HKPA and Frederick Gibberd Book Review: ‘Building a Better World for All’


Geraint Franklin, Howell Killick Partridge & Amis (Historic England Publishing, July 2017)

Christine Hui Lan Manley, Frederick Gibberd (Historic England Publishing, October 2017)

I’m not an architectural historian – you might have noticed – and what little I know, I’ve picked up from the experts as I’ve researched housing schemes up and down the country. For that reason alone, I’m enormously grateful for the scholarship and endeavour of these two fine books.  The subjects – the Howell Killick Partridge & Amis (HKPA) partnership, responsible individually, amidst much else, for the Alton West Estate, and Frederick Gibberd, famously the presiding genius of Harlow New Town, might seem to represent opposing sides in the architectural cultural wars of the second half of the twentieth century.  In this post, I’ll avoid alienating half my readership by celebrating both.

CoversTo begin with the basics, both these books – comprehensive, detailed, superbly illustrated – are essential to anyone with a serious interest in the architects concerned as well as the broader architectural movements of the later twentieth century.  And, as a non-architect, I’ll confess a powerful admiration for the skills and sensibilities on display from all concerned.  It’s a reminder of what architects, given projects that liberate their ideals with budgets to match, can do to improve the built environment and our lived experience of it.


From left to right, Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis in their Fitzroy Square offices, 1962

I’m impressed too by the range of projects undertaken by each. A great many of HKPA’s signature schemes belong to the enormous expansion of higher education from the 1950s onward but there are performance spaces too, court buildings, even prisons. All, in their different ways, testify to the investment in and expansion of the public realm (though their Oxbridge schemes owed much to private benefaction) that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century – and they remind us too of its more recent systematic impoverishment.

Gibberd 3

Frederick Gibberd

This is even truer of Gibberd personally who almost uniquely combined expertise and qualifications in architecture, landscape architecture and town planning.  And while, of course, he worked with skilled partners and colleagues, he took care to initiate all of his major briefs so that each, as Christine Hui Lan Manley testifies, featured what he described as his ‘handwriting’.  So, for Gibberd, apart from Harlow and some celebrated housing schemes, apart from ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ (aka the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool), you can read of projects ranging from reservoirs to power stations, airports to libraries.  (Both books provide a full List of Works with journal references in useful appendices.)

Given that housing is my main preoccupation, you’ll forgive me, nonetheless, for concentrating on that in this short post. It also happens to be the subject in which their apparently contrasting visions were played out most strongly.

Bill Howell, John Killick and Stan Amis met as students in the Architectural Association in 1948. They went on, two years later, to join the Housing Division of the London County Council’s Architect’s Department, then, without hyperbole, the largest and most important architectural practice in the world. Geraint Franklin describes Howell – ‘charismatic, engaging and enthusiastic’ – as ‘the natural leader and guiding spirit of HKPA’.

I’ll single out John Partridge, however – a grammar school boy who worked as an administrator in the LCC’s Public Health Department while, from 1943, enrolled in a part-time training scheme for architects and surveyors (devised by the LCC’s John Forshaw) at the Regent Street Polytechnic. He joined the Housing Division in 1951.

This background probably explains a commitment to municipal housing which contrasted with, in Franklin’s words, a ‘certain ambivalence’ felt toward it by Howell.  Howell, quoted by Reyner Banham, allegedly described public housing as ‘a charity shat upon the working classes from a great height!’  We’ll take that presumably off-the-record comment as a criticism of some heavy-handed paternalism and poor quality design rather than as a wholesale condemnation of the principle of public provision.

SN Alton West

Alton West: maisonette blocks above Danebury Avenue

We should because Howell, alongside his future partners, worked on what one American commentator described as ‘probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world’ – the Roehampton Lane Estate, later known as Alton West.

If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to say too much about Alton West. It represents probably the greatest expression, at scale, of a consciously Le Corbusian, monumentalist, Brutalist approach to housing in the country and I won’t try to replicate the thorough account provided by Franklin.  I’ll pick out this, though, from John Partridge.  Looking back, in 1980, at the 100 acre plot selected by the LCC in south-west London, he stated it ‘would be hard to imagine a more exciting, demanding and lovely site’.  But he spent some time perfecting it:

I was given a bulldozer and a driver, and I went up one of the point blocks onto the sixth floor and told this bulldozer bloke what to do for several days, and we remodelled that field.  And what we wanted to do was link up the two eighteenth-century villas with the certain same elements of an eighteenth-century landscape.

That’s a tribute to resourced architectural vision that shames the boxy, poxy, prissy private schemes which dominate today.

Weston Rise (c) Stephen Richards

Partridge’s Weston Rise Estate (c) Steve Richards and made available though a Creative Commons licence

Partridge, who in 1959 joined the private architectural partnership established by Howell, Killick and Amis three years earlier, was also the architect of the Weston Rise Estate completed for the Greater London Council in 1968.  Its six- to ten-storey stepped design and scissor-section flats provided an ingenious and visually striking solution to a difficult site and the requirement for high-density though the design won few architectural plaudits at the time.

In fact, the tide was already turning against such more monumental and higher-rise schemes. Somerville Road, designed by Partridge for Lewisham Borough Council in 1973 – an intimate, low-rise, brick-built estate – shows how quickly that backlash occurred.  It has echoes, in fact, of Gibberd’s famous Somerford Grove Estate in Hackney of a quarter-century earlier.

HKPA ‘rejected the Brutalist label as a put-down’ but, as Franklin goes on, they certainly saw themselves as architectural radicals.  In the LCC, they sided with the ‘hard’, Le Corbusian Brutalists against the ‘softer’, New Humanists (or New Empiricists) who took their inspiration from Scandinavian social democracy. Howell himself expressed distaste for the ‘liquorice all-sorts’ architecture deployed at the Festival of Britain and New Towns.  Elsewhere, the Young Turk, Sandy Wilson (later the architect of the British Library) decried the ‘extraordinary effeminacy’ of the Lansbury Estate.

Elizabeth Close (1)

Elizabeth Close, the Lansbury Estate

This placed them at odds with Frederick Gibberd, the architect and planner of the Lansbury and the individual most associated with the architecture they scorned.  This, to some, was a fall from grace for Gibberd who, before the war, had been a member of the Modern Architecture Research (MARS) Group, the UK outpost of CIAM, the Congrès internationaux d’architecture modern.  A visit to Harlow by CIAM representatives showed how far he had fallen. The New Towns, according to JM Richards, one of the delegates, were ‘little more than housing estates’. Gordon Cullen condemned what he described as the ‘prairie planning’ of the New Towns, lacking all characteristics of ‘towniness’. (1)

A look at Gibberd’s post-war work in more detail, covered thoroughly by Manley and discussed in a number of past posts in the blog, enables an assessment of the broader thrust of this criticism.

SN Somerford Grove

Somerford Grove

Somerford Grove, designed for Hackney Metropolitan Borough Council and completed in 1949, was Gibberd’s first major project after the war. It conformed to the three-storey height maximum then set by the Council but took flight in the range of housing types and decorative forms applied by Gibberd to this seminal example of mixed development housing.  The latter was the coming idea – intended both to house a wider range of the population than the two- and three-bed family houses which dominated in the interwar period and to enable the expression of architectural variety and visual interest.  Somerford Grove was its low-rise archetype but the concept was central to most post-war estate design which followed, not least Alton West.

The Lansbury Estate, devised as the Live Architecture Exhibition for the Festival of Britain and opened in 1951, was resolutely modest, low-rise – its predominant yellow stock brick designed to fit better with the local terraced streetscape.

S Hawkshead

Hawkshead, Regent’s Park Estate: designed by Gibberd

In the same year, Gibberd was commissioned by St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council to replace a regimented Zeilenbau design – uniform blocks of flats typically set in a parallel north-south axis – for the Regent’s Park Estate with something more picturesque.  The blocks designed by Gibberd himself in Zone A are patterned and coloured in New Humanist, Scandinavian style. (This is omitted in the book though that’s less a snarky reviewer’s criticism than a tribute to the bewildering range of Gibberd’s work.)

The Lawn SN

The Lawn, Harlow

And then there’s Harlow, of course. Gibberd was its architect-planner from 1946 to 1980, convinced from the outset that ‘the majority of the people want a two-storey house with a private garden’.   That, therefore, will be your predominant impression of the New Town but as an apostle of mixed development, he also advocated that 20 to 30 per cent of the homes should be flatted. Famously, he built the UK’s first point block, the Lawn – a modest affair at just nine storeys but a harbinger of things to come.

Across the town, Gibberd commissioned a number of architects to design more innovative and architecturally exciting housing schemes but overall Harlow stands, for good reason, as the chief exemplar of the supposedly desolate suburbanism that modernist critics condemned.

Lionel Brett, quoted by Manley, noted how a number of ‘impeccable modernist personalities of the thirties’ (he cites Maxwell Fry and Basil Spence as well as Gibberd) had ‘switched’ to New Empiricism after the War because, in his words, ‘the psychological need was manifest’. Perhaps the War had had this effect; perhaps Gibberd’s wartime study of English market towns, their forms and materials, was both cause and effect of at least an evolution in his thinking.

Against the criticisms of Harlow, Gibberd defended an English urbanism which preferred ‘segregation of home and work, which enjoys open-air exercise, which has an innate love of nature’. (2)  Goaded by further criticism, he expressed himself more astringently: (3)

It has been suggested that a correct aesthetic and architectural solution would, in the end, have been the correct social one – in other words, that people should have been given what they ought to have wanted.

That might seem, to many, the perfect riposte to the ‘megalomaniac’ architects and planners some hold responsible for the less successful and more ‘inhumane’ building schemes of the 1960s.  At any rate, Gibberd’s English empiricism and decorative palette placed him beyond the modernist pale. I’ll confess to being pleased that this book will play a big part in a deserved reappraisal of his work and legacy.

And I’ll point out that I don’t believe for a moment that HKPA are the bad guys here. Michael Hopkins’ foreword to Manley’s book states that Gibberd and his peers:

were contributing to the current social agenda and building a better world for all, bringing space and sunlight within the home and outside to the public realm.

That was undeniably true of Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis too.  The aesthetic choices are yours.

Historic England, in collaboration with the Twentieth Century Society, and the authors are to be congratulated for publishing these books which are unlikely to be bettered as guides to the architects concerned.  Given my narrow focus, there’s an enormous amount of important stuff discussed that I haven’t touched on here. Quality production and extensive, full colour illustration don’t come cheap but, if this is your thing, buy them if you can.


Nuneaton Library to the left (c) Kevin Roe, and Roehampton Library (c) Diamond Geezer. Both made available through a Creative Commons licence

If you can’t, try to borrow them from a library.  If you’re in Nuneaton, you can go to the library there, designed by Gibberd in 1960.  If you’re near Alton West, visit Roehampton Library designed by John Partridge and completed in 1961 while you can – it is under threat of demolition. (4)

For further information on the books and purchase details, click the links below:

Geraint Franklin, Howell Killick Partridge & Amis  

Christine Hui Lan Manley, Frederick Gibberd  


All the quotations are drawn from the two books except the following:

(1) JM Richards, ‘Failure of the New Towns’ and Gordon Cullen, ‘Prairie Planning in the New Towns’, Architectural Review, vol. 114, no. 679, 1953

(2) Quoted in ‘Design Problems in New Towns. Result of Building “for all classes”’, The Times, 6 February 1962

(3) Frederick Gibberd, ‘The Architecture of New Towns’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 106, No. 5021, April 1958

(4) For more on the campaign to save the unlisted buildings at the entrance to Alton West, please read Elizabeth Hopkirk, ‘Historians warn of “grave effect” of Alton redevelopment‘, bdonline, 21 November 2017 (Subscription needed)


The Broadwater Estate, Tottenham, Part II: ‘a strong vibrant community’


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We left Broadwater Farm last week, a much improved and increasingly popular estate, but police-community relations were in a state of simmering tension and exploded catastrophically on the night of Sunday 6 August 1985.

