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



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

Cutteslowe Wall Aldrich Road

The Cutteslowe Wall seen from Aldrich Road on the council estate

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

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

Cowley Works 1925

Morris’s Cowley works, 1925

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

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

Penson's Gardens St Ebbes Oxford History Centre

Penson’s Gardens, St Ebbes © Oxfordshire History Centre

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

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

London Road council houses 1925

Headington’s new council housing, 1925

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

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London Road council housing, 2017

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

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

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

South Park Estate, Oxford

An early view of the South Park Estate

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

Morrell Avenue, South Park Estate, Oxford

An early image of Morrell Avenue

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

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Headington Road, Gipsy Lane Estate

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

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

Croft Road New Marston 1935Des Blenkinsopp

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

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

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Abingdon Road, New Hinksey

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

Gipsey Lane Estate SN 3

Later housing on the Gipsy Lane Estate

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

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

Cutteslowe Walls demo 11 May 1935

Protest, May 1935

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

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

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

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

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

Cutteslowe Wall demolished

The wall demolished, March 1959

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

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


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

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

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


Much of the detail on individual estates in Headington is drawn from the well-researched and informative local history website, Headington History and this page on the area’s newer estates.

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

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

(3) Alan Crosby, ‘Housing and Urban Renewal: Oxford 1918-1985’ in Kate Tiller and Giles Darkes (eds), An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire Record Society, ORS vol 67, 2010)

(4) Stephanie Jenkins, Headington history: Miscellaneous

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

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

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

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

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

Rêves Municipales: the Paris region’s tribute to the Garden Cities movement

It’s Bastille Day an appropriate occasion for Municipal Dreams to travel to France. Today, I’m very pleased to feature this fine guest post by Martin Crookston. Martin is the author of Garden Cities of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (Routledge, 2016) which featured in my Guardian Top Ten list of books on council housing.  He is a former partner at the Llewelyn-Davies planning consultancy and member of Richard Rogers’ Urban Task Force. 

Dotted around the immediate hinterland of the City of Paris – the ‘Petite Couronne’ – are a dozen « cités-jardins »: garden suburbs inspired by the British Garden City movement. They are both fascinating as municipally-built social housing, and unexpected – certainly to most of us, used as we are to thinking of the Parisian banlieue as an invariate sea of towers and slabs, the Grands Ensembles, of the sort you pass at Sarcelles on the final Eurostar approach to the Gare du Nord.

The cités-jardins are a product of a specific period, and a specific initiative: the interwar years, and the programme run by the Office Publique d’Habitations à Bon Marché de la Seine (OPHBM, founded in 1914) under the leadership of Henri Sellier. He argued for ‘social urbanism’ and for ‘a rational development of the suburbs, seeking to greatly reduce, for the working class, the burdensome consequences of urban overpopulation’.

Unlike in Britain, however, they did not become the basic model for thousands of housing estates nationwide: they rather sank into oblivion, though mostly surviving and now being rather more appreciated for their heritage value than ever before.  We’ll do a brief tour of some of them here – starting with one that is currently in the news because of a current threat to its continued existence in its present form.

La Butte Rouge (bus 195 from Robinson RER) is reminiscent of Roehampton in one respect at least: it’s miles from anywhere in the southwestern suburbs, a bus ride from the railhead, up against the huge Verrières forest.

It was built in three main phases (1931-35, 1949-50, 1960-65), to total nearly 4,000 homes on a 70-hectare site: the largest of the cités-jardins. The urban and landscape design was clearly carefully thought out by architect Joseph Bassompierre’s team, with main avenues interlacing winding walkways through a green setting of communal and private gardens. It was also a pioneering ‘eco-suburb’, thanks to a recycling /heating system and an early form of sustainable urban drainage (SUDS). Architecturally, it’s a sort of condensed history of French social housing: from brick to RC, and from individual homes and little blocks to 1960s slabs.

Sud 11 Butte Rouge, main avenue SN

La Butte Rouge: the main spine, Avenue Albert Thomas

Since 2012, though, it’s been threatened by a familiar (to Britain) story – the local authority of Chatenay-Malabry and ANRU (Agence nationale de rénovation urbaine) want to recast the estate, which currently accounts for 56 percent of the municipality’s social housing, as (yes, inevitably) a more mixed housing offer matching their vision for the area’s future. ‘Sauvons la Butte Rouge’ and the Association Citoyens Unis pour Châtenay-Malabry argue that this is pointless in housing terms – apart from needing better sound insulation, their homes are fine – and an act of vandalism in terms of architectural heritage, since the options being studied only guarantee retention of 20 percent of the original buildings.

PU 19_10_2019. 16 SN

‘Sauvons la Butte Rouge’ explain their concerns

They have been joined by concerned architects in the region – the Ordre des architectes d’Ile-de-France – and the eminent historian Jean-Louis Cohen at a heritage conference in April 2019; and perhaps more importantly by the prefects of the Hauts-de-Seine department and the Ile de France region, who have notified the municipality that ‘it seems to us that the demolition of a significant number of this heritage ensemble should be reviewed downwards’.  A familiar stand-off …

La Butte Rouge was actually one of the later starts in the OPHBM programme.  This had begun with a bang in 1921 in five locations, one of which was the suburb of Suresnes, where Sellier was the (Socialist) mayor from 1919 to 1941, and where he had already been quietly buying land for the OPHBM during the war.

18 Musee, Henri Sellier SN

Henri Sellier, commemorated in the MUS at Suresnes

Suresnes (T2 tramway from La Défense) is out to the west, just across the Seine from the Bois de Boulogne. Wikipedia says that of all of them « la plus emblématique est la cité-jardins de Suresnes » but this must be because it’s so intimately associated with Sellier: its physical form is not very ‘garden suburb’, and its total of 3000 homes is dominated by apartment blocks rather than individual houses (‘pavillons’ – 170 of them).

19.1 Cite-jardins, Jean Jaures & Judy

Suresnes: Place Jean-Jaurès (and there indeed he is)

The style is a sober municipal-block look, the layout more like the German Siedlungen with their open mansion-block form, than Hampstead or Welwyn; though with, for sure, much more garden space – both private and communal – than usual in French social housing. It still reflects the Sellier vision: architectural coherence, decent homes for workers, and high-quality public services.

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Suresnes: rare ‘pavillons’

Sellier’s programme

Henri Sellier expanded dramatically from his Suresnes base both organisationally – his OPHBM built all over the Seine départment over the next twenty years – and also politically: he was elected as a senator for Seine 1935-43, was health minister in Léon Blum’s great Popular Front government (1936), and ended his days in disgrace with the Vichy government and with a quotation from Robespierre on his office wall: ‘The hatred of the people’s enemies is the reward of the good citizen’.

The programme was in three main waves. In 1921 they began work on Suresnes itself, Arcueil in the south, Drancy in the east, Stains in the north, and Asnières a little downstream of Suresnes in the northwest industrial suburbs. Later in the twenties came Gennevilliers (1923), Le Plessis-Robinson (1924; another one where you could be in Kilmacolm, with its rendered facades and neat privet hedges) and Pré St Gervais (1927); in the thirties, Champigny and Butte Rouge (both 1931) and finally Vitry in 1935. These are dotted about the eastern and southern suburbs.

At Stains (bus 253 from St-Denis-Université metro), north about 10km from the city centre, we strike garden-suburb gold. Built between 1921 and 1927, it contains 1676 units: 456 houses, and 19 blocks of 4four or five floors. Practically unchanged since its creation (though with a very recent renovation), its heritage value was recognised in 1976 when it was listed. The departmental website describes it as ‘Directement inspirée par les réalisations britanniques et le mythe du « cottage »’, planned as picturesque village streets with winding roads and individual houses in a vernacular style with steep roofs and high chimneys. The ‘mythe du cottage’ is certainly realised as if we were in outer London. A long-standing tenant there told me that when she was bringing up her kids just outside the garden suburb, she used to say to them ‘come on, let’s go for a walk in England’.

Stains 1 SN

Stains: “Allons nous promener en Angleterre”

And not just the buildings: the layout too. If you know East London’s 1920s Becontree estate, there’s a shudder of recognition as you come along rue Rolland, and there’s a short cul-de-sac of the sort known in Becontree as a ‘banjo’.

Banjo SN

rue Rolland, Stains: echos of Becontree

Arcueil, back south again (RER B Arcueil-Cachan) to the cité-jardins de l’Aqueduc, only about 7 km south of central Paris, alongside the Aqueduc de la Vanne, a dramatic sweep of 19th century engineering on the alignment of its Renaissance and Roman predecessors.  If Stains is England, Arcueil is Scotland.  The houses are plainer than in Stains, and often rendered like Scots estates.

Arcueil 11 SN

Cité-jardins de l’Aqueduc: if Stains is England, Arcueil is Scotland

The original scheme, by the architect Maurice Payret-Dortail, was for 228 houses in groups of two to six, and they are at the core of the listing in the « Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel ». It has undergone rather more modification since it was built, and the layout is actually less coherent than Stains, both as layout and in individual groupings, and so less legible as you walk around. But it has one borrowing from the Garden Suburb – little back lanes – which must be great if you’re 7 or 8 (as very large numbers of its denizens seem to be).  I liked it: it seemed comfortable, mixed (socially and ethnically) and somehow familiar.

These three suburbs, and the rest of the Sellier interwar programme, are by no means all of the housing of this general type around Paris. The website of the Ile de France regional association of cités-jardins has a map on its website showing about sixty locations; they’re quite a mixture of forms, settings and target markets (both initial target market, and who now lives there).

In Paris

In Paris-Ville – the city proper, within the péripherique – the Sellier programme didn’t operate; presumably land was already too expensive, and in too short supply, for the lower density intrinsic to the garden suburb ‘product’.  What there is in the city itself is a collection of interesting contemporary, and earlier, schemes aimed at housing the working class before the big push by public authorities. Less of a trek out into the beyond, they include La Campagne à Paris, in the 20th arrondissement near the Porte de Bagnolet, built by a ‘Société anonyme co-opérative à personnel et capital variables d’habitations à bon marché’ –  at the outset, 60 percent of the co-operators were in manual occupations, and even today their descendants live alongside newer incomers attracted by the village atmosphere, perched above the traffic of the Porte and the boulevards des maréchaux.

Similarly the tight cluster of pretty terraces (called ‘Villas’, like the Villa du Progrès, Villa Emile Loubet, etc) off rue de Mouzaïa in the 19th (metro Danube), developed by the Societe anonyme des terrains et habitations à bon marché from 1899 on. This was not a philanthropic operation: it built small workers’ homes, with tiny gardens, using public loan funding, over a long period stretching up till the end of the thirties. Quirkiest of the lot is la Petite Alsace in the south side’s Butte aux Cailles (13th arr., metro Corvisart), 40 individual houses around a court, designed by Jean Walter in 1912 in a half-timbered style which wasn’t drawn from Letchworth but from Alsace – for the Habitation Familiale group founded by the priest Abbé Viollet.

La Petite Alsace

Opening day at La Petite Alsace, 1912

Gentrification has bitten deep into all three since the 1980s, and many houses have been added to, but all still retain a unity and some slight flavour of the Paris of a century ago. As for the suburban cités-jardins, even today you can feel some resonance of the purpose, and the feel, of Sellier’s ‘social urbanism’ of a century ago. They’re recognised as a heritage asset – not just by ‘le Patrimoine’, but by proud local residents too. As Michelin might say: “vaut le détour”!


Région Ile de France, Les cités-jardins d’Ile-de-France: une certaine idée du bonheur (Lieux-Dits, 2018); and Exhibition Suresnes MUS 2018

Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel

Association Régionale des Cités-Jardins de L’Ile-de-France Carte des cités-jardins d’Île-de-France

Henri Sellier, Les banlieues urbaines et la réorganisation administrative du département de la Seine, avec préface de Albert Thomas (M Rivière et cie, Paris 1920)

Wikipédia entries for Suresnes and Henri Sellier

Comité départemental du tourisme de Seine-Saint-Denis, Mettre les villes à la campagne avec les premières cités-jardins (2012)

Promenades Urbaines Promenade urbaine du samedi 19 octobre 2019 La cité-jardin de la Butte Rouge à Chatenay-Malabry   

Marjorie Lenhardt, ‘Châtenay-Malabry: seuls 20 % de la Butte Rouge sont sûrs d’être conservés’, Le Parisien, 4 July 2019

Charles-Edouard Ama Koffi, ‘Châtenay-Malabry: le maire persiste dans son projet de démolition à la Butte-Rouge’, Le Parisien, 18 December 2019

Julie Roland, ‘La Butte Rouge: d’un grand Paris social au grand Paris immobilier’, Chroniques d’architecture, 21 May 2019

Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, Paris Mosaique (Calmann-Lévy, 2001)

Amina Sellali, ‘Quartier Mouzaïa’ in Virginie Grandval and Isabelle Monserrat Farguel (eds), Hameux, villas et cités de Paris (AAVP, 1998)

La Petite Alsace, Le piéton de Paris  (April 2010)

Speke, Liverpool, Part II: Reflections on Time Spent


I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Tom, a past resident of Speke. It’s a follow-up to his earlier article, Growing up on the Speke Estate, Liverpool: a personal perspective, which, with almost 13,000 views, has been one of the most read and, in some ways, most controversial of the posts featured in this blog. The article reflects a personal experience and interpretation but seems to me an important contribution to our understanding of one of the country’s most significant ‘peripheral estates’. 

In August 2017, I submitted a posting to Municipal Dreams in response to two MD articles on the Liverpool suburb of Speke in April and May 2017.

As stated in the introduction to my posting, it was a personal perspective on my time spent growing up in Speke, from 1954 (aged 2) to 1974, giving my views on the Speke estate and what I perceived as its shortcomings. I spoke for myself alone but to judge from the volume of comments, I had resonated, not to say touched a nerve, with many current and former residents. My thanks to all who contributed.

Some agreed with my bleak analysis, but several comments took a contrary view. An increasing number of people had fond memories of Speke and disagreed with my findings. I found it no coincidence that most of those who had fond memories of Speke had lived in the more established, pre-war built part of the estate.

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Aerial view showing west end of Speke, looking south c. 1970 © Liverpool Echo

The photograph above shows the first section of the estate to be built, pre-1939. Centre left are The Crescent shops, now the site of Bargain Booze. The rough land to the right is the site of the demolished, post-war ‘pre-fabs’ (temporary, wooden, pre-fabricated housing), now the site of the Dymchurch Estate.

Confusingly for a pre-estate hamlet of only ‘400 souls’, old Speke was in two locations. One part was on the site of The Crescent shops, with Speke Town proper a short way to the west, under what is now the junction of Speke Hall Avenue and Speke Boulevard, approximately Dobbies’ car park. (1)

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North Central Speke (looking north) with newly constructed Ford Motor car factory top of picture. Aero films A108780 c. 1963 © Liverpool Record Office

The aerial photograph above shows the part of Speke of my teenage years in the 1960s. By the 1990s, half of what you see would no longer exist. The schools would be demolished, along with all the low-rise flats, centre left. The new Morrisons shopping precinct would replace the park and flats, top left. The road between the estate and the factory, Speke Boulevard (still referred to as Ford’s Road), eventually would be hidden behind a forest of planted bushes and trees.

The sprawling car factory of Fords (now Jaguar/Land Rover) replaced the 1950s’ farmland of my childhood years. It was in my teenage years that I found reasons to leave Speke and couldn’t wait to move out. It wasn’t the absence of childhood memories but the restricting isolation: anything I wanted to do was a bus ride away.

