Last week’s post provided the background to the clearance of Newlyn’s slums and described the modest council estate built to replace them. Far more dramatic events ensued as the broader scope of Penzance Borough Council’s intentions became clearer. The five-day public inquiry into its plans in July 1937 was the locus of a housing protest which briefly gripped the nation.
There were, to begin with, perhaps justified complaints that the Council had been less than open about its plans. The clearance orders had been passed by the Council without it having seen the wider proposals of Borough Surveyor Frank Latham. Latham’s wish to widen the harbourside road through the village (and the demolition of homes not deemed unfit this required) drew further criticism and the sardonic observation that the regular traffic to Mousehole comprised merely a local bus.
The most vocal complaint centred on the issue of compensation. Owners of homes officially designated as unfit for human habitation and subject to demolition (marked pink on council plans) received only their site value. Homes marked grey on the plans (to be cleared to allow rational reconstruction), on the other hand, were not classified as slums and their owners were to be compensated by their full market value. This difficult demarcation proved controversial in both respects.
The meat of the ensuing struggle was contained in the legalistic wranglings which resulted but its emotional heart lay elsewhere. That was provided in the beguiling image of simple Cornish fisherfolk battling bureaucratic and unfeeling modernity. Newlyn was its ideal site.
One major factor in this was the presence of an artists’ colony, active in the village since the 1880s. Stanhope Forbes, the grand old man of local artists, regarded: (1)
the idea of demolishing any part of our priceless village as a piece of sheer vandalism and folly. To me and thousands of holidaymakers the prospect of new and ugly buildings will be ghastly.
Local artists such as Geoffrey Garnier played a leading role in the Newlyn Housing Committee formed to oppose the clearances; Phyllis Gotch (the Marquise de Verdières since her 1922 marriage) was the daughter of two Newlyn-based artists and the instigator of some of the campaign’s more imaginative protests. Her letter to the Manchester Guardian (complete with an ‘authentic’ local voice) is worthy of lengthy quotation and captures some of its most romantic imagery: (2)
Newlyn, by an astonishing order of the Penzance Town Council under the Slum Clearance Act, is to be swept away. Her cobbled streets, where Perkin Warbeck strode in his glory, her ancient manors and moulded ceilings, her secret lifts and smugglers’ passages are all to go…
Many of the houses are owned by the inhabitants, who are of a fine and independent spirit, scorning outside help if they can possibly help themselves, and facing hardship with dumb and gallant courage…
A deputation came to me to-day. The spokesman was a grand, old fisherman. God-fearing and wise. He said:
Miss Phyllis, for we shall always call ee that, we’ve been thinking that if you was to tell England and Scotland and Wales and the people over to Ireland what was happening to we, how the homes we’ve laboured for are being took away, and how there be’nt no money to pay lawyers to help us. Surely there’d be some as would plead for us, some as would say ‘This must not be?’
A petition of Newlyn women to the new Queen played on some of the same tropes in its plea ‘to the first lady in the land, our kind and beautiful Queen’ who would know ‘so well what the love of home means and…understand above all what the Celtic people feel about the soil on which their forefathers have dwelt for centuries’. (3)
It’s altogether tempting, in this context, to see elite manipulation at play in such presentation but that would merely add another patronising depiction to a more complex, multi-layered story. It ignores, as Tim Martindale argues, the ‘extent to which members of the fishing community of Newlyn actively participated and performed in the construction of their representation’, the socially embedded role of local artists, and a powerful sense of Cornish identity among local residents. (4)
This was wonderful stuff for a national (indeed international) press looking, then as now, for human interest stories to tug their readers’ heart strings. Punch took up the baton and took a side-swipe in its doggerel at Penzance, the villain of the piece: (3)
Each to his own. Penzance may sleep,
Swaddled in palms and sanitation
So Newlyn (and the country) keep
The modest homes that make a nation;
If not, both reason and romance
(if England study either school in)
Tell us we might not miss Penzance
But cannot do away with Newlyn
All this provided the context for the campaigners’ most inspired and theatrical protest – the voyage of the 50-foot Newlyn lugger, Rosebud in October 1937 to Westminster and a meeting with the Minister of Health and Housing, Sir Kingsley Wood. The skipper Cecil Richards, a Newlyn fisherman and a resident of one of the condemned homes, and his crew were met by local MP Alec Beechman. His speech avoided controversy but Billy ‘Bosun’ Roberts made it clear that the ‘Cornish boys [were] here to fight for their homes!’
Then, in the words of Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle, ‘the grizzled fishermen…cap in hand’ met Wood and told the Minister ‘how much they loved their picturesque cottage homes, how unhappy they would be in the new houses “over the hill”.’ (5) Wood, clearly an early master of PR, provided the deputation with a Cornish cream tea and a thoroughly sympathetic hearing. His verdict would come two weeks later but, for the time being, the Cornishmen were impressed by his apparent honesty and understanding.
For all the resonance and power of this campaign, opinions in the village were divided. We saw Reverend George Richards’ opinion of the new council homes on the Gwavas Estate last week – he had described them as ‘among the monstrosities being condemned by architectural experts’. A Daily Mirror article contrasted pictures of the old village and the new estate under the headline ‘What Would You Rather See?’.
