My thanks to Alex Ball for writing this fascinating account of Nottingham’s impressive early council housing efforts.
There is still much work to be accomplished before the complete solution of the housing problem will be in sight. The shortage in numbers is far from being made good; and only when that has been done can an effective beginning be made of the great task of replacing with good dwellings the hundreds of thousands of old ones which have ceased through age, decay, or other reason to be fit for habitation by human families if they are to live a decent life.
The slightly archaic language aside, that statement could apply to many UK cities in the recent past. But it’s actually from the introduction to an account from nearly one hundred years ago of the Progress of the Housing Schemes in Nottingham by the City’s municipal architect. (1) This post outlines some of the early Municipal Dreams in Nottingham, focussing on the impact of that architect.
To truly trace the history of Nottingham’s council housing, we need to go back nearly 50 years further. The very first council houses in Nottingham were the Victoria Dwellings – now grandly renamed the Victoria Park View Flats – built in 1876 at Bath Street in the Sneinton area which would have been on the outskirts of the city at the time.
The building cost £11,114 and provided 93 units of bedsit accommodation but no bathrooms. The block is still standing and has been renovated considerably over time. The residents’ forum on their website suggests issues with the management company occupy their minds more than the place their home represents in Nottingham’s social history. (2)
These houses were unusual in being provided specifically for the employees of Nottingham Corporation (quite literally, Council houses) and received no subsidy other than from the general rates. It is interesting to speculate on the likely motivation for this act of Victorian munificence: philanthropy or enlightened self-interest? The latter seems possible but the lack of indoor sanitation would mean that the health of the workforce perhaps would not have been materially improved.
The block was renovated in 1976, reducing the 93 flats to 68, but conditions remained poor and Victoria Park View Flats were sold in the late 1980s to the private sector for refurbishment and sale. The flats were listed at Grade 2 in 1995 and the listing statement notes the ‘Gothic Revival style’ and the various features including the ‘square turrets with pyramidal spires’. (3)
The iconoclastic nature of the building seems to linger on despite its current slightly shabby state with this excellent anarchist graffiti being visible by the bin store round the back of the block.
A news story from last year offers a chance to see the interior of one of the flats – although it seems like a missed opportunity not to mention the block’s auspicious history.
There was then no further building of council houses in Nottingham until after World War One and the passing of the 1919 Housing Act.
To understand the significance of this piece of legislation on Nottingham we need to take a step back some 30 years to celebrate the birth of Thomas Cecil Howitt on 6th June 1889 in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. Little is known of his background other than his parents being from Lancashire originally and that Howitt, ‘attended Nottingham High School, but left in 1904 at the age of fifteen to begin his apprenticeship in the office of Albert Nelson Bromley, then a prominent Nottingham architect’ (4). We’ll hear more about Bromley later on.
Via a time as the Company Architect for Boots The Chemist (founded and still headquartered in the city) and a successful stint in the army during the First World War, the demobilised Staff-Major Howitt was appointed in late 1919 at the age of 30: (5)
to the Nottingham City Engineer’s Department, under the provisions of the Housing and Town Planning Act of that same year. Howitt’s task was to provide as quickly as possible the huge number of election-promised “homes fit for heroes” whilst still adhering to the vastly improved new government standards for housing.
The 1919 Act was designed to implement the recommendations of the Tudor Walters Committee, as captured in their 1918 report, ‘The Provision of Dwellings for the Working Classes’. A key player on the Tudor Walters Committee was Raymond Unwin, one of the founders of the Garden City concept.
There were several parallel moves to progress with housing provision in Nottingham including when, in July 1919: (6)
some three months before Howitt’s demobilisation, the City Council’s Housing Committee had received a deputation from the Nottingham and Derby Architectural Society, among whose members was Howitt’s former employer, Nelson Bromley who…sought…to encourage members of the local profession to become involved in the provision of housing for the working classes. He asked the committee’s involvement…without apparent success; though the deputation was complimented for its public spirit.
With the impetus from central Government in the new 1919 Act and increasing impatience from the City Councillors who had been pressing for more housing since 1917, Howitt had a perfect chance to make his mark.
In fact, so keen was the city to provide new housing for its growing population that even whilst the war was ongoing the Housing Subcommittee had gone on tour to Birkenhead, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle and London. The committee reported back in March 1918 with the following conclusions:
- That it does not appear to be the duty of the local authority to provide houses, except for the poorer working class
- That under certain circumstances it may be desirable to provide dwellings on the flat or tenement system, preferring the Liverpool Corporation approach
- Hot water system called for
- Caretakers to influence the ‘habits and mode of life of the tenants’
- In letting tenements preference for clearance households
- Phased clearance to avoid temporary overcrowding
- Large open spaces.
