I’m delighted to feature today the first of two guest posts by Lynne Dixon examining the work of some of our early female housing campaigners and reformers. Lynne has a background in historical geography, town planning, the environment and education. Over the last few years she has been researching and writing about different aspects of women’s history and local history. Her interest in women and housing in the early years of the nineteenth century has evolved from a U3A shared learning project on the origins of the organisation Women’s Pioneer Housing. She has contributed to blogs on women in World War 1 and extensively on the Well Hall Estate and is currently writing a book on a woman architect/builder, Annabel Dott.
The words of Blake which I have chosen as part of the title are more usually associated with the Last Night of the Proms or perhaps with the Women’s Institute. What they represent for me is the determination of women to be involved in the design of state housing a century ago. The words and music were first used by women at an event promoting the National Service for Women scheme in March 1917 and were then chosen by Florence Hamilton to represent the spirit and purpose of her Women’s Village Council movement in 1917. The strapline first appeared in her article in The Common Cause in November of that year.
The role of the influential Tudor Walters Report of 1918 has been mentioned several times in contributions on this site. The committee which prepared it was established to assist in dealing with the shortage of housing which was seen as a cause of industrial unrest during 1917. It was swiftly appointed following the announcement in July 1917 of the Local Government Board’s housing scheme and its resultant report laid down guidance on ‘building construction in connection with the provision of dwellings for the working classes’. (1)
What is perhaps less well known is the role of women in discussing housing design throughout this wartime and post-war period. This included their participation in contributions to the Tudor Walters report; their attempts to influence the quality and quantity of publicly funded housing, often in rural areas at a local level; and the report of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee (WHSC). The recommendations of this latter’s report were ultimately eclipsed by the relatively more pragmatic and politically acceptable report of the fifteen-strong, all-male committee led by Sir John Tudor Walters. In this blog, I will discuss women’s attempts to influence publicly funded housing at local levels and in a second contribution I will outline the role of the WHSC in more detail.
The Tudor Walters Report received evidence from 127 named witnesses of whom only fifteen were women. A number of these women were linked to key organisations such as the Women’s Labour League, the Association of Women Housing Property Managers and the Rural Housing and Sanitation Association. Others appear to be individuals from across the country with no easily identifiable links to campaigning or professional groups. (2)
It was shortly after the creation of the Tudor Walters Committee and the publicity surrounding the government’s housing policy in the summer of 1917 that Florence Gertrude Hamilton – Mrs F.G. Hamilton – together with her sister Maud Rose Raey MacKenzie established the Findon Women’s Village Council, the first organisation of its kind. If Florence had some prior involvement in housing issues I have not been able to identify it but she had been a campaigning suffragist in the Women’s Freedom League in the pre-war period in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, when she had been a tax resister. (3)
By about 1913 she had left Wendover, eventually settling in Findon, Sussex, with her unmarried sister Maud. When the Local Government Board in July 1917 announced in a circular letter to councils that financial assistance was on offer to local authorities building workmen’s dwellings after the war, the two women felt that their Rural District Council was not preparing adequately for this. (4)
A date of 15th October had been given for the completion of a form issued by the Local Government Board on which local authorities could provide details of the number of houses needed. Perhaps Florence’s idea to contribute to this through the influence of women was based not only on her involvement with the suffrage movement, but also on the success of the relatively new Women’s Institute in the southern counties. She might have seen an opportunity to encourage women’s participation in local affairs through the initial mechanism of becoming involved in housing.
Within three months of the circular to local authorities, she had evolved and then promoted her idea of an organisation and a meeting was held on October 2 in the Wattle House at Findon which was suitably decorated with national flags for the occasion. It seems to have been well attended. (5)
At this inaugural meeting, the Findon Women’s Village Council (WVC) stated its aims as being: (6)
to assist the State-aided Housing Scheme of the Local Government Board by obtaining first-hand information on rural housing, with the present acute shortage of cottages, and bad conditions
to promote Maternity and Infant Welfare, and the cause of Education
to enable working women to educate themselves to take their place on Parish, Rural District, and County Councils.