But such attitudes angered many in the village. ‘A Tenant’ who called into the offices of the Cornish Evening Telegraph described his family’s experience of living in a one-up, one-down cottage with a single bedroom, a solitary, rapidly filled bucket which served as a toilet, and a washbasin shared with three other households. He commented caustically that ‘the most militant in defence of the old village already lived up the hill’ and reckoned:
eighty percent of the working people of Newlyn welcome the building of the new houses and are longing for the day when they will have a chance to live in them.
Gender and generational differences emerged. Some women – as wives and mothers – seemed to favour new and better-equipped homes as their husbands, out at work and relieved of domestic duties, defended the old. A petition from ‘Younger Residents of Newlyn’ urged the Minister to sanction the clearances and expedite an early move to more sanitary accommodation. Its advocates were outspoken:
We say that Newlyn is no longer a fishing village – granted a few elderly men and a few out-of-date boats…they will soon disappear. The sons of these men are not going fishing. No sir, they are finding employment in Penzance and elsewhere. We say that far too much has been made of a small grievance which the few fishermen might have, for after all they represent a very small minority in Newlyn.
That petition was signed by some 400 people; a rival petition protesting ‘the wholesale destruction of our village [and the] ruthless appropriation of private property’ attracted 1093 local signatures. You can make your own judgement on the balance of forces in play.
To be fair to the Newlyn Housing Committee, they were clear that defence of the old homes did not require opposition to the new and it avoided criticism of the new estate. Still, in what was a compelling narrative, it became natural to juxtapose the two.
The Newlyn Housing Committee also commissioned Professor Stanley Adshead (a leading architect and planner and the designer of significant council housing developments in Norwich, Stepney and Brighton amongst others) to review the clearance scheme. He took an advanced position in opposing its road widening element (‘Is it not conceivable that reduction in the size of the cart is better than improvement in the strength of the horse?’) and concluded firmly that the Housing Acts should be amended ‘to make special provision for dealing with cottages and villages possessing historic interest and peculiar charm’. In the present, however, all hinged on Sir Kingsley Wood.
Wood pronounced in November 1937 in a letter to Penzance Borough Council. In the rush to headlines, the press initially greeted a victory for the protesters. One block of homes was to be saved, some frontages preserved, and he called on the Council to: (6)
to rehouse the fishermen and the older people near the harbour and to cooperate with all those who would help them secure a redevelopment which will meet the legitimate interests of those affected and also preserve the amenities of the village.
In a follow-up letter to the Council in December, he commended its cooperation with the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and RIBA and the priority given to rehousing fishermen and the elderly at Navy Inn Court. (7)
It was a masterly political response. Woods had saved only 23 of the homes slated for demolition; he had transferred 54 from ‘pink’ to ‘grey’ thereby ensuring more generous compensation, and he offered more cash to those whose homes were still condemned as ‘unfit’.
Disillusion soon set in among the campaigners but the battle was essentially over and it was, in the end, a qualified victory for their cause. A guerrilla war, fought over legal issues of designation and compensation, delayed clearance. The Council, wary of the storm it had created, was, in any case, in no hurry to proceed. Only 58 demolitions had taken place by 1940, some more in 1943, and larger clearances in 1951 and 1955. By 1974, 130 of the homes originally condemned still stood and many were now part of a conservation district. Times had changed.
For one, those younger residents were wrong about Newlyn’s fishing industry – in 2016 it was the largest fishing port in England in terms of quantity of landings. It remains a busy, bustling harbour and, not far away, lie the narrow lanes and traditional cottages beloved of tourist Cornwall – now with all mod cons and, presumably, a great many of them occupied as second homes or holiday lets.
As a visitor myself, it seems impossible to lament their survival and the failure of the rational modernism once threatened. But their current situation highlights housing realities, both interwar and contemporary. There are rightly a number of monuments in Newlyn to the Rosebud and the struggle it represented. Ironically, one of these, Rosebud Court, is social housing; a block of four flats completed for the Penwith Housing Association in 2000. And, above the old village, the Gwavas Estate continues to offer the decent and affordable housing that – with over 900 on local waiting lists – private enterprise seems incapable of providing. The Newlyn clearance saga, often romanticised as the struggle of the ‘little man’ against faceless modernity, offers complex lessons.
(1) ‘The Newlyn Slum Clearance Scheme. RAs Fight to Save a Village’, Cornishman, 22 October 1936
(2) The Marquise de Verdières, ‘Letters to The Editor: Slum-Clearance in Cornwall’, The Manchester Guardian, 18 October 1937
(3) Quoted in Michael Sagar-Fenton, The Rosebud and the Newlyn Clearances (Truran, 2003). Other detail is drawn from the same source which offers the most comprehensive coverage of the extended saga.
(3) Punch, 27 October 1937. Quoted in Michael Sagar-Fenton.
(4) Tim Martindale, ‘Livelihoods, Craft and Heritage: Transmissions of Knowledge in Cornish Fishing Villages’, PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London 2012
(5) ‘Britain Gets Rid of Slums. Five Year Clearance Programme Meets Some Protest in England’, Reading Eagle, 28 November 1937
(6) ‘Cottages at Newlyn’, The Times, 4 November 1937
(7) ‘Rehousing at Newlyn’, The Times, 28 December 1937