We left Bristol last week in 1958 as slum clearance was in full swing and just as the Council announced plans to demolish a further 24,500 homes by the end of the century. By this point, however, such wholesale clearances – extended to areas of less severe housing deprivation – were arousing fierce opposition and that would have unintended consequences.
As local opposition mobilised, particularly among owner occupiers, the Labour MP for Bristol South, William Wilkins, raised concerns in a 1959 House of Commons adjournment debate, focusing on the issue of Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs). In Bristol, he cited 11 orders awaiting ministerial approval comprising 839 ‘pink’ properties (officially classified as unfit) and 453 ‘grey’ properties (capable of rehabilitation), of which 527 were owner-occupied. He cited local discontent and asked whether the Conservative Government felt that ‘they should abandon their slum clearance programme not only in Bristol but throughout the country’. (1) In this, Wilkins was some way ahead of of his time.
In 1959, a candidate of the Easton Homes Defence Association, formed to opposed demolitions, was victorious in local elections. In 1960, the Citizen Party (the local Conservatives in all but name) – which had been fanning the flames of local protest – secured an overall majority on the City Council.
The new administration set about reversing Labour policies by promoting private development on suburban estates and withdrawing the CPOs. But they encountered unexpected opposition when they met Henry Brooke, the Conservative Minister of Housing and Local Government. Brooke emphasised that he was: (2)
extremely anxious that slum clearance should go on and go on fast. I should be anxious that large numbers of houses which are represented by the Medical Officer of Health were being turned down by the City Council. I should be beginning to wonder whether, in fact, slum clearance was going on as fast as it should be.
The political arms race at Westminster between Labour and Conservative Parties to build housing at pace and scale clearly took precedence over such local difficulties and the Bristol delegation returned home chastened. Central slum clearance proceeded and, ironically, in an attempt to make up the shortfall created by the axing of the Council’s suburban housebuilding programme, the construction of high flats in central areas was accelerated. In 1962, the proportion of high-rise approvals reached 99 percent. In the short term, the Council demolished 1300 more homes than it built between 1961-62, a fact contributing to Labour’s victory in the 1963 local elections.
This new phase of high-rise construction saw a shift in its locally predominant form – from slab block to point block. The former were criticised for their narrow access balconies which were not at all the ‘streets in the sky’ being pioneered in some deck-access developments of the day. Bristol was also becoming more typical in its reliance on a number of major contractors; Laing, Wimpey and Tersons won the bulk of local contracts.
What Bristol escaped, though seemingly more by happenstance, was the move to system-building. Bristol had been urged down this route in 1962 by Evelyn Sharp, the powerful Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG), and local councillors visited Denmark and France to see such methods in operation. But the Council was unwilling to offer the size of contract that the big builders wanted and the City Architect (now Albert Clarke) proved an awkward negotiating partner so interest waned.
The 13-storey Kingsmarsh House and 11-storey Moorfields House and Baynton House in Lawrence Hill were completed in the mid-1960s. Other point blocks were built just to the north in Easton in the later 1960s, including Croydon House, Twinnell House and Lansdowne Court at 17 storeys.
Into the mid-1960s, the Council also built high-rise in some of its suburban estates – three 14-storey blocks on Culverwell Road, Withywood (since demolished) and three eleven storey blocks on Hareclive Road, Hartcliffe, which remain. The usual case for suburban high-rise was mixed development – a variety of housing forms intended to serve a range of housing needs and to provide point and contrast in otherwise rather monotonous low-rise estates. In Bristol, it may also have reflected the Council’s need to build at scale when other options had closed or been closed.
The most interesting and controversial multi-storey schemes, however, occurred in Kingsdown. The Kingsdown I (Lower Kingsdown) redevelopment was underway by 1965, comprising six six- and fourteen-storey slab blocks. Carolina House was officially opened in October 1967. This large-scale incursion into an area of previously dense and intimate housing – some would say picturesque – was contentious but criticisms ramped up when it came to the Council’s plans for the upper slopes, Kingsdown II.
Here the original proposal for three linked 17-storey blocks was fiercely opposed by an increasingly active Bristol Civic Society backed by the Royal Fine Art Commission. (The Commission was authorised to draw government attention to any development which ‘in its opinion affected amenities of a national or public character’.) The MHLG rejected the scheme and also sharply criticised the Council’s somewhat half-hearted revised scheme for four eight-storey blocks. When the Citizen Party won a majority on the Council in 1967, the scheme was scrapped and the land sold to private developers. The High Kingsdown scheme which emerged – a courtyard development designed by Anthony Mackay of Whicheloe, Macfarlane and Towning Hill – is widely praised. (3)
Geoffrey Palmer, the leader of the new Citizen administration, declared in December 1967 that ‘apart from a few projects in hand, Bristol will build no more multi-storey flats’. Northfield House, in Bedminster, begun in 1969 was the Council’s last major high-rise scheme and – at 18 storeys – its tallest.
Whatever the local dynamics, in this Bristol was also reflecting national trends. Patrick Dunleavy emphasises the extent to which Bristol – like other local authorities – was heavily influenced by central government pressure, notably in the drive to clear the slums and build high in the early 1960s and in the reversal of that policy in 1967.
They heyday of high-rise – notwithstanding those projects in the pipeline – was over. The collapse of the system-built Ronan Point block in Newham in May 1968 is always taken as the major cause. In fact, alarm at the disproportionate expense of high-rise construction and a growing realisation that it didn’t rehouse at density (or that high density could be achieved better) were already making rehabilitation of older properties a preferred option of central government.
By 1971, there were 66 council estates in Bristol containing some 43,000 homes which housed just under a third of its 427,000 population. Within the total, there were 55 high blocks (of ten storeys or more) in the city forming around 14 percent of its total housing stock – a proportion higher than that in Manchester and Sheffield, for example, and the highest among what Dunleavy calls the free-standing county boroughs (a status it would lose in 1974 before becoming a unitary authority again in 1996).
This had been a frantic period of housing construction. Bristol had both followed and bucked the trends – pursuing the same path to higher-rise building as most of the larger cities but doing so in a local form, certainly in earlier years, and avoiding the pressures towards system building. Its slabs and blocks have generally survived – with the exception of some on the suburban estates – and seem to have stood the test of time better than many.
The website of the Tower Block UK Project provides detail on high-rise public housing in Bristol and nationally.
(2) Quoted in Patrick Dunleavy, ‘The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain: Local Communities Tackle Mass Housing’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 1978. Dunleavey’s research provides much of the detail that follows.
(3) A full account of the episode and description of the High Kingsdown scheme is provided by Elain Harwood in this online document.
Bristol had been transformed by council housing between the wars, as discussed in this earlier post. The City Council built over 15,000 new council homes, principally on nine new suburban estates. Together, they formed around 40 percent of the city’s new housing. It would be transformed again in the post-war period – new peripheral estates appeared but, most strikingly and obviously in the central areas, there were also the high-rise blocks which will form the central focus of this post.
There had been modest forays into multi-storey housing before the Second World War. Three-storey flats had been built to rehouse those displaced by a slum clearance scheme in Eugene Street in 1923 at Lawford’s Gate in Old Market and Eugene Street itself. A speech by Sir Hilton Young, Minister of Health and Housing, in Bristol in 1934 probably boosted local efforts. He urged that those displaced by slum clearance – in full swing as a result of legislative and policy changes in the decade – be rehoused centrally (near their places of work) and in flats; he counselled a somewhat sceptical audience to ‘go and look at what can be done in the way of tenement dwellings for wage-earners according to modern standards’. (1) Four-storey flats were built in Hotwell Road, Kingsland Road and Champion Square (St Pauls) in the mid- to late-1930s.
Around 3200 homes were destroyed in Bristol by aerial bombing during the Second World War but raised post-war expectations and a baby boom added their own urgency to renewed slum clearance and rehousing efforts after it. The first, unauthorised, response was a squatting movement which spread like wildfire across the UK; by October 1946, an estimated 1038 camps had been commandeered as emergency housing by almost 40,000 activists. In Bristol, squatters occupied a military base named White City near the Bristol City football ground. Local supporters were keen to stress their respectability: (2)
Their action was unusual, unconstitutional, but let no one think they are ruffians. They are ordinary people, they shave every day, eat at tables, go off to earn their own living.
The Labour-controlled Council itself was initially hostile – elsewhere some were positively helpful – but a prominent Labour member of the Housing Committee, Harry Hennessy, supported the action and urged those taking part to: ‘Sit tight. Carry on. Take no notice of rumours. The police cannot touch you’. Some of the army huts were acquired temporarily as council housing and most of the squatters had been permanently rehoused by 1950.
The temporary prefab programme, inaugurated in 1944, was an official state response and around 2700 of these temporary bungalows were erected in the city – the largest numbers (around 150) at a site in Ashton Dell and 127 in the suburb of Horfield.
The city also went big on permanent prefabrication – the various systems that it was hoped might provide a speedy and cost-effective method of solving the post-war housing crisis. By March 1955, Bristol had built 16,704 permanent houses since war’s end; of these 10,892 were non-traditional – including 5415 Easiform homes made of in situ poured concrete and 1712 Cornish units of concrete post and panel construction. Less common systems nationally such as Unity (precast concrete and steel frame) and Woolaway (another form of concrete post and panel construction) were also built at scale. (3)
It was these suburbs that provided the bulk of the city’s early post-war housebuilding. The Lawrence Weston, Henbury and Lockleaze Estates to the north were approved soon after the war; Withywood and Hartcliffe to the south started construction in the early 1950s.
The Council’s 1951 Development Plan reflected the thinking of the day in its emphasis on the neighbourhood units held to promote community on new council estates. But it marked also a renewed intention to redevelop central areas; it was estimated that there were 10,000 houses in Bristol unfit for human habitation and a further 25,000 that were substandard. The Plan envisaged 19,000 new homes by 1957 of which 10,000 would be flats.
It had been argued since the 1930s, as we saw, that inner-city slum clearance required multi-storey replacement – displaced residents needed to be near their place of work and flats were held to achieve a necessary higher population density. In the 1950s, the case was strengthened by what many councils perceived as a shortage of suitable land for housing (a ‘land trap’, as it was described contemporarily), created by new zoning regulations and green belts pushing peripheral suburbs inconveniently distant. Some councils were also loath to move their ratepayers and voters into neighbouring districts.
In this respect, Bristol, aided by a boundary extension into Somerset in 1951, was relatively well off but the perception of land shortage was a powerful one that influenced decision-making at the time. Patrick Dunleavy, the chief chronicler of Bristol’s multi-storey development, considers the 1956 high flats subsidy (which paid a higher amount the higher the scheme) another significant influence on Bristol councillors’ choice to build tall.
Heavily-bombed Redcliffe, immediately to the east of the city centre, was one of the earliest areas selected for redevelopment when in July 1945 the City Council agreed proposals to redevelop the district as ‘a housing area for key workers’. Detailed plans for what Alderman Charles Gill, the powerful chair of the Housing Committee, called a ‘tremendous and interesting project’, were approved in December 1949. (4)
Although reaching only a modest six storeys, this was an early showpiece scheme for the Council, planned to accommodate some 2500 residents in a mix of 775 one- to three-bed homes. ‘An outstanding contribution [was] the bold decision to provide a central-heating and hot-water system for all dwellings’, according to AW Cleave Barr – a district heating system, located in Canynge House, which ‘influenced the form of the scheme in the direction of a few very large blocks of flats and maisonettes, as opposed to a mixed development of flats and houses’. (5) A communal laundry, nursery and doctors’ surgery were also included.
Higher blocks, including the 13-storey Waring House, were completed in the area in 1960. A three-bed flat in the scheme could be rented for about £3.20 which included hot water, laundry and heating. (If you watched the 2020 BBC2 series A House Through Time on no. 10 Guinea Street, you will have seen the development at the end of the road.)
Barton Hill, to the east of the city centre, was another area targeted for redevelopment and controversy over the plans anticipated later difficulties. It was undeniably an area of old and inadequate housing but many of the residents – who felt themselves part of a respectable working-class community – resented the slum label and disliked the multi-storey alternative.
According to Hilda Jennings’ account of a public meeting called to discuss the plans in 1953 (Jennings was the warden of a university settlement in the district): (6)
Opposition to building in multi-storey flats was general; when one official, after expounding their convenience and the necessity for them, agreed that he himself lived, in a ‘nice little house’, the whole audience chanted ‘That’s what we want. A nice little house in a nice little garden, with a nice little fence around it’.
