This post marks the tenth anniversary of the blog Municipal Dreams. The very first, back in January 2013, discussed the Latchmere Estate built, using its own workforce, by Battersea Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903; Battersea had gained – appropriately for the purposes of this blog – a reputation as the ‘Municipal Mecca’.
Houses on the aptly named Reform Street, Latchmere Estate
Other posts followed on town halls, swimming baths, health centres and schools. These are all part of local government’s inestimable contribution to its population’s wellbeing but increasingly housing took centre-stage; our councils’ greatest endeavour, responsible, in the words of prime minister Theresa May in 2018, for the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’. (1)
In 1981, around one in three of the population lived in a council home; if you are a part of the early post-war generation, there is a one in two chance that you spent part of your life in a council home. Yet, for all that seismic impact, the story of council housing was a neglected topic. There were good academic studies and there was plenty written by a range of professionals in the housing field. But there was very little that addressed the general reader, even less that gave some of this history back to those who had lived it.
Media commentary was often pejorative and usually rested on ill-informed and negative stereotypes. More often, there was silence – local histories that described the Georgian townhouse but said nothing of neo-Georgian council estates; national histories that apparently believed council housing too humdrum to warrant attention. And yet a mere glance reveals the enormous impact of public housing in villages, towns and cities across the UK and many millions will testify to the practical and emotional significance of a council home to their own lives. The blog was simply an attempt to put some of this on record.
I think, over this ten-year period, that attitudes have changed and coverage improved. Partly, this may reflect that housing crisis that has emerged since we stopped building council housing at scale in the 1980s whilst, at the same time, losing around two million council homes to Right to Buy. Most of us beyond the fringes of the neoliberal Right now appreciate the vital contribution of social housing to any viable housing market, to any proper fulfilment of that basic human right to shelter.
And once we started appreciating council housing, we could look again at the (shifting) political, architectural and planning ideals that shaped it, not always optimally but always – and this isn’t a mealy-mouthed apologia as the blog has always been clear-eyed about what worked and what went wrong and why – with good intent. It’s an important part of our shared story.
Immodestly, I hope the blog itself played a small part in this revival of sympathetic interest in council housing’s past, present and future.
Over its ten years, the blog has featured some 330 posts which have been viewed in total over 2 million times by more than 1.25 million readers. I’ve tried to range widely geographically across the nations and regions of the UK and with occasional forays into Europe. The Map of the Blog will give you an idea of this geographic coverage as well as links to past posts.
I’m not going to pick a personal favourite – one of the great things about the blog has been the ability to range so widely – but for sheer colour, I think my post on what was originally known as the Lenin Estate in Bethnal Green takes some beating.
I’m very grateful to the many people, including academics as well as expert local historians, who have contributed guest posts, almost forty in all. I’ve always hoped that the blog would become a kind of journal of record (it is archived by the British Library) and these contributors have helped greatly toward that. I will always welcome new guest posts.
I’m delighted to feature today the second of two guest posts by Lynne Dixon examining the work of some of our early female housing campaigners and reformers. Lynne has a background in historical geography, town planning, the environment and education. Over the last few years she has been researching and writing about different aspects of woman’s history and local history. Her interest in women and housing in the early years of the nineteenth century has evolved from a U3A shared learning project on the origins of the organisation Women’s Pioneer Housing. She has contributed to blogs on women in World War 1 and extensively on the Well Hall Estate and is currently writing a book on a woman architect/builder, Annabel Dott.
Having outlined one mechanism through which women hoped to influence first rural and then urban housing at local levels in the post-war period in my earlier blog, this contribution deals with a group of women who could have had a more significant influence on housing at a national level: the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee (WHSC) of the Ministry of Reconstruction.
The recent centenaries for the women’s suffrage movement and World War One have ensured that we now know more than before about some aspects of women’s history for this period but there is still much more to know about women’s involvement in public life at this time. Many women were working for social change, not least in the field of housing, both during and then after (and indeed often before) the war. The achievements of Florence Hamilton in my previous blog are just one example. In parallel were the efforts of a group of women who were given the opportunity to influence at a national level the design of state houses – the ‘homes fit for heroes’ or, as more aptly named by Caroline Rowan, ‘homes fit for heroines’. (1)
The origins of the WHSC lie with the Ministry of Reconstruction which was established in 1917 to oversee the rebuilding of national life for the better at the end of the war. It established many committees each on different aspects of national life. The Minister of Reconstruction was the radically minded Dr Christopher Addison, later to be responsible for the 1919 Housing Act. When the WHSC was being established it was said that, ‘it had been represented to us, both by societies and individuals, that women should be consulted about the construction of the new houses after the war’. (2)
The committee’s official purpose was to comment on the design of the working-class houses already built with public money and on plans put to the architects’ committee for future homes. They were to give special reference to the saving of labour for the housewife – very much a concern of the moment – and the convenience and well-being of the family generally. In other words, they were to offer a perspective on house design from the point of view of the housewife. Following the publication of the interim report the women were also asked to report on the conversion of middle-class houses into tenements for the working class. (3)
Membership of the WHSC included women from a range of backgrounds. Three women would already have been known to government through the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Women’s Advisory Committee: Lady Gertrude Emmott, Maud Pember Reeves and Dr Marion Phillips; the latter two also well-known for their previous work which included the publication, Round About a Pound a Week, a study of the spending of poor housewives in Lambeth.
Gertrude Emmott was appointed ‘chairman’ and as such it is likely that she was able to help select other committee members. She was a woman with a liberal and nonconformist background who had been involved in social and political work in the north-west of England, was a friend of Henrietta Barnett and had developed an interest in housing. The women she was perhaps influential in selecting had backgrounds in the garden city movement and town planning (Sybella Brandford, Ethel Lloyd and Mary D Jones); housing management (Maud M Jeffery, Annette Churton, Dr Janet Lane Claypon, Gerda Guy, Dorothy Peel); while others were politically active in the Labour Party or the Cooperative movement (Eleanor Barton, Rosalind Moore, Averil Sanderson Furniss, Alice Jarrett and Annie Foulkes Smith).
Women had, of course, been involved in housing, town planning and architecture for some time as professionals – Octavia Hill in housing management from the 1880s; Ethel Charles, the first woman to pass the RIBA exams in 1898; the women sanitary inspectors who were involved in aspects of public health in housing; women such as Henrietta Barnett, a key mover in the garden city movement. Most recently in October 1917 one organisation, the Women’s Labour League, had started a housing campaign aimed at working class women and led by Averil Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips. The work they did was to influence the work of the committee and may even have overlapped in time and content. (4)
The committee and its two women secretaries first met in February 1918 and their work over the next few months was phenomenal. As well as the focus on labour saving for the housewife, they were determined to seek out the views of working women. A key part of their work was visiting working-class houses across the country with a standard set of twenty questions about each property – internal arrangements, room size, built-in features, rent, natural light and air, etc. The first estate they visited was the Duchy of Cornwall’s housing estate in Kennington.
