Labour increased its majority on the council in May this year but before 1945 Exeter was a conservative and mostly a Conservative city. That, nevertheless, it was in the forefront of early town planning efforts before the First World War and built some 2200 council homes between the wars is proof that many in all parties believed in the duty of the state and local government to ensure decent housing for the working class.
Back in 1907, though, it was a Liberal administration which erected the city’s first council housing – on Isca Road, a by-product of slum clearance on nearby Alphington Road. The 49 plain two-storey, two-bed, red-brick terraced houses with gardens to the rear cost £149 each to build. A petition from tenants saw weekly rents reduced from 5s to 4s 9d; just enough, it was calculated, to repay construction costs. (1)
Though the Conservatives gained a majority on the Council in 1908 they kept for twenty-five years, a reforming politics still held sway, led by the chair of the Town Planning Committee, Alderman FJ Widgery and the Town Clerk, Hubert Lloyd Parry. The Council hosted a regional town planning conference in 1912 and approved plans for further slum clearance and building in the years before the war.
In the event, a scheme for new housing in Pinces Garden was dropped in October 1914 due to high costs and in the mistaken anticipation of ‘prices falling within the near future’. (2) Perhaps they expected the war to be over by Christmas. The war was to last much longer but it did in the end redouble the drive to build.
The Local Government Board’s Circular 86/1917, ‘Housing after the War’, promising ‘substantial financial assistance’ to councils ‘prepared to carry through without delay at the conclusion of the War, a programme of housing for the working classes’, marked that shift. In Exeter, where the Town Clerk in response reported that there were ‘at present practically no vacant houses suitable for the working classes and in all respects fit for human habitation’, the need was urgent. (3)
The Council responded swiftly, buying land for housing on Buddle Lane in July 1918 and, in December, endorsing plans to build 300 homes. A deputation from the Trades and Labour Council protested that such plans fell far short of what was needed. It wanted 1000 new homes and demanded, in a sign of the times and its expectations, that the new houses: (4)
should comprise two living rooms, a scullery in which the cooking could be carried out, a bathroom and three bedrooms [and] should be built away from the centre of the City with the provision of ample garden space [at rents] within the means of the labourer as well as the skilled mechanic.
Their case was backed by the City’s Medical Officer of Health. He reported 106 families displaced through proposed slum clearance schemes, some 600 back-to-back houses in the city and around 500 on which repair orders ‘should be served’. One thousand new homes ‘would not be excessive’, he concluded. The Council accepted the case, amended its plans and purchased additional land for building near Polsloe Bridge.
The 27 houses at Pinces Gardens proposed before the War, were completed rapidly and the white-rendered homes with their imposing doorways set around a substantial green remain among the most attractive of the Council’s early schemes.
A further 161 houses on the Polsloe Estate and the first thirty homes by Buddle Lane were also completed under the generous terms of the 1919 Housing Act. At a price – reflecting inflation and shortages of materials and labour – approaching £900 each, the new houses demonstrated the cost of the Council’s earlier decision to delay their construction.
Higher costs in the mid-1920s may also have reflected a ‘builders’ ring’ – a conspiracy of local contractors – to maintain their profits. The Exeter Master Builders’ Federation submitted a joint tender in November 1923 for the construction of 45 houses and the Council was informed that brick was three times more expensive than before the war. One councillor, however, alleged discussions within the Federation where ‘in a whisper it was suggested that it might be got cheaper but that no mention must go outside’. The Federation protested its innocence of any wrong-doing but the Ministry of Health stated such joint tendering practices – accepted as necessary in the immediate post-war period – were no longer approved. (5)
Even without any dirty dealing, shortages compelled Exeter (like many other authorities) to investigate alternative, non-traditional, means of construction and a contract was agreed with Laings in 1926 for the building of 154 Easiform concrete homes on the Buddle Lane Estate. Despite long-running problems with their steel reinforcements, these homes survived many decades. One hundred were rebuilt in the 1990s; currently there are plans to demolish and rebuild the remaining 20. (6)
Traditional building methods dominated in the Council’s major interwar schemes to the south-east of the city in Burnthouse Lane, commenced in 1928, and northerly extensions in Wonford and St Loye’s from the mid-thirties. The city’s 2000th interwar home was opened by the Minister of Housing, Sir Kingsley Wood, at no. 10 Lethbridge Road in St Loye’s in March 1937. (7)
City Architect, John Bennett, oversaw their design and construction. The layout along Burnthouse Lane was a very geometric expression of garden suburb ideals which were more sensitively applied in the St Loye’s Estate which followed. Miss Barber, an early resident, complained that: (8)
the tedious straight main line [of Burnthouse Lane] and the parallel Hawthorn, Chestnut, and Briar Crescents, suggest that the planners had very little imagination and little eye for anything more pleasant.
