Last week’s post concentrated on the built history of Beverley’s council housing – some 539 council homes provided before the Second World War and a further 1332 by 1964. These post-war decades were, perhaps, the heyday of council housing. This was an era when it was seen as aspirational housing, an undeniable step-up from the far lower quality privately-rented homes from which most people were moving.
But some said the new estates killed traditional working-class community whilst others, contradictorily, have lamented its more recent decline. Beverley offers an opportunity to examine this vexed question, which suffers a surfeit of ill-informed commentary, more objectively.
There was often a powerful sense of working-class respectability among new council tenants. It’s palpable here in the observation of Mavis Stephenson who moved to one of the new post-war estates in 1950: (1)
You could walk down [Schofield Avenue] and it was a picture and included in that was a bit of competition. If Mrs next door cut her grass, well, that one cut grass and Mr Cooper that lived opposite he would cut his hedge, you know, and then he’d come to our side and look…every garden was all clean, tidy…swept and everything, it was lovely.
And, if that self-policing and competitive emulation were insufficient to encourage residents to keep up appearances, there was the formidable figure of Miss Christie, the local housing officer:
an old spinster…she knew everything did Miss Christie; she used to walk around the estates on foot, looking over walls and gardens and peering through windows. She stood for no nonsense. She certainly could evict people with no compunction at all, what she said went. Gardens had to be kept, she would not tolerate gardens or fences being run down. Curtains that were not clean and if things looked shabby she would knock on your door.
If that makes Miss Christie sound like a termagant, we should remember her other side: ‘if she saw anything wrong, she told ‘em they’d to get it done, really cared about the tenants, she really looked after them’.
This was an older housing tradition, rooted in the Octavia Hill school of ‘tough love’ social philanthropy but adopted by municipalities from the 1920s who increasingly looked to women property managers to enforce the domestic norms then expected. (In Lancaster, a Miss Baines was Miss Christie’s equally formidable counterpart.)
However, even in Beverley, some estates or areas were deemed ‘rough’. Sometimes outsiders made this judgment, reflecting perhaps more their own prejudices than any objective reality. In the letters column of the Beverley Guardian, for example, in June 1945, one correspondent congratulated the Council on appointing a housing manager to deal with just such problems. (2)
But Stefan Ramsden also found his working-class interviewees using similar language to describe ‘small parts of the council estates deemed particularly rough’ which they labelled ‘Corned Beef Island’ or ‘Shanghai’. (The North Hull Estate, six miles to the south, was also called ‘Corned Beef Island’ by some. In a less judgmental analysis, this reflected the difficulty of buying fresh food in areas short of shops.)
A resident who moved to Greenwood Avenue in 1940 recalls the Cherry Tree Estate as ‘a rough area…quite rough for people like…not well-to-do, not well-off’. This may reflect the fact – though it is not referenced in his comments – that this 1930s estate very largely accommodated those rehoused from central slum clearance areas. (The same critical assessment was applied, in a similar context, to the Filwood Park Estate in Knowle West, Bristol.) Generally, estates had, to this point, housed the better-off working-class whose stable employment enabled them to pay higher council rents and some established residents looked askance at these poorer incomers.
The oral histories recorded by the East Riding Council tell of surprising rivalries (between children at least) among the various contiguous estates on the town’s eastern fringe: ‘the Grovehill Estate and the Cherry Tree Estate used to have wars as kids’ remembers one interviewee, and AA James, quoted above on the Cherry Tree Estate, tells a nuanced tale of youthful misbehaviour:
They didn’t make trouble, maybe a bit of scrumping, maybe a bit of a battle with the people off Schofield Avenue area…You maybe had the odd scrap or something, the odd falling-out, but there was nowt serious, there was no pinching, no thieving or owt like that. And you didn’t damage or break things.
There’s a narrative here of youthful mischief but nothing more serious and it’s true, in those more innocent times, that the weapon of choice appeared to be ‘mud bombs’ rather than guns or knives. Implicit, sometimes explicit, is the belief that things have deteriorated:
It’s a very different estate now. [It changed] slowly over the years, you know, you can see things going really well [but] eventually from bad to worse really…
The instinct, my instinct at any rate, is to see these perceptions as rooted in nostalgia, as an understandable bias in the older residents typically interviewed in social histories to remember fondly their youth and lament subsequent changes. (3)
That the Council has acted to ‘design out crime’ by closing off some of the back passages that formerly ran behind houses suggests either some rise in more serious anti-social behaviour or less tolerance for behaviour that, whilst not accepted, was once dealt more informally.
This narrative of decline brings us back to the question of council estates and working-class community. There have, in the first instance, been objective changes. Stefan Ramsden notes the desirability of council housing in the early post-war decades but, by the 1960s as home ownership became more affordable, council housing acquired a lower status.
As ‘Janet Thompson’, born on the Swinemoor Estate in 1948, records: (4)
I think because you got a stigma with it…you were seen to be a lower class of people if you were in a council house. I don’t know why but that’s how it appeared to be…in the sixties… And the amount of people round about us that did the same thing…moved out.