But, apparently, council officials were heard more sympathetically ‘when they claimed that the only alternative to building upwards was moving out to the overspill area’. In any case, the plans went ahead
Actual clearance and reconstruction took far longer. Barton House was completed in 1958; at 15 storeys, then the tallest block outside London. Two eleven-storey blocks (Phoenix and Eccleston Houses) were completed in 1961; four more fifteen-storey blocks (Longlands, Harwood, Corbett and Beaufort Houses) the following year. (Most of the present colour schemes date to a general refurbishment programme carried out in the 1990s.)
These were the balcony-access slab blocks, designed by City Architect, J Nelson Meredith, that Bristol favoured at the time. The blocks here, as elsewhere in the city, were, for all their prominence, placed individually so there were few dense concentrations of high-rise housing and no attempt to emulate the Zeilenbau schemes (arranged on a north-south axis to maximise sunlight) found elsewhere. (7)
Lower-rise blocks of six-storeys apiece in idiosyncratic Bristol-style – Tyndall House and John Cozens House – in the St Jude’s Redevelopment Area were begun in 1957. Two ten-storey blocks (since demolished) were built on the peripheral Lawrence Weston estate.
Overall, the share of high-rise in housing schemes approved by the City Council increased from eight percent to nearly 30 between 1954 and 1957. In 1958, the Housing Committee sanctioned a 12-year clearance programme that included plans to demolish half the houses in Easton ward and some 24,500 houses in total by 2001. (8)
These plans would prove more controversial and the political shift they helped bring about locally would have major consequences for how high-rise developed in Bristol in the 1960s. Those topics will feature in next week’s post.
The website of the Tower Block UK Project provides detail on high-rise public housing in Bristol and nationally.
(1) ‘Minister’s Speech on Housing’, Western Daily Press, 14 July 1934
(4) ‘Redcliff Hill Flats Plan to House Port Key Workers Goes Forward’, Western Daily Press, 20 December 1949
(5) AW Cleave Barr, Public Authority Housing (BT Batsford, 1958)
(6) Hilda Jennings wrote an account of the episode in her 1962 book, Societies in the Making. The quotation from it is drawn from Patrick Dunleavy, ‘The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain: Local Communities Tackle Mass Housing’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 1978.
(7) Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers for the Welfare State (The Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, 2017).
(8) Dunleavy, ‘The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain’.
I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post and some fine photography by Thaddeus Zupančič. Thaddeus is a Slovenian-born writer and translator. He has lived in London since 1991. For the first 14 years he worked as a radio producer with the BBC World Service. On his Instagram account @notreallyobsessive he is now about one third through his project, London Modernism 1946-1981, which documents modernist council estates in the capital. He is also a volunteer with The Twentieth Century Society and manages its Instagram account @c20society.
On Sunday, 23 January 1955, Margaret Willis, a sociologist in the Planning Division of the Architect’s Department of the London County Council, gave a broadcast on the BBC Home Service programme Home for the Day.
Her bosses thought the broadcast, in which she ‘would informally talk about her work at County Hall’, was ‘in the interest of the Council’ and therefore recommended that ‘under Staff Regulation 112’ she should be allowed to retain the fee (‘probably 8 guineas’).
The eight-minute talk was titled My Job. Willis explained that a sociologist is a ‘sort of liaison officer between people like you, the housewives, and the Council’s technical men and women who make the plans in the drawing office’. She was, though, mostly talking about the scarcity of land in ‘the centre of our cities’ and how planners and architects ‘realise how important gardens are to many people and they are doing their best to provide them’. One of their ideas, she explained, was to build ‘a compromise between a house and a flat, it’s a four-storey building like a house on top of a house’. The main benefit of these buildings was the attached gardens, but there was also something else: ‘People prefer this type of building to a flat because they like going upstairs to bed.’ (1)
Such ‘houses on top of houses’ – known as maisonettes because of their split-level plan – were not a complete novelty. On the Devons Estate in Bromley-by-Bow, for instance, there are four low-rises which look like terrace houses with separate flats on the top of them, basically ‘flats on the top of houses’. It is an unexciting, but useful Neo-Georgian pastiche. Pevsner is more damning: the estate, opened in 1949, is ‘entirely in the LCC’s pre-war manner, but with all the drabness of post-war austerity’. (2)
The first modernist maisonette block in London was Brett Manor in Brett Road, Hackney, built in 1947-8. It was designed by Edward Mills for the Manor Charitable Trustees (Mills used the same Arup box frame as Tecton did at Spa Green Estate, which was completed in 1950).
Brett Manor was swiftly followed by Powell & Moya’s Bauhausian low-rise blocks at Churchill Gardens in Pimlico (designed from 1946, built in 1947-51), which were the first modernist maisonettes built by any London council, in this case Westminster.
Margaret Willis’s employer was not far behind. Already in the early 1950s, as Elain Harwood points out, a group at the LCC Architect’s Department, worked on ‘an efficient maisonette plan, which they then cast into ten-storey slabs, built at Bentham Road, Hackney, at Loughborough Junction, Lambeth, and, most impressively, the Alton West Estate, Roehampton.’ (3) (The Gascoyne Estate in Hackney was built in 1952-4; the Loughborough Estate in 1956-8; and the Alton West Estate in 1955-8.)
The LCC dotted various iterations of these Corbusian slabs on stilts all around the central London metropolitan boroughs, including Southwark (Symington House in 1957, and Prospect House in 1962); Bermondsey (Chilton Grove in 1959); Lambeth (Wimborne House in 1959, Waylett House and Duffell House in 1963); Bethnal Green (Yates House and Johnson House in 1957, Orion House in 1962); Stepney (Raynham House and Gouldman House in 1958, Withy House in 1959, Troon House in 1961 and Butler House in 1962); Poplar (Storey House in 1958 and Thornfield House in 1960); Westminster (Torridon House in 1960 and the towers of the Maida Vale Estate in 1961); and Islington (Muriel Street in 1964).
Private practices working for the LCC were also designing maisonette slabs and blocks for them, the most impressive being the Ricardo Street Scheme at the Lansbury Estate in Poplar by Geoffrey Jellicoe (for the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Architecture, 1951); the Cordelia Street Scheme on the same estate by Norman & Dawbarn (1963); and the two Hereford Estate slabs by Stillman & Eastwick Field (1956) in Bethnal Green.
Maisonettes, regardless of the type of building in which they were incorporated, were an integral part of mixed developments, ‘the dominant ideology for housing in the 1950s’ (4).
There was, though – as it is explained in the oddly self-flagellating GLC book Home Sweet Home – a problem with maisonette slabs: their ‘mass was too dominating, and problems of overshadowing and inflexibility of orientation led to planning difficulties which limited its use in high-density areas’. (5) A far greater potential, continues the book, was offered by the point block with its ‘non-directional shape and quick-moving shadow’.
After the success of Draper House on the Draper Estate in Elephant and Castle (completed 1962), the ‘tall blocks of maisonettes’ (6) became almost as ubiquitous as the slabs, most successfully in the case of the six 21-storey blocks on the Warwick Estate in Westminster (completed in 1966), though the medium-rise maisonettes on this estate are just as compelling.
Even taller, at 24 storeys, were the blocks of maisonettes of the cross-over ‘scissors’ type on the Pepys Estate (designed from 1963, completed in 1973) in Deptford and the 26-storey Maydew House on the Abbeyfield Estate (1965-8) in Southwark. The ‘scissors’ type was first tested for the LCC’s Lincoln Estate blocks in Poplar (1959-62), but ‘later discontinued owing to the high cost of its complex construction’. (7) The construction was indeed complex, with central corridors placed at a half level, ‘providing entrances to flats that ran the width of the block above or below, ‘crossing’ to give each other a dual aspect’. (8) They also provided a maximum of through light and ventilation. Even better than the 24-storey blocks on the Pepys Estate are the eight-storey ‘scissors’ maisonettes, a ‘strong, unifying element of the scheme’. (9)
‘Houses, flats and maisonettes’ was a mantra not only for the LCC, but also for London’s metropolitan boroughs and the City.
The best examples of the latter are the Golden Lane Estate by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon for the City (which consists of various blocks of flats and six blocks of maisonettes plus a community centre, swimming pool and a tennis court, 1954-6); and Denys Lasdun’s part of the Greenways Estate for Bethnal Green Borough Council (the two inventive eight-storey cluster towers with 24 maisonettes each and the three low-rise blocks with another 50 maisonettes, 1955-8) as well as his Keeling House (for the same council, completed in 1959, originally comprising 56 maisonettes and eight studio flats).
Equally busy were Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin (the post-Tecton maisonettes on the Dorset Estate, 1951-7, and the Cranbrook Estate, 1955-65, both for Bethnal Green, and the Tabard Garden Estate Extension in Southwark, 1964-5, for the LCC); Frederic Gibberd (Kingsgate Estate, 1958-61, for Hackney); J. Pritchard Lovell (Clem Attlee Court, 1957, for Fulham); George, Trew & Dunn (Winstanley Estate, 1964-6, for Battersea); Clifford Culpin & Partners (Edgecombe Hall Estate, 1957-63, for Wandsworth); and Co-operative Planning (St John’s Estate, 1963, for Poplar).
So too were the borough architects of those metropolitan and municipal councils that already had them – most notably Camberwell’s F.O. Hayes (Sceaux Gardens, 1957-60), Willesden’s T.N. l’Anson (the 1963 blocks in the South Kilburn Redevelopment Area with maisonettes on the top of flats), and Edmonton’s T.A. Wilkinson (Cumberland House and Graham House on Goodwin Road, 1962) – and the borough engineers and surveyors, for instance W.J. Rankin at Poplar (Aberfeldy Estate and the first phase of the St John’s Estate).
The reorganisation of London’s local government in 1965 saw the creation of the new Greater London Council and 32 new London borough councils (plus the City) which then became responsible for a substantially larger part of housing projects and planning than before.
More importantly, the London Government Act of 1963 introduced – in s.74(1) – the statutory post of ‘an architect for the borough’ (10) in each one of them and, ‘as the case may be’, the City.
The most celebrated of them was Sydney Cook, who established Camden’s architect’s department. Cook recruited some of the best young talent – including Peter Tábori, Bill Forrest, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth – but the ‘first and foremost among those who joined Camden from the cutting edge of London’s architectural culture was Neave Brown’. (11)
Brown designed two of the most remarkable post-1965 council estates in London: the Dunboyne Road Estate (a mixture of three- and two-bed maisonettes and one-bed flats; designed from 1966 and built in 1971-7); and the Rowley Way part of the Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate (block B, for instance, comprises four storeys of two- and three-bed maisonettes), built in 1972-8.
Cook’s competitor for Camden’s job was the housing architect of Hampstead, C.E. Jacob. He was later appointed borough architect of Haringey and as soon as his new Department of Architecture was set up, he designed, with his deputy Alan Weitzel, the Broadwater Farm Estate (1967-72) and its centrepiece, Tangmere, a maisonette ziggurat.
Westminster balanced work of its own new Department of Architecture and Planning under F.G. West – such as the Brunel Estate in Westbourne Park, 1970-4 – with schemes by private practices, for instance Darbourne & Darke’s epochal Lillington Gardens Estate (designed in 1961, built in 1964-72, with some of the best maisonettes in town); the scheme won numerous awards, starting with an Award for Good Design in Housing in 1969.
In the period of 1968-1980, the most Awards for Good Design in Housing – sponsored by the Secretary of State for the Environment in collaboration with the Royal Institute of British Architects – was received by Islington, ‘more than any other local authority in the country’. (12) Islington’s Architecture Department was run by Alf Head, who complemented its own projects – for example the Spring Gardens (1968-70) maisonettes and flats in Highbury – with commissions from private practices, very often Darbourne & Darke.
Borough architects in south London were just as active, particularly F.O. Hayes at Southwark, who continued his old Camberwell job, and Ted Hollamby at Lambeth.
Southwark’s largest projects were the stupendous Heygate Estate (now demolished) and the Aylesbury Estate (demolition underway), but the Department of Architecture and Planning designed other estates too, such as the Four Squares Estate in Bermondsey (most of its 691 homes are maisonettes). The most triumphant, though, was Kate Macintosh’s all-maisonette estate Dawson Heights (1966-72) in Dulwich. She described it as a ‘Chinese puzzle of differing types to be assembled in various combinations’ (13) and it still works perfectly well.
The building programme in the neighbouring Lambeth was very extensive too – and Hollamby was as good at recruiting talented architects as Cook given that one of his first appointments was George Finch, who already made his name at the LCC with the Chicksand Estate in Whitechapel.
