Karen Averby, Town Halls (Amberley Publishing, 2023)
Town halls in towns and cities throughout the country are the physical embodiment of local democracy, and urban expressions of local civic pride. They reflect the character and urban pride of the town or city in which they were built, and despite variations in ages and forms, it is their function as symbolic civic and public buildings housing all municipal functions that unites them.
The opening sentences of Karen Averby’s new book express precisely and well the importance of our town halls. Within Britain’s highly centralised system of government, councils may not always have the power or financial resources to do all that we or they might want (or they may sometimes do things we don’t want) but historically local government has contributed immeasurably to the health and happiness of our towns and communities. Town halls are the place where this work gets done. Poplar’s Labour council couldn’t afford a ‘palace of the people’ in 1938 but it hoped its New Town Hall, opened that year, would be ‘a worthy workshop for the worker’s welfare’.
As Averby reminds us, the origins of the town hall lie in the medieval growth of towns, freer of royal or aristocratic influence, and a mercantile class with the wealth and status to demand at least limited self-government. As the book illustrates. early town halls come in all shapes and sizes – Corfe Castle Old Town Hall, dating to the sixteenth century, is often claimed to be the smallest – and often combined administrative and commercial functions.
The Old Town Hall, Corfe Castle, dating to the 17th century
And consequently, the terminology is varied and confusing. In Scotland and parts of northern England, the building that contained the town council, such as it was in earlier times, and courts was usually named the ‘tolbooth’. ‘Market halls’ often combined premises for the sale of local goods on an open ground floor with administrative offices above. ‘Guildhalls’, most often linked with those medieval corporations of tradesmen and artisans, were occasionally just civic buildings.
As Britain industrialised in the eighteenth century, the elites of growing towns assumed greater powers (typically prioritising policing and sanitation) through private acts of parliament. Full scale and more rapid urbanisation in the nineteenth century belatedly compelled more comprehensive national legislation.
The 1835 Municipal Corporations established a uniform system of rate-payer elected municipal boroughs and allowed new towns to apply for incorporated status (62 had done so by 1882). Then, establishing the recognisably modern system of local government that persisted until 1974, the 1888 Local Government Act created county councils and county borough councils; towns of over 50,000 population could apply for county borough – in effect, unitary – status. The 1894 Local Government Act established urban and rural district councils as well as allowing women property holders to vote and stand for election for the first time.
Thus began what was arguably the heyday of local government when confident towns and cities assumed significant reforming powers – in housing, health, education and leisure services but also in a range of municipal enterprise such as transport and energy. (It was the nationalising Labour government of 1945-51 that would see these powers diminish.)
And as Averby charts, this was reflected in some of the great showpiece town halls of the day, most strikingly in so-called ‘provincial’ cities which then, far from being left behind, were in the vanguard of the country’s economic and social progress. Classical forms dominated earlier in the nineteenth century; Gothic in the latter part, reflecting its greater flexibility as well as contemporary taste.
Sometimes whole civic complexes formed as the city fathers (as they still generally were) built to meet not only the council’s statutory duties but a goal of cultural improvement in the museums and galleries that multiplied.
The impressive town halls of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are all duly noted but it’s a real strength of Averby’s book that it ranges widely and apparently effortlessly (though it reflects considerable research and knowledge) across ‘lesser’ examples that, of course, were anything but to their local communities.
For a detailed architectural history, you may look elsewhere (and Averby provides a useful list of further reading at the end of the book) though the broad evolution and trends are well recorded – from that Classical and Gothic heyday to twentieth century Modernism and, more rarely, Brutalism (we’re looking at you, Hove).
But, to me, another quality of the book is that it isn’t narrowly architectural but always shows a keen awareness of the buildings’ wider role and functions – in Averby’s words ‘from the practical to the pleasurable’ . Her chapter ‘Town Halls and Society’ reminds us of their place as venues of celebration and protest and (perhaps most significantly for many less engaged citizens) entertainment – from classical concerts to tea dances to wrestling.
Town Halls is a brisk and affordable, 64-page run-through this rich history combining a thoughtful text with a beautifully curated and diverse selection of illustration – a good introduction to an important topic.
I’m happy this week to feature a guest post written by Andrew Bibby. Andrew is a writer and journalist with a particular interest in co-operative history. He has been active, in a voluntary capacity, in his local Community Land Trust. Andrew’s website is andrewbibby.com.
Andrew is the author of the recently published book, These Houses Are Ours: Co-operative and Community-led Housing Alternatives, 1870-1919 (which I recommend to you). The book is available from bookshops and the Gritstone Publishing Cooperative.
Not everyone, wrote Birmingham local councillor and housing reformer John Nettlefold in 1914, could be in a position to afford to buy their own houses. He was writing, after all, at a time when most working-class people were renting from private landlords.
But there was, Nettlefold argued, potentially another way to provide affordable working-class housing. In tenant-run co-operative housing societies the tenants, collectively, could have a joint stake in the houses which were their homes. With such a model, he wrote:
The tenants are all landlords as well as tenants. None of them can say ‘This house is mine’; they can all say ‘These houses are ours’.
Nettlefold was not talking hypothetically. By the start of the First World War, many thousands of working-class men and women had already moved into estates of this kind, run by housing societies set up under co-operative legislation. Some were called tenant co-partnerships, some co-operative housing societies, some (borrowing a term from Germany) ‘public utility societies’.
They could be found across Britain: from Sevenoaks in Kent to Westerton north of Glasgow, from Rhiwbina near Cardiff to Hadleigh in Suffolk, and from St Mawes in Cornwall up to Keswick in Cumbria. Major cities, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Nettlefold’s Birmingham, had examples. So too did many larger towns (Hereford, Oldham, Wrexham …). And there were also small estates in very rural areas, providing tenants not only with comfortable modern houses but with ample allotment gardens to use for growing their own food. The garden suburb/garden village aesthetic, associated particularly with the radical architect Raymond Unwin, was a strong influence in many of the estates.
Indeed, open spaces, including allotments and parks, were a feature of the design of many of the estates and children’s playgrounds were almost always included. The larger estates generally also made space for tennis courts and bowling greens, as well as for a central community hall where socials, theatre shows, and talks and lectures could take place. There was a strong didactic and self-improvement urge behind the movement. As Amos Mann, an active co-operator and socialist who helped create the Anchor Tenants society in Leicester, put it,
Leading spirits in the movement let their imagination carry them forward to a time when they would be able to … create a sort of workmen’s community that would provide collectively some of the advantages that a rich man can obtain for himself.
It was a vision which could certainly inspire.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the co-operative movement in Britain (federated under the Co-operative Union and serviced by the highly successful Co-operative Wholesale Society and the Scottish CWS) had helped create more than a thousand independent co-op societies, run locally by member-elected committees and paying members the celebrated co-op ‘divi’ from the profits. There was a co-op banking operation (under the CWS), a co-operative insurer, co-operative flour mills, co-operative farms, and a number of worker-run manufacturing co-ops which were known as productive co-ops (today we would call them workers’ co-ops).
But despite its influence and power, the mainstream British co-op movement had been slow to tackle the acute housing crisis of the time. Some larger societies offered mortgage loans to their members, on a very similar basis to building societies. Some societies actually built houses which they then sold on, usually via a mortgage, to members. Only a relatively small number of co-op societies built houses and continued to keep ownership, renting them out to member-tenants.
The movement which John Nettlefold and Amos Mann were part of came out of a particular sub-sector of the co-operative world, one more closely linked to productive co-operatives than to the village grocery societies. Anchor Tenants in Leicester, for example, was linked to a very successful worker-run shoe factory (Anchor Shoes). Manchester Tenants, in Burnage south of the city centre, began as an initiative of workers at the CWS’s head office. A tenant housing society in Letchworth was set up by workers at a co-operative printing press in the newly establishing ‘Garden City’.
These ‘bottom-up’ initiatives tended to be the more radical. Anchor Tenants, for example, at one stage had a local socialist discussion group meeting in its communal hall. Manchester Tenants contributed activists to the women’s suffrage movement and (during the First World War) to those claiming conscientious objector status and refusing to join the army.
By contrast, there were also a considerable number of the tenant housing societies in this movement which were more ‘top-down’ initiatives, brought into being by well-intentioned local philanthropists, businessmen or landowners concerned to do something practical about the desperate housing conditions for working-class people in their cities or towns: Liverpool’s well-known Wavertree ‘garden suburb’ was in this category, for instance. Westerton in Glasgow was another example. In Hereford, the cider producer Fred Bulmer was the leading light in that town’s society.
By 1916, when approaching forty housing societies came together at a conference called by the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association (now the Town and Country Planning Association), the discussion was focused on how co-operative housing and ‘public utility societies’ could develop their work after the war. A housing crisis was looming: the Tudor Walters Report of 1918, for example, would shortly estimate a shortfall post-war of half a million homes.
Municipal housing was certainly seen as necessary. But the co-op societies also believed that they could play an important role, provided they were given more state support. The 1916 conference debated the options: one suggestion was that local authorities could purchase and own the development land for new affordable housing but then lease it to tenant-run societies who would build and manage the actual estates. (This was not a theoretical possibility: it was already the approach pioneered by Fred Bulmer in Hereford). This way forward could make council funds go further, its advocates argued, and could also potentially give opportunities for greater tenant involvement.
It is clear that Christopher Addison, the Minister of Health who shepherded the 1919 Housing Act through Parliament, was supportive of this approach, and his Act indeed made provision for some government grant-funding for co-operative societies. (The grant-funding was partial relief on the costs of servicing capital loans). The Act also gave local authorities the powers to invest in the societies. But, pre-1919, Addison faced a problem: even after the experience of war, many councils were showing themselves to be reluctant to engage in housing.
In the end the 1919 Act had to effectively bribe resistant councils to take action, by ensuring that it was the central state rather than local councils that shouldered almost all the risk. By contrast, what seemed initially helpful provisions for co-op societies turned out to be problematic: societies took on all the risks of building new houses and were limited to borrowing 75 percent of the build costs from the state. Finding the remaining 25 percent proved challenging and expensive. And, when it came to council engagement with societies, why in practice would councils choose to support these societies when it was simpler for them to take the generous subsidies on offer and build their own homes?
