A Housing History of Barrow-in-Furness, part II from 1918: ‘Ours must be a slumless city’

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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)

Holcroft Hill, Abbotsmead Estate

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.

Romney Road, Devonshire Estate

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.

Flats on Thrums Street, Roosegate Estate

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.

Brook Street, Risedale Estate

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.

Vulcan Road, the Vulcan Estate

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.

Mardale Grove, Greengate South

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.

The Barrow Blitz: Exmouth Street, May 1941

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.

Middle Field, Ormsgill Estate
Chester Place, Ormsgill Estate

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.

Kendal Croft, Newbarns Estate
Middle Hill, Newbarns Estate

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.

Later council housing in the south of Walney Island at Cote Ley Crescent

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.

Cartmel Crescent

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 Spirit of Barrow’ by Chris Kelly was unveiled in 2005

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)

The view from Walney Bridge

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.

Sources

(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.

(4) Quoted in Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built

(5) On the town’s working-class character see Caroline Evans, ‘Barrow, Capital of Blue-Collar Britain’, The Guardian, 5 October 2008

(6) Eleanor Ovens, ‘Barrow named as having biggest population drop in England’, The News, 20 June 2020

(7) The quote is drawn from 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)

A Housing History of Barrow-in-Furness, part I to 1918: the ‘English Chicago’

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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.

A map of Barrow in 1843 © Cumbria Archive and Local Studies Centre, Barrow-in-Furness

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)

An image of the Barrow Haematite Works in 1865
Sir James Ramsden

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.  

An early image of the Scotch Buildings in Hindpool

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 Devonshire Buildings

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’. 

Maritime Streets blocks

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)

Maritime Gardens

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.

South Row, Roose

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.

Vickerstown housing plans

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.  

Niger Street, Vickerstown (named after ships built in Barrow yards)

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’.

Mikasa Street, Vickerstown (named after ships built in Barrow yards)

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)

Female munitions workers at Vickers

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.

Holcroft Hill, 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.

Sources

(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

Book Review: Michael Romyn, London’s Aylesbury Estate – An Oral History of the ‘Concrete Jungle’

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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.

Old against new, July 1976 (Courtesy of John David Hulchanski, University of Toronto)

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.

Wendover block under construction, 1969 (Courtesy of the John Laing Photographic Collection)

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.

Balconies, sunlight, saplings and lawns, July 1976 (Courtesy of John David Hulchanski, University of Toronto)

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.

Aylesbury landing, July 1976 (Courtesy of John David Hulchanski, University of Toronto)

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)  

East Street Market, c.1970 (Courtesy of the South London Press)

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.  

WACAT’s (the Walworth and Aylesbury Community Arts Trust) women’s dance group, 1982 (Courtesy of Su Braden/WACAT, Annual Report, 1982)

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.

Tony Blair visits the Aylesbury Estate, 2 June 1997

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.

Tenants and campaigners, including Aysen Dennis, Margot Lindsay, Victoria Biden, and Piers Corbyn, celebrate the stock transfer ballot result, 2001

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.

Aylesbury Estate, 1971 (Courtesy of the South London Press)

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.

Publication and purchase details can be found on the publisher’s website.

Notes

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.

Great estates: the changing role of trees in the municipal housing landscape

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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 author at 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.

The Arnold Circus bandstand, Boundary Estate, surrounded by London planes

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.

‘Boundary Estate: Arnold Circus’ (1903) – before the bandstand was added. Note the newly planted trees whose growth over the decades has considerably altered the estate’s feel. © London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk

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.

Original London planes between blocks on the Boundary Estate

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.

Looking down St Oswulf Street, Millbank Estate. Note how the well maintained London planes lean away from the buildings

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.

View from Boundary Gardens past the trunk of an original London plane with newer field maples on Palissy Street

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.

Recently planted field maples on the Boundary Estate

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.  

Millbank 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.

Recently pollarded planes in winter on the Millbank Estate

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. 

No trees grace the courts between blocks on the Millbank Estate, unlike those of the Boundary Estate

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.

Churchill Gardens

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.

The distinctive silhouette of Italian alders, Johnson’s Place, Churchill Gardens

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.

Johnson’s Place lime trees, Churchill Gardens

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.

A mature ‘Fastigiata’ hornbeam, one of the more frequent species of Churchill Gardens

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.

Flowering magnolia, Churchill Gardens

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.

Evergreen Chinese tree privet, Churchill Gardens

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.

Sources

(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)

Edinburgh’s 1919 Act Housing, Part II: ‘Healthy Houses for the People is the Best Public Health Insurance’

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I’m delighted to feature the second of two new posts by Steven Robb. Steven also contributed an earlier post providing an overview of Edinburgh’s council housing from 1890 to 1945. He is Deputy Head of Casework for Historic Environment Scotland.  With qualifications in building surveying and urban conservation, he has a particular interest in early and interwar social housing in Edinburgh, and how new housing was incorporated within the historic city.

In last week’s post, I concentrated on the main three 1919 Council estates at Gorgie, Wardie and Northfield.  In this part, I will look at 1919 Act housing built for Leith and Midlothian, which was inherited and taken forward by Edinburgh in 1920.  I will also look at the new homes created from existing buildings, concluding with an assessment of Edinburgh’s approach to the 1919 Act.

Leith and Midlothian

In 1920 Edinburgh absorbed Leith Corporation and several suburban areas within the County of Midlothian, inheriting 1919 Act housing planned by these authorities.

Leith had planned sites for over 200 houses, but by September 1920 had only started three tenements on Ferry Road.  Designed by Leith’s Burgh Architect, George Simpson, and judged to be ‘houses of artistic design’, the initial choice of tenements was rare in 1919 housing.   A further nine houses were built round the corner in Clark Avenue.   

Tenements on Ferry Road

Leith also received, towards the end of 1923, 66 new flats in tenements designed by Campbell. Situated on St Clair Street, off Easter Road, these tenements had two small two-bedroom flats on each landing, and due to Campbell’s space planning and the ‘most rigid economies’ cost only £350 a house, showing how far costs had fallen by this date.

Edinburgh inherited schemes by Midlothian County to build pockets of housing including 48 houses at Longstone, and other modest developments at Corstorphine, Gilmerton and Davidsons Mains. Midlothian engaged the private architect David McCarthy, best known for designing the city’s Veterinarian School. His two storey houses were both plain and small, as Midlothian had argued strongly for the right to build no more than two bedroom houses.   

Reconstruction & Conversion

Scotland’s 1919 Housing Act was not only focused on building new homes; there was also a distinct focus on rehabilitating, or reconstructing, buildings for housing. Edinburgh’s overcrowded and decaying Old Town contained a number of many-storeyed historic tenements, several of which were in very poor condition.

Reconstruction works were led directly by the City’s Housing Director (and City Engineer) Campbell. The projects had become favourable after new provisions within the 1919 Act meant acquiring properties for demolition or reconstruction limited owners’ compensation payments to solely the value of the cleared site.

Intended as a cheaper option than newbuild, in many cases the reconstruction could be undertaken at around half the price of new build, with the subsidy often covering all costs.

Old Town tenements in the Cowgate, High Street, West Port, Dumbiedykes and St James were purchased and reconstructed, often with rear additions removed, to provide around 120 small flats. The  flats in the centre of town were close to jobs and amenities and proved popular with tenants. Sadly, the legislation later changed so that no part of a retained building could be subject to a housing subsidy, to the great harm of the city’s heritage.  Thus, later projects in the interwar period were mainly ‘conservative surgery’ schemes involving selective demolition and rebuilding housing in historicist styles.

Burnet’s Close, early 19th-century tenements refurbished under the Act. It was valued at only £150 and reconstructed at a cost of £2200. Courtesy of Capital Collections

An unusual use of the 1919 Act subsidies was the conversion of former army huts into homes, again at around half the price of permanent new houses. Early in 1920, as part of a nationwide project, a demonstration house was displayed to the public in the centre of St James Square. The hut had been converted to a three bedroom house by the Ministry of Munitions.  It consisted of a timber structure on a brick base, lined and roofed with asbestos with internal concrete walls and was designed to last twenty years. 

The demonstration house was obviously well received, as the Council went on to purchase 52 huts from the Ministry at a cost of £7470.  The Council proceeded to convert these huts into 140 homes which they called ‘bungalows’, but we might alternatively call pre-fabs. They were sited in London Road, Meadowbank and Iona Street off Leith Walk, and included the St James Square example, itself converted into two homes. They were given to applicants, including, appropriately, ‘married ex-servicemen’ who were ‘clamouring’ for houses.

Assessment

The 1919 Housing Act saw Edinburgh (and its recently acquired neighbours) build around 1300 new homes, with another 260 from reconstructed city tenements and converted army huts. The total cost was over £1.5m with over 80 percent of expenditure borne by the State.

Although this fell far short of the 3750 home envisaged, it was abundantly clear the circumstances were not ‘entirely favourable’.  The State had embarked upon the largest country-wide public housing programme ever seen in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic World War.   Dormant building contractors, reduced numbers of skilled tradesmen, and a sudden demand for scarce building materials led to spiralling costs. By the beginning of 1921 labour costs had risen by 300 percent, but the city still struggled to find builders. Joinery, lime and plaster costs had risen by 250 percent, brick costs had doubled and even the cost of carting materials to site had risen by 350 percent. Edinburgh suffered particularly with costs up to 70 percent higher than the Scottish average. As a country, Scotland ended up building around 25,500 houses, only 20 percent of its, admittedly more ambitious, target.

Facing brick in Northfield Crescent – brick prices doubled in the post-war period

Oversight and approval from the Board of Health elongated the process, but the City still hoped for a subsidy extension to allow them to reach their targets (although some questioned whether the targets had been set too high). However, in mid-1921 State expenditure was drastically curtailed with ‘Geddes Axe’ cuts.   

Over time the building market had begun to reach some form of equilibrium, and costs had started falling sharply in 1922.  However, by this date it was forbidden to start new schemes, and expansion of existing schemes was confined to minimum standards to cut costs.  Very sadly, at the point where criticism of expensive housing had ceased to be an issue, the subsidies were withdrawn.

As built Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing provided a specifically tailored version of the garden city ideal, differing from many other Scottish towns and cities by using a mix of cottages, flatted blocks and tenements.  

