My new book; the RIBA Books press release is immodestly reproduced below (with a discount code for early purchasers) …
The need for building more social housing is growing, but how much do we really know about its history and origins?
From the popular author of the critically acclaimed book Municipal Dreams comes the highly anticipated A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates – a thought-provoking insight into the remarkable history of social housing in the UK.
Featuring examples from all around the UK, John Boughton provides a thorough and complete history of social housing. Beginning from early charitable provision to ‘Homes for Heroes’, garden villages to new towns, multi-storey tower blocks and modernist developments to contemporary sustainable housing.
From the almshouses of the 16th century to Goldsmith Street, the 2019 winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize, Boughton invites readers to explore the rich and varied history of social housing. He highlights the central principle running through all the evolving dynamics of politics and design, that personal and communal well-being require good housing for all.
Boughton comments: “The contemporary housing crisis and a small uptick in council housebuilding in recent years, often with a commitment to high-quality and sustainable design, may yet mark a new chapter in the longer story.
“For me, this is a moment to both celebrate the achievements of the past and better understand its missteps. Thus armed, we might build better, just as we need to build more, in the future.”
The book is beautifully illustrated with over 250 images including photographs and sketches that makes the history of social housing come to life. It’s a truly engaging read that is sure to appeal to architects, students, history enthusiasts and general interest readers.
A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates is available exclusively from RIBA Books from 13th October and will be widely available on the 1st November. It can be pre-ordered here from RIBA Books with a 15 percent discount using the code COUNCILHOUSES15.
About the Author
John Boughton is the author of Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing and the blog Municipal Dreams, a record of local government reform and council estates across Great Britain. The book has been an Amazon best seller in its category and was selected by Rowan Moore as an Observer Book of the Year. The blog has had over 1.5 million views and 970,000 visitors.
Chris Matthews with Clare Hartwell, Model Villages of the Nottinghamshire Coalfield (Nottinghamshire County Council, 2022)
This isn’t a book about council housing – in many ways, the housing built by the mining companies of the Nottinghamshire coalfield might be considered its antithesis excepting a certain commitment to quality and a similarity of design – but it offers an insight into some significant housing history in well-informed and accessible form.
Fifty major collieries were developed in Nottinghamshire between 1860 and 1970. Those opened in the interwar period in particular were, in Matthews’ words, ‘spectacular in size, modernity, technology, workforce, housing, amenities and investment’. These newer mines were intended as a break from the archaism of some older collieries, the squalor of many pit villages and the troubled industrial relations they spawned. But first the mining companies had to attract a workforce and more than a third of initial investment went on housing (tied to employment) and local amenities to do so. Matthews captures well the ambiguity of the mine owners’ motivations and conduct:
Discipline, and therefore output, could easily be imposed on a workforce who stood not only to lose their job but also their house. The positive incentive for good behaviour was also strong: committed miners enjoyed the fruits of good housing, pay, social activities, opportunities for promotion and often the personal support of management.
You will choose your own language and perspective on this but it was the case that Nottinghamshire miners did develop a distinct union politics generally at odds with the greater militancy of the national union. The ‘non-political’ Nottingham Miners’ Industrial Union was formed during the miners’ lockout in 1926 and, more recently, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers in 1985 after most Notts miners had refused to join the year-long strike called by the National Union of Mineworkers the previous year. (If you watched the recent BBC TV drama, Sherwood, you will have seen this split’s difficult legacy played out.)
This more moderate stance was clearly welcome to those who owned and operated the mines and they took steps to actively encourage it. As the book records, the Stanton Coal and Iron Company built a rival church in Bilsthorpe in 1932 to counter the radicalising influence of a local rector urging the workforce to rejoin the national union.
The layout of all the model villages generally reflected the local social hierarchy with larger houses in better locations provided to white-collar workers and engineers and a big house, further from the village but closer to the mine, for the colliery manager. Humbler but nevertheless high standard housing of its time served the mines’ manual workforce.
The first new mine to be opened was at Annesley nine miles north-west of Nottingham in 1865; its plain red-brick terraced and semi-detached housing laid out in a grid-form. Amenity standards were improved by the 1870 Housing Act and layouts evolved by the end of the century as Garden City ideals became influential with its curving streetscapes and culs-de-sac. Arts and crafts touches were also apparent in the homes of the more ambitious schemes.
