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.
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.
Last week we looked at some of the history of Carpenders Park and South Oxhey and this week we return. We focus here on some of the challenges faced by the new residents with the new location, the lack of facilities initially, gradual provision of other things to do. We also look at some of the literature, art and health research helping us gain a greater understanding of the estates.
Location, location, location?
The then new South Oxhey estate of the 1940s was not initially quite a new utopia for everyone and it looked physically very different from what many had known before. House building had taken priority over the infrastructure or places of work, shopping or leisure facilities, or even ideas about identity. Initially there were no pavements, roads or many shops and even in 1949 mobile vans were pictured making food deliveries. There were totem pole-like road signs pointing in the general direction of the new streets. (1)
Early on, this created a peculiar and displaced community of new residents with nothing much to do there and relatively long distances to travel for jobs. It was very different than redeveloping a bombed site that would at least have enjoyed some aspects of urban living in a relatively familiar environment, despite the ongoing post-war chaos. Building was slow, with holdups on materials and labour.
There has been much interest in how this relocation made people feel. Many of course welcomed the vastly better housing conditions on offer and some memories are shared on the Our Oxhey website. (2) However, relocation and an initial lack of other amenities in this brand-new place were to prove challenging. Sociological studies were still then something for the future and it was to be several years before Willmott and Young’s 1957 study on Family and Kinship in East London (3) reported that policy makers did not always take into account the nuances of more informal private worlds and relationships in maintaining health and wellbeing. Later, in 1974, Alison Ravetz also reflected on the lack of foresight of housing reformers on breaking up and dispersing communities elsewhere. Whilst South Oxhey was not an area clearance redevelopment plan as such, the consequences of ‘redistribution of populations’ would have been similar. (4)
This theme of displacement and sense of belonging has also been explored in literature. One resident of South Oxhey in the 1960s, Professor John Schad, published his novel, The Late Walter Benjamin. (5). He talks of a ‘Promised Land’ or ‘Cockney Utopia’. This novel is a great historical document in itself, in this ‘unlikely’ near-Watford setting, complete with LCC documents, early photographs of the estate, press cuttings and interviews with original residents. It tells of some of the difficulties facing those who were uprooted from London communities and their then new, relatively isolated and quiet environment without very much to do. His play Nowhere Near London is an adaptation of The Late Walter Benjamin, exploring life on the estate in the late 1940s, in which the main characters are ‘unsure if life on the estate is heaven or hell’. There is also reference to the mass ‘invasion’ of working-class Londoners, housed all together on the edge of Watford (6).
Iris Jones Simantel’s autobiography reveals more about the estate and what it meant to her. Her family had lived at the Becontree estate and in 1947 were offered the opportunity by the LCC to move to a then new estate, South Oxhey. Simantel tells us about the early residents of the estate, and how it made them feel. She comments on the LCC’s ‘enormous undertaking’ and the excitement the new aspirational housing estate created, but also of the loss of kinship links, some choosing to move back into London, and the ‘posh people’ over the other side of the railway at Carpenders Park. She recalls a conversation with her father: (7)
‘Maybe a move like this’ll be good for us,’ said Dad. ‘We ain’t never gonna improve our lot if we stay here.’ He was talking about living conditions, and the social class system that existed in England at the time … I was excited about moving such a long distance, into a brand new house, but sad about leaving Nan and Grandad. I would miss them, and I knew Mum would, too.
This very real physical separation by the railway comes up in another novel, later a TV series, by the author Leslie Thomas, who himself lived at Carpenders Park. In his 1974 The Tropic of Ruislip, he refers to: (8)
The frontier-line of the railway and beyond that to the council estate where the terrace houses lay like long grey ships. There were no garages over there but the trees in the street freely canopied, in season, the lines of cars outside the houses; the churches, the shops and the schools, except the primary schools, were beyond the embankment on the wrong side of the tracks.
One of his characters describes the residents (p.133-4):
‘ … aah those are evacuated cockneys’ she said. ‘They’re different … They’ll live on each other just as they did when they were in London. They know, by instinct, how to keep the fire burning. Their doors are always open, neighbours in and out, fights and all-pals-together.
Studies into health at South Oxhey
In line with academic and wider concerns about such completely new developments, health effects were further examined. As the estate bedded down, tensions with the existing communities eased and the estate was gradually provided with more amenities. By the 1960s Jeffery’s socio-medical study explored out-of-town estates like South Oxhey, which presented very different health issues than densely packed, urban areas. Jeffery asked residents what they felt about their then still relatively new estate but also tested health improvements such as mental health, the physical growth of children and other objective measures. Jeffery’s work found that the residents were disappointed with the lack of amenities initially but enjoyed the space, fresh air and cleanliness, which was very different to their previous housing (9).
With concern over NHS prescription costs rising, Jefferys’ other research with the Public Health Team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explored the how a ‘working-class’ community was using health services (10). This was presumably also at South Oxhey, with the anonymised description of its location at an LCC estate in SE Hertfordshire. The paper tells us that by 1954 there were 17,000 residents, mainly young couples with children, with a substantially less than average population aged over 45. It reported that two out of three male tenants were in skilled manual, routine clerical, and shop assistant jobs and there were fewer than ten per cent of households with a tenant in a non-manual occupation.
Interviews conducted with tenants concerned health and type of medicines taken and whether doctor or self-prescribed. There was mention of medication for ‘nerves’ or anxiety amongst mothers. One table presented in this paper also reveals conditions for which different types of medicines were taken by adults and children, some of which may have been housing related, but it is not clear if this is related to previous living accommodation. Notably, many categories relate to respiratory disease such as tuberculosis, asthma, colds and bronchitis but also mental disorder, nerves, worry and depression. It is not of course possible to categorise these as specifically housing related by empirical evidence, as they may be related to wider socio-economic or other medical factors and could have resulted from earlier housing conditions, leading to rehousing at South Oxhey. Overall the findings indicated that the new environment seemed beneficial.
This is of little surprise as South Oxhey provided a very pleasant layout, with generally good housing, low-rise flats and infills being added over time. Whilst it catered overall for families, there was also provision for older people and smaller bungalows/bedsit type accommodation attached to some houses, and also in designated streets. Clitheroe Gardens had a warden, the Clitheroe Club being one local community group, with a level walk a few minutes to the St Andrews shopping precinct. Some of these have presumably now been brought and converted to two-storey ‘houses’.
Two estates together
Eventually, South Oxhey was fairly well served with amenities, also enjoyed by many residents of Carpenders Park. There were Watford Rural Parish Offices, a library, a police station, health clinic, dentist, community centres and sports centre (now a large leisure centre). There were originally five public houses, now only the Dick Whittington remains. The other public houses, The Grape Vine, The Jet and The Pheasant (later The Ox) have been demolished and replaced with housing, quite densely packed in some cases and The Pavilion is currently boarded up.
The library continues to occupy the same position as it has for many years adjacent to the then St Andrew’s shopping precinct that remained a central focus of the estate for decades.
The St Andrew’s precinct was at one point thriving and served both estates, known locally as the ‘big shops’. It had many ‘anchor’ shops there, including Sainsburys, Woolworths, Co-op, Boots, a sports shop, pet shop, post office, butchers, fresh fish shop, two fruit and vegetable shops, fish and chip shop, and so on. There was a regular market. (11) There are also other parades of shops on Little Oxhey Lane, Prestwick Road and Hayling Road, also with flats above.
Over time, out of town shopping venues became more popular and some of the national chains of shops started to pull out from the St Andrews shopping precinct. The artist Angela Edmonds has published her photographs of the St Andrews shopping precinct in her book PRECINCT (12) which reflects on a place of discontinuity and its change. She refers to this in her website: ‘The original St Andrews Precinct could be seen as a model of the optimism and cultural multiplicity of its period and its subsequent demise perhaps owes as much to its allowed neglect as it does to the urgent need for more housing. Yet it has remained the heart of the Estate for the local community.’
Much of the estate remained as council housing (pictured below) until the election of the Thatcher government in 1979 which was to challenge the very foundations of the post-war housing consensus and promoting ‘personal responsibility’, as the welfare state was rolled back, favouring individual and private ownership and the language of the market place with tenants as ‘customers’. The Right to Buy was pushed, and with much good housing stock, much of South Oxhey’s housing was purchased by then new owner-occupiers. Some was later rented privately, in the ironies of this policy, back to the very people who would once have been council tenants, and at greater cost.
New challenges were soon identified, such as problems with some of the more experimental prefabricated housing, to become colloquially known as ‘concrete cancer’. Many of course by this time had been purchased under the Right to Buy policy, without knowledge of this defect. The Housing Defects Act 1984 served as: ‘An Act to make provision in connection with defective dwellings disposed of by public sector authorities; and to provide for certain provisions in agreements between building societies to be disregarded for the purposes of the Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1976.’ It allowed the Secretary of State to designate defective dwellings by design or construction and to provide assistance to reinstate some categories of defective housing (see for example 13). As ownership was by now mixed, renovation works were completed at different stages according to different budgets and specifications. This meant that enveloping schemes were less likely, so works to terraces were incomplete and irregular in renovation.
All change again
The South Oxhey estate transferred from the LCC to the Greater London Council (GLC) and later to Three Rivers District Council. By 2007 some 70 per cent of the council houses were sold to tenants and the remaining council houses were transferred to Thrive Housing Association in 2018 (14). This transfer to the private sector has continued with the current redevelopment of the St Andrews precinct area.
