I’m delighted to host this article by Chas Townley which is not only a fascinating account of some early council housing in Dursley, Gloucestershire but a significant contribution to the debate around the significance of a pre-war spurt in council house construction pre-dating the 1919 Housing Act. This first post examines the background to the scheme; the follow-up will examine the scheme in detail.
Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control’ authority in Gloucestershire. He is currently chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing. He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision.
I have the privilege to be Chair of Housing at Stroud District Council which this year has been a housing provider for 105 years, despite still only being 45 years old! This arises from the construction of 38 working class cottages by Dursley Rural District Council, one of seven pre-1974 rural and urban districts which served our patch. (1)
While it remains a housing provider the council has not built at scale since schemes were planned in the late 1970s, although we have delivered a programme of new council homes over the last five or six years, mainly to replace defective housing or utilise sites in Council ownership. We aspire to more but this isn’t the place to write about the future.
As a local historian, I am presently trying to piece together the motives that drove at least four of our predecessors to actively contemplate housing schemes in their areas in the Edwardian era. In addition to the Dursley scheme, two other sites at Wotton-under-Edge and Stroud had been purchased already and active discussions were taking place elsewhere, before the skids were put on further progress by the chaos of war in August 1914.
While at first glance the Stroud District is very much a rural area with stunning landscapes in the Cotswolds and the world-renowned Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands on the Severn Estuary, it has an industrial heritage to compete with places like Ironbridge or the Black Country. Maybe I’m just a little biased but we have a fantastic industrial heritage story.
Near Stroud, Edwin Budding invented the lawnmower, developed from machinery in the cloth industry. If that wasn’t enough, he also gave us the adjustable spanner; What good toolbox is without one of those?
In the south of the District, the growth of Dursley had been greatly influenced by the development of RA Lister and Co as a major engineering company famed for its diesel engines which started life as an agricultural implements company in 1867. Sadly what little remains – not even based in Dursley – is a minuscule reminder of the past successes of its enterprise and innovation.
Much of the industry was linked to the woollen industry and our council offices are a converted mill – as is the headquarters of Renishaw, a world leading engineering and scientific company. The last remaining cloth firm, once famed for its scarlet for military uniforms, remains in production producing vibrant yellow and green for tennis and snooker.
And perhaps it is worth remembering that the industrialisation of the weaving industry was the start of a long tradition of active trade unions defending the rights and working conditions of employees.
Collectivism also extended to strong support for the Cooperative movement and some towns and villages at one time boasted 50 percent participation. The main society in the area, the Cainscross and Ebley, in addition to renting out cottages also supported home ownership. Fifty loans had been granted, mostly in the Dursley area, perhaps indicating this was an area with enormous housing demand, but this activity was small fry – the neighbouring Gloucester society claimed to have given out 700 loans! (2)
The links of industrialists to our predecessor councils are well known but it is worth remembering that our councils represented all shades of opinion – as they do today. Bramwell Hudson, the inspirational general manager of the Coop for much of the early years began his sixteen-year stint as Chairman of Stroud RDC on his retirement from the Coop in 1928.
And, of course, we find amongst the women on our councils Margaret Hills, who learnt her political craft in the suffrage movement. She too was inspirational and could hold a packed Manchester Free Trade Hall audience in the palm of her hand. As Stroud UDC Chair of Housing, she developed housing for older people back in the early 1930s.
While this article is relatively early thoughts on our predecessors’ initiative, I am convinced they were responding to a housing crisis which is probably of as great an impact as we face today; Gloucestershire’s inspirational community action was not some isolated action but part of a national response to a growing crisis. For example, in the 1917 debate about whether Gloucester City should support an initial 200 dwelling post-war scheme, in response to Government requests, Councillor Fielding (a partner in the now lamented Fielding and Platt Company) highlighted a successful housing scheme undertaken by Hereford City Council. (3)
The Government Minister who created the impetus for action was John Burns, a trade unionist who served as President of the Local Government Board from 1905 until 1914 when he was moved to another Ministry. As a pacifist, he inevitably resigned from Government on Britain entering the Great War and never again played an active part in national politics.
Burns’ influence on housing policy and the wider ‘activist’ role for local government before the Great War is underrated. In part, this is because he did not make the transition to the Labour Party and remained as a radical in the Liberal Party. On the other hand, there are significant anti-Semitic character flaws which do not make for comfortable reading today.
In the period before Burns there had been considerable complacency about poor housing conditions. When Rider Haggard (Yes, he of King Solomon’s Mines) visited Gloucestershire as part of national agricultural survey in 1901, he interviewed Dr Martin, the Medical Officer of Health for a combined area covering three councils in the Stroud area. Haggard reported that: (4)
The cottages were fair with good gardens, and there were few cases of overcrowding; still he had been obliged to condemn some of them.
Martin’s own Medical Officer of Health reports for this period are similar in tone with a degree of blame on tenants for poor conditions. (5)
Burns, through the Housing and Planning Act 1909 (which our Dr Martin had claimed ‘was one of the most important public health Acts of recent years’), instigated systematic inspection of housing conditions in the whole area of each District. This had been actively opposed by one of the local government associations of the day and one of Dr Martin’s employers, Stroud Rural District Council, joined the campaign to oppose this as they thought it was an unneeded imposition on the council and there was nothing to see here.
