I’m happy this week to feature a guest post written by Andrew Bibby. Andrew is a writer and journalist with a particular interest in co-operative history. He has been active, in a voluntary capacity, in his local Community Land Trust. Andrew’s website is andrewbibby.com.

Andrew is the author of the recently published book, These Houses Are Ours: Co-operative and Community-led Housing Alternatives, 1870-1919 (which I recommend to you). The book is available from bookshops and the Gritstone Publishing Cooperative.

Not everyone, wrote Birmingham local councillor and housing reformer John Nettlefold in 1914, could be in a position to afford to buy their own houses. He was writing, after all, at a time when most working-class people were renting from private landlords.

But there was, Nettlefold argued, potentially another way to provide affordable working-class housing. In tenant-run co-operative housing societies the tenants, collectively, could have a joint stake in the houses which were their homes. With such a model, he wrote:

The tenants are all landlords as well as tenants. None of them can say ‘This house is mine’; they can all say ‘These houses are ours’.

Nettlefold was not talking hypothetically.  By the start of the First World War, many thousands of working-class men and women had already moved into estates of this kind, run by housing societies set up under co-operative legislation.  Some were called tenant co-partnerships, some co-operative housing societies, some (borrowing a term from Germany) ‘public utility societies’.

Ludlow Road, Brentham Garden Suburb, Ealing Tenants Ltd, c1910 © Brentham Heritage Society archive

They could be found across Britain: from Sevenoaks in Kent to Westerton north of Glasgow, from Rhiwbina near Cardiff to Hadleigh in Suffolk, and from St Mawes in Cornwall up to Keswick in Cumbria.  Major cities, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Nettlefold’s Birmingham, had examples.  So too did many larger towns (Hereford, Oldham, Wrexham …). And there were also small estates in very rural areas, providing tenants not only with comfortable modern houses but with ample allotment gardens to use for growing their own food. The garden suburb/garden village aesthetic, associated particularly with the radical architect Raymond Unwin, was a strong influence in many of the estates.

A modern view of the meeting hall and bowling green, Burnage Garden Village, Manchester Tenants Ltd © Andrew Bibby

Indeed, open spaces, including allotments and parks, were a feature of the design of many of the estates and children’s playgrounds were almost always included. The larger estates generally also made space for tennis courts and bowling greens, as well as for a central community hall where socials, theatre shows, and talks and lectures could take place. There was a strong didactic and self-improvement urge behind the movement. As Amos Mann, an active co-operator and socialist who helped create the Anchor Tenants society in Leicester, put it,

Leading spirits in the movement let their imagination carry them forward to a time when they would be able to … create a sort of workmen’s community that would provide collectively some of the advantages that a rich man can obtain for himself.

It was a vision which could certainly inspire.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the co-operative movement in Britain (federated under the Co-operative Union and serviced by the highly successful Co-operative Wholesale Society and the Scottish CWS) had helped create more than a thousand independent co-op societies, run locally by member-elected committees and paying members the celebrated co-op ‘divi’ from the profits. There was a co-op banking operation (under the CWS), a co-operative insurer, co-operative flour mills, co-operative farms, and a number of worker-run manufacturing co-ops which were known as productive co-ops (today we would call them workers’ co-ops).

But despite its influence and power, the mainstream British co-op movement had been slow to tackle the acute housing crisis of the time.  Some larger societies offered mortgage loans to their members, on a very similar basis to building societies. Some societies actually built houses which they then sold on, usually via a mortgage, to members. Only a relatively small number of co-op societies built houses and continued to keep ownership, renting them out to member-tenants.

The movement which John Nettlefold and Amos Mann were part of came out of a particular sub-sector of the co-operative world, one more closely linked to productive co-operatives than to the village grocery societies. Anchor Tenants in Leicester, for example, was linked to a very successful worker-run shoe factory (Anchor Shoes). Manchester Tenants, in Burnage south of the city centre, began as an initiative of workers at the CWS’s head office. A tenant housing society in Letchworth was set up by workers at a co-operative printing press in the newly establishing ‘Garden City’.

A meeting of Ealing Tenants, c 1903 © Brentham Heritage Society archive

These ‘bottom-up’ initiatives tended to be the more radical. Anchor Tenants, for example, at one stage had a local socialist discussion group meeting in its communal hall.  Manchester Tenants contributed activists to the women’s suffrage movement and (during the First World War) to those claiming conscientious objector status and refusing to join the army.