By 2012 Three Rivers District Council proposed complete redevelopment of the precinct. There were 130 flats above shops but many residents and shop keepers were opposed to this. After some setbacks, the Council joined forces with Countryside Properties to redevelop central South Oxhey, replacing the precinct with 514 new homes, retail and public space (15). Photographs of this are included here and the new blocks tower over the existing estate, highly visible on the skyline from Carpenders Park too. At the time of writing (summer 2022) the precinct has been completely demolished and the new and densely packed and higher flats dominate the surrounding area, out of keeping with the character of what went before and proving costly for earlier residents although the extent of displacement is unclear.
Writing this, one cannot help but reflect on what an incredible vision those post war housing planners had, and the optimism to follow this through into reality. Whilst there were issues with the new estate, it has provided a secure and pleasant living environment on the very edge of London, with good transport links. It’s a great shame there is no current such vision and commitment in social housing and therefore no surprise about the current housing crisis. Just imagine what could be created with that post war vision and resource now.
(1) Our Oxhey, ‘Mobile Shop’, Shopping in South Oxhey in 1949
First and foremost, I am grateful to John Boughton as always for his guidance, advice and insight.
I am grateful to:
Hertfordshire Library services (staff at Oxhey Library in particular) who have been most helpful, originally Beverly Small back in in 2013 and more recently in responding to my various enquiries about these two estates.
This post is perhaps unusual for Municipal Dreams in that it first touches on an interwar private estate, Carpenders Park, before looking at South Oxhey, a post-Second World War council estate built by the London County Council (LCC, later Greater London Council, GLC). But there is a reason for this! After the war, Carpenders Park, then under the jurisdiction of Watford Rural District Council, built a few streets of council housing. Around the same time, the LCC set about building thousands of homes in a new estate to be called South Oxhey. Both were near Watford in Hertfordshire. The housing on the two estates was divided not just by different councils but also by the railway line running between. Initially South Oxhey only consisted of houses, but as it was developed into the 1950s and more community facilities were provided, the two estates became increasingly interdependent for shopping, services, social, educational and cultural needs. In 1974 both estates were transferred into the then new Three Rivers District Council, amalgamating them further.
By the 1930s, the developer Mr Absolum had been looking for land to develop near to London and the Carpenders Park area was exactly what he had been seeking. The area was hemmed in on all sides by roads and the railway but had formed a parcel of land ripe for development. He started to develop a suburban estate of houses and bungalows, built for rising numbers of car-owning owner-occupiers. The 1930s sales brochures promised peaceful surrounds with healthy, fresh air and green spaces, very much in the spirit of a garden suburb. The new estate took its name from the mansion house, later to become a private school, and the station was called Carpenders Park, on the Euston to Watford line.
It was of course around this time that the social documentary Housing Problems (1935) was filmed.(1) It is hard to reconcile some of the conditions seen in this film with developments like Carpenders Park seeming almost of another world. The documentary demonstrated the poor conditions so many were enduring but also new council and other socially committed housing schemes to replace these, including flats at Quarry Hill, Leeds, and Kensal House in west London, showcasing new building techniques with an air of optimism and hope of what the future would hold. All of this was, of course, interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939. Building was brought to a standstill as the country faced other priorities and as the war progressed thousands of London households were bombed out. Both building materials and the builders to erect new homes became scarce. But as the war dragged on, with more and more Londoners losing their homes, LCC plans were already afoot for new council housing developments in a progressive post-war era.
This and next week’s post will explore some of this. This first post looks at South Oxhey as a new post-war housing estate and Carpenders Park as a private estate with a few streets of council housing and also their schools. It looks at challenges faced by South Oxhey’s new relocated residents, who enjoyed better housing but initially lacked wider amenities, although these were gradually provided. Next week’s post develops this further and explores the ongoing development of the estate and how it improved for the new residents as shops, schools, community venues and health services were provided in South Oxhey, also enhancing provision for those living ‘over the other side’ in Carpenders Park.
South Oxhey: a new post-war estate
During the war, the 1943 County of London Plan was already in place for a new post-war era of a better world to come for all. Drawing from the 1944 Dudley Report on the Design of Dwellings, there was a focus on housing and health, combining thoughtful planning with good housing quality and space standards, in a similar vein to the Tudor Walters Report just after the First World War. The report looked ahead to addressing poor housing conditions, new expectations and meeting modern housing needs. London’s housing stock had suffered terribly during the war and had inevitably fallen behind its planned slum clearance and redevelopment programmes. The County of London Plan written by Sir Patrick Abercrombie and JH Forshaw, proposed to reduce London’s population and the overall LCC programme of ‘out of county’ estates, part of the programme (alongside New Towns) to ease congestion in London – thirteen new estates in a ring around the capital beyond the interwar cottage suburbs. By 1965, 45,000 homes had been built in these estates, 39 per cent of the LCC’s total post-war newbuild.
LCC plans were afoot in 1943 to compulsorily purchase land that had become available and then owned by the Blackwell family (of Crosse and Blackwell) at Oxhey Place Estate. Like Carpenders Park, it then still had a mansion house (which burnt down in the 1960s) but also a chapel built by Sir James Altham and dating from 1612 that still remains. It was not far from London geographically but a million miles away (metaphorically) in so many other ways. The proposal was to develop a cottage estate to house some 15,000 people in nearly 4000 new homes, primarily to help replenish London’s housing stock lost during the war. (See, for example, sources 2, 3 and 4) The Minister of Health confirmed the Compulsory Purchase Order in 1944 for 921 acres for a new cottage estate, excluding Oxhey Chapel and preserving some of the woodland. (5)
Some were far from happy about this. There was a petition from Bushey residents in 1943 (6) but protests over the satellite town were also matched by some support for the proposed well-designed estate (7). On April 21, 1944 it was reported that: ‘The whole of the future of Watford and its status as a separate town is lying in the balance as the result of the two-day’s Inquiry held at the beginning of this week in the Council Chamber at Watford Town Hall, to decide whether the Minister of Health shall confirm the compulsory purchase order made by the London County Council, enabling them to acquire Oxhey Place Estate, including the beautiful Oxhey Woods, as a site for a housing scheme for 15,000 to 20,000 London workers’. (8)
The Times published letters in November 1944 (displayed in Oxhey Library’s 2013 exhibition about the estate and cited in source 2) from local residents challenging the LCC’s plans to build on such an attractive area on the periphery of London of ‘another great dormitory consisting of houses largely of one character, housing people of mainly one income level’ and another expressed disappointment that this satellite town would have three serious defects: the time wasted travelling to work; the loss of good agricultural land; the ‘philistine preference for utilitarian to aesthetic values’, adding that the new residents would be ‘exiles’.
Against this rather tense backdrop, the scene was set for South Oxhey to be planned and built as a quality development for its new community. The new estate represented everything the then Labour government stood for. Planners drew from the garden city and suburbs movement and sought to create a mixed community where all lived together in harmony. Aneurin Bevan was Minister of Health and Housingfrom 1945 to 1951, the time that construction of South Oxhey really took off. He had a strong commitment to good housing as a cornerstone of the Welfare State, overseeing a million houses built. But the vision was not just about housing and the environment, Bevan also called for all citizens to share and lead a full life ‘… in the living tapestry of a mixed community’. (9)
Some of the initial objections about South Oxhey were around the concentration of working-class residents in this new setting and some of the 1950s research (see next post) referred to the ‘working-class’ community’s health. Many of the new homes were for families and a range of design and sizes created variation in housing stock and occupiers, emphasising the importance of a balanced community as far as was possible with the other pressing priorities and challenges of housing provision in this post-war era.
The first tenants, Mr and Mrs Caldwell, from Paddington, were presented with their house keys by Rt. Hon. Lady Nathan, chair of the LCC and moved into Hayling Road in November 1947. An article referred to these houses as four-roomed cottages, with modern a kitchen large enough to dine in. In Hayling Road, the houses had 3 bedrooms with separate living room and there were also smaller houses elsewhere. Houses benefitted from both living and storage space. Kitchen fittings and cupboards were provided with ample places for prams, fuel storage for the main living room fire and for tools. Hot water also provided some heating via bedroom ducts, and there were additional points for electric heaters. Ample windows would provide light and a cheerful feeling (10).
Building had only started in 1947 but by 1950 some 15,000 people had been housed (11) and many recall that building was still not finished. (12) One resident who moved in in March 1949 shared their letter from the LCC Director of Housing and Valuer (13), welcoming them but explaining there were still some challenges to be faced, as the priority continued to be house building. The letter highlighted the lack of local facilities and gave advice about the new estate, quiet enjoyment and being neighbourly. It asked residents to look after the general environment and their gardens and gave advice on how to occupy their new homes economically:
There may possibly be a number of things in your home that will be quite new to you. You may need advice as to the most economical use of your electric or gas cooker or the type of fire – you may find that you are unaccustomed to the use of an immersion heater. Inside your home, it is wise to ascertain where the water stop-cock is located in case of any emergency as well as the taps etc., for turning off the gas and electricity supply.
On some of the new housing estates, you will at first find inconveniences. No shops, churches, chapels, community halls etc., but these will all come in time. When these have been provided on estates, I am sure you will want to make the best possible use of them and so give all the help you can to the establishment of a new and useful community.
You will, I am sure, take care of your new home. Such small things as oiling window and door hinges, and re-washering taps when necessary will not only assist with calls on maintenance, but will help to keep your home in good order, for it is not possible, at the present time, to give immediate attention to repairs, when a request is received. This, I think you will understand, especially when I remind you that we are devoting all our energies to the production of new homes.
The ongoing need for more housing led to new legislation. The 1949 Housing Act enabled local authorities to provide housing of different types and sizes and for mixed income groups. There was, as before, an emphasis on affordability of both construction and amenity and scope for some experimentation in design. In some areas, like South Oxhey, there was an emphasis on planning and housing layout, with kitchen and bathrooms and even a separate WC for larger families as well as storage space. South Oxhey’s original housing – now mostly substantially renovated, with one or two streets demolished and replaced – represented a snapshot in time of council housing and flats of the 1940s and 1950s. The range of housing types built included traditional brick, rendered but also more experimental permanent prefabs including Cornish houses, Stent houses (14) and BISF (or ‘tin houses’). (15).
