Last week’s post looked at the history of Clay Cross – its longer-term politics as well as the commitment to working-class interests and record of practical achievement of its new Labour council elected in 1963. This post examines how housing and rents became central to that struggle and why its 1972 Rents Rebellion has been such a unique episode in Labour and local government history.
David Skinner, a still from the 1974 ITV documentary Confrontation at Clay Cross
Before 1979, housing was seen as local government’s most important role and here Clay Cross acted boldly. The Council had been quietly buying up the town’s substandard houses for some time, demolishing them or making them fit for purpose as appropriate. By 1971, over 550 slums had been cleared, 95 per cent of the total.
In July 1972, they went further by determining to buy every privately rented home in the area. As Councillor Arthur Wellon stated: (1)
On this Council we like to think of ourselves as basic Socialists. We regard housing here as a social service, not as something the private sector can profit from.
Two hundred homes were transferred from the National Coal Board that year. The Urban District, with a population a little under 10,000, had 1340 council homes, housing around half its population.
Post-war housing in Bestwood Park
At this point, the Council’s rents – at £1 12s including rates – were the lowest in the country. Arrears were not pursued through the courts but by a personal visit from the chair and vice-chair of the Housing Committee. Often they found tenants not claiming the benefits to which they were entitled and the policy proved effective as well as humane.
The ultimate test of these principles came with the passing of the Conservative Government’s Housing Finance Act in July 1972. At a time when unemployment in the town stood at around 20 per cent, the legislation required the Council to raise rents by £1 a week. In September, the Council formally resolved to reject all provisions of the new law.
That stance was overwhelmingly endorsed by local voters in the Council elections which followed and backed up by a rent strike called in 1973 supported by 84 per cent of tenants. When Mr Skillington – the hapless Housing Commissioner sent in by Whitehall to collect the increased rents – arrived from Henley-on-Thames he faced complete non-cooperation, refused office space and staff. He withdrew a few months later having failed to collect a penny of the increase.
But the law pursued its course more inexorably. In July 1973, the courts found Clay Cross’s eleven councillors– Arthur Wellon, Charlie Bunting, Graham Smith, Eileen Wholey, George Goodfellow, Terry Asher, David Nuttall, David Percival, Roy Booker, David Skinner and Graham Skinner; working men and women, good trades unionists – guilty of ‘negligence and misconduct’ and they were fined a total of £6,985 plus £2,000 costs.
When the High Court rejected their final appeal in 1974, Charlie Bunting spoke for them all: (2)
We have one judge, not those three in there; that’s our conscience and our conscience is clear.
The eleven were disqualified from office and personally surcharged and new elections ordered. In the by-elections which followed in February, 1974, a 71.5 per cent turn-out returned ten of a ‘second eleven’ of Labour candidates pledged to pursue resistance; the other lost by just two votes.
Clay Cross Urban District Council, however, had just four weeks to run; it was abolished in 1974 – not through some proto-Thatcherite spite but by the general reorganisation of local government which took place that year. The Housing Finance Act was implemented by North East Derbyshire District Council though Clay Cross itself continued to resist. [Please also read the comment below added by the former clerk of the Clay Cross Parish Council – the only council officer directly affected – who was fined and dismissed for his part in the struggle.]
Of 46 councils initially refusing to implement the Act, Clay Cross had been the only one to maintain its opposition to the bitter end – as Graham Skinner says, ultimately ‘a futile gesture’ but a necessary one.
In answer to the question ‘why Clay Cross?’, I hope I have provided some answers here. This was a distinct and close-knit town; some outsiders even call it isolated though I’m sure that’s not a local perception. Its mining and manufacturing heritage runs deep – a history of hardship and resistance, of trades unionism and working-class politics rooted deep in its community.
From this – and through the ideals and activism of its elected members – emerged a council understood not as a distant, administrative body but as the heart and (in the very best sense) vanguard of its community: (3)
The men and women who were elected to serve on the council were not remote figures who did what the bureaucrats told them to do, but representatives of the working people of the town who kept faith with their electors. It was as simple as that.
All this, of course, is hard to replicate: unusual enough then and another world now as, from the 80s, we have witnessed working-class communities up and down the country ravaged by de-industrialisation and mass unemployment and the collateral damage these have wrought.
The days of steady, secure employment and strong trade unions forthright in its defence seem distant; the possibility of work and politics as proud and progressive badges of local identity long gone; a simple respect for working people (and for those, through no fault of their own, without work) as the backbone of our nation disappeared, sometimes derided.
And, to prevent this becoming a pointless exercise in sepia-tinted nostalgia, let’s acknowledge positive changes too – more people better educated, new opportunities and higher living standards for some (even as many of those advances have ground to a halt in recent years).
Marx Court, Clay Cross, housing for older people, opened by North East Derbyshire District Council in 1982: a nod to a radical past?
At any rate, Clay Cross will be hard to repeat. But it does hold lessons. I don’t knock councillors, nor am I cynical about the energy and good intentions they generally bring to their work but Labour councils have become too willing to work with the contemporary grain of neo-liberal politics, scrapping within its interstices to wrest such small progressive victories as it allows.
This is seen most powerfully in the housing field where a proud council housing legacy is being squandered and ‘regeneration’ has become a tool to destroy communities in order to build ‘affordable’ homes which are nothing of the kind.
There remains a lesson from Clay Cross, not of an old politics but of a renewed politics where politicians are not technocratic figures managing the agenda of the day but true representatives of their communities spearheading a politics from below – a politics of, from and for the extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people who constitute the mass of our country.
Let’s leave the last word with Charlie Bunting again: (4)
I don’t think for one bloody minute we are heroes. I think we are doing our job – and that’s to help the working class, the cream of the nation.
(1) Michael Ewing, ‘The Home Truths: a Special Investigation into Housing’, Daily Mirror, 6 July 1972
(2) David Skinner and Julia Langdon, The Story of Clay Cross (1974)
(3) Skinner and Langdon, The Story of Clay Cross
(4) Paula James and Jill Evans, ‘Working-class Rebels with a Cause’, Daily Mirror, 3 December 1973
For more on the Clay Cross Rents Rebellion, the best source is the book by David Skinner and Julia Langdon. Online accounts can be found on the Dronfield Blather blog and, from a more revolutionary perspective, ‘How Clay Cross Fought the Tories‘ on the website of the Socialist Party.
Clay Cross takes its place – alongside Poplar – as a hallowed place in the Labour pantheon: a site of struggle and resistance, a town where a Labour-led council fought valiantly for its people, whose socialism was less an abstract ideal than part of its living fabric. All that came to a head in the famous 1972 Rents Rebellion. But it was rooted in a history, community and politics of much longer vintage. This post will look at that at that longer story and try to answer the question why there, why then – and, by extension, why not here and why not now.
In the early nineteenth century Clay Cross was little more than a hamlet at a crossroads. A cross stood at the intersection of Clay Lane and Thanet Street and from that it is said to have derived its name. But its history begins in 1837 when George Stephenson drove a tunnel under the village and discovered iron and steel in the process. Stephenson set up a company to exploit its potential which, after his death in 1848, became the Clay Cross Company.
Clay Cross works, 1929
The population of Clay Cross itself had tripled – to 1478 by 1841. It was a company town and the Clay Cross Company was said to be a paternalistic employer, generous even – its workers’ housing comprised four rooms rather than the two which were typical.
In the mining industry, that paternalism didn’t amount to much. In November 1882, an explosion of firedamp in the town’s Parkhouse No. 7 pit killed 45 men and boys. An inquest jury, comprised of the local middle classes, found no negligence on the part of the Company but recommended that safety lamps be used in future. It naturally also expressed its ‘deep sympathy with all the bereaved ones who had suffered in this calamity’.
Sympathy, however, was in short supply during the Great Lock-out of 1893 when local miners – resisting a 25 per cent wage cut – were laid off for nine months. Nor was it evident in 1910 when John Renshaw led the colliers of Parkhouse in a 14-week strike against the pittance paid for abnormal work. Renshaw was dismissed; his comrades bought him a hawker’s cart so he could somehow continue to make a living.
James Haslam, commemorated in Chesterfield
Politically, resistance was also stirring. Labour representatives held a majority on the Clay Cross Urban District Council from its formation in 1894 to 1906. James Haslam, Clay Cross-born in 1842 and Secretary of the Derbyshire Miners’ Association, was elected as the local MP in 1906 and became its Labour MP when the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain affiliated to the party in 1909. In 1919, John Renshaw, now described as a greengrocer, was elected a Labour councillor. There was much to do.
Although, by 1919, some of the worst slums had been demolished, some back-to-backs knocked through, a small municipal scheme had been built in Broadleys, of 1800 houses in the town only 130 had baths and only 500 had WCs. (2) The Council responded by purchasing an additional five acres of land for a £57,000 scheme to extend its Broadleys estate.
Early housing in Broadleys
Rents proved to be controversial, however. The Ministry of Health demanded rents of 14s, 11s 6d and 9s (exclusive of rates) which the Council criticised as excessive. In 1922, exactly fifty years before its much more famous rents protest and at a time when miners’ wages were being cut once more, the Council voted unanimously to reduce them. (3)
How Clay Cross miners survived during the nine-month coal strike four years later can only be guessed – their strike pay was exhausted after ten weeks – but poignant evidence is provided below in the image of Brannigan’s Jazz Band: twenty local miners, who toured the district in fancy dress raising money from well-wishers. (4)
In 1931, plans for 16 new council houses on land at Clay Lane were announced. Against those who were critical of such expenditure at a time of austerity, Councillor Renshaw made the essential ethical case for council housing (in the language of his day), as true now as it was then: (4)
If Capitalism has found some easier and better method of investing money other than building houses, then it must devolve itself upon the State and local authorities to provide them and give the working classes that share of comfort which should be theirs by right in a Christian country.
Moreover, because the financial case is just as strong, the Council pointed out that the houses, costing £300 17s to build (‘a great credit to the surveyor and the clerk’), would cost the ratepayer nothing and could be let at an inclusive rent of just 8s 6d. (5)
Council houses on Holmgate Road
As slum clearance took off in the mid-1930s, 63 houses were demolished under the 1930 Housing Act, displacing 229 people, and 14 houses built in Holmgate Road for some of those displaced. One year later, in 1936, plans were announced for the construction of 64 houses and 14 bungalows for elderly people on the newly-acquired Angel Fields site.
Houses and bungalows on The Crescent, the Angel Estate
Thirty new houses would be built on the Estate after 1945 and by 1950 the Council had completed 290 new homes in all. Much very poor property remained – Elbow Row was a terrace of one-up, one-down houses with ‘blind backs’, ‘improved’ in 1960 by the Clay Cross Company by the addition of a single-brick lean-to at the rear. (6) It was demolished in 1973 at the height of the Council’s ambition and radicalism.
This later chapter begins in 1960 when Dennis Skinner (brought up in a council semi on Meadow Lane, Holmgate) was elected to the Council. Local Labour, it is said, had grown moribund in the 1950s when Skinner and others, less celebrated, revived the party. Three years later, in 1963, Labour took all eleven seats on the Council and it would win every contest thereafter until 1974.
Crucially, although tribal voting can be conservative and established councils with a monopoly of power complacent, this Labour success was active and politicised, rooted in its community. In the words of David Skinner: (7)
The council as a unit was strong because it had developed its policies as an expression of the will of the people it served. It knew those policies were right because of the growing political awareness in the town, because it was clear that people had learned to care what happened there, because – unlike in many local authority areas – between 65 and 75 per cent of them bothered to turn out and vote whenever there were elections.
This wasn’t the stuff of revolution. For example, three ‘Darby and Joan Clubs’ were opened in the 1960s for the town’s senior citizens who were also (alongside those with disabilities) given free bus travel in 1971 and free TV licences in 1973.
