In 1843, Barrow comprised some 143 people and 28 houses. The Furness Railway arrived three years later; by 1881, the town’s population had reached 47,259. With the arrival of what became the Barrow Haematite Steel Company in 1859 and the opening of its first major dock – the Devonshire – in 1867, the town’s impressive but troubled industrial history had begun. And, with that, a fascinating housing history perhaps unique in the country. That history was shaped by the local economy, in early decades to an unprecedented degree, and particularly – until the belated arrival of council housing – by its dramatic vicissitudes.

A map of Barrow in 1843 © Cumbria Archive and Local Studies Centre, Barrow-in-Furness

Barrow was incorporated in 1867 and became a County Borough in 1889. But it was most marked by what some have described as the ‘aristocratic paternalism’ of the Cavendish family – not so paternal here as the Devonshires (as the eponymous dock suggests) were most concerned with money-making – and the power of leading industrialists; Barrow ‘suffered from the lack of a strongly established middle-class element, and was virtually ruled by an industrial junta’. (1)

An image of the Barrow Haematite Works in 1865
Sir James Ramsden

The key figure here was James Ramsden, managing director of both the Furness Railway Company and the Barrow Haematite Steel Company from 1866 as well as the town’s first mayor from 1867 to 1872. Ramsden also devised the first plan for what was essentially a new town though that, in truth, was soon overtaken by Barrow’s breakneck growth.  This was the ‘English Chicago’ with, in the less complimentary words of one account, ‘a combination in appearance of Birkenhead and a goldfinders’ city on the edge of one of the western prairies of America’. (2)

To retain a new workforce drawn from across the UK, employers built company housing. The so-called Barrow Island Huts built for navvies and shipyard workers in the 1870s were among the first – 349 wood or brick prefabs arranged like an army encampment, serving a population of up to 3000 and of such squalor that they were condemned by the council in 1877 though they survived into the 1880s.  

An early image of the Scotch Buildings in Hindpool

Far more substantial were the Scotch Buildings, built in 1871 for the employees of the adjacent steel, flax and jute works in Hindpool – tenement blocks built on ‘the Scotch principle’, appropriately it was felt as most of the workforce was Scottish.

The Devonshire Buildings

The more monumental Devonshire Buildings, with their corner octagonal towers, were completed on Barrow Island by the Barrow Shipbuilding Company in 1874.  Though designed by Lancaster architects Paley and Austin, their style – and the builders, Smith and Caird from Dundee – point again to this rare adoption of Scottish forms south of the border. Similar tenement blocks just to the south – a mix of brick and craggier sandstone – were completed in the early 1880s, again designed by Paley and Austin and built by Dundee contractors on what have since been rebranded the ‘Maritime Streets’. 

Maritime Streets blocks

The one- and two-bed flats provided a living room and scullery and basic sanitary facilities but, despite their relatively spacious rooms, this was no philanthropic venture. Ramsden, emphasising the bottom line, pointed out they cost £25 less to build per room than Peabody tenements whilst also offering slightly lower weekly rents – 1s 6d (7.5p) a room compared to Peabody’s 2s (10p). (3)

Maritime Gardens

The Scotch Buildings are, as we’ll see, long gone but the refurbished Devonshire Buildings survive, listed Grade II*, part of the Cavendish family’s Holker Estate holdings. The Maritime Streets blocks, Grade II-listed, are now advertised as modern serviced apartments, their proximity to Barrow’s major employers still a key selling point.

South Row, Roose

That was also the case with the Roose Cottages, provided in the hamlet of that name to the west of Barrow in the mid-1870s by the Barrow Haematite Steel Company to serve the predominantly Cornish workforce of its new iron ore workings at Stank.  (That Cornish influence – 80 percent of the population was listed as coming from the county in the 1881 Census – is allegedly responsible for the soft ‘s’ pronunciation of the district’s name which replaced the hard ‘s’ previously favoured by locals.) The 196 cottages in two parallel blocks were again built by Cairds of Dundee, a testament to the relative ease of employing Scottish contractors and workers in what seemed to many a remote corner of England.