There were later two newer blocks of flats, Silkin and Corbett Houses, but these have since been demolished. Both blocks had 24 dwellings in eight storeys and were commissioned by Watford Rural District Council in 1960 and completed in 1963. (16)
Meanwhile back in Carpenders Park …
Meanwhile, back in Carpenders Park after the war, then under the jurisdiction of Watford Rural District Council, the essentially owner-occupied estate was to host three new roads of council houses in the 1950s on its London side; Romilly Drive, Oulton Way and Little Oxhey Lane (see photographs 6 and 7). Little Oxhey Lane itself runs right across the railway bridge and further down this road, it becomes South Oxhey. It has not been possible to find much information on these streets in Carpenders Park.
It was also around this time, and certainly worth a municipal mention, that Hertfordshire County Council School Architects were designing and building some really good school buildings. St Meryl Junior Mixed Infant School – named after Mr Absolum’s daughter, Meryl – featured in an exhibition at RIBA in 2019, showcasing the Bauhaus influence. (15)
The several schools in South Oxhey shared many of these well considered building designs displayed at St Meryl. The estate’s primary schools included Colnbrook, Greenfields, Little Furze, Oxhey Wood, St Josephs, Warren Dell and Woodhall (see photo 8). At one point the estate had two secondary schools, Clarendon, on Chilwell Gardens, and the smaller Hampden School. They were later amalgamated into Sir James Altham School, which is now itself long gone, and the land was sold for private housing where the school once stood, now called James Altham Way.
We end this week’s post here having overviewed some of the housing types and initial issues facing the new residents and return with Part 2 next week. Then, we will explore some of the problems faced by the new residents with the new location, the lack of facilities initially and their gradual provision. We will also take a quick look at some literature and art and some of the early health studies about South Oxhey, helping us gain a greater understanding of both estates as well as some of the new challenges presented.
(17) For a description of the exhibition, see Beyond Bauhaus exhibition unveiled at RIBA and for illustration, see Beyond Bauhaus – Chapter Three Modern Education. Please note that the school at Carpenders Park is recorded in the latter source but incorrectly referred to as being in Oxhey. For fuller information on the Hertfordshire schools programme at this time, see Saint, A. (1990) Not Buildings but a Method of Building: The Achievement of the Post-War Hertfordshire School Building Programme (Hertfordshire Publications, Hertford)
First and foremost, I am grateful to John Boughton as always for his guidance, advice and insight.
I am grateful to:
Hertfordshire Library services (staff at Oxhey Library in particular) who have been most helpful, originally Beverly Small back in in 2013 and more recently in responding to my various enquiries about these two estates.
I’m very pleased to feature the second of two new guest posts from Peter Claxton recounting Bridlington Borough Council’s significant council housing programme and its vigorous efforts to promote the town as a seaside resort. (Peter has contributed earlier posts on the history of council housing in Cottingham.) He now focuses most of his research time on Kingston upon Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century with particular emphasis on public health and housing.
…they were the best houses the Corporation had ever built, surpassing those in other parts of the town. (1)
In my previous blog I examined the varying fortunes of the two diverse parts of Bridlington, The Quay and Old Town during the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth century; a period that witnessed the start of municipal provision of housing for the working classes and support for the burgeoning leisure market. In this follow-up blog, I pick up the story as the demands placed upon the borough council by both the ‘local populace’ and ‘leisure interests’ intensify.
The actions of Bridlington Borough council during the 1920s mimicked those of many other seaside authorities. Bournemouth, Folkestone, and Southend had spent £171,000, £96,000, and £135,000 respectively on seafront attractions. (2) North of the harbour, new colonnade shelters and a wide deck promenade provided seating for 3000 people, as well as cover in the unlikely event of an inclement day by the North Sea. Nearby the new Beaconsfield tennis courts catered for the sportier type. However, further development of the north shore – as detailed in the Bridlington Corporation Act, 1920 – was scaled-back and attention switched to the south shore.
South of the harbour, 1926 witnessed the opening of the art deco New Royal Spa Hall, built at a cost of £50,000. Sadly, the pleasures derived from visiting this attraction were short-lived. Also, the golf course was now in municipal hands and work had already started on a new sea wall south of the Spa. Completed in 1928, it was named after the Princess Mary.
Yet not everyone benefited from the new attractions and rising visitor numbers. One disillusioned council tenant questioned how: (3)
The town expects to get any rates when all the people who are staying here are in camps. There are many like myself who depend solely on visitors.
Although the change in the ‘holidaying habits’ of visitors affected many of the town’s residents financially, they also presented a new opportunity for the council. It quickly sought to accommodate campers on a purpose-built site south of the town. (4)
Committed to build on foundations recently laid, a lecture at the Spa Theatre by J.W. Mawson titled ‘Town Planning and the Future of British and Continental Health Resorts’ offered the council a way forward. (5) His father T. H. Mawson – once referred to as the Capability Brown of Empire – was a leading landscape architect and town planner. One-time president of the Town Planning Institute, he was offered the position of visiting lecturer following the founding of a chair in civic design at Liverpool University by Lord Leverhulme.
Engaged to formulate both a statutory town planning scheme and a comprehensive development plan for the town and sea front, neither came to fruition. Inter-authority wrangling over apportioning costs relating to the town planning scheme and the radical nature of the proposed town and seafront redevelopment scuppered the council’s ambitions. Fortuitously, the council engaged the services of a bright young architect, Percy Maurice Newton.
Previously employed by the Corporation of Hull, Newton’s work at Bridlington – initially in the surveyor’s department – did much to secure the town’s position as a leading east coast resort. In the Old Town during the 1930s, his work included housing off South Back Lane, Marton Road and Baptist Place. Of the latter, a council member noted, ‘truly practical houses always were beautiful, and he thought those houses came as near to that category as any in Bridlington.’ (6)
Of the 3000 houses built in Bridlington between the wars, 635 were by the council. Yet Newton’s influence on ‘civic improvement’ was to be seen in more than just housing. And in 1930 the opportunity to display his talent presented itself. A new town hall – to replace the harbourside one lost to fire – was proposed and would be strategically positioned between the two parts of the town. Built in the late Wren style, (7) by local firm Smallwood & Sons, the £34,000 build did not place a significant financial burden on local ratepayers. Support from the Unemployment Grants Committee at Westminster reduced the debt to £12,950. (8) Complete with council chamber, offices and ballroom, the building boasted a fan-assisted ducted heating system and rubber surfaced walkways to aid noise reduction.
But in January 1932 as the build was nearing completion, disaster struck the town. The 1926 New Spa Hall was also lost to fire. Newton was tasked with designing a replacement and the ambitious target of ‘opening for the season’ was set. Taking direct responsibility for the ‘build phase’, Newton ensured that the Spa Hall, built in 52 days, was ready for visitors by the end of July. His health suffered, and in response, an indebted council financed an ocean cruise holiday to aid his recuperation.
Away from the seafront, Newton also designed a new Senior Elementary School. (9) Eventually catering for 800 children, the first phase of the St George’s School accommodated 400 boys and opened in 1935. The girl’s department followed in 1938. (10)
By the mid-1930s, the dated Grand Pavilion on the north shore was finally demolished. Newton’s 1937 replacement – regarded by some as his most aesthetically pleasing work – was built on the Victoria Terrace Gardens. It was later described as ‘visually … the most successful International Modern style building in East Yorkshire, [and] very much a symbol of a modern forward-looking resort.’ (11)
Across the road from the new town hall, the Newton designed Corporation Electricity showrooms opened in 1939. It was destroyed by enemy action in 1941 and later rebuilt. The municipal power station had closed in 1935 following the town’s connection to the National Grid.
Seasonal visitor numbers increased significantly between the wars. With a resident population of around 20,000 during the 1930s, it was estimated that 60,000 visitors were in the town on August Bank Holiday 1935. (12) This was scant solace for the residents. Even the local fishing industry was in decline during this period.
Post 1945, the Corporation moved decisively in an attempt to alleviate the town’s two perennial problems, ‘winter unemployment’ and ‘lack of good housing’. To the south-west of the town a small industrial estate – for light industry – was built, and by the end of the decade, further industrial development would take place at Carnaby, on a former RAF airfield just to the south of the town. Yet in 1951, the town still had 13 per cent of males and 45 per cent of females employed in personal services compared to 4.5 and 20 per cent nationally. (13)
Attracting new industry to a seaside town often proved difficult. The possibility of a tannery – classified as a special industry – being established on the industrial estate was one such example. Deemed that it would have an adverse effect on the town’s major industry, leisure, the County Planning Officer remarked: (14)
A large proportion of the holidaymakers that come to Bridlington are desirous of leaving behind them such things as ‘special industries’ and would cease to come. If such were the case we might be left with a prosperous industrial estate but a decadent health resort.
There was after all, the title of ‘King of watering places’ to take into consideration.
With almost 1300 families requiring rehousing, the council compulsory purchased 86 acres of the Bessingby Estate. The award-winning West Hill estate designed by Clifford E. Culpin, welcomed its first tenants in 1949. (15) Close to 800 homes would eventually be built on the West Hill site; almost two thirds of the council’s post-war provision.
As the council worked its way through its rehousing programme dark clouds were gathering. The well-established holidaying habits of the town’s loyal seasonal clientele were changing. Coach and rail travel still dominated through the 1950s, but when the axe fell on branch lines in the mid-1960s, Bridlington lost its direct link to both South and West Yorkshire. The motor car gave families the flexibility and freedom to choose alternative destinations. For some, sun, sand, and sangria beckoned.