The second wave of new pits and model villages occurred from the 1890s around Warsop and Mansfield and the largest and most significant in the interwar period in the so-called Dukeries after the large landed estates that dominated the area. Local aristocrats were sometimes fearful of the effect of the new mines on their verdant doorsteps. Earl Manvers was able to somewhat mitigate the visual impact of the new Thoresby pit opened in 1925 but, before the government bought them out in the 1938 Coal Act, they were very grateful for the royalties.
Some 6000 houses were built in the twelve model villages covered, 5000 of these in the interwar period. One of the largest providers of housing was the Bolsover Colliery Company who employed Percy Bond Houfton – well known for pre-war model villages Creswell (Derbyshire) and Woodlands (South Yorkshire). Houfton also won national recognition when his workers’ cottages designed for Sheffield City Council’s Flower Estate won first prize in the Letchworth Cheap Cottages Exhibition. In all, the Company’s housing accommodated some 40,000 mining employees.
Another large builder was the Industrial Housing Association, founded in 1922 as a non-profit organisation by a cooperative of colliery directors and financed by governments loans and grants. Sir John Tudor Walters (of the famous report that shaped so much interwar council housing) was appointed a director, tasked with overseeing the overall design and construction of the new villages. The Association, commissioned by a number of companies, built 12,000 houses in the 1920s.
The Second World War and the first majority Labour government changed much, not least by the nationalisation of the mining industry that took effect on the 1st of January 1947. The new National Coal Board would continue to operate existing villages and build new housing. The latter tended to follow the lines of the housing increasingly built by local councils in mining villages and elsewhere, including in the early post-war period many of the permanent prefabricated housing types of the day.
Finally, it’s worth noting – as the book does – the impact of CLASP. Nottinghamshire County Council embarked on a large-scale programme of school and library construction after the war, many built in mining areas where the land was prone to subsidence. The solution, devised by County Architect Donald Gibson with colleagues Dan Lacey and Henry Swain, was a form of system building using a pin-jointed steel frame that rode on a raft foundation, thus obviating the need for large and expensive foundations. The Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme, to give it its full name, was marketed to local authorities more widely in 1957.
All this is covered in more detail and beautifully illustrated with a plethora of colour and black and white images in the book and linked more explicitly to the villages studied. Chris Matthews, its chief author also responsible for many of the contemporary photographs, also did an excellent job of designing the book in attractive and usable style – a shout-here for sources and explanations of highlighted specialist terms that appear on the same page as the relevant references.
At peak in 1961, 56,000 people were employed in Nottinghamshire’s 39 pits. Thoresby Colliery, the last working mine in the area, closed in 2015. The industry is now to be classed as heritage though one with a significant (though fast declining) physical presence and perhaps a greater psychological legacy, at least for the older generation.
The book itself was supported by the Miner2Major project established to highlight the natural and cultural landscape of the Sherwood Forest. It is available for free download or free from larger libraries in the district. A set of leaflets covering nine of the villages with useful maps to aid exploration is also available for free download.
Here’s a quick and simple guide to some of the more interesting housing schemes – for me, those are principally public housing projects and others of broadly progressive intent – featured in this year’s Open House London which runs between 8 and 21 September with most events taking place on the weekend of the 17th and 18th.
The entries are listed in roughly chronological order. The highlighted links in bold show Open House descriptions; earlier relevant blog posts are shown in bold and italics. Open House’s tagging is somewhat inconsistent. I’ve ranged across the categories but you can let me know if I’ve missed anything.
The Bedford Park estate in Chiswick, privately developed from 1875 and featuring housing by Norman Shaw and other leading architects of the day, is considered Britain’s first garden suburb, a prototype for much that was to follow though more often in attenuated form.
Brentham Garden Suburb is significant as a co-partnership scheme intended by Ealing Tenants Ltd to cater for at least the more affluent of the working class. From 1907, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, emerging as the two of the country’s leading architects and planners, developed the estate along garden suburb and arts and crafts lines.
Roe Green Village (Brent) was designed by Frank Baines in 1916, chief architect of the Office of Works, as housing for workers engaged in First World War armaments production. He had earlier designed the exemplary Well Hall Estate in Eltham for the same purpose. It offered a model for the ‘Homes for Heroes’ that were promoted at war’s end.
The Honor Oak Estate in Lewisham, built by the London County Council (LCC) in the 1930s, was a very different animal comprising the typical four/five-storey, walk-up, balcony access tenement blocks intended to provide higher density housing for the inner-city working class. Early criticisms of the estate’s design saw it described as a ‘warning for planners’ in 1945.
