Council Housing in Walsall, Part III: Postwar Estates and High-Rise


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This is the third of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall.  Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing.  That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.

After 1945, the need for decent and affordable housing became one of the biggest issues in British politics and, in sharp contrast to the present, the local and national state mobilised on a massive scale to address this problem.  That meant in Walsall, as elsewhere, estates on traditional – though ‘improved’ – low-rise lines but it would mean in due course new and varied forms of multi-storey housing.

In reality, the former remained predominant.  Almost two-thirds of council homes built in the UK between 1945 and 1979 were two-storey houses in more or less ‘garden’ suburbs but in popular consciousness and media portrayal, the era became associated with high-rise flats, often described as ‘notorious’. In fact, multi-storey housing (of six-storeys or more) only surpassed one-fifth of new schemes in England and Wales in the short period between 1964 and 1967. (1) Walsall offers an excellent case-study by which to study the more complex and diverse realities of post-war public housing.

SN Southbourne Avenue Pleck

Southbourne Avenue

As we saw in the second of our Walsall posts, prefabs were adopted as a temporary ‘fix’ to an immediate post-war housing crisis but new permanent homes – in huge numbers – remained the goal. That goal, however, in an era of genuine austerity, first required the use of other non-traditional means. By 1950, 850 non-traditional homes had been built in Walsall, in a range reflecting the experimentation of the time.

Hawbush Avenue BISF

Partially refurbished BISF housing on Hawbush Road

The largest number, at 240, were BISF houses – steel-framed homes (to a design by Sir Fredrick Gibberd) manufactured by the British Iron and Steel Federation.  Next came the Orlit homes produced by the Edinburgh firm of that name; 198 of these precast reinforced concrete houses were erected. Wates offered a similar form of pre-cast concrete construction while Wimpey offered in-situ concrete housing; 100 of each were built in Walsall. Other steel-framed homes and some 50 permanent aluminium bungalows completed the list.

Heather Road Dudley's Fields 2

Non-traditional housing, Heather Road, Dudley’s Field Estate

Many disliked the appearance of these new homes; even Walsall’s Chief Architect, AT Parrott, guardedly admitted they presented ‘a subject for very sympathetic handling if happy aesthetic results were to be achieved’. (2)  Design and construction flaws emerged later.  As brick supply increased and skilled labour became more readily available, traditional brick construction was happily resumed.

Some 490 of these non-traditional homes were built on the Dudley’s Field Estate in Bloxwich, Walsall’s first new post-war estate begun in 1946. Parrott described it as ‘probably our least successful from the point of view of appearance, but…very valuable as an object lesson’.  Interwar estates had been widely criticised for their dormitory feel and lack of community provision. The 1944 Dudley Committee and the 1948 Committee on the Appearance of Housing Estates were intended to address these deficiencies but in the immediate aftermath of war, in Parrott’s words:

Speed was of prime importance and, whilst certain attempts were made to add interest to the layouts, the vital lessons which have been brought the design of Council housing today to a standard never before reached had yet to be learned.

The Mossley Estate, 1660 new homes on completion, just to the north of Dudley’s Fields, and the Gipsy Lane Estate (now Beechdale), of similar size, to the south followed in short order.  If the good intentions were to provide these new estates greater facilities, these were fulfilled belatedly.  Eight hundred houses had been completed on the Gipsy Lane Estate before any shops were open and the Chief Architect himself described it as a ‘large and isolated estate, and a very long journey for the housewife whenever there is shopping to be done’.

SN Mossley Estate layout

Mossley Estate

Another feature of most of Walsall’s new build that it was located on reclaimed, brownfield land containing coal, clay and gravel workings, slag and brickwork waste Over 500,000 cubic yards of materials were removed from the Gipsy Lane site alone. The risk of subsidence here and elsewhere meant that most of the new homes were restricted to semi-detached pairs.

Pershore Road, Mossley Estate CC Richard Vince

Pershore Road, Mossley Estate (c) Richard Vince and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Up to 1949, the focus on three-bed family homes remained total. Some two-bed homes followed and after 1954, a 25/75 two-bed/three-bed split was projected.  As part of the  the realisation of the waiting list’s varied needs, a site was set aside on the Mossley Estate for an old people’s home.  There were, as yet, no multi-storey homes though flats and maisonettes were said to be popular and some three-storey blocks were projected on outer estates.

SN Alumwell Road Pleck

Alumwell Road, Pleck

These were generously sized homes. Walsall’s three-bed houses averaged 963 square feet, some way over the 900 square feet minimum prescribed by Labour’s post-war Minister of Housing Nye Bevan.  The so-called ‘People’s Homes’ – at around 750 to 850 square feet – designated by his Conservative successor, Harold Macmillan, in the attempt to increase the rate of housebuilding, were significantly smaller.

Walsall’s 10,000th council home was officially opened by the town’s Labour MP WT Wells at 65 Primley Avenue in Alumwell in June 1950.  The Council’s brochure to mark the occasion boasted of building an average of four houses every three working days since 1920 – an astonishing rate when compared to the present day’s faltering efforts and a tribute to the contribution public housing made (and could make again) to meeting our housing needs. (3)

SN St Matthews Close

St Matthew’s Close

There was little signature architecture and planning in these new estates though one later commentator remarked on their ‘carefully designed informal layouts with much greenery’ and the ‘steel casements, pantiled roofs and distinctive copper flashing’ of the Borough’s housing. (4) An exception to the decent but stolid output which predominated was the St Matthew’s Close scheme designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe and opened in 1953 as part of the now Grade II-listed Memorial Gardens on Church Hill – an area of open land resulting from the slum clearance drive of the 1930s. (5)

SN Alfred Street maisonettes

Alfred Street maisonettes

Halted by the war and delayed by the urgent need to build new housing after 1945, that determination to clear the slums took off once more in Walsall after 1954 when the Alfred Street area in Bloxwich was represented and new maisonette blocks erected (since replaced themselves, as best as I can tell). In 1958, there were plans to demolish 1500 unfit homes in the next four years.

