Open House London 2017: Town Halls – Civic Pride and Service

This second post marking Open House London on 16-17 September offers a broadly chronological, whistle-stop tour of the municipal seats of government featured, in various forms – some grand, some humble – this weekend. (Open House venues are picked out in bold; the links related to previous blog posts.)


City of London Guildhall (c) Prioryman and made available through Wikimedia Commons

It’s appropriate then to begin with the oldest and one of the most impressive of these, the City of London Guildhall and its present Grand Hall, begun in 1411 – the third largest surviving medieval hall in the country.  Externally, it’s probably the 1788 grand entrance by George Dance the Younger in – with apologies to contemporary sensibilities – what’s been called Hindoostani Gothic that is most eye-catching.  The adjacent Guildhall Library and Art Gallery are also open to view – great facilities along with others provided the City but, as the Corporation is hardly a triumph of democracy, we’ll move on.


Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

At the other end of the scale what is now the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow is a modest affair.  It started life in the mid-18th century as a workhouse but included a room set aside for meetings of the local vestry.  It was later adapted as a police station before becoming a very fine local museum in 1930. If you can’t make Open House, do visit it and Walthamstow Village at another time.

Old_Vestry_Office_Enfield_(c) Philafrenzy

Old Vestry Offices, Enfield (c) Philafrenzy and made available through Wikimedia Commons

The Old Vestry Offices in Enfield, a small polygonal building built in 1829 originally housed the local beadle – responsible for local enforcement of the Poor Law – and then, until the 1930s, a police station.

This was an era of minimal – so-called night-watchman – local government when ad hoc, largely unrepresentative bodies administered basic services largely related to public safety.  As towns grew and expectations – initially focused on health and, increasingly, on housing – increased, the more ambitious vestries took on enhanced roles and garnered greater prestige.  One such was Shoreditch.


Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall almost matches the Guildhall in its civic pretensions – chutzpah indeed for a building, designed by the impressively named Caesar Augustus Long and opened in 1866 for a vestry. But Shoreditch Vestry took particular pride in its path-breaking municipal electricity undertaking and here its motto, and that of the later Borough, ‘More Light, More Power’ took on more than merely metaphorical meaning.  You might recognise the figure of ‘Progress’ enshrined in the Town Hall tower too. After a long period of decline, the Town Hall was reopened in 2005 and is now a thriving community venue operated by the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust.


Limehouse Town Hall

Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881, is a humbler building despite the Italian palazzo styling adopted by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston. It also started life as a Vestry Hall but one intended nevertheless as ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’.  It went on to serve as offices for Stepney Metropolitan Borough Council – while its great hall hosted balls and concerts and even early ‘cinematograph’ shows.  It was well known to Clement Attlee, mayor of Stepney in 1919 and later the area’s MP.  It’s been run by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust as a community venue since 2004.

Ealing Town Hall Champion SN

Ealing Town Hall (c) PG Chamion and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Ealing had a local board of health from 1863 and didn’t become an urban district until 1894 under the Local Government Act of that year.  Ealing Town Hall, a grand neo-Gothic building, designed by Charles Jones and opened in 1888 replaced a smaller town hall (still standing, now a bank on The Mall) built just fourteen years earlier but now deemed too small for purpose.  The newer town hall was itself extended in the 1930s and includes an impressive double-height council chamber.


Battersea Arts Centre (former town hall)

Battersea Town Hall, begun in 1892 – an ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ design by Edward Mountford – survived a disastrous fire in 2015.  Fortunately, repairs and improvements have re-established what is now the Battersea Arts Centre as a wonderful local resource.  Its local government heritage survives, however – a worthy memorial to the time when Battersea’s radical politics earned it the title, the ‘Municipal Mecca’. (The Latchmere Estate, a fifteen minute walk to the north and the subject of my very first post, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour in 1903.)


Richmond Old Town Hall

Richmond, a municipal borough founded in 1890 in the County of Surrey, was a more conservative body although it can boast (since its incorporation in Greater London in 1965) the first council housing built in the capital. Richmond Old Town Hall, also designed in Elizabethan Renaissance style by WJ Ancell, was opened in 1893 and now houses (since the creation of the London Borough of Richmond) a museum, gallery and local studies archives amongst other things.


Finsbury Town Hall

Finsbury Town Hall was opened in 1895, another Vestry Hall at that time, designed by C Evans Vaughan in ‘free Flemish Renaissance’ style according to Pevsner.  Look out for the Art Nouveau entrance canopy and internal fittings too.  It’s a beautiful building making good use of a tricky site, subsequently home to one of the most radical of London’s Metropolitan Borough Councils.  Nearby, you can visit the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board, opened in 1920, just up the road at New River Head.

Back to Finsbury Town Hall, it’s been the home of the Urdang Academy – a school of dance and musical theatre – since 2006 and, in its words, ‘an inspiring and fitting environment in which to train’.  The Town Hall is still a local registry office for weddings and, for that reason, close to my heart and that of the woman who puts the ‘dreams’ into ‘municipal’.


Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower

Croydon, created a County Borough within Surrey in 1889, didn’t amalgamate with London until 1965 but the Town Hall, built to plans by local architect Charles Henman, was opened in 1896 to provide ‘Municipal Offices, Courts, a Police Station, Library and many other public purposes’. The Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower complex retains some local government functions – the Mayor’s Parlour and committee rooms – but also offers a museum, gallery, library and cinema.


Redbridge (formerly Ilford) Town Hall (c) Sunil 060902 and made available through Wikimedia Commons

The first ‘free Classical’ phase of Redbridge Town Hall, by architect Ben Woollard, was opened in 1901 for Ilford Urban District Council. A new central library was built in the 1927 extension for the newly created Municipal Borough and further office space in the 1933 extension, contributing to the eclectic Renaissance of the overall ensemble. Since 1965 it’s served as the headquarters of the London Borough of Redbridge. The Council Chamber is one of the finest in London.


Tottenham Town Hall, fire station and public baths illustrated in 1903


Tottenham Town Hall today

A visit to the Tottenham Green Conservation Area gives you an opportunity view a whole slew of historically significant buildings.  With my municipal hat on, I’ll draw your attention to Tottenham Town Hall (HQ of Tottenham Urban District Council from 1904 to 1965) and the other examples of local government endeavour and service adjacent – the public baths next door (now just the façade remaining but, as the Bernie Grants Art Centre supported by Haringey Council, still serving a progressive purpose), the fire station (now an enterprise centre), and technical college (built by Middlesex County Council). Passing the new Marcus Garvie Library, you’ll come across Tottenham’s former public library built in 1896 just up the road.  It’s as fine an ensemble of civic purpose and social betterment as you could find in the country.


The Victoria Hall, Woolwich Town Hall

And without doubt, Woolwich Town Hall, an elaborate Baroque design by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, is one of the most impressive town halls in the capital.  Queen Victoria presides over the main stairway of the building’s staggeringly impressive central lobby but the building was opened, following Labour’s capture of the Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903 by local MP and dockers’ leader Will Crooks.  That take-over by one of the largest and most active Labour organisations in the country (don’t neglect the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society here) heralded a proud era of reform to raise the health and living standards of the local working class.

Bethnal Green SN 2

Town Hall Hotel, Bethnal Green 

Bethnal Green Town Hall, Edwardian Baroque, was opened in 1910 to designs by Percy Robinson and W Alban Jones.  Sculptures by Henry Poole adorn the exterior.  The growth of local government responsibilities in the interwar period compelled the opening of a large extension to the rear, designed by ECP Monson – restrained neo-classical outside, sumptuous and modern inside – in 1939.  (Monson was also a significant architect of the era’s council housing such as the briefly notorious Lenin Estate built in the 1920s when the Council was briefly under joint Labour-Communist control.)


The UK Supreme Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall (c) Pam Fray and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Moving to the immediate pre-war period, the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster – originally housing, amongst other things, the offices of Middlesex County Council – was an unusual building for its time, designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in free Gothic style.  It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.

IslingtonTownHall Alan Ford

Islington Town Hall (c) Alan Ford and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Islington Town Hall, opened in 1925, takes us into the heyday of local government as councils assumed ever greater powers and purpose. It was designed by ECP Monson again. Its neo-classical style has been described as old-fashioned for its time but it’s finely executed.

Kingston Guildhall Stevekeiretsu

Kingston Guildhall (c) Steve Keiretsu and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Kingston Town Hall, built ten years later for the then Municipal Borough of Kingston-on Thames and designed by Maurice Webb, displays another of the more traditional forms still favoured in the era – redbrick, neo-Georgian.  The Magistrates Courts, incorporated into the building, are now the offices of the Borough’s History Centre.


Hackney Town Hall

Hackney Town Hall, designed by Henry Lanchester and Thomas Lodge, is also formally neo-classical but its lines and styling are sleeker, more modern and, internally it’s a masterpiece of Art Deco.  When formally opened in 1937 by Lord Snell, Labour Leader of the House of the Lords, he described it as a building:

devoted to the business of living one with another to the benefit of all…It represented something more than mere stone and wood put together; it embodied the ideal of social living…a symbol of their idealism and a focal point for the services of their great borough, and he hoped they would find in it an atmosphere of quiet dignity, purity of administration and of love for the purpose to which it was devoted.

That’s an ideal of local governance that we would do well to remember and revive in these straitened times.


Havering (formerly Romford) Town Hall (c) MRSC and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Opened one year earlier, Romford Town Hall (now serving the London Borough of Havering) is a less elaborate building, designed by Herbert R Collins and Antoine Englebert O Geens in an architectural competition stressing the need for strict economy. But it’s an important representative of the International Moderne style increasingly in vogue at this time. Though its steel-framed construction is hidden here by brickwork and stone, rather than the white cement often favoured, this was a consciously forward-looking, more democratic architecture shedding the detritus of the past.

Dagenham Town Hall

Dagenham Town Hall

The former Dagenham Town Hall (now the Coventry University London Campus) was designed by E Berry Webber in 1937 for what was then Dagenham Urban District Council, undergoing massive growth as a result of the LCC’s nearby Becontree Estate.  It’s a modernist design of steel-framed construction – a quintessential civic building of the era. The full height, marbled ceremonial stairway in the building’s main hall is on of the most impressive in the capital.

Waltham Forest Assembly Hall SN3

Waltham Forest Assembly Hall

The consummation of this ambitious era of municipal construction is found in Walthamstow Town Hall (now belonging to the Borough of Waltham Forest) and the adjacent Assembly Hall – a magnificent civic complex fronted by sweeping lawns and a grand central pool and fountain. Both the Town Hall, not open this year, and Assembly Hall were designed by Phillip Hepworth in a stripped down classical style with Art Deco touches owing something to Scandinavian contemporaries.  The front of the Hall, famed for its acoustics and a favourite recording venue, is inscribed with the words of local son William Morris (which also provide the Borough motto), “Fellowship is Life; Lack of Fellowship is Death’.


London City Hall (ca) Garry Knight and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Finally, we can bring the story up to date by referring to some 21st century examples of new civic architecture. City Hall, the home of the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly, was opened in 2002 – a high-tech building created by Norman Foster and Partners. Not everybody likes its appearance but the building is notable for reflecting current imperatives of sustainable design.


Brent Civic Centre

The new Brent Civic Centre, opened in 2013 near Wembley Stadium lets us end on a positive note.  The building unites Brent’s civic, public and administrative functions under a single roof – in the words of its designers Hopkins Architects, ‘a new hub and heart for the community where residents can meet, shop and eat’.  The latter, of course, is another reflection of changed times and priorities and an ethos in which public service is at best complemented by commercial imperatives and, at worst, subordinated to them.

