JB Priestley visited Gateshead in 1933. It’s fair to say he wasn’t impressed: (1)
If there is any town of like size in Europe that can show a similar lack of civic dignity and all the evidences of an urban civilisation, I should like to know its name … No true civilisation could have produced such a town.
I’ll annoy some locals today by harking back to that pejorative view and, unsurprisingly, at the time the town’s politicians and press were outraged. The Journal noted that Priestley ‘was accompanied by vile weather and a severe cold in his head’ and lamented that the latter hadn’t ‘kept Mr Priestley confined to his hotel’. Others, more objectively, pointed to the contemporary impact of the Great Depression. (2)
Of course, in defence of Priestley, his English Journey was intended to highlight exactly the inequality he described so damningly; the poverty of parts of England which might already have been described as ‘left behind’. And his social commentary would play its own part in the project to build a better Britain in the aftermath of World War Two.
There had, in any case, already been attempts to improve local conditions, seen in the Borough’s slum clearance schemes and grand new housing estates. These would continue and Gateshead, both in terms of scale and innovation, would be among the leaders in efforts to better house the working class. It was not, however, among the pioneers and, naturally, as we shall see, it didn’t get everything right in its own journey.
Gateshead was another of the boom towns of the Britain’s nineteenth-century industrial revolution, growing from a population of 8597 in 1801 to 85,692 just ninety years later: a municipal borough in 1835 and a county borough in 1889. That breakneck growth created the slum conditions one might expect but the regular appeals of the borough’s Medical Officer of Health to use the building powers granted by the 1890 Housing Act went unheeded. A committee of the Council convened to consider the issue in 1899 concluded: (3)
They saw no reason for the building of workingmen’s dwellings by the Corporation as there was always plenty of that class of house to be procured within reasonable distance.
If that were an apparently practical objection to state intervention, personal and ideological opposition were perhaps stronger. The Liberal alderman William Henry Dunn believed ‘dirty people made dirty houses’; he ‘would not interfere with their pleasure in filth’. A few years later, Alderman Robert Affleck, whose family were among Gateshead’s major private developers, opposing a later housing bill suggested that it would:
filch away the liberty of the subject. Occupants of lodging houses, people who often would make no effort to better their environment, were by this Bill to be given the same privileges as ordinary citizens.
In fact, the Council did close almost 390 tenements as unfit for human habitation under sanitary legislation prior to the First World War. But the hostility to outside intervention was extended even to private philanthropy when, in 1911, it rejected a proposal by the Sutton Trust to build its own ‘model dwellings’ for the working class. They were built in Newcastle instead.
In a similar fashion as late as 1917, the Council peremptorily rejected the offer made by the Local Government Board promising ‘substantial financial assistance from public funds’ to local councils prepared to implement approved programmes of working-class housing.
Yet, just two years later, the Council acknowledged the need to build 1950 houses in three years. The explanation lay, firstly, in the changed politics of the post-war era and the commitment made by prime minister Lloyd George – but seemingly accepted across the political spectrum – ‘to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in’. Secondly, the Council was now subject to the legislative mandate of the 1919 Housing Act which required all authorities not only to undertake a survey of local housing needs but prepare concrete plans to meet them. In Gateshead, one in three working-class families was found to be living in overcrowded conditions.
The changed times were obvious well before the new Housing Act received the Royal Assent in July 1919. The Council had established a Housing Committee in February. A town hall meeting, convened by local churchmen in April and addressed by housing reformer Seebohm Rowntree, added pressure from below. The Council purchased 65 acres of land at Carr Hill and Sheriff Hill for building purposes and appointed local architect Richard Wylie to design the new schemes.
Then the Council faltered before initial plans for just 360 new homes were revised upwards to match the more ambitious proposals of other local councils. A revised plan for 650 was then accepted by the Ministry of Health and Housing but only as a first instalment of a larger scheme.
The first homes were completed at Sheriff Hill, those at Carr Hill to the north-east a little later. Some 232 had been built by 1923. If the numbers were smaller than anticipated, the quality generally was not. These were the garden suburbs of the early post-war era when finance and politics briefly meshed to deliver the promise of ‘Homes for Heroes’.
Broadway on Sheriff Hill and its cross-streets best capture the ambition of the moment with their mix of parlour and non-parlour semi-detached houses and short terraces, the end houses treated as ‘pavilions’ and marked by steep gables and hips. The second phase which formed the Carr Hill Estate – a further 342 houses – used a harder red brick and sometimes render on the upper floor. (4)
The generous programme of the 1919 Act had been halted by spending cuts in July 1921 and later estates characterise the more economical construction of later legislation. But the drive to build remained; at the end of 1923, the Borough reckoned 2839 new homes were needed to rehouse its population decently.