Florence was particularly keen to involve ‘the genuine rural working woman’ in her organisation but she also referred to the usefulness of involving suffragists with their ‘trained cooperation’. With missionary zeal she wanted to seize the opportunity to help remedy the lack of rural cottages and to influence the quality and quantity of new ones. Like a growing number of women, she felt that women were best placed to advise on the design of houses because of the time they spent in them and the work they did there. (7)
And so a resolution was passed at that first meeting in Findon and sent to the Local Government Board: (8)
We have pleasure in reporting to the Local Government Board that the Findon Village Women’s Council (for the purpose of collecting evidence for the State-aided Housing Scheme) has been started, and we beg that we may be recognised and consulted in all reforms and schemes connected with State-aided cottages in our village.
Just a few months later Florence had established a small advisory group to support the newly forming village councils and was making links with the plethora of other women’s organisations in their shared premises at 92 Victoria Street. She enlisted amongst others the support of Annette Churton, Secretary of the Rural Housing and Sanitary Association and a former member of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee.
In a description reminiscent of language we would recognise today, an article of 1918 explained that the views on rural housing would come from people themselves: ‘the village women, the farmers’ and the labourers’ wives; it is not superimposed from the top’. The idea for forming such village councils spread across the counties of south-east England and beyond and women were encouraged to organise surveys of their local housing and also to give their own opinions on the ideal design of new cottages. (9)
In Findon: (10)
the headings of the Survey were drawn up by a professional surveyor, and dealt with such points as the materials of the roof (whether tiled, slated, or thatched), the water supply (whether laid on, brought from a distant well, or rain-water; and if the last, whether it was filtered), the number of occupants (how many over, and how many under, the age of sixteen), the sanitary arrangements.
With the involvement of the local vicar, a report was produced and presented to the Rural District Council outlining the need for 50 new cottages. I have not as yet been able to research further specifically what happened to their recommendations. However, on September 1 an article appeared in the Worthing Gazette referring to the building of sixteen houses in Findon by Thakeham Rural District Council under their scheme for fifty-eight houses in their area. Because 42 applicants for these sixteen houses had been received, the article commented that this was ‘a long way from a complete satisfaction of the demand’. I have identified a possible group of houses on the north side of the village, The Oval, which might be those built in the late 1920s but have yet to verify their origins.
The ideas of Florence Hamilton were broadly idealistic, going beyond the scope of the quality and quantity of housing into the area of other rural problems. Ultimately, she hoped to educate women in effective roles as citizens with a wider involvement in parish councils.
In Florence’s own words: (11)
The immediate work of the women’s village councils is to demonstrate beyond doubt the tremendous need for state-aided housing and the almost inconceivably bad conditions of many agricultural labourers’ homes; to combat existing opposition and indifference; to suggest the possibility that garden villages need not be ‘blots on the landscape’; to tell of the marvels promised by reconstructive use of science for lighting, water supplies and cooking, and to do death to the legend that the only use likely to be made of the fixed bath would be the coal cellar. All Women’s Village Councils are asking for third bedrooms, that boys and girls may have a chance of growing up with modesty; they also ask for parlours … The success of the Local Government’s Maternity Bill and the Continuation Classes of the new Education Act depends largely on the co-operation of village women, who have hitherto had small say in their children’s interest and education.
Florence Hamilton conducted her own campaigning at a broader level. In December 1917, she had met with Henry Aldridge, secretary of the Town Planning Council, who may have provided a vital direct link with the LGB and who went on to invite her to a housing conference in December 1917. Although she herself did not give evidence directly to the Tudor Walters Committee, it is highly likely that at least one of the other WVC women did. In 1918 she went on to form a federation of the village councils as the movement grew. Although it was focussed initially in the south-east, there were other councils which formed elsewhere. They had spread into nine counties by 1919 including some in the Midlands, and reportedly into fifteen by March 1919. (12)
The village councils were said to give women the opportunity of working with the ‘experts’ – in planning, housing and sanitation. A March 1919 Manchester Guardian article pointed out that housing schemes were perhaps more important in rural areas than they were in towns. Concern about rural depopulation had already led to a rural reconstruction movement and the lack of houses and the poor quality of the housing stock in rural areas were seen as crucial factors. However, there was also a need in urban areas and complementary organisations, the Women’s Housing Councils, were established in those areas from about 1922. This urban equivalent, influenced by their rural sisters, began in North Kensington. This comment about one of their meetings clearly demonstrates the need for housing improvement, arguably one which still exists: (13)
Meetings were held, and the residents of the wealthy borough were made aware of the terrible conditions under which their poor neighbours were living – almost at their doors. Public opinion was eventually aroused, and £7000 has already been subscribed for putting tenement dwellings into habitable conditions.
