Back in the day, some people called the Saffron Lane Estate in Leicester ‘Candletown’. Others called it the ‘Conks Estate’ which wasn’t meant kindly. To understand these nicknames is to uncover the rich history of the Estate – the city’s first large-scale interwar housing scheme – and its community.
Leicester had grown rapidly in the later nineteenth century and had, for the most part, prospered but that growth – and the exigencies of war – had led by 1919 to severe pressures on housing. The Council estimated it needed to build 1500 homes in the next four years to satisfy demand. In fact, the City took seven years to build just 746 new homes under the 1919 Housing Act.
The Health Committee didn’t pull its punches, expressing its ‘increasing alarm and grave concern’ at the ‘overcrowding existing in the dwelling houses in the City [and] the physical suffering and mental misery involved’. It called on the Council to take ‘extraordinary measures’. (1) At this point, 5747 people were on the council waiting list; four out of five in shared accommodation.
The Council was a hung council in the interwar period but with a strong and capable Labour presence for whom high-quality working-class housing was a major concern. Labour councillor Herbert Hallam became chair of the Housing Committee in 1924 and was largely responsible for the planning and building of the Saffron Lane and Braunstone Estates
Two tranches of land to the south of the city beyond its then borders had been bought which would become what was originally called the Park Estate and then, officially, the Saffron Lane Estate. Construction began in September 1924. Six months later, more land was acquired which would form Elston Fields – at the heart of the new Estate and its green lung. (If you’re local, you might know it better as Tick-Tock Park, named after the large clock on its former central pavilion.)
The problem that the Committee faced, however, was that only 140 of an estimated 4500 construction workers in the city were working on council housing. The pressure to find non-traditional methods of construction using less, or less skilled, labour was intense and, fortunately, a solution was to hand. These were the concrete houses produced by Henry Boot Limited. The Council ordered 1500; 1000 on the Saffron Estate and 500 on the new Braunstone Estate.
The houses weren’t cheaper than brick-built homes (coming in at around £465 each compared to the £395 of their traditional counterparts) but, to councils across the country, they promised quick results. Around 50,000 Boot homes were erected between the wars, including those we’ve looked at already on the Norris Green Estate in Liverpool.
The layout of the new Estate conformed closely to the Garden Suburb ideals of the day. There was some effort too made to spruce up these Boot houses and counter the uniformity of their design – roughcast exteriors of yellow gravel, white limestone or grey granite were added and different coloured tiles and style of chimney stack and window. Not enough, however, to satisfy one of the first residents to move in, however: ‘when we first saw this drab concrete house surrounded in churned-up mud, my enthusiasm waned quite a lot’. (2)
That churned-up mud tells another story. The first 194 homes on the Estate were occupied by December 1925; two years later, 908 parlour and 906 non-parlour homes had been completed (500 of each were the so-called Boot homes). Typically, the Estate’s roadways were finished later and shops, community facilities, convenient local bus services followed slowly. Incredibly, the Estate lacked mains gas or electricity till 1929.
You might have worked out those nicknames by now – the Conks Estate was a pejorative reference to its concrete-construction houses; Candletown to its early lack of power.
For all that, ‘the Saff’ was generally popular with its new tenants. Houses with gardens, spacious pantries and sculleries, inside bathrooms and toilets were a step-up for the vast majority. Mrs Bright speaks for many:
When I first moved into Belton Close, I thought it was heaven because for three years we had lived in two rooms…Belton Close was like moving into paradise because we had a bath and the children could have a separate bedroom. What I couldn’t get over was that I didn’t have to go very far, other than a tap in the house, to get water. In Bonchurch Street, we used to have to walk through the house and fetch water from the next-door neighbour’s tap.
The problem – particularly as slum clearance took off in the 1930s – was that the very poorest couldn’t afford the rents. In 1927, the rent for a three-bed parlour house, including rates, stood at 13s 10d, a non-parlour at 11s 11d at a time when the wages of an unskilled worker might be as low as £2 a week.
To get a council house in Leicester, you not only had to prove that you could afford the rent but get at least three references, one from the vicar or priest of your local church or a councillor. A council job which guaranteed a regular wage and steady employment helped. William Orton, a Corporation gardener, and his wife Elsie moved to Fayrhurst Road and raised a family of four in 1935 but their eldest son, Joe, escaped to RADA and the bright lights of London in 1951. Joe felt he had come from ‘the gutter’ – a sentiment which his biographer, John Lahr, helpfully explains: (3)
Orton’s ‘gutter’ was not the brutal and bustling industrial landscape of the North, but the drab monotony of a comfortable city whose council housing reflected its unimaginative mediocrity. The bleak adequacy of the Saffron Lane Estates had a deceptive violence. Fayhurst [sic] Road where Orton lived, and the narrow streets around it seemed to have been vaccinated against life…
The sameness of the architecture and expectation had its special oppressiveness. Cramped, cold and dark, the rows of sooty pebble granite homes were to Orton a grey backdrop, set-pieces for a lifetime of making do.
