I’m very pleased to include, this week and next, guest posts by Jane Kilsby. They feature some great research and, as you’ll see, some quite exceptional rural council housing. Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury four years ago. She wrote about Banbury’s first council homes in an earlier post.
‘The best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country.’ This was the verdict of ‘one who has had opportunities of seeing many of the housing schemes in progress in different parts’. (1)
I don’t know who paid this astonishing compliment; I like to think it was one of the Local Government Board’s Housing Commissioners, sent to North Oxfordshire in August 1920 to check on progress under Addison’s council house building programme. This is the story of how they came about.
North Oxfordshire has a quiet beauty. Its ‘hummocky hills’ are set among vast fields of green and gold, interspersed with villages and grand estates. Banbury’s fertile, rural hinterland is a place of calm prosperity. Since the Civil War, nothing of any significance has happened here.
Farming has always been the chief activity. In the 19th century, grain, hay, straw, malt and beer went to London and Birmingham via Banbury’s canal and railway. Until the 1920s, carriers’ carts provided the only link with Banbury market and great droves of cattle and sheep made their way to the Market Place, as they had done for centuries.
By 1914 Oxfordshire was suffering the full impact of the agricultural depression which had begun in the 1870s. With cheaper imported grain and meat and a run of poor harvests, the county slipped from being one of the richest to one of the poorest; farm workers’ wages were the lowest in England. In summer, life in these villages could be very pleasant indeed. But, for many farmworkers, there were times of insecurity and isolation.
The local building stone is Middle Lias marlstone, containing iron and known as Hornton stone. It is this that gives this district its distinct appeal. Many villages had their own quarries. Thatched cottages are still common.
The Agricultural Economics Research Institute of the University of Oxford made a thought-provoking film in 1944, Twenty-Four Square Miles, directed by Kay Mander. (2) It examines farming and village life in this area during World War II. Life here during World War I was surely very similar, if a little harsher.
The film highlights how time-consuming and physically demanding it was to collect water for domestic use and the complete absence of plumbing as we know it today. Until the 1950s most of the North Oxfordshire villages did not have a piped and safe water supply. Villagers used wells, the one or two public taps in each village, springs and shared earth closets.
Footage of the district council’s first council houses appears at about 19-21 minutes in, but more of that later.
Banbury Rural District Council (BRDC) was formed as a result of the Local Government Act of 1894 and comprised most of what was previously the Banbury rural sanitary district. The Council was made up of 33 representatives from 31 parishes. In 1911 the population was 11,457. BRDC was dissolved and became part of Cherwell District Council in 1974.
The Council members – the ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ (3) – were well-connected. Rev. Arthur Blythman, was the Chairman from 1902 to 1917. Rector of Shenington, a Balliol man, magistrate and lifelong friend of the Earl of Jersey, Blythman was described in the local newspapers as a man who ‘unremittingly gave every possible attention, in every detail to every section of the community, whatever their political or religious creed.’
Chief foxhunter among them, James Crawford-Wood of Alkerton House, was a columnist with The Field. Colonel North of Wroxton Abbey, Lord North’s family seat, spent years away on active service and returned to his council duties in 1919. In the early 20th century the Rural District Council had its offices in Horse Fair in Banbury. Council meetings were always on Thursdays, market day.
Party politics and policy statements do not feature in newspaper reports of the council’s meetings. However, improving living conditions in their district appears to have been the councillors’ general aim and they were interested in practicalities. Their first two decades were spent grappling with drains, sewers, cesspools, flooding, pumps, springs and wells. The council’s first Clerk was Edward Lamley Fisher. He was appointed in 1895. Solicitor, Registrar and Clerk to the Poor Law Board of Guardians, he is credited in the local newspapers for his knowledge, humour and urbane manner.