Perceptions differ, and I realise that some people may not have felt so isolated. My intention, then and now, is not to persuade people one way or the other but to confront what I perceived as problems in Speke’s construction: namely, Speke as a post-Second World War answer to a pre-Second World War problem.

The story of the Speke estate cannot be written without reference to the 1939-1945, Second World War: Speke’s design and planning was pre-war but its main construction was post-war. This had consequences.

Speke as a housing estate was planned and designed in the 1930s, but the full story of its origin dates back to Liverpool’s housing problems of the 1800s, if not earlier.

Figure 1. Liverpool District Total Population (2)

3 Figure 1

This one graph illustrates Liverpool’s population totals more eloquently than any page of statistics. In the century 1800 to 1900, Liverpool experienced a precipitous, seven-fold population increase, culminating in a 1930s’ peak of over 850,000 inhabitants, followed by an equally precipitous population decline to the year 2000.

The nineteenth-century growth in Liverpool was double the national average for England and Wales. The total population for England and Wales in 1801 was 8.87 million. The 1901 census gave a population of 32,526,075: approximately a three and a half-fold increase.

Liverpool’s population growth was attributable to three main factors: the Industrial Revolution, its expansion as a port to cater for the Lancashire cotton industry, and the influx of the Irish. These factors may not be exclusive but the total population figures speak for themselves.

In a post-Irish potato famine, twenty-year period from 1860 to 1880, there was a rapid population increase of 250,000 on an existing total of 400,000: an increase that inevitably would have led to severe overcrowding. This was followed in the 1890s by another thirty-year growth spurt of nearly 200,000, taking Liverpool to its peak 1931 population total of 855,688. (3)

the Irish population of Liverpool, always large, was enormously increased by the inrush of immigrants after the Potato Famine of 1845–9; over 90,000 entered the town in the first three months of 1846, and nearly 300,000 in the twelve months following July 1847. Most of these subsequently emigrated to America, but many thousands, unable to find the passage money, remained to swell the misery of Liverpool slums.  

By the 1930s, Liverpool’s housing planners were confronting the inevitable: the city population was approaching, if not already at, critical density. (4)

Behold the ‘Garden City Movement’; Sir Ebenezer Howard’s answer to overcrowded, city-centre slums. Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), published a book in 1898, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Reform, reprinted in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow, in which he detailed his philosophy for healthy urban living. (5)

Ebenezer Howard had no training in town planning, nor did he claim to have. His vision for urban living owed more to his Victorian sense of civic duty and the concept of philanthropic housing. The central tenet of Howard’s thinking was that city people would prefer to live surrounded by countryside and that purpose-built, self-contained satellite towns would fulfil the needs of both city and country. This ideology was influential for generations and produced Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities among others.

In 1930s’ Liverpool, the Garden City Movement found an advocate in Lancelot Keay, Liverpool Director of Housing and a knighthood for his efforts. A new development was planned for Speke, as a ‘satellite town’, ‘when complete’, for ‘22,000 people’. Old Speke, a farming community for a thousand years, would be erased from history. (6)

Figure 2. To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Reform (1898) – Ebenezer Howard

4 Figure 2 Howard

‘Group of Slumless, Smokeless Cities’ © Town and Country Planning Association

‘Group of Slumless, Smokeless Cities’ is a collection of circles on a hexagonal frame depicting a ‘central city’, with a proposed population of 58,000, surrounded by six smaller circles, two of which are for lesser populations of 32,000 each. The other circles are for ‘allotments’ and unspecified, potential population centres.

Six sections of land, or ‘wards’, between the inner and outer circles, are designated as follows; ‘New Forests, Large Farms, Reservoir and Waterfall, Insane Asylum, Home for Inebriates, and Home for Waifs’. Make of that what you will.

The six smaller circles in the Howard plan were the solutions to Sir Ebenezer’s aversion to sprawling suburban metropolises. Howard reasoned that once a city had reached a given capacity, then any increase should be accommodated in self-contained satellite towns; that is, the smaller circles surrounding the larger central circle but set within their own countryside.

The origin of the Speke estate was as one such ‘self-contained satellite town’.

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Speke Estate, Scheme No 1, Proposed Development, Sept 1936 © Liverpool Record Office

This September 1936 drawing authorised by Keay is the first in a series of plans, culminating in Speke’s eventual development. Speke ‘Scheme No 1’ displays all the hallmarks of a Howard ‘satellite town’. It’s not quite circular but satellite towns were never intended to be circular, that was only diagrammatic.

Speke ‘Scheme No 1’ exhibits the requisite, satellite town elements of a 50-yards wide perimeter dual carriageway with designated bus stops, and a 100-yards-wide central main boulevard with grass median. The interior is a gridiron of repeated rectangular blocks. The flat terrain of South Liverpool complemented the Howard ideal: no undue changes in elevation to interfere with the planned uniformity.

At the left of the central boulevard by the upside down ‘y’, is the pre-existing Church of All Saints, built in 1872-5. Despite its age and link to old Speke, the church was deemed, ‘not of such importance as to be made the focal point of the new development’, and subsequent plans were amended so that the church was relegated to Speke’s edge.

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Speke Estate preliminary layout March 1937 © Liverpool Record Office

This ‘preliminary layout’ above, dated March 1937, six months after the September 1936 ‘Scheme No 1’ plan, veers away from the circular design and begins to approximate the finished layout of the estate. The original perimeter road has morphed into a ‘New Arterial Road’ (now known as Speke Boulevard), taking traffic away from Liverpool, on the left, to Widnes, right.

The left and middle circles on the New Arterial Road represent roundabout junctions with Speke Hall Avenue and Western Avenue respectively and locate approximately with the top two roundabouts on the September 1936 plan. The roundabouts have long gone but the junctions still exist.

The third right-hand circle on the New Arterial Road was intended as a roundabout junction with Eastern Avenue but this never materialised. Top of the page, crossing the map from east to west, is a railway line that curves up at the left-hand edge as it heads off north to Liverpool centre, seven miles away. North of the Western Avenue roundabout, a road crosses the railway line at Speke Station, a station that had closed only in 1930 and easily could have been reopened. (7)

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Speke Estate preliminary layout March 1937 © Liverpool Record Office

Another preliminary layout, also from March 1937, shows the estate extending eastwards: over a mile long, and half a mile wide. From the two March 1937 plans, there are a number of features redolent of Garden City thinking which would not make it to the final August 1937 layout. The huge interior roundabouts, in Western and Eastern Avenues, joined by the equally wide Central Avenue/Central Way, would be replaced by more modest, utilitarian affairs.

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Speke Estate preliminary layout Aug 1937 © Liverpool Record Office

This August 1937 layout, less than a year after the ‘Garden City’ inspired original plan, is a good approximation to the size and shape of the post-war, 1950s estate. The Western, Eastern and Central Avenues, so dominant on earlier plans, are now reduced to much more moderate scales. The New Arterial Road (Speke Boulevard) only made it as far as the middle circle, Western Avenue, and would not extend eastwards until the Fords car factory was built in the early 1960s. The Eastern Avenue connection was never built.

The pre-Second World War section of the estate, the Western Avenue end, adhered to some of the pre-estate road system and incorporated what it could of old Speke.  Post-war sections of central and eastern Speke weren’t concerned with such details: not one tree or hedgerow line remained to link the estate to old Speke’s thousand-year farming history.

The original gridiron format dominates the central section with only the far eastern end showing any deviation from rectangular sub-divisions. The large circular road system in the centre of the plan would be redesigned to form an east-west rectangle incorporating The Parade, the main shopping precinct (demolished in the early 1990s).

Below this circular system, a road runs south from the estate to a promenade on the River Mersey. This shoreline extravaganza, a grand example of pre-war Garden City idealism, didn’t make it to post-war austerity.

In 1950s’ Britain, the schoolboy mantra was that ‘England had won the war’. Germany was indeed defeated but that defeat came at a cost, and that cost was America’s involvement. The price of America’s involvement was ‘Lend Lease’, a programme in which Britain was obliged to sell off its overseas assets. At war’s end, Britain no longer had an income to rely on. ‘England’ had ‘won’ the war, but Britain was bankrupt. (8)

On the post-war Speke estate, houses were built, but everything else was on hold; schools, shops, churches, libraries, civic buildings, factories, community centres, etc.

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Speke: City Architect’s Department JL Berbiers, July 1946 (Looking NW) © Liverpool Record Office

This magnificent 1946 aerial perspective drawing by JL Berbiers shows the estate as it soon would become in the 1950s. Drawn one year after the war, it is noticeable for its post-war pragmatism of (imagined) factories on the outskirts versus pre-war optimism of (absent) ludicrously wide boulevards in the interior.

The New Arterial Road/Speke Boulevard can be made out just north of the estate (above), along with two roundabout junctions. The right hand, Eastern Avenue junction was never built, leaving the left Western Avenue junction as the main entry and exit point, connecting the whole estate to Liverpool City centre and beyond.

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Speke Industrial Estate and environs, 1952 (EAW047295) © Britain from Above.  Looking northwest, the Speke Estate lies to the bottom left.

Centre frame in the image above is the pre-1946 constructed Western Avenue/Speke Boulevard roundabout, with Western Avenue running to the left (south) and Speke Boulevard, a single carriageway at this time, running to the top left (west). The road running to the top right (north) is Woodend Avenue which crosses the railway line at Speke station, half a mile from the estate.

From the outset, this one junction would be the main entry and exit point for the whole estate which had a peak population of 26,000. (9)  The relocated Liverpool Airport in the 1980s took traffic westwards to the Speke Hall Avenue roundabout, just visible top left. The new shopping precinct in the 1990s gave Speke an extra access point east of Western Avenue but all the traffic from Speke converged on Speke Boulevard, the main arterial route from Liverpool to points south and east.

In Figure 2 above, Ebenezer Howard’s inclusion of Inter-Municipal Canals and Railways was quaint 19th century utopianism but from his plans, and writings it is clear that Howard understood one aspect of urban living: transport links.

In his compulsive manner, Howard detailed distances and times travelled by various means of transport. He understood that satellite towns had to be interconnected with each other and the main central city.  ‘Satellite’ did not equate with isolated.

In the August 1937 preliminary, but eventual, layout of Speke (above), Keay approved the plan that resulted in Speke having only one main exit and entry point at Western Avenue/Speke Boulevard.

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Speke Boulevard, looking west, 1950s  ©

The photograph above shows Speke Boulevard looking west as an original single lane, viewed from the Western Avenue roundabout: Speke estate left, Evans Medical Ltd, right.

Speke Boulevard initially stopped at the Western Avenue roundabout, and wouldn’t continue eastwards until the Ford Motor car plant was built in the early 1960s: the Eastern Avenue junction was never built. Additionally, the estate, on average, is over a mile away from Speke railway station, a station that had closed only recently but would have connected Speke with Liverpool City centre. Speke’s infrastructure was lacking from the day the estate was built.

In the half-century between the 1902 reprint of Ebenezer Howard’s book and the 1950s’ construction of the Speke estate, Britain had endured two world wars and the Great Depression of the 1920s/30s.

Expectations had moved on from such adversities but the blueprint for the creation of the post-WW2 Speke estate was a remnant of nineteenth-century utopianism. Lancelot Keay had failed to adapt his housing policy to the changing anticipations of a post-war world. Keay was assumptive in thinking that nineteenth-century idealism would transpose into the twentieth century. The Speke of Keay’s approval was not a ‘self-contained satellite town’ in the countryside: it was an isolated council housing estate set in farmland.

The ‘self-contained’ requirements of employment and leisure were slow to appear, if at all. Many thousands of people needed to work and socialise on an estate that barely catered for either. Initially there weren’t even any public houses in Speke: Liverpool Corporation excluded them from the estate. Breweries had to build their pubs on the outside of the perimeter road, namely The Fox, The Pegasus and The Dove & Olive Branch. The Pegasus and The Dove & Olive Branch have since been demolished.

The cottage industries that Howard contemplated in his 1902 plans were insufficient for twentieth-century needs. An uprooted labour force, transposed from the city centre to a satellite estate with poor transport links, needed a large workforce employer in close proximity. Speke would have to wait until 1963 for the Ford Motor car plant to be built: the new factory simultaneously eradicating a quarter of the surrounding ‘countryside’.

In that same year, 1963, Harold Wilson (Prime Minister 1964-1970) gave his ‘white heat of technology’ speech, in which he warned that to prosper, a ‘new Britain’ would need to be forged in the ‘white heat’ of scientific revolution. (10) Speke would struggle to find its relevance in the second half of the twentieth century.  Speke’s failings were, and are, its isolation. The Speke estate was built in the wrong place.

The author of the Pevsner Architectural Guide, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest’ is blunt in his assessment:

But by the 1960s it was clear that Keay’s ‘adventure’ had failed. Although he claimed Speke as a prototype New Town, in reality, it was an isolated, working-class suburb. There was no private housing, no trams (prohibited across runway approaches) [tram routes ended at Garston], the railway station never opened, and even the scaled-down shopping and public amenities were not completed until the 1960s.

The writing continues, in uncomplimentary style: ‘Speke is a vast housing estate of great monotony, so exploration is only for the committed’. (11)  

This book was published in 2006. One can only assume that the writer of such condescension was not acquainted with Speke of the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s. He would have had a fuller understanding of the term, ‘great monotony’.

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Ganworth Road (looking north), April 1953 (to the left) and Central Way looking east, April 1953. © Liverpool Record Office

The photographs above of Speke’s signature low-rise blocks of flats were taken in 1953 from the same corner, looking north and east. Identical blocks of flats occupied huge swathes of central Speke. Of 6000 dwellings in Speke, 1270 were flats.(9) Built in the 1950s, virtually all the flats would be demolished by the 1980s.

Speke residents of the past thirty years or so may not realise that early Speke was as devoid of trees as the photographs above show. The ‘garden’ in Garden City was lost in construction. Speke was an island of buildings in a sea of farmland. There were pockets of woodland outside the estate but Central and Eastern Speke were barren.

I am the same age as the post-war estate, and spent the 1960s trying to equate teenage life with Speke’s impoverished isolation. Time spent has granted me every entitlement to be critical of the failings in Speke’s construction as I saw them.

Some people came to terms with Speke and happily remain there. I wish them well. I didn’t, and left. Speke and I failed to bond in my teenage years. Yes, my childhood was idyllic, playing in surrounding farms and woodland but adolescence uncovered Speke’s deficiencies.

The requirements for Speke as a ‘self-contained satellite town’ surrounded by countryside were never met: circumstances dictated otherwise. Speke defaulted to a residential island, set in a sea of encroaching industry. The farmlands surrounding Speke, ‘some of the best wheat growing land in the hundred’, (12) were replaced by factories and distribution warehouses. The need for local employment replaced the given of countryside. Garden City ideology gave way to economic necessity and the countryside succumbed to industrial development.

An isolated Speke is mutating into a Dormitory Estate, a sleepy, detached suburb for Liverpool commuters lucky enough to have found inexpensive property within the city limits. Developers have seized upon defunct school playing fields to be converted into mini-housing estates: houses and plot sizes considerably smaller than neighbouring original properties but one and a half times the asking price.

The last time I visited Speke, I flew into Manchester Airport (the runway at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport isn’t long enough for transatlantic flights), walked to the connecting railway station, and took a train to Liverpool South Parkway. At South Parkway I waited an hour for a bus to Speke (Morrisons): two of the displayed twenty-minute service simply failed to turn up. I enquired at ‘Information’, only to be told that they were a railway station and weren’t responsible for bus schedules. Some things haven’t changed in seventy years: Speke is still an end of the road housing estate with poor transport links.