I haven’t seen it but it looks, to be fair, a rather stunning building and, since it houses a community hall and library as well as a civic chamber and offices for the 2000 employees who keep the borough’s services going, let’s celebrate it as a worthy update to the civic heritage this post records.



Open House London, 2017: A Tour of the Capital’s Council Housing

The most important buildings in London – those with the greatest social significance for the mass of its people and those which have made the greatest visual impact on the capital – are council houses. In 1981, at peak, there were 769,996 council homes in the capital and they housed near 31 percent of its population.

It’s partly this ubiquity and familiarity that means most council estates don’t make it into Open House London, the capital’s annual celebration of its built heritage taking place this year on the weekend of the 16-17 September. And, then – let’s be fair here – there’s the fact that not all municipal schemes have represented the very best of architecture and design.

Housing protest

Housing crisis and protest

But there’s another process in play – the marginalisation of social housing and its contribution to the lives of so many. We are asked to forget all that social housing has achieved, just as we are asked by some supporters of a boundless free market to discount it as a solution to the present housing crisis.

This post offers an alternative perspective: a chronological tour of the Open House London venues which do mark an alternative and progressive history – council housing to savour and celebrate.  I’ve written on many of these in the past so click on the links to get to those earlier posts and further information. Open House locations are picked out in bold.

Houses on the Risley Avenue and Awlfield Avenue junction: a 'butterfly junction' of the type pioneered in Letchworth Garden City

Houses on the Risley Avenue and Awlfield Avenue junction, Tower Gardens Estate: a ‘butterfly junction’ of the type pioneered in Letchworth Garden City

We’ll begin, appropriately, with the Tower Gardens Estate in Tottenham – designed and built by the London County Council (LCC) before the First World War: a cottage estate for working people inspired by the Garden City and Arts and Crafts movements of the day.  Just under 1000 homes were built on the Estate before the war halted construction; a further 1266 houses and flats were added – in plainer style but in keeping with Garden City ideals – in a northwards extension to the Estate between the wars.

SN Dickson Road, Progress Estate

Dickson Road, Progress Estate

The Progress Estate in Eltham wasn’t a municipal scheme.  It was built by the Ministry of Works during the First World War and designed by the Ministry’s Chief Architect, Frank Baines; its role, to support the war effort by providing high-quality housing to the workers of the nearby Royal Arsenal Munitions Works.  Almost 1300 homes were built in the single year of 1915, showing what can be done when housing needs are prioritised. Originally named the Well Hall Estate, it was renamed in 1925 when the Government sold it to the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society.  Fifty-five years later, the 500 remaining social rented homes were sold on to the Hyde Housing Association.

26 Chittys Lane

26 Chittys Lane, Becontree, with a plaque marking it as the first house completed on the estate

The Estate was a crucial influence on the 1918 Tudor Walters Report which in turn did much to shape the form and nature of council housing in the interwar period when the LCC alone built 89,049 council homes in the capital.  Some 26,000 of these were built on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919 at the height of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ campaign.   It was the largest of the LCC’s interwar estates, housing by 1939 a population of 120,000.  Such size (and an unpromising site) led some – despite the planners’ best efforts – to criticise the mass and uniformity of the Estate but to many, moving from inner-city slums, ‘it was heaven with the gates off.’

If you’re there, make sure to visit Valence House too, a 15th century manor house purchased to serve local needs by the LCC in 1926, and now a local museum recording the distant and more recent history of the area, including some interesting records and re-creations of Becontree.

Lansbury Neighbourhood map 1951

A brochure for the Lansbury Estate, 1951

The Lansbury Estate in Poplar would serve as a model for another era of post-war council housing when it was opened in 1951 to serve as a living ‘Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research’ for the Festival of Britain.  It’s easy to be unimpressed by its modest yellow-brick terraces and small blocks of flats and maisonettes – and much contemporary architectural opinion was – but take time to savour a moment when (in the words of the Festival’s on-site town planning exhibition) our politics were driven by ‘The Battle for Land’ and ‘The Needs of the People’ and the question ‘How can these needs be met?’.

Chrisp St Market Tower (1)The Estate epitomises the ‘neighbourhood unit’, a key element of post-war planning envisaged as a means of preserving and enhancing an ideal of ‘community’ which some felt betrayed by larger, more anonymous council estates such as Becontree.  Its centrepiece was Frederick Gibberd’s Chrisp Street Market and clock tower – the first pedestrianised shopping centre in the country.

While there, you’ll see Balfron Tower which is a five-minute walk to the west. Designed by Ernő Goldfinger and opened by the Greater London Council in 1968, Balfron is famous (or infamous according to taste) as one of the most imposing Brutalist designs of its time but it was, first and foremost, housing for working-class people being moved from local slums. Now the block’s council tenants have been ‘decanted’ and the flats are to be sold to those with the means to buy them on the open market. With a history of ‘art washing’ intended to sanitise this loss of social role and purpose, it’s perhaps a good thing that Balfron doesn’t feature in Open House this year.

Trellick 2

Trellick Tower

Fortunately, Balfron’s younger sister designed by Goldfinger, Trellick Tower and opened in 1972, does, despite Right to Buy, remain social housing owned by the now infamous Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  You can visit a social enterprise, comprising furniture workshops and showroom and café on the lower floors.  I’ve not written on Trellick but the posts on Balfron will give you some background.


Berthold Lubetkin

This was an era when the ‘starchitects’ of the day were part of a social democratic vision of Britain’s future and for no-one was this truer than Berthold Lubetkin, the architect of the Finsbury Health Centre, who famously declared that ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’.  He fulfilled this vision in the Spa Green Estate, to the north, opened in 1949 and described by the Survey of London, not prone to hyperbole, as ‘heroic’ and by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time.

SN Bevin Court entrance

SN Bevin staircaseNeither of these appear in Open House but two of Lubetkin’s schemes for the Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council – one of the most progressive in the capital – are featured.  Bevin Court was opened in 1954; the Cold War having put paid to plans to name the building after Lenin (who had once lived on it site).  Its innovative seven-story Y-shape capitalised on its site and ensured none of the flats faced north but, visually, its crowning glory is its central staircase.  Visit to see that and the newly restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.

SN PG Kendal House and Reddington House

Kendal House and Reddington House, Priory Green Estate

A few minutes’ walk to the north, you can also visit Lubetkin’s Priory Green Estate, completed three years later.  It’s a much larger estate – 288 homes in seven large blocks but with similar attention paid to lay-out and landscaping and more striking, sculptural staircases.  The Estate was transferred from Islington Borough Council, Finsbury’s successor after 1965, to Peabody in 1999 and, having fallen on hard times, has since been renovated with the aid of a £2m Heritage Lottery grant.

SN Cranbrook

The Cranbrook Estate – old people’s bungalows and Elisabeth Frink’s Blind Beggar and His Dog (centre left) in foreground

Finsbury’s progressive counterpart to the east was Bethnal Green and Lubetkin designed the Cranbrook Estate, built between 1955 and 1966, for the Borough.  With 529 homes in total – arranged in a geometric ensemble of six tower and five medium-rise blocks artfully diminishing in scale to the single-storey terrace of old people’s bungalows on the Roman Road – it is one and half times the size of le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation.  Lutbetkin’s biographer, John Allen, rightly describes it as a ‘stupendous tour de force’ and only detracts from that compliment by seeming to lament the ‘domestic intricacies of municipal housing’ which lie behind it.  I’ll take those – as Lubetkin would – as, in fact, its crowning achievement.

SN Ladlands

Dawson’s Heights: Ladlands and the view to the north

When she designed Dawson’s Heights, in East Dulwich, for Southwark Borough Council, Kate Macintosh, aged just 26, was no such star though she’s since become one of the most renowned of council housing architects and a doughty defender of the sector’s value and continuing purpose.  Dawson’s Heights literally crowns its dramatic hill-top setting, so much so that English Heritage (in a listing proposal rejected by the Secretary of State) was moved to almost lyrical praise of the scheme’s ‘striking and original massing’ and its ‘evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’.  The Estate, two large ziggurat-style blocks designed to offer views and sunlight to each of their 296 flats, was built between 1968 and 1972.


The World’s End Estate

Another estate which capitalises on its superb setting is the World’s End Estate, completed in 1977, set on the banks of the Thames across London and built, in happier times, by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms it comprises seven 18 to 21-storey tower blocks, joined in a figure of eight by nine four-storey walkway blocks but the whole, clad in warm-red brick, possesses a romantic, castellated appearance, providing  great views within and without.

SN Silchester Estate Darfield Way

Darfield Way, Silchester Estate

Three miles to the north at the top end of the Borough lies the Silchester Estate, built in the early 1970s by the Greater London Council on land cleared of slums in Notting Dale. Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate lie immediately to the east. Grenfell offers its own tragic indictment of the marginalisation of social housing residents and cost-cutting regeneration – I won’t add here to the mountain of words and outpouring of grief that catastrophe engendered except to say that I hope lessons will be learnt.

Silchester offers its own lessons.  You are invited to view a ‘new development of 112 mixed tenure homes, community and retail facilities delivered jointly by Peabody and Kensington and Chelsea’.  It’s a symbol of the new world of social housing – new build financed by the construction of homes for sale and the mantra that mono-tenure (i.e. working-class, social rented) estates need to be ‘improved’ by an injection of middle-class affluence and aspiration. Some social housing has been replaced on a like-for-like basis; 70 percent of the new homes are said to be ‘affordable’ though that, as you will know, is a slippery and all too often duplicitous term.

Silchester Estate Waynflete Square and Frinstead House SN

Frinstead House and Waynflete Square, Silchester Estate

Take a look at the adjacent, older estate while you there – four 20-storey tower blocks and a range of low-rise blocks set around the leafy Waynflete Square. It’s well-liked by residents who cherish their homes, their community and the estate’s attractive open spaces.  All, in recent years, have been subject to plans to demolish and rebuild.  A strong residents’ campaign and recent events at Grenfell may have postponed that threat but such estates and communities across the capital deserve our support.

Hollamby 1974

Ted Hollamby

Nowhere is this truer than in Lambeth. As Chief Architect for the new (post-65) Borough of Lambeth, Ted Hollamby had concluded that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’.  Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments.  They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’.  His vision can be seen enacted in two very fine council estates on show during Open House.

Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973, is a stepped development designed to make best use of its attractive site but it reflects Lambeth and Hollamby’s signature style in its intimacy and human scale.  It’s worked; it’s a well-loved estate with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, as part of Lambeth’s commendable pledge to build new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact, once more the threat of demolition.

Central Hill snip

Central Hill

The principal driver of this policy in London is money or the lack of it – the pressure to sell council real estate and build private housing for sale in order to raise capital for social housing at best or so-called ‘affordable’ housing at worst.  A second is ‘densification’ – a belief that working-class homes must be built at greater density to accommodate the capital’s growing population.  Not all regeneration is bad but where it means the destruction of good homes and the wiping out of existing communities it should be opposed.

IMG_0085 (a)

Cressingham Gardens

The plans to wreak this havoc on Cressingham Gardens, one of Lambeth’s finest estates – described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’ – have already been approved, its residents still fighting valiantly a rearguard action.  It’s a beautiful estate nestling on the edge of Brockwell Park which manages superbly, in Hollamby’s words again, to ‘create a sense of smallness inside the bigness…and to get the kind of atmosphere in which people did not feel all herded together’.


