We left Barrow last week just as its first public housing was under construction. These were homes – though not all justified the term – built by the Ministry of Munitions to house Barrow’s huge armaments workforce just as, it turned out, the First World War was drawing to its bloody conclusion. In 1917, the town’s Medical Officer of Health (echoing the Council’s official line), had argued that ‘the only solution for gross overcrowding is a scheme for the provision of houses carried out by the Ministry of Munitions’. By April 1918, the Council’s Health Committee had concluded that ‘it is the duty of local authorities to carry through a programme of housing for the working classes’. Much had changed and this post will deal largely with the council housebuilding programme that ensued, albeit in faltering fashion. (1)
Firstly, however, there was the problem of the two Ministry of Munitions schemes launched in October 1917. The Roosegate development of semi-permanent housing was built by the Ministry itself; 200 bungalows (of the 500 originally projected) were completed in 1918 – to almost universal obloquy. As one Barrow resident recalled, ‘they were one-roomed and two-roomed houses. It was just simply a box with a lid on’. Locals called the scheme ‘China Town’. In June 1920, the Health Committee warned of the ‘intolerable condition’ of its streets; by March the next year, the Committee described the housing as a ‘a threat to the health of residents’. Its closure was announced in July 1925. (2)
The second Ministry scheme at Abbotsmead comprised permanent housing, built by the Council under Ministry contract to designs provided by the latter. The estate’s layout was better though the houses themselves were criticised for their small rooms and poor build quality. A bigger problem was the proposed rent levels, initially set at an exorbitant 17s a week (85p) by the Ministry with the Council considering even reduced rents of 10-12s (50-60p) too high. The scheme was abandoned by war’s end with around half of the proposed 500 houses completed. Hopes that the Council might purchase the homes in peacetime were thwarted by cost; most by the mid-1920s had been sold to sitting tenants.
Despite acknowledging in March 1919 that ‘the provision of housing [was] one of its most pressing needs’ and despite the combination of generosity and compulsion offered by the 1919 Housing Act, the Council was slow to respond. However, belatedly in April 1920, it agreed proposals to build in 113 homes on Devonshire Road and 44 on Walney Island. Both schemes were largely completed in 1921.
Local as well as national politics had shifted. Labour gained its first majority on the Council in 1920 and would govern again between 1928 and 1931 and 1934 to 1938. An average turnout of 69 percent through the interwar period, peaking at 81 percent in 1925, shows how fiercely contested these municipal elections were. (3)
However, through much of this period, economics loomed larger than politics. With military orders withdrawn and facing unprecedentedly harsh international trading conditions, Barrow’s traditional industrial mainstays were decimated. By 1922, 60 percent of its shipbuilding workforce and half of its engineering workers were unemployed – 44 percent of its insured workforce overall. Vickers’ workforce fell from 23,000 in July 1918 to a low point of just over 3700 in 1923. Wage cuts forced a bitter engineering strike in the town in May 1922.
The new housing crisis was manifest in rent arrears and evictions, the latter sometimes fiercely contested as when 20 police officers were sent with bailiffs to enforce evictions in Vickerstown (where 800 tenants had been laid off and rent arrears approached £7000) in February 1922. In the 1920s, the Council’s preoccupation lay with collecting rents – reduced in 1924 from the already low levels of 7s 6s to 5s (37½ to 25p) weekly – rather than building anew.
A second major slump hit Barrow with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 when at peak in 1931 some 7500 of the locally insured workforce was jobless. There was little female employment in the town to offset mass male unemployment. Rearmament in the later 1930s would restore the town’s fortunes whilst other of its former large employers in railway and locomotive building and metal founding closed permanently.
The Labour-controlled Council was able to commence one small building scheme in 1931 on land purchased from the Ministry of Munitions’ failed Roosegate development: 56 flats for elderly people on Thrums Street, followed by an adjacent scheme of 116 semi-detached houses finally completed in 1948.
The national shift towards slum clearance signified by the 1930 Housing Act and, in Barrow’s case more particularly, the 1935 Housing Act provided greater scope for the Council. Some 6384 homes were inspected under the surveys required by the latter legislation and just over half found ‘not in all respects fit for human habitation’ between 1935 and 1937. Applying overcrowding criteria, 887 homes accommodating 5475 persons were found overcrowded in 1937, equating to 6 percent of the town’s housing stock. Twenty-seven clearance areas were declared.
Barrow also suffered unusually from what might be kindly called ‘informal housing’ – shacks and tents predominantly on Walney Island’s western shore. Some of these were occupied by young people evading the household income provisions of the means test and the Council proceeded cautiously but 28 huts at Biggar Bank on Walney Island were cleared by 1939.
The biggest scalp, however, were the Scotch Flats in Hindpool discussed in last week’s post – tenement buildings dating to 1871 which were among the first of Barrow’s company housing. After two public enquiries, the Ministry of Health agreed the inspector’s decision to demolish in 1939 though – with war intervening – they were to survive till 1956.
From a low point of some 66,000 in 1931, Barrow’s population had increased to around 75,000 by 1940. Population pressures and increased finances encouraged the Council to embark on larger building projects in the later 1930s. The Risedale Estate was commenced in 1936; its 148 new homes were completed in 1948.
The Vulcan Estate, built on the site of the former Vulcan Ironworks in Salthouse, was built between 1936 and 1937 as a slum clearance estate to house those displaced from the Strand Clearance Area. Its relatively plain housing may reflect those origins.
