I’m delighted to feature today the second 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 woman’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.
Having outlined one mechanism through which women hoped to influence first rural and then urban housing at local levels in the post-war period in my earlier blog, this contribution deals with a group of women who could have had a more significant influence on housing at a national level: the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee (WHSC) of the Ministry of Reconstruction.
The recent centenaries for the women’s suffrage movement and World War One have ensured that we now know more than before about some aspects of women’s history for this period but there is still much more to know about women’s involvement in public life at this time. Many women were working for social change, not least in the field of housing, both during and then after (and indeed often before) the war. The achievements of Florence Hamilton in my previous blog are just one example. In parallel were the efforts of a group of women who were given the opportunity to influence at a national level the design of state houses – the ‘homes fit for heroes’ or, as more aptly named by Caroline Rowan, ‘homes fit for heroines’. (1)
The origins of the WHSC lie with the Ministry of Reconstruction which was established in 1917 to oversee the rebuilding of national life for the better at the end of the war. It established many committees each on different aspects of national life. The Minister of Reconstruction was the radically minded Dr Christopher Addison, later to be responsible for the 1919 Housing Act. When the WHSC was being established it was said that, ‘it had been represented to us, both by societies and individuals, that women should be consulted about the construction of the new houses after the war’. (2)
The committee’s official purpose was to comment on the design of the working-class houses already built with public money and on plans put to the architects’ committee for future homes. They were to give special reference to the saving of labour for the housewife – very much a concern of the moment – and the convenience and well-being of the family generally. In other words, they were to offer a perspective on house design from the point of view of the housewife. Following the publication of the interim report the women were also asked to report on the conversion of middle-class houses into tenements for the working class. (3)
Membership of the WHSC included women from a range of backgrounds. Three women would already have been known to government through the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Women’s Advisory Committee: Lady Gertrude Emmott, Maud Pember Reeves and Dr Marion Phillips; the latter two also well-known for their previous work which included the publication, Round About a Pound a Week, a study of the spending of poor housewives in Lambeth.
Gertrude Emmott was appointed ‘chairman’ and as such it is likely that she was able to help select other committee members. She was a woman with a liberal and nonconformist background who had been involved in social and political work in the north-west of England, was a friend of Henrietta Barnett and had developed an interest in housing. The women she was perhaps influential in selecting had backgrounds in the garden city movement and town planning (Sybella Brandford, Ethel Lloyd and Mary D Jones); housing management (Maud M Jeffery, Annette Churton, Dr Janet Lane Claypon, Gerda Guy, Dorothy Peel); while others were politically active in the Labour Party or the Cooperative movement (Eleanor Barton, Rosalind Moore, Averil Sanderson Furniss, Alice Jarrett and Annie Foulkes Smith).
Women had, of course, been involved in housing, town planning and architecture for some time as professionals – Octavia Hill in housing management from the 1880s; Ethel Charles, the first woman to pass the RIBA exams in 1898; the women sanitary inspectors who were involved in aspects of public health in housing; women such as Henrietta Barnett, a key mover in the garden city movement. Most recently in October 1917 one organisation, the Women’s Labour League, had started a housing campaign aimed at working class women and led by Averil Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips. The work they did was to influence the work of the committee and may even have overlapped in time and content. (4)
The committee and its two women secretaries first met in February 1918 and their work over the next few months was phenomenal. As well as the focus on labour saving for the housewife, they were determined to seek out the views of working women. A key part of their work was visiting working-class houses across the country with a standard set of twenty questions about each property – internal arrangements, room size, built-in features, rent, natural light and air, etc. The first estate they visited was the Duchy of Cornwall’s housing estate in Kennington.
In March 1918 they visited houses on the Well Hall Estate built for the munition workers of the Woolwich Arsenal. Averil Sanderson Furniss was one of those who visited the estate. She commented on the headed paper of the National Women’s Labour League in a letter to Miss Leach the secretary of the committee: (5)
I think my main objections to the houses was that in practically all cases the windows were not large enough and did not give enough light. I think they should have been higher in the bedrooms and lower in the sitting rooms allowing in the latter case for a window seat which would have much improved the rooms. Also I do not think that the baths in the scullery are good and if they must be downstairs which I recognise has to be the case in some instances they should be in a separate room. In many cases I noticed that the bath was in a different corner of the room to the copper which must surely be most inconvenient when every drop of water has to be baled out of the copper into the bath.
This theme of the covered bath in the scullery featured in the final report:
Problems arose from ‘the practice of having the bath in the scullery with flap table over it … [which] meant that the housewife must clear everything from it before the bath could be used’ and prevented further use of the scullery for food preparation during bath times.’ The women were adamant that there should be a separate bathroom.
Averil Sanderson Furniss continued in her letter, ‘these I think were two main points but I wish we could have had Mrs Barton with us as her practical experience would have been far more valuable.’
As a northerner and with her practical knowledge as a working-class woman, Eleanor Barton was clearly a significant member of the committee whose experience was highly valued; most of the other women in contrast were middle class.