The ‘New Arterial Road’, Speke Boulevard, does ‘connect’ with Speke, but it takes people past, and away from the estate. No one drives through Speke, they never did. Post-1980s, there are so many planted trees and bushes on Speke Boulevard that people driving past don’t see the estate or even know it’s there.

Figure 3. Proposed Eastern Access Transport Corridor (2018)  

13 Proposed Eastern Access

Speke Estate with the airport runway, south © Liverpool John Lennon Airport Master Plan to 2050

The heavy line in the map above is Speke Boulevard, locally Ford’s Road but officially the A561. The blue line is the proposed Eastern Access Transport Corridor connecting the A561 with the airport. A to B would be a new road with the remainder a rebuild of the existing Hale Road. The blue area is Green Belt farmland.

The Eastern Access Transport Corridor map is taken from the 2017 Consultation Draft of the Liverpool John Lennon Airport Master Plan to 2050. This proposed corridor will be primarily an airport link road with the A561 but would serve a double function, alleviating the commercial traffic congestion on Speke Boulevard from the Estuary Business Park, west of the estate.

This intended airport relief road is only one of several ‘improvements’ sought for the airport by owners Peel Holdings. The Peel Holdings’ Master Plan for the airport proposes an extended runway for long-haul flights, double the passenger handling to 11 million per annum by 2050, and ‘to grow cargo throughput by 20,000–25,000 tonnes per annum over the period of the master plan’. ‘Up to 20 percent of revenue on a long-haul service can be generated from air freight.’ (13)

The Speke estate, the once-upon-a-time ‘satellite town surrounded by countryside’, is being choked by industry and losing the fight. Airport and commercial traffic pollution is replacing the ‘Garden City’ fresh air, with the remaining farmland sought for airport development by the Peel Holdings juggernaut. (14)

The Speke of my childhood, the ‘satellite town’ of the 1950s, was enclosed almost entirely in farmland. I have aged to see three-quarters of that surrounding farmland disappear to industry which leaves the question: How much of the remaining countryside, if any, will survive me?

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Oglet Farmland, south of Speke © Lynne Moneypenny: Save Oglet Shore & Greenbelt

The photograph above shows farmland at Oglet, part of the last remaining countryside south of the Speke estate, squeezed in between the airport runway and the River Mersey and sought for airport expansion by owners Peel Holdings.

The question remains: How much longer does the ‘countryside’ have before it succumbs to tarmac and concrete? 


Special thanks to the Liverpool Record Office for supplying many of the images in this post and allowing their reproduction.


(1) The Archi UK website here links to an 1894 Ordnance Survey 6 inch to 1 mile map of the Speke area. The slider top-left superimposes a current map of the same location.

(2) A Vision of Britain through Time, Liverpool District Total Population

(3) William Farrer and J Brownbill (eds), ‘Liverpool: Trade, population and geographical growth‘, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4, (London, 1911)

(4) The population density, and housing shortage problems would be compounded by war time bomb damage, and the post war ‘baby boom’ population explosion.

(5) A key extract of Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow is provided on this Cornell University webpage.

(6) George Mercer, ‘Speke as a New Town: An Experimental Industrial Study’, The Town Planning Review, vol 24, no 3, October 1953

(7) Disused Stations: Speke

(8) See Professor Stephen Ambrose, ‘From War to Peace’ in The World at War (Thames TV, originally broadcast in 1974: on Lendlease at 13:51 and Britain’s cost, 17:15. [This 22-minute film is mandatory viewing for anyone wishing to understand the geo-political legacy of the Second World War, as viewed from the early 1970s.]

(9) City of Liverpool, Tenants’ Handbook, undated c1962

(10) Wilson’s speech to the 1963 Labour Party Conference in Scarborough has been re-created by Manchester’s People’s History Museum and can be viewed on this Guardian webpage.

(11) Richard Pollard, Nikolaus Pevsner, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest (Yale University Press, 2006)

(12) William Farrer and J Brownbill (eds), ‘Townships: Speke’, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 3 (Victoria County History, 1907)

(13) Liverpool John Lennon Airport, Master Plan to 2050, Consultation Draft June 2017

(14) Guy Shrubsole, ‘Who owns the country? The secretive companies hoarding England’s land’, The Guardian, 19 April 2019

Kirkby, Liverpool, Part II: ‘New Jerusalem Goes Wrong’


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Last week’s post looked at the origins and early development of the new town of Kirkby. Despite the ambitions and claims of its planners, some early impressions of observers were critical and the responses of some residents at least were muted, showing gratitude for better housing but a more sceptical attitude towards their new environment.

Woolworth in August 1964 Liverpool Echo Mirrorpix

This image of Kirkby shopping centre in 1964 gives some evidence of the town’s young population © Liverpool Echo

Objectively, two things stand out. One was the age profile of the new town: in 1961, some 48 percent of the population was under 15; the England and Wales average stood at 27 percent. There were reports of serious vandalism as early as 1960 when, for example, the Liverpool Echo, reporting the departure of the local vicar to the safer environs of Southport, described the town ‘troubled by gangs of young vandals who leave a weekly trail of havoc’. (1)

We’ll come back to this issue and it seems far too crude to ascribe it simply to local demographics but it’s noteworthy that in at least two cases of allegedly vandal-ridden estates – the Brandon Estate in Lambeth and Meadowell in North Shields –  local commentators blamed their preponderance of young people. (In fact, at 30 to 35 percent, the numbers under 15 were significantly lower than at Kirkby.)

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The Peacock public house, Quarryside Drive, Northwood, 2016

The second is criticism of Kirkby’s lack of facilities. We saw last week the genuine efforts to provide health and educational resources but other amenities lagged. ‘There’s nothing for teenagers’, complained one respondent to the 1961 survey of Liverpool academic John Barron Mays. Some commentators linked the town’s young population, its lack of facilities and the allegedly high levels of antisocial behaviour, as a Times report on Kirkby (‘the legendary birthplace of the BBC’s Z Cars’) did in 1965: (2)

Although half the population is under 21 no one has yet built a cinema or dance hall and, possibly for this kind of reason, the 13 and 14-years-olds are the town’s most frequent law-breakers. Shop windows are shattered with monotonous regularity, telephone kiosks are damaged at the rate of one per day and windows of unoccupied buildings are now sometimes protected by corrugated iron.

One of May’s respondents, the 32-year old wife of a brewery manager, stated she couldn’t ‘belong to a club because not an RC’ (sic). Lingering sectarianism notwithstanding, for all the promise as so often the provision of social amenities followed too slowly on the housing drive which preceded it.

Kirkby Industrial Estate Liverpool Echo Mirrorpix

Kirkby Industrial Estate, undated © Liverpool Echo

In the 1960s, employment opportunities offered a better prospect. Ronald Bradbury, Kirkby’s chief planner, claimed the Kirkby Industrial Estate was employing 12,000 by 1956, 16,000 by 1961 and 25,000 by 1967. Some of its firms such as Birds Eye, Hygena and Bendix, were the household names of Britain. Jeff Morris recalled his earlier working years in Kirkby: (3)

The industrial estate was a world of opportunity. You could leave one job and walk into another. I think it was the largest in Britain at the time, or at least in the North West.

Full employment Britain seems a foreign country where things were done differently. In the 1970s the post-war compact between state and society that guaranteed jobs and social security began to dissolve and Kirkby in particular would suffer grievously.

In 1971, Thorn Electrical, which had just bought Fisher-Bendix, announced the closure of the company’s Kirkby plant with the loss of 600 jobs. A factory occupation demanding ‘the right to work’ followed and a new owner was found to keep the factory going, for the time being at least.

1977 protest against housing consitions Liverpool Echo

Tower Hill protest, 1972. The placard on the left reads ‘Tower Hill Flat Dwellers Let’s Have Homes Not Fungus Cells’ – a reminder that this was also a protest about housing conditions.

Such local militancy, this time led by women, was displayed again in a fourteen-month rent strike, involving 3000 households at peak, led by the Tower Hill Unfair Rents Action Group – a protest against the £1 a week increase proposed by Kirkby Urban District Council as a result of the ‘fair rents’ regime of the 1972 Housing Act. (4)

But such struggles availed little against the larger forces at work. As early as 1971, Kirkby was noted as one of several problematic ‘peripheral estates’ – areas characterised by their ‘marked degree of social homogeneity’, rising unemployment and physical decline. By 1981, an unemployment rate of 22.6 percent placed it second in the country after Corby which had recently suffered the closure of its steelworks. (5)

Ranshaw Court

Flats demolished 1982 Kirkby

Ranshaw Court, Tower Hill, seen in its brief heyday and demolished, 1982

Kirkby’s physical decline was seen in Tower Hill’s recently built seven-storey system-built maisonette blocks, flawed from the outset and scheduled for demolition barely ten years later. Across the town, three-storey flat blocks – disliked for their lack of space and appalling sound insulation – made up almost a quarter of its homes and suffered an annual tenant turnover of 25 percent. For some, the almost systematic destruction of these flats when empty by Kirkby youth was not mindless vandalism but justified protest. (6)

New Jerusalem Goes Wrong


Cover and image from the Observer magazine article on Kirkby in 1979

The forces of law and order were less sympathetic. Chief Superintendent Norman Chapple, in charge of local policing, produced a lengthy report entitled ‘Kirkby New Town: an Objective Assessment of Social, Economic and Police Problems’ in 1975 which received national coverage.

Its statistics made for sobering reading: around 700 council homes were badly vandalised annually;  vandalism generally cost the town some £375,000 a year, a figure comparable, it was said, to a town ten times its size; 14,000 streetlights had been destroyed in a six-month period; an average of five telephone kiosks were vandalised daily. In all, Kirkby’s crime rate was 16 percent higher than the Knowsley and Merseyside average, itself said to be the highest in Britain, and the proportion of juvenile offenders arrested was two-thirds greater than in London. (7)

Kirkby Town Centre

Kirkby town centre, June 1993 © John Wakefield

Chapple acknowledged the context: dissatisfaction with housing, high unemployment, an exceptionally high population of young people and a continuingly high birth rate.  And he recognised the depressing nature of the local environment:

The whole atmosphere of the town centre and the four community centre shopping precincts is marred by the fact that most shops have either bricked up their windows or covered them with permanent and unsightly metal grilles.

But he was also unsparing in his character assessment of the town’s population. He suggested that the parents of Kirkby ‘must accept a large part of the blame for the misconduct of the younger generation and hence their own squalid environment’. He observed a ‘high proportion of irresponsible or manifestly anti-social residents’. And he believed:

All endeavours to improve the general quality of life will be vain, however, unless some way can be found to improve the basically apathetic, irresponsible and anti-social attitude exhibited by a large proportion of the community.

Of course, many residents found such judgments shocking and offensive. Earlier letters to the Liverpool Echo had rejected such stigmatisation: ‘Someone tell me just where you think Kirkby people originate. We are not a separate race’, said Mrs Badcock. Joseph and Margaret McCann complained about Kirkby’s ‘undeserved bad reputation’. One ‘Contented Kirkbyite’ noted the ‘very nice respectable people and families who are a credit to Kirby’. Vandalism, most respondents commented, was not specific to Kirkby but a problem everywhere and in places with far fewer young people. (8)

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James Holt Avenue, Westvale, 2016

Critical commentary easily lurched into ugly stereotyping and the latter, whatever the reality, merely added to Kirkby’s problems. From somewhere removed in time and place, it’s hard – and perhaps unnecessary – to pass judgement. The seventies seem – this an admittedly anecdotal observation from someone who lived through them – a time of cultural shift; a more troubled and less deferential era. The objective circumstances of Kirkby – poor housing in too many cases, inadequate amenities – warranted grievance. Unemployment, youth unemployment reaching 60 percent, decimated its community; the town’s population fell by 15 percent in the decade after 1971.

And there was, as Chapple noted, though unsympathetically in his case, an anti-authoritarian attitude perhaps rooted in the decades-long experience of a casualised Liverpool docks workforce of ruthless exploitation. Chapple was shocked by the apparently widespread acceptance of the theft and receiving (in police parlance) of stolen goods but ‘nicking’ – as has been noted in Glasgow too – could be viewed as a form of justifiable wealth redistribution by those at the sharp end of social inequality.

The problems and the spotlight – more empathetically in this case – remained on Kirkby in the early 1980s when the Centre for Environmental Studies (CES) researched ‘outer estates in Britain’. Its report on Kirkby and Stockbridge Village (formerly Cantril Farm) – another peripheral Liverpool development – was published in 1985 and noted the ‘chronic state of disrepair’ of much of the housing and the dependence of around half Kirkby’s households on state benefits. The industrial estate’s ‘large-plant, branch-plant economy, making consumer products’ was no longer viable as globalisation impacted and the town’s unemployment rate was 50 percent higher than that of Liverpool as a whole. (9)

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The new St Chad’s Health Centre

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All Saints Catholic High School, opened in 2010

All this is past history and there has been significant change since. The town was ripe for the area-based regeneration initiatives that characterised government policy from the 1980s onward. Demolition and rebuild in Tower Hill were supported by a £26 million grant from the Estate Action Programme launched in 1985. By 1992, one enthusiastic report claimed the area now had a five-year waiting list of people wanting to move in. Kirkby also received money from the Single Regeneration Budget but the Council’s 1992 bid for City Challenge funding was rejected. (10)

Contrary to received wisdom, New Labour did invest quite heavily in what became known as the ‘left-behind areas’. In Kirkby the results can be seen in new schools and health centres. But secure and decently remunerated employment, given the government’s embrace of a competitive, globalised economy, was a tougher nut to crack.

As was typical, however, the regeneration strategy focused heavily on housing, clearing those areas judged particularly problematic or unpopular. The practical reality of empty and hard-to-let social rent homes in Kirkby and a declining population (from almost 60,000 in 1971 to 40,472 in 2001) made the contemporary policy preference for low-rise mixed-tenure, ‘mixed community’ development an inevitable and, in this case perhaps, justifiable, choice.

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Willow Rise (in foreground) and Beech Rise, Parklands, Roughwood Drive, 2016

In 2000, land north of Shevington’s Lane was set aside for ‘a private housing area comparable in size to the original public housing estate’. By 2005, six of the eight 15-storey towers along Roughwood Drive been demolished. Redeveloped by LPC Living and rebranded Parklands, the two remaining towers were refurbished to provide ‘high-quality contemporary accommodation’ for sale whilst ‘40 new two- and three-bedroom mews-style townhouses’ replaced the others. (11)

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New housing at Sycamore Drive off Roughwood Drive, 2016

In Southdene, the two eleven-storey Cherryfield Heights blocks have also been demolished. The surviving four eleven-storey blocks at Gaywood Green are now scheduled for demolition due to fire safety concerns. (12)

The almost unavoidable corollary of regeneration was so-called Large-scale Voluntary Transfer of housing stock from local authorities to housing associations – hardly voluntary as councils were denied the support needed to fund renovations and new build themselves. In 2002, Knowsley Council’s 17,000 homes were transferred to the Knowsley Housing Trust formed for the purpose.  The Council estimated this would release £270 million of new investment in housing.

