You don’t generally look to Richmond upon Thames for political radicalism and pioneering social reform. But look again – at a street of modest Victorian terraced housing: Manor Grove in North Sheen. This was the first council housing in London. It was built through the efforts of Richmond’s very own ‘People’s Champion’, William Thompson.
Of course back then Richmond was in Surrey and it had been created a municipal borough only in 1890. That, it turned out, was an auspicious year: a young Liberal schoolmaster, William Thompson, was elected to the local council and, nationally, the Housing of the Working Classes Act was passed which allowed local councils not only to clear areas of slum housing but to build new, municipal, housing where necessary.
Then, as now, Richmond was a relatively affluent area but it too had areas of poverty and slum housing. Existing housing supply was, in Thompson’s words, ‘insufficient in quantity and inferior in quality’ – the former led to the latter and resulted in ‘exorbitant rents…overcrowding…and the occupation of dirty hovels and unhealthy slums’. (1)
There were early attempts to tackle the problem of the slums through the improvement and closure orders allowed under the 1890 Act. But these, at best, might lead to increased rents for paltry repairs and, at worst, to the displacement – without adequate alternative accommodation – of existing tenants. Such enforcement was often resisted by working-class tenants as a result.
It was resisted, more powerfully, by landlords – often represented on local councils. Thirteen members of Richmond Borough Council received notices of one sort or another relating to property they owned. One councillor, objecting to the reappointment of a particularly conscientious Inspector of Nuisances, complained that he was ‘lamentably wanting in tact and discretion’. (2)
Such conservative interests – joined by close social and business ties – dominated in Richmond in the 1890s and it was against them that Thompson brought his radical Liberal agenda in the 1890s: (3)
workmen’s wages, their hours of labour, the provision of workmen’s dwellings and allotments, the reform of the charities, better railway facilities, made up a progressive programme….launched on to the sea of public debate at the Gas Works Bridge, a spot now historic as the people’s forum.
Thompson’s local following among working people secured his election against the vested interests.
That Thompson succeeded in getting Council approval in 1892 for a significant scheme of municipal housing is huge testimony to his campaigning and expertise. It reflects too the pragmatic case he was careful to build – ‘that the carrying out of the scheme will not cost the ratepayer a single penny…that there is an estimated clear margin of profit of from £13 to £25 for every year’. (4) And it reminds us also that the better-off had an interest in a more contented workforce – though that seems to have been forgotten more recently.
The Manor Grove scheme – the ‘Richmond Experiment’ as it was known – took place on six acres of land adjacent to the London and South West Railway and close to the gasworks: a rapidly developing area of working-class housing in the borough. Sixty-two dwellings, completed in 1895, were provided – 22 six-roomed cottages, 28 four-roomed cottages, and six double tenements or cottage flats of two- and three-rooms respectively. (5)
Each dwelling had additionally a scullery and:
separate front and back garden; paved yard, with chopping block; coal store, larder, and WC; a cooking stove in the kitchen; a 75 gallon galvanised iron cistern; a nine-gallon copper in the scullery; a separate supply of water; and gas, where required, on the ‘penny in the slot’ system.
All were fitted with:
window blind rollers; hat and coat rail; wardrobe hooks; cupboards and picture hooks in sitting rooms and bedrooms; dressers, fitted with hooks, in kitchens; towel roller and shelving in scullery; meat hooks in larders; and circular galvanised iron dustbins in yards.
I hope I haven’t lost you with that detail. It just seems to me to capture both something of the life of that time and the care that Thompson and the Council brought to a scheme intended as a model of its kind.
Demand for the new homes exceeded supply and a ballot was held – confined to those either living or working in Richmond (who could afford the rent) – to allocate places. The tenants were stated to be ‘delighted with their houses’.
Such was the scheme’s success that in 1896 the Council agreed to develop the remaining portion of the Manor Grove land. Seventy more houses were built, completed by 1900. In all, 132 homes were provided at a total cost of £37,812.
The residents, meanwhile, paid rents of between 5s 6d (27.5p) for the smallest homes to 7s 9d (39p) for the largest. A Fabian Tract claimed that new six-room cottages built privately in an adjacent development were being let at between 12s 3d and 14s (61-70p) a week. (6) The average wages of Manor Grove’s tenants were around 25s (£1 25p).