One day earlier, police had raided the home of Cynthia Jarrett.  This lay some way off the Estate but her son Floyd – the target of the raid – was a leading member of the Broadwater Farm Youth Association (BWFYA).  Mrs Jarrett died of heart failure. Another black woman, Cherry Groce, had been shot and seriously injured in a similar police raid in Brixton the previous week.  On the Sunday, protestors moving off to what was billed as a peaceful protest outside Tottenham Police Station, found their way blocked – and all other exits barred – by police in full riot gear. The confrontation escalated and, in the seven-hour riot which ensued, PC Keith Blakelock was brutally murdered.

A full-scale state of siege followed.  Four hundred police officers occupied the Estate over the following weeks and some 270 police raids took place over the next six months. Some 159 arrests were made.  In the longer-term, beyond the crude and sensationalist coverage of the tabloids (unsurprising perhaps in such a genuinely shocking event), serious investigation into the causes of the rioting began, most notably in the inquiry, commissioned by Haringey Council, led by Lord Gifford QC.

The overall verdict – supported by the fact that relatively little damage to property or looting occurred – was that: (1)

The riot…was not primarily about poverty, unemployment or bad housing…The protest by the youths was essentially about policing – police activity and police attitudes.

Broadwater Farm Demonstration – London _ Late 80s Robert Croma

A demonstration from the late 1980s (c) Robert Croma and made available through a Creative Commons licence

In this sense, the unwise but unfairly misrepresented words of Haringey’s council leader Bernie Grant were accurate:

The youths around here believe the police were to blame for what happened on Sunday and what they got was a bloody good hiding.

In the aftermath, the local community, spearheaded by the BWFYA, and the Council laboured tirelessly – in fact, building on the good work done before the riots – to rescue the Estate from the nightmare which had befallen it.  A £33m grant in 1986 under the Government’s Estate Action programme provided much needed capital.

A large part of that finance went on modifications to what were held to be the design flaws of the original scheme.  A ‘Ground-Level Reinstatement Plan’ removed shops from the deck level of Tangmere to Willan Road and created new lobbies (with concierge services) at surface level for the larger blocks.  The walkways were removed in 1993.

After refurbishment 1990 (M&G)

The image from Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block, shows Broadwater Farm after refurbishment in 1990. The flagstaffs mark the Remembrance Garden.

There were other improvements too but much of the work improving the environment and ‘feel’ of the Estate was carried out under the aegis of the BWYFA.  A Remembrance Garden (a plaque commemorates ‘those who died and suffered’ in the 1985 riots) and a Nation’s Square celebrating the Estate’s diverse community, were created. (2)

SN Rochford

Rochford block with Anthony Steele’s mural and the former first floor deck removed. Photograph 2016.

Murals – one on the end of the Rochford block painted by Anthony Steele, a local black youth depicting Martin Luther King, Gandhi, John Lennon and Bob Marley; another on Tangmere by a local Turkish resident with its own symbolic message of peace and harmony – were created to beautify the Estate.  A third – the Waterfall mural on the end of the Debden block painted by Bernette Hall – was added between 1990 and 1991.

SN Debden, Hawkinge, Kenley

Debden (with Bernette Hall’s Waterfall) and Hawkinge with Kenley to rear. photograph 2016

More tangibly, given a youth unemployment rate of 37 per cent on the Estate (the figure for London as a whole was 12 percent), there were serious attempts to create local jobs. Enterprise workshops and training initiatives, often local co-ops, were set up to provide skills to young people as well as necessary local services.

The effort to employ residents on the ongoing renovation works was aided by the multi-disciplinary, area-based design teams developed by John Murray in the Council’s Building Design Service from 1979 with the support of Jeremy Corbyn, then chair of Haringey’s Planning Committee.  Murray was a founder member of the New Architecture Movement founded in 1975 to democratise the profession and promote cooperative working with ‘users’, those who, too often, were merely the subject of architects’ grand designs.  Murray was elected head of the Building Design Service in 1985 and would go on to become Borough Architect.

SN Debden II

Debden. Photograph 2016.

On Broadwater Farm, the local team worked closely with Estate residents and employed local labour. Part of the scheme involved appointing two local young people as trainee architects – an important attempt to open up an increasingly closed and elitist profession. At peak, the Building Design Service employed around 200 staff, 60 per cent of whom were black and ethnic minority – figures which reflected the Borough’s rich diversity. (3)

By 2003, the Estate was virtually fully occupied and forty residents had purchased their homes under Right to Buy.  An annual survey found only two per cent of residents felt unsafe in their homes (compared to a Haringey average of 15 per cent) and over half the residents had lived on the Estate for ten years.  It was, by all objective accounts, a stable and safe community.

Christian Wolmar concluded that – beyond the structural changes intended to ‘design out crime’ – much of the improvement lay with the strength of the local community: (4)

the very design of the estate, the fact that the lay-out is so different from the ordinary terraced housing around with a clear line that distinguishes Broadwater Farm from its surrounding area has been helpful in creating a sense of community.

Interestingly, this was a comment echoed in part last year by Victor Olisa, a Haringey police officer: ‘The crime level’s probably lower than other parts of the borough because it’s a contained estate’. (5)

SN Hawkinge and Kenley Tower

Hawkinge with Kenley to rear. The first floor deck has been transformed into private ‘defensible space’ and a new ground floor entrance provided. Photograph 2016.

This suggests that either those walkways were doing a lot of heavy lifting in the bad old days or that much of what we believe about the Estate depends, not so much on any objective truth – good or bad – but on context, circumstance and perception.

An academic analysis by Dominic Severs makes an interesting comparison between (predominantly outsider and middle-class) attitudes towards the ‘rookeries’, the particularly notorious districts of slum housing of the Victorian era, and the ‘no-go’ estates of the modern era, ‘characteristically high-rise, modernist and “non-street”’.

SN Martlesham and Northolt

Martlesham with Northolt tower to rear. Photograph 2016

What they share, he argues, is a defining set of characteristics: (6)

Separation from the mainstream of transit and economic activity; the complexity and ambiguity of constituent spaces; the difficulty of navigation by outsiders; enclosure; covered entrances creating symbolic barriers or markers of ownership; the indirect relationship of street to home; and the complex and potentially illegible relationship between public and private spaces…

It would be absurd to ignore the real problems suffered by Broadwater Farm over the years or gloss over the tragic events of 1985 but it is nonetheless vital to recognise just how much of the obloquy suffered by the Estate – and other similar schemes such as the Pepys Estate in Lewisham or Southwark’s ‘Five Estates’ – rests on their difference and separation, the class prejudices these promote, and the alarmist fears fanned by hostile commentary.

Some of that commentary was revived by the riots of 2011.  On 4 August, Mark Duggan – a young black man raised on Broadwater Farm with a record of criminal activity (though its seriousness was disputed) – was shot and killed by the police.  The death played into continuing tensions between the police and the black community and fed the belief that the latter was unfairly targeted and treated.

In disputed circumstances, on 7 August an initially peaceful protest outside Tottenham Police Station, led from Broadwater Farm but involving many not from the Estate, degenerated into violent disorder, looting and arson on Tottenham High Road.  Comparable events occurred across twelve other areas of the capital and a similar number of towns and cities across England.

SN Rochford II

This view of Northolt shows that parts of the estate still look poor and rundown. Photograph 2016.

One London study inferred a correlation between the location of rioting and the proximity of ‘large post-war housing estates’; Broadwater Farm, for example, was close to disturbances in Tottenham, Wood Green and the Tottenham Hale retail park to the north. (7)  But broader, national analysis showed an array of causal factors: sheer opportunism was one, the chance of ‘shopping for free’ as looting was described; an inchoate sense of grievance motivated by the disparities of affluence and poverty was another.  What stood out most, however, was a widespread resentment of police behaviour. (8)

Broadwater Farm has a history, a seemingly inescapable one, but – the ‘accident’ of its personal association with the victim of alleged police wrongdoing aside – it seems hard to blame the Estate itself for the riots of 2011 and appropriate to focus on wider societal causes.

This wasn’t the view of David Cameron. (9)

The riots of 2011 didn’t emerge from within terraced streets or low-rise apartment buildings. As spatial analysis of the riots has shown, the rioters came overwhelmingly from these post-war estates.

And accompanying off-the-record briefings suggested that Broadwater Farm was to be one of the ‘sink estates’ to benefit from his razing of the ‘high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways’ which apparently fomented such disorder.

SN Croydon

Croydon. Photograph 2016

Little of this made sense – its apparent ignorance or wilful disregard of estate regeneration occurring since the eighties, the paltry investment proposed, its evasion of so much more (not least Conservative policies since 1979) which might be blamed for the 2011 riots. As a piece of political grandstanding, it garnered the headlines Cameron presumably wanted but its substance was as evanescent as his own tenure of office.  He was gone six months later and Brexit critic Michael Heseltine, the ‘tsar’ appointed to oversee the proposals, ten months after that.

Broadwater Farm Community Centre

Broadwater Farm Community Centre

Clasford Stirling

Clasford Stirling collecting his MBE, 2007 (c) Tottenham Journal

Meanwhile, lasting change has occurred on Broadwater Farm.  First-class facilities have been added to the Estate including a new community centre, children’s nursery and health centre. Contemporary media reports praise the highly sought-after ‘state-of-the-art primary school’ and children travel across London to attend the football academy run by Clasford Stirling MBE. (10)

It’s not perfect – senseless ‘postcode wars’ exist between young people from the Estate and others from neighbouring areas, police-community relations have improved but need work, class and racial inequalities and injustices persist – but it might be thought time to leave the Estate alone.

But Broadwater Farm is threatened – the word seems appropriate in this context – by further regeneration.  Though not directly a part of the Haringey’s controversial Development Vehicle, the Council nevertheless believes that the area ‘presents an opportunity for a large scale regeneration project’ which includes ‘steps to redress tenure imbalances and alter the currently negative perception of the area’. (11)

It’s a now conventional view which sees council estates as ‘improved’ by importing middle-class owner-occupiers and private renters.  As such, of course, it doesn’t challenge ‘negative perceptions’ but reinforces them.

I’ll leave the last word with the Estate’s Residents’ Association: (12)

Broadwater Farm provides decent quality housing for thousands of people. It is a strong, vibrant community. Huge amounts have been spent on providing concierge suites, new roofs and windows, providing a Community Centre and many other facilities. All residents want to look to the future on our estate, rather than having our lives needlessly disrupted by demolitions and decants.


(1) Tricia Zipfel quoted in Dominic Severs, ‘Rookeries and No-Go Estates: St Giles and Broadwater Farm, or middle-class fear of “non-street” housing’, Journal of Architecture, vol 15, no 4, August 2010

(2) BWF Youth Association Co-op Ltd, Cultivating the Farm (Broadwater Farm, 1988)

(3) See Haringey Building Design Service Involvement in Broadwater Farm after 1985 and Real Estates, ‘Hidden History: John Murray’s Letter to the Guardian, 4 January 2014.

(4) Christian Wolmar, Broadwater Revisited (September 15 2003)

(5) Louise Riley, ‘Broadwater Farm Estate’s Youth Are Battling to Escape the “Folklore” of Mark Duggan’s Death and 1985 Riot’, Huffington Post, 6 August 2016.

(6) Severs, ‘Rookeries and No-Go Estates’

(7) Space Syntax, 2011 London Riots Location Analysis: Proximity to town centres and large post-war housing estates (2011)

(8) LSE and The Guardian, Reading the Riots: investigating England’s Summer of Disorder (December 2011)

(9) David Cameron, Estate Regeneration (10 January 2016)

(10) Louise Riley, ‘Broadwater Farm Estate’s Youth Are Battling to Escape the “Folklore” of Mark Duggan’s Death and 1985 Riot’

(11) Haringey Council, Haringey Development Vehicle Business Case (October 2015)

(12) Haringey Council’s Local Plan Consultation: Response by Broadwater Farm Residents’ Association (March 2015)

The Broadwater Farm Estate, Tottenham, Part I: from ‘holiday camp’ to ‘dumping ground’?