In Scotland around 63 percent of all 1919 Act housing was within cottages, but Edinburgh’s percentage was closer to half that. Seen by many in the city as an imposed English housing model, cottages were initially used at Wardie and Northfield but their high costs saw them being phased out throughout the life of the Act.

Instead, around half of Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing would be built within flatted blocks, the hybrid between cottage and tenement.  This was far in advance of a Scottish average of only 31 percent.   

Flatted block in Gorgie. Entrances to the upper flats are recessed either side from the front façade

Another Edinburgh anomaly was the use of the tenement, far in advance of a very low Scottish average of 6 percent.  This was especially evident in the latter phases of Gorgie, Northfield and Wardie which all used three-storey tenements.  Edinburgh’s Housing Director had set out his stall as early as March 1921, determining that tenements of ‘up to date design and arrangement’ were the undoubted solution for the ‘poorest and lower middle classes’ in the city, allowing them to live near their workplaces.  They could be ‘provided at less cost and with greater convenience’ than the cottage type of dwelling on the city fringes. 

Less use of cottages also meant smaller flats, with over 65 percnt of Edinburgh’s 1919 homes built with only two bedrooms, with the Scottish average at 57 percent.  Edinburgh had 16 percent of its housing with three bedrooms, well below a Scottish average of 35 percent.  The remaining 20 percent were either one or four bed. Such figures may be considered ungenerous in comparison with the expected accommodation south of the border, but it was supposedly demand-led and still represented a quantum leap from the one- and two-room houses of the overcrowded city centre. 

Stone was Edinburgh’s dominant building material, but it was only used extensively in Gorgie, and sparingly, (but to fine effect) at Northfield.  Gorgie was consistently lauded as an example for stone building well into the interwar period.  Although not unknown in the city, brick was still seen by many as an English material, and, with the exception of a few facing brick blocks at Northfield, was almost always covered in pollution-resilient grey harl.  Edinburgh’s experimentation with unharled concrete blocks at Wardie didn’t pay off.   

Solid stone walling at Northfield

The design of the housing used Arts and Crafts styling with wet dash harling, rubble stonework, natural slate bell-cast roofs and multi-pane sash windows. The layouts were inventive, varied and attractive with generous green infrastructure, including large gardens, grass verges, trees, parks, open spaces and allotments.  

Bell-cast slate roof at Gorgie

So far so good, but the 1919 Act housing was not as transformative as hoped, with only a small dent made in the city’s horrendous overcrowding figures.  Housing the very poorest wasn’t the concern or intention of the 1919 Act, and the Council soon sheepishly admitted the rents being sought set the housing way beyond the reach of many working-class families.  

Although some councillors were keen to impose low rents, others had concerns over the gap between actual and economic rents. In any case they were at the mercy of the Board of Health who insisted on higher rents (upwards of £30pa) to keep subsidies low.  Edinburgh set out to prioritise ex-servicemen with families, but an ability to pay the high rents would arguably become more important than homes for heroes. If paying high rents was not enough, the (then) peripheral locations required additional costs to travel to work and amenities.

So, rather than the Old Town poor, the new estates attracted the aspirant upper working and middle classes.  A glance at the 1925 Valuation Roll for Boswell Avenue, admittedly Wardie’s best street, shows several clerks, engineers, a civil servant, geologist, lecturer, surveyor, engineer, excise officer and a Chief Armourer (me neither?) paying up to £44pa.   Tenements were often allocated to those paying lower rents, but the 1925 Valuation Roll for Northfield shows tenement rents of between £31 to £37 with clerks and civil servants, an accountant, teacher, artist and engineer, besides occupations such as painters, joiners and a warehouseman.

Nos 22-24 Boswall Avenue. In 1925, the two semi-detached cottages were occupied by an apprentice Chartered Accountant and a painter, both paying rents of £38 pa.

An often overlooked part of the Act’s housing were the 120 or so houses achieved through the reconstruction of older buildings (and another 140 through reused army huts). As well as reflecting a strong conservation sensibility within the city, these ‘stitch in time’ conversions saved many of the city’s aged tenements that would otherwise have disappeared. Today we applaud the reuse of these historic buildings, but Campbell, who noted that ‘health was greater than history’, appears to have viewed the work pragmatically, as cheap fixes to give people improved homes as quickly as possible. 

Conscious of the 1919 Act’s failure to house the poor, a few years later a Council memo noted that unless new housing models were developed the:

betterment of the slum dweller is doomed to a further postponement, with consequent ill health, low vitality, loose morals, and criminal habits, which are but part of the penalty we pay for suffering the continuance of slums within the boundary of our city.

Such models would be developed with new housing acts in the 1920s and 1930s, when overcrowding and slum clearance to assist the poorest became a priority, and the private sector were warmly encouraged by the Council to provide general needs housing for the clerks and armourers.  

However, subsidies in the next housing Acts of 1923, and especially 1924, were far less generous, with surplus expenses shouldered by the Council.   In the majority of schemes densities went up and the quality of design went down. By the early 1920s Campbell was arguing for one-bedroom flats of 485 sq ft, well below accepted minimum standards. 

Plain tenements in Prestonfield (1927)

Plain flatted blocks and tenements designed to limited patterns took the place of expensive cottages, which would not be built again in the city until after WW2, notably at The Inch.  Until the early 1930s repetitive estates of facsimile designs would replace the varied architecture and sinuous layouts of the 1919 Act.

Today the three main 1919 Act estates remain popular, with many houses privately owned.  However, Right to Buy wasn’t a recent phenomenon, as 1919 Act provisions had allowed over a hundred council houses to be sold off before the second world war. 

All the estates have suffered to some extent by the scourge of off-street parking, with the removal of boundary hedges and paved-over gardens, sadly and pointlessly eroding their essential greenery and garden suburb character.  This really is unforgivable.

Paved over front gardens on Northfield Drive – a vehicular cul-de-sac

Most sash windows have gone, but the masonry walling and steep natural slate roofs largely remain in good order. Although none of the 1919 estates has yet been designated a conservation area, and only one stone crescent at Northfield is listed, (and deservedly so) there is a general appreciation of their quality, and the generosity of their planning.  Perhaps, now the estates are a century old there may be some moves to recognise their significance as a part of the city’s twentieth century history ?

Conclusion

Scotland’s 1919 Act housing followed a different approach than England, and within the country, Edinburgh pursued its own bespoke path.

The city provided high quality homes within modified garden city layouts with a variety of handsome designs and materials.  In addition, parts of the overcrowded historic city centre were regenerated with the refurbishment of ancient tenements.  

By planning a housing mix that included smaller flats within flatted blocks and tenements, instead of simply concentrating on large peripheral estates of land-hungry cottages, the city limited urban sprawl.  This was part of a strategy, at least in the Act’s later phases, that saw tenements in the ‘inner belt’ of the city as the solution to house the city’s workers close to workplaces and amenities.  Campbell’s approach was followed by his successor EJ MacRae, but where large peripheral estates had to be built, they often floundered.

Above all Campbell believed in prevention rather than cure.  His solution to the acute medical problems present in slum housing was to build ‘healthy houses for the people’.  This, he maintained, was ‘the best Public Health Insurance’. 

The capital suffered unduly from the high costs and labour shortages of the post-war period which sadly limited the numbers of homes built and reconstructed.  It also saw a later dip in quality and space standards, that would accelerate throughout the 1920s with cost cutting and policy changes.

However, although it didn’t solve the city’s overcrowding problems, and their depiction as Paradise is undoubtedly a high bar, a hundred years on much of Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing remains amongst the best social housing the city has ever created. 

Sources

A Grierson (Town Clerk, Edinburgh), ‘Housing Schemes in Edinburgh’ in Thomas Stephenson, Industrial Edinburgh (Edinburgh Society for the Promotion of Trade, 1921)

John Frew, ‘”Homes fit for heroes”: Early Municipal House Building in Edinburgh’, The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland Journal, no 16, 1989

Town Council Minutes and City Chamberlain’s Reports, Edinburgh City Archives

Scotsman Newspaper Archive

Lou Rosenberg, Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes, Garden City influences on the Development of Scottish Working Class Housing, 1900 to 1939 (The Word Bank, 2016)

Edinburgh’s 1919 Act Housing, Part I: ‘Healthy Houses for the People is the Best Public Health Insurance’

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I’m delighted to feature the first of two new posts by Steven Robb. Steven contributed an earlier post providing an overview of Edinburgh’s council housing from 1890 to 1945. He is Deputy Head of Casework for Historic Environment Scotland.  With qualifications in building surveying and urban conservation, he has a particular interest in early and interwar social housing in Edinburgh, and how new housing was incorporated within the historic city.

Northfield Crescent, a listed crescent of stone tenements

Just over a hundred years ago in October 1920, Edinburgh’s first 1919 Act housing was opened by a proud city councillor.   

In the first of two blogs I will look at Edinburgh’s particular housing issues and the ways in which the city used the Housing (Scotland) Act of 1919 to try and address them. It will then examine the three major housing estates built by Edinburgh Council, which between them provided around 1000 houses. The second part of the blog will look at additional housing provided in the city, and will conclude by assessing Edinburgh’s particular approach to housing under the Act.

The problem

Overcrowding was Scotland’s major housing problem. Edinburgh’s 1911 census found over 110,000 people living in either one- or two-room houses, which represented 41 percent of the city’s housing stock.  Almost 40,000 people were living at least three to a room.

Although Edinburgh’s average density at this period was only around 30 persons per acre, in the most overcrowded districts like the Old Town, it rose well into the hundreds, with homes in tenements and houses ‘made down’, or subdivided, to cram in more tenants.   In one block of eight tenements in St Leonards there were 186 separate homes containing 747 people; a density of 896 persons per acre.

Overcrowding was partly a consequence of Scottish building practice.  Unlike England’s rows of relatively cheap brick terraces, Scotland’s urban workers were housed in stone tenements of three or four storeys.   Such robust construction and stricter building regulations resulted in far higher build costs. 

In addition, land values in Scotland were elevated by the medieval system of land tenure (feu duties), resulting in the UK’s most expensive building land (outside London).  

