In last week’s post, we looked at the evolution of council housing in Stroud up to 1936. In that year, the Urban District Council (UDC) was expanded to include outlying suburbs previously administered by Stroud Rural District Council (RDC). In the process, the Council inherited some fine 1919 Housing Act schemes along Foxmoor Road (Cainscross) and Dudridge Road (Rodborough) built by the RDC.
At the same time, the ‘new’ council developed its housing programme with an expansion of its earlier Summer Street scheme and, back over to the west, a new estate at Paganhill. Providing an unexpectedly grand entrance to the estate is Britain’s first anti-slavery monument – an arch built in 1834 as a gateway to the Georgian mansion of Farmhill Park by its new owner, Henry Wyatt, a wealthy local businessman and active member of the Stroud Anti-Slavery Society. The house was demolished in the early 1930s but the arch was retained, restored by the Council in the early 1960s and, at the turn of this century, by the Stroud Preservation Trust. The housing, designed by the Council’s Engineer and Surveyor, FS Cutler, is more modestly of its time.
This building spurt brought the total of council houses within the district to 515 by 1937 (98 parlour houses, built in the expansive early post-war period, and 417 non-parlour). For a time, the ‘Council were of the opinion that no more Council houses were required in addition to those provided for the residents of overcrowded dwellings’ but in the following year the Medical Officer of Health noted ‘there is still considerable demand for Council houses, a large number of people living two families per house’. (1)
The outbreak of war scuppered plans for new building but increased housing demand. Twelve hundred people were evacuated from Birmingham to the town in the first week of the conflict and, at peak, the town’s population increased by 9000. Ironically, though Stroud suffered very lightly from enemy action, the two fatalities of a bombing raid in June 1941 were both evacuees; eleven houses were destroyed or seriously damaged. (2)
At war’s end, a combination of wartime neglect and post-war aspiration put housing on the top of the political agenda in Stroud as elsewhere in the country. But, in a period of genuine austerity with a balance of payments crisis looming, opportunities to build were severely constrained. In December 1948, the Regional Building Committee of the Ministry of Works allocated 69 houses to Stroud for building the following year. It’s evidence of the priority given by Nye Bevan, Minister of Health and Housing and the Labour government more broadly to working-class housing, that no more than nine of these were permitted to be built by private enterprise. (3)
Nevertheless, circumstances remained difficult: (4)
The Council have extensive plans for the erection of houses suitable for letting to the working classes and sites have been prepared at Ebley, Cashes Green and the Bisley Old Road. The need for more accommodation to provide for those living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions, and for the ordinary needs of residents and persons marrying and desiring to start married life in a house of their own is urgent, but unfortunately progress has been slow and it would appear that it will be sometime yet before even a start can be made in dealing with the considerable number of unfit houses and cottages in the area, which should be demolished.
Non-traditional construction was embraced once more in the hope that it might provide a quick and relatively cost-effective solution to the immediate housing crisis. Temporary prefab bungalows, intended to last ten years, part of the £150 million national government programme, were erected in Sunnyhill in Cashes Green and at the top end of Langtoft Road at the far west of the town. The latter were demolished in the mid-1960s. At Sunnyhill, all but one (presumably acquired by its tenants under Right to Buy) appears to have been replaced by a brick-built bungalow on the same footprint.
Permanent prefabricated houses in various patented forms of Pre-Cast Reinforced Concrete construction (Woolaway, Reema, and Unity) were built around Old Bisley Road and on Hillcrest Road, Cashes Green. All three types were declared defective in the 1984 Housing Defects Act and those that remain in council ownership have been rebuilt or thoroughly renovated in more recent years.
By the later 1940s and into the 1950s, building continued apace with major new estates constructed to the west of the town around Devereaux Road and Orchard Road in Ebley and Hillcrest Road, Cashes Green.
Having largely dealt with the immediate housing crisis, Stroud (and the country) turned to the question of slum clearance. In the mid-1950s, 374 houses in the district were declared unfit in a return to Whitehall. Hill Street (now the bottom end of Parliament Street) was declared a clearance area in 1956 and, further up, a cluster of housing around Bisley Old Road, Middle Hill and Summer Street the following year. The compulsory purchase of older properties and the rehousing of their residents across the district caused some local controversy. (5)
At the top of a typically steep hill in Paganhill, in a scheme approved in 1959 designed by TG Askew, the Council’s Engineer and Surveyor, the Council made a rare nod to a local vernacular found more commonly in neighbouring villages with housing in Byron Road and Keats Gardens of Cotswold stone.
Again, reflecting national trends as public housing looked increasingly to support an ageing population, Stroud also built what it called its first Group Dwelling Scheme, designed to provide assisted accommodation for elderly people, in Cashes Green. More specialist housing for the elderly would follow as council housing continued to expand in the 1960s. That the need remained pressing was demonstrated by a survey (presumably of the town’s poorer housing) in 1970 that showed 28 percent of 1067 houses surveyed lacked a bath, 30 percent a ‘satisfactory’ inside toilet. (6)
The shift towards high-rise construction that occurred nationally from the late 1950s had little impact on Stroud. A proposal to build an eleven-storey block on the Parliament Street clearance site was supported by council officers and encouraged by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government but was resisted by councillors. Instead, Stroud moved modestly into the multi-storey era with some larger three-storey blocks along Mathews Way, Paganhill, in a mixed development estate conforming well to contemporary desires to provide variety in appearance and a range of housing to suit varied needs.
The Nouncells Cross scheme of the early 1970s, designed by Cheltenham architect IM Williams, that belatedly filled some of the clearance area declared in 1957 along Bisley Old Road, was more dramatic, switching between three and five storeys in a striking hillside setting. The wider scheme also contained 29 houses and 25 bungalows and a communal hall for elderly residents.
By 1974, Stroud Urban District Council owned and managed around 2500 homes, housing around a third of the local population. In the major reform of local government occurring that year a new ‘Stroud’ emerged in the form of a Stroud District Council comprising the former urban district councils of Stroud and Nailsworth and the rural district council of Dursley, and parts of Gloucester, Thornbury and Sodbury rural districts.
From a peak of around 9000 council homes in all, the virtual halt on council housebuilding and the impact of Right to Buy reduced the Council’s housing stock to 6500 in the mid-1990s, a drop of about 40 percent. In March 2022, the total was reported as 5029 with over 500 further homes lost to Right to Buy in the preceding twenty years. (7) Despite a careful pruning of waiting lists, in March 2022, there were 2976 applicants on the current housing register.
A great deal more has changed in the social housing landscape since 1979, including large-scale stock transfers of housing from local government to housing associations. In Gloucestershire, Stroud District Council describes itself as the only local authority to have retained ownership and management of its housing. And it, like other councils, is trying to build more. Twenty new energy efficient homes were opened in Nailsworth last year; the District Council is ‘looking to build more and importantly work with social housing providers and community land trusts to enable them to provide homes too’. (8)
Changing times and far more limited ambitions (or possibilities) but the need for decent, genuinely affordable social rented housing remains as pressing as ever.
