In 1921, Brighton was the second most densely populated county borough in the country after West Ham and, as a long-established town, a good deal of its housing was in worse condition than that of the London suburb. If you associate it with Regency gentry or happy seaside holidays, this blog will show another side – a town with many slum homes and an urgent need to better house its working-class population. But if council housing was the solution (as was accepted by nearly all in these days), the problem of making it affordable to the poorer working class remained a conundrum.
Brighton Corporation had begun slum clearance efforts back in the 1890s and even built a small number of homes to rehouse – though at rents they couldn’t pay – some of those displaced. In 1919 much remained to be done; the local Medical Officer of Health estimated 3152 new houses were needed to ensure a decent home for all. The Conservative-controlled council approached the task with the idealism typical of that early post-war period.
The South Moulsecoomb Estate was begun in 1920 on 94 acres of land purchased in the neighbouring parish of Patcham (incorporated into Brighton itself in 1923). The Corporation employed two of the leading architects and planners of the day, SD Adshead (Professor of Town Planning at the University of London) and Stanley Ramsey, to design the initial scheme. (Coincidentally, this partnership was also responsible for the later, very different – but also high quality – tenement scheme in Stepney which we covered last week.) Their design – an estate deployed along a curving road looped around an elongated valley sward – was eulogised in a contemporary issue of the Town Planning Review (which Adshead edited): (1)
This lay-out is situated in an exceedingly beautiful hollow in the Downs, and it is due to the steepness of the hillside on which it is situated, that a very informal system of planning has been adopted. There are many examples in Sussex of villages nestling in the hollows between Downs where a continuous green traverses the whole length of the village, and it is with recollections of these beautiful valley greens that the central feature of Moulsecoomb has been designed.
The Council even provided tennis courts. The description of one local alderman – ‘homes fit for heroes’ – was hardly original but it seems justified. However, these early semi-detached, parlour houses were expensive (at around £1120 each to build) and their rents – set between 26s and 32s 6d a week – far beyond the reach of many of the ‘heroes’ the homes were intended for, so much so that the Corporation resorted to advertising vacancies in the London press. (2)
Such was the anger and frustration that some locals took to direct action. Up to 60 empty, privately-owned homes were occupied in the early 1920s and squatted until an appropriate rent was agreed between owners and would-be tenants.
A second Corporation scheme, its layout also designed by Adshead and Ramsey, was built one mile to the east of the town centre in the Queen’s Park area between 1923 and 1926. This time considerable efforts were made to lower the costs of the 450 homes through omitting parlours, placing toilets on the ground floor and building to a much higher density.
A further 46 acres of land was acquired from Falmer in 1925 to form the North Moulsecoomb Estate, with better quality homes and a return to garden suburb principles, of 390 houses. This land too was annexed to Brighton – in 1928 – alongside Ovingdean parish to the east of Brighton where construction of the large Whitehawk Estate began in the late twenties.
At Whitehawk, farmland and open space until this point, the first houses were built under the 1924 Wheatley Act along the western side of Whitehawk Road, Hervey Road (since demolished) and Whitehawk Crescent. Brighton’s Medical Officer of Health was clear that these new homes would necessarily cater for a relatively affluent working class:
For the most part the tenants of these slums have to live near their work and they will not remove to the suburbs; they are generally so poor that they cannot afford the cost of travel to and from the centre of the town. Another difficulty is rent; the average these people can afford is about 8s a week, they cannot pay 15s a week or even the reduced rate of 12s a week.
He added, less sympathetically, ‘another important point…that many are dirty and unsatisfactory tenants who would quickly ruin a new house’ – a common prejudice of the period that we’ve seen expressed in the Knowle West Estate in Bristol, the North Hull Estate and elsewhere.
‘Unsatisfactory’ or not, the legislation of the 1930s which focused on slum clearance and overcrowding forced the issue and when Whitehawk was extended the Corporation had to make efforts – largely unsuccessful as we shall see – to build housing that the poorer working class could afford. (Through the interwar period as a whole, Brighton would demolish some 900 slum homes, displacing 4400 residents.)
As we’ve seen, this required building more cheaply and to lower standards. A scheme of 300 homes on the Estate comprised two-bedroom houses of 620 square feet in area and three-bedroomed of 700, built at a density of 14.5 per acre and with an average frontage of 20 feet. All this brought the construction cost per house down to £204 and allowed an average rent of 9s (including rates). The Borough Engineer asserted, however, that despite such economy efforts had been made to create an attractive overall appearance: (4)
The general design of the houses is made up of several designs intermixed, with the front elevations treated with rough cast in various colours and designs and Sussex bricks, so as to produce an attractive whole and thus avoid the too frequent dull uniformity in design without necessarily increasing the cost.