By 1972 the council had completed its housing provision. Just over 1800 homes had been built by the local authority since 1913. But as with the demise of the Old Town 100 years earlier, Bridlington, yet again, had to re-evaluate its future. Local government re-organisations would come and go, borough status would be lost, and absorption into the area of the East Riding of Yorkshire Council would take place.
Today, many visitors are day trippers, others are owners of mobile homes or static caravans. The ubiquitous guest house still prevails, and the town continually seeks to find new ways to promote itself. Just as the words of a certain James Coates had 200 years earlier. (16)
Peers, knights, and squires, and dames repair
To bathe, and drink, and take the air.
Such situation on the coast,
Such air, such water, none can boast.
(1) Bridlington Local Studies Library, Annals 55
(2) Seafront regeneration briefing document, East Riding Archives, BOBR/2/15/4/518
(3) D. Neave, Port, Resort and Market Town: A history of Bridlington (Hull Academic Press, 2000
(4) Hull Daily Mail, 26 April 1933
(5) Hull Daily Mail, 16 February 1927
(7) D. and S. Neave, Bridlington: An introduction to its History and Buildings (Smith Settle Ltd., 2000)
(8) Hull Daily Mail, 10 May 1932
(9.) Hull Daily Mail, 18 March 1931
(10) Hull Daily Mail, 16 May 1938
(11) Neave, Port Resort
(12) Neave, Bridlington
(13) K. L. Mayoh, Comparative study of the Resorts on the Coast of Holderness. unpublished M.A., University of Hull, 1961.
I’m very pleased to feature the first of two new guest posts from Peter Claxton recounting Bridlington Borough Council’s significant council housing programme and its vigorous efforts to promote the town as a seaside resort. (Peter has contributed earlier posts on the history of council housing in Cottingham.) He now focuses most of his research time on Kingston upon Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century with particular emphasis on public health and housing.
Bridlington in winter is a silent place, where cats and landladies’ husbands walk gently down the middle of the street.
T. E. Shaw – Lawrence of Arabia – in his observations on 1930s ‘out of season’ Bridlington, highlighted a problem that beset – and still does to this day – many of our seaside resorts, the lack of year-round employment. (1) Twenty years earlier when the borough council first contemplated the provision of housing, the Medical Officer of Health laid bare the problem to be faced: (2)
The Corporation will have to be very careful in tackling this question in the future. As Bridlington is a seaside resort the majority of the working classes do not desire workmen’s houses but larger ones, so that their income may be largely increased by taking in visitors.
The task was further complicated by the fact that Bridlington was a town divided, as the old Local Board had noted: (3)
The Old Town is mostly residential and takes the bulk of the labouring classes, whilst The Quay is chiefly occupied by lodging houses and private residences.
The arrival of the railway in 1846 came to represent more than just a delineation on a map, it influenced the fortunes of each part of the town. Bridlington Quay was no longer a ‘harbour of refuge’ for the coastal trade or the port through which much of the East Riding’s agricultural produce – predominantly malt – was shipped. And as a result, the Old Town to the north-west slipped into an interminable decline. Within a decade of the railway’s arrival the 600-year-old market was in a state of atrophy. The residences and offices of solicitors, bankers and merchants, intrinsic elements of a former vibrant agrarian economy, were by the end of the nineteenth century, but marcescent reminders of its former standing as a market town. Attestation to the area’s demise was further evidenced by a plethora of insanitary working-class dwellings.
Conversely , as a late nineteenth-century trade directory noted: (4)
Bridlington Quay a mean and insignificant village at the commencement of the present century, [is] now a small but handsome town and seaside resort, with all the comforts and conveniences which [a] luxurious age demands …
The Quay, to the south-east of the railway, was the new face of Bridlington, offering entertainment for those that came ‘for the day’ or ‘stayed a week.’ It was, ‘the seaside resort nearest to most of the great centres of population of the West Riding.’ (5) It also attracted the commuter and by 1921, more than 2,800 Bridlington residents worked in Hull or the West Riding, with many residing in villa style houses that populated the new roads close to the seafront. (6)
As such, the work of the district council – declared a borough in 1899 – differed at each side of the railway, and by the outbreak of war in 1914, it had erected new housing in the Old Town, and at The Quay, entered the world of entertainment and leisure.
Following a visit to Joseph Rowntree’s model village of New Earswick in 1913, it was suggested at a council meeting that: (7)
Rowntree’s cottages in York, they were no doubt excellent in many ways but they could not be erected by the council at anything like the price … Garden Cities – they were not always suitable or satisfactory or cheap.
Words that clearly identified the problems to be faced by the borough council. There was no local benefactor ready to fund provision; agricultural wages were depressed, and other forms of employment predominantly seasonal. These issues would be reflected in the design and size of properties erected. Maximum weekly rents were to be in the region of five shillings (25p) per week, in fact the council hoped that smaller properties might be let at less than four shillings (20p).
Also, there were members on the council associated with the building trade, evidently nervous of the possibility of stepping away from traditional methods of construction. Letchworth was cited as an example, where as well as standard brick construction, alternative build techniques had been introduced. It was noted that ‘many were becoming cracked and [were] generally too-well ventilated.’ (8)
By 1914, the council had built 35 terraced houses – with ten allocated to employees working at the town’s power station – and twelve bungalows. Yet it suffered criticism regarding rents and in particular, the bijou nature of the bungalows for ‘old couples and widows.’ At 300 foot super the three-roomed dwellings were exceedingly small. As a councillor insensitively questioned, ‘How on earth was a fat woman to turn in a scullery such as was proposed …’ (9)
With the town’s sleeping population often quadrupling during the summer months, the sub-letting of rooms became an imperative for many families. (10) The council signalled acceptance of the practice confirming: (11)
[It] had no objection to the taking in of visitors. If they could make a little money that way it would help to pay their rents.
This was a perennial problem for both council and tenants. The council saw the wisdom in building smaller houses, thereby reducing the risk of unpaid rents during the winter months. Tenants were keen on larger properties to augment their income during the summer.
Indeed, there were opportunities galore for those with spare room to let. The privately built New Spa south of the harbour attracted 80,000 visitors within a month of opening in 1896. (12)
The council responded to the lack of amenities on the North Shore in 1904, erecting a glass and iron Floral Pavilion adjacent to the bandstand on the Royal Princes Parade.
Two years later it built the Grand Pavilion at the north end of the Royal Princes Parade. With a seating capacity for 2000, it was in the popular ‘oriental end of pier’ style favoured at many seaside resorts.
Everything of course changed in August 1914. A provincial weekly publication summed up the town’s plight perfectly: (13)
But the place had a strangely deserted appearance, where it was usual to see thousands, there were only hundreds. You may write to half-a-dozen boarding houses, and find that any one of them can spare you a room or rooms…
The town’s Medical Officer of Health’s comments were far more revealing: (14)
Owing to the outbreak of war in August the season proved a failure, … there is no doubt that many spinsters and widows, who rely upon their income and livelihood to come from visitors, are on the verge of starvation.
In 1919, the council’s intentions were made clear when it purchased the 1907 Spa Theatre and Opera House, as well as the original 1896 Spa. The future of the town and its residents, rested with the development and promotion of the resort.
North-west of the railway, municipal attention turned once more to the town’s permanent residents. But the vagaries of employment in both agriculture and leisure remained. The local Master Builders’ Association continued its crusade for larger properties: (15)
What is needed in a seaside resort is a house of a rather larger type, with sufficient accommodation to enable tenants to augment their income by taking visitors during the season.
The council’s vision of the way forward, was however, diametrically opposed to that of local builders. There were to be no lavish plans for an inordinate number of large council houses each with spare rooms to rent out. A perceptible change in the ‘holidaying habits’ of those that came to stay for a week had been noted. Visitors were starting to choose, ‘… camp sites for cheaper holidays free from the irksome rules of boarding houses.’ (16) The age of the tent, converted railway carriages or buses, ex-army huts or wooden bungalows had arrived. (17).
In tandem with private provision, house building gradually brought the two parts of the town together. Following a modest build of twelve houses in 1921 on the aptly named Borough Road, construction of the Postill estate began two years later. By the middle of the decade the council had erected approximately 200 properties.
Sadly, an attempt to promote home ownership during the 1920s failed to gain traction. A proposed ‘purchase out of rent’ scheme attracted a mere six inquiries and was swiftly shelved by the council. (18) At the same time, a briefing document regarding the regeneration of the seafront reiterated: (19)
Apart from the fishing industry there are no established industries in the Borough which is purely a health and pleasure resort for the large industrial populations …
The document informed that visitor numbers arriving by train ‘during the season’ had risen from 216,000 in 1922, to 320,000 by 1925, (20) and the town had to move with the times. Visitors were now seeking, ‘… music and entertainments as evidenced by the popular craze for dancing.’ (21) It would take a substantial amount of money, approximately £100,000, and the council was convinced that this was the way forward.
Disappointingly, no matter how busy the seafront was during the summer, it could never sustain the whole town through the winter months. But, as we shall see in a follow-up blog, efforts to increase year-round employment proved contentious. And when ambitious plans for the regeneration of the seafront failed to come to fruition, a subsequent appointment by the council proved fortuitous.
(1) R. Knowles and P. Clabburn, Cats and Landladies’ Husbands: T.E. Lawrence in Bridlington (The Fleece Press, 1995)
I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Michael Passmore. Michael is a historian specialising in housing and town planning after a career in estate management. In 2015, King’s College London awarded Michael a PhD for a thesis on the politics of council housing between 1971 and 1983. Since 2015 Michael has been affiliated to University of Greenwich, first as a visiting lecturer and currently as a visiting fellow. He engaged in organising with Professor Mark Swenarton and others the successful 2019 Homes Fit for Heroes Centenary Conference at the Institute of Historical Research, London University.