Thamesmead as envisaged in the mid-1960s

Ten miles to the east, Thamesmead on the southern bank of the Thames Estuary represented planning and construction on a much grander scale. A gleam in the eye of the LCC from the fifties and then, from 1966, the Greater London Council’s ‘Woolwich-Erith Project’, it was envisaged as a ‘town of the 21st Century’ with a population of between 60- to 100,000 people.

621px-2017_Thamesmead_aerial_view_01 Kleon3

Thamesmead south and central, 2017 (c) Kleon3 and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Only 12,000 had settled by 1974 and the estate – with its difficult location, poor transport links and lack of facilities – was considered by many a failure. Taken over by Peabody in 2015, benefiting from new investment and the arrival of Crossrail in 2018, it’s on the up now and worth visiting for both its past and future promise.

Meanwhile, across the capital, another progressive borough, Camden – under the enlightened leadership of Borough Architect Sydney Cook – had also developed its own striking house style.  Cook rejected the system-building then in vogue as the means to build as much as cheaply as possible – ‘I’ll use standardised plans if you can find me a standardised site,’ he said.  And he rejected high-rise, particularly the tower blocks set in open landscape popular at the time.

Sn Whittington Estate Stoneleigh Terrace (2)

Stoneleigh Terrace, Whitington Estate

This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, another young architect then in his mid-twenties. It’s a larger, grander scheme than those of Lambeth – in signature Camden style, six parallel linear stepped-section blocks of light pre-cast concrete construction and dark-stained timber.  It was designed to be a ‘form of housing…which related more closely to the existing urban fabric than the slab and tower blocks, and which brought more dwellings close to the ground’. Each home had its own front door and a walk through the front door of 8 Stoneleigh Terrace during Open House will allow you to glimpse the innovative interior design of the housing too, chiefly the work of Ken Adie of the Council’s Department of Technical Services.

Neave Brown

Neave Brown

Aside from Cook, Camden’s superb council housing of this era is chiefly associated with Neave Brown, the only living architect to have had all his UK work officially listed. This year’s Open House features, the Dunboyne Road (formerly Fleet Road) Estate (no. 36 to be precise), designed by Brown in 1966 and finally completed in 1977.

Its three white, stepped parallel blocks and now mature gardens provide a striking ensemble, noted by English Heritage in their 2010 Grade II listing for its ‘strong modernist aesthetic’ and a ‘simple, bold overall composition’ belying the scheme’s complexity and sophistication.

Dunboyne Road 2

Dunboyne Road Estate

The other Brown scheme in Open House is generally judged one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, the Alexandra Road Estate,  listed Grade II* in 1993.  It’s better seen than described but, in its scale and confidence, it marks (in the words of modernist architect John Winter), ‘a magical moment for English housing’.  Make sure to visit the recently renovated Alexandra Road Park and Tenants’ Hall (also featured in Open House), both integral to the design and original conception of the estate.

Rowley Way, the Alexandra Road Estate

Alexandra Road was completed in 1979 – the year in which such high ambition would be consigned to the graveyard of history.  It’s a sad irony that some of the very best of our council housing was built just as its near-century long story of practical idealism and shared social purpose was drawing to a close.

i-love-council-houses-south-london-1I hadn’t intended this tour of some of London’s finest council estates to be so elegiac but the contemporary picture of social housing’s marginalisation and market-driven ‘regeneration’ creates a poignant counterpoint to the energy and aspirations of previous generations.  If you visit any of the estates on show during Open House London, my plea to you is to think of them not as monuments to a bygone era but as beacons of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.


The Silchester residents’ campaign to defend their estate can be found at Save Our Silchester. The residents of Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens also have active campaigns fighting to preserve their homes and communities.  See Save Central Hill and Save Cressingham Gardens to find out more and lend your support.

Municipal Dreams Goes to Hull, Part II: Civic grandeur, service and convenience


We left Hull in last week’s post standing, figuratively at least, in its civic heart, Queen Victoria Square.  We’re looking at municipal Hull – the plans and promises as well as proud accomplishment.

Queen’s Gardens, which lie beyond Queen Victoria Square to the north-east, fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.  The area was once the Queen’s Docks, the first Hull docks constructed in the 1770s.  Obsolete by the interwar period, they were sold to the Corporation, infilled and opened (by Labour MP Herbert Morrison) as a park in 1935 and, as such, were a key element of the 1930s’ redesign of the city centre.   The fountain at the western end survives from that time but the Gardens as a whole were remodelled by Frederick Gibberd from the 1950s, building on the earlier Lutyens and Abercrombie vision for a new grand civic space, including assembly hall and winter gardens, which incorporated the Guildhall to the south.

Queens's Gardens Kenneth Carter relief
– Kenneth Carter reliefs in front of former Central Police Station, Queen’s Gardens

Those larger ambitions remained unfulfilled and the Gardens remain poorly integrated into the wider cityscape – an issue addressed by a new masterplan issued in 2013 – but it’s a lovely space and walk into them to appreciate some fine past and present landscaping and public art. (1)  Amongst the latter are reliefs by Robert Adams by the pond at the eastern end and five panels by Kenneth Carter on a northern wall in front of the 1959 former Police Station, both commissioned by Gibberd (a great patron of public art as we’ve seen in Harlow).

Queen's Gardens SN
– Queen’s Gardens, Wilberforce Monument and Hull College

What will catch your eye is the grand terminal vista of the Gardens at their eastern end.  The Wilberforce Monument (local boy William Wilberforce was the town’s MP from 1780) was erected by public subscription in 1834, just one year after the slave trade against which Wilberforce campaigned tirelessly was abolished in the British Empire, and moved to its present site in 1935.

Hull College SN
– Hull College, Frederick Gibberd

Beyond it lies the Hull College of Technology (now Hull College), designed by Gibberd in Festival of Britain style in the 1950s, but completed in 1962.  Old Pevsner didn’t much like it – ‘run of the mill’ it thought – but the new guide is more complimentary of its ‘agreeable symmetry’.  A William Mitchell panel – depicting nautical and mathematical instruments – sits strikingly on the building’s façade.

Hull College Mitchell SN
– William Mitchell concrete and resin panel, c1960

From the College head south towards Alfred Gelder Street.  Alfred Gelder, an architect by profession, councillor and alderman for 43 years, was another of the nonconformist Liberals who left their progressive mark on the city.   The English Baroque-style Guildhall and Law Courts complex, designed by Edwin Cooper, on the street fittingly named after Gelder was begun on the latter’s initiative in 1905 and completed in 1916.  It’s a striking presence, monumental externally, lavishly decorated internally: a powerful statement of civic pride and purpose.Guildhall SN

Guildhall II SN
– The Guildhall

Facing the Guildhall on opposite sides of the road are the Maritime Buildings, a fine Edwardian office block, Grade II listed, awaiting new use and some TLC, and the former General Post Office, fully justifying its architectural descriptor, Edwardian imperial.  Buildings of their time just as their current redundancy or repurposing indicates changed times.  A Wetherspoons in the former post office building allows you to see some of its former grand interior. (2)

Wilberforce Museum SN

Wilberforce Museum

From here it’s a short walk to the heart of Hull’s Old Town (the new town of the 14th century) and at the top end of the High Street, the city’s Museum Quarter – three excellent museums run by the council and free to enter.  Wilberforce gets due recognition in the house, now museum, where he was born and grew up.

Streetlife tram SN

Municipal tram in the Streetlife Museum

But a shout-out here for the excellent Streetlife Museum which offered a great combination of transport and social history – and a chance, keeping to my municipal theme, to take a photograph of a Hull Corporation tram of pre-First World War vintage.  The trams were municipalised in 1896, converted to a trolley-bus system in 1945, and finally closed in 1964.

Tidal barrier, bridge, Deep open SN
– Tidal Surge Barrier with road and pedestrian swing bridges open

Walking further south along the River Hull, you come to some impressive infrastructure – Myton Bridge, a swing bridge carrying the A63 opened in 1980, and the Tidal Surge Barrier of the same year designed by Oliver Cox.  Cox made his name as a major figure in the housing division of the London County Council’s Architects Department so it was impressive to see the versatility displayed in this later work.

The Deep SN

The Deep, Terry Farrell

Further on is The Deep, designed by Terry Farrell and completed in 2002 – an aquarium and major visitor attraction intended to regenerate this redundant area of former dockland. Nelson Street PC SN

Nelson Street PC III SN

Nelson Street PC II SN

Nelson Street public conveniences

I should really spend more time on that bit of self-consciously showpiece architecture but we’re walking on, west along the Humber, towards Nelson Street and the now celebrated public toilets, Grade II listed (alongside the Tidal Surge Barrier and some other Hull landmarks) a few weeks ago. (3) Opened in 1926, the provision for women as well as men was innovative for the time and offers its own bit of social history as a mark of the greater independence allowed women in the interwar period. Otherwise, just enjoy the quality and beauty of the original Art Nouveau styling and fittings which survive to the present. (4)

Fruit Market SN
– ‘Thieving Harry’s’, Fruit Market

Finally, on this perambulation, you can stop off for some well-earned refreshment in the revitalised Fruit Market area around the corner on the eastern side of Princess Docks. Now rebranded as an arts and cultural quarter, not so long ago it was just what it said it was as some of the surviving shopfronts and signs on Humber Street testify.  The Gibson Bishop building on the corner – once a fruit and vegetable merchant and now Thieving Harry’s café – is another fine example of 1950s’ reconstruction.

All that represents a full day’s visit but, hopefully, you’ll take time to explore the city further.  I’ll conclude with another idiosyncratic, municipally-themed, selection of other highlights.

Holderness Road Library SN
– James Reckitt Public Library, Holderness Road

Heading east along the Holderness Road, you’ll find the James Reckitt Public Library (Reckitt was another local philanthropic Liberal industrialist), designed by Alfred Gelder and opened in 1889 as Hull’s first public library.

Holderness Road Baths SN

East Hull Baths, Holderness Road

Immediately adjacent are the more exuberant East Hull Baths, designed by Joseph H Hirst, then of the City Engineer’s Department, and opened in 1898.

Frederic I Reckitt Havens

Frederick I Reckitt Havens

A little under a mile further east, you reach the edge of the garden village developed before the First World War by Reckitt for the workers of his nearby works.  It’s a beautiful ensemble though now, for the most part, firmly for the more affluent middle classes.  The sweetly-named Frederick I Reckitt Havens, run by Anchor Housing, remain a not-for-profit enclave for elderly persons.

Khyber Pass SN
– The ‘Khyber Pass’ in East Park 

Next is East Park, originally 52 acres, now 120, designed by Borough Engineer Joseph Fox Sharp and opened by the Corporation in 1887. The Khyber Pass folly was constructed, possibly as a project for the local unemployed, between 1885 and 1888.  Not the worst reminder of Britain’s imperial past perhaps.

Beverley Road library II SN
– Beverley Road Baths (c) Richard Croft and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Alternatively head north along the Beverley Road, there are more examples of progressive municipal endeavour – the Stepney Primary School, a Queen Anne-style building of the Hull School Board erected in 1886 and, next door, the Beverley Road Baths, designed by Joseph H Hirst, again, in 1905.

Blitz site SN

The former National Picture Theatre blitz site

Further north along Beverley Road is Britain’s last surviving Second World War Blitz site. The National Picture Theatre, a 1914 cinema, was bombed in 1941 and has remained largely undisturbed since then as an unintended memorial to wartime destruction.  There are now plans to resurrect the listed building as a formal commemoration of the era.

