In 1709, Preston was described as ‘a very pretty town with abundance of gentry in it; commonly called Proud Preston’. The gentry may have disappeared and the town (a city since 2002) changed out of all recognition but the appellation has remained. Local pride might be seen now in what has been dubbed the ‘Preston model’ – a form of ‘guerrilla localism’ in the words of Aditya Chakrabortty; a scheme of community wealth building based on plural ownership of the economy, local procurement and socially productive use of land and property. (1)
These posts will look at what might be properly understood as an earlier form of community wealth building – the city’s history of council housebuilding. That history was rooted in a common experience though one writ large in the Lancashire town – industrialisation and urbanisation. Preston’s first cotton mill was opened in 1777; by 1835, there were 40. Working conditions (and Chartism) led to a general strike in 1842 during which four protestors were shot dead by the military. An eight-month lockout and strike in 1853-54, witnessed by Charles Dickens, inspired his famous description of ‘Coketown’ in Hard Times:
a town of red brick or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever and never got uncoiled.
Karl Marx added his own excited commentary: ‘The eyes of the working classes are now fully opened, they begin to cry: Our St. Petersburg is at Preston!’. (2)
St Petersburg/Petrograd may have come good for Marx in 1917 but Preston’s municipal politics in the interwar period in its first great era of council housebuilding were, as we’ll see, to be far more collaborative and collegiate.
Preston’s population grew from under 12,000 in 1801 to 117,000 in 1920 and its insanitary terraced housing brought cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1848 and a major typhus epidemic in 1862. Infant mortality rates remained well above the national average – in the early 1890s standing at 235 deaths per thousand against an English average of 151 – but they fell before the First World War as the Corporation converted privies to water closets at the rate of 1- to 2000 a year. Living standards remained low, however, with the prevalence of female employment (around 30 percent of married women worked in the mills in 1905) having the collateral effect of reducing male wages. (3)
An active housing improvement programme notwithstanding, the council – a county borough since 1881 – had no interest in housebuilding. It remained – despite the election of its first Labour councillor in 1904 – a largely Conservative borough. However, as was typical across the country, the First World War changed much.
This wind of change was illustrated powerfully by the March 1918 Local Government Board circular requesting local authorities to provide detail of ‘definite building schemes’ and numbers of new council homes projected. Preston Borough Council discussed the circular in April, not only forming a Housing Committee but identifying land in Moor Park and Deepdale (near the Preston North End football ground) as suitable for building. It was one of 1300 councils replying by the deadline of December 1918. (4)
Thereafter, progress was slow and more controversial. By February 1919, the Preston Trades and Labour Council (PTLC) was viewing ‘with regret the inaction of the Town Council in the matter of housing’, Next month, the Housing Committee resigned when its detailed plans for an estate at Holme Slack were rejected by full council which instructed it ‘to advertise and offer prizes for competitive designs’. In May, the PTLC intervened again, decrying the paucity of council proposals and demanding that ‘at least 50 per cent of direct representatives of labour should be co-opted’ to serve on the now reconstituted Housing Committee.
That proposal was deemed unlawful – the Preston Building Trades Employers’ Association had also expressed their displeasure – but it’s an interesting sign of local politics and national trends that it was agreed in September to co-opt two members of the PTLC alongside one representative of the Preston Property Owners Association. The emphasis on women’s voices on housing in this post-war period (discussed in a recent post) was reflected in the inclusion of one representative of the (Conservative) Preston Women Citizens’ Association and one from the local Women’s Cooperative Guild. (5)
All this before the 1919 Housing Act, overseen by Christopher Addison, received its Royal Assent in July. The housing needs survey required of all local authorities was produced by Preston in October when the Medical Officer of Health reported that 980 local homes were overcrowded, 136 unfit for habitation and 12 areas comprising in total 806 houses justified clearance. Up to 2000 new homes were needed. (6)
By then progress had been made. The government’s regional Housing Commissioner had visited the town in May and plans for estates of around 500 homes each in Holme Slack and Ribbleton had been approved. At this point the Council was taking an unusually close interest in the fine detail of the proposed housing.