My especial thanks to Chas Townley whose earlier research has provided much of the detail for this post and who read, corrected and added very helpfully to a first draft of this post. My thanks also to Pauline Stevens and the Stroud Local History Society for providing additional information and resources.
(1) Reports of the Medical Officer of Health, Stroud Urban District Council, 1937 and 1938
I’m honoured today to feature the second post of Catherine’s Flinn’s analysis of post-war European reconstruction. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Catherine Flinn is author of the book Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities, published by Bloomsbury. She particularly looks at the built environment through the lens of politics and economics, as well as social and cultural influences – broadly via national controls and policies, plus locally through micro-histories. She holds multiple degrees in architecture, landscape and history.
In the first part of this two-part post, I talked about European post-war reconstruction and the contrasts between Britain and the continent, describing some examples in Poland and Germany specifically. As many people realise, in Britain very few – if any – rebuilt city centres have embodied similar ideals to the historic idioms repeated in a number of European cities. So it is reasonable to ask why. How did people in post-war Britain see their cities? That is, what priorities were important to the various actors involved in rebuilding blitzed city centres?
Plymouth after the air raids of March/April 1941
In this post I will discuss the way people thought about reconstruction in Britain – from owners to planners to local authorities – and how modernist ideas prevailed, contrasting ideologically (and often practically) withContinental examples. Post-war British versions of ideal cities were strikingly different to today’s visions of ideal cities.
Planning for Reconstruction, Architectural Press, 1944
During the Second World War, in part as a way of promoting hope and positive attitudes to the war’s end, many British cities began planning as early as 1940. (1) Cities like Coventry and Portsmouth commissioned plans for their post-war reconstruction several years before the last bombs fell. The plans made were in general strikingly modern, futuristic, and vehicle-focused. In certain cases they included the rebuilding of major monuments or churches – for example Coventry rebuilt its cathedral (albeit in a new modern version), Portsmouth partly focused on the rebuilding of its damaged Guildhall, while in London the House of Commons and Inns of Court were rebuilt – but these are all individual buildings. Strikingly, I have found no archival evidence to suggest any plans made kept original street lines or that historic appearances were ever intended to be reconstructed.
Government ministers told city officials to ‘plan boldly’ and they did. (2) In general, the plans made were often influenced by local politics: Labour-majority councils often made very modern comprehensive plans, while Conservative-led councils – unsurprisingly perhaps – advocated less sweeping change. Still, all councils were concerned with a few major issues: traffic flow, housing or slum clearance, and commercial redevelopment. City centre streets were inadequately narrow for cars and lorries, as well as increasingly overcrowded. Space was also prioritised for parking. Councils clearly found that medieval street forms were not conducive to the large vehicles of the mid-twentieth century.
Across the board, however, the strongest objections to the plans being made were rarely about loss of heritage or history. Almost all objections to post-war plans were simply property owners who did not want to move or face further major disruption to their businesses, or homes. The story in British blitzed cities was one of conflict among city officials, businesses, and residents about how to ‘improve’ the city. Further, there was often conflict between city officials and the planning ministry who – particularly after the implementation of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act – often disagreed about what should be done in each city.
There were also significant problems created by shortages of steel and labour, as well as severe restrictions on what kind of building investment was allowed in the first seven post-war years. Furthermore, since central government was barely able to assist financially with rebuilding (in fact only helping with loans in redevelopment areas), the priorities of the blitzed cities also turned to increasing rateable value.
This photograph of Portsmouth city centre (the Guildhall is centre right) was taken in 1950
Finally, when reconstruction and redevelopment did happen in Britain, it took place very slowly and in a piecemeal fashion. It was more than ten years after the major bombing raids before any real work began on city centre reconstruction in Britain – whereas in Europe, many cities had rebuilt much of their centres by 1953. (3) This was not surprising: reconstruction priorities in Britain were initially focused completely on industry (i.e. the economy) and housing. City centres were treated as an afterthought, despite wartime promises.
Beyond those larger capital investment issues, government publications also reveal a great deal about aesthetic priorities in Britain. Much was written in Whitehall around guidelines for reconstruction. The planning ministry, transportation ministry, health officials and others all highlighted a car-centred approach to planning and design. (4) It cannot be stressed enough how much vehicular flow and parking were emphasised.
In every discussion of reconstruction in city archives, it was assumed that street layouts would change. It was taken for granted that vehicles should take precedence and that many old street patterns would be laid out anew because people would enter city centres by car and park there. Planning ideals were far from being either environmentally or – in today’s terms – aesthetically friendly in the 1940s or 50s. To residents, businesses, and local authorities vehicle circulation was clearly of great importance. City plans often expressed the belief that the bombing had created the potential to make cities function better, even if it meant making huge infrastructure changes.
Rationing – particularly of steel – impacted speed, cost, and appearance. Additionally, shortages often forced the use of other materials such as reinforced concrete. In fact, the planning ministry actively encouraged the use of reinforced concrete over structural steel. (5) Oddly, there was a marked lack of discussion of the issues of materials shortages, or even innovations, in the architectural press. (6) And there was not just an effort to save steel, enforced by the shortages and rationing, but also a rising enthusiasm for new technologies. (8) Building styles in city centre reconstruction were influenced both by this increasing interest in technology and the growth in popularity (from before the war) of modernist architecture. (7)
The new Broadgate, Coventry, as envisaged by City Architect Donald Gibson in 1941.
The Precinct, Coventry, undated postcard
Modern styles mainly developed in Europe, spreading to Britain in the 1930s. After the war these newer styles continued to flourish within the architectural profession, though this time in their own particularly British form. (8) In urban areas this modernism was composed of straight lines: a box-like style with a smooth facade, though often embellished with sparse neo-classical details. The taste for modernism was enthusiastically adopted by local authorities who controlled much of the appearance of new buildings as well. Archival records such as city council minutes and municipal journals for local authorities show an over-riding sense of an embrace of modernity and a wish to be seen as a forward-thinking, rather than stuck in the past. (9)
Another key factor at play were those paying for the buildings: property developers. Developers were increasingly the primary builders in blitzed cities, and their motives were often driven more by profit than aesthetic concerns. Owner-occupiers generally showed careful concern about their building’s appearance but developers were far more interested in lettable space. And city officials usually had complementary motives, given their desire to make up huge losses in rateable income caused by the wartime damage. (10)
Finally, on the issue of saving historic places: while there were certainly complaints about pulling down individual historic buildings, none of the archival material yields any discussion of rebuilding any streetscapes or historic districts as they had been.