To maximise returns developers built high density tenements, with their costs recouped by the highest rents outside the English capital. Rents were often paid communally by congested tenants. 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the private sector found it uneconomic to continue building at affordable rents. To address this market failure, prior to WW1 Edinburgh Council built or reconstructed around 750 houses under legislation, including the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890).   The City Engineer’s new ‘sanitary tenements’ had open deck-access balconies providing light and fresh air to small flats. They were popular and partly responsible for significant improvements in infant mortality and death rates. However, the cost to the Council was excessive, with compensation payments to owners sometimes costing nearly as much as the new housing.

The Rent Restrictions Act (1915), introduced after major rent strikes and civil unrest in Glasgow, together with the anticipated post-war costs of building, meant State intervention in the housing market was both inevitable and desirable.  

The solution?

The Housing (Scotland) 1919 Act looked to address overcrowding and the housing shortage under the ethos of ‘a healthy family in a healthy home’.  Scotland’s specific problems saw a far more ambitious target than England and Wales, to provide 120,000 new homes.

Acknowledging Scotland’s higher building costs, there was a lower Council cap on expenses, at 4/5 of a penny on the rates rather than England’s penny.

The Act incorporated, informally during implementation, a series of recommendations from the 1917 Scottish Royal Commission on Housing (Ballantyne Report), which, along with the Tudor Waters report, acknowledged the different conditions and traditions in Scotland. 

One of these traditions was that Scotland’s houses contained less rooms, with a custom of larger living and kitchen space doubling up as accommodation. The result was that 50 percent (but later increased) of 1919 Act houses were permitted to be the minimum three apartments (living room and two bedrooms), where England and Wales generally looked for three-bed houses. 

Again, recognising traditions, there was a toleration for housing other than cottages, as individual houses on one or two storeys were called.   Flatted blocks (four in a blocks) were acceptable and, although generally discouraged, there was even a place for suitably designed tenements.

The Scottish Act finally gained Royal Assent on 19th August 1919, but as early as November 1918 the Local Government Board (later Scottish Board of Health) had asked Edinburgh to assess its housing needs. The city responded with plans for 3000 new homes and 750 rehabilitated dwellings, a figure thought feasible within three years, if the ‘circumstances were entirely favourable’.

Edinburgh’s Town Clerk described the Act as being ‘imposed’ on the Council, and although, unlike previous legislation, it did compel action, this time the intention was Councils wouldn’t be left out of pocket, with generous subsidies bridging the difference between the outlay in building costs and rents received.  

Gorgie (386 houses)

The Council had their eye on half a dozen sites within the city but soon settled on Gorgie, where they already owned land.  

In January 1919, 50 acres of semi-rural land adjacent to the City’s Livestock Market were transferred (at £250 per acre) and James Williamson, the City Architect, drew up plans for 660 houses.  In April 1919 the Board of Health found Williamson’s proposals for gently curving streets with individual flatted blocks eminently satisfactory’. These streets enclosed areas of communal allotments and open ground.

Stone flatted block with additional storey on Chesser Avenue

Gorgie’s flatted blocks consisted of four houses under a piended (hipped) roof with a separate entrance to each flat.  They were a hybrid between a cottage and a tenement, and suited a Scottish desire for one-floor-living.  Cheaper than cottages, they could, virtually, be built to a garden city layout, in this case 14 houses to the acre, close to the recommended 12. 

To keep tender costs down the Council’s surveyor recommended estimates for both stone and brick, as some builders were geared up for the former, and a mix of materials might be cheaper. The first tenders for 48 houses came back in June at around £800 a house, with the stone option only 0.5 percent more than the brick.  In order to accentuate the Scottish character of the housing, against the perceived Englishness of brickwork, the housing Committee agreed to use rubble sandstone sourced from nearby Hailes Quarry, adding that ‘Scottish people wanted substantial houses’.  

Stone flatted blocks on Chesser Loan

However, after brick prices fell and cavity walling was permitted, the cost difference increased, and the Board of Health refused to pay the additional subsidies for stone. Despite their earlier support the Council soon conceded that the second phase of Gorgie could be built in brick, which was rendered to cope with Scotland’s weather, and a lack of skilled Scottish facing-brick layers.

Chesser Gardens – a street of rendered brick flatted blocks

Begun in July 1919, Gorgie suffered several delays due to lack of skilled labour, rising material costs and availability, and even a plumbers and joiners strike.  Pegged to costs, the economic rent for a two-bed house would have been around £60-65pa. The Council suggested rents of £25-27pa, but these were soon upped to £31 by the Board of Health.

With the first completions in October 1920, on opening, a councillor noted the houses were ‘commodious inside and artistic outside’ and would ‘compare favourably with any houses being built in England or Scotland’.  Noting the generous gardens in front and allotment ground behind, the councillor added that ‘The City Gardener was preparing creepers for the walls and rambler roses for the gardens.  If these houses were not Paradise, he did not know where they would have to look for such a place’.

In early 1923 the city architect’s second phase to Gorgie was built on Slateford Road. By this date the individual flatted blocks with gardens on curved streets were dispensed with in favour of cheaper tenements built facing the main road.  These three-storey rendered brick tenements provided another 108 two-bed houses. Indeed, the majority of Gorgie’s houses, around 70 percent, were the recommended minimum of two bedrooms, with only 10 percent four bed and the remainder three.

Two-bedroom tenements on Slateford Road

Today the most distinctive Gorgie houses are the first-phase chunky rubble stone flatted blocks on Chesser Avenue, especially those with an additional twin-dormered storey for the few four bed flats. They retain distinctive sweeping slate roofs with swept eaves.  On adjacent streets are a mix of rendered and stone houses with a handful of red sandstone blocks, all with generous gardens.    

Competition

In mid-1919 the City Engineer Adam Horsburgh Campbell became Housing Director, controlling Council housing delivery until he retired in mid-1926.   He insisted on combining this new role with his existing engineering job, and would soon stray into architectural work.

Despite the skills within his Department the City Architect had already been snubbed in April 1919 when the Council agreed to hold an open competition for the remaining housing sites. Early studies like the Tudor Waters Report had advised involving the private sector, and the Council had also been lobbied by the Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (later RIAS).

The competition, open to private Midlothian architects, offered four new sites with firms asked to submit the most economical designs for cottages, flatted blocks and tenements with two, three and four bedrooms at 14 houses per acre. Conditions included limited use of combed (sloping) ceilings, avoidance of rear additions, and minimum room sizes, including living rooms of 180 sq ft, principal bedrooms of 160 sq ft and ceiling heights of 8ft 6 inches (2.6m).  

In August the panel Chairman Sir John Burnet, who had previously judged a 1918 Workers Housing Competition, awarded first prize for all four sites to Edinburgh architects AK Robertson and Thomas Aikman Swan.

However, as it had been previously decided no firm should have more than two schemes each, Robertson & Swan were awarded sites at Wardie and Craigleith. Charles Tweedie was given Saughtonhall, and Fairlie, Reid & Forbes allocated Northfield.

In due course the sites at Craigleith and Saughtonhall were abandoned so sadly Charles Tweedie, second placed in three competitions, got nothing.   Meanwhile, Fairlie, Reid & Forbes, third-placed in only one competition, got one of the two surviving commissions.

Wardie (366 houses)

In April 1919 the Council purchased 73 acres of land occupied by nurseries belonging to the trustees of Major Boswall, at a cost of £250 per acre. The architects, Robertson & Swan, designed a geometric garden city plan with tree-lined streets, open spaces, and cul-de-sacs, built with a mix of cottages, four in a blocks and later a few tenements placed on main roads and closing vistas.  Over 600 trees were planted at a cost of £180.

Tenement ending a vista along Boswall Avenue

At the end of 1920 work began on 360 houses, but the Council only developed the western side, the eastern half being developed privately.

Plan of Wardie. Only the western side was completed under the 1919 Act

Unusually, to combat high brick costs, the houses were built with unrendered concrete blocks, provided by the Unit Construction Company of London. This early use of concrete was purely on cost, the tenders (for £408,246), being £12,000 cheaper than brick. The tender worked out at around £1130 a house, but by March 1921 costs had risen with the first batch of 300 houses coming in at around £1300 each.  The largest four-bed cottages in Wardie would eventually soar to £1600 each, with critics considering them to be worth only £300 once the building boom was over. Their economic rent would have been £100pa but they would be let for, the still substantial, £44pa.

Cottage with original door and windows

Contractors were accused of profiteering, an ugly accusation in the aftermath of World War One, but the system didn’t encourage parsimony.

The letters page of the Scotsman newspaper saw a flurry of taxpayer complaints.  Critics judged Wardie as too remote from trams, schools and shops, whilst the houses were labelled ‘shoddy with small pokey rooms’.  Others even grumbled that the rooms were too small for their furniture.

Having said all this, the housing was popular and would be oversubscribed, with 10,000 initial enquiries for Wardie’s 360 houses, perhaps before the high rents were set.

Scotland’s climate put paid to Wardie’s experimental concrete block housing, and by 1928 all 360 of its increasingly damp houses were roughcast by the Council at a cost of £10,000.

Tree-lined grassed verge in Boswall Avenue

Today the estate is popular, with Boswall Avenue’s tree-lined grass verges perhaps Edinburgh’s best approximation of the garden city ideal.  The houses are in an Arts and Crafts style with natural slate swept hipped roofs and generous garden space.  There is a good variety of designs and mix of house types.

Northfield (322 houses)

In April 1919 the Council agreed to acquire 40 acres of agricultural land from the Duke of Abercorn’s Duddingston estate at £300 per acre. 

In June 1920 the architects Fairlie, Reid & Forbes exhibited their ‘admirable housing scheme’ for 320 houses at the Royal Scottish Academy.   It was thought likely to ‘produce a pleasing and picturesque ensemble upon the rising ground at the base of Arthur’s Seat’.

The firm was specially created for the competition. Reginald Fairlie was a noted Arts and Crafts architect who would later design the National Library, and became a specialist in Roman Catholic churches. George Reid & James Forbes would become Scotland’s foremost interwar school designers.  

The plan is sophisticated, belying its lowly competition place. On the highest point is a large circus ringed by cottages – almost a cul-de-sac – but connected to the other streets by small pedestrian link paths – which bisect the estate. There is a raised pedestrian entry path on the busy Willowbrae Road, planted verges, generous gardens and open spaces.  

