Preston’s Council Housing, Part I to 1939: ‘Compactness, Convenience and Taste’



In 1709, Preston was described as ‘a very pretty town with abundance of gentry in it; commonly called Proud Preston’.  The gentry may have disappeared and the town (a city since 2002) changed out of all recognition but the appellation has remained. Local pride might be seen now in what has been dubbed the ‘Preston model’ – a form of ‘guerrilla localism’ in the words of Aditya Chakrabortty; a scheme of community wealth building based on plural ownership of the economy, local procurement and socially productive use of land and property. (1)

The Preston Martyrs Memorial on Lune Street by Gordon Young, commemorates the four strikers killed in 1842 © Andrew Gritt and made available through a Creative Commons licence

These posts will look at what might be properly understood as an earlier form of community wealth building – the city’s history of council housebuilding.  That history was rooted in a common experience though one writ large in the Lancashire town – industrialisation and urbanisation. Preston’s first cotton mill was opened in 1777; by 1835, there were 40. Working conditions (and Chartism) led to a general strike in 1842 during which four protestors were shot dead by the military. An eight-month lockout and strike in 1853-54, witnessed by Charles Dickens, inspired his famous description of ‘Coketown’ in Hard Times:

a town of red brick or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and  black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever and never got uncoiled.

Karl Marx added his own excited commentary: ‘The eyes of the working classes are now fully opened, they begin to cry: Our St. Petersburg is at Preston!’. (2)

A Preston townscape. The lithograph shows unemployed mill hands at work on Preston Moors in 1862 during the ‘Cotton Famine’ caused by the American Civil War

St Petersburg/Petrograd may have come good for Marx in 1917 but Preston’s municipal politics in the interwar period in its first great era of council housebuilding were, as we’ll see, to be far more collaborative and collegiate.

Preston’s population grew from under 12,000 in 1801 to 117,000 in 1920 and its insanitary terraced housing brought cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1848 and a major typhus epidemic in 1862. Infant mortality rates remained well above the national average – in the early 1890s standing at 235 deaths per thousand against an English average of 151 –  but they fell before the First World War as the Corporation converted privies to water closets at the rate of 1- to 2000 a year. Living standards remained low, however, with the prevalence of female employment (around 30 percent of married women worked in the mills in 1905) having the collateral effect of reducing male wages. (3)

An active housing improvement programme notwithstanding, the council – a county borough since 1881 – had no interest in housebuilding. It remained – despite the election of its first Labour councillor in 1904 – a largely Conservative borough. However, as was typical across the country, the First World War changed much.

Basil Street, Deepdale Estate

This wind of change was illustrated powerfully by the March 1918 Local Government Board circular requesting local authorities to provide detail of ‘definite building schemes’ and numbers of new council homes projected. Preston Borough Council discussed the circular in April, not only forming a Housing Committee but identifying land in Moor Park and Deepdale (near the Preston North End football ground) as suitable for building. It was one of 1300 councils replying by the deadline of December 1918. (4)

Thereafter, progress was slow and more controversial. By February 1919, the Preston Trades and Labour Council (PTLC) was viewing ‘with regret the inaction of the Town Council in the matter of housing’,  Next month, the Housing Committee resigned when its detailed plans for an estate at Holme Slack were rejected by full council which instructed it ‘to advertise and offer prizes for competitive designs’.  In May, the PTLC intervened again, decrying the paucity of council proposals and demanding that ‘at least 50 per cent of direct representatives of labour should be co-opted’ to serve on the now reconstituted Housing Committee.

That proposal was deemed unlawful – the Preston Building Trades Employers’ Association had also expressed their displeasure – but it’s an interesting sign of local politics and national trends that it was agreed in September to co-opt two members of the PTLC alongside one representative of the Preston Property Owners Association. The emphasis on women’s voices on housing in this post-war period (discussed in a recent post) was reflected in the inclusion of one representative of the (Conservative) Preston Women Citizens’ Association and one from the local Women’s Cooperative Guild. (5)

All this before the 1919 Housing Act, overseen by Christopher Addison, received its Royal Assent in July. The housing needs survey required of all local authorities was produced by Preston in October when the Medical Officer of Health reported that 980 local homes were overcrowded, 136 unfit for habitation and 12 areas comprising in total 806 houses justified clearance. Up to 2000 new homes were needed. (6)

By then progress had been made. The government’s regional Housing Commissioner had visited the town in May and plans for estates of around 500 homes each in Holme Slack and Ribbleton had been approved.  At this point the Council was taking an unusually close interest in the fine detail of the proposed housing.

This image of Waldon Street on the Callon Estate shows more recent streetscape improvements made by the City Council

Members of the Housing Committee visited Merseyside for ideas and models as well as the Daily Express Model Homes Exhibition in London. In November 1919, a subcommittee was appointed to ‘consider the construction, materials and equipment of the houses’ and later in the month four pages of detailed written notes were provided covering such minutiae as tarmacked garden paths and concrete clothes posts. (In further testimony to the hands-on approach taken here, handwritten notes in the archives record the names and addresses of new council house tenants.) (7)

The new houses were (as required) cottage homes built to Tudor Walters standards but the Council sought to go further by insisting on 8ft 6in height ceilings, rather than the 8ft recommended. It would compromise on this issue – it was agreed upper-floor ceilings should be 8ft high – under protest. The Council was less successful in insisting on lower rents than those demanded centrally.  Rents of 8s (40p) and 10s (50p) for two- and three-bed non-parlour house respectively were agreed but the Council’s plea that the larger parlour houses were ‘intended to be tenanted by large families with young children’ was rejected and these were let at 12s 6d (62½p) and 15s (75p). (8)

Despite the generous financial terms of the 1919 Act, the expectation was that rents would be ‘economic’ and, with Preston’s new council homes costing between £891 and £976 to build, those rents would be out of reach to many.  The Council, as was typical in this post-war era, prioritised ex-servicemen and their widows in its allocations policy but by 1930, in socio-economic terms, only some 38 percent of Holme Slack heads of households could be classified as manual working class; 30 percent belonged to the non-manual working class whilst 17 percent comprised those in professional, managerial or commercial categories. (9)

Practical problems of materials and labour shortages delayed construction despite the special subcommittee (which included representatives from the Preston Master Builders’ Association and Preston Building Trades Operatives) appointed in May 1920 to overcome supply difficulties and the strong action in November when the Council used its powers under the Housing (Additional Powers) Act to temporarily halt construction of non-essential work on a cinema. (10)

Early council housing on Chestnut Crescent, Ribbleton Estate

The first two houses on the Ribbleton Estate, one opened as a show home, were completed in March 1921. Designed by local architects Messrs JH and W Maugan and reflecting the attention paid by the Council to their design, the local press was suitably complimentary: (11)

The house furnished for the exhibition at once suggests compactness, convenience and taste … [The estate] comprises blocks of two, three and four houses arranged on the garden city plan. There are no continuous and monotonous lines of houses.

A cupboard and glass cabinet in the parlour, linen cupboard and wardrobe in the main bedroom, ‘ample provision in the way of shelves’ as well as the sanitary necessities that would previously have been luxuries to many of the new tenants, all made this high-quality accommodation, ‘tastefully treated’ throughout. (12) 

Homes on Manor Road, the Holme Slack Estate

If the new residents were grateful, they were far from humble. A Holme Slack Householders’ Association had been formed by September 1921 whose main object was to: (13)

inculcate and foster a spirit of mutual endeavour in all things calculated to promote the welfare of the new district, having special regard to the upkeep of the gardens and the appearance of the dwellings.

That mix of pride and expectation was reflected in complaints about the unfinished nature of the early estates, illustrated by the Ribbleton Estate Tenants’ Association ‘strong disapproval at the deplorable condition of [its] roads, pathways and system of drainage’.  Such criticisms – typical of estates nationwide where completed housing was prioritised above infrastructure – continued into 1922. (14)

The generous housing programme of the Addison Act was axed in July 1921 but a broadly cross-party commitment to build council housing in Preston remained. In July 1923, the Council agreed to recommence housebuilding without government grant but Labour’s 1924 Housing Act restored a more generous level of financial support that enabled it to embark on a much larger programme – 1910 houses under its terms by 1932.

Waldon Street on the Callon Estate

The Miller Road Estate of 165 homes was sanctioned in July 1924; the Callon Estate of 591 homes in October. Other significant estates were built at Delaware Street, Deepdale and Greenlands alongside an extension to the Ribbleton Estate. The new homes were generally slightly smaller than those built under Addison and overwhelmingly non-parlour; the large Callon estate contained 10 parlour homes.  

Another attempt to build more cost-effectively was seen in the acceptance of a tender from Makinsons of Horwich to build ten steel-framed houses: a ‘system of roofing before walls are built’ as the Lancashire Daily Post reported it, having the ‘the advantage that the houses were erected more quickly than by the ordinary method’.  The reference to Blackpool in the report suggests these were a licensed variant of the ‘Dennis Wild’ houses built in that town – one of a number of largely unsuccessful attempts to apply prefabrication to housebuilding in the era. The fact that nothing more is heard of this experiment suggests it fared little better. (15)

The pre-war Greenlands Estate

The high rents of this early council housing excluded many of the poorest of local residents and slum housing remained on a large scale.  In October 1924, the Medical Officer of Health recommended the clearance of the Marsh Lane area, ‘condemned on the ground of its narrowness, closeness, bad light, and want of air and proper ventilation’.  Of 118 houses inspected, nearly all were structurally defective. The Health Committee had rejected the proposal but in full council it was passed by 25 votes to 16. The Labour councillor HE Rhodes expressed the view that: (16)

The property owners who allowed their property to get into such a condition should not be paid compensation, but should be recommended for penal servitude, because they were murdering the child life of the town. The property … was a disgrace to the town and was situated in an area where the streets were bad and where there was nothing beautiful. He appealed to the committee to go on with the work and make one bright spot in the place.

That was perhaps an unusually trenchant intervention from a Labour representative; elsewhere the party has been criticised by some for its accommodation with existing civic elites. That came to a head in 1928 when Labour (with 22 councillors) formed a majority of elected members but controversially abided by a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that retained an overall Conservative majority through the latter’s number of aldermen. In an apparent quid pro quo, Labour councillor WE Morris became chair of the Housing Committee.  On the other hand, as we shall see so far as housing was concerned at least, there remained a reforming majority so it may be equally plausible to commend a broadly progressive (though contested) cross-party consensus on the matter.

