There was a time when the Quadrant area of northern Hull was known as ‘the Queen of the Estates’. Mind you, there were others, less respectfully, who called it ‘Corned Beef Island’. It formed the kernel of what became the North Hull Estate – the largest in the city as council housing expanded massively in the interwar period. Let’s tell its story.
Before 1914, Hull, a port city and industrial centre, had the housing problems typical of the age. In Hull the ‘characteristic feature of housing’ was: (1)
the ‘terrace system’…a short blind court usually 18 to 20 feet in width running from the main street. The narrowness of the court and the practical absence of gardens back or front make it possible to have as large a number of people per acre as is practicable without resort to tenements or back-to-back dwellings.
The Corporation did relatively little to tackle the problem of the city’s insanitary slums until its hand was forced by an outbreak of scarlet fever in 1881 and a prolonged crisis of infantile diarrhoea, peaking in 1911.
Small slum clearances took place in Great Passage Street, Jameson Street and around what became Alfred Gelder Street and led to the building of three blocks of tenements and 77 workmen’s dwellings. But a comprehensive programme to replace privies – the cause of the ill-health – with water closets was blocked by property owners and middle-class ratepayers. (2)
It was the war, itself, which would radically alter aspirations and expectations. The rise of the local Labour movement added pressure. The first candidates of the local Trades and Labour Council had been elected to the council in 1902. After the war the Labour presence grew until the Party took control of the council in 1934. By 1939, Hull had built 10,700 council homes – around 42 per cent of all new homes in the city.
Back in 1920, Hull’s Medical Officer of Health had estimated 5000 houses were needed to meet wartime arrears and another 2778 required to rehouse those currently living in the slums. The Council made a modest start under Addison’s 1919 Housing Act – 518 houses were built, mostly in new estates on the eastern and western fringes of the city. A smaller number were constructed on Greenwood Avenue – the beginnings of the North Hull Estate and, until incorporation in 1935, beyond the then city’s northern borders.
North Hull would continue to grow – in a series of distinct phases, creating a large and rather amorphous estate of some 4371 homes by 1939. All, save 32 ‘cottage flats’, were self-contained houses, built in short terraces and laid out ‘on the most approved and advanced Town Planning lines’. There were efforts, too, to get away ‘from the plain type of building…Now bay-windows are being put in, together with gables to roofs, Rosemary tiles between bays, etc.’. All this gave, it was said, ‘quite a charming appearance to the Estate’. (3)
The best housing was built under the generous Addison subsidy but rents were correspondingly high. As one resident recalled, ‘the man of the house had to be in a good steady job to enable him to pay for it – there weren’t any unemployed’. (4)
Construction was still under way as those first tenants moved in. In 1923, ‘the roads were not even completed and were muddy tracks. There were stacks of bricks everywhere and wooden scaffolding poles lay haphazardly across the pathways’. The nearest shops were a mile and a half away and it was the lack of shops and the difficulty in buying fresh food which gave the area its other nickname in these early years, ‘Corned Beef Island’. Still, travelling tradesmen arrived to make good the deficiency – the rural setting ensured fresh milk from local farms, at least – and later residents recall a bustling range of shops, anchored, as was typical on these new corporation estates, by the local Coop.
Also typical of these early estates was the tale of residents unable to locate their home amidst its rather uniform new surroundings: (5)
My mother tells me because the houses all looked the same, on the first day we reached here they found me sitting on next door’s step crying. I couldn’t find our house.
This was a youngster whose family had moved to the estate from New George Street in 1933 ‘on the back of Fred Ollet’s coal cart’.
That move – and many more in the 1930s – marked a new phase of North Hull’s development. The 1930 Housing Act prioritised slum clearance and the rehousing of those who lived in them. Hull had anticipated this shift – the New George Street clearance had begun in the mid-twenties – but a 1930 scheme planned to demolish and replace a further 3445 houses in the next five years. Over 2000 new homes were built on the North Hull Estate in consequence.
Given that council housing in Hull and elsewhere had been very largely the preserve of a better-off working class, this shift in practice raised two issues. One was affordability. Casual dock labourers earned around £1.80 a week in 1930; oil millers (who processed rape, flax and cottonseed in Hull) generally worked half-time and earned less than £1.20. These men reckoned they could pay about 6s to 8s (30p to 40p) a week in rent and rates but no more. (6) Parlour homes rented at twice this level and much council housing – even as rents declined with the later, plainer housing – was beyond the means of Hull’s poorest citizens. Travel to work costs added to the difficulty. As one slum-dweller informed the Hull Daily Mail: (7)
Endike Lane’s no good to me, mister, it takes all our time to pay 4/6 rent and tram and bus fares to King George Dock.
