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

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

Map

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

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

Corporation Buildings, Farringdon Road

An early engraving of Corporation Buildings, Farringdon Road

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

Cranley Buildings SN

Cranley Buildings

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

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

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

Bourne Estate SN

The Bourne Estate

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

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

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

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

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

Betterton House SN

Betterton House

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

Boswell House SN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

BISF homes, Oakfield Drive, Crowmeole

BISF homes, Oakfield Drive, Crowmeole

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

Oakfield Drive, Crowmeole

Brick-built homes, Oakfield Drive, Crowmeole

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

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

Occupation of Harlesott Camp, May 1948

Occupation of Harlescott Camp, May 1949

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

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

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

Stapleton Road, Meole Brace SN

Stapleton Road, Meole Brace

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

Spring Gardens, Ditherington

Spring Gardens, Ditherington

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

Ryton Close, Meole Brace SN

Ryton Close, Meole Brace

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

eaw017470 The Ditherington and Harlescott areas, Shrewsbury, 1948

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

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

Harlescott Grange, Bainbridge Green

Bainbridge Green, Harlescott Grange

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

Halcroft Court, Ditherington

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shrewsbury-loop-slider

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

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

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

Shrewsbury 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Unwin

Raymond Unwin

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

Wingfield Gardens

Wingfield Gardens

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

Wingfield Gardens 2

Wingfield Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longden Green

Longden Green

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

Sultan Road SN

Sultan Road

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

White House Gardens 2 SN

White House Gardens

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

New Park Road SN

New Park Road

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

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

Sources

(1) Original Shrewsbury website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leman Grove, Loddon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thurlton College Road 2

College Road, Thurlton

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

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

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

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

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

Windmill Green, Ditchingham 2

Windmill Green Ditchingham

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

Windmill Green, Ditchingham

Windmill Green Ditchingham

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

Kenyon Row and Forge Grove, Gillingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housing Manual

Two images from the 1949 Housing Manual

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

Davy Place plaques

Davy Place, Loddon, plaques

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

Woodyard Square, Woodton, bungalows

Woodyard Square, Woodton, bungalows

Woodyard Square, Woodton

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

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

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

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

Church Road, Bergh Apton

Church Road, Bergh Apton

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

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

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

Scudamore Place, Ditchingham

Scudamore Place, Ditchingham

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

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

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

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

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

Forge Grove, Gillingham

Forge Grove, Gillingham

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

Note

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Tayler and Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thurlton College Road

College Road, Thurlton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(10) 1951 Census, Occupational Classification, Loddon RDC

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

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

(13) Daily Herald, May 13 1957

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

ECP Monson: A Thoughtful and Proudly Municipal Architect

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

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

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ECP Monson

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

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

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Sutton Estate, Chelsea

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

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Sutton Estate, Chelsea, rear view

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

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

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

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

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Parmiter Estate, Bethnal Green

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

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

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Brickwork and balconies on the Delta Estate, Bethnal Green

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

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The Butler Estate, Bethnal Green

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

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Arches at the Sutton and Claredale Estates

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

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

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

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

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

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The Brecknock Estate, Islington

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

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Brecknock Estate, Islington, rear view

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mosspark, 1927 © Britain from Above (SPW019519)

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

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

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

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An early image of Mosspark

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

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

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

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

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An early image of Hamiltonhill

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

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

West Drumoyne shops and housing

West Drumoyne shops and housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prestwick Street, Craigbank, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note

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

Mapping Pre-First World War Council Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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City of London Guildhall © Prioryman and made available through Wikimedia Commons

It’s appropriate then to begin with the oldest and one of the most impressive of these, the City of London Guildhall and its present Grand Hall, begun in 1411 – the third largest surviving medieval hall in the country.  Externally, it’s probably the 1788 grand entrance by George Dance the Younger in – with apologies to contemporary sensibilities – what’s been called Hindoostani Gothic that is most eye-catching.

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Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

At the other end of the scale what is now the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow is a modest affair.  It started life in the mid-18th century as a workhouse but included a room set aside for meetings of the local vestry.  It was later adapted as a police station before becoming a very fine local museum in 1930. If you can’t make Open House, do visit it and Walthamstow Village at another time.

