‘the development naturally into three neighbourhoods’ – Hemsworth, Herdings and Rollestone – with each, reflecting the community thinking of the day, planned to have its own schools and shopping centre. (7)

Sloped Terraces Hemwsworth with Norton Water Tower SN

Sloped terraces in Hemsworth with the Oaks Water Tower to the rear


The natural characteristics of each area have formed the basis for house design and layout. Much research work was carried out in designing house types suitable for the steep slopes, sometimes leading to unconventional solutions.

Here the genius of Womersley’s approach came into its own. Teams of architects were established with specific briefs – some for two-storey homes, some for maisonettes, some for housing for elderly and so on – but the overall vision was to create a truly mixed development with forms appropriate to the landscape in the various areas of the estate. (8)

The estate as a whole, built between 1955 and 1966, would comprise 4451 homes (2387 houses, 1115 flats and 949 maisonettes), housing a population of around 17,200. Of 450 acres in total, housing occupied 267 acres (including ten acres set aside for private housing), and schools, shops and community facilities took up 22 acres. Some 161 acres of the estate were preserved as parkland and woods. Whilst the housing itself reached the prescribed density of some 70 persons per acre, the plentiful open space reduced the overall density to 39 per acre. But, beyond the numbers, its exceptional quality lies in both its vistas and its detail.

Spotswood Mount and Holy Cross Church SN

Spotswood Mount: patio housing and the Holy Cross Church

The vistas – better seen in person – can speak for themselves. Here, we’ll take a closer look at the detail. To begin with some of the most remarkable and innovative designs, there are the patio houses, seen dramatically on Spotswood Mount below Holy Cross Church (itself a striking design by Braddock & Martin-Smith completed in 1965). These three-bed, two-storey homes are carefully stacked up the steep hill leading to the church, their first-floor living rooms giving sweeping views across the valley.

Upside Down House Grindlow Drive SN

An ‘Upside-Down’ house on Grindlow Drive, front and rear

The ‘Upside-Down’ houses dotted around the estate were also designed to both exploit and fit their hilly siting and, as the name implies, are constructed with entrances and living rooms on the upper floor and bedrooms on the lower. Again, they provide stunning views.

Sloped Terraces Ironside Road SN

Sloped terraced housing, Ironside Drive

Sloped terraces of more conventional two-storey homes were another means of coping with the terrain. Three-storey cluster blocks of flats, adapted to the contours, were yet another adaptation. Less attractive – not least through the greying pebbledash that encases them – are the six-storey blocks along Blackstock and Ironside Roads. The (economising) innovation here was the bridged entrance at second-floor level which avoided the need for lifts.

Maisonette Blocks Ironstone Road SN

Maisonette blocks on Ironstone Road

In the words of an admiring Lionel Esher, architect, planner and RIBA president in the mid-sixties: (9)

the architects used every kind of ingenious hill-climbing or adjustable dwelling capable of being entered at any level, with results that are both entertaining and economical.

Higher density housing on flatter land was provided in the four-storey maisonette blocks (concentrated particularly along the Gleadless Road in Rollestone) and three-story blocks of flats elsewhere. And then there are the two-storey houses familiar across the country – the key was always variety and ‘fit’.

Blackstock Road Three-Storey Flats SN

Three-storey flats off Blackstock Road

It was, in all, a stupendous achievement and the estate became a Sheffield showpiece, celebrated in the City Council’s report Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield, published (in English, French and Russian) in 1962 and, ten years later, still shown to official visitors as ‘a symbol of an emerging city’. More importantly, it was popular with tenants who thought they were ‘privileged’ to live there and believed it ‘the finest estate in the city’. Beyond the decent homes and facilities, residents praised ‘the attractive surroundings, greenery and open views’. (9)

Esher, writing in 1981, thought it ‘one of the prettiest suburbs in England and undoubtedly a powerful agent in the embourgeoisement of the Yorkshire working man – whatever one may think of that’. It seems astonishing therefore that some, however unfairly, were describing Gleadless as a ‘sink estate’ not too long after.

Gleadless Road SN

Terraced housing on Gleadless Road

Symbolically, the estate’s later fall was marked by the decision in 2013 of Sainsbury’s, following Tesco, to ban home deliveries to the area. More objectively, recent data place areas of the Gleadless Valley among the five percent most deprived in the country. High rates of crime and antisocial behaviour were also reported.

Whatever the figures and the always complex, more mixed reality on the ground, views of the estate – though sometimes from those who knew it least – were damning: (10)

The perception of the estate in local and national media is as one of the worst places to live … In the Sheffield urban folklore, Gleadless Valley is synonymous with deprivation, anti-social behaviour and crime.

What had happened?

Well, for one, there was mass unemployment. For Sheffield as a whole, the unemployment rate in the 1960s stood at 2 percent; by 1984, it had reached 16 percent. Between 1979 and 1983, Sheffield lost an average of 1000 jobs a month; 21,000 jobs were lost in the steel industry alone.  Working communities – in every sense – stopped working.

The current headline rate of joblessness in the city is, of course, much lower but such data take little account of the numbers working in low-paid and precarious employment. The testimony of one Gleadless Valley resident captured the shift: (11)

There aren’t many jobs round here, so no-one has got much money. That’s just the way it is. My dad used to work in a steel mill and when I was at school my work experience was done in a steel mill. If the jobs were there … I would have gone into the same work as my dad. That’s what people always did but those jobs have gone now.

Instead, Jack Clithero was working eleven hours a week at £8.50 an hour in ‘the chippy round the corner’.

Ironside Road flats SN

Flats on Ironside Road

For those in work and receiving benefits and those who were unemployed, the impact of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government’s welfare reforms from 2010 was also devastating. Cuts to Housing Benefit, disability benefits, the impact of the Bedroom Tax and so on were estimated to have reduced the average annual income of working-age adults in Gleadless Valley by £570 – equating, beyond their personal impact, to an £8.8 million hit to the local economy. (12)

There have been other social changes. The growth of smaller households means that the estate, designed for an average approaching four persons per home, is – at 55 percent of its maximum occupancy level – significantly under-occupied. As a result of Right to Buy, just 50 percent of homes are now social rented, 38 percent owner-occupied and 12 percent privately rented. (13)

Maisonette Blocks Spotswood Drive SN

Maisonette blocks on Spotswood Drive

If all this takes us some way from the architecture and design of the estate, that’s no accident. Of course, there has been some obsolescence. The six-storey maisonette blocks haven’t stood up particularly well. Ground floor garaging in some of the larger maisonette blocks – designed in the car-friendly, affluent sixties – is underutilised and may be adapted.

Herdings Twin Towers from Ironside Road SN

The now ‘Twin Towers’ of Herdings glimpsed from Ironside Road

The tower blocks were renovated between 1998 and 2011. Their colourful new cladding (thankfully found fire-resistant) makes a visual impact that perhaps even Harold Lambert wouldn’t have anticipated. One tower – Raeburn Place in the Herdings – was demolished in 1996, not through any structural failing but because it was found to have been built on a fault. Flats in Handbank House on Callow Mount are now reserved for elderly people.

Welcome Sign SNIn general, the estate escaped large-scale regeneration in its earlier iterations but in 2017 it was allocated £515,000 from the Government’s Estate Regeneration Programme. Resident consultations have followed and various ideas floated. There is a case for new and more diverse housing in Gleadless Valley, for the remodelling of some existing housing and for better use of some of its open space. Residents were clear, however, that they didn’t want the estate sold off to a private developer and it’s a sign of Sheffield’s continuing municipal ambition that it will take the lead role in the thirty-year programme to follow.

Gleadless Valley is not a failed estate, merely an estate that has grown older in a changing world. As Owen Hatherley has argued, ‘even the tweediest anti-Modernist would have to apply industrial strength blinkers to see this place as harsh or inhuman’.  He describes it as an example of the English picturesque – ‘the aesthetic at its most stunning’.

A Times article in 1969 was similarly extravagant in its praise: (15)

Gleadless Valley has the fragmented quality of a village. Here the footpaths wander through rough grass, sidle past back doors, lead under the main road and suddenly emerge in the shopping centre … It is a casual, slightly shaggy environment on which the planners have used the lightest of touches … Gleadless Valley is touched with the English genius for country things: it is a place for children, for family life …

Some of those judgements would later be contested but the estate remains a powerful fulfilment of the political and architectural ideals which inspired it. It remains, quite simply, in its layout and design, one of the outstanding council housing schemes of the last century.