One rare example was in Exeter where a Ministry of Works representative noted that the area around Dix’s Fields was listed as Grade II and should be preserved, even where only facades remained. But the City of Exeter acquired these properties after a legal battle and tore them down. (11) In some cases – as in Liverpool for example – some firms rebuilt nearly the same design as existed on their pre-war sites, but in all cases substantial portions of the buildings remained, and the decision not to demolish and build new was also due to the slowness of approvals and the fact that steel allocations for ‘repair’ were easier to procure.
This lack of concern for historic value does not reflect the intense pressure for preservation which came in more than ten years after reconstruction hit its peak. (16) There were notable campaigners for historic preservation, such as John Betjeman, but until the later 1960s such discussion was confined to the sidelines. Unusually, while perhaps German and Polish officials foresaw the potential for tourism in ‘historic’ towns, local authorities and city councils in Britain did not seem to see any importance in this prospective value.
From Thomas Sharp, Exeter Phoenix. A Plan for Rebuilding (Exeter, 1946)
Princesshay, Exeter, 1955
And while we see that some European examples of ‘historic’ reconstruction came much later than the 1950s, in places like Germany there was an emphasis put on domestic tourism from just after the war. (12) In British blitzed cities – with some exceptions such as Bath, Canterbury and York, where most historic buildings had survived the ‘Baedeker’ raids – the lack of attention to character and particularly potential tourism meant a great revenue loss to the redeveloped cities when ‘heritage’ took off in the 1970s. How Britain saw itself in the late 1940s and 1950s, and how it would see itself ten or twenty years on, were very different phenomena indeed. (13)
A rhetoric of blame has persisted since the 1980s in Britain when discussing post-war reconstruction. Many have insisted that the responsibility for the results lies exclusively with planners and architects. (14) But as Sunand Prasad, a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), has said: (15)
[There was] certainly a deal of naïve utopianism in the planning and architecture of the post-war decades, and maybe that period can be described as a gigantic and failed experiment … But it’s not idealism – laudable or foolish or otherwise – that shapes modern cities, it’s their political economy.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that for all the good intentions our confidence in professional knowledge was much greater than our real understanding of how it would all work… In the second half of the 20th century, we thought we were replacing trial and error with science.
If only this awareness of context could replace the criticism of the purely visual. Numerous factors had profound effects on post-war developments. All of the plans and many of the buildings could be considered experimental. There was no knowledge of whether a plan such as Abercrombie’s Plymouth or Hull would work successfully, even if implemented. In fact, in Plymouth the separation of uses advocated by the plan proved to be unsuccessful in large part, creating spaces that were too segregated. (16) And in Coventry: (17)
[the] scheme seems to have failed simultaneously in several ways: it was grounded on assumptions about the city’s growth and the social behavior of its residents that were not reliable, it buried a past that still had psychological value to local communities, and it imposed a highly integrated urban aesthetic that owed more to fashion than to pragmatism.
Blaming the planners and architects does not take into account the myriad of issues faced between drawing board and completion, much less the whims of clients and local authorities. And there was a strong belief in 1940s and 50s Britain that planners were experts and this technocratic knowledge was somehow ‘right’. More importantly, critics fail to acknowledge the key role that the post-war political economy played in the results of city centre reconstruction.
Cover illustration for W Dobson Chapman, Towards a New Macclesfield: A Suggestion for a New Town Centre (1944)
Some suggestions as to the bigger differences to Europe might include the contrasting experiences of war reflecting on decisions in rebuilding. Or perhaps economic pressures contributed to choices made. Consider too that Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. The loss of a sense of self and of culture among the Polish people was infinitely worse than most other parts of Europe. Poles might have seen rebuilding in a historic idiom to be a way of recreating memories, giving them back a sense of place obliterated during the war. And with Germany it may well be about an initial turn to modernism as a way to escape past sins and yet the further from the war the more we see a desire to rebuild historically and reclaim what might be thought of as a heritage buried or missing.
It might be considered ironic that – as noted in last week’s post – Poland and Czechoslovakia were visited by Lewis Silkin, the UK’s post-war planning minister, who went with a team to look at European reconstruction. In his report back to the cabinet Silkin stated:
On the whole, we are far in advance of Poland in town and country planning, and the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, is much more revolutionary in its method of dealing with land problems than anything that has happened in Poland. Polish planners definitely recognise our superiority and look to us to give them a lead.
Were his comments stemming from a sense of British (post-Empire?) superiority, or perhaps more simply an over-riding ideology among planning professionals that modern was somehow ‘better’? Today cities such as Plymouth, Portsmouth or Southampton are less tourist-friendly than Gdansk, most likely due to the ‘feel’ of these cities. (18)
Fougasse cartoon, Punch, 11 August 1943
Officials in European cities were not free of the conflict of issues similar to those in Britain’s cities – no city reached 100 percent consensus on an approach to reconstruction. But generally rebuilding in many continental European cities seems to have benefited from less internal conflict and a greater consensus on historicism. Ironically, Britain revels in its history and the heritage industry thrives still today. But it was late in coming. Protection of monuments and buildings has been ongoing, but it is the protection of the feel of a place that is perhaps lacking. Today, British planning has an inclusive sense of history that is often taken for granted, but very little of this was present when it came time to plan for blitz reconstruction. So while the ‘peculiarity’ of British reconstruction was perhaps in not saving more historic buildings or streetscapes, such plans were not considered peculiar at the time but truly forward-looking and excitingly modern.
(1) Some, such as Coventry, had started before the war. See P. Larkham and K. Lilley, Planning the ‘City of Tomorrow’: British Reconstruction Planning, 1939-1952: an annotated bibliography (Pickering, 2001)
(2) J. Reith, then Minister for Works and Buildings, House of Lords Debates ‘Post-War Reconstruction’, HL Deb 17 Jul 41 vol 119 cc844-80 (879).
(3) See my book or article: C. Flinn Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities (Bloomsbury, 2019); ‘”The City of Our Dreams”? The Political and Economic Realities of Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities, 1945–54’, Twentieth Century British History, (2012) 23 (2): 221-245. doi: 10.1093/tcbh/hwr009.
(4) Ministry of Town and Country Planning, The Redevelopment of Central Areas (London, 1947). Cmd. 9559 Report of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for the Period 1950/51 to 1954 (London, 1955). Also see J. Punter, ‘A History of Aesthetic Control: Part 1, 1909-1953: The Control of the External Appearance of Development in England and Wales’, The Town Planning Review,57, 4, (1986): 351-81; J. Punter, ‘Design’ in J.B. Cullingworth, British Planning: 50 Years of Urban and Regional Planning (London, 1999). Also, the slightly later publication by the MHLG, Town Centres: Approach to Renewal (London, 1962).