Later, in the 1980s, others would buy their council homes and create something of the same status division within estates. Those still renting from the Council or from a housing association (in Beverley, now around nine percent of all households) were typically less skilled and proportionately more likely to be unemployed or on some kind of benefit.
A broader perspective has accused council estates themselves of destroying working-class community but in Beverley, at least, both the oral histories and academic analysis suggest its estates were once highly sociable and ‘friendly’ places.
Stephanie Fish describes one annual highlight – the bonfire nights in Hotham Square (albeit ‘often “raided” beforehand by the neighbouring Cherry Tree Estate gangs’) – and the regular social events held in the local parish hall or in the Co-op’s rooms above its Grovehill Road shop.
A similar recollection by Joan Binns, whose parents moved from Hotham Square in the pre-war Grovehill Estate to Coltman Avenue in 1952, illustrates how complex and contradictory is the attempt to ‘design’ community. The well-meaning efforts of post-war planners seemed counter-productive here. Her family were ‘very happy in their new home’, she remembers, but:
The Goth’s Lane Estate seemed very different to Hotham Square which is all straight lines and compact, whereas the Goth’s Lane Estate is all curves and wide spaces. In some ways this is very desirable, but I think it loses some of the ‘community spirit’ which are my happy memories of Hotham Square.
At any rate, Beverley’s estates were in overall terms highly sociable places. It’s worth taking note of this when council estates have been so routinely and readily criticised as killing off just that ‘community spirit’ which allegedly resided in the ‘close-knit’ terraces from which so many of their residents moved.
Beverley’s ‘small town’ feel may have been important in this and it’s worth quoting Ramsden at length: (5)
In places like Beverley, where new council estates were not so far from the old streets and where traditional industries entered a boom period in the post-war decades, this was a period in which local community had palpable meaning. Industrial workplaces continued to offer sufficient quantity and quality of employment to keep many young people from leaving the town, and therefore individuals’ local social networks were often a palimpsest of relationships and acquaintances built up over a lifetime.
But what Ramsden also notes is a labour market which broadly fulfilled working-class needs. Ironically, it was the very success of the post-war economy with its full employment and rising living standards that brought about the ‘affluence’ so often considered as having killed off ‘working-class community’ in favour of more privatised and domesticated life-styles.
The negative view is summed up by the chair of the Swinemoor Residents Association: ‘[The estate is] far less community driven, far less friendly. Cosmetically it’s a lot better but there isn’t the neighbourhood feeling there used to be’.
It’s tempting to view the hedges and fences erected in Sigston Road noted in last week’s post as some kind of symbol of this and it’s true, as Ramsden’s detailed analysis substantiates and conventional wisdom suggests, that working-class men did begin – putting it crudely – to spend more time at home with their wives and children and less time at the pub. It’s true also that informal forms of neighbourly self-help declined as rising living standards and state agencies such as the National Health Service catered for needs previously met informally.
Perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that only romantics or revolutionaries lamenting the loss of an idealised working-class community rooted in the fundamental inhospitality of slum living would view these changes as a bad thing – but only a little.
In fact, as Ramsden argues: (6)
The decline in older-style neighbourhood sociability and mutuality was compensated by new forms, frequently conducted between relatives and friends who did not live on the same street but were scattered across the town.
In the final analysis, what we see is not ‘increasing “privatism”’ but ‘a more expansive sociability’ though one in Beverley still ‘anchored in locality’.
In conclusion, Ramsden condemns the ‘declinism’ – the assumption that some Golden Age of working-class community existed somehow ‘betrayed’ by later materialism and individualism – that contains, knowingly or otherwise, its own negative judgment of the working class. That, in the context of this blog, is a judgment made particularly of the allegedly malign influence of council housing. (We might even take this one stage further and question why working-class people are held to standards of neighbourliness and sociability neither expected nor demanded of the middle class.)
We’ve ended up at some distance from the bricks and mortar of council housing’s prime achievement in this Yorkshire town as elsewhere: the provision of good and affordable homes for the many who needed them. But it is, in my opinion, a necessary digression when so many of society’s supposed ills are laid at the door of what was in reality one of our greatest achievements.
My thanks to the East Riding Archives and Local Studies service for making the older photographs credited here and in last weeks post available on a Creative Commons licence. You can find other historic photographs of Beverley and the surrounding area on their Flickr page.
(1) East Riding of Yorkshire Council, ‘I thought I’d never find town’: A history of council housing on Beverley’s Riding Fields (2006)
(2) Quoted in Stefan Ramsden, Working-Class Community in the Era of Affluence: Sociability and Identity in a Yorkshire Town, 1945-1980, University of Hull PhD thesis (2011). See also Ramsden, Working-class Community in the Age of Affluence (Routledge, 2017)
(3) This is fully discussed in Stefan Ramsden, ‘‘The community spirit was a wonderful thing’: On nostalgia and the politics of belonging’, Oral History, vol 44, no1, Spring 2016
(4) Stefan Ramsden, ‘Remaking working-class community: sociability, belonging and “affluence” in a small town, 1930-1980’, Contemporary British History, vol 29, no 1, 2015
(5) Ramsden, Working-Class Community in the Era of Affluence
(6) Ramsden, Working-Class Community in the Era of Affluence