Can this century rediscover some of that ambition and vision?


(1) Ruth Harman, John Minnis, Roger H. Harper, Sheffield, (Yale University Press, 2004)

(2) Elain Harwood, Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975 (Yale University Press, 2014)

(3) Another, more extensive, visit to continental Europe followed in 1954. The ensuing report, ‘Multi-Storey Housing in Some European Countries: Report of the City of Sheffield Housing Deputation’, approved by the Housing Committee in March 1955, concluded that members were ‘satisfied that housing development in the form of well-designed multi-storey flats can provide living standards which are in every way adequate as an alternative to two-storey housing’.

(4) Lionel Esher, A Broken Wave: the Rebuilding of England 1940-1980 (Allen Lane, 1981)

(5) The characterisations of Womersley’s personality come from Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State: An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970  (Scottish Centre of Conservation Studies, 2017) and Esher respectively.  Details of the Architect’s Department are drawn from FE Pearce Edwards, JL Womersley and W George Davies, ‘The Work of the Sheffield City Architect’s Department’, Official Architecture and Planning, Vol 26, No. 7 (July 1963)

(6) The preceding quotation comes from Muthesius and Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State. The words of Harold Lambert come from his foreword to Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield, published by the Housing Development Committee of the Corporation of Sheffield in April 1962.

(7) The Corporation of Sheffield, Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield. The quotation which follows is drawn from the same source.

(8) For a map and typology of the estate’s varied housing, see Urbed, Gleadless Valley Masterplan Public Consultation Boards, pp1-7

(9) The first quote, from the Morning Telegraph, 21 June 1972, and the following are drawn from Barry Goodchild, ‘Local Authority Flats: A Study in Area Management and Design’, The Town Planning Review, vol 58, no 3, July 1987

(10) See Manor, Arbourthorne and Gleadless Housing Market Profile (ND but the data is drawn from the early 2010s). The quotation comes from Reform, Gleadless Valley (ND), uploaded by Sid Fletcher of TowerBlockMetal who has also written fully and informatively on the estate.

(11) Jack Clithero, ‘I thought I’d follow my dad into the steel mill but those days are gone: My Wigan Pier Story’, Daily Mirror, 26 February 2018

(12) Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill, The Impact of Welfare Reform on Communities and Households in Sheffield (Sheffield Hallam University Centre for Regional Economic and Social, November 2014)

(13) See Urbed, Gleadless Valley Masterplan Public Consultation Boards, pp1-7

(14) Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain (Verso, 2010)

(15) Gordon Aspland, ‘Achievements in Bulk Housing’, The Times, 10 November 1969

The Campsbourne Cottage Estate, Hornsey: ‘a colony of self-contained workmen’s dwellings unsurpassed in the country’



I’m delighted to feature another guest post today, this by Ray Rogers. Ray is a conservation and historic buildings specialist with a long-standing interest in housing policy and design going back to his early experience of designing council housing in a London borough architects’ department. He is currently writing a series of conservation area appraisals and management plans.

The Campsbourne Cottage Estate in Hornsey, north London, is an early example of council housing built following powers granted to municipal authorities by the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890. The first part of the Campsbourne estate pre-dates the London County Council’s better-known cottage estates such as Totterdown Fields in Tooting and Tower Gardens in Tottenham.

Nightingale Lane

Nightingale Lane

The design and detailing of the houses and the quality of materials and workmanship give the estate its distinctive character. Apart from some bomb damage sustained in World War Two and some recent alterations to individual houses, the estate remains substantially unchanged in appearance and is exceptionally well preserved. However, it is the story behind the creation of the Campsbourne estate that illustrates the pioneering nature of such developments in responding to the housing issues of their time.

SKM_C45819103009490Early housing legislation such as the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875 gave local authorities powers to clear entire areas of ‘insanitary’ buildings but few municipalities (with the exception of major cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool and the London County Council) fulfilled the requirement to replace housing lost through slum clearance, and those that did so mainly relied on philanthropic bodies such as the Peabody Trust to undertake rebuilding.

Most new housing was provided by private speculative builders and in Hornsey as elsewhere these houses were aimed at the emerging lower middle classes. It was the skilled working class that was most directly affected by cyclical slumps in speculative building and the rising cost of housing, and advocates of housing for working people made the case that: (1)

working men of all grades and occupations have been unable to get a decent cottage to live in and have had to choose between occupying part of expensive and overcrowded houses, quite unsuitable for more than one family, or occupying a dilapidated and insanitary dwelling … commonly described as slums.

From the last decade of the 19th century a new type of municipal housing emerged, not just replacing ‘unhealthy’ housing lost through slum clearance but providing a net addition to the housing stock. This was given statutory basis by Part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. The new Urban District Councils, created under the Local Government Act of 1894, were well placed to take advantage of these new powers and Hornsey U.D.C. lost little time in implementing the opportunities offered by the 1890 Act, following its adoption by the authority in 1896.

Corner of Northview Road and Nightingale Lane

Northview Road corner with Nightingale Lane

Hornsey is now part of the London borough of Haringey but until the late 19th century it was a historic settlement straddling both sides of Hornsey High Street. Development of the surrounding open fields proceeded rapidly following the opening of Hornsey station in the late 1860s. Twenty-four acres of land north of the High Street were acquired in 1866 by the British Land Company which laid out an estate of speculative terraced houses that followed the grid iron street pattern and narrow fronted houses typical of ‘by-law’ housing.

Further development was delayed until after 1896 when the Priory estate was sold, of which four and a half acres of land to the west of Nightingale Lane, on the southern boundary of Alexandra Palace, was acquired by Hornsey U.D.C. in 1897. By 1899 the council had built 108 cottages in Nightingale Lane and in Northview and Southview Roads. Another six acres were bought in 1902 and a second scheme of another 140 cottages was started in 1904. (2)

Hornsey is an exceptionally healthy and well-managed urban district in the northern suburbs of London, contrasting very favourably with other urban districts further eastwards. Realising that ‘prevention is better than cure’ the Council and its officers have endeavoured to prevent the growth of new slum areas by themselves establishing a good supply of model cottages for workmen rather than have their district unduly disfigured and deteriorated by the objectionable and overcrowded products of the jerry-builder.

Nightingale Lane early

An early photograph of Nightingale Lane

Both schemes (and a third scheme in Highgate) were overseen by Edwin J Lovegrove, the Borough Engineer and Surveyor, who had designed an earlier cottage development for Richmond Town Council, the ‘Richmond Municipal Cottages’, regarded as one of the first successful cottage developments and described in detail by William Thompson in his Housing Handbook of 1903. Thompson also describes the Hornsey cottages development, then known as the Nightingale Lane scheme, with special attention given to the costs and financing of the project, resulting in a self-financing development with rents considerably lower than those in the private rental market and with no impact on the local rates. On reviewing the Campsbourne schemes in 1905 James Cornes wrote: (3)

No wonder that, with so much knowledge of this subject, he (Lovegrove) has been able … to rear a colony of self-contained workmen’s dwellings unsurpassed in the country. This for London is a revolution in cottage building, and clearly indicates the thought, care, and real ability that the Surveyor must of necessity have put into this work. The Housing Committee and Corporation must be congratulated upon the excellent results of this undertaking, and for the splendid example they have been able to set to other municipalities.

On the east side of Nightingale Lane, the Campsbourne School, opened in 1897, was contemporary with the cottage estate. Designed by Thomas Chatfield Clarke, architect to Hornsey School Board, the school buildings are a good example of a late Queen Anne style Board school.

Northview Road

Northview Road

The first Campsbourne scheme had two classes of houses, Class A having a sitting-room, living room, scullery and three bedrooms and Class B having similar accommodation but smaller and with two bedrooms. The sitting room was in fact the ‘front parlour’ and the living room was the kitchen with scullery attached.

SKM_C45819103009490The second scheme was more ambitious in the range and size of cottages provided. There were four classes of dwelling: Class A had a sitting room, living room, scullery and four bedrooms; Class B the same but with three bedrooms and Class C had two bedrooms. Class D contained a living room, small scullery, bathroom and two bedrooms. The innovation in this scheme was the use of Cornes and Haighton’s combined range, copper and bath in each cottage. The bath could be covered when not in use. The Class A cottage provided for the larger family, as described with typical Edwardian moral condescension by James Cornes in 1905: (3)

… attention should be given to the highest rented cottage in the scheme, providing as it does four bedrooms and a larger sitting room and living room, let to the working man with a wage earning family, thus keeping in a comfortable home grown-up sons and daughters who, too frequently, are turned out into the world and, as a result, contract early and undesirable marriages which might have been avoided had the home surroundings been of a different character.


