Seán Damer, Scheming: A Social History of Glasgow Council Housing, 1919–1956 (Edinburgh University Press, October 2018)
In 1919, Glasgow, with a population surpassing one million, was the ‘Second City of the Empire’. It was also, by some distance, Britain’s most densely settled and poorly housed city; two thirds of its people lived in two rooms or less; one fifth in ‘single ends’, a single room. The Council estimated that 57,000 new homes were needed immediately. In the event, some 54,289 council homes were built by 1939.
Seán Damer’s book is a vital guide to the new estates – called ‘schemes’ in Scotland, hence the title – built between the wars and those built in the decade after 1945. It’s a deeply engaged social and political history, of interest not only to Glaswegians but to anyone seeking a critical understanding of council housing, its successes, failures and complexities.
Damer begins his story with Mosspark, built a couple of miles to the south-west of the city centre on land purchased as far back as 1909; its plans approved in April 1919. It was not the first of Glasgow’s post-war housing schemes but it was by far the most prestigious.
Built under the generous terms of Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act, this was a scheme which fulfilled Tudor Walters ideals with generous landscaping and a density of around nine houses per acre. The homes themselves were of similar quality; cottage homes, almost two-thirds of which were (in Scottish parlance) ‘four-’ or ‘five-apartment’ houses containing three or more bedrooms.
The homes – as was typical of ‘Addison houses’ – were expensive to build (at around £1150 each) and had high rents to match. The rents were sufficient themselves to bar the average workingman but the latter’s exclusion was ensured by the zealous gatekeeping of those in the council responsible for housing allocations. As one resident later recalled:
This place was full of professionals – teachers, government officers, and Corporation workers. Everybody knew that you had to be earning £5 per week to get a house.
The average wage for a skilled worker stood then at £3 a week and in the mid-1920s council records show professional, skilled white-collar and white-collar workers formed around three-quarters of heads of household.
This was, then, a self-consciously affluent and ‘respectable’ community; one, in Damer’s words, ‘with more than a hint of the ‘unco guid’ [excessive self-righteousness] which can be the hallmark of the Scots Presbyterian’. The church, bowling club and tenants’ association formed the pillars of that community and helped ensure the solid Tory affiliations of its earlier years.
Damer goes on to discuss Hamiltonhill, an unusual scheme built under a slum clearance provision of the little-known 1921 Housing Act, but the thrust of his analysis is provided by the two succeeding chapters, examining the West Drumoyne and Blackhill schemes.
By the mid-1920s, Glasgow’s powerful labour movement – whose organisation and agitation had, of course, been essential to the ‘Moderate’ (Tory) controlled council’s willingness to build in the first place – was protesting the Corporation’s failure to provide council housing for the average working-class householder, many still living in appalling conditions in the inner city.
West Drumoyne, built under the terms of the 1924 Housing Act (championed by local son, Labour’s Minister of Health and Housing, John Wheatley), was the Moderates’ response – and a defeat for the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP had wanted cottage homes; the eventual scheme offered two- and three-storey tenements at a density of over 26 houses per acre. The latter – rightly or wrongly – became stigmatised as slum clearance housing though, in practice, West Drumoyne comprised overwhelmingly skilled and semi-skilled workers, many working in the Govan shipyards.
Blackhill, on the other hand, was explicitly built as a slum clearance estate. Approved in 1933, it was a product of the 1930 and 1935 Housing Acts which targeted for the first time slum clearance and rehousing. It won’t be a surprise to learn that its design reflected its origins – early housing comprised tenement blocks and, another distinctively Scottish form, ‘four-in-a-block’ tenement blocks (four flats under a hipped roof block of more or less cottage appearance). Almost a half of heads of household were classified as labourers and average wages were £2 a week though many more were unemployed.
Such social divisions, often reflected in a similarly differentiated quality of housing, could be found in estates across Britain but, as Damer charts with rigour and some anger, Glasgow Corporation took it a stage further. This was a rigid three-tier system: ‘Ordinary’ schemes built under the 1919 and 1923 Acts; ‘Intermediate’ schemes built under the 1924 Act; and ‘Slum Clearance and Rehousing’ schemes built under the legislation of the 1930s.
The prejudice of housing officials – in their judgments about who ‘deserved’ higher quality housing and in their allocation of such housing ensured – as Damer argues, that:
any council tenant in Glasgow could tell at a glance into which category a housing scheme fell, and to which category he or she could aspire.