Land a short distance to the north was purchased for the Greengate Estate, North and South, in 1937 but, with contracts for 180 houses and 54 flats not agreed till the summer of 1939, little progress was made before the war – just 18 houses in Greengate South were completed by February 1940.
Some of those were damaged in the Barrow Blitz, two sustained bombing raids on 14-16 April and 3-10 May 1941. Ironically, the town’s heavy industry was relatively unaffected but some 83 civilians died and over 10,000 homes damaged. In Barrow, as elsewhere, the desire to build bigger and better in the post-war world was expressed as conflict raged.
Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Health rejected immediate plans for rebuilding proposed by the Council as early as 1943 but the Borough Surveyor prepared further plans for Greengate South and a new estate of 900 homes in Newbarns – part of a vision announced by the mayor, Councillor GD Haswell, in November that year to create a ‘new post-war Barrow’. The Newbarns scheme was approved in May 1944.
The Council’s Barrow Development Committee, tasked with overseeing peacetime reconstruction, was clear on the ‘paramount necessity of suitably housing our people’:
The social benefits to health, education, family life and ‘moral well-being’ are of course ample justification for the provision of houses adequate in number, properly designed and located with ample accommodation. But even from an economic point of view ample and suitable accommodation is a valuable asset. The fact that we have the necessary labour to offer is enhanced in value greatly if we can show it is properly and suitably housed. Ours must be a slumless city.
As that ambition took shape, the town was allocated 400 temporary prefabs to help meet the immediate housing crisis in November 1944. Many of these Tarran concrete bungalows were erected in Tummerhill on Walney Island, replaced from 1956 by permanent housing; others dotted around the town survived longer. Permanent prefabs – in this case around 200 steel-framed British Iron and Steel Federation houses – were built by Laings on Park Road, and north of Chester Street and Bradford Street on the Ormsgill Estate. They were replaced in the mid-1970s as the estate continued to grow.
Earlier plans for the Greengate estates were completed in the late 1940s but Barrow’s new hopes were placed in the Newbarns Estate, planned to comprise some 800 homes housing around 3000. Post-war planning ideas around ‘neighbourhood units’ were reflected in the provision made for new churches, schools and recreation facilities though the promised tennis courts and recreation centre were never built.
Building continued apace with the Abbotsmead Estate completed in the mid-1950s and what was promoted as ‘a new town at Walney’ of over 2700 homes in the north of the island approved in 1953 where building continued into the 1960s. Some 2600 council homes were built between 1945 and 1961.
For Barrow, the era of large-scale council housebuilding was over by the late-1960s; new schemes were smaller and largely infill, including the Cartmel and Grange Crescent flats in the centre of town and bungalows and flats principally for older residents around Cotswold Crescent on the former site of the Griffin Chilled Steel Works. A scheme of 79 houses and flats on and around Exmouth Street in 1985 marked an adaptive return to more traditional terraced forms.
At peak, in the early 1980s, the Council owned around 5500 homes in the borough. Currently, it owns and manages just over 2500 homes with a much smaller number run by housing associations. Around 10 percent of households live in social rented homes, a surprisingly low figure – below the national average – for a town dubbed the most working-class in England (an admittedly inexact judgement apparently reflecting its prevalence of chip shops, workingmen’s clubs and trade union offices). That may reflect the early tradition of working-class owner occupation referenced last week, the amount of company housing since transferred to private ownership and council housebuilding programmes constrained by economic downturn. (5)
The town continues to be marked by its industrial history and the ups and downs of the local economy. Vickers, now BAE Systems (that is a considerable simplification of a complex history), was sustained by nuclear submarine orders into the 1990s but now employs only around 5000 workers from 14,000 in the 1980s. The pre-pandemic unemployment rate stood at around 4 percent, a fall from recent figures but above the national average. Earlier this year, the town was reported as having suffered the largest population fall of any area in England – around 6.8 percent between 2001 and 2019 to the present figure of around 67,000. (6)
Elsewhere, Barrow is often described as being at the end of the longest cul-de-sac in England due to its location at the tip of the Furness peninsula, 33 miles off the nearest motorway and 33 miles back. The fact that this ‘western industrial periphery’ had briefly been ‘a major Bessemer iron and steel centre of Europe and the world’ tells you something of its impressive and turbulent economic history. (7)
Give Barrow a visit – it has some proud municipal heritage and a unique housing history; it’s a hardworking town working hard to adapt to changing circumstance as it has throughout its lifespan. And that ‘remote’ location is actually pretty special.
(1) Quoted in Bryn Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built (Hougenai Press, 1985). Much of the information here and particularly that on later council housing, which is little documented elsewhere, is drawn from this invaluable source by Barrow’s leading historian.
(2) Quotations drawn from Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster 1880-1930’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol 127, 1978 and Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built
(3) Sam Davies and Bob Morley, County Borough Elections in England and Wales, 1919-1938: A Comparative Analysis (Routledge, 2016). The unemployment figures which follow are drawn from the same source.
(4) Quoted in Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built
(5) On the town’s working-class character see Caroline Evans, ‘Barrow, Capital of Blue-Collar Britain’, The Guardian, 5 October 2008
(6) Eleanor Ovens, ‘Barrow named as having biggest population drop in England’, The News, 20 June 2020
(7) The quote is drawn from John Duncan Marshall and John K Walton, The Lake Counties from 1830 to the Mid-Twentieth Century: A Study in Regional Change (Manchester University Press, 1981)