Municipal Dreams is on holiday but, while some of you might come down to the West Country to lie on a beach, his relentless quest for all things municipal continues. The Cornish town of Saltash on the banks of the Tamar provided surprisingly rich pickings.
Or perhaps not so surprising given its long history. It might seem overshadowed by its bigger neighbour Plymouth nowadays but, as the locals will tell you:
Saltash was a borough town, When Plymouth was a fuzzy down
And it’s true enough: Saltash was first incorporated in the late 12th century; its charter was confirmed by Richard II in 1382. That upstart Plymouth didn’t get its town charter till 1439.
This helps explain the longevity of Saltash’s first and most unusual piece of municipal history – the church of St Nicholas and St Faith, dating to Norman times, originally built as a chapel of ease to the nearby St Stephen’s but claimed as the ‘Corporation chapel’ – with the Corporation appointing its chaplains and deciding who got buried in the church – from the 17th century to 1881. It became the parish church of a new ecclesiastical parish coterminous with the borough in that year but the Corporation didn’t cede ownership of the building to the church authorities until 1924.
The Guildhall is a newcomer by comparison, built in 1775 as a Market House and Assembly Hall and not acquired by the Corporation until 1841. The ground-floor market area between its Tuscan colonnades was enclosed in 1910. Grade II-listed and tastefully restored in 1999, it now provides a home for Saltash Town Council, a parish council formed when Saltash Borough Council was superseded by Caradon District Council in 1974 (itself replaced by the unitary Cornwall Council in 2009).
Cornwall County Council – which preceded the unitary authority (local government has got complicated nowadays) – built perhaps the most striking of Saltash’s local government buildings: its library. Opened in 1963, the Library’s curved roofline sweeping up to a double-height frontage (all based, apparently, on the golden ratios of le Corbusier’s modulor system), was designed by Royston Summers of the County Architect’s Department. To Pevsner, it’s ‘one of the most innovative of the County Architect’s post-war oeuvre’. (1)
Two years earlier, a far larger and more unusual example of municipal enterprise had been opened – the Tamar Bridge. Designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, constructed by Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company, the bridge – with its 1100 foot central span – the longest in the UK at the time, was commissioned by Plymouth City Council and Cornwall County Council.
Although the bridge was long overdue (the idea had been first mooted in 1823 and Brunel’s adjacent Royal Albert rail bridge opened as far back as 1859), in the Austerity Britain of the post-Second World War era, the Government had concluded this particular infrastructure project was too costly and the two councils secured parliamentary approval to proceed independently. Built at a cost of £1.5m without government subsidy (paid for by user tolls), construction began in July 1959 and the first traffic crossed in October 1961. (2)
Housing is the usual focus of this blog and was once, of course, one of the major responsibilities of local councils. Here, after a slow start, Saltash Borough Council had a major impact, transforming the town and in part (as we shall see) in ways which some would come to regret.
The Council took so long to prepare a scheme under Addison’s 1919 Housing Act that spending cuts (the so-called Geddes Axe of 1921) halted construction before it began. The protest of one local councillor that this was ‘a dishonourable action the part of body of men who at the election taunted the electorate by promising them houses, and then threw their promises into their faces’ availed not a jot. (3)
The need for housing remained however. A 1923 report to council recorded 29 persons living in two houses in Fore Street; ‘in one room a woman, her son and his child were living, eating, drinking, and sleeping’. (4)
It’s not surprising then that there were 106 applications for the Council’s first scheme – 18 houses built on Lander Road. These were originally all planned as non-parlour homes but, in an interesting insight into the attitudes towards council housing at the time: (5)
the committee thought there might be people in the town who would like a better type of house. They thought it was their duty to cater for the requirements of the whole of the population.
They ended up building ‘eight houses of the parlour type, eight of the non-parlour type and four of the flat type with separate entrances’.
By 1938, when the Borough had also built the much larger Warfelton Estate to the west of the town, it was claimed the council had built a higher proportion of council homes than any other in the West Country. (6)
In 1945, however, the Council applied for 60 Tarran-type prefabricated homes to partially address what was described as the town’s ‘dire housing need’. Sturdier, permanent housing followed until, by 1950, the Council could claim that the ‘housing problem was nearly solved’, the waiting list reduced from over 1000 to 112. (7)
A total of 195 houses had been erected – 40 of these were prefabs and 12 flats, ‘the rest three-bed traditional houses’. The prefabs were scattered around the town, most of the new houses on an extension to the Warfelton Estate. The new Cowdray Estate contained 32 homes and new estates were underway or projected on Liskeard Road, Warraton and Burraton East.
