If you visit Beverley, you’ll likely go to see the Gothic minster – the finest parish church in the land – and its beautifully conserved town centre. It’s dubbed the Georgian Quarter now, a bit of tourist branding which in this case is fully justified. But there’s an alternative history – of a small industrial town with an important working-class presence. And that, in the twentieth century, meant council housing, lots of it.
This post, naturally, focuses on the latter. It tells the story of Beverley’s council estates and the people who lived on them which, for once, are unusually well recorded. Next week’s post looks at the working-class community that the new housing spawned.
In the nineteenth century, Beverley, administrative and commercial capital of Yorkshire’s largely rural East Riding, had the industries typical of a town with its large agricultural hinterland. Surprisingly perhaps, from 1901 with the establishment of the Cook, Welton and Gemmell yard, a significant steel shipbuilding industry developed, at Grovehill on the River Hull to the east of the town. The company employed around 650 men into the 1950s until the yard closed down in 1976 with 180 redundancies. (1)
By 1937, however, the town’s largest employer, was the Armstrong shock absorber works on Eastgate. In the 1960s, the factory employed around 2000; it too closed in the 1970s. Together with Hodgson’s Tannery and other smaller works, Beverley – for all its county town ambience – had the largest industrial working class in the East Riding outside Hull.
For all this industry, Beverley remained a small town. Before the First World War, its population stood at a little over 13,000 and it grew only slowly to 15,500 by 1951. Nor did it suffer, in scale or concentration, the problems of working-class slum housing that affected Britain’s larger industrial towns.
A 1901 survey enumerated 3046 inhabited houses and 3095 households in the town; an average of 4.3 persons per house. In Beverley, the problem was not expanses of jerry-built Victorian terraces but infill – cottages in small clusters built in courts, backyards and alleys off the main streets of the historic centre: (2)
There were some examples of gross overcrowding, but not many: 191 houses had fewer than five rooms and more than five occupants. In the years 1901-14 the medical officer of health condemned an average of eight houses annually, but there was no policy of replacement. Pressure on housing was not seen as a major problem.
Ostensibly, not much had altered by 1919 when, of 2923 houses in the town designated ‘working-class’, 39 were classified ‘dilapidated’ (21 were empty), 115 suffered ‘marked’ overcrowding and 33 were occupied by more than one family. This was hardly a housing crisis – except for those families affected – but the wider context had changed significantly.
That survey was a product of the 1919 Housing Act, itself a consequence of the First World War. Housing was now at the top of the political agenda and ‘homes for heroes’ were intended both as a reward for working-class sacrifice in the war and as a sop to any revolutionary sentiments the working class might, in these turbulent times, harbour.
Crucially, the Act required that councils not only assess local housing needs but act on them. Beverley Corporation was a largely Conservative authority at this time – the first official Labour candidates weren’t elected until 1951 – but it acted quickly on these new imperatives.
In 1920, the Council bought land on Grovehill Road (literally on the wrong side of the tracks – to the east of the Hull-Scarborough railway line) to build its first council homes. By 1923, 88 concrete houses had been built on Neville Avenue, Warton Avenue and Routh Avenue; the use of concrete a reflection of post-war shortages of building materials and skilled labour. A further 78 houses, conventionally brick-built, were added under the 1924 Housing Act on Schofield Avenue and Hotham Square.
By contemporary standards, these new homes were far from luxurious as one resident who moved into a house on Routh Avenue in 1942 recalls: (3)
Gas lights, the toilet and coalhouse in an outside lobby, the bath in a tiny room at the end of the kitchen. My mother used to stipple her walls, put borders around. [A neighbour’s] weren’t plastered, they were painted brick, dark brown at the bottom and cream at the top.
But they were, in nearly all cases, far superior to the privately-rented housing from which their residents moved. In 1926, as the Corporation contemplated further land purchases and building, the mayor, Robert Harding Wood (a master butcher), reported: (4)
He was receiving a number of letters every day as well as personal visits asking for houses. Some of those who came to see him were living under conditions which were a disgrace to civilisation.
In the event, the Corporation purchased the town centre estate of the late Admiral Walker for £10,000. The big house served as municipal offices from 1930 until local government reorganisation in 1996 but an 8.5 acre portion of the land was dedicated to new council housing – some 119 houses principally along Champney Road and Central Avenue.
By 1930, the Council had built some 285 houses, a sizeable total for a town of its size, but fresh impetus to construction was provided by Labour’s 1930 Housing Act with its particular focus on slum clearance. Despite the fact that only about half Beverley’s homes had water closets in 1934 (not until the later 1950s did all its houses enjoy this basic amenity), the Council’s clearance efforts were hindered in 1933 when 14 owners of condemned housing appealed successfully against demolition.
Nevertheless, 126 houses were built between 1931 and 1933 on land to the west of the existing Grovehill Estate off Cherry Tree Lane. A further 128 houses were added in the last years of the decade but the outbreak of war prevented further construction on a new site, purchased in 1938, off Goth’s Lane to the north. The new houses were reserved to those who had been displaced by the Council’s slum clearance programme.