Finch’s eight almost identical 22-storey maisonette towers, system-built by Wates – the first completed was Holland Rise House in Stockwell in 1967 – are as intelligent as they are generous; and his stunning Lambeth Towers in Kennington Lane (designed in 1964-5, completed in 1971) are maisonettes, incorporated in a freestyle, sinuous brutalist block.
The last great hurrah of mixed development was Thamesmead, ‘basically a working-class Barbican’ (14), the heroic estate by the GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design, the successor to the LCC Architect’s Department. The two architecturally most intriguing structures – Coralline Walk and Binsey Walk, both now demolished – were linear maisonette blocks built in 1967-8; and more maisonettes were included in the later stages of the development, Parkview (1969-79) and The Moorings (1971-7).
The most seductive of all other GLC maisonette blocks remains Perronet House (1967-70) in Elephant and Castle, which won a commendation in the 1971 Awards for Good Design in Housing.
And it was not only the GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design: pretty much all private practices commissioned by the GLC also designed maisonettes, including the Smithsons (their Robin Hood Gardens, 1968-72, mostly consisted of large maisonettes); Ernő Goldfinger (Trellick Tower, 1972, as well as Balfron Tower, 1967, Carradale House, 1967-8, and a 1972 Burcham Street block on the Brownfield Estate); Trevor Dannatt (Norwood House on the Galloway Estate, 1969); and Architects Co-Partnership (Ethelred Estate, Lambeth, 1964-75).
The last two estates featuring predominantly maisonettes were Benhill Grounds by the Sutton Architect’s Department under Peter Hirst (1978-9), and the GLC’s Odhams Walk (1979-81) in Covent Garden. That these two schemes should have been the last – mostly because of the 1980 Housing Act and its consequences – is a shame, because maisonettes are arguably the greatest housing gift that modernist architects bequeathed to London. They were – and rightfully remain – popular ‘because they gave greater privacy and the sensation of being in a house’. (15) Not to mention the fact that Londoners like going upstairs to bed …
A version of this article was previously published in Issue 5 of Journal of Civic Architecture (2020).
(1) Margaret Willis, ‘My Job’ transcript for a BBC broadcast, 23 January 1955; Report by the Clerk of the Council, 12 January 1955, London Metropolitan Archives
(2) Bridget Cherry, Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England – London 5: East, (Yale University Press, 2005)
It might seem a masochistic exercise to read what is, in effect, a real-time account of the sustained assault on council housing and its residents that occurred since 2010 but, on this occasion, it’s one I recommend. The Red Brick Blog is a product of the Labour Housing Group, affiliated to the Labour Party but describing itself – correctly, I believe – as ‘the place for progressive housing debate … open to anyone interested in the progressive debate about housing, communities, and wider politics’. As this anthology of over 100 of its past posts suggests, it’s been one of the most authoritative and best-informed forums for the analysis of contemporary housing policy of the last decade.
As you would expect, many of the posts deal with that assault in properly passionate but forensic detail. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government set out their stall early on – a 50 percent cut in cash terms in social housing investment in 2011. By 2016, as past editor and contributor Monimbo records, the Government was spending £43 billion on Help to Buy and ‘Starter Homes’ for first-time buyers and just £18 billion on affordable housing.
Subsequent posts unpick the multi-pronged nature of this attack on social housing – housing associations (too often not the good guys) converting homes to ‘affordable rent’ and voluntarily selling off their housing; Right to Buy where the promise of one-to-one replacement was rapidly forgotten (the actual figure was about one-in-seven); the inadequate powers open to local authorities to leverage planning gain to community benefit further weighted towards developers; regeneration schemes which generally reduced social housing stock; and so on. Many of you will be familiar with this broad picture but it’s salutary to see it delineated with such force and clarity.
The consequences, of course, were obvious – new social housing reduced to historically low levels, the rise of homelessness and of homeless households placed in temporary accommodation, increased overcrowding and rising house prices. A housing crisis in short. All this did indeed, as the title of the anthology – reprised from a powerful post by Steve Hilditch on ‘Beveridge: 70 Years On’ claims – mark a ‘return to squalor’.
Whilst such criticisms might be seen by some as politically partisan, Red Brick is scathing on the economic illiteracy of this approach. Harrow Council, for example, spent £500,000 buying back 35 former council homes sold at discount to house the homeless. Spending on Housing Benefit was massively increased as the Government forced significant increases in social rents and many more people into the expensive private rented sector.
Social security – increasingly translated into social insecurity – was the other great target of austerity, of course. The bedroom tax stands out for its basic inhumanity but the ‘reform’ with the greatest impact were the cuts to Local Housing Allowance in 2010 reckoned to affect 900,000 households, an average loss of £12 a week from a £126 benefit.
Fixed-term tenancies, ‘Pay to Stay’ (aimed at higher-earning tenants), the forced sale of high-value council homes all receive due attention as further attempts to undermine council housing. That not all these changes were fully implemented is a tribute to housing campaigners and the common sense of at least some legislators.
All this is duly depressing but a quality of the anthology is the positive case consistently made for a significant and viable public housing sector. That’s seen, firstly, in the necessary dismantling of some of the negative myths surrounding the sector. Those privileged ‘lifetime tenancies’ enjoyed by council tenants since 1981? Nothing more than the fact that a tenancy is not time limited and that public sector landlords are required like others to provide grounds for possession and get a court order.
Most powerful is the challenge to the argument that council housing is, in any meaningful sense, subsidised housing. Broadly speaking, social housing runs a surplus with initial loans paid off and maintenance cost covered. Sometimes an element of cross-subsidy from pooled rents helps finance newbuild. The further belief that sub-market social rents should emulate the far higher levels of the private rented sector is, firstly, to give quite unwarranted respect to a dysfunctional and failing housing free market and, secondly, to ignore the huge additional cost to the Treasury in benefits that increased social rents would bring.
Conversely, it’s the case that owner occupiers and private landlords enjoy a range of ‘subsidies’, ranging from renovation grants and mortgage interest support if unemployed to Right to Buy discounts and shared ownership deals. The most even-handed response here is to recognise that public spending on housing in various forms is not a cost but an investment.
Nowhere was the argument better made for investment in social housing than by SHOUT – the Campaign for Social Housing – formed back in 2014 when that case was far more marginalised than it has now, thankfully, become. SHOUT and its landmark 2015 report are properly lauded in these pages. The bottom line? – that a programme of 100,000 new social rent homes a year would cost ‘well under 1 per cent of planned 2013-14 spending; the equivalent of less than 1p on income tax, or just 13 days of welfare spending; and less than 15% of the planned cost of HS2’. The value – though reasonable projections could be made in terms of job creation and savings on Housing Benefit and less readily quantifiably in terms of personal and social benefit and health and educational outcomes – was and is inestimable.
Red Brick records subsequent expansions on this theme from the Chartered Institute of Housing in 2018 and Shelter in 2019. The Overton Window – the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time – had, as it noted, shifted. Even Theresa May, then Prime Minister, appeared a convert though the blog was correct to view this with a degree of scepticism. The role of housing and tenant activists and campaigners, a Labour Party belatedly converted to a significant programme of social housing newbuild, Tory overreach and the tragedy of Grenfell are credited with this hard-fought success which – despite the current uptick in new council homes – remains to be fulfilled at scale.
Grenfell which, of course, features significantly, reminds us of another theme broached frequently in the anthology – the need for a meaningful tenants’ voice. In 2012, the book laments how progress made in this regard by the New Labour government in its latter years was lost in the Coalition’s ‘bonfire of red tape’, one consequence of which was the very real fire at Grenfell.
There’s much else to absorb from this over-200 page collection – the need for planning and land reform, changes to the leasehold system, the impact of Covid 19, and some useful broader housing history touching on John Wheatley, Harold Wilson and including a thoughtful review of my own book on council housing.
It’s a book of bite-sized chunks to dip into (the lack of an index is one regrettable omission) but the whole – edited and significantly contributed to by Steve Hilditch, the pseudonymous Monimbo, Karen Buck (an MP who brings a rare and valuable personal and professional experience of social housing to her work), Alison Inman and many others – is an important record of a tumultuous, too often dispiriting, phase of housing history. I recommend it and hope that it offers not only a perspective on the recent past but a guide to what can be a more positive future.
The anthology is available as a paperback for £9.99 and as a Kindle book at £6.99. It can be purchased here. All royalties (around £2.50 per copy) will go to the Labour Housing Group.
I posted a piece on the Gleadless Valley Estate in Sheffield in May last year. Keith Marriott contacted me via email with a long and very interesting account of his own experience of growing up on the estate and his subsequent career. With his agreement and support in supplying many of the images included, I’m pleased to feature that response in this week’s post. Keith will introduce himself in the article that follows.
I grew up on Gleadless Valley in the 1960s. My Mum and Dad, my elder sister and I moved to Raeburn Road on Gleadless Valley in 1961, when I was aged two. I know that work began on the estate in 1955, and this was one of the earliest parts of the estate to be constructed so I don’t know whether the house was new when they moved in or not.
In the 60s, there was a wide socio-economic mix on the estate – unskilled and skilled manual workers, clerical and junior management. Many of the early residents of the estate had either grown up in the terraced back-to-back housing which was demolished to make way for the Park Hill flat or had quickly moved from Park Hill, which soon became prone to vandalism and became socially stigmatised.
My mum worked as a clerk at Sheffield Town Hall in the 70s ‘Egg Box’ extension. At the time they moved to Gleadless Valley my Dad was a commercial manager for British Tar Products in the city centre. Although he had left school in 1934 aged 14, this was only his second job including his six years in the army during WWII. He had the opportunity to go to grammar school but that was an unaffordable option for my grandparents. His company moved its offices to Manchester in 1966 so he took a job, instead, at the Orgreave coking plant and chemical works. We didn’t own a car until then but it was a necessity as the bus journey was not feasible.
My parents lived in the same house at Gleadless until they died; my Dad in 2001 and my Mum in 2015. They remained as tenants throughout. When Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy in the early 80s, they didn’t buy theirs, as many of their long-time neighbours did. They had a very risk-averse attitude to debt and were unpersuaded about the benefit of embarking on a mortgage late in their working life.
I recall there was a very narrow racial mix on the estate; I don’t recall a single black or Asian pupil at primary or secondary school, but I don’t know how far this reflected the mix across Sheffield in the 60s and 70s.
It’s about five years since I’ve visited the estate but I feel, despite a loss of architectural coherence due to the impact of the Right to Buy, it has remained fairly intact except for the loss of its schools, library and the missing third tower at Herdings. The much later Supertram terminus below the towers is a positive addition, I’d say.
Womersley’s team had designed a community centre, between the shops and the towers at Herdings with a timber gridshell hyperbolic paraboloid roof but it was sadly never built. It would have been a fabulous addition, architecturally and socially.
The private housing built in the 1990s at the base of the towers helps to give a bit of shelter to what was a pretty exposed hilltop. It’s 700 feet above sea level and was a bleak spot where you wouldn’t linger in winter. I remember visiting elderly residents in one tower in the 60s who felt rather isolated there when they were trapped in by bad weather. On the positive side, the panoramic views were stupendous, towards the hills of the Peak District or with the whole of the city lit up below. I’ve always felt that the Herdings towers were designed to be seen as landmarks in the landscape though rather than places to view from.
I think it is the estate’s low-rise, low-density housing that is its strongest point rather. The architectural team for Gleadless Valley comprised eight architects (credited in the Housing Department’s 1962 book ‘Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield 1953-1963’) who showed enormous creativity in developing housing types with their own private outdoor spaces to suit the steeply sloping terrain.
They display a wide variety of different relationships to both private and public outside space, putting a great emphasis on privacy, which is, I think, one key to its lasting appeal. The 1962 book (it’s very telling that it is printed in the same format as Le Corbusier’s L’Oeuvre Complet with text in French and Russian) states the percentage of the housing stock built on steep slopes as well as the density. The density is in sharp contrast to the way Park Hill and Hyde Park handle a similarly steeply sloped site. Here the aspiration was to allow easy access to use the open public space, whereas at Park Hill the public space is really only a visual asset.
The existing woodland has flourished especially where it was extended, particularly at its south-east boundary. Comparing the 1892-1914 OS map with the current aerial photo on Bing maps on the National Library of Scotland’s geo-referenced side by side OS maps, shows this really well.
All the infrastructure of social facilities – shops, schools, libraries, pubs – were planned and built very early as the design recognised this as fundamental to a thriving community.
Education and transport vision supports housing and health. Sheffield’s subsidised bus service was legendary throughout the 60s and 70s and well into David Blunkett’s tenure as leader of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. Cheap, frequent reliable buses made it possible to get anywhere in the city (except Orgreave!) out as far as Castleton in the Peak District punctually and affordably. Access to the countryside, particularly to the west of the city, was promoted as a key benefit and by the Council to be enjoyed by all. See Sheffield: Emerging City (C.R. Warman 1969).