In March 1918 they visited houses on the Well Hall Estate built for the munition workers of the Woolwich Arsenal. Averil Sanderson Furniss was one of those who visited the estate. She commented on the headed paper of the National Women’s Labour League in a letter to Miss Leach the secretary of the committee: (5)
I think my main objections to the houses was that in practically all cases the windows were not large enough and did not give enough light. I think they should have been higher in the bedrooms and lower in the sitting rooms allowing in the latter case for a window seat which would have much improved the rooms. Also I do not think that the baths in the scullery are good and if they must be downstairs which I recognise has to be the case in some instances they should be in a separate room. In many cases I noticed that the bath was in a different corner of the room to the copper which must surely be most inconvenient when every drop of water has to be baled out of the copper into the bath.
This theme of the covered bath in the scullery featured in the final report:
Problems arose from ‘the practice of having the bath in the scullery with flap table over it … [which] meant that the housewife must clear everything from it before the bath could be used’ and prevented further use of the scullery for food preparation during bath times.’ The women were adamant that there should be a separate bathroom.
Averil Sanderson Furniss continued in her letter, ‘these I think were two main points but I wish we could have had Mrs Barton with us as her practical experience would have been far more valuable.’
As a northerner and with her practical knowledge as a working-class woman, Eleanor Barton was clearly a significant member of the committee whose experience was highly valued; most of the other women in contrast were middle class.
A further aspect of their work was to seek the views of both individual women and of organisations and one of the National Archive files contains many of these letters – usually handwritten but sometimes typed and some including diagrams to illustrate points being made – from across the country. (6)
The Sub-Committee had advertised in newspapers for women’s views and as a result local organisations had held meetings and conferences and competitions to gather opinions to pass on to the Sub-Committee and so responses came from a wide range of organisation such as the Derby Women’s Citizen Association; the Sutton Sisterhood; Flowers Farm War Gardens Association; the National Union of Women Workers, Howard St Club, Sheffield; the West Surrey Society; and the Women’s Votes Association of New Earswick. The Sub-Committee’s approach in doing this may be contrasted with the Tudor Walters Committee who, remaining in one place, saw a 127 witnesses only fifteen of whom were women. Their approach was surely innovative: an early example of public consultation. (7)
The needs raised in the letters were wide-ranging – plenty of light in all rooms; simplicity in the joinery; special attention to housing large families, the aged and the poor; a sink in the scullery 14 inches deep; well protected water pipes to prevent freezing; minimum size of living room 15ft by 12ft; fixed cupboards in every room.
It is not at all clear how the women of the committee, or more likely the two dedicated secretaries, processed the hundreds of comments received and data accumulated. Within a few months, their work resulted in a lengthy interim report dated May 1918. Two parts of the report were not published including comments that the women had made – uninvited – on the proposals of the Local Government Board (LGB). (8)
The final report was finished a few months later in January 1919. However, these final findings were also heavily suppressed resulting in another delayed publication. The relationships between the LGB, the Ministry of Reconstruction and perhaps Addison himself were delicate. There seem to have been divisions within the government of which these were part. (9)
In the end the Final Report was in effect overshadowed by the report of the Tudor Walters Committee which had been published in December 1918. (10) The LGB found the women’s findings ‘extravagant’ and treated with particular disdain the work the women had done on communal facilities. Nevertheless, there was much in their work that was in agreement with the Tudor Walters conclusions and it was perhaps mainly in emphasis – what was seen as essential and what as desirable – that there were differences. It is interesting to note that the only line of communication between the two committees had been informally via the secretary of the Tudor Walters Committee although four members of the WHSC did give evidence to the Tudor Walters Committee.
Central to the women’s findings, published or not, was the idea of the kitchen and the scullery as the workshop of the home where all hard and dirty work was done. In most homes the internal layout of both these rooms was poor, with the consequence that endless short journeys were required for each simple task. Cooking a meal involved transferring food from inadequate storage facilities to a preparation area and then back to the cooker, with little ease of movement. Analysing women’s work in the home was crucial to designing for labour saving. In this there was no question that housework should be shared between husband and wife. It was believed, even by those forward-thinking women who had campaigned for the vote, that housework was women’s work. However, their time needed to be freed up so that they could be active citizens.
A majority of the women giving evidence to the Sub-Committee wanted a parlour in their homes, although they differed as to why it might be needed. In some districts, investigators found that the wish for a parlour was connected to customs surrounding death. At a time when most people died at home, death could raise practical challenges in small, badly designed and overcrowded houses. Housewives in Camberwell in contrast wanted parlours for their husbands ‘because there should always be somewhere for “him” to go and sit to rest himself’.
Many mothers felt that the parlour was most needed when their eldest children wanted to bring friends home, or when it offered young courting couples a location ‘preferable … [to] the street corners or public house’. The parlour may also have had a symbolic value, a status, which was important to many women.
In short, the women giving their views tended not to claim a parlour for themselves, but saw it as a way of providing a more pleasant environment for other members of the family. In contrast, the women writing the interim report promoted the idea that a parlour should provide an area for a woman who needed space for intellectual work, or work connected with her new role as a citizen. (11)
If officially sidelined, the report was at least appreciated by some. As well as positive comments in the suffrage press, a critique of the report in The Town Planning Review commended that the report be read by ‘every architect designing houses and every member of a housing committee studying schemes’.
It is difficult to say exactly how much influence women had on national housing policy at this time because of the way their report was dealt with by the government. One writer has concluded that although they were able to form and even publish recommendations for national policy this in itself did not give them the power of decision making. Their conclusions might be accepted as advice and were of particular use if they reinforced existing policy or official recommendations. (12)
Innovative or more challenging ideas were ignored. However, it is certainly possible to suggest that their involvement had other more enduring effects especially as they were part of a wider picture of women’s increasing involvement in housing provision and design. Some of this involvement was about guidance, advice and campaigning; some of it was to be a more active involvement.
In 1919, Averil Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips published The Working Woman’s House, a short booklet illustrated with plans and photographs. The report could be more explicit than the report of the Sub-Committee in linking labour saving to citizenship. They were able to link the traditional view that the home was a ‘woman’s place’ with the recent call by Prime Minister Lloyd George’s for new houses ‘fit for heroes to live in’. Phillips and Sanderson Furniss suggested that post-war reconstruction offered an opportunity for these two positions to be combined so that it should be possible for a woman to want her house to be: (13)
fit for a hero to live in and also wants to free her from the hard domestic work which is the result of the bad housing conditions and has prevented her from taking her full share of work as a citizen, wife and mother.
In April 1919 the LGB, not long before its demise, set up the Housing Advisory Council to provide advice on housing policy. Eleanor Barton, Averil Sanderson Furniss and Gertrude Emmott from the WHSC were included among its members. When the board was abolished in June of that year, the Advisory Council seems to have continued in some form or another although it is clear that some women felt frustrated at its role and at the long delay in organising meetings.