The story of affordable housing in Britain for much of the twentieth century was to be one we all know well: it was to be a story of municipal housing rather that co-operative housing. (In this respect, incidentally, Britain has been out of step with several other European countries where co-operative housing continues to be a highly significant part of the overall provision of affordable housing to rent.)
But what of the situation today, now that Right to Buy legislation and local authority financial restraints have meant that the council housing route for affordable homes has inevitably had to change? Those early ‘public utility societies’ that did continue found themselves in due course with a new name – housing associations – though by the 1930s the vast majority had lost any residual sense of having once had some ‘co-operative’ linkage.
But what is happening today in the Community Land Trust movement echoes remarkably what was happening in Britain in the period before the First World War. Once again, local communities are trying through direct bottom-up endeavour to help provide the affordable homes their towns and villages need. The objective is the same now as then, and some of the problems being faced are the same, too: finding the necessary capital, overseeing the build process, and then ensuring that tenants can enjoy good landlord services and have a role in the governance of their own houses.
Now, therefore, seems a very good time to look again at those early co-operative societies, and to see what lessons we can learn from their experiences, from their successes and also from the mistakes they made. I found myself drawn to this area of research partly through my own voluntary engagement in my local CLT, knowing that we were part of a movement with historical roots but not knowing initially how deep those roots really were.
What astonished me as the research process got under way was discovering that, against all the odds, no less than ten societies from before 1914 are still operating today, providing inexpensive rental accommodation to their tenant-members. Their survival is remarkable, particularly as they have had almost no knowledge of the other remaining societies and no relationship with the mainstream housing association movement. They are not necessarily easy to track down; as a committee member of one society recently put it, ‘I think … we’re the best kept secret …we like to go under the radar a bit, don’t we?’
Their survival is cause for celebration – but I think we should remember and celebrate too the stories of those pre-1914 societies that may since have demutualised but which in their day did much to try to improve the quality of working-class housing. They did indeed try to make a difference. They did try to give their tenant-members collectively some of those advantages which the ‘rich man can obtain for himself’.
I’m honoured today to feature the second post of Catherine’s Flinn’s analysis of post-war European reconstruction. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Catherine Flinn is author of the book Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities, published by Bloomsbury. She particularly looks at the built environment through the lens of politics and economics, as well as social and cultural influences – broadly via national controls and policies, plus locally through micro-histories. She holds multiple degrees in architecture, landscape and history.
In the first part of this two-part post, I talked about European post-war reconstruction and the contrasts between Britain and the continent, describing some examples in Poland and Germany specifically. As many people realise, in Britain very few – if any – rebuilt city centres have embodied similar ideals to the historic idioms repeated in a number of European cities. So it is reasonable to ask why. How did people in post-war Britain see their cities? That is, what priorities were important to the various actors involved in rebuilding blitzed city centres?
Plymouth after the air raids of March/April 1941
In this post I will discuss the way people thought about reconstruction in Britain – from owners to planners to local authorities – and how modernist ideas prevailed, contrasting ideologically (and often practically) withContinental examples. Post-war British versions of ideal cities were strikingly different to today’s visions of ideal cities.
Planning for Reconstruction, Architectural Press, 1944
During the Second World War, in part as a way of promoting hope and positive attitudes to the war’s end, many British cities began planning as early as 1940. (1) Cities like Coventry and Portsmouth commissioned plans for their post-war reconstruction several years before the last bombs fell. The plans made were in general strikingly modern, futuristic, and vehicle-focused. In certain cases they included the rebuilding of major monuments or churches – for example Coventry rebuilt its cathedral (albeit in a new modern version), Portsmouth partly focused on the rebuilding of its damaged Guildhall, while in London the House of Commons and Inns of Court were rebuilt – but these are all individual buildings. Strikingly, I have found no archival evidence to suggest any plans made kept original street lines or that historic appearances were ever intended to be reconstructed.
Government ministers told city officials to ‘plan boldly’ and they did. (2) In general, the plans made were often influenced by local politics: Labour-majority councils often made very modern comprehensive plans, while Conservative-led councils – unsurprisingly perhaps – advocated less sweeping change. Still, all councils were concerned with a few major issues: traffic flow, housing or slum clearance, and commercial redevelopment. City centre streets were inadequately narrow for cars and lorries, as well as increasingly overcrowded. Space was also prioritised for parking. Councils clearly found that medieval street forms were not conducive to the large vehicles of the mid-twentieth century.
Across the board, however, the strongest objections to the plans being made were rarely about loss of heritage or history. Almost all objections to post-war plans were simply property owners who did not want to move or face further major disruption to their businesses, or homes. The story in British blitzed cities was one of conflict among city officials, businesses, and residents about how to ‘improve’ the city. Further, there was often conflict between city officials and the planning ministry who – particularly after the implementation of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act – often disagreed about what should be done in each city.
There were also significant problems created by shortages of steel and labour, as well as severe restrictions on what kind of building investment was allowed in the first seven post-war years. Furthermore, since central government was barely able to assist financially with rebuilding (in fact only helping with loans in redevelopment areas), the priorities of the blitzed cities also turned to increasing rateable value.
This photograph of Portsmouth city centre (the Guildhall is centre right) was taken in 1950
Finally, when reconstruction and redevelopment did happen in Britain, it took place very slowly and in a piecemeal fashion. It was more than ten years after the major bombing raids before any real work began on city centre reconstruction in Britain – whereas in Europe, many cities had rebuilt much of their centres by 1953. (3) This was not surprising: reconstruction priorities in Britain were initially focused completely on industry (i.e. the economy) and housing. City centres were treated as an afterthought, despite wartime promises.
Beyond those larger capital investment issues, government publications also reveal a great deal about aesthetic priorities in Britain. Much was written in Whitehall around guidelines for reconstruction. The planning ministry, transportation ministry, health officials and others all highlighted a car-centred approach to planning and design. (4) It cannot be stressed enough how much vehicular flow and parking were emphasised.
In every discussion of reconstruction in city archives, it was assumed that street layouts would change. It was taken for granted that vehicles should take precedence and that many old street patterns would be laid out anew because people would enter city centres by car and park there. Planning ideals were far from being either environmentally or – in today’s terms – aesthetically friendly in the 1940s or 50s. To residents, businesses, and local authorities vehicle circulation was clearly of great importance. City plans often expressed the belief that the bombing had created the potential to make cities function better, even if it meant making huge infrastructure changes.
Rationing – particularly of steel – impacted speed, cost, and appearance. Additionally, shortages often forced the use of other materials such as reinforced concrete. In fact, the planning ministry actively encouraged the use of reinforced concrete over structural steel. (5) Oddly, there was a marked lack of discussion of the issues of materials shortages, or even innovations, in the architectural press. (6) And there was not just an effort to save steel, enforced by the shortages and rationing, but also a rising enthusiasm for new technologies. (8) Building styles in city centre reconstruction were influenced both by this increasing interest in technology and the growth in popularity (from before the war) of modernist architecture. (7)
The new Broadgate, Coventry, as envisaged by City Architect Donald Gibson in 1941.
The Precinct, Coventry, undated postcard
Modern styles mainly developed in Europe, spreading to Britain in the 1930s. After the war these newer styles continued to flourish within the architectural profession, though this time in their own particularly British form. (8) In urban areas this modernism was composed of straight lines: a box-like style with a smooth facade, though often embellished with sparse neo-classical details. The taste for modernism was enthusiastically adopted by local authorities who controlled much of the appearance of new buildings as well. Archival records such as city council minutes and municipal journals for local authorities show an over-riding sense of an embrace of modernity and a wish to be seen as a forward-thinking, rather than stuck in the past. (9)
Another key factor at play were those paying for the buildings: property developers. Developers were increasingly the primary builders in blitzed cities, and their motives were often driven more by profit than aesthetic concerns. Owner-occupiers generally showed careful concern about their building’s appearance but developers were far more interested in lettable space. And city officials usually had complementary motives, given their desire to make up huge losses in rateable income caused by the wartime damage. (10)
Finally, on the issue of saving historic places: while there were certainly complaints about pulling down individual historic buildings, none of the archival material yields any discussion of rebuilding any streetscapes or historic districts as they had been.
One rare example was in Exeter where a Ministry of Works representative noted that the area around Dix’s Fields was listed as Grade II and should be preserved, even where only facades remained. But the City of Exeter acquired these properties after a legal battle and tore them down. (11) In some cases – as in Liverpool for example – some firms rebuilt nearly the same design as existed on their pre-war sites, but in all cases substantial portions of the buildings remained, and the decision not to demolish and build new was also due to the slowness of approvals and the fact that steel allocations for ‘repair’ were easier to procure.
This lack of concern for historic value does not reflect the intense pressure for preservation which came in more than ten years after reconstruction hit its peak. (16) There were notable campaigners for historic preservation, such as John Betjeman, but until the later 1960s such discussion was confined to the sidelines. Unusually, while perhaps German and Polish officials foresaw the potential for tourism in ‘historic’ towns, local authorities and city councils in Britain did not seem to see any importance in this prospective value.
From Thomas Sharp, Exeter Phoenix. A Plan for Rebuilding (Exeter, 1946)
Princesshay, Exeter, 1955
And while we see that some European examples of ‘historic’ reconstruction came much later than the 1950s, in places like Germany there was an emphasis put on domestic tourism from just after the war. (12) In British blitzed cities – with some exceptions such as Bath, Canterbury and York, where most historic buildings had survived the ‘Baedeker’ raids – the lack of attention to character and particularly potential tourism meant a great revenue loss to the redeveloped cities when ‘heritage’ took off in the 1970s. How Britain saw itself in the late 1940s and 1950s, and how it would see itself ten or twenty years on, were very different phenomena indeed. (13)
A rhetoric of blame has persisted since the 1980s in Britain when discussing post-war reconstruction. Many have insisted that the responsibility for the results lies exclusively with planners and architects. (14) But as Sunand Prasad, a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), has said: (15)
[There was] certainly a deal of naïve utopianism in the planning and architecture of the post-war decades, and maybe that period can be described as a gigantic and failed experiment … But it’s not idealism – laudable or foolish or otherwise – that shapes modern cities, it’s their political economy.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that for all the good intentions our confidence in professional knowledge was much greater than our real understanding of how it would all work… In the second half of the 20th century, we thought we were replacing trial and error with science.