Bay Road, the Ribbleton Estate

In fact, Preston was ahead of many authorities in tackling slum clearance in the 1920s but that issue would be prioritised nationally in housing legislation in 1930 and 1935. In October 1931, three further central areas were designated for clearance and a programme of 600 new council homes proposed, generally in extensions to existing suburban estates. (17)

The problem that more distant estates and continuingly relatively high rents precluded some in greatest need was seized on by some hostile to public housing more generally.  In 1933, Cllr JS Howard argued ‘the time had come when they ought to stop municipal building, especially as there were quite a number of tenants who ought not to occupy municipal houses’. He advocated some form of means test. More sympathetically, Cllr Blackburn observed: (18)

that many of the people displaced by slum clearance schemes were not remaining in the houses provided for them by the Corporation, but drifting back to their old surroundings. The slum clearance problem was too hastily met by building houses in the suburbs. The need should be met by some other method, such as the building of flats or other suitable dwelling.

This was a genuine problem but the fact that over 600 families on an over 2000-strong waiting list for council homes were living in shared accommodation ensured that opposition to newbuild was easily overcome.

Housing on Grizewood Avenue in the pre-war Moor Nook Estate

The Great Depression, whilst it did not hit a slightly more diversified and modernising economy in Preston as strongly as it did elsewhere, brought new hardships. The National Unemployed Workers Movement’s plea for a 10 percent rent reduction across the board in January 1932 was rejected. But general rent reductions (ranging from 4d to 1s 6d a week on weekly rents ranging between 6s 9d to 9s) were agreed in 1933 and 1934. Preston also implemented the provision of the 1930 Housing Act which gave the power to enact rent rebate schemes by granting reduced rents to displaced slum dwellers according to family size and income. (19)

The Farringdon Park Estate as planned and with completed homes in 1950

The housing survey required by the 1935 Housing Act revealed 1399 houses ‘not in all respects fit for human habitation’. By 1938, as some 300 new council homes were being built on the Thirlmere and Farringdon Park estates, it was reported this number had fallen to 980.  In all, the Borough Council had provided some 2847 new council homes between the wars.

The war itself would bring new challenges and new expectations and those will be discussed in next week’s post.


(1) See Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘In 2011 Preston hit rock bottom. Then it took back control’, The Guardian, 31 January 2018 and  Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Preston City Council, How We Built Community Wealth in Preston: Achievements and Lessons (July 2019)

(2) Karl Marx, ‘Only the Beginning’, New York Daily Tribune, 1 August 1854

(3) Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Standards of Living in Three Lancashire Towns, 1890-1914’, International Review of Social History, vol 27, no 1, 1982

(4) William Hudson, ‘Welfarism Anew? Territorial Politics and Inter-War State Housing in Three Lancashire Towns’, University of Liverpool PhD, 2002

(5) See Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923, Lancashire Archives

(6) ‘Preston Council Housing Scheme Approved’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 October 1919

(7) 19 September and 12 November 1919, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923. See also DR Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919, with special reference to Lancashire’, University of Lancaster PhD, 1986. On new tenancies, see, for example, the minutes of the Housing Sub-Committee dated 16 July 1930.

(8) See Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919’, Hudson, ‘Welfarism Anew?’, and ‘Preston Housing’, Lancashire Daily Post, 29 July 1920

(9) See Michael Savage, The Dynamics of Working-Class Politics: The Labour Movement in Preston, 1880-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

(10) See 24 November 1920 Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923 and Beattie, ‘The Origins, Implementation and Legacy of the Addison Housing Act 1919’

(12) ‘Preston Housing Scheme’, Lancashire Daily Post, 24 March 1921

(13) 14 September 1921, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923

(14) 23 November 1921, 3 March 1922 and 27 June 1922, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/1 1919-1923

(15) ‘Preston Town Council Tenders For 50 More Houses. A System of Roofing Before Walls Are Built’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 October 1924

(16) ‘Preston’s Unhealthy Areas’, Lancashire Daily Post, 27 November 1924

(17) ‘Demolition of Houses. Animated Discussion at Preston Council Meeting’, Lancashire Daily Post, 29 October 1931

(18) ‘Preston Council Debate Housing’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 March 1933

(19) On the NUWM delegation, see 13 January 1932; on rent reductions and rebates see, minutes in March 1933 and 1934, Preston Borough Council, Housing Committee Minutes: CBP 32/3 1929-1939

Cottingham’s Council Housing, Part II from 1930: New Forms of Housing Provision


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I’m very pleased to feature the second post from Peter Claxton on Cottingham. Peter rekindled his love of history at university following his retirement having spent 40 years working in IT. 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. He is currently researching the contentious relationship between private interests and public improvements with regards to health and housing in Kingston upon Hull between 1854 and 1914.

In my previous blog I reviewed the first ‘tentative steps’ made by the Cottingham Urban District Council (UDC) regarding the provision of council housing between 1921 and 1930. In this follow-up blog, I pick up the story in the early 1930s and examine the efforts of the local authority through to the 1960s. It was a time, when for a brief period, provision was undertaken by someone with a national reputation, the village witnesses the creation of the ubiquitous council estate and the local authority ‘strayed away’ from the standard tendering process.

In 1932 with land remaining on the Southwood Estate, for some unexplained reason – possibly hoping to sell yet again at a favourable price – the council purchased land on the north side of the village to erect a further 18 houses. At 1/7d per square yard, it was in fact double the price paid in 1919. Superficial areas were now reduced to 760 and 630 feet super for the three- and two-bedroomed houses. Building again under the 1924 Act, with guidance from TC Slack, Surveyor to the Council, the Park Lane contract was awarded to Robert Greenwood Tarran who at the time was planning his own and subsequently ill-fated garden suburb just to the east of Cottingham.

Robert Tarran

Tarran enjoyed considerable success during the 1930s and 40s, and was known to adopt, when necessary, a somewhat cavalier approach to both business and civic duties. He later became the city’s Sheriff, welcoming the King and Queen to Hull in August 1941 following the heavy bombing raids in May. As Chief Air-Raid Warden, he instigated a personal crusade assisting many of the citizens to ‘trek’ out of Hull each evening to escape the ever-present threat of air-raids. Press exposure and concerns over morale ensured that the early evening movement of citizens out to the countryside, was eventually, placed on a more formal footing.

An advert for Tarran houses in the Hull Daily Mail, 23 August 1934
Tarran houses in Park Lane dating to 1932

Tarran frequently attracted both criticism and publicity in the press. None more so than his company’s involvement as a contractor for the Leeds City Council on the futuristic Quarry Hill flats. Suffice to say that the acrimonious relationships between the parties involved with the build – relating primarily to the pre-fabrication of the blocks with which to cloak the building’s steelwork – extended the project considerably.

Quarry Hill © Leeds Library and Information Service

Yet for Tarran overcoming the on-site casting difficulties proved to be of immense value during the post-war push for prefabricated housing. Under the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, Tarran Industries manufactured in excess of 19,000 homes. After exhibiting a pre-fabricated house at the Tate in London, he erected, under the public’s gaze, his ‘Experimental House’ close to his works in Hull. The four-day process attracted more than 6000 visitors; a tactic he had previously employed in the city during the 1930s when his company built a pair of wooden ‘Cedar Houses’. A benefit of such a house, according to one of the first residents, was that you could ‘hang a picture without swearing.’ When it came to large-scale speedy production, to some, Tarran was the ‘Henry Ford’ of housing! (1)

Ad advert from the Hull Daily Mail, 1 May 1944

By the middle of the 1930s the council completed the Southwood Estate building 20 dwellings a mix of two and three-bedroomed non-parlour houses under the 1933 Housing Act. It was however a swan-song for the Cottingham UDC, as a reorganisation of local authority areas in March 1935 – the second in seven years – resulted in its demise. The same fate befell the adjacent Hessle UDC, with the provision of housing becoming the responsibility of the newly formed and much larger Haltemprice UDC. In Cottingham between 1918 and 1939, seven percent (86) of the houses had been by local authority provision.

Phase 3 of the Southwood Estate

The post-war push for housing was manifest in the immediacy of the actions taken by the Haltemprice UDC. A swift yet temporary measure was the requisitioning of numerous large houses, becoming ‘makeshift’ accommodation for multiple occupancy. On a similar tack, former Ministry of Defence Nissen and Maycrete huts in the district were acquired and converted into temporary housing. One such site close to Cottingham had previously served as a National Services Hostel housing refugees from the Netherlands.

The shortage of accommodation was further tempered by the allocation of 30 AW Hawksley prefabricated aluminium bungalows, the first one completed was opened by Mr Thomas Williams, Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food. in 1949. It is interesting to note that with a unit price of approximately £1450, taking a £600 subsidy plus Exchequer grant into account, at just over £2 per foot super, the temporary aluminium bungalows were close to twice the target build price of conventional permanent housing.

AW Hawksley Aluminium Bungalows in Letchworth © Simon Trew and made available by a Creative Commons licence
Thomas Williams, later Baron Williams of Barnburgh; public domain
1960s permanent council housing replacing Hawksley bungalows

The provision of permanent local authority housing from 1946 onwards was achieved in a number of ways, represented today in the form of the Bacon Garth Estate plus a number of smaller ad hoc developments around the village. The post-war estate is now the usual mix of privately owned properties purchased under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, and those that remain within the remit of the East Riding of Yorkshire County Council. Irrespective of the modifications made to many of those properties now privately owned, the estate continues to confirm central government’s post-war intentions of equitable housing for the masses.

Bacon Garth Estate, the Parkway

The construction of the estate at the southern edge of the village, continued on an ‘as the needs dictate’ basis for more than 20 years, and now reflects the changing form of local authority provision. In 1946 the Ministry of Health requested that a minimum of four designs be adopted to avoid monotony and further insisted that a maximum build price of 22/3d per foot super be negotiated, the achievement of which regularly exacerbated the relationships between local authority, contractors and ministry. On one occasion an additional 2d per foot super was deemed unacceptable. Still with a preponderance of agricultural workers in the area – following instructions from the Ministry of Health – a number of horticulturalists were the first to be allocated permanent houses.

1949 Agricultural workers’ houses, Bacon Garth Estate

As an alternative to the standard practice of closed tenders – with contracts invariably awarded to the company with the cheapest quote – used during each phase of construction of the estate, to something a little less formal, the results could be markedly different. On several occasions the council used the Small Builders’ Scheme (SBS), the origins of which were based around a submission to the Ministry of Health by the building trade. Comprising of two parts, the first enabled local authorities to employ a builder to erect houses on his own plot(s) of land and purchase upon completion. The second part empowered councils to provide the land on which properties could be constructed on its behalf.

