If the St Giles’ Estate in Lincoln discussed in last week’s post can be taken as a quintessential example of the council-built cottage suburbs that dominated the interwar period, the Ermine Estate in the same city stands out as a superb exemplar of the social democratic ideals of the post-war era. It remains, in the words of Jones the Planner, ‘social housing as it was meant to be, and it has survived for fifty years, not pristine, but evidently a place that works’. (1)
The ambition and broad consensus which had propelled Lincoln’s impressive interwar council building record was maintained into the war. As early as 1943, when central government’s eyes first turned toward the fruits of victory and a new housing programme, Lincoln had a 341 house scheme ready. In the following year, such was the urgency – the housing waiting list stood at 1054 – the Council requested 250 prefabricated homes from Government. (It would be granted 100, placed predominantly along Outer Circle Drive on the St Giles Estate.)
A further indication of the depth of the housing crisis came in 1946 when the waiting list exceeded 3000. Squatters took over unoccupied War Department property and received support from the then Labour-controlled council which laid on essential services. (2)
The supply of new housing in this era of genuine austerity and at a time of severe shortages of labour and materials began more slowly but had taken off by 1948 when 212 houses were put out to contract and 463 completions expected. The Hartsholme Estate to the south-west of the city – 700 homes in total and the Council’s first major post-war scheme was begun the following year.
From 1947 to 1956, the Council was in Independent and Conservative control but the drive to build persisted. The City’s 1000th postwar council home was opened in 1951 and at peak, in 1953, Lincoln completed 636 houses in a single year. In 1957 it proposed to build 700. As its chair of Housing, Dr CA Lillicrap had stated three years earlier:
he could not answer for the national policy, but only for Lincoln, where they were building as many houses as they were permitted to.
Interestingly, a large majority of these were for general needs. The Council resisted the Conservative government’s emphasis on slum clearance (though that too was a pressing necessity and the city itself would demolish 470 slums by 1960) and remained intent on building for general needs. It was Lillicrap again who articulated the position:
there was going to be a temptation to build more houses for slum clearance because of the greater subsidy, but he was certain they would safeguard in all justice the interests of those on the waiting list.
I don’t need to labour the point that this was a centre-right council recognising both the duty and necessity of providing directly – where clearly private enterprise had failed – decent and affordable housing for its people.
It was the Ermine Estate, begun in 1952 and completed in the early 1960s, that was the City’s showpiece. Initial plans for the Riseholme Estate (as it was originally called) envisaged a total of 1350 homes – 1050 on what would become Ermine East, lying to the east of Riseholme Road and some 300 on Ermine West on the other side. (3) There would be later additions, notably Trent View, the 17-storey tower block (one of three in Lincoln) built in Ermine West in 1964. At present, the combined estates form almost ten per cent of Lincoln’s built-up area.
The overall estate will be unremarkable to most and (with one possible exception to be noted) will not feature on many tourist itineraries but it does – alongside many of the other ‘anonymous’ council estates this blog tries to record – capture a significant and, I would argue, precious moment in our history. Let’s rewrite our ‘island story’ and celebrate its more progressive and democratic ideals. (4)
The basic housing forms of the two estates are similar. There are examples of prefabricated housing – a hoped-for method of building rapidly and at scale in the fifties – on both estates. ‘Cornish houses’ with their distinct mansard roofs (which saved on the costs of concrete) can be seen on Edendale Gardens in the west and Broxholme Gardens in the east.
But most of the homes are low density, red or yellow brick two-storey houses, semi-detached or in short terraces, all with decent-sized front and back gardens. Bungalows and three-storey apartment blocks add to the range. The prevailing style is fifties Modernist ‘with strong geometric shapes and little decorative detailing on façades’ with the odd example of brick patterning on some of the apartment blocks. (5)
These were solid and well-equipped homes with an unassuming but, to my eyes, attractive aesthetic. The estates’ landscaping provides the context in which this modest housing flourishes. Here the two estates differ slightly. Ermine East is characterised by a number of long, curving roads; in Ermine West the cul-de-sac is the predominant form. On both estates, houses are set back behind wide verges and tree-lined footpaths and both are interspersed with open spaces and ‘village greens’.
If all this works, why does it work? For one, there was a determined effort to make it work. Here – and this seems a recurring theme in Lincoln – the Church was ‘an essential agent in the fostering of a sense of identity’ among the new residents. (6)
The combined Anglican church and community centre were the first public buildings opened (on Ermine East) in 1956 and the church was determined from the outset to forge a sense of community on the new estate. This view of its role – a genuinely ecumenical and outward-looking one – was embodied in its newsletter, the Ermine News, published monthly from 1957 to 1965.