When Margaret Thatcher abolished free school milk in 1973, the Council kept supplying its primary school children through a penny rate and the diversion of an increased chairman’s allowance. It ran playgroups too and provided (with some help from the Sports Council) a brand-new Olympic-sized swimming pool to replace the near-obsolete one at the Miners’ Welfare and a pitch-and-putt course on a former slag heap.
The opening of new council offices in an old building, a former hotel, on the town’s High Street was a deliberate symbol of the Council’s place at the heart of its community. When Dennis Skinner performed the opening ceremony in July 1965 he declared that the public ‘will be the openers of the new offices. If public service is presented properly, the people will take an interest.’ (8) And they did.
We’ll follow this story to its climax in the famous rents rebellion of 1972 in next week’s post and attempt to understand why Clay Cross has been so unique and distinct in its resistance to unjust laws and a hostile politics.
Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2017)
To Mark Swenarton, the work of Sydney Cook (Camden Borough Architect from 1965 to 1973) and his talented team represents ‘an architectural resolution unsurpassed not just in social housing in the UK but in urban housing anywhere in the world’. Usually that kind of comment might be dismissed as hype but here I think huge numbers would agree. This fine book makes the case comprehensively and convincingly.
Cook’s big idea, shared and executed brilliantly by the architects he recruited to Camden, was for housing which was low-rise and high-density. It directly challenged the architectural fashions of the day – the tower blocks which (in perceptual terms at least) dominated new council housing from the mid-1960s and the mixed development ideas which licensed them. Equally, he rejected ‘off-the-peg’ system-building.
The new direction pioneered in Camden offered, in the words of Neave Brown, Cook’s best known recruit, an opportunity not only to re-engage with the ‘traditional social and physical form and virtues of the city’ but, crucially, ‘to try and improve on them’. This wasn’t some pastiche revival of the old terraces but rather, as Swenarton claims, a ‘modern urbanism’; one that ‘could be generated without creating a rupture with either the existing grain of the city or the prevailing way of life’.
And then, essentially, there was the politics; unlike some historians of architecture Swenarton is good on the politics. Camden was, by some way (excepting the Cities of London and Westminster), the richest borough in London, with a rateable value of £3,994,000. Moreover, it was from inception a left-wing borough (despite a significant Tory interregnum from 1968 to 1971), determined, as one its leading members Enid Wistrich stated, ‘to be the tops’. Housing was to be the chief expression of its progressive and innovative politics.
Fleet Road, image by Tim Crocker
Neave Brown, recently awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for lifetime achievement, takes centre stage. His first Camden project, Fleet Road designed in 1966-67, established the philosophical keynote of Camden’s new housing. In Brown’s words, the ‘primary decision’ was taken:
to build low, to fill the site, to geometrically define open space, to integrate. And to return to housing the traditional quality of continuous background stuff, anonymous, cellular, repetitive, that has always been its virtue.
Alexandra Road, image by Tim Crocker
This was followed through on majestic scale at Alexandra Road. Here there would be terraces, not the voguish streets in the sky which excited many architects of the day. They would form, Swenarton says, ‘a continuous fabric…interspersed with public or semi-public squares’; ‘rather than the buildings being objects surrounded by space’, as was the case in the prevailing mixed development schemes, ‘the buildings should define the space’.
Much more could be said and it is covered in great detail in the book but Swenarton also gives due space and credit to other Camden architects. Peter Tábori, though barely 27 when appointed by Cook to design the Highgate New Town development in 1967, brought an impressive architectural pedigree, having been tutored by Ernő Goldfinger (remembered by him as ‘a born educator’), Richard Rogers and Denys Lasdun no less.
Tábori was firmly opposed to the estate concept which dominated public housing at the time, taking his ideas of ‘through routes and visual connection’, self-policing public space and clearly defined private space from the newly influential writings of Jane Jacobs.
It’s a necessary – though sad – reminder of the limitations of architectural good intentions to learn that by 1983 the estate (because it was in essence an estate) was deemed ‘a haven for hoodlums…a warren of lonely walkways and blind spots’. Fourteen years later, another journalist concluded ‘as an experiment in social housing, the Highgate New Town development has failed’. It hadn’t, of course, but it had gone through (and has since recovered from) troubled times. The simple fact – though complex reality – is that wider societal dynamics often influence our residential experience far more than design itself.
Branch Hill, image by Tim Crocker
However, it was the Branch Hill Estate in Hampstead, designed by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, begun in 1971 and finally completed in 1978, which best captures both the increasingly fraught housing politics of Camden and the design brilliance. Chapter 6 ‘Class War in Hampstead: the battle of Branch Hill’ describes the former – ‘it was a classic tale of privilege versus the people’ in Swenarton’s words. Chapter 7 ‘The Poetics of Housing: Benson and Forsyth at Branch Hill’ powerfully evokes the latter.
Branch Hill, image by Tim Crocker
The Labour Group was determined to build council housing in leafy, affluent Hampstead; the Conservative Group (though internal differences existed) mostly opposed. The cost of the project with respect to the initial purchase price of the land and the design and constructional fixes that a difficult site and restrictive covenant required, brought this conflict into sharper focus. In the end, Labour – back in power in Camden in 1973 and nationally from 1974 – won out and the housing was built.
It was quite probably, as hostile commentary claimed, ‘the most expensive council housing in the world’ – 21 pairs of two-storey houses in three rows, costing in total some £2.8m. But it is also, according to Derek Abbott and Kimball Pollit, ‘the most sophisticated semi-detached housing in the world’. The covenant on the land insisted upon a two-storey maximum height and semi-detached homes. That Benson and Forsyth achieved a resolution in signature Camden style – stepped terraces, external walls of board marked and smooth white concrete, and dark-stained timber joinery – yet unique and distinctive is a tribute both to the architects and the political will and vision of the Council.
Underlying this, for Benson and Forsyth, was:
the fundamental belief that, while buildings must satisfy practical requirements empirically, they must also embody those abstract properties which arouse the senses and satisfy the mind.
Branch Hill, and Camden’s other architect-designed estates, fulfil this dictum with style and panache.
The tide, however, was turning. The Conservatives’ 1972 Housing Finance Act stipulated so-called ‘fair rents’ closer to the market rents of the private sector (albeit offset by a comprehensive national scheme of rent rebates). Camden, alongside other Labour authorities, initially pledged to resist the legislation but capitulated. (Famously, only Clay Cross Council in Derbyshire fought the Act to the bitter end.) The ensuing high rents were another problem for the Branch Hill scheme.
Mansfield Road, Gospel Oak – an example of ‘urban dentistry’, image by Tim Crocker
By 1975, it was Anthony Crosland, Labour’s Secretary of State for the Environment, declaring ‘the party’s over’. Economic hard times and financial crisis called time on the public sector expansion which had marked much of the post-war period. In Camden, there were other straws in the wind. A middle-class, owner-occupier revolt had scuppered earlier plans for the comprehensive redevelopment of Gospel Oak back in 1966. It anticipated a broader sea-change – a move against large-scale slum clearance (indeed, a questioning of what constituted a ‘slum’) and a drive towards rehabilitation of what were now called ‘twilight areas’.
In the 1970s, this change was reflected in an expanded policy of municipalisation – the Council’s acquisition and management of formerly private rental properties. Its counterpart was what Swenarton calls ‘urban dentistry’ – selective demolition of housing deemed beyond repair and small-scale infill, often designed (though to typically high Camden standards) by private practices.
Maiden Lane, image by Tim Crocker
As noted by Swenarton, Labour’s 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act represented another shift – though its longer-term consequences were poorly understood – in the nature of council housing with its codification of needs-based allocation. Another Benson and Forsyth scheme (though their original designs were significantly modified), Maiden Lane caught the brunt of this:
The result was that many of the tenancies…were channelled by social services straight to homeless families and others with greatest need. This was a social composition very different from most of the Camden estates.
Maiden Lane became notorious, one of those estates demonised by the media as dysfunctional and crime-ridden. The architects insist that its ‘architecture, quality of place internally and externally….was elegant, humane and economic’ and blame ‘ineffectual management, social conflict, and banal architectural intervention’ for the estate’s later woes. There’s some truth in this for sure but it’s another reminder that architecture – whether deemed good or bad – is far from solely determining the lived experience of residents.
Maiden Lane has been substantially redesigned since and, if you’re seeking a symbol of just how far we’ve come from the heady idealism of Cook’s Camden, the Council has recently built 273 flats on the estate: 149 for sale on the open market, 53 for shared ownership and 71 new council flats. Those for sale reflect the new wisdom that private capital must be harnessed to finance the regeneration and expansion of social housing. But, unusually, the development as a whole increased council housing stock and Camden Council continues to own and management most of its social housing. (1)
Alexandra Road, image by Tim Crocker
Alexandra Road, Grade II* listed in 1994, had its problems too though these related to the complex saga of its drawn-out construction and escalating cost. ‘Conceived in 1968, in the period of optimism generated by the post-war boom, but constructed during the crisis decade that followed’, the finished estate of 520 homes took twice as long to build as projected and cost, on completion in 1979, some £18.9m. At the same time, it became a pawn in Labour’s internal politics as a ‘hard left’ faction (some may dislike Swenarton’s use of the term) led by Ken Livingstone wrestled for control against what had now become Labour’s old guard.
Livingstone, elected a Camden councillor in 1978, became chair of housing and used a Council-instigated public inquiry into what was now widely seen as the Alexandra Road debacle as a means of discrediting the former leadership. In truth, the inquiry found no blame attached to the Architect’s Department (though it noted staff shortages, for which it was blameless, were a factor) and there were myriad problems – relating to the site, changing specifications and, above all, contemporary troubles in the building trades – which did account for the scheme’s financial difficulties.
However, at the last minute, the Council itself inserted a clause suggesting that some of the increasing costs might have been avoided ‘if the Architect himself had exercised more foresight with regards to the demands of the project’. Livingstone moved on to the bigger stage of the Greater London Council. Incredibly, Neave Brown, so unfairly impugned, would not work in Britain again.
A sad end to what John Winter has called a ‘a magical moment for English housing’. At the outset, for Sydney Cook and his team:
the challenge was to address the deficiencies of the housing that had been, and was still being, produced by local authorities across the country: to take forward the project of the welfare state – but to do it better.
By 1979, and decisively under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, it was, as Swenarton notes, ‘no longer the deficiencies of the form of housing produced by the welfare state, but the welfare state itself that was under attack’. In the end, in this brave new world, Camden’s path-breaking housing programme had minimal domestic impact though it was influential on the Continent. Alexandra Road, and the Borough’s other pioneering schemes, suffered ‘from having been released into a different world to that in which it was conceived…set on the very cusp of the change from socialism to the me-generation’. (2)
You’ll find all this discussed more fully in the book and much, much more – in particular a rich analysis of architectural influences and forms which I’ve barely touched on here. I’m sorry to gush but it’s hard to imagine a better book on its topic. OK, I’ll earn my reviewer’s credentials by wishing for a bit more on the buildings’ after-lives (discussed a little more fully in some of my blog posts) but the book does what it sets out to do superbly.
Lamble Street interior, Gospel Oak, image by Tim Crocker
The photography stands out – Martin Charles’ earlier images and Tim Crocker’s wonderful contemporary photographs of which I include a selection. The schemes themselves are pretty photogenic in skilled hands but Crocker’s shots of lived-in interiors and real live people inside and out bring out their qualities in a more humane and personal way than is common in architectural photography. These are complemented by a profusion of maps, plans and architectural drawings.
Congratulations to Stefi Orazi for the book design, to the publishers Lund Humphries for their commitment to the highest production values, and, above all, to Mark Swenarton. His scholarship and hard work have surely produced what is and will remain the definitive account of Cook’s Camden.
Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, by Mark Swenarton, is published by Lund Humphries (HB £45) The book is for sale on the publisher’s website with free UK postage. If you insert the code CAMDEN10 on check-out, single copies will receive a £10 discount.
I’m very pleased to feature this week a guest post by Paul Wood. Paul is the author of three books about trees in London: London’s Street Trees, London is a Forest and London Tree Walks, and he writes the blog thestreettree.com.
