Last week, we looked at the very first rural council housing to be built – in Ixworth, Suffolk. Its pioneering efforts did little to ease the path of its few successors. It took five years to build the six council homes built in Penshurst in Kent in 1900. That achievement was very largely due to the tireless efforts of one of our first women councillors – ‘perhaps the most stubborn woman councillor’ – Miss Jane Escombe. (1)
Escombe seems an unlikely hero of housing reform. Born in India in 1839, the daughter of an official of the East India Company, she lived in Penshurst in an all-female household as a lady of independent means. Still, she was a more radical figure than this conventional façade might suggest.
She had been an accomplished artist in her younger years, exhibiting several times at the annual shows of the Royal Academy. (2) And when the 1894 Local Government Act created elected parish councils and rural and urban district councils and permitted women to serve on them, she secured election to the village’s new parish council.
Penshurst was an attractive village and an apparently affluent one, already within commuting distance of London by 1900 when it had a population of around 1600. But Escombe knew it was no rural idyll for many of its poorer citizens. In one of her first actions as councillor in November 1895, ‘joined by a workman who knew where the shoe pinched’, she called on the parish council to build its own housing under Part III of the 1890 Housing Act which allowed local authorities to build where unfit homes had been condemned. (3)
That motion was rejected and, in any case, the Parish Council had to secure permission from higher authorities. In the following year, however, backed by local GP Louis Wood, the Parish Council called upon the Sevenoaks Rural District Council to support their demand. To press the case, the Parish Council conducted a survey of employers and workmen regarding local housing needs. It concluded 20 new houses were needed to accommodate local families without homes of their own.
In response, the District Council first canvassed local landowners on their willingness to build. As low-rental working-class housing was not – then as now – of interest to profit-driven private enterprise, the response was negative and the Council had, reluctantly, to accept the necessity of council building. It had first, however, to prove the need by means of a public inquiry.
The March 1897 inquiry also concluded the case proven and the District Council followed the next step of this laborious process by applying for permission to build from Kent County Council. Four months later, approval was granted but the District Council dragged its heels until – under the continued prompting of Miss Escombe – a joint committee with the Parish Council was formed to forward the process. Wood and Escombe (its honorary secretary) were members.
Progress was boosted by the decision of the local vicar to sell three-quarters of an acre of the church’s glebe land on Smarts Hill for £130. Escombe was clear though that good quality and attractive housing was necessary: (4)
Our village is one of the most beautiful in Kent, full of picturesque old buildings and cottages; to build brick boxes with slate lids would have been desecration.
Sixty architects rose to the challenge but, while they reckoned ‘the erection of three pairs of pretty dwellings’ would cost £1140, the lowest builder’s estimate came in at £1729. Eventually, a lower estimate of £1463 was secured and the Parish Council applied to the Local Government Board for approval of a loan of £1800. After a third enquiry, this was granted but construction delayed until an adequate water supply guaranteed. A well was sunk and water pump supplied. In fact, Wood and Escombe went further, securing in 1902 the village’s first piped water supply with a reservoir built by the Parish Council, also at Smarts Hill.
Finally, construction began in November 1899 and by December the following year the aptly-named Pioneer Cottages were built and fully occupied. They contained two ground floor rooms with a separate entrance and hallway and an extension to the rear containing a scullery and washhouse with three bedrooms on the second floor. At this time, separate earth closets were provided at the back of the houses.
This high-quality accommodation came at a price – a rental of 5s a week which Escombe candidly acknowledged was affordable only to ‘the higher class of workmen’ but she hoped – as was typical among housing reformers of the day – that a trickle-down effect would occur and that ‘they would move into our better cottages and leave theirs at a lower rent to the agricultural labourer’.
Escombe’s efforts were rightly celebrated – Sidney Webb himself commending ‘the energy of a lady councillor’ which had secured the Penshurst housing – and she became an acknowledged housing expert and campaigner. (5) She died, aged 64, in 1905 ‘loved and honoured’, her memorial tablet states, ‘by those to whose welfare she ministered with untiring zeal, sympathy and devotion’.