Second scheme – Class A cottage

The completed cottage estate consisted of four streets of two storey houses arranged in short terraces of six to eight houses each. The houses are built in red brick with shallow brick arches over window and door openings. Each of the end of terrace houses are stepped forward slightly and have large projecting gables with barge boards, with two smaller gables within the terrace. The houses have flat street fronts and there are no bays or other projections apart from some porches on the second phase of building.

Northview Road 2

Northview Road

The plain uniformity of the terraces is lightened by the use of simple repetitive detailing in the brickwork. All of the houses have a scalloped brick relief panel set beneath each window cill and a course of dog tooth brickwork set between two projecting brick courses runs along the full length of each terrace.

Southview Road

Southview Road

The houses in Nightingale Lane, Northview Road and Southview Road formed the first phase of development. On these houses the dog-tooth band course runs across each elevation at first floor window cill level. On Nightingale Lane and Northview Road the large chimney stacks also have a dogtooth detail. Northview Road, together with the Nightingale Lane frontage, is the best-preserved of the two streets as Southview Road was affected by bomb damage in World War Two.

Beechwood Road

Beechwood Road

Hawthorn Road and Beechwood Road comprised the second phase of the development and show some changes in form and materials, although still based on terraces each of six or eight houses. The main difference is the use of yellow London stock brick for alternate terraces on both sides of the road, giving the street frontage a more varied and picturesque appearance than in the first phase. The dogtooth band course is retained on the red brick terraces but it runs in a continuous band midway between ground and first floor instead of at window cill level.

Hawthorn Road

Hawthorn Road

On some of the yellow brick terraces the dogtooth detail was replaced with a continuous projecting band of dentilled brickwork in red brick and a similar detail can be seen on some terraces in the LCC’s Tower Gardens estate. The window arches and scalloped relief panel are also all in red brick. Five of the later terraces have paired porches either side of the projecting party wall with a lean-to slate roof and small paned windows.

Hawthorn Road 3

Hawthorn Road

Hawthorn Road 4 Hi Res SN

Hawthorn Road

By 1914 the rest of the land south of Alexandra Palace and to the west of Nightingale Lane had been developed by private builders, completing Northview, Southview, Hawthorn and Beechwood Roads with speculative terraced housing, some using the eclectic pattern book of local architect John Farrer and others in the form of ‘Tyneside’ flats, in which the street frontage has two front doors, one leading to a ground floor flat and the second leading directly to a staircase to a first floor flat.

OS Map

1914 Ordnance Survey map showing the extent of the cottage estate with Alexandra Park to the north

Building in Hornsey stopped in 1914 and after the war councillors could not agree on the need for further council housing in the borough, with many feeling that adequate provision had been made pre-war. The council resisted complying with the Housing and Town Planning Act (the Addison Act) of July 1919, which charged local authorities with building more working-class homes with controlled rents, even though poor housing and insanitary conditions, particularly in the Campsbourne area, had been brought to the attention of its Public Health Committee. An editorial in the Hornsey journal of 7th February 1919 said: (4)

Inasmuch as Hornsey is not altogether what is superficially described as a “working-class” area, it will be seen that the Town Council have not lagged in the provision of workmen’s dwellings. The first of the four schemes was completed in 1898 and the last in 1912. We have reason to believe that the dwellings are almost exclusively occupied by men who actually earn their living in the borough – the local police, the postmen, municipal employees, and others.

The Council can say with the strictest veracity that they have provided for a considerable number of families, but that no further accommodation is needed is not so incontrovertible. Is there no overcrowding in Hornsey? Is there no “unsuitable accommodation”? Are the artisan and the labouring the only classes for whom cheap provision should be made?

Beechwood Road 2

Beechwood Road

Towards the end of 1919 the council eventually gave in to pressure and instructed Edwin Lovegrove to draw up plans for 79 houses to be built on land that had been requisitioned during the war for allotments. However, the housing scheme was never progressed, being dropped on grounds of cost, and the land was bought by the council in 1923 as part of the newly laid out Priory park. This marks the end of a chapter in the pioneering of council house building in Hornsey.

Hawthorn Road 2

Hawthorn Road

The Campsbourne Cottage estate makes no pretensions to great architecture or town planning, being barely touched by the influence of the early Garden City movement, but nevertheless it remains a significant milestone in the provision of affordable housing for working class families and when compared to the housing typical of the time this was no mean achievement. (3)

… Within a few miles of the heart of London he (E J Lovegrove) has succeeded in building a self-contained cottage with a forecourt, garden at the rear and four rooms including a bath and every other modern convenience, to let at 6s. 6d. per week inclusive rental.

The houses are still much valued today. The estate was designated as a conservation area in 1994. A conservation area appraisal and management plan has recently been prepared and it is hoped this will assist the planning authority in controlling some of the piecemeal changes being wrought by ‘home improvements’ that are beginning to detract from the unified appearance of the estate.


If you’re interested in learning more of Hornsey’s local history, do visit the website of the Hornsey Historical Society.


(1) William Thompson, quoted in The Lowestoft Journal, 25 February 1899

(2) William Thompson, The Housing Handbook (1903)

(3) James Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country (1905)

(4) Janet Owen, Hornsey’s Post-War Housing Problem, Hornsey Historical Society

Council Housing in Portsmouth, Part II from 1945: Suburbs and High-Rise


, , ,

As we saw in last week’s post, Portsmouth entered what were hoped to be the sunny uplands of the post-war era with high ambitions. In 1945, the City Council owned and managed around 3300 council homes but some 11,000 families were on its waiting list.  In total, the council estimated that the city needed some 32,000 new homes within five years – to replace some 17,000 judged unfit or affected by re-planning as well as 15,000 required for ‘general needs’. As was typical across the country, however, the housing crisis at first dictated a crisis response in the form of temporary prefabricated housing. (1)

Bedhamptn Nissen Huts

Nissen huts and duck pond, Leigh Park

Temporary buildings to rehouse a bombed-out population had been erected in the Fraser Road area as early as 1941.  Portsmouth, as a significant naval base, was also able to press Services’ Nissen huts into operation as it did in in Bedhampton and Leigh Park. Those on the Stockheath Camp formed Leigh Park’s first classrooms till replaced by permanent buildings in 1950. Additionally, around 700 more conventional temporary prefabs were constructed across the city. (2)

Wymering Peterborough Road SN

Peterborough Road, Wymering

The Council’s first permanent new post-war housing was occupied in July 1946; 54 houses built on Peterborough Road, Wymering.  And its 2000th new home was completed in Wymering in November 1947. This was an exceptional speed of building at the time; Portsmouth’s rate of construction placed it eighth among the 1469 local authorities in England and Wales.

EAW020629 Paulsgrove Housing Estate, Paulsgrove, 1948

Paulsgrove Housing Estate, 1948, showing Maunder’s curving streetscapes and a large number of temporary prefabs at the top of the image. EAW020629, Britain from Above © Historic England

A large number of these homes were built on land within the city borders at Paulsgrove to the west of Wymering and begun in 1946.  The new estate was originally envisaged by City Planning Officer FAC Maunder as a self-contained community with a mix of private and council homes and a full range of shopping and social facilities.

Paulsgrove Elkstone Road

BISF houses on Elkstone Road, Paulsgrove

Many of the estate’s new homes were of the permanent prefabricated type that it was anticipated would solve the housing crisis (they also drew additional subsidy). In Paulsgrove, around 1000 steel-framed and steel-clad British Iron and Steel Federation Houses (BISF) were built alongside smaller numbers of Howard (steel-framed and clad with asbestos panels) and Easiform houses (constructed of in-situ poured concrete).