(5) See E Marples in HC Deb 10 April 1952 vol 498 cc2987-3003, ‘Blitzed Areas (Reconstruction)’, col 3003. This was reiterated in a letter to officials of blitzed cities: ‘wherever possible reinforced concrete or load-bearing walls should be used in preference to steel frames’. Liverpool Record Office: PWRSC Min Book, letter MHLG to Town Clerk, 24 Nov 52, para 6. (Clearly a form letter sent to all blitzed cities.) The largest single item in the investment programme for the Ministry of Works in 1949-52 was the cement industry at £10.5 million, see TNA: CAB 134/449 [IPC (WP) (48) 220] 21 Dec 48, item 3.
(6) One rare example is the transcript of an RIBA meeting of the ‘Architectural Science Board’ in 1947, published in its journal soon afterwards: G. Grenfell Baines, ‘Substitute Materials and Their Influence on Design.’ RIBA Journal (1948), 108-113. Also see, ‘Changes In Materials And Construction Methods’, W. A. Allen, which describes some of the reasons for development of prefabrication and usage of concrete and other materials in the postwar period, in The Times, 3 Jul 61, p xv.
(7) See Nick Hayes, ‘Prefabricating stories: innovation in systems technology after the Second World War’ History of Technology v25 (2004) , 7-28, who discusses the significance of the period’s reliance on the ‘authority’ of science and technology, 24.
(8) W. Whyte, ‘The Englishness of English Architecture: Modernism and the Making of a National International Style, 1927–1957’, Journal of British Studies 48:2 (2009) 441-65; E. Darling, Re-Forming Britain: Narratives of Modernity before Reconstruction (London, 2007).
(9) See Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities, Ch 6.
(10) The well-known architect and planner Professor William Holford spoke in 1966 of the lack of ‘individual achievement and distinction’ in the architecture of post-war reconstruction. Noting that he thought the importance of the property developer had been underestimated. He felt that in post-war speculative office blocks design was only incidental to the procedure of getting funding, consents and approvals and licenses. University of Liverpool Archives (ULA): D147/LA7/9/1, Papers of William Graham, Baron Holford of Kemp Town. Guildhall seminars notes, 7 Jun 66.
(11) TNA: HLG 79/171 memo (no author, no date but ca 1951). In many cities there were certainly a few buildings that were repaired and almost rebuilt where enough of the original remained to do so, but this was rare in the cities attempting to implement new plans.
The cartoon image to the left is by F Beamiss and was published in Express & Echo, 1959
(12) A. Confino, Chapter 14 ‘Dissonance Normality and the Historical Method: Why Did Some Germans Think of Tourism after May 8, 1945?’ in R. Bessel and D. Schumann, Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History during the 1940s and 1950s (Cambridge, 2003), 323-347. Also see J. Hagen, ‘Rebuilding the Middle Ages after the Second World War: The Cultural Politics of Reconstruction in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany’, Journal of Historical Geography, 31:1 (2005), 94-112, and A. Confino, ‘Traveling as a Culture of Remembrance: Traces of National Socialism in West Germany, 1945-1960’, History & Memory 12:2 (2000), 92-121.
(13) See for example, Something Done: British Achievement 1945-47, by the Office of Information (London, 1947).
(14) For example, a famous quote from Margaret Thatcher: ‘All too often, the planners cut the heart out of our cities. They swept aside the familiar city centres that had grown up over the centuries’. M. Thatcher, Conservative Party Conference speech, 9 October 1987 in R. Harris (ed.), The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher (London, 1997), 286-7.
(15) Sunand Prasad, ‘The Past Sure is Tense’ 18 Octobe 2010, BBC Radio 3 ‘The Essay’ series.
(16) J. Gould, ‘Architecture and the Plan for Plymouth: The Legacy of a British City.’ Architectural Review 221 (2007): 78-83. ‘The insistence of single use within the shopping centre was and is damaging and it is extraordinary that this theoretical idea that has so much influence on a city’s character persisted for so long.’
(17) J. Calame, ‘Post-war Reconstruction: Concerns, Models and Approaches’ (2005). Roger Williams University, The Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy, Macro Center Working Papers. Paper 20. Volume 6, Spring 2005: Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Reconnecting Sites Nations Cultures, p 22-24.
(18) The National Archives: CAB 129/22 [CP (47) 343, 31 December 1947, ‘Impressions of a Recent Visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia’.
Visualisation of the shopping centre of Chipping Ongar New Town as proposed in Patrick Abercrombie, Greater London Plan (1944). Ongar wasn’t built; in 1947 Harlow New Town was designated as a near alternative.
I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post – the first instalment of a two-parter – by Catherine Flinn. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Catherine Flinn is author of the book Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities, published by Bloomsbury. She particularly looks at the built environment through the lens of politics and economics, as well as social and cultural influences – broadly via national controls and policies, plus locally through micro-histories. She holds multiple degrees in architecture, landscape and history.
Recently on social media someone posted a photo of Münster, Germany, with this comment: ‘The more I read about post-war European architecture, the more I realise how peculiar was Britain’s approach to post-war reconstruction’. An interesting word choice, ‘peculiar’ – it means strange or odd or unusual. But was it? To be fair, I understand where they were coming from. Overwhelmingly, reconstruction in Britain after 1945 was modernist in style. Historic remnants and even substantial remains of medieval and Georgian and Victorian buildings were often pulled down and replaced with architecture that people today love to hate. But was that ‘peculiar’? I’m going to explain why I would not use that term, but also offer an explanation for why Britain’s rebuilding was so very different from many European examples that are much admired today.
I have heard people ask over and over why architects, planners, local authorities and even property owners didn’t think to rebuild the old medieval core of Coventry, or restore the lovely feel of Dix’s Fields in Exeter, or why there were such drastic changes made to the core of Plymouth. Why did Britain so clearly go for modernist architecture and ignore the historic? As luck would have it, the Germans happily missed many key targets in their Baedeker raids which began in 1942 – the reprisals for the bombing of Lübeck when the Luftwaffe targeted historic cathedral cities such as Bath, Canterbury and Norwich. And a fair number of historic buildings – the Inner Temple in London as well as Portsmouth’s town hall come to mind – were actually restored to their original appearance. But those examples are few and far between amongst the vast amount of city centre reconstruction that took place in the 1950s. (1)
Like pretty much all history, the answers are complex. This post will answer some questions people often ask me about British and European reconstruction, in two parts. In this first part, I will talk about the contrasts between Britain and the Continent, describing some examples in Poland and Germany specifically. In Part II to come, I will discuss the logistics of British reconstruction and pose some answers as to why it was so extensively modernist in nature. Looking at some of the prevailing ideologies in rebuilding British cities, we will see some reasons why they are so very different from historically compelling European examples.
As we know, most bombed city centres in Britain were rebuilt in a mid-twentieth century modernist ideal. By contrast, in parts of Germany – as well as Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland – many cities we know today to have been mostly damaged or destroyed by Allied bombing show off a strong sense of pre-war history. (2)
Here we will look at that stark contrast: what took place in a number of European cities where whole sections of historic streetscape were reconstructed either in an historic idiom or as recreations of 1939 – or even earlier – streetscapes. Today we value and appreciate the historicism in those European cities and they attract a huge amount of tourism with consequent added economic value.