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Old Vestry Offices, Enfield © Philafrenzy and made available through Wikimedia Commons

The Old Vestry Offices in Enfield, a small polygonal building built in 1829, originally housed the local beadle – responsible for local enforcement of the Poor Law – and then, until the 1930s, a police station.

This was an era of minimal – so-called night-watchman – local government when ad hoc, largely unrepresentative bodies administered basic services principally related to public health and safety.  London’s first city-wide administration was created in 1855 in the Metropolitan Board of Works.  This was initially a body of 45 members, elected indirectly by 43 London districts: the Vestry in 29 of the larger parishes and 12 District Boards of Works in which smaller parishes were combined (plus special bodies in the City and Woolwich if you’re counting).

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

Limehouse District Board of Works, now the Half Moon Theatre

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

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

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

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Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall almost matches the Guildhall in its civic pretensions – chutzpah indeed for a building, designed by the impressively named Caesar Augustus Long and opened in 1866 for a vestry. But Shoreditch Vestry took particular pride in its path-breaking municipal electricity undertaking and here its motto, and that of the later Borough, ‘More Light, More Power’ took on more than merely metaphorical meaning.  You might recognise the figure of ‘Progress’ enshrined in the Town Hall tower too. After a long period of decline, the Town Hall was reopened in 2005 and is now a thriving community venue operated by the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust.

Old Hampstead Town Hall

Old Hampstead Town Hall

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

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Limehouse Town Hall

Another building to undergo this transformation was Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881 and designed in Italian palazzo style by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston as  ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’.  The vestry hall  became the offices of Stepney Metropolitan Borough Council – while its great hall hosted balls and concerts and even early ‘cinematograph’ shows.  It was well known to Clement Attlee, mayor of Stepney in 1919 and later the area’s MP.  It’s been run by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust as a community venue since 2004.

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Richmond Old Town Hall

Richmond, a municipal borough founded in 1890 in the County of Surrey, was a more conservative body although it can boast (since its incorporation into Greater London in 1965) the first council housing built in the capital. Richmond Old Town Hall, also designed in Elizabethan Renaissance style by WJ Ancell, was opened in 1893 and now houses (since the creation of the London Borough of Richmond) a museum, gallery and local studies archives amongst other things.

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Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower

Croydon, created a County Borough within Surrey in 1889, didn’t amalgamate with London until 1965 but the Town Hall, built to plans by local architect Charles Henman, was opened in 1896 to provide ‘Municipal Offices, Courts, a Police Station, Library and many other public purposes’. The Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower complex retains some local government functions – the Mayor’s Parlour and committee rooms – but also offers a museum, gallery, library and cinema.

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

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Tottenham Town Hall today

A visit to the Tottenham Green Conservation Area gives you an opportunity view a whole slew of historically significant buildings.  With my municipal hat on, I’ll draw your attention to Tottenham Town Hall (HQ of Tottenham Urban District Council from 1904 to 1965) and the other examples of local government endeavour and service adjacent – the public baths next door (now just the façade remaining but, as the Bernie Grants Art Centre supported by Haringey Council, still serving a progressive purpose), the fire station (now an enterprise centre), and technical college (built by Middlesex County Council). Passing the new Marcus Garvie Library, you’ll come across Tottenham’s former public library built in 1896 just up the road.  It’s as fine an ensemble of civic purpose and social betterment as you could find in the country. Some further images here.

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Lambeth Town Hall

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

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

Bethnal Green Town Hall, now a hotel, was opened in 1910 to Edwardian Baroque designs by Percy Robinson and W Alban Jones.  Sculptures by Henry Poole adorn the exterior.  The growth of local government responsibilities in the interwar period compelled the opening of a large extension to the rear, designed by ECP Monson – restrained neo-classical outside, sumptuous and modern inside – in 1939.  (Monson was also a significant architect of the era’s council housing such as the briefly notorious Lenin Estate built in the 1920s when the Council was briefly under joint Labour-Communist control.)

