This is the third 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.
After 1945, the need for decent and affordable housing became one of the biggest issues in British politics and, in sharp contrast to the present, the local and national state mobilised on a massive scale to address this problem. That meant in Walsall, as elsewhere, estates on traditional – though ‘improved’ – low-rise lines but it would mean in due course new and varied forms of multi-storey housing.
In reality, the former remained predominant. Almost two-thirds of council homes built in the UK between 1945 and 1979 were two-storey houses in more or less ‘garden’ suburbs but in popular consciousness and media portrayal, the era became associated with high-rise flats, often described as ‘notorious’. In fact, multi-storey housing (of six-storeys or more) only surpassed one-fifth of new schemes in England and Wales in the short period between 1964 and 1967. (1) Walsall offers an excellent case-study by which to study the more complex and diverse realities of post-war public housing.
As we saw in the second of our Walsall posts, prefabs were adopted as a temporary ‘fix’ to an immediate post-war housing crisis but new permanent homes – in huge numbers – remained the goal. That goal, however, in an era of genuine austerity, first required the use of other non-traditional means. By 1950, 850 non-traditional homes had been built in Walsall, in a range reflecting the experimentation of the time.
The largest number, at 240, were BISF houses – steel-framed homes (to a design by Sir Fredrick Gibberd) manufactured by the British Iron and Steel Federation. Next came the Orlit homes produced by the Edinburgh firm of that name; 198 of these precast reinforced concrete houses were erected. Wates offered a similar form of pre-cast concrete construction while Wimpey offered in-situ concrete housing; 100 of each were built in Walsall. Other steel-framed homes and some 50 permanent aluminium bungalows completed the list.
Many disliked the appearance of these new homes; even Walsall’s Chief Architect, AT Parrott, guardedly admitted they presented ‘a subject for very sympathetic handling if happy aesthetic results were to be achieved’. (2) Design and construction flaws emerged later. As brick supply increased and skilled labour became more readily available, traditional brick construction was happily resumed.
Some 490 of these non-traditional homes were built on the Dudley’s Field Estate in Bloxwich, Walsall’s first new post-war estate begun in 1946. Parrott described it as ‘probably our least successful from the point of view of appearance, but…very valuable as an object lesson’. Interwar estates had been widely criticised for their dormitory feel and lack of community provision. The 1944 Dudley Committee and the 1948 Committee on the Appearance of Housing Estates were intended to address these deficiencies but in the immediate aftermath of war, in Parrott’s words:
Speed was of prime importance and, whilst certain attempts were made to add interest to the layouts, the vital lessons which have been brought the design of Council housing today to a standard never before reached had yet to be learned.
The Mossley Estate, 1660 new homes on completion, just to the north of Dudley’s Fields, and the Gipsy Lane Estate (now Beechdale), of similar size, to the south followed in short order. If the good intentions were to provide these new estates greater facilities, these were fulfilled belatedly. Eight hundred houses had been completed on the Gipsy Lane Estate before any shops were open and the Chief Architect himself described it as a ‘large and isolated estate, and a very long journey for the housewife whenever there is shopping to be done’.
Another feature of most of Walsall’s new build that it was located on reclaimed, brownfield land containing coal, clay and gravel workings, slag and brickwork waste Over 500,000 cubic yards of materials were removed from the Gipsy Lane site alone. The risk of subsidence here and elsewhere meant that most of the new homes were restricted to semi-detached pairs.
Up to 1949, the focus on three-bed family homes remained total. Some two-bed homes followed and after 1954, a 25/75 two-bed/three-bed split was projected. As part of the the realisation of the waiting list’s varied needs, a site was set aside on the Mossley Estate for an old people’s home. There were, as yet, no multi-storey homes though flats and maisonettes were said to be popular and some three-storey blocks were projected on outer estates.
These were generously sized homes. Walsall’s three-bed houses averaged 963 square feet, some way over the 900 square feet minimum prescribed by Labour’s post-war Minister of Housing Nye Bevan. The so-called ‘People’s Homes’ – at around 750 to 850 square feet – designated by his Conservative successor, Harold Macmillan, in the attempt to increase the rate of housebuilding, were significantly smaller.
Walsall’s 10,000th council home was officially opened by the town’s Labour MP WT Wells at 65 Primley Avenue in Alumwell in June 1950. The Council’s brochure to mark the occasion boasted of building an average of four houses every three working days since 1920 – an astonishing rate when compared to the present day’s faltering efforts and a tribute to the contribution public housing made (and could make again) to meeting our housing needs. (3)
There was little signature architecture and planning in these new estates though one later commentator remarked on their ‘carefully designed informal layouts with much greenery’ and the ‘steel casements, pantiled roofs and distinctive copper flashing’ of the Borough’s housing. (4) An exception to the decent but stolid output which predominated was the St Matthew’s Close scheme designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe and opened in 1953 as part of the now Grade II-listed Memorial Gardens on Church Hill – an area of open land resulting from the slum clearance drive of the 1930s. (5)
Halted by the war and delayed by the urgent need to build new housing after 1945, that determination to clear the slums took off once more in Walsall after 1954 when the Alfred Street area in Bloxwich was represented and new maisonette blocks erected (since replaced themselves, as best as I can tell). In 1958, there were plans to demolish 1500 unfit homes in the next four years.