The Field House estate in the Saltwell district was completed by the late 1920s and in the early thirties Gateshead was developing new estates at Old Ford, Victoria Road, Wrekenton, Deckham Hall and Lobley Hill. By 1936, the Borough had built around 2360 council homes.
But the 1930s introduced something which was surprisingly new in the sector – a determined attempt, spearheaded by national legislation, to rehouse those living in the worst conditions. Generally, the relatively high rents of council housing and council expectations of ‘good tenants’ who could be expected to reliably pay them had excluded the poorest from council housing. Labour’s 1930 Housing Act targeted slum clearance and incentivised the rehousing of slum-dwellers.
The ‘National’ Government’s 1935 Housing Act added overcrowding to existing definitions of unfit housing. The survey it required that all councils take of local housing conditions revealed Gateshead as having the second worst housing of county boroughs in England and Wales (Sunderland came first) – almost 16 percent pf the population were living in overcrowded homes. The continued prevalence of ‘Tyneside flats’ – single-storey flats upstairs and down in two-storey terraces estimated to form 60 percent of Gateshead’s housing stock in 1911 – was part of the explanation.
In the early 1930s, a major slum clearance drive in Gateshead cleared some of its worst housing in the Barn Close, Pipewellgate, Hilgate, Bridge Street, Church Street and Old Fold area. By 1939, some 1654 families had been rehoused.
Estates built in the 1930s specifically to rehouse the slum population were often built more cheaply in the attempt to makes their rents more affordable. More intangibly, some would retain a certain stigma marking this origin, not least among better-off and longer-term council tenants who considered themselves more ‘respectable’.
In the case of the Deckham Hall Estate, the former at least was certainly true. Begun in 1936 by the North-Eastern Housing Association created for the purpose, it’s an estate of generally semi-detached two-bedroomed housing: (5)
The houses were of very uniform appearance compared with those built at Carr Hill and Bensham. Orange brick was used throughout and less attention given to landscaping, with only a few green spaces and evidently no tree planting, producing an austere effect overall.
The estate’s layout of irregular concentric rings earned it the nickname among locals of the ‘Frying Pan’ or, less politically correctly, the ‘African Village’.
The estate is still seen by some as a ‘bad estate’, undeservedly according to Martin Crookston and I’m sure to the resentment of many of its current residents. In 2006, the estate still suffered, in the Council’s words – the exclamation mark is in the original – from a: (6)
poor environment … caused by low grade boundaries and public realm materials, under-investment in upkeep and a lack of attractive landscaping in both public (!) areas and private gardens.
Low take-up of Right to Buy seemed to confirm its unpopular reputation. More to the point perhaps and certainly illustrating that interplay of negatives that characterises what used to be called ‘hard to let’ estates, the unemployment rate stood at 12 percent, compared to a local average of seven. (7)
The photographs from my visit to the estate (now owned and managed by the Home Housing Association and Gateshead Housing Company) earlier this year show the environmental upgrades that have taken place since, part of a package intended also to address what was euphemistically described as ‘tenure imbalance’, in other words a perceived lack of owner-occupiers. The estate looks neat and generally well-cared for, though still (to be honest) a little austere.
But we’re moving ahead of ourselves. Back in 1939, Gateshead had built 3104 council homes. After a second world war with renewed demands to clear the slums, Gateshead would build on an even larger scale. Some of the newbuild would replicate the ‘cottage suburbs’ of the interwar period but there was also a significant shift to high-rise. We’ll follow that story in next week’s post.
(1) JB Priestley, English Journey (1934)
(2) Tony Henderson, ‘JB Priestley’s Views on the North East Examined Again’, The Journal, 26 October 2009
(3) This and the quotations which follow are drawn from FWD Manders, A History of Gateshead (Gateshead Corporation, 1973)
(4) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (Routledge, 2016)
(5) Simon Taylor and David B Lovie, Gateshead. Architecture on a Changing English Urban Landscape (English Heritage, 2004)
(6) Gateshead Council, Urban Design, Heritage & Character Analysis Report: Deckham, March 2006. The Right to Buy data is drawn from Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, Deckham Neighbourhood Housing Analysis (ND but c2006)
(7) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow?