The architects Herbert Tayler and David Green created in south Norfolk what Ian Nairn described as ‘a set of council houses unequalled in the whole country’ – 687 houses, bungalows and flats for Loddon Rural District Council. (1) Much has been written about the architectural quality and influences of their designs by people better placed than me to explain them and I’ll reference that analysis in my posts. In this first post, however, I’ve set out to provide some fuller context for their work and, in particular, the otherwise very typical rural local authority that provided their platform.
That context is provided firstly by local government: the county councils established in 1889 and the rural district councils five years later. The initial role of rural district councils was limited, confined largely to matters of water supply and sanitation. Dominated as they were by the local gentry and middle-class ratepayers, few ventured further. Despite, as we’ll see, the desperate need, very few built housing. Ixworth in Suffolk and Penshurst in Kent, which built the first rural council housing in 1894 and 1900 respectively, were rare early exceptions.
While legislation in 1890 and 1919 at first allowed and then, to some degree, required councils to build housing, up to 1926 smallholder dwellings had been ‘virtually the sole means of public supply of rural housing’. (2) The first Small Holdings Act of 1892 and its successors allowed county councils to advance loans to farm labourers and other landless villagers to purchase areas of land up to 50 acres in extent. By 1926, some 30,0000 such small holdings existed. The 1926 Housing (Rural Workers) Act provided another means of addressing the rural housing crisis by enabling local councils to provide loans to landlords to recondition unfit homes.
But the breakthrough so far as rural council housing was concerned did not come till 1936. Then new legislation declared not only ‘the duty of the council of every county … to have constant regard to the housing conditions of the working classes’ but also to ensure ‘the sufficiency of steps which the council of the district have taken, or are proposing to take, to remedy these conditions and to provide further housing accommodation’. The 1936 Act also gave rural councils the power to declare and rebuild ‘slum clearance areas’ which Loddon Rural District Council (RDC) did in Loddon itself and the villages of Ditchingham, Gillingham and Hales.
The bureaucratic language concealed a truly shocking picture. We can take Loddon as an example. In 1937, the council’s Medical Officer of Health found 139 homes surveyed unfit or ‘not to be in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation’. Sixty-six homes inspected for overcrowding were found to contain 72 families and 446 people. (3)
The problem reflected far more than the dereliction of isolated properties. Public health legislation since 1848 had addressed urban squalor but improving standards of sanitation and sewerage did not extend to rural areas. Even in 1938, a scheme of 18 new council houses completed in Loddon was provided an external water supply (by means of a well sunk for the purpose and electric pump) but no internal supply or fixed baths. To have provided baths would have required connection to sewers for drainage and that, councillors lamented, was simply too expensive given the inadequacy of government grants. (4)
The 1944 Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act was a belated attempt to address this problem and Loddon RDC was the first council to adopt its provisions. Necessarily so. In 1950, only seven percent of the district’s homes were connected to sewers, fully 83 percent (3000 in number) were reliant on pail closets. The council employed its own workers to collect what was euphemistically termed ‘night soil’ in three villages. (5)
The litany of statistics can get wearying but it’s worth recording that even by 1964 – after significant progress and in figures which underestimate rural deficiencies by their inclusion of more suburban areas on the Norwich fringes – that 22 percent of homes in the Loddon rural district lacked a cold water tap, 45 percent a hot water tap and 43 percent a fixed bath. Forty-two percent still lacked sewerage. (6)
Typically, after the war new council housing schemes that did eventually emerge were among the first to be properly equipped and connected to mains water and sewerage. (The usual peripheral location of new council schemes on roads leading into villages made this process easier.) David Green himself took a close and practical interest in the provision of these basic services, looking after ‘engineering matters, such as footings and weight-bearing and drainage’ whilst Tayler was the principal ‘aesthetic arbiter’ of their schemes. (7)
If pre-war standards weren’t, as we’ve seen, quite so exacting, the Council had nevertheless embarked on a significant housebuilding programme by the late 1930s. It had pressed for increased government support in a resolution passed by the Housing and Town Planning conference of Local Authorities in the Eastern Counties in 1937. (8) Notwithstanding that, in 1938, the Council completed 118 new homes, contributing to a pre-war total of 262 council homes across the district. Land for a further 163 homes was purchased and provided the Council’s building programme a running start at war’s end.