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Quarry Green Heights, 2016

A tower block fire in Huyton in 1991 (before transfer) was seen as ‘a warning which ultimately went unheeded’ and fire risk assessments issued by the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service in 2017 relating to the Quarry Green blocks reflected what critics saw as a generally bureaucratic and non-responsive attitude amongst a rapidly changing senior staff. The Trust was issued a non-compliance order by the Social Housing Regulator in 2018 which stated baldly that it failed to meet governance requirements. Since April 2020 it has been re-invented as the Livv Housing Group. (13)

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Kirkby shopping centre, 2016

Currently, the twenty-year saga of the regeneration of Kirkby’s town centre is centre-stage with – to cut a long story short – the hopeful news that a Morrison’s superstore, a Home Bargains outlet and a drive-thru (sic) KFC will be gracing the redeveloped centre following a ground-breaking ceremony in January this year. (14)

The current moment (I write in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic) is hardly propitious to such efforts and the practical and psychological boost of a revived central shopping area will battle unequally against the objective reality of Kirkby’s continuing poverty.  In the modern jargon of multiple deprivation, as of 2018 some 34 percent of Kirkby’s population suffered income deprivation (against an English average of 15 percent) and 28 percent employment deprivation (12 percent). (15)

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New private housing in Brackenhurst Green, Northwood, 2016

Despite the high hopes – and a degree of hyperbole – which accompanied its inception, Kirkby has not been an unalloyed success though, as ever, many of its residents will have experienced their homes and community far more positively than media headlines and hostile commentary would suggest. Back in 1981, when CES essayed a judgment on what had gone wrong, they concluded that no-one or nothing was directly to blame, except history: ‘the town’s main stumbling block is that “each of the main problems exacerbates the others”’. (16)

That will seem a mealy-mouthed judgement to some. Many would point to planning hubris and, more specifically, the inherent problems associated with large, mono-class peripheral estates. Others would blame poor execution – flawed housing and inadequate amenities. But neither offer sufficient explanation. The necessary context is inequality and a state and society which have in recent decades retreated from the promises of a more classless prosperity that briefly actuated our politics in the era that gave birth to the new town of Kirkby.


My thanks to John Wakefield for permission to use a couple of his powerful images of Kirkby at this time and for supplying additional detail.


(1) Quoted in David Kynaston, Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62, Book 2 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014)

(2) ‘Police See Widening Gap with Public’, The Times, 3 February 1965

(3) Molyneux, ‘Kirkby’s transformation from sleepy rural town to “the great new world”

(4) These working-class struggles are described from a left-wing perspective in numerous accounts. Fisher-Bendix, for example, in, Under new management? The Fisher-Bendix occupation and from International Socialism, Malcolm Marks, The Battle at Fisher Bendix; the Tower Hill Rent Strike in Big Flame and the Kirkby Rent Strike and ‘”Empowered working-class housewives” – Big Flame, Women and the Kirkby Rent Strike 1972-73’.

(5) Duncan Sim, ‘Urban Deprivation: Not Just the Inner City’, Area, vol 16, no 4, December 1984

(6) Mark Urbanowicz, Forms of Policing and the Politics of Law Enforcement: A Critical Analysis of Policing in a Merseyside Working Class Community, PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 1985

(7) The quotations which follow are drawn from Ian Craig, ‘Kirkby – “Town in State of Crisis”’, Liverpool Echo, 2 December 1975, Peter Evans, ‘Hooliganism and theft make new town a disaster area’, The Times, 3 December 1975 and Urbanowicz, Forms of Policing and the Politics of Law Enforcement: A Critical Analysis of Policing in a Merseyside Working Class Community.

(8) Letters page, Liverpool Echo, 22 November 1972

(9) CES Paper 27, Outer Estates in Britain: Action Programmes in Kirkby and Stockbridge Village (1985)

(10) ‘The town that fought its way back’, The Times, 13 July 1992

(11) Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, Supplementary Planning Document Tower Hill (Kirkby) Action Area (April 2007) and Parklands, LPC Living and ‘Rush to Buy Tower Blocks’, Liverpool Echo, 21 September 2005

(12) See the Tower Block UK website of the University of Edinburgh and Nathaniel Barker, ‘Merseyside housing association to demolish tower blocks after fire safety failings’, Inside Housing, 15 May 2019

(13) Nathaniel Barker, ‘Knowsley Housing Trust: what went wrong?’, Inside Housing 12 October 2018 and Regulator of Social Housing, Regulatory Judgement on Knowsley Housing Trust LH4343, August 2018.

(14) Chloé Vaughan, ‘Ground breaks on retail development in Kirkby’, Place NorthWest, 31 Jan 2020. The town’s Wikipedia entry contains exhaustive detail on the longer story.

(15) Knowsley Council, Kirkby Profile 2018.

(16) Quoted in Sue Woodward, ‘”Town of Apathy”: the Daily Problems of life in Kirkby’, Liverpool Echo, 19 October 1981

Kirkby, Liverpool, Part I: ‘a tremendous achievement’?


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For those of a certain age, Kirkby is probably most associated with Z Cars, a BBC police drama that first aired in 1962.  The programme was set in the fictitious ‘Newtown’ but the town bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Kirkby, described by Troy Kennedy Martin, one of the show’s screenwriters, as: (1)

one of the black spots of England, an overspill New Town from the slums of Liverpool, where 50,000 displaced and truculent Merseysiders carry out a continuous war against authority and where crime and adolescent terror incubate.

Kirkby was not an officially designated New Town – though it was sometimes given the name and bore some superficial resemblance to that post-war Government programme – and, as you read on, you can judge for yourself how far it deserved Martin’s caustic characterisation. This post, at least, will attempt a balanced verdict but it’s fair to say that execution fell some way short of ambition.

Kirkby booklet cover

The cover of the booklet published to celebrate the official opening of Kirkby’s 10,000th new home.

Kirkby’s origins lay in the late 1920s as it became clear to Liverpool’s politicians that the city needed to move away from its dependence on the docks and allied employment. The City Council developed two new industrial estates in response, one at Speke (along with its associated satellite town), the other at Aintree.

EAW046998 The Kirkby Industrial Estate around Newstet Road 1952

‘The Kirkby Industrial Estate around Newstet Road, 1952’ © Britain from Above, EAW046998. This image shows the estate in its early years very much reflecting its Ordnance Factory origins.

A third was planned at Kirkby, six miles north-west of the city centre, but shelved due to the war. In the event the war would give its own boost to such planning when the Kirkby Ordnance Factory was established in 1938 as the UK prepared for conflict. It grew at peak to comprise around 1000 buildings and employ a (mainly female) workforce of some 23,000.

Ordnance Factory housing CC David Long

Ordnance Factory housing with sloping roofs on Spinney Close © David Long and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The Government built around 200 houses too for key workers, principally designed by Arthur W Kenyon – standard family homes but distinguished in some cases (such as those on Spinney Close) by their modernist-style sloping roofs and, in most, by flat roofs. As Kenyon recalled, the latter ‘were dictated by war emergency; timber was not available for sloping roofs’. He did, however, provide each home with a brick shed large enough to ‘satisfy the shed addict’. The homes were transferred to the local authority after the war and those on the Park Estate near the station now have pitched roofs (2)

The Ordnance Factory closed in March 1946; its land acquired by the Council to form the new Kirkby Industrial Estate, intended as the employment hub of the major housing development to follow.  In conjunction with the local planning authority, Lancashire County Council, and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the Council moved quickly to finalise its proposals and a Town Map covering 2800 acres (including the trading estate) was approved in July 1949.

Town Map 1961 Booklet

Town Map, as featured in Kirkby: the Story of a Great Achievement (1961)

The plan provided for three roughly equal neighbourhoods – anodynely named Southdene, Westvale and Northwood – grouped around a town centre with open ground between the westerly and south-easterly neighbourhoods occupied by schools and playing fields. Whiston Rural District Council, in whose land the scheme lay, gave planning approval for Southdene, the first element in the proposals, in November and preparatory work began early in the following year.

Mayor of Liverpool Ald Albert Morrow opens first house Southdene 1952 Liverpool Echo

The Mayor of Liverpool, Alderman Albert Morrow, officially opens the first house in Southdene in 1952

The first housing contract– with the locally based Unit Construction Company – for 647 homes was signed in March 1952 and, at a rate of three per week, 116 had been completed by December.

Further contracts with Unit Construction brought the 1000th house in October 1953, the 5000th in 1956 and the 10,000th in September 1961, the latter marked in an opening ceremony attended by Henry Brook, Minister of Housing and Local Government, and Liverpool’s Lord Mayor. The occasion seemed to merit a little justifiable hype: (3)

The completion of ten thousand dwellings on a single estate for a single authority by a single firm of contractors, accomplished in a remarkably short period of nine years, is by any standards a tremendous achievement.

In the longer term, that achievement might be questioned but at the time numbers counted. A 1955 housing survey of the city revealed that of near 205,000 homes in Liverpool, 61,247 were unfit and only suitable for demolition and a further 61,247 required extensive repair or demolition – in total, some 43 percent of total housing stock. (4)

Shirley Walk 1958 Liverpool Echo

New housing in Southdene

Peak housing production in Kirkby – 1700 homes completed in the year – was reached in 1957 and the town’s population was projected to reach 74,000 by 1971.  All this leads to the obvious question: what was the quality of the environment and infrastructure provided in this breakneck expansion? (5)

Kirkby SOuth Neighbourhood Development Plan 2 1951

This 1951 plan of part of Southdene (the bottom right of the Town Map above) shows Bradbury’s curving streetscapes as well as – with its combined primary school and community centre and nursery school – some of the efforts made to include community facilities.

Ronald Bradbury, having previously held a similar position in Glasgow, was appointed Liverpool’s City Architect and Director of Housing, aged 40, in 1946. He moved away from the more formal Beaux-Arts designs of his illustrious predecessor Lancelot Keay, making Kirkby’s overall layout ‘informal by founding it on existing roads, contours and natural features’. (6)

Two-storey housing, Kirkby

Hargate Walk, Northwood

The housing, in the town’s early years, was almost wholly low-rise, generally undistinguished but pleasant and functional and, of course, in terms of space and facilities, vastly better than the slum housing from which most new residents had moved. Bradbury himself provided a precise summary in the 1961 commemorative brochure: of the 10,000 homes built to date, some 5817 were two- to four-bed, two-storey houses; 1197 were one-bed flats for elderly people placed in two-storey blocks; 2166 were two- and three-bed flats in three-storey blocks.; and 688 were three-bed maisonettes in four-storey blocks. (7)

Maisonettes Moss Lawn Road Southdene Kirkby

Maisonettes on Moss Lawn Road, Southdene

Four eleven-storey blocks of one- and two-bed flats in Gaywood Green approved in 1961 marked the beginnings of high-rise development in Kirkby. Fourteen tower blocks had been erected by 1967: two further 11-storey blocks at Cherrywood Heights and eight 15-storey blocks at Kirkby Northwood.  In the mid- to late-sixties, three 15-storey blocks were added at Quarry Green Heights and two, more modest seven-storey blocks at Whitefield Square.

Kirkby Northwood Willow Rise TB 1987 SN III

Mercer Heights blocks, Mercer Avenue, Westvale, 1987 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

Quarry Green Heights TB 1987

Quarry Green Heights, Northwood, 1987 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

As a result of Kirkby’s suburban setting and plentiful land, this was, by Liverpool standards (by 1981 half of the city’s council homes were flats), a relatively small incursion. All the blocks in Kirkby were built – you guessed it – by the Unit Construction Company but, although the firm became the UK licensee of the French Camus form of system building in 1962, those in Kirkby seem to have been constructed of in-situ reinforced concrete frames with brick and concrete panel infilling. (8)

Whitefield Square, Westvale TB 1987 II

Whitefield Square, Westvale, 1987 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh

Liverpool Builds, the Corporation’s celebratory account of its housing programme published in 1967, also emphasised the 914 homes built for owner occupation in the town on ‘three very substantial areas of ground set aside by the Housing Committee for that purpose as part of its policy of housing diversification on the estate’. That ‘mixed community’ was not, however, the reality or certainly not the reputation of Kirkby.

It was not a New Town in the sense that it was developed by a Development Corporation with full resources and powers to do so but the Council aspired to create something similar, as Bradbury claimed: (9)

From the outset the Liverpool City Council was fully alive to the fact that Kirkby was not merely a new housing estate but that they were creating a “new town” which must have all the essential facilities and amenities such an entity required.

Doctors surgery, Brook Hey Drive, Northwood

Doctor’s surgery, Brook Hey Drive, Northwood

Health facilities and new schools were built, of course – 32 schools and twelve doctors’ surgeries and three dental clinics by 1965. The Town Map also set aside sites for 15 churches and chapels across the new town in addition to the nineteenth-century St Chad’s parish church retained centrally. Places of worship were always an apparent planning priority but post-war local government managed also to largely shed its aversion to the demon drink: at Kirkby, the Council planned twelve public houses plus a central residential hotel. Lancashire County Council provided a library, courts and the emergency services.  A privately developed shopping centre and three neighbourhood retail centres completed the ensemble.

That infrastructure and an allegedly growing ‘civic consciousness’ ensured that the Kirkby parish of the Whiston Rural District was created an Urban District in 1958. The Council’s Civic Centre, designed by Jackson and Edmonds, was completed in 1969. Later, in 1974, Kirkby was absorbed into the new Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council which, in turn, became a part of the Liverpool City Region in 2014.

Farmers Arms and Ranshaw Court 1980s Liverpool Echo

The Tenterhook with Ranshaw Court to the rear, Tower Hill © John Wakefield

It was Kirkby Urban District Council which was responsible for the last extensive phase of the town’s housing development: the Tower Hill district, north of the Liverpool-Manchester Victoria railway line, built from the late 1960s and intended to house some 10,000 second generation residents. Its homes were mostly low-rise terraced housing and maisonettes but included a number of seven-storey maisonette blocks. The latter, built by Unit and in this case using the Camus system, were poorly constructed and soon revealed multiple flaws. Demolition of seven was agreed as early as 1980.

Radshaw Court Flats, Ravenscourt Estate, demolition 1989 Liverpool Echo

Ranshaw Court demolition, February 1989

That might come to seem portentous but in 1961, its principal planner, Liverpool’s City Architect and Director of Housing, Ronald Bradbury, could claim proudly and perhaps justifiably that: (10)

Kirby is now a well-established and thriving community but it is not possible … in print to convey the spirit of Kirkby or the enthusiasm which has gone into its creation … There has been created in a remarkably short period a feeling of “belonging” and pride in the New Kirkby.

Of course, the true test of such assertion lay in the sentiments of the town’s new residents and in its longer-term evolution. Alan Martin, now 65, arrived in Kirby from inner-city Liverpool in 1957: (11)

Living in a terrace house in Walton, it was a chance to have a brand new council house and a fresh start. I’ve got very little memories of not living in Kirkby as a kid. Everything was being built in front of us, like the fire station, the market, the police station. It was a great place to be. There were buildings sites and there were also open spaces. It was an adventure for most kids

Jeff Morris, 66, recalls arriving in Kirkby from Everton in 1958:

It was good. My mum and dad thought this was the great new world that came but they did have some doubts when they moved in and had talks about moving back to Liverpool. But when St Kevin’s school opened my dad went to go see it and saw all science labs and facilities. He knew if we stayed we’d get a good education.