Given the national and local politics of the day, it’s no surprise that there was no municipal housebuilding at this time though, in fact, the private 1873 Barrow-in-Furness Corporation Act had empowered the council to build artisans’ cottages. In the event, the cost to ratepayers of ancillary sewerage and street works ensured the question would be shelved for some time.

Returning to 1881, that 47,259 population was crammed into 6789 houses, an average of 6.96 persons per house. That made Barrow, after London, the most overcrowded town in England.  An economic slowdown in the 1880s eased matters temporarily but the purchase by Vickers of the Naval Construction and Armaments Shipyard in 1897 led to renewed growth. By 1900, the town’s Medical Officer of Health lamented: (4)

There has been no adequate provision to relieve the congested condition of the town … I believe that 1000 additional houses would have been filled at once so great seems the overpopulation of nearly every working man’s house

Vickers’ workforce and 13-acre site on Walney Island doubled in size as cruiser orders filled its books and the company, like its predecessors, resorted to the provision of company housing to attract and retain its employees.  In 1899, Vickers took over the Walney Island Estates Company (which was attempting to develop mixed housing and a seaside resort on the island) and promised a ‘marine Garden City’ of its own, Vickerstown. By 1904, the construction of the first phase of Vickerstown, comprising around 950 homes, was largely complete.

Vickerstown housing plans

The solid well-built, predominantly terraced housing that emerged – complete with flush toilets, running water and its own electricity supply – was of good quality though its layout reflected few of the Garden City principles claimed to inspire it.  

Niger Street, Vickerstown (named after ships built in Barrow yards)

It was also rigidly socially segregated: Class A houses (the majority) offered more basic houses for ordinary workers at around 6s (30p) a week; Class J, for skilled workers and foremen provided larger rooms and, if you were lucky, a bathroom at 7s (35p) a week; commodious Class L houses – rented at 9s (45p) a week – were designed for administrative staff and lower management whilst the houses with sea views on the scheme’s fringes were intended for the elite. As Trescatheric suggests, ‘what Vickerstown more closely resembled was the older and less visionary concept of an industrial model village’.

Mikasa Street, Vickerstown (named after ships built in Barrow yards)

These were also, of course, tied houses; it was said you needed a foreman’s recommendation to be considered for housing and the loss of a Vickers job would see you evicted. Rents were deducted from wages and the company retained direct financial control of all the housing and amenities provided. The appointment of Lord Dunluce as Estates Manager from 1901 to 1909 (he moved to take up a post as secretary of the Peabody Housing Trust) reinforces the heavy paternalism on display. (Vickers’ hard-headed approach is even better illustrated by their construction of the new Walney Bridge, opened in 1908, to serve the shipyard and its mainland workforce: tolls were charged for all traffic including pedestrians until 1935 even after protesting riots in 1922.) (5)

Despite or more probably because of that paternalism, Alex McConnell – a Vickers employee, a Scot steeped like many of his fellow-workers in trade union and socialist traditions – was elected Walney Island’s first Labour councillor in 1905. By 1914, with all three seats held by Labour, Bram Longstaffe, the secretary of the local party, could refer to ‘the Fortress of Walney which is secure for Labour’.

Conversely, local trades unions were also pushing home ownership. In the context of company housing, high rents and no prospect of council housebuilding, this made sense. As the Trades Council argued in 1904, provided a would-be purchaser could raise a £10 deposit (no easy matter, of course), a monthly mortgage repayment of 12s (60p) compared well with rents averaging a £1 a month. 

For all Vickers’ growth and perhaps reflecting the impact of the company’s housebuilding, by 1909 the town’s Medical Officer of Health – in a new time of local slowdown, was concluding that:

The housing of the working-classes question has no significance in the town. There has never been any difficulty except on rare and temporary occasions for the workers to find houses for their wives and families.