Warewell Close, Lower Rushall Street

Warewell Close

For the first time, Walsall was looking to multi-storey replacements. This had begun modestly in 1955 with Warewell Close on Lower Rushall Street near the town centre – two five-storey blocks, their form and, particularly, their colourful, angular balconies reflecting the New Humanist/Festival style then in vogue.  (The work of Frederick Gibberd and Norman & Dawbarn in Hackney in the 1950s offers a close comparison.)

By the end of the decade, Walsall was clear that multi-storey blocks were a necessary part of its housing mix in the ‘endeavour to make the best use of the land available where this has been suitable for this type of development’. (6)  This new direction is best seen in an estate deserving of wider recognition completed just to the south of St Matthew’s Close in November 1961.

SN Orlando Estate 3

The Orlando Estate

When I visited the Orlando Estate last summer, one of the residents was initially a little suspicious of this stranger taking photographs. When I explained my interest, she understood immediately and described it herself as ‘a time capsule of the 1960s’; she’d even written on it as part of a university course. So it’s had some love. Let’s give it some more.

Orlando Estate prior to redevelopment

Orlando Street prior to redevelopment

The four acre estate – Walsall’s largest redevelopment scheme to date – replaced severely rundown streets of two- and three-storey terraced housing. The official description provides context and detail: (7)

Because of the severe housing shortage in the Midlands, it was necessary to redevelop at high density without giving an impression of overcrowding; this has been achieved by designing a mixed residential scheme with four blocks of eight-storey flats, one three-storey block of flats, two-blocks of three-storey terraced houses and eleven two-storey terraced houses

The detailing is more telling – internal stairways in the eight-storey blocks finished with terrazzo, stairs and landings with granolithic, prodoglaze tiling on the walls, and entrance porches and internal screens of West African mahogany. External interest was added by coloured panelling and hung tiling.

SN Orlando Estate 1

The Orlando Estate

Some 169 homes were provided in this compact and attractive £403,000 scheme, completed, as the Chief Architect proudly records, seven months ahead of schedule. We can give Wates some credit here, both for the design – jointly devised by the Borough’s architect’s department and GF Elliott, divisional architect for the company – and execution. (You’ll find additional images of the estate in this Tumblr post.)

SN Leamore Redevelopment Scheme 2

Providence Close, formerly the Leamore Redevelopment Area

Walsall’s second multi-storey estate was completed three years later as part of the Leamore redevelopment scheme which saw 180 properties demolished, replaced by 280 homes in a mixed development scheme of six nine- and twelve three-storey blocks.  The estate’s multi-storey car park was ‘believed to be the first of its kind in municipal housing’ and was another sign of the modernity these new developments represented.  This was another scheme built by Wates and jointly designed by the Chief Architect and Mr Elliott of Wates. (8)

Sandbank Estate, Walsall 2

An early image of the Sandbank Estate

Walsall’s ambitions grew, literally so in its next major scheme, opened in April 1965 at Sandbank, Bloxwich which featured one 16-storey and three 12-storey blocks – 253 homes replacing 44 including 18 surviving post-war prefabs. The scheme was built by Wates, this time, in another sign of the times, using a proprietary method of system building. (9)

SN The Chuckery from St Matthews Hill

The Chuckery Estate from St Matthew’s Hill

By 1965, Walsall Borough Council owned near 18,500 homes. When the borough expanded to incorporate Darlaston and part of Willenhall in 1966, it acquired a further 8500 but it continued to build.  The £1.5m Paddock Redevelopment Scheme in Chuckery, central Walsall was completed in 1969, comprising 357 flats in three 17-storey and two 13-storey blocks. (10)

SN The Chuckery Estate Millsum House

Millsum House, the Chuckery Estate

It was built – you guessed it – by Wates and again designed jointly by Wates and the Borough architect’s department; system-built using steel moulds which allowed the direct application of decorative wall finishes. In full production, the on-site factory produced one floor each day for both the 13- and 17-storey blocks.  System building gets, for good reason, a bad press but here it seems to have been efficient and the end-result attractive.  A £2.2m refurbishment in the mid-90s– with its added colour and pattern – seems even more reminiscent of the Scandinavian schemes which had provided a model for system building’s British adoption in the sixties.

As Glendinning and Muthesius note, in ‘the Black Country, Wates established itself as a trusty mainstay of medium-sized boroughs…by constructing in-situ blocks and building up a local work-force’.  Such reliance on a locally dominant company (McAlpine also built some Walsall blocks but far fewer) could lead to unfortunate and corrupting results – as was the case with Bryants and Birmingham) but here it seems to be very largely a case of mutual benefit.  When Walsall’s Conservative council leader Sir Cliff Tibbits tried to test the market against Wates, he failed: ‘Wates were giving such good service that nobody wanted to leave them!’. (11)

Leys flats, taken by Richard Ashmore Courtesy of John and Christine Ashmore

Alma and Leys Courts, Darlaston

By the late 1960s, the star of high-rise housing was waning but there was an inevitable lag as already planned schemes were fulfilled. The last tower blocks built in the Black Country, the 15-storey Alma and Leys Court flats in Darlaston, were completed in 1973.