If only this awareness of context could replace the criticism of the purely visual. Numerous factors had profound effects on post-war developments. All of the plans and many of the buildings could be considered experimental. There was no knowledge of whether a plan such as Abercrombie’s Plymouth or Hull would work successfully, even if implemented. In fact, in Plymouth the separation of uses advocated by the plan proved to be unsuccessful in large part, creating spaces that were too segregated. (16) And in Coventry: (17)
[the] scheme seems to have failed simultaneously in several ways: it was grounded on assumptions about the city’s growth and the social behavior of its residents that were not reliable, it buried a past that still had psychological value to local communities, and it imposed a highly integrated urban aesthetic that owed more to fashion than to pragmatism.
Blaming the planners and architects does not take into account the myriad of issues faced between drawing board and completion, much less the whims of clients and local authorities. And there was a strong belief in 1940s and 50s Britain that planners were experts and this technocratic knowledge was somehow ‘right’. More importantly, critics fail to acknowledge the key role that the post-war political economy played in the results of city centre reconstruction.
Cover illustration for W Dobson Chapman, Towards a New Macclesfield: A Suggestion for a New Town Centre (1944)
Some suggestions as to the bigger differences to Europe might include the contrasting experiences of war reflecting on decisions in rebuilding. Or perhaps economic pressures contributed to choices made. Consider too that Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. The loss of a sense of self and of culture among the Polish people was infinitely worse than most other parts of Europe. Poles might have seen rebuilding in a historic idiom to be a way of recreating memories, giving them back a sense of place obliterated during the war. And with Germany it may well be about an initial turn to modernism as a way to escape past sins and yet the further from the war the more we see a desire to rebuild historically and reclaim what might be thought of as a heritage buried or missing.
It might be considered ironic that – as noted in last week’s post – Poland and Czechoslovakia were visited by Lewis Silkin, the UK’s post-war planning minister, who went with a team to look at European reconstruction. In his report back to the cabinet Silkin stated:
On the whole, we are far in advance of Poland in town and country planning, and the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, is much more revolutionary in its method of dealing with land problems than anything that has happened in Poland. Polish planners definitely recognise our superiority and look to us to give them a lead.
Were his comments stemming from a sense of British (post-Empire?) superiority, or perhaps more simply an over-riding ideology among planning professionals that modern was somehow ‘better’? Today cities such as Plymouth, Portsmouth or Southampton are less tourist-friendly than Gdansk, most likely due to the ‘feel’ of these cities. (18)
Fougasse cartoon, Punch, 11 August 1943
Officials in European cities were not free of the conflict of issues similar to those in Britain’s cities – no city reached 100 percent consensus on an approach to reconstruction. But generally rebuilding in many continental European cities seems to have benefited from less internal conflict and a greater consensus on historicism. Ironically, Britain revels in its history and the heritage industry thrives still today. But it was late in coming. Protection of monuments and buildings has been ongoing, but it is the protection of the feel of a place that is perhaps lacking. Today, British planning has an inclusive sense of history that is often taken for granted, but very little of this was present when it came time to plan for blitz reconstruction. So while the ‘peculiarity’ of British reconstruction was perhaps in not saving more historic buildings or streetscapes, such plans were not considered peculiar at the time but truly forward-looking and excitingly modern.
(1) Some, such as Coventry, had started before the war. See P. Larkham and K. Lilley, Planning the ‘City of Tomorrow’: British Reconstruction Planning, 1939-1952: an annotated bibliography (Pickering, 2001)
(2) J. Reith, then Minister for Works and Buildings, House of Lords Debates ‘Post-War Reconstruction’, HL Deb 17 Jul 41 vol 119 cc844-80 (879).
(3) See my book or article: C. Flinn Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities (Bloomsbury, 2019); ‘”The City of Our Dreams”? The Political and Economic Realities of Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities, 1945–54’, Twentieth Century British History, (2012) 23 (2): 221-245. doi: 10.1093/tcbh/hwr009.
(4) Ministry of Town and Country Planning, The Redevelopment of Central Areas (London, 1947). Cmd. 9559 Report of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for the Period 1950/51 to 1954 (London, 1955). Also see J. Punter, ‘A History of Aesthetic Control: Part 1, 1909-1953: The Control of the External Appearance of Development in England and Wales’, The Town Planning Review,57, 4, (1986): 351-81; J. Punter, ‘Design’ in J.B. Cullingworth, British Planning: 50 Years of Urban and Regional Planning (London, 1999). Also, the slightly later publication by the MHLG, Town Centres: Approach to Renewal (London, 1962).
(5) See E Marples in HC Deb 10 April 1952 vol 498 cc2987-3003, ‘Blitzed Areas (Reconstruction)’, col 3003. This was reiterated in a letter to officials of blitzed cities: ‘wherever possible reinforced concrete or load-bearing walls should be used in preference to steel frames’. Liverpool Record Office: PWRSC Min Book, letter MHLG to Town Clerk, 24 Nov 52, para 6. (Clearly a form letter sent to all blitzed cities.) The largest single item in the investment programme for the Ministry of Works in 1949-52 was the cement industry at £10.5 million, see TNA: CAB 134/449 [IPC (WP) (48) 220] 21 Dec 48, item 3.
(6) One rare example is the transcript of an RIBA meeting of the ‘Architectural Science Board’ in 1947, published in its journal soon afterwards: G. Grenfell Baines, ‘Substitute Materials and Their Influence on Design.’ RIBA Journal (1948), 108-113. Also see, ‘Changes In Materials And Construction Methods’, W. A. Allen, which describes some of the reasons for development of prefabrication and usage of concrete and other materials in the postwar period, in The Times, 3 Jul 61, p xv.
(7) See Nick Hayes, ‘Prefabricating stories: innovation in systems technology after the Second World War’ History of Technology v25 (2004) , 7-28, who discusses the significance of the period’s reliance on the ‘authority’ of science and technology, 24.
(8) W. Whyte, ‘The Englishness of English Architecture: Modernism and the Making of a National International Style, 1927–1957’, Journal of British Studies 48:2 (2009) 441-65; E. Darling, Re-Forming Britain: Narratives of Modernity before Reconstruction (London, 2007).
(9) See Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities, Ch 6.
(10) The well-known architect and planner Professor William Holford spoke in 1966 of the lack of ‘individual achievement and distinction’ in the architecture of post-war reconstruction. Noting that he thought the importance of the property developer had been underestimated. He felt that in post-war speculative office blocks design was only incidental to the procedure of getting funding, consents and approvals and licenses. University of Liverpool Archives (ULA): D147/LA7/9/1, Papers of William Graham, Baron Holford of Kemp Town. Guildhall seminars notes, 7 Jun 66.
(11) TNA: HLG 79/171 memo (no author, no date but ca 1951). In many cities there were certainly a few buildings that were repaired and almost rebuilt where enough of the original remained to do so, but this was rare in the cities attempting to implement new plans.
The cartoon image to the left is by F Beamiss and was published in Express & Echo, 1959
(12) A. Confino, Chapter 14 ‘Dissonance Normality and the Historical Method: Why Did Some Germans Think of Tourism after May 8, 1945?’ in R. Bessel and D. Schumann, Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History during the 1940s and 1950s (Cambridge, 2003), 323-347. Also see J. Hagen, ‘Rebuilding the Middle Ages after the Second World War: The Cultural Politics of Reconstruction in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany’, Journal of Historical Geography, 31:1 (2005), 94-112, and A. Confino, ‘Traveling as a Culture of Remembrance: Traces of National Socialism in West Germany, 1945-1960’, History & Memory 12:2 (2000), 92-121.
(13) See for example, Something Done: British Achievement 1945-47, by the Office of Information (London, 1947).
(14) For example, a famous quote from Margaret Thatcher: ‘All too often, the planners cut the heart out of our cities. They swept aside the familiar city centres that had grown up over the centuries’. M. Thatcher, Conservative Party Conference speech, 9 October 1987 in R. Harris (ed.), The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher (London, 1997), 286-7.
(15) Sunand Prasad, ‘The Past Sure is Tense’ 18 Octobe 2010, BBC Radio 3 ‘The Essay’ series.
(16) J. Gould, ‘Architecture and the Plan for Plymouth: The Legacy of a British City.’ Architectural Review 221 (2007): 78-83. ‘The insistence of single use within the shopping centre was and is damaging and it is extraordinary that this theoretical idea that has so much influence on a city’s character persisted for so long.’
(17) J. Calame, ‘Post-war Reconstruction: Concerns, Models and Approaches’ (2005). Roger Williams University, The Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy, Macro Center Working Papers. Paper 20. Volume 6, Spring 2005: Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Reconnecting Sites Nations Cultures, p 22-24.
(18) The National Archives: CAB 129/22 [CP (47) 343, 31 December 1947, ‘Impressions of a Recent Visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia’.
Visualisation of the shopping centre of Chipping Ongar New Town as proposed in Patrick Abercrombie, Greater London Plan (1944). Ongar wasn’t built; in 1947 Harlow New Town was designated as a near alternative.
I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post – the first instalment of a two-parter – by Catherine Flinn. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Catherine Flinn is author of the book Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities, published by Bloomsbury. She particularly looks at the built environment through the lens of politics and economics, as well as social and cultural influences – broadly via national controls and policies, plus locally through micro-histories. She holds multiple degrees in architecture, landscape and history.
Recently on social media someone posted a photo of Münster, Germany, with this comment: ‘The more I read about post-war European architecture, the more I realise how peculiar was Britain’s approach to post-war reconstruction’. An interesting word choice, ‘peculiar’ – it means strange or odd or unusual. But was it? To be fair, I understand where they were coming from. Overwhelmingly, reconstruction in Britain after 1945 was modernist in style. Historic remnants and even substantial remains of medieval and Georgian and Victorian buildings were often pulled down and replaced with architecture that people today love to hate. But was that ‘peculiar’? I’m going to explain why I would not use that term, but also offer an explanation for why Britain’s rebuilding was so very different from many European examples that are much admired today.