Recent attempts to make the area more pedestrian-friendly have brightened it but left it looking a little cluttered.
In both estates, the houses, almost all in semi-detached pairs, are individually attractive – with a distinct Exeter house-style of patterned red and darker brick – but they’re repeated with such little variation that the whole suffers from that council estate uniformity criticised after the war. The 1948 Committee on the Appearance of Council Estates, for example, later slammed ‘the depressing appearance’ of some estates which resulted from their ‘monotony in design and layout, and the repetition of the same architectural unit in dull, straight rows or in severe geometrical road patterns’.
Typically also, other facilities followed rather slowly on the housing and – in language often repeated of these early suburban council estates – Miss Barber remembers that:
Burnthouse Lane for a long time while in the process of developing had almost nothing except houses and fields, so cold and bleak people said, especially in winter, it was just like Siberia.
Inner-city Exeter (the connotations are not inappropriate) suffered other problems. In the 1932 municipal elections, Labour activists in Trinity Ward (south of the cathedral) claimed ‘housing conditions in that part of the city…were a disgrace’. One house, they stated, was occupied by 14 families each paying 5s a week rent. They continued: (9)
There were rack-renters in Exeter and they would have to go. These miserable hovels would have to be pulled down and decent houses provided for the working class – the class that produced the wealth of the nation.
Labour won that contest and became the largest single party in 1945 though still – for the time being – excluded from power by the more or less formal Conservative-Liberal coalition that had operated since 1919.
Labour was at pains to claim credit for recent rehousing efforts but, in fairness, there were others, notably Councillor Shirley Steele-Perkins (a local doctor and the son and brother of two Exeter Medical Officers of Health), who also made the case: (10)
In the clearance area the population was 410 to the acre, by which it would be seen the congestion that was going on…in one case a man, his wife and five children were living in one room…Was that a condition which the Council should tolerate?…
I think I have shown you that if the time is ripe for us to put these people into houses where they can live a decent life and the children have a decent chance of being brought up in healthy surroundings, we should take every advantage of it.
With such sentiments in Exeter, slum clearance efforts, also encouraged by central government in the 1930s, continued but the question of the form of housing to replace them remained, particularly for the lower-paid working class who needed to be near central places of employment.
A small three-storey tenement block of twelve homes (since demolished) had been built in Coombe Street in 1924 and a Housing Subcommittee was set up in January 1932 to investigate the viability of flats in the inner-city. In Exeter, where schemes had of necessity to be small, there were no economies of scale and no savings to be made but some rather bijou two-storey flats (some surviving) were built to the west of Fore Street. In all, of those 2200 interwar council homes, just 44 were flats.
Walking those same streets now, of course, much has changed, not least as a result of the bombing raids which devastated central Exeter in May 1942. Some 1500 homes were destroyed, another 2700 severely damaged; 161 people lost their lives. Post-war Exeter faced new problems of rebuilding but the success, failure and aborted hopes of that ‘Exeter Phoenix’ form another story. (11)
The narrative of interwar Exeter is less dramatic but it’s a reminder of a time when our duty to provide decent homes for those who needed them was widely accepted across the political spectrum. Those efforts were imperfect, the results unspectacular perhaps, but they provided good, secure and affordable homes for many.
(1) Alderman W Thompson, Housing Up-To-Date (1907) and Exeter City Council, Workmen’s Dwellings Committee minutes, March 13 1907
(2) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, May 26 1914
(3) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, October 23 1917
(4) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, May 7 1919
(5) ‘Building Rings and Housing’, The Times, November 30 1923; the Federation’s response came in a letter from EC Lea (president of the Exeter Master Builders’ Federation) in The Times, December 3 1923; and the Ministry of Health’s comment in The Times, December 3 1923
(6) ‘Rebuilding plan for old Exeter council homes’, Exeter Express and Echo, February 24 2016
(7) City of Exeter, ‘Housing. Opening of 2000th Post-War Municipal House by Right Honourable Sir Kingsley Wood, 9 March 1937’
(8) Miss K Barber, ‘The Development of Burnthouse Lane’ (1990). Unpublished manuscript in the Devon Archives and Local Studies Service. You’ll find more detail on the early Burnthouse Lane Estate on the Exeter Memories website.
(9) Quoted in Bob Morley, Sam Davies, County Borough Elections in England and Wales, 1919–1938: A Comparative Analysis: Volume 4: Exeter – Hull (2013)
(10) Steele-Perkins, June 1932, quoted in Julia Frances Neville, Explaining Variations in Municipal Hospital Provision in the 1930s: A Study of Councils in the Far South West, PhD in Politics, University of Exeter, 2009
(11) Catherine Flinn, ‘“Exeter Phoenix”: Politics and the Rebuilding of a Blitzed City’, Southern History, vol 30, 2008