Meanwhile, low-rise building continued apace until, by the early 1980s, Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council (created in the 1974 reorganisation of local government which amalgamated Walsall with neighbouring Aldridge-Brownhills) the council managed some 42,000 homes, including some 66 tower blocks.  Next week’s post examines the very different housing politics of this later period.


My thanks to the Walsall Local History Centre and Archives for providing some of the sources used in this post.

(1) See Patrick Dunleavy, The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain, 1945-1975. A Study of Corporate Power and Professional Influence in the Welfare State (1981)

(2) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954. The quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.

(3) Walsall Town Council, The 10,000th House (1950)

(4) Peter Arnold, A Guide to the Buildings of Walsall (2003)

(5) Historic England, Walsall Memorial Garden

(6) Walsall Town Council, The 15,000th House (1958)

(7) AT Parrott, ‘New Housing at Walsall’, Official Architecture and Planning, December 1961

(8) Walsall Town Council, Leamore Redevelopment Scheme Official Brochure (1964)

(9) ‘Sandbank housing scheme, Walsall’, Architects’ Journal, 3 September, 1969 and Walsall Town Council, Sandbank Redevelopment Scheme (1965)

(10) Walsall Town Council, Paddock Redevelopment Scheme (1969)

(11) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (1993)

Mark Swenarton, ‘Cook’s Camden’ Book Review: ‘to take forward the project of the welfare state – but to do it better’


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Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2017)

To Mark Swenarton, the work of Sydney Cook (Camden Borough Architect from 1965 to 1973) and his talented team represents ‘an architectural resolution unsurpassed not just in social housing in the UK but in urban housing anywhere in the world’.  Usually that kind of comment might be dismissed as hype but here I think huge numbers would agree. This fine book makes the case comprehensively and convincingly.

SN CoverCook’s big idea, shared and executed brilliantly by the architects he recruited to Camden, was for housing which was low-rise and high-density.  It directly challenged the architectural fashions of the day – the tower blocks which (in perceptual terms at least) dominated new council housing from the mid-1960s and the mixed development ideas which licensed them.  Equally, he rejected ‘off-the-peg’ system-building.

The new direction pioneered in Camden offered, in the words of Neave Brown, Cook’s best known recruit, an opportunity not only to re-engage with the ‘traditional social and physical form and virtues of the city’ but, crucially, ‘to try and improve on them’.  This wasn’t some pastiche revival of the old terraces but rather, as Swenarton claims, a ‘modern urbanism’; one that ‘could be generated without creating a rupture with either the existing grain of the city or the prevailing way of life’.

And then, essentially, there was the politics; unlike some historians of architecture Swenarton is good on the politics.  Camden was, by some way (excepting the Cities of London and Westminster), the richest borough in London, with a rateable value of £3,994,000.  Moreover, it was from inception a left-wing borough (despite a significant Tory interregnum from 1968 to 1971), determined, as one its leading members Enid Wistrich stated, ‘to be the tops’.  Housing was to be the chief expression of its progressive and innovative politics.


Fleet Road, image by Tim Crocker

Neave Brown, recently awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for lifetime achievement, takes centre stage. His first Camden project, Fleet Road designed in 1966-67, established the philosophical keynote of Camden’s new housing. In Brown’s words, the ‘primary decision’ was taken:

to build low, to fill the site, to geometrically define open space, to integrate.  And to return to housing the traditional quality of continuous background stuff, anonymous, cellular, repetitive, that has always been its virtue.

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Alexandra Road, image by Tim Crocker

This was followed through on majestic scale at Alexandra Road.  Here there would be terraces, not the voguish streets in the sky which excited many architects of the day.  They would form, Swenarton says, ‘a continuous fabric…interspersed with public or semi-public squares’; ‘rather than the buildings being objects surrounded by space’, as was the case in the prevailing mixed development schemes, ‘the buildings should define the space’.

Much more could be said and it is covered in great detail in the book but Swenarton also gives due space and credit to other Camden architects.  Peter Tábori, though barely 27 when appointed by Cook to design the Highgate New Town development in 1967, brought an impressive architectural pedigree, having been tutored by Ernő Goldfinger (remembered by him as ‘a born educator’), Richard Rogers and Denys Lasdun no less.

Tábori was firmly opposed to the estate concept which dominated public housing at the time, taking his ideas of ‘through routes and visual connection’, self-policing public space and clearly defined private space from the newly influential writings of Jane Jacobs.

It’s a necessary – though sad – reminder of the limitations of architectural good intentions to learn that by 1983 the estate (because it was in essence an estate) was deemed ‘a haven for hoodlums…a warren of lonely walkways and blind spots’.  Fourteen years later, another journalist concluded ‘as an experiment in social housing, the Highgate New Town development has failed’. It hadn’t, of course, but it had gone through (and has since recovered from) troubled times. The simple fact – though complex reality – is that wider societal dynamics often influence our residential experience far more than design itself.

SN Branch Hill

Branch Hill, image by Tim Crocker

However, it was the Branch Hill Estate in Hampstead, designed by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, begun in 1971 and finally completed in 1978, which best captures both the increasingly fraught housing politics of Camden and the design brilliance.  Chapter 6 ‘Class War in Hampstead: the battle of Branch Hill’ describes the former – ‘it was a classic tale of privilege versus the people’ in Swenarton’s words.  Chapter 7 ‘The Poetics of Housing: Benson and Forsyth at Branch Hill’ powerfully evokes the latter.


Branch Hill, image by Tim Crocker

The Labour Group was determined to build council housing in leafy, affluent Hampstead; the Conservative Group (though internal differences existed) mostly opposed.  The cost of the project with respect to the initial purchase price of the land and the design and constructional fixes that a difficult site and restrictive covenant required, brought this conflict into sharper focus.  In the end, Labour – back in power in Camden in 1973 and nationally from 1974 – won out and the housing was built.