Pearson Park just to the west, originally the People’s Park, opened in 1862 – the city’s first public park – is a superb example of Victorian concern for working-class wellbeing and healthy recreation (even while the latter didn’t generally extend to their profit-making working lives or usually squalid homes).  The poet Philip Larkin’s home, another of the recently listed sites, is an attractive middle-class residence of the 1890s on the northern edge of the park.

Sidmouth Street School SN
– Sidmouth Street School

Larkin was famously chief librarian of Hull University which lies off Cottingham Road to the north.  If you cut across west from Beverley Road, you can take in another of the Hull Board’s fine schools, that on Sidmouth Street, erected 1912 and designed by the industrious Joseph H Hirst.

Court Housing, Sidmouth Street

Court housing, Sidmouth Street

Across the road and on Exmouth Street nearby you’ll see some rare surviving examples of the court housing – short facing terraces built as cul-de-sacs off the main roads – which dominated much of the city’s working-class housing before the First World War.  These are later, and better built, examples from the 1880s.  One of the residents we spoke to was pleased that a couple of people up from London had ventured beyond the city centre.

University of Hull Venn Building SN
– The Venn Building, University of Hull

On to the University and we’ll stretch a point here – though not too far – to make this our final example of municipal investment and innovation. The University was founded in 1925 on the back of a £250,000 donation from Thomas R Ferens and a £150,000 grant from the City Council.  There’s a lot of good architecture to be admired here but I’ll give you the Venn Building of 1928 (‘Neo-Early Georgian’ according to the experts) designed by William Forsyth to capture these interwar origins.

And that’s it. I’ve done a bit more than scratch the surface but all this is only really a taste of what Hull has to offer and a poor substitute for a visit in person.  Above all, it’s a reminder of the huge and important role that local government – as well as a broader civic culture supported by progressive actors – has played in the building and civilising of our cities.

Hull’s deserved status as the UK’s City of Culture in 2017 marks a later iteration of this same endeavour and I hope that the investment and interest it has attracted genuinely improves the lives of local residents as well as entertaining mere visitors such as myself.  I’ll end with a plea that this revival of municipal dreams is an exemplar, not a one-off – a testimony, like so much of what went before, to how a properly resourced and ambitious municipality can improve the lives of its citizens.


Much of the architectural detail in this post is drawn from the invaluable Hull (Pevsner Architectural Guides, 2010) by David and Susan Neave.

(1) Hull City Council Economic Development and Regeneration Department, Masterplan Guidance, Queens Gardens, Hull (July 2013)

(2) The website British Post Office Buildings and their Architects: an Illustrated Guide has informative description and illustration on Hull’s General Post Office.

(3) For fuller detail on all the new Hull listings, take a look at the Historic England webpage.

(4) Of course, the issue of public conveniences (or present-day inconvenience) isn’t merely a matter of historic or architectural interest. The provision of public toilets was an important part of municipal service in its earlier years and the withdrawal of such provision is a major concern to many sections of the community now.  This is well dealt with, past and present, in a Hull context, in Paul Gibson’s post on Public Toilets in Hull.

Jones the Planner offers a full and more critical perspective on Hull’s post-war planning and architecture in ‘Hull: City of Culture’ (9 February 2014) and, alongside other case studies, in the book Cities of the North (2016).



Municipal Dreams in Hull, Part I: The best laid plans…

Hull, as I hope you all know, is the UK’s City of Culture for 2017.  You really don’t need an excuse to visit the city but, if that’s an incentive so much the better, because it’s worth it – Hull is one of the friendliest and most interesting places I’ve been to in a long while. What follows – touching on the city’s civic planning and an eclectic mix of some of its municipal highlights (I’ll do some housing stuff in future posts) – can only be an appetiser but I hope it will encourage you to explore the city for yourself.  This first post looks, in particular, at twentieth century plans to reconstruct the city.

Edward I and Charter SN

Edward I and the city’s first borough charter commemorated in the Guildhall

Hull’s been a borough since 1299 and you’ll see some very early town planning in the grid-like pattern of streets off the High Street in the Old Town.  These were added to the original riverbank settlement by Edward I  who wanted the prosperous port as a base for his forays against the Scots and who renamed it formally Kingston upon Hull in the process.

The port – it was the UK’s third largest into the 1950s – and its associated industries expanded massively in the centuries which followed.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the Council – a reformed municipal corporation in 1835 and a county borough from 1888 – desired a civic presence which reflected the town’s importance and prosperity.  In the interwar period, new ambitions emerged to improve the city, a typically squalid product of breakneck Victorian-era urbanisation, as a living and working space for its broader population.  And then the Blitz – which hit Hull harder than any British city outside London – added its own necessity and aspirations to the task of post-war rebuilding.

Abercrombie City Centre before War

The city centre (west-east) just before the Second World War. The newly completed Queen’s Gardens dominate the top of the image; Paragon Station is bottom centre with Jameson Street heading up. (From Lutyens and Abercrombie, Plan)

Abercrombie 1943 RAF Reconnaissace Aerial View

A 1943 RAF reconnaissance shot (north-south) showing city centre bomb damage (From Lutyens and Abercrombie, Plan)

Arriving by rail at Paragon Station brings you to the heart of a new Hull planned by an ambitious Corporation from the 1930s.  Then, the city centre slums which dominated the area were described by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architectural eminence brought in to oversee the scheme, as an ‘eyesore and menace to heath…a disgrace to a progressive city’. He planned to replace the ‘irritating and unsightly jumble’ of older buildings with a neo-Georgian ensemble; the Council itself hoped that Ferensway, as the new thoroughfare was named, would take ‘its place among the famous streets of the world’.  (1)

Brook House SN

Brook Chambers, Ferensway

To be honest, there’s not much to vindicate such hopes now but look north to the junction with Brook Street and you’ll see a vestige of them in Brook Chambers, erected in 1934.  In the event, wartime devastation – almost half the city’s central shops were destroyed – created new urgency and new opportunity to rebuild on a larger scale.

Abercrombie Plan new city centre

The Lutyens and Abercrombie Plan’s grand zonal reimagining of central Hull

Planning for ‘this second refounding of the great Port on the Humber’ began in 1941 and were finalised by 1944, commissioned by the Council from the two foremost town planners of the day, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Professor Patrick Abercrombie. (2)  Lutyens had spent almost twenty years designing New Delhi; Abercrombie drew up influential post-war plans for London and Plymouth amongst others.  Although Lutyens died in January 1944, his imprint on the completed Plan for the City and County of Kingston upon Hull seems strong in the grand Beaux Art scheme devised though it’s a form also favoured by Abercrombie in Plymouth.

More broadly, the Plan incorporated, in the words of Philip N Jones: (3)

the three great themes of post-war planning in Britain – inner city redevelopment; commitment to the social ideal of neighbourhood planning; and the trilogy of Containment – Green Belt – New Town.

A satellite town was planned in Burton Constable eight miles to the east with a narrow Green Belt separating the new settlement from the Hull suburbs.  Neither emerged and the new centre planned, in Abercrombie’s words, as ‘something completely new in Shopping Centres’ –  ‘a highly specialised precinct, free from traffic but adjacent to the central traffic routes’ – also took a very different form from that originally envisaged.

Abercrombie Osborne Street shopping area

The sleek new shopping centre around Osborne Street envisaged in the Lutyens and Abercrombie Plan)

Abercrombie and Lutyens had hoped to create a new shopping centre centred on Osborne Street, adjacent to an expanded and re-formed civic quarter located around Queen’s Gardens. Established business interests and the prevalence of surviving buildings – despite the Blitz – stymied this vision.

A and L Shopping Centre Plan

The Lutyens and Abercrombie plan shows a re-sited main railway station and new shopping centre to the south-west

Chamber of Trade Plan SN

The alternative Chamber of Trade plan keeps a revamped shopping centre to the north. With thanks to Catherine Flinn.

The Chamber of Trade Plan – first mooted in 1947, drawn up by another eminent town planner, WR Davidge, and adopted in modified form in 1954 – was constructed on the foundations of the main existing shopping centre to the north and was seen as far less disruptive.  It incorporated ‘temporary shops’ on Ferensway which survived until 2013.

temp shops Ferensway

Temporary shops on Ferensway. With thanks to Catherine Flinn.

Still, something of Abercrombie’s influence remained, not least in the fact that the plan was overseen by Hull’s new planner, the grandly-named Udolphus Aylmer Coates appointed in 1948, who had been a student of Abercrombie’s at the Department of Civil Design at Liverpool University. (4)

Abercrombie himself thought that the Hull Plan was ‘probably the best report he had been connected with’ but, ironically, as Philip N Jones concludes, ‘no other wartime plan was so ignored or so apparently ineffective’. (5)

House of Fraser II SN

The House of Fraser store on Ferensway and Jameston Street

Nevertheless, the rebuilt streets that emerged offer an impressive testimony to the vision and design aesthetic of post-war reconstruction, most notably in the House of Fraser department store (originally Hammonds) on Ferensway and Jameson Street.  Designed by TP Bennett and Sons and opened in 1950, it’s commended by the new Pevsner for its unusual combination of 1930s and Festival of Britain architectural elements.  Like a number of businesses in the vicinity, it seems to have suffered from that later iteration of our commercial future, the indoor shopping centre, but the building itself remains, to my eyes, strikingly attractive.

Ferensway Jameson Street corner SN

Paragon Square towards Jameson Street

Across the road is a bit of more standard post-war neo-Georgian but, if you look very carefully to the bottom right of the image above, you’ll catch a glimpse of Tony, a local bus driver playing the spoons and giving a one-man band show before starting his shift. He wasn’t busking. As he told us, it was just a way of cheering people up and putting himself in a good frame of mind before work.  He gave us a brilliant introduction to Hull and its people.

Festival House duo SN

Festival House, Jameson Street

Just along Jameson Street is Festival House where a tablet marks it as ‘the first permanent building to arise from the ashes of the centre of the city’ after its wartime destruction.

Phone box SNIf you’ve just arrived, the telephone box in the centre of Jameson Street might be the first of Hull’s famous cream-coloured kiosks you’ll see.  This one looks like a Gilbert Scott’s K6 1930s’ design to me but experts can correct me.   The unusual colour (and lack of crown insignia) isn’t an affectation but a proud reminder that Hull Corporation inaugurated its own municipal telephone system in 1902 which remained free of General Post Office control and privatisation until finally sold off in 1999.  Hull’s telephone and internet services are now operated by Kingston Communications which controversially retains an effective local monopoly.

Walking on, there’s a mix of styles and ages until you come to South Street on the right where you meet Queen’s House, a huge neo-Georgian quadrangle occupying one whole block of the city centre, designed by Kenneth Wakeford and completed in 1952.

Chapel Street Queen's House SN

Queen’s House, Chapel Street

The photograph, of its Chapel Street frontage above, hardly does it justice but it does capture the decline of a commercial district which Abercrombie hoped would restore Hull to its pre-war eminence as a centre serving some 500,000 people.

Three Ships II SN

Alan Boyson’s Three Ships mural

By this time, you will have spotted what should be one of Hull’s most proudly iconic images – Alan Boyson’s Three Ships mural, completed in 1963 and commissioned by the Co-op to celebrate Hull’s fishing heritage.  The stats are impressive enough – it’s an Italian glass mosaic of 4224 foot square slabs, each made up of 225 tiny glass cubes affixed to a 66ft x 64ft concrete screen – but what I love most is the confidence of its bravura statement of local identity.  And I love that it was commissioned by the Co-op, reminding us of a time when that organisation’s consumerism with a conscience (and its ‘divi’ for its working-class members) occupied centre-stage in the drive to build a fairer and more democratic Britain.

