In 1933, Neville Chamberlain opened Birmingham’s 40,000th post-war council dwelling at 30, Hopstone Road on the Weoley Castle Estate.
Chamberlain acknowledged the cost of this ambitious building programme but he asserted: (1)
I do not think there is a ratepayer who will grudge that burden, or will be otherwise than glad to have made that contribution to enable his fellow citizens to live the lives of human beings and not of wild beasts.
These are not perhaps the values of the contemporary Conservative Party.
The overwhelming majority of these new homes were built in Birmingham’s new cottage suburbs. In the first flush of post-war idealism under the 1919 Housing Act, these homes were both expansive and expensive. After housing subsidies were slashed in 1921, the majority of later homes would be smaller and non-parlour – on the Weoley Castle Estate only a little over ten per cent of homes had a parlour – but they remained, across the board, far better accommodation than any their new residents had previously enjoyed: (2)
In general the city’s estates provide good, substantial homes for the tenants; their elevations are ‘well-bred’ without the fripperies or pretentiousness that are so common in speculative building.
The Weoley Castle Estate was begun in 1929 and completed in 1934. With 2718 homes, it was one of the city’s largest. Typically, it was designed along broad ‘garden city’ lines with curving streetscapes, generous greenery and open space, and houses placed to provide variety and interest within the overall layout. In Weoley Castle, ‘an interesting innovation’ had been to: (3)
design some of the roads with open forecourts to the houses, which not only adds to the spacious appearance of the setting of the houses but also gives the roads beautiful parkway effects.
Plenty of tenants appreciated their new environment: (4)
We had the luck of moving to a brand new council house with a lovely garden back and front and plenty of fresh air. We were the first tenants in the road which was Kemberworth Road, Weoley Castle. The back garden joined on to farm land where the cows used to come to the fence.
But, as we’ve seen elsewhere, these new suburban cottage estates were not without their problems, particularly in their early years as community facilities and perhaps a community ‘feel’ failed to keep pace with the scale of construction.
As the Bournville Village Trust survey concluded:
The neighbours are not so handy, or so obviously neighbours at all, since they are up trim paths and behind trim curtains. A friendly and exhilarating quarrel in the court has become a thing of the past. The shop and the public house are no longer just round the corner. In winter the estates are colder than their concentrated living quarters in the older districts, and not uncommonly the tenants on the wind-swept roads and shopping centres compare their new homes to Siberia.
We might suppose that there were many pleased to have left behind those ‘friendly and exhilarating’ quarrels but the practical difficulties of life in the new estates were real enough.
With rents averaging 10s 5d on the suburban estates in 1931 and with one third of principal wage-earners working in the central wards and paying as much as two or three shillings a week in travel costs, money – on an average wage of £2 a week – was tight.
And, as we saw in the Watling Estate in London, there were less quantifiable pressures: (5)
Shabby clothes fit shabby streets. The new estates are spruce and exact of their tenants something better than of old…Once it is moved from its familiar setting, the old furniture blushes for itself and soon its owner is blushing too.
So nice a house, cries Mrs X, demands nice furniture and nice window curtains too. It is at this moment that the genie appears, waving a hire-purchase form
Around one-third of Weoley Castle’s tenants came from designated slum clearance areas and almost a quarter of them moved back, finding the expense and life-style of suburban living too much to bear. When an advice bureau opened in Weoley Castle in 1934, one of its major roles was to advise tenants how to manage their hire-purchase debts.
The Weoley Castle Community Association was founded in September 1932 and seems to have been genuinely popular in these early years as it articulated the new residents’ grievances. Its newsletter, the Weoley Castle Review, enjoyed a circulation of over 1000 at peak.
One correspondent to the Review shared a common pride in the estate – ‘one of the most attractive in the country’ – but saw ‘no reason why we should be blind to the faults of the Estate and the disadvantages of living in a new area’. The anonymous writer criticised the lack of schools and playing fields and lamented the lack of social life on the Estate but significantly he or she began with a complaint about transport.
