If you’re not from Merseyside, you probably haven’t heard of Birkenhead’s Woodchurch Estate but in 1944 it featured in a Picture Post article which, it was claimed, ‘had repercussions over the Empire’. (1) That might have been an exaggeration but for a time conflicting ideas around the estate’s design dominated not only local politics but generated fierce debate in wider planning and political circles. This post examines that controversy.
First, some background because there had been little previously to suggest that Birkenhead would merit such prominence in housing policy. Unlike its neighbour Liverpool (which had built the first council housing in the country and pursued grandiose housing schemes in the interwar period), Birkenhead’s housing efforts had been modest.
It had grown as a docks and shipbuilding town from the early nineteenth century; from around 200 inhabitants in 1820 to 77,435 when incorporated as a borough in 1877. Eleven years later and 22,000 inhabitants larger, it became a County Borough.
That rapid growth had created appalling housing conditions for Birkenhead’s working-class population. The Queen’s Buildings (better known locally as the ‘Dock Cottages’ or just the ‘Blocks’), constructed in 1846 and financed by the major local employer John Laird, had been one early effort to ameliorate such conditions – 350 dwellings in four-storey blocks; built to the ‘Scotch’ plan (Laird hailed from Greenock) and claimed to be the first multi-storey tenements in England. Despite their compact design and dense layout, the flats themselves – equipped with a cold-water supply, gas burner, two iron bedsteads and a WC – were advanced for their day.
The later council, for its part, proceeded more cautiously, clearing some 388 unfit houses but building just 18 cottages and 88 tenements to replace them by 1910. (2) Its first major housebuilding scheme – the Gilbrook Estate in Prenton, north Birkenhead – was planned in 1917 but completed, to modified design, after the war. The Council also purchased and renovated the Dock Cottages to let as council housing in the 1920s.
The ideological preferences of the Conservative-controlled council – or perhaps an early version of the current preference for ‘mixed communities’ – were shown by the development of the Tranmere Hall Estate in the 1920s where, unusually, 400 of the homes were built for sale, available for purchase from the Council under the advantageous terms offered by the Small Dwellings Act.
When it came to the purchase of an area of farmland in the centre of the Wirral peninsula beyond the then boundaries of the Borough – what would become the Woodchurch Estate – in 1926, the Council was even more ambitious. There was a suggestion that the area could be developed along Garden City lines (though without self-governance) with land sold to developers on a leasehold basis and revenues accruing to the local authority. Meanwhile, the Council approached one of the most prominent architects and planners of the day, TH Mawson, a lecturer at Liverpool’s prestigious School of Civic Design, elected president of the Town Planning Institute in 1923.
Mawson’s first recommendations were made in 1927; a more complete illustrated and typewritten report in 1929. He promised: (3)
a scheme that shall be of benefit … to posterity – aesthetically, hygienically, practically and in every way … the nicest and most tasteful of its kind in the Kingdom.
It was a plan explicitly referencing the arts and crafts ideals of William Morris and Raymond Unwin and the principles of the 1918 Tudor Walters Report. Mawson talked of wide grass verges and tree-lined streets, even the ‘somewhat unusual step’ of planting roses instead of trees along some of the best streets. As to the housing itself, it reflected the usual reality of a ‘mixed community’ – large houses for the wealthy, lesser versions for the middle class, and small, terraced homes (at council rent) for the working class though he suggested the latter be built around ‘little town squares’ to avoid monotony.
I could write more but the formal adoption of Mawson’s plans was deferred and then, at some point in the mid-1930s, quietly abandoned. That controversy I teased you with is yet to come though the ideas raised here around ‘community’ would be central to later discussion.
Elsewhere, planning continued. By 1939, land for what became the Mount Estate in Prenton had been purchased and Borough Engineer Bertie Robinson drew up plans for a garden suburb of some 502 homes. War would delay their implementation but the Corporation had built around 4500 council homes by the outbreak of war in 1939.
Birkenhead suffered heavily from that war; 2079 houses were destroyed by bombing and 26,000 seriously damaged. Some 3464 people lost their lives. But planning for better tomorrow began early. In 1944, Bertie Robinson unveiled new plans for the Woodchurch Estate. At around the same time, the Council appointed Professor Charles Reilly as a planning consultant with a brief to produce an outline plan for post-war Birkenhead as a whole. Reilly had been Professor of Architecture at the University of Liverpool from 1904 to his retirement in 1933; a charismatic figure, better known as an influential educator than as practitioner.