There is a clear and striking difference in local post-war priorities seen in several examples of reconstruction in Europe. Particularly in Poland, and much later in Germany, a number of cities have been ‘resurrected’, or perhaps ‘reproduced’ – that is, they were constructed in large part to look as they had before the war. Several cities gave great attention to the past by rebuilding in a thoroughly historic idiom, re-creating versions – if not some exact copies – of what had been destroyed by Allied bombing. Britain’s post-war Minister of Town and Country Planning Lewis Silkin visited Poland and called the reconstruction of Warsaw ‘an almost superhuman task’.(3)
In the Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk in particular we can find a completely different method, timeline and prioritisation of reconstruction values to those in Britain. Warsaw suffered massive damage as a result of Nazi bombing in the September campaign of 1939. However, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupier ultimately gave rise to even more far-reaching destruction. After the rising was crushed, the Nazis methodically dynamited swathes of the capital. (4) Following the war, Warsaw officials took the decision to reconstruct large areas particularly the Old Town: the historic core of the city was rebuilt in its pre-war form – slightly modified – and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. While apparently controversial the decision was also made to replicate a central portion of the city as it would have looked in the eighteenth century. The first phase of the reconstruction of the Old Town was completed on 22 July 1953. (5) An unconfirmed rumour found in my research adds that one good reason for replacing buildings and streets as they were in Warsaw would have been the reduced cost of not changing infrastructure (gas, water, etc) or building all new foundations.
Gdansk Old Town panorama
Another Polish example is Gdansk, or Danzig. In 1945 authorities inherited a city which was almost completely destroyed and they were additionally faced with tens of thousands of refugees and a severe shortage of available housing. An overriding concern for many residents was a very strong desire not to rebuild the Danzig of the interwar Free City or the German/Prussian Empire which had developed since the last time the Poles had governed the city in 1772. (6)
In the end a ‘passionate argument’ was settled with the compromise that a part of the central area of the old town was rebuilt in a style that reflected more closely the Gdansk of 1772 rather than the Danzig of 1939. (7) That is, Gdansk was rebuilt with pro-Polish designs, avoiding the Germanic influences of the 19th century. Birthplace of the Solidarity movement, it’s now a major tourist destination. This example shows us that cultural and spatial identity – often lost or suppressed during the war – was a key factor in restoring and rebuilding occupied places. Some Polish cities clearly prioritised reconstructing with a sense of place, something we will see was not really true in Britain.
Shifting attention to Germany we find more of the same but also some big differences. A few West German cities – Nuremberg, Rothenburg, Münster and Freiburg for example – took a similar approach to Warsaw. But in general German reconstruction encompasses a large mixture of building styles and each German city adopted a different approach to post-war reconstruction. In 2010, the magazine Der Spiegel published a series on reconstruction called ‘Out of the Ashes’, and its (nationalistic) tagline says this: (8)
Germany’s rebirth following the annihilation of World War II is nothing short of a miracle. But the country’s reconstruction was not without controversy and it resulted in cities filled with modernist buildings which have not aged well. Now, a new wave of construction is underway coupled with a new desire to rebuild the old.
The most notable example of (East) German reconstruction is the city of Dresden, today a popular tourist destination. Notorious for being very heavily bombed by the Allies near the end of the war, it was certainly considered one of World War Two’s most devastated cities. But visiting Dresden today one finds a city that would be recognisable to eighteenth century travellers. A British tourist website claims that it has ‘spires, domes and breath-taking baroque stonework – with an artistic life that … puts most capital cities to shame.’ (9) The site goes on to add that ‘So culturally important, and stunningly beautiful, is this German gem that the United Nations has declared a lovely great chunk of it a UNESCO World Heritage Site – giving it the same protection as the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal’.
Dresden gives a stark contrast to a city such as Coventry, also very heavily bombed, where the core was redeveloped in a modern idiom and the cathedral famously recreated anew, also in a very modern style. The differences between Coventry and Dresden today clearly juxtapose the ideologies around reconstruction that I will be discussing further. One of the star attractions in Dresden is the Frauenkirche. Reduced to a shell in 1945, the church was left in ruins, supposedly as an anti-war statement, by the East German government.
But the church always had grassroots support for rebuilding and after the fall of the Berlin Wall a 15-year reconstruction project began, which was completed in 2005. Since the consecration of the new building, more than 18 million people have visited the restored Frauenkirche – and ‘with 280 couples married and around 800 people baptized the church is finding it hard to keep up with demand.’ (10) An Al Murray television programme on Germany visited Dresden and focused on the ‘historic’ city (parts of which were much more recently rebuilt, from post-war modern back to a version of the pre-war city). Murray compared it to Britain: (11)
It seems strange to us, but this is what Germany feels it needs to do. It has to claim back that artistic heritage lost during the war by building the old anew. … In comparison, Coventry has hardly had the same five-star restorative treatment.
The city of Berlin is another major tourist destination today, though in fairness its attractiveness now is strikingly different to its draw for tourists before 1989. Berlin has a mixture of reconstructed ‘historic’ sites and modern new institutions. As the 2010 Der Spiegel piece comments: (12)
Berlin, in particular, demonstrates relatively consistently that the upheavals and scars of the past should not be papered over by a yearning for the (supposedly) ‘good old days’. Instead, as is the case with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, even the sins of the past can be confessed, and one’s own history can be commented on.
Berlin attracts about eight million visitors a year from around the world and it is claimed this is due to the ability to ‘experience contemporary history – both the good and the bad – more immediately here than anywhere else in Germany’. Berlin’s reconstruction has been ongoing since the end of the Second World War, and while the first wave of rebuilding began to slow down in the 1970s, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a renewed spate of construction.
In a theme that reappears in many places and different cities, the Der Spiegel writers also claim that in Germany ‘the aim is to undo past mistakes made due to urgency and an obsession with modernization’. They add that in the twenty-first century city planners and residents aim to rid themselves of the ‘principle of pure functionality that was spawned by necessity’. Ideology in 1940s and 1950s planning is replaced with more historicism but mainly cautious renovation and, in some cases, rebuilding. They admit too that new ideologies are often characterized by a ‘growing nostalgia and yearning for history, tradition, focal points and urban centres that provide orientation and a sense of identity within the metropolitan morass’. (13) In other words, historical city centres draw both tourism and local business interest.
In the post-war era, particularly the immediate post-war period, European cities had an unprecedented amount of reconstruction to contemplate. The resulting architecture of rebuilding and local street patterns were carried out in either historic idioms or even literal reconstructions in many cities and towns, though not all. Yet by contrast, British cities did not do the same.