Charlton in South–East London is known for its fine Jacobean mansion, Charlton House, and for The Valley football ground where Charlton Athletic first played in 1919. A less well-known part of the district’s heritage is the Guild Estate, part of Greenwich Council’s contribution to the Lloyd George government’s Homes Fit for Heroes campaign. It forms a section of Charlton Estate comprising some 440 cottage-style semi-detached and terraced houses.
An observant visitor to Charlton might notice a pointer to the significance of this 1920s estate from an ornate plaque (or tablet) on the front wall of a pair of semis at the eastern end of The Village. It records the names of some dignitaries of Greenwich Metropolitan Borough and others involved in developing the first phase of the estate during 1919–21.
The name of the construction company inscribed is ‘Guild of Builders (London) Limited.’ This was one of several building guilds, set up as part of a short-lived movement following the First World War. My research reveals that the homes in Charlton are the only ones that a guild erected in the former County of London, although the London Guild also built Higham Hill Estatefor Walthamstow Urban District Council just over the county border.
Initially, the proponents of the guilds had lofty expectations. During 1920, G.D.H. Cole, the Oxford academic and leading theorist of the guild socialist movement, saw the London branch in action and welcomed the contribution its members were making. He had hopes that “The guild system would develop into as great a movement as the co–operative movement.”
Guild of Builders
The guilds were created at a time of unrest among working people that had been fomenting since the First World War especially over poor working conditions and squalid housing. There were dreams of replacing private enterprise with a new form of business organisation through workers’ control. In April 1920, Richard Coppock, a young trade union official in Manchester, set up a national building guild with Samuel (S.G.) Hobson, a political idealist, who was one of the people involved in founding Letchworth Garden City. (Coppock later became Chairman of London County Council.) The guild was an alliance of several independent unions representing building workers and known as the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives (NFBTO). Hobson became General Secretary of the national guild.
The guild aimed to make decisions democratically, to improve the status of building workers and to achieve high standards by reviving artisanship in the industry. Echoing ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, the guild aspired to do work worthy of the Middle Ages. Workers formed self-governing branches including the one in the London area, although most were in the north of England. Unlike the prevailing practice on building sites, the guilds aimed to continue paying worker–members when bad weather prevented activity as well as during holidays and sickness. Many labourers and skilled workers responded enthusiastically to an opportunity to participate in the new venture.
The housing campaign associated with Health Minister Christopher Addison’s Act of 1919 generated plenty of building work and so presented an opportunity for newly formed building guilds to participate where local councils were prepared to engage them. Addison initially encouraged their involvement because private contractors showed little interest in building council housing.
The London Guild of Builders was set up on the lines of a model constitution recommended by the National Guild with Malcolm Sparkes as secretary. He was a Quaker who at one time ran his own building firm.
Political control changes in Greenwich Town Hall
Before municipal elections took place in November 1919, the Conservatives, who operated in London local government as the Municipal Reform Party, had controlled Greenwich Council for two decades. As in several London boroughs and to the surprise of many, the Labour Party became the majority party on Greenwich Council in 1919. If it had not done so, the inexperienced London Guild might not have succeeded in building the council’s first housing project. A close relationship quickly developed between the new council and the guild when it came onto the scene. Nevertheless, councillors across the political divide adopted a bipartisan approach over participating in the government’s Homes Fit for Heroes campaign.
The newly elected council decided to retain the experienced mayor, solicitor Sir Charles Stone, not least because there was no financial allowance at a time when most Labour councillors were in full-time employment. By the following year, when a stipend was available for the office of mayor, the council appointed a leading Labour member – Benjamin Lemmon, a marine engineer and energetic trades unionist.
Work starts on the scheme
By the time that the Labour leadership took on its responsibilities, the council had identified forty acres of greenfield land of irregular shape. Only a small part was in its ownership and most of the site was being acquired from Sir Spencer Maryon-Wilson whose family had owned Charlton House and much of the area for centuries. The development land skirted three sides of a 30-acre wood that Maryon-Wilson was in the process of donating to London County Council for use as a public park. This helped make the housing site attractive because Christopher Addison advised local authorities to build estates near open space so that tenants would have easy access for recreation.
In 1925, Greenwich Council was to acquire Charlton House from Maryon-Wilson with its 40-acre park opposite the new estate, thus adding to the local amenities.
During its first six months, the new council made substantial progress with the housing scheme. Having obtained Whitehall’s approval to the site, the council appointed a Greenwich-based architect, Alfred Roberts, to draw up an estate layout (with the borough engineer) and design the houses. Roberts and the council settled on four building types ranging between two and four bedrooms and all were to have bathrooms.
On 10th July 1920, a customary ‘cutting the first sod’ ceremony took place to mark the start of construction works. Alderman Lemmon, who chaired the event, explained to the gathering that the Housing Ministry had approved plans for the scheme and that the necessary funds were available. He blamed the nation’s housing problem for much of the prevailing industrial unrest. Lemmon was delighted that the woodland next to the new homes was to become available for public use.
Meanwhile, a firm of private contractors began work on an initial phase of eighteen houses on a strip of land detached from the main site and fronting onto Kinveachy Gardens, an established residential road. The recently formed London Guild lobbied the council for the job but missed the date for submitting a tender price. They made sure that they met the conditions for the main contract.
As the London Guild submitted the lowest tender for building 164 houses on the main site, the council quickly settled the contract details with them. Most of the new homes were to have three bedrooms.
Included in the contract were another 26 homes on a strip of land to the west of Charlton Village that was to become Mascalls Road. The council agreed to pay for the work in stages as building progressed. This enabled the guild to raise the working capital needed for its operation from the Co-operative Bank that served trade unions. As Whitehall officials were slow in approving the terms of the contract, it was not until late 1920 that they gave Greenwich the go-ahead to start work. By this time there was a waiting list of workers wanting to join the guild and within a few months, a local newspaper reported that there were 300 on site.
Design of the homes
The authors of the South London volume of the popular Pevsner Architectural Guides recommend their readers to look at the estate to see what they describe as the ‘straightforward pantiled and roughcast cottage housing.’ This entry captures the more attractive features of the homes although in recent years alterations to many of the exteriors are out of character with the original designs.
When preparing the drawings for the new Greenwich homes, Alfred Roberts followed the official housing design manual issued to local authorities. This publication was in line with the report Sir Raymond Unwin edited on the Tudor Walters Committee, which the government set up in 1916 to improve the standard of working-class housing. The manual included plans of several types of model home but allowed for variations to suit local conditions.
Roberts would have been aware of the picturesque estate at nearby Well Hall, Eltham, designed during the war by Sir Frank Baines of H.M. Office of Works. However, the manual made it clear that designers should avoid the expense of unnecessary ornamentation, although the Health Ministry did not object to Roberts including the Arts and Crafts motif of a rising sun in brickwork on some semis. Again, to reduce costs, Unwin urged councils to use standardised building components where possible, so Roberts specified precast door hoods and steel casement windows. The council wanted the latter to be in wood, but the ministry ruled out this traditional material as it was slightly more expensive. There was variation in the roof coverings as the architect substituted slates when tiles were unavailable.
The event to celebrate completion of the first homes took place on Saturday 2nd July 1921. In readiness for the occasion, two departmental stores – the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society and Cuffs of Woolwich – each furnished a new home to show what tenants could buy. These show houses remained open to the public for several days as there was keen interest from local people.
At the crowded ceremony, the previous mayor Sir Charles Stone and others praised the high quality of the building work. Mayor Lemmon declared that he identified with others living in squalid conditions by revealing that he and his wife, belonged to the great mass of people who were cooped up in small rooms in bad surroundings’. He referred to a government announcement that they were halting the house-building programme when he criticised them for not doing enough to support the council in tackling the housing shortage.
Secretary of the London Guild, Malcolm Sparkes, proclaimed that the guilds were a new industrial system whose growth had only reached the stage of a year-old infant. Unfortunately, at the time of the formal opening, the national economic climate was deteriorating.
Events turn against the guilds
Alfred Mond, who replaced the progressive Addison as Health Minister, had earlier favoured the guilds, but now changed the way housing schemes were financed to the detriment of the guilds. Private contractors were putting pressure on the government by complaining that it favoured guilds unfairly.
In Greenwich, the London Guild put in a tender to build the next phase of the estate known as the Pound Park section, but private contractors undercut the pricing. The housing committee still preferred the guild because of its proven reliability, but ministry officials persuaded them to accept the tender from a Birmingham firm.
For a while, the National Guild and local branches merged, but by the end of 1922 the movement was failing financially. The Cooperative Bank was not prepared to make further loans without collateral that was beyond the organisation’s capacity. It signalled the end of the experiment and, sadly, the winding up of Guild of Builders (London) Ltd. took place in 1924. So, the growth of the industrial system that Malcolm Sparkes envisioned never reached maturity. Nevertheless, the London Guild completed its section of the Charlton Estate satisfactorily, leaving a legacy of well-built homes for future generations.
My apologies again for lack of recent posts – I’m writing a book – but normal service will be resumed when possible. In the meantime, I’m very grateful to guest contributors and others working in the field on whom much of my work depends. Today’s post has been written by Julia Neville who is the (volunteer) project manager for a local history research collaboration on Devon in the 1920s.
Our project covers a wide range of different histories – from the Legacy of the First World War to Growing Up in the 1920s and on to Progress and Technology. And of course you can’t study 1920s local history seriously without coming across the problems of housing: the overall housing shortage and the inadequacy of the housing in which many people had to live. We need to take a close look at how agencies in the 1920s attempted to solve these almost intractable problems. As the Municipal Dreams blog makes clear, local authorities, urban and rural, were key players in this. Our research group was therefore delighted when John Boughton agreed earlier this month to come and launch our review of housing needs and development in Devon and set the scene for us of national initiatives (and backtracking) and how local authorities responded.
