The fine city of Norwich is known for its castle, cathedral and Canaries. I won’t detract from those, particularly the latter, but it deserves to be better known for its council housing. By the 1970s, Norwich had the highest proportion of council housing of any town in the country. It also had some of the best. We’ll tell the first part of that story this week. It’s unique because in Norfolk (as they’ll proudly tell you) they do different, but there’s a lot too about the wider dynamics which have shaped council housing – for good or ill – across the country.
In 1919, 90 per cent of Norwich’s 28,000 homes were occupied by the working-class; of these homes, some 7000 were judged substandard. In the short-lived enthusiasm for ‘homes for heroes’, the City Council committed to building 1200. Just under 150 of these were to be built in an extension of the city’s tiny Angel Road scheme – its twelve tenements opened in 1904 (since demolished) represented the council’s only pre-war building. Most were to be built on new cottage estates at Harford Hall, Earlham and Mile Cross – the city’s interwar showpiece. (1)
The Mile Cross Estate in the City of Norwich Plan (1945)
Labour and materials shortages in the immediate post-war period stalled this programme but, anxious to build, the Council investigated the alternative concrete-mix systems being promoted at the time. Three were commissioned: Duo-Slab (of which some remain in Mile Cross), Underdown and Winget. Of the 500 of the latter systems built, the last on the Earlham Estate were demolished in 2006. (2)
Construction picked up as materials and labour shortages eased. Land was purchased for a new scheme in Lakenham in 1923. Construction of the North Earlham Estate began in 1927, extended in the later-1930s when the new Larkman and Marlpit Estates were also being developed. These in particular mark the new priorities of the time, built largely to rehouse those displaced by city centre slum clearance. By June 1938, as part of a comprehensive five-year programme, the Council had demolished 2280 homes, displacing 7483 people and building 2346 homes to replace those lost.
This could seem an almost miraculous transformation as one long-term resident, moved to Earlham, as a child recalls: (3)
I can remember going into this brand new house and I can remember running about; I thought we were ever so posh or we’d come into money or something. Of course we hadn’t. They were going to knock down all these slums in Ber Street and they put us all that had two or three children, they put them in all these new council houses.
But to managers, the re-housing of ‘slum-dwellers’ – typically poorer than those traditionally let council homes, sometimes viewed as almost a separate tribe – raised (or so it was felt) particular issues as the City Estates Surveyor, Mr RJ Allerton explains.
All prospective tenants, he tells us, were ‘visited at least twice before being moved to estates to learn of their family circumstances, needs and general cleanliness’ so they could be placed appropriately. Once relocated: (4)
every house [was] inspected a short time after occupation and careful notes made as to the manner in which it is kept, its cleanliness, condition of furniture, conduct of children, state of decoration, condition of garden, shed, etc.
Naturally, grading followed. Grade A tenants could ‘obviously be left alone’, Grade B were visited annually but Grade C people were ‘visited frequently and rendered help and assistance wherever possible’. Any council tenant falling into serious arrears was brought personally before the Housing Committee. You can decide if all this represents heavy-handed paternalism or compassionate support to those in need.
Slum clearance and the relocation of its residents also raised the question of disinfestation of furniture and bedding. Typically, for Norwich (Labour-controlled from 1933) this was taken in-house – the council employing a team of four, operating a van large enough to contain the household effects of three families, ‘hauled by a mechanical horse’. I’m guessing that looked something like this Borough of Wood Green example. It’s a sign of lost innocence that Mr Allerton can casually name the Hydrogen cyanide gas used for the purpose, manufactured in Germany by IG Farben – Zyklon B.
These ‘slum clearance’ estates were located on the then periphery of the city; they became viewed as both geographically and socially marginal. As we’ve seen in the case of Knowle West in Bristol, a complex process of stigmatisation can emerge in these circumstances, something both conferred and assumed. This is true of the Larkman in Norwich, labelled with all the usual ‘Chavtown’ epithets you can imagine (or, if you can’t, a quick Google search will satisfy your curiosity). (5)
Back in 1938, Mr Allerton expressed the opinion that ‘the people of this part of the country may have become somewhat individual’ – ‘their characteristics certainly show a very strong antipathy to any suggestion of herding, such as is so evident in some of the larger cities of the country’. (That’s ‘doing different’ in bureaucratese.) He was convinced, therefore, that:
large blocks of working-class flats, such as are erected in some towns, would be very unpopular here and would be vacated as soon as opportunity presented itself. The ingrained desire is for a separate dwelling and garden.
It’s an interesting view and one that would be powerfully tested in Norwich’s post-war building efforts. Even at the time, Norwich had taken small steps – deemed necessary where they allowed ‘elderly people to be housed nearer their old interests and where employed people on early or late shifts can be near their work’ – in flat construction. In 1935-1936, the city’s first tenement blocks were built in Barrack Street and Union Street.
By 1939, the Council had built 7603 homes in the city (while private enterprise supplied just 3228 built). Of these, around 44 per cent were built to rehouse those displaced by slum clearance. That progress was vitiated by wartime bombing which destroyed 5000 homes in the city though many, it’s true to say, were overdue for demolition – scant consolation for the 340 that lost their lives.