It’s worth unpicking this. It’s true that Lahr is far from the only person to have criticised the alleged sterility of interwar cottage estates. It’s clear that the very scale of their ambitions – and always the tempering constraints of economy – did foster some of the uniformity and maybe some of the dullness he identifies. But there’s way too much writerly sensibility and effect here.
On the one hand, to Lahr real working-class lives (in those overcrowded slums of the North) were ‘brutal’ but ‘bustling’ – that love-hate relationship with the slums that middle-class writers enjoy. But then, he gets confused and seems to apply the clichés of slum life – ‘narrow streets…cramped, cold and dark…sooty homes’ – to the spacious garden suburbs built very deliberately to provide a far better and healthier environment. It doesn’t add up. Orton’s misfortune was not his home but an unhappy family life and, of course, a society cruelly unforgiving of his sexuality. His home’s been demolished since but the Council, more forgiving, has placed a plaque in his honour to mark the spot.
Most people simply didn’t feel the way that Joe Orton did:
The Saff at first was a showpiece estate. People were proud to live there. They took care of their surroundings, their houses and their children.
Indeed, one of the objects of the Saffron and Kirby Estates Tenants’ Association, formed in the late twenties, was to ‘uplift the social and civic standard of the people of these estates’. At its most consciously improving this included (as we saw at the Watling Estate in north London) educational lectures but the thrust of the Association was more practical. A new bus stop, a stamp machine at the local post office, better lighting on the estate weren’t life-changing but they did improve people’s day-to-day lives.
As on the Watling Estate, ideas of ‘community’ also loomed large and the Association actively promoted a range of social activities and entertainments. It boasted its own football team and, by 1938, even a swing band. The ‘Penny Popular Parties’ (attendees paid a penny and provided their own entertainment) proved a little too popular though – there were complaints that the children were too rowdy.
There were some who thought this overall respectability owed a lot to the absence of drinking establishments or even an off-licence on the Estate and several city councillors and the Medical Officer of Health were strong advocates of Temperance. When an off-licence was opened, some Leicester citizens petitioned for its closure. That was a little too rich for William Vickerstaff, the president of the then Saffron Lane Municipal Tenants’ Association in 1928:
There are 2014 houses on this estate with an approximate population of 10,000 including children, unless the teetotal fanatics take us all for children….If the schoolmistresses who signed that circular assert that our kiddies are or will be sent to school in any the worse condition because of the existence of a licensed house on the Estate, then we can only say that such statements resemble gross impertinence.
That too is an authentic voice of working-class respectability.
In an apparent demonstration of local democracy, the Housing Department organised a ballot on the Estate on whether its residents wanted licensed premises. It returned a narrow majority in favour but insufficient it was said as only 40 per cent had voted. Mr Vickerstaff suggested that many didn’t vote as, had they supported the proposal but later got into difficulties with the rent, ‘the fact would be borne in mind by the authorities’. The campaign continued and would, as times changed, succeed.
There were two local workingmen’s clubs, however, though here as well things were not as simple as that might seem. The older-established was the Aylestone and District WMC on Saffron Lane but the people who lived on the ‘Conks Estate’ were said to be ‘looked down on rather by those going to the Aylestone Club…which was a bit more skilled working class if you like.’
The Saffron Lane WMC on Duncan Road was opened in 1929 to cater more directly to the Estate. It grew to eclipse its ‘rival’, boasting, at its peak, 3000 members and four bars though changing times and tastes have led now to talk of downsizing and even closure. (4)
That brings us to the present and the post-war story of the Estate and its people will be told next week.
(1) Health Committee minutes, May 1924 quoted in Saffron Past and Present Group, The Story of the Saff (1998). Other quotations and detail which follow are drawn from the same source unless otherwise specified.
(2) Bill Willbond, 70 Years of Council House Memories in Leicester (1991)
(3) John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears. A Biography of Joe Orton (1978)
(4) You can read more on the Saffron Lane WMC (and watch a poignant 2012 video on its story and its current plight) on the Club Historians website.