A further aspect of their work was to seek the views of both individual women and of organisations and one of the National Archive files contains many of these letters – usually handwritten but sometimes typed and some including diagrams to illustrate points being made – from across the country. (6)
The Sub-Committee had advertised in newspapers for women’s views and as a result local organisations had held meetings and conferences and competitions to gather opinions to pass on to the Sub-Committee and so responses came from a wide range of organisation such as the Derby Women’s Citizen Association; the Sutton Sisterhood; Flowers Farm War Gardens Association; the National Union of Women Workers, Howard St Club, Sheffield; the West Surrey Society; and the Women’s Votes Association of New Earswick. The Sub-Committee’s approach in doing this may be contrasted with the Tudor Walters Committee who, remaining in one place, saw a 127 witnesses only fifteen of whom were women. Their approach was surely innovative: an early example of public consultation. (7)
The needs raised in the letters were wide-ranging – plenty of light in all rooms; simplicity in the joinery; special attention to housing large families, the aged and the poor; a sink in the scullery 14 inches deep; well protected water pipes to prevent freezing; minimum size of living room 15ft by 12ft; fixed cupboards in every room.
It is not at all clear how the women of the committee, or more likely the two dedicated secretaries, processed the hundreds of comments received and data accumulated. Within a few months, their work resulted in a lengthy interim report dated May 1918. Two parts of the report were not published including comments that the women had made – uninvited – on the proposals of the Local Government Board (LGB). (8)
The final report was finished a few months later in January 1919. However, these final findings were also heavily suppressed resulting in another delayed publication. The relationships between the LGB, the Ministry of Reconstruction and perhaps Addison himself were delicate. There seem to have been divisions within the government of which these were part. (9)
In the end the Final Report was in effect overshadowed by the report of the Tudor Walters Committee which had been published in December 1918. (10) The LGB found the women’s findings ‘extravagant’ and treated with particular disdain the work the women had done on communal facilities. Nevertheless, there was much in their work that was in agreement with the Tudor Walters conclusions and it was perhaps mainly in emphasis – what was seen as essential and what as desirable – that there were differences. It is interesting to note that the only line of communication between the two committees had been informally via the secretary of the Tudor Walters Committee although four members of the WHSC did give evidence to the Tudor Walters Committee.
Central to the women’s findings, published or not, was the idea of the kitchen and the scullery as the workshop of the home where all hard and dirty work was done. In most homes the internal layout of both these rooms was poor, with the consequence that endless short journeys were required for each simple task. Cooking a meal involved transferring food from inadequate storage facilities to a preparation area and then back to the cooker, with little ease of movement. Analysing women’s work in the home was crucial to designing for labour saving. In this there was no question that housework should be shared between husband and wife. It was believed, even by those forward-thinking women who had campaigned for the vote, that housework was women’s work. However, their time needed to be freed up so that they could be active citizens.
A majority of the women giving evidence to the Sub-Committee wanted a parlour in their homes, although they differed as to why it might be needed. In some districts, investigators found that the wish for a parlour was connected to customs surrounding death. At a time when most people died at home, death could raise practical challenges in small, badly designed and overcrowded houses. Housewives in Camberwell in contrast wanted parlours for their husbands ‘because there should always be somewhere for “him” to go and sit to rest himself’.
Many mothers felt that the parlour was most needed when their eldest children wanted to bring friends home, or when it offered young courting couples a location ‘preferable … [to] the street corners or public house’. The parlour may also have had a symbolic value, a status, which was important to many women.
In short, the women giving their views tended not to claim a parlour for themselves, but saw it as a way of providing a more pleasant environment for other members of the family. In contrast, the women writing the interim report promoted the idea that a parlour should provide an area for a woman who needed space for intellectual work, or work connected with her new role as a citizen. (11)
If officially sidelined, the report was at least appreciated by some. As well as positive comments in the suffrage press, a critique of the report in The Town Planning Review commended that the report be read by ‘every architect designing houses and every member of a housing committee studying schemes’.
It is difficult to say exactly how much influence women had on national housing policy at this time because of the way their report was dealt with by the government. One writer has concluded that although they were able to form and even publish recommendations for national policy this in itself did not give them the power of decision making. Their conclusions might be accepted as advice and were of particular use if they reinforced existing policy or official recommendations. (12)
Innovative or more challenging ideas were ignored. However, it is certainly possible to suggest that their involvement had other more enduring effects especially as they were part of a wider picture of women’s increasing involvement in housing provision and design. Some of this involvement was about guidance, advice and campaigning; some of it was to be a more active involvement.
In 1919, Averil Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips published The Working Woman’s House, a short booklet illustrated with plans and photographs. The report could be more explicit than the report of the Sub-Committee in linking labour saving to citizenship. They were able to link the traditional view that the home was a ‘woman’s place’ with the recent call by Prime Minister Lloyd George’s for new houses ‘fit for heroes to live in’. Phillips and Sanderson Furniss suggested that post-war reconstruction offered an opportunity for these two positions to be combined so that it should be possible for a woman to want her house to be: (13)
fit for a hero to live in and also wants to free her from the hard domestic work which is the result of the bad housing conditions and has prevented her from taking her full share of work as a citizen, wife and mother.