Later planners were more critical and standards were higher. A radical redesign of the Estate began in 1975 which involved demolition of many older houses, the construction of some 1440 new homes and a new street scheme replacing some longer roads with a series of cul-de-sacs. Still, there are those with long memories of the Estate who think the changes ‘no improvement at all’. (5)
Back in the 1930s, Brighton was redoubling its efforts to house displaced slum dwellers. Housing was extended up Bevendean Valley to form the Bevendean Estate in the early thirties and land was purchased in 1935 to create the East Moulsecoomb Estate and in 1936 for the Manor Farm Estate, the latter to house principally those displaced by the Carlton Hill demolitions.
But all was not well. In 1933 it was reported that 21 per cent of tenants from Carlton Hill who had taken houses at Whitehawk had returned to central Brighton for financial reasons. By the late thirties, concern about rents and working-class poverty on the new estates had become a major local issue. The local paper, the Brighton Gazette, took up the cause, tellingly headlining one of a series of articles, ‘Rehousing slum dwellers has made poverty’. (6)
Two years later, a reporter wrote – of council homes – that he had:
heard of housewives with empty larders, of sick and ailing people in homes without the bare necessities of life, of children who sit a nights in lightless, fireless kitchens, because there is no money for the gas-meter, no coal for the grate.
Though such a description might be taken as journalistic overstatement, it is given credibility by a more objective study conducted in the same year. Marion Fitzgerald found that of the 79 county boroughs in the country only Croydon and Newcastle had a higher number of properties let at over 12s a week. On the South Moulsecoomb Estate – the most expensive to build – rents reached 27s a week. Unsurprisingly, it was tenanted by ‘the better paid working classes and some middle class people’ who could afford such levels.
In North Moulsecoomb, three-bedroom parlour houses were let at 14s 4½d per week and her figures suggest that even here up to 45 per cent of residents were only able to meet their living expenses by economising on diet. In East Moulsecoomb, built as a slum clearance estate, rents were lower – at 12s 7½d for a two-bedroom house and 13s 7½d for a three-bedroomed but these lower figures applied only to those displaced by slum clearance who were granted a 25 per cent rebate. (7)
When war broke out, this issue remained unresolved. Brighton had built 4285 new council homes between the wars but Corporation policies had done little to alleviate the working-class poverty of which housing was only one aspect. After 1945 new dynamics shaped working-class lives. Many of these for a period of time – full employment, increased and more widely spread affluence, and a strengthened welfare state – have been positive.
But not all have benefited and earlier gains have been lost. In 2010, the Whitehawk Estate was one of the most deprived areas in the country – in the bottom five per cent nationally. I could quote employment figures, educational attainment statistics and so on but let’s get this down to basics – men on the Estate die on average seven years earlier than their counterparts in the rest of Brighton. (8) The struggle to ensure that our social housing provides not only a roof but a measure of social equity remains.
(1) ‘The Site Planning of Housing Schemes’, The Town Planning Review, Vol. 8, No. 3/4, December 1920
(2) Ben Jones, ‘Interwar Developments’ on the East Brighton Bygones website
(3) Ben Jones, ‘Slum Clearance, Privatization and Residualization: the Practices and Politics of Council Housing in Mid-twentieth-century England’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 21, No. 4, 2010
(4) David Edwards, Borough Engineer of Brighton, ‘Some Recent Municipal Activities at Brighton’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, Vol. 53, 1932
(5) East Brighton Bygones, ‘Whitehawk’
(6) Brighton Gazette, 20 November 1937 quoted in Jones, ‘Slum Clearance, Privatization and Residualization’. The quotation which follows taken from the same source, is from the Brighton Gazette of 1 April 1939
(7) Marion Fitzgerald, Rents in Moulsecoomb (Brighton, 1939) quoted in Jones, ‘Slum Clearance, Privatization and Residualization’
(8) Helen Drew, ‘Whitehawk “one of the most deprived areas of Britain”’, The Politics Show, BBC Southeast, 12 July 2010
My thanks to the Regency Society with the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove for allowing use of images from the James Gray collection.
My Brighton and Hove is a superb website which contains more history and many memories of Brighton’s council housing over the years and much else.