If you know Winchester – or think you do – you probably think of its cathedral or maybe the College; a county town and one-time capital of England. It’s a beautiful city which I know well and one of the country’s least affordable places to live where the average house costs over £555,000. (1) You probably don’t know it as somewhere with award-winning council estates and a long and proud council housing history.
It’s worth pointing out from the outset that Winchester – even Winchester – was essentially a working-class city for much of the last century. A housing survey in 1919 – we’ll come back to this – estimated that 76 percent of its homes (for a population of around 23,000) were working-class housing. (2)
And, though it lacked large areas of slum housing, some of those homes were in very poor condition. In June 1914, a report of the Medical Officer of Health to that effect had galvanised the City Council to appoint a subcommittee to oversea the ‘erection of not more than 25 houses suitable for the working classes’. Typically, the intention was, in the words of Councillor Hayward, not to provide the cheapest houses but ‘something decent at about 6 shillings [30p] a week’. Whatever the intentions, the war which broke out three months later put paid to such ambitions and the scheme was deferred in March 1915 owing to the increased cost of labour and materials. (3)
Four years later, as that war ground to its bloody conclusion, it provided new pressures but this time to build the ‘Homes for Heroes’ promised by prime minister Lloyd George. It was the 1919 Housing Act which required the survey of housing needs already mentioned and the obligation to meet those needs where necessary. In Winchester, an average of just 33 houses had been built annually in the five years before the war and none at all through its duration. Nonetheless, there was little overcrowding reported but 73 houses were listed as insanitary and requiring demolition; a further 374 could, it was thought, be brought up to standard. The report concluded that 560 new or renovated homes were needed to meet local demand.
One of the earliest efforts ‘to ease the housing difficulty in Winchester’ was to take over hutments provided as married quarters at the now redundant military camp on St Giles Hill. Fifty-seven huts were taken over to provide homes for between 30 to 40 civilian families. They were expected to last between five to ten years. At the same Council meeting in August 1919, it was reported that construction work on land acquired in the south-west of the city at Airlie Road for some 250 houses could begin in October. (4)
The Stanmore Estate was to be a far more prestigious affair. Underway by 1920, the plans expanded to build some 556 houses and eight shops in what’s now known as Lower Stanmore around Cromwell Road, Stuart Crescent and King’s Avenue. The contractors, Messrs Holloway Brothers, built a railway siding on the adjacent mainline to bring materials to the site (horse and cart served to transfer it up the hill) but were hampered by the post-war shortage of skilled labour – it was said 20 bricklayers were working on the scheme which could have employed some 150.
In bare figures, the new estate occupied 110 acres, of which just 53 acres were set aside for housing at 10 houses per acre. The houses, ‘built of brick and roofed in tiles in keeping with the city’, ranged from a single cottage to blocks of six, from two-bed to four bed, with and without parlours. The gardens were small but there were ‘convenient allotments adjoining each group of houses’. (5)
The Council’s laudable commitment to quality was evidenced not only in their choice of contractors but by their appointment of the notable architect William Curtis Green, who designed the houses, and a landscape architect William Dunn responsible for their layout. Dunn made imaginative use of a hilly site, with curved roads and cul-de-sacs centred around a ‘village green’ and shops.
A fulsome article in the local press praised the estate and admonished those locally who would look down on the estate: (6)
It is a safe forecast that in five years’ time these houses will be the most sought after in Winchester for several reasons. First, because the site is a most healthy one and beautifully placed, then because the amenities will be such as will scarcely be equalled in any other part of the city.
These included a bathroom supplied with hot and cold water in every home and ground floors ‘finished on concrete with a lino-like substance, which will make all who now occupy dry-rot houses envious … such a thing as a rat or mouse beneath the floors will be a physical impossibility’. Plans of this ‘model estate’ were shown at the Wembley Exhibition in 1922.
