By 1914 Swansea was in the vanguard of council house building and design. The First World War initially dealt a blow to its ambitions but earlier progress left the council well-placed to capitalise on the post-war drive for ‘Homes for Heroes’ and the improved standards set.
Swansea was once a fashionable seaside resort but, come the Industrial Revolution, the town’s proximity to coal resources and its port facilities (allowing the easy import of ores) led to it becoming one of the largest metal-smelting centres in the world. No longer ‘the Brighton of Wales’, it was known as ‘Copperopolis’.
Swansea’s population grew from a little over 6000 in 1801 to 94,500 by the end of the century and increased by a further 20,000 in the decade that followed. In 1852, 900 of the town’s 3500 homes were two-room court cottages, in-fills behind existing street frontages. Cholera erupted in 1832 and 1849.
The Swansea Urban Sanitary Authority, spurred by a further cholera outbreak in 1866, was one of the very few local bodies to take advantage of the 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act. Its 1876 Swansea Improvement Scheme cleared five streets and nine courts in the central Greenhill area to create the Alexandra Road approach to the main railway station. A public library and privately-built houses replaced the slums. (1) The County Borough, created in 1889, would go further in building workers’ housing.
Liberals, broadly progressive but representative of Swansea’s industrial elite, dominated the early council. The competition of a growing socialist and labour movement provided the incentive and principles for more radical housing reform. By 1906, there were eight Independent Labour councillors (of 40 in total) on the Borough Council. The 1913 municipal elections returned a near equilibrium with Conservatives holding 13 seats and Liberals and Labour twelve each (there were three independents).
The Council’s intentions were marked by the creation of a Housing Department in 1902 and an Estates Department in 1904. Still, its initial efforts were cautious – confined to infill housing, fitting in with existing speculative building and looking, at first glance, similar to it.
There was, however, a significant difference. Private building was generally ‘tunnelback’ – one room wide with a rear annexe which maximised housing density and builders’ profits but restricted light and air to residents. The council houses, of superior red brick, were purposely built without this rear projection. (2)
In 1905, small-scale building took place at Waun Wen and Colbourne Terrace and the initial success of the scheme led the council to plan an estate of 142 houses in the surrounding Baptist Well area. Labour activists celebrated the role of William Morris, the Labour chair of the Housing Committee. The struggle to build – ‘a battle royal between the monied classes and the Labour elements’ as Morris described it – would be renewed when the Council came to consider far more ambitious plans for a ‘garden city’ estate. (3)
But Labour was not the only reforming force. Local architect CT Ruthen was a Liberal councillor. He and a colleague had attended the annual conference of the National Housing and Town Planning Council in December 1906 where they met one of the leading contemporary advocates of housing and planning reform, Raymond Unwin. Unwin would become closely associated with subsequent developments in Swansea and Ruthen himself – later Sir Charles Ruthen – would become President of the Society of Architects and President of the Institute of Structural Engineers as well as Director-General of Housing to the Ministry of Health.
Spurred by the example of the housing reform movement, the Council determined to organise its own exhibition of model working-class dwellings. A joint committee was formed – with members of neighbouring local authorities and including trade union representatives from the local trades council – and a site chosen: Mayhill, on Corporation land, with stunning views of Swansea Bay.
The layout of the exhibition site reflected Unwin’s influence. He had visited Swansea and urged the importance of closes and culs-de-sac to ‘break the thrall of dreary terracing’. (4)
The South Wales Cottage Exhibition opened in September 1910. Twenty-nine houses were built – 21 on Llewellyn Circle and Nicander Parade designed by private architects; eight designed and built by Swansea County Borough Council on Tan y Marian Road. They came in a variety – in pairs, threes and fours; some of stone, some of brick; some rendered or faced with slate; often with arts and craft touches of gables and hipped roofs, porches and bay windows.
Among the architect prize winners in a high-calibre field were ECP Monson (whose later work we have seen in Bethnal Green), Ruthen himself and the partnership of George Pepler and EG Allen.
The Council was perhaps more impressed by its own efforts. Its eight houses – built by direct labour – came in at £300 less than the lowest tender and encouraged the Council both in its general preference for direct labour and its immediate ambitions to build 100 more houses on the Mayhill site.