It was quite probably, as hostile commentary claimed, ‘the most expensive council housing in the world’ – 21 pairs of two-storey houses in three rows, costing in total some £2.8m.  But it is also, according to Derek Abbott and Kimball Pollit, ‘the most sophisticated semi-detached housing in the world’.  The covenant on the land insisted upon a two-storey maximum height and semi-detached homes. That Benson and Forsyth achieved a resolution in signature Camden style – stepped terraces, external walls of board marked and smooth white concrete, and dark-stained timber joinery – yet unique and distinctive is a tribute both to the architects and the political will and vision of the Council.

Underlying this, for Benson and Forsyth, was:

the fundamental belief that, while buildings must satisfy practical requirements empirically, they must also embody those abstract properties which arouse the senses and satisfy the mind.

Branch Hill, and Camden’s other architect-designed estates, fulfil this dictum with style and panache.

The tide, however, was turning.  The Conservatives’ 1972 Housing Finance Act stipulated so-called ‘fair rents’ closer to the market rents of the private sector (albeit offset by a comprehensive national scheme of rent rebates). Camden, alongside other Labour authorities, initially pledged to resist the legislation but capitulated. (Famously, only Clay Cross Council in Derbyshire fought the Act to the bitter end.)  The ensuing high rents were another problem for the Branch Hill scheme.

SN Mansfield Road

Mansfield Road, Gospel Oak – an example of ‘urban dentistry’, image by Tim Crocker

By 1975, it was Anthony Crosland, Labour’s Secretary of State for the Environment, declaring ‘the party’s over’. Economic hard times and financial crisis called time on the public sector expansion which had marked much of the post-war period. In Camden, there were other straws in the wind.  A middle-class, owner-occupier revolt had scuppered earlier plans for the comprehensive redevelopment of Gospel Oak back in 1966.  It anticipated a broader sea-change – a move against large-scale slum clearance (indeed, a questioning of what constituted a ‘slum’) and a drive towards rehabilitation of what were now called ‘twilight areas’.

In the 1970s, this change was reflected in an expanded policy of municipalisation – the Council’s acquisition and management of formerly private rental properties.   Its counterpart was what Swenarton calls ‘urban dentistry’ – selective demolition of housing deemed beyond repair and small-scale infill, often designed (though to typically high Camden standards) by private practices.

SN Maiden Lane

Maiden Lane, image by Tim Crocker

As noted by Swenarton, Labour’s 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act represented another shift – though its longer-term consequences were poorly understood – in the nature of council housing with its codification of needs-based allocation.  Another Benson and Forsyth scheme (though their original designs were significantly modified), Maiden Lane caught the brunt of this:

The result was that many of the tenancies…were channelled by social services straight to homeless families and others with greatest need. This was a social composition very different from most of the Camden estates.

Maiden Lane became notorious, one of those estates demonised by the media as dysfunctional and crime-ridden. The architects insist that its ‘architecture, quality of place internally and externally….was elegant, humane and economic’ and blame ‘ineffectual management, social conflict, and banal architectural intervention’ for the estate’s later woes.  There’s some truth in this for sure but it’s another reminder that architecture – whether deemed good or bad – is far from solely determining the lived experience of residents.

Maiden Lane has been substantially redesigned since and, if you’re seeking a symbol of just how far we’ve come from the heady idealism of Cook’s Camden, the Council has recently built 273 flats on the estate: 149 for sale on the open market, 53 for shared ownership and 71 new council flats. Those for sale reflect the new wisdom that private capital must be harnessed to finance the regeneration and expansion of social housing.  But, unusually, the development as a whole increased council housing stock and Camden Council continues to own and management most of its social housing. (1)

SN Alexandra Road 2

Alexandra Road, image by Tim Crocker

Alexandra Road, Grade II* listed in 1994, had its problems too though these related to the complex saga of its drawn-out construction and escalating cost. ‘Conceived in 1968, in the period of optimism generated by the post-war boom, but constructed during the crisis decade that followed’, the finished estate of 520 homes took twice as long to build as projected and cost, on completion in 1979, some £18.9m.  At the same time, it became a pawn in Labour’s internal politics as a ‘hard left’ faction (some may dislike Swenarton’s use of the term) led by Ken Livingstone wrestled for control against what had now become Labour’s old guard.

Livingstone, elected a Camden councillor in 1978, became chair of housing and used a Council-instigated public inquiry into what was now widely seen as the Alexandra Road debacle as a means of discrediting the former leadership.  In truth, the inquiry found no blame attached to the Architect’s Department (though it noted staff shortages, for which it was blameless, were a factor) and there were myriad problems – relating to the site, changing specifications and, above all, contemporary troubles in the building trades – which did account for the scheme’s financial difficulties.

However, at the last minute, the Council itself inserted a clause suggesting that some of the increasing costs might have been avoided ‘if the Architect himself had exercised more foresight with regards to the demands of the project’.  Livingstone moved on to the bigger stage of the Greater London Council. Incredibly, Neave Brown, so unfairly impugned, would not work in Britain again.

A sad end to what John Winter has called a ‘a magical moment for English housing’.  At the outset, for Sydney Cook and his team:

the challenge was to address the deficiencies of the housing that had been, and was still being, produced by local authorities across the country: to take forward the project of the welfare state – but to do it better.