Paulsgrove Thirlmere House SN

Thirlmere House, Paulsgrove

But the Conservative Council’s preference for a mixed tenure scheme in Paulsgrove proved unfeasible as did, apparently, those promises of community infrastructure. The estate’s first shops (in temporary Nissen huts) weren’t opened till 1949; its community centre not till 1963. Inadequate bus services were also criticised.  As around half the estate’s population – reaching 10,000 by 1951 – were under 15, social problems emerged though individual homes, with front and back gardens and generous space standards, were popular. (3)

Bramdean Drive 1949

Bramdean Avenue, Leigh Park, 1949

Similar deficiencies appeared at Leigh Park, envisaged as the Council’s showpiece and originally planned to house 25,000 people in over 7000 homes. Construction work began in 1947 and the first residents moved into homes on Bramdean Avenue in 1949. At the same time, it appeared the larger project might be aborted. Max Lock had been appointed by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to prepare a district plan which the Ministry hoped might overcome the hostility of neighbouring local authorities to the Leigh Park scheme. Lock concluded that further expansion should be halted; that it was, essentially, a large, single-class, overspill suburb, rather than a new town.  Fortunately for the city, the Ministry ignored this rather accurate critique and in 1951 gave permission to Portsmouth to expand the scheme to 9000 homes.

Park Parade 1960s 3

Park Parade, Leigh Park, opened in 1955 and is shown here in the 1960s

Whilst Leigh Park grew to a population of over 40,000 by the early 1970s, its early development was slow – the first permanent shops appeared in 1952 and permanent schools and places of worship from the mid-1950s. Many of the earliest residents – very much the pioneers – welcomed their new homes and green surroundings: (4)

My first impression of Leigh Park was that the freshness and the openness was like being set free. That was wonderful, the fresh air was marvellous. To us it was paradise.

But for others it was a difficult move:

It was a lonely life really … The air was nice and all that. I felt a bit depressed though, coming up from Portsmouth. But we had to settle, well, I wasn’t used to the countryside that’s what it seemed to me, coming out here.

And, for nearly all in the earliest years, there were the practical difficulties of unfinished roads and lack of pavements: ‘you would have to wear your wellingtons in Leigh Park and take your decent shoes in a bag on the bus’.  In the mid-1950s, some 70 percent of local workers travelled more than four miles to work; 14 percent worked at the Portsmouth Dockyard. Local employment was created in a small industrial estate from this time but the cinema, civic centre and swimming pool promised never materialised and the estate has coped with many problems as it has matured. (4)


The Warren, Leigh Park, pictured in 1967 © Portsmouth City Council, A Tale of One City


Later housing in the Warren, pictured in 1970 © Portsmouth City Council, A Tale of One City

Politically, Leigh Park suffered as a Portsmouth estate situated in Havant which lacked political representation on the City Council though active tenants’ groups made up this deficiency in part.  Some criticised the politics of the Council itself. Though it promoted a large-scale council housebuilding programme, the Council’s Conservative complexion was made clear in a number of respects.

It favoured, for example, ‘mixed development’.  It had originally hoped that both Portsdown and Leigh Park might be joint public-private ventures. Post-war restrictions made that impossible but the Council was unusual in building a number of council homes for ‘higher income groups’. These, maintained on a separate register, apparently proved popular.

It was also an early proponent of Right to Buy, instituting the policy for its own council homes in 1952.  The policy was paused in 1961 – by which time some 643 houses had been sold off – following the complaint of the Housing Director that the Council was losing many of its best homes but resumed in 1967.

The Council also pursued a policy of ‘economic’ rents in the hope of making the Housing Revenue Account self-supporting.  Rent rises averaging 20 percent in 1965 prompted two protest marches, the latter involving some 20,000 people.  A subsequent survey found Portsmouth’s average weekly rent of £2.58 a quarter higher than the national average and the highest outside Greater London. (5)

Lake Road and Clearance (Pickwick House)

Clearance and new build to the north of Lake Road in this undated photograph. I believe it shows the Nelson Road high-rise towards the top left, built in the early 1960s.

Nationally, as the immediate post-war housing crisis was receding by the mid-1950s, attention was turned again to slum clearance.  In 1957, the Council identified some 7000 homes in the city for demolition. In the same year, the application of Portsmouth for a significant boundary extension – it shared with many urban authorities of the time a fear of population loss and rate revenue reduction – was rejected by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Portsmouth’s policy, pursued to some degree since the 1930s and formalised in 1962, of rehousing displaced residents in central areas added pressure to build at greater density in the inner city, as did the reluctance of some residents to move to the distant council suburbs on the mainland.

Darwin House Australia Close SN

Darwin House, Australia Close, today

View of Nickleby House, Pickwick House, and Blackwood House from Wingfield Street 1984 TB

View of Nickleby House, Pickwick House, and Blackwood House from Wingfield Street, 1984 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh, and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The city’s first multi-storey blocks – the eight-storey Darwin House in Australia Close and the eight-storey Brisbane House and seven-storey Blackwood House on London Road – had been built in the early 1950s.

High-rise was fully embraced with the agreement to build the twelve-storey Pickwick House nearby in 1960. City Architect Frank Mellor was an early proponent of high-rise and drew the attention of the Council to the ‘many people who are being rehoused … that want to stay in Portsmouth’. The argument of Housing Committee chair Frank Miles that ‘a diminishing population would adversely affect the Government block grant to Portsmouth’ and the attractions of the high-rise subsidy instituted in 1956 (which provided a higher grant the taller the building) completed the case. (6)

Sarah Robinson House and Handsworth House SN

Sarah Robinson House (to the left) and Handsworth House (approved 1966)

From then on, Portsmouth built high on a large scale.  Millgate House, a twenty-storey block on Butcher Street, was approved in 1962; twenty-one storey Sarah Robinson House, on Queen Street in 1964; and 24-storey Ladywood House, off Winston Churchill Avenue, in 1966 – all constructed by Wimpey. Other high-rise blocks are dotted around the city.

Leamington and Horatia Houses SN

Leamington and Horatia Houses today, de-cladded and awaiting demolition

But problems were soon to emerge in the high-rise and system-building drive that characterised the 1960s. Following the partial collapse of Ronan Point in east London in May 1968, eight similar Large Panel System-built blocks in Portsmouth were strengthened and their gas supplies removed.  Among these were Leamington and Horatia Houses.  More recently, the Grenfell disaster has added new and desperate concerns.  Leamington and Horatia Houses have since had their later Grenfell-style cladding removed but a surveyor’s report has found the buildings structurally unsound.  Their residents are being rehoused prior to the blocks’ demolition.

Portsdown TB 1984

Portsdown Park, 1984 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh, and made available through a Creative Commons licence

That, in the end, was also the sad denouement of Portsmouth’s last great innovative housing venture, Portsdown Park – a ‘mixed-rise’ scheme (blocks ranged from 17 to six storeys) of 520 homes built between 1968 and 1975. Designed, after a national architectural competition, by Theakston and Duell, problems developed early on despite – or perhaps because of – its striking design.

Portsdown Park TB 1984

Portsdown Park, 1984 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh, and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Serious water penetration and condensation issues affected almost half the tenants: ‘condensation ran down the walls and dripped from light sockets, carpets became like wet sponges and clothes left inside wardrobes became mouldy’, according to one account.  The estate’s overall layout, walkways and underground car parks and lack of facilities were also criticised and serious problems of antisocial behaviour developed. By 1984, the Council felt there was little option but demolition.  The Cosham Heights estate stands in its place. (7)

Wilmcote House SN

Wilmcote House today, renovated to Passivehaus standards

In 1981, around 22 percent of Portsmouth’s population lived in some 25,000 council homes. By 2015, those numbers had reduced to 10 percent and some 10,250 council homes – a further 5000 homes were located in Havant and 6000 rented from housing associations.  Right to Buy has had the major impact – over 12,200 houses and 1800 flats were sold to tenants between 1980 and 2011; the near cessation of new build to the present has compounded the problem.  The Council has been criticised for its inaction in recent years but currently claims to be building around 200 new social rent homes.  In one innovative departure, Wilmcote House, a Bison Large Panel System block completed in 1968, has recently been retrofitted to Passivhaus standards. (8)

Alexander-McKee-House 2020

Alexander McKee House, some of Portsmouth’s newest council housing

Whilst there is no doubt that promise sometimes exceeded fulfilment, Portsmouth City Council’s housebuilding programme has made a vital contribution towards providing decent and affordable homes in one of the poorest cities in South-east England (currently around 22 percent of the city’s children live in poverty, the proportion reaches 40 percent in Charles Dickens Ward).  The lessons of the past – both positive and negative – remind us that decent and affordable social housing is as vital today as it was when our story began in 1912.