One organisation which supported the role of women in influencing housing design was the Garden and Town Planning Association which had a short-lived women’s section run by Etheldred Browning. It produced a number of reports full of advice, one devoted to labour saving in the home, and it was also involved in commenting in late summer 1920 on public housing built by the Ministry of Health. Not surprisingly it was particularly critical of the lack of parlours, the small and badly shaped sculleries, the small third bedroom – ongoing themes. They strongly recommended that before house plans were finally approved they should be submitted for criticism to a committee of women. (14)
At a broader level, the legacy of the women’s suffrage movement seems to have been the continued proliferation of small organisations promoting women’s viewpoint and their desire to be involved in decision making. The involvement of women in housing was a part of this bigger picture. For instance, housing was an issue for the Consultative Committee of Women’s Organisations which was established in 1921 and had a housing subcommittee for a number of years. (15)
There were in the 1920s and 1930s a number of housing conferences and congresses organised by women or dealing with women and housing. An international one was organised, for instance, by the National Housing and Town Planning Council in April 1924. In these and other ways, women would continue to try to influence housing policy and design throughout the interwar period.
I think it is impossible to tell for certain if women had more influence nationally or locally. It is possible that there was more likelihood for them to influence housing at the local level where they had some opportunities to make recommendations about internal arrangements and facilities. (16) There are a number of different references to promises for women to be involved in this way and to mechanisms whereby this could happen.
In February 1919 The Times pointed out that the President of the LGB had promised that representatives of working woman should be consulted on municipal housing schemes and this eventually seems to have been enacted in the circular issued in December 1919 – just a few months after the Ministry of Health had taken over responsibility for housing from the LGB. At this point Christopher Addison, the newly appointed minister, appears to have encouraged the involvement of many local women’s organisations in commenting on the design of housing schemes. Amongst these would be the already established Women’s Village Councils. There is research to be done at local levels to establish just how much influence these women went on to have and undoubtedly more to be found out about the role of women in housing generally and state housing in particular at a national level as the 1920s and 1930s progressed.
Unlike the Women’s Village Council movement, the work of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee has become somewhat more visible in recent years. As well as original research using archives and online research in newspapers, I have therefore been able to draw on the research of academics such as Krista Cowman, Elaine Harrison and Lynn Pearson who have written specifically about the role of women in housing or in government at this time, as well as the broader texts of writers like Mark Swenarton in Building the New Jerusalem: Architecture, Housing and Politics 1900 – 1930.
(3) Krista Cowman, untitled paper. She has also written ‘”From the housewife’s point of view”: Female Citizenship and the Gendered Domestic Interior in Post-First World War Britain 1918-1928’, English Historical Review, vol 130, no 543, April 2015, pp352–383
(4) See, for instance, Christine Collette, For Labour and for Women: the Women’s Labour League 1906 – 1918 (Manchester University Press, 1989)
(5) This and the following quotations are drawn from TNA, RECO 1/622
(6) TNA, RECO 1/633
(7) Alongside the listed witnesses are the names of two all-male deputations and a further 61 experts, again all male.
(12) Lynn Pearson and Patricia White, Architectural and Social History of Cooperative Living (Springer, 1988)
(13) AD Sanderson Furniss and Marion Phillips,
(14) Etheldred Browning ‘Women and House Planning: a Protest to the Ministry of Health’, The Women’s Leader, 3 November 1920. Etheldred Browning also established Women’s Pioneer Housing in 1920 to provide housing for professional women. She later invited Florence Hamilton of the Women’s Village Council Federation to join its committee. Florence felt she could achieve more on the National Town Planning and Housing Council.
(15) ME Blyth ‘The Women’s Housing Movement: Housing Councils’, The Common Cause, 28 September 1923
We left Greenock last week in the unusual circumstance of building new council homes in 1916 in the midst of war. Across the country, war’s end brought a unique combination of pressures and ideals to build anew at quality and on unprecedented scale. The pressure, for ruling-class politicians, came from their fear of working-class unrest, even revolution (given local force by the political turmoil on ‘Red Clydeside’). The professed idealism came in prime minister Lloyd George’s stated ambition ‘to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in’.
Nowhere was the need for new council housing stronger than in Greenock: a reflection of the burgh’s appalling existing housing conditions and its continued growth – Greenock’s population peaked at 82,123 in 1921 when it was sixth largest town in Scotland. (Its current – 2011 – population of 44,248 tells you something of the hard times it has suffered subsequently as its traditional industries have declined.)
Scotland’s 1919 Housing Act required all local authorities to survey housing needs and build where need was demonstrated. In Greenock, a 1919 survey claimed that new or improved homes were required for some 26,818 inhabitants. The Council acted promptly by purchasing 154 acres of land in July that year and preparing plans for 480 houses, albeit partly in a style and form reflecting local circumstance and tradition: (1)
They would be allowed to build from 12 to 24 houses per acre and special privileges would be granted Greenock, owing to the scarcity of land, to erect tenements as well as houses.
Across Britain, the Tudor Walters report had set cottage homes at no more than twelve to the acre as the housing gold standard.
The Cowdenknowes Estate, centred around the new main road of Dunlop Street one mile south-east of the town centre, was laid out on a greenfield site on cattle pastures owned by the Ardgowan Estate and, nevertheless, mostly comprised solid, white-rendered, two-storey semi-detached houses with front and back gardens as prescribed by Tudor Walters.
With further estates of similar size at Bridgend and Cornhaddock, Greenock built 436 homes under the 1919 legislation. This impressive rate of construction was maintained under subsequent legislation with substantial numbers unusually – 552 new homes – under the 1923 Act and a total of 625 under the more generous Wheatley Housing Act in 1924. (Wheatley, appropriately, was a ‘Red Clydesider’ and MP for Glasgow Shettleston.) The later 1920s Bow Farm Estate included a larger number of flatted blocks as the housing drive continued. (2)
There remained, certainly among more left-wing members of the council, considerable urgency to the building drive. A proposal from the Housing Committee to delay construction of homes on Bow Farm in 1927 led to a special meeting of the council and what The Scotsman cautiously described as ‘particularly lively scenes’. The threat made by a Labour member, Mr D MacArthur, to take one opponent outside and ‘paralyse him’ may have been unparliamentary but it was apparently effective. The meeting agreed to proceed with construction by 17 votes to seven. (3)
The problem remained that the relatively high rents of council housing excluded the poorest who needed it most. This was true across the UK but was peculiarly and powerfully so in Greenock whose staple industries – shipbuilding, ship repair and marine engineering – suffered grievously in the economic downturns of the interwar years. One-third of working women worked in textiles, many in ropemaking which also served the town’s maritime trade. Greenock’s final major employer – of both men and women – also reflected this history. The town was Britain’s second largest sugar refining centre (after London), processing raw sugar cane and molasses from the West and Est Indies. (4)
Such was the extent of unemployment and poverty that for some ‘home’ became the poorhouse (the Scottish equivalent of the workhouse) and they suffered the full severity of a Poor Law regime that we sometimes imagine had been abolished years previously. Some 1349 individuals entered the Greenock poorhouse in 1925-26 where they were set to work ‘sawing trees and repairing furniture, assisting tradesmen and scrubbing wards and such like’.