I have heard people ask over and over why architects, planners, local authorities and even property owners didn’t think to rebuild the old medieval core of Coventry, or restore the lovely feel of Dix’s Fields in Exeter, or why there were such drastic changes made to the core of Plymouth. Why did Britain so clearly go for modernist architecture and ignore the historic? As luck would have it, the Germans happily missed many key targets in their Baedeker raids which began in 1942 – the reprisals for the bombing of Lübeck when the Luftwaffe targeted historic cathedral cities such as Bath, Canterbury and Norwich. And a fair number of historic buildings – the Inner Temple in London as well as Portsmouth’s town hall come to mind – were actually restored to their original appearance. But those examples are few and far between amongst the vast amount of city centre reconstruction that took place in the 1950s. (1)
Like pretty much all history, the answers are complex. This post will answer some questions people often ask me about British and European reconstruction, in two parts. In this first part, I will talk about the contrasts between Britain and the Continent, describing some examples in Poland and Germany specifically. In Part II to come, I will discuss the logistics of British reconstruction and pose some answers as to why it was so extensively modernist in nature. Looking at some of the prevailing ideologies in rebuilding British cities, we will see some reasons why they are so very different from historically compelling European examples.
As we know, most bombed city centres in Britain were rebuilt in a mid-twentieth century modernist ideal. By contrast, in parts of Germany – as well as Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland – many cities we know today to have been mostly damaged or destroyed by Allied bombing show off a strong sense of pre-war history. (2)
Here we will look at that stark contrast: what took place in a number of European cities where whole sections of historic streetscape were reconstructed either in an historic idiom or as recreations of 1939 – or even earlier – streetscapes. Today we value and appreciate the historicism in those European cities and they attract a huge amount of tourism with consequent added economic value.
There is a clear and striking difference in local post-war priorities seen in several examples of reconstruction in Europe. Particularly in Poland, and much later in Germany, a number of cities have been ‘resurrected’, or perhaps ‘reproduced’ – that is, they were constructed in large part to look as they had before the war. Several cities gave great attention to the past by rebuilding in a thoroughly historic idiom, re-creating versions – if not some exact copies – of what had been destroyed by Allied bombing. Britain’s post-war Minister of Town and Country Planning Lewis Silkin visited Poland and called the reconstruction of Warsaw ‘an almost superhuman task’.(3)
In the Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk in particular we can find a completely different method, timeline and prioritisation of reconstruction values to those in Britain. Warsaw suffered massive damage as a result of Nazi bombing in the September campaign of 1939. However, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupier ultimately gave rise to even more far-reaching destruction. After the rising was crushed, the Nazis methodically dynamited swathes of the capital. (4) Following the war, Warsaw officials took the decision to reconstruct large areas particularly the Old Town: the historic core of the city was rebuilt in its pre-war form – slightly modified – and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. While apparently controversial the decision was also made to replicate a central portion of the city as it would have looked in the eighteenth century. The first phase of the reconstruction of the Old Town was completed on 22 July 1953. (5) An unconfirmed rumour found in my research adds that one good reason for replacing buildings and streets as they were in Warsaw would have been the reduced cost of not changing infrastructure (gas, water, etc) or building all new foundations.
Gdansk Old Town panorama
Another Polish example is Gdansk, or Danzig. In 1945 authorities inherited a city which was almost completely destroyed and they were additionally faced with tens of thousands of refugees and a severe shortage of available housing. An overriding concern for many residents was a very strong desire not to rebuild the Danzig of the interwar Free City or the German/Prussian Empire which had developed since the last time the Poles had governed the city in 1772. (6)
In the end a ‘passionate argument’ was settled with the compromise that a part of the central area of the old town was rebuilt in a style that reflected more closely the Gdansk of 1772 rather than the Danzig of 1939. (7) That is, Gdansk was rebuilt with pro-Polish designs, avoiding the Germanic influences of the 19th century. Birthplace of the Solidarity movement, it’s now a major tourist destination. This example shows us that cultural and spatial identity – often lost or suppressed during the war – was a key factor in restoring and rebuilding occupied places. Some Polish cities clearly prioritised reconstructing with a sense of place, something we will see was not really true in Britain.
Shifting attention to Germany we find more of the same but also some big differences. A few West German cities – Nuremberg, Rothenburg, Münster and Freiburg for example – took a similar approach to Warsaw. But in general German reconstruction encompasses a large mixture of building styles and each German city adopted a different approach to post-war reconstruction. In 2010, the magazine Der Spiegel published a series on reconstruction called ‘Out of the Ashes’, and its (nationalistic) tagline says this: (8)
Germany’s rebirth following the annihilation of World War II is nothing short of a miracle. But the country’s reconstruction was not without controversy and it resulted in cities filled with modernist buildings which have not aged well. Now, a new wave of construction is underway coupled with a new desire to rebuild the old.
The most notable example of (East) German reconstruction is the city of Dresden, today a popular tourist destination. Notorious for being very heavily bombed by the Allies near the end of the war, it was certainly considered one of World War Two’s most devastated cities. But visiting Dresden today one finds a city that would be recognisable to eighteenth century travellers. A British tourist website claims that it has ‘spires, domes and breath-taking baroque stonework – with an artistic life that … puts most capital cities to shame.’ (9) The site goes on to add that ‘So culturally important, and stunningly beautiful, is this German gem that the United Nations has declared a lovely great chunk of it a UNESCO World Heritage Site – giving it the same protection as the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal’.
Dresden gives a stark contrast to a city such as Coventry, also very heavily bombed, where the core was redeveloped in a modern idiom and the cathedral famously recreated anew, also in a very modern style. The differences between Coventry and Dresden today clearly juxtapose the ideologies around reconstruction that I will be discussing further. One of the star attractions in Dresden is the Frauenkirche. Reduced to a shell in 1945, the church was left in ruins, supposedly as an anti-war statement, by the East German government.
But the church always had grassroots support for rebuilding and after the fall of the Berlin Wall a 15-year reconstruction project began, which was completed in 2005. Since the consecration of the new building, more than 18 million people have visited the restored Frauenkirche – and ‘with 280 couples married and around 800 people baptized the church is finding it hard to keep up with demand.’ (10) An Al Murray television programme on Germany visited Dresden and focused on the ‘historic’ city (parts of which were much more recently rebuilt, from post-war modern back to a version of the pre-war city). Murray compared it to Britain: (11)
It seems strange to us, but this is what Germany feels it needs to do. It has to claim back that artistic heritage lost during the war by building the old anew. … In comparison, Coventry has hardly had the same five-star restorative treatment.
The city of Berlin is another major tourist destination today, though in fairness its attractiveness now is strikingly different to its draw for tourists before 1989. Berlin has a mixture of reconstructed ‘historic’ sites and modern new institutions. As the 2010 Der Spiegel piece comments: (12)
Berlin, in particular, demonstrates relatively consistently that the upheavals and scars of the past should not be papered over by a yearning for the (supposedly) ‘good old days’. Instead, as is the case with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, even the sins of the past can be confessed, and one’s own history can be commented on.
Berlin attracts about eight million visitors a year from around the world and it is claimed this is due to the ability to ‘experience contemporary history – both the good and the bad – more immediately here than anywhere else in Germany’. Berlin’s reconstruction has been ongoing since the end of the Second World War, and while the first wave of rebuilding began to slow down in the 1970s, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a renewed spate of construction.
In a theme that reappears in many places and different cities, the Der Spiegel writers also claim that in Germany ‘the aim is to undo past mistakes made due to urgency and an obsession with modernization’. They add that in the twenty-first century city planners and residents aim to rid themselves of the ‘principle of pure functionality that was spawned by necessity’. Ideology in 1940s and 1950s planning is replaced with more historicism but mainly cautious renovation and, in some cases, rebuilding. They admit too that new ideologies are often characterized by a ‘growing nostalgia and yearning for history, tradition, focal points and urban centres that provide orientation and a sense of identity within the metropolitan morass’. (13) In other words, historical city centres draw both tourism and local business interest.
In the post-war era, particularly the immediate post-war period, European cities had an unprecedented amount of reconstruction to contemplate. The resulting architecture of rebuilding and local street patterns were carried out in either historic idioms or even literal reconstructions in many cities and towns, though not all. Yet by contrast, British cities did not do the same.
Compared to these Polish and German examples, British reconstruction has been pretty exclusively modern. So why did most British cities ignore so much heritage and particularly the feel of the old narrow historic streets that today we find so interesting? The potential reasons are numerous and complex. Any answers, as such, involve complications not just of funding, labour, rationing and ownership, but conflicting priorities, varying agendas and more. In the next post I will discuss the way people thought about reconstruction in Britain – from owners to planners to local authorities – and suggest how and why modernist ideas prevailed.
(1) Note that no rebuilding actually started before 1952 and most happened much later
(2) For further reading: Jörn Düwel and Niels Gutschow (eds.), A Blessing in Disguise: War and Town Planning in Europe, 1940-45 (Berlin, 2013); J.M. Diefendorf, In the Wake of War: The Reconstruction of German Cities after World War II (Oxford, 1993); also his Rebuilding Europe’s Bombed Cities (Basingstoke, 1990); S.V. Ward, Planning the Twentieth-Century City: The Advanced Capitalist World (Chicester, 2002); A.M. Tung, Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. (New York, 2001); S. Essex, and M. Brayshay, ‘Boldness Diminished? The Post-War Battle to Replan a Bomb-Damaged Provincial City.’ Urban History 35:3 (2008) 437-61; J. Hasegawa, ‘The reconstruction of Portsmouth in the 1940s’, Contemporary British History 14 (2000) 45-62; N. Tiratsoo, Reconstruction, Affluence and Labour Politics: Coventry 1945-1960 (London, 1990)
(3) Minister Silkin made a trip to Poland and Czechoslovakia to view reconstruction in 1947, reporting back to the Cabinet. National Archives UK (TNA): CAB 129/22 [CP (47) 343, 31 Dec 47, ‘Impressions of a Recent Visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia’.
(4) A. Jozefacka, ‘Rebuilding Warsaw: Conflicting Visions of a Capital City, 1916—1956’, unpublished PhD dissertation, New York University, 2011 (abstract); also A. Tung, Preserving the World’s Great Cities, for Warsaw: 73-95. On re-using street patterns for large cost savings, see M. Niemczyk, ‘City Profile: Warsaw’ (Warszawa). Cities 15:4 (August 1998), 301-311.
(6) Note that borders in continental Europe changed fairly constantly for several centuries up to 1945.