Compared to these Polish and German examples, British reconstruction has been pretty exclusively modern. So why did most British cities ignore so much heritage and particularly the feel of the old narrow historic streets that today we find so interesting? The potential reasons are numerous and complex. Any answers, as such, involve complications not just of funding, labour, rationing and ownership, but conflicting priorities, varying agendas and more. In the next post I will discuss the way people thought about reconstruction in Britain – from owners to planners to local authorities – and suggest how and why modernist ideas prevailed.
(1) Note that no rebuilding actually started before 1952 and most happened much later
(2) For further reading: Jörn Düwel and Niels Gutschow (eds.), A Blessing in Disguise: War and Town Planning in Europe, 1940-45 (Berlin, 2013); J.M. Diefendorf, In the Wake of War: The Reconstruction of German Cities after World War II (Oxford, 1993); also his Rebuilding Europe’s Bombed Cities (Basingstoke, 1990); S.V. Ward, Planning the Twentieth-Century City: The Advanced Capitalist World (Chicester, 2002); A.M. Tung, Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. (New York, 2001); S. Essex, and M. Brayshay, ‘Boldness Diminished? The Post-War Battle to Replan a Bomb-Damaged Provincial City.’ Urban History 35:3 (2008) 437-61; J. Hasegawa, ‘The reconstruction of Portsmouth in the 1940s’, Contemporary British History 14 (2000) 45-62; N. Tiratsoo, Reconstruction, Affluence and Labour Politics: Coventry 1945-1960 (London, 1990)
(3) Minister Silkin made a trip to Poland and Czechoslovakia to view reconstruction in 1947, reporting back to the Cabinet. National Archives UK (TNA): CAB 129/22 [CP (47) 343, 31 Dec 47, ‘Impressions of a Recent Visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia’.
(4) A. Jozefacka, ‘Rebuilding Warsaw: Conflicting Visions of a Capital City, 1916—1956’, unpublished PhD dissertation, New York University, 2011 (abstract); also A. Tung, Preserving the World’s Great Cities, for Warsaw: 73-95. On re-using street patterns for large cost savings, see M. Niemczyk, ‘City Profile: Warsaw’ (Warszawa). Cities 15:4 (August 1998), 301-311.
(6) Note that borders in continental Europe changed fairly constantly for several centuries up to 1945.
(7) Jacek Friedrich, Chapter 5 (pp 115-128) ‘Polish and German Heritage in Danzig/Gdansk’, in M. Rampley ed. Heritage, Ideology, and Identity in Central and Eastern Europe: Contested Pasts, Contested Presents. Woodbridge, 2012
(11) A. Murray, ‘Al Murray’s German Adventure’, Part 2, air date 8 December 2010, BBC Four. Also see ‘A German Phoenix’, Economist 327:7808 (24 Apr 93), 91, and Diefendorf, Rebuilding.
(12) Der Spiegel, ‘Out of the Ashes’
(13) Ibid. However, they add, ‘Almost seven decades after the end of World War II, Germany is once again [beset] by the emotional questions of what’s worth keeping and which of its lost icons are worth rebuilding.’
I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Paul Smith. Paul is the Chief Executive of Elim Housing Association and prior to that he was the Cabinet Member for Housing at Bristol City Council. Paul grew up on the Hartcliffe estate and was a tenant there himself. He was elected as the councillor there in 1988 and served for 11 years. During this period he started researching the history of the area coming across the original plans which were very different from what was finally built. Paul has worked in housing for over 30 years in a variety of roles but rarely finds that his degree in Astrophysics comes in useful. Paul is a Chartered Member of the CIH (more useful than astrophysics) and a Fellow of the RSA.
In 1943, Bristol City Council started thinking about the reconstruction of the city once the war was over. In January of that year a report identified the need for 30,000 new homes and there was an acceptance that not all of these homes could be accommodated inside the existing city boundary. Talks began with both Somerset and Gloucestershire to secure extensions of the city to access developable land. One potential location was the farmland between the southern city boundary and the sprawling Dundry Hill.
A new estate could be built on the basis of a garden city model which was described in a book published by the local company J S Fry and written by the City Archivist, English City: the Story of Bristol (1945). Fry’s said they published the book as ‘We felt we should like to make some contribution to the rebirth of our city’. In reality, the book was a council document covering the history of the city but also focused on how it would be rebuilt. It described building:
self-contained districts called ‘Neighbourhood units’, each with its own amenities, including a shopping centre, clinic, school and churches, cinema and recreation grounds. Factories should be built in or near the ‘Neighbourhood’.
An illustration from English City: the Story of Bristol
The new estate on the Dundry Slopes was to be built to this model. However, there were things which needed to be sorted out. The first was the boundary. Bristol Council was worried about the chaotic distribution of services, with Somerset County Council responsible for the police, public halls and community centres, education, health services, welfare services, children’s care, libraries and food and drug inspection; Long Ashton Rural District Council would have street lighting, street cleansing, refuse disposal and highways while Bristol would be running the housing itself and the fire service.
The County Council wasn’t keen either, based in Taunton, over 40 miles away down the A38. The County stated in a letter to Bristol:
This undertaking will involve the County Council in vast expenditure in respect of an area of the County which the Boundary Commission have already indicated should be added to Bristol and may have the effect of disorganizing the basis of County Council administration.
In 1949 Bristol gained the land from Somerset but in doing so had to relinquish its interest in expanding to the north and the east into Gloucestershire.
The next challenge came over the name. The good people of Dundry village did not want their name used to describe the new council estate. When Bristol proposed ‘New Dundry’, old Dundry complained that this would confuse the post office. The name settled on was Hartcliffe, ‘the army on the hill’, taking the name of the medieval Hundred of Hartcliffe which covered the area. Later there was also an argument about the street names. There was a proposal to the council that they be named after Battle of Britain pilots. This was defeated in a vote in favour of the established Bristol practice of using names which had a historical link to the area. The streets were named after taxpayers in the old Hundred.
An aerial view of the estate in the 1950s
The plans for the estate were ambitious, matching the neighbourhood plan. Hartcliffe was to have 3100 homes, three junior schools, a secondary school, six nurseries, three churches, six pubs, a cinema, a library, a health centre, five youth and scout/guide centres, a community centre, swimming pool, cricket pavilion and a public café.
The first blow to the plans came within just six months of their approval by the council. In May 1950, the Citizen Party (a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals) was elected, ousting the Labour Party. In June 1951, the Housing Committee met and approved a lower standard for council houses. They would be smaller and cheaper and for the rest of that decade most council homes were built of pre-reinforced concrete, many of them the Easiform houses built by John Laing.
There was even a discussion about replacing a downstairs internal door with curtains; this was rejected because ‘the cost to the housewife would be more than in providing the doors’. This followed only eight years after the Bristol Post (13th June 1943) reported that ‘Standard must be Higher [for] New Homes for men who return from the forces’. Then it was noted:
Men returning from the war with revolutionary ideas of what the position should be would not be content to wait long for houses. They should plan for a higher standard of housing on a 15 year programme.