Amongst the new streets – Hodgson Avenue, Thompson Avenue and Riding Fields Square – it’s nice to see a Greenwood Avenue named after Arthur Greenwood, Labour’s Minister of Health and Housing who had overseen the 1930 legislation. Greenwood’s real recognition, however, comes in the memory of a resident who moved into a new home on Greenwood Avenue in 1940:
It was lovely really, top notch in them days. They had a toilet and bathroom, good heavens, a bathroom – we’d been used to bathing in a tub in front of the fire.
He moved again, in 1949, to a house on Thompson Avenue: ‘It was a bigger house, more modern…It had a proper living room and a kitchen and a dining room, and three bedrooms’.
Beverley, in sharp contrast to nearby Hull, was relatively unscathed by wartime bombing but its housing needs remained pressing in the post-war period. The town was allocated 75 prefabs at the end of 1944, sited – after some delay – off Goth’s Lane but by the following year around 900 remained on the waiting list. (5)
Larger and longer-term solutions were needed and these were announced by the Council in February 1946. On 130 acres of land, adjacent to the existing estates to the east, it planned: (6)
a modern estate of 800 houses with park and recreational sites, community centre, health centre, branch library, sub-post office, licensed house and shopping centre.
In addition, ten acres would be set aside to the East Riding Education Committee for two new schools and land was allocated for a park and recreational space, next to shops, in the middle of the new estate.
All this reflected the planning ideals of the post-war era – the ambition to create neighbourhood – and was a conscious corrective to what many now saw as the failure of pre-war estates to provide the facilities needed to promote community. Locally, one correspondent to the Beverley Guardian in June 1945 had noted problems caused by moving people from central areas onto estates without community provision: ‘Where this is not done it is unfair for anyone to speak disparagingly of corporation house tenants’. (7)
Beverley reflected too the new thrust which dominated housing policy from the 1950s as immediate pressures for reconstruction eased – the desire to eradicate, for once and for all, the slum conditions in which so many still lived. A 1952 survey by the Council’s Medical Officer of Health slated 511 houses for immediate demolition and some 719 for later clearance.
Around 20 to 40 houses – mostly in the yards and alleys off the town centre’s main streets – were demolished annually in the fifties as new housing became available. Beverley even ventured into the multi-storey living now becoming more typical though, in this case, it was just a single five- and six-storey block built nearer the centre on Wilbert Lane. Some three-storey blocks of flats and maisonettes were also built in the newer developments as it was increasingly realised that the two-storey family home staple of interwar construction failed to meet the range of contemporary housing needs.
By 1964, 1332 council homes had been built in Beverley since the war and in all council housing made up around one quarter of the town’s housing stock. These were good homes too – a new resident on Coltman Avenue recalls:
These houses seemed very luxurious, a living room and separate dining room and well fitted kitchen, a spacious hall and three bedrooms with an upstairs bathroom.
On Burden Road, houses featured another innovation – the through lounge recommended by the Dudley Committee in its wide-ranging report on housing design and layout issued in 1944.
There was a self-conscious but modest modernism to the new estates and, in some way, a deliberately more ‘democratic’ feel. (Ian Waites has captured this well in his writing on the Middlefield Estate in Gainsborough, a Lincolnshire town bearing close comparison to Beverley.) They were characterised by more open space and wider, curving roads – a contrast to the more boxy, rectangular forms which marked earlier schemes.
Bernard Walling, who moved into a house on Sigston Road in 1966, remembers it as:
very open plan, no hedges, no walls, no fences, there was small kerbstones at the pavement edge of the gardens and that idea was in those days – the whole of the estate was open plan…
That, as we’ll see, has changed over the years. There’s far more what Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman would later call ‘defensible space’ now – enclosed, privatised areas fenced off as front gardens, hard standing for cars and the like – but the road and others around it retain something of this original form and ethos.
In next week’s post, we’ll take this exploration of working-class community and its changing forms further.
My thanks to the East Riding Archives and Local Studies service for making the older photographs credited available on a Creative Commons licence. You can find other historic photographs of Beverley and the surrounding area on their Flickr page.
(1) Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, Cook, Welton and Gemmell
(2) AP Baggs, LM Brown, GCF Forster, I Hall, RE Horrox, GHR Kent and D Neave, A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, ‘Political and Social History, 1835-1918’
(3) East Riding of Yorkshire Council, ‘I thought I’d never find town’: A history of council housing on Beverley’s Riding Fields (2006). Other direct quotations from residents are taken from the same source.
(4) ‘A Beverley Estate. Town Council’s New Building Site’, Hull Daily Mail, 13 April 1926
(5) ‘Beverley Council and Temporary Houses’, Hull Daily Mail, 19 July 1945. For waiting list figures, see ‘Ex-Serviceman in Council House’, Yorkshire Post, 20 November 1946
(6) ‘New Housing Estate for Beverley. A Community Centre’, Hull Daily Mail, 25 February 1946
(7) Quoted in Stefan Ramsden, Working-Class Community in the Era of Affluence: Sociability and Identity in a Yorkshire Town, 1945-1980, University of Hull PhD thesis (2011). See also Ramsden, Working-class Community in the Age of Affluence (Routledge, 2017)