Speke, lying just over seven miles south-east of Liverpool’s city centre, wasn’t planned as just another large council estate. The Corporation envisaged it as a ‘satellite town…planned to accommodate all classes of the community’. (1) At times, the reach of that ambition must have seemed close to fulfilment but by the 1980s some called it – and not in a good way – ‘Beirut’ or, a few years later as civil war raged in the former Yugoslavia, ‘Sarajevo’. (2) That was never fair and much has changed since. This post looks at the longer history, the hopes and the fears and the more complex story of the community’s ups and downs.
Liverpool – a securely (though idiosyncratically) Conservative authority until 1956 – built over 42,000 council homes in the interwar period, most in large cottage suburbs such as Norris Green, some famously in imposing ‘Continental-style’ tenement blocks. The Speke Estate represented another strand in this ambitious agenda, providing not just housing but employment as the Corporation sought far-sightedly to shift the city from its dependence on precarious and low-waged dock labour.
The keystone of this approach lay in the 1926 Liverpool Corporation Act which empowered the council to develop industrial estates and parallel housing developments. The Corporation bought the Speke estate – the local gentry family had died out in 1921 and the land had been placed in trust –for £200,000 in 1928. Then in the neighbouring Rural District of Whiston, the area was formally incorporated into the County Borough of Liverpool in 1932.
Speke Airport, operational from 1930, was the first fruit of this new venture – one of 35 municipal airports opened between 1929 and 1937. Near at hand lay the Speke Industrial Estate, the first factory completed in 1934. By 1939, 28 factories were built or under construction, eleven of these provided directly by the Corporation which also advanced over £300,000 in loans to encourage firms to locate in the new estate. Some 7000 jobs had been provided, most – as war loomed – in the government airframe factory. (3)
Factories needed workers. At the same time, Liverpool citizens living in the city’s many slums needed decent homes. In 1935, the Corporation had committed itself to an eight-year programme clearing 15,692 slums and the construction, within five years, of some 5000 new homes. The Corporation’s transfer of 650 acres of land in Speke to the Housing Committee in April 1936 was central to these plans.
By 1939, 1631 homes had been completed on the Estate although demand was much higher. Companies drawn to the industrial estate by the lure of local housing for its workforce complained about slow progress and the failure of the Corporation to fulfil its side of the bargain; Rootes alone claimed it needed 1285 homes for its workers. (4) This urgency led to Speke’s early housing being built without subsidy under the 1925 Housing Act.
Just over 50 per cent of this housing were parlour homes, a high percentage in these straitened times and an indication of the prestige of the Speke scheme and the commitment of Speke’s mastermind Lancelot Keay, Liverpool’s dynamic Director of Housing, to high-quality housing. Even the non-parlour homes were – at 750 square feet – relatively spacious and included upstairs bathrooms. (5) The rents – reaching 18s 6d (92.5p) for a three-bed parlour home in 1939 – were relatively high and, although some 88 per cent of heads of household were classed as skilled or semi-skilled, there were reports of a high turnover of former central slum dwellers who had moved to the Estate. (6)
These homes were, in the fashion of the day, laid out on ‘Garden City’ lines though, in this case, the lines themselves were rather pronounced. The existing village of Speke housed around 400; its parish church was judged ‘not of such importance as to be made the focal point of the new development’.
Furthermore, the ‘absence of any natural features, the levels of the grounds, and the regularity of the boundaries,…all tended to suggest a formal layout and the consequent need of a central spacious boulevard and one main cross-road’. (6) Western Avenue running north-south and Central Avenue east-west continue to mark that original plan with the Estate’s basic grid broken up by the cul-de-sac ways and closes which nodded towards Ebenezer Howard’s more bucolic ideals.
Typically, for all community ideals proclaimed at the Estate’s inception, other facilities were slow to follow. In 1941, tenants were complaining that only three shops had been provided though they had been resident for two years. (7)
The war had naturally hindered further construction though the important military role of the airport and industrial estate no doubt played its part in the permission granted to build an additional 367 houses during the war itself. Post-war efforts were dedicated – in the words of Labour’s 1945 election poster, to winning the peace. The attempt to fulfil Speke’s founding ideals was redoubled.