London Tree Walks, published in October 2020, features a dozen walks around London from Acton to Walthamstow looking at the city through the trees found in it. One of the walks, ‘Architectural Utopias Among The Trees: A Pimlico Circular’, guides walkers through the Millbank and Churchill Gardens Estates. This guest blog looks at how trees have been used in planned housing developments since the end of the nineteenth century with particular focus on the Pimlico Estates.
Signed copies of London Tree Walks are available from the authorat this webpage.
By the end of the nineteenth century, trees in towns and cities had burst out of parks and squares to become established in new, urban and suburban settings across the UK and beyond. The opening of the Victoria Embankment in 1870 led to an almost overnight popularisation of planting trees in avenues, a phenomena that had hitherto been the preserve of great Continental cities such as Paris, where Hausmann’s grands boulevards had been attracting attention for several decades.
By the late nineteenth century, building houses among tree-lined streets had become an established practice for speculative builders wanting to attract the burgeoning middle classes to newly fashionable suburbs like Muswell Hill and Bedford Park. In Bedford Park, new street trees complemented those retained from the original fields, while in Muswell Hill, hundreds of London planes adorned the new avenues.
Planners and developers had realised that not only were trees an important part of a modern cityscape, they brought with them a host of benefits to those who lived near them. As the new craze for street tree planting reached fever pitch, it was only natural that the first public housing schemes should also have trees planted around them. The Boundary Estate in Shoreditch featured newly planted trees along its streets, mostly London planes and common limes, many of which, particularly those around Arnold Circus can still be seen. Rows of newly planted saplings feature in this photograph taken in 1903 soon after the estate opened.
Twenty years after the Embankment planting, Victorian engineers had taken on board the need to engineer tree planting into new road schemes, the complexity of which was outlined by Clerk of the Improvements Committee, Percy J Edwards in 1876: (1)
To secure the well-being of trees, pits were formed and filled with proper soil, and the footway surrounding the trees was covered with an open grating to admit the rain and air to the soil, and to enable it to be stirred and kept loose on the surface. The grating and footway were supported independently by girders over the pits, so as to prevent the settlement of the paving and the hardening of the ground around the roots of the trees.
Following similar principles, the trees seen at Boundary Road and the Millbank Estate constructed soon afterwards are extraordinarily well encased. High quality engineering means subsidence has not been an issue and big trees have been left to reach their full potential and are now a significant physical feature defining these estates as much as their architecture.
Trees planted in some privately developed housing schemes, including Muswell Hill, have not fared so well with whole streets of mature trees disappearing. This is down to two main factors: the cost of maintaining large trees is significant, sometimes at a level local authorities have struggled to keep up with; and the costs of paying out to litigious residents whose homes, built speculatively often with relatively poor foundations, have been subject to subsidence.
Trees are frequently implicated in subsidence cases, their adventurous roots, insurers claim, drain water from London’s porous clay soils causing contraction and can also undermine buildings. Rather than fight these often difficult-to-prove cases, authorities will avoid costs and conflict by simply removing trees. This practice has led to avenues being depleted, removed completely or being replaced piecemeal with different species. This last practice can mean an architecturally consistent scheme planted with, for instance, London planes can become a hotchpotch of trees with differing characteristics, size and age.
This is not the case on the Millbank Estate however, defined – even more so than the Boundary Estate – by its well-manicured and mature London plane trees. It was completed in 1902 and was an ambitious attempt at social housing, building on the experience of its smaller Shoreditch sibling. Millbank’s trees appear, 120 years after their installation, to be in great shape and add to the architectural rigour even more so than those on the Boundary Estate. It may be obvious, but unlike buildings, trees change dramatically over time, albeit in relative slow motion. They are also subject to differing management regimes which themselves change over decades and so reflect factors including fashion, economics and arboricultural practices whose impact becomes apparent over multiple human lifetimes.
Today, the Millbank Estate has a near full and consistent complement of trees, virtually all of which are London planes, the urban tree species of choice in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The Boundary Estate has some fine planes too, but appears to be relatively less forested today. Historically it appears, the Boundary Estate was planted with planes interspersed with common limes – another species well adapted to urban situations, mature examples of which can be seen on Rochelle Street. Elsewhere a handful of weeping ‘Pendula’ cultivars of wych elm, an ornamental species relatively resistant to Dutch elm disease are present. One in the small garden behind Sandford House next to Club Row is typical.
These curious crown-grafted trees were much in favour during the nineteenth century and are often a feature of public parks, however the estate examples appear to be rather younger than the buildings, they are perhaps second-generation replacements of original trees. In more recent years, streets such as Palissy Street have been planted with Field Maple, a smaller and shorter-lived species than London plane, but nevertheless, a good hardy tree.
The Boundary Estate has, it seems, lost some of its trees over the years, and those that remain have been less strictly managed than those on the Millbank Estate. Both feature mature planes that now reach the full height and more of the buildings that once towered over them. They have been planted close to the buildings, in retrospect maybe too close, often they have grown at angles several degrees away from upright in search of light. Their presence in such proximity to the buildings is testament to the high specification of the entire estate.
To walk round the larger Millbank Estate today is to encounter an environment, both architectural and arboreal, that has been very well maintained over the years. With both estates, it is interesting to reflect on the planners’ original vision of how the trees would become integral to the estates over time. Did they consider the trees should be left to reach the heights seen today, or were they intended to be managed on a severe pollarding regime reflecting the fashions of the early nineteenth century? It is hard to know, or even if the longevity of the trees’ lives was considered.
Now though, and particularly in the summer, the mature trees’ canopies provide cool shade and, as evidence from elsewhere shows, traffic speed, noise and pollution are all reduced in such lush surroundings. Integral to the design of the estate was the inclusion of open space and the provision of trees.
Communal, mostly paved, areas are tucked away between the blocks, and the trees planted over 120 years ago line the streets running between them. London planes form something of a monoculture, which from a visitor’s perspective offers a harmonious aesthetic that sits well with the arts and crafts inspired architecture, but to a contemporary planner, this rigour may seem uninteresting and even risky given the spectre of plant pathogens that, like Dutch Elm Disease, can wipe out whole species in a very short time.
It was undoubtedly a radical move to include trees in these early estates; by the late nineteenth-century social class was embedded in their selection and planting. As Harold Dyos wrote in his 1960s study of the growth of Camberwell: (2)
The choice of trees, too, had its social overtones: planes and horse chestnuts for the wide avenues and lofty mansions of the well-to-do; limes, laburnums and acacias for the middle incomes; unadorned macadam for the wage-earners.
Dyos’ observation illustrates that the high standards employed in early public housing development goes against the norms established by private developers. London plane, the tree that is associated with grand public thoroughfares like the Embankment and aspirational new suburbs like Muswell Hill was also the tree chosen to soften and embed these new housing forms into the fabric of the city. It would have appeared to be the perfect tree for planting as it is attractive, fast-growing and able to cope with the industrial pollution of the day. Over the years, the trees have been well cared for, having been regularly pollarded to keep them an appropriate size and shape for their location.
A short and interesting walk from the Millbank Estate through the stuccoed splendour of Thomas Cubitt’s Pimlico, Modernist Churchill Gardens illustrates how the relationship between trees and public housing has changed over the years, and represents what might be considered the pinnacle of post-war inner city landscaping.
London’s Second World War destruction provided planners with a rare opportunity to rebuild a modern city. Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1943 identified how war-damaged and slum housing could be cleared to make way for spacious modern homes with proper sanitation along with public open spaces. Born out of this optimistic vision, the Churchill Gardens estate was planned to provide 1,600 new homes.
Designed by the young architectural practice of Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, the estate’s development started in 1946, with the final blocks – those on the western side of Claverton Street – not completed until the 1970s. It is now a conservation area, with several of the oldest structures listed. Walking through the estate, it is possible to experience the utopian vision of large-scale planned housing. As well as one of the first, Churchill Gardens is one of the largest and most ambitious social housing developments with several innovations at its heart, notably the Accumulator Tower, a structure designed to hold hot water for heating the entire estate, which was pumped directly from Battersea Power Station across the river.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the estate is how it is enveloped by green space and mature trees. Unlike the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century urban ideal emphasising the separation of houses and greenery, Churchill Gardens represents a modernist vision of living among the trees. At every turn, mature hornbeams, tree privets, southern catalpas and other species are present. Well-kept gardens, tended by residents, pop up all over, and secret green corners among the tower blocks offer natural sanctuaries.
Unlike that other notable modernist development, the Alton Estate in Roehampton, where high quality architecture is scattered among a former Georgian parkland overlooking Richmond Park, the landscape at Churchill Gardens was planned from scratch. Consequently the trees reflect mid-twentieth century tastes that show both far greater species diversity and a modern sensibility regarding their purpose.
Unlike the Millbank Estate, the trees are no longer structural adjuncts to the built environment, instead they have become alternative focal points to the buildings. They act to soften the potentially brutalising effects of the monumental architecture, whose scale they cannot compete with. Between the slab blocks, gardens exist containing specimen trees which have more in common with park trees than street trees – a crucial difference between Churchill Gardens and the Millbank Estate, which has also led to different management practices.
Instead of well-pollarded planes, the trees here have been given ample space to attain fine maturity. Notable among the species are goblet-shaped hornbeams of the ‘Fastigiata’ cultivar, and evergreen Chinese tree privets, both neat, medium-sized trees. Elsewhere, a few larger trees like Italian alder, red oak, sycamore, Norway maple, southern catalpa and Japanese pagoda tree rub shoulders with smaller trees including ornamental cherries, magnolias and white mulberries. But perhaps the most exciting trees to look out for are an exceptional example of a southern European nettle tree next to Bramwell House, and a very rare (and poisonous) varnish tree next to Coleridge House.
According to Powell, the architects worked with a former Kew gardener on the landscape planting. As a result, Churchill Gardens is full of fine, well-tended trees that the people who live here are proud of and that help to foster a palpable sense of place and community.
Trees have been part of our town and cityscapes for centuries, but their use on streets and among housing is a late nineteenth century innovation. As the first social housing schemes were built, tree planting was considered an essential part of their development. This impulse continued over subsequent decades with a shift away from London plane monocultures to much more diverse planting which, at its best can be akin to parkland or even botanical collections.
The use of trees within planned housing developments arguably reached its zenith in the heroic modernism of the post-war period expanding on new insights, derived from pioneering schemes like the Millbank Estate, into how buildings, people and trees interact. As estates have aged, the trees have too. Now we can reflect on the benefits of living among the trees and appreciate the grandeur they bring to developments through softening and humanising the architecture, while also providing seasonal interest and tangible environmental benefits.
(1) Percy J Edwards, History of London Street Improvements, 1855-1897 (London County Council, 1898)
(2) Harold Dyos, Victorian Suburb: A study of the Growth of Camberwell (Leicester University Press, 1966)
I’m delighted to feature today the second of two guest posts by Lynne Dixon examining the work of some of our early female housing campaigners and reformers. Lynne has a background in historical geography, town planning, the environment and education. Over the last few years she has been researching and writing about different aspects of woman’s history and local history. Her interest in women and housing in the early years of the nineteenth century has evolved from a U3A shared learning project on the origins of the organisation Women’s Pioneer Housing. She has contributed to blogs on women in World War 1 and extensively on the Well Hall Estate and is currently writing a book on a woman architect/builder, Annabel Dott.
Having outlined one mechanism through which women hoped to influence first rural and then urban housing at local levels in the post-war period in my earlier blog, this contribution deals with a group of women who could have had a more significant influence on housing at a national level: the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee (WHSC) of the Ministry of Reconstruction.