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The Broadwater Farm Estate is – with apologies to its residents who know it differently and better – notorious: the scene of rioting in 1985, blamed by some for the disorder in Tottenham in 2011, and apparently one of the ‘sink estates’ to be transformed by David Cameron’s short-lived ‘blitz on poverty’ in 2016.   Let’s tell a different story.  We’ll look at ‘what went wrong’, of course, but offer an alternative perspective which questions the easy blame-game. And we’ll look at the high hopes and good intentions which created the Estate and at what, over the years, has gone right.

Panorama_from_Downhills_Park Iridescenti

The Broadwater Farm Estate from the west, Kenley and Northold towers to left (c) Iridiscenti and made available through a Creative Commons licence

For a start, there was a context.  In 1961, according to Haringey’s Planning Officer, 90,000 households occupied 70,000 dwellings in the borough. Mr Frith estimated judiciously – since some single people preferred to share – that there was a shortfall of 14,000 homes in Haringey.  Around a third were over 70 years old and half of the housing was privately rented and of poor quality. (1)

Contemporary thinking and changed economics might tell another story here – of solid terraced housing and potential family homes which should have been rehabilitated but were, instead, sacrificed to the hubris of politicians and planners.  But that came later.  At the time, as Ernie Large (the chair of Haringey’s Housing Committee till 1968) made clear, the logic of demolition and new build was compelling: (2)

What we were doing was clearing slums in South Tottenham and other parts of the borough, so that people who actually went into the Broadwater flats originally found them palaces compared with what they were living in previously, i.e. back to back slums.

The 21 acre site for Broadwater Farm was found on land allocated to allotments to the side of the Lordship Recreation Ground.  The Moselle Brook which meandered through the area was culverted underground.  The high water table and alleged risk of flooding justified the use of piloti on all the estate’s principal blocks – stilts which raised them above an open ground floor.

Some later critics thought this an affectation – Jim Sneddon (an architect who lived on the Estate for two years) condemned the use of ‘inappropriate architectural forms to preserve the stylistic quality of [the architects’] modernist designs’.  But they unquestionably fulfilled another, uncontroversial, design goal of the time as the Council brochure to new tenants explained: (3)

Complete vehicle and pedestrian segregation has been aimed at, and all blocks are linked by pedestrian access deck below which car parking facilities are provided together with a network of service roads.

Those extensive below-block ground floors provided around 1.5 parking spaces per household for a newly-affluent working class.

SN Tangmere shopping centre

Tangmere shopping centre as envisaged

In the original design, there were plans too for a significant local shopping centre – 24 shops including ‘a public house, supermarket, newsagents, etc.’ – in the Tangmere block. It was ‘intended to form a focal point of the scheme…a “ziggurat”, a building U-shaped in plan [with] shops on three sides around a central open space’. (4)

The artist’s impression also speaks to the relative working-class affluence that the Estate was intended both to reflect and foster.  The homes themselves reflected this progress – airy flats build to generous Parker Morris space standards with the mod cons now expected.

SN 1988 view of Tangmere L19-30 Tower Block

This 1988 image of the Tangmere shopping centre (after the 1985 riots from which it never recovered) shows a gritter reality. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

The Council brochure pointed to other features and amenities of the new estate including the district heating system – ‘constant hot water for heating and domestic use…supplied to all homes from the central oil-fired boiler’.  It couldn’t be regulated in the individual flats but, as the Council pointed out, you could always turn a radiator off.

Most new residents had little cause to complain: (5)

We came from a house that was built in 1816, so when we first arrived here it was like a holiday camp. There were bathrooms, indoor loos, you didn’t have to go out in the freezing cold anymore.

Dolly Kiffin later recalled ‘a lot of peace’ on the Estate: (6)

The front room was quite big and it was so warm for the kids…It was all nice and clean. And especially at night when you sit over the patio and look all over, it’s a beautiful sight.

In all, 1063 new homes were provided, predominantly one-, two- and three-bed flats and maisonettes, in twelve blocks, housing around 3400. Aside from Tangmere, there were eight other six-storey blocks, adjoined by lower four-storey maisonette blocks. Two nineteen-storey towers, Northolt and Kenley, completed the ensemble.  (All the blocks were named after Second World War airfields.)

SN Kenley

Kenley in 2016 after refurbishment

Taylor Woodrow Anglian won the £5.6m contract and began construction in 1967.  This was the heyday of industrialised building, then seen as essential to the effective delivery of the contemporary mass housing programme.  On Broadwater, the Larsen-Nielsen Large Panel System was employed.  The collapse of Ronan Point in May 1968 came as the point blocks were under construction and work halted for several months while a strengthened system was adopted.  Other blocks were also completed to a modified design.

The first families moved in in 1970; the last – into a small section of terraced housing – in 1973. All but 34 households – the local press described the exceptions as ‘the lucky 34 who will be given tenancy of brand new flats in the Broadwater Farm Estate’ – were people who had lost homes through slum clearance.  The Housing Committee looked forward to what they anticipated to be ‘an everlasting monument’ to their achievements. (7)

We might suppress the ready ironic snigger that comes with hindsight but it’s true enough that significant problems emerged early on the Estate.  The flat roofs seem to have created severe issues of water penetration and damp in many of the flats.  The heating system – now deemed inefficient – caused noise nuisance.   Cockroach infestation, lift breakdowns and frequent rubbish fires added to the litany of residents’ complaints.

SN Parking (2)

This photograph shows the ground floor parking in 2016

If these could be judged construction flaws, another, larger, criticism was voiced of the Estate’s overall design.  Here the piloti and under-block spaces they created took centre-stage. Broadwater Farm’s fiercest critic was, again, Jim Sneddon:

This single element has possibly been the modern damaging, as it physically created a concrete ‘underworld’ for crime to thrive. Badly lit and overlooked by nothing, these ‘dark arches’ became a muggers’ paradise. Tenants became afraid to venture out after dark. Security began and ended at the tenants’ own front door.

The necessary counterpart to these surface level spaces and the goal of traffic-free access were the raised walkways which joined the various blocks of the Estate.

SN 1988 Tangmere House L19-32 Tower Block

A 1988 image of Tangmere block with walkway to the right. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

According to Paul Dennehy, a neighbourhood housing officer on the Estate in later years, the ‘streets in the sky’ provided rat-runs and escape routes for criminals: ‘If you’d done a crime elsewhere, you’d come to Broadwater Farm and that was it. The police couldn’t find you’. (8)  Decades later, as court cases revisited earlier violence, senior officers complained that Broadwater Farm was ‘impossible to police’. (9)

All this, of course, played firmly and persuasively into the ‘design disadvantagement’ thesis of Alice Coleman who argued that typical features of modernist housing estates – walkways and the concurrent lack of private ‘defensible space’ being the most salient – caused crime and antisocial behaviour.  Not for nothing was her major work, published in 1985, entitled Utopia on Trial.

SN 1988 L19-37 General view of Estate Tower Block

The suggestive power of photography: the Estate not looking good in wet twilight in 1988. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

Unsurprisingly, her critique was echoed by Jim Sneddon: ‘the architectural dreams of the 1930s [a reference to Le Corbuserian-inspired modernism] have become a nightmare in the ‘70s and ‘80s’. He criticised the confidence of the 1960s as ‘unbelievable arrogance on the part of the architectural profession’.

We’ll come back to this but it’s important from the outset to establish another and arguably determining outcome of these early problems.  The Estate became unpopular, ‘hard to let’ in the language of the day.

As early as 1973, a suppressed Council report had identified emerging difficulties.  Paraphrased here in a local press article, the report allegedly: (10)

added to the ammunition already available to those who believe as tower blocks reach skywards, they reach previously unscaled heights of human misery.  ‘Problem’ families – many of them single-parent families – were seen to be placed together, claimed the author.  The sight of unmarried West Indian mothers walking about the estate aggravated racial tension. Adolescent absentees from school frequent the blocks, terrorising the elderly.

In another reading, you might question the labelling of single-parent families and wonder why the ‘sight of unmarried West Indian mothers’ should cause such apparent grievance but racial tensions on the Estate were real.  The Tenants’ Association, established in 1970, initially excluded black members and its president was forced to resign in 1974 after a TV appearance speaking on behalf of the National Front. Still friction remained as black youths, even white youths seen to mix with their black peers, continued to be barred. (11)  These prejudices, more so as they were expressed by key actors beyond the Estate, came to play their own part in its stigmatisation.

By 1976, 55 percent of would-be Haringey tenants refused the offer of a home on Broadwater Farm and the turnover of tenancies was twice the Borough average. (12)  Clasford Stirling, who moved onto the Estate in 1978 and was a hero of its later revival, concluded Broadwater Farm had become a:

dumping ground…It was just a mass of graffiti, shit everywhere, people didn’t care, neighbour didn’t know neighbour, we had a lot of empty flats, people didn’t want to live over here, we had a lot of suicides, a lot of muggings and a lot of crime.

At this point, you might expect we’d move directly to the violent disorder of 1985 but the actual history of the Estate is more complicated.  Serious measures to address the undoubted problems of Broadwater Farm began in 1979 when it was designated part of the Priority Estates Project, a Government scheme promoting systems of local management and repair and tenant participation as means of improving what were judged the ‘worst’ of the country’s council estates.

SN 1988 Tangmere L19-31 Tower Block

Another 1988 image of Tangmere block shows the estate, with new landscaping, in more favourable light. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

And improvement did occur.  A new neighbourhood housing office was set up and £1m spent on repairing and replacing windows, redecoration and improving security.  Caretaking and cleaning services were improved. The Council also made a concerted effort to recruit local staff to work on the Estate, particularly from its minority communities.

More importantly, the estate itself mobilised.  The Broadwater Farm Youth Association (BWFYA), founded by Dolly Kiffin, was set up in 1981, Clasford Stirling an early member.  Community leaders emerged, determined to revive the Estate and challenge its poor reputation.

All this appears to have made a significant impact.  By 1984, the Estate’s homes were no longer judged hard to let and crime rates had fallen markedly: burglaries by 62 percent, vehicle crime by 50 percent, for example. (13)

SN 1988 Map of Estate L19-33 Tower Block

The estate map, photographed in 1988, captures work to do and continuing political tensions. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

This was a success story but other realities were more intractable.  The Estate remained disproportionately home to Haringey’s disadvantaged ethnic minorities – 42 percent of its population came from New Commonwealth and Pakistan backgrounds compared to 32 percent of the Borough’s population as a whole.  More importantly, 60 percent of young people on the Estate were unemployed and around 75 per cent of its population said to be ‘dependent on some form of welfare support’. The Department of Environment classified the Estate as ‘extremely/severely depressed’.

One other factor, that which would loom largest in the period ahead, remained.  Many residents, particularly the younger ones and those from minority populations, resented what they saw – what they frequently experienced – as heavy-handed and oppressive policing. Efforts, led by Dolly Kiffin, to ease police-community relations foundered.  Next week’s post examines the tragic events of August 1985 and their more positive aftermath.


(1) DW Frith, London Borough of Haringey Department of Town Planning, Houses and Flats: a Social Study (May 1967).  The private rental figure comes from Anne Power, Estates on the Edge. The Social Consequences of Mass Housing in Northern Europe (Macmillan Press, 1997)

(2) Quoted in Lord Gifford, The Broadwater Farm Inquiry: report of the independent inquiry into disturbances of October 1985 at the Broadwater Farm Estate, Tottenham (1986), ch 2, p15. Lord Gifford’s Broadwater Farm Inquiry Report and its 1989 follow-up can be found, alongside much else, in the Bishopgate Institute’s online archive of the papers of Bernie Grant, Haringey Council leader and MP.

