If a single estate can be taken to encapsulate the social, political and planning history of council housing in this country it is probably Knowle West in Bristol. You’ll find in it all the hopes and dreams, all the good intentions and unintended consequences, that have marked the complex story of council housing over the last hundred years or so. And you’ll find families and communities that have lived this story in all its complexity.
Broad Walk, Knowle © Phil Jaggery and made available under a Creative Commons licence
To begin with, let’s cast our eyes a little wider. In the interwar period, the Bedminster and Knowle Estate was the largest of Bristol’s interwar council schemes. Building began in 1920. By 1939 the estate as a whole comprised over 6000 council homes and a population of some 28,000.
As we saw in last week’s post, this was the product of three phases of council house building – that of 1919 to 1921 when the government was briefly committed to building high-quality ‘homes for heroes’; the legislation of 1923 and, more particularly, 1924 which set lower housing standards but also lower rents; and the turning point of 1930 when the government committed itself to the rehousing of the slum population.
The geographical and social implications of this were stark, as the sociologists Rosamond Jevons and John Madge noted: (1)
The composition of the population and the physical structure of the estate reflect…the evolution of housing policy since the first world war. From east to west, the estate falls into three main social zones. At Knowle Park are the expensive 1919 and 1923 Act houses…and the more prosperous tenants. Next comes a wide band of  Act houses at somewhat lower rents. Filwood Park, at the western end, contains large numbers of slum clearance houses. It was on this estate that the first houses were built under the 1930 Act, and to which families from the oldest and worst slums were moved.
To begin with, there were problems of adjustment to the new estates that were broadly shared. This was a population moving overwhelmingly from the inner cities, from densely packed housing which forced or fostered – depending on your perspective – a sociability and intimacy that could not be replicated on the new suburban estates.
This was particularly apparent in Bristol’s interwar estates, built at low density along Garden City lines to the town planning ideals of the day. It was exactly the qualities of the estates – houses which were semi-detached or set in short terraces and dispersed amidst open spaces and greenery – which enforced the break with previous life-styles.
Newquay Road, Knowle West © Jez McNeill and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence
The houses themselves – all with gardens, all with their own bathrooms and WCs, nearly all (even the smaller non-parlour homes typical of later building) with more space than residents had previously enjoyed – reinforced this. The sociability of the streets and pubs was a characteristic – however much it has been romanticised subsequently – of poverty, of homes from which people needed escape.
Still, it was certainly the case that it was hard to sustain community life in any form in the new estates. The Council prioritised housing – both as the most obvious necessity to its tenants and because government subsidies covered housing but not community facilities.
In Filwood Park (which would be renamed Knowle West), 3000 families had settled by 1935 and they had to make do with just ten shops (three from the local Coop), a temporary Anglican church and institute and a Baptist chapel. To be fair, this deficit of community institutions was rectified rapidly. In 1938, to serve a population of around 12,000, there were four places of worship and a number of voluntary organisations had moved into the area, including the Bristol University Settlement, the ‘Corner Cottage Club’ and an Unemployed Welfare Association.
The impressive Filwood Social Centre – with dance hall, gymnasium, meeting rooms, canteen, skittle alley, workshop and reading room – opened in the same year. There were no doubt others who took more pleasure in the opening of the Broadway Cinema, also in 1938. It was supported by a £7000 loan from the City Council and it’s a useful indicator of local issues which we’ll examine later that the Council stipulated that there be a separate doorway to the rear of the cinema, with its own pay box – ‘to enable the lower class of patrons to use the back entrance’. (2)
Filwood Broadway © Jez McNeill and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence
This was a working-class community and increasingly one – as the rehousing of the slum population took effect – of the less well-off working class. The social survey of Jevons and Madge in 1937 revealed that 61.5 per cent of the heads of household belonged to the semi-skilled and unskilled workforce. Around one in five were skilled workers; under one in ten held any kind of middle-class employment.
This is a picture strengthened by those who, in the later 1930s, were moving out:
The tenants who had left…proved to belong very largely to the better-off class on the estates. No less than a third were skilled manual workers…Blackcoated workers, never very strong on the estates, showed the strongest tendency to leave.