(7) Jacek Friedrich, Chapter 5 (pp 115-128) ‘Polish and German Heritage in Danzig/Gdansk’, in M. Rampley ed. Heritage, Ideology, and Identity in Central and Eastern Europe: Contested Pasts, Contested Presents. Woodbridge, 2012
(11) A. Murray, ‘Al Murray’s German Adventure’, Part 2, air date 8 December 2010, BBC Four. Also see ‘A German Phoenix’, Economist 327:7808 (24 Apr 93), 91, and Diefendorf, Rebuilding.
(12) Der Spiegel, ‘Out of the Ashes’
(13) Ibid. However, they add, ‘Almost seven decades after the end of World War II, Germany is once again [beset] by the emotional questions of what’s worth keeping and which of its lost icons are worth rebuilding.’
As Hugh Pearman noted back in 1981, ‘The challenge to have a go at something really special proved irresistible when a council design team was faced with Castle Hill in the Suffolk town of Eye’. (1) What emerged, though largely unsung, is a unique estate, innovative and modern in design but exquisitely tailored to fit its ancient surrounds.
Eye was a small town with a population of just 1660 in the 1970s. Eye (its name derives from a Saxon word for ‘island’ that denoted its watery location) had once been more august; a borough since 1205 though, by 1832, when its parliamentary representation was reduced from two MPs to one, a pretty rotten one. (2) It remained the country’s smallest borough until 1974 when, as part of a larger reorganisation of local government, it was incorporated into the new Mid Suffolk District Council.
This 1947 Ordnance Survey map shows the castle motte and bailey with existing buildings at its centre. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
The castle, briefly significant in Norman times, was sacked in 1265 and largely obsolescent thereafter. A windmill was built on the motte (castle mound) in the sixteenth century which survived until 1844 when the Victorian folly ruins were built that constitute the present-day ‘castle’. Later in the century, a workhouse and school were built in the bailey (the castle yard) that ran to the west of the mound. By the 1920s, the workhouse was redundant and had been partly converted into the twelve homes that, deemed uneconomical to modernise, the council was given permission to demolish in 1978. The Church of England primary school on the site was deemed surplus to requirements at the same time.
This presented an opportunity to build council housing – a few years later expectations would have been different and possibilities far more constrained – but, in the centre of town and within a conservation area declared in 1970, it was hardly a blank canvas. ‘Something really special’ was therefore required both to fit the site and boost its location.
Architects’ site plans and elevations
In the words of Jonathon Wainwright, Principal Architect of Mid Suffolk District Council: (3)
The proposals for the redevelopment have been designed with two visual qualities in mind. The first is the necessity to maintain, indeed enhance, the visual statement by the castle earthworks. The second is to blend in with neighbouring buildings in the conservation area.
‘The proposed solution’, devised with his assistant Colin Hart, is, he continued:
architecturally a very simple one: the twenty dwellings follow the perimeter of the inner bailey in a series of short, curved terraces, echoing the old castle walls. To reinforce this concept, division walls are enhanced to give a ‘buttress’ effect, which also has the advantage of enhancing privacy between dwellings.
Castle Hill, contemporary view (resident’s photograph)
Thus, as Hugh Pearman commented, ‘the scheme was given a fortified look, where dividing walls became buttresses and walls became ramparts’.
The commitment to a fitting and attractive appearance overall was matched by a concern with quality that won plaudits from the local parish council and the Suffolk Preservation Society. The houses were constructed by Stowmarket builders Haymills in traditional local russet brick. (The calibre of its work won the company a regional craftsmanship award.) It was also planned to re-use roofing slates from the former workhouse though, in the event, the tiles were in too poor condition and the cost constraints imposed by the Housing Cost Yardstick – a central government measure intended to cap construction costs – forced the use of factory-made grey slates.
Castle Hill, contemporary view (resident’s photograph)
Still, as Pearman noted:
The attention to detail [was] refreshing. Apart from humorous touches like the portcullis style garden gates, each house has an individually carved distinctive wood capping to the front doorway.
The gates have mostly disappeared though the wood capping above the doorways remains. Previously wooden doors and window frames on ground floors have been replaced by UPVC as is the way though the first floor wooden Velux windows remain. The tarmac of the original driveway has been replaced by brick; that perhaps is an improvement. The homes originally had solid fuel heating; high chimney stacks and tall terracotta chimneypots were made a design feature of the scheme and coal bunkers in the same russet brick were provided to the rear of the homes though most of the latter have now disappeared.
Individualised wood capping above the doorways
Council records provide evidence of the thought applied to landscaping too. Where it was impossible to retain existing trees, new semi-mature trees were planted. The planners preferred open front gardens and suggested a tenants’ planting scheme ‘that ‘would encourage awareness and involvement in creating the overall landscape of the site’. A selection of plants – six shrubs and two climbers – was proposed that interested tenants could order from the council. (4)
Two-bed bungalow; architect’s plan
Most importantly, the scheme provided new homes – twenty in all (plus nine garages and 14 parking spaces): two six-room, four-bed homes ‘provided to cater for special needs in the area’; ten three-person, two-bed homes ‘in house form for the more active tenants’ and eight three-person, two-bed homes in bungalow form equipped for older tenants.
The finished scheme, said to have cost £400,000, was officially opened on 13 March 1981. Roger and Mary Jones had already been resident in their two-bed chalet-style home for six weeks. ‘It is really so unusual’, they said, but they liked their well-insulated, double-glazed home with its Velux windows and smart fitted kitchen. The local press reporter noted its open beams ‘giving an impression of antiquity in a luxurious modern interior’. (5)
Mid Suffolk’s Chief Technical Officer had complimented ‘the young and enthusiastic team’ behind the scheme and Castle Hill deserves wider recognition as a quite exceptional and unusually well and sensitively designed estate. It was, as the Mayor of Eye, John Lucas, expressed more trenchantly, a reminder that councils and public architects could provide housing of the highest order:
It is there but not obtrusive. Not like the usual monument to a brickworks that councils put up. This has proved that district council architects can rise to the challenge and produce something really good – it’s not just the private sector that wins prizes.
The estate can be a rather magical place at times as this image and image below testifies (resident’s photograph)
I’m very grateful to one of the current residents of Castle Hill for bringing the estate to my attention and supplying the sources and some of the photographs from which this post draws. My thanks to the Planning Department of Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils for supplying the records cited.
(1) Hugh Pearman, ‘Seeing Eye to Eye on Castle Hill; Architects: Mid Suffolk District Council. Department of Technical Services’, Building Design, no. 547, 29 May 1981
(2) The 1205 date is disputed; it is now believed that this early grant was intended for the then similarly named town of Hythe in Kent – the burgesses of Eye carried on regardless – and that the town’s first real charter dates to 1575.
(3) Report by JR Wainwright, Principal Architect, 29 June 1978
(4) ‘Landscaping Proposals, Castle Hill, Eye’, Chief Planning Officer to Chief Technical Officer, Mid Suffolk District Council, 21 October 1980
(5) ‘Award-winning scheme opened’, The Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, 20 March, 1981
This post marks the tenth anniversary of the blog Municipal Dreams. The very first, back in January 2013, discussed the Latchmere Estate built, using its own workforce, by Battersea Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903; Battersea had gained – appropriately for the purposes of this blog – a reputation as the ‘Municipal Mecca’.
Houses on the aptly named Reform Street, Latchmere Estate
Other posts followed on town halls, swimming baths, health centres and schools. These are all part of local government’s inestimable contribution to its population’s wellbeing but increasingly housing took centre-stage; our councils’ greatest endeavour, responsible, in the words of prime minister Theresa May in 2018, for the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’. (1)
In 1981, around one in three of the population lived in a council home; if you are a part of the early post-war generation, there is a one in two chance that you spent part of your life in a council home. Yet, for all that seismic impact, the story of council housing was a neglected topic. There were good academic studies and there was plenty written by a range of professionals in the housing field. But there was very little that addressed the general reader, even less that gave some of this history back to those who had lived it.
Media commentary was often pejorative and usually rested on ill-informed and negative stereotypes. More often, there was silence – local histories that described the Georgian townhouse but said nothing of neo-Georgian council estates; national histories that apparently believed council housing too humdrum to warrant attention. And yet a mere glance reveals the enormous impact of public housing in villages, towns and cities across the UK and many millions will testify to the practical and emotional significance of a council home to their own lives. The blog was simply an attempt to put some of this on record.
I think, over this ten-year period, that attitudes have changed and coverage improved. Partly, this may reflect that housing crisis that has emerged since we stopped building council housing at scale in the 1980s whilst, at the same time, losing around two million council homes to Right to Buy. Most of us beyond the fringes of the neoliberal Right now appreciate the vital contribution of social housing to any viable housing market, to any proper fulfilment of that basic human right to shelter.
And once we started appreciating council housing, we could look again at the (shifting) political, architectural and planning ideals that shaped it, not always optimally but always – and this isn’t a mealy-mouthed apologia as the blog has always been clear-eyed about what worked and what went wrong and why – with good intent. It’s an important part of our shared story.
Immodestly, I hope the blog itself played a small part in this revival of sympathetic interest in council housing’s past, present and future.
Over its ten years, the blog has featured some 330 posts which have been viewed in total over 2 million times by more than 1.25 million readers. I’ve tried to range widely geographically across the nations and regions of the UK and with occasional forays into Europe. The Map of the Blog will give you an idea of this geographic coverage as well as links to past posts.
I’m not going to pick a personal favourite – one of the great things about the blog has been the ability to range so widely – but for sheer colour, I think my post on what was originally known as the Lenin Estate in Bethnal Green takes some beating.
I’m very grateful to the many people, including academics as well as expert local historians, who have contributed guest posts, almost forty in all. I’ve always hoped that the blog would become a kind of journal of record (it is archived by the British Library) and these contributors have helped greatly toward that. I will always welcome new guest posts.
I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Paul Smith. Paul is the Chief Executive of Elim Housing Association and prior to that he was the Cabinet Member for Housing at Bristol City Council. Paul grew up on the Hartcliffe estate and was a tenant there himself. He was elected as the councillor there in 1988 and served for 11 years. During this period he started researching the history of the area coming across the original plans which were very different from what was finally built. Paul has worked in housing for over 30 years in a variety of roles but rarely finds that his degree in Astrophysics comes in useful. Paul is a Chartered Member of the CIH (more useful than astrophysics) and a Fellow of the RSA.