(3) The criticism is from Jim Sneddon, ‘My years of misery on Broadwater Farm’, Building Design, October 25, 1985, p12-13.  Later quotations from Sneddon are drawn from the same source. The quotation which follows is from Haringey Council, Broadwater Farm Tenants’ Information (ND)

(4) London Borough of Haringey, Proposed Local Shopping Centres at Broadwater Farm and Park Lane (ND) and Haringey Council, Broadwater Farm Tenants’ Information

(5) Bill Kemp quoted in Ben Willis, ‘Out of the darkness’, Inside Housing, 30 September 2005

(6) Quoted in Lord Gifford, The Broadwater Farm Inquiry, ch 2, pp15-16

(7) Quoted in Dominic Severs, ‘Rookeries and No-Go Estates: St Giles and Broadwater Farm, or middle-class fear of “non-street” housing’, Journal of Architecture, vol 15, no 4, August 2010

(8) Quoted in Ben Willis, ‘Out of the darkness’

(9) Chief Superintendent Colin Couch speaking in 2014 at the Old Bailey trial of Nicky Jacobs for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock (he was found not guilty) quoted in Elizabeth Hopkirk, ‘Design of Broadwater Farm Estate criticised at Old Bailey’, BD Online, 10 March 2014

(10) Quoted in Severs, ‘Rookeries and No-Go Estates’

(11) ‘Broadwater Farm: a “criminal estate”?  An interview with Dolly Kiffin’, Race and Class, vol 29, no 1, 1987

(12) Anne Power, Estates on the Edge

(13) Haringey Council, Evidence to the Broadwater Farm Public Inquiry (May 1986). The same source provides the figures on ethnic composition and social disadvantage which follow.


Council Housing and Community in Beverley: ‘from bad to worse’?


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Last week’s post concentrated on the built history of Beverley’s council housing – some 539 council homes provided before the Second World War and a further 1332 by 1964. These post-war decades were, perhaps, the heyday of council housing. This was an era when it was seen as aspirational housing, an undeniable step-up from the far lower quality privately-rented homes from which most people were moving.

But some said the new estates killed traditional working-class community whilst others, contradictorily, have lamented its more recent decline.  Beverley offers an opportunity to examine this vexed question, which suffers a surfeit of ill-informed commentary, more objectively.

SN Goth's Lane 3

Goth’s Lane

There was often a powerful sense of working-class respectability among new council tenants.  It’s palpable here in the observation of Mavis Stephenson who moved to one of the new post-war estates in 1950: (1)

You could walk down [Schofield Avenue] and it was a picture and included in that was a bit of competition. If Mrs next door cut her grass, well, that one cut grass and Mr Cooper that lived opposite he would cut his hedge, you know, and then he’d come to our side and look…every garden was all clean, tidy…swept and everything, it was lovely.

And, if that self-policing and competitive emulation were insufficient to encourage residents to keep up appearances, there was the formidable figure of Miss Christie, the local housing officer:

an old spinster…she knew everything did Miss Christie; she used to walk around the estates on foot, looking over walls and gardens and peering through windows. She stood for no nonsense. She certainly could evict people with no compunction at all, what she said went. Gardens had to be kept, she would not tolerate gardens or fences being run down. Curtains that were not clean and if things looked shabby she would knock on your door.

If that makes Miss Christie sound like a termagant, we should remember her other side: ‘if she saw anything wrong, she told ‘em they’d to get it done, really cared about the tenants, she really looked after them’.

This was an older housing tradition, rooted in the Octavia Hill school of ‘tough love’ social philanthropy but adopted by municipalities from the 1920s who increasingly looked to women property managers to enforce the domestic norms then expected. (In Lancaster, a Miss Baines was Miss Christie’s equally formidable counterpart.)

However, even in Beverley, some estates or areas were deemed ‘rough’.  Sometimes outsiders made this judgment, reflecting perhaps more their own prejudices than any objective reality. In the letters column of the Beverley Guardian, for example, in June 1945, one correspondent congratulated the Council on appointing a housing manager to deal with just such problems. (2)

SN Hodgson Avenue 3

Hodgson Avenue, Cherry Tree Estate

But Stefan Ramsden also found his working-class interviewees using similar language to describe ‘small parts of the council estates deemed particularly rough’ which they labelled ‘Corned Beef Island’ or ‘Shanghai’. (The North Hull Estate, six miles to the south, was also called ‘Corned Beef Island’ by some. In a less judgmental analysis, this reflected the difficulty of buying fresh food in areas short of shops.)

SN Cherry Tree Lane

Cherry Tree Lane

A resident who moved to Greenwood Avenue in 1940 recalls the Cherry Tree Estate as ‘a rough area…quite rough for people like…not well-to-do, not well-off’.  This may reflect the fact – though it is not referenced in his comments – that this 1930s estate very largely accommodated those rehoused from central slum clearance areas.  (The same critical assessment was applied, in a similar context, to the Filwood Park Estate in Knowle West, Bristol.)  Generally, estates had, to this point, housed the better-off working-class whose stable employment enabled them to pay higher council rents and some established residents looked askance at these poorer incomers.

SN Cherry Tree Lane 2

Post-war housing at the top end of Cherry Tree Lane, Goth’s Lane Estate

The oral histories recorded by the East Riding Council tell of surprising rivalries (between children at least) among the various contiguous estates on the town’s eastern fringe: ‘the Grovehill Estate and the Cherry Tree Estate used to have wars as kids’ remembers one interviewee, and AA James, quoted above on the Cherry Tree Estate, tells a nuanced tale of youthful misbehaviour:

They didn’t make trouble, maybe a bit of scrumping, maybe a bit of a battle with the people off Schofield Avenue area…You maybe had the odd scrap or something, the odd falling-out, but there was nowt serious, there was no pinching, no thieving or owt like that. And you didn’t damage or break things.

There’s a narrative here of youthful mischief but nothing more serious and it’s true, in those more innocent times, that the weapon of choice appeared to be ‘mud bombs’ rather than guns or knives. Implicit, sometimes explicit, is the belief that things have deteriorated:

It’s a very different estate now. [It changed] slowly over the years, you know, you can see things going really well [but] eventually from bad to worse really…

The instinct, my instinct at any rate, is to see these perceptions as rooted in nostalgia, as an understandable bias in the older residents typically interviewed in social histories to remember fondly their youth and lament subsequent changes. (3)

SN Coronation Close

Coronation Close, post-war housing for elderly people

That the Council has acted to ‘design out crime’ by closing off some of the back passages that formerly ran behind houses suggests either some rise in more serious anti-social behaviour or less tolerance for behaviour that, whilst not accepted, was once dealt more informally.

This narrative of decline brings us back to the question of council estates and working-class community.  There have, in the first instance, been objective changes.  Stefan Ramsden notes the desirability of council housing in the early post-war decades but, by the 1960s as home ownership became more affordable, council housing acquired a lower status.

SN Dennett Road

Dennett Road, Grovehill Estate

As ‘Janet Thompson’, born on the Swinemoor Estate in 1948, records: (4)

I think because you got a stigma with it…you were seen to be a lower class of people if you were in a council house. I don’t know why but that’s how it appeared to be…in the sixties… And the amount of people round about us that did the same thing…moved out.

Later, in the 1980s, others would buy their council homes and create something of the same status division within estates. Those still renting from the Council or from a housing association (in Beverley, now around nine percent of all households) were typically less skilled and proportionately more likely to be unemployed or on some kind of benefit.

SN Queen's Road

Queen’s Road flats, Swinemoor Estate

A broader perspective has accused council estates themselves of destroying working-class community but in Beverley, at least, both the oral histories and academic analysis suggest its estates were once highly sociable and ‘friendly’ places.

Stephanie Fish describes one annual highlight – the bonfire nights in Hotham Square (albeit ‘often “raided” beforehand by the neighbouring Cherry Tree Estate gangs’) – and the regular social events held in the local parish hall or in the Co-op’s rooms above its Grovehill Road shop.

SN Hotham Square

Hotham Square, Grovehill Estate

A similar recollection by Joan Binns, whose parents moved from Hotham Square in the pre-war Grovehill Estate to Coltman Avenue in 1952, illustrates how complex and contradictory is the attempt to ‘design’ community.  The well-meaning efforts of post-war planners seemed counter-productive here.  Her family were ‘very happy in their new home’, she remembers, but:

The Goth’s Lane Estate seemed very different to Hotham Square which is all straight lines and compact, whereas the Goth’s Lane Estate is all curves and wide spaces. In some ways this is very desirable, but I think it loses some of the ‘community spirit’ which are my happy memories of Hotham Square.

At any rate, Beverley’s estates were in overall terms highly sociable places.  It’s worth taking note of this when council estates have been so routinely and readily criticised as killing off just that ‘community spirit’ which allegedly resided in the ‘close-knit’ terraces from which so many of their residents moved.

SN Goth's Lane

Goth’s Lane flats

Beverley’s ‘small town’ feel may have been important in this and it’s worth quoting Ramsden at length: (5)

In places like Beverley, where new council estates were not so far from the old streets and where traditional industries entered a boom period in the post-war decades, this was a period in which local community had palpable meaning. Industrial workplaces continued to offer sufficient quantity and quality of employment to keep many young people from leaving the town, and therefore individuals’ local social networks were often a palimpsest of relationships and acquaintances built up over a lifetime.

But what Ramsden also notes is a labour market which broadly fulfilled working-class needs.  Ironically, it was the very success of the post-war economy with its full employment and rising living standards that brought about the ‘affluence’ so often considered as having killed off ‘working-class community’ in favour of more privatised and domesticated life-styles.

The negative view is summed up by the chair of the Swinemoor Residents Association: ‘[The estate is] far less community driven, far less friendly. Cosmetically it’s a lot better but there isn’t the neighbourhood feeling there used to be’.

SN Sigston Avenue

Sigston Avenue, Swinemoor Estate

It’s tempting to view the hedges and fences erected in Sigston Road noted in last week’s post as some kind of symbol of this and it’s true, as Ramsden’s detailed analysis substantiates and conventional wisdom suggests, that working-class men did begin – putting it crudely – to spend more time at home with their wives and children and less time at the pub. It’s true also that informal forms of neighbourly self-help declined as rising living standards and state agencies such as the National Health Service catered for needs previously met informally.

Keldgate 1905 East Riding Archives

Keldgate, 1905 (c) East Riding Archives

Perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that only romantics or revolutionaries lamenting the loss of an idealised working-class community rooted in the fundamental inhospitality of slum living would view these changes as a bad thing – but only a little.

In fact, as Ramsden argues: (6)

The decline in older-style neighbourhood sociability and mutuality was compensated by new forms, frequently conducted between relatives and friends who did not live on the same street but were scattered across the town.

In the final analysis, what we see is not ‘increasing “privatism”’ but ‘a more expansive sociability’ though one in Beverley still ‘anchored in locality’.

SN Queen's Road sheltered housing

New social housing: sheltered flats for the elderly on Queen’s Road

In conclusion, Ramsden condemns the ‘declinism’ – the assumption that some Golden Age of working-class community existed somehow ‘betrayed’ by later materialism and individualism – that contains, knowingly or otherwise, its own negative judgment of the working class.  That, in the context of this blog, is a judgment made particularly of the allegedly malign influence of council housing. (We might even take this one stage further and question why working-class people are held to standards of neighbourliness and sociability neither expected nor demanded of the middle class.)

We’ve ended up at some distance from the bricks and mortar of council housing’s prime achievement in this Yorkshire town as elsewhere: the provision of good and affordable homes for the many who needed them.  But it is, in my opinion, a necessary digression when so many of society’s supposed ills are laid at the door of what was in reality one of our greatest achievements.


My thanks to the East Riding Archives and Local Studies service for making the older photographs credited here and in last weeks post available on a Creative Commons licence.  You can find other historic photographs of Beverley and the surrounding area on their Flickr page.

(1) East Riding of Yorkshire Council, ‘I thought I’d never find town’: A history of council housing on Beverley’s Riding Fields (2006)

(2) Quoted in Stefan Ramsden, Working-Class Community in the Era of Affluence: Sociability and Identity in a Yorkshire Town, 1945-1980, University of Hull PhD thesis (2011). See also Ramsden, Working-class Community in the Age of Affluence (Routledge, 2017)

(3) This is fully discussed in Stefan Ramsden, ‘‘The community spirit was a wonderful thing’: On nostalgia and the politics of belonging’, Oral History, vol 44, no1, Spring 2016

(4) Stefan Ramsden, ‘Remaking working-class community: sociability, belonging and “affluence” in a small town, 1930-1980’, Contemporary British History, vol 29, no 1, 2015

(5) Ramsden, Working-Class Community in the Era of Affluence

(6) Ramsden, Working-Class Community in the Era of Affluence


Council Housing in Beverley: ‘Top notch in them days’


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If you visit Beverley, you’ll likely go to see the Gothic minster – the finest parish church in the land – and its beautifully conserved town centre.  It’s dubbed the Georgian Quarter now, a bit of tourist branding which in this case is fully justified.  But there’s an alternative history – of a small industrial town with an important working-class presence. And that, in the twentieth century, meant council housing, lots of it.