Sociological studies of the time largely echo such sentiments. NH Rankin’s ‘Social adjustment in a North-West New Town’, published in 1963, found that 40 percent of new residents were pleased to move to Kirkby from their inner-city slum clearance properties and 22 percent had wanted to move but not necessarily to Kirkby. It was true, however, that a large number – 29 percent – had not wished to move to the new town. (12)

Delaware Crescent, Westvale SN

Delaware Crescent, Westvale

Interestingly, after relocation, around three-quarters wished to stay. The big plus was, of course, the new homes and few missed the allegedly close-knit community of the slum quarters lionised by some contemporary sociologists: Rankin found that ‘the influence of the close-knit matrilocal lifestyle is of lesser importance than the attainment of better housing’. Nevertheless, a significant proportion did want to move away – flats were particularly unpopular – and over half of households, in Rankin’s words, ‘expressed some reservation about the “kinds of people” they preferred to mix with in Kirkby’.

Kennelwood Avenue, Northwood SN

Kennelwood Avenue, Northwood

This latter concern was echoed in another early survey by a resident (‘a machinists’ wife with two daughters’) who declared that ‘they should have put the roughs in flats and the respectable ones in houses to look after gardens’. John Barron Mays, like Rankin a Liverpool University academic, also published his research in 1963.

Mays was caustic regarding the town’s situation and overall design: (13)

On the drearily flat, wet plain of South-West Lancashire, it repeats many of the less pleasing features of similar developments elsewhere. There are the usual long avenues of similar houses, some taller buildings and blocks but little architectural elegance. An atmosphere of organised anonymity prevails throughout its length and breadth; a new, raw, hardly-lived-in place, unsoftened by time and unrelieved by local colour.

His further commentary, based on resident testimony, was gentler but marked by its faint praise. He found in general ‘a reluctant acceptance by residents of their new situation’. Certainly most ‘did not seem to be unduly isolated’; only 29 percent found their Kirkby neighbours less friendly than those of the inner city. Many disliked living in multi-storey blocks of flats even while, at this stage, most blocks only reached four storeys. ‘For the majority of ex-inner city slumdwellers the new estate is desirable or at least adequate’. ‘In the end’, Mays hoped, ‘the long trek from the dingy, cramped back-streets of central Liverpool [would be] a step toward a happier and fuller life’.

We’ll assess that judgement in next week’s post.


(1) Quoted in Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: 1955-1974. Competition, Volume 1; Volume 5 (Oxford University Press, 1995)

(2) Quoted in Finn Jensen, Modernist Semis and Terraces in England (Routledge, 2016)

(3) Ronald Bradbury, Kirkby: the Story of a Great Achievement (Unit Construction Company, 1961)

(4) Ronald Bradbury, ‘Post-War Housing in Liverpool’, The Town Planning Review, Vol 27, No. 3 October 1956

(5) ‘Kirkby as Proposed New Town’, Liverpool Echo, 25 September 1957

(6) Richard Pollard, Nikolaus Pevsner, Joseph Sharples, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest (Yale University Press, 2006)

(7) Bradbury Kirkby: the Story of a Great Achievement

(8) Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers for the Welfare State (The Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, 2017) and the Tower Block UK website of the University of Edinburgh.

(9) Bradbury, ‘Post-War Housing in Liverpool’

(10) Ronald Bradbury, ‘Development at Kirkby by The City of Liverpool’, Official Architecture and Planning, vol 24, no 10, November 1961

(11) Quoted in Jess Molyneux, ‘Kirkby’s transformation from sleepy rural town to “the great new world”’, Liverpool Echo, 26 April 2020

(12) Quoted in Mark Clapson, Invincible Green Suburbs, Brave New Towns: Social Change and Urban Dispersal in Postwar England (Manchester University Press, 1998)

(13) Mays’ analysis, ‘New Hope in Newtown’, appeared in New Society, 22 August 1963. It is quoted in David Kynaston, Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62, Book 2 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014)

Gleadless Valley Estate, Sheffield: ‘Symbol of an emerging city’



Lewis Womersley, having made his reputation in Northampton, was appointed City Architect for Sheffield City Council in February 1953. Many of you of will know his most celebrated project Park Hill but some say his: (1)

supreme, but often overlooked, achievement … is the Gleadless Valley Estate which combined urban housing types and the natural landscape so effectively that it still looks stunning, especially on a bright winter’s day.

Today, we’ll give that scheme its due.

GV General View ND

An early, undated, view of the estate

The context, in this steel city, was firstly the appalling housing conditions created by the rapid urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution. Hitler was to add his own contribution: the Sheffield Blitz in December 1940 killed almost 700 and damaged some 82,000 homes, over half the city’s housing stock. As the city looked to rebuilding, its 1952 Development Plan estimated the need to replace 20,000 unfit homes and build a further 15,000 to cater for the natural increase of population.

Gleadless_Valley_OSM Gregory Deryckère

An OpenStreetMap of the estate created by Gregory Deryckère

Adding to the difficulties of the task were Sheffield’s hilly terrain and restricted borders. An attempt to extend the city’s boundaries in 1953 was rejected; Sheffield had to rely on its own resources. It bought land either side of the Meers Brook – the Gleadless Valley – lying two to three miles south-east of the city centre: ‘a beauty spot considered too steep and north-facing for development in the 1930s but purchased in desperation in 1952-53’. (2)

Elsewhere in the city, the Council looked to high-rise. In 1949, a deputation from the Housing Committee had visited multi-storey schemes in Copenhagen and Stockholm and concluded that these offered both a necessary and attractive way of solving some of the city’s housing problems. By the mid-1950s, density zones of 70 persons per acres had been agreed for greenfield sites, 100-120 for inner-city slum clearance areas and 200 for ‘one great project’ in the city centre. The latter would become Park Hill (and, less grandly, the Hyde Park flats). The Gleadless Valley would be, in its own way, another great project. (4)

The Gleadless Valley offered a rare opportunity for innovative and exciting design and layout but it required a strong council and enterprising Architect’s Department to harness it.  The leadership of the Council came principally in the form of two strong Housing Committee chairs, Councillors Albert Smith and Harold Lambert, who were prepared and able to give Womersley his head.


Lewis Womersley, pictured at Park Hill

Womersley himself – variously described as ‘domineering’ and ‘a no-nonsense Yorkshireman’ – added his own impetus and style. But, despite that powerful persona, Womersley’s key contribution – in an echo of the pluralism of the London County Council Architect’s Department of the day – was to give his team freedom and latitude to develop their own ideas and designs. By 1963 (just before Womersley’s departure for private practice), Sheffield’s Architect’s Department comprised a staff of over 200, of whom 80 were architectural. (5)

Firstly, Gleadless was part of a grand design encompassing the entire city: ‘Sheffield’s situation at the centre of a landscape of hills and slopes was to be visually integrated, united, through public housing’. Harold Lambert believed that: (6)

The careful exploitation of this topography – the building up of hill-top architectural compositions – is gradually producing something of the fascination of the Italian hill towns. It is stimulating; it is exciting!

View of Rollenstone blocks in Gleadless Valley TB 1984 SN

Callow Mount, photographed in 1984 © Tower Block, the University of Edinburgh

Herdings 1987 TB

Morland, Leighton and Raeburn, in the Herdings, photographed in 1987 © Tower Block, the University of Edinburgh

Tower blocks were placed at high points in the city to act as landmarks – in Netherthorpe east of the city centre, Burngreave to the north, and Norfolk Park to the south-east. Additionally, two complexes of point blocks were built in prominent points at either end of the Gleadless Valley scheme: six towers at Callow Mount (one of fifteen storeys and five of thirteen) at the top and three thirteen-storey blocks one mile to the south in the Herdings district. Here, as elsewhere, Womersley applied his favourite maxim from the eighteenth-century landscape architect, Capability Brown, to ‘flood the valleys, plant the tops’.

Callow Mount and cluster blocks SN

The re-clad towers of Callow Mount with cluster blocks in the foreground

When it came to the valley – ‘a piece of impeccable English pastoral landscape, everybody’s favourite summer-evening stroll out of south Sheffield’ – finesse was applied. The Council first carried out an aerial survey and slope analysis; gradients averaged one in eight, it was said. The planners concluded that the topography divided ‘the development naturally into three neighbourhoods’ – Hemsworth, Herdings and Rollestone – with each, reflecting the community thinking of the day, planned to have its own schools and shopping centre. (7)

Sloped Terraces Hemwsworth with Norton Water Tower SN

Sloped terraces in Hemsworth with the Oaks Water Tower to the rear


The natural characteristics of each area have formed the basis for house design and layout. Much research work was carried out in designing house types suitable for the steep slopes, sometimes leading to unconventional solutions.

Here the genius of Womersley’s approach came into its own. Teams of architects were established with specific briefs – some for two-storey homes, some for maisonettes, some for housing for elderly and so on – but the overall vision was to create a truly mixed development with forms appropriate to the landscape in the various areas of the estate. (8)

The estate as a whole, built between 1955 and 1966, would comprise 4451 homes (2387 houses, 1115 flats and 949 maisonettes), housing a population of around 17,200. Of 450 acres in total, housing occupied 267 acres (including ten acres set aside for private housing), and schools, shops and community facilities took up 22 acres. Some 161 acres of the estate were preserved as parkland and woods. Whilst the housing itself reached the prescribed density of some 70 persons per acre, the plentiful open space reduced the overall density to 39 per acre. But, beyond the numbers, its exceptional quality lies in both its vistas and its detail.

Spotswood Mount and Holy Cross Church SN

Spotswood Mount: patio housing and the Holy Cross Church

The vistas – better seen in person – can speak for themselves. Here, we’ll take a closer look at the detail. To begin with some of the most remarkable and innovative designs, there are the patio houses, seen dramatically on Spotswood Mount below Holy Cross Church (itself a striking design by Braddock & Martin-Smith completed in 1965). These three-bed, two-storey homes are carefully stacked up the steep hill leading to the church, their first-floor living rooms giving sweeping views across the valley.

Upside Down House Grindlow Drive SN

An ‘Upside-Down’ house on Grindlow Drive, front and rear

The ‘Upside-Down’ houses dotted around the estate were also designed to both exploit and fit their hilly siting and, as the name implies, are constructed with entrances and living rooms on the upper floor and bedrooms on the lower. Again, they provide stunning views.

Sloped Terraces Ironside Road SN

Sloped terraced housing, Ironside Drive

Sloped terraces of more conventional two-storey homes were another means of coping with the terrain. Three-storey cluster blocks of flats, adapted to the contours, were yet another adaptation. Less attractive – not least through the greying pebbledash that encases them – are the six-storey blocks along Blackstock and Ironside Roads. The (economising) innovation here was the bridged entrance at second-floor level which avoided the need for lifts.

Maisonette Blocks Ironstone Road SN

Maisonette blocks on Ironstone Road

In the words of an admiring Lionel Esher, architect, planner and RIBA president in the mid-sixties: (9)

the architects used every kind of ingenious hill-climbing or adjustable dwelling capable of being entered at any level, with results that are both entertaining and economical.

Higher density housing on flatter land was provided in the four-storey maisonette blocks (concentrated particularly along the Gleadless Road in Rollestone) and three-story blocks of flats elsewhere. And then there are the two-storey houses familiar across the country – the key was always variety and ‘fit’.

Blackstock Road Three-Storey Flats SN

Three-storey flats off Blackstock Road

It was, in all, a stupendous achievement and the estate became a Sheffield showpiece, celebrated in the City Council’s report Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield, published (in English, French and Russian) in 1962 and, ten years later, still shown to official visitors as ‘a symbol of an emerging city’. More importantly, it was popular with tenants who thought they were ‘privileged’ to live there and believed it ‘the finest estate in the city’. Beyond the decent homes and facilities, residents praised ‘the attractive surroundings, greenery and open views’. (9)

Esher, writing in 1981, thought it ‘one of the prettiest suburbs in England and undoubtedly a powerful agent in the embourgeoisement of the Yorkshire working man – whatever one may think of that’. It seems astonishing therefore that some, however unfairly, were describing Gleadless as a ‘sink estate’ not too long after.

Gleadless Road SN

Terraced housing on Gleadless Road

Symbolically, the estate’s later fall was marked by the decision in 2013 of Sainsbury’s, following Tesco, to ban home deliveries to the area. More objectively, recent data place areas of the Gleadless Valley among the five percent most deprived in the country. High rates of crime and antisocial behaviour were also reported.

Whatever the figures and the always complex, more mixed reality on the ground, views of the estate – though sometimes from those who knew it least – were damning: (10)

The perception of the estate in local and national media is as one of the worst places to live … In the Sheffield urban folklore, Gleadless Valley is synonymous with deprivation, anti-social behaviour and crime.

What had happened?

Well, for one, there was mass unemployment. For Sheffield as a whole, the unemployment rate in the 1960s stood at 2 percent; by 1984, it had reached 16 percent. Between 1979 and 1983, Sheffield lost an average of 1000 jobs a month; 21,000 jobs were lost in the steel industry alone.  Working communities – in every sense – stopped working.

The current headline rate of joblessness in the city is, of course, much lower but such data take little account of the numbers working in low-paid and precarious employment. The testimony of one Gleadless Valley resident captured the shift: (11)

There aren’t many jobs round here, so no-one has got much money. That’s just the way it is. My dad used to work in a steel mill and when I was at school my work experience was done in a steel mill. If the jobs were there … I would have gone into the same work as my dad. That’s what people always did but those jobs have gone now.

Instead, Jack Clithero was working eleven hours a week at £8.50 an hour in ‘the chippy round the corner’.

Ironside Road flats SN

Flats on Ironside Road

For those in work and receiving benefits and those who were unemployed, the impact of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government’s welfare reforms from 2010 was also devastating. Cuts to Housing Benefit, disability benefits, the impact of the Bedroom Tax and so on were estimated to have reduced the average annual income of working-age adults in Gleadless Valley by £570 – equating, beyond their personal impact, to an £8.8 million hit to the local economy. (12)

There have been other social changes. The growth of smaller households means that the estate, designed for an average approaching four persons per home, is – at 55 percent of its maximum occupancy level – significantly under-occupied. As a result of Right to Buy, just 50 percent of homes are now social rented, 38 percent owner-occupied and 12 percent privately rented. (13)

Maisonette Blocks Spotswood Drive SN

Maisonette blocks on Spotswood Drive

If all this takes us some way from the architecture and design of the estate, that’s no accident. Of course, there has been some obsolescence. The six-storey maisonette blocks haven’t stood up particularly well. Ground floor garaging in some of the larger maisonette blocks – designed in the car-friendly, affluent sixties – is underutilised and may be adapted.

Herdings Twin Towers from Ironside Road SN

The now ‘Twin Towers’ of Herdings glimpsed from Ironside Road

The tower blocks were renovated between 1998 and 2011. Their colourful new cladding (thankfully found fire-resistant) makes a visual impact that perhaps even Harold Lambert wouldn’t have anticipated. One tower – Raeburn Place in the Herdings – was demolished in 1996, not through any structural failing but because it was found to have been built on a fault. Flats in Handbank House on Callow Mount are now reserved for elderly people.

Welcome Sign SNIn general, the estate escaped large-scale regeneration in its earlier iterations but in 2017 it was allocated £515,000 from the Government’s Estate Regeneration Programme. Resident consultations have followed and various ideas floated. There is a case for new and more diverse housing in Gleadless Valley, for the remodelling of some existing housing and for better use of some of its open space. Residents were clear, however, that they didn’t want the estate sold off to a private developer and it’s a sign of Sheffield’s continuing municipal ambition that it will take the lead role in the thirty-year programme to follow.