For the first time, Walsall was looking to multi-storey replacements. This had begun modestly in 1955 with Warewell Close on Lower Rushall Street near the town centre – two five-storey blocks, their form and, particularly, their colourful, angular balconies reflecting the New Humanist/Festival style then in vogue. (The work of Frederick Gibberd and Norman & Dawbarn in Hackney in the 1950s offers a close comparison.)
By the end of the decade, Walsall was clear that multi-storey blocks were a necessary part of its housing mix in the ‘endeavour to make the best use of the land available where this has been suitable for this type of development’. (6) This new direction is best seen in an estate deserving of wider recognition completed just to the south of St Matthew’s Close in November 1961.
When I visited the Orlando Estate last summer, one of the residents was initially a little suspicious of this stranger taking photographs. When I explained my interest, she understood immediately and described it herself as ‘a time capsule of the 1960s’; she’d even written on it as part of a university course. So it’s had some love. Let’s give it some more.
The four acre estate – Walsall’s largest redevelopment scheme to date – replaced severely rundown streets of two- and three-storey terraced housing. The official description provides context and detail: (7)
Because of the severe housing shortage in the Midlands, it was necessary to redevelop at high density without giving an impression of overcrowding; this has been achieved by designing a mixed residential scheme with four blocks of eight-storey flats, one three-storey block of flats, two-blocks of three-storey terraced houses and eleven two-storey terraced houses
The detailing is more telling – internal stairways in the eight-storey blocks finished with terrazzo, stairs and landings with granolithic, prodoglaze tiling on the walls, and entrance porches and internal screens of West African mahogany. External interest was added by coloured panelling and hung tiling.
Some 169 homes were provided in this compact and attractive £403,000 scheme, completed, as the Chief Architect proudly records, seven months ahead of schedule. We can give Wates some credit here, both for the design – jointly devised by the Borough’s architect’s department and GF Elliott, divisional architect for the company – and execution. (You’ll find additional images of the estate in this Tumblr post.)
Walsall’s second multi-storey estate was completed three years later as part of the Leamore redevelopment scheme which saw 180 properties demolished, replaced by 280 homes in a mixed development scheme of six nine- and twelve three-storey blocks. The estate’s multi-storey car park was ‘believed to be the first of its kind in municipal housing’ and was another sign of the modernity these new developments represented. This was another scheme built by Wates and jointly designed by the Chief Architect and Mr Elliott of Wates. (8)
Walsall’s ambitions grew, literally so in its next major scheme, opened in April 1965 at Sandbank, Bloxwich which featured one 16-storey and three 12-storey blocks – 253 homes replacing 44 including 18 surviving post-war prefabs. The scheme was built by Wates, this time, in another sign of the times, using a proprietary method of system building. (9)
By 1965, Walsall Borough Council owned near 18,500 homes. When the borough expanded to incorporate Darlaston and part of Willenhall in 1966, it acquired a further 8500 but it continued to build. The £1.5m Paddock Redevelopment Scheme in Chuckery, central Walsall was completed in 1969, comprising 357 flats in three 17-storey and two 13-storey blocks. (10)
It was built – you guessed it – by Wates and again designed jointly by Wates and the Borough architect’s department; system-built using steel moulds which allowed the direct application of decorative wall finishes. In full production, the on-site factory produced one floor each day for both the 13- and 17-storey blocks. System building gets, for good reason, a bad press but here it seems to have been efficient and the end-result attractive. A £2.2m refurbishment in the mid-90s– with its added colour and pattern – seems even more reminiscent of the Scandinavian schemes which had provided a model for system building’s British adoption in the sixties.
As Glendinning and Muthesius note, in ‘the Black Country, Wates established itself as a trusty mainstay of medium-sized boroughs…by constructing in-situ blocks and building up a local work-force’. Such reliance on a locally dominant company (McAlpine also built some Walsall blocks but far fewer) could lead to unfortunate and corrupting results – as was the case with Bryants and Birmingham) but here it seems to be very largely a case of mutual benefit. When Walsall’s Conservative council leader Sir Cliff Tibbits tried to test the market against Wates, he failed: ‘Wates were giving such good service that nobody wanted to leave them!’. (11)
By the late 1960s, the star of high-rise housing was waning but there was an inevitable lag as already planned schemes were fulfilled. The last tower blocks built in the Black Country, the 15-storey Alma and Leys Court flats in Darlaston, were completed in 1973.
Meanwhile, low-rise building continued apace until, by the early 1980s, Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council (created in the 1974 reorganisation of local government which amalgamated Walsall with neighbouring Aldridge-Brownhills) the council managed some 42,000 homes, including some 66 tower blocks. Next week’s post examines the very different housing politics of this later period.
My thanks to the Walsall Local History Centre and Archives for providing some of the sources used in this post.
(1) See Patrick Dunleavy, The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain, 1945-1975. A Study of Corporate Power and Professional Influence in the Welfare State (1981)
(2) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954. The quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.
(3) Walsall Town Council, The 10,000th House (1950)
(4) Peter Arnold, A Guide to the Buildings of Walsall (2003)
(5) Historic England, Walsall Memorial Garden
(6) Walsall Town Council, The 15,000th House (1958)
(7) AT Parrott, ‘New Housing at Walsall’, Official Architecture and Planning, December 1961
(8) Walsall Town Council, Leamore Redevelopment Scheme Official Brochure (1964)
(9) ‘Sandbank housing scheme, Walsall’, Architects’ Journal, 3 September, 1969 and Walsall Town Council, Sandbank Redevelopment Scheme (1965)
(10) Walsall Town Council, Paddock Redevelopment Scheme (1969)