Back court, Market Street, c1935
Housing conditions for many of those who escaped that final indignity remained appalling. Housing density in Greenock reached 717 persons per acre; almost half the population lived in one-room accommodation. A council enquiry into Market Street in 1931 revealed that, of 630 homes, only two had baths and none had hot water; on average, seven to eight families shared toilet facilities.
In 1925, the Greenock Housing Council, comprising ‘well-known ministers and social workers’, drew particular attention to the scandal of so-called ‘farmed-out’ houses – a system in which slum tenements which could not be let ordinarily were leased by a ‘farmer’ and then subdivided into single rooms rented for short periods. They estimated there were 229 ‘farmed-out’ houses in the burgh and gave graphic examples of the appalling circumstances suffered by their unfortunate tenants: (5)
Five persons besides husband and wife over ten in the same sleeping compartment … water flows from WC above, coming through ceiling; walls falling in. Bed without bedding; one table, three stools, two beds in one room; one female lodger in same room as subtenant’s sons.
Naturally, such conditions led to ill-health – recurrent typhus outbreaks and increased incidence of scarlet fever, smallpox and poliomyelitis, for example. Greenock was also ‘the tuberculosis capital of Britain, with twice the number of cases per capita as the national average’. By 1932, the burgh’s infant mortality rate – at 307 deaths per thousand – was the highest in Scotland, twice the national average.
If the statistics seem abstract, take the case of Mary McLaughlin who endured more than 20 pregnancies between the wars, 14 full-term. Of her 14 children, ten died before the age of seven from diphtheria, polio and scarlet fever.
Whilst little happened to improve Greenock’s economic circumstances until rearmament and war at the end of the decade, the 1930s did at least see substantial efforts – instigated under the Scottish Housing Acts of 1930 and 1935 – to improve housing conditions. A programme of 3000 new homes was agreed in 1933, including a scheme of 840 in the eastern Gibshill area of the town. In total, some 2085 new homes were built under the 1930 and 1935 legislation and a further 383 under a 1938 Act. In all, the Burgh built 4033 new homes between 1919 and 1939. (6)
The 1930s legislation also prioritised slum clearance, which included in Greenock the belated demolition of the Market Street area (now King Street). Another, unusual benefit of central area clearance was the opening of a hostel for single women in Westburn Street, opened in 1933; the Burgh boasted it was the first in Scotland initiated under the 1930 Housing Act. The hostel comprised 40 apartments, let at 5 shillings (25p) a piece, each containing a living room, scullery and toilet; baths and washhouses on each wing were shared by seven households. The local press claimed it was not really a hostel; each tenant enjoyed their ‘ain wee house’. (7)
The Westburn Buildings commemoration of Mary Slessor
There’s another unusual feature to be found in the Westburn building (renovated in 2012 by River Clyde Homes as contemporary social housing): a celebration of feminism marked by the sets of initials on the building’s 14 gutterboxes, each celebrating a notable woman including Flora MacDonald, Florence Nightingale and (illustrated above) the missionary Mary Slessor.
John Street tenements prior to renovation
Elsewhere, Greenock’s hilly terrain and shortage of land promoted interest in other unconventional solutions to its housing crisis. In 1936, the Council considered plans for ‘a new and revolutionary type of tenement building’ proposed by Scotland’s leading architect and planner, FC (Frank) Mears. (8)
The buildings will be roughly circular in shape, and of four storeys. From a circular stairway in an open well in the centre three wings radiate like the three leaves of a shamrock. Each wing has two houses per flat, making a total of 24 houses per block.
Following the programme of slum clearance, adapted versions of Mears’ proposals were built in the John Street area from 1939.
The impact of the Blitz on Baxter Street
In the following year, after the outbreak of war, Mears was appointed planning consultant to the Council and whatever ideas he may have entertained for the burgh were given sharp focus and even greater urgency by the tragic events of 6-7 May 1941. Greenock was a major shipping centre but the Greenock Blitz fell most heavily on its residential areas. Around 280 people were killed, 1200 injured; 10,000 houses were damaged, 1000 beyond repair.
We’ll follow the story of Greenock’s post-war council housing in next week’s post.
(1) ‘Greenock Housing Scheme’, The Scotsman, 30 July 1919
(2) TW Hamilton, How Greenock Grew (James McKelvie and Sons, 1947)
(3) ‘Greenock Housing: Town Council Scene’, The Scotsman, 2 February 1927
(4) Much of the information which follows is drawn from the detailed account provided by Annmarie Hughes in ‘The Economic and Social Effects of Recession and Depression on Greenock between the Wars’, International Journal of Maritime History, vol 18, no 1, June 2006
(5) ‘Greenock Housing’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 31 August 1925
(6) Hamilton, How Greenock Grew
(7) ‘Hostel for Women’, Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, October 25 1933
(8) ‘New Type of Tenement’, The Scotsman, 6 February 1936
Last week’s post looked at Oxford’s interwar council housing programme. Currently, the city is judged Britain’s least affordable city for housing; an average house price of £460,000 is over twelve times local average annual earnings. (1) We’ll come back to Oxford’s present-day housing crisis later in the post but at the end of the Second World War that crisis was a national one. A 1945 White Paper estimated that the country needed 750,000 new homes immediately and some 500,000 to replace existing slums. In Oxford, the council house waiting list stood 5000-strong.
New signage on the Barton Estate, 2017
One of the solutions touted for our contemporary housing shortfall is MMC – Modern Methods of Construction. The term is essentially a bit of conscious rebranding as there is certainly nothing new in the idea that prefabrication offers a practical means of building quickly. Back in 1945, one response was a programme of temporary prefabs. Of the 156,623 erected nationally, some 150 were built in Headington and 62 on Lambourne Road in Rose Hill. (2) These boxy but actually rather high-tech bungalows had an expected life-span of ten years – though many were to last much longer.
But there was also a large-scale effort – instigated by the Burt Committee (properly the Interdepartmental Committee on House Construction) as early as 1942 – to build permanent prefabricated homes and these featured heavily in Oxford’s early construction.
‘Howard houses’ on Brampton Road in the Barton Estate, 2017
The Barton Estate (the site of the Headington prefabs) was begun on a small-scale in 1937 – just 54 council homes added to an existing hamlet of six to eight cottages and two pubs. It took off after 1945, expanding to over 1000 new homes by 1950. A large number of these were permanent prefabs, mostly BISF houses (British Iron and Streel Federation houses: steel-framed with characteristic steel cladding on the upper floor) and Howard houses (named after the civil engineering company that promoted them, of light-steel frame and asbestos cladding). Both were designed by renowned architect and planner Sir Frederick Gibberd.
