In 1947, the Yorkshire Post declared Sedbergh ‘the luckiest town in the country with regard to housing’. (1) In the midst of a national housing crisis, no new council homes had been built in the district since the end of the war and apparently none were needed. Nevertheless, Sedbergh had built before the war and would build substantially in the 1950s and 1960s. The story of council housing in the district is therefore both representative of wider rural dynamics and unique to the town.
Sedbergh might be best known today for its independent school or as a ‘book town’ conveniently placed for visitors at the western edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, close to the Lake District. Until 1974, it lay in the West Riding of Yorkshire, administered by Sedbergh Rural District Council (RDC). Now it lies in Cumbria within South Lakeland District Council. It’s all change again in April 2023 when a new unitary authority Westmorland and Furness takes over. It’s a small town (the population of the Rural District stood between 3- to 4000 for most of the last century), significant historically for farming and woollen production but prospering today, as those past staples have receded, as a local centre of commerce and tourism.
In 1914, when traditional industries still held sway, the Local Government Board – as part of a significant national drive to increase the rate of council housebuilding – had urged the Council ‘to build cottages for the working classes owing to there being a scarcity in the neighbourhood’. By June, the RDC had responded positively, purchasing land in the town (with plans to buy more in the neighbouring hamlet of Millthrop) and commissioning Kendal architect John Stalker to design a scheme of twelve well-equipped houses, each with: (2)
a good living room, scullery, pantry, store closet, w.c., and coal house on the ground floor, and each cottage will have a separate wash house with washing copper. On the chamber floor there will be three bedrooms and clothes closets.
Scarcely six weeks later, the outbreak of the First World War forced other priorities. The plans were abandoned and, perhaps more surprisingly, were not initially revived at war’s end when Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act was passed to fulfil prime minister Lloyd George’s promise of 500,000 new ‘homes for heroes’.
Sedbergh bided its time but its housing needs remained pressing, albeit small-scale. According to the Council’s Medical Officer of Health, Francis Atkinson: (3)
The houses, which are stone-built, are many of them old in type and congested on site, making it impossible to carry out adequate improvements. In Sedbergh town there are many yards branching off the narrow main street, in which the houses are small and congested, and deficient in ventilation and sunlight.
Given the number of houses that might be declared unfit, it was ‘decided that the [Government] subsidy might be required for 30 houses’. In 1925, the Council purchased five acres of land to the immediate north of the town on what became Fairholme and engaged Mr A Knewstubb of Penrith to prepare a layout and plans for six houses; 18 more were planned for the following year.
The Council’s second scheme of around 40 semi-detached and terraced homes at Havera was completed in 1935 – the date is recorded on a plaque in the gable end of a semi-detached pair of houses at the top of the street. The name is derived from the Saxon word ‘haver’, a hillside where oats were grown.
Elsewhere attention turned to reconditioning of existing homes in poor condition. Today, Millthrop is a picture postcard settlement of quaint stone cottages. In the 1930s, most of these were rural slums. Sedbergh’s application for a grant to finance improvements to 17 homes under the 1926 Housing (Rural Workers) Act was refused by the West Riding County Council (which administered the scheme locally) but, in this instance, the owner was prevailed upon to make improvements. Their scale – new floors, roofs and windows, internal redecoration, a new water supply, pail closets replacing privy middens (still no sewerage note) – is a reminder of the appalling conditions prevailing in many rural homes at the time.
An article published in the ‘patriotic’ John Bull magazine in May 1936 had publicised the case of an ex-serviceman, his wife and nine children living on the moors three miles out of town ‘in a wooden hutment the exact size of which is 30 feet long and 10 feet wide! No proper sanitation and no water supply’. Applications for council housing had failed as Sedbergh had no home big enough to house the family.(4) Perhaps this prompted the council to build two houses for large families living in unfit conditions on land purchased at Bridge End Field in Millthrop. The extensive back gardens signify a time when it was expected that rural tenants would grow a large part of their own food. (5)
By the outbreak of war in 1939, a total of 77 council homes had been built in the district. The war itself – as a result of Sedbergh’s relatively isolated position – increased housing pressures in the town. In August 1939, 126 children and 41 adults – mothers, teachers and helpers – were evacuated to the town from Bradford. (By the end of the year, just 41 remained in total; ‘generally the evacuees did not seem to take kindly to country life after town’, it was said.) In 1940, 70 children and 29 adults arrived, mostly from London. (6)
These incomers were billeted in local homes but a more comprehensive response was required when, after the bombing of Coventry, Armstrong Siddeley opened shadow factories manufacturing aircraft components in local mills at Farfield and Millthrop. Workers and their families were accommodated in two estates of prefabricated huts to the south-east of the town in Maryfell and, a little further out, Pinfold. Army personnel undergoing training at the 11th Battle Training School, housed in the former Baliol Girls School, were also accommodated in Pinfold.
As the end of the war approached and the closure of the temporary factories loomed, the Ministry of Aircraft Production asked the Rural District Council to take over the management of the two estates. (7) In the event, the council took over the Maryfell estate, buying its 50 bungalows for £80 each, but not Pinfold where Whitehall had deemed the site unsuitable for permanent housing. (The Pinfold site is now a caravan park.) As war workers returned home, Sedbergh had a readymade supply of empty housing to provide to local residents. In 1947, it was reported that there were just six households on the council’s housing waiting list and that vacancies for council homes were advertised in a main street shop window.
