Tourists might know Shrewsbury as a town with over 660 listed buildings, ‘full of higgledy-piggledy streets with names you want to say out loud’. (1) As a working town and somewhere to live, council housing has been equally important to its past and present and the council took an early, innovative role after some initial hesitation. This first post looks at this history up to the Second World War and the controversies surrounding it.
In 1901, with a population of around 23,300, Shrewsbury was a medium-sized county town – an administrative and trading centre, not untouched by the Industrial Revolution (indeed Ditherington Flax Mill, built in 1797, was the first iron-framed building in the world) but still predominantly traditional in form and make-up.
Politically, this was reflected in a local politics largely ‘based on personality rather than ideology’. The town’s first Labour councillor, John Kent Morris of the Shrewsbury Trades Council (a trade union body) was elected in 1903 but the dominant figure was the Conservative Alderman Thomas Pidduck Deakin, a baker and hotelier. (2)
That tradition was also reflected in slums – not the Victorian terraces of industrial England but in the words of the borough’s Medical Officer of Health in 1927:
small, isolated groups, scattered throughout the town in the form of small houses, huddled together in enclosed and shut-in courtyards, approached through a dark alley leading off the main street.
Back in 1907, the then Medical Officer of Health estimated there were 200 houses in Shrewsbury unfit for human habitation. A resolution that the Council adopt Part III of the 1890 Housing Act (allowing it to acquire land to build council housing) followed. The debate that ensued is worth examining in some detail as representative of the arguments of the day.
Some councillors professed simple shock at the conditions suffered by many of the working class: Councillor Franklin: (3)
had no idea that there were such places for human beings to live in as there were in Shrewsbury … some houses were entirely devoid of light, others filthy in the extreme, and some without any back door; houses which were really a disgrace to civilisation.
From the left, Councillor Morris drew what seemed to him the inescapable conclusion:
The evils of the present system were so great that they could not be tolerated any longer, and he hoped the Council would step into the breach and say that the people must be properly housed at rents which they could afford to pay. If it would not pay private enterprise to provide such houses, then the municipality must undertake the responsibility.
To many, it won’t seem that too much has changed.
But some – as was common then and now – blamed the poor for their squalor of their homes. Councillor Pace, a Liberal, was ‘afraid in some cases the people themselves caused a great deal of the unpleasantness that existed by their own actions’. If just one drain and service pipe per group of dwellings were demanded, he suggested, the private sector would provide all the housing required.
Councillor How, a Conservative, decried municipal housing as ‘the road to socialism’. But his party colleague, Councillor Bromley, spoke to a rival tradition of Tory Democracy that professed a concern for working-class conditions:
Mr How told them that the proposal might be ruinous to the country but was it not ruinous to the country to have an enormous infantile death-rate caused very largely by insanitary dwellings, and to permit the existence of slums which were undermining the health of the people. They were told that what they proposed was Socialism. If that was so then he was a Socialist – and he was among the Conservative Socialists because the Conservatives passed that act in 1890.
In the end, the motion was passed but, for the moment, the resistance to council housing prevailed. A few existing homes were declared unfit but in general efforts focused on reconditioning rather than demolition.
Agitation renewed with the formation of a Shrewsbury Housing Reform Council in 1911. A public meeting in February 1912 – described as ‘one of the most important and representative gatherings in the history of Shrewsbury’ and addressed by Raymond Unwin, the leading housing reformer of the day – seems to have decisively swung opinion. (4)
The Council appointed a Housing Committee and purchased land north of Ditherington Mill. Wingfield Gardens was completed in April 1915 – 63 solid family homes arrayed around a generous green open space: ‘Shrewsbury’s first garden suburb’. Alderman Deakin, now chair of the Housing Committee though previously sceptical towards municipal housebuilding, spoke of ‘an enormous demand for houses’ and concluded ‘the Corporation would have to provide other garden suburbs’. (5)
As a token of the seriousness of the Council’s intent, sanction was received for a further housing scheme in 1916 though without, in wartime, much prospect of it being built in the near future. However, thoughts were turning to war’s end and, perhaps in response to the Local Government Board’s circular of July 1917 ‘Housing after the War’, in October that year, the Council sought permission to build 400 houses. (6)
Deakin, whose conversion to municipal housebuilding was now complete, observed that building small houses for private let had ceased being profitable for at least ten years before the war and he became the driving force behind the Council’s interwar programme. It’s a reminder that an uptick in council housebuilding began in the run-up to the First World War though its aftermath and the demand for ‘Homes for Heroes’ proved decisive.