Expensive semi-detached cottages on Northfield Circus, a large cul-de-sac with central park

The first tenders, in March 1920 suggested 196 cottages and flatted blocks could be built at an overall cost of £210,000 making a two-bedroom house £950 and a four bedroom house £1100. Again, costs rose quickly. Later estimates saw a four-bed cottage costing between £1360 and £1400.  A Scotsman article judged these ‘phenomenal costs … preposterously and impossibly high’.

Flatted blocks with brick and tile detailing

The cost of these cottages led to later phases of the estate being built in three-storey tenements. Between March 1921 and December 1923 around 130 tenements were built, all with gas for heating and electricity for lighting.    

Stone tenement with communal open ground in front
Details of stone tenements

Northfield’s planning is sophisticated and the housing attractive and hugely varied, both in use of materials from facing brick, rendered brick and stone, to the rarely duplicated house patterns. Fairlie’s Arts and Crafts eye is evident in the stone boundary walls, decorative stone piers and carved timber gateposts, as well as in the stone tenements with relieving arches and brick and tile detailing.  The tenements here served as a prototype for the Council’s later work in the city.

Details of stone wall and timber gateposts

In next week’s post, I’ll look at the council housing schemes inherited by Edinburgh from Leith and Midlothian and offer an overall assessment of Edinburgh’s approach to the 1919 Act.

Sources

A Grierson (Town Clerk, Edinburgh), ‘Housing Schemes in Edinburgh’ in Thomas Stephenson, Industrial Edinburgh (Edinburgh Society for the Promotion of Trade, 1921)

John Frew, ‘”Homes fit for heroes”: Early Municipal House Building in Edinburgh’, The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland Journal, no 16, 1989

Town Council Minutes and City Chamberlain’s Reports, Edinburgh City Archives

Scotsman Newspaper Archive

Lou Rosenberg, Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes, Garden City influences on the Development of Scottish Working Class Housing, 1900 to 1939 (The Word Bank, 2016)

Council Housing in Preston, Part II: ‘Changing Fashions in Planning’

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We left Preston in last week’s post on the eve of war. The town, unlike some industrial centres, emerged relatively unscathed from the war itself but the post-war ambition to build a better Britain was fully felt – and for good reason. Half the town’s houses had been built between 1840-1890; of these, the experts reckoned, one-sixth should be demolished. Of the 5000 on the council house waiting list, 70 percent lived in overcrowded conditions.  The Council, in the words of its 1946 planning manifesto, sought to lead the way Towards a Prouder Preston. (1)

A map from the 1950s depicting Preston’s interwar and early post-war estates

In the first instance, that journey necessitated ad hoc solutions in the form of the temporary prefabs. Of the 156,000 provided across the country, 300 were allocated to Preston, constructed principally on the Grange Estate in Ribbleton. The Arcon Mark V model built, despite its ducted warm air heating, built-in cupboards and fitted kitchen (which included a refrigerator), aroused mixed feelings. ‘Concerned’, a correspondent to the Lancashire Daily Post, expressed ‘feelings of horror and disgust’ on realising that ‘far from being workmen’s temporary huts these erections were actually prefabricated dwellings to house the proud and victorious people of Preston’. (2)

Ribbleton prefabs on the corner of Yewtree Avenue and Alder Road, 1946; permanent newbuild to the rear © Preston Digital Archive and used with permission

Prospective tenants were more favourable. ‘Who’s first?’, said one; another concluded they were ‘nicer than 75 percent of the Council houses in Preston’.  The councillors’ verdict was that: (3)

though externally these houses are not beautiful, internally they have more amenities and better layout than many permanent houses. The women members were particularly impressed.

The prefabs were intended to last ten years (though in Ribbleton they survived till the early 1960s); permanent housing remained the goal. In 1946, the Council’s immediate building programme projected 702 new permanent homes – around 88 on the Farringdon Park Estate, the rest (including 250 BISF houses – a steel-framed form of permanent prefabricated construction) on the Ribbleton Hall Estate.

New post-war homes on Longridge Road, the Grange Estate, photographed in 1950

Towards a Prouder Preston had envisaged a programme of 750 new homes annually for 20 years. It had also, in a clear echo of the dominant planning ideals of the early post-war era promoting ‘neighbourhood units’ and mixed communities, criticised interwar building: (4)

Housing between the two world wars failed because most of the estates were not planned as small communities within the town, and provided for only one class of tenant and lacked many of the basic amenities that were available in the centre of the town.

The Larches Estate, the first major scheme built in the west of the borough proper, in fulfilment of those neighbourhood unit ideas, was designed as a self-contained community of 600 houses and flats with ‘bungalows and a hostel for old people, a community centre, a health clinic, library and a church’.

In Preston, such principles necessitated building beyond the Borough’s then boundaries (they were extended in 1952 and 1956) as, for example, in the Brookfield Estate where work began in 1950 on a scheme of 1200 homes for a projected population of 5000. The planned addition, in 1963, of 2500 ‘luxury dwellings’ (intended for middle-class occupation) presumably reflected that earlier commitment to mixed communities.  

The pace and ambition of post-war construction had been maintained in a second planning document, the Development Plan for the County Borough of Preston issued in 1951.  A small out-of-borough estate at Middleforth Green and a large estate of over 1000 homes at Kingsfold in Penwortham to the south followed in the early 1950s in the Urban District of Walton-le-Dale (now part of South Ribble). 

Leyland, around four miles to the south of Preston, was identified in the Plan as a major area of growth along the New Town lines favoured at the time. (This idea received partial and limited fulfilment much later in the creation in 1970 of the Central Lancashire New Town – in fact, despite the name, better understood as an Urban Development Corporation resting on collaboration between Preston, Leyland and Chorley.) 

Housing on Redcar Avenue, Ingol

The new estate at Ingol, 2.5 miles north-east of the town centre, commenced in the early 1960s, was one of the last large suburban estates to be developed.  By the mid-1950s, new housing priorities and planning dynamics were in play focusing on a renewed drive – now the major problems of post-war reconstruction had been tackled – to clear the slums.

Pleasant Street, c1958. Courtesy of Lancashire County Council’s Red Rose Collections.

In Preston, the first post-war clearance of 209 properties took place on the inaptly named Pleasant Street and Brunswick Street in the central Avenham area in 1955.  The clearance of some 350 properties north of Walker Street began in the following year.  By 1958, it was planned to clear around 6000 homes, predominantly dating from the first half of the 19th century, in the Nile Street and Marsh Lane areas east and west of the town centre – Marsh Lane had been identified as a district of particularly poor housing as far back as the 1920s.

A local press story of 1959 captures the optimistic mood around the sweeping changes being wrought: (5)

It is one more stage in a story of progress, whereby one by one, the blackest of Preston’s black spots are vanishing to clear the way for modern, bright and roomy houses and flats.

Flats on Samuel Street

Preston’s first multi-storey scheme, opened in 1957 on Samuel Street, was a modest four- and five-storey development between an existing small council estate and earlier terraces but the circumstances of inner-city redevelopment impelled grander solutions.  York House and Lancaster House – two eleven-storey blocks designed by Lyons, Israel and Ellis in what was originally designated the Brunswick Street Redevelopment Area – were completed in 1961 east of Berwick Street in Avenham. (6)

Brunswick Street high-rise, 1987 © University of Edinburgh, Tower Block UK and made available under a Creative Commons licence
Tower blocks on Elizabeth Street, 1987 © University of Edinburgh, Tower Block UK and made available under a Creative Commons licence

Three 16-storey blocks, built by Wimpey and completed in 1962, were built in the Elizabeth Street (Moor Lane) Redevelopment Area, by which time the Council was returning to a major redevelopment of the Avenham area. The latter would result in three 12-storey blocks (Carlisle House, Richmond House and Durham House) commenced in 1963, and – the peak of the borough’s ambition – two 19-storey blocks, Kendal House and Penrith House (later renamed Sandown Court), officially opened in June 1965.   The latter, designed by the Building Design Partnership, were built using the Bison form of system-building.

Richmond House in 1987 and 2014. Left-hand image © University of Edinburgh, Tower Block UK and made available under a Creative Commons licence
Kendal House and Penrith House (Sandown Court), 1987 © University of Edinburgh, Tower Block UK and made available under a Creative Commons licence

This was a frenzied period of construction in Preston – in March 1968, the Borough celebrated its 10,000th council home – as it was across the country as national and local government cooperated to clear the slums and build anew. That cooperation became fraught as Treasury concerns over public spending increased.

Negotiated contracts between local authorities and the few developers capable of building at the requisite scale were one Government bugbear but determined councils held some power in this context. The Preston Housing Committee, anxious to increase housing production by 50 percent, invited bids from 19 contractors for its grand Avenham redevelopment scheme. When only two responded, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG) allowed Borough Surveyor and Engineer, EH Stazicker to negotiate a contract with J Turner, a local construction firm. (7)

A former architect of the MHLG discussing his ministry’s attempts to impose a cost-saving yardstick to constrain expenditure noted Preston’s: (8)

very powerful chief engineer … who built high rise everywhere. He didn’t look at this (the yardstick booklet). And he’d arrive on the doorstep one day with a tender and say ‘I want approval for this scheme, What the hell’s it all being held up for?’

In this context, when councils proceeded regardless of central government advice and when the Government itself was in the numbers game, he concluded, that ‘the administrators’ line [was] often “Well, we’ll approve this one. Just don’t let it happen again!”’

Preston Bus Station © Dr Greg and made available through a Creative Commons licence

As we’ve mentioned Stazicker, we should digress briefly to note his significant role in the creation of that Brutalist icon, Preston Bus Station, designed by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of the Building Design Partnership and Ove Arup and Partners. Opened in 1969, it’s survived threats of demolition and is now rightly celebrated as an architectural masterpiece.