Curtis Green himself later provided further detail in the architectural press, pointing out the estate’s variety – ‘no houses of the same plan are on both sides of the same street’ – and an ingenious internal design which avoided ‘back elevations’:
In nearly every case a back porch is provided in which are placed the doors to the scullery, the WC, and its fuel store, an arrangement that saves the appearance of three external doors. It shields the WC door, forms a convenient place for boot scraping under cover, and it enables the scullery door to be left open in bad weather.
It’s doubtful that the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) noted this particular aspect as he was driven ‘through cheering crowds to the Garden City at Stanmore’ in November 1923 but the commemorative tree he planted to mark the formal opening of the estate remains. (7)
The rents, ranging from 11s 6d (58p) for a two-bed house to 15s 3d (78p) for a three-bedroom parlour home, were typically of council housing of its time relatively high and, in normal circumstances, excluded the less well-off working class. An exception, when in 1922 the rent and rates of two or three unemployed tenants were being met by Poor Law relief, caused much resentment among the local Board of Guardians: ‘the payment is, of course, much in excess of what is usually paid by persons in this position, and consequently the relief given is much higher scale’. (8)
They went on to suggest that the Council, whilst it could not be responsible for changes of circumstance, should avoid letting homes to those on relief ‘unless it is absolutely necessary in consequence of being unable to obtain a house elsewhere’. The Housing Committee responded curtly that it felt ‘quite competent to let their own houses, without assistance from the Guardians’. (8)
If the Council seem the ‘good guys’ in this exchange, the complexity of relations and the competing sensibilities involved are further illustrated by another dispute between the two authorities in 1929. Mr and Mrs Balding and their children had been granted one of the ex-military hutments in 1921 when their then home was condemned as unfit.
There they remained until the last of the hutments was demolished in 1927. Balding, it was said, was ‘a satisfactory tenant in one respect only, that he paid his rent’. Now the husband and wife were occupying ‘for work purposes a disused bakehouse, and had sleeping accommodation elsewhere’; the seven children ‘were kept by the Guardians’. (9)
The Board of Guardians urged the Council to provide a council home and, in this instance, it seems to occupy the moral high ground – though, presumably, it was a solution that also favoured them financially. The Housing Committee’s refusal to rehouse Balding led to a full debate in Council and the opposing positions were expressed concisely. Councillor Hayward stated they ‘were bound to provide houses for the poorer classes. Colonel Ross said their first duty was provide houses for people of satisfactory character’. The latter view prevailed with just two dissentients.
It’s a fascinating insight into the character of earlier council housing and a stark reminder that decent housing must not only be supplied but be made affordable to all that need it, irrespective of supposed character. The Boards of Guardian were abolished in 1930, the last vestiges of the hated Poor Law system in 1948. A discretionary system of rent rebates for council housing began in 1930 but a national system of rent allowances, covering local authority and privately-rented housing, was not introduced till 1973. Recent so-called ‘welfare reforms’ continue to make this a fraught issue.
By 1925 those St Giles Hill hutments were already ‘showing signs of serious dilapidation’; many were not waterproof, many were ‘excessively filthy’. With some 511 houses in the city occupied by more than one family and 101 houses unfit for habitation, the Medical Officer of Health estimated Winchester needed a total of 485 new homes. (10)
Prefabrication had been touted as a cheaper and more efficient way to meet housing needs since the end of the war – the steel-framed Dorlonco system, Airey’s Duo-Slab concrete homes, even a form of adapted Nissen hut, to name but a few. Winchester chose a form of system-built housing which, so far as I know, was unique in Britain – the concrete homes built by Monolithic Concrete Houses, Ltd.
A trial concrete bungalow, ‘built in 14 days by liquid cement poured into moulds’, was opened by the mayor in July 1925. A favourable press report described the new home: (11)
Attractive in appearance, with its green sliding shutters, white stuccoed walls, and red tiled roof, there is nothing at first sight to show that there is any difference between this and ordinary brick and plaster house. Economy, speedy building, and durability are the three essential features of this new invention.
Encouraged and apparently persuaded by the company’s claims that building costs were 18 to 20 percent lower than equivalent brick- and steel-built houses, the Council agreed a contract with the company to build 42 houses at Bar End for £16,212.