By 1951 the discussion had turned to rents and taxes. Conservative councillor K Brown, chair of the Housing Committee, stated:
If you build a cheaper house it is bound to make it easier for the tenant. You must build houses which can be let to them at a rent they can pay. It either means an increase in rents of their houses or an increase in the city rates.
This was not the view of the outgoing chair Alderman Gill who said ‘he felt there ought to be no skimping of the necessities’. It wasn’t until over 30 years later that the defects in these cheaper houses were identified and legislated for leaving many councils, not just Bristol, having to spend many millions on rebuilding these ‘cheaper homes’ starting with those sold under the Right to Buy.
At the same time, the main road into the estate was downgraded from a dual to a single carriageway as government grant declined and, to save money on bridges, the stream running down the middle of the estate was filled in.
The building of the estate proceeded at pace in the early and mid-1950s. Many who moved there were displaced from inner-city areas destroyed by the Luftwaffe or by the council. Slums were cleared and residents moved from the heart of the city to the new estate six miles to the south. Early residents recall that the area had a stigma as soon as it was built. In Looking Back on Bristol: Hartcliffe People Remember (Bristol Broadsides, 1978), Jean Carey recalled, ‘this was the trouble in the beginning. Everybody sort of said Hartcliffe and turned their noses up; “We’re not going up there to live”‘.
People moving in soon found that the facilities promised were lost. Firstly, they were aware that the estate was built without pavements or side roads being completed. The area was a sea of mud, deliveries were only made to the main roads, shops and pubs only followed several years later leaving residents to wade out of the estate to access services.
Easiform housing on Luckley Avenue
The cinema, the swimming pool, the cricket pavilion, were never built, the library was completed over 20 years late, other facilities were scaled back – one nursery not six, three youth clubs not five, four pubs not six and the main shopping centre was also scaled back. Promises were broken and the estate became an outpost of the city, a sadly denuded version of the original vision.
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 BDouglas, 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
This post is perhaps unusual for Municipal Dreams in that it first touches on an interwar private estate, Carpenders Park, before looking at South Oxhey, a post-Second World War council estate built by the London County Council (LCC, later Greater London Council, GLC). But there is a reason for this! After the war, Carpenders Park, then under the jurisdiction of Watford Rural District Council, built a few streets of council housing. Around the same time, the LCC set about building thousands of homes in a new estate to be called South Oxhey. Both were near Watford in Hertfordshire. The housing on the two estates was divided not just by different councils but also by the railway line running between. Initially South Oxhey only consisted of houses, but as it was developed into the 1950s and more community facilities were provided, the two estates became increasingly interdependent for shopping, services, social, educational and cultural needs. In 1974 both estates were transferred into the then new Three Rivers District Council, amalgamating them further.
By the 1930s, the developer Mr Absolum had been looking for land to develop near to London and the Carpenders Park area was exactly what he had been seeking. The area was hemmed in on all sides by roads and the railway but had formed a parcel of land ripe for development. He started to develop a suburban estate of houses and bungalows, built for rising numbers of car-owning owner-occupiers. The 1930s sales brochures promised peaceful surrounds with healthy, fresh air and green spaces, very much in the spirit of a garden suburb. The new estate took its name from the mansion house, later to become a private school, and the station was called Carpenders Park, on the Euston to Watford line.
It was of course around this time that the social documentary Housing Problems (1935) was filmed.(1) It is hard to reconcile some of the conditions seen in this film with developments like Carpenders Park seeming almost of another world. The documentary demonstrated the poor conditions so many were enduring but also new council and other socially committed housing schemes to replace these, including flats at Quarry Hill, Leeds, and Kensal House in west London, showcasing new building techniques with an air of optimism and hope of what the future would hold. All of this was, of course, interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939. Building was brought to a standstill as the country faced other priorities and as the war progressed thousands of London households were bombed out. Both building materials and the builders to erect new homes became scarce. But as the war dragged on, with more and more Londoners losing their homes, LCC plans were already afoot for new council housing developments in a progressive post-war era.
This and next week’s post will explore some of this. This first post looks at South Oxhey as a new post-war housing estate and Carpenders Park as a private estate with a few streets of council housing and also their schools. It looks at challenges faced by South Oxhey’s new relocated residents, who enjoyed better housing but initially lacked wider amenities, although these were gradually provided. Next week’s post develops this further and explores the ongoing development of the estate and how it improved for the new residents as shops, schools, community venues and health services were provided in South Oxhey, also enhancing provision for those living ‘over the other side’ in Carpenders Park.
South Oxhey: a new post-war estate
During the war, the 1943 County of London Plan was already in place for a new post-war era of a better world to come for all. Drawing from the 1944 Dudley Report on the Design of Dwellings, there was a focus on housing and health, combining thoughtful planning with good housing quality and space standards, in a similar vein to the Tudor Walters Report just after the First World War. The report looked ahead to addressing poor housing conditions, new expectations and meeting modern housing needs. London’s housing stock had suffered terribly during the war and had inevitably fallen behind its planned slum clearance and redevelopment programmes. The County of London Plan written by Sir Patrick Abercrombie and JH Forshaw, proposed to reduce London’s population and the overall LCC programme of ‘out of county’ estates, part of the programme (alongside New Towns) to ease congestion in London – thirteen new estates in a ring around the capital beyond the interwar cottage suburbs. By 1965, 45,000 homes had been built in these estates, 39 per cent of the LCC’s total post-war newbuild.
LCC plans were afoot in 1943 to compulsorily purchase land that had become available and then owned by the Blackwell family (of Crosse and Blackwell) at Oxhey Place Estate. Like Carpenders Park, it then still had a mansion house (which burnt down in the 1960s) but also a chapel built by Sir James Altham and dating from 1612 that still remains. It was not far from London geographically but a million miles away (metaphorically) in so many other ways. The proposal was to develop a cottage estate to house some 15,000 people in nearly 4000 new homes, primarily to help replenish London’s housing stock lost during the war. (See, for example, sources 2, 3 and 4) The Minister of Health confirmed the Compulsory Purchase Order in 1944 for 921 acres for a new cottage estate, excluding Oxhey Chapel and preserving some of the woodland. (5)
Some were far from happy about this. There was a petition from Bushey residents in 1943 (6) but protests over the satellite town were also matched by some support for the proposed well-designed estate (7). On April 21, 1944 it was reported that: ‘The whole of the future of Watford and its status as a separate town is lying in the balance as the result of the two-day’s Inquiry held at the beginning of this week in the Council Chamber at Watford Town Hall, to decide whether the Minister of Health shall confirm the compulsory purchase order made by the London County Council, enabling them to acquire Oxhey Place Estate, including the beautiful Oxhey Woods, as a site for a housing scheme for 15,000 to 20,000 London workers’. (8)
The Times published letters in November 1944 (displayed in Oxhey Library’s 2013 exhibition about the estate and cited in source 2) from local residents challenging the LCC’s plans to build on such an attractive area on the periphery of London of ‘another great dormitory consisting of houses largely of one character, housing people of mainly one income level’ and another expressed disappointment that this satellite town would have three serious defects: the time wasted travelling to work; the loss of good agricultural land; the ‘philistine preference for utilitarian to aesthetic values’, adding that the new residents would be ‘exiles’.