Still, given the nature of Hull’s workforce in this period – around 9000 men worked on the docks, 9000 in chemicals and oils and 5000 in the fishing industry – it was inevitable that a significant number of council tenants did work in the town’s traditional sectors. Many of the Quadrant’s residents worked in the St Andrew’s Fish Docks and the Corporation ran special buses with wooden slatted seats to bring them back from their work in the evening; buses with upholstered seats were put back into service after 6.30 when less fragrant passengers took over.
The other perceived problem – for the Council, at least – was an alleged slum mentality: ‘The “slummy” heart cannot be altered, they say’. Mr Whitby, the council officer who reported this widespread sentiment, went on to describe many examples of those moving from the slums who had ‘made good’ – others might have asserted their respectability in the first place, of course. Nevertheless, he advised new tenants be given ‘proper instructions on the proper way to treat the houses’ to make sure that ‘the old slums do not disappear only to give place to new ones’.
For those moving from inner-city communities, there was also the problem of the loss of a formerly close-textured community life:
We had a tenant in a slum area who did not want to leave a ‘hovel’ for a new flat because of family associations. Upon pointing out the advantages of the new house, I was accused of being without any sentiment and the lady in question shed copious tears.
For poor Mr Whitby there was ‘nothing more embarrassing than a weeping female on your hands’ but then he hadn’t the benefit of having read the later sociological works describing the powerful matriarchal support networks of traditional working-class communities. (8) In time, as we shall see, these would be replicated on the North Hull Estate.
Meanwhile, the Corporation represented a strong patriarchal presence in tenants’ lives. Mr Whitby reported ‘periodical visits…made to the Estate with a view to suppressing irregularities’, and continued:
The wise head appreciates the fact that the Corporation are ideal landlords, he gets good value for money, security of tenure and that freedom from neighbours’ annoyances that even the house-owner cannot always be assured of.
For all its heavy-handedness, that – when some commentators are so disparaging of council housing and council tenants – is a comment we can savour. The idea that council homes gave their earlier residents a better environment than even owner occupiers might enjoy is worth emphasising.
On the other hand, the Council – ‘ideal’ or otherwise – was a rather unimaginative landlord. Homes on the Estate were repainted externally every five years – the windows always cream and doors either blue, maroon or green; twelve houses were painted one colour, the next twelve another. Internally, the colour scheme was always magnolia, distempered walls and brown doors, frames and skirting boards. Kitchen walls were painted brick and remained so until a major refurbishment in the 1970s.
Other facilities sound similarly basic to modern ears but back in the day they were the ‘mod cons’ of a good home and, of course, far superior to previous conditions. Living rooms contained a ‘Yorkist range’ (regularly black-leaded by respectable housewives) with a back boiler to heat water and an oven.
The working heart of the home, however, was the scullery with its Belfast sink, copper (a free-standing gas boiler for washing clothes) and gas cooker. A small pantry and coal store were situated under the stairs. Three bedrooms, a bathroom and inside toilet and large gardens added to what must have seemed luxury to many.
By 1939, Hull’s scheduled slum clearance programme was largely complete but the devastation of the Blitz would cause the city’s rebuilding efforts to be redoubled in the years of peace which followed. Decades on, in 1991, the North Hull Estate would become the first Housing Action Trust – a sad fall from grace for what had once been ‘the Queen of the Estates’. We’ll take up those chapters of north Hull’s housing history next week.
(1) ‘The Cost of Living of Working Classes’, Parliamentary Papers, 1908 quoted in Betty C Skern, Housing in Kingston upon Hull between the Wars, Kingston upon Hull City Council (1986)
(2) K. J. Allison (editor), Victoria County History, A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 1: The City of Kingston upon Hull (1969)
(3) WH Whitby (Treasurer’s Department, Hull City Council), Some Aspects of the Housing Problem. One of a series of public lectures on local government given at the Guildhall, May 7 1930
(4) Audrey Dunne and Alec Gill, The Quadrant and Little Greenwood Communities of North Hull (2005)
(5) Brian Lewis, New for Old. The Story of the First Housing Action Trust (1988)
(6) Whitby, Some Aspects of the Housing Problem
(7) Quoted in Skern, Housing in Kingston upon Hull between the Wars
(8) As argued by Michael Young and Peter Willmott in Family and Kinship in East London, first published in 1957.