An early image of the Barton Estate taken from JM Mogey, Family and Neighbourhood (1956)
The rush to build provided an initially unpromising environment documented in a social survey by the sociologist JM Mogey published in 1956 and based on an Oxford Pilot Social Survey begun in 1950: (3)
First impressions of Barton are rarely favourable: areas left in their original state for later erection of public buildings, or for lawns, tennis courts, bowling greens and so on are covered with tough bunchy grasses and criss-crossed with many muddy paths. The place is almost bare of trees: the dominant colour is asbestos grey. The painted doors, the steel upper storeys of houses painted in dull brick-red or pale buff, do little to relieve this grey tint which is picked up and echoed by cement and plaster, by garden posts and by cement roadways.
The photograph used by Mogey in his book seems to illustrate this well (though in this case the houses shown appear to be another form of permanent prefab, the Orlit house, designed by émigré Czech architect Ervin Katona and built of precast reinforced concrete). A less grey-scale photograph might have shown them to better advantage.
Burchester Avenue, Barton Estate
Mogey himself acknowledged that ‘second impressions [were] more encouraging’:
Although many house exteriors look drab and neglected, the gardens are on the whole well cultivated … Bright curtains in the windows, flowers in the gardens, a sense of space and freshness begin to counteract the uniformity revealed at first glance.
The thrust of Mogey’s survey, however, was to assess the social impact of the new estate and contrast it with the more traditional and ‘close-knit’ inner-city community of St Ebbes from which at least some of the new residents were drawn.
At first glance, his analysis seems to reflect and reinforce some of the arguments – one might say clichés – that characterised sociological thinking of the day, epitomised in the writing of Willmott and Young in Family and Kinship in East London, published in 1957. (Much of this has been effectively debunked by Jon Lawrence in his recently published book, Me, Me, Me: The Search for Community in Post-war England, reviewed in an earlier post).
New Barton residents lamented that ‘we stay in more than we used to’ and that ‘we never see anyone now, we feel very isolated on the estate’. Mogey himself commented ‘in Barton everything is new and there is no neighbourlihood’ (sic).
Underhill Circus shops, Barton Estate
But the bigger picture was more complex and, in many ways, more positive, In Barton, there were fewer families ‘in which relations between husband and wife show disagreement’, more families expressed ‘loving attitudes towards their own children’, in more families ‘husband and wife help each routinely in domestic tasks’. The ‘central change’, Mogey concluded, ‘may be interpreted as the emergence on the housing estate of a family-centred society instead of a neighbourhood-centred society’.
But even that conclusion might depend on your definition of ‘neighbourhood’. In Barton far more people belonged to a local voluntary association or trade union, more people reported themselves as having friends, and there was greater acceptance of next-door neighbours (though, in contrast to the romanticised views of community of Willmott and Young, ‘generally people in both estates kept themselves to themselves and were suspicious of people who were too “neighbourly”’). As Stefan Ramsden found in Beverley, what might have been viewed as ‘increasing “privatism”’ was, in fact, ‘a more expansive sociability’.
Forsaking a crude environmental determinism, these findings might say more about the contrast between the type of people that had moved to the new estate and those who had stayed put. One final finding stands out: more people were critical of their homes in Barton than in St Ebbes. That might superficially – and surprisingly – reflect dislike of the new council homes but deeper analysis suggests it reflected greater ambition and expectation on the part of Barton’s residents.
This was an aspirational working class that wanted better for themselves and for their children. Jon Lawrence has argued for this period that ‘for the first time, the vast majority of working people believed that it was their birthright to enjoy a decent standard of living “from cradle to grave”’. That Labour achieved its first majority on Oxford City Council in 1958 might bear this out.
Rose Hill, three miles to the south-east of the city centre, was the second of Oxford’s early post-war estates, begun in 1946 and growing to contain 690 houses on completion. It too contained a significant number of prefabricated homes – Orlit, Howard and the timber-framed Minox houses. Rose Hill’s 153 Orlit houses (designated as defective by the 1984 Housing Defects Act) in council ownership were demolished from 2005. The 131 council-owned BISF houses on the Barton Estate were thoroughly renovated after 2008.
An unrenovated BISF house stands next to a refurbished council home on Wilcote Road in the Barton Estate, 2017
The quest for suitable permanent housing in Oxford was hampered by a lack of available land (much was built upon, around a quarter was liable to flooding) and constrained by the creation in 1956 of the country’s first Green Belt outside London. A 1949 Council report concluded that the only option open to it was to develop sites straddling the boundary or beyond it – between Cowley and Headington; beyond Cowley; towards Garsington; and around Littlemore. (4)
The building of 510 council homes at Wood Farm on the eastern fringe of the city began in 1953. The attraction of prefabricated building remained, however, and many of the houses were of the Laing Easiform type, constructed of in-situ poured concrete. Laing’s 30,000th Easiform house was opened on the Wood Farm Estate in May 1953 by Ernest Marples MP, a junior housing minister, with Sir John Laing and a host of civic dignitaries in attendance.
Planning permission for Oxford’s largest estate, Blackbird Leys (in the far south beyond the ring road), initially projected to contain 2800 homes, was granted in the same year. I’ve written about the estate in a previous post.
As the move towards high-rise took off in the late-1950s, Blackbird Leys would feature the city’s first two tower blocks – two fifteen-storey blocks, completed in 1964. Two more, of similar height, were approved in 1965: Foresters Tower on the Wood Farm Estate and Plowman Tower on the Northway Estate, a predominantly low-rise estate to the north, commenced in 1951.
Cllr Olive Gibbs
In general, however, Oxford eschewed high-rise and in 1965 the City anticipated the move towards housing renewal (rather than clearance and new build) that would be formalised in government policy three years later when it scrapped plans to redevelop the inner-city Jericho area. Labour councillor (and sometime chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the mid-1960s), Olive Gibbs, played a leading role. Jericho, apart from featuring in Morse, is now a highly-desirable area for young professionals with two-bed homes selling for upwards of £800,000.
Tile Hill Close, the Laurels
For those, then and now, who couldn’t afford such prices, Oxford continued to build council homes. The 260-home Town Furze Estate, near Wood Farm, and the 150-home Laurels, off London Road on the site of the former Headington Union workhouse, were both initially approved in the late 1950s.
Meanwhile pressures on land were forcing the Council to consider building further afield, in Bicester or Abingdon for example. But the one small scheme to materialise was a joint venture with Bullingdon Rural District District Council in the late 1960s in Berinsfield, seven miles to the south-east of Oxford. Berinsfield, built on a former airbase, claims – with its first new permanent housing begun in 1958 – to be ‘the first English village to be built on virgin land for over two hundred years’. (5)
By 1981, 29 percent of Oxford households lived in social rent housing, 52 percent in owner occupied homes and 16 percent in the private rental sector. By 2011, those figures stood at 21 percent, 47 percent and 28 percent respectively. (The latter figure is now said to have reached 33 percent.) Such has been the effect of Margaret Thatcher’s housing counter-revolution. Beyond the obvious impact of Right to Buy, perhaps the most notable features are the failure of Thatcher’s fantasy of owner occupation for all and the rise of private rental housing.