Gleadless Valley is not a failed estate, merely an estate that has grown older in a changing world. As Owen Hatherley has argued, ‘even the tweediest anti-Modernist would have to apply industrial strength blinkers to see this place as harsh or inhuman’.  He describes it as an example of the English picturesque – ‘the aesthetic at its most stunning’.

A Times article in 1969 was similarly extravagant in its praise: (15)

Gleadless Valley has the fragmented quality of a village. Here the footpaths wander through rough grass, sidle past back doors, lead under the main road and suddenly emerge in the shopping centre … It is a casual, slightly shaggy environment on which the planners have used the lightest of touches … Gleadless Valley is touched with the English genius for country things: it is a place for children, for family life …

Some of those judgements would later be contested but the estate remains a powerful fulfilment of the political and architectural ideals which inspired it. It remains, quite simply, in its layout and design, one of the outstanding council housing schemes of the last century.

Can this century rediscover some of that ambition and vision?


(1) Ruth Harman, John Minnis, Roger H. Harper, Sheffield, (Yale University Press, 2004)

(2) Elain Harwood, Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975 (Yale University Press, 2014)

(3) Another, more extensive, visit to continental Europe followed in 1954. The ensuing report, ‘Multi-Storey Housing in Some European Countries: Report of the City of Sheffield Housing Deputation’, approved by the Housing Committee in March 1955, concluded that members were ‘satisfied that housing development in the form of well-designed multi-storey flats can provide living standards which are in every way adequate as an alternative to two-storey housing’.

(4) Lionel Esher, A Broken Wave: the Rebuilding of England 1940-1980 (Allen Lane, 1981)

(5) The characterisations of Womersley’s personality come from Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State: An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970  (Scottish Centre of Conservation Studies, 2017) and Esher respectively.  Details of the Architect’s Department are drawn from FE Pearce Edwards, JL Womersley and W George Davies, ‘The Work of the Sheffield City Architect’s Department’, Official Architecture and Planning, Vol 26, No. 7 (July 1963)

(6) The preceding quotation comes from Muthesius and Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State. The words of Harold Lambert come from his foreword to Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield, published by the Housing Development Committee of the Corporation of Sheffield in April 1962.

(7) The Corporation of Sheffield, Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield. The quotation which follows is drawn from the same source.

(8) For a map and typology of the estate’s varied housing, see Urbed, Gleadless Valley Masterplan Public Consultation Boards, pp1-7

(9) The first quote, from the Morning Telegraph, 21 June 1972, and the following are drawn from Barry Goodchild, ‘Local Authority Flats: A Study in Area Management and Design’, The Town Planning Review, vol 58, no 3, July 1987

(10) See Manor, Arbourthorne and Gleadless Housing Market Profile (ND but the data is drawn from the early 2010s). The quotation comes from Reform, Gleadless Valley (ND), uploaded by Sid Fletcher of TowerBlockMetal who has also written fully and informatively on the estate.

(11) Jack Clithero, ‘I thought I’d follow my dad into the steel mill but those days are gone: My Wigan Pier Story’, Daily Mirror, 26 February 2018

(12) Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill, The Impact of Welfare Reform on Communities and Households in Sheffield (Sheffield Hallam University Centre for Regional Economic and Social, November 2014)

(13) See Urbed, Gleadless Valley Masterplan Public Consultation Boards, pp1-7

(14) Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain (Verso, 2010)

(15) Gordon Aspland, ‘Achievements in Bulk Housing’, The Times, 10 November 1969

The Campsbourne Cottage Estate, Hornsey: ‘a colony of self-contained workmen’s dwellings unsurpassed in the country’



I’m delighted to feature another guest post today, this by Ray Rogers. Ray is a conservation and historic buildings specialist with a long-standing interest in housing policy and design going back to his early experience of designing council housing in a London borough architects’ department. He is currently writing a series of conservation area appraisals and management plans.

The Campsbourne Cottage Estate in Hornsey, north London, is an early example of council housing built following powers granted to municipal authorities by the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890. The first part of the Campsbourne estate pre-dates the London County Council’s better-known cottage estates such as Totterdown Fields in Tooting and Tower Gardens in Tottenham.

Nightingale Lane

Nightingale Lane

The design and detailing of the houses and the quality of materials and workmanship give the estate its distinctive character. Apart from some bomb damage sustained in World War Two and some recent alterations to individual houses, the estate remains substantially unchanged in appearance and is exceptionally well preserved. However, it is the story behind the creation of the Campsbourne estate that illustrates the pioneering nature of such developments in responding to the housing issues of their time.

SKM_C45819103009490Early housing legislation such as the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875 gave local authorities powers to clear entire areas of ‘insanitary’ buildings but few municipalities (with the exception of major cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool and the London County Council) fulfilled the requirement to replace housing lost through slum clearance, and those that did so mainly relied on philanthropic bodies such as the Peabody Trust to undertake rebuilding.

Most new housing was provided by private speculative builders and in Hornsey as elsewhere these houses were aimed at the emerging lower middle classes. It was the skilled working class that was most directly affected by cyclical slumps in speculative building and the rising cost of housing, and advocates of housing for working people made the case that: (1)

working men of all grades and occupations have been unable to get a decent cottage to live in and have had to choose between occupying part of expensive and overcrowded houses, quite unsuitable for more than one family, or occupying a dilapidated and insanitary dwelling … commonly described as slums.

From the last decade of the 19th century a new type of municipal housing emerged, not just replacing ‘unhealthy’ housing lost through slum clearance but providing a net addition to the housing stock. This was given statutory basis by Part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. The new Urban District Councils, created under the Local Government Act of 1894, were well placed to take advantage of these new powers and Hornsey U.D.C. lost little time in implementing the opportunities offered by the 1890 Act, following its adoption by the authority in 1896.

Corner of Northview Road and Nightingale Lane

Northview Road corner with Nightingale Lane

Hornsey is now part of the London borough of Haringey but until the late 19th century it was a historic settlement straddling both sides of Hornsey High Street. Development of the surrounding open fields proceeded rapidly following the opening of Hornsey station in the late 1860s. Twenty-four acres of land north of the High Street were acquired in 1866 by the British Land Company which laid out an estate of speculative terraced houses that followed the grid iron street pattern and narrow fronted houses typical of ‘by-law’ housing.

Further development was delayed until after 1896 when the Priory estate was sold, of which four and a half acres of land to the west of Nightingale Lane, on the southern boundary of Alexandra Palace, was acquired by Hornsey U.D.C. in 1897. By 1899 the council had built 108 cottages in Nightingale Lane and in Northview and Southview Roads. Another six acres were bought in 1902 and a second scheme of another 140 cottages was started in 1904. (2)

Hornsey is an exceptionally healthy and well-managed urban district in the northern suburbs of London, contrasting very favourably with other urban districts further eastwards. Realising that ‘prevention is better than cure’ the Council and its officers have endeavoured to prevent the growth of new slum areas by themselves establishing a good supply of model cottages for workmen rather than have their district unduly disfigured and deteriorated by the objectionable and overcrowded products of the jerry-builder.

Nightingale Lane early

An early photograph of Nightingale Lane

Both schemes (and a third scheme in Highgate) were overseen by Edwin J Lovegrove, the Borough Engineer and Surveyor, who had designed an earlier cottage development for Richmond Town Council, the ‘Richmond Municipal Cottages’, regarded as one of the first successful cottage developments and described in detail by William Thompson in his Housing Handbook of 1903. Thompson also describes the Hornsey cottages development, then known as the Nightingale Lane scheme, with special attention given to the costs and financing of the project, resulting in a self-financing development with rents considerably lower than those in the private rental market and with no impact on the local rates. On reviewing the Campsbourne schemes in 1905 James Cornes wrote: (3)

No wonder that, with so much knowledge of this subject, he (Lovegrove) has been able … to rear a colony of self-contained workmen’s dwellings unsurpassed in the country. This for London is a revolution in cottage building, and clearly indicates the thought, care, and real ability that the Surveyor must of necessity have put into this work. The Housing Committee and Corporation must be congratulated upon the excellent results of this undertaking, and for the splendid example they have been able to set to other municipalities.

On the east side of Nightingale Lane, the Campsbourne School, opened in 1897, was contemporary with the cottage estate. Designed by Thomas Chatfield Clarke, architect to Hornsey School Board, the school buildings are a good example of a late Queen Anne style Board school.

Northview Road

Northview Road

The first Campsbourne scheme had two classes of houses, Class A having a sitting-room, living room, scullery and three bedrooms and Class B having similar accommodation but smaller and with two bedrooms. The sitting room was in fact the ‘front parlour’ and the living room was the kitchen with scullery attached.

SKM_C45819103009490The second scheme was more ambitious in the range and size of cottages provided. There were four classes of dwelling: Class A had a sitting room, living room, scullery and four bedrooms; Class B the same but with three bedrooms and Class C had two bedrooms. Class D contained a living room, small scullery, bathroom and two bedrooms. The innovation in this scheme was the use of Cornes and Haighton’s combined range, copper and bath in each cottage. The bath could be covered when not in use. The Class A cottage provided for the larger family, as described with typical Edwardian moral condescension by James Cornes in 1905: (3)

… attention should be given to the highest rented cottage in the scheme, providing as it does four bedrooms and a larger sitting room and living room, let to the working man with a wage earning family, thus keeping in a comfortable home grown-up sons and daughters who, too frequently, are turned out into the world and, as a result, contract early and undesirable marriages which might have been avoided had the home surroundings been of a different character.


Second scheme – Class A cottage

The completed cottage estate consisted of four streets of two storey houses arranged in short terraces of six to eight houses each. The houses are built in red brick with shallow brick arches over window and door openings. Each of the end of terrace houses are stepped forward slightly and have large projecting gables with barge boards, with two smaller gables within the terrace. The houses have flat street fronts and there are no bays or other projections apart from some porches on the second phase of building.

Northview Road 2

Northview Road

The plain uniformity of the terraces is lightened by the use of simple repetitive detailing in the brickwork. All of the houses have a scalloped brick relief panel set beneath each window cill and a course of dog tooth brickwork set between two projecting brick courses runs along the full length of each terrace.

Southview Road

Southview Road

The houses in Nightingale Lane, Northview Road and Southview Road formed the first phase of development. On these houses the dog-tooth band course runs across each elevation at first floor window cill level. On Nightingale Lane and Northview Road the large chimney stacks also have a dogtooth detail. Northview Road, together with the Nightingale Lane frontage, is the best-preserved of the two streets as Southview Road was affected by bomb damage in World War Two.

Beechwood Road

Beechwood Road

Hawthorn Road and Beechwood Road comprised the second phase of the development and show some changes in form and materials, although still based on terraces each of six or eight houses. The main difference is the use of yellow London stock brick for alternate terraces on both sides of the road, giving the street frontage a more varied and picturesque appearance than in the first phase. The dogtooth band course is retained on the red brick terraces but it runs in a continuous band midway between ground and first floor instead of at window cill level.

Hawthorn Road

Hawthorn Road

On some of the yellow brick terraces the dogtooth detail was replaced with a continuous projecting band of dentilled brickwork in red brick and a similar detail can be seen on some terraces in the LCC’s Tower Gardens estate. The window arches and scalloped relief panel are also all in red brick. Five of the later terraces have paired porches either side of the projecting party wall with a lean-to slate roof and small paned windows.

Hawthorn Road 3

Hawthorn Road

Hawthorn Road 4 Hi Res SN

Hawthorn Road

By 1914 the rest of the land south of Alexandra Palace and to the west of Nightingale Lane had been developed by private builders, completing Northview, Southview, Hawthorn and Beechwood Roads with speculative terraced housing, some using the eclectic pattern book of local architect John Farrer and others in the form of ‘Tyneside’ flats, in which the street frontage has two front doors, one leading to a ground floor flat and the second leading directly to a staircase to a first floor flat.

OS Map

1914 Ordnance Survey map showing the extent of the cottage estate with Alexandra Park to the north

Building in Hornsey stopped in 1914 and after the war councillors could not agree on the need for further council housing in the borough, with many feeling that adequate provision had been made pre-war. The council resisted complying with the Housing and Town Planning Act (the Addison Act) of July 1919, which charged local authorities with building more working-class homes with controlled rents, even though poor housing and insanitary conditions, particularly in the Campsbourne area, had been brought to the attention of its Public Health Committee. An editorial in the Hornsey journal of 7th February 1919 said: (4)

Inasmuch as Hornsey is not altogether what is superficially described as a “working-class” area, it will be seen that the Town Council have not lagged in the provision of workmen’s dwellings. The first of the four schemes was completed in 1898 and the last in 1912. We have reason to believe that the dwellings are almost exclusively occupied by men who actually earn their living in the borough – the local police, the postmen, municipal employees, and others.

The Council can say with the strictest veracity that they have provided for a considerable number of families, but that no further accommodation is needed is not so incontrovertible. Is there no overcrowding in Hornsey? Is there no “unsuitable accommodation”? Are the artisan and the labouring the only classes for whom cheap provision should be made?

Beechwood Road 2

Beechwood Road

Towards the end of 1919 the council eventually gave in to pressure and instructed Edwin Lovegrove to draw up plans for 79 houses to be built on land that had been requisitioned during the war for allotments. However, the housing scheme was never progressed, being dropped on grounds of cost, and the land was bought by the council in 1923 as part of the newly laid out Priory park. This marks the end of a chapter in the pioneering of council house building in Hornsey.

Hawthorn Road 2

Hawthorn Road

The Campsbourne Cottage estate makes no pretensions to great architecture or town planning, being barely touched by the influence of the early Garden City movement, but nevertheless it remains a significant milestone in the provision of affordable housing for working class families and when compared to the housing typical of the time this was no mean achievement. (3)

… Within a few miles of the heart of London he (E J Lovegrove) has succeeded in building a self-contained cottage with a forecourt, garden at the rear and four rooms including a bath and every other modern convenience, to let at 6s. 6d. per week inclusive rental.

The houses are still much valued today. The estate was designated as a conservation area in 1994. A conservation area appraisal and management plan has recently been prepared and it is hoped this will assist the planning authority in controlling some of the piecemeal changes being wrought by ‘home improvements’ that are beginning to detract from the unified appearance of the estate.


If you’re interested in learning more of Hornsey’s local history, do visit the website of the Hornsey Historical Society.


(1) William Thompson, quoted in The Lowestoft Journal, 25 February 1899

(2) William Thompson, The Housing Handbook (1903)

(3) James Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country (1905)

(4) Janet Owen, Hornsey’s Post-War Housing Problem, Hornsey Historical Society

Council Housing in Portsmouth, Part II from 1945: Suburbs and High-Rise


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As we saw in last week’s post, Portsmouth entered what were hoped to be the sunny uplands of the post-war era with high ambitions. In 1945, the City Council owned and managed around 3300 council homes but some 11,000 families were on its waiting list.  In total, the council estimated that the city needed some 32,000 new homes within five years – to replace some 17,000 judged unfit or affected by re-planning as well as 15,000 required for ‘general needs’. As was typical across the country, however, the housing crisis at first dictated a crisis response in the form of temporary prefabricated housing. (1)

Bedhamptn Nissen Huts

Nissen huts and duck pond, Leigh Park

Temporary buildings to rehouse a bombed-out population had been erected in the Fraser Road area as early as 1941.  Portsmouth, as a significant naval base, was also able to press Services’ Nissen huts into operation as it did in in Bedhampton and Leigh Park. Those on the Stockheath Camp formed Leigh Park’s first classrooms till replaced by permanent buildings in 1950. Additionally, around 700 more conventional temporary prefabs were constructed across the city. (2)

Wymering Peterborough Road SN

Peterborough Road, Wymering

The Council’s first permanent new post-war housing was occupied in July 1946; 54 houses built on Peterborough Road, Wymering.  And its 2000th new home was completed in Wymering in November 1947. This was an exceptional speed of building at the time; Portsmouth’s rate of construction placed it eighth among the 1469 local authorities in England and Wales.