In the event, these were not completed but the Council’s aspirations were marked by the appointment of a Borough Architect, Ernest Morgan, in 1911 and by the cooperation of Raymond Unwin and Borough Surveyor, George Bell, in the design of the new Townhill Estate (adjacent to Mayhill) in 1912. The plan was celebrated in Ewart Culpin’s book, The Garden City Movement Up-to-Date published the following year:
In November 1912 local architect HG Portsmouth was approached to design a scheme of 300 houses. A back and forth ensued – the Council rejected plans for houses with less than three bedrooms (not encouraged by the Local Government Board at the time) and regretfully turned down proposals for semi-detached dwellings as too expensive. They compromised on terraces of six but increased the total to be built to 500.
In October 1913 Morgan presented the Housing Committee with a revised plan for 500 homes ‘closely adhering to the design of Mr Unwin’. The Committee resolved to build six immediately by direct labour and these were completed in July 1914. In the same month, the Council applied for a loan of £101,990 from the Local Government Board (LGB) to build 500 houses.
In 1914, Swansea’s record on housing and its future promise stood proud. A total of 321 municipal houses had been built – mostly in the improved terraces discussed above but with model housing on garden suburb lines to come. The LGB had approved a loan for 300 homes with an in principle agreement for more. In June, councillors were considering a European tour to acquaint themselves with the latest ideas in town planning which would take them to Prague, Budapest, Leipzig and Vienna later in the year.
By September, all those cities lay in enemy territory. Worse was to follow. While the preparatory works for the Townhill Estate were completed – against a backdrop of wartime labour shortages – in 1915, in March the LGB cancelled its loan. A deputation from the Council visited Whitehall to plead for reconsideration but to no avail.
Two years later, however, the mood had shifted. As industrial unrest increased, as the housing shortage grew more pressing, and as thoughts turned to the necessary tasks of post-war reconstruction, the government looked to housing once more. In July, the Local Government Board’s Circular 86/1917, ‘Housing after the War’, committed:
substantial financial assistance from public funds to those local authorities who are prepared to carry through without delay at the conclusion of the War, a programme of housing for the working classes approved by the LGB.
In Swansea, housing shortages were particularly serious as the town’s population had grown by 12,000 during the war itself. Fortunately, Swansea’s earlier planning now paid off. In September 1917, the Borough Architect forwarded a plan for 500 homes to the Local Government Board. Given that the LGB received firm proposals for only 42,000 homes nationally at this time, Swansea had placed itself in the very forefront of post-war building.
The Townhill Estate that emerged after 1919 adhered closely to Unwin’s design and the 1913 plan – its characteristic blocks of six are a good indication of this – and as its historian Nigel Robins states:
The first ‘Homes for Heroes’ in Swansea were largely designed before the war had properly started. They were acceptable in the spirit of improvement of 1919 because they were of such high standard
A total of 425 houses were built at Townhill under Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act. By 1939, the Borough had built some 4000 new homes. This latter housing was plainer in design but well-proportioned and equipped. The current City Council owns and manages a little over 13,000 homes. The Labour Party itself would become the largest party on the Council in 1927 and secure a majority – which it held until 1976 – in 1933.
Swansea offers a fine case-study of early council housing – both in its ideals and design and the political and economic pressures that brought it into being. The borough takes justifiable pride in these early achievements and was fortunate in the calibre of councillors and officers whose values and drive made these possible. This is a drive, these are values – to house the people, well and affordably – that we need to harness and liberate once more.
(1) Stephen Hughes, Copperopolis: Landscapes of the Early Industrial Period in Swansea (2008) and William Thompson, The Housing Handbook (1903)
(2) Nigel Alan Robins, Homes for Heroes. Early Twentieth Century Council Housing in the County Borough of Swansea, City of Swansea (1992)
(3) Quoted in Thomas John McCarry, Labour and Society in Swansea, 1887-1918, University of Wales PhD, 1986
(4) The Unwin quote is from Robins; other detail taken from City and County of Swansea, The 100th anniversary of the South Wales Cottage Exhibition
The photographs of the early Townhill Estate are taken from the Swansea City Council video, The Building of the Townhill Estate