By 1979, and decisively under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, it was, as Swenarton notes, ‘no longer the deficiencies of the form of housing produced by the welfare state, but the welfare state itself that was under attack’.  In the end, in this brave new world, Camden’s path-breaking housing programme had minimal domestic impact though it was influential on the Continent.  Alexandra Road, and the Borough’s other pioneering schemes, suffered ‘from having been released into a different world to that in which it was conceived…set on the very cusp of the change from socialism to the me-generation’. (2)

You’ll find all this discussed more fully in the book and much, much more – in particular a rich analysis of architectural influences and forms which I’ve barely touched on here. I’m sorry to gush but it’s hard to imagine a better book on its topic.  OK, I’ll earn my reviewer’s credentials by wishing for a bit more on the buildings’ after-lives (discussed a little more fully in some of my blog posts) but the book does what it sets out to do superbly.

SN Lamble Street

Lamble Street interior, Gospel Oak, image by Tim Crocker

The photography stands out – Martin Charles’ earlier images and Tim Crocker’s wonderful contemporary photographs of which I include a selection.  The schemes themselves are pretty photogenic in skilled hands but Crocker’s shots of lived-in interiors and real live people inside and out bring out their qualities in a more humane and personal way than is common in architectural photography. These are complemented by a profusion of maps, plans and architectural drawings.

Congratulations to Stefi Orazi for the book design, to the publishers Lund Humphries for their commitment to the highest production values, and, above all, to Mark Swenarton. His scholarship and hard work have surely produced what is and will remain the definitive account of Cook’s Camden.

Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, by Mark Swenarton, is published by Lund Humphries (HB £45) The book is for sale on the publisher’s website with free UK postage. If you insert the code CAMDEN10 on check-out, single copies will receive a £10 discount.   


(1) David Spittles, ‘It’s a game changer: Camden is first council to build homes to sell’, Evening Standard Homes and Property, 19 November 2014. The article incorrectly states that the whole of the scheme was built for private sale.

(2) Martin Pawley, ‘Living on the Edge of Time’, The Guardian, 2 April 1990

Council Housing in Walsall, Part II: The Interwar Period



This is the second of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall.  Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing.  That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.

As we saw in last week’s post, Walsall’s and the nation’s housing programme stalled in 1920 but the drive to provide decent working-class homes revived in the mid-1920s and in the 1930s was joined by a determined effort to address the slum conditions afflicting so many.  In both, Walsall took a prominent role though it was dominated by a Conservative-Liberal ‘anti-socialist’ alliance which outnumbered a growing but disunited Labour presence on the Council.

Neville Chamberlain’s 1923 Housing Act kick-started this process nationally but it was under the more generous 1924 Act passed by a short-lived Labour government that council housebuilding in Walsall took off.  In fact, the Borough built 4204 homes under the 1924 Act, a rate of housebuilding – at 40.8 homes per 1000 of its population – which placed it second among county boroughs only to Carlisle, ironically another council dominated by a self-declared anti-socialist alliance. (1)

SN Brockhurst Street

Brockhurst Street, Fullbrook

In January 1925, as the town’s housing shortage (blamed in the Council on the lack of skilled labour and building materials) became apparent once more, it was agreed to purchase land for housing purposes in Pleck.  Three months later the Council approved a large scheme of 1671 houses at a cost of over £750,000. (2)

By this time, cheaper non-parlour homes were preferred (parlour homes formed only 12 per cent of the new build compared to 40 per cent in the 1919 programme) but – at 98 per cent of the total – three-bed family homes dominated.  These early Walsall estates featured ‘a small range of standard designs, either semi-detached pairs or “triplets”’.  Their solid redbrick housing can be seen across Walsall, still providing good decent homes even if the purists will regret the replacement of their original wooden casement windows ‘by bland UPVC’. (3)

SN Poets Estate

Homes on the Poets Estate, Harden

A second wave of construction under the 1924 Act began in 1930.  In April, the Council purchased a 91.5 acre site between Field Road and Blakenall, sufficient for 1000 homes and three months later, the Council voted, without division, to build 500 immediately. (4)  Despite this ambition and a rapid scale of construction (2417 houses were built in the five years to 1930), Walsall was running to stand still and its waiting list for homes had actually increased in the same period by 1500 to 3500. (5)

In the late summer of 1930, a new Housing Act – the product of another brief and minority Labour government – received the Royal Assent which instigated a new direction for the national housing programme. Arthur Greenwood’s legislation focused on the slums which continued to blight working-class lives in huge numbers by providing financial incentives for slum clearance and obliging local authorities to rehouse all those displaced.

SN West Browmwich Road Palfrey

West Bromwich Road, Palfrey

Walsall responded rapidly. A special joint meeting of the Council’s Housing and Health Committees in December 1930 proposed a £1.8m five-year building programme for 5000 houses – 4000 to meet ordinary needs and 1000 for slum clearance.  In the end, a still impressive scheme of 4000 new homes was agreed. The first ‘clearance area’ (an area of housing designated ‘insanitary’ under the terms of the 1930 Act) was declared at the same time.

Alderman Hucker, the Labour chair of the Health Committee, stated that the Council had spent £28,000 in last five years dealing with epidemics: (6)

He believed the slum clearance question had never been tackled before in the borough but under the 1930 Housing Act they were able to make a start to give the people better living conditions.

In larger towns, central slum clearance typically required its replacement by multi-storey flats (still no more than five or six storeys so long as lifts were deemed too costly for working-class homes) if housing densities were to be maintained and people kept close to their work. Walsall was small enough for the time being to escape this fate and was able, as one councillor urged, to rehouse ‘people in spaces where there was plenty of fresh air’. (7)

SN Talke Road Fulbrook

Talke Road, Fullbrook

This time all the new homes were non-parlour but all were standard two-storey houses – yet again three-bed homes dominated – with the exception of the 344 one-bed bungalows constructed, reflecting the needs of elderly persons rather than the younger families to whom council housing had overwhelmingly catered for previously.