To meet the huge and urgent post-war need for replacement housing, 350 ‘prefabs’ were erected in the city. Expected to serve ten years, the last surviving prefab home – on Magpie Road – was removed in 1976. I can remember passing it on my way to Carrow Road in those days and it always looked as Mr and Mrs Miller, its last tenants, treasured it.
Additionally, in 1946, the City built 150 British Iron and Steel Federation (BISF) houses, mainly in West Earlham, some in Tuckswood, intended for quick erection using non-traditional materials. People didn’t much like the appearance but their facilities were generally reckoned good.
All this was a quick fix. Like London, Plymouth and a number of other cities, Norwich too prepared a visionary blueprint for the rebuilding of the city along modern lines. The 1945 City of Norwich Plan is a fascinating document, representative of some of the planning ideals of the day but challenging of others.
It proposed – sorry, Mr Allerton – that the ‘limited amount of residential redevelopment’ in the central areas (‘within the walls’) ‘should be in the form of flats or a combination of flats and maisonettes’. It suggested that ‘obsolescent areas’ beyond ‘should be redeveloped as densely as good planning and amenities permit and not on what has come to be known as “Garden City” lines’. This, it argued ‘should ensure real urban development’ [the emphasis is in the original]. (6)
Across the wider city, the Plan sat four-square with the planning mantras of the day with its call for the development of neighbourhood units. It praised the Corporation’s interwar housing efforts but criticised their shortcomings too:
these housing schemes, in common with those in other places, had inherent faults; for apart from the fact that they catered largely for one class or income group, communal facilities and necessary to make the new estates into self-contained neighbourhood units in which a full life was possible, were lacking.
Twenty-five neighbourhood units were proposed which, dependent on size (varying according to the city’s topography), were to contain the prescribed range of shops, schools and facilities. That’s a conventional (for its time) attempt to create or safeguard community but the wider contextualisation of the proposal is more interesting. The Plan went to argue that:
Segregation of classes or income groups is a social evil which should be discouraged; it hardly exists in the small towns and villages and these should be the models for the neighbourhood units of tomorrow. We have much to learn from one another and this can best be achieved by mixing in our leisure time with those whose income, education and outlook might be quite different from our own.
This was an unconscious prefiguring of Nye Bevan’s famous plea for ‘what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the…labourer all lived in the same street’ – ‘the living tapestry of a mixed community’ as he called it. It was, note, not a demand that working-class areas be improved and ‘uplifted’ by affluent middle-class incomers (as contemporary regeneration would have it). It was rather a vision of social democratic classlessness and it was given brief expression in Labour’s 1949 Housing Act which promoted council housing for general needs.
The working out of such idealism was prey to far larger forces than the will of Norwich City Council, let alone that of the City Architect, Leonard Hannaford, but they would do their best to implement some of these ideas. A scheme of 224 three-storey flats and 38 houses was built in the Southwell Road area to the south of the city centre – of a similarly conventional design as the adjacent housing built at the same time and with Moderne balconies which (despite the epithet) harked back to the later thirties. (7)
The new West Earlham Estate was begun in 1947 and by 1950 the Council had built 1469 permanent new homes. Some of these were state-of-the-art such as the Ministry of Fuel and Power-sponsored homes in West Earlham which were specially insulated and enjoyed ‘whole-house’ (or central) heating. The residents professed themselves satisifed with the five radiators.
In 1954, when post-war restrictions on building had finally ended, the City began construction of the Heartsease Estate on its north-eastern outskirts, planned to contain 2500 homes on completion.
Hannaford was a distinguished architect, an assistant to Sir Edward Lutyens both before 1914 and in his post-war work in New Delhi. By 1955, when he retired, around 6000 houses and flats had been designed and built under his direction. These were dignified homes on cleaner, more modern lines than the arts and craft styles or stripped-down neo-Georgian that predominated before the War but, to some, they lacked flair.
His successor, David Percival, ‘entered this scene like a breath of fresh air’ according to Miles Horsey and Stefan Muthesius. (8) We’ll examine some of the most innovative and exciting council housing in the country built under Percival’s visionary leadership next week.
(2) Harry Harrison, Stephen Mullin, Barry Reeves and Alan Stevens, Non-Traditional Houses. Identifying Non-Traditional Houses in the UK, 1918-1975 (2012); Shaun Lowthorpe, ‘Last post sounds for concrete homes’, Eastern Daily Press, 21 January 2006
(3) Sarah Housden (ed), Norwich Memories (Norwich Living History Group, 2009)
(4) Mr RJ Allerton, Estates Surveyor, City Engineer’s Department, Norwich, ‘Housing in Norwich’, Annual Conference of Institute of Housing, September 1938
(5) Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor, ‘Welcome to “Monkey Island”. Identity, Community and Migration Histories in Three Norwich Estates’, Sussex Migration Working Paper no. 38, University of Sussex, July 2006
(6) City of Norwich Plan 1945. Prepared for the Council by CH James and S Rowland Pierce (Consultants) and HC Rowley (City Engineer), City of Norwich Corporation, 1945. For more on the City of Norwich Plan see the post here.
(7) ‘Post-War Building at Norwich’, Official Architecture and Planning, May 1954 and ‘New Housing at Norwich’, Official Architecture and Planning, May 1956
(8) Miles Horsey and Stefan Muthesius, Provincial Mixed Development, Norwich Council Housing 1955-1973 (1986)
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.