The Council bought 19 acres of land in December 1918 and a further 38 acres at Coton Hill in March 1919 and was described, justifiably, as ‘one of the most forward in respect to its housing schemes’. (7)
That advanced thinking was evident in its detailed planning too. The new homes were:
to be on garden city lines – not more than ten to the acre, and the lay-out includes such amenities as village institutes, bowling greens, and open spaces, while tree planting is to be a feature of the two estates now being developed.
Naturally, the new homes included ‘such domestic facilities as a gas boiler and gas cooker’. The location of the bath – in a cubicle off the scullery – caused some debate but the Housing Committee concluded that ‘that the balance of convenience for the working housewife [was] to have the bath downstairs’.
The Longden Green Estate was completed in 1922, the first stage of the Coton Hill Estate one year later. The plans of both were closely based on the 1919 Housing Manual (written appropriately in a Shrewsbury context by Raymond Unwin) which accompanied Addison’s celebrated housing act of the same year. How, still a Conservative member of the council, now an alderman, was angry that the houses designed by ‘certain faddy architects in London’ cost £1000 each; Deakin countered ‘the ship should not be spoilt for a ha’p’orth of tar’.
Those high prices were a problem though, not least in rents affordable to only the most affluent workers. The generous funding regime of Addison’s legislation was axed in 1921; Longden Green’s community hall was not built. And the Council determined that their next building scheme would be built more economically at rents that lower paid workingmen could afford. The 70 houses built on Sultan Road cost around £370 each but the scheme was widely criticised for its austerity. The 204-home Monkmoor Estate, built on land purchased in June 1925, reverted to garden suburb ideals.
Nationally, the 1930s marked a shift to slum clearance and the targeted rehousing of slum-dwellers. Shrewsbury made small progress in this regard; in 1939, there were still 221 houses in town judged unfit for human habitation including 29 homes in Fairford Place deemed insanitary since the 1850s. However, the council’s building continued apace in smaller schemes at Judith Butts, White House Gardens, Wingfield Close (adjacent to the council’s first housing), New Park Road and Close, and Old Heath.
The Council’s 1000th home was opened in March 1937 – a proud record. The historian Barrie Trinder reckoned by this time that ‘the better-paid workman had been very nearly catered for’ but he acknowledged that many who were less well-off in Shrewsbury remained in squalor. (9)
The renewed housing drive after a second world war and its commitment to provide decent housing for all will be examined in next week’s post.
(1) Original Shrewsbury website
(2) This detail and the following quotation are drawn from WA Champion and AT Thacker (eds), A History of Shropshire, vol VI, Part 1 Shrewsbury General History and Topography (The Victoria History of the Counties of England, IHR, 2014)
(3) ‘Shrewsbury Town Council. The Housing of the Poor’ and ‘Local Notes’, Shrewsbury Chronicle, 13 September 1907
(4) Champion and Thacker (eds), A History of Shropshire, vol VI, Part 1 Shrewsbury General History and Topography
(5) ‘Shrewsbury’s Garden Suburb’, Liverpool Daily Post, 9 April 1915
(6) ‘The Housing of Shrewsbury Workers’, Birmingham Daily Post, 9 October 1917
(7) This and following quotations are drawn from ‘Shrewsbury Housing Schemes. Garden City Developments’, Kington Times, 14 June 1919
(8) Barrie Trinder, Beyond the Bridges: the Suburbs of Shrewsbury, 1760-1960 (2008)