Private rental housing, Gipsy Lane Estate
Many former council homes lost to Right to Buy are now in the private rental sector; nationally the figure is around 40 percent. In Oxford, an estimated one-third of homes on the Gipsy Lane Estate are now Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Visually, this is starkly apparent in the large number of poorly maintained houses and estate’s scrappy overall appearance. A 2014 survey found 13 percent of the city’s private rented homes in a state of disrepair. The Council is currently proposing to extend its licensing scheme for HMO landlords to all 20,000 private rented homes in Oxford with increased powers to fine rogue landlords. (6)
Laurel Farm Close
Surprisingly, the City did build some new social rent homes in the 1980s in necessarily small but attractive, high-quality developments designed by the City Architect’s Department: 23 council houses in Laurel Farm Close, 54 in Mattock Close and 29 flats in North Place.
By the new century, it was clear, however, that Oxford’s growth and relative prosperity made newbuild on a far larger scale imperative; a 2011 Council report estimated 28,000 new homes were needed. One outcome has been Barton Park, on the north-eastern edge of the city just across the A40. It’s a mixed development scheme and a public-private partnership (between Oxford City Council and Grosvenor Developments Ltd) as – with local authorities precluded financially from large-scale construction themselves – is the way nowadays. Construction began in May 2015
A visualisation of the new Barton Park development
The scheme’s Design and Access Statement promises ‘a garden suburb designed for the 21st century; a perfect blend of high-quality urban living that is in harmony with its natural surroundings’. Practically, we can be relatively glad – in these straitened times – that 354 of the 885 new homes planned will be let at social rent, owned and managed by Oxford City Housing Limited, the wholly owned private company set up by the Council to deliver its social housing programme. (7)
It’s a far cry from the decisive state action and huge public investment directed towards the post-war housing crisis. As I write, the Conservative government is promoting planning reform as the means to boost housebuilding. In reality, the private sector has an inbuilt reluctance to build at the scale currently required for fear that market prices – and profits – would fall. Oxford’s history reminds us of the sometimes imperfect but overwhelmingly beneficent and necessary role of the local and national state in building homes for all that need them.
It used to be said that you could always tell the council homes sold under Right to Buy as they had been obviously ‘improved’ (often to the detriment of the cohesion and attractiveness of the estate as a whole). That’s true today but the roles are reversed as Oxford illustrates well. Nowadays, it is the council homes which have been improved – properly modernised and renovated – and Right to Buy homes often unmodernised as their owner occupiers or subsequent buy-to-let landlords are unable or unwilling to pay for renovation. With apologies to the residents who live there, Gipsy Lane is by some way the scruffiest ‘council estate’ I’ve seen – mainly because very few of its homes are now in council ownership and large swathes in the hands of private landlords.
Much of the detail on individual estates in Headington is drawn from the well-researched and informative local history website, Headington History and this page on the area’s newer estates.
(3) JM Mogey, Family and Neighbourhood: Two Studies in Oxford (Oxford University Press, 1956)
(4) On land availability, see CJ Day, Modern Oxford: a History of the City from 1771 (Reprinted from the Victoria County History of Oxford by Oxford County Libraries, 1983); on the 1949 proposals, see Alan Crosby, ‘Housing and Urban Renewal: Oxford 1918-1985’ in Kate Tiller and Giles Darkes (eds), An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire Record Society, ORS vol 67, 2010)
(7) The first quotation is drawn from Mick Jaggard and Bob Price, ‘Active place-making – the Barton Park joint venture’, Town and Country Planning, vol 84, no 6, 2015 June/July; other details from David Lynch, ‘Eight new council houses rented out at Barton Park’, Oxford Daily Mail, 10 June 2020.
My first reblog and a little self-serving but I would also recommend Red Brick to anyone with an interest in contemporary housing policy. Apologies for the recent lack of original posting but normal service will be resumed shortly.
John Boughton’s ‘Municipal Dreams’ website was a breath of fresh air when it first appeared four or five years ago. The Government had ended direct investment in new social rented homes, the housing sector had all but given up the struggle, and the council housing finance reforms, developed by John Healey when Labour was in power but implemented by the Tories in 2011, which had offered hope for a new generation of council homes, had been undermined to the point where they had become almost worthless.
It felt like a last act of defiance when the SHOUT campaign for social housing was launched in 2014 – although things were to get worse (the 2015 Housing and Planning Act) before they started to get better. And then Grenfell changed everything.
‘Municipal Dreams’ took a different approach from the economic and political arguments that SHOUT deployed. The website started with the aim…
My apologies for not posting much on the blog recently. My book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing was published by Verso in April and things have been hectic since then. I’ve more posts in the pipeline – on Nottingham, Hull, Thetford, Liverpool and London but just need to find the time to complete the research and write them up. Guest posts from people with expertise in their local area are also still very welcome.
So that’s my excuse but, if that comes across as self-important, I want to say two things. Firstly, a big thank you to everyone who has read and supported the blog since it began over five years ago. Your interest helped the blog succeed – it’s had over 960,000 views to date – and the book which followed would not have been possible without you.
Secondly, that welcome for the book and media interest tells us that its subject-matter is timely and important. This reflects, I think, both a very broad concern over the current housing crisis and an increasing belief that a significant programme of public housing is needed to solve it. People are hungry for a positive (but open-eyed) narrative of council housing which records its past achievements and testifies to its potential.
Nearly all the interviews have revolved around three key questions.
One, ‘why council housing?’ The simple answer is that the private sector has never been able or willing to supply decent affordable housing on the scale required, not in the nineteenth century, nor today.
Two, ‘what went wrong?’ I will always challenge the premise and prejudice of that question; beyond the stigmatising stereotypes, so much didn’t go wrong for so many. But I also try to explain what did change and how, in many ways, council estates are better understood as the victim of that change rather than its agent.
Three, ‘can we build again?’ The answer, of course, is ‘yes’. We have built huge numbers of decent council homes in the past when the country was poorer than it is at present, sometimes in periods of genuine austerity. We have the means to build; we require the political will and vision.
In an interview with Forbes Magazine, I made the economic case for a renewed programme of public housing as both an investment in our people and their well-being and as an essential part of any broader housing market. Currently, we choose to subsidise an inefficient market system and private landlordism. Investment in secure, decent and affordable social housing would improve the lives and well-being of millions and in the longer-term, pay for itself. In the shorter term, it might – as the tragic case of Grenfell Tower reminds us – save lives.
And that brings us back to the moral case for properly funded and resourced public housing, as compelling now as it was when the long, proud story of council housing began in the mid-nineteenth century.
This is the second of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall. Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing. That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.
