Council housing transformed Bristol between the wars. Some 15,000 council homes were built, principally in nine new suburban estates. Forty per cent of new homes in the city in this period were council homes. Designed according to the finest planning principles of the day, they represented not just new buildings but radically altered lives.
Despite these later efforts, Bristol had come slowly to the necessity of council housing. Before 1914, the Corporation had built just 72 tenement homes – and these mainly to replace homes demolished in road improvement schemes. Constructed in Fox Road, Chapel Street, Braggs Lane, Millpond Avenue and Fishponds Road, the only survivors of this period are tenements in Mina Road, St Werburghs. (1)
But even before 1914, a wind of change was apparent. Though a proposal to build a 400-home estate in Bedminster was defeated by a Liberal and Conservative majority on the council, council officials themselves were suggesting that: (2)
as regards the housing of the poorest of the poor, the most practical solution would be for the work to be taken in hand by the Local Authority, aided by grants from the National Exchequer.
As so often, it took a war to make ideas once seen as radical not only practicable but necessary. By 1917 – as housing pressures grew, labour unrest magnified, and post-war expectations heightened – the Coalition Government itself was committing to a massive housing programme on just these lines.
In 1918, the City Council purchased 700 acres of land in sizeable chunks across the city outskirts – notably Bedminster, Fishponds, Sea Mills, Speedwell and Horfield – in anticipation. Another packet of land was bought close to the port of Avonmouth in Shirehampton.
Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act gave the power and money to act and it was Addison himself who cut the first sod on the Council’s first post-war estate in June 1919. ‘Addison’s Oak’ survives in Sea Mills Square. The minister articulated the new ambitions. (3)
They did not want houses built in dismal streets. Until they had houses with air about them, so long would they have to spend enormous sums annually on sickness…They wanted big production and they were prepared to pay big prices.
And Bristol’s new estates were designed to fulfil these aspirations. The first four estates – Hillfields to the east, Sea Mills to the north-west, Knowle to the south and Shirehampton – were garden suburbs, taking their inspiration from Garden City ideals and characterised by low housing density (sometimes under 12 an acres), curving streetscapes and abundant greenery.
Sea Mills, in 1981 one of the first council estates in the country to be designated a conservation area, was the jewel in the crown and conforms very closely to designs outlined by Raymond Unwin in his path-breaking pamphlets, Town Planning in Practice (1909) and Nothing Gained by Overcrowding (1912). That it could move John Betjeman to such eloquence in 1937 says something for its quality: (4)
a surprising beauty showing off in the evening sunlight; and vistas of trees and fields and pleasant cottages that that magic estate has managed to create.
In other respects, the new estates fell some way short of Garden City ideals. They would always be suburbs, not the self-sufficient communities that Ebenezer Howard had originally envisaged, and they lacked in their early years many basic social amenities. In 1920 the Council’s Housing Extension and Town Planning Committee had stated baldly that it was concentrating on ‘housing first, then town planning’ – public facilities would come later. (5)
This, of course, was a common failing, repeated in many of the council estates we’ve studied. It would mark too Bristol’s later schemes and reflects the financial pressures on local councils, desperate to build but cash-strapped.
The houses themselves were expensive – as Addison had suggested they would be, coming in at around £1089 each. The first was opened in Beechen Drive, Hillfields, marked by a plaque:
Architecturally, they were generally rather plain red-brick, municipal ‘neo-Georgian’, two-storey houses, semi-detached or in short terraces of four. Some were cement-rendered or washed cream or white.
The Council also experimented with system-building. Some 250 Dorman Long steel-frame and concrete houses were built on the Sea Mills Estate. Though they were cheaper, at £800, to build, higher maintenance costs led the scheme to be dropped.
Across Bristol as a whole some 16 design types were employed over the years but such minor variations probably did little to counter an overall blandness: ‘The uniformity of materials and elevations is not relieved by any variety of colour. The ubiquitous privet hedge does little to conceal this uniformity’. (6)
Still, for their new tenants their facilities were far superior to any they had previously known. All the houses had a bathroom and WC (though hot water was generally supplied by a copper in the scullery and pumped to the bathroom by hand). Most – 96 per cent of Bristol Corporation’s interwar homes – were three-bedroom. And on the early estates a high proportion of homes – 70 per cent on the Hillfields Estate – had a parlour.