Market Place, Beverley c.1900s East Rding Archives

Beverley market place, c1900s (c) East Riding Archives

This post, naturally, focuses on the latter.  It tells the story of Beverley’s council estates and the people who lived on them which, for once, are unusually well recorded.  Next week’s post looks at the working-class community that the new housing spawned.

Grovehill shipyard 1950 East Riding Archives

Grovehill shipyard, 1950 (c) East Riding Archives

In the nineteenth century, Beverley, administrative and commercial capital of Yorkshire’s largely rural East Riding, had the industries typical of a town with its large agricultural hinterland. Surprisingly perhaps, from 1901 with the establishment of the Cook, Welton and Gemmell yard, a significant steel shipbuilding industry developed, at Grovehill on the River Hull to the east of the town. The company employed around 650 men into the 1950s until the yard closed down in 1976 with 180 redundancies. (1)

Factory workers Armstrongs 1940 East Riding Archives

Factory workers, Armstrongs, 1940s (c) East Riding Archives

By 1937, however, the town’s largest employer, was the Armstrong shock absorber works on Eastgate.  In the 1960s, the factory employed around 2000; it too closed in the 1970s. Together with Hodgson’s Tannery and other smaller works, Beverley – for all its county town ambience – had the largest industrial working class in the East Riding outside Hull.

For all this industry, Beverley remained a small town.  Before the First World War, its population stood at a little over 13,000 and it grew only slowly to 15,500 by 1951.  Nor did it suffer, in scale or concentration, the problems of working-class slum housing that affected Britain’s larger industrial towns.

Butcher Row, Beverley 1912 East Riding Archives

Butcher Row, 1912 (c) East Riding Archives

A 1901 survey enumerated 3046 inhabited houses and 3095 households in the town; an average of 4.3 persons per house.  In Beverley, the problem was not expanses of jerry-built Victorian terraces but infill – cottages in small clusters built in courts, backyards and alleys off the main streets of the historic centre: (2)

There were some examples of gross overcrowding, but not many: 191 houses had fewer than five rooms and more than five occupants. In the years 1901-14 the medical officer of health condemned an average of eight houses annually, but there was no policy of replacement. Pressure on housing was not seen as a major problem.

Ostensibly, not much had altered by 1919 when, of 2923 houses in the town designated ‘working-class’, 39 were classified ‘dilapidated’ (21 were empty), 115 suffered ‘marked’ overcrowding and 33 were occupied by more than one family.  This was hardly a housing crisis – except for those families affected – but the wider context had changed significantly.

That survey was a product of the 1919 Housing Act, itself a consequence of the First World War.  Housing was now at the top of the political agenda and ‘homes for heroes’ were intended both as a reward for working-class sacrifice in the war and as a sop to any revolutionary sentiments the working class might, in these turbulent times, harbour.

Crucially, the Act required that councils not only assess local housing needs but act on them.  Beverley Corporation was a largely Conservative authority at this time – the first official Labour candidates weren’t elected until 1951 – but it acted quickly on these new imperatives.

SN Warton Avenue

Concrete houses on Warton Avenue, Grovehill Estate

In 1920, the Council bought land on Grovehill Road (literally on the wrong side of the tracks – to the east of the Hull-Scarborough railway line) to build its first council homes.  By 1923, 88 concrete houses had been built on Neville Avenue, Warton Avenue and Routh Avenue; the use of concrete a reflection of post-war shortages of building materials and skilled labour.  A further 78 houses, conventionally brick-built, were added under the 1924 Housing Act on Schofield Avenue and Hotham Square.

By contemporary standards, these new homes were far from luxurious as one resident who moved into a house on Routh Avenue in 1942 recalls: (3)

Gas lights, the toilet and coalhouse in an outside lobby, the bath in a tiny room at the end of the kitchen. My mother used to stipple her walls, put borders around. [A neighbour’s] weren’t plastered, they were painted brick, dark brown at the bottom and cream at the top.

But they were, in nearly all cases, far superior to the privately-rented housing from which their residents moved.  In 1926, as the Corporation contemplated further land purchases and building, the mayor, Robert Harding Wood (a master butcher), reported: (4)

He was receiving a number of letters every day as well as personal visits asking for houses. Some of those who came to see him were living under conditions which were a disgrace to civilisation.

Bartlett Avenue

Bartlett Avenue and Champney Road

In the event, the Corporation purchased the town centre estate of the late Admiral Walker for £10,000. The big house served as municipal offices from 1930 until local government reorganisation in 1996 but an 8.5 acre portion of the land was dedicated to new council housing – some 119 houses principally along Champney Road and Central Avenue.

By 1930, the Council had built some 285 houses, a sizeable total for a town of its size, but fresh impetus to construction was provided by Labour’s 1930 Housing Act with its particular focus on slum clearance.  Despite the fact that only about half Beverley’s homes had water closets in 1934 (not until the later 1950s did all its houses enjoy this basic amenity), the Council’s clearance efforts were hindered in 1933 when 14 owners of condemned housing appealed successfully against demolition.

SN Riding Fields Square

Riding Fields Square, Cherry Tree Estate

Nevertheless, 126 houses were built between 1931 and 1933 on land to the west of the existing Grovehill Estate off Cherry Tree Lane. A further 128 houses were added in the last years of the decade but the outbreak of war prevented further construction on a new site, purchased in 1938, off Goth’s Lane to the north. The new houses were reserved to those who had been displaced by the Council’s slum clearance programme.

SN Greenwood Avenue 2

Greenwood Avenue, Cherry Tree Estate

Amongst the new streets – Hodgson Avenue, Thompson Avenue and Riding Fields Square – it’s nice to see a Greenwood Avenue named after Arthur Greenwood, Labour’s Minister of Health and Housing who had overseen the 1930 legislation.  Greenwood’s real recognition, however, comes in the memory of a resident who moved into a new home on Greenwood Avenue in 1940:

It was lovely really, top notch in them days. They had a toilet and bathroom, good heavens, a bathroom – we’d been used to bathing in a tub in front of the fire.

He moved again, in 1949, to a house on Thompson Avenue: ‘It was a bigger house, more modern…It had a proper living room and a kitchen and a dining room, and three bedrooms’.

Beverley, in sharp contrast to nearby Hull, was relatively unscathed by wartime bombing but its housing needs remained pressing in the post-war period. The town was allocated 75 prefabs at the end of 1944, sited – after some delay – off Goth’s Lane but by the following year around 900 remained on the waiting list. (5)

Larger and longer-term solutions were needed and these were announced by the Council in February 1946. On 130 acres of land, adjacent to the existing estates to the east, it planned: (6)

a modern estate of 800 houses with park and recreational sites, community centre, health centre, branch library, sub-post office, licensed house and shopping centre.

In addition, ten acres would be set aside to the East Riding Education Committee for two new schools and land was allocated for a park and recreational space, next to shops, in the middle of the new estate.

All this reflected the planning ideals of the post-war era – the ambition to create neighbourhood – and was a conscious corrective to what many now saw as the failure of pre-war estates to provide the facilities needed to promote community.  Locally, one correspondent to the Beverley Guardian in June 1945 had noted problems caused by moving people from central areas onto estates without community provision: ‘Where this is not done it is unfair for anyone to speak disparagingly of corporation house tenants’. (7)

Princes Gardens, Beverley, houses designated for slum clearance 1954 East Riding Archives

Prince’s Gardens, 1954, designated for slum clearance (c) East Riding Archives

Beverley reflected too the new thrust which dominated housing policy from the 1950s as immediate pressures for reconstruction eased – the desire to eradicate, for once and for all, the slum conditions in which so many still lived. A 1952 survey by the Council’s Medical Officer of Health slated 511 houses for immediate demolition and some 719 for later clearance.

SN Wilbert Court

Wilbert Court

Around 20 to 40 houses – mostly in the yards and alleys off the town centre’s main streets – were demolished annually in the fifties as new housing became available.  Beverley even ventured into the multi-storey living now becoming more typical though, in this case, it was just a single five- and six-storey block built nearer the centre on Wilbert Lane. Some three-storey blocks of flats and maisonettes were also built in the newer developments as it was increasingly realised that the two-storey family home staple of interwar construction failed to meet the range of contemporary housing needs.

By 1964, 1332 council homes had been built in Beverley since the war and in all council housing made up around one quarter of the town’s housing stock.  These were good homes too – a new resident on Coltman Avenue recalls:

These houses seemed very luxurious, a living room and separate dining room and well fitted kitchen, a spacious hall and three bedrooms with an upstairs bathroom.

On Burden Road, houses featured another innovation – the through lounge recommended by the Dudley Committee in its wide-ranging report on housing design and layout issued in 1944.

SN Coltman Avenue

Coltman Avenue, Goth’s Lane Estate. The image captures a little of the initially more open-plan nature of the newer schemes.

There was a self-conscious but modest modernism to the new estates and, in some way, a deliberately more ‘democratic’ feel.  (Ian Waites has captured this well in his writing on the Middlefield Estate in Gainsborough, a Lincolnshire town bearing close comparison to Beverley.) They were characterised by more open space and wider, curving roads – a contrast to the more boxy, rectangular forms which marked earlier schemes.

Bernard Walling, who moved into a house on Sigston Road in 1966, remembers it as:

very open plan, no hedges, no walls, no fences, there was small kerbstones at the pavement edge of the gardens and that idea was in those days – the whole of the estate was open plan…

That, as we’ll see, has changed over the years.  There’s far more what Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman would later call ‘defensible space’ now – enclosed, privatised areas fenced off as front gardens, hard standing for cars and the like – but the road and others around it retain something of this original form and ethos.

In next week’s post, we’ll take this exploration of working-class community and its changing forms further.


My thanks to the East Riding Archives and Local Studies service for making the older photographs credited available on a Creative Commons licence.  You can find other historic photographs of Beverley and the surrounding area on their Flickr page.

(1) Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, Cook, Welton and Gemmell

(2) AP Baggs, LM Brown, GCF Forster, I Hall, RE Horrox, GHR Kent and D Neave, A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, ‘Political and Social History, 1835-1918

(3) East Riding of Yorkshire Council, ‘I thought I’d never find town’: A history of council housing on Beverley’s Riding Fields (2006). Other direct quotations from residents are taken from the same source.

(4) ‘A Beverley Estate. Town Council’s New Building Site’, Hull Daily Mail, 13 April 1926

(5) ‘Beverley Council and Temporary Houses’, Hull Daily Mail, 19 July 1945. For waiting list figures, see ‘Ex-Serviceman in Council House’, Yorkshire Post, 20 November 1946

(6) ‘New Housing Estate for Beverley. A Community Centre’, Hull Daily Mail, 25 February 1946

(7) Quoted in Stefan Ramsden, Working-Class Community in the Era of Affluence: Sociability and Identity in a Yorkshire Town, 1945-1980, University of Hull PhD thesis (2011).  See also Ramsden, Working-class Community in the Age of Affluence (Routledge, 2017)


Council Estate Pubs: ‘Never drink in a pub with a flat roof’



I’m very pleased to feature this week a guest post – a meditation on the estate pub – from Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. Jessica and Ray blog about beer and pubs at and their new book, 20th Century Pub, is out now.  (A thoroughly researched, informative and enjoyable read – I recommend it.) They’re on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @boakandbailey.

Since we started working on our book 20th Century Pub which includes a chapter on post-war estate pubs we’ve had one line quoted at us more than any other: ‘Never drink in a pub with a flat roof.’ It’s generally attributed to comedian Sean Lock but has the quality of a well-worn aphorism – an ultra-condensed summary of all the problems and perceptions of pubs built to serve social housing. That is, that they are ugly, probably half-rotten, and too dangerous for anyone halfway respectable to consider entering.