The original Herdings, Hemsworth, Rollestone and Gleadless Valley schools are all gone now, sadly. Womersley’s department designed all these civic buildings. All very good examples of mid-century modern public buildings, carefully and thoughtfully designed; functional, practical but above all a joy to inhabit. Herdings primary school and Gleadless Valley secondary school were opened in 1961 or 62, I think.
Herdings was two-storey with the full width of the south side glazed onto a very spacious playing field. Despite their aspect, the rooms didn’t overheat, due to plentiful fully opening windows. All the ground floor classrooms had direct access to the playing field and all the upper rooms for the eldest pupils had dual aspect, so were even brighter and airier.
I don’t think it’s just ‘rose tinted glasses’ but I’d go so far as to say the education was inspirational and visionary – particularly at primary school. There was a culture designed to broaden children’s horizons. We were exposed to gramophone records of Rubinstein playing Chopin, Albert Schweitzer playing Bach during daily morning assembly and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett during indoor lunchtimes in the hall. French was taught from seven years, the head teacher published books on French and on sex education for primary school children.
I went to secondary school in 1969, the first year Sheffield introduced comprehensive education across the city. Prior to that Gleadless Valley school had been a secondary modern school and the large majority of its intake was from the Gleadless Valley estate. It was actually located about half a mile south-west of the estate on Norton Avenue.
It comprised a three-storey main block orientated north-south again with full-width windows overlooking spacious playing fields and clerestory glazing on the top floor. General purpose classrooms facing east and labs and arts rooms facing west. A block containing assembly hall, gym, dining room and kitchen and a separate technical block were connected to the main block by fully glazed single-storey link corridors.
Other public buildings now lost include the original Hemsworth public library on Blackstock and one of Womersley’s gems. It closed to much protest in 1995 and was converted into a Lloyds chemist shop. It was a long, low block with an over-sailing flat roof forming a wide entrance porch; two long sides of the rectangular box were full-height glazed with end walls in brick inside and out. Internally the fittings were purpose-made joinery and matched slatted timber ceiling; it was a sort of display cabinet for books and culture!
I went to Liverpool University to study Architecture in 1976, the first in my family to go to university and of course in those days fees and a full grant were paid by my Local Education Authority. Early in my working career as an architect I worked for Denys Lasdun, architect of the National Theatre. The theme of the visibility and accessibility of culture was a dominant one in his practice. I worked with him on a competition entry for the new Paris Opera House in 1983 and its key design principle was egalitarianism: everyone should have as good a seat in the house as everyone else and the glazed facade displayed what was going on inside to the world outside. He believed passionately, as did his patron at the National Theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier, that Culture (with a capital C) was not just for the privileged few; he would brook no dumbing down – he thought Shakespeare and Aristophanes could and should be enjoyed by all. This was a milieu that my teachers at Herdings primary school understood and promoted.
The churches have survived well. St Anthony’s Catholic Church at the Norton Avenue end of Raeburn Road and the now well-known Gleadless Valley Church on Spotswood Mount both remain. The former is not one of Womersley’s but with a distinctive copper roof is rather good example of a 60s Catholic parish church. The original entrance facing Sandby Drive was a glazed end wall but has been obscured by some untidy single-storey porches and ancillary spaces. St Anthony’s retained a patch of land alongside Norton Avenue on which it intended to build a Catholic school but this was sold to a housing developer in order to pay for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982.
One aspect of the estate which has not proved so successful into the 21st century is the huge increase in private car ownership. The roads, including the primary bus routes, are narrow, twisty and hilly. I think perhaps the increase in private car ownership was apparent to Womersley as early as 1962, by which time his department was already designing house types at a planned estate at Middlewood on the north side of Sheffield, which had integral garages. Perhaps it had become apparent that the limited number of rentable garages in small separate courtyards on Gleadless Valley was in high demand.
For me there are three outstanding achievements. Firstly, I love the ingenuity of the range of houses, maisonettes and flats to suit the hilly terrain. Secondly, Womersley’s positioning of the three tower blocks on the highest point of the estate where they can be seen from 15 miles was probably his bravest architectural move as Sheffield’s Chief Architect. Thirdly, the decision to retain and enhance the existing woodland allowed the relationship between public and private space to be both rich and usable. Gleadless Valley was a fine and humane place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. I found the relationship between its architecture and Sheffield’s topography and landscape to be an inspiring one.
I’m very pleased to host a new post by Chas Townley. He has written previously on the pre-First World War council housing of Dursley in Gloucestershire. Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control’ authority in the county. He was chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing. He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision. Chas has recently started a PHD at the University of Bristol exploring the provision of working-class housing before the Great War.
Four houses at Mickleton are the sum total of Campden Rural District Council’s provision of houses before the Great War but they were the first council housing built in Gloucestershire under the Housing of the Working Classes Acts.
Campden was a rural district created in 1894 for administrative convenience from the Gloucestershire parishes within the Shipston-on-Stour Poor Law Union. As the Poor Law Union also had parishes in Worcestershire and Warwickshire, Shipston-on-Stour and Brailes Rural Districts were also created. The offices of the three districts plus the Poor Law Union were at the workhouse in Shipston with the same officers serving the four bodies. Members served a dual mandate as both Rural District Councillor and Poor Law Guardian.
The Mickleton Parish Council was exploring ways of providing houses and August 1910 discussed information from the Local Government Board on the terms loans for housing schemes could be provided to District Councils – 3 ½% over 80 years for land and 60 for buildings. The report extensively reports Charles Coldicott, who served as both Chairman of the Parish Council and the District Councillor for the Parish. Another quoted was Mr Dixon, a barrister and later a Justice of the Peace for both Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. (1)
The newspaper report noted that ‘A lengthy discussion took place with regard to the probable cost of erecting four houses and the amount of rent to be charged’. But one parishioner, Mr J Taylor, offered to give £600 towards the cost of the scheme providing that the rest of the cost could be raised and that houses became the property of the Parish Council – this wasn’t legally possible. Part of Taylor’s argument is enlightened self-interest:
They [the landowners and ratepayers] could not do without the working-man. He should not be in the position he was today if it was not for the men. It was their business and duty as Christians to see that the working-man was better housed.
The outcome of the meeting was that Dixon and Taylor were deputed to consult the ratepayers to see if they would assent to a voluntary rate for the houses.
At this point the Housing and Town Planning Act 1909 was in its infancy and the potential for the Act to deliver the improvement of homes in disrepair and the construction of new housing was largely untried in rural areas – even in four exceptional rural areas which had struggled through the barriers of earlier legislation to provide housing in their local areas.
Mickleton was undeterred and the Parish Council meeting in September made application to the Campden Rural District Council to ‘respectfully put into operation the Housing and Town Planning Act’. The CheltenhamChronicle account suggests this was due to both a housing shortage as well as the poor condition of existing housing. This led to a wider debate at the District Council about the work needed to put into force the systematic inspection of existing homes under the Act. As to the question of the new housing they set up a joint committee with the Parish Council to look at the provision of new housing in Mickleton. (2)
The Chronicle carried a short article later in the year giving an account of progress noting:
The promoters of the scheme have met with considerable difficulty one way or another, and some members of the Council have seemed reluctant to work under an Act which they know little or nothing about, as was shown by the discussion which took place at the meetings.
It also commented ‘but Mickleton people were persistent in their demand and their representative on the Rural Council (Mr Coldicott) threatened to appeal to the Local Government Board, if the Council refused to do that which was asked of them’. (3) Given that the legislation was a Liberal initiative and Charles Coldicott’s persistence to encourage the use of the new Act, it is easy to assume he was a Liberal but he was the leading Conservative in the village. (4)
The procedure of the Act provided that four residents of a parish or the Parish Council itself could lay a complaint before the Local Government Board enabling them to intervene and order the District Council to provide housing in a parish. Before intervening the board had to consider the ‘necessity for further accommodation’ as well as ‘the probability that the required accommodation will not be otherwise provided‘ as well whether it is prudent to do so ‘having regard to the liability which will be incurred by the rates’. The Act also provided default powers for the County Council to act instead of the rural district. Compulsion by way of writ of mandamus could result in a range of sanctions including imprisonment for continued default. (5)
If there was a will to avoid building there was a way, as a defect in the legislation left the Local Government Board powerless to intervene beyond persuasion and coaxing unless there was a formal complaint. By the end of the 1912-1913 financial year, only 37 Rural Districts out of 661 had applied for a loan to build housing. Consequently, by the eve of the Great War frustrations by the Liberal Government with rural districts were leading to an emerging policy of the state taking over the building of housing rather than leaving it to private enterprise and councils. (6)
The belligerence against rural districts also extended to smaller urban districts and during 1917 and 1918 Addison’s Ministry of Reconstruction advocated for another option of transferring of housing powers to the counties, leading to Lord Salisbury to comment in reaction to Local Government Board proposals, ‘For reasons which we have stated over and over again we believe that the County Council is a far sounder authority’. (7)
By the spring of 1911 Campden were ready to apply to the Government for a £600 loan to build the four cottages, having agreed to lease a site for a period of 99 years from Mr SG Hamilton. (8) The inquiry was held by Major CE Norton, a Local Government Board Inspector. It was left to Charles Coldicott to present the case to the inspector, suggesting this was still very much a local Mickelton scheme rather than one owned by the District Council as a whole. In part this was a consequence of the funding mechanism as any deficit on the scheme was to be met from Mickleton’s ratepayers rather than the District rate.
Coldicott’s evidence recounted a Parish Meeting held the previous year which had resulted in a 40 to 2 vote in favour of the project. He claimed that many cottages had been demolished in recent years and none built. The main industry of the parish was agriculture and market gardening and some of the farm labourers were having to live a considerable distance out of the parish. The suggested rent for the cottages was 3s 6d (17.5p).
Dr Finlay, the Medical Officer of Health, gave evidence that there were no empty cottages in the village and only a day or two ago a family had to go out of the village because the cottage had been bought. He also knew of men who worked in Mickleton who lived in Quinton, three miles away across the border in Warwickshire.
It was left to Charles Gander, the Council’s surveyor and sanitary inspector, to go over the plans which showed ‘a good back living room, scullery, joint washhouse for each pair of cottages, three bedrooms (two large and one small) and separate coal houses and domestic offices’. The selected site was small and Gander justified the lack of garden ground on the basis that ‘all the cottagers rented allotments in the parish’. (9)
Three opponents, supported by a petition signed by 28 ratepayers, spoke on the grounds that whilst there was an urgent need for housing in the village they thought the site selected was unsuitable. One of them suggested an alternative site which they considered more suitable owned by a Mr Box. The Inspector concluded the hearing by remarking that some alterations would need to be made to the plans before the Local Government Board would give its sanction to the scheme which would defer the matter for some time. Whilst it is not clear from the reports, the construction was probably solid brick rather than a cavity wall and this construction is assumed by the modern energy performance certificates for the properties – although cavity wall construction started in late Victorian times.
Walter Runciman, then President of the Board of Agriculture and actively interested in small holdings and rural housing, visited Mickleton in December 1911, accompanied by Sir Ashton Lister, then Chairman of the County Small Holdings Committee and subsequently ‘Coupon’ Liberal MP for Stroud. A description of the visit provides an account of the challenge for the County Council to provide affordable smallholders cottages alongside the newly developed council smallholdings: (10)
At Mickleton we came face to face with the rural housing problem in its most acute form. The soil is remarkably fruitful, and lets readily for market-garden cultivation at £4 an acre without buildings. Land which was down at grass a few years ago has been let by the County Council to men who are probably obtaining as much as £4 for every £1 raised from the soil hitherto, or, to use a classic phrase, making four blades of grass grow where only one grew before. Yet there are not enough houses for the people to live in. A two roomed cottage nearly a mile from the occupier’s small holding fetches, it is true, only £4 per year, but in this very cheapness lies the root of the difficulty. ‘The County Council’, Mr Runciman explained, ‘couldn’t put up cottages with three bedrooms which is the standard size, for less than £400 the pair. They couldn’t let them at less than £10 a year each. If such a cottage were on your holding, would you be willing to take it?’. ‘Well’, was the reply ‘that needs a deal o’ thinking on. Ten pound is a lot o’ money’. Plainly if the Cottage Bureau should lead to the discovery of that dream of many a reformer, the satisfactory hundred-pound cottage, it will be the salvation of such villages as Mickleton.