EAW020629 Paulsgrove Housing Estate, Paulsgrove, 1948

Paulsgrove Housing Estate, 1948, showing Maunder’s curving streetscapes and a large number of temporary prefabs at the top of the image. EAW020629, Britain from Above © Historic England

A large number of these homes were built on land within the city borders at Paulsgrove to the west of Wymering and begun in 1946.  The new estate was originally envisaged by City Planning Officer FAC Maunder as a self-contained community with a mix of private and council homes and a full range of shopping and social facilities.

Paulsgrove Elkstone Road

BISF houses on Elkstone Road, Paulsgrove

Many of the estate’s new homes were of the permanent prefabricated type that it was anticipated would solve the housing crisis (they also drew additional subsidy). In Paulsgrove, around 1000 steel-framed and steel-clad British Iron and Steel Federation Houses (BISF) were built alongside smaller numbers of Howard (steel-framed and clad with asbestos panels) and Easiform houses (constructed of in-situ poured concrete).

Paulsgrove Thirlmere House SN

Thirlmere House, Paulsgrove

But the Conservative Council’s preference for a mixed tenure scheme in Paulsgrove proved unfeasible as did, apparently, those promises of community infrastructure. The estate’s first shops (in temporary Nissen huts) weren’t opened till 1949; its community centre not till 1963. Inadequate bus services were also criticised.  As around half the estate’s population – reaching 10,000 by 1951 – were under 15, social problems emerged though individual homes, with front and back gardens and generous space standards, were popular. (3)

Bramdean Drive 1949

Bramdean Avenue, Leigh Park, 1949

Similar deficiencies appeared at Leigh Park, envisaged as the Council’s showpiece and originally planned to house 25,000 people in over 7000 homes. Construction work began in 1947 and the first residents moved into homes on Bramdean Avenue in 1949. At the same time, it appeared the larger project might be aborted. Max Lock had been appointed by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to prepare a district plan which the Ministry hoped might overcome the hostility of neighbouring local authorities to the Leigh Park scheme. Lock concluded that further expansion should be halted; that it was, essentially, a large, single-class, overspill suburb, rather than a new town.  Fortunately for the city, the Ministry ignored this rather accurate critique and in 1951 gave permission to Portsmouth to expand the scheme to 9000 homes.

Park Parade 1960s 3

Park Parade, Leigh Park, opened in 1955 and is shown here in the 1960s

Whilst Leigh Park grew to a population of over 40,000 by the early 1970s, its early development was slow – the first permanent shops appeared in 1952 and permanent schools and places of worship from the mid-1950s. Many of the earliest residents – very much the pioneers – welcomed their new homes and green surroundings: (4)

My first impression of Leigh Park was that the freshness and the openness was like being set free. That was wonderful, the fresh air was marvellous. To us it was paradise.

But for others it was a difficult move:

It was a lonely life really … The air was nice and all that. I felt a bit depressed though, coming up from Portsmouth. But we had to settle, well, I wasn’t used to the countryside that’s what it seemed to me, coming out here.

And, for nearly all in the earliest years, there were the practical difficulties of unfinished roads and lack of pavements: ‘you would have to wear your wellingtons in Leigh Park and take your decent shoes in a bag on the bus’.  In the mid-1950s, some 70 percent of local workers travelled more than four miles to work; 14 percent worked at the Portsmouth Dockyard. Local employment was created in a small industrial estate from this time but the cinema, civic centre and swimming pool promised never materialised and the estate has coped with many problems as it has matured. (4)


The Warren, Leigh Park, pictured in 1967 © Portsmouth City Council, A Tale of One City


Later housing in the Warren, pictured in 1970 © Portsmouth City Council, A Tale of One City

Politically, Leigh Park suffered as a Portsmouth estate situated in Havant which lacked political representation on the City Council though active tenants’ groups made up this deficiency in part.  Some criticised the politics of the Council itself. Though it promoted a large-scale council housebuilding programme, the Council’s Conservative complexion was made clear in a number of respects.

It favoured, for example, ‘mixed development’.  It had originally hoped that both Portsdown and Leigh Park might be joint public-private ventures. Post-war restrictions made that impossible but the Council was unusual in building a number of council homes for ‘higher income groups’. These, maintained on a separate register, apparently proved popular.

It was also an early proponent of Right to Buy, instituting the policy for its own council homes in 1952.  The policy was paused in 1961 – by which time some 643 houses had been sold off – following the complaint of the Housing Director that the Council was losing many of its best homes but resumed in 1967.

The Council also pursued a policy of ‘economic’ rents in the hope of making the Housing Revenue Account self-supporting.  Rent rises averaging 20 percent in 1965 prompted two protest marches, the latter involving some 20,000 people.  A subsequent survey found Portsmouth’s average weekly rent of £2.58 a quarter higher than the national average and the highest outside Greater London. (5)

Lake Road and Clearance (Pickwick House)

Clearance and new build to the north of Lake Road in this undated photograph. I believe it shows the Nelson Road high-rise towards the top left, built in the early 1960s.

Nationally, as the immediate post-war housing crisis was receding by the mid-1950s, attention was turned again to slum clearance.  In 1957, the Council identified some 7000 homes in the city for demolition. In the same year, the application of Portsmouth for a significant boundary extension – it shared with many urban authorities of the time a fear of population loss and rate revenue reduction – was rejected by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Portsmouth’s policy, pursued to some degree since the 1930s and formalised in 1962, of rehousing displaced residents in central areas added pressure to build at greater density in the inner city, as did the reluctance of some residents to move to the distant council suburbs on the mainland.

Darwin House Australia Close SN

Darwin House, Australia Close, today

View of Nickleby House, Pickwick House, and Blackwood House from Wingfield Street 1984 TB

View of Nickleby House, Pickwick House, and Blackwood House from Wingfield Street, 1984 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh, and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The city’s first multi-storey blocks – the eight-storey Darwin House in Australia Close and the eight-storey Brisbane House and seven-storey Blackwood House on London Road – had been built in the early 1950s.

High-rise was fully embraced with the agreement to build the twelve-storey Pickwick House nearby in 1960. City Architect Frank Mellor was an early proponent of high-rise and drew the attention of the Council to the ‘many people who are being rehoused … that want to stay in Portsmouth’. The argument of Housing Committee chair Frank Miles that ‘a diminishing population would adversely affect the Government block grant to Portsmouth’ and the attractions of the high-rise subsidy instituted in 1956 (which provided a higher grant the taller the building) completed the case. (6)

Sarah Robinson House and Handsworth House SN

Sarah Robinson House (to the left) and Handsworth House (approved 1966)

From then on, Portsmouth built high on a large scale.  Millgate House, a twenty-storey block on Butcher Street, was approved in 1962; twenty-one storey Sarah Robinson House, on Queen Street in 1964; and 24-storey Ladywood House, off Winston Churchill Avenue, in 1966 – all constructed by Wimpey. Other high-rise blocks are dotted around the city.

Leamington and Horatia Houses SN

Leamington and Horatia Houses today, de-cladded and awaiting demolition

But problems were soon to emerge in the high-rise and system-building drive that characterised the 1960s. Following the partial collapse of Ronan Point in east London in May 1968, eight similar Large Panel System-built blocks in Portsmouth were strengthened and their gas supplies removed.  Among these were Leamington and Horatia Houses.  More recently, the Grenfell disaster has added new and desperate concerns.  Leamington and Horatia Houses have since had their later Grenfell-style cladding removed but a surveyor’s report has found the buildings structurally unsound.  Their residents are being rehoused prior to the blocks’ demolition.

Portsdown TB 1984

Portsdown Park, 1984 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh, and made available through a Creative Commons licence

That, in the end, was also the sad denouement of Portsmouth’s last great innovative housing venture, Portsdown Park – a ‘mixed-rise’ scheme (blocks ranged from 17 to six storeys) of 520 homes built between 1968 and 1975. Designed, after a national architectural competition, by Theakston and Duell, problems developed early on despite – or perhaps because of – its striking design.

Portsdown Park TB 1984

Portsdown Park, 1984 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh, and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Serious water penetration and condensation issues affected almost half the tenants: ‘condensation ran down the walls and dripped from light sockets, carpets became like wet sponges and clothes left inside wardrobes became mouldy’, according to one account.  The estate’s overall layout, walkways and underground car parks and lack of facilities were also criticised and serious problems of antisocial behaviour developed. By 1984, the Council felt there was little option but demolition.  The Cosham Heights estate stands in its place. (7)

Wilmcote House SN

Wilmcote House today, renovated to Passivehaus standards

In 1981, around 22 percent of Portsmouth’s population lived in some 25,000 council homes. By 2015, those numbers had reduced to 10 percent and some 10,250 council homes – a further 5000 homes were located in Havant and 6000 rented from housing associations.  Right to Buy has had the major impact – over 12,200 houses and 1800 flats were sold to tenants between 1980 and 2011; the near cessation of new build to the present has compounded the problem.  The Council has been criticised for its inaction in recent years but currently claims to be building around 200 new social rent homes.  In one innovative departure, Wilmcote House, a Bison Large Panel System block completed in 1968, has recently been retrofitted to Passivhaus standards. (8)

Alexander-McKee-House 2020

Alexander McKee House, some of Portsmouth’s newest council housing

Whilst there is no doubt that promise sometimes exceeded fulfilment, Portsmouth City Council’s housebuilding programme has made a vital contribution towards providing decent and affordable homes in one of the poorest cities in South-east England (currently around 22 percent of the city’s children live in poverty, the proportion reaches 40 percent in Charles Dickens Ward).  The lessons of the past – both positive and negative – remind us that decent and affordable social housing is as vital today as it was when our story began in 1912.


* My thanks to Mark Swenarton for pointing me to this reference in his book Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2018).  The design competition organised for the Portsdown development attracted 91 entries and was of national significance. A number of teams from the Architectural Association submitted low-rise proposals but found low-rise and stepped schemes ruled out by the assessors. A special protest issue of the Architectural Association Journal in March 1966 featured three proposed low-rise schemes for Portsdown and marked an important moment in the shift towards the low-rise, high-density design that became influential from this point. 


(1) See Tatsuya Tsubaki, Post-war Reconstruction and the Questions of Popular Housing Provision, 1939-1951, PhD thesis in Social History, University of Warwick, 1993, and JA Cook, Policy Implementation in Housing: A Study of the Experience of Portsmouth and Derby, 1945-74, PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, 1985

(2) For full details of adapted naval bases, see Robert W Hind, The Naval Camps of Bedhampton and Leigh Park (Spring Arts and Heritage Centre and Leigh Park Community Centre, 2017)

(3) See Tsubaki, Post-war Reconstruction and the Questions of Popular Housing Provision and also Tim Lambert, A Brief History of Council Housing in Portsmouth

(4) Ralph Cousins, The Early Years of the Leigh Park Housing Estate (Havant Borough History Booklet No 69, 2016)

(5) JA Cook, Policy Implementation in Housing: A Study of the Experience of Portsmouth and Derby

(6) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (1993). For the subsidy argument, see R Windle (ed), City of Portsmouth Records of the Corporation, 1966-74 (1978)

(7) The quotation comes from Strong Island, ‘Portsdown Park’. See also, Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

(8) See Portsmouth City Council, A History of Council Housing in Portsmouth (2011) and Portsmouth City Council, Shaping the future of housing: A strategic plan for Portsmouth (ND)

Council Housing in Portsmouth, Part I to 1945: ‘Providing for the health and betterment of the people’


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Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city.  Though the relatively narrow Portsbridge Creek, on the landward side, has been bridged several times, historically the city’s location has given it the highest population density in the country and it’s helped contribute to what is a particularly rich and diverse housing history.

Portsmouth’s population grew from around 32,000 in 1800 to over 188,000 by century’s end.  That rapid growth created the poor housing conditions typical of the era; a cholera outbreak in 1849 killed around 1000 people and a Government health inspector Robert Rawlinson described the town as ‘one huge cesspool’. It had become through its long Victorian terraces what some call ‘the northern city on the south coast’.  (1)

Mearns Fraser 1934

Dr Andrew Mearns Fraser, pictured in 1934

Municipally, our story begins in 1909 when the unusually go-ahead Medical Officer of Health of the Borough Council (it became a city in 1926), Dr Andrew Mearns Fraser, carried out a survey of Portsmouth’s insanitary housing. He identified, in a report entitled ‘Improvement Scheme for an Unhealthy Area in Portsea’ published the following year, a particular area near the naval dockyards as worthy of reform and, unusually, recommended not mere clearance or a garden suburb but an inner-city town planning scheme. (1)

Map of Improvement Area

Portsea Imporvement Scheme B

Mearns Fraser’s original plans for Curzon Howe Road

A notable feature of Mearns Fraser’s proposal was a central square ‘planted with trees, which shall be a lung for the neighbourhood, and afford a playground for children’.  His determination to tackle the prevalence of lung disease in the neighbourhood (seven times higher than the rest of the borough) was shown in another innovation; whilst the cottage designs generally reflected the progressive influence of housing reformer Raymond Unwin, Type B offered ’a more original plan’ – a single, dual-aspect ‘large, and well lighted living room’ to replace the smaller parlour and living room then usually favoured.

Curzon Howe Road SN

Curzon Howe Road today

In the end, cost-cutting won the day. Though 193 run-down houses were demolished, a far more conventional – though still attractive and well-proportioned – linear street of 43 new houses emerged. The council could, however, still take justifiable pride in Curzon Howe Road when it was officially opened in October 1912.  The Cluett family recorded a tenancy of 76 years at no 26, beginning in 1915 but apparently now just three of the homes remain in council ownership.

Curzon Howe Plaque SN

The plaque unveiled in 1912 and pictured contemporarily

The First World War and its aftermath brought more pressure to clear slums and build the ‘homes for heroes’ promised by prime minister Lloyd George. The Council, still securely in Conservative hands, hesitated initially, concerned over high building costs (at around £1000 per house) and rents likely reaching 12 to 16 shillings (60 to 80p) a week. It’s an indication of the pressure brought by central government at the time that it took a phone call from the Ministry of Health and Housing’s local commissioner – threatening a motion for default against the council – to force its hand. (3)

Councillor Charles Childe (chair of the Housing Committee) at least was clear that the Council must seize the moment:

He agreed the housing schemes were not a business proposition, but there was a side of the housing question that was not economic. By carrying out these schemes they would be providing for the health and betterment of the people. It was better to spend money in that way rather than in building sanatoria.

Wymering Medina Road

Medina Road, Wymering Garden Village

In the end, helped by a 1920 boundary extension which incorporated Cosham and Wymering on the mainland to the north, Portsmouth built 591 homes under Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act.  Among the largest estates were Henderson Road in Eastney, with 254 homes, and what was called a little grandiloquently Wymering Garden Village. After that, the Council’s eloquence failed and most of the estate’s hundred or so new houses – good quality homes along tree-lined streets – were built on First, Second and Third Avenues off Medina Road.

Wymering Medina Road 1924 SN

Unusually this pair of houses on Medina Road, Wymering, is precisely dated: 1924

Lloyd George’s promise and Addison’s programme were cut short by spending cuts in 1921 but municipal housebuilding was revived by Housing Acts in 1923 and, more importantly, 1924.  Portsmouth built 951 homes under the 1924 Act, most dotted around the island, a few to the far north on Portsdown Hill.