Thompson conscientiously provides a list of their occupations. The largest number (28) were general labourers but the next largest category – at 12 – were police officers. Then came ‘carmen and drivers’, railwaymen and gas workers. There were also at least five female heads of household – three described as charwomen and two as widows.
The number of police officers seems disproportionate – and Thompson is at pains to emphasise their prominence reflects only numbers applying through the ballot – but they may be taken as representatives of the ‘respectable’ working class for whom this early municipal housing was intended.
In fact, as required by the Section 63 of the 1890 Act and as featured in the tenancy agreement, anyone receiving ‘any relief under the Acts relating to the relief of the Poor, other than relief granted on account only of accident or temporary illnesses’ was disqualified from tenancy – a very different view of the role of council housing to that of the present.
This was, then, unashamedly artisanal housing though Thompson believed it would benefit the poorest – by freeing up accommodation to which they might move and by providing a standard of decent housing that the private sector might emulate.
Meanwhile, energised by this apparently unlikely success in a ‘villa district’ such as Richmond, Thompson became one of the most prominent advocates of housing reform of his day – a founding member and chair of the National Housing Reform Council, a member of the International Housing Congress, a vice-president of the Co-Partnership Tenants’ Housing Council and a member of the Garden Cities Association.
And in a series of scrupulously argued and detailed publications (which remain the best available record of early municipal endeavours), he outlined a powerful case for council housing. (6)
He left teaching in 1903 to act, first, as a Liberal agent and, later, as managing director of the Ruislip Manor Estate Company, intending to develop a garden city in the suburb as part of a comprehensive town planning initiative adopted by the urban district council – one of the first in the country. (7)
His political career continued – with some ups and downs. Elected an alderman in 1897, he was removed from the bench by his fellow-councillors as too turbulent a presence two years later, only to be promptly and resoundingly re-elected to the council by the borough’s voters. For all his zealotry, his undeniable drive and talents seem to have been finally recognised by the council in 1908 when he was elected mayor.
Thompson cancelled his inaugural banquet due to prevailing distress in the borough. And he was presumably a driving force behind another smaller municipal housing scheme off Red Lion Street in central Richmond. Artichoke Alley was cleared. In its place, completed in 1909, arose Victoria Place – an attractive red-brick and rendered tenement development, housing 100. (8)
William Thompson died suddenly, aged just 51, in May 1914. His funeral was attended by Liberal ministers Lloyd George and John Burns and Labour MP Keir Hardie. But workingmen took first place in the funeral cortege. His life – a ‘life of service’ – was memorialised by the local newspaper as: (9)
the story of an unselfish soul which strove for the good of others; of a life shortened by often desperate work for the well-being of his fellow men…Our workmen’s dwellings, the garden city of Ruislip, houses for workers all over the country, and even abroad, stand as a memorial to his energy and devotion to the cause of others.
(1) Borough of Richmond Council minutes: William Thompson, ‘Memorandum on the Housing of the Working Classes’, October 17 1892
(2) William Thompson, The Housing Handbook (1903) and Borough of Richmond Council minutes, Health Committee Report to Council, 13 December 1892
(3) ‘Death of People’s Champion’, Thames Valley Times, 20 May 1914
(4) Borough of Richmond Council minutes: William Thompson, ‘Draft Scheme’, October 17 1892
(5) This detail and the quoted detail which follows are taken from Thompson, The Housing Handbook
(6) Fabian Tract No. 76, Houses for the People (Third edition, 1900)
(7) Apart from The Housing Handbook (1903), Thompson published Housing of the Working Classes (1899), Housing Up-To-Date (1907), Municipal Housing in England and Wales (1910) and What County Councils Can Do for the People (1910)
(8) The best summary record of Thompson’s life and politics is provided in George F Bartle, ‘William Thompson and “the Richmond Experiment”’, Richmond History, the Journal of the Richmond History Society, no 17, 1996
(9) Roberta Turner, ‘The Story of Council Housing in Richmond’, Richmond History, no 31, 2010
(10) ‘A Life of Service’, Richmond and Twickenham Times, 23 May 1914
My thanks to the helpful staff at the Richmond Local Studies Collection for their assistance in accessing some of the sources listed above.
Early photographs and illustrations are taken from Thompson, The Housing Handbook.