Norwich, contrary to the county town image that some may have of it (though that too was true), was a densely-settled, industrial city which came under Labour control in 1933. The Council built over 7500 houses in the 1920s and 30s (twice the number of new private homes built in the same period) and rehoused some 30,000 people – almost a quarter of the population. Mile Cross was the finest of its new estates.
It was an old city. When HV Morton visited in 1927, he arrived (1)
knowing nothing about the city except that it has always made money, that it was once the third city in England, that when its weaving trade went north after the coalfields, Norwich just put on a flinty face and learned how to make women’s shoes.
Around 15 per cent of the workforce, men and women, manufactured shoes in the 1920s but with unemployment peaking at 20 per cent in 1933 and never falling below 10 per cent before the war, making money wasn’t always so easy. And away from the castle and cathedral were slums – around 4000 homes, housing over 10,000 of the city’s working class in 1919: (2)
small dwellings in scattered areas spread over the city, mostly within the old city walls. Many…are timber-framed, and therefore difficult to condemn as regards structural stability, but…they are lacking in light and air, and are damp, and deficient as regards sanitation.
But as James Bullough (the City Engineer), continued, ‘for the first time the public conscience had been awakened to the necessity of providing adequate living accommodation for all’ and the City Council determined to build 1200 new houses, 300 of these on 102 acres of farmland and brickfield purchased for £10,600 just west of the Aylsham Road – the future Mile Cross Estate.
Not only that but the Corporation appointed SD Adshead (the leading contemporary figure in council house design and layout whose work we have seen in Stepney and Brighton) as consultant. Adshead himself appointed four well-known local architects – Stanley Wearing, George Skipper, AF Scott and SJ Livock – to design some of the new homes and planned the new scheme as a community from the outset, with schools, churches, shops, pubs and community centres. It would, naturally, be a garden suburb and with its fresh air and open space complemented by public allotments and parks.
The first sixty houses were built by direct labour – at a cost of £690 each – after the Council had baulked at the high prices quoted by private builders and the first phase of development took place along the grand axial boulevard of Suckling Avenue. Here and on Losinga Crescent (all the streets were named after historical worthies of the county) were the so-called ‘Architects’ houses’. (3)
Wearing, Adshead’s chief collaborator, wrote in the Architects’ Journal of the ‘abundance of good early 19th century work in Norwich’: a style, he argued, which leant ‘itself to a simple and dignified treatment for work of this nature’. This is the neo-Georgian which typified much council house design of the period but in Norwich its good quality redbrick construction and pantile roofing give it a local, vernacular feel which is atypical.
At the other extreme were the 184 standard plan ‘Dorlonco’ houses erected in this first phase. These were steel-framed homes developed by Adshead, Patrick Abercrombie and Stanley Ramsey in conjunction with the Dorman Long Company in Redcar, designed to be built on a mass scale but adaptable with a range of skins to suit local preferences. Here in Mile Cross, they reflected the double-fronted neo-Georgian style of the estate’s other early homes but are marked out by their lower-quality brick and slate roofs.
The Estate was extended in the later twenties, to a design by Bullough, to the south around a second axis formed by the pedestrian footway of The Lane and Burgess Road. There was a deliberate attempt to use, both here and on the other Norwich estates, a range of design – a contrast to the terraces and bye-law housing of the pre-war period:
Over fifty types of houses have been planned, giving variety in accommodation and design, which has prevented the Corporation housing estates from becoming stereotyped in monotonous rows of dwellings, a contrast to the dreary view of similarly designed dwellings of pre-war days presenting a wearisome drabness all too familiar to us all over the whole country.
You’ll see this in the range of building materials employed at Mile Cross although most of the 148 concrete block houses and six all-steel houses have since been demolished. There was some effort to incorporate the arts and crafts aesthetic of the time in the use of low eaves, roughcast rendering, hanging tiles and mock timber framing but in Norfolk they do different and, as the Norwich conservationists point out, this was a vernacular derived from Kent and Sussex rather than East Anglia.
Alongside all this, community facilities followed relatively quickly – the first infants’ school in 1926 (and primary and secondary schools in due order), the Drayton Road shops in 1928, the local library in 1931 and the striking St Catherine’s Church in 1936.
The one-acre (grade II listed) Mile Cross Gardens, designed by Adshead and executed by the estimable City Parks Superintendent Captain Sandys-Winsch, were opened in 1929, their construction – and particularly their concrete shelters – used to give work to the city’s unemployed.
By 1932, the Mile Cross Estate comprised around 1400 council homes, two-fifths of the city’s total. (4) The city had been eighth among county boroughs in its rate of construction under the 1924 Housing Act and would open its 5000th council home in 1935. Large estates also grew in Earlham and Lakenham.
By this time, greater attention was being given to slum clearance. In the city centre areas of Pitt Street and Coslany Street, 3238 houses were cleared displacing a population of some 9873. (5) The Housing Committee gave its attention to attention to the construction of flats ‘on Continental lines’. The three-storey flats on Barrack Street were erected in 1936.
The city, a Labour stronghold from 1933 to 2000, would continue to be on the ball – a prodigious and innovative builder of housing for its people.
In the early days, as was typical, these Corporation tenants were vetted for their ability to pay. The first tenants included a few shoe operatives but also clerks, engine drivers and teachers. But the Council also stated it would give preference to ex-servicemen (or their widows) and those for whom the ’physical and moral welfare of the applicant’s family [was] being endangered under existing conditions’. The latter would be increasingly favoured as slum clearance took off.
One long-term resident of Mile Cross moved to the estate from an inner-city slum when her brother contracted pneumonia: (6)
I can remember my mother saying she was the envy of her sisters because she had a bathroom. It led off the kitchen and the kitchen and bathroom had concrete floors which my mother, I can remember her doing it with red cardinal polish and that used to look quite nice, and a rug in front of her seat.
Another recalls the bath of his new Mile Cross home – ‘a luxury’ even if the bath was in the kitchen and the ‘kitchens weren’t plastered or nothing’.
Looking back, then, these are modest homes but the city’s acceptance of ‘the necessity of providing adequate living accommodation for all’ and seeking to do so, where possible, in some style was impressive.
When Morton visited canary-breeding was the working-class hobby of the day and the local football team played at a ground called The Nest. The Canaries are still going strong – one badge of local identity, and another is council housing. At peak, around half the population lived in council housing and, despite the failure of the City Council’s attempts to resist Right to Buy in the 1980s, the proportion remains high. We’ll come back to Norwich – it’s close to my heart.
(1) HV Morton, In Search of England (1927)
(2) James S Bullough (Norwich City Engineer), ‘The Housing Problem’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, vol 53, January 1932
(3) Norwich City Council, Mile Cross Conservation Area Appraisal (Number 12, June 2009). Much of the detail on the Estate is drawn from this excellent source.
(4) JJ McLean, ‘A Fine City, Fit for Heroes?’ The Rise of Municipal Housing in Norwich, 1900-1939. An Historical Perspective (ND). Other detail on the city’s interwar housing is also drawn from this valuable account.
(5) Alan Armstrong, ‘Population 1700-1950’ in Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson (eds) Norwich Since 1550 (2004)
(6) Quoted in Sarah Housden (ed), Norwich Memories (2009)
As credited, a number of the images above are taken with permission from the collection of photographs taken by George Plunkett between 1931 and 2006. If you’re interested in Norwich (and Norfolk) past and present, do visit the wonderful website put together by his son.