The Ministry of Health’s 1933 circular stipulating that henceforth all public housing subsidies were to be dedicated solely to schemes of slum clearance sharpened the Council’s focus.  By 1934, some 1159 houses were scheduled for demolition and some 5200 people rehoused. It represented one in twenty of the Borough’s total housing stock.

SN Dorsett Place Leamore

Dorsett Place, Leamore

Despite this, the Council’s Chief Sanitary Inspector, CA Stansbury defended the Victorian ‘jerry-builder’ (and supplied the quotation marks).  The houses they built were apparently already being described as ‘desirable working class investment properties’ and practically all, in his view, were ‘readily capable of being kept in a fit state for human habitation at reasonable expense’.  In this, he might be seen as prescient, anticipating both the rehabilitation drive of the later 1960s and the more recent cachet of some of these once condemned older terraces.

He challenged some conventional wisdom, however – that which we’ve seen in Walsall and elsewhere which blamed the personal failings of slum dwellers for their living conditions: (8)

A new spirit is abroad, these folk are getting anxious to move, and, what is more important, are reacting to their improved conditions ; they are now fit to take their place as worthy citizens in our towns. It is amazing to see how some of them set about getting their new house and garden in order. It is then that one realises that this programme is worthwhile. There are black sheep, of course, but there is high hope for the future.

Under the National Government’s 1935 Housing Act, the attack on slum living acquired a new metric – overcrowding. All local authorities were required to survey local conditions and in Walsall it was revealed that almost five per cent of its 26,894 households were living in overcrowded conditions.  Surprisingly, some 519 families living in the town’s 5491 council homes were found to be overcrowded; at 9 per cent a rate of overcrowding which exceeded that in private homes (3.6 per cent).  The anomaly was blamed on the slightly smaller rooms of council housing though it might reflect too the prevalence of young and larger families living in council homes. A proposal to build 500 new homes of which 350 would be four- to five-bedroom was made to address the point. (9)

SN 11 Walstead Road

11 Walstead Road, now privately owned.

In March 1935, Walsall’s 5000th council home was opened – at 11 Walstead Road West in Delves Green.  This was part of an extensive building programme in the town’s southern suburbs – some 400 homes had been completed by the mid-thirties in Fulbrook and Delves Green; around 1000 in Palfrey.

In a clockwise direction, new large estates were developed to the west between Wolverhampton Road and Pleck Road and to the north, where Walsall proper merged into Bloxwich, Leamore, Harden and Goscote.

There was little rebuilding in the centre but further slum clearance was agreed in 1936 around St Matthew’s Church and, further north, around Coal Pool.  A new estate was built in the latter in the late 1930s. By 1937, it was reckoned that 107 clearance areas had been declared in the town and some 2262 houses represented as unfit. (10) But much remained to be done. Although almost 11,000 people had been rehoused, around 556 condemned homes were still in occupation. And when war broke out and new construction was halted, only 2664 houses of the 4000 planned in the 1930s had been built. (11)

SN Nursery Road Leamore

Nursery Road, Leamore. The distinctive garden walls seem to have been a feature of most of Walsall’s interwar housing.

During the war itself, despite its importance as an industrial centre, Walsall suffered relatively lightly from the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids. In 1944, it even acted as a safe haven for around 1500 evacuees from the V1 and V2 bombing raids in London. (12)  Nevertheless, lack of maintenance and the cessation of new construction created in Walsall, as elsewhere, an immediate housing crisis as the country turned towards peacetime reconstruction.

Prefabs Alumwell Road

Prefabs on Alumwell Road

The 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act committed £150 million to a programme of prefabricated homes and Walsall was allocated some 446 of the 156,623 two-bed bungalows that sprung up across the country.  The first was erected on Alumwell Road in September 1945. With a projected life-span of ten years, many in Walsall survived into the 1970s.

Despite that longevity, the prefabs were understood as a temporary fix. In 1945, the local housing waiting list stood at 5000 and thoughts had already turned to the creation of the modern, permanent homes that its people both needed and – with expectations raised – demanded.

The next post after Christmas looks at Walsall’s extensive building programme in the post-war era.  Much of this built on earlier achievements and forms but by the later 1950s multi-storey and high-rise solutions entered the mix too and a new chapter of council housing history took off.


My thanks to the Walsall Local History Centre and Archives for providing some of the sources used in this post.

(1) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954 and John H Jennings, ‘Geographical Implications of the Municipal Housing Programme in England and Wales, 1919-1939’, Urban Studies, vol 8, No 121, 1971

(2) ‘Walsall Town Council. Housing Problems Discussed’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 17 January 1925 and ‘Walsall Town Council. Big Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 March 1925

(3) Peter Arnold, A Guide to the Buildings of Walsall (Tempus, 2003)

(4) ‘Walsall Town Council. Big Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 March 1925, ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Site Purchased’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 5 April 1930 and ‘Walsall Town Council. More Houses to be Built’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 19 July 1930

(5) ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Programme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 20 December 1930

(6) ‘Walsall Town Council: Big Housing Programme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 20 December 1930 and AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1954

(7) ‘Walsall Town Council. Slum Clearance’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 13 May 1933

Council Housing in Walsall, Part I: Before 1914 and the Impact of War



This is the first of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall.  Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing.  That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.

Walsall might seem a workaday kind of place to some, typical of many such towns in the North and Midlands which prospered as Britain industrialised but fell on hard times as that, by now, traditional manufacturing economy faltered. It has, however, amongst its other claims to fame, a rich council housing history. This first post will examine the earliest phase of this history – the debate around state provision of working-class housing that developed before 1914 and the impact of the war itself on a council housebuilding programme.