* My thanks to Mark Swenarton for pointing me to this reference in his book Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2018).  The design competition organised for the Portsdown development attracted 91 entries and was of national significance. A number of teams from the Architectural Association submitted low-rise proposals but found low-rise and stepped schemes ruled out by the assessors. A special protest issue of the Architectural Association Journal in March 1966 featured three proposed low-rise schemes for Portsdown and marked an important moment in the shift towards the low-rise, high-density design that became influential from this point. 


(1) See Tatsuya Tsubaki, Post-war Reconstruction and the Questions of Popular Housing Provision, 1939-1951, PhD thesis in Social History, University of Warwick, 1993, and JA Cook, Policy Implementation in Housing: A Study of the Experience of Portsmouth and Derby, 1945-74, PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, 1985

(2) For full details of adapted naval bases, see Robert W Hind, The Naval Camps of Bedhampton and Leigh Park (Spring Arts and Heritage Centre and Leigh Park Community Centre, 2017)

(3) See Tsubaki, Post-war Reconstruction and the Questions of Popular Housing Provision and also Tim Lambert, A Brief History of Council Housing in Portsmouth

(4) Ralph Cousins, The Early Years of the Leigh Park Housing Estate (Havant Borough History Booklet No 69, 2016)

(5) JA Cook, Policy Implementation in Housing: A Study of the Experience of Portsmouth and Derby

(6) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (1993). For the subsidy argument, see R Windle (ed), City of Portsmouth Records of the Corporation, 1966-74 (1978)

(7) The quotation comes from Strong Island, ‘Portsdown Park’. See also, Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

(8) See Portsmouth City Council, A History of Council Housing in Portsmouth (2011) and Portsmouth City Council, Shaping the future of housing: A strategic plan for Portsmouth (ND)

Council Housing in Portsmouth, Part I to 1945: ‘Providing for the health and betterment of the people’


, , ,

Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city.  Though the relatively narrow Portsbridge Creek, on the landward side, has been bridged several times, historically the city’s location has given it the highest population density in the country and it’s helped contribute to what is a particularly rich and diverse housing history.

Portsmouth’s population grew from around 32,000 in 1800 to over 188,000 by century’s end.  That rapid growth created the poor housing conditions typical of the era; a cholera outbreak in 1849 killed around 1000 people and a Government health inspector Robert Rawlinson described the town as ‘one huge cesspool’. It had become through its long Victorian terraces what some call ‘the northern city on the south coast’.  (1)

Mearns Fraser 1934

Dr Andrew Mearns Fraser, pictured in 1934

Municipally, our story begins in 1909 when the unusually go-ahead Medical Officer of Health of the Borough Council (it became a city in 1926), Dr Andrew Mearns Fraser, carried out a survey of Portsmouth’s insanitary housing. He identified, in a report entitled ‘Improvement Scheme for an Unhealthy Area in Portsea’ published the following year, a particular area near the naval dockyards as worthy of reform and, unusually, recommended not mere clearance or a garden suburb but an inner-city town planning scheme. (1)

Map of Improvement Area

Portsea Imporvement Scheme B

Mearns Fraser’s original plans for Curzon Howe Road

A notable feature of Mearns Fraser’s proposal was a central square ‘planted with trees, which shall be a lung for the neighbourhood, and afford a playground for children’.  His determination to tackle the prevalence of lung disease in the neighbourhood (seven times higher than the rest of the borough) was shown in another innovation; whilst the cottage designs generally reflected the progressive influence of housing reformer Raymond Unwin, Type B offered ’a more original plan’ – a single, dual-aspect ‘large, and well lighted living room’ to replace the smaller parlour and living room then usually favoured.

Curzon Howe Road SN

Curzon Howe Road today

In the end, cost-cutting won the day. Though 193 run-down houses were demolished, a far more conventional – though still attractive and well-proportioned – linear street of 43 new houses emerged. The council could, however, still take justifiable pride in Curzon Howe Road when it was officially opened in October 1912.  The Cluett family recorded a tenancy of 76 years at no 26, beginning in 1915 but apparently now just three of the homes remain in council ownership.

Curzon Howe Plaque SN

The plaque unveiled in 1912 and pictured contemporarily

The First World War and its aftermath brought more pressure to clear slums and build the ‘homes for heroes’ promised by prime minister Lloyd George. The Council, still securely in Conservative hands, hesitated initially, concerned over high building costs (at around £1000 per house) and rents likely reaching 12 to 16 shillings (60 to 80p) a week. It’s an indication of the pressure brought by central government at the time that it took a phone call from the Ministry of Health and Housing’s local commissioner – threatening a motion for default against the council – to force its hand. (3)

Councillor Charles Childe (chair of the Housing Committee) at least was clear that the Council must seize the moment:

He agreed the housing schemes were not a business proposition, but there was a side of the housing question that was not economic. By carrying out these schemes they would be providing for the health and betterment of the people. It was better to spend money in that way rather than in building sanatoria.

Wymering Medina Road

Medina Road, Wymering Garden Village

In the end, helped by a 1920 boundary extension which incorporated Cosham and Wymering on the mainland to the north, Portsmouth built 591 homes under Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act.  Among the largest estates were Henderson Road in Eastney, with 254 homes, and what was called a little grandiloquently Wymering Garden Village. After that, the Council’s eloquence failed and most of the estate’s hundred or so new houses – good quality homes along tree-lined streets – were built on First, Second and Third Avenues off Medina Road.

Wymering Medina Road 1924 SN

Unusually this pair of houses on Medina Road, Wymering, is precisely dated: 1924

Lloyd George’s promise and Addison’s programme were cut short by spending cuts in 1921 but municipal housebuilding was revived by Housing Acts in 1923 and, more importantly, 1924.  Portsmouth built 951 homes under the 1924 Act, most dotted around the island, a few to the far north on Portsdown Hill.

Voller Street St Faiths Road

Cottage flats, St Faiths Road

Nationally, the housing programme took a new direction in 1930 when Arthur Greenwood’s Housing Act targeted slum clearance and the rehousing of its residents for the first time. Here Portsmouth was ahead of the game, having demolished 381 derelict homes in Portsea under the 1924 Act.  Eighty-nine further homes were cleared around Voller Street in Landport.  The street disappeared but the 52 cottage flats built to replace them on St Faiths and Temple Streets remain.

Campaigning by the local press may have played its part. The Evening News invited readers on the waiting list – over 1000-strong in 1924 – to send details of their housing circumstances and it publicised the most egregious cases, for example a five-roomed cottage inhabited by twelve people: ‘the applicant has six children and his wife died of tuberculosis and the lodger is in the last stages of the disease’, it reported. (4)

Isle of Wight Estate Brightstone Road SN

Brightstone Road, Isle of Wight Estate

Portsmouth built a further 1148 homes under the 1930 legislation – houses in Landport and Portsea on the island and major schemes to the north in Wymering, north of Whitstable Road and south of Medina Road on the so-called Isle of Wight Estate where roads were named after Wight towns.

Slum clearance remained a priority, however, pushed by central government and encouraged by Mearns Fraser’s successor as Medical Officer of Health, Dr AB Williamson, who described slums as ‘radiating centres of disease and health and mental degradation’ at a local church conference in 1934.   That message was endorsed by Councillor AE Allaway, chair of the Health Committee, who was clear that ‘money spent on slum clearance will be more than saved in other health services’. (5)

For the moment, Portsmouth was prepared to put its money where its mouth was. The Council had scheduled (declared for clearance) fifteen areas, nine of them on the island, involving the demolition of 796 homes and the rehousing of some 3659 residents. Some 508 individual insanitary houses were additionally slated for demolition. In total, the Council estimated around a 1000 new council homes would be required. (6)

AE Allaway

Cllr AE Allaway

The issue of where this housing should be was also beginning to preoccupy the Council.  Councillor Allaway hoped that by means of three-storey flats it would be possible to ‘to put quite one-third more people on the sites than if we built houses’.  By 1937, turning back to the pioneering work of Andrew Mearns Fraser, a Special Committee of the Council had been convened ‘to consider the layout of the Portsea area’. (7)  The time and expense of travel to work from distant Corporation suburbs were a particular issue for many of the poorer residents displaced from central Portsmouth.

Privett House, off Cumberland Street, Portsea CC Mike Faherty

Privett House © Mike Faherty and made available through a Creative Commons licence

By 1939, the Council had built 2806 new homes. Around 430 of these were flats in the inner city including those in Privett House, a five-storey block north of Cumberland Street, commenced in the late 1930s.