The Valley, Colleyhurst, Manchester

Depending on who is expressing this point of view it can sound like snobbery but, equally, there is perhaps a tendency among aesthetes – the kind of people who swoon at tower blocks as sculptural objects – and nostalgic sentimentalists (like us) to ignore the human reality of the situation.

Lynsey Hanley’s 2007 book Estates touches on pubs only briefly. Emotionally over-attached to pubs as we are, however, we found ourselves bridling at a commentary which identifies the pub near her East London flat as a nexus for anti-social behaviour. Its car park, she writes, is a ‘slump of dead space’; she and her fellow residents resent ‘the noise pollution pumped out by the pub’ – the breaking of bottles against its walls, the fighting, the sirens. We wanted to argue with her: the pub isn’t the problem! The pub could be part of the solution! Pubs, targeted relentlessly by the great and good of the temperance and improvement lobby for the last 150 years, don’t need the people who live alongside them to join in the kicking.


The Crane, Basildon

That feeling is all the more acute because of the fact that when many estates were built a prime complaint levelled against them, by both residents and critics of planned communities, was the lack of social amenities. City slum dwellers were left stranded on estates and in new towns where there was no third space between work and home.


The Crane, Basildon: interior

Writing in his 1964 book The Other England journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse reflected on why people in Durham seemed to prefer the old slum district of Shotton, ‘close and compact and ingrowing as a defective toenail’, to the ‘sweeping, lofty and wide open’ new town of Peterlee:

At the moment, whereas Shotton has five pubs, five working men’s clubs, and a cinema, Peterlee hasn’t even got a cinema. The ones who do come, so they say in Peterlee, very often stay for only a year or two, until a cottage becomes available in their old village, and then they’re back off to it with without any apparent regrets of the exchange of a modern semi for a period piece straight out of the industrial revolution.

The lack of pubs on estates in the first part of the 20th century was often a direct result of the temperance instinct: pubs were of the slum and if people were to be rescued from that environment and culture, the drier the sanctuary the better. That debate continued in the period after World War II with serious consideration given to nationalising any pubs to be built in new towns and a determined lobby that thought building any pubs at all was on par with providing, say, council-sponsored opium dens.

But, in the absence of pubs, people learned to live without them, developing new routines centred round the home, the garden, the allotment, the church, or the community centre.


The Willow Tavern, Failsworth, Manchester

When pubs did arrive on post-war estates, if they ever did, there were usually fewer per head than the old neighbourhoods the residents had known, and they were often fatally plain. In the abstract, or through a nostalgic filter, there is much to appreciate in a straight-edged modernist pub building designed to let in the light and wipe clean with ease. In practice, most were designed that way not out of idealism but pragmatism – a response to lingering wartime building restrictions, and the desire of breweries in an ever more aggressively competitive climate to quickly, cheaply replenish their arsenals of pubs. But drinkers don’t want pubs to be bright, boxy and modernistic – they want corners, cosiness, umbered shadows and a patina just one degree south of outright grot. Character, in other words.


The Willow Tavern: lounge bar

And so many of these unlovely, unloved pubs became tattier but no more charming, the preserve of the hardest and hardest drinking – less welcoming to women and children than even the backstreet pubs they were intended to improve upon. The Flying Shuttle in Bolton, to pick just one example, was named ‘the roughest pub in Britain’ when in 2012 it was finally raided by police in the wake of persistent drug dealing and evidence that staff were allowing drinkers to stay long past the scheduled closing time, afraid to offend violent customers by calling last orders. Pubs can be wonderful centres for communities but they can’t fix or form a community where one has collapsed or failed to coalesce for other reasons.

Of course not all pubs on estates are like this but struggle nonetheless. When an ordinary pint of beer in a nondescript pub cost at least £3, most of it tax, it becomes effectively a luxury purchase – a hard sell to those who might be struggling to pay for essentials and who, anyway, can buy cheaper (possibly better) beer at the supermarket, or in Wetherspoon’s on the high street. The unpretentious pub among the chimney pots is squeezed from every direction.

In 2015 Historic England began a project to catalogue surviving post-war pubs and raise awareness of their fragility. Based on our observation in various parts of England while researching the book it feels as if they might be too late. In the last decade or so many estate pubs have finally reached the end of their short lives and have burned down, closed down, collapsed, or been converted into supermarkets or nurseries – amenities that are perhaps more useful on many estates, and certainly less likely to lead to anti-social behaviour.


Customers in the public bar

Still, it is sad to see these symbols of a more optimistic time go, especially when, as at Sydenham in Bridgwater, Somerset, entire estates are quite suddenly left entirely publess. Estates with no pubs might be quieter and easier to police but only in the same way bricking up windows saves on the cost of cleaning them.

You’ll find full details on the book and how and where to order it here on Jessica and Ray’s blog.   

20th C Pub



North Oxfordshire: The ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ and their first council houses, Part II


I’m pleased to feature the second of Jane Kilsby’s superbly researched and illustrated guest posts on some of the finest rural council homes in the country. Last week’s post examined the background to their construction; this week’s details their form and tells the story of those who designed and built them.

Banbury Rural District Council (BRDC) in North Oxfordshire did not build any council houses before 1914.  In part I, we saw how the council members, the ‘Foxhunters, Farmers and Parsons’, made a decision to build before the outbreak of war but were overtaken by events. (1)  Then, with the Addison Act of 1919 to spur them on and in the space of 18 months, they built 170 houses for the benefit of local farmworkers and returning soldiers.

Courtington Lane

Courtington Lane, Bloxham. Photograph June 2017

BRDC’s first council houses are only a fraction of the 170,000 or so completed in the early tranche under Addison, but they were described at that time as ‘the best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country’. (2)  Let’s have a look at who designed and built these stylish, comfortable houses.

BRDC had clear ideas about the type of houses they wanted to build.  They wanted to see stone, not bricks, and local Hornton stone at that.  They wanted the houses to be in or very close to each village with attractive views over the countryside and large gardens.  High ground was their preference for ‘healthy homes’.

Sanitary Inspector, Mr Gander put himself forward as architect.  He had done some training in an architect’s office before the War and had valuable local knowledge.  The Housing Committee was pleased to make him their architect on a salary of £150 per year on condition that he appoint his son – still in the army – full time to help with all of his duties: Surveyor, Sanitary Inspector and now architect.  The Committee’s appointment, however, was very quickly revoked.  Councillor Crawford-Wood said:

 the public are disgusted with this piling up of dual and triplicate offices on one man when other men require jobs.

The Local Government Board’s Housing Inspector agreed with their decision.   His advice was to take on a qualified architect; any additional salary that would have been paid to Mr Gander would not be covered by the Local Government Board loan.   As Councillor Dr Thorne put it, we will ‘have to get an architect with a grand brass plate in front of his house’.

And so they did.  The council decided to appoint an ‘architect who has served in HM Forces and whose work has been interfered with so doing’.  They approached the Architect’s War Committee – set up by RIBA to find work for architects returning from the War – and received ‘the names of four gentlemen recently demobilised to carry out the architect’s work’.  Mr T Lawrence Dale of Richmond produced his drawings and testimonials at interview.  Very impressed, the Council appointed him with the proviso that he could start at once and would open an office in Banbury.  The Council agreed to pay him the RIBA-recommended fees (£2500) and reimbursed him his first class rail fare from London.  Dale opened an office at 6 Horse Fair and took on an assistant at £6 a week.

Thomas Lawrence Dale (1884-1959) was born in London.  He trained at The Architectural Association School of Architecture, the AA.  He qualified in 1906 and became an Associate of RIBA the following year.  In 1914 he had his own practice in Bedford Row.  A Captain with the Army Cyclists Corps, he was mentioned in despatches.  Before the War his commissions included houses in Hampstead Garden Suburb and Horn Park in Dorset, now Grade II listed.

Drawing T Lawrence Dale

A drawing by T Lawrence Dale of a terrace of four houses appeared in the Banbury Guardian in 1919. A terrace of four houses was built for BRDC in 1920 by Henry Meckhonik of London.

Lawrence Dale's name

Lawrence Dale’s name in the render of one of the houses in The Firs, Wroxton

The summer of 1919 was a whirl of activity.  The Housing Committee met fortnightly with an earlier start time of 10.30AM.  Mr Dale’s plans were approved by the Local Government Board, BRDC appointed a Housing Clerk and land deals were done across the district.

The council had an initial loan of £122,270 for the building work and the land.  Terms of repayment were variable; a 60 year repayment period at 6 per cent interest was typical.  The Council needed temporary loans from its own banker, however, pending the raising of permanent loans, indicating the pace and extent of their activity.   Rents needed the Ministry’s approval; in 1920 the rent for a parlour type house was 7s 6d a week, non-parlour houses were 6s a week.

Dr Addison, MP and Minister of Health wrote to the Council in July expressing his appreciation of their progress.

Ten houses Upper Wardington SN

The ten houses in Upper Wardington were the first to be completed. They were let by Christmas 1920. Photograph June 2017.

Housing Committee tour SN

The Housing Committee had made a tour of these houses in August 1920

Lawrence Dale designed at least two distinct types of houses for BRDC: the ‘A1 south’ type and the ‘Cropredy’ type.  The A1 south type has ‘a parlour, large living room, kitchen range grate, cement-floored scullery, a washhouse with a boiler and space for a bath and a shed for fuel and potatoes.’  There were rainwater tanks with a capacity of 200 gallons outside at the back of each house.  The Cropredy type has a larger entrance hall and steel window frames.

Three pairs of semis South Newington SN

There are three pairs of semis of the ‘A1 south’ type in South Newington. BRDC bought the land from Magdalen College for £175 in 1919. The building included the provision of a septic tank. Photograph June 2017.

A ‘cottage’ non-parlour style was also used, for example, in Adderbury.  Some of the developments contain a mix of styles, at Hook Norton, Drayton and Milcombe, for example.

Cropredy type Barford St Michael SN

The ‘Cropredy’ type houses in Barford St Michael have flank walls of brick. A well was sunk here by the contractor, another local builder, A Hopcraft and Sons of Deddington. Photograph June 2017.

Cottage style semi East Adderbury SN

Cottage-style semi in The Crescent, East Adderbury. 200 men from Adderbury and Milton went to the War. These houses were let specifically to returning soldiers and their families. (6) Photograph June 2017.

Pair of semis Milton

A pair of semis in Milton, with very large front gardens, built by the Harpenden Building Co.  Photograph June 2017

Houses in Mollington

The houses in Mollington are in the centre of the village and on higher ground. Lawrence Dale grouped houses together as much as possible ‘on the assumption that neighbours should also be friends’ (2). Photograph July 2017

Some of the cottages have names carved in a stone lintel above the front door.  Thisbe and Pyramus Cottages are in Wroxton and the six in Cropredy were all named to commemorate the Battle of Cropredy Bridge, 1644.  Charles, Cleveland, Cavalier, Culverin, Kentish and Waller Cottages are in Chapel Close.

Every house had a garden of not less than a quarter of an acre, double the Ministry of Health’s requirement for new rural houses.  Council-built housing was a brand new concept in these villages: there was a concern that a lot of people thought that they would not be allowed to build pig sties.  The Banbury Advertiser reported the Chairman’s insistence that:

where there was a large garden there should be a sty.  He hoped the Press would note that there were no conditions of any kind whatever which prevented tenants putting up pig-sties.

The Banbury Guardian of 26 August 1920 was very complimentary:

The old idea of building a modern cottage was to put up four straight walls with a sort of box roof, the whole being severely plain, and, if economical, was exceedingly ugly.  The council set out to resist the promulgation of these atrocities and the Housing Committee through their architect, Mr Dale, have produced cottages which do not detract from the picturesqueness of the villages, as was dreaded would happen when new buildings were called for.

The article noted too the striking form of the new houses:

the fronts, sides, and in some instances the backs, are of stone up to the roof, which is the mansard type, that is it breaks the front and back lines and is continued down over the first floor, but at a greatly reduced angle so that it does not curtail the space inside.

