We left Greenock last week in the unusual circumstance of building new council homes in 1916 in the midst of war. Across the country, war’s end brought a unique combination of pressures and ideals to build anew at quality and on unprecedented scale. The pressure, for ruling-class politicians, came from their fear of working-class unrest, even revolution (given local force by the political turmoil on ‘Red Clydeside’). The professed idealism came in prime minister Lloyd George’s stated ambition ‘to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in’.
Nowhere was the need for new council housing stronger than in Greenock: a reflection of the burgh’s appalling existing housing conditions and its continued growth – Greenock’s population peaked at 82,123 in 1921 when it was sixth largest town in Scotland. (Its current – 2011 – population of 44,248 tells you something of the hard times it has suffered subsequently as its traditional industries have declined.)
Scotland’s 1919 Housing Act required all local authorities to survey housing needs and build where need was demonstrated. In Greenock, a 1919 survey claimed that new or improved homes were required for some 26,818 inhabitants. The Council acted promptly by purchasing 154 acres of land in July that year and preparing plans for 480 houses, albeit partly in a style and form reflecting local circumstance and tradition: (1)
They would be allowed to build from 12 to 24 houses per acre and special privileges would be granted Greenock, owing to the scarcity of land, to erect tenements as well as houses.
Across Britain, the Tudor Walters report had set cottage homes at no more than twelve to the acre as the housing gold standard.
The Cowdenknowes Estate, centred around the new main road of Dunlop Street one mile south-east of the town centre, was laid out on a greenfield site on cattle pastures owned by the Ardgowan Estate and, nevertheless, mostly comprised solid, white-rendered, two-storey semi-detached houses with front and back gardens as prescribed by Tudor Walters.
With further estates of similar size at Bridgend and Cornhaddock, Greenock built 436 homes under the 1919 legislation. This impressive rate of construction was maintained under subsequent legislation with substantial numbers unusually – 552 new homes – under the 1923 Act and a total of 625 under the more generous Wheatley Housing Act in 1924. (Wheatley, appropriately, was a ‘Red Clydesider’ and MP for Glasgow Shettleston.) The later 1920s Bow Farm Estate included a larger number of flatted blocks as the housing drive continued. (2)
There remained, certainly among more left-wing members of the council, considerable urgency to the building drive. A proposal from the Housing Committee to delay construction of homes on Bow Farm in 1927 led to a special meeting of the council and what The Scotsman cautiously described as ‘particularly lively scenes’. The threat made by a Labour member, Mr D MacArthur, to take one opponent outside and ‘paralyse him’ may have been unparliamentary but it was apparently effective. The meeting agreed to proceed with construction by 17 votes to seven. (3)
The problem remained that the relatively high rents of council housing excluded the poorest who needed it most. This was true across the UK but was peculiarly and powerfully so in Greenock whose staple industries – shipbuilding, ship repair and marine engineering – suffered grievously in the economic downturns of the interwar years. One-third of working women worked in textiles, many in ropemaking which also served the town’s maritime trade. Greenock’s final major employer – of both men and women – also reflected this history. The town was Britain’s second largest sugar refining centre (after London), processing raw sugar cane and molasses from the West and Est Indies. (4)
Such was the extent of unemployment and poverty that for some ‘home’ became the poorhouse (the Scottish equivalent of the workhouse) and they suffered the full severity of a Poor Law regime that we sometimes imagine had been abolished years previously. Some 1349 individuals entered the Greenock poorhouse in 1925-26 where they were set to work ‘sawing trees and repairing furniture, assisting tradesmen and scrubbing wards and such like’.
Housing conditions for many of those who escaped that final indignity remained appalling. Housing density in Greenock reached 717 persons per acre; almost half the population lived in one-room accommodation. A council enquiry into Market Street in 1931 revealed that, of 630 homes, only two had baths and none had hot water; on average, seven to eight families shared toilet facilities.