Coop mural

The mural in its earlier pomp above the flagship store of the Hull and East Riding Cooperative Society

The Co-op moved on; the premises were taken over by BHS and it went bust in 2016. The building now offers a ‘redevelopment opportunity’ but, whatever happens, please support the campaign to preserve the mural by following @BhsMuralHull on Twitter and signing the petition for listing.

City Hall and Queen Victoria Square SN

The City Hall, Queen Victoria and the exit from the Gents toilets

From here, a right turn down King Edward Street takes you to the heart of civic Hull into Queen Victoria Square, created in 1903 some six years after Hull was granted city status. The 1903 statue of Victoria sits imperiously above some fine public toilets, added in 1923 and retaining their original earthenware stalls, cisterns and cubicles in the Gents.

Unless you’re desperate (and male), they probably won’t be the first thing you notice.  On your right, stands the Edwardian Baroque City Hall, designed by City Architect Joseph H Hirst, opened in 1910.  This was designed as a public hall for concerts, meetings and civic events; on the day we visited it was hosting a graduation ceremony for the University.

Ferens Art Gallery III SN

Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square

Across the Square lies the Ferens Art Gallery – a ‘simple restrained classical cube of fine ashlar’ in the words of the latest Pevsner.  It was completed in 1927 following a £50,000 endowment from Thomas R Ferens, a director of Reckitt’s (one of the city’s major firms) and one-time Liberal MP for East Hull.   One of several significant benefactors to the city, Ferens was honoured after his death in 1930 in the naming of Ferensway.

Ferens Art Gallery II SN

An artwork purchased by the Corporation, one of many.

The early support of the Council is clear too among the many fine works on show. The Gallery, free to enter, with some good temporary exhibitions while we were there, is well worth a visit.

Maritime Museum SN

Maritime Museum, Queen Victoria Square

The civic triumvirate is completed by the Maritime Museum facing which was originally built in 1868-71 as the headquarters of the Hull Dock Company – a rare British building by Christopher George Wray who had made his name as an architect for the British Government in Bengal.

Both the dock offices (they became a museum in 1975) and City Hall were scheduled for demolition in the Lutyens and Abercrombie Plan as part of its creation of a new civic quarter – one reason perhaps, despite Abercrobie’s recognition that a ‘clean sheet approach’ would not be welcomed,  why the major part of the Plan went unfulfilled.

Next week’s post continues this tour of Hull, looking at other elements of post-war replanning as well as some of its major municipal accomplishments in the city centre and beyond. And, if you’re new to the blog, I’ve written on the North Hull council estate in an earlier post.


(1) Blomfield is quoted in ‘Slums Cleared for New Cityscape’, BBC Legacies, UK History Local to You (ND). The latter quotation is from David and Susan Neave, Hull (Pevsner Architectural Guides, 2010).  Much of the detail which follows is drawn from the same, invaluable, source.

(2) The quotation is from the Preamble to Edwin Lutyens and Patrick Abercrombie, A Plan for the City and County of Kingston upon Hull (A Brown and Sons Ltd., London and Hull, 1945)

(3) Philip N Jones, ‘“…a fairer and nobler City” – Lutyens and Abercrombie’s Plan for the City of Hull 1945’, Planning Perspectives, no 3, volume 13, 1998

(4) RTPI, Rebuilding Hull: the Abercrombie Plan and Beyond (1940s) (2014)

(5) The first quotation comes from Abercrombie himself.  The second and further detail comes from Jones, ‘“…a fairer and nobler City”.

For an unusual but insightful perspective on the Abercrombie Plan for Hull, listen to this track from Christopher Rowe and Ian Clark in ‘Songs for Humberside’ (1971)

My thanks to Catherine Flinn for providing some of the images specified as well as supporting detail.  Her book on post-war city centre reconstruction in Hull, Liverpool and Exeter will be published next year.

Jones the Planner offers a full and more critical perspective on Hull’s post-war planning and architecture in ‘Hull: City of Culture’ (9 February 2014) and, alongside other case studies, in the book Cities of the North (2016).

Growing up on the Speke Estate, Liverpool: a personal perspective


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One of the most important aspects of this blog has been to give voice to the experience and views of council estate residents, so often ignored, too often maligned. I’m pleased to feature today a post from Tom in response to posts on Speke on the blog in April and May this year – who describes his own experience of growing up on the Estate and his views on the mistakes that were made in its planning and design. 

Thank you Municipal Dreams for remembering the Liverpool suburb of Speke: a forgotten part of a forgotten city.

I was born in 1951 in, now demolished, Mill Road Maternity Hospital, Liverpool. My parents lived in the Dingle, a wartime bomb-damaged part of Liverpool 8, in a one-room bedsit with an outside toilet. They registered for a new city corporation rental house. For two and a half years my mother attended council surgeries for an update on the request. In 1954 we were allocated a two-bedroom house in Speke, on the city’s southern limit.

Properties in Speke were several orders of magnitude better than accommodation most of its residents had lived in previously. Houses were well built, brick throughout, and had front and back gardens. There were indoor toilets and plumbing for hot and cold water. If you wanted hot water however, you had to light the coal fire an hour before: electric immersion heaters were some time off yet.

Growing up as a child in Speke was idyllic. We lived on the northern perimeter road opposite a farm. Childhood was exploring woodland and playing ‘hide and seek’ in wheat fields. South of Speke was more farmland, more woods and the River Mersey, three miles wide at that point. The river was too polluted to swim in, but it had a sandy shoreline and off in the distance up river, an afternoon’s walk away, Hale lighthouse. What more could a child ask for?

Alderfield Drive SN

Alderfield Drive from Speke Boulevard, February 1972 (c) Tom Speke

Speke Town predates the City of Liverpool, and had been fertile farmland for centuries. The genesis of Speke as a Council Housing Estate dates from the 1930s when Liverpool City Planners became enamoured with the ‘Garden City’ concept as a solution to the problems of a post Industrial Revolution inner city full of overcrowded slums. Plans were made for a ‘self-contained satellite town’.

The desperate need for new housing was exacerbated by Second World War bomb damage and further hastened by the post war ‘baby boom’ population explosion. In the space of a few years (c.1938-1953), Speke mushroomed from a pre-war census of ‘400 souls’ to 25,000 people. In the process, any vestige of old Speke, or its farming history, was bulldozed off the map. Speke Town was buried under the intersection of the newly constructed Speke Boulevard and Speke Hall Avenue.

Close scrutiny of the 1952 photograph, Dunlop’s factory in an earlier post, reveals that large chunks of Speke had still to be built, specifically the central shopping area known as the Parade. From memory, I was nine or ten years old before there were any central shops to go to. There were vans driving around Speke selling groceries, a practice that lasted until the mid 1970s. I have a cine film record.

This ‘Garden City’ idealism never progressed beyond the drawing board. Houses were built and then the building stopped: schools, shops, churches and community centres, all took up to a decade to build. The promise of a ‘self-contained’ Speke went unfulfilled.

The ‘Garden City’ idealism also contained an ill-founded assumption that city people would prefer to live in the country and could be transposed en masse. The ‘self-contained satellite town’ of Speke degenerated into isolated, urban, frontier country, still within the city limits, but a bus ride away from its nearest residential city neighbour.

Rear NW corner SN

Rear north-west corner of Stapleton Avenue and Ganworth Road, 21 November 1973 (c) Liverpool Echo

This ‘open play area’ (above) had been left fallow since the day the flats were built, twenty years previous. Within another twenty years, all the blocks of flats would be gone.

Tenement blocks surrounding open play areas besotted Lancelot Keay, Liverpool City Council Chief Architect responsible for Speke, and a knighthood for his efforts. Watch Sir Lancelot make his case: Liverpool Tenements of the 1930s.

Lancelot Keay was a nineteenth century dinosaur trying to solve a twentieth century problem. Speke residents didn’t share his enthusiasm for living in tenement blocks. By the 1980s, just thirty odd years after they were built, low-rise blocks of flats in Speke lay abandoned and derelict awaiting demolition. Structurally they would have been good for a hundred years, but within less than two generations they were considered not fit for purpose. People didn’t want to live in them. People wanted to live in houses.

All the low-rise blocks of flats in Stapleton Avenue and Ganworth Road (photo above), East Mains, West Mains, Millwood Road, Alderwood Avenue, Central Avenue, Central Way and Conleach Road were demolished and replaced by houses with gardens. Testament that ‘tenement blocks surrounding open play areas’ was a failure.

In the mid ’70s I made a cine film record of Speke. It was an Art School rant intended to show the estate in a less than favourable light: not a difficult task. The irony is that it has become historically significant, as less than half of what was filmed still exists.

Ganworth Road SN

Ganworth Road looking south, October 1973 (c) Tom Speke

Above is a street view of Ganworth Road with Speke’s signature three storey blocks of flats either side. It may look odd, from a 2017 perspective, to see two children and a toddler wandering around unaccompanied, but it was nothing out of the ordinary in the 1960s and 1970s. The legacy of living in flats was that children had no back gardens to play in, and resorted to playing in the streets.

Speke Castle NW

A child admires ‘Speke Castle’, 13 November 1974 (c) Liverpool Echo

This concrete eyesore, above, is a 1960s’ interpretation of a children’s play area. By 1974 it was condemned by the National Playing Fields Association as grotesquely dangerous and only fit for demolition. The low-rise blocks of flats behind (West Mains) would soon join it awaiting demolition.

The 1950s and 1960s presented a paradox for Liverpool. The ring of housing estates that surrounded the city, of which Speke was but one, were overflowing with children, yet the population of Liverpool had been in steady decline since the 1930s, and continued to decline for the rest of the century. The inner city was being rehoused further and further afield, outside of the city. The population of Liverpool went from a 1931 peak of 855,688 to a 2001 census of 439,473.  (2)

The ‘baby boom’ years were followed by a shift to smaller families. This left a problem for Speke: what to do with all the three storey ‘large family’ houses, of which there were many. After abandonment, these were reduced to two storeys.

The section of Speke in the aerial shot (below) was built in the 1950s, but I doubt if anyone younger than forty can remember it as such. Half of what you see is no more. The white roofed rectangular buildings, centre, was All Hallows Secondary School, boys and girls, now All Hallows Drive houses. The school was demolished, not enough students.

The open space two blocks above the school was Speke Park, now Morrison’s shopping precinct. The retail hub of Speke shifted from the centre to its edge to access Speke Boulevard, top right diagonal. Fords [Jaguar/Land Rover] off picture, right.

To the left of Speke Park is the ‘open play area’ behind the flats, in the top photograph. The main road in the picture, top to bottom, is Stapleton Avenue / Alder Wood Avenue which runs east-west. Just visible at bottom right of the picture is Eastern Avenue. Check Google Maps and see what little remains.

North Central Speke SN

North central Speke estate, c.1963, looking west (c) Lancashire Records Office, Preston

For ‘Beatles’ cognoscenti, the street second from the bottom, on the left, is Ardwick Road, the McCartneys’ second residence in Speke (1950-1955). Half way up on the left is Upton Green, surrounded by three storey blocks of flats, and home to the Harrisons (1950-1962).