Robinson published details of his scheme in The Builder in November 1944. He first described the site in the Fender Valley: 457 acres of which the large municipally-owned Arrowe Park, containing golf course, bowling greens and football pitches, would be retained and the ‘attractive suburb’ of Upton conserved. So far as the residential areas were concerned, he proposed ‘a garden city for the purpose of housing on the basis of a neighbourhood unit’. (4)
In terms of layout, he planned two 100-foot boulevards in the form of a cross in a central square – these had given, he claimed, ‘the scheme the title of the “Green Cross”’ – and a 60-foot boulevard from which the estate’s service roads would radiate. These should be laid out on ‘attractive lines with grass verges, shrubs, trees and gradual curves’. There would be little encouragement to traffic ‘other than that serving the estate itself’.
The estate as a whole was conceived as containing 2540 homes, serving a population of around 10,800 – a range of two, three, four and five-bedroom houses ‘suitable for north or south aspect’ built in ‘blocks of two, up to terraces of eight’ and set back to ‘varying building lines’.
With a central and two subsidiary shopping areas and provision for 156 shops in all, a public hall and community centre, 22.5 acres of allotments, ten schools and a ‘Young People’s College’, and plentiful open space, it was an ambitious and considered scheme which reflected contemporary planning ideas around community-focused design to improve on the widely criticised form and character of the interwar cottage suburbs.
Enter Reilly. He described: (5)
not liking very much the look of this layout which was on ordinary garden suburb lines … I suggested to the Borough Engineer that we should make a new layout plan together.
Less emolliently, in an article in the left-wing journal Tribune, he called Robinson’s scheme ‘a damn bad plan’. When Robinson rejected his offer to collaborate, Reilly, in his own words, ‘explained the ideas I thought would be welcomed everywhere and told him he would make his name by it if he did’.
Reilly’s uninvited intervention and the spat, at least on Reilly’s side, which developed then became a much larger controversy. In essence, as they were further developed, Reilly’s alternative plans contained one big idea – the greens around which housing would be grouped. He explained them in an April 1944 report in the Birkenhead News:
The motives of the scheme are the English Village Green and the small squares of the country town, where children can play and neighbours see one another and retain the friendliness of the little streets and slums. With pairs of semi-detached houses on the curved roads of the Garden Suburb type of plan this friendliness … turns to suburban snobbishness through not seeing and knowing one’s neighbours. The houses look away from one another and the people too.
Later, he expanded his attack on suburbia:
Why was there such a contempt with novelists for suburbia? It was because it bred a narrowness of outlook, in which the team spirit was not developed. It lacked the intellectual development which came from sharpening one’s wits … allowing everyone to play with his own toy castle had produced an anti-social spirit.
In this, Reilly, of course, reflected much of the inverted snobbery directed towards the suburbs then and now.
He also articulated an architect’s disdain for tradespeople as represented here by the poor Borough Engineer:
Without being in any way personal, as an architect, I feel the layout of houses for human habitation is not in the first place an engineer’s job. The engineer’s training in steel construction in drains and such like inhuman things does not fit him for it. It is not humane enough. The architect however, is always thinking in terms of human lives. He, I suggest, should do the planning and the engineer keep him straight on the mechanical side.
Robinson kept his own counsel through all this though he had written thoughtfully – admittedly in measured bureaucratic tones – on housing in an article for a professional journal in 1936. (5)
However, beyond the interpersonal disputes, there were planning ideas. Reilly himself described his concept for communal greens as ‘a semi-new planning principle’. It owed much to Unwin’s quadrangles and had similarities to the bowling greens of nearby Port Sunlight. His general critique of suburbia and, in particular, the Corporation suburbia of peripheral council estates, was certainly highly topical and gained traction from the publication in May 1944 of the government-sponsored Dudley Report on the Design of Dwellings which was similarly critical.
And beyond the planning talk, there was politics – a politics writ large by wartime conditions and post-war aspirations. At its simplest, this was party politics, and in Birkenhead the debate over the contending plans split along purely political lines. The ruling Conservative Party favoured Robinson’s scheme and the insurgent Labour opposition favoured and campaigned powerfully for what had now become known as the Reilly Plan.
Here, it elided easily with the wider issue of housing shortage; by July 1945, there were 2300 on Birkenhead’s council housing waiting list and, it was said, 150 fresh applications weekly. The debate over Woodchurch was, crudely, a useful local wedge issue.
But it was much more than this. It spoke too to what was really a unique moment in British history – a time when passionate debate around a new, more modern and better Britain to emerge in peacetime conditions dominated. Speaking at the annual Labour Conference in December 1944, Harold Laski declared that ‘for Socialists the war was each day more fully an ideological war’. The sacrifice it demanded of those who fought: (7)
can be justified in one way only. It will be justified by the degree in which the Socialist commonwealth becomes the inheritance of the civilisation we are seeking to reshape.
That conference went on to pass a resolution that ‘the community basis of town planning, as illustrated by Professor Sir Charles Reilly’s plan for Woodchurch estate, Birkenhead, would best serve post-war housing needs’.