Sir Ashton Lister later noted at a Council meeting that one of the disadvantages for the Council was the fifty-year maximum loan period available for small holding buildings. (11) This compared to a sixty-year period allowed for the construction of dwellings under the Housing of the Working Classes Acts. It clearly mattered not how the house was used but under what legislation it was provided.
In another article was a more detailed explanation of the Cottage Bureau proposal that Runciman was developing, which was to ‘gather from all sources – whether English, American, or Continental – plans and specifications of modern-built country cottages, together with the details of the actual cost’. Very soon after in February 1912 Runciman appointed a Departmental Committee on the Equipment of Small Holdings which, when it reported a year later, included details of cottages suitable for rural labourers to be built as council housing. Whilst these developments did not directly benefit Mickleton they did ensure that model plans were available for other councils working to provide council housing in rural areas before the Great War. (12)
Returning to the development of four houses in Mickelton, by July 1911 work to resolve the perceived problems with the scheme had taken place and a new site owned by Mr Dixon was under consideration with a sixty-year lease on ‘nominal terms’ with a continuing lease for 999 years. The Local Government Board were willing to sanction the new site subject to the approval of revised plans. A sticking point appeared to be the design of the outbuildings which were considered to darken the scullery if placed too near the houses. (13)
Whilst we cannot be certain, it appears as if the original scheme was tendered before an application for a loan was originally made as in September the District Council had received an amended tender from the proposed contractor George Adams which was higher than the original taking account of the additional work required to assess the changes. Adams was part of a long-standing building firm based in Shipston-on-Stour and had undertaken other work for the Guardians in the past. (14)
Charles Coldicott was deputed to find out the views of the proposed tenants on a ‘small increase’ in the rent for the properties. This suggests that the properties had also been pre-let when the original plans were developed. At the October District Council meeting the revised tender of £674 was approved as a ‘fair charge’ for the work and formal application for a loan sanction of £700 was submitted to the Local Government Board.
Mr Gander, the surveyor, reported to the April 1912 meeting of the Council that the difficulty of draining the newly erected cottages had been overcome by connecting with the drains of the cottages opposite by agreement with the Sladden and Collier brewery of Evesham (eventually becoming part of the Whitbread brewing combine) who ran the Butchers Arms in the village. The Surveyor had also taken water samples from the well supplying the cottages. There is a later report stating that the well was ‘quite unfit ‘ – but this could be a misprint as the cottages were occupied by the May meeting, suggesting that any problems were quickly resolved with the Chairman saying they should be celebrated in a proper manner as the first council housing in the area. (15)
Mickleton like many rural villages in Gloucestershire acquired mains water and sewerage late in the day. A water supply project was completed in 1927 and, in 1933 when the Granbrook Lane council houses were developed, the council resorted to installing a septic tank. There was still no public sewerage system when planning took place for post-Second World War reconstruction. (16)
Who were the first tenants?
That’s a very difficult question to answer as the records for that period are scant. We know for certain who was resident at the time of the 1939 National Registration giving four families with three of the four having close links to agriculture. One couple, George and Elizabeth Norton, at the time of the 1911 census, were agricultural carriers and had been resident in a cottage close to Charles Coldicott’s farm.
Their cottage was clearly overcrowded with ten living in four rooms – which would have included the living room. They had been married for 17 years and had nine children, two of whom had died before 1911 and the remaining seven were all still living at home in a four-room cottage. Also living with them was ‘paralysed’ Samson Margretts aged 58. His original head of the household entry had been deleted and relegated to ‘boarder‘, perhaps suggesting he was the tenant of the cottage. But another household – again Norton – in 1911 had been living with members of three other concealed households in addition to their own children.
There is, however, a twist in the tale as all four properties appear to have ceased to be council housing by 1972. One of the properties is in private ownership having been auctioned off in 1972 with the other three owned by a local charity named after the person who leased the land to the Council in 1912. Whilst it is disappointing to find that the first council homes built in Gloucestershire are no longer providing affordable social rented homes, three continue to provide rented housing in the village.
This one scheme at Mickleton was not the end of Campden Council’s entry into the world of housing provision before the Great War as work had begun on developing a scheme of eight homes at Moreton in the Marsh. Despite the scheme having progressed a long way with a site ready to be purchased, plans drawn and loan terms accepted from the Government, paradise was postponed, like so much else, for the duration of the War, in October 1914.
Within Mickleton a further six council homes were provided on Stratford Road under the ‘homes fit for heroes‘ housing scheme in 1921. (17) Subsequently, during the late 1920’s and 1930s the provision of more homes took place along Granbrook Lane. (18) More housing followed in the post war period in Cedar Road but the direct provision of council housing ended with the decision of Cotswold District to cease being a landlord in 1997. And the village was the beneficiary of 15 new social rent homes granted permission at Hill View Close in 2000, one of the first schemes completed by Fosseway Housing – the Cotswold District Council stock transfer association – now swallowed up into the 40,000 home Bromford Housing Group. (19)
(1) Evesham Standard, 13 August 1910, p5
(2) Cheltenham Chronicle, 8 October 1910, p8
(3) Cheltenham Chronicle, 10 December 1910
(4) Evesham Standard & West Midland Observer, 8 February 1919; Gloucestershire Echo, 4 January 1902 reports him being re-elected as Grand Master of the Mickleton Lodge.
(5) Housing and Town Planning Act 1909 Section 10
(6) The Central Land and Housing Council, The Liberal Land and Housing Policy: Rural Housing, circa 1914.
(7) National Archives Letter by Lord Salisbury Chairman Ministry of Reconstruction Housing Panel circulated to War Cabinet by Christopher Addison. CAB 24/44/76
(8) Sidney Graves Hamilton (1856-1916), born in Dublin and resident in Malvern is described as Lord of the Manor of Mickleton in the report of his will. Cheltenham Chronicle 20 January 1917. See also 1911 Census Class: RG14; Piece: 17650; Schedule Number: 13. The Lloyd George Survey also shows that he owned substantial holdings in the village and one of his farm tenants was Charles Coldicott.
(9) CheltenhamChronicle, 25 March 1911
(10) Gloucester Journal, 23 December 1911, p9
(11) Gloucester Journal, 13 January 1912
(12) Departmental Committee on the Equipment of Small Holdings, Chaired by Christopher Turner March 1913, Cd 6708
(13) Evesham Standard, 15 July 1911
(14) There is an extensive archive of Adams Builders, Shipston-on-Stour covering the period 1796 to 1968 at Warwickshire Archives which may throw further light on this project. Ref: 03887
(15) Cheltenham Chronicle, 20 April 1912; Evesham Standard, 18 May 1912
(16) Cheltenham Chronicle, 2 July 1927; TheTewkesbury Register and Agricultural Gazette, 21 January 1933. Gordon E Payne, Gloucestershire: A Survey – A Physical, Social and Economic Survey and Plan (Gloucestershire County Council, 1945)
(17) GloucestershireEcho, 15 October 1921, p6 – report of Campden RDC meeting
(18) The Tewkesbury Register and Agricultural Gazette, 31 January 1931. This is an advert to complete 12 partially completed properties.
(19) Cotswold District Council planning files 98.02408 Construction of 15 dwellings for affordable housing, Meon Hill Nurseries, Nursery Close, Mickleton.
We left Barrow last week just as its first public housing was under construction. These were homes – though not all justified the term – built by the Ministry of Munitions to house Barrow’s huge armaments workforce just as, it turned out, the First World War was drawing to its bloody conclusion. In 1917, the town’s Medical Officer of Health (echoing the Council’s official line), had argued that ‘the only solution for gross overcrowding is a scheme for the provision of houses carried out by the Ministry of Munitions’. By April 1918, the Council’s Health Committee had concluded that ‘it is the duty of local authorities to carry through a programme of housing for the working classes’. Much had changed and this post will deal largely with the council housebuilding programme that ensued, albeit in faltering fashion. (1)
Firstly, however, there was the problem of the two Ministry of Munitions schemes launched in October 1917. The Roosegate development of semi-permanent housing was built by the Ministry itself; 200 bungalows (of the 500 originally projected) were completed in 1918 – to almost universal obloquy. As one Barrow resident recalled, ‘they were one-roomed and two-roomed houses. It was just simply a box with a lid on’. Locals called the scheme ‘China Town’. In June 1920, the Health Committee warned of the ‘intolerable condition’ of its streets; by March the next year, the Committee described the housing as a ‘a threat to the health of residents’. Its closure was announced in July 1925. (2)
The second Ministry scheme at Abbotsmead comprised permanent housing, built by the Council under Ministry contract to designs provided by the latter. The estate’s layout was better though the houses themselves were criticised for their small rooms and poor build quality. A bigger problem was the proposed rent levels, initially set at an exorbitant 17s a week (85p) by the Ministry with the Council considering even reduced rents of 10-12s (50-60p) too high. The scheme was abandoned by war’s end with around half of the proposed 500 houses completed. Hopes that the Council might purchase the homes in peacetime were thwarted by cost; most by the mid-1920s had been sold to sitting tenants.
Despite acknowledging in March 1919 that ‘the provision of housing [was] one of its most pressing needs’ and despite the combination of generosity and compulsion offered by the 1919 Housing Act, the Council was slow to respond. However, belatedly in April 1920, it agreed proposals to build in 113 homes on Devonshire Road and 44 on Walney Island. Both schemes were largely completed in 1921.
Local as well as national politics had shifted. Labour gained its first majority on the Council in 1920 and would govern again between 1928 and 1931 and 1934 to 1938. An average turnout of 69 percent through the interwar period, peaking at 81 percent in 1925, shows how fiercely contested these municipal elections were. (3)
However, through much of this period, economics loomed larger than politics. With military orders withdrawn and facing unprecedentedly harsh international trading conditions, Barrow’s traditional industrial mainstays were decimated. By 1922, 60 percent of its shipbuilding workforce and half of its engineering workers were unemployed – 44 percent of its insured workforce overall. Vickers’ workforce fell from 23,000 in July 1918 to a low point of just over 3700 in 1923. Wage cuts forced a bitter engineering strike in the town in May 1922.
The new housing crisis was manifest in rent arrears and evictions, the latter sometimes fiercely contested as when 20 police officers were sent with bailiffs to enforce evictions in Vickerstown (where 800 tenants had been laid off and rent arrears approached £7000) in February 1922. In the 1920s, the Council’s preoccupation lay with collecting rents – reduced in 1924 from the already low levels of 7s 6s to 5s (37½ to 25p) weekly – rather than building anew.
A second major slump hit Barrow with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 when at peak in 1931 some 7500 of the locally insured workforce was jobless. There was little female employment in the town to offset mass male unemployment. Rearmament in the later 1930s would restore the town’s fortunes whilst other of its former large employers in railway and locomotive building and metal founding closed permanently.
The Labour-controlled Council was able to commence one small building scheme in 1931 on land purchased from the Ministry of Munitions’ failed Roosegate development: 56 flats for elderly people on Thrums Street, followed by an adjacent scheme of 116 semi-detached houses finally completed in 1948.
The national shift towards slum clearance signified by the 1930 Housing Act and, in Barrow’s case more particularly, the 1935 Housing Act provided greater scope for the Council. Some 6384 homes were inspected under the surveys required by the latter legislation and just over half found ‘not in all respects fit for human habitation’ between 1935 and 1937. Applying overcrowding criteria, 887 homes accommodating 5475 persons were found overcrowded in 1937, equating to 6 percent of the town’s housing stock. Twenty-seven clearance areas were declared.
Barrow also suffered unusually from what might be kindly called ‘informal housing’ – shacks and tents predominantly on Walney Island’s western shore. Some of these were occupied by young people evading the household income provisions of the means test and the Council proceeded cautiously but 28 huts at Biggar Bank on Walney Island were cleared by 1939.
The biggest scalp, however, were the Scotch Flats in Hindpool discussed in last week’s post – tenement buildings dating to 1871 which were among the first of Barrow’s company housing. After two public enquiries, the Ministry of Health agreed the inspector’s decision to demolish in 1939 though – with war intervening – they were to survive till 1956.
From a low point of some 66,000 in 1931, Barrow’s population had increased to around 75,000 by 1940. Population pressures and increased finances encouraged the Council to embark on larger building projects in the later 1930s. The Risedale Estate was commenced in 1936; its 148 new homes were completed in 1948.
The Vulcan Estate, built on the site of the former Vulcan Ironworks in Salthouse, was built between 1936 and 1937 as a slum clearance estate to house those displaced from the Strand Clearance Area. Its relatively plain housing may reflect those origins.
Land a short distance to the north was purchased for the Greengate Estate, North and South, in 1937 but, with contracts for 180 houses and 54 flats not agreed till the summer of 1939, little progress was made before the war – just 18 houses in Greengate South were completed by February 1940.
