I’m very pleased to host this second post by Chas Townley, a follow-up to his article last week which looked at the background to Dursley’s pre-war housing scheme. 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.
Returning to Dursley and our 38 first houses, the decision to investigate providing housing started in January 1912 as a result of a circular letter from the Government which offered meetings with officials to assist the council. They also had information from Cirencester Urban District Council, which was already seeking to build houses with rents of 4 shillings a week. Dursley Rural District Council (RDC) members considered this to be far too much rent for ‘the workmen they were concerned about in the area’ – as the rents of those to be evicted from their closed hovels had very low rents. (1)
Despite such early negativity discussions proceeded and a news report of the Dursley Annual Parish Meeting addressed by Mr Sidney Bloodworth, Chairman of the Dursley Parochial Committee (DPC) and Vice-Chairman of the RDC presented a narrative on why they were looking to build council housing.
It is worth explaining the membership of the DPC which was a Dursley RDC committee consisting of all parish councillors and any RDC members representing the Parish of Dursley. I have come across this form of committee in several researches and it appears to have been a normal method of delegating purely local matters for action. Sadly, as they appear to have operated on an ad hoc basis their records have rarely made it into the official archives. In this case my account is based on occasional newspaper reports.
Bloodworth reports the dilemma that the RDC faced following the Housing and Planning act which ‘demanded the closing of houses which were declared unfit for human habitation’ and that the District Council ‘wanted to be assured that there was somewhere else for them to go’. It is stated that the condemned houses were let at a shilling or 1 shilling and 6d per week (5p to 7.5p). It was admitted that it was impossible to build at anything like that rental ‘without being a burden on the rates’.
They had approached the owner of a site on the Uley Road and ended up conducting discussions with Mr Vizard through his drawing room window overlooking the site with him posing the question pointing at the land ‘Now, if this was your house would you like to sell that field?’ Consequently, he was not prepared to sell at any price. The idea of compulsorily purchasing the site had been gone into but it transpired that compensation would have had to be paid for the devaluation in the house overlooking the site. Another site was now under consideration and it was hoped to reach agreement with the two owners but it would be necessary to remove a rubbish tip.
An argument against funding the housing was advanced suggesting that the ‘firm that imported the labour which overcrowded the town should provide the dwellings and the Parochial Committee should ask them.’ Counter-arguments claimed that workers should not have to live in houses provided by their employer.
Later in the debate Sir Ashton Lister spoke on behalf of the engineering firm stating they were not the only employer in the town and that ‘if the town did not think the building would be in the interest of the town, then they should not endorse the scheme’. In the discussion he commented that the firm had erected 64 houses and bought 20. Lister also believed there was a need for a further 50 houses in the town.
Despite the passion and heat of the debate the meeting was brought to a close with a unanimous decision to request the DPC to prepare a scheme. (2)
By July an Inspector from the Local Government Board visited the town and was accompanied by a large group of local councillors and inspected some housing sites, the preferred site in two separate ownerships of a Mrs Poole and Bristol Corporation – hence the scheme being in Upper Poole Road.
Agreement had been reached with Mrs Poole but Bristol Corporation were reported to want a ‘ridiculously high value’ on their land. The inspector was shown a variety of other sites including the garden of the workhouse. The report concludes by noting ‘the opinion of the Inspector was that there were two possible sites to choose from’ which are understood to be the Upper Poole Road site and the land they could not purchase at any price. (3)
It now transpired from an enquiry from a member of the House of Lords that the compulsory purchase powers could not be used to obtain the land from Bristol Corporation and John Burns had written that the Rural District Council had been advised to consider a smaller scheme or a slightly different site. (4)
Later than month, a press report referring to the DPC as the Dursley Housing Committee noted that they wanted to persevere with the Poole Cottages scheme and would enter further negotiations with Bristol Corporation. It is suspected that these were fruitless and the scheme was designed to fit the land available, but ironically four or five years later Bristol flogged off the whole of their Dursley land holdings by auction. (5)
It was reported in November 1912 that 150 architects had applied for particulars of the design competition. The rent was not to exceed 4 shillings and 6d (22.5p) and the accommodation was specified as being one living room, three bedrooms, kitchen, scullery with bath and also larder, etc. (6)
Later in the month Arthur Probyn, a 46 year-old architect and surveyor from Gloucester, was announced as the winner. It transpired later that his was one of 40 designs submitted. (7) From newspaper reports, Probyn undertook works for various organisations mainly in Gloucester including the Gloucester Cooperative Society, the Gloucester Royal Infirmary (at their original Southgate Street premises) and he was one of seven architects engaged on the Tuffley housing scheme in 1920. He was also architect for a school hall for Dursley Tabernacle completed in 1914 and perhaps this scheme meant he was a known quantity. (8)
When it came to the official Board of Health loan sanction inquiry held in March 1913 before the same Inspector who had considered the appropriateness of the site chosen there were no formal objectors. However, Mr Loxton, a member of the Rural District Council who had provided critical challenge to the project, explained some of the deficiencies that had been considered to exist in the scheme including whether the site was sufficient for the number of houses and whether the scheme could be built within the estimated costs.