Using both options, the Haltemprice UDC acquired small clusters of properties around the village. Catering for the building of dwellings of a minimum 900 foot super, at prices that did not exceed those in tenders for comparable properties, there was also flexibility over design. Thus with options to negotiate a build price prior to construction, or purchase price post-construction, councils were well-positioned to procure limited numbers of houses that mirrored private provision. I suspect that today, there are very few, if any Cottingham residents mindful of the origins of these small assemblages.

A good example of the SBS is in evidence at the Hull-Cottingham boundary. Across three phases 52 houses were built along one of the arterial roads from Hull into Cottingham. A variety of designs successfully avoided the monotony so often the case along our main roads. 

Hull Road Cottingham, built 1948 under the Small Builders’ Scheme
Small Builders’ Scheme, looking towards Cottingham

When the opportunity arose in 1947, the council purchased 20 houses close to the centre of the village on the newly built Westfield Estate. And in so doing created an enclave of local authority housing amid those offered for sale. But as the saying goes, ‘beauty is only skin deep’, and one can only hazard a guess as to whether or not the internal finish of houses purchased under the SBS always matched their external appearance.

An incident on the Westfield Estate suggests that sometimes this might not be the case. The baths in all 20 houses were found to be defective and had to be replaced by the council. On this occasion, purchasing post-construction, proved problematical. Efforts to maximise profit margins was often reflected in the internal finish of houses built for sale compared to those built for local authorities through the tendering process and subject to scrutiny during the build cycle.

Westfield Close, built under the Small Builders’ Scheme in 1947

However, by way of comparison, some of the early Bacon Garth Estate houses clearly lacked kerb appeal. Fortunately, they bear little resemblance to the rest of the estate. One wonders what the architect involved with these houses was thinking of when he sat at his desk and came up with the following!

The Garth

However, they did benefit internally from a ‘woman’s touch’. Co-opted lady members were asked to advise on the types of fittings necessary to make the houses more homely. Sadly, the opportunity offered to the ladies was somewhat restricted as they were denied complete freedom to express their opinions regarding ‘all matters domestic’. Oddly, cooking ranges remained the remit of male committee members. A Yorkist type range – Wilsons & Mathiesons or equal not weighing less than 4.5 cwt – had to be fitted!

An advert for Wilsons and Mathiesons Ltd Yorkist range, 1938 © Grace’s Guide

Unusually, when the first estate houses were built, the decision was taken not to erect fencing and gates to the front gardens. It was thought prudent to retain direct responsibility for the appearance of the house-fronts rather than rely on residents whose horticultural ambitions, based on previous experiences, appeared to fall well-short of the council’s expectations.

The provision of local authority housing in Cottingham continued well in to the 1960s. From those rather utilitarian dwellings of the interwar period, to a variety of post-1945 styles that catered for and reflected the needs of differing family sizes and age range. The village was spared any pre-cast ‘bolt and hope’ concrete tower blocks, the medieval church clock tower remaining the tallest structure. Those that fancied living in the clouds could gaze wistfully across the fields to the high-rise developments on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate. All now reduced to hardcore and probably finding a second use as foundations for garage floors.

Yes of course the provision of approximately 500 houses over four decades pales into insignificance when compared to the provision in many of our towns and cities during the twentieth century. But spare a thought for those small urban and rural district councils with limited human resources that were suddenly thrust into the roles of both builder and landlord a hundred years ago. What stories are still to be told?


(1) ‘Here’s a Real Housebuilder’, Daily Mirror, 25 January 1943  

Cottingham’s Council Housing, Part I to 1930: ‘Simple and Harmonious as a Whole’



I’m very pleased to feature the first of two posts from Peter Claxton on housing in the village of Cottingham just north of Hull. Peter rekindled his love of history at university following his retirement having spent 40 years working in IT. 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. He is currently researching the contentious relationship between private interests and public improvements with regards to health and housing in Kingston upon Hull between 1854 and 1914.

Much has been written about the provision of local authority housing in our towns and cities but we should not overlook the fact that of the 1806 local authorities questioned by the Local Government Board in 1918 regarding their housing requirements, many were small urban or lightly populated rural district councils. (1) 

With a population of 5133 in 1921, Cottingham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was one such urban district council (UDC). Today, in part, it butts up to the city of Kingston upon Hull, but at the start of the nineteenth century with just 1927 residents it was one of a number of satellite villages that semi-circled the then port town.

Cottingham, circa 1905

Situated just five miles to the northwest of Hull, by the end of the eighteenth century it had acquired a reputation as an ideal place for the ‘well-heeled’ to relocate to and in so doing build their grand houses and lay-out ornamental gardens.

Elmtree House, built around 1820
Newgate House, built in the late 19th/early 19th century

The arrival of the railway in 1846 accelerated this process, with a number of villas and terraces built to house the emerging middle class. Yet there was a problem for all those that relocated. Keen as they were to escape the pervasive smells of Hull’s multifarious processing industries, distance offered them no such guarantee.

With market gardening Cottingham’s primary economic activity – there were 71 nurserymen in and around the village just before WW1 supplying the markets of both Hull and Leeds – the  daily transhipment of night soil from Hull to the fields around the village ensured that no matter how wealthy or upwardly mobile the incomers were, they could never completely leave their pasts behind them!

Low agricultural wages stifled the ambitions of many village residents, yet the desire for improved housing, just like the inhabitants of its much larger neighbour clearly existed. The reduced number made it of no less importance, it was simply a matter of scale. The village was unaccustomed to change, and in general, the UDC – set up under the 1894 Local Government Act consisted of just 12 members – busied itself approving the erection of private dwellings, undertaking nuisance control measures, tarring the roads and maintaining the street lighting.

As elsewhere, following cessation of hostilities in 1918, there was evidence of change. The laying out of new streets extended the built-up area far beyond the village’s traditional nucleus. (2) And as with the vacating of large properties in Hull during the nineteenth century in favour of Cottingham, the same fate now befell a number of those former imposing residences in the village. The vacant properties complete with their large gardens together with numerous unworked smallholdings in and around the village became ideal plots for local builders. Between 1918 and 1939, 1237 houses were built in Cottingham by 95 builders.

In 1918 when it came to the crunch, Cottingham UDC like so many other local authorities, had no experience of building or renting out houses. Enthusiasm could only achieve so much, which in the case of Cottingham, amounted to the purchase of 9.5 acres in April 1919 of the Westfield Estate at the fashionable west end of the village from Archdeacon J Malet Lambert. Viewed by many as a local philanthropist, he also had something of chequered past.

He was however a former and influential member of the Hull & District Sanitary Association, that had continually questioned the efficacy of Hull’s Local Board of Health, pressing for improvements to housing and sanitation within the Borough. So effective were its methods that a Local Government Board enquiry took place in 1888, subsequently making a number of recommendations for the sanitary improvement of the town.(3) Yet Malet Lambert’s philanthropy had limitations, originally offered £125 per acre, he refused to settle for anything less than £200. (4)

Purchasing a piece of land is one thing, populating it with houses is a different matter entirely. The appointment of Hull architect Harry Andrews on a project-only basis was a sound first move by the council. The first phase was for the provision of a modest 50 houses, yet this relatively small number, would in no way be the guarantee to a trouble-free build. Tenders approaching £10,000 for street works and sewerage had an immediate impact on the project. To reduce the civil costs the architect modified the lay-out of the houses positioning them all adjacent to the main road. Costs were trimmed but so was the number of houses, now down to 36. Built by Hull firm Holliday & Barker, they took the form of a single meandering row of 18 pairs of semi-detached houses.

Yet according to a local newspaper, the 12 parlour and 24 non-parlour three bedroomed houses were reported to be: (5)

One of the finest sites in the district, it has been developed to allow the erection of 98 houses, only 16 of which will have a northerly aspect … while somewhat severe in appearance in conformity with the Ministry of Health’s instructions, are exceedingly simple and harmonious as a whole …

Simple and severe certainly, but in no way were they harmonious, not according to many of the locals whose abhorrence towards the stark appearance of the dwellings, had two weeks earlier, prompted an irksome response from a council member who retorted: (6)

There was a most extraordinary and widespread misconception in Cottingham … The people seem to think the council were entirely responsible for the architecture of the houses which had been put up, and for the quality of materials used. This was not so. They had been entirely over-ruled by the authorities at Leeds.

The Southwood Estate, featured in the Hull Daily Mail, 27 October 1921

This was a direct reference to the Leeds-based Regional Housing Commissioner of the Ministry of Health and Housing who held sway over all matters relating to the provision of local authority housing in Yorkshire under the terms of the Housing & Town Planning Act, 1919.

First impressions clearly mattered, and for some of the class-conscious residents at the west end of the village, their dissatisfaction was all too apparent. The first ‘council houses’ were not detached from the village as in many large conurbations where those re-housed would be beyond the tram terminus or omnibus service, and therefore out of sight and out of mind. This was simply an extension to the western end of the village and therefore contiguous to existing properties. Snobocracy appeared to be alive and well in Cottingham and the neighbours were clearly not happy!

Southwood Villa © Bernard Sharp and made available through a Creative Commons licence
Southwood Hall © George Robinson and made available through a Creative Commons licence

No one in the village could question the need for additional housing, it was simply a matter of predetermined expectations. Inside each house the council had dutifully considered the needs of the soon-to-be tenants. All featured hot and cold water, cupboards, a space for a cycle or perambulator and the fitting of a tiled fireplace, and not just a cast iron mantlepiece. The metal window frames – cheaper and more readily available than wooden ones at the time – included a pivot mechanism on the upstairs frames that facilitated easy cleaning of the glazing. In addition the parlour houses had a window to the side to throw light over the shoulder of anyone sitting reading by the fire.

Yet these features did little to assuage the feelings of the neighbours, whose distain was based solely on the external appearance of the dwellings. Through the use of poor-quality commons and their box-like appearance, the houses were deemed to be an incongruous addition to the village. In an attempt to mollify dissenting voices, the council adopted a course of action which at the time was an earnest attempt to remedy the situation. The solution to the dilemma was to hide the brickwork. Each house was to be covered with a roughcast and colour-washed white with Tungaline paint.

An advert for William Jacks & Co Paints © The Priya Paul Collection, Universitätsbibliothek, Heidelberg

And to further improve matters, the exteriors were to be enhanced by the tasteful application of a contrasting dark brown gloss paint to the woodwork!