Some of those were damaged in the Barrow Blitz, two sustained bombing raids on 14-16 April and 3-10 May 1941. Ironically, the town’s heavy industry was relatively unaffected but some 83 civilians died and over 10,000 homes damaged. In Barrow, as elsewhere, the desire to build bigger and better in the post-war world was expressed as conflict raged.
Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Health rejected immediate plans for rebuilding proposed by the Council as early as 1943 but the Borough Surveyor prepared further plans for Greengate South and a new estate of 900 homes in Newbarns – part of a vision announced by the mayor, Councillor GD Haswell, in November that year to create a ‘new post-war Barrow’. The Newbarns scheme was approved in May 1944.
The Council’s Barrow Development Committee, tasked with overseeing peacetime reconstruction, was clear on the ‘paramount necessity of suitably housing our people’:
The social benefits to health, education, family life and ‘moral well-being’ are of course ample justification for the provision of houses adequate in number, properly designed and located with ample accommodation. But even from an economic point of view ample and suitable accommodation is a valuable asset. The fact that we have the necessary labour to offer is enhanced in value greatly if we can show it is properly and suitably housed. Ours must be a slumless city.
As that ambition took shape, the town was allocated 400 temporary prefabs to help meet the immediate housing crisis in November 1944. Many of these Tarran concrete bungalows were erected in Tummerhill on Walney Island, replaced from 1956 by permanent housing; others dotted around the town survived longer. Permanent prefabs – in this case around 200 steel-framed British Iron and Steel Federation houses – were built by Laings on Park Road, and north of Chester Street and Bradford Street on the Ormsgill Estate. They were replaced in the mid-1970s as the estate continued to grow.
Earlier plans for the Greengate estates were completed in the late 1940s but Barrow’s new hopes were placed in the Newbarns Estate, planned to comprise some 800 homes housing around 3000. Post-war planning ideas around ‘neighbourhood units’ were reflected in the provision made for new churches, schools and recreation facilities though the promised tennis courts and recreation centre were never built.
Building continued apace with the Abbotsmead Estate completed in the mid-1950s and what was promoted as ‘a new town at Walney’ of over 2700 homes in the north of the island approved in 1953 where building continued into the 1960s. Some 2600 council homes were built between 1945 and 1961.
For Barrow, the era of large-scale council housebuilding was over by the late-1960s; new schemes were smaller and largely infill, including the Cartmel and Grange Crescent flats in the centre of town and bungalows and flats principally for older residents around Cotswold Crescent on the former site of the Griffin Chilled Steel Works. A scheme of 79 houses and flats on and around Exmouth Street in 1985 marked an adaptive return to more traditional terraced forms.
At peak, in the early 1980s, the Council owned around 5500 homes in the borough. Currently, it owns and manages just over 2500 homes with a much smaller number run by housing associations. Around 10 percent of households live in social rented homes, a surprisingly low figure – below the national average – for a town dubbed the most working-class in England (an admittedly inexact judgement apparently reflecting its prevalence of chip shops, workingmen’s clubs and trade union offices). That may reflect the early tradition of working-class owner occupation referenced last week, the amount of company housing since transferred to private ownership and council housebuilding programmes constrained by economic downturn. (5)
The town continues to be marked by its industrial history and the ups and downs of the local economy. Vickers, now BAE Systems (that is a considerable simplification of a complex history), was sustained by nuclear submarine orders into the 1990s but now employs only around 5000 workers from 14,000 in the 1980s. The pre-pandemic unemployment rate stood at around 4 percent, a fall from recent figures but above the national average. Earlier this year, the town was reported as having suffered the largest population fall of any area in England – around 6.8 percent between 2001 and 2019 to the present figure of around 67,000. (6)
Elsewhere, Barrow is often described as being at the end of the longest cul-de-sac in England due to its location at the tip of the Furness peninsula, 33 miles off the nearest motorway and 33 miles back. The fact that this ‘western industrial periphery’ had briefly been ‘a major Bessemer iron and steel centre of Europe and the world’ tells you something of its impressive and turbulent economic history. (7)
Give Barrow a visit – it has some proud municipal heritage and a unique housing history; it’s a hardworking town working hard to adapt to changing circumstance as it has throughout its lifespan. And that ‘remote’ location is actually pretty special.
(1) Quoted in Bryn Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built (Hougenai Press, 1985). Much of the information here and particularly that on later council housing, which is little documented elsewhere, is drawn from this invaluable source by Barrow’s leading historian.
(2) Quotations drawn from Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster 1880-1930’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol 127, 1978 and Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built
(3) Sam Davies and Bob Morley, County Borough Elections in England and Wales, 1919-1938: A Comparative Analysis (Routledge, 2016). The unemployment figures which follow are drawn from the same source.
In 1843, Barrow comprised some 143 people and 28 houses. The Furness Railway arrived three years later; by 1881, the town’s population had reached 47,259. With the arrival of what became the Barrow Haematite Steel Company in 1859 and the opening of its first major dock – the Devonshire – in 1867, the town’s impressive but troubled industrial history had begun. And, with that, a fascinating housing history perhaps unique in the country. That history was shaped by the local economy, in early decades to an unprecedented degree, and particularly – until the belated arrival of council housing – by its dramatic vicissitudes.
Barrow was incorporated in 1867 and became a County Borough in 1889. But it was most marked by what some have described as the ‘aristocratic paternalism’ of the Cavendish family – not so paternal here as the Devonshires (as the eponymous dock suggests) were most concerned with money-making – and the power of leading industrialists; Barrow ‘suffered from the lack of a strongly established middle-class element, and was virtually ruled by an industrial junta’. (1)
The key figure here was James Ramsden, managing director of both the Furness Railway Company and the Barrow Haematite Steel Company from 1866 as well as the town’s first mayor from 1867 to 1872. Ramsden also devised the first plan for what was essentially a new town though that, in truth, was soon overtaken by Barrow’s breakneck growth. This was the ‘English Chicago’ with, in the less complimentary words of one account, ‘a combination in appearance of Birkenhead and a goldfinders’ city on the edge of one of the western prairies of America’. (2)
To retain a new workforce drawn from across the UK, employers built company housing. The so-called Barrow Island Huts built for navvies and shipyard workers in the 1870s were among the first – 349 wood or brick prefabs arranged like an army encampment, serving a population of up to 3000 and of such squalor that they were condemned by the council in 1877 though they survived into the 1880s.
Far more substantial were the Scotch Buildings, built in 1871 for the employees of the adjacent steel, flax and jute works in Hindpool – tenement blocks built on ‘the Scotch principle’, appropriately it was felt as most of the workforce was Scottish.
The more monumental Devonshire Buildings, with their corner octagonal towers, were completed on Barrow Island by the Barrow Shipbuilding Company in 1874. Though designed by Lancaster architects Paley and Austin, their style – and the builders, Smith and Caird from Dundee – point again to this rare adoption of Scottish forms south of the border. Similar tenement blocks just to the south – a mix of brick and craggier sandstone – were completed in the early 1880s, again designed by Paley and Austin and built by Dundee contractors on what have since been rebranded the ‘Maritime Streets’.
The one- and two-bed flats provided a living room and scullery and basic sanitary facilities but, despite their relatively spacious rooms, this was no philanthropic venture. Ramsden, emphasising the bottom line, pointed out they cost £25 less to build per room than Peabody tenements whilst also offering slightly lower weekly rents – 1s 6d (7.5p) a room compared to Peabody’s 2s (10p). (3)
The Scotch Buildings are, as we’ll see, long gone but the refurbished Devonshire Buildings survive, listed Grade II*, part of the Cavendish family’s Holker Estate holdings. The Maritime Streets blocks, Grade II-listed, are now advertised as modern serviced apartments, their proximity to Barrow’s major employers still a key selling point.
That was also the case with the Roose Cottages, provided in the hamlet of that name to the west of Barrow in the mid-1870s by the Barrow Haematite Steel Company to serve the predominantly Cornish workforce of its new iron ore workings at Stank. (That Cornish influence – 80 percent of the population was listed as coming from the county in the 1881 Census – is allegedly responsible for the soft ‘s’ pronunciation of the district’s name which replaced the hard ‘s’ previously favoured by locals.) The 196 cottages in two parallel blocks were again built by Cairds of Dundee, a testament to the relative ease of employing Scottish contractors and workers in what seemed to many a remote corner of England.
Given the national and local politics of the day, it’s no surprise that there was no municipal housebuilding at this time though, in fact, the private 1873 Barrow-in-Furness Corporation Act had empowered the council to build artisans’ cottages. In the event, the cost to ratepayers of ancillary sewerage and street works ensured the question would be shelved for some time.
Returning to 1881, that 47,259 population was crammed into 6789 houses, an average of 6.96 persons per house. That made Barrow, after London, the most overcrowded town in England. An economic slowdown in the 1880s eased matters temporarily but the purchase by Vickers of the Naval Construction and Armaments Shipyard in 1897 led to renewed growth. By 1900, the town’s Medical Officer of Health lamented: (4)
There has been no adequate provision to relieve the congested condition of the town … I believe that 1000 additional houses would have been filled at once so great seems the overpopulation of nearly every working man’s house
Vickers’ workforce and 13-acre site on Walney Island doubled in size as cruiser orders filled its books and the company, like its predecessors, resorted to the provision of company housing to attract and retain its employees. In 1899, Vickers took over the Walney Island Estates Company (which was attempting to develop mixed housing and a seaside resort on the island) and promised a ‘marine Garden City’ of its own, Vickerstown. By 1904, the construction of the first phase of Vickerstown, comprising around 950 homes, was largely complete.
The solid well-built, predominantly terraced housing that emerged – complete with flush toilets, running water and its own electricity supply – was of good quality though its layout reflected few of the Garden City principles claimed to inspire it.
It was also rigidly socially segregated: Class A houses (the majority) offered more basic houses for ordinary workers at around 6s (30p) a week; Class J, for skilled workers and foremen provided larger rooms and, if you were lucky, a bathroom at 7s (35p) a week; commodious Class L houses – rented at 9s (45p) a week – were designed for administrative staff and lower management whilst the houses with sea views on the scheme’s fringes were intended for the elite. As Trescatheric suggests, ‘what Vickerstown more closely resembled was the older and less visionary concept of an industrial model village’.
These were also, of course, tied houses; it was said you needed a foreman’s recommendation to be considered for housing and the loss of a Vickers job would see you evicted. Rents were deducted from wages and the company retained direct financial control of all the housing and amenities provided. The appointment of Lord Dunluce as Estates Manager from 1901 to 1909 (he moved to take up a post as secretary of the Peabody Housing Trust) reinforces the heavy paternalism on display. (Vickers’ hard-headed approach is even better illustrated by their construction of the new Walney Bridge, opened in 1908, to serve the shipyard and its mainland workforce: tolls were charged for all traffic including pedestrians until 1935 even after protesting riots in 1922.) (5)
Despite or more probably because of that paternalism, Alex McConnell – a Vickers employee, a Scot steeped like many of his fellow-workers in trade union and socialist traditions – was elected Walney Island’s first Labour councillor in 1905. By 1914, with all three seats held by Labour, Bram Longstaffe, the secretary of the local party, could refer to ‘the Fortress of Walney which is secure for Labour’.
Conversely, local trades unions were also pushing home ownership. In the context of company housing, high rents and no prospect of council housebuilding, this made sense. As the Trades Council argued in 1904, provided a would-be purchaser could raise a £10 deposit (no easy matter, of course), a monthly mortgage repayment of 12s (60p) compared well with rents averaging a £1 a month.
For all Vickers’ growth and perhaps reflecting the impact of the company’s housebuilding, by 1909 the town’s Medical Officer of Health – in a new time of local slowdown, was concluding that:
The housing of the working-classes question has no significance in the town. There has never been any difficulty except on rare and temporary occasions for the workers to find houses for their wives and families.
That complacency would soon be challenged. Barrow’s population rose from 65,257 in 1911 to over 75,000 in 1914, By some estimates, it reached 90,000 in the next few years. ‘The rare and temporary occasion’ this time, of course, was the rearmament drive in the years leading to the First World War and the war itself.
As Barrow industry expanded to meet war’s demands, the housing shortage became devastating. Vickers provided a further 1000 houses before and during the war but its workforce had expanded from around 16,000 in 1914 to 35,000. Conditions for many single men sharing lodgings were described by a shipwright who had arrived in the town in 1913: (6)
We were working seven days a week in the yard for most of the war and the beds were never cold. As one left bed the next lot moved in—night shift and day shift, and it was like that all the time!