Voller Street St Faiths Road

Cottage flats, St Faiths Road

Nationally, the housing programme took a new direction in 1930 when Arthur Greenwood’s Housing Act targeted slum clearance and the rehousing of its residents for the first time. Here Portsmouth was ahead of the game, having demolished 381 derelict homes in Portsea under the 1924 Act.  Eighty-nine further homes were cleared around Voller Street in Landport.  The street disappeared but the 52 cottage flats built to replace them on St Faiths and Temple Streets remain.

Campaigning by the local press may have played its part. The Evening News invited readers on the waiting list – over 1000-strong in 1924 – to send details of their housing circumstances and it publicised the most egregious cases, for example a five-roomed cottage inhabited by twelve people: ‘the applicant has six children and his wife died of tuberculosis and the lodger is in the last stages of the disease’, it reported. (4)

Isle of Wight Estate Brightstone Road SN

Brightstone Road, Isle of Wight Estate

Portsmouth built a further 1148 homes under the 1930 legislation – houses in Landport and Portsea on the island and major schemes to the north in Wymering, north of Whitstable Road and south of Medina Road on the so-called Isle of Wight Estate where roads were named after Wight towns.

Slum clearance remained a priority, however, pushed by central government and encouraged by Mearns Fraser’s successor as Medical Officer of Health, Dr AB Williamson, who described slums as ‘radiating centres of disease and health and mental degradation’ at a local church conference in 1934.   That message was endorsed by Councillor AE Allaway, chair of the Health Committee, who was clear that ‘money spent on slum clearance will be more than saved in other health services’. (5)

For the moment, Portsmouth was prepared to put its money where its mouth was. The Council had scheduled (declared for clearance) fifteen areas, nine of them on the island, involving the demolition of 796 homes and the rehousing of some 3659 residents. Some 508 individual insanitary houses were additionally slated for demolition. In total, the Council estimated around a 1000 new council homes would be required. (6)

AE Allaway

Cllr AE Allaway

The issue of where this housing should be was also beginning to preoccupy the Council.  Councillor Allaway hoped that by means of three-storey flats it would be possible to ‘to put quite one-third more people on the sites than if we built houses’.  By 1937, turning back to the pioneering work of Andrew Mearns Fraser, a Special Committee of the Council had been convened ‘to consider the layout of the Portsea area’. (7)  The time and expense of travel to work from distant Corporation suburbs were a particular issue for many of the poorer residents displaced from central Portsmouth.

Privett House, off Cumberland Street, Portsea CC Mike Faherty

Privett House © Mike Faherty and made available through a Creative Commons licence

By 1939, the Council had built 2806 new homes. Around 430 of these were flats in the inner city including those in Privett House, a five-storey block north of Cumberland Street, commenced in the late 1930s.

Blitz Portsmouth 1950

This image of the centre of Portsmouth with cleared bombsites in 1950 shows the extent of the impact of wartime bombing.

But that constructive work was rapidly overshadowed by the devastating impact of the Blitz on Portsmouth. From July 1940 to May 1944, the city suffered 76 air raids and some 930 civilians were killed. It was estimated 6625 houses were destroyed – around 10 percent of housing stock – and a further 6549 severely damaged.

Blitz Conway Street Landport 1940

This photograph of Conway Street in Landport in 1940 shows its personal impact.

Typically, planning for the post-war world began early with the Council setting up a Special Replanning Committee in February 1941. It was boosted by a visit from Lord Reith, Minister of Works and Buildings, in March at which he urged Portsmouth ‘to plan boldly and on a large scale … with the expectation that a good many of the difficulties that have prevented them doing so in the past will be adjusted’. FAC Maunder, then Deputy City Architect, was tasked with preparing preliminary proposals for the Council. (8)

Other interested parties also made their views known. A Replanning Advisory Panel of the Chamber of Commerce, set up in July 1941, recommended the dispersal of around 50,000 of the city’s current population to large new settlements on the mainland. In 1943, the Replanning Committee of the local Labour Party urged municipally owned estates and ‘self-contained houses wherever possible’.  Despite their political differences, both reports opposed flats except, in the Labour Party’s words, ‘in a few instances where absolutely necessary’. In this, they captured popular sentiment: a Mass Observation survey in the city showed 92 percent wanting to live in a house rather than flat. (9)

Maunder’s report, accepted with one dissentient, was published in February 1943 and largely followed these lines. It advocated an urban (in effect, island) population of 150,000 at no more than 70 persons per acre, grouped – the coming idea – into neighbourhood units. Its big idea was to disperse around 60,000 of the current population into two new settlements, one around Leigh Park (on land within Petersfield Rural District and Havant and Waterloo Urban District) – envisaged as a satellite town, ‘the Garden City of the South’ – and another, more of a dormitory estate, around Waterlooville.  Maunder himself was appointed City Planning Officer heading a new City Planning and Reconstruction Department in July 1944.

FGH Storey

Cllr FGH Storey

Little could be achieved under the exigencies of war but the Council had already acted boldly as Reith had advised in setting in motion the purchase of land at Leigh Park. It had rather daringly entrusted Conservative councillor FGH Storey with full powers to negotiate the deal as early as August 1943 and the land (with an additional extension in 1946) was bought in 1944.

We’ll continue this story in next week’s post, examining what became – amongst other things – of those high ideals around Leigh Park and the conflicting ideas around suburban and inner-city development.


(1) Portsmouth City Council, A History of Council Housing in Portsmouth (2011).  The ‘northern city’ quotation is drawn from John Ashmore, ‘Rebalancing Britain: The northern city on the south coast’, CAPX, 18 July 2019.

(2) Andrea Verenini and Fabiano Lemes De Oliveira, ‘The Ambiguity of Town Planning: Innovation or Re-Interpretation?’, 15th International Planning History Society Conference, July 2012

(3) Details drawn from ‘Portsmouth Council. More About the New Houses: their Cost when Erected’, Hampshire Telegraph and Post, 14 May 1920 and ‘Portsmouth’s Housing. The Council and the Hill Scheme’, Portsmouth Evening News, 4 December 1920

(4) ‘Portsmouth’s Terrible Record. Facts for the Town Council’, Portsmouth Evening News, 31 December 1924

(5) ‘Slum Clearance’, Portsmouth Evening News, 6 March 1934

(6) Councillor AE Allaway, ‘The Housing and Slum Clearance Problem in Portsmouth’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol 55, no 1, January 1934

(7) ‘Portsmouth Slum Clearance’, Portsmouth Evening News, 28 April 1937

(8) ‘Plan Boldly’, Portsmouth Evening News, 21 March 1941

(9) Tatsuya Tsubaki, Post-war Reconstruction and the Questions of Popular Housing Provision, 1939-1951, PhD thesis in Social History, University of Warwick, 1993

(10) ‘Portsmouth City Council Buy Leigh Park Estate’, Portsmouth Evening News, 9 February 1944

Alt-Erlaa, Vienna: ‘the World’s Best Council Housing?’



We left Vienna in last week’s post in 1934 when its 66,000 municipal homes housed around one in ten of the city’s population.  Currently, 25 percent of Viennese citizens live in one or other of the city’s 1800 municipal housing schemes and, in total, 62 percent live in social housing. These may seem extraordinary numbers but more important than the mere numbers is a commitment to quality and inclusivity that makes Vienna’s social housing amongst the most popular in the world. Alt-Erlaa, which we’ll come on to, is one of its contemporary showpieces.

Alt Erlaa UBahn SN

Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa glimpsed from its U-Bahn station

Politics and money make that possible so it’s right to begin with those. As the city’s logo proclaims, ‘Vienna is different’. With a population of 1.9 million, it is Austria’s sole metropolitan area and one of the country’s nine Bundesländer (provinces).  Austria’s federal constitution devolves considerable powers to its provinces, not least in housing policy, and Vienna – largely under the control of the Austrian Social Democratic Party since World War II (the party currently governs in coalition with the Greens) – has pursued an ambitious housing programme since 1947.

Nationally, social housing (here the term covers both social rented housing and subsidised homes for purchase) is financed by a fixed, earmarked portion of income tax and corporation tax as well as housing contributions paid directly by all employees. Nationally, Conservative politicians have favoured subsidised owner occupation whilst Social Democrats have supported social rental homes in various forms.  In 2018, Vienna was allocated around €450 million to spend on housing – around £405 million at the time. (1) 

Right to Buy legislation affecting parts of the social housing stock was passed nationally in the mid-1990s but has been resisted by provincial governments and had little impact. In Vienna, some 8000 formerly social rent homes have been bought privately but the loss has been made up by new construction.

In comparison to the UK, Vienna – and Austria – remains a renters’ paradise. Rent controls imposed under 1917 Tenancy Act remain largely in effect to the present. All social renters benefit from indefinite tenancies as do the two-thirds of private renters in Austria whose homes were built before 1945. Liberalising reforms affecting new tenants enacted in 1994 have weakened private sector rent controls and introduced fixed-term tenancies. Their effect has been to create a far more dualised system than hitherto, favouring those – in both public and private sectors – with long-established tenancies against those increasingly reliant on the market. (2)

Social rents vary widely according to length of tenure and the size and nature of the home but on average tenants pay under a third of their income on rents, generally less, with, of course, additional financial support for those in need. A recent calculation estimates that in Vienna tenants pay on average 21 percent of their income on a one-bed flat compared to 49 percent in London. (3)

Crucially, this relative affordability is not a pretext for confining social rent housing to the poorest. Income thresholds for eligibility are set at around €46,500 for a single person and €69,000 for a couple (about £42,000 and £62,000 respectively).  In the words of housing spokesperson Christiane Daxböck:

Vienna has always said that it doesn’t want ghettos. Today, there is not one area where you wouldn’t dare to go. There’s a social balance throughout the districts, and a high quality of life, peace and security. The reason for that is mostly found in social housing.

To Kathrin Gaál, Vienna’s lead councillor for housing, ‘what makes Vienna unique is that you cannot tell how much someone earns simply by looking at their home address’. (4)

Since 2004, the municipality’s social housing construction programme has been outsourced to housing associations and cooperatives.  Fortunately, this long-established and well-regulated sector has a good record in delivering decent and affordable housing (though rents are slightly higher than in municipal equivalents) over many years.

One such, GESIBA, was jointly founded in 1921 by the Austrian government, Vienna City Council and the Association for Settlement and Allotment Gardening. At that time, over 30,000 families were squatting public and private land on the city fringes in a series of so-called ‘wild settlements’ and the Gemeinnützige Siedlungs- und Bauaktiengesellschaft to give it its full name –  a Public Utility Settlement and Building Material Institute – was charged with providing cooperative and settler associations with cheap building materials. It went on to build 5000 family homes in the 1920s and, since the revival of social housing after 1945, it has become one of the largest non-profit housing providers in the country, managing around 22,000 homes. (5)

Alt Erlaa Aerial SN

Alt-Erlaa aerial view

Its most prestigious scheme is Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa – a housing estate, more properly a satellite town lying six miles south-west of Vienna’s city centre, built between 1973 and 1986.  With 3172 homes and a population of 10,000, it is Austria’s largest social housing complex. It is also, without doubt, its most striking and, in my eyes at least, one of its most attractive.   To George Clarke, architect and housing campaigner, it is ‘humane caring design of the highest order’. (6)

Harry Gluck 2

Harry Glück (1925-2016)

Alt-Erlaa was the brainchild of architect Harry Glück. To a visitor, his sweeping vision is seen firstly and most obviously in the 70-metre, 27-storey-high cascading, terraced blocks that dominate the scheme.  The first twelve storeys have broad balconies and large plant troughs, providing a greenery and privacy that soften an architecture that might otherwise seem overpowering. (7)

Glück’s design concept rested on the ‘stacked family home’ and 65 percent of the apartments have at least three bedrooms though the 35 different floor plans across the scheme provide for a wide variety of housing needs.  The single-aspect nature of the design leaves natural light short on the corridor side but seems to work in context.

Alt Erlaa Sign SNBut Glück went further in his ideal of ‘building for the lower classes with the quality the rich people are fond of: close to nature and water’.  Alt-Erlaa is situated amongst winding paths and landscaped parkland – quiet and a little bare when we visited on a cold but sunny day in early February – but a green and pleasant environment. Fittingly, the parkland bears his name. (8)Alt Erlaa Landscaping SN

Alt Erlaa Greenery SNThere are six children’s playgrounds within the park but naturally, in a scheme built in the proud tradition of Red Vienna, the social infrastructure extends much further. There are two nurseries, a children’s day care centre, a sports hall and tennis courts, a church, three schools, a youth centre, a multipurpose hall, two health centres as well as a local shopping centre.Alt Erlaa Playground SNAlt Erlaa Church SNAlt Erlaa Shopping Centre SNAlt Erlaa School Corridor 2 SNThe headline feature which almost does justify one of George Clarke’s interviewees describing the complex as a ‘five-star hotel’ are the saunas, solariums and swimming pools on top of each of the main housing blocks. Unsurprisingly, the scheme enjoys a 93 percent favourability rating amongst its residents and there is currently a five-year waiting list for apartments.Alt Erlaa Block SNIt’s all a reminder of what progressive policies, proper public investment and idealistic and intelligent design and planning can achieve.  And a symbol of all that public housing can and should be.


For some fine photographs of the estate and particularly its community life, see Zara Pfeifer, Du, meine konkrete Utopie (text in English)

For a good film essay on the history of Vienna’s social housing, see Angelika Fitz and Michael Rieper, How to Live in Vienna (2013) with English subtitles.


(1) Wolfgang Förster, ‘The Vienna Model of Social Housing’, Conference Proceedings: Partnerships for Affordable Rental Housing, University of Calgary, November 15-17, 2018

(2) For a full and critical examination of the currently complex housing situation in Vienna, see Justin Kadi, ‘Recommodifying Housing in Formerly “Red” Vienna?‘, Housing, Theory and Society, vol 32, no 3, 2015

(3) See Adam Forrest, ‘Vienna’s Affordable Housing Paradise’, Huffington Post, 19 July 2018 and Jonny Ball, ‘Housing as a basic human right: The Vienna model of social housing’, New Statesman, 3 September 2019

(4) The first quotation is drawn from Denise Hruby, ‘Why rich people in Austria want to live in housing projects’, GlobalPost, 26 October, 2015; the second from Forrest, ‘Vienna’s Affordable Housing Paradise

(5) Nadja Traxler-Gerlich, ‘Gesiba – ein Baustein Wiens’, Wiener Zeitung, 7 January 2002

(6) George Clarke, ‘Does Vienna Have the World’s Best Council Housing? Swimming Pools, Private TV Channels and More’: a YouTube excerpt from episode 2 of the Channel 4 documentary series George Clarke’s Council House Scandal originally shown on 8 August 2019.

(7) You’ll find plenty of posts and images of Alt-Erlaa on the internet.  My details here are drawn from Coronare Modestus Faust, ‘Alt-Erlaa: Architecture That Serves A Social Purpose – Social Housing That Looks & Feels Like Luxury Housing’, Faustian Urge, 26 August 2016; Architectuul, ‘Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa’; and Robert W Park, ‘A Walk Around Alt-Erlaa, Vienna’, Intrivia, April 30, 2018

(8) This quote comes from Stefano Boeri Architetti, ‘Wohnpark Alterlaa | Harry Glück