This is the first of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall. Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing. That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.
Walsall might seem a workaday kind of place to some, typical of many such towns in the North and Midlands which prospered as Britain industrialised but fell on hard times as that, by now, traditional manufacturing economy faltered. It has, however, amongst its other claims to fame, a rich council housing history. This first post will examine the earliest phase of this history – the debate around state provision of working-class housing that developed before 1914 and the impact of the war itself on a council housebuilding programme.
In 1800, Walsall’s population stood a little over 10,000; by 1901 86,430 lived in the town, employed in a diverse range of trades, most famously leather manufacture. The town’s squalid housing reflected this rapid population growth but, at first, there was neither the will nor the power to tackle the problem of its slum housing. There were cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1849 and smallpox epidemics in 1872 and 1875. The heroic role of the Anglican nun, Sister Dora (Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison) in tending to those affected in the latter outbreak is recognised in what is said to be the country’s first statue, erected in Walsall town centre in 1886, to a woman not of royal blood
Belatedly, the Victorian state and its elites moved to address the sanitary crisis caused by Britain’s breakneck urbanisation. The 1875 Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act allowed local authorities to compel the demolition of unfit properties (but made no provision for rehousing those affected). One year later, Walsall’s first Medical Officer of Health, Dr James MacLachlan, ordered the clearance of the central Townend Bank area; ‘a conglomeration of abominations’ in MacLachlan’s view. One hundred and twenty dwellings, housing almost 600 people, were demolished. (1)
But the ambivalence – to put it kindly – of ‘respectable’ Victorian attitudes towards slumdom and its inhabitants lingered on and the tendency to blame the poor for their poverty and squalor remained. According to the local mayor: (2)
Many of the tenants have been for generations the sloth of the idle and the profligate and abounded in associations which are disgusting to public morality and common decency. The very soil on which they stand is known to be saturated with disease and death, while the whole district seems to be given over to drunkenness and dissoluteness.
Wider opinion was shifting, however, a change seen legislatively in the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act which strengthened the powers of councils to clear slums and, critically, permitted them to build new housing.
This reflected a changing political climate. After 1884, working-class men formed a majority of the electorate and traditional parties had both to address this new electorate and contend with emerging socialist ideas. Haydn Sanders, an independent socialist, was elected to the Council in 1888, and the first Labour councillor, Joe Thickett, in 1913.
Thickett was a railway signalman and he was joined the following year by his fellow railwayman, Henry Hucker. The local press pointed out, when Thickett was succeeded by Hucker as mayor in 1924, that they worked alternate shifts in the same box. That was a later sign of a changing party political balance but, before the First World War, Walsall, a County Borough from 1888, remained broadly Liberal in its politics.
Working-class housing conditions remained dire despite the Borough’s modest slum clearance programme, a problem compounded by the town’s population growth – up to 92,115 by 1911 – and the shortage of suitable and affordable homes. Belatedly, in October 1913, the Health Committee was instructed to: (3)
inquire into and report upon the whole question of housing conditions in Walsall, and in the event of appearing from such inquiry that there is a deficiency of housing accommodation for the working classes, to consider and report as to the steps to be taken to meet such deficiency.
The subsequent report by the Medical Officer of Health revealed just 148 vacant houses of up to 7s (35p) a week rental (obviously the figure taken to represent the maximum working-class households could afford), of which 49 were unfit. Meanwhile, 132 one-room tenements were occupied by 210 persons and 530 two-room tenements by some 1528. In all, it was estimated that over seven percent of the town’s population lived more than two to a room, taken as the benchmark for overcrowding.
The deficiency was obvious and had a further impact on slum clearance efforts. As the Medical Officer of Health concluded the ‘present shortage of houses handicaps the Health Committee in dealing with houses which are unfit for habitation, because if the houses are closed the occupants may be unable to obtain other dwellings’.
The Health Committee concluded unanimously that there was ‘a pressing need for the provision of additional houses for the working classes’. However, only a majority of the Committee supported the further recommendation that ‘a scheme should be prepared for the provision by the Council of about 200 dwellings under the Housing Act’. That division gave rise to a fierce debate as to what the Council’s role should be. And that debate – covered thoroughly in the local press – is revealing of the broader disagreements, then and now, on what the proper role of the national and local state should be in providing decent homes for the working class.
Conservative opposition to a council housebuilding programme rested on a number of propositions, the most basic being that private enterprise could be expected to step up to the plate. This ideological commitment to the free market ignored its failure to date and the fact that contractors’ profits lay in building more expensive homes for the middle class. (Plus ça change…)
It was perhaps in recognition of those realities that a second, superficially more humane, argument was advanced to oppose a council scheme – that the new homes would be unaffordable to those who needed them most, ‘the submerged tenth’ as one councillor described them. It was true that council house rents lay beyond the means of the poorest; the new homes catered primarily for precisely the better-off working class, those most likely within the labour movement to be campaigning for them. (Some reformers argued that a ‘filtering up’ process would occur whereby the slightly better homes vacated by new council tenants would be taken over by the poorer moving from slummier quarters.) In part recognition of this case, the Council eventually agreed a smaller scheme of 125 new homes of which 25 would be reserved for those affected by slum clearance.