In 1949 Stanley Gale described Speke as ‘unique among housing estates developed by local authorities’. Although it was not yet a ‘self-contained community’ as planned, its 29 factories were reported to employ some 11,000 workers; the completion of the Estate’s 6000 homes confidently projected.
It’s worth looking at the detail of the latter: that total was made up of over 5143 two- to four-bed family homes with living room and dining room (the change of terminology from ‘parlour’ was itself telling of new times), 250 cottage flats for the elderly, 92 single person flats, and 221 two- to four-bed flats for families with living room and dining room.
This was the ‘mixed development’ – a larger range of housing types to accommodate people in different life stages and circumstances (though, as yet, without high-rise) – which became standard in the post-war years. In Speke, there was an important added element to reflect that original intent to ‘accommodate all classes of the community’ – 294 large houses with garages and four bedrooms for ‘professional men, managers, etc.’. (8)
Here Speke had anticipated the ethos of the New Towns programme launched in 1946 and reflected the vision which Aneurin Bevan – who argued council housing shouldn’t be just for the poor – outlined eloquently in 1949. Bevan insisted that the ‘segregation of the different income groups [was] a wholly evil thing’, creating ‘castrated communities’, and his new Housing Act removed the stipulation that it be specified as working-class housing.
Lancelot Keay, who considered Speke his last major project, echoed these ideals and hoped, in 1946, to oversee the scheme’s completion – ‘a projected community of about 30,000 persons with all the buildings that will be necessary and with houses for all those who may desire to share in the life of that community’ – in three years. (9) In a period of such genuine austerity that was over-optimistic. Keay retired in 1948. The Estate was completed in the late 1950s with those 6000 homes and a population (its peak population as it happened) of around 25,000.
But Keay understood that Speke’s new community required more than just good housing. It was, he said:
most essential that we should endeavour to bring back a greater measure of gaiety into the lives of ordinary people. They should have the opportunity of enjoying all those excitements and pleasantries of life which are too often reserved for those in the higher-income levels. It is for this reason that a central community building will provide, with its dance hall, concert hall and restaurant, for the pleasures as well as the adult education of the people.
The phrasing remains a little patrician, a little ‘improving’ although there’s no mistaking the good intent. That good intent, however, was slow to be fulfilled. Keay’s successor as Director of Housing, Ronald Bradbury lamented three years into his term (he served till 1970) that it had ‘not been possible as yet, owing to present conditions, to erect the Civic libraries, departmental stores, swimming baths, hotels, etc., for which sites have been reserved’. (10)
The new Austin Rawlinson Swimming Bath and Civic Laundry (named after a local swimming Olympian and national coach) and Speke Central Library weren’t opened till 1965.
We’ll leave Speke in its heyday – a place with decent housing, facilities and, most importantly – always the economic underpinning of working-class prosperity – good jobs. Next week’s post will examine its later more troubled history and recent attempts to revive the Estate conceived with such high hopes.
(1) ‘Housing Progress at Liverpool: Estate for all classes’, The Times, 17 September 1937
(2) David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’ in Ronaldo Munck (ed), Reinventing the City?: Liverpool in Comparative Perspective (2003)
(3) Stephen V. Ward, ‘Local industrial promotion and development policies 1899-1940’, Local Economy, vol. 5, no. 2, August 1990
(4) Madeline McKenna, The Development of Suburban Council Housing Estates in Liverpool between the Wars, University of Liverpool PhD, 1986
(5) Colin G Pooley and Sandra Irish, The Development of Corporation Housing in Liverpool, 1869-1945, University of Lancaster, Resource Paper for the Centre for North West Regional Studies (1984)
(6) City of Liverpool Housing Committee, Speke Estate: Report of the Director of Housing on a Proposal for the Building of a Self-Contained Community Unit, 21 October 1936
(7) Pooley and Irish, The Development of Corporation Housing in Liverpool, 1869-1945
(8) Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates (London, 1949)
(9) LH Keay, ‘Post-war Housing’, RIBA Journal, vol 53, no 7, May 1946
(10) Ronald Bradbury, ‘The Technique of Municipal Housing in England: with Particular Reference to Liverpool’, The Town Planning Review, vol 22, no 1, April 1951
Most of the earlier black and white images are drawn from Liverpool Corporation, Liverpool Builds 1945-1965 (1967)