That complacency would soon be challenged.  Barrow’s population rose from 65,257 in 1911 to over 75,000 in 1914, By some estimates, it reached 90,000 in the next few years. ‘The rare and temporary occasion’ this time, of course, was the rearmament drive in the years leading to the First World War and the war itself.

As Barrow industry expanded to meet war’s demands, the housing shortage became devastating. Vickers provided a further 1000 houses before and during the war but its workforce had expanded from around 16,000 in 1914 to 35,000.  Conditions for many single men sharing lodgings were described by a shipwright who had arrived in the town in 1913: (6)

We were working seven days a week in the yard for most of the war and the beds were never cold. As one left bed the next lot moved in—night shift and day shift, and it was like that all the time!

Other testimonies described shocking conditions for families

Father and mother, eight children, two of whom a boy and girl was over seventeen years of age, all living in one room. The mother was confined after, with child in this same room.

Elsewhere, sanitary inspectors reported 12 adults and seven children occupying a three-bed house in Melbourne Street while a family of six paid 7s 6d (37.5p) for a single bedroom in a house let at 4s 6d (22.5p) a week.

Class tensions strengthened; the perception that the town’s middle-class were evading the attempts of the Central Billeting Board to accommodate workers in their larger homes led to protest meetings at Vickers and the withdrawal of Labour representatives from the Board. At the same time, dilution (the use of unskilled or semi-skilled labour in jobs previously demarcated as skilled) added to trade union grievances and led in May 1917, to strike action, one of a number in munitions centres across the country, not least in Clydeside with which Barrow had close connections.  The Government appointed a Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest. (7)

Female munitions workers at Vickers

It reported on Barrow in August, describing conditions in the town as ‘a terrible indictment … against the Rulers and Governors’. Housing – or the lack of it – formed the major part of this indictment:

For nearly three years the population of this important working centre has been constantly increasing and there was no evidence before us that either the government or the Municipality had up to now taken any practical step to deal with the problem that has been urgent at all times and has now become a crying scandal.

Despite the criticisms of its Labour members, the Council blamed this inaction on the Government and, belatedly, the latter acted promptly. In October 1917 the Ministry of Munitions announced a scheme of 500 semi-permanent and 500 permanent houses to be built simultaneously and completed by March the following year.  Salthouse Road was selected by the Ministry as the site of the Roosecote Estate’s semi-permanent housing; it was said to have ‘natural leanings … towards a rough and unthrifty class of tenant’. The better-quality permanent homes were allocated to a greenfield site in Abbotsmead.

Holcroft Hill, Abbotsmead

Delays and controversy followed and neither were completed before war’s end; neither would be judged satisfactory.  But this takes us to next week’s post which will conclude this chapter and tell the new story of Barrow’s first council housing and that which followed.


(1) John Duncan Marshall and John K. Walton, The Lake Counties from 1830 to the Mid-twentieth Century: A Study in Regional Change (Manchester University Press, 1981)

(2) Quoted in Bryn Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built (Hougenai Press, 1985). Much of the information here and particularly that on later council housing, which is little documented elsewhere, is drawn from this invaluable source by Barrow’s leading historian.

(3) Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster 1880-1930’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol 127, 1978

(4) Quoted in Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built

(5) Caroline Anne Joy, ‘War and Unemployment in an Industrial Community: Barrow-In-Furness 1914-1926’, University of Central Lancashire PhD, 2004

(6) From the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest (1917), quoted in Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster’ and Joy, ‘War and Unemployment in an Industrial Community’

(7) David Englander, Landlord and Tenant in Urban Britain: The Politics of Housing Reform, 1838-1924, University of Warwick PhD, 1979

The more recent research of Peter Schofield – Industry and Society: A Study of the Home Front in Barrow-in-Furness during the First World War, University of Central Lancashire PhD, 2017 – offers additional information and insight into the dynamics of Barrow’s wartime housing situation.