The stigma attached to slum clearance estates affected Blackhill in particular, built on cheap land adjacent to a gas works and chemical plant, geographically isolated; even its name contained its own ‘black mark’.
Whilst, in principle, post-Second World War schemes – Damer discusses Craigbank, in the huge new peripheral Pollok estate, and South Pollok – were intended to supersede such rigid social segregation, the so-called ‘New Ordinary’ estates were little more than a re-branding of the former ‘Intermediate’ category. Meanwhile, allocations policies ensured that Craigbank catered for the better-off working class and South Pollok for the least well-off. They soon acquired corresponding reputations.
It’s worth pointing out, however – not as a form of special pleading but as a simple record of fact – that the new tenants, both interwar and post-war, were, overwhelmingly, delighted with their new council homes. South Pollok, later labelled by some outsiders as ‘the White Man’s Grave’, built (badly) in 1947-48 and demolished in 1973, still represented in housing terms a huge step up:
It was like heaven! It was like a palace, even without anything in it … We’d got this lovely, lovely house. Well it was lovely to me! When I got into that big empty house and the weans were running up and doon mad and – it was just like walking into Buckingham Palace because I had a bath!
For Damer, as he states in his introduction, ‘the story of council housing in Glasgow is the story of class-struggle’. Damer feels that the Glasgow working class itself – as a potentially unified political force – was splintered by these imposed divisions. Depending on their political perspective perhaps, others will come to their own conclusion as to whether it was actively splintered or just splintered in the first place. It’s undeniable, at least, that the story was shaped by class divisions and class prejudices; in particular, by the bigotry directed towards the so-called slum working class by politicians and officials.
Those attitudes were reflected in the rigorous policing of the new estates by the council’s Resident Factors, female housing inspectors and public health nurses – a troika dedicated to ensuring decent, respectable and sanitary living particularly among poorer residents not trusted to behave well.
A real strength of Damer’s book is its rich anecdotal record gathered from interviews conducted with residents in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And it’s clear, for all the disrespect addressed to officialdom, there was a strong sense – at least in hindsight – that this supervision had helped create a respectability (self-policed as well as imposed) that had been lost in more recent years.
That record – and Damer’s sympathetic eye – also creates a vivid picture of community on the various estates. If Mosspark is treated somewhat caustically, the ‘lower’ working-class estates are painted empathetically and the variety of informal means of working-class self-help and neighbourliness delineated in some detail – from the ‘menodges’ (local savings clubs), to various forms of money-lending, to ‘nicking’ as a form of resource redistribution.
Damer’s summary of Blackhill can stand for his broader perspective. It was, he says:
an impoverished, largely unskilled, manual working-class community characterised by a variety of familial and social survival strategies, including elaborate collective self-help mechanisms largely organised by women, and thieving, largely organised by men … It was a tough place, where one had to be tough to survive. But the real violence was that of poverty, which Blackhill tenants combated with humour, imagination and resilience.
And one interviewee, recalling the role of his mother on the estate, can speak to that matriarchy:
My mother came from Ayrshire, a very, very hard-working woman. Tremendous intelligence but no skills. When I say no skills – no skills that she could work with but was respected in the community, she was the one who helped people through a birth, was sent for – in those days when a child was not well they gave them a mustard bath – she was the sort of local witch doctor. She was unbelievable. Her organisational sense was unbelievable for somebody that was supposed to be semi-literate.
Much of this finds echoes in estates across Britain – the inter- and intra-class divisions, the role of officialdom, the means of getting by in often hostile circumstance.
But Glasgow was council housing writ large. By the mid-1970s, almost seven in ten of its population lived in ‘Corporation housing’; the City Council was the largest public sector landlord in western Europe and in many ways a problematic one. Damer does not shy away from addressing this issue and his final chapter asks ‘Why was Glasgow’s council housing so dire?’.
You can read his answer for yourself but the sheer inhumanity of existing conditions and a drive to alleviate them which all too often emphasised quantity over quality, the legacy and persistence of prejudiced attitudes towards poorer residents, and the divisions that the latter caused all played their part.
I recommend the book not only as rich and challenging account of council housing built at scale in one of our major cities but as a significant contribution towards our wider understanding of how to build badly and how to build well.
Purchase and publication details can be found on the Edinburgh University Press website.