The Crossfield Estate, further north in Deptford, is another London County Council Estate of the same era and form. Transferred in poor condition to Lewisham Borough Council in 1971, a visit will also cover the estate’s later, more bohemian history.
The high ambitions of the best of post-Second World War council housing are illustrated in the Golden Lane Estate, designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (also responsible for the Barbican scheme) for the City of London. The visit here focuses principally on sometimes controversial more recent renovation. Crescent House, a later completed section of the estate strongly influenced by Le Corbusier, features separately.
The Vanbrugh Park Estate was another Chamberlin, Powell and Bon scheme designed for Greenwich Metropolitan Borough Council in the later 1950s – a more modest scheme of 64 flats, low-rise terraced houses, and maisonettes planned to respect its surrounds and promote community.
The ambition of Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council was obvious in the commissioning of Berthold Lubetkin to design Bevin Court, opened in 1954. Visit to see its crowning glory central staircase and the recently restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.
Meanwhile, the architects of the LCC were designing in Roehampton, west London, what an American commentator described as ‘the best low-cost housing in the world’. Alton East, from 1952, was designed by the New Humanists of the department who took the ‘softer’ lines and appearance of Scandinavian social housing as their principal model; Alton West, from 1954, was designed by those who favoured the ‘harder’, more monumental Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. The visit focuses on the landscaping that was a crucial component of the ensemble.
Back to the LCC which began planning the Pepys Estate in Lewisham in the early 1960s. In the event, this showpiece estate was completed by the Greater London Council (GLC) that took over in 1965. The 78 metre, 26-storey Eddystone Tower is one of the three original tower blocks of the scheme and the visit provides fine views from its top floor. Arguably better views are offered by Aragon Tower, nearer the river, but that was sold to Berkeley Homes for £11.5m in 2002. This is your regular reminder that regeneration schemes promoted by local authorities and housing associations in partnership with private developers invariably lead to a net loss of social rent house, however self-promotingly sold.
Thamesmead, conceived as a new town of some 60,000 population to the east of London by the GLC in 1966, never lived up to its early hype but some fine and daring architecture was created in the process – much of it, sadly, now being demolished. Two walking tours – Thamesmead: Beyond Brutalism and Town of Tomorrow: Thamesmead Through Film – capture some of this as well as the area’s later growth and reinvention.
Ethelburga Tower in Battersea was another LCC scheme completed by the GLC in 1967, part of the Ethelburga Estate which comprised 578 homes in a range of otherwise medium- and low-rise blocks. Architect designed and of in situ reinforced concrete construction, it pre-dates the fashion for off-the-peg and system-built schemes that would soon become significant in the post-1965 Borough of Wandsworth as elsewhere.
The new Camden Council, established in 1965, and Borough Architect Sydney Cook famously eschewed such ready-made solutions and in so doing created what Mark Swenarton has called in his book, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing, ‘an architectural resolution unsurpassed not just in social housing in the UK but in urban housing anywhere in the world’.
The terrace of five three-storey houses in Winscombe Street, Highgate New Town, completed in 1965 and designed by Neave Brown for himself and four of his friends initially as a co-op eligible for financial support from the council, represented the essential prototype for much to follow. Brown is the best-known figure in the talented team of architects that Cook assembled but the borough’s signature style of white pre-cast concrete and dark-stained timber was followed by his colleagues. This was the low-rise, high-density backlash to some of the high-rise missteps of the 1960s.
Peter Tábori designed the six stepped parallel terraces of the Whittington Estate, built between 1972 and 1979, as Stage 1 of the Highgate New Town development, creating 271 homes housing in total around 1100 people. A visit to 8 Stoneleigh Terrace allows you to see the interiors, characterised by double doors and sliding partitions allowing flexible use, that were as impressive as the scheme’s external appearance.
17a–79b Mansfield Road are part of the long terrace of 64 flats and maisonettes – an updated version of much of the housing they replaced – in Gospel Oak completed in 1980. Their architects, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, had worked with Brown on the celebrated Alexandra Road Estate and would go on to design the Branch Hill Estate, neither of which feature in this year’s programme.
