‘Decent people living on a decent estate’ – that’s how Carole Bell, a Meadow Well community activist wanted people to think of the Estate in 2012. Unfortunately for her, they were more likely to remember the riots that ripped the community apart in September 1991 and the stigma attached to the Estate before that crisis and for some years after. There’s much that’s been written on Meadow Well before the riots and since, most seeking to explain its poor reputation and troubled history. This post will examine and assess those accounts and look at what’s happened on the Estate since then.
With apologies to Carole Bell, I’ll begin by recounting the Estate’s crisis point – those 1991 riots, sparked by the death of two young local residents, Dale Robson and Colin Atkins, killed when the stolen car they were driving careered off the road during a police pursuit. (Police claims that there was no ‘hot pursuit’ – that they were half a mile from the crash site – were disbelieved by many locals.)
The protests which followed rapidly degenerated into looting and arson; emergency services attending were attacked. In all, it was said that some 400 people were involved; 37 were arrested.
In the aftermath, the Estate became a focus of national concern – belatedly, it might be claimed – and international interest. Much has happened and a lot has changed since but let’s examine a very specific housing history first.
Meadow Well (also called Meadowell, interchangeably as far as I can tell) was part of the County Borough of Tynemouth, formed in 1849. This was an unusually mixed borough, comprising the resort of Tynemouth, large areas of middle-class suburbia as well as the working-class and industrial district of North Shields. While Lib-Lab politics dominated before 1914, for most of its life the Council (dissolved into the Metropolitan District of North Tyneside in 1974) was under the control of Independents and Conservatives.
That politics (and the fact that in 1912 two-thirds of councillors had interests in the private housing sector) might explain the Council’s reluctance to build before the First World War. A housing scheme proposed on land acquired at Balkwell Farm in 1912 was opposed by Conservative councillors. Councillor Plummer thought that to ‘put houses on the market at a rent nobody could compete with was not fair to the owners of property…The scheme was not at all fair to the middle class people’.
When others raised the appalling housing conditions and high death rate of the Banksides area of North Shields, Alderman Coulson, a Tory builder and landlord, blamed: (2)
the filth and dirt people live in. This is the evil, not the condition of the house. Put some of these people into Alnwick Castle and by the time they have been there one month it will be a slum.
These views are not merely of quaint historic interest, of course. Similar views – that council housing is subsidised by the better-off (though it isn’t), that inflated market rents are somehow sacrosanct, and that council tenants are feckless – inform a lot of current thinking around social housing and its residents.
In 1919, however, even Tynemouth’s councillors were swept up in the national drive to build ‘homes for heroes’. The Council determined that 1746 new council homes were required to address the Borough’s housing needs in the next three years and the Balkwell scheme was revived. Its early phases, built under the generous terms of Addison’s 1919 Housing Act, represented deliberately high-quality working-class housing and, by the end of the 1920s, the Estate would comprise 562 two-three bedroom houses, semi-detached or in short terraces, and 100 flats.
There was no intention that this housing be let to the Borough’s poorer residents: (3)
it would be the height of folly to leave a skilled artizan and highly worthy citizen in his present cramped and inadequate home in a dingy street, a home which he fain would leave for one better and for which he would willingly pay a higher rent, and to build houses of a type superior to it, and let them at utterly disproportionately small rents to the dwellers in slumdom.
The intention – in a filtering up theory that was common among early housing reformers – was that the homes vacated ‘would be at once occupied by persons now living in houses of a still more inferior character’.
Meanwhile, the Borough’s housing efforts rapidly faltered. In fact, only 524 homes were built by 1922, some 924 by the end of the decade. The Council had even disbanded its Housing Committee in 1928 but it was re-established in 1930 as central government’s second interwar housing drive – slum clearance – took off.
Whether as a result of national pressure or local politics (Communist agitation was strong in the Banksides), the Council responded. Alderman Coulson’s earlier views notwithstanding, the necessity was pressing. A 1933 enquiry into what became the Clive Street Clearance Area revealed that 48 residents occupied 17 rooms in Union Stairs, sharing a single water tap. Liddle Street’s 405 residents enjoyed (if that’s the word) one earth privy for every 11 people. Only two homes had piped water; none had baths. Infant mortality stood at 143 per 1000 compared to the Borough average of 83. Across the Borough, ten per cent of housing stock was declared to be slum property. (4)
A five-year plan drawn up in 1930 projected the construction of 850 new council homes. In 1932, the Council purchased a 135 acre greenfield site on the north-western fringes of North Shields from the Duke of Northumberland. This was to be the Ridges Estate – the original name of Meadow Well and one by which it is still sometimes known.
The new estate contained 1961 homes. Forty of these were old people’s bungalows, 268 were self-contained houses and 1653 (84 per cent) were so-called Tyneside flats, common in the area – two-storeyed dwellings with flats top and bottom and separate ground-floor front doors, built in blocks of four.
In contrast, only around 15 per cent of the Balkwell Estate was flatted and, in real terms, it had cost twice as much to build. The Ridges was said to be poorer quality housing built on the cheap. These lower standards and the reputation which attended them have been described as ‘the source of all subsequent difficulties’ on the Estate and, of course, it is the design characteristics of council estates that have been claimed as a major factor in the emergence of later social problems. (5)
There is some truth in this explanation. The Balkwell Estate remained a more popular and highly thought-of development; the stigma of Meadow Well’s poorer housing persisted. But, in broader terms, the explanation is at best insufficient. National legislation had mandated lower quality council housing since 1923 and more so in the 1930s as the focus turned to rehousing slum dwellers. In this Meadow Well was not notably atypical and, to be valid, the explanation of later disorder would have to hold true for many estates across the country which manifestly it does not.
In practice, the layout of the Estate paid some tribute to the earlier superior cottage suburbs in its ‘Garden City’-style crescents and cul-de-sacs and it represented a good home to its new residents. As one of these, Sarah Redpath, recalls: (7)
When I went into that house and saw the bathroom and all that, well, I just broke down; I couldn’t help it because it was such a pleasure to know we were getting to where we were. It was marvellous. It was a lovely place; everyone had their gardens done, no fighting, no animosity amongst anybody.
Conversely, the Estate had none of the ‘design disadvantage’ Alice Coleman cited to explain antisocial behaviour in the 1980s – high-rise blocks, anonymous walkways, lack of ‘defensible space’, and so on. If Coleman’s monocausal account of later problems is mistaken (she really was only interested in attacking modernist design), we need to look at what else might have ‘gone wrong’ at Meadow Well.
Another explanation – also used more widely to account for ‘problem estates’ – seems superficially more credible: that the Estate was, from the outset, a ‘dumping ground’ for ‘problem tenants’. This was, after all, the ‘rough’ working class, decanted from the poverty-stricken Banksides, and the sea-faring occupations of many male heads of household left the Estate’s womenfolk to cope alone, effectively as single mothers.
The symbol and, to outsiders, confirmation of these rough origins was the fumigation of the furniture and effects of all incoming tenants but even this needs scrutiny. Ann Hodgson, a long-term resident of the Estate, understood the stigma of this compulsory cleansing and how others looked on it, but she welcomed it as (in literal terms) a fresh start.
Contemporary reports also describe a very different estate than the one the early stereotype would suggest – this from a reporter from the Shields Daily News in May 1934:(8)
I had a thorough walk around the Ridges estate, the sun was shining…and the atmosphere was full of optimism. The first resident I decided to have a few words with…invited me inside the living room to have a look at the house. The room was neatness itself with new furniture in the best of taste.
In the same year, the Borough’s Medical Officer of Health concluded that ‘the cleanliness and tidiness of the dwelling houses on the new estate more than confirms my opinion that slums are not the product of the inhabitants’.
Statistical analysis also undermines the ready negative characterisation of the Estate and its people. Only 31 per cent of its displaced slum dwellers came from the Banksides; nor were seafarers disproportionately represented on the Estate. Even the crude measure of rent arrears – an indication of those unable or unwilling to pay – disproves the stereotype: the arrears of Meadow Well tenants were just 0.4 per cent higher than the Tynemouth average.
From this careful analysis of fact rather than perception, Michael Barke and Guy Turnbull conclude that what the Estate did undoubtedly suffer from was labelling – an unjustified reputation generated in part by the resentment of others competing for the scarce resource of housing:
Regardless of the objective reality, a significant and influential body of opinion had already determined that the area was a ‘problem’ and was bound to be a problem because of the nature of the people who moved there and the nature of the areas they moved from.
If we reject the idea that Meadow Well suffered some Original Sin that would explain its later fall, we need to look more carefully at what happened to the Estate in the post-war period. We’ll do that in next week’s post.
Special thanks to Steve Conlan for providing and allowing me to use in this post and the next some of his fine images of the Estate taken in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You can see more of Steve’s work online here.
(1) Carole Bell interviewed by Mike Proud, ITV Tyne-Tees News, ‘Community hero retires 21 years after Tyneside riots’, 3 September 2012
(2) These quotations and much of the detail which follows are drawn from North Tyneside Community Development Project (CDP), North Shields: Working-Class Politics and Housing (1977). Documents from the North Tyneside CDP can be downloaded from the website of Purdue University, Indianapolis. The full collection of CDP records are held by the Tyne and Wear Archives.
(3) John F Smillie (Borough Surveyor, Tynemouth), ‘Some Thoughts upon Housing’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, September 1919; no. 4. vol. 40
(4) Details drawn from North Tyneside CDP, North Shields: Working-Class Politics and Housing and David A Kirby, The geography of inter-war (1919-39) residential areas on Tyneside: a study of residential growth, and the present condition and use of property, PhD, University of Durham, 1970
(5) The quotation comes from North Tyneside CDP, North Shields: Working-Class Politics and Housing.
(6) Michael Barke and Guy Turnbull, ‘Meadowell and Mythology: the Making of the “Problem Estate”’ in Bill Lancaster (ed), Working-Class Housing on Tyneside, 1850-1939. See also Barke and Turnbull, Meadowell: the Biography of an ‘Estate with Problems’ (1992)
(7) Interviewed in An English Estate, a Channel Four documentary from Hugh Kelly, broadcast in October 1992
(8) Quoted in Barke and Turnbull, ‘Meadowell and Mythology: the Making of the “Problem Estate”’ which also provides the statistical analysis which follows.