Bristol had been transformed by council housing between the wars, as discussed in this earlier post. The City Council built over 15,000 new council homes, principally on nine new suburban estates. Together, they formed around 40 percent of the city’s new housing. It would be transformed again in the post-war period – new peripheral estates appeared but, most strikingly and obviously in the central areas, there were also the high-rise blocks which will form the central focus of this post.
There had been modest forays into multi-storey housing before the Second World War. Three-storey flats had been built to rehouse those displaced by a slum clearance scheme in Eugene Street in 1923 at Lawford’s Gate in Old Market and Eugene Street itself. A speech by Sir Hilton Young, Minister of Health and Housing, in Bristol in 1934 probably boosted local efforts. He urged that those displaced by slum clearance – in full swing as a result of legislative and policy changes in the decade – be rehoused centrally (near their places of work) and in flats; he counselled a somewhat sceptical audience to ‘go and look at what can be done in the way of tenement dwellings for wage-earners according to modern standards’. (1) Four-storey flats were built in Hotwell Road, Kingsland Road and Champion Square (St Pauls) in the mid- to late-1930s.
Around 3200 homes were destroyed in Bristol by aerial bombing during the Second World War but raised post-war expectations and a baby boom added their own urgency to renewed slum clearance and rehousing efforts after it. The first, unauthorised, response was a squatting movement which spread like wildfire across the UK; by October 1946, an estimated 1038 camps had been commandeered as emergency housing by almost 40,000 activists. In Bristol, squatters occupied a military base named White City near the Bristol City football ground. Local supporters were keen to stress their respectability: (2)
Their action was unusual, unconstitutional, but let no one think they are ruffians. They are ordinary people, they shave every day, eat at tables, go off to earn their own living.
The Labour-controlled Council itself was initially hostile – elsewhere some were positively helpful – but a prominent Labour member of the Housing Committee, Harry Hennessy, supported the action and urged those taking part to: ‘Sit tight. Carry on. Take no notice of rumours. The police cannot touch you’. Some of the army huts were acquired temporarily as council housing and most of the squatters had been permanently rehoused by 1950.
The temporary prefab programme, inaugurated in 1944, was an official state response and around 2700 of these temporary bungalows were erected in the city – the largest numbers (around 150) at a site in Ashton Dell and 127 in the suburb of Horfield.
The city also went big on permanent prefabrication – the various systems that it was hoped might provide a speedy and cost-effective method of solving the post-war housing crisis. By March 1955, Bristol had built 16,704 permanent houses since war’s end; of these 10,892 were non-traditional – including 5415 Easiform homes made of in situ poured concrete and 1712 Cornish units of concrete post and panel construction. Less common systems nationally such as Unity (precast concrete and steel frame) and Woolaway (another form of concrete post and panel construction) were also built at scale. (3)
It was these suburbs that provided the bulk of the city’s early post-war housebuilding. The Lawrence Weston, Henbury and Lockleaze Estates to the north were approved soon after the war; Withywood and Hartcliffe to the south started construction in the early 1950s.
The Council’s 1951 Development Plan reflected the thinking of the day in its emphasis on the neighbourhood units held to promote community on new council estates. But it marked also a renewed intention to redevelop central areas; it was estimated that there were 10,000 houses in Bristol unfit for human habitation and a further 25,000 that were substandard. The Plan envisaged 19,000 new homes by 1957 of which 10,000 would be flats.
It had been argued since the 1930s, as we saw, that inner-city slum clearance required multi-storey replacement – displaced residents needed to be near their place of work and flats were held to achieve a necessary higher population density. In the 1950s, the case was strengthened by what many councils perceived as a shortage of suitable land for housing (a ‘land trap’, as it was described contemporarily), created by new zoning regulations and green belts pushing peripheral suburbs inconveniently distant. Some councils were also loath to move their ratepayers and voters into neighbouring districts.
In this respect, Bristol, aided by a boundary extension into Somerset in 1951, was relatively well off but the perception of land shortage was a powerful one that influenced decision-making at the time. Patrick Dunleavy, the chief chronicler of Bristol’s multi-storey development, considers the 1956 high flats subsidy (which paid a higher amount the higher the scheme) another significant influence on Bristol councillors’ choice to build tall.