In 1943, Bristol City Council started thinking about the reconstruction of the city once the war was over. In January of that year a report identified the need for 30,000 new homes and there was an acceptance that not all of these homes could be accommodated inside the existing city boundary. Talks began with both Somerset and Gloucestershire to secure extensions of the city to access developable land. One potential location was the farmland between the southern city boundary and the sprawling Dundry Hill.
A new estate could be built on the basis of a garden city model which was described in a book published by the local company J S Fry and written by the City Archivist, English City: the Story of Bristol (1945). Fry’s said they published the book as ‘We felt we should like to make some contribution to the rebirth of our city’. In reality, the book was a council document covering the history of the city but also focused on how it would be rebuilt. It described building:
self-contained districts called ‘Neighbourhood units’, each with its own amenities, including a shopping centre, clinic, school and churches, cinema and recreation grounds. Factories should be built in or near the ‘Neighbourhood’.
An illustration from English City: the Story of Bristol
The new estate on the Dundry Slopes was to be built to this model. However, there were things which needed to be sorted out. The first was the boundary. Bristol Council was worried about the chaotic distribution of services, with Somerset County Council responsible for the police, public halls and community centres, education, health services, welfare services, children’s care, libraries and food and drug inspection; Long Ashton Rural District Council would have street lighting, street cleansing, refuse disposal and highways while Bristol would be running the housing itself and the fire service.
The County Council wasn’t keen either, based in Taunton, over 40 miles away down the A38. The County stated in a letter to Bristol:
This undertaking will involve the County Council in vast expenditure in respect of an area of the County which the Boundary Commission have already indicated should be added to Bristol and may have the effect of disorganizing the basis of County Council administration.
In 1949 Bristol gained the land from Somerset but in doing so had to relinquish its interest in expanding to the north and the east into Gloucestershire.
The next challenge came over the name. The good people of Dundry village did not want their name used to describe the new council estate. When Bristol proposed ‘New Dundry’, old Dundry complained that this would confuse the post office. The name settled on was Hartcliffe, ‘the army on the hill’, taking the name of the medieval Hundred of Hartcliffe which covered the area. Later there was also an argument about the street names. There was a proposal to the council that they be named after Battle of Britain pilots. This was defeated in a vote in favour of the established Bristol practice of using names which had a historical link to the area. The streets were named after taxpayers in the old Hundred.
An aerial view of the estate in the 1950s
The plans for the estate were ambitious, matching the neighbourhood plan. Hartcliffe was to have 3100 homes, three junior schools, a secondary school, six nurseries, three churches, six pubs, a cinema, a library, a health centre, five youth and scout/guide centres, a community centre, swimming pool, cricket pavilion and a public café.
The first blow to the plans came within just six months of their approval by the council. In May 1950, the Citizen Party (a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals) was elected, ousting the Labour Party. In June 1951, the Housing Committee met and approved a lower standard for council houses. They would be smaller and cheaper and for the rest of that decade most council homes were built of pre-reinforced concrete, many of them the Easiform houses built by John Laing.
There was even a discussion about replacing a downstairs internal door with curtains; this was rejected because ‘the cost to the housewife would be more than in providing the doors’. This followed only eight years after the Bristol Post (13th June 1943) reported that ‘Standard must be Higher [for] New Homes for men who return from the forces’. Then it was noted:
Men returning from the war with revolutionary ideas of what the position should be would not be content to wait long for houses. They should plan for a higher standard of housing on a 15 year programme.
By 1951 the discussion had turned to rents and taxes. Conservative councillor K Brown, chair of the Housing Committee, stated:
If you build a cheaper house it is bound to make it easier for the tenant. You must build houses which can be let to them at a rent they can pay. It either means an increase in rents of their houses or an increase in the city rates.
This was not the view of the outgoing chair Alderman Gill who said ‘he felt there ought to be no skimping of the necessities’. It wasn’t until over 30 years later that the defects in these cheaper houses were identified and legislated for leaving many councils, not just Bristol, having to spend many millions on rebuilding these ‘cheaper homes’ starting with those sold under the Right to Buy.
At the same time, the main road into the estate was downgraded from a dual to a single carriageway as government grant declined and, to save money on bridges, the stream running down the middle of the estate was filled in.
The building of the estate proceeded at pace in the early and mid-1950s. Many who moved there were displaced from inner-city areas destroyed by the Luftwaffe or by the council. Slums were cleared and residents moved from the heart of the city to the new estate six miles to the south. Early residents recall that the area had a stigma as soon as it was built. In Looking Back on Bristol: Hartcliffe People Remember (Bristol Broadsides, 1978), Jean Carey recalled, ‘this was the trouble in the beginning. Everybody sort of said Hartcliffe and turned their noses up; “We’re not going up there to live”‘.
People moving in soon found that the facilities promised were lost. Firstly, they were aware that the estate was built without pavements or side roads being completed. The area was a sea of mud, deliveries were only made to the main roads, shops and pubs only followed several years later leaving residents to wade out of the estate to access services.
Easiform housing on Luckley Avenue
The cinema, the swimming pool, the cricket pavilion, were never built, the library was completed over 20 years late, other facilities were scaled back – one nursery not six, three youth clubs not five, four pubs not six and the main shopping centre was also scaled back. Promises were broken and the estate became an outpost of the city, a sadly denuded version of the original vision.
In 1983, Andrew Saint argued that the New Architecture Movement (NAM): (1)
has consistently been the only pressure group within architectural politics in Britain to grasp issues beyond the scope of self-interest, and to combine its suggestions for reform with some deeper understanding of the relation between architects, the construction industry and the general public.
The organisation had been founded in November 1975 at its Harrogate National Congress; its goals: (2)
to channel effectively the collective action of architectural and allied workers in order to bring about radical changes in the practice of architecture. NAM seeks to restore control over their environment to ordinary people, and social responsibility and accountability to the work of architects. In particular, it seeks to fundamentally change the existing system of patronage, the power structure in architecture dominated by architects who are principles, both in private and public practice, and powerful corporate and bureaucratic clients. NAM seeks not only to challenge the existing relationship of architect to client and user, but also the existing relations between employer and worker, to restore a voice both to those who provide the labour for architecture and those who use its products.
A cartoon featured in Issue 1 of Slate, March 1977
This month, a unique collection of documents from this significant activist movement that challenged the established order of architectural practice both in the private and public sectors goes online. In the mid-1970s NAM gave a voice to progressive and inclusive initiatives that encouraged people to promote social change and greater equality through their work in the built environment. The launch of NAM’s archive provides both a new resource for historical research and also a challenge to present and future generations in the field to reinterpret and apply NAM’s radical ideas to current issues.
NAM brought together young idealistic architects, engineers and planners from across the UK seeking ways to reform working practices and the planning and development process. In an intensely productive period from 1975-80 the movement ran workshops, campaigns and seminars on a range of issues – professional education and governance, workplace structures, feminism, public sector design, worker unionisation – to create an alternative vision that put the priorities of people and communities ahead of developers, corporations and officials.
Slate cover, July/August 1978
Generously funded by a Paul Mellon Centre Digital Project Grant, the archive brings together previously unavailable historical documents held by former members that give a comprehensive picture of NAM’s aims, actions and achievements. It also provides an insight into the workings of activist groups in the 1970s, a period when many young people came together to advance the idealism of the 1960s and find practical and effective ways to promote social change. Key items include the NAM Handbook, which captures the essence of the movement’s objectives, structure and activities, and a complete set of the movement’s lively magazine SLATE. With its provocative alternative graphics, SLATE encapsulates the collective energy of 1970s grassroots activism.
A graphic from Slate, issue 13 (not dated)
In 1980 the New Architecture Movement members moved on to develop their ideas, both in groups such as Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative and the Public Design Service, and also in the professional practice of individual former members. Between 1979 – 1985, Haringey Council Architects Department implemented a number of pioneering features from the NAM Public Design Service proposals, many of which went on to become adopted more widely. More recently there has been a renewed interest in the causes and issues that NAM championed in discourse, exhibitions and articles, and it is hoped the archive’s launch will further stimulate debate and fresh ideas to meet the critical challenges in the built environment today. (3)
NAM’s digital archive is available at http://newarchitecturemovement.org. The website is managed by MayDay Rooms, which also houses the physical archive which is freely accessible at the MayDay Rooms’ offices. (4)
The archive will be launched at the Bartlett School of Architecture, London on Saturday 26th November 2022. The NAM archive steering group and former members will gather to mark the occasion. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect, Yale University Press
(4) The MayDay Rooms has a growing collection that includes materials documenting social struggles, resistance campaigns and the expression of marginalised and oppressed groups and houses the physical archive and manages the online version. They are located at 88 Fleet Street, London and are open 11-6pm Wednesday to Friday.
I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Martin Shepherd on a significant but neglected scheme. Martin is currently a student on the MA in Architectural History programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He was formerly an NHS hospital pharmacist with a career in clinical practice and management.
An extended essay on the development of the Victoria Centre will be published in the Journal of Historic Buildings and Places in Spring 2023.
In 2022 the Victoria Centre in Nottingham celebrated fifty years since it opened. Throughout this time, it has occupied a pre-eminent place in the urban infrastructure of the city, comprising both a large-scale high rise social housing development and the city’s primary retail location. It continues to occupy a dominant position in the urban grain of the city, a feature that is reflected in its assertive place on the municipal skyline.
The Victoria Centre has an intriguing architectural and social history which echoes many comparable but better known, and celebrated examples of urban megastructure that sought to bring together aspects of living, work and recreation into unified structures.
For many of Nottingham’s residents and visitors, the architectural character of the city is most visibly and forcefully characterised by its two large planned indoor shopping facilities – the Victoria Centre (Fig.1) and the Broad Marsh.
Figure 1: Victoria Centre from Milton Street looking East. Source: Author
For the Victoria Centre, the fiftieth anniversary of its completion in 2022, comes at a time when the reputations of social housing and shopping developments of the same age (whose design was possibly driven by similar modernist architectural and social ambitions) are being positively re-appraised (for example Trellick Tower, Dawson’s Heights and of greatest relevance the Brunswick Centre, all in London). I suggest that now is an appropriate time to re-consider this little researched and overlooked example of a modernist integrated urban retail and social housing development. Reassuringly in his recent comprehensive survey of modern British architecture, Owen Hatherley echoes this view, describing the centre’s housing as an ‘an image of ruthless modernity’ which he claims is rivalled only by Park Hill in Sheffield. (1) Fifty years after it opened perhaps the Victoria Centre’s time has come.
