The 1930s’ Gwavas council estate on the hill above the fishing village of Newlyn in Cornwall doesn’t look anything out of the ordinary but it was to play its part – alongside the controversial slum clearances which accompanied it – in one of the most resonant housing protests of the interwar period. Matters came to a head when a Newlyn lugger, the Rosebud, and its local crew sailed up the Thames to Westminster in October 1937 to demand an end to the demolition of their traditional village homes. This was romantically portrayed as a protest of the ‘little man’, epitomised in the press images of Cornish fisherfolk, against modernising bureaucrats. As ever in reality, matters were a little more complex.
Newlyn’s role as a fishing port dates at least to the 1400s but it’s been a chequered history. If you watch Poldark, you’ll know the significance of the pilchard catch but it waxed and waned. The port was boosted by the completion of the Tamar Bridge in 1859 (and a direct rail connection to the capital) but the village was a quaint, rather backward backwater when first ‘discovered’ by the artists Walter Langley and Stanhope Forbes in the early 1880s. By 1887, there were 27 artists living in the village. Its place as an artistic centre of the en plein air movement (a form which stressed working directly in nature and subject matter drawn from rural life) was cemented by Forbes’ foundation of the Newlyn School of Art in 1899.
In fact, the village was changing. Large new piers to expand the port were constructed in 1887 and 1888. And there were riots in 1896 as local, staunchly Methodist, fishermen protested against rivals from the north landing fish in the port on a Sunday. Tradition and modernity were already vying as one of the Newlyn artists, Norman Garstin, noted as early as 1909: (1)
The Newlyn of today and that of the first artist settlers twenty-five years ago are two quite different places. When Mr Stanhope Forbes painted his fish sale there was no harbour; today there is a spacious one, which large as it is, [is] crowded with fishing boats, steamers, sailing vessels and craft of all descriptions. All this has brought a life and animation that no one would have dreamt of a quarter of a century ago.
The artists, of course, loved Newlyn for its ‘old world’ charm but some of those picturesque cottages were clearly unfit for human habitation. Paul Urban District Council condemned 18 homes in Newlyn in March 1915 and in 1920 a ‘lady inspector’ found 30 unfit houses and two unhealthy areas in the district. One of these was the birthplace of the working-class radical William Lovett which was demolished in 1921. (2)
Paul was by no means an activist authority. Matters were to come to head after 1934 when Newlyn (alongside Mousehole, Paul village, Sheffield and Heamore) came within the newly extended borders of the Borough of Penzance. It was said – it was certainly felt by many in Newlyn – that Penzance had little regard for its smaller, poorer neighbour but housing conditions in the village spoke for themselves. Most Newlyn homes had neither running water nor sewerage. Water was drawn from the many ‘shoots’ in the village; toilet facilities often consisted of an Elsan bucket emptied ‘over cliff’ at night. (3)
Penzance’s Medical Officer of Health, Richard Lawry, made his first foray into Newlyn in 1935. The first clearance order followed with little controversy. The former Navy Inn now comprised flats accommodating some 29 people. It and neighbouring properties in Factory Row and Factory Square were decanted by 1937 and cleared by 1939. Navy Inn Court, comprising 32 one- and two-bed flats) and Bowjey Court were built on the cleared sites.
In his official report to the Council in the following year, Lawry stated he had visited 100 houses in the village, nearly all of which he judged unfit for human habitation. This time sensing possible controversy, he requested back-up on a follow-up visit and was duly accompanied by an alderman and two councillors.
The first tranche of compulsory purchase orders under the 1936 Housing Act for the properties deemed slums duly followed – for Lower Green Street, Fore Street, Vaccination Court (the name itself is a reminder of cholera epidemics which hit Newlyn in 1832 – when over 100 people died – and 1873), St Peters Hill in 1936, and Fore Street, Gwavas Road, Boase St and North Corner in 1937.
In total, some 350 properties were earmarked for demolition in the original orders. Not all were slums. Those marked in pink were and their owners were offered site value only in compensation; neighbouring properties (marked grey) whose clearance was administratively necessary were offered market price. Around 6.75 acres of the old village were affected including areas to be cleared for a proposed road widening scheme at the harbour’s edge. A five-day official inquiry into the proposals began in Penzance in July 1937.
Meanwhile, the Borough was moving ahead with the construction of an estate of ‘workmen’s dwellings’ to replace those homes scheduled for clearance. Twenty acres of land had been acquired on a greenfield site above the village, enough the Borough Surveyor, Frank Latham, estimated to accommodate some 250 homes at 12 per acre. In the event, 242 were built on the new Gwavas Estate by local contractors at a cost of £95,380.
There were some complaints about the location. It’s a stiff 350 feet climb up the hill to the Estate. Alderman Treganza objected that ‘they were taking people 79 and 80 years of age to the top of Paul Hill. How were they going to get there!’ A comment from the audience in the council chamber on the ‘good air there’ only drew his riposte that it would ‘take an aeroplane to get them there’. (4)
The homes themselves – block-built and characteristically rendered in local style – were solid and laid out, along curving roads and crescents, in a miniature version of the garden suburb style favoured in its time. Some disliked their appearance. The Reverend George Richards had condemned them as ‘among the monstrosities being condemned by architectural experts’ at the earlier public inquiry.
But they came with toilets, bathrooms, hot water – the basic facilities so conspicuously lacking in the cottages of old Newlyn. The first residents (from Navy Inn Court and Factory Row) moved in just before Christmas, 1937, and the estate was substantially complete by May 1938. For many of the new residents this was a huge and welcome improvement in their standard of living. Still, there were some complaints.
The climb up to the estate was, naturally, one of these, alongside the high bus fares paid by those who required transport. Typically, the rents were significantly higher, sometimes double, than those charged in the old cottages – over 8 shillings (40 pence) in some of the larger houses. Tenancy regulations which banned trades or business in the new council homes were also a problem to some who had supplemented their income with needlework, net-mending, laundry work and so on.
The biggest grievance – for the 124 potential residents who signed a petition to the Council in March 1937, at least – was the decision to install gas cookers rather than the Cornish cooking ranges which they favoured. (These cast iron ranges provided heating as well as an oven and stove top.) The Council stood firm that the new facilities – ‘provided for the convenience and comfort of those who would have to live in the houses’ – would prove more economical though some residents were to complain about cold and damp in the new homes. (5)
This, of course, is only half the story. Dramatic events were unfolding down in the village as the clearance process moved on and the estate itself was drawn into that controversy. We’ll examine all this in next week’s post.
(1) Quoted in Stef Russell, Cornwall & Scilly Urban Survey, Historic Characterisation for Regeneration: Newlyn (Cornwall Archaeological Unit, October 2003)
(2) Joanne Mattingly, Penwith Project: Housing Issues 1914-34
(3) Michael Sagar-Fenton, The Rosebud and the Newlyn Clearances (Truran, 2003). Much following detail is drawn from the same source which offers the most comprehensive coverage of the extended saga.
(4) ‘Penzance Town Council. £95,380 Housing Scheme for Newlyn’, The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph, 16 January 1936
(5) ‘Penzance Town Council. Reduction of 8d in the Rates’, The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph, 11 March 1937