As readers may imagine, recreating what happened across the county of Devon is a challenge. Local authorities with housing interests comprised two county boroughs (Exeter and Plymouth); ten municipal boroughs; twenty-two urban districts; eighteen rural districts ranging in size from the giant St Thomas (26,500 population) to the tiny Culmstock (3200 population) which proudly related in 1931 that ‘’The council has taken up housing and 40 houses have been erected’. (1) There was also Devon County Council itself, whose interest in housing, especially the reconditioning of tumbledown housing. was shown in its response to the Housing (Rural Workers) Act 1926. (2) The county considered itself a driving force for rural housing improvement, as the pictures below illustrate. We hope to be able to update readers on our progress over the next year or so.
Amongst our group of volunteers, I am probably the lucky one, because my home patch is Exeter, and a post on this blog gives an overview of Exeter City Council’s forays into municipal housing during the interwar years, so some of the spade work on the 1920s has already been done for me. I hope to add value to it over the next year or so by investigating more closely the actors involved – both the ‘doers’ and the ‘done to’s’.
Exeter City Council in the 1920s was a complex mix of traditionalists and modernisers. The mayoralty was held alternately by a businessman (and it was always a man) and then a professional man and most councillors came from one or other of those backgrounds. Many councillors strenuously denied party politics had any influence, but this was a polite fiction as it was normally quite clear at national elections who was supporting which party. The arrival of first the Labour Party (the first councillor ‘crossed the floor’ to represent Labour rather than the Liberals in 1918) and then the Ratepayers’ Association (very active between 1924 and 1925) also disturbed this polite fiction as those groups did arrange to cast their votes as a bloc. I hope to find out more about the dynamics of getting things done and who the procrastinators were. As part of that process I intend to consider the contributions of some of the forgotten councillors such as Edith Splatt, Exeter’s first woman councillor, who was elected on a Ratepayers’ Association ticket but who was all her life a campaigner for better housing.
Secondly, I hope to find out more about the families who moved to the new estates. Initially these were working families with a reasonable level of wages, and thus able to pay the rents required, but as legislation changed more families came from poor housing areas such as the slums of the West Quarter. A wide range of oral histories were collected in Exeter thirty or forty years ago which give us some clues to what the residents thought about their ‘old’ and their ‘new’ houses in the interwar years. Lil Shapcott, for example, remembers how when she was a child in Preston Street ‘you had to go to the toilet out in the yard, and there were rats … Once my sister said “Stay indoors and I’ll go out.” She had a pair of my brother’s hob-nailed boots … she kicked this rat and kicked it until it went away or died or something.’ Lil’s father, a fish hawker, always said of the new estates: ‘You won’t get me out there so long as I live’. And in fact he did die before they had to move, but her mother and the children moved out, and her mother relished the garden that came with the new house on the Burnthouse Lane estate. ‘She had four squares with big rocks around, and she had all these flowers, and once a year the Council men used to come round and judge the gardens, and my mother had First Prize …’ (3)
Recently in a compilation called Childhood in Exeter in the 1920s, I came across an account by Charles Tucker, who was born in 1920 into a single room tenement in a tumbledown house. He reflected on the gradual move of his friends during the 1920s and 1930s out to the different Exeter estates: ‘The Council decided on slum clearance, and sent them to all parts of the city. To Buddle Lane, which was nicknamed ‘Shanghai’, why I don’t know. To Whipton [the Polsloe Estate] which was known as ‘Chinatown’, I still don’t know why, and to Burnthouse Lane. I don’t know why they didn’t give that a name.’ (4) Eventually ‘they’ did: it was known as ‘Siberia’.
On the map above, courtesy Google Earth, I have marked the locations of the estates and also of the High Street which for many had originally been little more than a three or four minute walk away from home, and was now thirty or forty minutes. I imagine, and it’s the common assumption, that the estates got those nicknames because of their distance from the High Street and the markets. But I’d be really interested to find out whether other readers of this blog are aware of nicknames attached to the interwar council estates in their area and what those nicknames represented. If you have any examples to share, please send them to me, Julia Neville, via the Devon History Society website, Contact – Devon History Society
Please contact Julia directly (or leave a comment as appropriate) but I’ll also be very pleased to hear of, and happy to feature on the blog, other local research into the history of council housing.
(1) Municipal Year Book, 1931, Municipal Journal Ltd (1931)
(2) The work of the county council is described in R.T. Shears, Conservation of Devonshire Cottages, Bideford Gazette Printing (1968)
(3) Lil Shapcott, Memories, courtesy of Olwen Foggin
(4) Charles Tucker (Mr W), in Childhood in Exeter, 1920-1950, Exeter City Council (1987)
I’m pleased to feature today a new guest post by Dr Alistair Fair. Alistair is a Reader in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh and a specialist in post-1919 architecture in Britain. He first discovered the work of the architectural practice Peter Moro and Partners when writing a history of British theatre architecture between the 1940s and 1980s (published in 2018 as Modern Playhouses, and recently re-issued in paperback). He has since written a book specifically about Peter Moro and Partners, which was published in September 2021. His current work includes a collaborative study of Scotland’s new towns, and an investigation of ideas of ‘community’ in twentieth-century Britain. You can follow him on Twitter @AlistairFair
Peter Moro and Partners was a small but well-regarded London-based architectural practice which was active between the 1950s and the 1980s. Its work, which was almost entirely for public-sector clients, included several notable estates in London. Their design demonstrates well the growing search, during the 1960s and 1970s, for innovative ‘high density, low rise’ estate layouts.
Peter Moro was a German refugee who came to Britain in the mid 1930s. He initially worked with Berthold Lubetkin’s pioneering Modernist practice, Tecton, on projects including the Highpoint 2 flats in north London. A move into independent practice led to the co-design of a very well-received large house on the Sussex coast, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Then, at the end of the 1940s, Moro was head-hunted to join the design team working on the Royal Festival Hall in London; his work involved overseeing the detailed design of the interiors. Moro was thus well-placed to become a specialist in theatre design, just as Britain experienced a building boom in subsidised regional theatre-building. (1)
Moro’s involvement in the Festival Hall did not simply establish him as a theatre specialist, however. It also led to further work for the London County Council (LCC) and the subsequent Greater London Council (GLC). These jobs included several housing estates. The largest was at Thirza Street, Shadwell, to the north of Cable Street. Now known as the Barnardo Gardens estate, it was completed between 1967 and 1972 and replaced a patchwork of housing condemned as unfit. The site was bisected by a railway line, with the architects proposing 130 flats in two U-shaped groups of buildings. Low-rise blocks were set around the perimeter, with a single fourteen-storey tower adding a vertical accent. The southern (Cable Street) frontage included a public house and clubroom as well as flats for the elderly. At the centre of the estate was a play area, set on a podium above garages and parking. The buildings were originally largely faced in red brick, though the concrete floor slabs were left on show, with the deliberate choice of an aggregate-rich concrete mix adding texture. Bridges between the low-rise buildings were also made of concrete, their large eight-sided openings adopting a shape which appeared in many designs by Moro and his colleagues from the mid-1960s onwards. The raised podium was removed early in the 2000s, while the central and southern parts of the estate have been remodelled.
In 1967, a perspective drawing of the Thirza Street development was shown at the Royal Academy, where it caught the eye of Hans Peter ‘Felix’ Trenton, architect for the newly created London Borough of Southwark. Over the course of the next fifteen years, Peter Moro and Partners designed several estates for the borough. Much of this work was overseen by Moro’s partner in practice, Michael Mellish, with important contributions from numerous other colleagues.
The London Borough of Southwark was created as part of the reorganisation of the capital’s local government in 1964, bringing together three former Metropolitan Boroughs: Bermondsey, Camberwell, and Southwark. In 1966, the new authority reported that housing conditions were such that 2000 new homes were needed in the borough each year until 1981. When it came to the design of these homes, the former borough of Camberwell had already rejected the typical 1950s inner London strategy of housing design, namely picturesque ‘mixed developments’ of towers, maisonettes, and houses. Instead, the Aylesbury estate (1963-67) was more uniformly medium-rise, and this approach was rolled out across Southwark in the late 1960s.
This move reflects a contemporary shift away from high-rise housing. It partly was the result of increasing unease with ‘mixed development’; also important was growing criticism of isolated tall blocks. These debates led during the late 1950s and 1960s to a number of key projects elsewhere, such as Lillington Gardens in Pimlico (Darbourne and Darke, 1961-71), and the Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury (Patrick Hodgkinson from a scheme with Leslie Martin, 1961-72). In addition, the subsidy regime introduced by the 1956 Housing Act, which had favoured tall buildings, was abandoned at the end of the 1960s in favour of new cost ‘yardsticks’, and this, too, prompted particular interest in so-called ‘high density, low rise’ layouts. The examples designed by Neave Brown and colleagues for the London Borough of Camden are particularly well known, not least thanks to the research of the historian Mark Swenarton, but there are notable examples elsewhere in London – particularly in Lewisham and Southwark.
An early example in Southwark was Neylan and Ungless’ Limes Walk development in Peckham (1964-66), with two long terraces facing a pedestrian walkway. Reflecting growing interest in ‘vernacular’ detailing, Southwark’s developments increasingly featured brick elevations and tiled roofs, among them the Setchell Road development by Neylan and Ungless (1971-78), where a dense mixture of flats and houses is arranged around courtyards and pathways. Within this context, the estates designed by Peter Moro and Partners tended in terms of their design towards the rational rather than the picturesque or neo-historical. The need for high densities with a wide dwelling mix – from small flats to family dwellings – led to intricate, innovative and well-considered cross-sections. A key aim was the maximum possible amount of private open space, in the form of gardens or terraces.