Another innovative design in Preston has not survived.  As part of the Avenham redevelopment scheme, James Stirling and James Gowan designed a low-rise development – three-storey terraces, a four-storey block of flats alongside some two-storey houses and flats for the elderly – completed in 1961. Innovation and controversy lay in their choice of form and material – ramps and deck access, sharp angular edges and hard, red brick. It was all a conscious attempt – criticised and praised in equal measure as nostalgic – to replicate some of the design qualities and street life of the terraces (with echoes of mill forms too) it replaced; a ‘realist regionalism’ in Stirling’s words. (9)

Stirling and Gowan’s scheme in Avenham

The scheme won a Good Housing award in 1963 but it never seems to have commanded much affection. Perhaps it just tried too hard whilst there were practical complaints regarding its lack of open space and bleakness. Pitched roofs which replaced the parapet edges and pyramidic forms of the original in the 1970s didn’t save it and the scheme was demolished in 1999; done for by the then fashionable theories of ‘defensible space’ and criticisms of its illegibility, lack of natural surveillance and general aesthetics.

Criticisms of some of the high-rise developments were also emerging – complaints of condensation in some of the tower blocks as early as 1965. By 1978, when Preston’s two MPs contributed to a House of Commons debate on housing, the wheel had turned full circle.  Stan Thorne noted that conditions in the tower blocks had: (10)

deteriorated noticeably in about 1970, when vandalism became rife and the behavioural problems produced the fouling of lifts, excess noise, bad neighbour relations and damage to windows and other property within the buildings.

His further complaints – regarding the lack of play space for young children, broken-down lifts, the high rents charged for unpopular homes with many seeking transfers – will seem familiar to critics of high-rise and were certainly becoming increasingly prevalent.

His Labour colleague Ronald Atkins (incidentally currently the longest-lived MP ever; he retired as a Preston City councillor in 2010 aged 92*) spoke for many when he observed:

We suffer from changing fashions in planning. In the 1950s and early 1960s planning opinion favoured high-rise flats as the answer to problems of land scarcity in town centres. These blocks today are almost universally condemned by the same planners.

He went on to argue ‘a need for consultation and a freer choice in all housing matters. Housing authorities provide better houses, but not always better communities’ and concluded that there was ‘much to be said for good old-fashioned houses to replace the old streets which are being demolished’.

I’m an advocate of council housing and a defender of well-designed and well-maintained high-rise in appropriate circumstances but it is important to acknowledge these sentiments. The assault on council housing – and multi-storey housing in particular – that emerged in the 1980s did not come merely from the clear-blue water of Thatcherism.

Preston Borough Council began to implement the new planning principles taking shape from the late 1960s which favoured the rehabilitation of terraced housing in what had been called ‘twilight areas’. From the mid-1970s, it adopted a more conservative approach with repair and renewal of older properties alongside only selective demolition and rebuilding.

The demolition of the Moor Lane towers

Conversely, some of the tower blocks were demolished – the three Moor Lane blocks were razed in 2001; Lancaster and York House in Avenham in 2005. Sandown Court had been transferred into private ownership in the early 1980s.

A privatised and renovated Sandown Court and newbuild on Oxford Street, Avenham, 2014

Alongside that assault on council housing from the 1980s came a series of regeneration initiatives, welcome for the necessary investment ploughed into estates but resting on a similar critique of their failure.  Estate Action, from 1985, saw extensive modernisation programmes implemented on four Preston estates. An Estate Management Board (taking over the ownership and management of its council homes) was formed on the Moor Nook Estate to harness and implement this programme.

Avenham came under the tender mercies of Alice Coleman’s Design Improvement Controlled Experiment (DICE) programme in 1990 – a £50 million project initiated with the direct support of Mrs Thatcher to eradicate what Coleman (the major UK guru of ‘defensible space’) saw as the ‘design disadvantages’ of multi-storey local authority housing.

In another reflection of the philosophical and financial principles now governing social housing, 1121 council homes in the Avenham area were transferred to the housing association Onward Homes in 1999. A fuller so-called Large-Scale Voluntary Transfer of Preston’s housing stock to the Community Gateway Association took place in 2005. Of the 11,610 social rent homes in Preston in 2019 (18 percent of the city’s total housing stock), none were owned and managed by the local authority (11)

Community Gateway now operates about 6500 social rent homes in the Preston area and prides itself on a model of ownership and management based (partly at least) on tenant membership and tenant democracy. It is also one of the ‘six anchor institutions’ of the ‘Preston Model’ of community wealth building pioneered by the City Council referenced in the first post.

Historically, much of Preston’s community wealth – the security and well-being of its population (social capital in its fullest sense) – was created by council housing. It will be interesting to see how far a new model operating in a much harsher climate, legislatively and financially, is able to match past achievements.  

* Ron Atkins sadly died on 31 December 2020, aged 104.

Sources

(1) Towards a Prouder Preston, prepared by the Town Planning and Development Committee, was published in September 1946. The figures drawn from it are cited in David Hunt, A History of Preston (Carnegie Publishing and Preston Borough Council, 1992)

(2) ‘Ribbleton Prefabs: Not Things of Beauty but Needed’, Lancashire Daily Post, 12 June 1946. The cutting and an image of the prefabs can be found on the Preston Digital Archive.

(3) ‘Preston’s First Pre-Fab Finds Favour’, Lancashire Daily Post, 19 July 1946. The cutting can be found on the Preston Digital Archive.

(4) Quoted in Hunt, A History of Preston

(5) An undated cutting from the Lancashire Daily Post in the Preston Digital Archive Flickr stream.

(6) For details of Preston high-rise, see the University of Edinburgh’s Tower Block website.

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

(8) Patrick Dunleavy, The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain: Local Communities Tackle Mass Housing, Nuffield College, University of Oxford PhD, 1978

(9) There’s a large body of writing on the scheme, notably Mark Crinson, ‘The Uses of Nostalgia: Stirling and Gowan’s Preston Housing’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 65, no. 2, June 2006 and ‘Village to Worktown’ scanned on this website.  Reyner Banham described it as ‘Hoggartry’ (in a reference to Richard Hoggart whose Use of Literacy was seen by some as romanticising working-class life) in a February 1962 New Statesman article entitled ‘Coronation Street, Hoggartsborough’.

(10) Local authorities (housing management): House of Commons Debate, 8 June 1978: vol 951 cc511-20

(11) Lancashire County Council, ‘Dwelling Stock by Tenure’ (May 2020)

Preston’s Council Housing, Part I to 1939: ‘Compactness, Convenience and Taste’

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In 1709, Preston was described as ‘a very pretty town with abundance of gentry in it; commonly called Proud Preston’.  The gentry may have disappeared and the town (a city since 2002) changed out of all recognition but the appellation has remained. Local pride might be seen now in what has been dubbed the ‘Preston model’ – a form of ‘guerrilla localism’ in the words of Aditya Chakrabortty; a scheme of community wealth building based on plural ownership of the economy, local procurement and socially productive use of land and property. (1)

The Preston Martyrs Memorial on Lune Street by Gordon Young, commemorates the four strikers killed in 1842 © Andrew Gritt and made available through a Creative Commons licence

These posts will look at what might be properly understood as an earlier form of community wealth building – the city’s history of council housebuilding.  That history was rooted in a common experience though one writ large in the Lancashire town – industrialisation and urbanisation. Preston’s first cotton mill was opened in 1777; by 1835, there were 40. Working conditions (and Chartism) led to a general strike in 1842 during which four protestors were shot dead by the military. An eight-month lockout and strike in 1853-54, witnessed by Charles Dickens, inspired his famous description of ‘Coketown’ in Hard Times:

a town of red brick or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and  black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever and never got uncoiled.

Karl Marx added his own excited commentary: ‘The eyes of the working classes are now fully opened, they begin to cry: Our St. Petersburg is at Preston!’. (2)

A Preston townscape. The lithograph shows unemployed mill hands at work on Preston Moors in 1862 during the ‘Cotton Famine’ caused by the American Civil War

St Petersburg/Petrograd may have come good for Marx in 1917 but Preston’s municipal politics in the interwar period in its first great era of council housebuilding were, as we’ll see, to be far more collaborative and collegiate.

Preston’s population grew from under 12,000 in 1801 to 117,000 in 1920 and its insanitary terraced housing brought cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1848 and a major typhus epidemic in 1862. Infant mortality rates remained well above the national average – in the early 1890s standing at 235 deaths per thousand against an English average of 151 –  but they fell before the First World War as the Corporation converted privies to water closets at the rate of 1- to 2000 a year. Living standards remained low, however, with the prevalence of female employment (around 30 percent of married women worked in the mills in 1905) having the collateral effect of reducing male wages. (3)

An active housing improvement programme notwithstanding, the council – a county borough since 1881 – had no interest in housebuilding. It remained – despite the election of its first Labour councillor in 1904 – a largely Conservative borough. However, as was typical across the country, the First World War changed much.

Basil Street, Deepdale Estate

This wind of change was illustrated powerfully by the March 1918 Local Government Board circular requesting local authorities to provide detail of ‘definite building schemes’ and numbers of new council homes projected. Preston Borough Council discussed the circular in April, not only forming a Housing Committee but identifying land in Moor Park and Deepdale (near the Preston North End football ground) as suitable for building. It was one of 1300 councils replying by the deadline of December 1918. (4)

Thereafter, progress was slow and more controversial. By February 1919, the Preston Trades and Labour Council (PTLC) was viewing ‘with regret the inaction of the Town Council in the matter of housing’,  Next month, the Housing Committee resigned when its detailed plans for an estate at Holme Slack were rejected by full council which instructed it ‘to advertise and offer prizes for competitive designs’.  In May, the PTLC intervened again, decrying the paucity of council proposals and demanding that ‘at least 50 per cent of direct representatives of labour should be co-opted’ to serve on the now reconstituted Housing Committee.

That proposal was deemed unlawful – the Preston Building Trades Employers’ Association had also expressed their displeasure – but it’s an interesting sign of local politics and national trends that it was agreed in September to co-opt two members of the PTLC alongside one representative of the Preston Property Owners Association. The emphasis on women’s voices on housing in this post-war period (discussed in a recent post) was reflected in the inclusion of one representative of the (Conservative) Preston Women Citizens’ Association and one from the local Women’s Cooperative Guild. (5)

All this before the 1919 Housing Act, overseen by Christopher Addison, received its Royal Assent in July. The housing needs survey required of all local authorities was produced by Preston in October when the Medical Officer of Health reported that 980 local homes were overcrowded, 136 unfit for habitation and 12 areas comprising in total 806 houses justified clearance. Up to 2000 new homes were needed. (6)

By then progress had been made. The government’s regional Housing Commissioner had visited the town in May and plans for estates of around 500 homes each in Holme Slack and Ribbleton had been approved.  At this point the Council was taking an unusually close interest in the fine detail of the proposed housing.

