There is a Birmingham prejudice against flats, and it is not confined to any one class. It springs, we believe, from something deep in the civic life. Indeed, it is probably one expression of the independence of character which has done so much for Birmingham.
That was the Birmingham Gazette in 1930. (1) In fact, we’ve seen similar sentiments in Bermondsey, Stevenage and beyond. And we’ve seen flats – even some that came to be reviled by many such as Quarry Hill in Leeds and Park Hill in Sheffield – which the people that actually lived in them loved.
As a 19th century industrial city, Birmingham wasn’t unusual in having slum housing. It was distinct, however, in its number of back-to-backs – some 50,000 had been built in the inner-city in the century to 1876 at which point the Council banned further construction.
This was the third year of Joseph Chamberlain’s mayoralty of the city. A Conservative government had passed the Workmen’s and Artisans’ Dwellings Act, intended to promote local authority slum clearance, one year previously. Chamberlain, then a radical Liberal, seized the opportunity in what became known as the Birmingham Improvement Scheme.
The Council designated a central area of 93 acres – 3851 houses, 2258 built back-to-back, with a population of some 18,000 – for slum clearance under the Act. Death rates were double and treble the national average – in Bailey Street, it was 97 per 1000 against the national average of 22. £1.3m would be spent on purchasing and clearing insanitary properties. (2)
To Chamberlain, the logic of building flats to replace the slums being cleared seemed inexorable: (3)
The [Improvement] Committee will also no doubt erect buildings which will be in flats or storeys, much higher at all events than buildings have hitherto been built in Birmingham. The time is coming, I believe, when that must be done, if the poor are to be housed in close proximity to their work, and for a reasonable rent.
But replacement accommodation was slow to emerge. The 1875 Act discouraged local authority building, expecting that private developers to seize the opportunity to build. And by 1878, when Chamberlain, now an MP, came back to the Council, he was backtracking. He spoke of a ‘misapprehension on the part of the ratepayers’ who thought the Corporation was:
going to build houses for the working classes at 7s per week…the Act did not entrust them with that duty. They were land-letters, not builders; all they had to do was to let the land to builders.
The problem, as we have seen in Liverpool, was that they were reluctant to do so when speculative building for the middle-class in the suburbs paid so much better.
Any rebuilding was delayed further by disagreement within the Council itself. Deputations to Glasgow and London in 1877 had come away opposed to flat-building. The belief in the native prejudice against flats was strong and, in any case, councillors baulked at the cost.
In his 1878 address, Chamberlain had saved face by pointing to a Corporation scheme to build up to 180 ‘artizans’ dwellings’ in Newtown Row. In the event, the development, according to critics, took ‘the form of large and handsome shops, at a rental of about £40 per year’. (5)
So five years on, no new working-class housing had been built. In fact, the Council began reconditioning some of the slum properties it had acquired. Local Conservatives – rather opportunistically as they certainly didn’t want to spend on rebuilding – had a field day criticising the inaction and hypocrisy of Birmingham’s Liberal Caucus. It was even said that ‘some of these patched-up houses had been let out as brothels, and the moral Corporation had been receiving the wages of sin and iniquity’.
Chamberlain’s Improvement Scheme remained, in its way, a magnificent enterprise. The newly-built Corporation Street – nicknamed by critics Chamberlain Boulevard – did become an impressive thoroughfare, adding to Birmingham’s civic dignity.
But the Scheme itself did virtually nothing to rehouse Birmingham’s slum-dwellers. About 900 houses were pulled down – replaced by offices, a theatre, law courts and shops – and the death rate in the area fell. As The Dart, a local journal critical of Chamberlain, commented:
Tis an excellent plan and I’ll tell you for why.
Where’s there no person living, no person can die.
Finally, the Council did build – at the north-eastern edge of the Improvement Area: 22 three-bedroom houses in Ryder Street in 1889 and 81 more in Lawrence Street in 1891. They disappeared under Aston University in the 1970s but Phyllis Nicklin’s photographs capture them in 1968.
Further development occurred in 1894, under the terms of the 1890 Housing Act, when the Improvement Committee purchased a two-acre area of slum housing in Milk Street, Deritend for clearance. Sixty-five homes and several workshops were demolished and the Committee secured Council approval to build 61 municipal dwellings in their place.
These would be so-called ‘dual homes’ – a euphemism for balcony-access tenements arranged in four two-storey blocks. Rents were kept low at between 3s (15p) and 5s (25p) a week. This was to avoid a common criticism of municipal schemes that they were too expensive to those they were intended to help though even 5 shillings was a stretch for the poorest. (5)
But the results were austere and did little to popularise the idea of living in flats. The Committee itself acknowledged ‘the plans have not met with universal favour’ but contended that: (6)
it is absolutely impossible to erect, without loss to the ratepayer, dwellings within the City suitable for the labouring classes at the rents above-mentioned, unless either upon this method or the Flat system.
The Estate was demolished in 1966.
And there municipal efforts to build housing rested. Some 125,000 people remained in the back-to-backs and courts of Birmingham’s Inner Ring wards. A combination of lack of will and lack of ready – and inexpensive – solution would continue to stymie action until very different circumstances prevailed after the First World War.
We’ll follow that story next week.
(1) Birmingham Gazette, 24 May 1930 quoted in Anthony Sutcliffe, ‘7. A Century of Flats in Birmingham, 1875-1973’ from Multi-Storey Living, 1974
(2) ‘The Birmingham Improvement Scheme’, Spectator, 13 May 1876 and the City of Birmingham, A Short History of the Birmingham Improvement Scheme (1890)
(3) Sutcliffe, ‘7. A Century of Flats in Birmingham, 1875-1973’
(4) JM Brindley, The Homes of the Working Classes and the Promises of the Right Hon. Joseph Chamberlain MP (1884)
(5) Carl Chinn, ‘Milking History in Birmingham’, Birmingham Mail, September 30 2006
(6) Sutcliffe, ‘7. A Century of Flats in Birmingham, 1875-1973’
The collection of 446 photographs of the late Phyllis Nicklin, a tutor in Geography at the University of Birmingham, has been made available under the Creative Commons licence.