The new homes on Milland Road were opened in 1927 and were apparently good enough to persuade the Council to adopt a further scheme of 40 at Fairdown on St Giles Hill where the hutments were about to be demolished. Twenty-eight two-bed houses and 12 three-bed were agreed despite the arguments of the ‘lady members of the Council’ who wanted the proportions reversed. A little later, plans were made to expand the Stanmore Estate; in April, the Council agreed a contract to build 40 three-bed, non-parlour brick and tile houses on Battery Hill. (12)
This was a solidly Conservative council – its first official Labour representative wasn’t elected till 1929 (and he ended up a Conservative mayor but that’s another story). And yet the duty to build council homes and to build at least as well as financial conditions allowed was accepted. Sixty-three three-bed houses were built off Beggar’s Lane in 1929 – St Martin’s Close was agreed as a more suitable name for the new development – and 80 more to the east in Highcliffe from 1932. (13)
There were, in fact, few ‘beggars’ in council homes before the war and the ‘respectability’ of those lucky enough to earn the right to a council tenancy was well policed – by the residents themselves but also by the housing authorities. In 1937, the Council appointed Miss May West as Housing Supervisor. Miss West – the eldest daughter of Mrs Randall Hasking and the late Lieut-Colonel F West – was a member of the Society of Women Housing Estate Managers and a graduate of the Octavia Hill school of housing management. She was recruited from Lancaster Corporation where she must have been schooled by the formidable Miss Baines discussed in an earlier post. (10)
In all, Winchester City Council had built 1128 houses by 1939 – over 700 on its flagship estate at Stanmore, 300 on the Highcliffe and Bar End side of town and a total of 92 at the two smaller sites near St Giles Hill. Seventy-nine percent of these were three-bedroom family homes as was typical of the time. About one in five of the local population lived in council housing. (14)
Winchester would survive the war unscathed but it too took a significant part in the post-war housing drive and would go on to build much more high quality council housing. We’ll talk about that in next week’s post.
(1) Charlie Bradshaw, ‘Housing prices: Winchester one of the most expensive cities in UK’, Winol, 10 May 2019. According to a recent survey, Winchester is the third least affordable town in Britain: Myra Butterworth, ‘Where could you climb the housing ladder?’, Daily Mail, 2 February 2019
(2) RW Breach, ‘Winchester: the community on the eve of the General Strike, 1926’, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club Archaeological Society, vol 39, 1983, pp213-222
(3) ‘Winchester Municipal Matters’, Hampshire Advertiser, 6 June 1914 and ‘The Housing Question’, Hampshire Advertiser, 6 March 1915
(4) ‘The City Council’, Hampshire Advertiser, 9 August 1919
(5) W Curtis Green ARA, Architect, ‘Stanmore Housing Scheme’, The Architect, 2 November 1923
(6) ‘Winchester Housing Plans’, Hampshire Advertiser, 12 June 1920
(7) ‘Prince of Wales at Winchester’, Western Morning News, 8 November 1923
(8) ‘Stanmore Estate Houses: Guardians Resent Winchester Council’s Letter’, Portsmouth Evening News, 31 July 1922
(9) ‘A Difficult Housing Problem’, Hampshire Telegraph, 28 December 1928 and ‘Family Without A Home. Winchester Housing Problem’, Portsmouth Evening News, 8 February 1929
(10) ‘Winchester Housing. Important Report to City Council’, Portsmouth Evening News, 3 April 1925
(11) ‘A Concrete Bungalow Economy, Speedy Building, And Durability’, Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 14 July 1925
(12) ‘Replacing Temporary Hutments’, Portsmouth Evening News, 7 January 1927 and ‘New Building Scheme’, Portsmouth Evening News, 8 April 1927
(13) ‘Another Building Scheme’, Portsmouth Evening News, 2 August 1929 and ‘More Housing Provisions’, Hampshire Telegraph, 13 May 1932
(14) PH Warwick, ‘House Building in Winchester, 1920-1952’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1952