Members of the Housing Committee visited Merseyside for ideas and models as well as the Daily Express Model Homes Exhibition in London. In November 1919, a subcommittee was appointed to ‘consider the construction, materials and equipment of the houses’ and later in the month four pages of detailed written notes were provided covering such minutiae as tarmacked garden paths and concrete clothes posts. (In further testimony to the hands-on approach taken here, handwritten notes in the archives record the names and addresses of new council house tenants.) (7)
The new houses were (as required) cottage homes built to Tudor Walters standards but the Council sought to go further by insisting on 8ft 6in height ceilings, rather than the 8ft recommended. It would compromise on this issue – it was agreed upper-floor ceilings should be 8ft high – under protest. The Council was less successful in insisting on lower rents than those demanded centrally. Rents of 8s (40p) and 10s (50p) for two- and three-bed non-parlour house respectively were agreed but the Council’s plea that the larger parlour houses were ‘intended to be tenanted by large families with young children’ was rejected and these were let at 12s 6d (62½p) and 15s (75p). (8)
Despite the generous financial terms of the 1919 Act, the expectation was that rents would be ‘economic’ and, with Preston’s new council homes costing between £891 and £976 to build, those rents would be out of reach to many. The Council, as was typical in this post-war era, prioritised ex-servicemen and their widows in its allocations policy but by 1930, in socio-economic terms, only some 38 percent of Holme Slack heads of households could be classified as manual working class; 30 percent belonged to the non-manual working class whilst 17 percent comprised those in professional, managerial or commercial categories. (9)
Practical problems of materials and labour shortages delayed construction despite the special subcommittee (which included representatives from the Preston Master Builders’ Association and Preston Building Trades Operatives) appointed in May 1920 to overcome supply difficulties and the strong action in November when the Council used its powers under the Housing (Additional Powers) Act to temporarily halt construction of non-essential work on a cinema. (10)
The first two houses on the Ribbleton Estate, one opened as a show home, were completed in March 1921. Designed by local architects Messrs JH and W Maugan and reflecting the attention paid by the Council to their design, the local press was suitably complimentary: (11)
The house furnished for the exhibition at once suggests compactness, convenience and taste … [The estate] comprises blocks of two, three and four houses arranged on the garden city plan. There are no continuous and monotonous lines of houses.
A cupboard and glass cabinet in the parlour, linen cupboard and wardrobe in the main bedroom, ‘ample provision in the way of shelves’ as well as the sanitary necessities that would previously have been luxuries to many of the new tenants, all made this high-quality accommodation, ‘tastefully treated’ throughout. (12)
If the new residents were grateful, they were far from humble. A Holme Slack Householders’ Association had been formed by September 1921 whose main object was to: (13)
inculcate and foster a spirit of mutual endeavour in all things calculated to promote the welfare of the new district, having special regard to the upkeep of the gardens and the appearance of the dwellings.
That mix of pride and expectation was reflected in complaints about the unfinished nature of the early estates, illustrated by the Ribbleton Estate Tenants’ Association ‘strong disapproval at the deplorable condition of [its] roads, pathways and system of drainage’. Such criticisms – typical of estates nationwide where completed housing was prioritised above infrastructure – continued into 1922. (14)
The generous housing programme of the Addison Act was axed in July 1921 but a broadly cross-party commitment to build council housing in Preston remained. In July 1923, the Council agreed to recommence housebuilding without government grant but Labour’s 1924 Housing Act restored a more generous level of financial support that enabled it to embark on a much larger programme – 1910 houses under its terms by 1932.
The Miller Road Estate of 165 homes was sanctioned in July 1924; the Callon Estate of 591 homes in October. Other significant estates were built at Delaware Street, Deepdale and Greenlands alongside an extension to the Ribbleton Estate. The new homes were generally slightly smaller than those built under Addison and overwhelmingly non-parlour; the large Callon estate contained 10 parlour homes.
Another attempt to build more cost-effectively was seen in the acceptance of a tender from Makinsons of Horwich to build ten steel-framed houses: a ‘system of roofing before walls are built’ as the Lancashire Daily Post reported it, having the ‘the advantage that the houses were erected more quickly than by the ordinary method’. The reference to Blackpool in the report suggests these were a licensed variant of the ‘Dennis Wild’ houses built in that town – one of a number of largely unsuccessful attempts to apply prefabrication to housebuilding in the era. The fact that nothing more is heard of this experiment suggests it fared little better. (15)
The high rents of this early council housing excluded many of the poorest of local residents and slum housing remained on a large scale. In October 1924, the Medical Officer of Health recommended the clearance of the Marsh Lane area, ‘condemned on the ground of its narrowness, closeness, bad light, and want of air and proper ventilation’. Of 118 houses inspected, nearly all were structurally defective. The Health Committee had rejected the proposal but in full council it was passed by 25 votes to 16. The Labour councillor HE Rhodes expressed the view that: (16)
The property owners who allowed their property to get into such a condition should not be paid compensation, but should be recommended for penal servitude, because they were murdering the child life of the town. The property … was a disgrace to the town and was situated in an area where the streets were bad and where there was nothing beautiful. He appealed to the committee to go on with the work and make one bright spot in the place.