This image of Waldon Street on the Callon Estate shows more recent streetscape improvements made by the City Council

Members of the Housing Committee visited Merseyside for ideas and models as well as the Daily Express Model Homes Exhibition in London. In November 1919, a subcommittee was appointed to ‘consider the construction, materials and equipment of the houses’ and later in the month four pages of detailed written notes were provided covering such minutiae as tarmacked garden paths and concrete clothes posts. (In further testimony to the hands-on approach taken here, handwritten notes in the archives record the names and addresses of new council house tenants.) (7)

The new houses were (as required) cottage homes built to Tudor Walters standards but the Council sought to go further by insisting on 8ft 6in height ceilings, rather than the 8ft recommended. It would compromise on this issue – it was agreed upper-floor ceilings should be 8ft high – under protest. The Council was less successful in insisting on lower rents than those demanded centrally.  Rents of 8s (40p) and 10s (50p) for two- and three-bed non-parlour house respectively were agreed but the Council’s plea that the larger parlour houses were ‘intended to be tenanted by large families with young children’ was rejected and these were let at 12s 6d (62½p) and 15s (75p). (8)

Despite the generous financial terms of the 1919 Act, the expectation was that rents would be ‘economic’ and, with Preston’s new council homes costing between £891 and £976 to build, those rents would be out of reach to many.  The Council, as was typical in this post-war era, prioritised ex-servicemen and their widows in its allocations policy but by 1930, in socio-economic terms, only some 38 percent of Holme Slack heads of households could be classified as manual working class; 30 percent belonged to the non-manual working class whilst 17 percent comprised those in professional, managerial or commercial categories. (9)

Practical problems of materials and labour shortages delayed construction despite the special subcommittee (which included representatives from the Preston Master Builders’ Association and Preston Building Trades Operatives) appointed in May 1920 to overcome supply difficulties and the strong action in November when the Council used its powers under the Housing (Additional Powers) Act to temporarily halt construction of non-essential work on a cinema. (10)

Early council housing on Chestnut Crescent, Ribbleton Estate

The first two houses on the Ribbleton Estate, one opened as a show home, were completed in March 1921. Designed by local architects Messrs JH and W Maugan and reflecting the attention paid by the Council to their design, the local press was suitably complimentary: (11)

The house furnished for the exhibition at once suggests compactness, convenience and taste … [The estate] comprises blocks of two, three and four houses arranged on the garden city plan. There are no continuous and monotonous lines of houses.

A cupboard and glass cabinet in the parlour, linen cupboard and wardrobe in the main bedroom, ‘ample provision in the way of shelves’ as well as the sanitary necessities that would previously have been luxuries to many of the new tenants, all made this high-quality accommodation, ‘tastefully treated’ throughout. (12) 

Homes on Manor Road, the Holme Slack Estate

If the new residents were grateful, they were far from humble. A Holme Slack Householders’ Association had been formed by September 1921 whose main object was to: (13)

inculcate and foster a spirit of mutual endeavour in all things calculated to promote the welfare of the new district, having special regard to the upkeep of the gardens and the appearance of the dwellings.

That mix of pride and expectation was reflected in complaints about the unfinished nature of the early estates, illustrated by the Ribbleton Estate Tenants’ Association ‘strong disapproval at the deplorable condition of [its] roads, pathways and system of drainage’.  Such criticisms – typical of estates nationwide where completed housing was prioritised above infrastructure – continued into 1922. (14)

The generous housing programme of the Addison Act was axed in July 1921 but a broadly cross-party commitment to build council housing in Preston remained. In July 1923, the Council agreed to recommence housebuilding without government grant but Labour’s 1924 Housing Act restored a more generous level of financial support that enabled it to embark on a much larger programme – 1910 houses under its terms by 1932.

Waldon Street on the Callon Estate

The Miller Road Estate of 165 homes was sanctioned in July 1924; the Callon Estate of 591 homes in October. Other significant estates were built at Delaware Street, Deepdale and Greenlands alongside an extension to the Ribbleton Estate. The new homes were generally slightly smaller than those built under Addison and overwhelmingly non-parlour; the large Callon estate contained 10 parlour homes.  

Another attempt to build more cost-effectively was seen in the acceptance of a tender from Makinsons of Horwich to build ten steel-framed houses: a ‘system of roofing before walls are built’ as the Lancashire Daily Post reported it, having the ‘the advantage that the houses were erected more quickly than by the ordinary method’.  The reference to Blackpool in the report suggests these were a licensed variant of the ‘Dennis Wild’ houses built in that town – one of a number of largely unsuccessful attempts to apply prefabrication to housebuilding in the era. The fact that nothing more is heard of this experiment suggests it fared little better. (15)

The pre-war Greenlands Estate

The high rents of this early council housing excluded many of the poorest of local residents and slum housing remained on a large scale.  In October 1924, the Medical Officer of Health recommended the clearance of the Marsh Lane area, ‘condemned on the ground of its narrowness, closeness, bad light, and want of air and proper ventilation’.  Of 118 houses inspected, nearly all were structurally defective. The Health Committee had rejected the proposal but in full council it was passed by 25 votes to 16. The Labour councillor HE Rhodes expressed the view that: (16)

The property owners who allowed their property to get into such a condition should not be paid compensation, but should be recommended for penal servitude, because they were murdering the child life of the town. The property … was a disgrace to the town and was situated in an area where the streets were bad and where there was nothing beautiful. He appealed to the committee to go on with the work and make one bright spot in the place.

That was perhaps an unusually trenchant intervention from a Labour representative; elsewhere the party has been criticised by some for its accommodation with existing civic elites. That came to a head in 1928 when Labour (with 22 councillors) formed a majority of elected members but controversially abided by a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that retained an overall Conservative majority through the latter’s number of aldermen. In an apparent quid pro quo, Labour councillor WE Morris became chair of the Housing Committee.  On the other hand, as we shall see so far as housing was concerned at least, there remained a reforming majority so it may be equally plausible to commend a broadly progressive (though contested) cross-party consensus on the matter.

Bay Road, the Ribbleton Estate

In fact, Preston was ahead of many authorities in tackling slum clearance in the 1920s but that issue would be prioritised nationally in housing legislation in 1930 and 1935. In October 1931, three further central areas were designated for clearance and a programme of 600 new council homes proposed, generally in extensions to existing suburban estates. (17)

The problem that more distant estates and continuingly relatively high rents precluded some in greatest need was seized on by some hostile to public housing more generally.  In 1933, Cllr JS Howard argued ‘the time had come when they ought to stop municipal building, especially as there were quite a number of tenants who ought not to occupy municipal houses’. He advocated some form of means test. More sympathetically, Cllr Blackburn observed: (18)

that many of the people displaced by slum clearance schemes were not remaining in the houses provided for them by the Corporation, but drifting back to their old surroundings. The slum clearance problem was too hastily met by building houses in the suburbs. The need should be met by some other method, such as the building of flats or other suitable dwelling.

This was a genuine problem but the fact that over 600 families on an over 2000-strong waiting list for council homes were living in shared accommodation ensured that opposition to newbuild was easily overcome.

Housing on Grizewood Avenue in the pre-war Moor Nook Estate

The Great Depression, whilst it did not hit a slightly more diversified and modernising economy in Preston as strongly as it did elsewhere, brought new hardships. The National Unemployed Workers Movement’s plea for a 10 percent rent reduction across the board in January 1932 was rejected. But general rent reductions (ranging from 4d to 1s 6d a week on weekly rents ranging between 6s 9d to 9s) were agreed in 1933 and 1934. Preston also implemented the provision of the 1930 Housing Act which gave the power to enact rent rebate schemes by granting reduced rents to displaced slum dwellers according to family size and income. (19)

The Farringdon Park Estate as planned and with completed homes in 1950

The housing survey required by the 1935 Housing Act revealed 1399 houses ‘not in all respects fit for human habitation’. By 1938, as some 300 new council homes were being built on the Thirlmere and Farringdon Park estates, it was reported this number had fallen to 980.  In all, the Borough Council had provided some 2847 new council homes between the wars.

The war itself would bring new challenges and new expectations and those will be discussed in next week’s post.

Sources

(1) See Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘In 2011 Preston hit rock bottom. Then it took back control’, The Guardian, 31 January 2018 and  Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Preston City Council, How We Built Community Wealth in Preston: Achievements and Lessons (July 2019)

(2) Karl Marx, ‘Only the Beginning’, New York Daily Tribune, 1 August 1854

(3) Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Standards of Living in Three Lancashire Towns, 1890-1914’, International Review of Social History, vol 27, no 1, 1982

(4) William Hudson, ‘Welfarism Anew? Territorial Politics and Inter-War State Housing in Three Lancashire Towns’, University of Liverpool PhD, 2002

(5) See Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923, Lancashire Archives

(6) ‘Preston Council Housing Scheme Approved’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 October 1919

(7) 19 September and 12 November 1919, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923. See also DR Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919, with special reference to Lancashire’, University of Lancaster PhD, 1986. On new tenancies, see, for example, the minutes of the Housing Sub-Committee dated 16 July 1930.

(8) See Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919’, Hudson, ‘Welfarism Anew?’, and ‘Preston Housing’, Lancashire Daily Post, 29 July 1920

(9) See Michael Savage, The Dynamics of Working-Class Politics: The Labour Movement in Preston, 1880-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

(10) See 24 November 1920 Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923 and Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919’

(12) ‘Preston Housing Scheme’, Lancashire Daily Post, 24 March 1921

(13) 14 September 1921, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923

(14) 23 November 1921, 3 March 1922 and 27 June 1922, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923

(15) ‘Preston Town Council Tenders For 50 More Houses. A System of Roofing Before Walls Are Built’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 October 1924

(16) ‘Preston’s Unhealthy Areas’, Lancashire Daily Post, 27 November 1924

(17) ‘Demolition of Houses. Animated Discussion at Preston Council Meeting’, Lancashire Daily Post, 29 October 1931

(18) ‘Preston Council Debate Housing’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 March 1933

(19) On the NUWM delegation, see 13 January 1932; on rent reductions and rebates see, minutes in March 1933 and 1934, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/3 1929-1939

Cottingham’s Council Housing, Part II from 1930: New Forms of Housing Provision

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I’m very pleased to feature the second post from Peter Claxton on Cottingham. Peter rekindled his love of history at university following his retirement having spent 40 years working in IT. He now focuses most of his research time on Kingston upon Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. He is currently researching the contentious relationship between private interests and public improvements with regards to health and housing in Kingston upon Hull between 1854 and 1914.