And this brings us to one of the stark social realities of the enlarged Knowle Estate. As we saw in Norris Green, Liverpool, there were sharp tensions between the earlier, better-off residents and those who were moving in from the clearance areas:
The families displaced from the slums were, so to speak, the second wave of colonists on the new estates. They were thus superimposed upon communities which had already become relatively established; the effect undoubtedly proved disturbing to the older tenants. By the outbreak of the war the prevailing tone of some estates was set, through the force of numbers, by the least skilled and poorest tenants. Where this had occurred…it had become very difficult to secure co-operation between the different classes of tenants.
When Jevons and Madge questioned those who had left the Estate, they had moved ostensibly to better themselves, often to buy their own property. But closer questioning revealed ‘dislike of the estate as such, and particularly dislike of neighbours. The population was said to be too mixed’. Jevons and Madge didn’t pull their punches in describing what we would now label as anti-social behaviour:
One objection was the difficulty of bringing up children decently when those of the neighbours are completely uncontrolled and have quite different and often unmentionable standards of behaviour and language. Noise, quarrelling of adults, dirt, breakages, gossiping and prying were among the complaints.
As we saw in Blackbird Leys, Oxford, this was a characterisation that could come to apply to the estate as a whole. Knowle had become identified with Knowle West (Filwood Park) – the slum dwellers’ area.
The Council shared this concern. AW Smith, the Council officer in charge of housing, argued in 1930 that: (3)
one of the difficulties in rehousing the slum population was the mental attitude of many people who had resigned themselves to squalid surroundings, an attitude which could be expressed in the phrase ‘Here I am and here I remain’. It was not enough to rehouse those people; new interests had to be aroused in them, and facilities provided for social intercourse.
But in the same year, he reported that the new tenants weren’t in fact storing coal in their baths: ‘contrary to the prophecies of pessimists, picture rails are used, and baths are not misused’. (4) By the later 1930s, social workers testified to:
a marked improvement which has taken place in cleanliness of the houses and in clothes; the better housing environment has undoubtedly had a great educational effect upon the population. A disgustingly dirty house is now uncommon.
There’s a lingering Victorianism here – middle-class attitudes which held that it was the improvidence of the poor rather than the objective reality of poverty that was to blame for social problems. The reality was harsher.
The Bristol Social Survey of 1937 found that one in three of council tenants were scraping along just above the poverty line (and clearly vulnerable to any personal or economic downturn in their fortunes); 16 per cent were officially below the poverty line. When it looked at the children, 43 per cent were found to be in families just above the poverty line and a full 28 per cent living below it.
Poorer families tended to have more children – which, no doubt, seemed an indication of the improvidence often decried – and tended, as it happened, to live in the smaller, cheaper, houses. The attempt to rectify this anomaly seemed fraught with difficulty: ‘Houses now let at higher rents tend to be in the more exclusive parts of the estates; the allocation of these houses to poorer and larger families would certainly encourage some of the older residents to leave’.
Broad Walk shops © Phil Jaggery and made available under a Creative Commons licence
The reality was that it was more expensive to live on the estates than it was in inner-city privately rented accommodation. Rents were higher in any case but on top of this came additional costs in heating and furnishing the new, larger homes, travel to work costs, and increased food bills as local shops sold more dearly.
In Filwood Park/Knowle West in the later thirties, one in four of the men were unemployed or dependent on casual labour, leading almost half of the area’s children to be living officially below the poverty line.
In this context, there’s a peculiarly tone-deaf quality to complaints that ‘there was often no proper mid-day meal’, that ‘children were given a slice of bread or a penny to buy chips’, that ‘tinned foods of all kinds figured prominently in the family menus’.
The Second World War intervened before Jevons and Madge could publish their report and their final observations reflect its impact:
It cannot be denied that many mothers are feckless over housekeeping; the absence of husbands, with the encouragement to wives to undertake part-time war work during the war, will not have improved matters.
That understanding of gender relations and women’s work is perhaps not one that we would share nowadays.
The war failed to improve matters in other respects too. Bristol was heavily bombed; 5000 houses were either destroyed or badly damaged. In 1946 the waiting list for council housing stood at an unprecedented 26,000.
Bristol built – mostly in a generation of new estates developed on the city fringes but also, for the first time, in major inner city sites such as Redcliffe. There was less scope for the growth of the interwar estates but in the 1960s the Inns Court area was developed on the eastern fringe of Knowle West. (5)
Inns Court © Copyright Jez McNeill and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence
The new Inns Court was a radical departure from the Garden City principles of the rest of Knowle but it’s a good example of a later wave of town planning thinking. Radburn estates were well-intentioned – they were meant to create viable and distinct neighbourhoods, breaking away from a traditional street layout and creating a more pedestrian-friendly, intimate environment by providing a feeder road (Inn Courts Drive here) and a series of cul-de-sacs.