Figure 2: Victoria Station in 1930. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Figure 3: Indicative Victoria Centre development site. Source: Inspire Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL//2/185/300/8/64
Nottingham Victoria station (Fig.2), located just to the north of the city centre, opened in 1900 and closed in 1967. The 20-acre site (Fig.3) was purchased from the owners British Rail by Capital and Counties Property Company Limited. (2) Working with architects Arthur Swift and Partners (3), a scheme was presented to Nottingham city planners in August 1964 for the re-development of the station site with a ‘comprehensive development comprising shops, offices, warehouses, entertainments including sports facilities, theatre and cinemas, public houses, hotel, market and ancillary accommodation etc., in association with residential, bus station and car parking’.(4)
The lead architect for the scheme was Peter Winchester.(5) His modernist ambitions for the site were largely predicated both on its overall size and the depth of the railway cutting and the possibilities which this combination offered: (6)
By servicing shops and all facilities from underground and by producing a 20-acre traffic free area in the heart of a busy city. A city scheme will serve as a shopping, working, living and leisure and recreational centre… a city within a city.
Arthur Swift emphasised the explicit connection between the scheme and the recently published Buchanan report which had advocated the separation of car traffic and pedestrians,(7) and highlighted the integrated nature of the scheme, combining retail, commercial and residential/social elements:
We are fortunate in that the station has been closed, leaving us with a hole in the ground – which means that we can really practice Buchanan – put cars down there … This must be a new city centre – this is a complete entity; we have provided every amenity … Most city centres fail because they have ignored residential accommodation, sporting facilities. We have provided every amenity that the public require.
Elsewhere Swift reported his enthusiasm for the integrated nature of the scheme in particular the housing element: (8)
I am extremely happy that eventually my recommendations to include a number of flats on the roof of the scheme were accepted.
Compromise and Completion
Work on the centre commenced in September 1968, and the opening ceremony was performed in April 1972 by Conservative Environment Minister Geoffrey Rippon.
In stark contrast to the original plans, the final building showed significant changes with much of the ‘civic’ content being lost including the concert hall, public plazas, sports facility, and swimming and Turkish baths, leaving a two-storey shopping mall and an imposing five-slab-block residential complex of varying heights (seven to twenty-three storeys) –along with the intended 3,000 space underground car parking and bus station.
Records from the city planning committee show that the submission may have prompted thoughts of the need to abandon its previous laissez faire approach, in favour of the adoption of integrated urban planning for the city. Approval for the scheme was granted based on a significant reduction in the allocation of retail space from 644,000 sq ft to 385,000 sq ft. This was ‘to ensure that the amount of floor space devoted to each of the various uses proposed is not excessive, having regard to the size of the site, and the needs of the city, and having regard to the existing and likely provision for shops elsewhere in the city’. In this latter point the Council was clearly minded of its commitments to the planned Broad Marsh development to which it gave approval in December 1965.
Local architects argued however that the developers had held too great a sway in determining the final content of the centre in light of the city corporation having ‘no detailed development plan for the city’. They noted the profound downgrading of the scheme, ‘from the earliest proposals to the present ones we have seen a steady process of elimination of the recreational and entertainment facilities.(9)
Figure 4: Victoria Centre main entrance 1973. Source: picturenottingham.co.uk
Images of the newly completed centre show a unified structure encompassing all three elements – housing, retail and offices (Fig. 4). Despite the original aspiration for the centre to be woven into the urban fabric, there is a strong sense that this has not been fulfilled and that it sits somewhat awkwardly in the context of the surrounding areas.
Victoria Centre Municipal Housing
Paradoxically none of the published reviews of the Victoria Centre at the time of its opening made any mention of the municipal housing elements included in the scheme (Fig.5).
Figure 5: Victoria Centre Residential blocks looking South. Source: Author
Despite the somewhat hands-off approach that was adopted by city planners to the original development, there was subsequently a clear commitment to retain a social housing element in the final scheme, and it is the inclusion of this feature that sets the Victoria Centre apart from other British city centre development projects of the same era. It is in part a demonstration of the level of commitment evident in the city to support the expansion of municipal housing. Between the wars, 17,095 council houses were built, more dwellings per head of population than most cities outside Nottingham.(10)
By the 1960s the city had embarked upon the development of high-rise solutions to its social housing challenges, driven in part by government subsidy. The construction of the Victoria Centre flats clearly forms part of this approach. And yet the aspirations of Winchester in his vision of a wholly integrated structure were clearly not realised. The operation and development of the retail facility were undertaken entirely in isolation to the housing. In this respect there are strong parallels to be drawn with the history of Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre which was completed in the same year as the Victoria Centre. While the original intention had been for the Brunswick Centre housing to be offered for private sale, the changes in the economic make-up of the scheme during the late 1960s led to the housing being taken over by Camden Council. The disconnection between the housing elements and the recently gentrified retail aspects at the Brunswick Centre echo strongly the conditions found at the Victoria Centre.
Figure 6: Victoria Centre residential internal corridor. Source: Author
Figure 7: Victoria Centre two-bedroom flat internal view. Source: Author, courtesy Andrew Ellis
Externally, the high-density, austere housing development of 463 flats at the Victoria Centre is either largely invisible from the surrounding streets, or dominantly present. The flats are all single height and aspect, accessed from narrow internal corridors and limited to one- or two-bedrooms, therefore catering for a limited range of occupants.(11) The internal ‘street’ has no natural light and neighbours are largely oblivious to one another. Moreover, the corridors are angled at times, obscuring the view behind corners (Fig.6). The conditions are minimal and lacking in architectural as well as social interest. There is no provision of private outdoor space or direct access to shared outdoor space at the Victoria Centre (Figs 7 and 8), although in Winchester’s original proposals there was the intention to include such external spaces for the residents, but these were not fully realised. The only external space that can be accessed by residents is a fourth-floor roof deck with a small community garden and a number of large, raised planters that could be used to create green space but they are undeveloped (Fig. 9).
Figure 8: Plan of Victoria Centre Flat two-bedroom. Source: Inspire Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL/2/185/300/8/64
Figure 9: Victoria Centre fourth storey roof terrace. Source: Author
The flats can be accessed only through the shopping centre itself, with six lifts designated ‘residents only’ that are situated adjacent to those used by shoppers entering the centre from the car parks below. The selection of potential tenants is determined by an ‘allocation’ policy ‘because of the location of the flats and sensitivities around its city centre location’. The policy limits access to the flats based on a number of criteria including age restrictions on children under sixteen years. The original occupants of the flats would have been allocated from council housing lists. Right to buy arrangements were suspended by the council in 2017 since the remaining life of the lease was less than fifty years, having originally been ninety-nine years at the time of construction.
Figure 10: Victoria Centre Main Entrance. Source: Author
Since its opening the centre has undergone several refurbishments, the most recent of which was completed in 2015. This included substantial, unsympathetic changes to the main and Milton Street entrances which have regrettably damaged the cohesion of the centre frontages (Fig.10). The application of coloured pebbledash render to the housing blocks in 1994 has similarly had a detrimental effect on the visual unity of the building (Fig.11), while the application of mirrored solar film to the windows of the flats means that there is no external perception of life going on within the tower blocks. The original sections of the proposed residential blocks (Fig.12) suggest an internal corridor positioned every two storeys with a subsequent ‘scissor’ design for the flats which could have provided maisonettes with dual aspects.
Figure 11: Victoria Centre flats showing coloured pebbledash render added in 1994. Source: Author
Figure 12: Section through original Victoria Centre proposal 1964. Source: Inspire Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL/2/300/64
The architectural roots of the Victoria Centre are firmly embedded in the modern movement of the mid-1950s and its ambitions for the urban renewal of British cities. The development was however ultimately a product of opportunism and a misplaced belief in the capacity of a private developer to successfully achieve such renewal without a high degree of publicly-led planning and oversight. Although the utopian ambitions of the Centre’s designers were seriously compromised, there can be no doubt that the Centre has been and remains highly successful not only as the principal focus for Nottingham’s major retailers for the last fifty years, but more significantly as a rare example of a popular, high density, high rise municipal housing development in a city centre. Furthermore, in the context of architectural history, it is an overlooked example of hybrid modern architecture that transcended mere urban regeneration by its fostering of city living for council tenants. It deserves to be placed alongside better known and celebrated examples of such structures.
At the time of its fiftieth anniversary however there is a need for particular reflection on the future of the housing element of the Victoria Centre. While the shopping mall is in a process of re-invention in response to post-pandemic consumer behaviour, the restrictive spatial ordering of the housing seems unlikely to meet the needs of the council tenants of the future: the lack of easily accessible exterior space is particularly problematic. There is also clearly a case to be made for research into the experiences of those living in the Centre. While there have been modest, largely cosmetic improvements made to the flats, the limitations are clear and without further intervention to upgrade them, the Centre, notwithstanding the warm appreciation of Owen Hatherley, risks becoming just another example of the nation’s deteriorating stock of social housing.
(1) Owen Hatherley, Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer, (London, 2021), 352-354.
(2) Capital and Counties were at the time also involved in the development of the modernist Eldon Square shopping centre in Newcastle. It is the current owner of the Covent Garden Estate, London.
(3) Formed in 1953 the practice had offices in London, Dublin and Edinburgh. In addition to the Nottingham centre the practice, undertook large scale work on Hastings Civic Centre (1967-69) and Ballymum New Town, Dublin (1965-68) in largely Brutalist styles. Swift spent three years at the Nottingham University School of Art and Architecture, followed by a short time with the city engineer’s department. Victoria Centre Takes Shape Bulletin No 4 (October 1969), Capital and Counties Properties Ltd.
(4) Planning Application Capital and Counties Properties Ltd – Nottinghamshire Archives CA/PL/2/264/7/72.
(5) Following the award of his Diploma in 1958, Winchester had worked for the following two years as one of the ‘young Turks’ in Basil Spence’s practice at a time when Spence was working on the ‘science city’ development for the University of Nottingham, and so may have had some familiarity with the city from that time: Peter Winchester, presentation recorded at the symposium Sir Basil Spence re-viewed: the architect and his office, held at the Old Blue Coat School, Coventry (29 August 2008). Peter Winchester (warwick.ac.uk) Accessed April 5 2022
(6) P. Winchester, ‘Nottingham Centre’ in ‘World Architecture Volume 2’, ed. J Donat, (London,1965), 65.
