I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Paul Smith. Paul is the Chief Executive of Elim Housing Association and prior to that he was the Cabinet Member for Housing at Bristol City Council. Paul grew up on the Hartcliffe estate and was a tenant there himself. He was elected as the councillor there in 1988 and served for 11 years. During this period he started researching the history of the area coming across the original plans which were very different from what was finally built. Paul has worked in housing for over 30 years in a variety of roles but rarely finds that his degree in Astrophysics comes in useful. Paul is a Chartered Member of the CIH (more useful than astrophysics) and a Fellow of the RSA.
In 1943, Bristol City Council started thinking about the reconstruction of the city once the war was over. In January of that year a report identified the need for 30,000 new homes and there was an acceptance that not all of these homes could be accommodated inside the existing city boundary. Talks began with both Somerset and Gloucestershire to secure extensions of the city to access developable land. One potential location was the farmland between the southern city boundary and the sprawling Dundry Hill.
A new estate could be built on the basis of a garden city model which was described in a book published by the local company J S Fry and written by the City Archivist, English City: the Story of Bristol (1945). Fry’s said they published the book as ‘We felt we should like to make some contribution to the rebirth of our city’. In reality, the book was a council document covering the history of the city but also focused on how it would be rebuilt. It described building:
self-contained districts called ‘Neighbourhood units’, each with its own amenities, including a shopping centre, clinic, school and churches, cinema and recreation grounds. Factories should be built in or near the ‘Neighbourhood’.
An illustration from English City: the Story of Bristol
The new estate on the Dundry Slopes was to be built to this model. However, there were things which needed to be sorted out. The first was the boundary. Bristol Council was worried about the chaotic distribution of services, with Somerset County Council responsible for the police, public halls and community centres, education, health services, welfare services, children’s care, libraries and food and drug inspection; Long Ashton Rural District Council would have street lighting, street cleansing, refuse disposal and highways while Bristol would be running the housing itself and the fire service.
The County Council wasn’t keen either, based in Taunton, over 40 miles away down the A38. The County stated in a letter to Bristol:
This undertaking will involve the County Council in vast expenditure in respect of an area of the County which the Boundary Commission have already indicated should be added to Bristol and may have the effect of disorganizing the basis of County Council administration.
In 1949 Bristol gained the land from Somerset but in doing so had to relinquish its interest in expanding to the north and the east into Gloucestershire.
The next challenge came over the name. The good people of Dundry village did not want their name used to describe the new council estate. When Bristol proposed ‘New Dundry’, old Dundry complained that this would confuse the post office. The name settled on was Hartcliffe, ‘the army on the hill’, taking the name of the medieval Hundred of Hartcliffe which covered the area. Later there was also an argument about the street names. There was a proposal to the council that they be named after Battle of Britain pilots. This was defeated in a vote in favour of the established Bristol practice of using names which had a historical link to the area. The streets were named after taxpayers in the old Hundred.
An aerial view of the estate in the 1950s
The plans for the estate were ambitious, matching the neighbourhood plan. Hartcliffe was to have 3100 homes, three junior schools, a secondary school, six nurseries, three churches, six pubs, a cinema, a library, a health centre, five youth and scout/guide centres, a community centre, swimming pool, cricket pavilion and a public café.
The first blow to the plans came within just six months of their approval by the council. In May 1950, the Citizen Party (a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals) was elected, ousting the Labour Party. In June 1951, the Housing Committee met and approved a lower standard for council houses. They would be smaller and cheaper and for the rest of that decade most council homes were built of pre-reinforced concrete, many of them the Easiform houses built by John Laing.
There was even a discussion about replacing a downstairs internal door with curtains; this was rejected because ‘the cost to the housewife would be more than in providing the doors’. This followed only eight years after the Bristol Post (13th June 1943) reported that ‘Standard must be Higher [for] New Homes for men who return from the forces’. Then it was noted:
Men returning from the war with revolutionary ideas of what the position should be would not be content to wait long for houses. They should plan for a higher standard of housing on a 15 year programme.
By 1951 the discussion had turned to rents and taxes. Conservative councillor K Brown, chair of the Housing Committee, stated:
If you build a cheaper house it is bound to make it easier for the tenant. You must build houses which can be let to them at a rent they can pay. It either means an increase in rents of their houses or an increase in the city rates.
This was not the view of the outgoing chair Alderman Gill who said ‘he felt there ought to be no skimping of the necessities’. It wasn’t until over 30 years later that the defects in these cheaper houses were identified and legislated for leaving many councils, not just Bristol, having to spend many millions on rebuilding these ‘cheaper homes’ starting with those sold under the Right to Buy.
At the same time, the main road into the estate was downgraded from a dual to a single carriageway as government grant declined and, to save money on bridges, the stream running down the middle of the estate was filled in.
Bristol Evening Post, 4 June 1951
The Lord Mayor of Bristol, Alderman Harry Crook, delivering a speech at the ceremonial opening of the 5000th Easiform house to be completed in Bristol at the Hartcliffe Estate © Historic England Archive. John Laing Photographic Collection jlp01_08_043919
The building of the estate proceeded at pace in the early and mid-1950s. Many who moved there were displaced from inner-city areas destroyed by the Luftwaffe or by the council. Slums were cleared and residents moved from the heart of the city to the new estate six miles to the south. Early residents recall that the area had a stigma as soon as it was built. In Looking Back on Bristol: Hartcliffe People Remember (Bristol Broadsides, 1978), Jean Carey recalled, ‘this was the trouble in the beginning. Everybody sort of said Hartcliffe and turned their noses up; “We’re not going up there to live”‘.
People moving in soon found that the facilities promised were lost. Firstly, they were aware that the estate was built without pavements or side roads being completed. The area was a sea of mud, deliveries were only made to the main roads, shops and pubs only followed several years later leaving residents to wade out of the estate to access services.
Easiform housing on Luckley Avenue
The cinema, the swimming pool, the cricket pavilion, were never built, the library was completed over 20 years late, other facilities were scaled back – one nursery not six, three youth clubs not five, four pubs not six and the main shopping centre was also scaled back. Promises were broken and the estate became an outpost of the city, a sadly denuded version of the original vision.
Hartcliffe in 2019, Bristol lies to the rear © Wikimedia Commons, Paul Cli