For all that, her speech at annual conference of the National Union of Women Workers in 1900 marks her as a woman of her time and place: (6)
It behoved women, now that the privilege of serving on public bodies was granted to them, to use that privilege; they had more leisure than fathers, brothers and husbands and ought to work: sanitary matters appealed especially to them and the housing problem was at the root of all sanitary reform. Badly built, badly drained, insanitary houses led to disease, to the spread of infection, and to lessened vitality. Lessened vitality in its turn tended to the liability to fall an easy prey to disease and the drink habit. On children, bad housing had the most serious physical, mental and moral effects, and this from a race point of view was most harmful and damaging.
I’m sure the many working women of her day did not enjoy such greater leisure – in fact, they were probably working a double shift – and some of her concerns reflect a typical Victorian preoccupation with working-class morality. That uncomfortable reference to ‘race’ echoes the pre-1914 discourse of National Efficiency – a eugenicist concern, which united many on the left and right, with the fitness of the British working classes to work and, if necessary, fight in a world perceived (rightly as it happens) as more competitive and threatening.
After Jane’s death, her elder sister Anne – in what looks like a local variant of the Octavia Hill method – collected the rents of the cottages for the Parish Council. She was proud to claim in 1907 that the cottages had been continuously occupied and only six weeks’ rent lost throughout and that only when tenants had changed occupation.
Her only misgiving – a demonstration of an upper-class ignorance of the significance of the parlour kept ‘for best’ in respectable working-class homes – was that: (7)
The tenants mostly live in what we meant for a scullery, but has now become a small living room, the larger room being used only occasionally. Otherwise, the cottages are, I think, satisfactory.
‘We should plan differently now’, she concluded, and that revised plan was presumably implemented in a second scheme of eight cottages let at lower rents built before the war. The Warren Cottages formed the nucleus of what became a larger interwar council housing scheme.
All this, of course, is mere history but history has a habit of repeating itself. In 2014, the Parish Council – one hopes with memories of its illustrious predecessor in mind – conducted a new survey of local housing needs: (8)
High property prices and a predominance of privately owned homes means that some local people are unable to afford a home in the parish of Penshurst. At the time of writing the report the cheapest property available was a 2 bedroom house for £295,000. For a first time buyer to afford to buy this property a deposit of approximately £44,250 is required along with an income of approximately £71,643.
It found 15 households – including 10 in unsuitable privately-rented accommodation, three who were sharing and one in tied housing – who needed some form of social rented housing or shared ownership.
Miss Escombe might be disappointed that such housing needs remained in the village and in such similar circumstances. Given her enormous efforts to secure suitable affordable accommodation for the less well-off of Penshurst’s people, she would surely oppose the current Government’s intention to extend Right to Buy to housing associations which will further diminish the countryside’s stock of affordable housing. (9) Sadly, then, this piece of history is as relevant to the continued struggle to house all our people decently as it was over one hundred years ago
(1) As described by Patricia Hollis in Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (1987)
(2) The portrait above was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877 and features Edwin Edwards who had married Jane’s sister in 1852. It is wrongly attributed on the BBC Your Paintings website to Jane Esmond.
(3) William Walter Crotch, The Cottage Homes of Old England (1908)
(4) Quoted in Moritz Kaufmann, The Housing of the Working Classes and of the Poor (1907)
(5) Sidney Webb, Five Years’ Fruits of the Parish Councils Act, Fabian Society Tract, no. 105 (1901)
(6) ‘National Union of Women Workers Conference at Brighton’, The Courier, 26 October 1900
(7) Quoted in William Thompson, Housing Up-to-Date (1907)
(8) Tessa O’Sullivan (Rural Housing Enabler), Penshurst Housing Needs Survey, October 2014 with the support of Penshurst Parish Council and Sevenoaks District Council
(9) See, for example, Andrew Motion, ‘Forget Shoreditch: It’s our rural villages most at risk from gentrification’, Daily Telegraph, 26 October 2015. The Rural Housing Alliance published Affordable Rural Housing: A practical guide for parish councils in December 2014.