Blitz Portsmouth 1950

This image of the centre of Portsmouth with cleared bombsites in 1950 shows the extent of the impact of wartime bombing.

But that constructive work was rapidly overshadowed by the devastating impact of the Blitz on Portsmouth. From July 1940 to May 1944, the city suffered 76 air raids and some 930 civilians were killed. It was estimated 6625 houses were destroyed – around 10 percent of housing stock – and a further 6549 severely damaged.

Blitz Conway Street Landport 1940

This photograph of Conway Street in Landport in 1940 shows its personal impact.

Typically, planning for the post-war world began early with the Council setting up a Special Replanning Committee in February 1941. It was boosted by a visit from Lord Reith, Minister of Works and Buildings, in March at which he urged Portsmouth ‘to plan boldly and on a large scale … with the expectation that a good many of the difficulties that have prevented them doing so in the past will be adjusted’. FAC Maunder, then Deputy City Architect, was tasked with preparing preliminary proposals for the Council. (8)

Other interested parties also made their views known. A Replanning Advisory Panel of the Chamber of Commerce, set up in July 1941, recommended the dispersal of around 50,000 of the city’s current population to large new settlements on the mainland. In 1943, the Replanning Committee of the local Labour Party urged municipally owned estates and ‘self-contained houses wherever possible’.  Despite their political differences, both reports opposed flats except, in the Labour Party’s words, ‘in a few instances where absolutely necessary’. In this, they captured popular sentiment: a Mass Observation survey in the city showed 92 percent wanting to live in a house rather than flat. (9)

Maunder’s report, accepted with one dissentient, was published in February 1943 and largely followed these lines. It advocated an urban (in effect, island) population of 150,000 at no more than 70 persons per acre, grouped – the coming idea – into neighbourhood units. Its big idea was to disperse around 60,000 of the current population into two new settlements, one around Leigh Park (on land within Petersfield Rural District and Havant and Waterloo Urban District) – envisaged as a satellite town, ‘the Garden City of the South’ – and another, more of a dormitory estate, around Waterlooville.  Maunder himself was appointed City Planning Officer heading a new City Planning and Reconstruction Department in July 1944.

FGH Storey

Cllr FGH Storey

Little could be achieved under the exigencies of war but the Council had already acted boldly as Reith had advised in setting in motion the purchase of land at Leigh Park. It had rather daringly entrusted Conservative councillor FGH Storey with full powers to negotiate the deal as early as August 1943 and the land (with an additional extension in 1946) was bought in 1944.

We’ll continue this story in next week’s post, examining what became – amongst other things – of those high ideals around Leigh Park and the conflicting ideas around suburban and inner-city development.


(1) Portsmouth City Council, A History of Council Housing in Portsmouth (2011).  The ‘northern city’ quotation is drawn from John Ashmore, ‘Rebalancing Britain: The northern city on the south coast’, CAPX, 18 July 2019.

(2) Andrea Verenini and Fabiano Lemes De Oliveira, ‘The Ambiguity of Town Planning: Innovation or Re-Interpretation?’, 15th International Planning History Society Conference, July 2012

(3) Details drawn from ‘Portsmouth Council. More About the New Houses: their Cost when Erected’, Hampshire Telegraph and Post, 14 May 1920 and ‘Portsmouth’s Housing. The Council and the Hill Scheme’, Portsmouth Evening News, 4 December 1920

(4) ‘Portsmouth’s Terrible Record. Facts for the Town Council’, Portsmouth Evening News, 31 December 1924

(5) ‘Slum Clearance’, Portsmouth Evening News, 6 March 1934

(6) Councillor AE Allaway, ‘The Housing and Slum Clearance Problem in Portsmouth’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol 55, no 1, January 1934

(7) ‘Portsmouth Slum Clearance’, Portsmouth Evening News, 28 April 1937

(8) ‘Plan Boldly’, Portsmouth Evening News, 21 March 1941

(9) Tatsuya Tsubaki, Post-war Reconstruction and the Questions of Popular Housing Provision, 1939-1951, PhD thesis in Social History, University of Warwick, 1993

(10) ‘Portsmouth City Council Buy Leigh Park Estate’, Portsmouth Evening News, 9 February 1944

Alt-Erlaa, Vienna: ‘the World’s Best Council Housing?’



We left Vienna in last week’s post in 1934 when its 66,000 municipal homes housed around one in ten of the city’s population.  Currently, 25 percent of Viennese citizens live in one or other of the city’s 1800 municipal housing schemes and, in total, 62 percent live in social housing. These may seem extraordinary numbers but more important than the mere numbers is a commitment to quality and inclusivity that makes Vienna’s social housing amongst the most popular in the world. Alt-Erlaa, which we’ll come on to, is one of its contemporary showpieces.

Alt Erlaa UBahn SN

Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa glimpsed from its U-Bahn station

Politics and money make that possible so it’s right to begin with those. As the city’s logo proclaims, ‘Vienna is different’. With a population of 1.9 million, it is Austria’s sole metropolitan area and one of the country’s nine Bundesländer (provinces).  Austria’s federal constitution devolves considerable powers to its provinces, not least in housing policy, and Vienna – largely under the control of the Austrian Social Democratic Party since World War II (the party currently governs in coalition with the Greens) – has pursued an ambitious housing programme since 1947.

Nationally, social housing (here the term covers both social rented housing and subsidised homes for purchase) is financed by a fixed, earmarked portion of income tax and corporation tax as well as housing contributions paid directly by all employees. Nationally, Conservative politicians have favoured subsidised owner occupation whilst Social Democrats have supported social rental homes in various forms.  In 2018, Vienna was allocated around €450 million to spend on housing – around £405 million at the time. (1) 

Right to Buy legislation affecting parts of the social housing stock was passed nationally in the mid-1990s but has been resisted by provincial governments and had little impact. In Vienna, some 8000 formerly social rent homes have been bought privately but the loss has been made up by new construction.

In comparison to the UK, Vienna – and Austria – remains a renters’ paradise. Rent controls imposed under 1917 Tenancy Act remain largely in effect to the present. All social renters benefit from indefinite tenancies as do the two-thirds of private renters in Austria whose homes were built before 1945. Liberalising reforms affecting new tenants enacted in 1994 have weakened private sector rent controls and introduced fixed-term tenancies. Their effect has been to create a far more dualised system than hitherto, favouring those – in both public and private sectors – with long-established tenancies against those increasingly reliant on the market. (2)

Social rents vary widely according to length of tenure and the size and nature of the home but on average tenants pay under a third of their income on rents, generally less, with, of course, additional financial support for those in need. A recent calculation estimates that in Vienna tenants pay on average 21 percent of their income on a one-bed flat compared to 49 percent in London. (3)

Crucially, this relative affordability is not a pretext for confining social rent housing to the poorest. Income thresholds for eligibility are set at around €46,500 for a single person and €69,000 for a couple (about £42,000 and £62,000 respectively).  In the words of housing spokesperson Christiane Daxböck:

Vienna has always said that it doesn’t want ghettos. Today, there is not one area where you wouldn’t dare to go. There’s a social balance throughout the districts, and a high quality of life, peace and security. The reason for that is mostly found in social housing.

To Kathrin Gaál, Vienna’s lead councillor for housing, ‘what makes Vienna unique is that you cannot tell how much someone earns simply by looking at their home address’. (4)

Since 2004, the municipality’s social housing construction programme has been outsourced to housing associations and cooperatives.  Fortunately, this long-established and well-regulated sector has a good record in delivering decent and affordable housing (though rents are slightly higher than in municipal equivalents) over many years.