An early scheme was at 76-78 Montpelier Road, Peckham (1969-74), a small brick-clad block sympathetic to the scale of the adjacent terraces. A 1976 guide to recent London buildings by Charles McKean and Tom Jestico thought it contextual without being imitative, ‘skilfully designed and well built’, noting how ‘well-chosen materials’ plus careful detailing had made ‘a very small stairway into a pleasant space’. (2)
It was followed by two larger estates. At Coxson Place, Bermondsey (1969-75), flats and maisonettes were built alongside new premises for the Downside Settlement (a boys’ club). The housing was arranged in two parallel blocks, separated by walkways on two levels, with a complex mixture of house types melded together into a building of deceptively simple appearance. A similar arrangement was used at Hamilton Square, close to Guy’s Hospital (1969-73). Flats and maisonettes are arranged in two bands of buildings, between which is a landscaped podium above garages and parking. The impression externally is of a cascade of brick-faced terraces and balconies, stepping up through the site. As at Coxson Place, the arrangement of the dwellings is complex, and the product of much thought. The larger flats and maisonettes have several levels and half-levels, with some stepping across the open walkways to reach their own terraces. The Architects’ Journal praised the design: ‘the architects have performed a small miracle in achieving an exceptionally high density within a maximum four storeys, each dwelling planned to Parker Morris standards and each with the bonus of a respectable private outside space. (3)
Less complex in layout but demonstrating many of the same ideas is a development at Pomeroy Street, Peckham (1974-78), which combined a linear block of flats and maisonettes on the street-facing front with terraced housing in the gardens to the rear. The design was contextual in its brick, and its scale, with the length of the block intended ‘to re-establish the linear form of Pomeroy Street’ whilst being broken up by gables and balconies intended to identify each dwelling and to ‘give a variety of views […] which conventional terrace housing often lacks’. (4) Writing in Building Design, John McKean praised the scheme’s combination of humane atmosphere and urban scale.
There were other projects in the borough. Earl Road/Rowcross Street (Wessex House, 1971-74) echoes James Stirling’s 1960s designs in its bright red brickwork and angled geometries. Brimmington Central (Blanch Close), meanwhile, was completed in 1981, with flats and houses plus a small parade of shops which Moro’s team developed from Southwark’s own in-house designs. A final larger development, the Pasley Estate, Kennington, was begun in 1975 and completed in 1982. Deliberately picturesque, its brick-clad, low-rise blocks of housing snake around and through the site, being crowned with pitched roofs.
Things seemed to be on a roll, but, by the late 1970s, inflation and recession were challenging the economic (and political) assumptions of the previous thirty years. The introduction of the nationwide ‘Right to Buy’ policy in 1980 further affected the landscape of council housing. The result was a sudden reduction in the numbers of new council houses being constructed. That year, the Illustrated London News commented that it was ‘sad and strange that, having taken two decades to discover the kind of municipal housing its citizens like and want, Southwark now finds itself without the cash to build them’. (5)
Within this body of work, the contribution of Peter Moro and Partners is notable. The Buildings of England volume for south London not only highlights the quality of Southwark’s 1970s housing in general, but the contributions of Moro’s office in particular. (6) These projects demonstrate well not only the ways in which local authorities and their designers in 1970s London sought to provide excellent new housing of often innovative form, but also the evolving nature of the ‘welfare state’ project and its architecture during a decade that is all too easily written off as a period of crisis and decline.
I’m very pleased to feature the second post by Matthew Evans which brings the story of Llandudno’s council housing up to date. Matthew, the principal author, works in communications within local government and has been assisted in research and writing by his father, Philip Evans, who has been a councillor on Aberconwy Borough and subsequently Conwy County Borough councils since 1976 and was twice Mayor of Llandudno, in 1983/4 and 2006/7. Many of the details of council minutes, personal details and recollections in this piece come from him. Most photographs (unless otherwise credited) have been kindly taken by the author’s sister, Kimberley Evans.
We left the story of Llandudno’s council housing in the last post on the eve of the Second World War, when the town had built substantial numbers of properties in several different parts of the town. But despite this activity, the pressures of the war and its aftermath would spur the building of large numbers of new houses as the town entered the post-war era.
The post-war era
The immediate years following World War Two, like elsewhere in the country, saw a housing shortage in Llandudno. Unlike many other areas this was not linked to bombing, as only a single recorded bomb fell on Llandudno during the war, on the side of one of the hills overlooking the town. But it was the safety of its location on the west coast of Britain that caused the town to become overcrowded. Unlike many similar seaside resorts on the south coast, whose populations declined to escape the bombing, numbers of people living in Llandudno increased significantly.
The town was chosen as the site of the Coast Artillery School, which was evacuated from Shoeburyness to Llandudno during the war. It was also the home of the Inland Revenue throughout the war (Colwyn Bay next door was home to the Ministry of Food), which meant an influx of 4000 civil servants into the town, alongside refugees from the war in Europe. James Callaghan, future prime minister, was the entertainments officer for this new contingent.
The diversity of people working or finding refuge in Llandudno is shown by the fact that Jewish services at the synagogue in the town attracted, on occasion, 400 attendees during the war. (1) At the end of the conflict, this increased population did not reduce immediately. The Inland Revenue only moved slowly back to London and a number of the demobbed soldiers had married into local families.
In today’s world, where the Government is keen to be seen to ‘level-up’ and move civil service posts out of London, such as to Treasury North in Darlington, it is interesting to consider how having well paid professional jobs remain in resort towns like Colwyn Bay and Llandudno might have helped diversify the local economies in a more sustainable way in the decades when many declined after the war.
An example of the housing situation in the immediate post-war was related by an old friend of the family called Betty Mylett, who grew up in Llandudno and had obtained work with the Inland Revenue during the war. Her job was relocated to London after the war and she lodged for a time in Harrow, but couldn’t settle and returned home in the late 1940s. She married and she and her husband firstly lived in what had been a large private family home in Upper Craig y Don – in what is still today a very comfortable and quiet area of Llandudno. However, in an illustration of living conditions at the time, their accommodation consisted of one room in a house occupied by over 20 other adults – a situation that could be multiplied throughout the town. Furthermore, at least ten families squatted in various abandoned buildings on the western slopes of the Great Orme’s Head at the site of the Coast Artillery School, which had relocated back to Essex. A further five families occupied Nissen huts used formerly by the RAF Police on the summit of the Great Orme.
The ‘squatters’ were mainly ex-servicemen who had been unable to find accommodation for their families on returning from active duty. Two of the men who lived at the Coast Artillery School site, George Williams and Eric Quiney, subsequently served as members of Llandudno Urban District Council (UDC) and were prominent on the Housing Committee.
Conditions were very spartan, with no real utilities or services and the buildings were in wind-swept locations. The families were eventually re-housed or temporarily placed in Arcon MkV pre-fabs erected at Maesdu in 1945, which lasted until around 1964. But the UDC, in much the same way as had been seen in 1919, got to work straightaway on building new housing. As a stopgap, aside from the prefabs, the authorities also adapted ex-army buildings. In 1949, there was an attempt to bring some regularity to the squatting at the Coast Artillery School site – known even today locally as The Gunsites. Four dwellings there were adapted on a temporary basis for £227.10.
In April 1949, the Welsh Board of Health were asked for approval for the UDC to adapt ‘hutments’ at Waterloo Camp, Conway Road to house families occupying hutments at the rear of the Nevill Hydro Hotel so that the hotel could be de-requisitioned from use by the Inland Revenue.
But more permanent housing was badly needed. In 1946, four houses were built on Cwm Road and in 1947 in the West Shore area of Llandudno, the UDC constructed the Dolydd and Denness Place developments. In 1949, outside the main urban area of the town, in its large rural hinterland, Cae Rhos, Llanrhos (then part of Llandudno, now part of Conwy), four agricultural workers’ dwellings were built by Peter T Griffiths, a local contractor for £6271.7.7. Also in 1949, eight houses were erected for agricultural workers in Waun Road, Glanwydden.
These were small estates of less than 50 houses each and a larger number of families in need of new housing eventually found accommodation on the Tre Creuddyn Estate. This was the first large scale post-war housing estate, built between 1948 and 1952 – with further flats and bungalows built at Canol Creuddyn in 1955. The houses are a mix of two storey terraced family homes, with four-storey single houses and flats facing Conway Road on the main approach into the town. They were far higher density than the pre-war houses and very well situated for tenants working in the town’s main industries, being only a five minutes’ walk to the seafront, shops and railway station and areas of light industry.
The names of the roads were all in Welsh, marking a move towards recognising the local culture and national language more overtly in the area, in roads like Ffordd Las, Ffordd Gwynedd and Ffordd Dwyfor (where ‘Ffordd’ means Road). Incidentally, the use of these names and the subsequent connotation with council estates caused local controversies, and when names beginning ‘Ffordd’ were proposed for private developments nearby there were objections from purchasers and the suffix ‘Road’ was used instead. For example, it later took several months to name the nearby – and private – Powys Road, Elan Road and Harlech Road because the matter was batted around the Council and a petition was received not to use the fully Welsh form.
The homes on the Tre Creuddyn estate were built by a number of local builders, to a common design. For example, records show one block of four houses was built by a consortium of Wm Jones & Son, Griffith Roberts, David Davies & Son, and John Owen for £5,117.3.5. The same group built one block of four flats for £3,371.12.11. Likely each builder specialised in one aspect of the building. One block of six houses was built for £7,227.8.10 by Thomas Idwal Jones of Llandudno and one further block of four flats for £3,371.12.11 by McNeill & Co of Llandudno.