Other testimonies described shocking conditions for families
Father and mother, eight children, two of whom a boy and girl was over seventeen years of age, all living in one room. The mother was confined after, with child in this same room.
Elsewhere, sanitary inspectors reported 12 adults and seven children occupying a three-bed house in Melbourne Street while a family of six paid 7s 6d (37.5p) for a single bedroom in a house let at 4s 6d (22.5p) a week.
Class tensions strengthened; the perception that the town’s middle-class were evading the attempts of the Central Billeting Board to accommodate workers in their larger homes led to protest meetings at Vickers and the withdrawal of Labour representatives from the Board. At the same time, dilution (the use of unskilled or semi-skilled labour in jobs previously demarcated as skilled) added to trade union grievances and led in May 1917, to strike action, one of a number in munitions centres across the country, not least in Clydeside with which Barrow had close connections. The Government appointed a Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest. (7)
It reported on Barrow in August, describing conditions in the town as ‘a terrible indictment … against the Rulers and Governors’. Housing – or the lack of it – formed the major part of this indictment:
For nearly three years the population of this important working centre has been constantly increasing and there was no evidence before us that either the government or the Municipality had up to now taken any practical step to deal with the problem that has been urgent at all times and has now become a crying scandal.
Despite the criticisms of its Labour members, the Council blamed this inaction on the Government and, belatedly, the latter acted promptly. In October 1917 the Ministry of Munitions announced a scheme of 500 semi-permanent and 500 permanent houses to be built simultaneously and completed by March the following year. Salthouse Road was selected by the Ministry as the site of the Roosecote Estate’s semi-permanent housing; it was said to have ‘natural leanings … towards a rough and unthrifty class of tenant’. The better-quality permanent homes were allocated to a greenfield site in Abbotsmead.
Delays and controversy followed and neither were completed before war’s end; neither would be judged satisfactory. But this takes us to next week’s post which will conclude this chapter and tell the new story of Barrow’s first council housing and that which followed.
(1) John Duncan Marshall and John K. Walton, The Lake Counties from 1830 to the Mid-twentieth Century: A Study in Regional Change (Manchester University Press, 1981)
(2) Quoted in Bryn Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built (Hougenai Press, 1985). Much of the information here and particularly that on later council housing, which is little documented elsewhere, is drawn from this invaluable source by Barrow’s leading historian.
(3) Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster 1880-1930’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol 127, 1978
(4) Quoted in Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built
(5) Caroline Anne Joy, ‘War and Unemployment in an Industrial Community: Barrow-In-Furness 1914-1926’, University of Central Lancashire PhD, 2004
(6) From the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest (1917), quoted in Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster’ and Joy, ‘War and Unemployment in an Industrial Community’
(7) David Englander, Landlord and Tenant in Urban Britain: The Politics of Housing Reform, 1838-1924, University of Warwick PhD, 1979
Michael Romyn, London’s Aylesbury Estate: An Oral History of the Concrete Jungle (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)
The estate was like a shiny new penny. It was lovely. It was really lovely. It’s hard for me to paint a picture for you but it was a beautiful place to live … The community side of it, you know? I mean you knew all the neighbours … You know you would never have got that sort of community in a row of houses as you did with the landings …
Robert Banks is talking about Southwark’s Aylesbury Estate. For many readers, his words might come as a shock and, to be honest, I’m tempted just to leave it there as a simple corrective to the unreasoned obloquy that the estate has suffered. As Michael Romyn writes in the introduction to his essential new book, ‘a reputation is usually earned; in the Aylesbury’s case it was born’. Even on the day of its official opening by Anthony Greenwood, Labour’s Minister of Housing and Planning in October 1970, it was described by one local Tory councillor as a ‘concrete jungle … not fit for people to live in’. That might have come as a shock to the new tenants who felt ‘it was like moving into a palace’.
The estate was born in the laudable post-war ambition to clear the slums and in the 1960s’ fashion for large-scale, modernist solutions to housing need. It comprised 2700 homes in all, housing a population of almost 10,000 at peak, in 16 four- to fourteen-storey so-called ‘snake blocks’ (including what was allegedly the largest single housing block in Europe). Designed by Southwark Council’s Department of Architecture and Planning, it was built by Laing using the Jespersen large panel system of prefabricated construction. The estate’s regeneration – in practice, its demolition and replacement – has been planned since 1998.
Romyn’s book offers essentially another form of deconstruction, not of the estate itself, but of the myths and meanings that have become attached to it. Robert Banks provides one of the 31 past and present residents’ testimonies that lie at the heart of this thoroughly researched book. That residents’ voice shouldn’t be an unusual means of understanding the actual lived experience of council tenants – who find themselves and their homes so frequently misrepresented and maligned in the media and wider commentary – but, sadly, it is. In the case of the Aylesbury, it is all the more vital as no estate has been so unfairly vilified.
We should begin, I suppose, with that ‘reputation’: the estate portrayed as a ‘concrete jungle’ (indeed, almost its archetype), a scene of crime and disorder. Romyn quotes Sir Kenneth Newman, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who in 1983 described London’s council estates more generally as ‘symbolic locations’ where:
unemployed youths – often black youths – congregate; where the sale and purchase of drugs, the exchange of stolen property and illegal drinking and gaming is not unknown … they equate closely to the criminal rookeries of Dickensian London.
We’ll leave aside for the moment the unconscious (?) racism of his comment and note its surprisingly conscious myth-making: estates, such as the Aylesbury, were imagined rather than analysed, just as, in fact, Victorian elites fearfully mythologised the slum quarters of their own large cities. (1)
As Romyn writes:
Simplified, fetishized, objectified, and finally commodified, council estates rendered in this way, were imaginary constructs, their meaning defined not by their histories or inhabitants, but by external agencies of control (politicians, police, the media, etc).
Newman avoided the word ‘gangs’ but Romyn reminds us how readily the stigmatising term was applied to very largely innocuous groups of young people, particularly those of colour, simply hanging out on their home turf. That so many of the estate’s population were young – in 1971, 37 percent of its 9000 population was under 16 – was, as he notes, an objective factor in such problems as did exist.
If this sounds dismissive of those problems, it should be said that Romyn is scrupulous in assessing the evidence. He notes, for example, that in 1999 around 40 percent of estate residents expressed fears for their personal safety. It’s a disturbing figure but it was roughly in line with the proportions in Southwark and London more widely.
Romyn contends that what really marked the estate out was:
its physical attributes – the brawny slabs … the circuitous geography of elevated walkways. Immediately expressive of the ‘gritty’ inner city, the estate distilled many of the fears and fantasies of urban life embedded in the popular imagination.
These, of course, were also grist to the mill of the ‘Defensible Space’ theorists who posited that elements of ‘design disadvantage’ – the illegibility of public/private space, multi-storey accommodation, shared entranceways and those walkways – were the cause of crime and antisocial behaviour. These, I hope, largely discredited ideas had become by the 1990s the ‘common sense’ of planners and politicians alike and featured heavily in the writings of the media commentariat.
But while lurid headlines and alarmist reports filled column inches, actual crime rates on the estate and the incidence of anti-social behaviour were similar to those of surrounding areas; the estate wasn’t an idyll (though many growing up in the era remember it fondly) but it was essentially normal. Romyn quotes Susan Smith who has suggested ‘fear of crime may be better seen as an articulation of inequality and powerlessness so often experienced as part of urban life. So too can it mask deeper anxieties about changes to the social order …’. Media representations of, as one report labelled it, this ‘concrete den of crime’ were, as Romyn argues, ‘wildly disproportionate, and wanton, too, in that they stoked and projected an unearned notoriety’. (2)
Moving to the question of ‘community’, a leitmotif of planning since 1945, Aylesbury might again surprise those who have criticised it so freely. Romyn charts, particularly in the estate’s early years, a neighbourliness and localism centred around the East Street market and nearby pubs and shops – in fact, a connectedness with the neighbourhood in direct contradiction to conventional wisdom surrounding estates and their supposed isolation. An active tenants’ association, a range of community activities, informal cleaning rotas of common areas and so on complete the picture.
Changing demographics could fray this community cohesion. The arrival of larger numbers of ‘problem families’ – at times described as ‘rough’ by more established residents – under homelessness legislation sometimes led to tensions and difficulties. But Romyn reminds us, again with personal testimony, how life-changing for the families themselves this move could be. Linda Smith, who moved to the estate with her two young children in 1990 via a women’s refuge and bed and breakfast accommodation, recalls how, ‘in [her] time of need along came Southwark’. I don’t need to say how necessary it is that these services are properly funded and resourced and how vital social housing is to that.
Race became another complicating factor for this initially very largely ‘white’ estate as black and minority residents moved in. But this necessary transition seems to have been negotiated well for the most part; the tenants association remained fairly old school but new grassroots community organisations emerged and made a vital contribution to Aylesbury’s life and vitality.
All this in an era of real and growing hardship. The data is profuse. As traditional employment declined and joblessness rose, by 1975 the average household income in Southwark was £1000 below the UK mean; by 1985, half its households were on Housing Benefit. By the late 1990s, Faraday Ward (largely comprising the estate) was the third most deprived ward in Southwark and among the fifth most deprived in England; half its children were on free school meals (compared to 16 percent nationally).
This wasn’t the time to cut public spending and services but the relentless Thatcherite urge to ‘balance the budget’ imposed swingeing central government cuts to housing grants and allocations. On the Aylesbury (as elsewhere), routine maintenance was cut and internal redecoration halted; caretakers were reduced and then removed completely in 1990; cleaning staff were reduced and then lost to Compulsory Competitive Tendering in 1991.
The real quality of Romyn’s book, however, is that it is not a polemic (and is all the more plausible for that). He acknowledges the inefficiencies of some of the Council’s services, its Direct Labour organisation, for example. He recognises the improvements achieved through new, more devolved forms of housing management. But the sense of an estate not failing but failed by others is palpable.
For all that, when in 1999 Southwark Council commissioned a ‘mutual aid’ survey of the estate, it found that 90 percent of residents knew and helped neighbours; 20 percent were helped by a relative living on estate and 35 percent had friends and relatives living nearby. This suggests a resilience and community challenging the dystopian stereotypes repeated most famously by Tony Blair in his first public speech after New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 on the estate itself.
We might, nevertheless, see the £56.2m awarded to the Aylesbury two years later as part of a New Deal for Communities regeneration package as an attempt to right past wrongs. In practice, it was for most residents a poisoned chalice which threatened established and generally well-liked homes and it came cloaked in a moralising language that insulted them and their community. This ‘moral underclass discourse’:
pointed to imputed deficiencies in the values and behaviour of those who were supposedly excluded – ‘an underclass of people cut off from society’s’ mainstream, without any sense of shared purpose’ according to Blair.
The apparently benign goal of ‘mixed and sustainable communities’ was expressed more crudely by Southwark’s Director of Regeneration, the suitably villainously-named Fred Manson:
We need a wider range of people living in the borough … [council housing] generates people on low incomes coming in and that leads to poor school performances, middle-class people stay away.
We’re trying to move people from a benefit-dependency culture to an enterprise culture. If you have 25 to 30 percent of the population in need, things can still work reasonably well. But above 30, it becomes pathological.
Local Labour politicians might, one hopes, have known better but the motion of censure for this intemperate and abusive language came from Tory councillors. The residents’ own response came in December 2001 when, in a 76 percent turnout, they voted by 73 percent to reject the transfer of their homes to the Faraday Housing Association (formed for the purpose) which would oversee the regeneration process. Fears of increased rents, reduced security of tenure, smaller homes and gentrification all played their part.
Since then, regeneration has rumbled on. It has had some beneficial effects. Increased spending and support for education, for example, increased the proportion of local students gaining five GCSEs at Grade C or above from a shocking 16 percent in 1999 to 68 percent – just below the national average – in 2008. That this was achieved before any part of the estate was demolished testifies to the benefits of direct public investment and the fallacy that clearance was required.
A small part of the estate was demolished in 2010, existing blocks replaced as is the fashion with mixed tenure homes in a more traditional streetscape. Most of the estate remains though it and its community have been scarred by the interminable process and continued threat of regeneration.
Whilst thoroughly readable, London’s Aylesbury Estate is an academic book – with an excellent apparatus of references and bibliographies – and it comes unfortunately at a hefty academic price. For anyone concerned to truly understand the estate and its history, however, I recommend it as the definitive text.