Initially, poor housing conditions in rural areas received little attention at Government level; politicians of both parties were accused of ‘neglecting absolutely the agricultural question and were intoxicated with industrial success’ but the housing of agricultural labourers and rural poverty was a matter of longstanding concern to the reforming Liberal Government of 1906-1914. (4)
Lloyd George conceived the Land Enquiry in May 1912 and part of its remit was to establish what the stumbling blocks were in improving conditions for farmworkers. It had little difficulty in establishing that rural housing conditions were appalling. Wages were lower than in urban areas, rents were relatively high and landlords were often unable or unwilling to improve living conditions. Its report of 1913 put forward a number of solutions ranging from a reformed Land Tax, subsidies for Councils to build cottages and the wider encouragement of smallholdings. The Great War was to intervene before a coherent set of reforms on the ‘land question’ could be put in to practice.
The ‘land question’ was a complex subject of much debate in rural areas. Through Lord Saye and Sele of Broughton Castle, a Liberal, there was a local connection with the National Land and Home League, a non-party organisation formed in 1910 that wanted to improve rural life. He organised and chaired a number of the League’s meetings held in Oxfordshire to discuss rural development policies.
The Housing Acts were in place and applied to rural areas. The 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act allowed councils to clear slums and draw up improvements of their own. The 1900 Housing of the Working Classes Act extended the 1890 Act of the same name to places outside London, allowing councils to build houses. Importantly, the 1910 Housing and Town Planning Act made it easier for councils to borrow money cheaply.
Between 1910 and 1914 there were some 1300 cottages built by councils in English villages. Not many councils made use of their new powers to build and let out their own houses. There are, however, some interesting examples of cottages built for rural workers by councils and through the strenuous efforts of local reformers. For example, in Ixworth, Suffolk, and Penshurst in Kent.
BRDC, however, had only a growing awareness of its poor housing. By 1913 Henry Gander, Sanitary Inspector and Surveyor since 1900, was doing house to house inspections in every village, with particulars of over 1000 houses in his ‘housing book’. The Medical Officer for Health, Dr Morton, reported regularly on sanitation and housing; outbreaks of diphtheria and scarlet fever were not uncommon and the council issued some closure orders on old cottages. The work of the Sanitary Inspectors is explained in earlier posts by Dr Jill Stewart.
The ‘Foxhunters, Farmers and Parsons’ of BRDC were well-meaning and perhaps unaccustomed to outside opinion. It took a government inspection of the condition of the district for the council to adopt its housing powers. A fresh pair of eyes on the housing conditions, in the form of a housing inspection and a report from the Local Government Board, was what led the council to decide to build.
In April 1913 the Clerk, Mr Lamley Fisher, received a letter from the Local Government Board asking the council why it had not built anything yet. Without a satisfactory answer, the Board wrote again in January 1914:
An Inspector was to make an inspection of the District with the purpose of obtaining ‘information respecting the housing accommodation. He should commence his inspection on Tuesday 27th inst, and would call at Mr Fisher’s office.
OFSTED-like, the Inspector expected Dr Morton and Mr Gander to meet him there.
Mr Gander reported on the Inspector’s visit to the Council’s next meeting. He had shown his housing book to the Inspector and hoped that the Inspector had seen that he was doing the work as it should be done. Councillor Page remarked:
I suppose the Local Government Board have not very much for these Inspectors to do, so they send them round for exercise?
But, on 30 April 1914 Courtenay Clifton – the Local Government Board Inspector who had overseen the achievements of BRDC’s municipal counterparts at King’s Road in Banbury in 1912-13 – sent his report to Mr Fisher.
It put an end to BRDC’s dithering. In the Board’s view, there was an urgent demand for more houses in Cropredy, Hornton and Wardington. A house in Hornton had been closed by the council as unfit for human habitation three years ago but re-occupied in its same condition because the tenants were unable to find other accommodation in the parish.
The Board urged the District Council to provide accommodation themselves, under Part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890, adding that ‘it should be possible at these places to devise schemes that would be nearly, if not quite, self-supporting.’
Further, the Board knew about cases of overcrowding in Barford St John, Barford St Michael, Bloxham, Milton and West Adderbury and expected the Council to take immediate action. There was disrepair: damp walls and floors in Bloxham, East Adderbury, Shutford, Epwell and North Newington. Councillor Pettipher remarked:
in all probability we will have to face the music in one or two of the villages before long.