Systematic inspection had instant results. In Bristol over 1000 unfit properties were found in the first year, many were improved but 110 were closed, an astonishing increase on the average of just twenty in previous years. Perhaps, a lesson from history as to why we need to rediscover the zeal for high levels of inspections of housing standards? (6)
While it is difficult to be certain of the numbers in Gloucestershire rural districts the language used in annual reports of the Medical Officers of Health significantly changed to one of heightened concern with poor housing conditions and a failing housing market, with carefully crafted polite encouragements to members to act, usually based on external evidence. (7)
Such appointments were precarious before one of Burns’ reforms as they served at the (dis)pleasure of the council, often relying on annual reappointment. In Gloucestershire one such victim was Dr Thomas Bond who was sacked by Sodbury Rural District Council in 1905. He retained the confidence of other employers and had the temerity to write about his grievous injustice publicly. His cause was taken up nationally and eventually he was reinstated following Government action. (8)
Within Stroud area there is also strong evidence of political campaigns by Liberals, Conservatives and the relatively new Labour and Trades Council to advocate for council housing in the period from 1910 onwards rising with intensity to copy Dursley and also Cirencester. (9)
In the Stroud Rural District, under pressure of campaigning, surveys had identified an urgent need for additional lower cost housing in five of seventeen parishes. In the case of the village of Minchinhampton, the cause was blamed on the number of properties owned by ‘weekenders’ who then remodelled cottage properties to their needs – apparently at the expense of local manual workers. The impact of second homes remains of concern today across many rural areas like the Cotswolds. (10)
An odd feature of Rural Districts was the allocation of some costs as ‘special expenses’ rated on specific areas of the District – usually but not always a whole parish. This approach resulted in cost shunting the risk of deficits on specific housing schemes to relatively small groups of ratepayers. Consequently, schemes were limited to parishes that were prepared to meet the additional rate costs.
Frank Gwynne Evans, was the Stroud Constituency Liberal prospective parliamentary candidate for the impending 1915 General Election (which never took place due to the war). As a member of Stroud RDC and he argued that if the cost was spread across the district the amount would be ‘infinitesimal and would be repaid in short time by the relief of the poor rate, chronic rheumatism and consumption’. Such arguments as this for collective sharing of costs led to the creation of the Housing Revenue Account as the blessing and curse that we enjoy today.
On a national scale the support for council housing led to several attempts to provide better finance systems, including a recognition for the need for government grants to local authorities, rather than permissions to borrow on the security of the rates.
There are of course interesting modern ironies of positions then taken. The debate on the Housing of the Working Classes Bill 1912, a private member’s bill sponsored by a Conservative MP, advocated subsidised rents, national grants, transfer of functions to county councils and a significant degree of central control. It was opposed in debate by a succession of Liberals who derided subsidies as ‘charity rents’. In one case a member arguing they would ‘destroy private enterprise altogether’. There were also references of returning to the dependency created by the old poor law some eighty years before. (11)
Some of the Conservative MPs argued that the level of new council housing building was too low to replace the houses lost under the compulsory inspection of housing conditions. In part this appears to be part of a strategy to question the justification of focusing on increasing standards at a time of housing shortage as well as trying to embarrass the Liberal Government for their failure to meet needs.
The relatively small number of Labour members described as occupying seats ‘below the gangway’ – which has been the traditional home of minor parties for generations – supported municipal housing with a passion and perhaps an ideological zeal. George Lansbury in his contribution stated ‘quite cheerfully I shall go into the [Tory] Lobby in support of the second reading.’ And, of course, the reason there are no female voices in this debate is that women were still fighting to be admitted to our legislature.
That bill, like so many private members’ bills even today, suffered the indignity of not making progress as the Liberal Government of the day refused to support a money bill, leading to its demise. A question I know not how to answer is whether, if progress had been made, would the Griffith-Boscawen Act have been a notable housing act? Perhaps it was bound to fail?
Next week’s post, however, will examine the successful scheme commenced in Dursley before the First World War.
Chas Townley (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(1) These are the Urban Districts of Stroud and Nailsworth and the Rural Districts of Stroud and Dursley and parts of the Thornbury and Gloucester Rural Districts. Additionally, a 1991 boundary review transferred Hillesley and Tresham formerly in in the Sodbury Rural District from the Northavon District to Stroud.
(2) Unpublished research by Chas Townley on Cainscross and Ebley Cooperative Society based on society records at Gloucestershire Archives (D2754/2)
(3) ‘Gloucester City Council: The Housing Question’, Gloucester Journal, 29 September 1917 p7. This proposal eventually became the original scheme of 200 post-war homes built in Tuffley in the south of Gloucester.
(4) Rider Haggard, Rural England: Being an account of agricultural and social researches carried out in the years 1901 & 1902 (Longmans, London 1902)
(5) See for example Dr H Martin, MOH Annual Report to Stroud UDC 1909 where he considers the condition of working class housing is generally good and notes “but of necessity in so large a town a certain number of houses are in an unsatisfactory state owing to neglect on the part of either the owners or the occupiers”. Wellcome Archive
(6) Dr DS Davies, Bristol City Council, Medical Officer of Health Annual Report 1912. Available online at the Wellcome Library
(7) Dr O Andrews, Medical Officer of Health Annual Report 1913; West Gloucestershire United Districts Housing and Planning Conference Report p14. Online at Welcome Library
(8) Dr Bond, letter concerning Chipping Sodbury Council and Dr Bond
(9) Petition to Stroud RDC by Stroud Trades and Labour Council reported in ‘Housing Problem in Stroud District Special Committee’s Report’, Cheltenham Echo, 24 April 1914, p3. Also Stroud Conservative Workingmen’s Debating Society considered a paper on building council housing at one of their regular meetings in 1913.
(10) ‘Housing Problem in Stroud District Special Committee’s Report’, Cheltenham Echo 24 April 1914, p3
(11) Housing of the Working Classes Bill Second Reading Debate, Hansard Vol 35 Col 1414-1494, 15 March 1912.