When the tenders came in in August 1913, all of the tenders exceeded the original estimates. As is often the case, the cheapest from S Williams & Sons of Bristol at £7030 did not represent good value as it excluded the cost of roads and drains. W J B Halls Gloucester £8050 was the next lowest with the highest of seven including being nearly £10,000. One bid had been from Lister & Co, suggesting they had their own building team. It is interesting to note that the actual tender costs all appeared in the newspaper, transparency indeed! Even with Halls’ tender the consequence was to increase both the loan for the scheme and the proposed rent from 4s 6d to as high as 6 shillings.
Given the high level of democracy attached to the scheme, a parish meeting was held to ascertain the views of ratepayers and this is reported at length in the Gloucester Journal. Much of the debate focused on the rental costs with, for example, Arthur Shand arguing that the ‘rent was too high for the working man of Dursley’ and Mr A S Adams suggesting ‘the council would be catering for an entirely different class of people to that which was originally intended’. There were some voices that the Council should abandon the scheme.
The result was that the DPC was asked to go away and find a way to build the houses for rents of 4s 6d, which was way off the original concern felt by Council members back in January 1912 – perhaps showing that the council by inclusion had taken the community with them. It is notable that, despite the contentious nature of the meeting, it was unanimous in thanking DPC ‘for their labours on behalf of the working men of the town’. (9)
In the face of community protest, which wanted low rents, local industrialist Sir Ashton Lister, owner of an expanding engineering factory and later a Liberal MP, dipped his hand in his pocket and gave £500 on condition rents were 5 shillings a week. (10) Was this an act of ‘charity’ that his Party in Parliament condemned or enlightened self-interest – perhaps the latter as he had already supported the provision of housing by his company. Consequently, when the matter came before the fortnightly meeting of the District Council, it was agreed to make application for an increased loan of £7852 to enable the housing scheme to be built. (11)
The contract which was let to Halls of Gloucester provided for the first block of four houses to be completed by 31 January 1914 and then two houses to be handed over every two weeks until the scheme was completed. An attempt was made to invite John Burns MP, President of the Local Government Board, to inaugurate the housing scheme but he advised the Council he was unable to attend. (12)
If you do your maths that means the last two were due to be handed over on 26 September 1914 but completion of the scheme wasn’t reported until January 1915, suggesting that there were some delay in completing the scheme. The newspaper columnist was able to report, ‘It has been stated on good authority that no better housing scheme has been formulated under the Housing and Planning Act anywhere in the country.’ (13)
To be frank, as the 38 houses had been shoehorned into the available land with 28 on one site between Upper Poole Road and Lower Poole Road and the remaining ten a short distance further up Upper Poole Road, it was not an adventurous design. It does not have the smart landscaping of later developments like the Circle in Uplands Stroud but this collection of eight terraces of four houses along with three pairs of semis, all built in very solid red brick, was a well-designed scheme with large windows to provide plenty of light.
As such it is perhaps a story of opportunity and chance that Dursley was one of a handful of Districts in Gloucestershire to have built council housing before the war. In fairness, the actual numbers built were pretty small but it is important to recognise the widespread way in which councils of all complexions had started to develop the aspiration that they could respond to local needs by increasing the supply of homes for the working class.
I’m not such a curmudgeon that I don’t think we shouldn’t celebrate Lloyd George’s Homes Fit for Heroes or the sea change achieved by Addison’s 1919 Act. But we also need to celebrate the heavy lifting of John Burns and the pre-war campaigners that created the environment in which building local democratically-controlled council housing was accepted as the obvious policy choice for a post-war Government to encourage.
Chas Townley (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(1) Gloucestershire Chronicle, 6 January 1912
(2) ‘The Housing Question in Dursley’, Gloucester Journal, 16 March 1912, p3
(3) ‘Dursley: The Housing Question’, Gloucester Citizen, 24 July 1912, p3
(4) ‘Dursley Housing Scheme Local Government Board’s Suggestion’, Gloucester Citizen, 8 August 1912, p5
(5) ‘Dursley: Dursley District Council’, Gloucestershire Chronicle, 31 August 1912′ p2
(6) ‘General News: Dursley Housing Scheme’, Gloucestershire Echo, 5 November 1912, p3
(7) Gloucester Journal, 1 February 1913, p11
(8) ‘Gloucester’s New Houses: Some Rapidly Nearing Completion’, Gloucestershire Chronicle, 4 September 1920, p6. Also Cheltenham Chronicle, 8 July 1914
(9) ‘Dursley Housing Scheme Parishioners Disapprove’, Gloucester Journal, 23 August 1913, p11
(10) ‘Timely Gift of Sir A Lister Dursley Housing Scheme Rescued’, Cheltenham Chronicle, 6 September 1913, p7
(11)’Dursley Guardians and District Council’, Gloucester Journal, 6 September 1913, p11 and also ‘Sir A Lister and Dursley Housing’, Evesham Standard & West Midland Observer, 27 September 1913, p6
(12) Gloucester Journal, 21 February 1914, p10
(13) Berkeley Vale Gleanings: Dursley Housing Scheme’, Cheltenham Chronicle, 9 January 1915, p3