In April 1919 the LGB, not long before its demise, set up the Housing Advisory Council to provide advice on housing policy. Eleanor Barton, Averil Sanderson Furniss and Gertrude Emmott from the WHSC were included among its members. When the board was abolished in June of that year, the Advisory Council seems to have continued in some form or another although it is clear that some women felt frustrated at its role and at the long delay in organising meetings.
One organisation which supported the role of women in influencing housing design was the Garden and Town Planning Association which had a short-lived women’s section run by Etheldred Browning. It produced a number of reports full of advice, one devoted to labour saving in the home, and it was also involved in commenting in late summer 1920 on public housing built by the Ministry of Health. Not surprisingly it was particularly critical of the lack of parlours, the small and badly shaped sculleries, the small third bedroom – ongoing themes. They strongly recommended that before house plans were finally approved they should be submitted for criticism to a committee of women. (14)
At a broader level, the legacy of the women’s suffrage movement seems to have been the continued proliferation of small organisations promoting women’s viewpoint and their desire to be involved in decision making. The involvement of women in housing was a part of this bigger picture. For instance, housing was an issue for the Consultative Committee of Women’s Organisations which was established in 1921 and had a housing subcommittee for a number of years. (15)
There were in the 1920s and 1930s a number of housing conferences and congresses organised by women or dealing with women and housing. An international one was organised, for instance, by the National Housing and Town Planning Council in April 1924. In these and other ways, women would continue to try to influence housing policy and design throughout the interwar period.
I think it is impossible to tell for certain if women had more influence nationally or locally. It is possible that there was more likelihood for them to influence housing at the local level where they had some opportunities to make recommendations about internal arrangements and facilities. (16) There are a number of different references to promises for women to be involved in this way and to mechanisms whereby this could happen.
In February 1919 The Times pointed out that the President of the LGB had promised that representatives of working woman should be consulted on municipal housing schemes and this eventually seems to have been enacted in the circular issued in December 1919 – just a few months after the Ministry of Health had taken over responsibility for housing from the LGB. At this point Christopher Addison, the newly appointed minister, appears to have encouraged the involvement of many local women’s organisations in commenting on the design of housing schemes. Amongst these would be the already established Women’s Village Councils. There is research to be done at local levels to establish just how much influence these women went on to have and undoubtedly more to be found out about the role of women in housing generally and state housing in particular at a national level as the 1920s and 1930s progressed.
Unlike the Women’s Village Council movement, the work of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee has become somewhat more visible in recent years. As well as original research using archives and online research in newspapers, I have therefore been able to draw on the research of academics such as Krista Cowman, Elaine Harrison and Lynn Pearson who have written specifically about the role of women in housing or in government at this time, as well as the broader texts of writers like Mark Swenarton in Building the New Jerusalem: Architecture, Housing and Politics 1900 – 1930.
(1) Caroline Rowan, ‘Women in the Labour Party, 1906-1920’, Feminist Review, no 12, 1982, pp74-91
(2) The National Archives (TNA), RECO 1/618. IV. 7374, p1, quoted in Calum W White, “‘The foundations of the national glory are in the homes of the people”: the Addison Act, the First World War, and British housing policy’, University of Oxford PhD Thesis, 2018
(3) Krista Cowman, untitled paper. She has also written ‘”From the housewife’s point of view”: Female Citizenship and the Gendered Domestic Interior in Post-First World War Britain 1918-1928’, English Historical Review, vol 130, no 543, April 2015, pp352–383
(4) See, for instance, Christine Collette, For Labour and for Women: the Women’s Labour League 1906 – 1918 (Manchester University Press, 1989)
(5) This and the following quotations are drawn from TNA, RECO 1/622
(6) TNA, RECO 1/633
(7) Alongside the listed witnesses are the names of two all-male deputations and a further 61 experts, again all male.
(8) The Interim Report is available online.
(9) Mark Swenarton, Building the New Jerusalem: Architecture, Housing and Politics 1900-1930 (IHS BRE Press, 2008)
(10) ) ‘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
(11) Krista Cowman, untitled paper
(12) Lynn Pearson and Patricia White, Architectural and Social History of Cooperative Living (Springer, 1988)
(13) AD Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips,
(14) Etheldred Browning ‘Women and House Planning: a Protest to the Ministry of Health’, The Women’s Leader, 3 November 1920. Etheldred Browning also established Women’s Pioneer Housing in 1920 to provide housing for professional women. She later invited Florence Hamilton of the Women’s Village Council Federation to join its committee. Florence felt she could achieve more on the National Town Planning and Housing Council.
(15) ME Blyth ‘The Women’s Housing Movement: Housing Councils’, The Common Cause, 28 September 1923
(16) Krista Cowman, untitled paper