Statue of Sister Dora (c) Derek Bennett and made available under a Creative Commons licence

In 1800, Walsall’s population stood a little over 10,000; by 1901 86,430 lived in the town, employed in a diverse range of trades, most famously leather manufacture.  The town’s squalid housing reflected this rapid population growth but, at first, there was neither the will nor the power to tackle the problem of its slum housing.  There were cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1849 and smallpox epidemics in 1872 and 1875. The heroic role of the Anglican nun, Sister Dora (Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison) in tending to those affected in the latter outbreak is recognised in what is said to be the country’s first statue, erected in Walsall town centre in 1886, to a woman not of royal blood


Townend Bank, 1875, a photograph by WB Shaw (with thanks to A Click in Time)

Belatedly, the Victorian state and its elites moved to address the sanitary crisis caused by Britain’s breakneck urbanisation. The 1875 Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act allowed local authorities to compel the demolition of unfit properties (but made no provision for rehousing those affected).  One year later, Walsall’s first Medical Officer of Health, Dr James MacLachlan, ordered the clearance of the central Townend Bank area; ‘a conglomeration of abominations’ in MacLachlan’s view. One hundred and twenty dwellings, housing almost 600 people, were demolished. (1)

But the ambivalence – to put it kindly – of ‘respectable’ Victorian attitudes towards slumdom and its inhabitants lingered on and the tendency to blame the poor for their poverty and squalor remained. According to the local mayor: (2)

Many of the tenants have been for generations the sloth of the idle and the profligate and abounded in associations which are disgusting to public morality and common decency. The very soil on which they stand is known to be saturated with disease and death, while the whole district seems to be given over to drunkenness and dissoluteness.

Wider opinion was shifting, however, a change seen legislatively in the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act which strengthened the powers of councils to clear slums and, critically, permitted them to build new housing.

This reflected a changing political climate.  After 1884, working-class men formed a majority of the electorate and traditional parties had both to address this new electorate and contend with emerging socialist ideas. Haydn Sanders, an independent socialist, was elected to the Council in 1888, and the first Labour councillor, Joe Thickett, in 1913.

SN Thickett and Hucker

Cllrs Thickett (to left) and Hucker, 1915 (with thanks to Black Country History; made available under a Creative Commons licence)

Thickett was a railway signalman and he was joined the following year by his fellow railwayman, Henry Hucker.  The local press pointed out, when Thickett was succeeded by Hucker as mayor in 1924, that they worked alternate shifts in the same box.  That was a later sign of a changing party political balance but, before the First World War, Walsall, a County Borough from 1888, remained broadly Liberal in its politics.

Working-class housing conditions remained dire despite the Borough’s modest slum clearance programme, a problem compounded by the town’s population growth – up to 92,115 by 1911 – and the shortage of suitable and affordable homes. Belatedly, in October 1913, the Health Committee was instructed to: (3)

inquire into and report upon the whole question of housing conditions in Walsall, and in the event of appearing from such inquiry that there is a deficiency of housing accommodation for the working classes, to consider and report as to the steps to be taken to meet such deficiency.

The subsequent report by the Medical Officer of Health revealed just 148 vacant houses of up to 7s (35p) a week rental (obviously the figure taken to represent the maximum working-class households could afford), of which 49 were unfit. Meanwhile, 132 one-room tenements were occupied by 210 persons and 530 two-room tenements by some 1528. In all, it was estimated that over seven percent of the town’s population lived more than two to a room, taken as the benchmark for overcrowding.

1914 headline

The Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle headline of 14 February 1914

The deficiency was obvious and had a further impact on slum clearance efforts. As the Medical Officer of Health concluded the ‘present shortage of houses handicaps the Health Committee in dealing with houses which are unfit for habitation, because if the houses are closed the occupants may be unable to obtain other dwellings’.

The Health Committee concluded unanimously that there was ‘a pressing need for the provision of additional houses for the working classes’.  However, only a majority of the Committee supported the further recommendation that ‘a scheme should be prepared for the provision by the Council of about 200 dwellings under the Housing Act’.  That division gave rise to a fierce debate as to what the Council’s role should be.  And that debate – covered thoroughly in the local press – is revealing of the broader disagreements, then and now, on what the proper role of the national and local state should be in providing decent homes for the working class.

Conservative opposition to a council housebuilding programme rested on a number of propositions, the most basic being that private enterprise could be expected to step up to the plate. This ideological commitment to the free market ignored its failure to date and the fact that contractors’ profits lay in building more expensive homes for the middle class. (Plus ça change…)

It was perhaps in recognition of those realities that a second, superficially more humane, argument was advanced to oppose a council scheme – that the new homes would be unaffordable to those who needed them most, ‘the submerged tenth’ as one councillor described them.  It was true that council house rents lay beyond the means of the poorest; the new homes catered primarily for precisely the better-off working class, those most likely within the labour movement to be campaigning for them. (Some reformers argued that a ‘filtering up’ process would occur whereby the slightly better homes vacated by new council tenants would be taken over by the poorer moving from slummier quarters.)  In part recognition of this case, the Council eventually agreed a smaller scheme of 125 new homes of which 25 would be reserved for those affected by slum clearance.

However such apparent compassion coalesced uncomfortably with thoroughly unreconstructed attitudes towards the poor and their poverty. Alderman Walker claimed he would support building 200 houses for slum clearance purposes but he believed that the real solution to housing squalor lay in prosecuting those tenants ‘who would not keep their places clean’:

SN Alderman Walkerthat was the only way they would improve the condition of things. They might provide houses but some of the people were not fit to go into them.  In their homes, they found a three-legged stool and a broken chair; the women wore dirty dresses, and the children looked as though they had not been washed for days.