However such apparent compassion coalesced uncomfortably with thoroughly unreconstructed attitudes towards the poor and their poverty. Alderman Walker claimed he would support building 200 houses for slum clearance purposes but he believed that the real solution to housing squalor lay in prosecuting those tenants ‘who would not keep their places clean’:
that was the only way they would improve the condition of things. They might provide houses but some of the people were not fit to go into them. In their homes, they found a three-legged stool and a broken chair; the women wore dirty dresses, and the children looked as though they had not been washed for days.
In the event, a progressive majority agreed to investigate the smaller scheme proposed but to opponents this obviously represented kicking the scheme into the long grass.
Trades unionists on the local trades council sought to maintain the pressure and were clear that the plea of affordability should not be an excuse to build low-quality housing. Joe Thickett (a railway trades unionist as well as a Labour councillor) urged that the Council ‘adhere to the scheme for the provision of artisans’ dwellings, and not build low-class homes or barracks which would eventually lead to the repetition of the present slums’ – ‘5s a week houses with a good garden attached’ were wanted.
He pointed too to the progress being made nationally. The Local Government Board had committed £1.75m to the provision of working-class housing: (4)
The number of houses to be provided throughout the United Kingdom was 7,700. That was a monument to municipal progress, and they in Walsall had not contributed one single brick to that magnificent pile.
In the end, such arguments were victim of the larger tides of history. War broke out in August 1914, and eight months later it was agreed to defer the Walsall scheme until the end of the conflict. Councillor Thickett berated Lloyd George for sacrificing house building to the war effort but acknowledged ‘that if the Prussian Junkers had never been born they would have seen the municipal houses rising from the foundations’. (5) His ‘visions of town planning, and of garden cities springing up’ survived, however, and ultimately would be enormously boosted by the war which had, for the moment, put paid to them.
In this context, Walsall offers some evidence relating to the debate between those who argue between continuity and change in council housing history – between those who argue that a council housebuilding programme was substantially in place before 1914 and would have developed despite the First World War and those who argue that the war itself was a determinant factor. We can conclude, safely perhaps, that council housing would have grown substantially without the war and, in some respects, was delayed by it whilst acknowledging, on the other hand, that the war and the pressures it engendered was undoubtedly at least a catalyst and more probably a significant accelerant to the emergent movement.
The Tudor Walters Report of 1918, outlining the Government’s recommendations for the form and layout of post-war municipal housing, embodied some of Thickett’s hopes and Addison’s 1919 Housing Act compelled, for the first time, a council housebuilding programme. The Act required councils not only to survey local housing needs but to implement concrete plans to address them.
In the first flush of enthusiasm for this ‘land fit for heroes to live in’ promised by prime minister Lloyd George, Walsall committed to building some 1500 homes and the very first completed, at 98 Blakenall Lane, Bloxwich, was opened in June 1920.
At the same time, other homes – in modest but well-built terraces – were erected in Haskell Street and East Street to the south off West Bromwich Road. Priority was given first to ex-servicemen, their widows and children, and then the overcrowded.
Thereafter the going got tough. There were already complaints about the construction costs of the new homes as post-war labour and materials shortages hit. Under contracts let in February 1920, parlour homes were costing £840 to build and non-parlour £740 (about three times the pre-war figure). Unusually for the time, some 100 homes in Walsall were built by direct labour as a means of reducing expenditure. Rents were correspondingly high though the Council’s proposal to charge 9s a week for parlour homes and 7s a week for non-parlour houses was knocked back by the Ministry of Health. (6)
In September 1920, the Corporation retrenched. The 1500 home target, it was said, had been ‘been inserted under strong pressure from the Ministry’ and, as one councillor concluded, the programme ‘had not provided homes at a reasonable cost, and the rents which had to be charged were greater than people could afford to pay’. It was agreed to cut the programme to 450 homes. (7)
In this, the Council was merely anticipating events at the national level. The Government scrapped the generous subsidies of the 1919 Housing Act in April 1921. Nationally, only 213,000 houses of the half-million initially promised were built under the legislation. Walsall itself completed some 310. That almost 40 per cent of these were the parlour homes advocated in the Tudor Walters Report was vestigial testimony to the higher ideals of war’s end. (8)
That fortunately was not the end of the story. New pressures and demands emerged, new legislation passed and Walsall would become proportionately one of the largest providers of council housing in the country during the interwar period and beyond. The next phase of this history will be discussed in next week’s post.
The early images of Walsall councillors are drawn from the online archive, Black Country History.
(1) AP Baggs, GC Baugh and DA Johnston, ‘Walsall: Public services‘, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part), ed. MW Greenslade (London, 1976)
(2) Quoted in Simon Briercliffe, ‘”Slums” of the Black Country: Town End Bank, Walsall’, 30 November, 2015. Read the article for a fuller description of sanitary conditions and reform in Walsall in this period.
(3) ‘Municipal Housing. Health Committee to Prepare Scheme’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 14 February 1914
(4) ‘Municipal Housing Scheme. Discussed by Trades Council’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 14 February 1914
(5) ‘Municipal Housing. Proposed Shelving of Scheme’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 13 March 1915
(6) ‘Walsall Town Council. Progress of Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 February 1920 and ‘Walsall Town Council. Priority for Corporation Houses’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 February 1920
(7) ‘Walsall Town Council. The Housing and Abattoir Schemes’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 24 April 1920
(8) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing & Planning Review, July-August 1954