Liverpool and its politics are different and it was Liverpool’s Tories who, in 1869, built the first council housing in Europe. In fact, the Council’s sanitary reforms and house-building programme led the country before the First World War.
One reason for this was simply the scale of the problem in the crowded port city. Liverpool grew massively in the nineteenth century – its population increased fourfold (to 333,600) in the forty years to 1841 alone. Incomers – often immigrants from Ireland – were forced to move into crowded courts and back-to-backs. In 1843 William Henry Duncan, a local physician, estimated half the working-class population were living in cellars.(1)
The city’s 1842 Sanitary Act was an early, modest, attempt to improve conditions. It allowed magistrates to order landlords to clean any ‘filthy or unwholesome’ house they owned and set up a Council Health Committee.
Four years later, the Liverpool Sanitary Act – ‘the first piece of comprehensive health legislation passed in England’ – made the Council responsible for drainage, paving, sewerage and cleaning.(2) It also appointed a Council Medical Officer of Health – another first.
This would be Dr Duncan. His zeal ensured that over 5000 cellar dwellings were declared unfit for human habitation and closed in 1847 alone; another 10,000 were registered, some were cleaned at the owner’s expense.(3)
For all this, progress was slow. In 1864 it was estimated that about one fifth of the population lived in insanitary conditions – 22,000 homes, in courts, back to back, side to side, with WCs perhaps for every 12.(4) A further Sanitary Act of the same year strengthened enforcement.
But the problem was not only of enforcement but of housing supply. The Council hoped initially that private developers would fill the gap. It even instructed the City Engineer to draw up a model scheme in the vain hope that a private builder might develop it. Finally, the Council resolved to build itself. It held a competition, awarded the prize and then built another scheme – one which broke the Corporation’s own bye-laws regarding the spacing and height of buildings.
This was the inglorious origin of the St Martin’s Cottages, completed in 1869 in Ashfield Street, Vauxhall – the first council housing to be built in England. The ‘cottages’ were tenements – 146 flats and maisonettes in two four-storey blocks, brick-built with open staircases and separate WCs placed on the half-landings. The result was so bleak that even the trade magazine The Builder concluded that those who built for the poor should ‘mix a little philanthropy with their per-centage calculations’.
Refurbished over the years, the Cottages survived to 1977 but all that remains today to mark this pioneering scheme is a commemorative plaque unveiled in 2001. One resident, born in the flats in 1909 recalls: (5)
The flats were very basic, just bedrooms and a living room with another bedroom off the ‘back-kitchen’ which was just a sink’s width and 6ft long. There was no room for a cooker, just a hob on the living room table and a coal fire and oven for cooking.
In the evenings we had gas lamps. There was no bathroom but there was a toilet halfway between our floor and the one above, but each family had its own, which was something.
And it was a start. The Council’s ambitions were boosted when Sir Arthur Forwood became chair of the Health Committee in 1876. Forwood was ‘a resolute champion of the union and empire, monarchy and church’ and an advocate of ‘council housing…public utilities and transport’. Such was Tory Democracy.(6)
Forwood’s Insanitary Property Committee, established in 1883, gave teeth to the 1864 Act and cleared a notorious area of slum housing in Nash Grove but what to do with those displaced? The Council still hoped that private enterprise might step up to the challenge but speculative building profits lay in the suburbs. Once more, the Council undertook to build itself on a plan devised by then City Engineer, Clement Dunscombe.
To one American observer, the finished Victoria Square Dwellings were ‘a palatial structure’ – ‘the halls and stairways of the building are broad, light, and airy; the ventilation and sanitary arrangements perfect’. A large central courtyard provided greenery and a playground for children.(7)
The whole, built of Liverpool grey common bricks and pressed reds for window reveals with terra cotta detailing for doorways and dormers, five storeys including an attic floor set in a mansard roof, comprised 270 dwellings and housed over 1000. Sir Richard Cross, then Conservative Home Secretary, opened the development in 1885.
Don’t look for the Dwellings now. They were partly destroyed by bombing in 1941 and, despite modernisation in the fifties – when electrics and hot water were provided – the original four blocks were reduced to two in 1961. What remained was finally demolished in the late sixties to make way for the Wallasey Tunnel.
At the time, however, the scheme marked the Council’s acceptance that private builders would not provide housing for the poorer working-class and its own efforts grew. Another development followed in 1890 – adjacent to the Victoria Square Dwellings in Juvenal Street – of 371 municipal tenements.
By 1893 the Council had demolished 4126 insanitary houses and built 1061 new homes housing 5310. But there was a problem – it was estimated that the displaced population equalled 10,000. There was: (8)
more than a suspicion that the remedy was getting worse than the disease. The people displaced went into other houses—they went into single rooms in large houses which had occupied a good position in the city at one time, they went into cellars, and it is almost certain some went into the workhouse.