Inns Court, the media portrayal: Bristol Post, 12 June 2013
By 2009, Bristol City planners had concluded that the reverse had occurred: (6)
The layout has resulted in a physical environment that contributes to isolation rather than facilitating community interaction and linkages across adjacent neighbourhoods. The system of cul-de-sacs also causes poor legibility and permeability of the area.
The design had ‘failed to provide a safe and well-overlooked environment’.
The Council proposed to demolish around 1000 homes but, as so often when redevelopment schemes are mooted, the residents themselves were opposed and failed to recognise the criticisms being levelled against their homes and neighbourhood. The chair of the local residents’ association questioned the plan: (7)
I don’t see there is any necessity for demolishing our homes. When they were built, we were told they would last for 100 years but now they are talking about taking them down. I have lived here for more than 30 years. My wife and I are happy here. We brought up our family here. If they demolished the estate and rebuilt it, it would devastate the community.
The scheme has since been dropped.
But regeneration proposals live on and the problems of Knowle West are real. A 2007 survey concluded – in words which could have been applied to many other estates across the country: (8)
High levels of poverty…in the area with limited local facilities and geographical isolation. Educational attainment is poor and there are high levels of burglary and vandalism. The availability of work is limited and people lack the right skills. There is poor health, isolation and high levels of teenage pregnancies…Local residents identify bullying, crime, drug use, poor environment, transport and dumped cars as local priorities.
Filwood and Inns Court were ranked among the five per cent most deprived areas in the country. In Filwood, numbers on Incapacity Benefit were double those of Bristol as a whole. In 2010, a Bristol City Council survey revealed – in the new jargon of planning and sociology – that over one third of people in Filwood ward and over half the children were ‘income deprived’. (9)
Knowle West shops awaiting redevelopment © Weirdoldhattie and made available in Wikimedia Commons
The wider Knowle Estate presented a different picture and conformed for the most part to the Bristol average but the original sin of a local housing neighbourhood built to house the poorest of the community lived on. Little seemed to have changed since Jevons and Madge’s pioneering report of the 1930s.
Daventry Road, Knowle West © Jezhotwells and made available in Wikimedia Commons
At the time of writing, a ‘Regeneration Framework’ is in place for Knowle West intended to address the full range of issues facing the estate. Working in partnership with local people, its aim is ‘a community full of confidence and pride, skilled and healthy, living in a thriving Bristol neighbourhood that is green and well-connected and low in living costs.’ (10) It’s hard to argue with that.
The broader lesson is that local government remains, in the words of Winifred Holtby and in the language of her day: (11)
the first-line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies – poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment.
It hasn’t always got it right and the story of Knowle West is a reminder of the complexity of the endeavour and the unintended consequences of the best-intentioned of municipal reform. But local councils and those maligned stalwarts of local democracy – our councillors – will continue to write that story and many will be seeking to transform municipal dreams into the concrete reality of a better world.
(1) Rosamond Jevons and John Madge, Housing Estates. A Study of Bristol Corporation Policy and Practice between the Wars (1946)
(2) This detail – and much more – is supplied in the Flikr photostream of local historian Paul Townsend.
(3) Quoted in ‘Slums and Town Planning’, The Times, October 18, 1930
(4) Quoted in Madge Dresser, Housing Policy in Bristol, 1919-1930 In MJ Daunton (ed), Councillors and Tenants: local authority housing in English cities, 1919-1939 (1984)
(5) Peter Malpass and Jennie Walmsley, 100 Years of Council Housing in Bristol, UWE, Bristol (2005)
(6) Bristol City Council, Knowle West Regeneration Framework Baseline Briefing (2009)
(7) ‘Facelift designs are not so grand, say Bristol residents’, This is Bristol, October 6 2010
(8) Lin Whitfield Consultancy, The Local Voluntary and Community Sector, Its Impact and Funding Issues: A Study of Knowle West, Bristol (August 2007)
(9) Bristol City Council, Deprivation in Bristol 2010
(10) For details of community involvement in the current regeneration and the full range of local events and activities, see the Knowledge website
(11) Winifred Holtby, South Riding (1936)
My thanks to the various local photographers acknowledged above who have made their images available for republication.