The recent centenaries for the women’s suffrage movement and World War One have ensured that we now know more than before about some aspects of women’s history for this period but there is still much more to know about women’s involvement in public life at this time. Many women were working for social change, not least in the field of housing, both during and then after (and indeed often before) the war. The achievements of Florence Hamilton in my previous blog are just one example. In parallel were the efforts of a group of women who were given the opportunity to influence at a national level the design of state houses – the ‘homes fit for heroes’ or, as more aptly named by Caroline Rowan, ‘homes fit for heroines’. (1)
The origins of the WHSC lie with the Ministry of Reconstruction which was established in 1917 to oversee the rebuilding of national life for the better at the end of the war. It established many committees each on different aspects of national life. The Minister of Reconstruction was the radically minded Dr Christopher Addison, later to be responsible for the 1919 Housing Act. When the WHSC was being established it was said that, ‘it had been represented to us, both by societies and individuals, that women should be consulted about the construction of the new houses after the war’. (2)
The committee’s official purpose was to comment on the design of the working-class houses already built with public money and on plans put to the architects’ committee for future homes. They were to give special reference to the saving of labour for the housewife – very much a concern of the moment – and the convenience and well-being of the family generally. In other words, they were to offer a perspective on house design from the point of view of the housewife. Following the publication of the interim report the women were also asked to report on the conversion of middle-class houses into tenements for the working class. (3)
Membership of the WHSC included women from a range of backgrounds. Three women would already have been known to government through the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Women’s Advisory Committee: Lady Gertrude Emmott, Maud Pember Reeves and Dr Marion Phillips; the latter two also well-known for their previous work which included the publication, Round About a Pound a Week, a study of the spending of poor housewives in Lambeth.
Gertrude Emmott was appointed ‘chairman’ and as such it is likely that she was able to help select other committee members. She was a woman with a liberal and nonconformist background who had been involved in social and political work in the north-west of England, was a friend of Henrietta Barnett and had developed an interest in housing. The women she was perhaps influential in selecting had backgrounds in the garden city movement and town planning (Sybella Brandford, Ethel Lloyd and Mary D Jones); housing management (Maud M Jeffery, Annette Churton, Dr Janet Lane Claypon, Gerda Guy, Dorothy Peel); while others were politically active in the Labour Party or the Cooperative movement (Eleanor Barton, Rosalind Moore, Averil Sanderson Furniss, Alice Jarrett and Annie Foulkes Smith).
Women had, of course, been involved in housing, town planning and architecture for some time as professionals – Octavia Hill in housing management from the 1880s; Ethel Charles, the first woman to pass the RIBA exams in 1898; the women sanitary inspectors who were involved in aspects of public health in housing; women such as Henrietta Barnett, a key mover in the garden city movement. Most recently in October 1917 one organisation, the Women’s Labour League, had started a housing campaign aimed at working class women and led by Averil Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips. The work they did was to influence the work of the committee and may even have overlapped in time and content. (4)
The committee and its two women secretaries first met in February 1918 and their work over the next few months was phenomenal. As well as the focus on labour saving for the housewife, they were determined to seek out the views of working women. A key part of their work was visiting working-class houses across the country with a standard set of twenty questions about each property – internal arrangements, room size, built-in features, rent, natural light and air, etc. The first estate they visited was the Duchy of Cornwall’s housing estate in Kennington.
In March 1918 they visited houses on the Well Hall Estate built for the munition workers of the Woolwich Arsenal. Averil Sanderson Furniss was one of those who visited the estate. She commented on the headed paper of the National Women’s Labour League in a letter to Miss Leach the secretary of the committee: (5)
I think my main objections to the houses was that in practically all cases the windows were not large enough and did not give enough light. I think they should have been higher in the bedrooms and lower in the sitting rooms allowing in the latter case for a window seat which would have much improved the rooms. Also I do not think that the baths in the scullery are good and if they must be downstairs which I recognise has to be the case in some instances they should be in a separate room. In many cases I noticed that the bath was in a different corner of the room to the copper which must surely be most inconvenient when every drop of water has to be baled out of the copper into the bath.
This theme of the covered bath in the scullery featured in the final report:
Problems arose from ‘the practice of having the bath in the scullery with flap table over it … [which] meant that the housewife must clear everything from it before the bath could be used’ and prevented further use of the scullery for food preparation during bath times.’ The women were adamant that there should be a separate bathroom.
Averil Sanderson Furniss continued in her letter, ‘these I think were two main points but I wish we could have had Mrs Barton with us as her practical experience would have been far more valuable.’
As a northerner and with her practical knowledge as a working-class woman, Eleanor Barton was clearly a significant member of the committee whose experience was highly valued; most of the other women in contrast were middle class.
A further aspect of their work was to seek the views of both individual women and of organisations and one of the National Archive files contains many of these letters – usually handwritten but sometimes typed and some including diagrams to illustrate points being made – from across the country. (6)
The Sub-Committee had advertised in newspapers for women’s views and as a result local organisations had held meetings and conferences and competitions to gather opinions to pass on to the Sub-Committee and so responses came from a wide range of organisation such as the Derby Women’s Citizen Association; the Sutton Sisterhood; Flowers Farm War Gardens Association; the National Union of Women Workers, Howard St Club, Sheffield; the West Surrey Society; and the Women’s Votes Association of New Earswick. The Sub-Committee’s approach in doing this may be contrasted with the Tudor Walters Committee who, remaining in one place, saw a 127 witnesses only fifteen of whom were women. Their approach was surely innovative: an early example of public consultation. (7)
The needs raised in the letters were wide-ranging – plenty of light in all rooms; simplicity in the joinery; special attention to housing large families, the aged and the poor; a sink in the scullery 14 inches deep; well protected water pipes to prevent freezing; minimum size of living room 15ft by 12ft; fixed cupboards in every room.
It is not at all clear how the women of the committee, or more likely the two dedicated secretaries, processed the hundreds of comments received and data accumulated. Within a few months, their work resulted in a lengthy interim report dated May 1918. Two parts of the report were not published including comments that the women had made – uninvited – on the proposals of the Local Government Board (LGB). (8)
The final report was finished a few months later in January 1919. However, these final findings were also heavily suppressed resulting in another delayed publication. The relationships between the LGB, the Ministry of Reconstruction and perhaps Addison himself were delicate. There seem to have been divisions within the government of which these were part. (9)
In the end the Final Report was in effect overshadowed by the report of the Tudor Walters Committee which had been published in December 1918. (10) The LGB found the women’s findings ‘extravagant’ and treated with particular disdain the work the women had done on communal facilities. Nevertheless, there was much in their work that was in agreement with the Tudor Walters conclusions and it was perhaps mainly in emphasis – what was seen as essential and what as desirable – that there were differences. It is interesting to note that the only line of communication between the two committees had been informally via the secretary of the Tudor Walters Committee although four members of the WHSC did give evidence to the Tudor Walters Committee.
Central to the women’s findings, published or not, was the idea of the kitchen and the scullery as the workshop of the home where all hard and dirty work was done. In most homes the internal layout of both these rooms was poor, with the consequence that endless short journeys were required for each simple task. Cooking a meal involved transferring food from inadequate storage facilities to a preparation area and then back to the cooker, with little ease of movement. Analysing women’s work in the home was crucial to designing for labour saving. In this there was no question that housework should be shared between husband and wife. It was believed, even by those forward-thinking women who had campaigned for the vote, that housework was women’s work. However, their time needed to be freed up so that they could be active citizens.
A majority of the women giving evidence to the Sub-Committee wanted a parlour in their homes, although they differed as to why it might be needed. In some districts, investigators found that the wish for a parlour was connected to customs surrounding death. At a time when most people died at home, death could raise practical challenges in small, badly designed and overcrowded houses. Housewives in Camberwell in contrast wanted parlours for their husbands ‘because there should always be somewhere for “him” to go and sit to rest himself’.
Many mothers felt that the parlour was most needed when their eldest children wanted to bring friends home, or when it offered young courting couples a location ‘preferable … [to] the street corners or public house’. The parlour may also have had a symbolic value, a status, which was important to many women.
In short, the women giving their views tended not to claim a parlour for themselves, but saw it as a way of providing a more pleasant environment for other members of the family. In contrast, the women writing the interim report promoted the idea that a parlour should provide an area for a woman who needed space for intellectual work, or work connected with her new role as a citizen. (11)
If officially sidelined, the report was at least appreciated by some. As well as positive comments in the suffrage press, a critique of the report in The Town Planning Review commended that the report be read by ‘every architect designing houses and every member of a housing committee studying schemes’.
It is difficult to say exactly how much influence women had on national housing policy at this time because of the way their report was dealt with by the government. One writer has concluded that although they were able to form and even publish recommendations for national policy this in itself did not give them the power of decision making. Their conclusions might be accepted as advice and were of particular use if they reinforced existing policy or official recommendations. (12)
Innovative or more challenging ideas were ignored. However, it is certainly possible to suggest that their involvement had other more enduring effects especially as they were part of a wider picture of women’s increasing involvement in housing provision and design. Some of this involvement was about guidance, advice and campaigning; some of it was to be a more active involvement.
In 1919, Averil Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips published The Working Woman’s House, a short booklet illustrated with plans and photographs. The report could be more explicit than the report of the Sub-Committee in linking labour saving to citizenship. They were able to link the traditional view that the home was a ‘woman’s place’ with the recent call by Prime Minister Lloyd George’s for new houses ‘fit for heroes to live in’. Phillips and Sanderson Furniss suggested that post-war reconstruction offered an opportunity for these two positions to be combined so that it should be possible for a woman to want her house to be: (13)
fit for a hero to live in and also wants to free her from the hard domestic work which is the result of the bad housing conditions and has prevented her from taking her full share of work as a citizen, wife and mother.
In April 1919 the LGB, not long before its demise, set up the Housing Advisory Council to provide advice on housing policy. Eleanor Barton, Averil Sanderson Furniss and Gertrude Emmott from the WHSC were included among its members. When the board was abolished in June of that year, the Advisory Council seems to have continued in some form or another although it is clear that some women felt frustrated at its role and at the long delay in organising meetings.
One organisation which supported the role of women in influencing housing design was the Garden and Town Planning Association which had a short-lived women’s section run by Etheldred Browning. It produced a number of reports full of advice, one devoted to labour saving in the home, and it was also involved in commenting in late summer 1920 on public housing built by the Ministry of Health. Not surprisingly it was particularly critical of the lack of parlours, the small and badly shaped sculleries, the small third bedroom – ongoing themes. They strongly recommended that before house plans were finally approved they should be submitted for criticism to a committee of women. (14)
At a broader level, the legacy of the women’s suffrage movement seems to have been the continued proliferation of small organisations promoting women’s viewpoint and their desire to be involved in decision making. The involvement of women in housing was a part of this bigger picture. For instance, housing was an issue for the Consultative Committee of Women’s Organisations which was established in 1921 and had a housing subcommittee for a number of years. (15)
There were in the 1920s and 1930s a number of housing conferences and congresses organised by women or dealing with women and housing. An international one was organised, for instance, by the National Housing and Town Planning Council in April 1924. In these and other ways, women would continue to try to influence housing policy and design throughout the interwar period.
I think it is impossible to tell for certain if women had more influence nationally or locally. It is possible that there was more likelihood for them to influence housing at the local level where they had some opportunities to make recommendations about internal arrangements and facilities. (16) There are a number of different references to promises for women to be involved in this way and to mechanisms whereby this could happen.
In February 1919 The Times pointed out that the President of the LGB had promised that representatives of working woman should be consulted on municipal housing schemes and this eventually seems to have been enacted in the circular issued in December 1919 – just a few months after the Ministry of Health had taken over responsibility for housing from the LGB. At this point Christopher Addison, the newly appointed minister, appears to have encouraged the involvement of many local women’s organisations in commenting on the design of housing schemes. Amongst these would be the already established Women’s Village Councils. There is research to be done at local levels to establish just how much influence these women went on to have and undoubtedly more to be found out about the role of women in housing generally and state housing in particular at a national level as the 1920s and 1930s progressed.