In my previous blog I reviewed the first ‘tentative steps’ made by the Cottingham Urban District Council (UDC) regarding the provision of council housing between 1921 and 1930. In this follow-up blog, I pick up the story in the early 1930s and examine the efforts of the local authority through to the 1960s. It was a time, when for a brief period, provision was undertaken by someone with a national reputation, the village witnesses the creation of the ubiquitous council estate and the local authority ‘strayed away’ from the standard tendering process.

In 1932 with land remaining on the Southwood Estate, for some unexplained reason – possibly hoping to sell yet again at a favourable price – the council purchased land on the north side of the village to erect a further 18 houses. At 1/7d per square yard, it was in fact double the price paid in 1919. Superficial areas were now reduced to 760 and 630 feet super for the three- and two-bedroomed houses. Building again under the 1924 Act, with guidance from TC Slack, Surveyor to the Council, the Park Lane contract was awarded to Robert Greenwood Tarran who at the time was planning his own and subsequently ill-fated garden suburb just to the east of Cottingham.

Robert Tarran

Tarran enjoyed considerable success during the 1930s and 40s, and was known to adopt, when necessary, a somewhat cavalier approach to both business and civic duties. He later became the city’s Sheriff, welcoming the King and Queen to Hull in August 1941 following the heavy bombing raids in May. As Chief Air-Raid Warden, he instigated a personal crusade assisting many of the citizens to ‘trek’ out of Hull each evening to escape the ever-present threat of air-raids. Press exposure and concerns over morale ensured that the early evening movement of citizens out to the countryside, was eventually, placed on a more formal footing.

An advert for Tarran houses in the Hull Daily Mail, 23 August 1934
Tarran houses in Park Lane dating to 1932

Tarran frequently attracted both criticism and publicity in the press. None more so than his company’s involvement as a contractor for the Leeds City Council on the futuristic Quarry Hill flats. Suffice to say that the acrimonious relationships between the parties involved with the build – relating primarily to the pre-fabrication of the blocks with which to cloak the building’s steelwork – extended the project considerably.

Quarry Hill © Leeds Library and Information Service

Yet for Tarran overcoming the on-site casting difficulties proved to be of immense value during the post-war push for prefabricated housing. Under the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, Tarran Industries manufactured in excess of 19,000 homes. After exhibiting a pre-fabricated house at the Tate in London, he erected, under the public’s gaze, his ‘Experimental House’ close to his works in Hull. The four-day process attracted more than 6000 visitors; a tactic he had previously employed in the city during the 1930s when his company built a pair of wooden ‘Cedar Houses’. A benefit of such a house, according to one of the first residents, was that you could ‘hang a picture without swearing.’ When it came to large-scale speedy production, to some, Tarran was the ‘Henry Ford’ of housing! (1)

Ad advert from the Hull Daily Mail, 1 May 1944

By the middle of the 1930s the council completed the Southwood Estate building 20 dwellings a mix of two and three-bedroomed non-parlour houses under the 1933 Housing Act. It was however a swan-song for the Cottingham UDC, as a reorganisation of local authority areas in March 1935 – the second in seven years – resulted in its demise. The same fate befell the adjacent Hessle UDC, with the provision of housing becoming the responsibility of the newly formed and much larger Haltemprice UDC. In Cottingham between 1918 and 1939, seven percent (86) of the houses had been by local authority provision.

Phase 3 of the Southwood Estate

The post-war push for housing was manifest in the immediacy of the actions taken by the Haltemprice UDC. A swift yet temporary measure was the requisitioning of numerous large houses, becoming ‘makeshift’ accommodation for multiple occupancy. On a similar tack, former Ministry of Defence Nissen and Maycrete huts in the district were acquired and converted into temporary housing. One such site close to Cottingham had previously served as a National Services Hostel housing refugees from the Netherlands.

The shortage of accommodation was further tempered by the allocation of 30 AW Hawksley prefabricated aluminium bungalows, the first one completed was opened by Mr Thomas Williams, Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food. in 1949. It is interesting to note that with a unit price of approximately £1450, taking a £600 subsidy plus Exchequer grant into account, at just over £2 per foot super, the temporary aluminium bungalows were close to twice the target build price of conventional permanent housing.

AW Hawksley Aluminium Bungalows in Letchworth © Simon Trew and made available by a Creative Commons licence
Thomas Williams, later Baron Williams of Barnburgh; public domain
1960s permanent council housing replacing Hawksley bungalows

The provision of permanent local authority housing from 1946 onwards was achieved in a number of ways, represented today in the form of the Bacon Garth Estate plus a number of smaller ad hoc developments around the village. The post-war estate is now the usual mix of privately owned properties purchased under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, and those that remain within the remit of the East Riding of Yorkshire County Council. Irrespective of the modifications made to many of those properties now privately owned, the estate continues to confirm central government’s post-war intentions of equitable housing for the masses.

Bacon Garth Estate, the Parkway

The construction of the estate at the southern edge of the village, continued on an ‘as the needs dictate’ basis for more than 20 years, and now reflects the changing form of local authority provision. In 1946 the Ministry of Health requested that a minimum of four designs be adopted to avoid monotony and further insisted that a maximum build price of 22/3d per foot super be negotiated, the achievement of which regularly exacerbated the relationships between local authority, contractors and ministry. On one occasion an additional 2d per foot super was deemed unacceptable. Still with a preponderance of agricultural workers in the area – following instructions from the Ministry of Health – a number of horticulturalists were the first to be allocated permanent houses.

1949 Agricultural workers’ houses, Bacon Garth Estate

As an alternative to the standard practice of closed tenders – with contracts invariably awarded to the company with the cheapest quote – used during each phase of construction of the estate, to something a little less formal, the results could be markedly different. On several occasions the council used the Small Builders’ Scheme (SBS), the origins of which were based around a submission to the Ministry of Health by the building trade. Comprising of two parts, the first enabled local authorities to employ a builder to erect houses on his own plot(s) of land and purchase upon completion. The second part empowered councils to provide the land on which properties could be constructed on its behalf.

Using both options, the Haltemprice UDC acquired small clusters of properties around the village. Catering for the building of dwellings of a minimum 900 foot super, at prices that did not exceed those in tenders for comparable properties, there was also flexibility over design. Thus with options to negotiate a build price prior to construction, or purchase price post-construction, councils were well-positioned to procure limited numbers of houses that mirrored private provision. I suspect that today, there are very few, if any Cottingham residents mindful of the origins of these small assemblages.

A good example of the SBS is in evidence at the Hull-Cottingham boundary. Across three phases 52 houses were built along one of the arterial roads from Hull into Cottingham. A variety of designs successfully avoided the monotony so often the case along our main roads. 

Hull Road Cottingham, built 1948 under the Small Builders’ Scheme
Small Builders’ Scheme, looking towards Cottingham

When the opportunity arose in 1947, the council purchased 20 houses close to the centre of the village on the newly built Westfield Estate. And in so doing created an enclave of local authority housing amid those offered for sale. But as the saying goes, ‘beauty is only skin deep’, and one can only hazard a guess as to whether or not the internal finish of houses purchased under the SBS always matched their external appearance.

An incident on the Westfield Estate suggests that sometimes this might not be the case. The baths in all 20 houses were found to be defective and had to be replaced by the council. On this occasion, purchasing post-construction, proved problematical. Efforts to maximise profit margins was often reflected in the internal finish of houses built for sale compared to those built for local authorities through the tendering process and subject to scrutiny during the build cycle.

Westfield Close, built under the Small Builders’ Scheme in 1947

However, by way of comparison, some of the early Bacon Garth Estate houses clearly lacked kerb appeal. Fortunately, they bear little resemblance to the rest of the estate. One wonders what the architect involved with these houses was thinking of when he sat at his desk and came up with the following!

The Garth

However, they did benefit internally from a ‘woman’s touch’. Co-opted lady members were asked to advise on the types of fittings necessary to make the houses more homely. Sadly, the opportunity offered to the ladies was somewhat restricted as they were denied complete freedom to express their opinions regarding ‘all matters domestic’. Oddly, cooking ranges remained the remit of male committee members. A Yorkist type range – Wilsons & Mathiesons or equal not weighing less than 4.5 cwt – had to be fitted!

An advert for Wilsons and Mathiesons Ltd Yorkist range, 1938 © Grace’s Guide

Unusually, when the first estate houses were built, the decision was taken not to erect fencing and gates to the front gardens. It was thought prudent to retain direct responsibility for the appearance of the house-fronts rather than rely on residents whose horticultural ambitions, based on previous experiences, appeared to fall well-short of the council’s expectations.

The provision of local authority housing in Cottingham continued well in to the 1960s. From those rather utilitarian dwellings of the interwar period, to a variety of post-1945 styles that catered for and reflected the needs of differing family sizes and age range. The village was spared any pre-cast ‘bolt and hope’ concrete tower blocks, the medieval church clock tower remaining the tallest structure. Those that fancied living in the clouds could gaze wistfully across the fields to the high-rise developments on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate. All now reduced to hardcore and probably finding a second use as foundations for garage floors.

Yes of course the provision of approximately 500 houses over four decades pales into insignificance when compared to the provision in many of our towns and cities during the twentieth century. But spare a thought for those small urban and rural district councils with limited human resources that were suddenly thrust into the roles of both builder and landlord a hundred years ago. What stories are still to be told?

Sources

(1) ‘Here’s a Real Housebuilder’, Daily Mirror, 25 January 1943  

Cottingham’s Council Housing, Part I to 1930: ‘Simple and Harmonious as a Whole’

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I’m very pleased to feature the first of two posts from Peter Claxton on housing in the village of Cottingham just north of Hull. Peter rekindled his love of history at university following his retirement having spent 40 years working in IT. He now focuses most of his research time on Kingston upon Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. He is currently researching the contentious relationship between private interests and public improvements with regards to health and housing in Kingston upon Hull between 1854 and 1914.