On 20th December, 1958, on the occasion of George’s brother Harry’s wedding reception, 25 Upton Green, Speke, was the venue of a pre-Beatles Quarrymen performance with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison – drummer, if any, not known. (2)

George Harrison and Paul McCartney spent most of their formative years in the Liverpool suburb of Speke (George 12 years, Paul 9 years), but you have to look hard in the plethora of biographies to find any mention of their early childhood in Speke. Phoney Beatle mania has produced two ‘Caverns’ in Mathew Street, but ‘Beatles’ tour buses don’t go anywhere near Speke.

In the early 1960s, the Ford Motor Company car plant [now Jaguar/Land Rover] replaced the farm on the northern side of Speke. Speke Boulevard, forever known to my generation as ‘Ford’s Road’, was extended to run between the car factory and the estate, for the full length of Speke and beyond. To compound Speke’s isolation, this arterial road prohibited pedestrians for five miles or so, all the way to Widnes.

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Eastern Avenue bus terminus from Speke Boulevard, February 1972. The sign reads ‘Any Person found damaging this fence will be prosecuted’ (c) Tom Speke

One of the consequences of this pedestrian prohibited road was that it separated the factory from the workers arriving by bus at the Eastern Avenue bus terminus. There was an underpass 200 yards away, but for whatever reason, people insisted on making their way through the fence to cross the road. This conflict persisted for thirty odd years until the terminus relocated to Morrison’s at the new shopping precinct. Progressively stronger fences were built with ever more ingenious ways found to get through them. It would have been cheaper to build a footbridge. I viewed this perennial conflict as individual protest against imposed isolation.

When I visit Speke, the difference I find most striking between now and even up to the 1980s, is not the missing or changed dwellings, but the amount of trees there are. Driving along Speke Boulevard is like driving through woodland. Trees now obscure all the sight lines of my childhood memories. Belatedly, the city has made amends for wiping a thousand years of history off the face of the earth in Speke’s construction. I cannot see, or remember there being, a single mature tree in the 1963 aerial photograph of Speke.

The 1960s’ Speke of my teenage years was a depressingly bleak, isolated, rectangular Gulag, devoid of any sense of history or community, built to house factory fodder. By the time I was sixteen, my life’s objective was to get out of Speke. Three years later I went away to Art School, never to return. I did visit, but never lived. My Mother, give her a medal, is still there: Speke resident for 63 years and counting. (RIP Father, 2010).

Speke as a Housing Estate did have two redeeming features:

  • All the properties were solidly built with brick throughout.
  • The estate was built before the advent of the ubiquitous high-rise tower blocks that blighted other estates.

The failings however were legion, chief among them was that it didn’t comply with the house buyers’ mantra of ‘location, location, location’: Speke Estate was built in the wrong place. Its isolation was, and remains, its handicap.

If there are Town Planners out there who still adhere to ‘self-contained satellite town’ thinking, I will happily maroon them on the eastern edge of Speke, without a car, to experience what isolation feels like.

Speke’s contribution to town planning dogma is a nail in the coffin of the ‘Garden City’ concept. Speke was designed as a solution to a problem, but resulted in generating its own problems. Speke planners may not have anticipated the changing shift in family sizes, but they are guilty of not ensuring that Speke would become a solution.


Speke could never develop as a community because Speke was never self-contained. If you wanted to do anything, you had find somewhere else that catered for your interest.

The founding vision of Speke as a township ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’ was as delusional as its ‘self-contained’ status. Speke, and all the other post war housing estates around Liverpool, were not communities, they were overspill.

In the absence of any community identity, people from Speke, and all the other Liverpool estates, were perceived differently. In a time of full employment, people living on estates were not accorded the ‘working class’ designation, but were thought of in the then unused demographic of ‘underclass’. Like the estates themselves geographically, people from the estates were regarded as ‘peripheral’, not part of the mainstream. You came from ‘an estate’. It didn’t matter which one, we were all tarnished with the same brush. I lived all my teenage years with this, and left at the first opportunity.

My parents tried for years to get out of Speke, but eventually resigned to staying when they were able to buy their house. My siblings left Speke, and Liverpool. I took it a stage further and emigrated.

I still talk ‘Scouse’. My accent was set in concrete by the age of six, and I have yet to find an alternative that I would want to emulate. I still follow Liverpool FC from a distance, but I could never live there again. Morrison’s precinct in Speke, and the Liverpool ONE complex, are commendable and possible turning point improvements. The irreconcilable is remembering the fifty years it took to get to there.

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The Orient public house, Eastern Avenue (December 2016) and bar (November 2013) (c) Tom Speke

The Orient is the last remaining pub in Speke, and worth a visit if just to see a bar dedicated to both Liverpool and Everton football clubs. It is difficult to say how much longer The Orient can last. For decades, supermarkets in Britain, Morrison’s included, have been underpricing pubs out of existence.

Speke Estate is suffering the malaise experienced by small towns after a bypass is built. The town slowly dies: people leave, schools close, pubs shut, churches downsize. Speke in the 21st century has half the population it had in the 1950s. St. Christopher’s Church (capacity 1,000) has the distinction of being built and demolished in a single lifetime. Schools are torn down as the numbers of children plummet. I had intended to show my film and photographs to the students at Parkland’s School, but it closed, only twelve years after it opened. Depending on whom you ask, it was either falling intake or falling standards. Either way, Speke no longer has a secondary school.

Speke’s fate was sealed on the drawing board: it was designed to have a bypass. No one ever goes through Speke: making a brief detour off Speke Boulevard to shop in Morrison’s doesn’t count. The problem was there from its inception. Speke, as the city planners envisioned it, should never have been built.


(1) A Vision of Britain through Time: Liverpool population

(2) Gratitude to the Quarrymen website for information.


A Long History of Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate

My article for iNews on the longer history of Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate to which it belonged was published yesterday. You can read it here:  A perfect storm of disadvantage: the history of Grenfell Tower.

When you visit Grenfell and the Estate, as I had to for the article, it’s hard not to feel intrusive. Taking photographs can seem even more insensitive but it seemed important to record something more than what, inevitably, have become our dominant images of Grenfell.  I hope the photographs which follow are a respectful tribute to the estate and its residents.

Grenfell Estate Sign SN

Barandon Court SN

Hurstway SN

Grenfell and green court 2 SN

Grenfell and green court SN

Grenfell tribute

Justice for Grenfell SN

Ian Waites, ‘Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time’



Ian Waites, Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time (Uniformbooks, July 2017)

This is a modest, gentle, elegiac evocation of an ordinary council estate of its time.  If that sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise, it shouldn’t.  I think this is an important little book – a corrective to our focus on the grand projects and architectural showpieces (for good or ill) and a reminder of the unassuming decency of the vast bulk of council housing.  Between 1945 and 1979, almost two-thirds of new council homes were located on so-called cottage estates.9781910010167Ian Waites moved with his parents to the Middlefield Lane Estate in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in 1964.  He brings that child’s experience, as well as the eye of his later incarnation as a lecturer in art and design at the University of Lincoln, to this account of Middlefield.

This ‘New Gainsborough’ (as the local press described it) was defined, as Waites tells us:

by the clean architectural lines of postwar modernism and by experimental ideas in planning which aimed to separate the car from the family.

This was an unfussy, humanist modernism – ‘the front of the house is plain, asymmetrical and rectilinear’ (though a parabolic concrete canopy over the front door adds a small high-tech touch). Wimpey were responsible for most of the estate’s design and build but the local council architect – ‘keen to keep Wimpey at bay’ – designed the maisonettes which made local children think they were living in Marineville (a Stingray reference to the uninitiated).

The Green grey

Waites points out too the small and easily overlooked detail: the Phosco P107 lampposts (‘the local authority lamppost of choice during the 1960s’); the large cobbles on some street corners designed to prevent cars and pedestrians from cutting across; the privet hedges, an earlier council favourite, delineating back gardens.  His photographs capture this detail and make us look at it anew.

cut-thru TheWalk

A ‘cut-through’ and privet hedges

That separation of traffic and people – recommended in the 1944 Dudley Report on housing design and layout and re-emphasised in the Government’s 1953 housing manual – was a more ubiquitous fashion of the age.  This was the Radburn style (named after the New Jersey town founded in 1929 as ‘a town for the motor age’) now generally excoriated for its loss of the ‘permeability’ and ‘natural surveillance’ of the street.  But in Middlefield it seemed to work: according to Waites, ‘the pedestrianised nature of the estate…gave its children an enormous space to play in’.

Another, more contemporarily, criticised feature of Middlefield and many like estates was its peripheral location – on the ‘distant rim’ of the town, in Waites’ words. This, in combination with the expansive, low-density nature of the estate, was the ‘prairie planning’ that architectural critics so despised in the new towns such as Harlow.  But early residents seemed to ‘have few complaints’ according to a 1964 press report, and most, apparently, liked the ‘fresh-air feeling’ of the estate.

The distant rim grey

The ‘distant rim’

The detritus of out-of-town suburbia has grown around the estate since then but a field remains, no longer growing wheat but providing grazing for a horse which nearby residents keep a solicitous eye on.  That space, that little bit of nature, remains valued.

In all, Middlefield epitomises what Waites calls the ‘paternalistic modernism’ of the post-war era.  And he cites, as a small but telling example of this, the communal aerial erected in 1965 intended to keep the estate tidy, free of the visual litter of individual TV aerials.  There’s no snobbery in pointing out that it is the individualism of Right to Buy which has done most damage to the ‘look’ and feel of estates since 1980.

And there, in essence, is the clash of values which has seen our council estates so scorned in recent years.  This ‘paternalism’ is often portrayed as heavy-handed, statist – a constraint on personal enterprise and freedom.  Waites should encourage us to rethink this lazy characterisation.

Trees grey

For one, ‘modernism’ had a personal meaning and value to those who experienced it first-hand on the new estates: ‘a bathroom and inside toilet, kitchen “tops”, hot and cold running water, a TV aerial socket, and a “picture-window”’. This was a new world to embrace; there was no romance in the slums.

And, furthermore, the residents:

were taking new decisions; they moved to the front.  In the old slum terraces, the front door was never used.  Everyone used the back door.  Now it was different. The residents began to live in the living room, rather than existing in the kitchen.

The baby park grey

The ‘baby park’

Much else, in Waites’ telling, is personal – the well-remembered and half-remembered friends, the playgrounds and dens of childhood.  And ‘open doors’:

People sat out in the sun on their doorstep while kids bombed up and down the footpaths on their bikes.

Maybe I’m being starry-eyed but this sounds like ‘community’ to me – paradoxically both the Holy Grail of post-war planning and allegedly its greatest victim.  Decent homes, salubrious surrounds, healthy play – everything the paternalistic social democratic state prescribed and, surely, what most of its citizens wanted.

I’ve provided a personal response to Ian Waites’ book. Do read it for more of Ian’s own recollections and insights and for the many well-chosen photographs which illustrate it.

Middlefield: a postwar council estate in time is available direct from Uniformbooks or from online booksellers and independent bookshops.

You can also follow Ian’s blog, Instances of a changed society.

Tackling the Slums: Addison and the Sanitary Inspectors: Part 2, 1914-1939



I’m very pleased today to feature the second of two guest posts by Dr Jill Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health and Housing at Middlesex University, covering the important and sometimes neglected work of our earliest environmental health practitioners. You can follow Jill on Twitter @Jill_L_Stewart and see more of her work on her personal website, Housing, Health, Creativity

As the Great War drew to its end, the Sanitary Inspectors put forth their values and vision for housing for a new era of Homes fit for Heroes to live in: (1)

Proper housing is necessary on account to our climate, which makes it requisite, or at all events, desirable, that we should have shelter and protection from the elements. Also, in accordance with our modern ideas of civilisation, having progressed beyond that age of cave-dwellers and gipsy life…it is also very necessary for the proper upbringing of our children, so that they may develop into a healthy and virile race, sound in body and mind, and worthy of our great Empire, which, in due course, it will be their duty to maintain.