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The UK Supreme Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall © Pam Fray and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Moving to the immediate pre-war period, the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster – originally housing, amongst other things, the offices of Middlesex County Council – was an unusual building for its time, designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in free Gothic style and opened in 1913.  It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.

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Islington Town Hall © Alan Ford and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Islington Town Hall, opened in 1925, takes us into the heyday of local government as councils assumed ever greater powers and purpose. It was designed by ECP Monson again. Its neo-classical style has been described as old-fashioned for its time but it’s finely executed.

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Kingston Guildhall, 1935 © Kingston History Centre

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

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Hackney Town Hall

Hackney Town Hall, designed by Henry Lanchester and Thomas Lodge, is also formally neo-classical but its lines and styling are sleeker, more modern and, internally it’s a masterpiece of Art Deco.  The Town Hall was formally opened in 1937 by Lord Snell, Labour Leader of the House of the Lords, he described it as a building:

devoted to the business of living one with another to the benefit of all…It represented something more than mere stone and wood put together; it embodied the ideal of social living…a symbol of their idealism and a focal point for the services of their great borough, and he hoped they would find in it an atmosphere of quiet dignity, purity of administration and of love for the purpose to which it was devoted.

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

Finally, we can bring the story up to date by referring to the latest iteration of London local government.  Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in 1985; the The new Greater London Authority  was established in 2000. City Hall, the home of the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly, was opened two years later – a high-tech building created by Norman Foster and Partners. Not everybody likes its appearance but the building is notable for reflecting current imperatives of sustainable design.

Open House London, 2019: A Tour of the Capital’s Council Housing

The most important buildings in London – those with the greatest social significance for the mass of its people and those which have made the greatest visual impact on the capital – are council houses. In 1981, at peak, there were 769,996 council homes in the capital and they housed near 31 percent of its population.

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

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

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

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

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Brentham Garden Suburb

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

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

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Tower Gardens Estate

Turning to council housing proper, it’s good to see Tower Gardens (or the White Hart Lane Estate) featured – designed and built by the London County Council (LCC) before the First World War: a cottage estate for working people inspired by the Garden City and Arts and Crafts movements of the day.  Just under 1000 homes were built on the Estate before the war halted construction; a further 1266 houses and flats were added – in plainer style but in keeping with Garden City ideals – in a northwards extension to the Estate between the wars.

Cottage Flats in Roe Lane

Roe Green Village

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

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The Becontree Estate

In terms of size and ambition, there was no more important such estate than Becontree in east London.  The LCC built 89,049 council homes in the capital between the wars; some 26,000 of these in the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919. It was the largest of the LCC’s interwar estates, housing by 1939 a population of 120,000.  Such size (and an unpromising site) led some – despite the planners’ best efforts – to criticise the mass and uniformity of the Estate but to many, moving from inner-city slums, ‘it was heaven with the gates off.’  Take the opportunity, if you go, to visit the Valence House Museum which contains interesting exhibits on the estate.

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An early photograph of the Fellowship Inn

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

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Eastbury Manor and estate

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

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Cass House, the Gascoyne Estate

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

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Acton Gardens Estate

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

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Golden Lane Estate

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

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

Balfron Tower

The fight to save Balfron Tower is already lost. Designed by Ernő Goldfinger for the Greater London Council in 1968, Balfron is famous (or infamous according to taste) as one of the most imposing Brutalist designs of its time but it was, first and foremost, housing for working-class people being moved from local slums. Now the Grade II-listed block’s flats are in the hands of property developers Londonewcastle and being marketed to the affluent and hip middle classes. Visit Balfron Tower by all means but please don’t disregard this betrayal of the social purpose that built it.

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Trellick Tower

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

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The World’s End Estate

Another landmark estate, this one created by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in happier times is the World’s End Estate. It’s an estate set on the banks of the Thames, completed in 1977 when the working class were still permitted river views.  Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms World’s End comprises seven 18 to 21-storey tower blocks, joined in a figure of eight by nine four-storey walkway blocks but the whole, clad in warm-red brick, possesses a romantic, castellated appearance, providing  great views within and without.

