I’m delighted to feature this week and next another guest post – a fascinating piece of social, political and housing history from Jane Kilsby in Banbury. Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury three years ago. Thanks also to her husband Steve, another former housing professional, who first spotted the significance of the King’s Road houses.
It’s amazing what turns up on eBay these days, isn’t it? Recently, I bought this postcard: (1)
It’s a tribute to Herbert Payne, local councillor and advocate of social reform in early 20th century Banbury. Forty houses were built by Banbury Borough Council in King’s Road in 1913 and they came about largely as a result of Herbert Payne’s powerful commitment to the benefits of good housing for working people.
Banbury is 64 miles from London; a prosperous market town with a large rural hinterland. On the edge of the Cotswolds, much of its early prosperity was from the wool trade; later it became a centre for cattle sales, horse trading, weaving, printing, engineering and comfort food of all kinds. Cakes, custard, cheese, chocolate and coffee have all played a large part in Banbury’s employment and charm. Banbury lies more or less in the middle of England; it’s a long way from the sea and transport improvements in the 18th and 19th centuries made a dramatic difference to the size of the town. The Oxford Canal connected Banbury to the Midlands in 1778 and the railways invigorated Banbury’s trading links to the North of England and to Paddington. The M40 maintains Banbury’s role as a distribution centre today.
Banbury is a hardly a hotbed of reform and revolt but its famous nursery rhyme provides an air of innocence which belies some notable instances of radicalism in its history. The townspeople, strongly Puritan, destroyed the original Banbury Cross and, later, Cromwell’s men smashed Banbury Castle to smithereens. In the 1840s there were agricultural workers’ riots.
With the coming of the railways, Banbury’s population grew by about 40 per cent between 1851 and 1881. Rapidly constructed terraces and much older agricultural workers houses made of the local ironstone rubble left a legacy of sub-standard property.
Banbury was one of the boroughs reformed by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. The councillors and Town Clerk came from the local elite and, between them, the Liberals and the Conservatives busied themselves with matters of great importance such as new lighting for the Town Hall in time for the Hunt Ball. They received regular reports from the Medical Officer of Health on the extent of insanitary housing but did nothing about it.
But the wider world was changing. Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal landslide in February 1906 brought about a period of social reform and, with 29 Labour MPs elected, there was some impact on local affairs, even in Banbury. A Banbury branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in 1906; Herbert Payne was among its early members.
One of the first ILP meetings, in September 1906, in Banbury took as its topic the ‘House Famine – its cause and cure’. ‘The workers of Banbury are waking up’, it declared: (2)
In Banbury there was a scarcity of houses suitable for working men and high rents appeared to be the order of the day, and yet no attempt had so far been made by the Town Council to provide houses for the workers and their families, notwithstanding the utter failure of private enterprise.
The proposal to run two ILP candidates, one of them Herbert Payne, in the next Borough elections was met with acclaim and housing became a hot topic as the ILP renewed its case for municipal homes:
These cottages will be let as near cost as possible and would not cost a penny to the ratepayers. Private builders are making fortunes. Why then should it be a failure for the Council to build?
On 1 November, the two ILP candidates were elected. With victory declared, Payne and William Timms were lifted up in chairs, cheered and paraded around the town, finally coming to rest at the ILP committee rooms, then in Parsons Street.
Herbert Payne was born in Uppingham in Rutland in 1882. Nothing is known about his education except to say that he did not attend Uppingham School. He came to Banbury in about 1901, working at Mawles, a large ironmongers in the Market Place. Dismissed for talking politics in the shop, he set himself up as a commercial traveller, selling cutlery, and that was his business for the rest of his life. He lived in a terraced house in Queen Street, now Queen’s Road, later moving to Marston House, 37 Bridge Street, now demolished, where he had his business premises. He was 24 when elected to the Town Council.
Payne was a respectable radical, a Congregationalist, a pacifist, a teetotaller and a vegetarian. Above all, he was a great speaker, described as someone who could really hold a crowd, with a voice full of resonance and power.(3) It was not long before his opponents began to call him ‘the Cow Fair Roarer’.
Payne lost little time in making his presence felt at the Town Hall. In February 1907, his motion to increase the wages of Corporation workmen was agreed unanimously. At the same meeting, he demanded the Council appoint a ‘Housing Investigation Committee…to enquire into…the sufficiency or otherwise of the existing supply of dwelling-houses’ for local working people. Furthermore, he requested that it look into the work of other councils under the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act and whether Banbury itself should build.
After a lively debate, Payne got what he wanted. The Banbury Advertiser mentions that this Council meeting set a record, lasting three and a quarter hours. The reporter must have been exhausted.
Payne kept up the pressure, chivvying the Town Clerk for news of progress inside the Council chamber and agitating outside it. In Boxhedge Square in Neithrop, an area notorious for its squalor, stench and unruly behaviour (4 ), Payne roared to a large crowd about ‘the rotten and bad houses with foul drains, leaky roofs, small windows and dirty walls…only inhabited because the people had nothing better to go to.’