Almost every parish was named in the Board’s report. The council spent the summer debating where houses were most needed and how to pay for them. Parishes overburdened with the cost of sewerage schemes were reluctant to agree that ‘the cost of any new houses not met by the rents be charged to the parish concerned’.
By the time war had broken out, the Local Government Board had written to BRDC another three times asking for progress. Rev Blythman had been to several sites but negotiations on land prices proved tricky. The council decided to wait until June 1915 which they felt would be ‘a more propitious time.’
The Local Government Board began working on reconstruction as early as August 1917. Dr Addison, MP was Lloyd-George’s Minister for Reconstruction during the latter years of the War and then from June 1918, as Minister for Health, it fell to him to put into practice an extensive programme of state-led house building.
Addison aimed to put an end to the country’s poor housing stock and provide decent homes for those returning from the War. The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, known as the Addison Act, gave local councils powers to build unlimited numbers of new houses at low, controlled rents with any losses on their building costs met by government subsidies. Loans raised by councils did not have to cover the whole cost of housing schemes; this was the start of publicly-funded housing.
ln North Oxfordshire, local opinion anticipated Lloyd-George’s cry for homes for heroes: in June 1918 Clement Gibbard, late of the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry, wrote to the Banbury Guardian:
I suggest, to commemorate victory in this awful war, every village should place a brand new cottage for every man who has been out to fight for liberty, so that the health and comfort of the rural community would be happier and healthier in the future than it has been in the past. In comparison to the number of people per acre there is as much illness in the rural districts as there is in large towns. The Irish recruits have been promised land if they will join up, then why should not we England lads get a victory sanitary cottage for helping to save the Empire.
The Local Government Board’s Housing Commissioner wanted a new survey of every District detailing for each parish i) the present estimated shortage of houses, ii) the actual state of overcrowding, and iii) the number of houses that should be condemned if there were no other houses available for accommodating the persons displaced. BRDC was ready for this and duly complied. By July 1918 the Housing Committee was able to confirm that, ‘on the assumption that financial facilities will be afforded by the Government, that a scheme be prepared for submission to the Local Government Board at an early date’.
There was no more procrastination or debate: the council knew they were on a tight timetable. Poor housing conditions in the district before the War had become critical; a pent up demand for farmworkers cottages and for returning soldiers and their families had become a necessity. The day after the Armistice, the Chairman, by then Joseph Pettipher, went out with Sanitary Inspector, Mr Gander, making use of Mr Gander’s motor-bicycle and petrol:
to ascertain what land is suitable for building purposes, reporting to the Clerk from time to time in order that he may be in a position to put himself into communication with the owners of such land and the terms on which such land can be acquired.
It may not be quite true that you can walk from Oxford to Cambridge without leaving land owned by the colleges, but the Oxford colleges owned a lot of land in North Oxfordshire.(5) The colleges co-operated and a number of housing sites, such as in Milcombe, were purchased directly from them.
Building was underway very quickly.
House building by councils was one of the numerous aspects of society changed forever by the Great War. In a remarkable burst of activity, BRDC had built and let 170 houses by 1922; it had a rent roll of almost £3,000 and outstanding loans from the Local Government Board of £178,000.
In part II, we will look in detail at who designed and built BRDC’s first council houses and wonder whether these are indeed the ‘best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country’.
(1) Banbury Guardian, 26 August 1920
(2) Twenty-Four Square Miles, a film by Basic Films, 1946
(3) A phrase used by Arthur Gregory of SW1 in a letter to the Banbury Advertiser published 13 March 1919. ‘The foxhunters, farmers and parsons have monopolised the councils far too long, and it is time the co-operator, smallholder and the officials of the Agricultural and Workers’ Unions took their place and do what they can in the interest of progress.’
(4) W Hills, M.P. for Durham, at his talk in Banbury on 9 April 1914 on ‘The Rural Worker: His Work, Housing and Wages.’
(5) What do the Oxford Colleges own? 25 September 2016 in Who Owns England?
Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser and Banbury Guardian between 1911 and 1925 held by the British Newspaper Archive.
My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for making available the BRDC council minutes from 1921.