Many of the Estate’s wage-earners worked at Austin’s Longbridge works around three miles to the south and they needed an early morning bus service. Others, for work, shopping or leisure, required a comprehensive service to the city centre, around four miles’ distant. The latter was finally promised in 1934 after a petition presented by the Association bearing 1425 signatures.
There’s evidence also that a number of Birmingham’s estate community associations became increasingly politicised as the decade progressed. Agitating for improved services was in itself a political act, of course, but the emergence of a Popular Front politics from the mid-thirties suggests the influence of an active (and influential beyond its numbers) left-wing strand in Birmingham’s tenants’ movement.
In February 1937, a Spanish Relief Fund in aid of the country’s beleaguered Republicans was set up in Weoley Castle. In July 1939, the Review contained book reviews of three books on the contemporary Nazi threat, all critical of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.
Meanwhile, issues far closer to home had radicalised council tenants in Weoley Castle and other Birmingham estates. In January 1939, the Council proposed a general rent increase and a means test to assess rents in accordance with wages. Discretionary rebates were to be offered to the poorest tenants but opponents claimed that 5000 tenants would be worse off.
A rent strike began and in February 5000 marched to the council in protest. By May 1939, in what had become an increasingly tense stand-off between the Conservative council and tenants mobilised in a broad left-wing movement, it was said that 45,000 tenants had joined the rent strike. In July, the Council capitulated. (6)
All this represents a powerful coda, perhaps a riposte, to the words of Neville Chamberlain at Weoley Castle in 1933:
When I look back at the type of house which was all that the working man could hope before the War, those great long rows of houses with their deadly monotony, haphazard in their layout, without a garden, or a bathroom or electric light, or anything that we call an amenity – when I compare those houses with those which have been built by the Corporation, with everything that science and ingenuity can provide to make the occupants happy and comfortable, I feel we can say that we have gone a long way to carrying out those hopes which inspired us all during the War.
I personally don’t doubt Chamberlain’s sincerity nor his desperate desire to avoid the bloodshed and destruction of another war but, ultimately, it was the inadequacy of his politics and its discrediting – in 1939 and more so by 1945 by which time democracy and collective power had defeated fascism – that created a post-war social democratic consensus which would build a new Britain.
In Birmingham where, for all its titanic efforts in the interwar period, there remained 38,777 back to backs, 51,794 homes lacking separate toilets and some 13,650 dependent on a communal tap, that New Britain was desperately needed. And it, as we shall see, would make its own mistakes.
Weoley Castle has had its ups and downs since then. The Longbridge works employed 25,000 in their 1960s’ peak; 6000 when the works closed in 2005. (A small production facility for Chinese-owned MG has reopened since.) There is greater unemployment in the estate now, particularly among young people, significant child poverty, and also a higher number of the elderly and retired.
Over half its homes are – since Right to Buy – privately-owned. Nearby universities and hospitals provide employment for some new resident professionals but it remains a disproportionately white working-class area.
Some see it, as the community website honestly acknowledges, as a ‘rough’ area – a perception encouraged by the bad news agenda of the media and ‘the “chav towns” image created in the wake of the demise of the Rover Group and the demoralisation that followed’. But those who know it best have a different view: (7)
For the most part, residents enjoy living here, and tend to settle. In contrast to some other parts of the city, there is a degree of social cohesion that people really value. Weoley Castle is not a dormitory suburb – it is an unpretentious community full of decent caring people with lots of extended family groups.
(1) The Times, 24 October 1933
(2) Bournville Village Trust, When We Build Again (1941)
(3) Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates (1949)
(4) Quoted in Michael Hunkin, ‘Manors from Heaven’: the municipal housing boom and the challenge of community building on a new estate, 1929-1939 (2011). The residents’ letter quoted later and other detail come from the same source.
(5) Bournville Village Trust, When We Build Again (1941)
(6) Graham Stevenson, Birmingham Communists in Action in the 1930s
(7) Weoley Castle Community Website: About Us
Carl Chinn’s book, Homes for the People. 100 Years of Council Housing in Birmingham (1991) has provided detail and background to the above account.
My thanks to Weoley Castle Library for allowing me to use the Castle Road image above. Other local images can be found on the Weoley Castle Gallery.