My apologies again for lack of recent posts – I’m writing a book – but normal service will be resumed when possible. In the meantime, I’m very grateful to guest contributors and others working in the field on whom much of my work depends. Today’s post has been written by Julia Neville who is the (volunteer) project manager for a local history research collaboration on Devon in the 1920s.
Our project covers a wide range of different histories – from the Legacy of the First World War to Growing Up in the 1920s and on to Progress and Technology. And of course you can’t study 1920s local history seriously without coming across the problems of housing: the overall housing shortage and the inadequacy of the housing in which many people had to live. We need to take a close look at how agencies in the 1920s attempted to solve these almost intractable problems. As the Municipal Dreams blog makes clear, local authorities, urban and rural, were key players in this. Our research group was therefore delighted when John Boughton agreed earlier this month to come and launch our review of housing needs and development in Devon and set the scene for us of national initiatives (and backtracking) and how local authorities responded.
As readers may imagine, recreating what happened across the county of Devon is a challenge. Local authorities with housing interests comprised two county boroughs (Exeter and Plymouth); ten municipal boroughs; twenty-two urban districts; eighteen rural districts ranging in size from the giant St Thomas (26,500 population) to the tiny Culmstock (3200 population) which proudly related in 1931 that ‘’The council has taken up housing and 40 houses have been erected’. (1) There was also Devon County Council itself, whose interest in housing, especially the reconditioning of tumbledown housing. was shown in its response to the Housing (Rural Workers) Act 1926. (2) The county considered itself a driving force for rural housing improvement, as the pictures below illustrate. We hope to be able to update readers on our progress over the next year or so.
Amongst our group of volunteers, I am probably the lucky one, because my home patch is Exeter, and a post on this blog gives an overview of Exeter City Council’s forays into municipal housing during the interwar years, so some of the spade work on the 1920s has already been done for me. I hope to add value to it over the next year or so by investigating more closely the actors involved – both the ‘doers’ and the ‘done to’s’.
Exeter City Council in the 1920s was a complex mix of traditionalists and modernisers. The mayoralty was held alternately by a businessman (and it was always a man) and then a professional man and most councillors came from one or other of those backgrounds. Many councillors strenuously denied party politics had any influence, but this was a polite fiction as it was normally quite clear at national elections who was supporting which party. The arrival of first the Labour Party (the first councillor ‘crossed the floor’ to represent Labour rather than the Liberals in 1918) and then the Ratepayers’ Association (very active between 1924 and 1925) also disturbed this polite fiction as those groups did arrange to cast their votes as a bloc. I hope to find out more about the dynamics of getting things done and who the procrastinators were. As part of that process I intend to consider the contributions of some of the forgotten councillors such as Edith Splatt, Exeter’s first woman councillor, who was elected on a Ratepayers’ Association ticket but who was all her life a campaigner for better housing.
Secondly, I hope to find out more about the families who moved to the new estates. Initially these were working families with a reasonable level of wages, and thus able to pay the rents required, but as legislation changed more families came from poor housing areas such as the slums of the West Quarter. A wide range of oral histories were collected in Exeter thirty or forty years ago which give us some clues to what the residents thought about their ‘old’ and their ‘new’ houses in the interwar years. Lil Shapcott, for example, remembers how when she was a child in Preston Street ‘you had to go to the toilet out in the yard, and there were rats … Once my sister said “Stay indoors and I’ll go out.” She had a pair of my brother’s hob-nailed boots … she kicked this rat and kicked it until it went away or died or something.’ Lil’s father, a fish hawker, always said of the new estates: ‘You won’t get me out there so long as I live’. And in fact he did die before they had to move, but her mother and the children moved out, and her mother relished the garden that came with the new house on the Burnthouse Lane estate. ‘She had four squares with big rocks around, and she had all these flowers, and once a year the Council men used to come round and judge the gardens, and my mother had First Prize …’ (3)
Recently in a compilation called Childhood in Exeter in the 1920s, I came across an account by Charles Tucker, who was born in 1920 into a single room tenement in a tumbledown house. He reflected on the gradual move of his friends during the 1920s and 1930s out to the different Exeter estates: ‘The Council decided on slum clearance, and sent them to all parts of the city. To Buddle Lane, which was nicknamed ‘Shanghai’, why I don’t know. To Whipton [the Polsloe Estate] which was known as ‘Chinatown’, I still don’t know why, and to Burnthouse Lane. I don’t know why they didn’t give that a name.’ (4) Eventually ‘they’ did: it was known as ‘Siberia’.
On the map above, courtesy Google Earth, I have marked the locations of the estates and also of the High Street which for many had originally been little more than a three or four minute walk away from home, and was now thirty or forty minutes. I imagine, and it’s the common assumption, that the estates got those nicknames because of their distance from the High Street and the markets. But I’d be really interested to find out whether other readers of this blog are aware of nicknames attached to the interwar council estates in their area and what those nicknames represented. If you have any examples to share, please send them to me, Julia Neville, via the Devon History Society website, Contact – Devon History Society
Please contact Julia directly (or leave a comment as appropriate) but I’ll also be very pleased to hear of, and happy to feature on the blog, other local research into the history of council housing.
(1) Municipal Year Book, 1931, Municipal Journal Ltd (1931)
(2) The work of the county council is described in R.T. Shears, Conservation of Devonshire Cottages, Bideford Gazette Printing (1968)
(3) Lil Shapcott, Memories, courtesy of Olwen Foggin
(4) Charles Tucker (Mr W), in Childhood in Exeter, 1920-1950, Exeter City Council (1987)