Lambeth was another borough that pioneered low-rise solutions to housing need. Its Borough Architect, Ted Hollamby believed that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’. The design and popularity with residents of Cressingham Gardens in Tulse Hill, completed in 1978, earned plaudits from Lord Esher, president of RIBA, who described it as ‘warm and informal … one of the nicest small schemes in England’. Its current residents are fighting plans to demolish and rebuild the estate as are those in Central Hill, a similarly inspired scheme designed by Rosemary Stjernstedt.
Southwark lacked such signature style but it built, to a design by another early and significant female architect Kate Macintosh – still around and still fighting for high quality public housing – one of the most distinctive council housing schemes of its day, Dawson’s Heights, built between 1968 and 1972. Crowning a prominent hill in East Dulwich, the estate’s two large ziggurat-style blocks offer views and sunlight to each of their 296 flats and moved English Heritage to praise their ‘striking and original massing that possesses evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’.
The profile of the 98 metre, 31-storey Trellick Tower– distinguished by the free-standing service tower of the block – is equally eye-catching and perhaps better known. The younger sister of Balfron Tower to the east, the block was designed by Ernő Goldfinger for the GLC and completed in 1972. Unlike Balfron, sold off to the private sector, Trellick remains in local authority hands, managed now by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
The Walter Segal self-build houses in Walters Way, Honor Oak, couldn’t seem more different but they have one thing in common – the role of a local council, in this case Lewisham which provided the land for the scheme and supported the self-builders, initially selected from the council housing waiting list, with a council mortgage. The homes were built using the simple post-and-beam system using standard and easily acquired building materials – principally wood and woodwool for insulation – devised by architect Walter Segal. [In Bromley, the Open House at 13 Nubia Way and exhibition provide an important history of Europe’s largest black-led community self-build for rent initiative.]
The Walters Way homes were completed in the 1980s, by which time new council housebuilding had ground to a virtual halt as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s hostility to public ownership and belief in free enterprise. Neoliberalism and the market look far less plausible now in housing terms and much else besides than they may have done to some at least in that earlier era.
So, we conclude this survey by looking at regeneration – a positive thing to the extent that many estates needed improvement and renovation as a result of expected obsolescence and regrettable neglect. But regeneration as implemented was mixed with the new conventional wisdom – an antipathy to public spending (better understood as investment) that forced a reliance on public-private partnerships with commercial developers.
The other mantra was ‘mixed communities’ secured by the provision of a range of housing tenures. The concept neglected the reality that most council estates were mixed communities and was rooted in an antagonism to ‘mono-class’ (i.e. working-class) areas seen as a drag on local uplift, gentrification in other words.
In practice, the number of new homes for sale and private rental ensured that social rent housing lost in such schemes was not adequately replaced. Across the country and combined with the impact of Thatcher’s flagship Right to Buy policy, we have around 1.4 million fewer social rent homes now than we had in the early 1980s.
Open House London features three regeneration schemes. Acton Gardens was formerly – in a geographical sense at least – Ealing’s South Acton Estate, built by Acton Borough Council from 1949 and growing eventually to comprise some 2100 homes. Comprehensive regeneration was planned from 1996. The visit concentrates on the first new homes built in 2012 and a revised masterplan agreed in 2018 that will clear all the old estate.
The Silchester Estate was a GLC estate in south Kensington (Grenfell Tower lies immediately to the east) built in the 1970s. Open House London focuses on a new development of 112 mixed tenure homes, community and retail facilities designed by Haworth Tompkins architects.
The South Kilburn Estate, was developed by Brent Council from the mid-1960s, originally comprising 11 tower blocks and a range of lower-rise housing. The walking tour of Unity Place looks principally at the modern mansion blocks designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Alison Brooks Architects, Gort Scott and Grant Associates to replace two of the 1960s’ towers.
It’s good, of course, to see high-quality, architect designed schemes being built though many of the new so-called ‘affordable’ homes are not let at social rent. I remain nostalgic for a time in the 1970s when 49 percent of qualified architects were employed in the public sector in a state and society that took seriously its moral and practical duty to provide genuinely affordable housing for all in need – when public spending on the direct provision of housing was understood as an investment, a value not a cost.
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.
We started our tour of the council housing on the London Loop last week. The final sections take us to Purfleet on the northern bank of the Thames.
Section 14: Moor Park to Hatch End
The South Oxhey Estate, a London County Council ‘out of county’ estate created on land compulsorily purchased south of Watford from the Blackwell (soup) family in 1944. Built as part of the post-war drive to disperse London’s population. By 2007, 70 percent of its homes had been lost to Right to Buy but the estate’s original planning and design quality still stands out.