Southwood Estate houses facing south
Southwood Estate houses facing east

For a time, all was well until the gradual and increasing appearance of brown blemishes to the white-washed walls. To the council’s horror, it was discovered that ironstone chippings constituted part of the roughcast mix and rust had started to leech through to the surface resulting in the mottled finish.

Continuing evidence of rusting

Yet again with good intentions and financial ramifications, the council attempted to remedy the situation by the removal and re-application of the roughcast. Unfortunately the remedial work was not carried out to an exacting standard and the problem is visible to this day. Recently applied external insulation masks the rusting on those properties still part of the East Riding of Yorkshire County Council housing portfolio.

The generous proportions of the ‘Addison Houses’ and high build costs were reflected in the weekly rents. Many early tenants were employed in local agriculture, and at the time of construction, the first cut of what by 1923 amounted to an overall 35 percent reduction in agricultural wages had taken place. (7)  With wages reduced to 24 shillings per week by 1923 there was little wonder that many tenants fell into rent arrears within the first 12 months of occupancy. An appeal to the Ministry of Health secured a reduction of 1/6d per week for each type of house. But with weekly rents of 11/6d or 9/6d excluding rates, it was still necessary for distraint warrants to be issued against persistent defaulters.(8)

High maintenance costs and difficulties with the collection of rents impaired the council’s judgement regarding further housing provision. Finding the whole experience exceedingly troublesome, it had within a matter of 18 months placed on record that an offer for the remaining land it held lay on the table. At 2/6d per square yard (£605 per acre) some three times the price paid in 1919, it proved too tempting an offer. Parcels of land were duly sold to private developers including the North Eastern Railway Cottage Homes. For the remainder of the decade, the council restricted activity to the authorisation of subsidies to private builders under the terms of the 1923 Housing Act. By the end of the decade, 30 ‘subsidy houses’ had been built in the village.

Reticence towards further provision was of course futile. At the start of the 1930s, a modest 12 houses were built on one of the remaining parcels of land. Gone were the generous terms offered in 1919, replaced by the more circumspect grants of the 1924 Housing Act. With a long memory and a Yorkshireman’s vice-like grip of the purse strings, the council did not repeat the mistakes of old. Tucked away behind the rusting white-washed ribbon development, variations in design improved the prospect of the new houses. Yet again commons were the order of the day but thankfully, the temptation to apply a roughcast finish had been resisted.

Phase 2 facing the NER Railway Cottage Homes
NER Cottage Homes

For the council – with still a little land in reserve – it was now a time for reflection. Builders were ‘ramping-up’ private provision locally and those who had ‘Dunroamin’ settled down at ‘Mon Repos’ and ‘Chez Nous’. (9) But, as a follow-up blog will suggest, even in a relatively quiet village things never stay the same for very long.


(1) Stephen Merrett, State Housing in Britain (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979). Cottingham UDC was one of the 400 authorities that had replied to the LGB by December 1918

(2) KJ Allison, ‘The boom in house-building between the wars: the example of Cottingham’, East Yorkshire Local History Society, Bulletin, No. 55, Winter 1996/7

(3) During this period the town was often referred to (in print) as ‘Squalid Hull’.

(4)  From the minutes of Cottingham UDC, 2 April 1919, East Riding Archives

(5) ‘Cottingham Housing Scheme’, Hull Daily Mail, 27 October 1921  

(6) ‘Cottingham’s New Houses’, Hull Daily Mail, 13 October 1921

(7) Martin Pugh, We Danced all Night: A Social History of Britain between the Wars (Bodley Head, 2008)

(8) ‘Cottingham Council Houses, Distraint Warrants Issued for Unpaid Rents’, Hull Daily Mail, 9 August 1923   

(9) Allison, ‘The boom in house-building between the wars …’

The Role of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee: ‘Homes Fit for Heroines’

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) 

The cover of the 1912 Fabian pamphlet on which Round About a Pound a Week was based

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)

Gertrude Emmott and Averil Sanderson Furniss

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. 

A contemporary image of Courtenay Square, part of 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 copper and bath in a home in the Cadburys’ model village of Bournville, c1905, addressed some of the problems addressed by women housing reformers but retained both in a downstairs scullery.

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.

An original ground floor plan of a home on the Well Hall Estate, reproduced with the permission of the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust
An early image of Lovelace Green on the Well Hall Estate

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)

A sketch plan of a suggested layout for a workman’s house, hand copied from the National Archives original

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’. 

This early image shows a working-class parlour on the London County Council’s Dover House Estate, one of the finest estates built under the 1919 Housing Act

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 Womans 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.  

The cover of The Working Woman’s House

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.


(1) Caroline Rowan, ‘Women in the Labour Party, 1906-1920’, Feminist Review, no 12, 1982, pp74-91

(2) The National Archives (TNA), RECO 1/618. IV. 7374, p1, quoted in Calum W White, “‘The foundations of the national glory are in the homes of the people”: the Addison Act, the First World War, and British housing policy’, University of Oxford PhD Thesis, 2018

(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.

(8) The Interim Report is available online.

(9) Mark Swenarton, Building the New Jerusalem: Architecture, Housing and Politics 1900-1930 (IHS BRE Press, 2008)

(10) ) ‘The Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider Questions of Building Construction in Connection with the Provision of Dwellings for the Working Classes’ (The Tudor Walters Report, Cd 9191), 1918

(11) Krista Cowman, untitled paper

(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 

(16) Krista Cowman, untitled paper

‘Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’: Women’s Influence on State Housing in the Era of World War 1 and After


I’m delighted to feature today the first 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 women’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

The words of Blake which I have chosen as part of the title are more usually associated with the Last Night of the Proms or perhaps with the Women’s Institute.  What they represent for me is the determination of women to be involved in the design of state housing a century ago.  The words and music were first used by women at an event promoting the National Service for Women scheme in March 1917 and were then chosen by Florence Hamilton to represent the spirit and purpose of her Women’s Village Council movement in 1917.  The strapline first appeared in her article in The Common Cause in November of that year.

The role of the influential Tudor Walters Report of 1918 has been mentioned several times in contributions on this site.  The committee which prepared it was established to assist in dealing with the shortage of housing which was seen as a cause of industrial unrest during 1917. It was swiftly appointed following the announcement in July 1917 of the Local Government Board’s housing scheme and its resultant report laid down guidance on ‘building construction in connection with the provision of dwellings for the working classes’. (1) 

What is perhaps less well known is the role of women in discussing housing design throughout this wartime and post-war period.  This included their participation in contributions to the Tudor Walters report; their attempts to influence the quality and quantity of publicly funded housing, often in rural areas at a local level; and the report of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee (WHSC).  The recommendations of this latter’s report were ultimately eclipsed by the relatively more pragmatic and politically acceptable report of the fifteen-strong, all-male committee led by Sir John Tudor Walters.  In this blog, I will discuss women’s attempts to influence publicly funded housing at local levels and in a second contribution I will outline the role of the WHSC in more detail.

The Tudor Walters Report received evidence from 127 named witnesses of whom only fifteen were women.  A number of these women were linked to key organisations such as the Women’s Labour League, the Association of Women Housing Property Managers and the Rural Housing and Sanitation Association. Others appear to be individuals from across the country with no easily identifiable links to campaigning or professional groups. (2)

This undated image shows a Women’s Freedom League publicity caravan
A postcard image of Muriel Matters, an Australian-born actress and leading member of the Women’s Freedom League. Reproduced courtesy of The Muriel Matters Society Inc., Adelaide, South Australia

It was shortly after the creation of the Tudor Walters Committee and the publicity surrounding the government’s housing policy in the summer of 1917 that Florence Gertrude Hamilton – Mrs F.G. Hamilton – together with her sister Maud Rose Raey MacKenzie established the Findon Women’s Village Council, the first organisation of its kind. If Florence had some prior involvement in housing issues I have not been able to identify it but she had been a campaigning suffragist in the Women’s Freedom League in the pre-war period in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, when she had been a tax resister. (3)

By about 1913 she had left Wendover, eventually settling in Findon, Sussex, with her unmarried sister Maud. When the Local Government Board in July 1917 announced in a circular letter to councils that financial assistance was on offer to local authorities building workmen’s dwellings after the war, the two women felt that their Rural District Council was not preparing adequately for this. (4)  

A date of 15th October had been given for the completion of a form issued by the Local Government Board on which local authorities could provide details of the number of houses needed.  Perhaps Florence’s idea to contribute to this through the influence of women was based not only on her involvement with the suffrage movement, but also on the success of the relatively new Women’s Institute in the southern counties.  She might have seen an opportunity to encourage women’s participation in local affairs through the initial mechanism of becoming involved in housing.

Within three months of the circular to local authorities, she had evolved and then promoted her idea of an organisation and a meeting was held on October 2 in the Wattle House at Findon which was suitably decorated with national flags for the occasion. It seems to have been well attended. (5)

The Wattle House today; photo credit Richard Bell, Findon
A meeting of the Findon Women’s Village Council (from a private collection)

At this inaugural meeting, the Findon Women’s Village Council (WVC) stated its aims as being: (6)

to assist the State-aided Housing Scheme of the Local Government Board by obtaining first-hand information on rural housing, with the present acute shortage of cottages, and bad conditions

to promote Maternity and Infant Welfare, and the cause of Education

to enable working women to educate themselves to take their place on Parish, Rural District, and County Councils.

Inaugural meeting poster; reproduced with the permission of the People’s History Museum

Florence was particularly keen to involve ‘the genuine rural working woman’ in her organisation but she also referred to the usefulness of involving suffragists with their ‘trained cooperation’. With missionary zeal she wanted to seize the opportunity to help remedy the lack of rural cottages and to influence the quality and quantity of new ones. Like a growing number of women, she felt that women were best placed to advise on the design of houses because of the time they spent in them and the work they did there. (7)

And so a resolution was passed at that first meeting in Findon and sent to the Local Government Board: (8)

We have pleasure in reporting to the Local Government Board that the Findon Village Women’s Council (for the purpose of collecting evidence for the State-aided Housing Scheme) has been started, and we beg that we may be recognised and consulted in all reforms and schemes connected with State-aided cottages in our village.

Just a few months later Florence had established a small advisory group to support the newly forming village councils and was making links with the plethora of other women’s organisations in their shared premises at 92 Victoria Street.  She enlisted amongst others the support of Annette Churton, Secretary of the Rural Housing and Sanitary Association and a former member of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee.