Before the War, as we saw in last week’s post, some more progressive councils has begun the process of slum clearance and area redevelopment, but the situation was erratic across the country. The war-time Munitions Estates, based on garden city ideals, had provided good housing for munitions workers in locations including Well Hall, serving the Woolwich Arsenal. (2)

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Homes on Dickson Road in the Well Hall Estate

It is here that Dr Christopher Addison, then Minister of Munitions, later President of the Local Government Board and then the first Minister of Health, really comes to our attention for his work in state subsidised housing estates. As doctor turned learned politician, Addison’s understanding of poverty and health provided comprehensive impetus behind the Housing and Planning Act 1919 (Addison Act), recognising the need for council housing that was of decent quality and set in good environments in accordance with the recommendations of the 1918 Tudor Walters report.

However, there remained the perpetual problem of the thousands who continued to live in slums, despite ongoing interventions by the Sanitary Inspectors and Medical Officers of Health. This massive challenge resulted from sheer numbers, legal processes involved, and where to house those displaced by clearance.

Addison Close SN

Many streets continue to bear Dr Christopher Addison’s name, the housing here shows Arts and Crafts influence. Photo Jill Stewart

Whilst still President of the Local Government Board, Addison received deputations from the London County Council and the Greater London Local Authorities supported by the Sanitary Inspectors and relating to government financial assistance for large scale slum clearance and local housing development. The deputation asked for two things: that the deficiency grant be similar for those displaced but remaining in the slum cleared area as those re-housed in land not previously built on; and that processes to acquire slums from landlords prior to clearance should be both cheaper and quicker. In turn, Addison urged those present to deal with sanitary areas and build new homes without delay in advance of the forthcoming new legislation.

Betrayal SNHowever with a lack of progress related to inadequate resource for both slum clearance and new houses fit for human habitation, the situation was bound to come to a head and, following the Government spending cuts of the 1922 Geddes Axe, Addison resigned. He published The Betrayal of the Slums in 1922, displaying fascinating insight and perception of what it meant to live in slums, the effect on health and costs to society. (3)

In Betrayal, Addison observed that in 1922 there were nearly a million ‘homes’ consisting of a maximum of two rooms, and that there was no nowhere else available for the tenants to relocate to. He referred to such places as entirely hindering people’s lives, development and opportunities, with no privacy, no opportunity for quiet or rest, no space for the mind and a ‘poison’ for the body. He clearly states the fact that this is entirely unacceptable for tenants and has wider cost to the rest of society: (4)

It is not the people’s fault that their life is spend in unsavoury tenements wherein they and, often enough, two or three other families have to share the same tap in the yard or on the next landing, as well as a dirty closet which it is nobody’s business in particular to keep clear. It is no fault of theirs that the mother of the family has only an ordinary fire grate in which to cook the meals and that the same room has to serve as a wash house, living room and bedrooms. It is not their fault that there is no possibility morning, noon or night for any member of the family to have any manner of privacy whatever; that the infant and the little child have to sleep in the room which other have to frequent when they come in for supper and during the evening; that is it not possible for fresh air to get through the tenement because if opens either on to a stuffy landing or is backed by another house; that boys and girls have to sleep in the same room together; that even at the time of birth, or in the hour of death, the same unyielding conditions, save for the kindliness of neighbours, similarly circumstances govern the whole conduct of their family life.

Following his resignation, Addison continued to campaign for better housing for the working classes and featured regularly in the early post-war editions of The Sanitary Inspector, praising their work and contribution to the housing process: (5)

The public are apt to forget the valuable work accomplished by the Sanitary Inspectors throughout the country, the steady maintenance of general conditions of effective sanitation is due to their devotion and toil under the guidance of the local Medical Officers of Health…The Sanitary Inspector is a hard-working and little praised official, who carries out much of the unpleasant work in keeping up the general level of the health services.

The Sanitary Journal discussed what the Inspectors found in the nation’s housing stock: houses that were originally built to cheap, low standards with bad materials and lack of planning and forethought. This was seen to aggravate deplorable conditions; overcrowding; rats, mice and vermin and reports on the substantial health effects. Unhealthy areas of slums, with underground rooms and back to backs regularly feature, referred to as an “evil trinity – dampness, darkness and dilapidation”. Tenants were seen as victims of their circumstance; and some landlords criticised for failing to take responsibility for repair (6).

Sanitary INsp 1922 SN

Sanitary Inspectors’ 35th Annual Conference, Buxton 1922. Reproduced by kind permission of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health

Between the wars, with a shortage of both rural and urban housing, overcrowding was particularly problematic. In a 1922 Sanitary Journal, a Mr JG Banks, Chief Sanitary Inspector at East Ham, said that overcrowding was ‘a national disaster for it must result in increased disease and mortality, immorality, drunkenness and vice being also fostered and fed in the overcrowded homes…’ (7).

Already overcrowded, many households were also forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet, leading to disease and premature mortality and, it was said, immorality, drunkenness and vice. By 1926 The Sanitary Journal reported a case of incest that the Judge directly attributed to the deplorable conditions the family lived in, and more widely the numerous common lodging houses in the street. Though the prisoner was found guilty, he was granted mercy; the Judge said that it was no one’s fault individually, but the fault of the country for allowing such housing conditions to exist. (8)

There was no let-up on poor housing and still little hope for those who had endured slum living sometimes across decades. There were numerous health risks relating to poor housing, and multiple physical and mental health effects as well as heightened risk of infectious disease such as tuberculosis and high child mortality.

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A mother and three children in a slum dwelling, c1920, from A and LG Delbert Evans, The Romance of the British Voluntary Hospital Movement (1930) (c) Wellcome Library and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Drainage remained paramount to the Sanitary Inspector’s role, affecting both hygiene standards, then a public health priority, but also the need to control rats, an ongoing problem. Much advice was given, such as in the lengthily-headed 1926 publication ‘Drainage and Sanitation: A practical exposition of the conditions vital to healthy buildings, their surroundings and construction, their ventilation, heating, lighting, water and waste services: for the use of architects, surveyors, engineers, health officers, sanitary inspectors, and for candidates preparing for the examinations of the various professional institutions’ as the diagram below shows.

Drain pic MODA SN

EH Blake, Drainage and Sanitation (BT Batsford Ltd, 1926). Image courtesy of the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University

The problem of rat infestation was further addressed in Stewart Swift’s work Housing Administration of 1938 (9)

Rats, mice and vermin not infrequently infest old and structurally unsound houses. In some cases they are present to such an extent as to render the house unfit for human habitation, and on every occasion they may be a contributory factor thereto. The sanitary inspector should pay particular attention to these pests, examining the house for their presence besides making inquiries from the tenant. Not every householder likes to admit the presence of vermin, and walls, back of pictures, bedding, etc., should be carefully scrutinised wherever necessary for the presence of vermin. The presence of rats frequently indicate defective drains or the presence of accumulations of matter and filth, which should be dealt with under the Public Health Act. The presence of vermin – the bed bug chiefly – may be such as to render a house unfit for human habitation, and in the case of very old houses it may be quite impossible to eradicate them from the premises.

The Housing Act 1930 forced slum clearance and area improvement programmes to house those displaced; it also introduced powers to reduce overcrowding but problems remained entrenched.

The full extent of the tenants’ plight was revealed in the 1935 social documentary Housing Problems.  Tenants present their own narratives of living in slum housing and problems with rat and insect infestations. The film reveals the sheer length of time – sometimes decades – that many families had to endure such poor, sometimes dangerous and decaying living conditions and how they tried to cope with rats, overcrowding, no internal water supply or WC, child mortality, trying to cook next to the bed, with homes decaying around them and how this meant that they had to live their lives.


‘Slum housing’ (1937) (c) London Metropolitan Archives.

However the film also offers hope. It shows two then innovative ideas of new working class housing schemes at Quarry Hill in Leeds (10) and Kensal House in Ladbroke Grove (11). Now suddenly with an option for new housing, tenants describe their excitement and dreams for their new homes. A Second World War was of course not then on the horizon but, for many, their municipal dreams had once again to be put on hold.

Dr Jill Stewart (


(1) The Sanitary Inspector, 1918: 11

(2) The Historical England webpage First World War: Wartime Architecture provides some useful background.

(3) Addison, C., The Betrayal of the Slums (Herbert Jenkins Ltd , 1922)

(4) Addison, pp62-63

(5) Addison, C., ‘The Sanitary Inspector: his Valuable Work’, The Sanitary Journal, (1922) p104

(6) The Sanitary Journal (1924)

(7) The Sanitary Journal (1922) p202

(8) The Sanitary Journal, The Housing Problem [Referring to Birmingham Daily Post, 3 February 1926], (1926) p148

(9) Swift, S., Housing Administration (2nd ed), (Shaw and Sons Ltd, 1938) p85

(10) See also Ravetz, A., Model estate: planned housing at Quarry Hill, Leeds, (Croom Helm, 1974)

(11) Stewart, J. (2016) Housing and Hope: the influence of the interwar years in England, (available at the iTunes Store)

Tackling the Slums: Inspectors of Nuisance and the Sanitary Inspectors: Part 1, 1848-1914


I’m pleased to feature the first of two very interesting guest posts by Dr Jill Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health and Housing at Middlesex University.  They cover the important, sometimes neglected, work of our earliest environmental health practitioners. You can follow Jill on Twitter @Jill_L_Stewart and see more of her work on her personal website, Housing, Health, Creativity

The idea of a job dedicated to dealing with industrial smells, boiling bones, accumulations of filth, offensive trades, drains, effluvia from public graves, abattoirs and sewage contaminated basements may not be everyone’s ideal career path. Thomas Fresh apparently thought otherwise and practically invented this new job for himself in the progressive borough of Liverpool (1).

The aptly named Fresh effectively became the first Inspector of Nuisance statutorily appointed by Public Health Act 1848, setting the path for a professional trail of Sanitary Inspectors, Public Health Inspectors and latterly Environmental Health Practitioners to intervene into environmental factors affecting the health of the nation.

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No 7 Pheasant Court, Gray’s Inn Lane, from Sanitory Progress [sic], the fifth report of the National Philanthropic Association (1850) (c) Wellcome Library and made available under a Creative Commons licence

Many had been pushing for the state to intervene in public health for some time although there was also much opposition.  Those proposing change included Edwin Chadwick who first linked environmental conditions and health in The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population  in 1842, which he researched and publicised at his own expense. (2)

Chadwick and many other prominent figures continued to wrongly attribute disease causation to miasma, or ‘foul air’, yet many of the interventions instigated were to nevertheless show improvements in health. Chadwick became the first president of the Association of Sanitary Inspectors in 1884. Sanitary Inspectors – in some places still named Inspector of Nuisance – were seen as the ‘practical doers’ who intervened in poor housing (amongst other things), working closely with the higher status – and far higher paid – Medical Officers of Health.

Surprisingly little has been written about the major role of the Inspectors charged with dealing with the nation’s poorest housing stock. However the stage was set for new legislative provision to be developed and enacted.

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Lodging house in Field Lane, from Hector Gavin, Sanitary Ramblings (1848) (c) Wellcome Library and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The Common Lodging Houses Act 1851 sought to respond to the complex social and health issues found in such shared accommodation. It required that such premises met certain registration and hygiene standards as shown in the extract from an Inspector of Nuisance’s 1899 notebook below, together with the recommended sleeping arrangements.