Walton Close, Bodicote SN

Walton Close, Bodicote. This site was one of the very few that had a water supply before the houses were built. Photograph June 2017

Mansard roofs Horley

All of the Lawrence Dale houses have mansard, ‘cat slide’ type roofs. The houses in Horley have Hornton stone on all sides. Photograph June 2017.

There is no need to describe the interior of the houses when we have the film. The Hook Norton Village website includes 24 Square Miles Re-visited made in 1992.

This shorter film of highlights includes footage of the houses in Tadmarton.  At about 9 minutes 22 seconds in, the film stresses that in 1944 the houses still had sinks but no taps and indoor toilets that were only a bucket.  As BRDC knew only too well, good houses are only as good as their location and their water supply. (3)

Tadmarton houses

The Tadmarton houses are on the hill in the distance, as in the film Twenty Four Square Miles. Mrs Summers, a widow who lost two sons in the War, was the first tenant of no 6. Photograph July 2017

Henry Boot steps into our story in 1920.  Joiner and builder from Sheffield, he set up his company in 1886 and achieved rapid expansion.  The company was the first building company to be listed on the London Stock Exchange.  In the same year, 1919, Boot’s eldest son, Charles, took the lead.  With a keen interest in house building, his company’s prospectus of 1919 refers to the ‘immense field for commercial enterprise opened up by this enormous volume of construction’. (4)

Henry Boot

Henry Boot (1851-1931). Photograph with the kind permission of Henry Boot PLC.

Building contracts under the Addison Act started with an average size of 40 dwellings and, for contracting purposes, most local authorities split any planned large estates into small lots and this suited the building firms operating at the end of the War.  As more councils began to build – there were 4,400 ministry-approved council housing schemes by 1922 – they needed economy of scale and speed.

With inflation and a scarcity of labour and materials, many smaller firms struggled to get finance.  The work was there but they needed capital to get their schemes off the ground.  BRDC had some experience of this; there were no difficulties with quality but some tender advertisements had a poor response.

Crucially, £300,000 raised as capital through their flotation gave Henry Boot & Sons the edge.  The company was able to take advantage of the option to submit prices for groups of villages.

Banbury Guardian noticeIn April 1920 the Housing Commissioner received a proposal from Henry Boot that the company take on all of BRDC’s remaining sites and those of adjoining districts, including Towcester RDC.  Boot’s offer was accepted.  Charles Boot hosted a meeting at his London office in July attended by the Housing Commissioner, Lawrence Dale and Mr Fisher to thrash out details of the contract, including an agreement that the council would pay for building materials as and when they were delivered on site.

Boot & Sons built 128 of the 170 houses.  Operating concurrently on 16 sites, the value of their contract was £126,934.  Their work included the larger sites e.g. at Hook Norton (26 houses), Tadmarton (14), East Adderbury (22).  Local carpenter, Percy Alcock, quickly became Boots’ foreman and then site agent for all 16 sites.

Houses under construction Horley SN

Houses under construction in Horley, 1920. Percy Alcock, Henry Boot’s site agent, is on the far left. One of the first lettings was to a Mr Green who had lived in an old cottage on this site. Photograph with the kind permission of PR Alcock and Sons.

Henry Boot and Sons render

Henry Boot & Sons (London) Ltd in the render of a house at The Firs, Wroxton

Pointing by Mr Cronk

Distinctive ‘snail-creep’ pointing by stonemason Mr Cronk (employed by Boot & Sons) on the front of one of the houses in Shutford Road, North Newington. This is said to be very high quality ‘snail-creep’, an unusual technique in buildings faced with Hornton stone. There are BRDC 1921 plaques on many of the houses.

With so much going on, transport became an issue.  Mr Gander was already using a council-owned motor-bicycle; the council bought a Ford light van and a motor-bicycle and side-car for Boots’ foremen on condition that they would be auctioned at the end of the contract.

Three pairs of semis Great Bourton

There are three pairs of semis in The Close, Great Bourton. BRDC acquired this site under a compulsory purchase order. A shortage of tiles led to a delay in completion. Photograph June 2017.

By August 1922, all 170 houses (106 parlour type and 64 non parlour) were complete and let.  Notices were put up in the villages asking anyone who was interested in a tenancy to get in touch with the Clerk to the Council, Mr Fisher.  The council tried to offer the houses to local people from the same villages, with preference given to people who had served in the War.

And what did they all do next?

The ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ continued to build council houses.  Their later additions made use of the Ministry of Health’s standard house designs.  Their successors, in tweeds, are portrayed towards the end of Twenty-Four 24 Square Miles.

Mr Gander retired through ill health in November 1921.  BRDC was so appreciative of his loyalty that they kept him on as a Consulting Surveyor at £75 per year.  What’s sauce for the goose?  He died in 1925.

Edward Lamley Fisher, MBE, BRDC’s first Clerk, retired after 55 years of service.  As Superintendent Registrar he had officiated at over 3000 marriages.  In January 1945 at a party to celebrate his 50th anniversary at the council, his colleagues recalled the ‘extremely interesting and happy days just after the last great war…working with Mr Fisher on matters appertaining to the selection of sites for council houses’.

Lawrence Dale had a successful career; he became Oxford Diocesan Surveyor in the 1930s, designing and renovating parish churches.

Ickford Village Hall

Ickford Village Hall, Buckinghamshire, designed by T Lawrence Dale and Simon Dale in 1946; a style that will be familiar to residents of BRDC’s first council houses.

Charles Boot died in 1945 but not before Henry Boot & Sons had built more houses between the wars, public and private, in the UK than any other company.  They built 20,000 council houses before 1930.  With offices in Paris, Athens and Barcelona, the company diversified very successfully into building hospitals and bridges.  They built Pinewood Studios in 1935.  Henry Boot plc today specialises in commercial buildings and plant hire.

Laid off at the end of the Boot contract, site agent Percy Alcock formed his own company in 1922 with Cronk, the stonemason.  PR Alcock & Sons continues today from their Banbury yard, carrying out high quality restoration and joinery works on period houses and churches and for the National Trust.

The houses themselves stand in settled peace.  Most of them have been sold under the Right to Buy and change hands infrequently, the parlour types at a minimum of £450k.  Sanctuary Housing Group manages those available for rent, for Cherwell District Council.  There are interesting examples of the use of the huge plots but most of the gardens remain intact.  Some of the houses are in Conservation Areas.

Wykham Lane, Broughton

Wykham Lane, Broughton. The 1920s gardens were wide enough to accommodate new bungalows built in the 1950s. Photograph June 2017.

So, are these the ‘best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country?’  They are probably not the cheapest.  The 1920 Fabian Tract on Housing puts the average cost of a parlour-type house, at January 1920, at £803 per house, excluding the cost of the land, road-making and sewerage. (5)

BRDC had a ‘rule of thumb’ – house and land price – of £1,000 for each architect-designed cottage.  The council’s accounts were done separately for each site: the Sibford Gower site of six parlour-type houses, for instance, cost a total of £4,945 15s 1d – that’s £824 5s 10d per house – very close to the Fabian average.  Whether BRDC’s costs were included in the Fabians’ calculation is unclear.  Value for money?  Certainly.

South Newington

South Newington. Photograph June 2017.

Thisbe and Pyramus Cottage Wroxton

Thisbe and Pyramus Cottage, The Firs, Wroxton. Photograph June 2017.

Old council houses, Horley

The Old Council Houses, Horley. Photograph June 2017

The best?  I can do no more than continue to quote from the Banbury Guardian’s description in August 1920, when the first houses were nearing completion:

the use of the word cottage seems hardly correct…the new houses might be called bijou villas.


(1) A phrase used by Arthur Gregory of SW1 in a letter to the Banbury Advertiser published 13 March 1919.  ‘The foxhunters, farmers and parsons have monopolised the councils far too long, and it is time the co-operator, smallholder and the officials of the Agricultural and Workers’ Unions took their place and do what they can in the interest of progress’.

(2) Banbury Guardian, 26 August 1920

(3) 24 Square Miles Re-Visited a film made by South News, distributed by Trilith Films, 1992

(4) RPT Davenport-Hines (ed), Business in the Age of Depression and War (Routledge, 1990).  Includes Cash and Concrete: Liquidity Problems in the Mass Production of ‘Homes for Heroes’ by Sheila Marriner.

(5) CM Lloyd, Housing, Fabian Tract No. 193 (1920), p11

(6) Nicholas Allen, Adderbury: A Thousand Years of History (Phillimore & Co.Ltd, 1995)

Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser and Banbury Guardian between 1911 and 1925 held by the British Newspaper Archive.

My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for making available the BRDC council minutes from 1921.


North Oxfordshire: The ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ and their first council houses, Part I


I’m very pleased to include, this week and next, guest posts by Jane Kilsby. They feature some great research and, as you’ll see, some quite exceptional rural council housing.  Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury four years ago.  She wrote about Banbury’s first council homes in an earlier post

‘The best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country.’  This was the verdict of ‘one who has had opportunities of seeing many of the housing schemes in progress in different parts’. (1)

I don’t know who paid this astonishing compliment; I like to think it was one of the Local Government Board’s Housing Commissioners, sent to North Oxfordshire in August 1920 to check on progress under Addison’s council house building programme.  This is the story of how they came about.

North Oxfordshire has a quiet beauty.  Its ‘hummocky hills’ are set among vast fields of green and gold, interspersed with villages and grand estates.  Banbury’s fertile, rural hinterland is a place of calm prosperity.  Since the Civil War, nothing of any significance has happened here.

Fields near Tadmarton SN

Fields near Tadmarton. Photograph July 2017

Farming has always been the chief activity.  In the 19th century, grain, hay, straw, malt and beer went to London and Birmingham via Banbury’s canal and railway.  Until the 1920s, carriers’ carts provided the only link with Banbury market and great droves of cattle and sheep made their way to the Market Place, as they had done for centuries.

By 1914 Oxfordshire was suffering the full impact of the agricultural depression which had begun in the 1870s.  With cheaper imported grain and meat and a run of poor harvests, the county slipped from being one of the richest to one of the poorest; farm workers’ wages were the lowest in England.  In summer, life in these villages could be very pleasant indeed.  But, for many farmworkers, there were times of insecurity and isolation.

The local building stone is Middle Lias marlstone, containing iron and known as Hornton stone.  It is this that gives this district its distinct appeal.  Many villages had their own quarries.  Thatched cottages are still common.

Villages were pretty
The villages were, and still are, undoubtedly pretty. Many cottages survive from the 17th century. Wroxton.  Photograph July 2017

The Agricultural Economics Research Institute of the University of Oxford made a thought-provoking film in 1944, Twenty-Four Square Miles, directed by Kay Mander. (2) It examines farming and village life in this area during World War II.  Life here during World War I was surely very similar, if a little harsher.

The film highlights how time-consuming and physically demanding it was to collect water for domestic use and the complete absence of plumbing as we know it today. Until the 1950s most of the North Oxfordshire villages did not have a piped and safe water supply.  Villagers used wells, the one or two public taps in each village, springs and shared earth closets.

Footage of the district council’s first council houses appears at about 19-21 minutes in, but more of that later.

Banbury Rural District Council (BRDC) was formed as a result of the Local Government Act of 1894 and comprised most of what was previously the Banbury rural sanitary district.  The Council was made up of 33 representatives from 31 parishes.  In 1911 the population was 11,457.  BRDC was dissolved and became part of Cherwell District Council in 1974.

Rev Blythman

Rev Blythman, chairman of the BRDC 1902-1917, was rector of Shenington for 57 years. Photograph by courtesy of the Oxfordshire History Centre.

The Council members – the ‘foxhunters, farmers and parsons’ (3) – were well-connected.  Rev. Arthur Blythman, was the Chairman from 1902 to 1917.  Rector of Shenington, a Balliol man, magistrate and lifelong friend of the Earl of Jersey, Blythman was described in the local newspapers as a man who ‘unremittingly gave every possible attention, in every detail to every section of the community, whatever their political or religious creed.’