It should be said that in deference to the more widely known Women’s Institute, which was founded at about the same time as the WVCs, that this organisation also, at least in some areas, attempted to influence the government housing schemes.
By 1923 the urban and the rural organisations had merged and were known as the Women’s Housing and Village Council Federation and later as the Women’s Housing Council Federation before perhaps finally merging with the National Housing and Town Planning Council (NHTPC). It has been impossible to track down any archives from these organisations: the National Archives gives a reference of the NHTPC merging with ROOM which is now part of the Royal Town Planning Institute. The RTPI cannot find any relevant records.
Florence Hamilton probably remained active at a national level for the last decade of her life. She was a founder member of the Electrical Association of Women (1924) and continued to be involved in the National Housing and Town Planning Council. Her involvement in housing was acknowledged in her obituary written by fellow suffragist, Muriel Matters, which appeared in The Vote in April 1932. The inscription on her tombstone in Brompton Cemetery must surely be a reference to her commitment to citizenship: ‘Our Citizenship is in Heaven’. She was one of a group of women who had developed an interest in housing during the First World War and sometimes earlier, who continued to try and influence the design of housing into the post-war period. Many of these other women were members of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee and this will be the subject of my second blog.
(1) ‘The Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider Questions of Building Construction in Connection with the Provision of Dwellings for the Working Classes’ (The Tudor Walters Report, Cd 9191), 1918
(2) The witnesses are listed in the report.
(3) Florence was baptised Florence Gertrude MacKenzie but on her marriage was often referred to as Florence Gardiner Hamilton so that her initials F.G. could stand for either middle name. For extensive information about the suffragists in Buckinghamshire, Colin Cartwright’s book, Burning to Get the Vote (Legend Press Ltd, 2013) is a mine of information
(4) ‘Working Class Houses’, The Times, 30 July 1917 and Florence G Hamilton ‘Findon Women’s Village Council’, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917
(5) There are several accounts of this meeting; see, for example, The Spectator, 15 June 1918, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917, and Worthing Gazette, 24 October 1917
(6) From a poster for the Findon Women’s Village Council, undated, People’s History Museum, ref cc/s.16.
(7) The quotations are drawn from Florence G Hamilton, ‘Findon Women’s Village Council: An Experiment in Local Organisation’, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917, and further analysis from Women Correspondent ‘The Village Council of Women: their Contribution to Housing Reform’, The Manchester Guardian, 11 March 1919
(8) Georgina Home ‘Findon Village Council’, The Spectator, 15 July 1918
(9) C Osborn, ‘Women’s Village Councils’, Charity Organisation Review, vol 43, no 256, April 1918
(10) Georgina Home, ’Findon Village Council’, The Spectator, 15 July 1918
(11) Mrs Hamilton, ‘Women’s Village Councils Federations for State-Aided Housing and Rural Problems’, The Common Cause, 19 July 1918
(12) Women Correspondent ‘The Village Council of Women: their Contribution to Housing Reform’. I have managed to establish the names of some thirteen councils: West Sussex; Findon, Storrington, Durrington, Wiston, Rustington, Broadwater, Washington, Wiston, and elsewhere Ellesborough (Buckinghamshire) Solihull and Aldridge (Walsall Rural District); Runton (Norfolk); Sarisbury (Hampshire)
(13) ME Blyth, ‘The Women’s Housing and Village Councils Federation’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 13 July 1923