The Daily Mirror report concluded: (8)
the Housing Committee, with no worries, can sit back and plan carefully. ‘When our plans are finally approved,’ said the clerk, ‘we can carry out a first-class building programme and not be troubled by present shortages’
The clerk, Mr W F Lee, spoke of a planned building programme of 114 permanent homes but, while the temporary prefabs of Maryfell would certainly need replacing in the near future, for the moment it was a scheme just to the north along Cautley Road and Long Lane that took priority. The Council invited tenders for the construction of 46 houses in July 1950 – 38 in Sedbergh, eight in Dent where six were set attractively around a green on Dragon Croft. Semi-detached and terraced housing was built in the short culs-de sac of Castlehaw and Thornsbank in Sedbergh.
Dragon Croft, Dent
The redevelopment of Maryfell came two years later with an initial tender for 24 two-storey houses and 36 flats in three-storey blocks. The estate was completed by summer 1956. Early tenants were apparently discomfited by its open-plan layout, unpersuaded perhaps when the estate’s architect, T M Jones, ‘pointed to the practice on many modern housing estates and said the best effect had been gained through the absence of fences’. (9) Nowadays, only traces of the estate’s former unfenced design remain, even fewer as Right to Buy has exerted its own form of privatisation.
In 1961, after slow beginnings, the Council celebrated the completion of its 200th home with due pomp when its keys were formally handed to Mrs B Douglas, the fortunate new tenant, by a group of local councillors.
The following year, reflecting a typical turn within rural council housing in catering increasingly to an older and poorly-housed population, the Council opened Gladstone House on Fell Close in the Maryfell Estate – eight new warden-assisted bungalows and four flats and a community room, adjacent to some existing accommodation for older people on the estate. The West Riding County Council, whose responsibilities covered the welfare of the elderly, contributed to the scheme’s costs.
It was, according to a local press report: (10)
obviously a much cheaper and more humanitarian way of dealing with the problem of caring for the old by giving them every comfort in their local environment, rather than to send them to a home, which is liable to have something of an institutional character and atmosphere, however well camouflaged.
In the mid-1960s, its last major development, the Rural District Council built 17 three-bed and two four-bed houses and 30 two-bed flats on Castlegarth, to the north of Long Lane. Marking a new relative working-class affluence, 18 garages were provided with a further 31 to follow. A new fire station, new police station and three new police houses – county council responsibilities – were built adjacent. (The fire station remains; the police station is now a funeral directors.)
In all this, Sedbergh RDC had become, in the words of that same press report, ‘one of the foremost local authorities in the North-West in its post-war housing development’. The town’s extensive new housing catered to the wider district as well as established residents; conversely some of the latter now found work in Kendal, many at K Shoes.
To conservation specialists, the town’s new eastern suburbs ‘present a bland appearance with “standard” house types that provide a harsh contrast alongside traditional stone buildings’ and it’s true enough that neither the town’s interwar council housing or, more particularly, its post-war made much effort to ‘fit in’ with a local vernacular. (11) Fairholme represents some of the best of interwar council housing; Havera, a decoratively pared down and presumably cheaper version of the same. The cream to grey roughcast, semi-detached pairs of the early post-war era are used fairly indiscriminately. At Maryfell, though the three-storey flats come as an initial surprise in this rural setting, standard housing is made more attractive by lighter colours and patterning, Castlegarth, greyer, appears rather stark by comparison.
On the other hand, it did all, of course, provide genuinely affordable housing meeting local needs. Currently, it’s estimated that around 12 percent of Sedbergh’s 1323 homes are second homes while, in recent times at least, rising house prices and declining social housing stock, have further limited the ability of lower-income residents or would-be residents to buy or rent local homes. It is reported that: (12)
families are moving out of Sedbergh to larger conurbations or to remote rural areas to access more affordable homes. Businesses of all sizes across all sectors have confirmed that both housing cost and availability is negatively impacting on their ability to recruit and retain staff.
Social rent housing isn’t a cost; it remains, as it ever was, an investment – both in the wellbeing of individuals and the vitality of local communities. Sedbergh’s past and present illustrate these lessons very clearly.
I am very grateful to the Sedbergh and District History Society for providing information and resources to support this account and, as credited, some wonderful photographs to illustrate it.
(1) ‘Sedbergh Luckiest Town for Housing’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 January 1947
(2) ‘Sedbergh Housing – Council to Build Working Class Cottages’, Lancashire Evening Post, 19 June 1914
(3) Sedbergh Rural District Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1925
(4) ‘Eleven Doomed to One Room’, John Bull, 23 May 1936
(5) Sedbergh Rural District Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1937
(6) Sedbergh Rural District Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1940
(7) Karen Bruce Lockhart, ‘Wartime Sedbergh – The Final Months 1945’, The Sedbergh Historian, The Annual Journal of the Sedbergh and District History Society, vol VII, no. 3 Summer 2020
(8) ‘Town That Has No Housing Problem Put “To Let” Notices in Shop Window’, Daily Mirror, 6 February 1947
(9) Press cutting, 26 April 1956, supplied by Sedbergh and District History Society
(10) Press cutting, 30 March 1962, supplied by Sedbergh and District History Society
(11) Sedbergh Conservation Area Appraisal Final Report for Public Consultation, December 2009
(12) Joanne Golton, Housing Growth in Sedbergh – Economic Assessment. Final Report, Autumn 2020