Chief foxhunter among them, James Crawford-Wood of Alkerton House, was a columnist with The Field.  Colonel North of Wroxton Abbey, Lord North’s family seat, spent years away on active service and returned to his council duties in 1919.  In the early 20th century the Rural District Council had its offices in Horse Fair in Banbury.  Council meetings were always on Thursdays, market day.

Party politics and policy statements do not feature in newspaper reports of the council’s meetings.  However, improving living conditions in their district appears to have been the councillors’ general aim and they were interested in practicalities.  Their first two decades were spent grappling with drains, sewers, cesspools, flooding, pumps, springs and wells. MapThe council’s first Clerk was Edward Lamley Fisher.  He was appointed in 1895.  Solicitor, Registrar and Clerk to the Poor Law Board of Guardians, he is credited in the local newspapers for his knowledge, humour and urbane manner.

Initially, poor housing conditions in rural areas received little attention at Government level; politicians of both parties were accused of ‘neglecting absolutely the agricultural question and were intoxicated with industrial success’ but the housing of agricultural labourers and rural poverty was a matter of longstanding concern to the reforming Liberal Government of 1906-1914. (4)

Lloyd George conceived the Land Enquiry in May 1912 and part of its remit was to establish what the stumbling blocks were in improving conditions for farmworkers.  It had little difficulty in establishing that rural housing conditions were appalling.  Wages were lower than in urban areas, rents were relatively high and landlords were often unable or unwilling to improve living conditions.  Its report of 1913 put forward a number of solutions ranging from a reformed Land Tax, subsidies for Councils to build cottages and the wider encouragement of smallholdings.  The Great War was to intervene before a coherent set of reforms on the ‘land question’ could be put in to practice.

The ‘land question’ was a complex subject of much debate in rural areas.  Through Lord Saye and Sele of Broughton Castle, a Liberal, there was a local connection with the National Land and Home League, a non-party organisation formed in 1910 that wanted to improve rural life.  He organised and chaired a number of the League’s meetings held in Oxfordshire to discuss rural development policies.

The Housing Acts were in place and applied to rural areas.  The 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act allowed councils to clear slums and draw up improvements of their own.  The 1900 Housing of the Working Classes Act extended the 1890 Act of the same name to places outside London, allowing councils to build houses.  Importantly, the 1910 Housing and Town Planning Act made it easier for councils to borrow money cheaply.

Between 1910 and 1914 there were some 1300 cottages built by councils in English villages.  Not many councils made use of their new powers to build and let out their own houses.  There are, however, some interesting examples of cottages built for rural workers by councils and through the strenuous efforts of local reformers.  For example, in Ixworth, Suffolk, and Penshurst in Kent.

BRDC, however, had only a growing awareness of its poor housing.  By 1913 Henry Gander, Sanitary Inspector and Surveyor since 1900, was doing house to house inspections in every village, with particulars of over 1000 houses in his ‘housing book’.  The Medical Officer for Health, Dr Morton, reported regularly on sanitation and housing; outbreaks of diphtheria and scarlet fever were not uncommon and the council issued some closure orders on old cottages.  The work of the Sanitary Inspectors is explained in earlier posts by Dr Jill Stewart.

The ‘Foxhunters, Farmers and Parsons’ of BRDC were well-meaning and perhaps unaccustomed to outside opinion.  It took a government inspection of the condition of the district for the council to adopt its housing powers.  A fresh pair of eyes on the housing conditions, in the form of a housing inspection and a report from the Local Government Board, was what led the council to decide to build.

In April 1913 the Clerk, Mr Lamley Fisher, received a letter from the Local Government Board asking the council why it had not built anything yet.  Without a satisfactory answer, the Board wrote again in January 1914:

An Inspector was to make an inspection of the District with the purpose of obtaining ‘information respecting the housing accommodation.  He should commence his inspection on Tuesday 27th inst, and would call at Mr Fisher’s office.

OFSTED-like, the Inspector expected Dr Morton and Mr Gander to meet him there.

BRDC Offices

The offices of the Banbury Rural District Council, built in 1900 and now a nursery, are in Horse Fair, Banbury, opposite Banbury Cross.  Photograph August 2017.

Mr Gander reported on the Inspector’s visit to the Council’s next meeting.  He had shown his housing book to the Inspector and hoped that the Inspector had seen that he was doing the work as it should be done.  Councillor Page remarked:

I suppose the Local Government Board have not very much for these Inspectors to do, so they send them round for exercise?

But, on 30 April 1914 Courtenay Clifton –  the Local Government Board Inspector who had overseen the achievements of BRDC’s municipal counterparts at King’s Road in Banbury in 1912-13 – sent his report to Mr Fisher.

It put an end to BRDC’s dithering.  In the Board’s view, there was an urgent demand for more houses in Cropredy, Hornton and Wardington.  A house in Hornton had been closed by the council as unfit for human habitation three years ago but re-occupied in its same condition because the tenants were unable to find other accommodation in the parish.

The Board urged the District Council to provide accommodation themselves, under Part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890, adding that ‘it should be possible at these places to devise schemes that would be nearly, if not quite, self-supporting.’

Further, the Board knew about cases of overcrowding in Barford St John, Barford St Michael, Bloxham, Milton and West Adderbury and expected the Council to take immediate action.  There was disrepair: damp walls and floors in Bloxham, East Adderbury, Shutford, Epwell and North Newington.  Councillor Pettipher remarked:

in all probability we will have to face the music in one or two of the villages before long.

Almost every parish was named in the Board’s report.  The council spent the summer debating where houses were most needed and how to pay for them.  Parishes overburdened with the cost of sewerage schemes were reluctant to agree that ‘the cost of any new houses not met by the rents be charged to the parish concerned’.

By the time war had broken out, the Local Government Board had written to BRDC another three times asking for progress.  Rev Blythman had been to several sites but negotiations on land prices proved tricky.  The council decided to wait until June 1915 which they felt would be ‘a more propitious time.’

War memorial SN

The memorial in Alkerton is a simple piece of Hornton stone. The population of the village in 1911 was 102. Cllr Crawford-Wood lost both his sons in the First World War. Photograph August 2017.

The Local Government Board began working on reconstruction as early as August 1917.  Dr Addison, MP was Lloyd-George’s Minister for Reconstruction during the latter years of the War and then from June 1918, as Minister for Health, it fell to him to put into practice an extensive programme of state-led house building.

Addison aimed to put an end to the country’s poor housing stock and provide decent homes for those returning from the War.  The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, known as the Addison Act, gave local councils powers to build unlimited numbers of new houses at low, controlled rents with any losses on their building costs met by government subsidies.  Loans raised by councils did not have to cover the whole cost of housing schemes; this was the start of publicly-funded housing.

ln North Oxfordshire, local opinion anticipated Lloyd-George’s cry for homes for heroes: in June 1918 Clement Gibbard, late of the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry, wrote to the Banbury Guardian:

I suggest, to commemorate victory in this awful war, every village should place a brand new cottage for every man who has been out to fight for liberty, so that the health and comfort of the rural community would be happier and healthier in the future than it has been in the past.  In comparison to the number of people per acre there is as much illness in the rural districts as there is in large towns.  The Irish recruits have been promised land if they will join up, then why should not we England lads get a victory sanitary cottage for helping to save the Empire.

The Local Government Board’s Housing Commissioner wanted a new survey of every District detailing for each parish i) the present estimated shortage of houses, ii) the actual state of overcrowding, and iii) the number of houses that should be condemned if there were no other houses available for accommodating the persons displaced.  BRDC was ready for this and duly complied.  By July 1918 the Housing Committee was able to confirm that, ‘on the assumption that financial facilities will be afforded by the Government, that a scheme be prepared for submission to the Local Government Board at an early date’. 

There was no more procrastination or debate: the council knew they were on a tight timetable.  Poor housing conditions in the district before the War had become critical; a pent up demand for farmworkers cottages and for returning soldiers and their families had become a necessity.  The day after the Armistice, the Chairman, by then Joseph Pettipher, went out with Sanitary Inspector, Mr Gander, making use of Mr Gander’s motor-bicycle and petrol:

to ascertain what land is suitable for building purposes, reporting to the Clerk from time to time in order that he may be in a position to put himself into communication with the owners of such land and the terms on which such land can be acquired.

It may not be quite true that you can walk from Oxford to Cambridge without leaving land owned by the colleges, but the Oxford colleges owned a lot of land in North Oxfordshire.(5)  The colleges co-operated and a number of housing sites, such as in Milcombe, were purchased directly from them.

Building was underway very quickly.

South Newington builders 1920

The houses in South Newington under construction in 1920. Built by Wheeler Bros. of Reading, two of the builders appear to be in uniform. Photo with kind permission of Laurence Carey.

House building by councils was one of the numerous aspects of society changed forever by the Great War.  In a remarkable burst of activity, BRDC had built and let 170 houses by 1922; it had a rent roll of almost £3,000 and outstanding loans from the Local Government Board of £178,000.

Cropredy Close SN

In early 1919 a letter signed by 25 discharged soldiers and the vicar in Cropredy urged the Council to speed up a housing scheme in the village. Three pairs of semis were built in Chapel Close in 1921. Photograph June 2017.

In part II, we will look in detail at who designed and built BRDC’s first council houses and wonder whether these are indeed the ‘best and cheapest houses in any rural district in the country’.


(1) Banbury Guardian, 26 August 1920

(2) Twenty-Four Square Miles, a film by Basic Films, 1946

(3) A phrase used by Arthur Gregory of SW1 in a letter to the Banbury Advertiser published 13 March 1919. ‘The foxhunters, farmers and parsons have monopolised the councils far too long, and it is time the co-operator, smallholder and the officials of the Agricultural and Workers’ Unions took their place and do what they can in the interest of progress.’

(4) W Hills, M.P. for Durham, at his talk in Banbury on 9 April 1914 on ‘The Rural Worker: His Work, Housing and Wages.’

(5) What do the Oxford Colleges own?  25 September 2016 in Who Owns England?

Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser and Banbury Guardian between 1911 and 1925 held by the British Newspaper Archive.

My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for making available the BRDC council minutes from 1921.



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

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


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

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


Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

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

Old_Vestry_Office_Enfield_(c) Philafrenzy

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

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

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


Shoreditch Town Hall

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


Limehouse Town Hall

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

Ealing Town Hall Champion SN

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

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


Battersea Arts Centre (former town hall)

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


Richmond Old Town Hall

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


Finsbury Town Hall

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

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


Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower

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


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

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


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


Tottenham Town Hall today

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


The Victoria Hall, Woolwich Town Hall

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

Bethnal Green SN 2

Town Hall Hotel, Bethnal Green 

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


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

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

IslingtonTownHall Alan Ford

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

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

Kingston Guildhall Stevekeiretsu

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

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


Hackney Town Hall

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

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

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


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

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

Dagenham Town Hall

Dagenham Town Hall

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

Waltham Forest Assembly Hall SN3

Waltham Forest Assembly Hall

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


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

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


Brent Civic Centre

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

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



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

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

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

Housing protest

Housing crisis and protest

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

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

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

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

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

SN Dickson Road, Progress Estate

Dickson Road, Progress Estate

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

26 Chittys Lane

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

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

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

Lansbury Neighbourhood map 1951

A brochure for the Lansbury Estate, 1951

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

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

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

Trellick 2

Trellick Tower

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


Berthold Lubetkin

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

SN Bevin Court entrance

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

SN PG Kendal House and Reddington House

Kendal House and Reddington House, Priory Green Estate

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

SN Cranbrook

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

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

SN Ladlands

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

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


The World’s End Estate

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

SN Silchester Estate Darfield Way

Darfield Way, Silchester Estate

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

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

Silchester Estate Waynflete Square and Frinstead House SN

Frinstead House and Waynflete Square, Silchester Estate

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

Hollamby 1974

Ted Hollamby

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

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

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Central Hill

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

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Cressingham Gardens

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


Thamesmead as envisaged in the mid-1960s

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

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

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

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

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Stoneleigh Terrace, Whitington Estate

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

Neave Brown

Neave Brown

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

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

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Dunboyne Road Estate

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

Rowley Way, the Alexandra Road Estate

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

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


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