Payne’s campaign was supported by the local Co-operative movement and railwaymen. Mr T Jackson, secretary of the Banbury Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, told the Council in December that many of his members:
who were sent to Banbury had to wait weeks or even months before they could bring their wives and families to the town owing to their inability to procure houses at a rent suitable to their earnings.
Local businesses added their own pressure. An open letter from W Braithwaite, the president of the Banbury Borough Development Association formed in 1907, suggested that some firms had declined to set up in Banbury due to ‘the present and prospective insufficiency of housing accommodation for their workpeople’.
The Medical Officer and the Inspector of Nuisances also reiterated to the Council the dire facts of Banbury’s housing situation. The population was 13,483 by 1911 and the number of inhabited houses was 3085. Rents for workmens’ dwellings ranged from two shillings to six shillings a week. The former were mostly unfit for habitation – some had no backs and many were overcrowded – but six shillings was more than most workingmen in Banbury could afford when the average wage for unskilled men was 15 to 20 shillings a week. The Medical Officer often stated that he would have condemned more houses had there been any possibility of alternative housing for the residents to move in to.
It was to be six years before King’s Road was built. Most councillors were hesitant and they were anxious about costs – they wanted expansion but didn’t want to increase the rates. Some of them were landlords and they worried that a larger pool of accommodation for working men and their families would reduce their rents.
Payne too was adamant that any house building should be done with a minimal impact on the rates. In 1908, he tried to persuade the Council to back the campaign of Huddersfield and other councils for land tax reform which would encourage landowners to sell land for housing:
Land is being held in Grimsbury and Neithrop – if people chose to hold their land idle, let them pay what they ought to pay for it in taxation.
The debate rumbled on.
JR Hodgkins mentions that Payne never enjoyed good health and it is tempting at this point to speculate that at times he was not particularly well. Certainly he is absent from several consecutive Council meetings in 1909 and 1910. By then he must have been working hard on his business which took him away from home for long periods.
It was the Housing and Town Planning Act, passed in January 1910, combined with Payne’s tenacity, which crystallised Banbury’s decision to build. The Housing Committee also visited Newbury and returned impressed by the ten houses recently built by the local council:
Let at 4s.6d. per week each: these rents are rather lower than those charged by private owners for similar property and therefore there is no difficulty in obtaining tenants.
The death of both the Town Clerk and the Medical Officer – on whom the Council was heavily reliant for facts and advice – in August 1911 delayed progress but Payne, at last appointed to an enlarged Housing Committee, kept up the pressure.
In May 1911, he addressed a mass meeting – the Banbury Advertiser describes ‘a large assembly round the waggonette in the Cow Fair’ – alongside Liberal councillors Ewins and Viggers, and Mr Jackson of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. They accused councillors of slumbering ‘very peacefully’ and Ewins pointed to the example of Hornsey, which he had visited, where he found that ‘after six years the local authorities had 60 houses and were £360 to the good with which to put up two or three more houses’:
If other towns where land and labour were dearer than in Banbury, could go in for housing schemes and make them successful, why could not Banbury? Were not Banbury workmen as good, as clever and as hard-working as those in any other place?
Payne and his comrades railed against complacency. The crowd called for action:
people were in favour of having something practical and useful and why should the Council not build 50 or 100 houses, to start with, to commemorate the coronation of the King?
The question, however, remained where to build. The Council already owned several acres of land in Grimsbury but there were problems of drainage and flooding. Eventually the decision was taken to construct a new school and a mechanical sewerage system but no housing.
Thankfully, there were the Gilletts, Banbury bankers, Quakers and local philanthropists. In the mid 19th century many Oxfordshire farmers had their accounts with Gilletts Bank and, as farming profits fell, the bank acquired fields through forfeiture. In 1895, Gilletts began a programme of land disposal, creating Queen Street in Neithrop (now Queen’s Road and parallel with King’s Road) by selling parcels of land to builders to build terraced housing for sale.
Gilletts set strict rules on the quality of construction which ensured that Queen Street became an attractive residential area. Payne’s first family home was in Queen Street; his rent was £15 per year. (5)
Joseph Gillett approached the Council with a field northwest of Queen Street that was let out as allotments. At just a shilling a square yard, the price, £1000, was considered reasonable but the councillors still saw a dilemma – the site was too large. To everyone’s relief, a deal was struck. The Council paid £500 for half the land with an option to buy the rest for the same amount three years later. From then on, the whole project ran smoothly.
The Council elections of November 1911 saw cross-party agreement that ‘housing has become the most pressing requirement of our town’. This was a striking achievement for Payne, a councillor for just five years and still a young man under thirty. Next week’s post looks at the fine new homes which resulted and the personal tragedy which followed Herbert Payne’s early triumph.
(1) Postcard from Past Time Postcards
(2) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1905 and 1930 held by the British Newspaper Archive
(3) JR Hodgkins, Over the Hills to Glory: Radicalism in Banburyshire 1832-1945 (1978)
(4) Barrie Trinder, Cake & Cockhorse (The magazine of the Banbury Historical Society), Vol 3, no. 6, 1966, pp83-127
(5) Derrick Knight, Once Upon A Time, Queen’s Road: Its Origins, Its Growth, Its Character (2014)
My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for their generosity in allowing the use of the credited images.