One such, GESIBA, was jointly founded in 1921 by the Austrian government, Vienna City Council and the Association for Settlement and Allotment Gardening. At that time, over 30,000 families were squatting public and private land on the city fringes in a series of so-called ‘wild settlements’ and the Gemeinnützige Siedlungs- und Bauaktiengesellschaft to give it its full name –  a Public Utility Settlement and Building Material Institute – was charged with providing cooperative and settler associations with cheap building materials. It went on to build 5000 family homes in the 1920s and, since the revival of social housing after 1945, it has become one of the largest non-profit housing providers in the country, managing around 22,000 homes. (5)

Alt Erlaa Aerial SN

Alt-Erlaa aerial view

Its most prestigious scheme is Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa – a housing estate, more properly a satellite town lying six miles south-west of Vienna’s city centre, built between 1973 and 1986.  With 3172 homes and a population of 10,000, it is Austria’s largest social housing complex. It is also, without doubt, its most striking and, in my eyes at least, one of its most attractive.   To George Clarke, architect and housing campaigner, it is ‘humane caring design of the highest order’. (6)

Harry Gluck 2

Harry Glück (1925-2016)

Alt-Erlaa was the brainchild of architect Harry Glück. To a visitor, his sweeping vision is seen firstly and most obviously in the 70-metre, 27-storey-high cascading, terraced blocks that dominate the scheme.  The first twelve storeys have broad balconies and large plant troughs, providing a greenery and privacy that soften an architecture that might otherwise seem overpowering. (7)

Glück’s design concept rested on the ‘stacked family home’ and 65 percent of the apartments have at least three bedrooms though the 35 different floor plans across the scheme provide for a wide variety of housing needs.  The single-aspect nature of the design leaves natural light short on the corridor side but seems to work in context.

Alt Erlaa Sign SNBut Glück went further in his ideal of ‘building for the lower classes with the quality the rich people are fond of: close to nature and water’.  Alt-Erlaa is situated amongst winding paths and landscaped parkland – quiet and a little bare when we visited on a cold but sunny day in early February – but a green and pleasant environment. Fittingly, the parkland bears his name. (8)Alt Erlaa Landscaping SN

Alt Erlaa Greenery SNThere are six children’s playgrounds within the park but naturally, in a scheme built in the proud tradition of Red Vienna, the social infrastructure extends much further. There are two nurseries, a children’s day care centre, a sports hall and tennis courts, a church, three schools, a youth centre, a multipurpose hall, two health centres as well as a local shopping centre.Alt Erlaa Playground SNAlt Erlaa Church SNAlt Erlaa Shopping Centre SNAlt Erlaa School Corridor 2 SNThe headline feature which almost does justify one of George Clarke’s interviewees describing the complex as a ‘five-star hotel’ are the saunas, solariums and swimming pools on top of each of the main housing blocks. Unsurprisingly, the scheme enjoys a 93 percent favourability rating amongst its residents and there is currently a five-year waiting list for apartments.Alt Erlaa Block SNIt’s all a reminder of what progressive policies, proper public investment and idealistic and intelligent design and planning can achieve.  And a symbol of all that public housing can and should be.


For some fine photographs of the estate and particularly its community life, see Zara Pfeifer, Du, meine konkrete Utopie (text in English)

For a good film essay on the history of Vienna’s social housing, see Angelika Fitz and Michael Rieper, How to Live in Vienna (2013) with English subtitles.


(1) Wolfgang Förster, ‘The Vienna Model of Social Housing’, Conference Proceedings: Partnerships for Affordable Rental Housing, University of Calgary, November 15-17, 2018

(2) For a full and critical examination of the currently complex housing situation in Vienna, see Justin Kadi, ‘Recommodifying Housing in Formerly “Red” Vienna?‘, Housing, Theory and Society, vol 32, no 3, 2015

(3) See Adam Forrest, ‘Vienna’s Affordable Housing Paradise’, Huffington Post, 19 July 2018 and Jonny Ball, ‘Housing as a basic human right: The Vienna model of social housing’, New Statesman, 3 September 2019

(4) The first quotation is drawn from Denise Hruby, ‘Why rich people in Austria want to live in housing projects’, GlobalPost, 26 October, 2015; the second from Forrest, ‘Vienna’s Affordable Housing Paradise

(5) Nadja Traxler-Gerlich, ‘Gesiba – ein Baustein Wiens’, Wiener Zeitung, 7 January 2002

(6) George Clarke, ‘Does Vienna Have the World’s Best Council Housing? Swimming Pools, Private TV Channels and More’: a YouTube excerpt from episode 2 of the Channel 4 documentary series George Clarke’s Council House Scandal originally shown on 8 August 2019.

(7) You’ll find plenty of posts and images of Alt-Erlaa on the internet.  My details here are drawn from Coronare Modestus Faust, ‘Alt-Erlaa: Architecture That Serves A Social Purpose – Social Housing That Looks & Feels Like Luxury Housing’, Faustian Urge, 26 August 2016; Architectuul, ‘Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa’; and Robert W Park, ‘A Walk Around Alt-Erlaa, Vienna’, Intrivia, April 30, 2018

(8) This quote comes from Stefano Boeri Architetti, ‘Wohnpark Alterlaa | Harry Glück


Red Vienna, Part II: ‘Die Ringstrasse des Proletariats’



Last week’s post looked at the genesis of Red Vienna’s stupendous interwar housing programme. In this, we’ll examine and assess its built accomplishments and address its tragic conclusion.  With almost 62,000 new flats constructed in some 348 schemes, there’s a lot to cover but here I’ll take you on a virtual tour of some of the estates I got to see in person when I visited the city earlier this year. Conveniently, they also offer a roughly chronological overview.

Metzleinstaler Hof SN


Vienna’s first Gemeindebau (municipal tenement block) of the new era and in many ways the model for what followed was Metzleinstaler-Hof on Margaretengürtel, about 2.5 miles south-east of the city centre, completed in extended form in 1925.

Ringstrasse bannerIt would help form what some called the Ringstrasse des Proletariats – a deliberate echo of and challenge to the monumental Ringstrasse (literally a ring road but more a grand boulevard) created around Vienna’s inner core under Hapsburg rule.

Herbert Gessner

Herbert Gessner

The chief architect of Metzleinstaler-Hof was Herbert Gessner. Gessner, though trained by leading imperial architect Otto Wagner at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in the 1890s (as were the majority of his colleagues) was a more ‘political’ architect than some, moving in Social Democratic circles and undertaking work for the Austrian labour movement before the First World War. He became a trusted leading figure for many of Red Vienna’s housing schemes of the 1920s.

At Metzleinstaler-Hof, a potentially austere exterior is enlivened by decorative detail and bay windows; a quiet inner courtyard is less obvious and accessible than would be the case in later schemes. Its 250 flats are tiny but the scheme’s essential breakthrough was the inclusion of a bathhouse, laundry, library and nursery – a clear indication of the communal facilities that would be the hallmark of the Social Democratic housing programme.


Matteotti-Hof @ Wikimedia Commons

Matteotti-Hof (named after the Italian socialist murdered by fascists in 1924) – a 423 apartment block designed by Heinrich Schmid and Hermann Aichinger and completed in 1927, lies to the rear.

Reumann Hof SN 1

Reumann Hof Doorway SN 1


Back on Margaretengürtel, Reumann-Hof, another Gessner design completed in 1926, lies immediately to the north. It’s a larger and more grandiose scheme reaching eight storeys (more were planned but financial constraints intervened), comprising 392 apartments and 19 shops.  To the side of its grand façade, set back from the street, majolica-tiled entrances lead to green, shaded courtyards.

Karl Lowe Gasse SN

No. 4 Karl-Löwe-Gasse

A ten-minute walk to the east gets you to one of the largest complexes of social housing in Vienna, either side of Längenfeldgasse. On the way, you might pass no. 4 Karl-Löwe-Gasse. It’s a small 1930 scheme of 18 apartments designed by Anton Potyka – not a showpiece but just one of the hundreds of such blocks built by the municipality at this time.

Reismann Hof SN


Reismann-Hof, just beyond, is, by contrast, one of the Red Vienna’s eight ‘superblocks’, comprising 623 apartments, officially opened in 1925. The scheme was originally named Am Fuchsenfeld but was dedicated after the Second World War to the memory of Edmund Reismann, a Social Democratic politician murdered in Auschwitz in 1942.

Fuchsenfeld Hof SN

Fuchsenfeld Hof Interior SN 3


Its architects Heinrich Schmid and Hermann Aichinger also designed Fuchsenfeld-Hof just across the road and built at around the same time. The scheme is celebrated for its series of landscaped courtyards and, in its heyday, a children’s paddling pool now converted to a playground.

George Washington Hof SN 2

George Washington Hof SN 3

George Washington-Hof

If you’re following me geographically, it’s a brisk fifteen-minute walk to the south to get to George Washington-Hof – another of the ‘superblocks’ with some 1084 apartments. It’s an unusually extensive scheme too, reflecting the struggle around its design between those advocating a ‘garden city’ style and those a more urban tenement design. The relatively low-rise design and extensive, attractive landscaping offered a compromise somewhere between the two. If you look closely around the complex, you’ll see a contrast between the work of the two architects involved: Karl Krist’s plain façades and the more decorative pebble-clad façades, glazed verandas and pointed-gabled staircases of Robert Örley.