Heavily-bombed Redcliffe, immediately to the east of the city centre, was one of the earliest areas selected for redevelopment when in July 1945 the City Council agreed proposals to redevelop the district as ‘a housing area for key workers’. Detailed plans for what Alderman Charles Gill, the powerful chair of the Housing Committee, called a ‘tremendous and interesting project’, were approved in December 1949. (4)
Although reaching only a modest six storeys, this was an early showpiece scheme for the Council, planned to accommodate some 2500 residents in a mix of 775 one- to three-bed homes. ‘An outstanding contribution [was] the bold decision to provide a central-heating and hot-water system for all dwellings’, according to AW Cleave Barr – a district heating system, located in Canynge House, which ‘influenced the form of the scheme in the direction of a few very large blocks of flats and maisonettes, as opposed to a mixed development of flats and houses’. (5) A communal laundry, nursery and doctors’ surgery were also included.
Higher blocks, including the 13-storey Waring House, were completed in the area in 1960. A three-bed flat in the scheme could be rented for about £3.20 which included hot water, laundry and heating. (If you watched the 2020 BBC2 series A House Through Time on no. 10 Guinea Street, you will have seen the development at the end of the road.)
Barton Hill, to the east of the city centre, was another area targeted for redevelopment and controversy over the plans anticipated later difficulties. It was undeniably an area of old and inadequate housing but many of the residents – who felt themselves part of a respectable working-class community – resented the slum label and disliked the multi-storey alternative.
According to Hilda Jennings’ account of a public meeting called to discuss the plans in 1953 (Jennings was the warden of a university settlement in the district): (6)
Opposition to building in multi-storey flats was general; when one official, after expounding their convenience and the necessity for them, agreed that he himself lived, in a ‘nice little house’, the whole audience chanted ‘That’s what we want. A nice little house in a nice little garden, with a nice little fence around it’.
But, apparently, council officials were heard more sympathetically ‘when they claimed that the only alternative to building upwards was moving out to the overspill area’. In any case, the plans went ahead
Actual clearance and reconstruction took far longer. Barton House was completed in 1958; at 15 storeys, then the tallest block outside London. Two eleven-storey blocks (Phoenix and Eccleston Houses) were completed in 1961; four more fifteen-storey blocks (Longlands, Harwood, Corbett and Beaufort Houses) the following year. (Most of the present colour schemes date to a general refurbishment programme carried out in the 1990s.)
These were the balcony-access slab blocks, designed by City Architect, J Nelson Meredith, that Bristol favoured at the time. The blocks here, as elsewhere in the city, were, for all their prominence, placed individually so there were few dense concentrations of high-rise housing and no attempt to emulate the Zeilenbau schemes (arranged on a north-south axis to maximise sunlight) found elsewhere. (7)
Lower-rise blocks of six-storeys apiece in idiosyncratic Bristol-style – Tyndall House and John Cozens House – in the St Jude’s Redevelopment Area were begun in 1957. Two ten-storey blocks (since demolished) were built on the peripheral Lawrence Weston estate.
Overall, the share of high-rise in housing schemes approved by the City Council increased from eight percent to nearly 30 between 1954 and 1957. In 1958, the Housing Committee sanctioned a 12-year clearance programme that included plans to demolish half the houses in Easton ward and some 24,500 houses in total by 2001. (8)
These plans would prove more controversial and the political shift they helped bring about locally would have major consequences for how high-rise developed in Bristol in the 1960s. Those topics will feature in next week’s post.
The website of the Tower Block UK Project provides detail on high-rise public housing in Bristol and nationally.
(1) ‘Minister’s Speech on Housing’, Western Daily Press, 14 July 1934
(2) This and the succeeding quotation are drawn from Howard Webber, ‘A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’. You can read more of Hennessy’s support for the squatting movement in this interview with Alderman Wally Jenkins recorded by Bristol Museums.
(3) The detail is drawn from the 1955 Bristol Housing Report featured in Bristol Festival of Ideas, Mel Kelly, Bristol Housing Reports: 1955-1959. A complete breakdown of surviving non-traditional housing in Bristol is supplied in response to this Freedom of Information request made in 2016.
(4) ‘Redcliff Hill Flats Plan to House Port Key Workers Goes Forward’, Western Daily Press, 20 December 1949
(5) AW Cleave Barr, Public Authority Housing (BT Batsford, 1958)
(6) Hilda Jennings wrote an account of the episode in her 1962 book, Societies in the Making. The quotation from it is drawn from Patrick Dunleavy, ‘The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain: Local Communities Tackle Mass Housing’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 1978.
(7) Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers for the Welfare State (The Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, 2017).
(8) Dunleavy, ‘The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain’.