Section 15: Hatch End to Elstree
Some council homes in Carpenders Park – built by Watford Rural District Council in the 1950s.Despite the rendering, they’re all of a piece and feature some fine brickwork.
Section 16: Elstree to Cockfosters
Ducks Island and the fringe of the post-war Stanhope Estate built by Barnet Urban District Council, then in Hertfordshire, after the Second World War. The estate is seen at its finest in Southfields.
The Dollis Valley Estate further on was built by the London Borough of Barnet in the late 1960s. Its southern part is an interesting example of Radburn-style planning with housing bordering open green space with service roads to the rear.
The northern, system-built five-storey blocks were less successful and are now subject to a controversial demolition and regeneration scheme.
Section 17: Cockfosters to Enfield Lock
Dendridge Close – a 1970s housing scheme built by the London Borough of Enfield.
Winnington Road: council flats built in the 1960s, now owned and managed by the London Borough of Enfield.
Beaconsfield Estate, Enfield Lock – approved by Enfield Municipal Borough Council in 1962; four 13-storey tower blocks and low-rise built by Wates for the London Borough of Enfield in 1968.
1960s flats on Ordnance Road, built by Enfield Municipal Borough Council if before 1965 or the London Borough of Enfield if after.
Peter Barber’s wonderful Ordnance Road scheme of 11 three-storey townhouses and four one-bed mews houses; social housing built by the London Borough of Enfield in 2017.
Section 19: Chingford to Chigwell
Guys Retreat: an Epping Forest District Council scheme of the 1970s – a workaday design but great location.
Buckhurst Hill, particularly the interwar housing on Thaxted Road built either by Buckhurst Hill Urban District Council before 1933 or Chigwell Urban District Council after that. It’s now part of Epping Forest District Council. On Blackmore Road you can see the London loop sign.
Section 20: Chigwell to Havering-atte-Bower
Buckthorne House on the Greater London Council’s Copse Estate glimpsed from Hainault Forest Country Park – approved in 1966 and built by direct labour. Now in the London Borough of Redbridge.
Section 21: Havering-atte-Bower to Harold Wood
The Harold Hill Estate is a London County Council out-of-county estate developed from 1947. By 1962, the estate housed 30,000 people. On the fringes of the estate are some ‘superior’ homes designed for middle-class occupation, fulfilling the post-war ideal that council estates should serve a cross-section of the community. Further in are some low-rise flatted blocks along Chudleigh Road and post-war, flat-roofed Orlit precast concrete frame permanent prefabs along Colne Drive. Since 1965, part of the London Borough of Havering.
Section 22: Harold Wood to Upminster Bridge
Cockabourne Court – sheltered housing built by Havering in 1970.
The Hacton Lane Estate – 548 homes built by Hornchurch Urban District Council on land acquired in 1936. Here’s an Airey house in original condition and its renovated counterparts on Newmarket Way (most of the streets are named after race courses).
Section 23: Upminster Bridge to Rainham
The Dovers Farm Estate in South Hornchurch built by Hornchurch Urban District Council after the Second World War. The council regularly built 4-500 new homes a year after the war, the most of any UDC; 3600 in total by its abolition in 1965.
Section 24: Rainham to Purfleet
The Garrison Estate was developed in the early 1970s by Thurrock Council after the closure of the Purfleet Powder Magazine, founded 1681, in 1962. Beyond Marine Court, by the river, many of the streets are named after British army tanks.
For various reasons, I’ve been unable to post any new articles on the blog in recent times. I’m very grateful for the guest posters who have allowed me to add to the record in the meantime and will always welcome new contributions. This and the succeeding post are also a slight cheat – a photographic, rather than documentary record – but I think they offer a fine testimony to the variety and ubiquity of council housing and its inestimable contribution to our housing needs.
The London Outer Orbital Path – better known as the London Loop – is a 150 mile trail that circles the fringes of Greater London. It’s split into 24 sections beginning in the east, in clockwise direction, at Erith station on the south bank of the Thames and ending at Purfleet in the north. It’s a wonderful mix of genuine countryside, public open space and suburbia with a few more urban patches thrown in. We completed the walk between 2020 and 2021. While most people don’t do the walk to see council housing, I couldn’t resist recording it along the way.
Section 1: Erith to Old Bexley
The 13-storey Carrack House and 14-storey Bosworth House, containing 52 and 56 homes respectively, were commissioned by the new London Borough of Bexley in 1967.