In a description reminiscent of language we would recognise today, an article of 1918 explained that the views on rural housing would come from people themselves: ‘the village women, the farmers’ and the labourers’ wives; it is not superimposed from the top’. The idea for forming such village councils spread across the counties of south-east England and beyond and women were encouraged to organise surveys of their local housing and also to give their own opinions on the ideal design of new cottages. (9)

In Findon: (10)

the headings of the Survey were drawn up by a professional surveyor, and dealt with such points as the materials of the roof (whether tiled, slated, or thatched), the water supply (whether laid on, brought from a distant well, or rain-water; and if the last, whether it was filtered), the number of occupants (how many over, and how many under, the age of sixteen), the sanitary arrangements. 

With the involvement of the local vicar, a report was produced and presented to the Rural District Council outlining the need for 50 new cottages.  I have not as yet been able to research further specifically what happened to their recommendations.  However, on September 1 an article appeared in the Worthing Gazette referring to the building of sixteen houses in Findon by Thakeham Rural District Council under their scheme for fifty-eight houses in their area.  Because 42 applicants for these sixteen houses had been received, the article commented that this was ‘a long way from a complete satisfaction of the demand’.  I have identified a possible group of houses on the north side of the village, The Oval, which might be those built in the late 1920s but have yet to verify their origins.

The ideas of Florence Hamilton were broadly idealistic, going beyond the scope of the quality and quantity of housing into the area of other rural problems. Ultimately, she hoped to educate women in effective roles as citizens with a wider involvement in parish councils.

In Florence’s own words: (11)

The immediate work of the women’s village councils is to demonstrate beyond doubt the tremendous need for state-aided housing and the almost inconceivably bad conditions of many agricultural labourers’ homes; to combat existing opposition and indifference; to suggest the possibility that garden villages need not be ‘blots on the landscape’; to tell of the marvels promised by reconstructive use of science for lighting, water supplies and cooking, and to do death to the legend that the only use likely to be made of the fixed bath would be the coal cellar.  All Women’s Village Councils are asking for third bedrooms, that boys and girls may have a chance of growing up with modesty; they also ask for parlours … The success of the Local Government’s Maternity Bill and the Continuation Classes of the new Education Act depends largely on the co-operation of village women, who have hitherto had small say in their children’s interest and education.

Florence Hamilton conducted her own campaigning at a broader level.  In December 1917, she had met with Henry Aldridge, secretary of the Town Planning Council, who may have provided a vital direct link with the LGB and who went on to invite her to a housing conference in December 1917.  Although she herself did not give evidence directly to the Tudor Walters Committee, it is highly likely that at least one of the other WVC women did.  In 1918 she went on to form a federation of the village councils as the movement grew.  Although it was focussed initially in the south-east, there were other councils which formed elsewhere. They had spread into nine counties by 1919 including some in the Midlands, and reportedly into fifteen by March 1919. (12)

The village councils were said to give women the opportunity of working with the ‘experts’ – in planning, housing and sanitation. A March 1919 Manchester Guardian article pointed out that housing schemes were perhaps more important in rural areas than they were in towns.  Concern about rural depopulation had already led to a rural reconstruction movement and the lack of houses and the poor quality of the housing stock in rural areas were seen as crucial factors. However, there was also a need in urban areas and complementary organisations, the Women’s Housing Councils, were established in those areas from about 1922. This urban equivalent, influenced by their rural sisters, began in North Kensington.  This comment about one of their meetings clearly demonstrates the need for housing improvement, arguably one which still exists: (13) 

Meetings were held, and the residents of the wealthy borough were made aware of the terrible conditions under which their poor neighbours were living – almost at their doors.  Public opinion was eventually aroused, and £7000 has already been subscribed for putting tenement dwellings into habitable conditions.

It should be said that in deference to the more widely known Women’s Institute, which was founded at about the same time as the WVCs, that this organisation also, at least in some areas, attempted to influence the government housing schemes.

By 1923 the urban and the rural organisations had merged and were known as the Women’s Housing and Village Council Federation and later as the Women’s Housing Council Federation before perhaps finally merging with the National Housing and Town Planning Council (NHTPC). It has been impossible to track down any archives from these organisations: the National Archives gives a reference of the NHTPC merging with ROOM which is now part of the Royal Town Planning Institute.  The RTPI cannot find any relevant records.

Florence Hamilton probably remained active at a national level for the last decade of her life.  She was a founder member of the Electrical Association of Women (1924) and continued to be involved in the National Housing and Town Planning Council.  Her involvement in housing was acknowledged in her obituary written by fellow suffragist, Muriel Matters, which appeared in The Vote in April 1932. The inscription on her tombstone in Brompton Cemetery must surely be a reference to her commitment to citizenship: ‘Our Citizenship is in Heaven’.  She was one of a group of women who had developed an interest in housing during the First World War and sometimes earlier, who continued to try and influence the design of housing into the post-war period.  Many of these other women were members of the Women’s Housing Sub-Committee and this will be the subject of my second blog.


(1) ‘The Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider Questions of Building Construction in Connection with the Provision of Dwellings for the Working Classes’ (The Tudor Walters Report, Cd 9191), 1918

(2) The witnesses are listed in the report.

(3) Florence was baptised Florence Gertrude MacKenzie but on her marriage was often referred to as Florence Gardiner Hamilton so that her initials F.G. could stand for either middle name. For extensive information about the suffragists in Buckinghamshire, Colin Cartwright’s book, Burning to Get the Vote (Legend Press Ltd, 2013) is a mine of information

(4) ‘Working Class Houses’, The Times, 30 July 1917 and Florence G Hamilton ‘Findon Women’s Village Council’, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917

(5) There are several accounts of this meeting; see, for example, The Spectator, 15 June 1918, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917, and Worthing Gazette, 24 October 1917

(6) From a poster for the Findon Women’s Village Council, undated, People’s History Museum, ref cc/s.16.

(7) The quotations are drawn from Florence G Hamilton, ‘Findon Women’s Village Council: An Experiment in Local Organisation’, The Common Cause, 9 November 1917, and further analysis from Women Correspondent ‘The Village Council of Women: their Contribution to Housing Reform’, The Manchester Guardian, 11 March 1919

(8) Georgina Home ‘Findon Village Council’, The Spectator, 15 July 1918

(9) C Osborn, ‘Women’s Village Councils’, Charity Organisation Review, vol 43, no 256, April 1918 

(10) Georgina Home, ’Findon Village Council’, The Spectator, 15 July 1918

(11) Mrs Hamilton, ‘Women’s Village Councils Federations for State-Aided Housing and Rural Problems’, The Common Cause, 19 July 1918

(12) Women Correspondent ‘The Village Council of Women: their Contribution to Housing Reform’. I have managed to establish the names of some thirteen councils: West Sussex; Findon, Storrington, Durrington, Wiston, Rustington, Broadwater, Washington, Wiston, and elsewhere Ellesborough (Buckinghamshire) Solihull and Aldridge (Walsall Rural District); Runton (Norfolk); Sarisbury (Hampshire)

(13) ME Blyth, ‘The Women’s Housing and Village Councils Federation’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 13 July 1923

Council Housing in Greenock, Part III after 1945: the ‘Hong Kong of the Clyde Coast’


, , ,

As last week’s post illustrated, Greenock’s housing problems were among the most severe in the country and exacerbated by severe wartime bombing. Besides a housing shortage, housing conditions remained dire; in 1951 over one-third of the town’s homes shared an outside toilet and 45 percent lacked a fixed bath.  Britain may have won the war but ‘winning the peace’ required unprecedented action to tackle the housing crisis.

Prefabs, Thom Street and Old Inverkip Road, 1971

Prefabs, Thom Street and Old Inverkip Road, 1971

In Greenock, as elsewhere, one response took the form of temporary prefabs with perhaps around 300 erected across the town. Those imported from the United States were soon found wanting as ‘not suitable for the Greenock climate’ – ‘the latest complaint is of swollen floorboards through damp’. British Arcon and Uni-Seco models were apparently more successful. (1)

Cedar Crescent Swedish Houses SN

‘Swedish Houses’ on Cedar Crescent

Another import, the ‘Swedish Houses’ – permanent prefabs assembled from flat-pack timber kits – were more successful. Forty-two pairs were built on Mallard Crescent, more along around Cedar Crescent and Fir Road in the Gibshill district; 3500 in Scotland as a whole. The steel-framed BISF (British Iron and Steel Federation Houses), of which around 40,000 were built across the UK, feature in significant numbers in the South Maukinhill district of Greenock. Both survive to provide good homes to the present, the BISF houses in Greenock thoroughly renovated from 2006.

Greenock Plans Ahead SN

Stills taken from Greenock Plans Ahead (1947)

In the post-war re-imagining of a better Britain, the proposals of Frank Mears, who had been appointed planning consultant to the Burgh in 1940 – enshrined in Greenock: Portal of the Clyde published in 1947 – received considerable publicity. A documentary film entitled Greenock Plans Ahead, directed by Hamilton Tait, was commissioned to accompany an exhibition in the Municipal Buildings. (2)

View of estate and river - Kip Valley scheme including Cowdenknowes and Cornhaddock

Housing in the Kip Valley including the Cowdenknowes and Cornhaddock schemes

Mears aimed to capitalise on the town’s strategic location on the Firth of Clyde and address the deficiency of open space in the lower town identified by the Clyde Valley planning survey carried out under the auspices of Sir Patrick Abercrombie. He proposed lower density redevelopment, zoned industrial areas and, most strikingly, a ‘federal Garden City’ on American Parkway lines formed of new neighbourhoods dotted along the Kip Valley.

Larkfield housing scheme CC Thomas Nugent

Larkfield housing scheme © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Whilst that vision may seem unfamiliar to current residents, major post-war housing developments in Penny Fern, Branchton and Larkfield to the south-west of the town owe something to Mears’ thinking (though the A78 hardly lives up to a Parkway billing).  Such large-scale developments – 690 homes were agreed for the Penny Fern estate in 1950 – also reflected the availability of building land in the area.