By contrast, there were also a considerable number of the tenant housing societies in this movement which were more ‘top-down’ initiatives, brought into being by well-intentioned local philanthropists, businessmen or landowners concerned to do something practical about the desperate housing conditions for working-class people in their cities or towns: Liverpool’s well-known Wavertree ‘garden suburb’ was in this category, for instance. Westerton in Glasgow was another example. In Hereford, the cider producer Fred Bulmer was the leading light in that town’s society.

An early photograph of Bournville © Bournville Tenants Ltd

By 1916, when approaching forty housing societies came together at a conference called by the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association (now the Town and Country Planning Association), the discussion was focused on how co-operative housing and ‘public utility societies’ could develop their work after the war. A housing crisis was looming: the Tudor Walters Report of 1918, for example, would shortly estimate a shortfall post-war of half a million homes.

Municipal housing was certainly seen as necessary. But the co-op societies also believed that they could play an important role, provided they were given more state support. The 1916 conference debated the options: one suggestion was that local authorities could purchase and own the development land for new affordable housing but then lease it to tenant-run societies who would build and manage the actual estates. (This was not a theoretical possibility: it was already the approach pioneered by Fred Bulmer in Hereford). This way forward could make council funds go further, its advocates argued, and could also potentially give opportunities for greater tenant involvement.

It is clear that Christopher Addison, the Minister of Health who shepherded the 1919 Housing Act through Parliament, was supportive of this approach, and his Act indeed made provision for some government grant-funding for co-operative societies. (The grant-funding was partial relief on the costs of servicing capital loans). The Act also gave local authorities the powers to invest in the societies. But, pre-1919, Addison faced a problem: even after the experience of war, many councils were showing themselves to be reluctant to engage in housing.

Stockens Green, Knebworth, Knebworth Tenants Ltd, today © Andrew Bibby

In the end the 1919 Act had to effectively bribe resistant councils to take action, by ensuring that it was the central state rather than local councils that shouldered almost all the risk. By contrast, what seemed initially helpful provisions for co-op societies turned out to be problematic: societies took on all the risks of building new houses and were limited to borrowing 75 percent of the build costs from the state. Finding the remaining 25 percent proved challenging and expensive. And, when it came to council engagement with societies, why in practice would councils choose to support these societies when it was simpler for them to take the generous subsidies on offer and build their own homes?

The story of affordable housing in Britain for much of the twentieth century was to be one we all know well: it was to be a story of municipal housing rather that co-operative housing. (In this respect, incidentally, Britain has been out of step with several other European countries where co-operative housing continues to be a highly significant part of the overall provision of affordable housing to rent.)

But what of the situation today, now that Right to Buy legislation and local authority financial restraints have meant that the council housing route for affordable homes has inevitably had to change? Those early ‘public utility societies’ that did continue found themselves in due course with a new name – housing associations – though by the 1930s the vast majority had lost any residual sense of having once had some ‘co-operative’ linkage.

But what is happening today in the Community Land Trust movement echoes remarkably what was happening in Britain in the period before the First World War. Once again, local communities are trying through direct bottom-up endeavour to help provide the affordable homes their towns and villages need. The objective is the same now as then, and some of the problems being faced are the same, too: finding the necessary capital, overseeing the build process, and then ensuring that tenants can enjoy good landlord services and have a role in the governance of their own houses.

Now, therefore, seems a very good time to look again at those early co-operative societies, and to see what lessons we can learn from their experiences, from their successes and also from the mistakes they made. I found myself drawn to this area of research partly through my own voluntary engagement in my local CLT, knowing that we were part of a movement with historical roots but not knowing initially how deep those roots really were. 

Broadway Garden Village, Manchester, Fairfield Tenants Ltd, as it is today © Andrew Bibby

What astonished me as the research process got under way was discovering that, against all the odds, no less than ten societies from before 1914 are still operating today, providing inexpensive rental accommodation to their tenant-members. Their survival is remarkable, particularly as they have had almost no knowledge of the other remaining societies and no relationship with the mainstream housing association movement. They are not necessarily easy to track down; as a committee member of one society recently put it, ‘I think … we’re the best kept secret …we like to go under the radar a bit, don’t we?’

Their survival is cause for celebration – but I think we should remember and celebrate too the stories of those pre-1914 societies that may since have demutualised but which in their day did much to try to improve the quality of working-class housing. They did indeed try to make a difference. They did try to give their tenant-members collectively some of those advantages which the ‘rich man can obtain for himself’.