Howitt and his enthusiastic new team soon stimulated demand for the promised new housing and by October 1919 the city had received 2,027 applications for tenancies before a single home was completed. (7)
Once the decision had been made to progress with building, Howitt and the team set about procuring sites and accepting tenders for the construction works. The first tenders from builders were accepted 28th November 1919 for 36 houses on four sites at Woodville Drive in Sherwood, Wilford Grove in The Meadows, City Road in Dunkirk and First Avenue in Carlton by four different builders. (8) The first true social housing in Nottingham was completed in June 1920 on the Woodville Drive site at a cost of £844 per house. (9)
Following this success and the completion of the other three sites work quickly progressed on the first large-scale estate of council houses which was planned for land just north of the Woodville Drive location.
This land was owned by the Babbington Coal Company and the City purchased 125 acres at a hard negotiated £215 an acre (although the mineral rights were retained by Babbington). A low density of development was agreed upon and Howitt went to work on his designs: (10)
The whole scheme was aimed at providing not just affordable working class housing, but also housing that would improve and maintain the health of those who lived there. Nothing like this had been seen before in the city.
Unwin’s Garden Cities influence was clearly seen, ‘to the point where the layout was adapted to fit in with existing old trees. Every house would have its own garden and a minimum of 75 feet between houses across a road’. The very smallest details were attended to: ‘living rooms were arranged to obtain the maximum sunlight…houses with east-west aspects were designed with a through room from road to the back garden’.
The internal designs of the houses were obviously very important to Howitt but he also paid a lot of attention to the external aesthetics: (11)
Howitt devised a series of house types that could be assembled into blocks of from two to eight houses, with a variety of configurations that were never reminiscent of the repetitive terrace. The most significant feature of Howitt’s layouts is the use of the formal and symmetrical axis around which to group house blocks and types. The advantage of this was that it provided a sense of location and place, and the framework for an almost unending series of variations within a single estate, while avoiding undue repetition on another.
The design drawings are available in the Nottinghamshire Archives and appear not to have been consulted since their incorporation into the historical record. The meticulous detail that Howitt put into his work is clear with the careful notation of the building types according to his own system.
Despite the impact of the Right-To-Buy on this estate (around 50% of the properties have been sold-off), Howitt’s architectural intent is still clear to see, in particular the green spaces and wide roads that he insisted on being in place.
The meticulous planning that Howitt’s team put in was followed through and can still be seen in the houses of the estate. The design for house type ‘B59’ can be seen here:
And the built home here, showing the large windows and the set-back position from the road:
Similarly, the distinctive design of B66 with its flicked-out roof here:
This property has been sub-divided into two maisonettes but the material aspects of the external design are still there.
The estate of ‘557 houses was completed by August 1922. The part of the estate situated to the east of Edwards Lane, including a further 108 houses, was built between April and October 1922’. (12)
Howitt’s impact on Nottingham was not limited to just council housing, he is probably best known for his work on the magnificent town hall (known as, confusingly, the Council House) that still stands looking out across the market square. But for me the huge contribution that this man made on the housing and life-chances of the people of Nottingham can best be seen and understood through walking the ordinary roads of the estate he planned and built.
Alex Ball is a Labour Councillor for Nottingham City Council and has responsibilities for Housing and Regeneration in the City. Details of the ‘Building a Better Nottingham’ programme including nearly 400 new Council Houses can be found here. Alex tweets here and blogs here.
(1) TC Howitt, A Review of Housing Schemes (1929), p v
(2) Parkview Court
(4) Ernie Scoffham, A Vision Of The City: The Architecture of T C Howitt (1992), p 7
(5) Scoffham, p 8
(6) Scoffham, p 10
(7) Records of Nottingham City Homes
(8) Records of Nottingham City Homes
(9) Howitt, pp 39. Historic Maps courtesy of Nottingham City Insight Mapping
(10) Peter Foster, ‘Homes fit for heroes’: Nottingham’s First Council Houses, 1919–1927’, The Nottinghamshire Historian, No. 86, Spring/Summer 2011, pp 15-17
(11) Scoffham, p 11
(12) Foster, ‘Homes fit for heroes’