The Council completed its 1000th post-war house in 1950 – an impressive record in an era of genuine austerity. Additional housing – 564 houses in Pennyfern and Larkfield – was built by the Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA). (The SSHA was originally set up in 1937 to provide employment and housing in Scotland’s most depressed districts. Its remit was later extended to cover the whole of Scotland when it became, in effect, a government housing agency operating within the Scottish Development Department.)  By 1960, 5000 new post-war homes had been built in Greenock. (3)

Mears, Council Flats on the Vennel

Council flats on The Vennel as envisaged by Frank Mears

A major redevelopment of the town centre proposing 600 homes in six-storey blocks and some 150 shops proposed in 1960 was implemented from 1968.

cathcart st

An undated postcard marking Greenock’s redeveloped town centre

If low-rise suburbia was the predominant form of 1950s council housing, high-rise seemed the flavour of the 1960s. Whilst that popular perception was not always accurate, it was true for Greenock where shortage of land, a difficult hilly terrain and pressing housing need combined to impel high-rise as an apparently unavoidable solution to building at density. Some 32 multi-storey blocks were constructed in the town between 1962 and 1975. Some dubbed Greenock the ‘Hong Kong of the Clyde Coast’.

Grieve Road 1983 TB

Grieve Road tower blocks, 1983 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

Three 16-storey blocks on Grieve Road were the first approved, followed by lower blocks in Upper Bow Farm and Cartsdyke in 1964 and 1965. In the latter year, the Burgh also bet big on system-built construction, approving the 15-storey Ravenscraig and Rankin Courts and six further blocks of 16- and 15-storeys in the comprehensive development area of Belleville Street. All were constructed using the Bison system, a rapid construction method using pre-cast concrete panels. (4)

thumbnail_2008.72.416 7-5-1968 building of Belville St flats and stilts

This image taken by Eugene Jean Méhat in the mid-1960s captures the Belville Street area under construction, including ‘The Stilts’ centre-image. © Inverclyde Libraries, McLean Museum and Inverclyde Archives

Belville Street, the Stilts SN

A contemporary image of ‘The Stilts’ on Belville Street

Greenock’s steep terrain forced some innovative and daring design solutions to the creation of high-density housing, as seen in what are now dubbed ‘The Stilts’ and in the lower-rise blocks cut into the hillside further along Belville Street. Not all were to stand the test of time.

Belville Street (CDA 4) TB 1983 SN

Teviot, Ettrick and Duns Place, Belville Street, 1983 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

Ambition peaked in 1970 with the approval of Lynedoch and Antigua Courts, 18 storeys high, and Regent Court, another 18-storey block, system-built using the Camus system of large panel construction.  The final high-rise block approved was the 16-storey Kilblain Tower, approved in 1975 by Inverclyde District Council, the larger successor authority to Greenock Burgh created that year.

Belville Street 1989

The Belville Street area in 1989

In that respect, Greenock had challenged the marked shift against high-rise construction that was apparent from the later 1960s, marked symbolically by the partial collapse (and loss of life) of the Ronan Point tower block in east London in 1968 but given political weight by growing concerns at the cost of multi-storey building and questions over the housing density it achieved.

Octavia Court 2010-11

Octavia Court demolition, February 2011

Subsequently, Greenock has followed trends across the UK in demolishing much of its high-rise; the first to come down – in 2002 – were the first built, those 16-storey blocks on Grieve Road.  Currently, 13 remain. That fall from grace has been spectacular; literally so with the demolition by explosives of Octavia Court in February 2011 and the removal between 2013 and 2015 of the six tower blocks that once dominated Belville Street.

Broomhill Court before after SN

Broomhill Court, before and after renovation

It’s also a fall that will confirm many prejudices though, as ever, the fuller story is more complicated.  The tower blocks initially provided good homes for many – Broomhill Court (which survives) can provide a template. According to a local housing manager, ‘back in the 60s, you had to wait seven years to get a flat here’ but later, in the words of journalist Dani Garavelli, the picture darkened: (5)

From the 80s onwards … there was little investment. Families started to move away, often to bought properties elsewhere in the town. The fabric of the buildings degenerated along with their reputation. By 2012, anti-social behaviour was rife. Two-thirds of the flats in Broomhill Court – the most troubled of its three 15-storey tower blocks – were empty and residents were wary of walking around at night.

Design and construction flaws could certainly play their part (though it may be significant that in Greenock two of the eight Bison-built blocks and the Camus system block remain) but the overall story is of accreting ‘failure’: poor maintenance, a hard-to-let status that increasingly confined such buildings to more troubled tenants, problems of anti-social behaviour, and thus a spiral of decline.

Broomhill Mural Greenock (6)

The Broomhill heritage mural by local artist Jim Strachan, completed in 2018

Broomhill Court’s continuing story allows a different ending: a £26m regeneration project begun in 2014 which saw selective demolition of some lower-rise blocks and major renovation work, resident participation and substantial environmental upgrades (including a neighbourhood art project) that have restored place and community. One current resident commented:

A few people asked why I was moving to Broomhill, which had a reputation, but I couldn’t have afforded to buy a two-bedroom house in the private sector. My flat was needing done up, but once the regeneration started, I got the feel of the place. There’s a real sense of community here. I would never move. Never.

As Garavelli concludes, ‘the fortunes of social housing have risen and fallen … buffeted on the shifting winds of design trends and ideological orthodoxy’. But its necessity – and the need for investment that properly meets that necessity – remains unchanged.

Broomhill Court and Cartsdyke Court (renamed Cartsdyke Apartments) both now provide secure and independent living for the over-60s, part of River Clyde Homes’ ‘Silver Lining’ stock: a reflection of Greenock’s changing demographics and a reminder that high-rise flats can provide desirable homes for many.

Cartsdyke Court

Cartsdyke Court

In this final chapter (to date), Greenock illustrates another shift – towards what we must now call ‘social housing’. In 2007, Greenock Burgh’s housing stock was transferred to River Clyde Homes (RCH), an example of the ‘large-scale voluntary transfer’ that was forced on many councils barred politically from accessing the capital required for new investment (a restriction that did not apply to housing associations).  It currently owns and manages a little over 5800 homes. As a not-for-profit, locally based membership organisation, RCH represents a model that has sadly been increasingly marginalised as housing associations have merged and become more commercially minded.   

In the interests of full disclosure, I should acknowledge I was a guest speaker at RCH’s 2018 staff Christmas Party (they may have enjoyed the comic more) and I’m very grateful for the hospitality shown me on the day. That’s not even a footnote in Greenock’s housing history but I hope I’ve done some justice to its story in these posts. A £17 million pound investment programme announced by RCH in 2018 and a £10 million programme announced last year – upgrading homes and improving energy efficiency –  remind us that this story continues and that social housing continues to provide much needed homes and to yet higher standards. (6)


My thanks to Keith Moore, Communications Manager at River Clyde Homes, for his support and friendship in providing resources and images and casting a critical eye over my copy.  Any errors that remain – which I’m happy to correct – are my responsibility.

The McLean Museum and Art Gallery has a very extensive collection of archive images of Greenock which can be viewed online.

Additional thanks to Thomas Nugent for photographing Greenock so assiduously and allowing his photographs (uploaded here to Geograph Britain and Ireland) to be reproduced.


(1) ‘No More U.S. Prefabs for Us, Says Greenock’, Daily Record, 15 December 1945

(2) The film, Greenock Plans Ahead, can be viewed on YouTube.  For more on Mears, read Graeme Purves, Frank Mears – a Pioneer of Scottish Planning (October 2014). See also Graeme Purves, Greenock Plans Ahead (September 2016)

(3) Joy Monteith, Old Greenock (Stenlake Publishing, 2004)

(4) See the comprehensive records of the University of Edinburgh’s Tower Block project.

(5) Dani Garavelli, ‘Insight: Why Scotland must invest more in social housing’, The Scotsman, 25 August 2019

(6) ‘River Clyde Homes outlines £17m investment plans‘, Scottish Housing News, 4 April 2018 and ‘Improving Lives and Places‘, River Clyde Homes, 8 May 2019

Council Housing in Greenock, Part II, 1918-1945: their ‘Ain Wee House’



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.

Nimmo STreet CC Thomas Nugent 2017

Nimmo Street, Cowdenknowes Estate © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

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.

Cornhaddock Street Date Stone reads 1920 CC Thomas Nugent

Cornhaddock Street, the date stone reads 1920 © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

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 query

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)

Westburn House CC Thomas Nugent 2012

Westburn House, 2012 © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

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)

Westburn House gutterbox SN

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

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.

Baxter Street blitz

The impact of the Blitz on Baxter Street


Frank Mears

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

Council Housing in Greenock, Part I to 1918: the ‘Unhealthiest Town in Scotland’


Greenock’s geography was both a blessing and a curse. Its location on the Firth of Clyde made it a major port and shipbuilding centre. The first harbour was constructed in 1711, Scotts shipbuilders were established one year later and Greenock prospered from the Atlantic trade (and slave economies) of sugar and tobacco. But the town’s situation – a narrow strip of flat land to the shore backed by steeply rising hills to the south – made expansion difficult and helped bring about some of the worst housing conditions in Scotland. The first response was simply to build housing at density; a later one was high-rise. Both, as we shall see, were found wanting.

Greenock 1856

This 1856 map of Greenock gives some idea of its confined topography

In 1800, Greenock’s population approached 18,000; by 1901, it was 67,645. Its commercial wealth and elite ambition were demonstrated in the burgh’s Municipal Buildings, completed in 1886, whose Victoria Tower stands 75 metres tall – a proud one metre higher than Glasgow’s own City Chambers. The £197,000 cost was enormous – the debt was finally cleared in 1952 – but political responses to the town’s slum housing problem were far more dilatory.

View from above Cathcart Street over Cathcart Square to the Municipal Buildings, with the Victoria Tower to the right of Cowan's Corner and the Mid Kirk spire of 1781 to the left Dave Souza

The Municipal Buildings and Victoria Tower (to right) and Mid Kirk © Dave Souza and made available under a Creative Commons licence

That problem was well documented. In the 1860s, when its crude death rate was peaking at 420 per 10,000, the Registrar-General described Greenock as the ‘unhealthiest town in Scotland’ with the highest numbers dying from diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera, and ‘Fever’ (typhus and typhoid) in the country.  Cowgate, in central Greenock, was described by the Workingmen’s Sanitary Association, founded in 1865, as: (2)

one continuous privy from one end to the other. One could hardly believe its disgusting state. Literally it would be difficult to walk on the foot pavement without soiling one’s feet with human ordure.

The Association found half the homes it surveyed comprised one room with an average of six occupants.

Back court, West Quay Lane

This image of a backcourt in West Quay Lane dates from 1935 but serves to illustrate the continuing appalling housing conditions suffered by those living in inner Greenock

Official responses were, as we shall see, legion but often equivocal. A 1864 Privy Council report prompted by a typhus epidemic believed it: (2)

fair to say that there is every disposition of the part of the authorities to do something to remedy the sanitary evil. It so happens that their very prosperity has produced a state of things that has caused the high mortality. The increase in population in fifteen years is more than 30 percent. In spite of this increase there has scarcely been any rise in the number of registered poor, but no proportionate increase of houses for working men.