In the event, a progressive majority agreed to investigate the smaller scheme proposed but to opponents this obviously represented kicking the scheme into the long grass.

Trades unionists on the local trades council sought to maintain the pressure and were clear that the plea of affordability should not be an excuse to build low-quality housing. Joe Thickett (a railway trades unionist as well as a Labour councillor) urged that the Council ‘adhere to the scheme for the provision of artisans’ dwellings, and not build low-class homes or barracks which would eventually lead to the repetition of the present slums’ – ‘5s a week houses with a good garden attached’ were wanted.

He pointed too to the progress being made nationally. The Local Government Board had committed £1.75m to the provision of working-class housing: (4)

The number of houses to be provided throughout the United Kingdom was 7,700. That was a monument to municipal progress, and they in Walsall had not contributed one single brick to that magnificent pile.

In the end, such arguments were victim of the larger tides of history.  War broke out in August 1914, and eight months later it was agreed to defer the Walsall scheme until the end of the conflict. Councillor Thickett berated Lloyd George for sacrificing house building to the war effort but acknowledged ‘that if the Prussian Junkers had never been born they would have seen the municipal houses rising from the foundations’. (5) His ‘visions of town planning, and of garden cities springing up’ survived, however, and ultimately would be enormously boosted by the war which had, for the moment, put paid to them.

In this context, Walsall offers some evidence relating to the debate between those who argue between continuity and change in council housing history – between those who argue that a council housebuilding programme was substantially in place before 1914 and would have developed despite the First World War and those who argue that the war itself was a determinant factor.  We can conclude, safely perhaps, that council housing would have grown substantially without the war and, in some respects, was delayed by it whilst acknowledging, on the other hand, that the war and the pressures it engendered was undoubtedly at least a catalyst and more probably a significant accelerant to the emergent movement.

The Tudor Walters Report of 1918, outlining the Government’s recommendations for the form and layout of post-war municipal housing, embodied some of Thickett’s hopes and Addison’s 1919 Housing Act compelled, for the first time, a council housebuilding programme. The Act required councils not only to survey local housing needs but to implement concrete plans to address them.

SN Blakenall Lane

Homes in Blakenall Lane, amongst the earliest built by the Council

In the first flush of enthusiasm for this ‘land fit for heroes to live in’ promised by prime minister Lloyd George, Walsall committed to building some 1500 homes and the very first completed, at 98 Blakenall Lane, Bloxwich, was opened in June 1920.

SN East Street

Early council homes, East Street

At the same time, other homes – in modest but well-built terraces – were erected in Haskell Street and East Street to the south off West Bromwich Road. Priority was given first to ex-servicemen, their widows and children, and then the overcrowded.

Thereafter the going got tough.  There were already complaints about the construction costs of the new homes as post-war labour and materials shortages hit.   Under contracts let in February 1920, parlour homes were costing £840 to build and non-parlour £740 (about three times the pre-war figure). Unusually for the time, some 100 homes in Walsall were built by direct labour as a means of reducing expenditure. Rents were correspondingly high though the Council’s proposal to charge 9s a week for parlour homes and 7s a week for non-parlour houses was knocked back by the Ministry of Health. (6)

SN Haskell Street

Early council homes, Haskell Street

In September 1920, the Corporation retrenched.  The 1500 home target, it was said, had been ‘been inserted under strong pressure from the Ministry’ and, as one councillor concluded, the programme ‘had not provided homes at a reasonable cost, and the rents which had to be charged were greater than people could afford to pay’. It was agreed to cut the programme to 450 homes. (7)

In this, the Council was merely anticipating events at the national level.  The Government scrapped the generous subsidies of the 1919 Housing Act in April 1921. Nationally, only 213,000 houses of the half-million initially promised were built under the legislation. Walsall itself completed some 310.  That almost 40 per cent of these were the parlour homes advocated in the Tudor Walters Report was vestigial testimony to the higher ideals of war’s end. (8)

That fortunately was not the end of the story. New pressures and demands emerged, new legislation passed and Walsall would become proportionately one of the largest providers of council housing in the country during the interwar period and beyond.  The next phase of this history will be discussed in next week’s post.


The early images of Walsall councillors are drawn from the online archive, Black Country History.

(1)  AP Baggs, GC Baugh and DA Johnston, ‘Walsall: Public services‘, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part), ed. MW Greenslade (London, 1976)

(2) Quoted in Simon Briercliffe, ‘”Slums” of the Black Country: Town End Bank, Walsall’, 30 November, 2015.  Read the article for a fuller description of sanitary conditions and reform in Walsall in this period.

(3) ‘Municipal Housing. Health Committee to Prepare Scheme’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 14 February 1914

(4) ‘Municipal Housing Scheme. Discussed by Trades Council’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 14 February 1914

(5) ‘Municipal Housing. Proposed Shelving of Scheme’, Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 13 March 1915

(6) ‘Walsall Town Council. Progress of Housing Scheme’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 February 1920 and ‘Walsall Town Council. Priority for Corporation Houses’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 February 1920

(7) ‘Walsall Town Council. The Housing and Abattoir Schemes’, Staffordshire Advertiser, 24 April 1920

(8) AT Parrott and DR Wilson, ‘Housing Development in Walsall: Progress and Problems’, British Housing & Planning Review, July-August 1954

Book Review: HKPA and Frederick Gibberd, ‘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’


, , , ,

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)

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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