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Cressingham Gardens

In some respects, World’s End marked the end of an era of large, high-rise construction. As Chief Architect for the new (post-65) Borough of Lambeth, Ted Hollamby had concluded that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’.  Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments.  They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’.  His vision can be seen enacted in the Cressingham Gardens Estate.

Cressingham Gardens was described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’. It’s a beautiful estate nestling on the edge of Brockwell Park which manages superbly, in Hollamby’s words again, to ‘create a sense of smallness inside the bigness…and to get the kind of atmosphere in which people did not feel all herded together’.

It’s a well-loved estate with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, as part of Lambeth’s commendable pledge to build new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact, the threat of demolition.

The principal driver of this policy in London is money or the lack of it – the pressure to sell council real estate and build private housing for sale in order to raise capital for social housing at best or so-called ‘affordable’ housing at worst.  A second is ‘densification’ – a belief that working-class homes must be built at greater density to accommodate the capital’s growing population.  Not all regeneration is bad but where it means the destruction of good homes and the wiping out of existing communities it should be opposed.

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Central Hill

A second signature Hollamby estate, also featured in Open House this year, is Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973. It’s a stepped development designed to make best use of its attractive site but it reflects Lambeth and Hollamby’s signature style in its intimacy and human scale. It too is threatened with demolition. The residents of both estates have active campaigns fighting to preserve their homes and communities.  See Save Central Hill and Save Cressingham Gardens to find out more and lend your support.

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West Kensington and Gibbs Green

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

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An early photograph of Thamesmead

Thamesmead on the south bank of the Thames Estuary represented planning and construction in an earlier era of high ambition. A gleam in the eye of the LCC from the fifties and then, from 1966, the Greater London Council’s ‘Woolwich-Erith Project’, it was envisaged as a ‘town of the 21st Century’ with a population of between 60- to 100,000 people. Only 12,000 had settled by 1974 and the estate – with its difficult location, poor transport links and lack of facilities – was considered by many a failure. Taken over by Peabody in 2015, benefiting from new investment and the now delayed arrival of Crossrail in 2019, it’s on the up now and worth visiting for both its past and future promise. The tour, led by the Twentieth Century Society, will allow you to visit some of the highlights of the original architecture of the GLC 1968 masterplan, some of which sadly are now under threat.

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The Brunswick Centre

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

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Stoneleigh Terrace, the Whittington Estate

Though not a Camden scheme as such, the Centre fits well with what became the celebrated signature style of Camden Borough Council into the 1970s. This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, a young architect then in his mid-twenties. It’s a scheme in typical Camden style, six parallel linear stepped-section blocks of light pre-cast concrete construction and dark-stained timber.  It was designed to be a ‘form of housing…which related more closely to the existing urban fabric than the slab and tower blocks, and which brought more dwellings close to the ground’. Each home had its own front door and a walk through the front door of 8 Stoneleigh Terrace during Open House will allow you to glimpse the innovative interior design of the housing too, chiefly the work of Ken Adie of the Council’s Department of Technical Services.

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Alexandra Road

Another Camden scheme is widely judged to be one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, Alexandra Road, listed Grade II* in 1993.  The Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate was the work of Neave Brown, awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in October 2017. He sadly died three months later. The estate is better seen than described but, in its scale and confidence, it marks (in the words of modernist architect John Winter), ‘a magical moment for English housing’.

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The Page High Estate

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

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Dujardin Mews with the Alma Estate to the read

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

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The Kings Crescent Estate

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

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I’m sorry not to be more positive. There is a small uptick in council housebuilding. Councils are being allowed to borrow and many new schemes are underway but, almost invariably, they are small-scale and financed – through both necessity and choice – through public-private partnerships which too frequently prioritise non-social rented homes. The contemporary picture of social housing’s marginalisation and market-driven ‘regeneration’ creates a poignant counterpoint to the energy and aspirations of previous generations.  If you visit any of the estates on show during Open House London, my plea to you is to think of them not as monuments to a bygone era but as exemplars of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.

Notes

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