According to JB Priestley, a proud native of the city, ‘Bradford was considered the most progressive place in the United Kingdom’ before the First World War. (1)  He referred to the vibrant cultural life of the town as much as its politics but we’ll concentrate on the latter and, in particular, the struggle to build decent housing for its working people.

A Bradford slum, in the early 1900s

Bradford, capital of the UK’s woollen industry, was then one of Britain’s great industrial centres – a place where ‘wealth accumulates and men decay’ in the words of one critical local politician. (2)  Around seventy-five per cent of its housing was back-to-back and in the three poorest wards of the city the infant mortality rate reached 179 per 1000, twice the rate of the city as a whole. Fenner Brockway observed trenchantly that: (3)

these black areas were not only a prison to the spirit they were a slaughterhouse for their bodies…Herod, in the form of slum landlords and building speculators, massacred more infants in Bradford than he did in Bethlehem.

For his part, Priestley wondered why ‘those industrial workers, exiled from the sun and the fields, condemned to live their time between houses like barracks and factories like fortresses’ were not ‘sluts and brutes’. But he insisted that, despite such conditions, they were ‘yet among the salt of the earth…decent and kind, humorous and helpful’.


If that was a romantic view of the lives and characters such circumstances spawned, it might at least be applied to Bradford’s great socialist leader, FW (‘Fred’) Jowett, described by the ever-quotable Priestley as ‘a figure compact of truth and integrity, utterly without pretence, and with the shining simplicity that belongs to the pure in heart’.  Jowett and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) founded in the city in 1893 led the campaign for better housing.

That politics was born initially in industrial struggle.  A tradition of progressive and, to some degree, cross-class Lib-Lab (Liberal-Labour) politics was broken by the great Manningham Lockout, instigated when the mill-owner Samuel Cunliffe Lister (in other contexts remembered as a paternalistic benefactor of the city) insisted, just before Christmas 1890, on a 30 per cent wage cut for his workers.   The bitter dispute lasted 19 weeks until Lister’s workforce was forced back to work under the new terms and conditions.

An early image of Manningham Mills (c) Esther M Zimmer Lederberg Memorial Website

The Liberal Council tried to ban rallies and meetings in support of those locked out; the intervention of the Durham Light Infantry caused a full-blown riot.  As the futility of relying on the goodwill of the Bradford’s middle-class employers became clear to many of the local working class, Jowett led the political fight-back.  He was a founder member of the Bradford Labour Union in May 1891 and later the same year of the Bradford Labour Church – a deliberate break with the nonconformist chapels patronised by the local middle classes which set itself the task of nothing less than the ‘the realisation of the Kingdom of Heaven in this Life by the establishment of a state of society founded upon Justice and Love to thy neighbour’. (4)

A modern mural (on the Priestley Theatre) celebrating the founding of the ILP in Bradford

Jowett was elected, aged just 18, to the Council in 1892 where he would serve fifteen years until first elected as one of the city’s MPs in 1906.  From 1906 the Bradford ILP held the balance of power and, at its pre-war peak in 1913, the Party polled 43 per cent of the vote and returned 20 councillors (29 Liberals and 34 Conservatives made up the remainder).

Jowett’s campaign for better housing began inauspiciously – his motion to the Sanitary Committee in 1894 that the Council take action to build housing under Part III of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act received just five votes – and would be stubbornly resisted for some years.  His first success was in persuading a sympathetic Medical Officer of Health, Dr Arnold Evans, to represent some of worst of local housing – in the Longlands district – as unfit for human habitation in 1898 but the Housing Committee’s proposal to clear the area was rejected by full Council.  Jowett persevered; a revised scheme was initially accepted by the Council the following year until that decision was rescinded by a newly elected Council (with a strengthened Tory presence) two months later.  Finally, in 1901 the scheme was given the go-ahead.

An early image of Faxfleet Street

The Longlands clearance scheme covered a little under five acres – about the size of two football pitches – and contained 254 dwelling houses, 10 lodging houses, two public houses, 16 lock-up shops, a bakehouse, a storeroom and some 1350 people.  The homes, according to Evans, were ‘in a dilapidated state…old…the vast majority built back to back; the population, according to Brockway, ‘mostly wretchedly poor Irish folk with large families’. The death rate from pulmonary tuberculosis was – at 7.4 per thousand – almost five times the city average. (5)

FEP Edwards

The first replacement housing built to accommodate those displaced, designed by City Architect FEP Edwards and completed in 1904, was in Faxfleet Street at some two miles’ distance but accessible by (municipally-owned) tramway. (6)   Sixty-six houses, each with a living room, scullery (complete with washing copper and bath), front and back bedrooms and an attic. These were, of course, ‘through’ houses, set back five feet from the footpath and with small backyards containing a WC, coal store and ash bin.

These images show the interior of the new Faxfleet Street houses – the respectable working-class homes envisaged by housing reformers (7)

The houses cost £247 each to build with rents set at the lowest level possible to both repay within sixty years the 3.25 per cent loan which financed them and be affordable to those who needed them.  To housing reformers, the scheme furnished important proof that ‘”through” houses can be provided in Yorkshire at low rentals and can be made self-supporting’. (8)  Twenty-three further Corporation houses would be built in the area before 1914.