An 1865 report from Dr Buchannan, a Government Inspector, blamed ‘excessive mortality’ on the ‘deaths of children … produced in Greenock in remarkable numbers’ and the outbreak of typhus on ‘overcrowding and the dirty habits of the people’.  A ‘Ladies Sanitary Association’ proclaimed its mission ‘to redeem the humbler classes from low tastes and squalid habits’.

We might forgive those alleged dirty and squalid habits given that Buchannan’s own figures estimated 9414 people crammed onto 20 acres in Greenock’s Mid Parish, the equivalent of 300,000 per square mile. (As a point of comparison, the figure for Manilla, currently the world’s most densely populated city, is around 120,000.)

The overcrowding at least was real and government legislation – albeit permissive and largely ignored – was emerging to deal with the problem of urban conditions nationally. The 1866 Labouring Classes Dwellings Act allowed municipalities to purchase sites and build and improve working-class homes. It also allowed councils and philanthropic housing associations to borrow money at preferential rates from the Public Works Loan Commissioners.  These powers were strengthened in the 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act. Greenock itself had secured a private Police and Improvement Act in 1865.

Morton Terrace SN

Morton Terrace

The political disposition of those who ruled the Burgh of Greenock was to favour private provision through the model dwellings promoted by philanthropic housing associations and their patrons.  The foundation stone of the first tenement built by the Greenock Provident Investment Society was laid by builder and Burgh Provost (mayor) James Morton in 1865. The impressive terrace that emerged was named after him. (The local football club also took the name Morton, either in recognition of Morton’s early patronage or because many of its earlier players lived in the terrace.)

Octavia Cottages SN

Octavia Cottages

Another benefactor was Sir Michael Robert Shaw-Stewart: a baronet, heir to the local Ardgowan estate – still in family hands – and Conservative MP for Renfrewshire until 1865. Shaw-Stewart feued* land at Hillend at the low rate of £16 an acre for the erection of 28 cottages on East Crawford Street. In the event, most of the Octavia Cottages (presumably named after his wife, Lady Octavia Grosvenor) soon ‘came to be owned and occupied by those in a higher position in life than the working classes they were intended for’. (3)

Shaw-Stewart also supported a scheme of ‘six divisions of self-contained cottages of brick, English-style, with a small garden and green attached’ at Bridgend in east Greenock. This too, despite larger ambitions, failed to develop from small beginnings. However ‘model’ the dwellings, it was obvious that philanthropic housing could not build housing either at the scale or in the form required by those who needed it most.

In 1877, the Burgh became the first in Scotland to apply the slum clearance and rebuilding provisions of the 1875 Act although it did so with some reluctance. The land acquired for slum clearance was unsuccessfully offered for private redevelopment leaving the council with no option but to undertake the scheme itself which commenced in 1886.  Twenty-one blocks were built in Dalrymple, Shaw, Duff, and Brynmer Streets containing 197 one- to three-room tenements, 290 rooms in total. With WCs shared by up to three families, washhouses by six to twelve, this was by even the normal standards of the day basic housing – but housing conditions in Greenock were far from normal. (4)

Royal Naval Torpedo Factory Greenock Scotland

An early image of the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory

Those standards came under further unexpected scrutiny in 1910 as a result of what some dubbed ‘the English invasion’. Due to a Government decision to centralise production (and presumably reflecting fear of the growing military might of Germany), the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory was opened in Greenock in 1910. This involved the transplantation of around 700 workers from the Woolwich Arsenal in south-east London. The incomers, it was said by one local historian: (5)

brought many prejudices with them. Prejudices about our Churches, our climate, our habits and customs and, perhaps most of all, about our houses.

A Woolwich View of Greenock published in 1910 would seem to confirm their negative views at least: (5)

many of the so-called houses … are, in our view, quite unfit for habitation by our people. We think for our purposes they may be considered non-existent. The great number of bare-footed and bare-headed children who frequent the streets at all hours of the day and late and night was, to us, a pitiful sight.

The Greenock Telegraph replied that ‘Scots boys nearly all run barefoot in the warmer months of the year’ and, with less sympathy to the hardiness of working-class natives, that ‘our slumdwellers are not always the poor, to a large extent they are the improvident’.

The Admiralty acknowledged the genuine discontent existing among its transplanted workers – the undeniable shortage of housing of all sorts and the reality, as one commentator noted mildly, of ‘the tenement system of the district not meeting with the southern ideas’ – but hoped initially that the private sector and housing associations might fill the breach. (7)

Around 56 two-storey houses were built by the Scottish Garden Suburb Tenants Limited and the Gourock and Greenock Garden Suburb Tenants Limited before the war but, objectively, as the town’s population reached 75,000, the housing crisis remained severe. Of 14,500 occupied homes, just 30 were vacant and some 686 were acknowledged – presumably by standards lower than those of the Woolwich workers – unfit. An estimated 1373 new houses were required.

Serpentine Walk II

Serpentine Walk

In 1911, the Corporation resolved to build new homes and 41 were completed in a large tenement block on Serpentine Walk by 1913. Pressure to improve and build was maintained by a Workers’ Housing Council formed in 1912 and, with the greater powers and resources of officialdom, by a Royal Commission on Scottish Housing instituted in 1912 and a Housing Enquiry into Greenock carried out by the Local Government Board in 1914.

The latter found 780 currently occupied houses (accommodating 3300 people) unfit for human occupation and some 469 so-called ‘back properties’ or ‘backlands’ – infill development to the rear of already overcrowded and substandard tenement homes. It called on the Burgh to renew its housebuilding programme by committing to a further 250 new homes immediately with 250 built annually in succeeding years.

Roxburgh Street

Roxburgh Street housing in the 1960s, part of the Kennedy Collection at the McLean Museum  © Inverclyde Libraries, McLean Museum and Inverclyde Archives

The outbreak of war in August 1914 and the priority given to military production generally stymied such ambitions but the significance of Greenock as a naval supplier secured it favourable treatment. A new municipal housing scheme opened in east Greenock in November 1916 featuring ‘houses of the cottage type’ at around 13 to the acre.  The Government paid 12 percent of the scheme’s total cost with the stipulation that the 144 houses on Roxburgh Street (since demolished) would be let to Admiralty employees for at least two years. Further homes on the site were promised after the war. (8)

Grenville Road, Gourock

Grenville Road, Gourock © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

In 1916-17, 200 more houses and flats were built in Greenock and neighbouring Gourock at the instigation of the Local Government Board for Scotland, half of them directly provided by the Government’s Office of Works in the Reservoir, Rodney and Grenville Road areas of Gourock. The latter took their inspiration from the larger ‘Garden City’-style development sponsored by the Admiralty in Rosyth where a new naval dockyard had been established in 1908. Among these were the first houses built directly by central government, a precedent fulfilled on far greater scale under the pressures of total war by the 1000 new homes built in 1915 on the Well Hall Estate in Eltham to accommodate the expanded workforce back in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal. (9)

The promise to build anew at war’s end was one that would be fulfilled and its implementation – in Greenock and across Britain – would owe something to the example of the burgh before and during the First World War. We’ll follow the ongoing story of Greenock’s council housing in the interwar period in next week’s post.

* The Scottish system of feu holding, eventually fully abolished in 2000, required that those who acquired land were required to pay an annual sum for its use to its original owner. Feu duties in Greenock, ranging from £20 to £70 per annum, were – in a reflection of the shortage of suitable land for construction – unusually high which caused additional problems for new housebuilding.


My thanks to the McLean Museum and Art Gallery of Greenock for permission to use the image of Roxburgh Street.


(1) This quotation and other details are drawn from TW Hamilton, How Greenock Grew (James McKelvie and Sons, 1947); the statistic and causes of death from Michael Anderson, Corinne Roughley, Scotland’s Populations from the 1850s to Today (Oxford University Press, 2018).

(2) Robert Murray Smith, The History of Greenock (Orr Pollock and Co, 1921). An online edition has been provided by Inverclyde Council Libraries, Museums and Archive Service.

(3) Smith, The History of Greenock and the report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Industrial Population of Scotland Rural and Urban (1917)

(4) William Thompson, The Housing Handbook (National Housing Reform Council, 1903)

(5) Hamilton, How Greenock Grew

(6) Republished in Greenock Housing Conditions, 1885-1914 (Jordanhill College 1978). The responses of the Greenock Telegraph are drawn from the editions of March 24 1910 and October 28 1912.

(7) Ewart G Culpin, The Garden City Movement Up-to-Date (The Garden Cities and Town Planning Association, 1913)

(8) ‘Greenock Municipal Housing’, Daily Record, 22 November 1916

(9) On Greenock and Rosyth, see Henry Roan Rutherford, Public Sector Housing in Scotland, vol 3 1900-1939, University of Glasgow PhD 1996

Council Housing in Oxford, Part II after 1945: ‘a Sense of Space and Freshness’


, , ,

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.

Barton SN

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 Brampton Rd Barton SN

‘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.

Barton Estate Mogey

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 SN

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 Barton SN

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.

BISF and Refurb Wilcote Rd Barton SN

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)

EAW049095 Wood Farm estate under construction and environs, New Headington, 1953

Wood Farm estate under construction, 1953 (EAW049095) © Britain from Above

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.

Plowman Tower TB 1985 SN

Plowman Tower, 1985 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

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.

Olive Gibbs Oxford Mail

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.

The Laurels Tile Hill Close SN

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.

Gipsey Lane Estate SN 1

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

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

Barton Park impression

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.

(1) Lloyds Bank, ‘UK’s most and least affordable cities revealed’, 2 February 2019

(2) Prefab Museum, Map

(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)

(5) Oxfordshire Villages, Berinsfield

(6) On Gipsy Lane, see Headington Neighbourhood Plan, Character Assessment: 8. Gipsy Lane Estate (ND); on the Council’s policies towards the private rental sector, see Oxford City Council, ‘Biggest Change to Private Rented Accommodation in a Decade’, 20th January 2020

(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.

Council Housing in Oxford, Part I: ‘‘We don’t despise these people but …’



The Cutteslowe Walls in Oxford – built by developers in 1934 to separate their private estate from council housing next door – were infamous: a symbol of a contemporarily class-ridden society but also sadly a prejudice towards residents of public housing that has survived their demolition in 1959. This week’s post looks at that story and takes a broader, more nuanced look at the housing politics of interwar Oxford.