As we saw in last week’s post, Walsall’s and the nation’s housing programme stalled in 1920 but the drive to provide decent working-class homes revived in the mid-1920s and in the 1930s was joined by a determined effort to address the slum conditions afflicting so many. In both, Walsall took a prominent role though it was dominated by a Conservative-Liberal ‘anti-socialist’ alliance which outnumbered a growing but disunited Labour presence on the Council.
Neville Chamberlain’s 1923 Housing Act kick-started this process nationally but it was under the more generous 1924 Act passed by a short-lived Labour government that council housebuilding in Walsall took off. In fact, the Borough built 4204 homes under the 1924 Act, a rate of housebuilding – at 40.8 homes per 1000 of its population – which placed it second among county boroughs only to Carlisle, ironically another council dominated by a self-declared anti-socialist alliance. (1)
Brockhurst Street, Fullbrook
In January 1925, as the town’s housing shortage (blamed in the Council on the lack of skilled labour and building materials) became apparent once more, it was agreed to purchase land for housing purposes in Pleck. Three months later the Council approved a large scheme of 1671 houses at a cost of over £750,000. (2)
By this time, cheaper non-parlour homes were preferred (parlour homes formed only 12 per cent of the new build compared to 40 per cent in the 1919 programme) but – at 98 per cent of the total – three-bed family homes dominated. These early Walsall estates featured ‘a small range of standard designs, either semi-detached pairs or “triplets”’. Their solid redbrick housing can be seen across Walsall, still providing good decent homes even if the purists will regret the replacement of their original wooden casement windows ‘by bland UPVC’. (3)
Homes on the Poets Estate, Harden
A second wave of construction under the 1924 Act began in 1930. In April, the Council purchased a 91.5 acre site between Field Road and Blakenall, sufficient for 1000 homes and three months later, the Council voted, without division, to build 500 immediately. (4) Despite this ambition and a rapid scale of construction (2417 houses were built in the five years to 1930), Walsall was running to stand still and its waiting list for homes had actually increased in the same period by 1500 to 3500. (5)
In the late summer of 1930, a new Housing Act – the product of another brief and minority Labour government – received the Royal Assent which instigated a new direction for the national housing programme. Arthur Greenwood’s legislation focused on the slums which continued to blight working-class lives in huge numbers by providing financial incentives for slum clearance and obliging local authorities to rehouse all those displaced.
West Bromwich Road, Palfrey
Walsall responded rapidly. A special joint meeting of the Council’s Housing and Health Committees in December 1930 proposed a £1.8m five-year building programme for 5000 houses – 4000 to meet ordinary needs and 1000 for slum clearance. In the end, a still impressive scheme of 4000 new homes was agreed. The first ‘clearance area’ (an area of housing designated ‘insanitary’ under the terms of the 1930 Act) was declared at the same time.
Alderman Hucker, the Labour chair of the Health Committee, stated that the Council had spent £28,000 in last five years dealing with epidemics: (6)
He believed the slum clearance question had never been tackled before in the borough but under the 1930 Housing Act they were able to make a start to give the people better living conditions.
In larger towns, central slum clearance typically required its replacement by multi-storey flats (still no more than five or six storeys so long as lifts were deemed too costly for working-class homes) if housing densities were to be maintained and people kept close to their work. Walsall was small enough for the time being to escape this fate and was able, as one councillor urged, to rehouse ‘people in spaces where there was plenty of fresh air’. (7)
Talke Road, Fullbrook
This time all the new homes were non-parlour but all were standard two-storey houses – yet again three-bed homes dominated – with the exception of the 344 one-bed bungalows constructed, reflecting the needs of elderly persons rather than the younger families to whom council housing had overwhelmingly catered for previously.
The Ministry of Health’s 1933 circular stipulating that henceforth all public housing subsidies were to be dedicated solely to schemes of slum clearance sharpened the Council’s focus. By 1934, some 1159 houses were scheduled for demolition and some 5200 people rehoused. It represented one in twenty of the Borough’s total housing stock.
Dorsett Place, Leamore
Despite this, the Council’s Chief Sanitary Inspector, CA Stansbury defended the Victorian ‘jerry-builder’ (and supplied the quotation marks). The houses they built were apparently already being described as ‘desirable working class investment properties’ and practically all, in his view, were ‘readily capable of being kept in a fit state for human habitation at reasonable expense’. In this, he might be seen as prescient, anticipating both the rehabilitation drive of the later 1960s and the more recent cachet of some of these once condemned older terraces.
He challenged some conventional wisdom, however – that which we’ve seen in Walsall and elsewhere which blamed the personal failings of slum dwellers for their living conditions: (8)
A new spirit is abroad, these folk are getting anxious to move, and, what is more important, are reacting to their improved conditions ; they are now fit to take their place as worthy citizens in our towns. It is amazing to see how some of them set about getting their new house and garden in order. It is then that one realises that this programme is worthwhile. There are black sheep, of course, but there is high hope for the future.
Under the National Government’s 1935 Housing Act, the attack on slum living acquired a new metric – overcrowding. All local authorities were required to survey local conditions and in Walsall it was revealed that almost five per cent of its 26,894 households were living in overcrowded conditions. Surprisingly, some 519 families living in the town’s 5491 council homes were found to be overcrowded; at 9 per cent a rate of overcrowding which exceeded that in private homes (3.6 per cent). The anomaly was blamed on the slightly smaller rooms of council housing though it might reflect too the prevalence of young and larger families living in council homes. A proposal to build 500 new homes of which 350 would be four- to five-bedroom was made to address the point. (9)
11 Walstead Road, now privately owned.
In March 1935, Walsall’s 5000th council home was opened – at 11 Walstead Road West in Delves Green. This was part of an extensive building programme in the town’s southern suburbs – some 400 homes had been completed by the mid-thirties in Fulbrook and Delves Green; around 1000 in Palfrey.
In a clockwise direction, new large estates were developed to the west between Wolverhampton Road and Pleck Road and to the north, where Walsall proper merged into Bloxwich, Leamore, Harden and Goscote.
There was little rebuilding in the centre but further slum clearance was agreed in 1936 around St Matthew’s Church and, further north, around Coal Pool. A new estate was built in the latter in the late 1930s. By 1937, it was reckoned that 107 clearance areas had been declared in the town and some 2262 houses represented as unfit. (10) But much remained to be done. Although almost 11,000 people had been rehoused, around 556 condemned homes were still in occupation. And when war broke out and new construction was halted, only 2664 houses of the 4000 planned in the 1930s had been built. (11)
Nursery Road, Leamore. The distinctive garden walls seem to have been a feature of most of Walsall’s interwar housing.
During the war itself, despite its importance as an industrial centre, Walsall suffered relatively lightly from the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids. In 1944, it even acted as a safe haven for around 1500 evacuees from the V1 and V2 bombing raids in London. (12) Nevertheless, lack of maintenance and the cessation of new construction created in Walsall, as elsewhere, an immediate housing crisis as the country turned towards peacetime reconstruction.