In 1925, the Greenock Housing Council, comprising ‘well-known ministers and social workers’, drew particular attention to the scandal of so-called ‘farmed-out’ houses – a system in which slum tenements which could not be let ordinarily were leased by a ‘farmer’ and then subdivided into single rooms rented for short periods. They estimated there were 229 ‘farmed-out’ houses in the burgh and gave graphic examples of the appalling circumstances suffered by their unfortunate tenants: (5)
Five persons besides husband and wife over ten in the same sleeping compartment … water flows from WC above, coming through ceiling; walls falling in. Bed without bedding; one table, three stools, two beds in one room; one female lodger in same room as subtenant’s sons.
Naturally, such conditions led to ill-health – recurrent typhus outbreaks and increased incidence of scarlet fever, smallpox and poliomyelitis, for example. Greenock was also ‘the tuberculosis capital of Britain, with twice the number of cases per capita as the national average’. By 1932, the burgh’s infant mortality rate – at 307 deaths per thousand – was the highest in Scotland, twice the national average.
If the statistics seem abstract, take the case of Mary McLaughlin who endured more than 20 pregnancies between the wars, 14 full-term. Of her 14 children, ten died before the age of seven from diphtheria, polio and scarlet fever.
Whilst little happened to improve Greenock’s economic circumstances until rearmament and war at the end of the decade, the 1930s did at least see substantial efforts – instigated under the Scottish Housing Acts of 1930 and 1935 – to improve housing conditions. A programme of 3000 new homes was agreed in 1933, including a scheme of 840 in the eastern Gibshill area of the town. In total, some 2085 new homes were built under the 1930 and 1935 legislation and a further 383 under a 1938 Act. In all, the Burgh built 4033 new homes between 1919 and 1939. (6)
The 1930s legislation also prioritised slum clearance, which included in Greenock the belated demolition of the Market Street area (now King Street). Another, unusual benefit of central area clearance was the opening of a hostel for single women in Westburn Street, opened in 1933; the Burgh boasted it was the first in Scotland initiated under the 1930 Housing Act. The hostel comprised 40 apartments, let at 5 shillings (25p) a piece, each containing a living room, scullery and toilet; baths and washhouses on each wing were shared by seven households. The local press claimed it was not really a hostel; each tenant enjoyed their ‘ain wee house’. (7)
There’s another unusual feature to be found in the Westburn building (renovated in 2012 by River Clyde Homes as contemporary social housing): a celebration of feminism marked by the sets of initials on the building’s 14 gutterboxes, each celebrating a notable woman including Flora MacDonald, Florence Nightingale and (illustrated above) the missionary Mary Slessor.
Elsewhere, Greenock’s hilly terrain and shortage of land promoted interest in other unconventional solutions to its housing crisis. In 1936, the Council considered plans for ‘a new and revolutionary type of tenement building’ proposed by Scotland’s leading architect and planner, FC (Frank) Mears. (8)
The buildings will be roughly circular in shape, and of four storeys. From a circular stairway in an open well in the centre three wings radiate like the three leaves of a shamrock. Each wing has two houses per flat, making a total of 24 houses per block.
Following the programme of slum clearance, adapted versions of Mears’ proposals were built in the John Street area from 1939.
In the following year, after the outbreak of war, Mears was appointed planning consultant to the Council and whatever ideas he may have entertained for the burgh were given sharp focus and even greater urgency by the tragic events of 6-7 May 1941. Greenock was a major shipping centre but the Greenock Blitz fell most heavily on its residential areas. Around 280 people were killed, 1200 injured; 10,000 houses were damaged, 1000 beyond repair.
We’ll follow the story of Greenock’s post-war council housing in next week’s post.
(1) ‘Greenock Housing Scheme’, The Scotsman, 30 July 1919
(2) TW Hamilton, How Greenock Grew (James McKelvie and Sons, 1947)
(3) ‘Greenock Housing: Town Council Scene’, The Scotsman, 2 February 1927
(4) Much of the information which follows is drawn from the detailed account provided by Annmarie Hughes in ‘The Economic and Social Effects of Recession and Depression on Greenock between the Wars’, International Journal of Maritime History, vol 18, no 1, June 2006
(5) ‘Greenock Housing’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 31 August 1925
(6) Hamilton, How Greenock Grew
(7) ‘Hostel for Women’, Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, October 25 1933
(8) ‘New Type of Tenement’, The Scotsman, 6 February 1936