After much controversy, it was agreed in 1896 that all Council dwellings should be reserved exclusively to those who had been displaced – a policy which required that their rents be reduced to affordable levels.
New construction continued. Schemes in Arley Street and Gildarts Gardens added 122 new houses in 1897. More followed in Dryden Street (1901) and Kempston, Fontenoy, Kew and Newsham Streets (1902).
Drawings of some of the later developments give us a different picture of the solid but basic housing the Corporation was building in the years preceding the First World War. Here’s Adlington Street built in 1903:
And Hornby Street – 23 blocks of 445 dwellings, accommodating 2,476 – built in the same year. This development also included a ‘keeper’s house’, seven shops and a children’s playground:
A Council record tells us who lived there. In one section of 309 families, 99 heads of household were dock labourers, 59 ships’ stokers, 50 general labourers, 28 mill labourers, 44 carters and 11 hawkers. At least 18 households were headed by single women listed as charwomen.
This was the Liverpool working class in the city’s port hey-day. This was not, as was typical of most council housing into the interwar period, an artisan or better-paid labour elite. A 1907 Council report concluded that several thousand families in Liverpool subsisted on less than 10s (50p) a week, a greater number on less than 15s (75p) a week. Council rents ranged from 1s 9d (9p) for a one-room tenement to 5s 3d (26p) for a four-bed flat: (9)
These rents are as high as the tenants can afford and approximate very nearly to the rents paid by them in their former insanitary habitations.
The Council continued to innovate. The Eldon Street Labourers’ Concrete Dwellings built in 1905 were, as the name implies, an early attempt to build with prefabricated concrete – from clinker slabs from the Council’s waste furnace.
And Eldon Grove, three-storey blocks with bay windows, half-timbered gables and balconies, internal toilets and running hot water with open space and a bandstand to the front, opened in 1912 represents the very best of the Council’s pre-war building.
Two-storey terraces were built in Bevington Street and Summer Seat at the same time. And these latter developments survive – Eldon Grove barely. Listed Grade II in 1985, it awaits refurbishment once it can turn a profit.
By 1914, Liverpool had built 2747 flats and houses at a cost, since 1864, of £1.16m. Of those 22,000 insanitary houses identified fifty years earlier, 2771 remained. Death rates of 60 per thousand had fallen to 28 in the redeveloped areas.
But to advocates of the programme, it was the ‘improvement in the habits of the people’ which was almost more remarkable: (10)
There is a higher moral tone, a stronger regard for self-respect, and, above all, a greater love of home is evident in the people residing in the Corporation dwellings.
In one area of slums, it was said that 202 cases of criminal drunkenness in 1894 had been reduced to four in 1912 after clearance and rehousing: ‘Wherever we go the Head Constable tells us his difficulties as regards crime are rapidly disappearing’.
Mr Turton concluded that so long as people needed to live near their work – particularly pressing in the casual employment black spot of Liverpool, ‘it is as yet impossible to do what we would all like to do, namely, take these people into the outskirts’. That would be the project of the interwar years and the subject of a future post.
Liverpool’s unparalleled early efforts in sanitary reform and municipal house-building are neglected. They don’t fit a conventional narrative. Reforming, sectarian, imperialist Tories don’t make easy contemporary heroes. The paternalistic ethos and ‘improving’ tone of Victorian reform sits uncomfortably now. And these early schemes were superseded, not least in Liverpool where restless redevelopment has recast the city across the decades with little regard to history.
But they remain a remarkable testimony to the indispensable role of local government – once universally accepted – in raising the conditions of the people.
(1) WH Duncan, The Physical Causes of the High Mortality Rate in Liverpool, 1843
(2) Eric Midwinter, Social Administration in Lancashire, 1830-1860, 1969
(3) Victoria History, A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4, 1911
(4) FT Turton, Deputy Surveyor, Liverpool Exhibition of Housing and Town Planning: transactions of conference, 1914
(5) Quoted in Adam Powell, ‘All this and an inside loo’, Daily Mail, November 9 2001.
(6) Philip Waller, ‘Forwood, Sir Arthur Bower, first baronet (1836–1898)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
(7) BO Flower, ‘Society’s Exiles’, The Arena, Volume 4, No. 19, June 1891
(8) FT Turton, Deputy Surveyor, Liverpool Exhibition of Housing and Town Planning: transactions of conference, 1914
(9) City of Liverpool, Description of Labourers’ Dwellings, August 9, 1907
(10) FT Turton, Deputy Surveyor, Liverpool Exhibition of Housing and Town Planning: transactions of conference, 1914