Wolverhampton was another council controlled by the Conservative Party between the wars and yet, with over 8000 council homes built in the period, it was one of the biggest providers of council housing in the country. Its largest estate, Low Hill, in particular captures well the mix of municipal pride and relative affluence that would shape this new, council-housed, working class.
Before 1914, the Corporation had built just 50 homes – rather grim so-called cottage flats; in fact tenements in an austere barracks-like building (since demolished) erected in 1903 on Birmingham Road. The War, you don’t need to be told, changed everything and when the Government-mandated survey of housing needs in 1919 revealed an immediate demand for 5659 new homes, the Council resolved to build them all. It was reckoned that over one in five existing homes in the borough were unfit or overcrowded. (1)
The question arose who should be the tenants of the new homes. Naturally, ex-servicemen and those in unhealthy housing were given priority but the Town Clerk was candid in his view of the difficulties of the latter:
Generally speaking, the class of tenants who inhabit overcrowded or insanitary houses is not the class to which it will be desirable to let the new houses being built, and if some method could be devised it would be desirable that these houses be tenanted by respectable residents…It might be desirable to require some evidence of character and reserve the right to refuse unsatisfactory tenants…This question, however, will probably settle itself on economic grounds since the rents of the new houses are bound to be high and the class of tenant I have in mind will usually be the least able to pay high rents.
His prejudice against slum-dwellers notwithstanding, the Town Clerk was right on the last point at least: the early post-war homes, three-bedroom parlour houses costing almost £1000 each to build, were let at an average of 14s a week including rates – a figure well beyond the reach of the poorer working class. Meanwhile, the hope remained that the latter would ‘filter up’ into the slightly better accommodation vacated by their ‘superiors’.
Construction began in 1919 and the first houses in Green Lane (off Birmingham Road near the town centre) – said to be the first new council homes in the country – were opened in November 1919. Larger-scale building took place on former farmland to the south-west of the town at Birches Barn and on Parkfield Road, a brownfield former colliery site on the border with Bilston.
By 1923 around 550 houses had been built on these estates. This was some way short of the Council’s target but numbers took off with the Council’s purchase of 101 acres of land from the Showell Estate and a further 232 acres from the Low Hill Bushbury Estate Company, two miles north-east of the town centre, in 1924. Construction of the Low Hill Estate began the following year.
By 1927 1892 houses, generally three-bedroom homes with parlour and scullery, had been erected. To save money (and allow more affordable rents), some homes were built with downstairs bathrooms and outside toilets. To speed construction, around 700 homes were of ‘non-traditional’ construction, built by MA Boswell of no-fines concrete cast in situ. Both of these would prove to be problematic in the future as we’ll see next week.
The planning of the Estate was subject to earlier criticism. Whilst its layout paid lip-service to garden city principles with a typical geometrical pattern of circuses, curving streets and cul-de-sacs, it shared, according to one critic, ‘with the worst garden suburbs the attribute of being literally planned out on a drawing board with compass and ruler with no thought to the lie of the land’. (2)
There were complaints too of the lack of community facilities on the Estate. In fact, an active tenants’ association had acquired land for a recreation ground – which the Council had neglected – in 1928. The Council planted trees and shrubs and turfed some open spaces to improve the appearance of the Estate. Land was sold to a local doctor for a new surgery in the same year. (The Park Lane Welfare Clinic would open at the southern fringe of the Estate in 1938.)
The expansive Showell Circus, at the heart of the Estate, was completed at this time and has since become the first traffic island in the country to be awarded village green status.
Less healthy perhaps but more welcome to some was the opening in the same year of the Bushbury Arms on Showell Circus. Extended in 1930 and with its own assembly hall and bowling green, we can forgive its owners Butler’s a little licence in their description of it as a ‘wonder’. (3)
It’s a fine example of the new-style hostelry that the brewers were building in the thirties as they sought to reach out to a wider and more respectable clientele. (Or, rather, it was as when I visited the Estate last month, the pub had closed although there are plans to re-use the building.)
Municipal pride and more improving diversion were ensured with the opening of 1930 of Low Hill’s library, facing the pub – almost as a reproof – across Showell Circus. The City Engineers went to town on this, designing an ‘octagon, with striking moderne horizontal lines, a classical portico and an arts and crafts entrance lobby and internal partitioning around an open-plan, light and airy interior’. To a proud City Librarian, it was ‘a beacon light’ shining across the ‘vast estate’. (4) The Library was Grade II listed in 2004 and has been, since October 2014, part of a new ‘Community Hub’ comprising the adjacent community centre (opened in 1937) and a later nursery.
Beyond all this, and perhaps most importantly to any functioning community, there was work. An industrial estate (a legacy of the Fallings Park Garden Suburb) had been built to the south of the Estate on Park Lane. Eveready Batteries, Lucas Aerospace and – the largest employer with a payroll of 5500 as late as 1971 – Goodyear Tyres were among the companies established there.
Elsewhere, construction of new council homes slowed in the later 1920s but the 1930 and 1935 Housing Acts and the Borough’s own clearance efforts placed new emphasis on rehousing slum-dwellers. In the later thirties, new estates were developed to the north at Elston Hall and Wobaston and the Scotlands Estate was built to the north-east of Low Hill. Though it was better laid-out and its homes superior, Scotlands was poorly serviced and, housing a less well-off working class, it always suffered from a reputation as a poor relation.
By 1939, the Low Hill and Bushbury Estate comprised 4320 houses, over half Wolverhampton’s council housing stock. It was one of the largest estates in the country. We’ll look at its post-war story next week – a salutary tale of municipal dreams turned sour, of hopes dashed but reborn.
(1) This detail and some other which follows comes from George J Barnsbury’s exhaustive History of Housing in Wolverhampton, 1750 to 1975
(2) JP Smith, Low Hill: Study of a Wolverhampton Housing Estate, Wolverhampton Young Volunteers, 1971
(3) Bev Parker, W. Butler and Company Ltd, ‘Some Butler’s Pubs’
(4) The first quotation is from Alistair Black, Simon Pepper, Kaye Bagshaw, Books, Buildings and Social Engineering: Early Public Libraries in Britain from Past to Present (2009). There’s an excellent, fully-illustrated, description of the library in the website Wolverhampton’s Listed Buildings, Low Hill Branch Library. The City Librarian is quoted in the official English heritage listing text.