(7) Ministry of Transport, Traffic in Towns: a study of the long-term problem of traffic in urban areas (Buchanan Report), (London,1963).
(8) ‘Victoria Centre Takes Shape Bulletin 4’, October 1969, Capital and Counties Property Ltd.
(9) ‘Nottingham Victoria Centre’, Architecture East Midlands.
(10) Chris Matthews, Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses (Nottingham, 2019), 25.
In 1947, the Yorkshire Post declared Sedbergh ‘the luckiest town in the country with regard to housing’. (1) In the midst of a national housing crisis, no new council homes had been built in the district since the end of the war and apparently none were needed. Nevertheless, Sedbergh had built before the war and would build substantially in the 1950s and 1960s. The story of council housing in the district is therefore both representative of wider rural dynamics and unique to the town.
Sedbergh might be best known today for its independent school or as a ‘book town’ conveniently placed for visitors at the western edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, close to the Lake District. Until 1974, it lay in the West Riding of Yorkshire, administered by Sedbergh Rural District Council (RDC). Now it lies in Cumbria within South Lakeland District Council. It’s all change again in April 2023 when a new unitary authority Westmorland and Furness takes over. It’s a small town (the population of the Rural District stood between 3- to 4000 for most of the last century), significant historically for farming and woollen production but prospering today, as those past staples have receded, as a local centre of commerce and tourism.
In 1914, when traditional industries still held sway, the Local Government Board – as part of a significant national drive to increase the rate of council housebuilding – had urged the Council ‘to build cottages for the working classes owing to there being a scarcity in the neighbourhood’. By June, the RDC had responded positively, purchasing land in the town (with plans to buy more in the neighbouring hamlet of Millthrop) and commissioning Kendal architect John Stalker to design a scheme of twelve well-equipped houses, each with: (2)
a good living room, scullery, pantry, store closet, w.c., and coal house on the ground floor, and each cottage will have a separate wash house with washing copper. On the chamber floor there will be three bedrooms and clothes closets.
Scarcely six weeks later, the outbreak of the First World War forced other priorities. The plans were abandoned and, perhaps more surprisingly, were not initially revived at war’s end when Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act was passed to fulfil prime minister Lloyd George’s promise of 500,000 new ‘homes for heroes’.
Sedbergh bided its time but its housing needs remained pressing, albeit small-scale. According to the Council’s Medical Officer of Health, Francis Atkinson: (3)
The houses, which are stone-built, are many of them old in type and congested on site, making it impossible to carry out adequate improvements. In Sedbergh town there are many yards branching off the narrow main street, in which the houses are small and congested, and deficient in ventilation and sunlight.
Given the number of houses that might be declared unfit, it was ‘decided that the [Government] subsidy might be required for 30 houses’. In 1925, the Council purchased five acres of land to the immediate north of the town on what became Fairholme and engaged Mr A Knewstubb of Penrith to prepare a layout and plans for six houses; 18 more were planned for the following year.
The Council’s second scheme of around 40 semi-detached and terraced homes at Havera was completed in 1935 – the date is recorded on a plaque in the gable end of a semi-detached pair of houses at the top of the street. The name is derived from the Saxon word ‘haver’, a hillside where oats were grown.
Elsewhere attention turned to reconditioning of existing homes in poor condition. Today, Millthrop is a picture postcard settlement of quaint stone cottages. In the 1930s, most of these were rural slums. Sedbergh’s application for a grant to finance improvements to 17 homes under the 1926 Housing (Rural Workers) Act was refused by the West Riding County Council (which administered the scheme locally) but, in this instance, the owner was prevailed upon to make improvements. Their scale – new floors, roofs and windows, internal redecoration, a new water supply, pail closets replacing privy middens (still no sewerage note) – is a reminder of the appalling conditions prevailing in many rural homes at the time.
An article published in the ‘patriotic’ John Bull magazine in May 1936 had publicised the case of an ex-serviceman, his wife and nine children living on the moors three miles out of town ‘in a wooden hutment the exact size of which is 30 feet long and 10 feet wide! No proper sanitation and no water supply’. Applications for council housing had failed as Sedbergh had no home big enough to house the family.(4) Perhaps this prompted the council to build two houses for large families living in unfit conditions on land purchased at Bridge End Field in Millthrop. The extensive back gardens signify a time when it was expected that rural tenants would grow a large part of their own food. (5)
By the outbreak of war in 1939, a total of 77 council homes had been built in the district. The war itself – as a result of Sedbergh’s relatively isolated position – increased housing pressures in the town. In August 1939, 126 children and 41 adults – mothers, teachers and helpers – were evacuated to the town from Bradford. (By the end of the year, just 41 remained in total; ‘generally the evacuees did not seem to take kindly to country life after town’, it was said.) In 1940, 70 children and 29 adults arrived, mostly from London. (6)
These incomers were billeted in local homes but a more comprehensive response was required when, after the bombing of Coventry, Armstrong Siddeley opened shadow factories manufacturing aircraft components in local mills at Farfield and Millthrop. Workers and their families were accommodated in two estates of prefabricated huts to the south-east of the town in Maryfell and, a little further out, Pinfold. Army personnel undergoing training at the 11th Battle Training School, housed in the former Baliol Girls School, were also accommodated in Pinfold.
As the end of the war approached and the closure of the temporary factories loomed, the Ministry of Aircraft Production asked the Rural District Council to take over the management of the two estates. (7) In the event, the council took over the Maryfell estate, buying its 50 bungalows for £80 each, but not Pinfold where Whitehall had deemed the site unsuitable for permanent housing. (The Pinfold site is now a caravan park.) As war workers returned home, Sedbergh had a readymade supply of empty housing to provide to local residents. In 1947, it was reported that there were just six households on the council’s housing waiting list and that vacancies for council homes were advertised in a main street shop window.
The Daily Mirror report concluded: (8)
the Housing Committee, with no worries, can sit back and plan carefully. ‘When our plans are finally approved,’ said the clerk, ‘we can carry out a first-class building programme and not be troubled by present shortages’
The clerk, Mr W F Lee, spoke of a planned building programme of 114 permanent homes but, while the temporary prefabs of Maryfell would certainly need replacing in the near future, for the moment it was a scheme just to the north along Cautley Road and Long Lane that took priority. The Council invited tenders for the construction of 46 houses in July 1950 – 38 in Sedbergh, eight in Dent where six were set attractively around a green on Dragon Croft. Semi-detached and terraced housing was built in the short culs-de sac of Castlehaw and Thornsbank in Sedbergh.
Dragon Croft, Dent
The redevelopment of Maryfell came two years later with an initial tender for 24 two-storey houses and 36 flats in three-storey blocks. The estate was completed by summer 1956. Early tenants were apparently discomfited by its open-plan layout, unpersuaded perhaps when the estate’s architect, T M Jones, ‘pointed to the practice on many modern housing estates and said the best effect had been gained through the absence of fences’. (9) Nowadays, only traces of the estate’s former unfenced design remain, even fewer as Right to Buy has exerted its own form of privatisation.
In 1961, after slow beginnings, the Council celebrated the completion of its 200th home with due pomp when its keys were formally handed to Mrs BDouglas, the fortunate new tenant, by a group of local councillors.
The following year, reflecting a typical turn within rural council housing in catering increasingly to an older and poorly-housed population, the Council opened Gladstone House on Fell Close in the Maryfell Estate – eight new warden-assisted bungalows and four flats and a community room, adjacent to some existing accommodation for older people on the estate. The West Riding County Council, whose responsibilities covered the welfare of the elderly, contributed to the scheme’s costs.
It was, according to a local press report: (10)
obviously a much cheaper and more humanitarian way of dealing with the problem of caring for the old by giving them every comfort in their local environment, rather than to send them to a home, which is liable to have something of an institutional character and atmosphere, however well camouflaged.
In the mid-1960s, its last major development, the Rural District Council built 17 three-bed and two four-bed houses and 30 two-bed flats on Castlegarth, to the north of Long Lane. Marking a new relative working-class affluence, 18 garages were provided with a further 31 to follow. A new fire station, new police station and three new police houses – county council responsibilities – were built adjacent. (The fire station remains; the police station is now a funeral directors.)
In all this, Sedbergh RDC had become, in the words of that same press report, ‘one of the foremost local authorities in the North-West in its post-war housing development’. The town’s extensive new housing catered to the wider district as well as established residents; conversely some of the latter now found work in Kendal, many at K Shoes.
To conservation specialists, the town’s new eastern suburbs ‘present a bland appearance with “standard” house types that provide a harsh contrast alongside traditional stone buildings’ and it’s true enough that neither the town’s interwar council housing or, more particularly, its post-war made much effort to ‘fit in’ with a local vernacular. (11) Fairholme represents some of the best of interwar council housing; Havera, a decoratively pared down and presumably cheaper version of the same. The cream to grey roughcast, semi-detached pairs of the early post-war era are used fairly indiscriminately. At Maryfell, though the three-storey flats come as an initial surprise in this rural setting, standard housing is made more attractive by lighter colours and patterning, Castlegarth, greyer, appears rather stark by comparison.
On the other hand, it did all, of course, provide genuinely affordable housing meeting local needs. Currently, it’s estimated that around 12 percent of Sedbergh’s 1323 homes are second homes while, in recent times at least, rising house prices and declining social housing stock, have further limited the ability of lower-income residents or would-be residents to buy or rent local homes. It is reported that: (12)
families are moving out of Sedbergh to larger conurbations or to remote rural areas to access more affordable homes. Businesses of all sizes across all sectors have confirmed that both housing cost and availability is negatively impacting on their ability to recruit and retain staff.
Social rent housing isn’t a cost; it remains, as it ever was, an investment – both in the wellbeing of individuals and the vitality of local communities. Sedbergh’s past and present illustrate these lessons very clearly.
I am very grateful to the Sedbergh and District History Society for providing information and resources to support this account and, as credited, some wonderful photographs to illustrate it.
(1) ‘Sedbergh Luckiest Town for Housing’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 January 1947
(2) ‘Sedbergh Housing – Council to Build Working Class Cottages’, Lancashire Evening Post, 19 June 1914