As yet, there was no hint of architectural enterprise. These were the solid, boxy, red-brick houses that began to mark (some said blot) the English countryside in the era. In 1955, Tayler was to comment caustically that ‘beauty is almost suspected by ratepayers as a fancy extravagance’ whilst advocating for precisely the design and planning then being successfully implemented in Loddon. (9)
Back in 1938, the Council was sufficiently proud of its unreconstructed schemes to include a plaque and date for each as the examples in Loddon and Thurlton show. Tayler and Green would continue this tradition far more colourfully.
Loddon began its post-war planning in 1944. Tayler and Green had moved to nearby Lowestoft in 1941, following the death of Green’s architect father that year. Even recent biographical accounts are strangely reticent of the fact that they were a gay couple. No doubt, discretion was required in earlier years but it seems, to me at least, that today this is something we can celebrate. They became significant members of an active East Anglian cultural scene which included, amongst others, Benjamin Britten and they lived together, having retired to Spain on local government reorganisation in 1974, till Green’s death in 1998.
As a business partnership, they received their first local housing commission from Lothingland RDC in 1943 for six houses in Blundeston and Wrentham in Suffolk. Housing for agricultural workers was then in great demand and being heavily promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture. Such demand – allied with as yet relatively unmechanised farming techniques – was maintained into the 1950s. In 1951, of a local workforce in Loddon Rural District of around 2900, 53 percent worked on the land. (10)
The area itself was low-lying and ‘very flat’ as Noel Coward might have said though gently undulating to those of more discerning eye. Its beauty, if you saw it, lay in its open skies; apart from Loddon itself, just qualifying as a small town with a population of 1100, its other settlements were ‘queer loosely linked agglomerations of houses whose wayward charm is due more to light and air than to the buildings themselves’. (11) Its overall population stood at a little over 11,800 across some 60,000 acres – just 2 per acre.
In 1945, the Council were looking around for a new consultant architect and in February a delegation inspected Tayler and Green’s work at Wrentham. The design tweaks and innovations they had applied to the recommended standard design had already attracted attention and the councillors left suitably impressed. Green was appointed the following month.
The rest is history but it’s worth decoding. Who were these councillors that gave free rein to Tayler and Green to produce such high-quality homes? Well, they were not, in Ian Nairn’s words:
a miraculous Norfolk race of Men of Taste left over from the eighteenth century; they were just ordinary councillors who had to be argued with and convinced like any set of councillors anywhere.
In 1947, the Housing Committee comprised 15 councillors of whom six were women and four were clergymen. The chair was Charles Hastings, a land agent at one of the big local houses, Gillingham Hall. His niece, Mary Bramley, was the lady of the manor and a supportive chair of the RDC from 1962. Elain Harwood references ‘ex-officers, a builder and his wife’ too. (12)
Beyond this and the implied noblesse oblige of some of the local upper classes at least, it’s hard to go but the local Norfolk Southern parliamentary constituency had returned a Labour MP in 1945 (Christopher Mayhew – he lost his seat in 1950) and the county as a whole was a stronghold of agricultural trades unionism. In 1957, Labour took control of the Council – a first for ‘a rural district council in a purely agricultural area’ as the Daily Herald proclaimed. (13) One must assume that this working-class voice made its voice heard too.
The Council was at any rate, as Tayler claimed in 1960: (14)
an excellent client in every respect, but particularly in this, that they never fussed over architectural matters, but stated their opinions freely and then left it to us.
This, and the wider story of the district’s council housing, will be followed up in next week’s post.
(1) Ian Nairn, ‘Rural Housing: Post-War Work by Tayler and Green’, Architectural Review, October 1958
(2) Trevor Wild, Village England. A Social History of the Countryside (LB Tauris, 2004)
(3) Loddon Rural District Council, Medical Officer of Health Report, 1937
(4) ‘Baths in Council Houses’, Yarmouth Independent, 8 January 1938
(5) Loddon Rural District Council, Medical Officer of Health Report, 1950
(6) Loddon Rural District Council, Medical Officer of Health Report, 1964
(8) ‘East Anglia Housing Needs’, Yarmouth Independent, June 19, 1937
(9) Herbert Tayler, ‘Landscape in Rural Housing’, Housing Centre Review, no. 3, May/June 1955
(10) 1951 Census, Occupational Classification, Loddon RDC
(11) Ian Nairn, ‘Rural Housing: Post-War Work by Tayler and Green’
(12) Elain Harwood, ‘Tayler & Green and Loddon Rural District Council’ in Harwood and Powers (eds), Tayler and Green, Architects 1938-1973: The Spirit of Place in Modern Housing (1998)
(13) Daily Herald, May 13 1957
(14) Quoted in Harwood, ‘Tayler & Green and Loddon Rural District Council’