Unlike the Women’s Village Council movement, the work of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee has become somewhat more visible in recent years. As well as original research using archives and online research in newspapers, I have therefore been able to draw on the research of academics such as Krista Cowman, Elaine Harrison and Lynn Pearson who have written specifically about the role of women in housing or in government at this time, as well as the broader texts of writers like Mark Swenarton in Building the New Jerusalem: Architecture, Housing and Politics 1900 – 1930.
(3) Krista Cowman, untitled paper. She has also written ‘”From the housewife’s point of view”: Female Citizenship and the Gendered Domestic Interior in Post-First World War Britain 1918-1928’, English Historical Review, vol 130, no 543, April 2015, pp352–383
(4) See, for instance, Christine Collette, For Labour and for Women: the Women’s Labour League 1906 – 1918 (Manchester University Press, 1989)
(5) This and the following quotations are drawn from TNA, RECO 1/622
(6) TNA, RECO 1/633
(7) Alongside the listed witnesses are the names of two all-male deputations and a further 61 experts, again all male.
(12) Lynn Pearson and Patricia White, Architectural and Social History of Cooperative Living (Springer, 1988)
(13) AD Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips,
(14) Etheldred Browning ‘Women and House Planning: a Protest to the Ministry of Health’, The Women’s Leader, 3 November 1920. Etheldred Browning also established Women’s Pioneer Housing in 1920 to provide housing for professional women. She later invited Florence Hamilton of the Women’s Village Council Federation to join its committee. Florence felt she could achieve more on the National Town Planning and Housing Council.
(15) ME Blyth ‘The Women’s Housing Movement: Housing Councils’, The Common Cause, 28 September 1923
The Cutteslowe Walls in Oxford – built by developers in 1934 to separate their private estate from council housing next door – were infamous: a symbol of a contemporarily class-ridden society but also sadly a prejudice towards residents of public housing that has survived their demolition in 1959. This week’s post looks at that story and takes a broader, more nuanced look at the housing politics of interwar Oxford.
The Cutteslowe Wall seen from Aldrich Road on the council estate
Oxford was one of the fastest growing industrial cities in Britain between the wars. That takes us some way away from our usual image of the ‘city of dreaming spires’ (though they were to pay their part in this history) but the statistics are stark. Oxford’s population grew by 88 percent – from around 57,000 in 1921 to (with a significant border extension to absorb growing suburbs) 107,000 in 1941.
This breakneck growth was largely due to the rise of the local motor industry and allied trades. William Morris built his first car – the doubly eponymous Morris Oxford – in 1913; his workforce grew from 200 in 1919 to around 5000 from the mid-1920s. Pressed Steel, founded in 1926, employed similar numbers. The new trades provided almost a third of local jobs by the late 1930s when almost half Oxford’s insured male workforce were immigrants to the town, many from the local region but a significant number from the unemployment blackspot of south Wales. (1)
Morris’s Cowley works, 1925
This would affect the city’s politics in due course but it did so only slowly; for the time being the old order reigned. Oxford was a reformed corporation dating to 1835, a county borough from 1889, but its council retained university representation (nine councillors – three elected by convocation and six by college heads and senior bursars – and three aldermen) which persisted, incredibly, to 1974.
That said, it’s not clear that this affected the fundamentally conservative nature of the council: ‘Between 1918 and 1939 the distinction between Liberals and Conservatives on the council was said to have become almost nominal’. Against this, Labour representation – the first member in 1918, rising to 13 by 1939 in a council of 68 members – had little impact. (2)
Despite the depth of housing need and the prevalence of inner-city slum housing (St Ebbes was described as ‘a swamp converted into a cesspool’ as early as 1848), the Corporation was largely passive: (3)
Before 1914 undiluted laissez-faire predominated on Oxford City Council, in the field of housing as in other municipal activity. The council was notoriously unwilling to enforce sanitary improvements and impose building controls, and made almost no use of national legislation to deal with the worst unfit housing.
Headington’s new council housing, 1925
The First World War changed much, particularly in the field of housing. The first council homes in Oxford were actually built by Headington Rural District Council in 1920: 101 in total on London Road and Barton Road, designed by local architect James Wells and described by the Oxford Times as of ‘smart appearance, with their whitewashed fronts and red tiled roofs’. (Headington became an Urban District in 1927 but was incorporated into Oxford proper in 1929.) (4)
London Road council housing, 2017
But Oxford City Council could no longer afford to ignore local needs and national pressures though it did continue to follow its own path. In response to national directives leading to the 1919 Housing Act, the Council initially proposed to build 400 homes; in the event just 215 were completed by 1922.
These first estates were built at the fringes of the city on Iffley Road and Cowley Road, of high quality and architect-designed with ‘steeply gabled roofs and careful Arts and Crafts detailing [showing] a strong debt to the work of Parker and Unwin at Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb’. Their rents, though, were among the highest in the country as, perversely, the Council rejected Treasury funding, preferring to finance the schemes from its housing revenue account. (5)
It relented in 1924 when it acquired powers to borrow but the high standards remained as did the high rents. The latter were, apparently, a deliberate choice, intended to confine council homes to the better-off and more ‘respectable’ working class and allowing the worse-off to move from city slums to the slightly superior homes vacated by the new council tenants – the ‘filtering-up’ theory which was influential before the First World War.
An early view of the South Park Estate
The new, generously-sized, neo-Georgian-style homes were designed by Kellett Ablett who joined the City Engineer’s Department in 1925. (He went on to become Chief Housing Architect for Nottingham City Council and Chief Architect to Hemel Hempstead New Town.) The South Park Estate and Morrell Avenue in particular, built between 1929 and 1931 on Headington Hill, is the showpiece, built on land formerly owned by the locally prominent brewing family; ‘as good as any of this kind built in England at the time’, according to Geoffrey Tyack.
An early image of Morrell Avenue
That quality is first apparent in the streetscape – a curving, tree-lined road with verges separating road and footpath. It’s seen in the semi-detached and terraced homes in their brick banding, clay tiling and classical pilastered doorcases amongst other careful detailing. Similar homes of the same quality and design can be found in the earlier housing of the nearby Gipsy Lane Estate.
Headington Road, Gipsy Lane Estate
After a slow start, the Council had built 1647 homes between 1923 and 1930, its room for manoeuvre hampered by the city’s growth and pressure on land and the reluctance of Oxford colleges to sell land for public housing. The problem of slum housing – only 129 houses had been demolished by 1929 – and the rehousing of its residents remained, however.
1930 – the year of the Greenwood Housing Act targeting slum clearance – marked a sharp turn nationally and locally. By 1939, the Council had cleared 872 slum houses, most of them in St Ebbes and there were plans for the demolition of almost another 600 St Ebbes’ homes and their replacement by working-class flats.
The Council built several hundred more council homes in the 1930s (others were acquired through the expansion of its borders), principally on new estates in a constellation around the city fringes: Wolvercote to the north, New Hinksey to the south, and New Marston to the east.
Abingdon Road, New Hinksey
Some were built to previously high standards, as seen above in the plans and finished housing on Abingdon Road but most, while solid, decent homes were notably plainer and smaller than their predecessors. This reflected the changing and less generous subsidy regime over the interwar period and a belief that the so-called slum working class might be housed more cheaply. The contrast can also be seen clearly in the later housing built on the Gipsy Lane Estate.
Later housing on the Gipsy Lane Estate
That prejudice lay behind one of the great causes célèbres of interwar Oxford – the Cutteslowe Walls. The Council had bought agricultural land for housing in Summertown in the 1920s. The first Cutteslowe Estate was built between 1931 and 1932. Work on the second began in August 1933. Meanwhile, the city had sold part of the land to private developers, the Urban Housing Company. Through some apparent miscommunication, Aldrich and Wolsey Roads on the new council estate joined up with their private estate counterparts. (7)
The Company alleged council tenants were responsible for vandalism on the private estate. It also claimed that the rehousing of former slum-dwellers on the estate breached an undertaking given by the Council that it wouldn’t be used for this purpose. Whatever the (not so) niceties, it’s not hard to see the naked class prejudice and commercial interest that lay behind the Company’s supposed grievances. It erected two-metre high, spiked walls – separating the council homes from their private equivalents – across the connecting streets in December 1934. They forced a 600-metre detour for council estate residents trying to reach the main road.
Protest, May 1935
This local class war provided an obvious opportunity for the city’s Communists led by Abe Lazarus but the Party’s attempt to lead local residents in the demolition of the walls in May 1935 was thwarted by the police and, in the words of another Oxford communist, the capitulation of ‘certain legalist members of the [tenants’] committee’. (8)
In this fight, however, the City Council was on the right side of history. They wanted the walls down and, having pursued various legal avenues, they ended up taking what turned out to be their own form of direct action in June 1938 when Council workmen bulldozed both walls. A back and forth ensued between the workmen of both parties while Urban Estate residents looked on with some concern, as reported by the Daily Herald: (9)
‘We don’t despise these people’ said a Carlton-road dweller, ‘but …’ – and a finger was pointed at three cheerful urchins climbing a tree.
‘It is not that we look down on them’, said another, ‘but we live a different life from theirs’.
The High Court found the Council to have acted unlawfully and the walls were duly reinstated. And amazingly there they remained, despite a few mishaps, until demolished on 9 March 1959 – a sign of changing times perhaps but achieved by the legal manoeuvre of the Council buying the land on which they stood.
The wall demolished, March 1959
Class divides were not always so clear-cut. Oxford City Council had built over 2000 houses since the war; private developers around 7000. We’ve seen an intra-class division operating within council housing – between the superior housing designed for a more ‘respectable’ working class in the 1920s and that provided for displaced slum-dwellers in the 1930s. Some of the new private housing would have been occupied by a more affluent working class too, notably the relatively well-paid car workers.
We’ll follow the post-war story of class and housing in Oxford in next week’s post.
I’ve written previously about a similar wall erected on the Downham Estate, south London, which stood between 1926 and 1950.
Surprisingly, the class divide reared its ugly head again in Oxford in 2018 when the City Council repaved ‘posh’ Wentworth Road and halted its resurfacing as it became Aldrich Road on the council estate at precisely the point where the wall had previously stood. At least one local saw this as ‘Class War’ and expressed the view in spray paint. The Council claimed it was a purely pragmatic decision based on need.
There’s been a fair amount written on the Cutteslowe Walls, notably Peter Collison, The Cutteslowe Walls: A Study in Social Class (Faber and Faber, 1963). Apart from the sources listed below, the Past Tense blog provides an interesting perspective in this post: Class Walls – Cutteslowe, Downham and roadworks.
Much of the detail on individual estates in Headington is drawn from the well-researched and informative local history website, Headington History and this page on the area’s newer estates.
(1) Eleanor Chance, Christina Colvin, Janet Cooper, CJ Day, TG Hassall, Mary Jessup and Nesta Selwyn, ‘Modern Oxford’, in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford, ed. Alan Crossley and C R Elrington (Victoria County History, 1979)
(2) CJ Day, Modern Oxford: a History of the City from 1771 (Reprinted from the Victoria County History of Oxford by Oxford County Libraries, 1983)
(3) Alan Crosby, ‘Housing and Urban Renewal: Oxford 1918-1985’ in Kate Tiller and Giles Darkes (eds), An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire Record Society, ORS vol 67, 2010)
Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, Prefabs (Historic England, 2018)
We thought we’d reached paradise. The bathroom, indoor toilet, central heating, kitchen fitted with an oven, refrigerator and folding table were miracles of luxury. The spacious bedrooms and living room, the integral drawers and cupboards, the huge windows, the large garden and Anderson coal shelter were, to us, more palace than prefab.
Those are the words of Neil Kinnock, describing the South Wales prefab he lived in from the age of six till he went on to university (‘the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university’ if you remember his speech when elected Labour leader) at the age of 18.
They capture much of the vital story of these prefabricated homes so finely and fully captured in this new book from Historic England. It reminds us these were, predominantly, working-class homes for generations of people moving from the slums. It tells us that, contrary to the cute, folksy image that understandably prevails, these were modern – indeed modernistic – homes, embodying a cutting-edge technology and providing unheralded amenity and convenience for their new residents.