With wartime replacement substantially complete, by the mid-1950s – like the rest of the country – Saltash turned towards the task of slum replacement. Its obvious target was the Waterside area, huddled along the estuary beneath Brunel’s bridge – a mixed commercial and residential district: ‘a mixture of cottages and townhouses some as early as the sixteenth century, in a variety of styles and materials’. (8)
From a contemporary perspective, you might already be imagining the redevelopment possibilities and potential attractions of the area. Pevsner had already identified its picturesque quality:
The thrill of Saltash is the excessive contrast between the small scale and the variety of the small shapes of the fishing town along the waterside and climbing up the steep hill, and the sheer height of the granite piers of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge.
But the housing and its layout were clearly, in their then state, ‘unfit for human habitation’ and ‘injurious to health’ and declared so in the Waterside Clearance Areas declared in 1956 and the compulsory purchase orders which followed. The Saltash branch of Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers also took a practical attitude and expressed its support for the demolitions. (9)
A rearguard action by the Old Cornwall Society to preserve the Passage House Inn – the last of Saltash’s arch houses and immortalised by William Turner in 1812 – received only lukewarm support from the Ministry of Works which promised Grade II status allowing demolition so long as the need were justified. (10)
The pub survived (without its arch) firstly as The Boatman and now, as of the summer of 2015, the Just Be Coffee Wine Lounge. In aspirational Britain and in Cornwall where tourism is a mainstay of the local economy that fits well with the new hopes for the Waterside as an amenity area to attract visitors. The redevelopment which did occur has come to seem a lost opportunity.
Still, this blog celebrates earlier visions and ideals and in the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s housing for the people was the great priority. The clearance was drastic – only the three pubs survived of the area’s old buildings, one side of Tamar Street was demolished and large open areas created to the waterside.
This fine waterfront site wasn’t treated as prime real estate for the wealthy or for commerce but as land for affordable housing for local people. A remnant only of the area’s antiquity survives in the doorway dated 1584 incorporated into the council flat at 10 Tamar Street.
The development, that touch notwithstanding, may seem at first sight quite plain. Compared to the old jumble of streets and styles and ungraced by any patina of age, there’s nothing picturesque about it but then, for those that lived in its previously substandard accommodation, its ‘picturesque’ appearance was probably not their prime concern.
The Council had originally commissioned the Louis de Soissons partnership (he had been the chief architect of Welwyn Garden City) to design the new scheme but opted in the end for cheaper in-house plans drawn up by the Council’s surveyor. (11)
Still, there is some thought given to its architecture, notably in the deliberate attempt to replicate a Cornish idiom with a varied use of granite and tile facings and light-rendered frontages. Its clean and well-equipped modernity won’t attract tourists but must have been very welcome to new residents.
The first homes (allocated to families displaced by slum clearance) were opened in 1960 by the Conservative Minister of Housing of the day, Henry Brooke for whom Brooke Close in the scheme was named. The development as a whole was completed in 1962.
More council housing was built in Saltash and much more could be written about the town’s long history. Still, you can forgive Municipal Dreams for finding its story of municipal endeavour and achievement inspiring – a reminder what local government can achieve when empowered to serve its community.
My especial thanks to the Saltash Heritage Museum and Local History Centre for their help in providing background and illustration to this post. Do visit their museum and archives. I also enjoyed visiting Elliott’s Store run by the Tamar Preservation Society. Both are on Fore Street and both are run by hard-working local volunteers who deserve our support.
- Peter Beacham and Nickolaus Pevsner, Cornwall, The Buildings of England (2014)
- AJ Brown University of Bath, ‘The Tamar Bridge‘, Proceedings of Bridge Engineering Conference, 27 April 2007, University of Bath
- ‘Saltash Finance. Housing Protest’, Western Morning News, November 10 1921
- ‘Alleged Overcrowding’, Western Morning News, September 12 1923
- ‘Saltash Council’s Plans for Better Homes’, Western Morning News, March 11 1925 and Twenty New Houses for Saltash Council to Build a Better Type’, Western Morning News, April 15 1925
- Western Morning News, July 13 1938
- ‘Housing Problem Near Solution’, Western Morning News, June 16 1950
- Bridget Callard, Cornwall & Scilly Urban Survey, Historic Characterisation for Regeneration: Saltash (September 2005)
- Saltash Borough Council Housing Committee Minutes, 28 September 1956, Cornwall County Record Office
- AD1338/1, 1956 Correspondence re Passage House Inn, Cornwall County Record Office
- Saltash Borough Council Housing Committee Minutes, 3 August 1956 and 28 March 1958, Cornwall County Record Office