In the event, the 1919 Act was something of a false dawn. While the drive to build would remain through most of the interwar period, council housing standards would fall as government finances tightened. Addison’s scheme was brought to a close in 1921 when Bristol had completed just 1189 of the 5000 houses planned.
Politically in this period Bristol was run by a Conservative-Liberal alliance which in 1925 was formalised as the Citizens’ Party though its Liberal element would grow progressively weaker. Labour was emerging as a strong opposition and in 1924 its leader, the redoubtable Frank Sheppard, became chair of the Housing Committee. First elected to the council in 1893, Sheppard served – for all but a brief spell – until his death, aged 93, in 1956. Labour would hold power only briefly before the Second World War, in 1937.
Housing Acts in 1923 under Neville Chamberlain and, more generously, in 1924 under Labour’s John Wheatley offered new financial terms and allowed a further 9000 homes to be built over the next decade. These were generally smaller, non-parlour, homes but their overall look and design of houses echoed those of their predecessors. The exception was another foray into system building in Horfield and Sea Mills Estates where 1100 ‘Parkinson’ pre-cast reinforced concrete houses were built. These have been subject to demolition or substantial refurbishment in recent years. (7)
These later homes were for the most part cheaper to rent. To avoid conflict between tenants, houses under the 1924 Act were built separately on the Bedminster and Horfield Estates where they let at 7s 6d (36p), two shillings (10p) less than comparable homes on Sea Mills, Hillfields or Knowle.
The still relatively high rents, however, continued to skew council housing to a generally better-off segment of the working class, excluding many of those in most urgent need of new homes. And of 1100 tenants who gave up their tenancies in 1928, a high proportion cited their inability to afford council homes. Their expense was exacerbated in many cases by their distance from places of work and travel costs incurred.
Still, the need to both clear slums and rehouse slum dwellers was clear and it was taken up by the Council in 1923. In Eugene Street, just north of the city centre, 88 dwellings contained 112 families and a total of 508 people. Unusually, the Council built three-storey flats in another central area, Lawford’s Gate to rehouse those displaced.
These were mostly three-room flats lacking separate bathrooms so it remained pretty basic – though more sanitary – accommodation.
In 1929, another slum clearance took place in the Dings area of Bristol. Some of the families were relocated to the new St Anne’s Estate but subsequently 60 two-storey houses were built in the area. The Prince of Wales visited it in 1934.
Before then, in 1930, it was central government which would launch a radical shift in housing policy. Greenwood’s 1930 Housing Act prioritised the clearance of slum areas and required the rehousing of their residents. It would have a major effect on Bristol’s housing schemes of the 1930s.
The Council had already purchased 700 acres of land in 1929 to allow further building – on land adjacent to the Bedminster and Knowle Estate and, to the north, land in Southmead. The Southmead Estate to the north of the city was begun under the 1924 Act but would expand in the 1930s to rehouse principally those from inner-city clearance areas.
The next phase of growth in the gigantic Bedminster and Knowle Estate would take place in Filwood Park (later Knowle West) and this would also come to accommodate primarily former slum dwellers.
By 1939, Bedminster and Knowle had a population of around 28,000. Three other estates had populations of over 2000. All this was – benign and well-intentioned – social engineering on a grand scale. And it would not be without its difficulties. Next week’s post will examine the fascinating and complex history of Knowle West.
(1) Peter Malpass and Jennie Walmsley, 100 Years of Council Housing in Bristol, UWE, Bristol (2005)
(2) Quoted in Madge Dresser, ‘Housing Policy in Bristol, 1919-30’ in M.J. Daunton, Councillors and Tenants: Local Authority Housing in England, 1919-1939 (1984)
(3) Addison addressing a public meeting in Bristol reported in ‘Housing and Health’, The Times, June 5, 1919
(4) Quoted in Bristol City Council, Sea Mills Character Appraisal and Management Proposals (2010)
(5) Quoted in Madge Dresser, ‘Housing Policy in Bristol, 1919-30’
(6) Rosamond Jevons and John Madge, Housing Estates. A Study of Bristol Corporation Policy and Practice between the Wars (1946)
(7) Bristol City Council, The PRC Programme
The three books referenced above provide the bulk of the detail for this account as a whole.
My thanks to Phil Jaggery and Paul Townsend for making some of their images available under Creative Commons licence