Common lodge text SN

Common lodge pic SN

Both illustrations taken from William Henry Tucker’s Inspector of Nuisance notebook, Cardiff, dated 1899 onward. Permission to copy given by Dr Hugh Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Public Health

A range of other legislation followed, providing new powers for local authorities to intervene into certain housing conditions but with limited remit. These included the Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act 1851 and the Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Acts (Cross Acts) of 1875 and 1879.  The latter provided powers to intervene in unfit housing, and clear (with compulsory purchase powers) and redevelop land for improvement for the working classes. The Public Health Act of 1875 enabled proactive local authorities to adopt bye-laws to control building standards and the situation remained erratic across the country.

Local authorities were reluctant to do much due to the substantial costs involved. The Housing of the Working Classes Act 1885 required proper sanitary conditions with an implied condition of ‘fitness’ for habitation – a provision to broadly remain in place until 2004. The Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890 consolidated various acts, with provisions dealing with unhealthy areas and improvement schemes, unfit housing and powers to provide lodging houses, but there was no funding. (3)

An 1896 edition of the Sanitary Inspectors Journal said: (4)

To pave streets, to construct sewers and to drain houses, however necessary these works may be, are among the least important of the duties which devolve upon the Sanitary Authority. But to improve the social condition of the poorer classes, to check the spread of disease and the prolong the term of human life, are works of high and ennobling character and are duties which devolve upon the Local Authority…It is often found that when an intelligent artisan has once become acquainted with the advantages of any of the laws of civilisation, he is not slow to avail himself of their aid, and habits of cleanliness [once] formed, his sensibilities become improved to such an extent that he will not live in a room which is unhealthy, or in a house that has bad drains.

This edition also reported on cases of houses unfit for habitation. In one case, the owner was summoned for allowing a nuisance caused by damp sites, defective gutterings, gullies and water closets. The council wanted the landlords to remove the wet clay floors and cover with concrete, leaving ventilation space under the joists and asked for the garden to be lowered and properly paved, estimating a cost of £84. Evidence presented included detail of a neighbour’s death from diphtheria and stagnant water under the floors. The Bench ordered the owner to execute the works within a month and allowed £3 3s costs.


‘Boundary Street: slum housing’ (1890) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

One of London’s most notorious slums – the Old Nichol – is brought to life in Sarah Wise’s excellent book The Blackest Streets, the title based on Booth’s work around the chronic poverty he had found in that area (5). Thousands of residents lived in poor conditions in around thirty streets. The mortality rate was around twice as high as the rest of Bethnal Green.

The book presents all the challenges faced by the inspectors, with resonance today: how to assess and respond to areas of slum housing; difficulties in identifying owners; rents payable in relation to condition; appropriate level of compensation payable to owners in lieu of loss of property; social isolation; effects on behaviour. In the clearance process, not just homes but livelihoods and communities were displaced and lost. It is reported that of the 5719 residents moved out of this cleared area, only eleven moved back because the rents in the new arts and crafts-inspired buildings were too expensive; an early example of what we would now call ‘gentrification’.


‘Boundary Estate: Arnold Circus’ (1903) – before the bandstand was added (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage,

The resulting new Boundary Estate was to become the London County Council’s first ever council housing, funded locally, and completed in 1900.

With a link of environment and health now firmly established, housing interventions began to take greater prominence as across the county – albeit erratically – poor housing was linked to higher morbidity and mortality with overcrowding, common lodging houses, poor drainage, narrow streets, people living in cellars, inadequate water supplies. More progressive boroughs developed bye-laws to address the worst housing, with positive health outcomes emerging where conditions were tackled. Housing was to take prominence in health debates with Sanitary Inspectors frequently to the fore (6).

Sanitary Insp 1907 SN

The Corporation of Wimbledon Sanitary Department, 1907.  Reproduced by kind permission of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

The Housing and Town Planning Act 1909 helped local authorities control development and introduced some development controls, such as prohibiting back to back houses. In 1909, the Sanitary Journal reported that Leeds persisted in these and concern was expressed that such property was unhealthy. Concern was expressed that Sanitary Inspectors were trying to do all they could but the magistrates did not always back them up. There was still the bureaucracy of the Medical Officer of Health to make representation to the local authority regarding each house unfit for habitation. Still less than one per cent of housing stock had been provided by municipal and philanthropic activity.

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Plans and pictures of back-to-back  houses in Nottingham, from First Report of the Commission on the State of the Large Towns (1844) (c) Wellcome Library and made available under a Creative Commons licence

By 1910 the Sanitary Inspectors were frustrated at lack of investment into housing and the problems this led to in their work: (7)

Many other towns have tackled bad houses, and yet the sum total of what has been done only touches the fringe of the problem, the solving of which under the Housing of the Working Classes Acts is a financial impossibility. Five million people at the very least are living in houses that require improvement.

In the lead up to the First World War, though still sporadic in practices across the country, the Sanitary Inspectors Association was really becoming a national force to be reckoned with as local government departments consolidated their functions. They argued that ‘everyone person who is interested in the housing problem knows that healthy homes cannot be provided at rents to suit the means of the poor on land that costs more than £300 per acre’. They already felt it highly improbable that the private market would provide affordable housing for the poorer classes and argued that the state should provide funding for housing.


‘Grotto Place: slum housing’ (1914) in Southwark (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

In 1910 the Sanitary Inspectors were very clear on the importance of healthy housing: (7)

The removal of existing evils will be slow. It is said that the people cannot be improved by legislation, but legislation certainly indicates the trend of public opinion, and on the subject of housing, public opinion is steadily growing and in time will be sufficiently strong to sweep away hovels that are called houses, and will provide the people houses fit to live in, and for the children places other than insanitary back streets to play in. Towards that object let me urge all present, whether members of officials of Sanitary Authorities, to do all that lies in their power, for nothing is of greater importance than that our children, the greatest asset of the nation, should grow up in a healthy environment, with healthy bodies and minds, so that they will be able to solve for themselves higher and more important problems than the Housing of the People.

In next week’s post we again focus on the little spoken-of housing powers of the inspector’s work that tackled chronic slum housing conditions and area clearance between the wars.  By then, Sanitary Inspectors and others had informed the decision of the state to fund council house building  to replace slums and a new era of ‘municipal dreams’ would emerge.

Dr Jill Stewart (


(1) Parkinson, N. in Stewart, J. (ed), Pioneers in Public Health: lessons from history (Routledge, 2017)

(2) Edwin Chadwick,  The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842)

(3) Parliament’s ‘Improving Towns’ webpage provides a useful legislative timeline.

(4) Sanitary Inspectors Journal (1896)

(5) Wise, S. The Blackest Streets: the life and death of a Victorian slum (Vintage Books, 2009)

(6) Hatchett, W., et al. The Stuff of Life: Public Health in Edwardian Britain (CIEH, 2012)

(7) The Sanitary Journal (1910)


Grenfell Tower


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For almost four decades, we have been taught to see public spending as a bad thing; ruthless economising as a virtue.  We have come to know the price of everything and the value of nothing…and have ended with the funeral pyre of Grenfell Tower. 

Three days after the night of Wednesday 14 June, I still haven’t written anything about Grenfell Tower.  I’ve been trying to process the tragedy emotionally and intellectually. Even the pronoun jars.  This is – or should be – all about the pain and anger felt by the victims of the tower block fire. Those feelings are shared by many but have been appropriated by a few to fit their existing worldviews, to serve pre-existing agenda. In the meantime, it seems every journalist has become an expert, every pundit has their opinion.

Grenfell nowI do know a bit about social housing but I’m certainly not an expert on all the issues raised by Grenfell Tower.  This is an attempt to look at some of the questions raised and to query some of the responses already emerging.

The first and most important questions are without doubt technical.  The flammability of the cladding has already been criticised but, beyond that, we need to look at the ‘compartmentalisation’ behind and around it which is supposed to isolate and contain any outbreak of fire.  It failed disastrously at Grenfell Tower.

The predominant British model of passive fire protection (using means which prevent the spread of fire, rather than sprinkler systems and the like which extinguish it) is a perfectly sound one but, by God, it has to work.  Why didn’t it at Grenfell?

This takes us to building standards and fire regulations.  There’s a consensus they need updating and a strong belief that Government has resisted that for reasons of cost-cutting and convenience.  We need to know how these standards and regulations are being applied and we have to ensure that those whose job it is to inspect and enforce have all the resources and authority they need.

This is not an issue about tower blocks – which can be as safe as any other form of building. We must resist those who are using Grenfell to attack tower blocks more generally.  Tower blocks provide decent homes for many thousands. The image of Grenfell’s burnt hulk will be used as some dystopic cipher for high-rise failure and the notion that tower block living is to be despised. The truth is that tower blocks, including council built ones, are back in fashion and many social housing tenants are being displaced from blocks in desirable London postcodes.

Grenfell early

The tower in 2011 (c) Inigma, Wikimapia

But there’s something more and we’ve seen it powerfully on our TV screens for days. Grenfell Tower was home to a community. Families, friends, neighbours together and all, of course, intimately connected – cared for and about – to others in our wider community.  Can this awful event please put an end to the demonising stereotypes so frequently and so crudely applied to our fellow citizens who live in social housing?

Grenfell Tower also tells us little about the inherent design and build quality of tower blocks as a whole.  The sometime failure of system-building methods was devastatingly exposed in the Ronan Point disaster of May 1968. Grenfell may yet be its equivalent for the glitzy cladding refurbs which have become so prevalent.  Here it seems near certain that it is the tower’s recent renovation that is culpable for the loss of life which followed.

And then there are those who are using the disaster to condemn social housing more generally.  There’s room for informed discussion about housing types and models.  There should be no room for any attack on the single form of housing provision offering secure and genuinely affordable homes to those who need them most.

A second set of questions revolves around management and accountability.  The block’s landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) has come under enormous criticism, most powerfully from the unofficial tenants’ Grenfell Action Group.  Its criticisms of the recent refurbishment and tenants’ safety fears were ignored – with the consequences we now know all too well.

Criticism of impersonal and unaccountable landlords is common enough (and probably more prevalent in the private sector, let’s remember) but, here, it’s being applied to the new registered social landlords that have largely replaced council housing departments since the 1980s. The Kensington and Chelsea TMO was formed, uniquely, by a borough-wide transfer of housing – 9700 homes in all – from the Conservative-controlled council in 1996.  It doesn’t conform well to the generally more bottom-up model that TMO’s were supposed to represent.

The irony is that the new landlords were a reaction to the Council bureaucracies which had previously managed social housing and were promoted by advocates as more responsive and more representative.  Often, they were.  I’m not going to comment on Kensington and Chelsea – I don’t have the information I need – but a general criticism of any given system of housing management is probably unhelpful.  Frankly, council control could be good or bad. What counts in every case are forms of genuine accountability and clear and open lines of communication.  Let’s remember that when it comes to their housing, tenants are the experts.

Thirdly, and underlying everything said so far here and elsewhere, comes MONEY.  For almost four decades, we have been taught to see public spending as a bad thing; ruthless economising as a virtue.  We have come to know the price of everything and the value of nothing…and have ended with the funeral pyre of Grenfell Tower.

Every one of the criticisms made above is essentially about cost – about how much or how little we as a nation are prepared to spend on the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.  Public investment enriches lives; here it would have saved them.  The best memorial to all those who have lost their lives in Grenfell is that we as a nation choose collectively to invest in safe and secure public housing for all who need it.