We’re talking here of the post-war prefabs, part of a £150m programme inaugurated by the 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act under which some 156,623 prefab homes were erected across the country by 1949. An appendix provides full details of the range of forms and technology applied.
Designed to last around ten years, there were still 67,353 in use in 1964 and in London some 10,000 were occupied into the 1970s. A few survive to the present and some are now listed: six on the Excalibur Estate in south London, 16 on Wake Green Road in Moseley, Birmingham (the latter can be viewed on open days on the 6 and 7 September this year). Others have been adapted and preserved, notably in Redditch and around Inverness Road in Ipswich where the 142 prefabs form the largest surviving estate of their type.
For all that longevity, these post-war prefabs were temporary homes. The wider value of the book lies in its full coverage of prefabricated homes planned as permanent. This longer history and the range of non-traditional forms devised and constructed will surprise many – it surprised me and I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert.
In this, private enterprise has played its part. Henry Munnings ‘portable colonial cottage’ from 1833 will be new to most; the Sears Roebuck mail order homes in the US are better known with over 100,000 sold between 1908 and 1940. It’s interesting to learn – and somehow entirely appropriate – that IKEA are currently pioneering a form of emergency flatpack home in conjunction with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
But true to form, I’ll focus on the role of the national and local state and here the recurring motif is the desire to meet pressing housing needs as rapidly and economically as possible when traditional brick-built housing was proving both too slow and expensive to build
Liverpool City Engineer John Brodie built the prefabricated ‘Labourers’ Concrete Dwellings’ in Eldon Street as early as 1905. A version was featured in the Cheap Cottage Exhibition in Letchworth Garden City the same year and it survives (Grade II* listed) at 158 Wilbury Road. The exhibition brochure expressed an intent and context which would persist in different forms across the years. This, it said, was a ‘system of building’:
designed … with the special objective of providing a thoroughly sanitary and economical building, suitable in every way for the housing of the poorest classes displaced owing to the demolition of insanitary areas in Liverpool.
Eleven years later, in the midst of the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen of the Royal Engineers devised the hut that bore his name. One-hundred thousand Nissen huts were erected to serve military needs by 1918. It’s pleasing that a few were built for peacetime housing purposes in the 1920s, though sadly – as this recent blog post records – not with any great success.
This was part of a broader wave of experimentation in non-traditional construction methods, promoted by the 1919 Housing Act and the newly-established Standardisation and New Methods of Construction Committee. The Committee received 90 proposals of which 75 were approved. The steel-framed Dorlonco homes of the Dorman Long Company, Airey’s Duo-Slab system combining precast and in situ concrete, and Lord Weir’s steel-clad, timber-framed homes were among the more widely built. In total, some 50,000 prefabricated homes had been erected by the end of the 1920s.
A second world war – and, with it, the same urgent need to provide decent housing for the many who needed it – provided a new impetus to prefabricated housebuilding. (A 1945 White Paper estimated that 750,000 new homes were required immediately and a further 500,000 to replace existing slums.) The wartime government anticipated a repeat of the shortages of skilled labour and traditional materials that had hit construction in the early 1920s and set up the Interdepartmental Committee on House Construction (the Burt Committee) in 1943.
To the Architects’ Journal in June 1943, as to many others, there was:
one solution only to the problem of post-war housing. It can be expressed in three words – use the machine
The book again provides an invaluable guide to the range of new prefabricated homes constructed. There were steel-framed BISF (British Iron and Steel Federation) houses, for example, designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, of which 40,000 were built.
Other designs utilised precast reinforced concrete (PRC). Here the Wates (60,000 built), Airey (26,000), and Orlit houses (17,000) stand out. The so-called Cornish Units, developed by the English China Clay Company using concrete in which aggregate was a fine sand by-product from their mines, are an interesting variant; around 10,000 were built principally in the south-west.
They and the 17,000 aluminium-framed AIROH homes, developed by the Aircraft Industries Research Organisation on Housing illustrate another aspect of the prefabrication drive – the desire to maintain wartime industries in full production in peacetime conditions. Conversely, some 5000 timber-framed houses – the so-called Swedish houses – were imported in flatpack sections from (you guessed it) Sweden.
Generally, these homes have stood the test of time though construction and materials flaws emerged in some (nearly all the Orlit homes have been demolished due to a defective concrete mix) and others have required substantial renovation in recent years. Some were disliked due to their unconventional appearance. Generally, cost savings were small if any. Traditional brick-built houses remained more popular and, but for a small spike of prefabricated construction during Macmillan’s housing drive in the 1950s, took centre-stage once more as shortages eased.
This was not, however, the end of ‘the machine’. An era of mass public housing, rooted in the determination to end slum living forever, took off in the sixties and, in the confident modernity represented by what Harold Wilson had called the ‘white heat’ of the ‘scientific revolution’, system-building emerged as the seemingly obvious solution to the need to build at pace and at scale.
Building the Aylesbury Estate: the LPS method in operation
The Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, currently suffering a slow demolition against residents’ protests, and the Hulme Crescents in Manchester are among the best known, both variants of the very widely employed Large Panel System of construction (LPS). Due to what was in too many cases very poor build quality and the problems which followed, such estates were rapidly dubbed ‘notorious, none more so than Ronan Point, a Newham LPS tower block which partially collapsed after a small gas explosion in May 1968, killing four.
Ronan Point seemed to mark the end of the apparently hubristic hopes placed in system-building though – suitably modified – system-built schemes continued to be built into the early seventies. A closing chapter of the book, however, tells of a small-scale revival of prefabricated construction in the present housing crisis, both in the UK and globally, and suggests – lessons learned, rigorous standards ensured – that prefabrication remains a plausible and perhaps necessary means of building the affordable homes many millions need.
This brief summary – focusing as it does on numbers and forms – might suggest a dry history but a huge quality of Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova’s work is its focus on the lived experience of those that have lived – and continue to live – in prefab homes over the years. This is a rich social history, full of colour and detail, beautifully illustrated, replete with resident memories and testimonies – a powerful and humane telling of a story in which technology was mobilised to serve human need and societal necessity.
Though the authors’ closing words take us back to those seemingly quaint post-war prefabs, they might stand for the broader enterprise this fine book describes:
Although modest to the modern eye and by no means perfect, these temporary prefabs really did change people’s lives by giving them the opportunity to be masters of their very own detached homes – their ‘little castles’. The tenants considered themselves lucky, and the prefabs were a testament to the will to make life better for people after the trials of the Second World War.
You can sample the book via this link. You’ll find publication and purchase details here.
The Prefab Museum is an online archive containing further information, images and testimonies illustrating the history of the temporary post-war prefabs and an interactive map of their past and present locations.
I’m pleased to feature the first of two very interesting guest posts by Dr Jill Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health and Housing at Middlesex University. They cover the important, sometimes neglected, work of our earliest environmental health practitioners. You can follow Jill on Twitter @Jill_L_Stewartand see more of her work on her personal website, Housing, Health, Creativity.
The idea of a job dedicated to dealing with industrial smells, boiling bones, accumulations of filth, offensive trades, drains, effluvia from public graves, abattoirs and sewage contaminated basements may not be everyone’s ideal career path. Thomas Fresh apparently thought otherwise and practically invented this new job for himself in the progressive borough of Liverpool (1).
The aptly named Fresh effectively became the first Inspector of Nuisance statutorily appointed by Public Health Act 1848, setting the path for a professional trail of Sanitary Inspectors, Public Health Inspectors and latterly Environmental Health Practitioners to intervene into environmental factors affecting the health of the nation.
No 7 Pheasant Court, Gray’s Inn Lane, from Sanitory Progress [sic], the fifth report of the National Philanthropic Association (1850) (c) Wellcome Library and made available under a Creative Commons licence
Many had been pushing for the state to intervene in public health for some time although there was also much opposition. Those proposing change included Edwin Chadwick who first linked environmental conditions and health in The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population in 1842, which he researched and publicised at his own expense. (2)
Chadwick and many other prominent figures continued to wrongly attribute disease causation to miasma, or ‘foul air’, yet many of the interventions instigated were to nevertheless show improvements in health. Chadwick became the first president of the Association of Sanitary Inspectors in 1884. Sanitary Inspectors – in some places still named Inspector of Nuisance – were seen as the ‘practical doers’ who intervened in poor housing (amongst other things), working closely with the higher status – and far higher paid – Medical Officers of Health.
Surprisingly little has been written about the major role of the Inspectors charged with dealing with the nation’s poorest housing stock. However the stage was set for new legislative provision to be developed and enacted.
Lodging house in Field Lane, from Hector Gavin, Sanitary Ramblings (1848)(c) Wellcome Library and made available through a Creative Commons licence
The Common Lodging Houses Act 1851 sought to respond to the complex social and health issues found in such shared accommodation. It required that such premises met certain registration and hygiene standards as shown in the extract from an Inspector of Nuisance’s 1899 notebook below, together with the recommended sleeping arrangements.
Both illustrations taken from William Henry Tucker’s Inspector of Nuisance notebook, Cardiff, dated 1899 onward. Permission to copy given by Dr Hugh Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Public Health
A range of other legislation followed, providing new powers for local authorities to intervene into certain housing conditions but with limited remit. These included the Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act 1851 and the Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Acts (Cross Acts) of 1875 and 1879. The latter provided powers to intervene in unfit housing, and clear (with compulsory purchase powers) and redevelop land for improvement for the working classes. The Public Health Act of 1875 enabled proactive local authorities to adopt bye-laws to control building standards and the situation remained erratic across the country.
Local authorities were reluctant to do much due to the substantial costs involved. The Housing of the Working Classes Act 1885 required proper sanitary conditions with an implied condition of ‘fitness’ for habitation – a provision to broadly remain in place until 2004. The Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890 consolidated various acts, with provisions dealing with unhealthy areas and improvement schemes, unfit housing and powers to provide lodging houses, but there was no funding. (3)
An 1896 edition of the Sanitary Inspectors Journal said: (4)
To pave streets, to construct sewers and to drain houses, however necessary these works may be, are among the least important of the duties which devolve upon the Sanitary Authority. But to improve the social condition of the poorer classes, to check the spread of disease and the prolong the term of human life, are works of high and ennobling character and are duties which devolve upon the Local Authority…It is often found that when an intelligent artisan has once become acquainted with the advantages of any of the laws of civilisation, he is not slow to avail himself of their aid, and habits of cleanliness [once] formed, his sensibilities become improved to such an extent that he will not live in a room which is unhealthy, or in a house that has bad drains.
This edition also reported on cases of houses unfit for habitation. In one case, the owner was summoned for allowing a nuisance caused by damp sites, defective gutterings, gullies and water closets. The council wanted the landlords to remove the wet clay floors and cover with concrete, leaving ventilation space under the joists and asked for the garden to be lowered and properly paved, estimating a cost of £84. Evidence presented included detail of a neighbour’s death from diphtheria and stagnant water under the floors. The Bench ordered the owner to execute the works within a month and allowed £3 3s costs.
One of London’s most notorious slums – the Old Nichol – is brought to life in Sarah Wise’s excellent book The Blackest Streets, the title based on Booth’s work around the chronic poverty he had found in that area (5). Thousands of residents lived in poor conditions in around thirty streets. The mortality rate was around twice as high as the rest of Bethnal Green.
The book presents all the challenges faced by the inspectors, with resonance today: how to assess and respond to areas of slum housing; difficulties in identifying owners; rents payable in relation to condition; appropriate level of compensation payable to owners in lieu of loss of property; social isolation; effects on behaviour. In the clearance process, not just homes but livelihoods and communities were displaced and lost. It is reported that of the 5719 residents moved out of this cleared area, only eleven moved back because the rents in the new arts and crafts-inspired buildings were too expensive; an early example of what we would now call ‘gentrification’.
The resulting new Boundary Estate was to become the London County Council’s first ever council housing, funded locally, and completed in 1900.