Karl Marx Hof Plan SNFrom here, there’s no direct route to Karl-Marx-Hof in the north but a trip on the tram to Karlsplatz and a rail journey from there to Heiligenstadt station takes around forty minutes and will give you an idea of the transport infrastructure that was vital to the Social Democrats’ urban programme. Karl Marx-Hof itself – or some of it as it’s pretty big (four tram stops from end to end to keep the transport focus going) lies immediately adjacent to the station.  It was built deliberately in the then elite Nineteenth District of Vienna, not least to shore up Social Democratic voting in the district.

Karl Marx Hof SN 2

Karl Marx Hof Courtyard SN 2

Karl Marx Hof Entrances SN

Karl Marx-Hof

What is there to say about Karl-Marx-Hof, built between 1927 and 1930, that hasn’t been said before?  In some respects, the numbers alone are the most telling thing.  Stretching 1100 metres along Heiligenstädter Strasse, the complex forms the longest contiguous residential building in the world. Its 1382 flats housed around 5000 people. Beyond homes, the overall scheme, designed by Karl Ehn, provided nurseries, a range of medical facilities, a library, shops, cafes and meeting rooms. (One of the former laundries now houses an historical exhibition on Red Vienna.) There was also a lot of open space: with just 20 percent of the 37-acre (15 hectare) site accommodating housing, the rest provided areas of rest and recreation including a number of children’s playgrounds.

Karl Marx Hof Sculptures SN

‘Liberation’ and ‘Childcare’ by Josef Franz Riedl

Hopefully, the images can provide a sense of that scale and its architectural form. The ceramic sculptures by Josef Franz Riedl above the main archways represent ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Liberation’, ‘Childcare’ and ‘Physical Culture’ – an apt summary of the revolutionary purpose underlying the built form of Karl Marx-Hof. This was indeed, in the words of Owen Hatherley, ‘a rare example of architecture both as political instrument and ideological symbol’. (1)

Friedrich Engels Platz Hof

Friedrich Engels Platz-Hof

From Karl Marx-Hof to Friedrich Engels Platz-Hof to the east is a 15-minute bus ride. Designed by Rudolf Perco, this was, with 1467 apartments, the second largest of the Red Vienna schemes after the Sandleitenhof in Ottakring. It is notable too for its more modernist appearance and ‘stark cuboid aesthetics’.  It was one of the schemes to include a communal kitchen. The striking chimney of the communal laundry was described as a ‘new Viennese landmark’ at the scheme’s opening ceremony in 1933. (2)

Friedrich Engels Platz Hof Laundry Tower SN

Friedrich Engels Platz-Hof laundry tower

That ceremony took place in July 1933. Hitler had been installed Chancellor of Germany six months earlier and the defiant words of Karl Seitz, the Social Democratic mayor of Vienna who performed the ceremony, therefore held especial significance:

Karl_Seitz 1925Even if the world is to become filled with devils, this Vienna will stand unmoved and firm, a haven of democracy, a haven of the spirit, a haven of liberty, a bulwark against fascism and dictatorship.

In the event, Red Vienna’s resistance to the Austro-fascist coup of Engelbert Dollfuss was brave but short-lived. Insurgents of the Republikanischer Schutzbund – the defensive paramilitary organisation of the Social Democratic Party – took up arms in February 1934, many based in the Gemeindebauten which were viewed by supporters and detractors alike as working-class fortresses, both in form and function.

Karl Marx-Hof 1934

Karl Marx Hof Plaque SN

Karl Marx-Hof, after shelling in February 1934, and a modern commemorative plaque

Reumann-Hof, George Washington-Hof and Karl Marx-Hof, amongst others, were scenes of heavy fighting but, facing both the full force of the Austrian state and the threat of heavy civilian casualties, they quickly surrendered.  Up to 1000 members of the Schutzbund were killed; severe political reprisals followed. For the time being, the transformative political project of Red Vienna had come to an end.

Without detracting from that ambition and daring, it’s worth in conclusion assessing the impact of that project.  In practical terms, even by contemporary standards: (3)

the individual apartments in the Gemeindebauten were small and minimally equipped. They had running water, toilets, gas, and electricity but no ‘luxury fittings’ such as bathtubs or showers, built-in cupboards, or closets.

Three-quarters of the apartments, into the mid-1920s, were no larger than 38 square metres (just over 400 square feet) in size and comprised only a small entrance hall, living room and kitchenette, toilet and one full-sized room.

Karl Marx Hof Kindergarten SN

Karl Marx-Hof

George Washington Hof Kindergarten SN 3

Decorative detail at the kindergarten of George Washington-Hof

The planning and political emphasis, of course, was on the schemes’ shared communal facilities – their laundries, washhouses, nurseries, cafeterias, libraries and meeting rooms.  Through this community provision, together with homes far better and cheaper than they had known before, the Social Democrats’ urban programme was intended not only to consolidate political support for the party among the Viennese working class (which it very largely did) but herald and forge a new socialist consciousness.

To critics such as the Marxist Manfredo Tafuri, that was a ‘declaration of war without any hope of victory’, and the project – the Austro-Marxist belief in revolution through reform – essentially petit-bourgeois in conception and execution.  In one sense, this judgement – given the events of 1934 and the 1938 Anschluss which incorporated Austria into Nazi Germany – is self-evidently true but I’ll leave the bigger ideological debate to others. (4)



Ironing Room

Washhouse, laundry and ironing rooms of the Gemeindebauten

To continue for the moment this more sceptical strain, later revisionist historians have questioned whether even the greater freedom for women promised by the communal facilities was fulfilled in practice.  Children weren’t eligible for kindergarten places till four; use of the laundries (under male supervision) was restricted to one allocated day per month. For many women, domestic duties and the double shift (of paid and home work) would continue to weigh heavily.

Political opponents have even labelled the whole enterprise, with its strict rules governing residents’ behaviour within and beyond their apartments, a form of benevolent but repressive paternalism.  For my part, these rules might be read differently – as a conventional expression of working-class respectability, as recognition of the necessary consideration to others imposed by communal living, or just the rather typical rules imposed by landlords of all political stripes.

Friedrich Engels Platz Hof 3

A courtyard at Friedrich Engels Platz-Hof

Against the enormous scale and sweeping aspiration of Red Vienna’s housing programme, such criticisms can seem querulous. They are a necessary reminder of real-world limitations and the perhaps unavoidable contradictions of any ambitious programme of political reform. But Vienna’s Social Democrats built homes for 200,000, provided high-quality educational, health and cultural facilities to many more, and led a regime which placed working-class needs and interests at its very heart – rare then, as rare now.

To a contemporary observer, the British journalist GER Gedye, they provided: (5)

the best object lesson in the world of what Socialism can and cannot do on a democratic basis in a Socialist capital of an anti-Socialist State.

And for all the tragic rupture of Nazism and war, that lesson lives on. The City of Vienna currently owns and manages over 226,000 homes, housing one in four – around 500,000 – of the city’s population. Red Vienna didn’t bring socialism and perhaps had only limited success in forging a new socialist consciousness but it did, in the earlier words of Social Democratic politician Robert Danneberg, ‘perform useful instalments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society’.

In next week’s post, we’ll examine Alt-Erlaa, a contemporary showpiece of Viennese social housing, and housing policy since the Second World War.


For a good film essay on the history of Vienna’s social housing, see Angelika Fitz and Michael Rieper, How to Live in Vienna (2013) with English subtitles.


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

(2) Liane Lefaivre, Rebel Modernists: Viennese Architects since Otto Wagner (Lund Humphries, 2017)

(3) Eve Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna, 1919-1934 (MIT Press, 1999)

(4) Manfredo Tafuri, Vienna Rossa (Electa, 1980) quoted in Eve Blau, Re-Visiting Red Vienna as an Urban Project.

(5) Quoted in Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna, 1919-1934

The fullest and most detailed guide to the individual schemes is provided (in German) on the City of Vienna’s Wiener Wohnen website.

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



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 – 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)


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)


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.


(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


, , ,

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

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


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)


(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’


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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


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.


(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’


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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


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.


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.


(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’.