Cutteslowe Wall Aldrich Road

The Cutteslowe Wall seen from Aldrich Road on the council estate

Oxford was one of the fastest growing industrial cities in Britain between the wars. That takes us some way away from our usual image of the ‘city of dreaming spires’ (though they were to pay their part in this history) but the statistics are stark. Oxford’s population grew by 88 percent – from around 57,000 in 1921 to (with a significant border extension to absorb growing suburbs) 107,000 in 1941.

This breakneck growth was largely due to the rise of the local motor industry and allied trades. William Morris built his first car – the doubly eponymous Morris Oxford – in 1913; his workforce grew from 200 in 1919 to around 5000 from the mid-1920s. Pressed Steel, founded in 1926, employed similar numbers. The new trades provided almost a third of local jobs by the late 1930s when almost half Oxford’s insured male workforce were immigrants to the town, many from the local region but a significant number from the unemployment blackspot of south Wales. (1)

Cowley Works 1925

Morris’s Cowley works, 1925

This would affect the city’s politics in due course but it did so only slowly; for the time being the old order reigned. Oxford was a reformed corporation dating to 1835, a county borough from 1889, but its council retained university representation (nine councillors – three elected by convocation and six by college heads and senior bursars – and three aldermen) which persisted, incredibly, to 1974.

That said, it’s not clear that this affected the fundamentally conservative nature of the council: ‘Between 1918 and 1939 the distinction between Liberals and Conservatives on the council was said to have become almost nominal’. Against this, Labour representation – the first member in 1918, rising to 13 by 1939 in a council of 68 members – had little impact. (2)

Penson's Gardens St Ebbes Oxford History Centre

Penson’s Gardens, St Ebbes © Oxfordshire History Centre

Despite the depth of housing need and the prevalence of inner-city slum housing (St Ebbes was described as ‘a swamp converted into a cesspool’ as early as 1848), the Corporation was largely passive: (3)

Before 1914 undiluted laissez-faire predominated on Oxford City Council, in the field of housing as in other municipal activity. The council was notoriously unwilling to enforce sanitary improvements and impose building controls, and made almost no use of national legislation to deal with the worst unfit housing.

London Road council houses 1925

Headington’s new council housing, 1925

The First World War changed much, particularly in the field of housing. The first council homes in Oxford were actually built by Headington Rural District Council in 1920: 101 in total on London Road and Barton Road, designed by local architect James Wells and described by the Oxford Times as of ‘smart appearance, with their whitewashed fronts and red tiled roofs’. (Headington became an Urban District in 1927 but was incorporated into Oxford proper in 1929.) (4)

London Road SN

London Road council housing, 2017

But Oxford City Council could no longer afford to ignore local needs and national pressures though it did continue to follow its own path. In response to national directives leading to the 1919 Housing Act, the Council initially proposed to build 400 homes; in the event just 215 were completed by 1922.

These first estates were built at the fringes of the city on Iffley Road and Cowley Road, of high quality and architect-designed with ‘steeply gabled roofs and careful Arts and Crafts detailing [showing] a strong debt to the work of Parker and Unwin at Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb’. Their rents, though, were among the highest in the country as, perversely, the Council rejected Treasury funding, preferring to finance the schemes from its housing revenue account. (5)

It relented in 1924 when it acquired powers to borrow but the high standards remained as did the high rents. The latter were, apparently, a deliberate choice, intended to confine council homes to the better-off and more ‘respectable’ working class and allowing the worse-off to move from city slums to the slightly superior homes vacated by the new council tenants – the ‘filtering-up’ theory which was influential before the First World War.

South Park Estate, Oxford

An early view of the South Park Estate

The new, generously-sized, neo-Georgian-style homes were designed by Kellett Ablett who joined the City Engineer’s Department in 1925. (He went on to become Chief Housing Architect for Nottingham City Council and Chief Architect to Hemel Hempstead New Town.)  The South Park Estate and Morrell Avenue in particular, built between 1929 and 1931 on Headington Hill, is the showpiece, built on land formerly owned by the locally prominent brewing family; ‘as good as any of this kind built in England at the time’, according to Geoffrey Tyack.

Morrell Avenue, South Park Estate, Oxford

An early image of Morrell Avenue

That quality is first apparent in the streetscape – a curving, tree-lined road with verges separating road and footpath. It’s seen in the semi-detached and terraced homes in their brick banding, clay tiling and classical pilastered doorcases amongst other careful detailing.  Similar homes of the same quality and design can be found in the earlier housing of the nearby Gipsy Lane Estate.

Gipsey Lane Estate SN 4

Headington Road, Gipsy Lane Estate

After a slow start, the Council had built 1647 homes between 1923 and 1930, its room for manoeuvre hampered by the city’s growth and pressure on land and the reluctance of Oxford colleges to sell land for public housing. The problem of slum housing – only 129 houses had been demolished by 1929 – and the rehousing of its residents remained, however.

1930 – the year of the Greenwood Housing Act targeting slum clearance – marked a sharp turn nationally and locally. By 1939, the Council had cleared 872 slum houses, most of them in St Ebbes and there were plans for the demolition of almost another 600 St Ebbes’ homes and their replacement by working-class flats.

Croft Road New Marston 1935Des Blenkinsopp

Croft Road, New Marston. The houses bear a plaque marking their date of construction, 1935 © Des Blenkinsopp and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The Council built several hundred more council homes in the 1930s (others were acquired through the expansion of its borders), principally on new estates in a constellation around the city fringes: Wolvercote to the north, New Hinksey to the south, and New Marston to the east.

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Barton 3 Plans 1 SN

Abingdon Road, New Hinksey

Some were built to previously high standards, as seen above in the plans and finished housing on Abingdon Road but most, while solid, decent homes were notably plainer and smaller than their predecessors. This reflected the changing and less generous subsidy regime over the interwar period and a belief that the so-called slum working class might be housed more cheaply.  The contrast can also be seen clearly in the later housing built on the Gipsy Lane Estate.

Gipsey Lane Estate SN 3

Later housing on the Gipsy Lane Estate

That prejudice lay behind one of the great causes célèbres of interwar Oxford – the Cutteslowe Walls.  The Council had bought agricultural land for housing in Summertown in the 1920s. The first Cutteslowe Estate was built between 1931 and 1932. Work on the second began in August 1933. Meanwhile, the city had sold part of the land to private developers, the Urban Housing Company.  Through some apparent miscommunication, Aldrich and Wolsey Roads on the new council estate joined up with their private estate counterparts. (7)

The Company alleged council tenants were responsible for vandalism on the private estate. It also claimed that the rehousing of former slum-dwellers on the estate breached an undertaking given by the Council that it wouldn’t be used for this purpose. Whatever the (not so) niceties, it’s not hard to see the naked class prejudice and commercial interest that lay behind the Company’s supposed grievances. It erected two-metre high, spiked walls – separating the council homes from their private equivalents – across the connecting streets in December 1934. They forced a 600-metre detour for council estate residents trying to reach the main road.

Cutteslowe Walls demo 11 May 1935

Protest, May 1935

This local class war provided an obvious opportunity for the city’s Communists led by Abe Lazarus but the Party’s attempt to lead local residents in the demolition of the walls in May 1935 was thwarted by the police and, in the words of another Oxford communist, the capitulation of ‘certain legalist members of the [tenants’] committee’. (8)

In this fight, however, the City Council was on the right side of history.  They wanted the walls down and, having pursued various legal avenues, they ended up taking what turned out to be their own form of direct action in June 1938 when Council workmen bulldozed both walls. A back and forth ensued between the workmen of both parties while Urban Estate residents looked on with some concern, as reported by the Daily Herald: (9)

‘We don’t despise these people’ said a Carlton-road dweller, ‘but …’ – and a finger was pointed at three cheerful urchins climbing a tree.

‘It is not that we look down on them’, said another, ‘but we live a different life from theirs’.

The High Court found the Council to have acted unlawfully and the walls were duly reinstated. And amazingly there they remained, despite a few mishaps, until demolished on 9 March 1959 – a sign of changing times perhaps but achieved by the legal manoeuvre of the Council buying the land on which they stood.

Cutteslowe Wall demolished

The wall demolished, March 1959

Class divides were not always so clear-cut. Oxford City Council had built over 2000 houses since the war; private developers around 7000.  We’ve seen an intra-class division operating within council housing – between the superior housing designed for a more ‘respectable’ working class in the 1920s and that provided for displaced slum-dwellers in the 1930s. Some of the new private housing would have been occupied by a more affluent working class too, notably the relatively well-paid car workers.

We’ll follow the post-war story of class and housing in Oxford in next week’s post.


I’ve written previously about a similar wall erected on the Downham Estate, south London, which stood between 1926 and 1950.

Surprisingly, the class divide reared its ugly head again in Oxford in 2018 when the City Council repaved ‘posh’ Wentworth Road and halted its resurfacing as it became Aldrich Road on the council estate at precisely the point where the wall had previously stood. At least one local saw this as ‘Class War’ and expressed the view in spray paint. The Council claimed it was a purely pragmatic decision based on need.

There’s been a fair amount written on the Cutteslowe Walls, notably Peter Collison, The Cutteslowe Walls: A Study in Social Class (Faber and Faber, 1963). Apart from the sources listed below, the Past Tense blog provides an interesting perspective in this post: Class Walls – Cutteslowe, Downham and roadworks.


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.

(1) Eleanor Chance, Christina Colvin, Janet Cooper, CJ Day, TG Hassall, Mary Jessup and Nesta Selwyn, ‘Modern Oxford’, in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford, ed. Alan Crossley and C R Elrington (Victoria County History, 1979)

(2) CJ Day, Modern Oxford: a History of the City from 1771 (Reprinted from the Victoria County History of Oxford by Oxford County Libraries, 1983)

(3) 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)

(4) Stephanie Jenkins, Headington history: Miscellaneous

(5) The quotation is from Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998); the reference to funding from Crosby, ‘Housing and Urban Renewal: Oxford 1918-1985’

(6) Oxford City Council, Oxford Preservation Trust and English Heritage, Our East Oxford:  A Character Statement and Heritage Asset Register Survey for East Oxford (October 2014)

(7) Much of the detail here is drawn from Brian Robert Marshall, Cutteslowe Walls

(8) Duncan Bowie, Reform and Revolt in the City of Dreaming Spires (University of Westminster Press, 2018)

(9) ‘Rival Gangs in Wall Battle’, Daily Herald, June 9 1938.