With a link of environment and health now firmly established, housing interventions began to take greater prominence as across the county – albeit erratically – poor housing was linked to higher morbidity and mortality with overcrowding, common lodging houses, poor drainage, narrow streets, people living in cellars, inadequate water supplies. More progressive boroughs developed bye-laws to address the worst housing, with positive health outcomes emerging where conditions were tackled. Housing was to take prominence in health debates with Sanitary Inspectors frequently to the fore (6).
The Corporation of Wimbledon Sanitary Department, 1907. Reproduced by kind permission of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
The Housing and Town Planning Act 1909 helped local authorities control development and introduced some development controls, such as prohibiting back to back houses. In 1909, the Sanitary Journal reported that Leeds persisted in these and concern was expressed that such property was unhealthy. Concern was expressed that Sanitary Inspectors were trying to do all they could but the magistrates did not always back them up. There was still the bureaucracy of the Medical Officer of Health to make representation to the local authority regarding each house unfit for habitation. Still less than one per cent of housing stock had been provided by municipal and philanthropic activity.
Plans and pictures of back-to-back houses in Nottingham, from First Report of the Commission on the State of the Large Towns (1844) (c) Wellcome Library and made available under a Creative Commons licence
By 1910 the Sanitary Inspectors were frustrated at lack of investment into housing and the problems this led to in their work: (7)
Many other towns have tackled bad houses, and yet the sum total of what has been done only touches the fringe of the problem, the solving of which under the Housing of the Working Classes Acts is a financial impossibility. Five million people at the very least are living in houses that require improvement.
In the lead up to the First World War, though still sporadic in practices across the country, the Sanitary Inspectors Association was really becoming a national force to be reckoned with as local government departments consolidated their functions. They argued that ‘everyone person who is interested in the housing problem knows that healthy homes cannot be provided at rents to suit the means of the poor on land that costs more than £300 per acre’. They already felt it highly improbable that the private market would provide affordable housing for the poorer classes and argued that the state should provide funding for housing.
In 1910 the Sanitary Inspectors were very clear on the importance of healthy housing: (7)
The removal of existing evils will be slow. It is said that the people cannot be improved by legislation, but legislation certainly indicates the trend of public opinion, and on the subject of housing, public opinion is steadily growing and in time will be sufficiently strong to sweep away hovels that are called houses, and will provide the people houses fit to live in, and for the children places other than insanitary back streets to play in. Towards that object let me urge all present, whether members of officials of Sanitary Authorities, to do all that lies in their power, for nothing is of greater importance than that our children, the greatest asset of the nation, should grow up in a healthy environment, with healthy bodies and minds, so that they will be able to solve for themselves higher and more important problems than the Housing of the People.
In next week’s post we again focus on the little spoken-of housing powers of the inspector’s work that tackled chronic slum housing conditions and area clearance between the wars. By then, Sanitary Inspectors and others had informed the decision of the state to fund council house building to replace slums and a new era of ‘municipal dreams’ would emerge.
We’re looking at ‘Corporation suburbia’ – less eye-catching and less controversial than the high-rise which disproportionately grabs people’s attention when it comes to public housing but actually its most representative form. A small corner of south-east London helps us tell this story. Last week’s post looked at the Grove Park Estate, one of the best of the ubiquitous interwar cottage suburbs. This week’s focuses on the Chinbrook Estate, planned by the London County Council from 1961 and completed by the Greater London Council after 1965, representing, in my view, one of the most attractive and thoughtfully designed post-war estates.
Last week, we left Lewisham and the country in 1939 about to be plunged into war. The Borough, industrial to the north but with extensive residential districts on the bombers’ flightpaths, suffered more than most. Of Lewisham’s 56,000 homes, 10,303 were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by enemy action; almost 9000 further were seriously damaged but judged habitable. By November 1945, there were 11,945 families on the Council housing waiting list of whom 4541 had been rendered homeless by the Blitz. (1)
The first duty of central and local government was to alleviate the unprecedented housing crisis. A crash programme of repairs was an immediate priority, beginning before the war’s end. The Council reckoned that, at peak between 1944 and 1946, 6400 ‘workmen’ (and perhaps a few ‘workwomen’ at this time) were repairing the Borough’s war-damaged homes. (2)
As of March 1947, 3806 private houses had been requisitioned, providing homes now for around 5000 households. Conservative legislation in 1955 ended councils’ requisitioning powers and required properties be returned to their owners by 1960. Many of the almost 1400 properties held by Lewisham into the late 1950s were purchased by the Council. (3)
The housing crisis provoked less official responses too. As part of a national wave of squatting action, 30 huts on an anti-aircraft site in Blackheath were occupied by homeless families in September 1946 and 19 huts next to Ravensbourne Station, formerly in military use, shortly after. The Council laid on water and electricity and provided ‘sanitary conveniences’. Twenty-one military huts on a site at Hilly Fields in Brockley were officially allocated to the Council. Some 125 wooden ‘hutments’, built to last two years, were also built in the Borough.
The other major element of the emergency response were the prefabricated bungalows – factory-built, rapidly erected, planned to provide modern, well-equipped family homes for an anticipated ten-year life-span. The 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act committed £150m to the programme which ended in March 1949 and a total of 156,623 prefab homes were erected across the country, allocated to local authorities according to housing need.
A Lewisham prefab; this one was sited on Marnock Road in Brockley (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre
Lewisham’s needs were pressing and a total of 1484 prefabs – 660 by the LCC and 824 by the local council – were provided across the Borough on 70 separate sites. One of the largest – and certainly the most persistent of those – was the Excalibur Estate; 187 homes built on former parkland to the north of the LCC’s Downham Estate. Here and elsewhere in Lewisham, most were of the Uni-Seco Mark I and Mark III type, constructed of resin-bonded plywood or light timber framing clad in flat asbestos cement sheeting with a wood wool core. A small number were of the steel-framed Arcon Mark V model.
Permanent post-war reconstruction was marked by Nye Bevan’s opening of the first new home in Woolwich’s Coldharbour Estate in July 1947, built to the east on the last remaining farmland within the LCC’s borders. It comprised around 1700 homes on completion in the mid-1950s.
Meanwhile, the prefabs remained. One of their largest sites – with around 209 homes – was an area of farmland between Grove Park Road and Marvels Lane acquired by the LCC. They seem to have provided decent homes and for children – with a recreation ground, Chinbrook Meadows and the River Quaggy close to hand – a happy childhood. (4) As they grew up, the Chinbrook pub (later the Grove Park Tavern) on the opposite corner offered more grown-up entertainment. The pub was demolished in the 1990s, replaced by retirement flats (though, confusingly for newcomers, the local bus stop retains the name).
Those prefabs were demolished in the early 1960s. In their place, the LCC projected and the GLC completed an attractive, predominantly low-rise estate – a modest, small estate at first glance but one which in its own terms was a state-of-the-art fulfilment of the latest planning and architectural thinking. The Chinbrook Estate deserves a closer look.
Firstly, the 1961 plans show sites set aside for a youth club and an old people’s clubroom. The great criticism of the earlier (and much larger) cottage suburbs had been their lack of community facilities, their dormitory feel. Here, a conscious attempt was made from the outset to provide social amenities which would support community and local identity. (We’ll come back to this.)
The estate’s pedestrianised layout wasn’t innovative – Radburn-style plans (which separated cars and pedestrians by a system of cul-de-sacs, feeder roads and walkways) had been recommended in the Ministry of Housing’s 1953 Manual. But, on a smaller estate such as the Chinbrook, with garaging and parking spaces reasonably integrated with the housing, they seem to have worked better though they look neglected at present. Those 1961 plans which allocated parking to around half the estate’s households must also have seemed pretty forward-looking at the time in their anticipation of a more affluent and car-owning working class.
To the left: ‘Chinbrook Estate, Grove Park Road: residential tenements’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk. To the right, a contemporary image of the same block, Kingsfield House, from the rear (c) www.robclayton.co.uk
The mixed development which Chinbrook embodies – a range of housing types and forms to suit a varied mix of households – was also an established concept by the early sixties but the estate provides an impressive cameo. There are two eleven-storey point blocks – Merryfield House to the north next to Grove Park Road and, tucked away in the south-east corner of the estate, Kingsfield House, together comprising 177 of the estate’s 395 homes.
These are attractive blocks in landscaped grounds, ‘in keeping’ with the wider estate and a fine fulfilment of mixed development’s aesthetic ideals. The rest of the Estate comprised some 218 two-storey terraced houses which provided family accommodation while low-rise flats were built for couples without children and elderly people.
What was exceptional – and what is even clearer from the early photographs of the Estate before the depredations of Right to Buy – is the overall architectural and design quality of the Estate. It’s an intimate space on a human scale with its mix of homes and its footpaths, service roads and open spaces forming an integrated whole. In contemporary terms, placemaking is the prized ideal. The built environment of the Estate and its cherished community facilities seem, to me, to fulfil this ideal. As the mass rehousing drive of the sixties took off – on a scale and in a form often much criticised since – Chinbrook is a reminder of the best that might be achieved with proper investment and careful planning.
That was certainly the belief of the Civic Trust who commended the Estate in 1967. In their words: (5):
The elevations have been consistently and simply handled in red brick and white shiplap boarding forming a pleasant and bright background to the well-proportioned pedestrian ways and squares formed by the layout. The landscaping, both hard and soft, is well detailed and has been carried through with functional simplicity. The design, heights and interrelated use of screen brick walls and railings very successfully interplay enclosure and openness as one walks through the area.
As a reminder that even the best estates need continued upkeep and investment, we might note the regret they also recorded that ‘the high standard of detailing in the landscape has been rendered widely ineffective by poor maintenance’ but the favourable comparison with the nearby and more traditional cottage estates remained. Chinbrook illustrated:
the tremendous improvement in environment and standard of living which results through the segregated layout, open-space amenities, well-proportioned pedestrian streets and effective landscaping, compared with the front access and unsympathetic layouts of the earlier housing estates adjacent.
The Greater London Council’s justifiable pride in the Estate was shown when Chinbrook was selected – alongside two other GLC showpieces of the day, the Pepys Estate and Thamesmead – for a visit by delegates of the Housing Centre’s annual conference in 1969. (6) The Estate was also featured in a celebration of the Council’s work, GLC Architecture 1965/70, published in 1970. The latter reminds us too – as housing responsibilities within the capital itself were increasingly devolved to the new London boroughs – of the GLC’s housing schemes in the expanded and overspill towns of the later 1960s, many of which resembled Chinbrook in form and ethos.
Another significant point of comparison is with the much admired Span housing of the period. Span was a private property development company formed in the late 1950s by Geoffrey Townsend and the architect Eric Lyons which built around 2000 homes in London and the Home Counties with some of its most notable schemes in nearby Blackheath. These were homes intended, in the company’s own words, ‘to span the gap between the suburban monotony of the typical speculative development and the architecturally designed, individually built residence that has become (for all but a few) financially unattainable’.(7)
The genius of Span was to combine modernist design – open plan interiors, large windows, flat roofs – with traditionally more ‘suburban’ features in the use of brick, tile-hung walls and timber panelling. Of equal importance was a setting designed ‘hand-in-hand with the design of the dwelling’, integrating roads, car parks, play spaces and aspiring to create ‘an ambience and scale hitherto unknown in housing for ordinary people’. (8)
That, to me, is strongly reminiscent of both the design and ambition of the Chinbrook Estate – with one key difference. Span’s ‘ordinary people’ were aspiring professionals whereas one of the earliest residents of Chinbrook (who had moved from a post-war prefab) recalls that ‘most of [its] families were young and came from New Cross, Deptford, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Blackfriars and other inner London suburbs’ – hence, it was said, the huge support for Millwall on the Estate. (9) I’m guessing that no-one liked Millwall on the Span estates.