I’ll conclude with some conclusions that I think apply not only to the Aylesbury but to estates more generally. The first is that we should eschew simplifications and embrace complexity. Actual residents, for the most part, experienced the estate very differently from its media portrayals. Many didn’t even experience it as an ‘estate’ at all – they knew their corner of it and generally got on with their immediate neighbours. Some were fearful of crime and an unfortunate few experienced it but another interviewee recalls that he ‘didn’t come across anything anti-social in all [his] time there’. Many remember – and continue to experience – neighbourliness; conversely, some rather liked the anonymity the estate could offer.
Secondly, we must reject the idea of estates as alien. As Romyn argues:
Council estates are just homes after all. For most residents, they are not media props or architectural crimes or political rationales, but places of family, tradition, ritual and refuge …
Let’s allow the Aylesbury Estate to be simply – and positively – ordinary:
For all that was exceptional about the estate, and for all the mystification it endured, the Aylesbury, in the eyes of its residents, was mostly normal, unremarkable; a place of routine and refuge, of rest and recreation, of family and familiarity.
Thirdly, we might wish those residents for once to be not the object of other people’s stories but the subject of their own.
I’m grateful for permission to use the images above which are drawn from the book.
(1) This is argued by Dominic Severs in ‘Rookeries and No-Go Estates: St Giles and Broadwater Farm, or middle-class fear of “non-street” housing’, Journal of Architecture, vol 15, no 4, August 2010
(2) The reference here is Susan J Smith, ‘Social Relations, neighbourhood structure and the fear of crime in Britain’ in David Evans and David Herbert (eds), The Geography of Crime (Routledge, 1989)
I wrote about the Aylesbury Estate myself in two blog posts back in 2014. I’d revise some of my language and analysis back then in the light of my own further research and certainly with the benefit of Michael Romyn’s book but they might still serve as a useful guide to the overall history.
I’m very pleased to feature this week a guest post by Paul Wood. Paul is the author of three books about trees in London: London’s Street Trees, London is a Forest and London Tree Walks, and he writes the blog thestreettree.com.
London Tree Walks, published in October 2020, features a dozen walks around London from Acton to Walthamstow looking at the city through the trees found in it. One of the walks, ‘Architectural Utopias Among The Trees: A Pimlico Circular’, guides walkers through the Millbank and Churchill Gardens Estates. This guest blog looks at how trees have been used in planned housing developments since the end of the nineteenth century with particular focus on the Pimlico Estates.
Signed copies of London Tree Walks are available from the authorat this webpage.
By the end of the nineteenth century, trees in towns and cities had burst out of parks and squares to become established in new, urban and suburban settings across the UK and beyond. The opening of the Victoria Embankment in 1870 led to an almost overnight popularisation of planting trees in avenues, a phenomena that had hitherto been the preserve of great Continental cities such as Paris, where Hausmann’s grands boulevards had been attracting attention for several decades.
By the late nineteenth century, building houses among tree-lined streets had become an established practice for speculative builders wanting to attract the burgeoning middle classes to newly fashionable suburbs like Muswell Hill and Bedford Park. In Bedford Park, new street trees complemented those retained from the original fields, while in Muswell Hill, hundreds of London planes adorned the new avenues.
Planners and developers had realised that not only were trees an important part of a modern cityscape, they brought with them a host of benefits to those who lived near them. As the new craze for street tree planting reached fever pitch, it was only natural that the first public housing schemes should also have trees planted around them. The Boundary Estate in Shoreditch featured newly planted trees along its streets, mostly London planes and common limes, many of which, particularly those around Arnold Circus can still be seen. Rows of newly planted saplings feature in this photograph taken in 1903 soon after the estate opened.
Twenty years after the Embankment planting, Victorian engineers had taken on board the need to engineer tree planting into new road schemes, the complexity of which was outlined by Clerk of the Improvements Committee, Percy J Edwards in 1876: (1)
To secure the well-being of trees, pits were formed and filled with proper soil, and the footway surrounding the trees was covered with an open grating to admit the rain and air to the soil, and to enable it to be stirred and kept loose on the surface. The grating and footway were supported independently by girders over the pits, so as to prevent the settlement of the paving and the hardening of the ground around the roots of the trees.
Following similar principles, the trees seen at Boundary Road and the Millbank Estate constructed soon afterwards are extraordinarily well encased. High quality engineering means subsidence has not been an issue and big trees have been left to reach their full potential and are now a significant physical feature defining these estates as much as their architecture.
Trees planted in some privately developed housing schemes, including Muswell Hill, have not fared so well with whole streets of mature trees disappearing. This is down to two main factors: the cost of maintaining large trees is significant, sometimes at a level local authorities have struggled to keep up with; and the costs of paying out to litigious residents whose homes, built speculatively often with relatively poor foundations, have been subject to subsidence.
Trees are frequently implicated in subsidence cases, their adventurous roots, insurers claim, drain water from London’s porous clay soils causing contraction and can also undermine buildings. Rather than fight these often difficult-to-prove cases, authorities will avoid costs and conflict by simply removing trees. This practice has led to avenues being depleted, removed completely or being replaced piecemeal with different species. This last practice can mean an architecturally consistent scheme planted with, for instance, London planes can become a hotchpotch of trees with differing characteristics, size and age.
This is not the case on the Millbank Estate however, defined – even more so than the Boundary Estate – by its well-manicured and mature London plane trees. It was completed in 1902 and was an ambitious attempt at social housing, building on the experience of its smaller Shoreditch sibling. Millbank’s trees appear, 120 years after their installation, to be in great shape and add to the architectural rigour even more so than those on the Boundary Estate. It may be obvious, but unlike buildings, trees change dramatically over time, albeit in relative slow motion. They are also subject to differing management regimes which themselves change over decades and so reflect factors including fashion, economics and arboricultural practices whose impact becomes apparent over multiple human lifetimes.
Today, the Millbank Estate has a near full and consistent complement of trees, virtually all of which are London planes, the urban tree species of choice in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The Boundary Estate has some fine planes too, but appears to be relatively less forested today. Historically it appears, the Boundary Estate was planted with planes interspersed with common limes – another species well adapted to urban situations, mature examples of which can be seen on Rochelle Street. Elsewhere a handful of weeping ‘Pendula’ cultivars of wych elm, an ornamental species relatively resistant to Dutch elm disease are present. One in the small garden behind Sandford House next to Club Row is typical.
These curious crown-grafted trees were much in favour during the nineteenth century and are often a feature of public parks, however the estate examples appear to be rather younger than the buildings, they are perhaps second-generation replacements of original trees. In more recent years, streets such as Palissy Street have been planted with Field Maple, a smaller and shorter-lived species than London plane, but nevertheless, a good hardy tree.
The Boundary Estate has, it seems, lost some of its trees over the years, and those that remain have been less strictly managed than those on the Millbank Estate. Both feature mature planes that now reach the full height and more of the buildings that once towered over them. They have been planted close to the buildings, in retrospect maybe too close, often they have grown at angles several degrees away from upright in search of light. Their presence in such proximity to the buildings is testament to the high specification of the entire estate.
To walk round the larger Millbank Estate today is to encounter an environment, both architectural and arboreal, that has been very well maintained over the years. With both estates, it is interesting to reflect on the planners’ original vision of how the trees would become integral to the estates over time. Did they consider the trees should be left to reach the heights seen today, or were they intended to be managed on a severe pollarding regime reflecting the fashions of the early nineteenth century? It is hard to know, or even if the longevity of the trees’ lives was considered.
Now though, and particularly in the summer, the mature trees’ canopies provide cool shade and, as evidence from elsewhere shows, traffic speed, noise and pollution are all reduced in such lush surroundings. Integral to the design of the estate was the inclusion of open space and the provision of trees.
Communal, mostly paved, areas are tucked away between the blocks, and the trees planted over 120 years ago line the streets running between them. London planes form something of a monoculture, which from a visitor’s perspective offers a harmonious aesthetic that sits well with the arts and crafts inspired architecture, but to a contemporary planner, this rigour may seem uninteresting and even risky given the spectre of plant pathogens that, like Dutch Elm Disease, can wipe out whole species in a very short time.
It was undoubtedly a radical move to include trees in these early estates; by the late nineteenth-century social class was embedded in their selection and planting. As Harold Dyos wrote in his 1960s study of the growth of Camberwell: (2)
The choice of trees, too, had its social overtones: planes and horse chestnuts for the wide avenues and lofty mansions of the well-to-do; limes, laburnums and acacias for the middle incomes; unadorned macadam for the wage-earners.
Dyos’ observation illustrates that the high standards employed in early public housing development goes against the norms established by private developers. London plane, the tree that is associated with grand public thoroughfares like the Embankment and aspirational new suburbs like Muswell Hill was also the tree chosen to soften and embed these new housing forms into the fabric of the city. It would have appeared to be the perfect tree for planting as it is attractive, fast-growing and able to cope with the industrial pollution of the day. Over the years, the trees have been well cared for, having been regularly pollarded to keep them an appropriate size and shape for their location.
A short and interesting walk from the Millbank Estate through the stuccoed splendour of Thomas Cubitt’s Pimlico, Modernist Churchill Gardens illustrates how the relationship between trees and public housing has changed over the years, and represents what might be considered the pinnacle of post-war inner city landscaping.
London’s Second World War destruction provided planners with a rare opportunity to rebuild a modern city. Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1943 identified how war-damaged and slum housing could be cleared to make way for spacious modern homes with proper sanitation along with public open spaces. Born out of this optimistic vision, the Churchill Gardens estate was planned to provide 1,600 new homes.
Designed by the young architectural practice of Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, the estate’s development started in 1946, with the final blocks – those on the western side of Claverton Street – not completed until the 1970s. It is now a conservation area, with several of the oldest structures listed. Walking through the estate, it is possible to experience the utopian vision of large-scale planned housing. As well as one of the first, Churchill Gardens is one of the largest and most ambitious social housing developments with several innovations at its heart, notably the Accumulator Tower, a structure designed to hold hot water for heating the entire estate, which was pumped directly from Battersea Power Station across the river.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the estate is how it is enveloped by green space and mature trees. Unlike the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century urban ideal emphasising the separation of houses and greenery, Churchill Gardens represents a modernist vision of living among the trees. At every turn, mature hornbeams, tree privets, southern catalpas and other species are present. Well-kept gardens, tended by residents, pop up all over, and secret green corners among the tower blocks offer natural sanctuaries.
Unlike that other notable modernist development, the Alton Estate in Roehampton, where high quality architecture is scattered among a former Georgian parkland overlooking Richmond Park, the landscape at Churchill Gardens was planned from scratch. Consequently the trees reflect mid-twentieth century tastes that show both far greater species diversity and a modern sensibility regarding their purpose.
Unlike the Millbank Estate, the trees are no longer structural adjuncts to the built environment, instead they have become alternative focal points to the buildings. They act to soften the potentially brutalising effects of the monumental architecture, whose scale they cannot compete with. Between the slab blocks, gardens exist containing specimen trees which have more in common with park trees than street trees – a crucial difference between Churchill Gardens and the Millbank Estate, which has also led to different management practices.
Instead of well-pollarded planes, the trees here have been given ample space to attain fine maturity. Notable among the species are goblet-shaped hornbeams of the ‘Fastigiata’ cultivar, and evergreen Chinese tree privets, both neat, medium-sized trees. Elsewhere, a few larger trees like Italian alder, red oak, sycamore, Norway maple, southern catalpa and Japanese pagoda tree rub shoulders with smaller trees including ornamental cherries, magnolias and white mulberries. But perhaps the most exciting trees to look out for are an exceptional example of a southern European nettle tree next to Bramwell House, and a very rare (and poisonous) varnish tree next to Coleridge House.
According to Powell, the architects worked with a former Kew gardener on the landscape planting. As a result, Churchill Gardens is full of fine, well-tended trees that the people who live here are proud of and that help to foster a palpable sense of place and community.
Trees have been part of our town and cityscapes for centuries, but their use on streets and among housing is a late nineteenth century innovation. As the first social housing schemes were built, tree planting was considered an essential part of their development. This impulse continued over subsequent decades with a shift away from London plane monocultures to much more diverse planting which, at its best can be akin to parkland or even botanical collections.
The use of trees within planned housing developments arguably reached its zenith in the heroic modernism of the post-war period expanding on new insights, derived from pioneering schemes like the Millbank Estate, into how buildings, people and trees interact. As estates have aged, the trees have too. Now we can reflect on the benefits of living among the trees and appreciate the grandeur they bring to developments through softening and humanising the architecture, while also providing seasonal interest and tangible environmental benefits.
(1) Percy J Edwards, History of London Street Improvements, 1855-1897 (London County Council, 1898)
(2) Harold Dyos, Victorian Suburb: A study of the Growth of Camberwell (Leicester University Press, 1966)