It contained, not unreasonably, regular articles on Christian faith and Church activities but is most striking for its coverage and support of the Estate’s wider community life – the Lincoln Imp pub ladies’ darts team, local football teams, the Evergreen Club for older residents, youth groups and activities, fetes, beauty contests, dances, flower shows and so on…
In January 1957 with 1350 homes built (another 600 projected) and a population of 5000 in an article headlined significantly ‘Estate or Town?’, the News called for more shops, essential for giving ‘a homely atmosphere and building up a sense of neighbourhood and belonging’: (7)
The responsible authorities are to be congratulated for building a very fine estate. BUT THERE IS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT. A comfortable house, a garden and plenty of open space aren’t enough in themselves. The greatest danger is loneliness.
An article the following year concluded ‘Let’s drop “Estate” altogether and become the neighbourhood of Ermine, Lincoln’.
In 1963, the population of the Estate stood at 10,000, of whom just 160 families were regular attendees of the Anglican Church. Nevertheless, it does appear to have played a wider and a valued role in the community it had helped create. And the new and now Grade II*- listed church it opened in 1963, designed by Sam Scorer, was to be a symbol of this – a ‘Tent of Meeting, rather than a static temple’. As the Reverend John Hodgkinson stated, ‘the emphasis was very much on church as people rather than a building’. (9)
Still, it was a very striking building, beautifully rather than starkly functional in form and design – a fine space enclosed within its most notable feature, ‘a gracefully sweeping, tent-like, concrete roof’ – technically a ‘hyperbolic paraboloid’ constructed in consultation with the structural engineer, Hajnal Konyi.
It may not be municipal but it’s certainly a dream and it’s good to see a council estate given grace and dignity by architecture of this quality. As Owen Hatherley argues, ‘the estate is determinedly mild and moderate, far from the avant-garde; its parish church is quite the opposite’. (8)
The ‘elegant little public library’ (Hatherley again), opened in 1962, also seems to have acquired a secure place in the heart of its community. The Ermine News reports a ‘police-controlled queue’ and 1800 books borrowed in the first three hours of its opening. By 1963, 3500 adult readers and over 2000 children were registered users. It’s hard not to be nostalgic for a time when libraries were so widely valued – though their value remains inestimable to the present.
The Ermine Estate was a working-class suburb; in fact, one which (according to Andrew HJ Jackson) prefigured the many private estates which would follow. This won’t please the urbanist Hatherley but it’s an undeniably pleasant environment and even he grudgingly praises its homes as ‘uncontroversial but decent, often with well-trimmed and maintained public greenery around’. (8) Jones the Planner concludes that ‘Lincoln clearly did something right at Ermine – like manage and maintain it’.
If you research the present Estate, you’ll find it contains pockets of deprivation ranking amongst the most severe in the country (9) and the usual suspects can be found describing it in the usual pejorative terms as a place – as a council estate (‘nuff said) – to avoid. But the appearance of the estate belies these criticisms and the estate website continues to record an active and vibrant community.
I’ll leave the last word with Jones the Planner who finds it an ‘uplifting, miraculous place’:
you might say, much like any other low rise council estate of that era …except that Ermine still works: there are no signs of vandalism or anti-social behaviour, no graffiti, no Alice Coleman interventions and, can you believe it, no security cameras.
It is, as he says, ‘social democracy in action’, built – when that consensus reigned – at a time when the state was understood as an imperfectly but always potentially and necessary benevolent force, in the days before we sold our soul to the market and its apologists.
(1) Jones the Planner (Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews), Towns in Britain (2014)
(2) This and the following detail is drawn from Owen Hartley, Housing Policy in Four Lincolnshire Towns, 1919-1959, University of Oxford PhD 1969
(3) City of Lincoln, Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, Development Plan (1953)
(4) English Heritage made a modest start to this process in the article by David Walsh, ‘Post-war Suburbs and the New Urbanism: Lincoln’s Ermine Estates’, in its Conservation Bulletin, Issue 56, Autumn 2007. The City of Lincoln Townscape Assessments covering these and other estates in the city also mark a welcome recognition of this important history.
(5) City of Lincoln Council, Lincoln Townscape Assessment Ermine West Estate Inherited Character Area Statement (March 2008). Another study covers Ermine East.
(6) Andrew JH Jackson, ‘Towards the Late Twentieth Century and Beyond’ in Shirley Brook, Andrew Walker and Rob Wheeler (eds), Lincoln Connections: Aspects of City and County since 1700 (2011)
(7) Ermine News, January 1957. There is a full digitised archive of Ermine News and other resources on the St John eArchive section of the Ermine Community website.
(8) Owen Hatherley, A New Kind of Bleak. Journeys through Urban Britain (2013)
(9) Quoted in Karolina Szynalska, ‘Yesterday’s Church of Tomorrow: St John the Baptist, Ermine Estate’ presented at the symposium ‘The History and Heritage of Post-war Council Estates’, June 2011, Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln. This source contains a full description and context for the church.
(9) City of Lincoln, Evidence of Poverty in Lincoln: Statistical evidence used to inform Community Leadership Scrutiny Committee in the review of poverty in Lincoln, July 2013