The Barnes Cray Estate was built by Vickers with the aid of a War Office grant to house their employees at the nearby munitions works between 1915-16. Designed in garden suburb style by J Gordon Allen, half the 600 homes were of non-traditional, concrete block construction.
Crayford Urban District Council extended the estate northwards after the war.
Bexley Urban District Council acquired part of the Halcot and Hall Place Estates for house building to the north of Bourne Road in 1938. Part of the land was preserved as open space, the Halcot No. 2 Estate was begun after the Second World War.
Section 2: Old Bexley to Petts Wood
Saxon Walk, Foots Cray Estate, built by Bexley Borough Council in the later 1960s or 1970s, I’m guessing.
A modest 1960s terrace in Suffolk Road, Foots Cray
Cuxton, a small block of flats built by Bromley Borough Council in the 1970s next to the new Petts Wood Library.
Section 3: Petts Wood to West Wickham Common
The Coppice Estate near Petts Wood was begun by the Municipal Borough of Bromley in the interwar period and completed after World War II.
A modest scheme of council flats built in the 1960s, I’d guess. If so, by the new London Borough of Bromley formed in 1965.
Section 4: West Wickham Common to Hamsey Green
The land for the Monks Hill Estate was bought by the County Borough of Croydon, then in Surrey, in 1945 and developed as a council estate from the 1940s.
Section 5: Hamsey Green to Coulsdon South
On Tithepit Shaw Lane there is a small, early post-war council estate, built by Caterham and Warlingham Urban District Council, I think.
Section 6: Coulsdon South to Banstead Downs
The Clockhouse Estate, north of Coulsdon, was begun in 1934 but the bulk of its development by Carshalton Urban District Council took place after the Second World War with blocks of flats built in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s presently located in a cut-off corner of the London Borough of Sutton with Croydon more convenient for most residents.
The Little Woodcote scheme was created by Surrey County Council for ex-servicemen under the1919 Land Settlement (Facilities) Act – part of Lloyd George’s promise of ‘homes for heroes’: originally 81 smallholdings of around three acres each and weatherboarded semi-detached housing.
Section 8: Ewell to Kingston Bridge
Attractive cottage flat council homes on Surbiton Hill Park, built by Surbiton Urban District Council (a borough from 1936).
Addison Gardens and Lower Marsh Lane, Surbiton: a small council estate built by Surbiton Borough Council just after the Second World War. Addison Gardens is presumably so named after Christopher Addison, the reforming housing minister responsible for the 1919 Housing Act.
Section 9: Kingston Bridge to Hatton Cross
We’ve crossed the Thames into the London Borough of Richmond. The Mays Estate was built by Teddington Urban District Council under Addison’s 1919 Housing Act and completed in 1921 – a powerful testament to the ‘Homes for Heroes’ ideals of the day.
The Sparrow Farm Estate, now in the London Borough of Hounslow, was built by Feltham Urban District Council in the 1950s. According to local MP Albert Hunter in 1959, ‘visitors from abroad have been shown this housing estate as an outstanding example of our post-war housing construction’.
The Hounslow Heath Estate, in Hounslow, approved in 1965, was one of the first housing schemes of the new London Borough of Richmond. Built by Wimpeys with two 15-storey tower blocks at its heart.
Section 10: Hatton Cross to Hayes & Harlington
The 15-storey Skeffington Court in Hayes, built by the London Borough of Hillingdon, was begun in 1971 and named after local Labour MP Arthur Skeffington who died that year. It was opened by Harold Wilson.
The Corwell Gardens estate in Hillingdon was built by Hayes and Harlington Urban District Council in the 1950s – a Labour-controlled council and prolific builder of council homes for most its history. The estate is a good example of the mixed development of the era.
Section 11: Hayes & Harlington to Uxbridge
Council housing on Church Lane in Uxbridge Moor built by Uxbridge Urban District Council in the 1930s
Later flats built off Cowley Mill Road, Uxbridge, now part of the London Borough of Hillingdon.
Section 12: Uxbridge to Harefield West
South Harefield where Uxbridge Urban District Council began a large interwar estate around Truesdale Drive in the 1930s and later some fine homes along the new Moorhall Road. The houses on Dellside, at the bottom, have a particularly idyllic setting on the fringes of the Colne Valley.
With twelve sections to go and 74 miles left, we’ll take a break till next week.
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.