That was perhaps an unusually trenchant intervention from a Labour representative; elsewhere the party has been criticised by some for its accommodation with existing civic elites. That came to a head in 1928 when Labour (with 22 councillors) formed a majority of elected members but controversially abided by a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that retained an overall Conservative majority through the latter’s number of aldermen. In an apparent quid pro quo, Labour councillor WE Morris became chair of the Housing Committee. On the other hand, as we shall see so far as housing was concerned at least, there remained a reforming majority so it may be equally plausible to commend a broadly progressive (though contested) cross-party consensus on the matter.
In fact, Preston was ahead of many authorities in tackling slum clearance in the 1920s but that issue would be prioritised nationally in housing legislation in 1930 and 1935. In October 1931, three further central areas were designated for clearance and a programme of 600 new council homes proposed, generally in extensions to existing suburban estates. (17)
The problem that more distant estates and continuingly relatively high rents precluded some in greatest need was seized on by some hostile to public housing more generally. In 1933, Cllr JS Howard argued ‘the time had come when they ought to stop municipal building, especially as there were quite a number of tenants who ought not to occupy municipal houses’. He advocated some form of means test. More sympathetically, Cllr Blackburn observed: (18)
that many of the people displaced by slum clearance schemes were not remaining in the houses provided for them by the Corporation, but drifting back to their old surroundings. The slum clearance problem was too hastily met by building houses in the suburbs. The need should be met by some other method, such as the building of flats or other suitable dwelling.
This was a genuine problem but the fact that over 600 families on an over 2000-strong waiting list for council homes were living in shared accommodation ensured that opposition to newbuild was easily overcome.
The Great Depression, whilst it did not hit a slightly more diversified and modernising economy in Preston as strongly as it did elsewhere, brought new hardships. The National Unemployed Workers Movement’s plea for a 10 percent rent reduction across the board in January 1932 was rejected. But general rent reductions (ranging from 4d to 1s 6d a week on weekly rents ranging between 6s 9d to 9s) were agreed in 1933 and 1934. Preston also implemented the provision of the 1930 Housing Act which gave the power to enact rent rebate schemes by granting reduced rents to displaced slum dwellers according to family size and income. (19)
The housing survey required by the 1935 Housing Act revealed 1399 houses ‘not in all respects fit for human habitation’. By 1938, as some 300 new council homes were being built on the Thirlmere and Farringdon Park estates, it was reported this number had fallen to 980. In all, the Borough Council had provided some 2847 new council homes between the wars.
The war itself would bring new challenges and new expectations and those will be discussed in next week’s post.
(1) See Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘In 2011 Preston hit rock bottom. Then it took back control’, The Guardian, 31 January 2018 and Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Preston City Council, How We Built Community Wealth in Preston: Achievements and Lessons (July 2019)
(2) Karl Marx, ‘Only the Beginning’, New York Daily Tribune, 1 August 1854
(3) Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Standards of Living in Three Lancashire Towns, 1890-1914’, International Review of Social History, vol 27, no 1, 1982
(4) William Hudson, ‘Welfarism Anew? Territorial Politics and Inter-War State Housing in Three Lancashire Towns’, University of Liverpool PhD, 2002
(5) See Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923, Lancashire Archives
(6) ‘Preston Council Housing Scheme Approved’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 October 1919
(7) 19 September and 12 November 1919, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923. See also DR Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919, with special reference to Lancashire’, University of Lancaster PhD, 1986. On new tenancies, see, for example, the minutes of the Housing Sub-Committee dated 16 July 1930.
(8) See Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919’, Hudson, ‘Welfarism Anew?’, and ‘Preston Housing’, Lancashire Daily Post, 29 July 1920
(9) See Michael Savage, The Dynamics of Working-Class Politics: The Labour Movement in Preston, 1880-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1987)
(10) See 24 November 1920 Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923 and Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919’
(12) ‘Preston Housing Scheme’, Lancashire Daily Post, 24 March 1921
(13) 14 September 1921, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923
(14) 23 November 1921, 3 March 1922 and 27 June 1922, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923
(15) ‘Preston Town Council Tenders For 50 More Houses. A System of Roofing Before Walls Are Built’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 October 1924
(16) ‘Preston’s Unhealthy Areas’, Lancashire Daily Post, 27 November 1924
(17) ‘Demolition of Houses. Animated Discussion at Preston Council Meeting’, Lancashire Daily Post, 29 October 1931
(18) ‘Preston Council Debate Housing’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 March 1933
(19) On the NUWM delegation, see 13 January 1932; on rent reductions and rebates see, minutes in March 1933 and 1934, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/3 1929-1939