Later pre-1914 council housing on Draughton Street

The local Labour movement celebrated this success in the municipal elections which followed. One ILP candidate, JH Palin of the Tramwaymen’s Society, declared ‘some of the men in their society were tenants of the Faxfleet-street property, and the only fault that could be found was a little shrinking of the woodwork’; ‘where, said Mr Jowett, can you get houses like those at 5s 6d a week clear of rates within a like distance of the Town Hall?’ (9)

Chain Street tenements

Such houses represented the ideal for most Labour politicians of the day but inner-city conditions dictated other solutions.  In the cleared Longlands district itself, the Council erected tenement blocks based on models pioneered in Liverpool – the major pioneer of municipal tenement housing outside London – and Manchester. The first were five three-storeyed blocks, completed in 1909, erected on Chain Street and Longlands Place, each with a living room, scullery, one or two bedrooms and a WC and coal store on the rear balcony.  A second phase of two-storeyed tenements was completed in 1912 in Chain Street and Roundhill Place.

A contemporary image showing the recently refurbished two-storey tenements on Chain Street

Some years later, it could be claimed that these undeniably modest homes could ‘compare very favourably with the best in England constructed for the occupation of the poor and needy’: their interiors presented ‘quite a cheerful and comfortable appearance’, it was said, and the tenants took ‘a keen interest in their homes’. (10)

Looking back in 1946, Brockway was familiar with the higher standards of later years; he admitted:

They are not comparable architecturally with the blocks of modern flats constructed by municipalities today but they are well-built, clean, healthy, and must have seemed palatial to those Irish families removed from cellars and vermin-infested rooms more than forty years ago.  To housing reformers they symbolise victory in one of the earliest of conflicts between property and life.

Several blocks were pulled down in the 1960s as Bradford built new roads to accommodate the increased traffic of a more affluent era but – though remaining blocks were refurbished and extended in the 1970s – such affluence itself had long departed by the turn of the century.  The area had become a haunt of sex workers and drug addicts; the homes were seen as ‘squalid hovels’ and the local press alleged that locals called the blocks ‘Death Row’. (11) In more measured terms, the City Council described the Chain Street area as suffering from ‘multiple problems including crime, the fear of crime, low income levels and higher than average levels of unemployment’. (12)

As one element of major plans to revive a city hit hard by deindustrialisation, a much needed £1.26m regeneration has ensued, supported by the Council, the Homes and Communities Agency and led, on the ground, by Incommunities, a social housing provider formed after a stock transfer of Bradford council housing in 2003.  Initially, 36 flats have been converted into 16 family-size homes. Thirty-two houses will replace a demolished 1925 tenement block; ten for sale, twelve let at market rents and ten at social rent. (13)  It’s the modern way – tenure mix and public investment part-financed by private profit.  Typically, there is a loss of social housing.

A contemporary image of Chain Street with new housing to the fore and the refurbished three-storey tenements at the rear left

In contemporary terms, an ambitious local council probably had little choice but to proceed in this way.  Jowett would be disappointed to see the beneficent power of the state so subordinated to the laws of the very free market against which he had campaigned but he would surely be impressed by the quality of this new working-class housing. There’s no doubt that the appearance and ‘feel’ of the area is much improved and, as part of a package which includes a new linear park and rejuvenated town centre, I hope it helps Bradford which has changed greatly from the prosperous city which Priestley described.

Jowett himself served in the first Labour government in 1924 but his principled socialism and consistent pacifism was too left-wing for the second.  He stood for the ILP (which had broken from the Labour Party) in 1931 and 1935 but, despite the affection his home city retained for him, was not re-elected.  He died aged 80 in 1944.   The houses on Faxfleet Street and the tenements on Chain Street remain both a monument to his practical idealism and a symbol of changed times.


(1) Priestley, Preface to Fenner Brockway, Socialism over Sixty Years. The Life of Jowett of Bradford (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1946)

(2) The words of a Liberal reformer and later chairman of Health Committee in Report of an Address delivered to Bradford City Council on October 9th 1917 by Mr EJ Smith on Housing Reform

(3) Brockway, Socialism over Sixty Years

(4) Quoted in David Jones, Bradford (Ryburn Publishing, Halifax, 1990)

(5) W Arnold Evans (Medical Officer of Health), ‘The Operation of the Housing of the Working Classes Act in Bradford’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, no 23, 1902

(6) FEP Edwards was Bradford City Architect between 1903 and 1908, the second (outside London and after Hull) to be appointed in the country. He is cited as the scheme’s architect in James Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country (Batsford, London, 1905) though an English Heritage report names W Williamson.

(7) These images are taken from Lucy Caffyn, Supplementary Series 9: Worker’s Housing in West Yorkshire, 1750-1920 (West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, HMSO, 1986)

(8) Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country

(9) ‘Bradford Municipal Campaign. Councillor Jowett defends the Faxfleet Houses’, The Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury, October 13, 1904

(10) Frank White (Superintendent and Chief Sanitary Inspector) in ‘Discussion on Town Planning and Improvement Areas at Sessional Meeting held at Bradford, February 5th, 1926’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol XLVI, no 11, April 1926

(11) Kathie Griffiths, ‘Bradford “Death Row” flats transformed into “little palaces”’, Bradford Telegraph and Argus, 4 July 2013

(12) Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Report of the Director of Regeneration and Culture to the meeting of Executive to be held on Friday 11 November 2011. Subject: AH1 Option Appraisal for the Regeneration of Sites around Chain Street, Goitside

(13) Homes and Communities Agency, ‘From “Death Row” to Family Homes’, Press release, 22 April 2014

The image of City Architect Edwards is from Bradford Timeline on Flickr and made available under this Creative Commons licence.