In the Picture Post article referred to, Caradoc Williams, secretary of Birkenhead Trades Council, declared his own support for the Reilly Plan with the spirit, if not the rhetoric, of Laski:
I believe it is in accordance with the community spirit developed during the war. Public opinion here wants a progressive plan. After all, the men out there are fighting for decent homes, not only for houses.
Mary Mercer, a former Labour councillor, saw ‘a spirit in the Reilly Plan … the spirit of the New Britain’. Birkenhead Tories less so.
For Councillor Guy Williams:
The whole idea of Professor Reilly’s Plan is to foster community spirit. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. But if a man doesn’t feel community-minded, he should thank God for a 5-ft hedge around his house.
For Lawrence Wolfe, who must have read this article, there could not have been a clearer expression of the ‘isolationist way of life’ he believed so damaging to the British psyche and society. It was Wolfe who, in 1945, most passionately advocated The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life (as his book was titled). (8)
For him, it was a panacea to all psychological and social ills. The book provides a greatly expanded and highly prescriptive exposition of Reilly’s plans including the proposal that the Community Centre provide ‘a Restaurant and Meals Service’, supplying meals in large containers to nursery schools and ‘in small thermos containers’ to individuals. Wolfe went on to address contemporary concerns about the birth rate and sexual behaviour: ‘Under the Reilly Plan early marriage is easy and normal’; ‘sexual immorality outside marriage also diminishes’; venereal disease declines; and the birth rate would rise.
Wolfe went on, at his most fanciful, to evoke not only a New Britain but a Merry England:
In the village green world dancing is not confined to special times and places. People dance when they feel like it – and they often do. Impromptu merry-making would look crazy in the middle of an isolationist street; on the green it looks perfectly natural and the passer-by, far from being tolerantly amused or even scandalised, is more likely to join in.
Reilly’s introduction to the book rather disarmingly notes:
the many implications [Wolfe] has found in the plan which, I confess, I did not fully see when I drew it … he, I am glad to say, discerns many further advantages in what I thought was merely a natural expression of neighbourliness.
The reality is that this was very much Wolfe’s vision, the Reilly Plan his chosen vehicle, but the 71-year-old Reilly, ever the keen publicist of his own ideas and role, was happy to go along with it.
For all the storm and stress, the Council – dividing on party lines – had endorsed Robinson’s scheme in February 1944. A proposal from Labour leader Charles McVey for an inquiry into the rival proposals was defeated in July.
That, however, was not quite the end of the Reilly Greens. The idea was taken up enthusiastically, with Reilly’s active participation, in the Black Country boroughs of Bilston and Dudley. Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, no less, commended it in his major speech introducing the second reading of the New Towns Bill in May 1946: ‘the experiment was about to be tried in Bilston…and he would watch it with interest’. (9) In the end, the concept was applied in much diluted form. (10) Reilly himself died in February 1948.
Back in Birkenhead, in March 1945, the Council approved final plans for the Woodchurch Estate – not Reilly’s, nor Robinson’s, but new proposals drawn up by the Liverpool architect Herbert J Rowse. Next week’s post examines this story and the longer story of the Woodchurch Estate that emerged from this extraordinary episode.
(1) Maurice Edelman, ‘Planning Post-War Britain: the Example of Birkenhead’, Picture Post, 8 July 1944
(2) William Thompson, Municipal Housing in England and Wales (1910)
(3) Margaret H Taylor, ‘Creating a Municipal Gemeinschaft? Disputations of Community’, Manchester Metropolitan University MPhil, 2013. Following detail is also drawn from this source.
(4) B Robinson, ‘Woodchurch estate, Birkenhead; Planner: B. Robinson, Borough Engineer’, The Builder, November 24, 1944
(5) Quoted in Lilian Potter, ‘National Tensions in the Post War Planning of Local Authority Housing and ‘The Woodchurch Controversy’, University of Liverpool PhD, 1998. The following quotation is drawn from the same source.
(6) B Robinson, ‘Some Snags in Housing Schemes’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol 57, no 1, 1936
(7) ‘Labour Policy’, The Times, December 12 1944
(8) Lawrence Woolf, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life (Nicholson and Watson, 1945). The author’s name is a nom-de-plume and, despite speculation, very little is known about him.
(9) ‘House of Commons’ The Times , May 9 1946
(10) This episode is discussed fully in Peter J. Larkham, New suburbs and UK post-war reconstruction: the fate of Charles Reilly’s “greens”, Birmingham: University of Central England, School of Planning and Housing, 2004, and in Peter Richmond, Marketing Modernisms: The Architectural and Cultural Consequence of Sir Charles Reilly, University of Liverpool PhD, 1997.