Much has been written about the provision of local authority housing in our towns and cities but we should not overlook the fact that of the 1806 local authorities questioned by the Local Government Board in 1918 regarding their housing requirements, many were small urban or lightly populated rural district councils. (1) 

With a population of 5133 in 1921, Cottingham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was one such urban district council (UDC). Today, in part, it butts up to the city of Kingston upon Hull, but at the start of the nineteenth century with just 1927 residents it was one of a number of satellite villages that semi-circled the then port town.

Cottingham, circa 1905

Situated just five miles to the northwest of Hull, by the end of the eighteenth century it had acquired a reputation as an ideal place for the ‘well-heeled’ to relocate to and in so doing build their grand houses and lay-out ornamental gardens.

Elmtree House, built around 1820
Newgate House, built in the late 19th/early 19th century

The arrival of the railway in 1846 accelerated this process, with a number of villas and terraces built to house the emerging middle class. Yet there was a problem for all those that relocated. Keen as they were to escape the pervasive smells of Hull’s multifarious processing industries, distance offered them no such guarantee.

With market gardening Cottingham’s primary economic activity – there were 71 nurserymen in and around the village just before WW1 supplying the markets of both Hull and Leeds – the  daily transhipment of night soil from Hull to the fields around the village ensured that no matter how wealthy or upwardly mobile the incomers were, they could never completely leave their pasts behind them!

Low agricultural wages stifled the ambitions of many village residents, yet the desire for improved housing, just like the inhabitants of its much larger neighbour clearly existed. The reduced number made it of no less importance, it was simply a matter of scale. The village was unaccustomed to change, and in general, the UDC – set up under the 1894 Local Government Act consisted of just 12 members – busied itself approving the erection of private dwellings, undertaking nuisance control measures, tarring the roads and maintaining the street lighting.

As elsewhere, following cessation of hostilities in 1918, there was evidence of change. The laying out of new streets extended the built-up area far beyond the village’s traditional nucleus. (2) And as with the vacating of large properties in Hull during the nineteenth century in favour of Cottingham, the same fate now befell a number of those former imposing residences in the village. The vacant properties complete with their large gardens together with numerous unworked smallholdings in and around the village became ideal plots for local builders. Between 1918 and 1939, 1237 houses were built in Cottingham by 95 builders.

In 1918 when it came to the crunch, Cottingham UDC like so many other local authorities, had no experience of building or renting out houses. Enthusiasm could only achieve so much, which in the case of Cottingham, amounted to the purchase of 9.5 acres in April 1919 of the Westfield Estate at the fashionable west end of the village from Archdeacon J Malet Lambert. Viewed by many as a local philanthropist, he also had something of chequered past.

He was however a former and influential member of the Hull & District Sanitary Association, that had continually questioned the efficacy of Hull’s Local Board of Health, pressing for improvements to housing and sanitation within the Borough. So effective were its methods that a Local Government Board enquiry took place in 1888, subsequently making a number of recommendations for the sanitary improvement of the town.(3) Yet Malet Lambert’s philanthropy had limitations, originally offered £125 per acre, he refused to settle for anything less than £200. (4)

Purchasing a piece of land is one thing, populating it with houses is a different matter entirely. The appointment of Hull architect Harry Andrews on a project-only basis was a sound first move by the council. The first phase was for the provision of a modest 50 houses, yet this relatively small number, would in no way be the guarantee to a trouble-free build. Tenders approaching £10,000 for street works and sewerage had an immediate impact on the project. To reduce the civil costs the architect modified the lay-out of the houses positioning them all adjacent to the main road. Costs were trimmed but so was the number of houses, now down to 36. Built by Hull firm Holliday & Barker, they took the form of a single meandering row of 18 pairs of semi-detached houses.

Yet according to a local newspaper, the 12 parlour and 24 non-parlour three bedroomed houses were reported to be: (5)

One of the finest sites in the district, it has been developed to allow the erection of 98 houses, only 16 of which will have a northerly aspect … while somewhat severe in appearance in conformity with the Ministry of Health’s instructions, are exceedingly simple and harmonious as a whole …

Simple and severe certainly, but in no way were they harmonious, not according to many of the locals whose abhorrence towards the stark appearance of the dwellings, had two weeks earlier, prompted an irksome response from a council member who retorted: (6)

There was a most extraordinary and widespread misconception in Cottingham … The people seem to think the council were entirely responsible for the architecture of the houses which had been put up, and for the quality of materials used. This was not so. They had been entirely over-ruled by the authorities at Leeds.

The Southwood Estate, featured in the Hull Daily Mail, 27 October 1921

This was a direct reference to the Leeds-based Regional Housing Commissioner of the Ministry of Health and Housing who held sway over all matters relating to the provision of local authority housing in Yorkshire under the terms of the Housing & Town Planning Act, 1919.

First impressions clearly mattered, and for some of the class-conscious residents at the west end of the village, their dissatisfaction was all too apparent. The first ‘council houses’ were not detached from the village as in many large conurbations where those re-housed would be beyond the tram terminus or omnibus service, and therefore out of sight and out of mind. This was simply an extension to the western end of the village and therefore contiguous to existing properties. Snobocracy appeared to be alive and well in Cottingham and the neighbours were clearly not happy!

Southwood Villa © Bernard Sharp and made available through a Creative Commons licence
Southwood Hall © George Robinson and made available through a Creative Commons licence

No one in the village could question the need for additional housing, it was simply a matter of predetermined expectations. Inside each house the council had dutifully considered the needs of the soon-to-be tenants. All featured hot and cold water, cupboards, a space for a cycle or perambulator and the fitting of a tiled fireplace, and not just a cast iron mantlepiece. The metal window frames – cheaper and more readily available than wooden ones at the time – included a pivot mechanism on the upstairs frames that facilitated easy cleaning of the glazing. In addition the parlour houses had a window to the side to throw light over the shoulder of anyone sitting reading by the fire.

Yet these features did little to assuage the feelings of the neighbours, whose distain was based solely on the external appearance of the dwellings. Through the use of poor-quality commons and their box-like appearance, the houses were deemed to be an incongruous addition to the village. In an attempt to mollify dissenting voices, the council adopted a course of action which at the time was an earnest attempt to remedy the situation. The solution to the dilemma was to hide the brickwork. Each house was to be covered with a roughcast and colour-washed white with Tungaline paint.

An advert for William Jacks & Co Paints © The Priya Paul Collection, Universitätsbibliothek, Heidelberg

And to further improve matters, the exteriors were to be enhanced by the tasteful application of a contrasting dark brown gloss paint to the woodwork!

Southwood Estate houses facing south
Southwood Estate houses facing east

For a time, all was well until the gradual and increasing appearance of brown blemishes to the white-washed walls. To the council’s horror, it was discovered that ironstone chippings constituted part of the roughcast mix and rust had started to leech through to the surface resulting in the mottled finish.

Continuing evidence of rusting

Yet again with good intentions and financial ramifications, the council attempted to remedy the situation by the removal and re-application of the roughcast. Unfortunately the remedial work was not carried out to an exacting standard and the problem is visible to this day. Recently applied external insulation masks the rusting on those properties still part of the East Riding of Yorkshire County Council housing portfolio.

The generous proportions of the ‘Addison Houses’ and high build costs were reflected in the weekly rents. Many early tenants were employed in local agriculture, and at the time of construction, the first cut of what by 1923 amounted to an overall 35 percent reduction in agricultural wages had taken place. (7)  With wages reduced to 24 shillings per week by 1923 there was little wonder that many tenants fell into rent arrears within the first 12 months of occupancy. An appeal to the Ministry of Health secured a reduction of 1/6d per week for each type of house. But with weekly rents of 11/6d or 9/6d excluding rates, it was still necessary for distraint warrants to be issued against persistent defaulters.(8)

High maintenance costs and difficulties with the collection of rents impaired the council’s judgement regarding further housing provision. Finding the whole experience exceedingly troublesome, it had within a matter of 18 months placed on record that an offer for the remaining land it held lay on the table. At 2/6d per square yard (£605 per acre) some three times the price paid in 1919, it proved too tempting an offer. Parcels of land were duly sold to private developers including the North Eastern Railway Cottage Homes. For the remainder of the decade, the council restricted activity to the authorisation of subsidies to private builders under the terms of the 1923 Housing Act. By the end of the decade, 30 ‘subsidy houses’ had been built in the village.

Reticence towards further provision was of course futile. At the start of the 1930s, a modest 12 houses were built on one of the remaining parcels of land. Gone were the generous terms offered in 1919, replaced by the more circumspect grants of the 1924 Housing Act. With a long memory and a Yorkshireman’s vice-like grip of the purse strings, the council did not repeat the mistakes of old. Tucked away behind the rusting white-washed ribbon development, variations in design improved the prospect of the new houses. Yet again commons were the order of the day but thankfully, the temptation to apply a roughcast finish had been resisted.

Phase 2 facing the NER Railway Cottage Homes
NER Cottage Homes

For the council – with still a little land in reserve – it was now a time for reflection. Builders were ‘ramping-up’ private provision locally and those who had ‘Dunroamin’ settled down at ‘Mon Repos’ and ‘Chez Nous’. (9) But, as a follow-up blog will suggest, even in a relatively quiet village things never stay the same for very long.

Sources

(1) Stephen Merrett, State Housing in Britain (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979). Cottingham UDC was one of the 400 authorities that had replied to the LGB by December 1918

(2) KJ Allison, ‘The boom in house-building between the wars: the example of Cottingham’, East Yorkshire Local History Society, Bulletin, No. 55, Winter 1996/7

(3) During this period the town was often referred to (in print) as ‘Squalid Hull’.

(4)  From the minutes of Cottingham UDC, 2 April 1919, East Riding Archives

(5) ‘Cottingham Housing Scheme’, Hull Daily Mail, 27 October 1921  

(6) ‘Cottingham’s New Houses’, Hull Daily Mail, 13 October 1921

(7) Martin Pugh, We Danced all Night: A Social History of Britain between the Wars (Bodley Head, 2008)

(8) ‘Cottingham Council Houses, Distraint Warrants Issued for Unpaid Rents’, Hull Daily Mail, 9 August 1923   

(9) Allison, ‘The boom in house-building between the wars …’