Prefabs on Alumwell Road
The 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act committed £150 million to a programme of prefabricated homes and Walsall was allocated some 446 of the 156,623 two-bed bungalows that sprung up across the country. The first was erected on Alumwell Road in September 1945. With a projected life-span of ten years, many in Walsall survived into the 1970s.
Despite that longevity, the prefabs were understood as a temporary fix. In 1945, the local housing waiting list stood at 5000 and thoughts had already turned to the creation of the modern, permanent homes that its people both needed and – with expectations raised – demanded.
The next post after Christmas looks at Walsall’s extensive building programme in the post-war era. Much of this built on earlier achievements and forms but by the later 1950s multi-storey and high-rise solutions entered the mix too and a new chapter of council housing history took off.
(1) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954 and John H Jennings, ‘Geographical Implications of the Municipal Housing Programme in England and Wales, 1919-1939’, Urban Studies, vol 8, No 121, 1971
(2) ‘Walsall Town Council. Housing Problems Discussed’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 17 January 1925 and ‘Walsall Town Council. Big Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 March 1925
(3) Peter Arnold, A Guide to the Buildings of Walsall (Tempus, 2003)
(4) ‘Walsall Town Council. Big Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 March 1925, ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Site Purchased’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 5 April 1930 and ‘Walsall Town Council. More Houses to be Built’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 19 July 1930
(5) ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Programme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 20 December 1930
(6) ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Programme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 20 December 1930 and AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954
(7) ‘Walsall Town Council. Slum Clearance’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 13 May 1933
I’m on my hols but there is an addition to the blog today – a new page (which will be updated) which provides a location and brief details of all the posts to date. You can click on the link just provided or find it at any time by clicking on the ‘Map of the Blog’ link at the top right of the page.
The map of the blog – the real thing is interactive and allows you to zoom in
I’ve tried to ensure a decent geographical coverage but it reminds me that there’s plenty of good stuff out there which deserves coverage. I’m very happy to receive suggestions (recommended sources and detail always welcome!) of places and topics to cover or guest posts if there’s something you would like to share.
When I came to consider local government, I began to see how it was in essence the first-line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies – poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment. The battle is not faultlessly conducted, nor are the motives of those who take part in it all righteous or disinterested. But the war is, I believe, worth fighting and this corporate action is at least based upon recognition of one fundamental truth about human nature – we are not only single individuals, each face to face with eternity and our separate spirits; we are members one of another.
The words of Winifred Holtby in 1936.
I started this blog back in January to celebrate the efforts and achievements of our early municipal reformers. I’m taking a break this week but it’s an opportunity to review what’s been covered and, if you’re new to the blog, provide a little tour of what you’ve missed.
WE Riley’s plans for the White Hart Lane Estate
There’s been a lot about housing – probably the most important sphere of municipal endeavour and the one with the largest direct impact on the masses of people. The 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act provided the initial breakthrough, seized upon by the London County Council, most famously, in Arts and Crafts-inspired developments at Millbank, Totterdown Fields and the White Hart Lane Estate but also by smaller, progressive councils such as Sheffield in the Flower Estate and Battersea in the Latchmere Estate.
The First World War gave impetus and urgency to the efforts of government to house the people, supported by Housing Acts and financial subsidies of greater or lesser generosity. The fruits of these were seen principally in the massive new ‘garden suburbs’ such as the LCC’s Becontree and Downham and Woolwich’s Page Estatein the London outskirts and Manchester City Council’s Wythenshawe Estate, then seen as ‘the world of the future’.
For most, working people and housing reformers, ‘a cottage home for every family’ remained the ideal, seen most clearly in Bermondsey’s small Wilson Grove Estate. More pragmatic councils in densely settled boroughs embraced tenement building such as that in Aldenham House and Wolcot House, St Pancras.
Housing architecture and thinking were generally conservative but there were some early modernist designs, inspired by Continental example – in the LCC’s Ossulston Estate, for example. Leeds’ massive Quarry Hill scheme was an inner-city product of the first large-scale slum clearance efforts of the 1930s.
War, ‘the locomotive of history’, brought even more radical changes in housing after 1945. The Lansbury Estate in Poplar, for all its proclaimed modernity, was something of a throwback. Blackbird Leys in Oxford was also a postwar estate which echoed earlier suburban developments.
The Spa Green Estate, from Margaret and Alexander Potter’s Houses, 1948
But as ambitions, scale and urgency grew, council housing grew higher and denser. The Spa Green Estate in Finsbury was an early progressive vision of high-rise housing. Park Hill – those ‘streets in the sky’ in Sheffield – represents the trend at its most far-reaching.
Resistance or backlash to high-rise on an industrial scale began in the late sixties, seen initially in Camden Council’s commitment to high-quality, low-rise housing such as that in the Alexandra Estate and Branch Hill and – in a different key – to Newcastle’s commitment to re-created community at Byker.
If housing met one of the most basic human needs, it was understood by municipal reformers as part of a wider environment which they sought to make healthier and more humane.
Bermondsey Borough Council – as in so many things – took the lead here with its vision of beautifying that inner-city borough. Victoria Park in London’s East End is a more typical city park but a great democratic exemplar of what parks can do to improve lives and lift spirits.
Planning on a larger scale was much more a post-Second World War ideal. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 deserves wider notice as a truly progressive but, in the best sense, conservative measure. Planning as a tool of benevolent social engineering has had less impact but Plymouth can be fairly described as our ‘first great welfare state city’.
Abram Games’ 1943 poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre
All such work was in the service of a healthier life for the masses of people. Local government – before the creation of a national health service in 1948 – was in the forefront of direct healthcare provision. We’ve looked at Bermondsey, for whose socialist councillors there was ‘no wealth but life’, Finsbury where nothing was ‘too good for ordinary people’ and Woolwich as examples of the range and scale of this commitment.
Baths and washhouses were less striking – though ambitions could run high as seen in the Ironmonger Row Baths, Finsbury – but important contributors to the amelioration of working-class living conditions. ‘Healthy recreation and personal cleanliness…for the health and well-being of our people’ were not such trivial goals.
Shoreditch Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, 1923
If healthcare measures were particularly dedicated to the raising of new generations so, of course, was education – also a scene of municipal pride and endeavour as we’ve noted in the case of the London School Board. Its schools – those ‘sermons in brick’ – were ‘beacons of the future’, harbingers of a ‘wiser, better England’.
With all this proper focus on reforms which not only improved lives but in many cases saved them, a celebration of town halls might seem a distraction but this blog celebrates local government and a reforming, progressive spirit of civic pride and local identity which is sometimes best seen in its great monuments.
That’s a rather lengthy list but I hope it shows what we owe to local government and how vital that work remains. The blog will continue to commemorate the effort and enterprise of our local councils and municipal reformers – men and women up and down the country who dedicated their lives to elevating the condition of the people.
If you support this endeavour, please continue to read the blog, spread the word and please feel free to contribute your own ideas and your own pet projects to the continuing record.
Let’s celebrate this ‘first-line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies’.