Some of the builders were prominent locally – Griffith Roberts was a former chairman of UDC; David Davies was the longest serving member of the UDC; and Thomas Jones’ firm is still going and the oldest building firm in Llandudno.
The groundworks for the development – roads, pavements and sewers – were done by local builder Frank Tyldesley. The UDC itself put in street lighting and water mains. During the post-war years, because of the housing developments, the UDC employed an in-house architect – a Mr C N Bancroft ARIBA. He was born 1912 at Stockport and died in 1990 in Penmaenmawr.
A personal example of the impact of these new estates after the war is my own mother’s family. My mother was born in 1947 in an old miner’s cottage near the summit of the Great Orme; part of a row called Pant-y-Ffridd. The houses were extremely isolated and situated high above the town. I doubt if anyone who lived there owned a car, so all people either walked up or hitched a ride on the Great Orme Tram which still takes tourists to the top of the Orme. The provision of utilities would have been as sparse as the options for transport. My grandmother, Nanna Breeze mentioned in the previous post, had moved to Llandudno, alone, at 14 in 1928 from Horsehay, Dawley in Shropshire where her father was an Iron Founder at the Horsehay Ironworks (now part of the new town of Telford) to work as a Chambermaid.
But by the time my mother was born she was working in Llandudno General Hospital, down the mountain and on the other side of the town, as a cook. She had to make the journey to the hospital twice a day for her shifts and then back to look after the children, of whom there were five by that point (her husband was still serving in Germany after the war). The family was moved firstly down to King’s Road – the estate first developed after the First World War mentioned above – and then to Cwm Place, and then in 1957 onto the Tre Creuddyn Estate, living there in two different houses until around 1970. I know my grandmother was very grateful for a modern house, nearer work and on far more forgiving terrain. It made a huge difference to her and her family’s standard of living.
As an aside – at the same time my mum’s family were living on the Tre Creuddyn estate, the Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall and his family were living in Cwm Place and the Liverpool and Chelsea footballer Joey Jones was growing up in Ffordd Las, just around the corner.
As Llandudno moved into the 1960s, flats became more popular as opposed to the single-family homes that had been built up until that point. In 1964, the UDC built Ffordd yr Orsedd (named after the Gorsedd Bardic Circle of the National Eisteddfod of Wales which took place the previous year in Llandudno) and Ffordd Elisabeth – named after the Queen, but with spelling changed to conform to Welsh. This was a development of terraces of family homes and four of blocks with three radiating wings of flats on each floor.
Much of the council’s housing activity during this time was overseen by Glyn Roberts (known locally, as is common in Wales, by his job – thus he was always known to all as ‘Glyn Sanitary’). Glyn was a long-serving council employee and a locally born man, who joined the UDC just before WW2. He trained as a Health Inspector with the UDC by day release attendance course at Warrington. He also took a keen interest in meteorology and looked after Llandudno’s weather station, reporting readings daily to the Met Office. For his endeavours, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.
By reorganisation in 1974 he was Deputy Chief Public Health Inspector and Housing Manager. He transferred to Aberconwy Borough Council in 1974 as Principal Housing Officer, in which role he reported to the Director of Environmental Health & Housing, Idris Griffiths, who had also been his Chief at Llandudno UDC. The author’s father remembers Glyn as a well-known local character who brought to his work a common-sense approach and practical attitude. He also recalls Glyn had an excellent working relationship with the Councillors and was highly regarded for his legendry, encyclopaedic knowledge of the Llandudno tenants, their history and family connections. He worked as Principal Housing Officer until he was 65 in 1986 – although he could have retired at 60. To celebrate his long service to Llandudno’s housing management, the Mayor presented him with a plaque of the town’s armorial bearings on his retirement.
In 1965/67 further building took place. Lon Cymru, Lon Gwalia, and Llys Gwylan were constructed alongside the main road into town and showed a move in architectural style influenced by the Radburn movement, with orange brick and slate-hung houses and maisonettes overlooking pathways and off-road green spaces. These homes were designed by S Powell Bowen ARIBA of Colwyn Bay, who in 1970 established the Bowen Dann Davies Partnership (BDD) with Frank Dann and Bill Davies and the practice designed many developments for local authorities across North Wales. The practice established a strong reputation for its housing work, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, and many of its developments were award winners. (2)
This is the estate I knew best as a child. In 1986, we moved from Jubilee Street, a classic street of terraced two-up-two-downs next to the railway station in Llandudno, to a larger three-bedroom house that had previously been part of a small row of police houses. These were built in 1950 in a similar style to the local council housing by the Police Authority to house police constables and their families. Many of these were being sold off countrywide at the same period in time as the Right to Buy took hold in council housing. Our new house backed directly onto one of the Lon Cymru estate playgrounds, which led in turn directly onto another green patch and then yet another, all overlooked by houses. This meant that we could play safely with all the children on the estate without crossing any roads, which exemplifies one of the original perceived benefits of the Radburn style. These attractive houses are still highly sought-after by people today, one former resident being the photographer of all images on this post – my sister, whose first house after leaving the family home was five minutes’ walk away on the estate.
Moving into 1970, 38 flats in five blocks were built for aged persons at St Andrew’s Avenue in the centre of the town. The architect of these was H. Vincent Morris, C.Eng, ARICS, ARIBA, MIMunE, Surveyor and Architect to Llandudno UDC. A few years later came Parc Bodnant, Llandudno’s 1970s social housing showcase. This large estate of several hundred flats and houses was designed in-house under Leslie Miller, who had joined the successor to Llandudno UDC, Aberconwy Borough Council, from Cheshire County Council at reorganisation in 1974. Parc Bodnant continued the Radburn influence of housing from the late 60s, but in a different style. The housing was brown brick with white and black render and comprised both four storey blocks and terraces facing each other on narrow paths and walkways. It was higher density than the Lon Cymru estate of a few years previously and where the earlier one was sited on mainly flat and gently sloping land, Parc Bodnant was built on a steep slope emphasising the height of the block and terracing of the houses. It was an innovative design and was initially popular with residents and experts, even winning a Welsh regional housing award.
But despite having been highly regarded when first built, the Parc Bodnant estate had become unpopular by the late 1980s and 1990s, acquiring a reputation for anti-social behaviour among some residents though – as is often the case – this was only a minority of tenants. The initial residents of the estate when built were carefully selected families or mature couples, who had been living in flats and who had been on the transfer list for some years because of the slow turn-over in houses.
Over a period of about 15 years, the demographic make-up of the estate gradually changed and several of the original features, such as soft landscaping, became subject to vandalism. This, in turn, led to many of the original tenants wanting transfers out of the estate. The design and layout, with many secluded paths, much concrete surfacing and the stark black and while painted detailing, also eventually proved unpopular. This was compounded by the location of the estate, far from the town centre and on an exposed site backing onto open land leading up to Cwm Mountain. It also directly overlooked the town gasworks and gasometer, an abandoned brickworks, the site of the old town dump, and a scrapyard. The steeply sloping site meaning many residents had a clear view of all of this industry. All but the scrapyard are now completely redeveloped, with a post office sorting office, light industrial units and the town’s redeveloped secondary school now covering the other sites.
In recent years, the estate itself has seen much investment, with soft landscaping and re-rendering and repainting giving the estate a more welcoming, positive and popular image than previously. (3)
The Present Day
As with council properties across the UK, many homes in Llandudno were sold under the Right to Buy, which was eventually abolished in Wales in January 2019. The sales of large numbers of homes, especially on what had been the more popular estates, has severely depleted the stock of socially rented properties. The housing in the Tudno ward of Llandudno – the electoral division containing the bulk of the former council estates in the town south of the railway line – is now only 35 percent socially rented as opposed to 51 percent owner occupied. Until the Right to Buy and increasing private development from the early 80s, the housing in this area was overwhelmingly socially rented, bar one relatively small section. The employment base in the area has remained fundamentally the same as ever, with 21 percent working in wholesale and retail, 17 percent in health and social work, and 16 percent in accommodation and food services according to the last census. (4)
The building of social housing did not totally stop, however. North Wales Housing Association built Cwrt W M Hughes on the main approach into town in 1989, named after one time Llandudno resident William Morris Hughes, Labor Prime Minister of Australia 1916-23. In 1993, McInroy Close was built at Parc Bodnant as an infill development.
The first large scale social housing development after the 1970s was the building in 1996/7 of Lloyd George Close, Attlee Close, and Churchill Close. These were Housing Association developments built largely on the site of 1960s blocks of three-storey flats, which had declined in the intervening years and whose residents preferred to be housed in single-family houses, rather than flats.
The current local authority, Conwy County Borough, transferred its remaining 3,800 homes to an independent not-for-profit Registered Social Landlord in 2008. This new body is called Cartrefi Conwy (Welsh for ‘Conwy Homes’) and it has plans to develop 1,000 homes in the coming years. (5)
Recent developments on brownfield sites include Llwyn Rhianedd, completed in 2015 on the Tre Cwm estate, consisting of four two-bedroom properties and five three-bedroom properties; 16 two-bed flats in the centre of the town in Gloddaeth Street completed last year; and the building of new sheltered housing for the elderly in Abbey Road and redevelopment of outdated elderly people’s flats in Trinity Avenue.
These developments, aimed at a range of single people, families and retired persons continue a proud tradition of building quality homes for people in Llandudno that dates back more than a hundred years, to the very earliest decades of modern social housing provision in the UK. This history of progressive action demonstrates that the delivery of good standards of housing for working people was as much of a consideration in what many might consider a conservative seaside resort as it was in the larger cities, and Llandudno can be rightly proud of its record.