I can’t trace any direct association between Span and the GLC’s schemes and, unfortunately, I can’t name the individual architects and planners directly responsible for the Chinbrook Estate. With the public service ethos strong, the Estate is credited more collegiately to the GLC’s Department of Architecture and Civic Design; KJ Campbell, was Principal Housing Architect at the time. (10)
By the 1980s, public service had become – in the mind-set of the governing Conservative Party at least – a discredited concept. Right to buy was a deliberate attempt to break up and shake up council estates and its legacy is plain to see on the Chinbrook Estate. The quality of Span’s middle-class housing is preserved by covenant; no such restrictions have conserved the design sensibilities and architectural consistency of Chinbrook.
The effects of Right to Buy
There’s no snobbery at all in decrying the fashion for pebbledash and other such accretions which seems to have afflicted many of the newly owner-occupied homes in the 1980s. In fact, even in market terms, one can’t help but think that the value of that private housing would be enhanced had the overall look and ‘feel’ of the Estate been better maintained. Ironically, the fittings and fixtures in the communal areas of the tower blocks have been superbly preserved and provide a wonderful glimpse of in-situ 1960s modernism.
We’ll give the current landlords of what we must now call the Estate’s social housing some credit for that although – from my talks with local residents – there is little affection for London and Quadrant (L & Q) in general. A ‘large-scale voluntary transfer’ of some 1099 council properties and 350 leasehold in Chinbrook and adjoining Grove Park estates took place in 2008. On a 55 per cent turn-out, 77 per cent of those balloted, supported the transfer from the council to the housing association. It was, as was the way, an offer that was hard to refuse. Decent homes upgrades were required by law, security and environmental improvements were desired by residents, and Lewisham – in common with other councils – was denied the necessary public funds to carry out the work.
L & Q, which now owns and manages around 70,000 homes in London and the South-East, is now the largest landlord in the capital. It’s also one of the most aggressively entrepreneurial of the new breed of housing associations, self-described as ‘one of [London’s] largest residential property developers’. It’s small wonder, then, that parts of the Chinbrook Estate might look and feel somewhat neglected. The shine of that promised investment rapidly dissipated.
Typically, given the drive to monetise assets, one of L & Q’s first actions was to demolish the old people’s clubroom. The Estate’s ageing population now has to attend a nearby general purpose community centre. The superb building has been replaced by two plain and undistinguished semi-detached houses which make little reference to surrounding architecture.
The purpose built youth centre on Marvels Road was closed by Lewisham Council in 2013 and residents fear that it could be demolished and the land sold for housing. It has been neglected since this closure but, look more closely, remember its past and imagine its future, and you will see an outstanding community facility. It was designed for the LCC’s Education Department by some of the most distinguished public architects of its day and created as an adaptable and flexible space incorporating the ideals and practices of some of the key architectural movements of the twentieth century.
With a design eye, you’ll see the influence of the Bauhaus movement and its credo ‘truth to materials’; you’ll see too the ‘people’s detailing’ of Swedish modernism. As a local resident, you might remember the centre as a community hub – not only a valued resource for the young people of the estate but, as I was told, a regular venue for wedding receptions and many other community functions.
But, ultimately, this isn’t about architecture (though the loss of such a fine building would be criminal) and still less is it about nostalgia. This is about a facility which is needed by local children and teens and which could, in the imaginative but highly practical plans of the community group campaigning to save it, serve the wider community in many ways. (11)
When the Chinbrook Estate was built five decades ago, the GLC – as a progressive and innovative council – took care not only to provide good homes and a decent environment but also the amenities to support and sustain community. Such values have been eroded and the reforming role of local government disastrously curtailed. Nowadays, it seems we must fight these battles again.
My thanks to Rob Clayton for his guided tour of the Estate and his photographs.
(6) ‘Conference Study Tour, 9th July 1969, to Thamesmead, Pepys and Chinbrook Housing Estates’, Housing Review, vol 18, no 3, September-October 1969. (The Housing Centre Trust was a voluntary organisation which acted as a meeting ground for organisations and individuals engaged in housing and as an information centre on housing issues.)
(10) One little known fact is that Eric Lyons adopted a lot of standardised building components for Span schemes which were originally developed by Oliver Cox for the LCC which then commissioned their manufacture by private companies. My thanks to Tom Cordell of Utopia London for this information (personal communication, 13 February 2017).
Kate Macintosh designed Dawson’s Heights back in the Sixties when she was just 26 years old. If she weren’t very much alive and kicking – and still fighting the cause of high quality social housing – I’d call it a worthy memorial. It remains much more than that in any case. Beloved by architectural groupies and a striking presence on the local skyline, most importantly it has provided a decent home to many. Of course, it’s had its ups and downs.
Ladlands and the view to the north
The estate was conceived when Britain was building council housing on a massive scale, ambitious to clear once and for all the remaining slums (and many did remain) and house all its people decently and comfortably. The best local authority architects and Housing Departments wanted to bring design quality to this numbers game too. In Southwark, the Borough Architect and Planner, Frank Hayes, sought to achieve excellence through in-house competition. Kate Macintosh won the competition to design Dawson’s Heights.
She had studied the existing alternatives, for one the five-storey walk-up blocks ubiquitous in London and specifically Speke House in Camberwell (since demolished). Typical of its kind, she thought it ‘institutional’ – ‘all external expression of this is my home, this is where I live was forbidden’.
She was critical too of many of the point and slab blocks being built; they were ‘unrelated to the surrounding urban grain’ and she ‘found the anonymous grid expression of the exteriors of much LCC work repellent’. In her words, she ‘absorbed the lessons’ of the far more innovative scheme of Park Hill in Sheffield ‘but disliked the apparent flattening of the hill produced by the constant height of each meandering super-block’. (1)
Dawson’s Heights would be different, not least because of its extraordinary site – a 13.8 acre hilltop site in East Dulwich: crowned with a refuse tip and ringed by interwar houses now compulsorily purchased but many uninhabitable in any case due to the instability of hillside London clay. (2)
These circumstances dictated the basic layout of the new scheme – two large blocks (Ladlands to the north and Bredinghurst to the south) constructed on the more stable terrain and overlooking a central communal space, formerly the dump. The buildings still required 60-80 feet reinforced concrete cylinders foundations. The siren call of system building was resisted and a superstructure erected of load-bearing cross-walls, of brickwork in the four-storey blocks and of reinforced concrete for all but the top four floors of the higher buildings. (3)
Turning to the more creative aspects of the design, Macintosh devised a ziggurat-style scheme which ensured that two thirds of the flats had views in both directions and all had views to the north. The varied height of the blocks, rising to twelve storeys at their central peak, made sure that every flat received sunlight even in deepest midwinter. (4)
To the scheme’s advocates – and I think most would agree – ‘the warm brick texture’ humanised the façades and avoided a foreboding monolithic appearance while the staggering of the blocks created ‘ever changing silhouettes’ adding ‘the beauty of surprise to a relentless suburb’. (5)
The approach to Bredinghurst from Overhill Road
English Heritage, whose recommendation for listing was rejected by the Secretary of State, was effusive in its praise:
The dramatic stepped hilltop profile is a landmark in SE London, and endows the project with a striking and original massing that possesses evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns…The generous balconies with remarkable views and natural light, the warm brick finish and thoughtful planning introduce a real sense of human scale to a monumental social housing scheme.
Still, not everybody loved it. The Pevsner volume describes the blocks with ‘their chunky bands of balconies and access galleries’ as ‘disappointing close up’. (6)
Courtyard side of Bredinghurst
The Estate was constructed between 1968 and 1972 and cost in total a little over £1.6m to build. It was a mixed development including a range of accommodation intended to suit individuals and families in a range of life circumstances and stages. Macintosh felt that:
if large blocks were to be accepted and loved, as a new way of living, they must try to replicate the best characteristics of the terraced street; that families of different sizes and age groups should intermingle, as their needs and strengths would be diverse and complementary.
However, unlike earlier examples of this principle, all the dwellings were contained within a single complex. In Dawson’s Heights, there were 296 homes – 112 one-bed, 75 two-bed, 81 three-bed and 28 four-bed, all split-level dual aspect maisonettes: a ‘Chinese puzzle of differing types to be assembled in various combinations’ is how Macintosh described it.
Medium-rise, generally larger maisonettes at the south end of Ladlands
Every flat has a private balcony, an amenity Macintosh fought for at a time when Housing Minister Richard Crossman was berating local authority architects for extravagance. She designed them to serve as fire escapes (via a removable glass panel to the neighbouring balcony) and thus justified their inclusion on safety grounds.
Of course, the best-laid plans…
There were early problems with damp and condensation in the flats. By 1976 the Council was embarking on a second programme of repairs to rectify the issue at a cost of around £0.5m. Two overhead walkways which had originally connected the blocks were removed in the eighties in line with the ‘designing out crime’ ideas of Alice Coleman.
By 1989 some residents were highly critical of Southwark Council’s failure to repair and maintain the Estate and they sought an alternative landlord. (7) No doubt the issue was real but the timing was fortuitous, coming a year after the introduction of so-called ‘Tenants’ Choice’ powers in the Conservatives’ 1988 Housing Act. The latter were intended, in the government’s words, ‘to open up the closed world of the local authority housing estates to competition and to the influence of the best housing management practices of other landlords’. (8)
Such ‘competition’ was helped here by a Housing Corporation grant of £200,000 to the Samuel Lewis Housing Trust to do the groundwork for a possible transfer but all these efforts came to naught when the Trust withdrew in 1994 having failed to receive the funding it reckoned it needed to update the Estate.
The view south-east from Bredinghurst
And then things moved again. A tenant vote in favour of transfer to the Trust in September 1997 was followed in 1998 – presumably not coincidentally – by an award of £3.354m from the government’s Estates Renewal Challenge Fund, with the Trust finding by some means an additional £3.3m from ‘the private sector’. The new Labour Housing Minister Hilary Armstrong called it ‘a real opportunity to tackle the problems and get the estate back on its feet’ – ‘for many years the people living on the Dawson’s Heights estate have had inadequate housing’. (9) Quite a comedown for a showpiece development.
Money was spent on rectifying some subsidence problems around the periphery of the Estate and on installing double glazing, replacing roofs and upgrading security. But this wasn’t to be quite the Promised Land – ‘according to residents, that is when it all started to go wrong’. One stated that the ‘windows and roofs started leaking almost straight away…the security doors are always smashed… the estate is never cleaned and lifts are broken.’ All this and they were paying higher rents. (10)
Ladlands and landscaping
This takes us some way away from the usual accounts of Dawson’s Heights which focus on the architectural excitement of the Estate. To me, however, it’s a useful reminder of the ‘real world’ issues – structural problems which need repair, day-to-day management and upkeep, safety – that determine the actual experience of council tenants, however prestigious the development. And, despite the anathematising of council-run estates and the murky process which has effectively forced transfer of homes from council ownership, it reminds us that good management and tenants’ interests are not necessarily best served by loss of council control.
In fairness, the Southern Housing Group (the new incarnation of the Samuel Lewis Trust) has upped its game considerably since those earlier complaints and residents – many, probably around one in three, of them owner-occupiers now – seem generally satisfied with the management of the Estate. Certainly it looks good and what Pevsner called the ‘drab stretch of green’ at its centre is now an attractively landscaped play area and open space.
Central open space and Ladlands
It is still the architecture which compels attention, of course. Close-up, it’s powerful without being overpowering, retaining that intimacy and sense of individuality which Macintosh sought. From afar it’s a commanding presence on the south London skyline. It remains a benign monument to an era when high-quality housing for the people was a proud priority.
(5) Twentieth Century Society, ‘Dawson’s Heights: the “Italian” hill town in Dulwich’, May 2012. The comment on the ‘changing silhouettes’ is quoted from Philip Boyle in the Docomomo newsletter, no.19, Winter 2009. The English Heritage statement which follows is also taken from this source.
(6) Bridget Cherry, Nikolaus Pevsner, London: South (2002)
(7) Carol Munday, secretary of DH Tenants’ and Residents’ Association quoted in Housing Corporation, Tenants’ First, no.2, Spring 1993