Against this rather tense backdrop, the scene was set for South Oxhey to be planned and built as a quality development for its new community. The new estate represented everything the then Labour government stood for. Planners drew from the garden city and suburbs movement and sought to create a mixed community where all lived together in harmony. Aneurin Bevan was Minister of Health and Housingfrom 1945 to 1951, the time that construction of South Oxhey really took off. He had a strong commitment to good housing as a cornerstone of the Welfare State, overseeing a million houses built. But the vision was not just about housing and the environment, Bevan also called for all citizens to share and lead a full life ‘… in the living tapestry of a mixed community’. (9)
Some of the initial objections about South Oxhey were around the concentration of working-class residents in this new setting and some of the 1950s research (see next post) referred to the ‘working-class’ community’s health. Many of the new homes were for families and a range of design and sizes created variation in housing stock and occupiers, emphasising the importance of a balanced community as far as was possible with the other pressing priorities and challenges of housing provision in this post-war era.
The first tenants, Mr and Mrs Caldwell, from Paddington, were presented with their house keys by Rt. Hon. Lady Nathan, chair of the LCC and moved into Hayling Road in November 1947. An article referred to these houses as four-roomed cottages, with modern a kitchen large enough to dine in. In Hayling Road, the houses had 3 bedrooms with separate living room and there were also smaller houses elsewhere. Houses benefitted from both living and storage space. Kitchen fittings and cupboards were provided with ample places for prams, fuel storage for the main living room fire and for tools. Hot water also provided some heating via bedroom ducts, and there were additional points for electric heaters. Ample windows would provide light and a cheerful feeling (10).
Building had only started in 1947 but by 1950 some 15,000 people had been housed (11) and many recall that building was still not finished. (12) One resident who moved in in March 1949 shared their letter from the LCC Director of Housing and Valuer (13), welcoming them but explaining there were still some challenges to be faced, as the priority continued to be house building. The letter highlighted the lack of local facilities and gave advice about the new estate, quiet enjoyment and being neighbourly. It asked residents to look after the general environment and their gardens and gave advice on how to occupy their new homes economically:
There may possibly be a number of things in your home that will be quite new to you. You may need advice as to the most economical use of your electric or gas cooker or the type of fire – you may find that you are unaccustomed to the use of an immersion heater. Inside your home, it is wise to ascertain where the water stop-cock is located in case of any emergency as well as the taps etc., for turning off the gas and electricity supply.
On some of the new housing estates, you will at first find inconveniences. No shops, churches, chapels, community halls etc., but these will all come in time. When these have been provided on estates, I am sure you will want to make the best possible use of them and so give all the help you can to the establishment of a new and useful community.
You will, I am sure, take care of your new home. Such small things as oiling window and door hinges, and re-washering taps when necessary will not only assist with calls on maintenance, but will help to keep your home in good order, for it is not possible, at the present time, to give immediate attention to repairs, when a request is received. This, I think you will understand, especially when I remind you that we are devoting all our energies to the production of new homes.
The ongoing need for more housing led to new legislation. The 1949 Housing Act enabled local authorities to provide housing of different types and sizes and for mixed income groups. There was, as before, an emphasis on affordability of both construction and amenity and scope for some experimentation in design. In some areas, like South Oxhey, there was an emphasis on planning and housing layout, with kitchen and bathrooms and even a separate WC for larger families as well as storage space. South Oxhey’s original housing – now mostly substantially renovated, with one or two streets demolished and replaced – represented a snapshot in time of council housing and flats of the 1940s and 1950s. The range of housing types built included traditional brick, rendered but also more experimental permanent prefabs including Cornish houses, Stent houses (14) and BISF (or ‘tin houses’). (15).
There were later two newer blocks of flats, Silkin and Corbett Houses, but these have since been demolished. Both blocks had 24 dwellings in eight storeys and were commissioned by Watford Rural District Council in 1960 and completed in 1963. (16)
Meanwhile back in Carpenders Park …
Meanwhile, back in Carpenders Park after the war, then under the jurisdiction of Watford Rural District Council, the essentially owner-occupied estate was to host three new roads of council houses in the 1950s on its London side; Romilly Drive, Oulton Way and Little Oxhey Lane (see photographs 6 and 7). Little Oxhey Lane itself runs right across the railway bridge and further down this road, it becomes South Oxhey. It has not been possible to find much information on these streets in Carpenders Park.
It was also around this time, and certainly worth a municipal mention, that Hertfordshire County Council School Architects were designing and building some really good school buildings. St Meryl Junior Mixed Infant School – named after Mr Absolum’s daughter, Meryl – featured in an exhibition at RIBA in 2019, showcasing the Bauhaus influence. (15)
The several schools in South Oxhey shared many of these well considered building designs displayed at St Meryl. The estate’s primary schools included Colnbrook, Greenfields, Little Furze, Oxhey Wood, St Josephs, Warren Dell and Woodhall (see photo 8). At one point the estate had two secondary schools, Clarendon, on Chilwell Gardens, and the smaller Hampden School. They were later amalgamated into Sir James Altham School, which is now itself long gone, and the land was sold for private housing where the school once stood, now called James Altham Way.
We end this week’s post here having overviewed some of the housing types and initial issues facing the new residents and return with Part 2 next week. Then, we will explore some of the problems faced by the new residents with the new location, the lack of facilities initially and their gradual provision. We will also take a quick look at some literature and art and some of the early health studies about South Oxhey, helping us gain a greater understanding of both estates as well as some of the new challenges presented.
(17) For a description of the exhibition, see Beyond Bauhaus exhibition unveiled at RIBA and for illustration, see Beyond Bauhaus – Chapter Three Modern Education. Please note that the school at Carpenders Park is recorded in the latter source but incorrectly referred to as being in Oxhey. For fuller information on the Hertfordshire schools programme at this time, see Saint, A. (1990) Not Buildings but a Method of Building: The Achievement of the Post-War Hertfordshire School Building Programme (Hertfordshire Publications, Hertford)
First and foremost, I am grateful to John Boughton as always for his guidance, advice and insight.
I am grateful to:
Hertfordshire Library services (staff at Oxhey Library in particular) who have been most helpful, originally Beverly Small back in in 2013 and more recently in responding to my various enquiries about these two estates.
I’m very pleased to feature the second post by Matthew Evans which brings the story of Llandudno’s council housing up to date. Matthew, the principal author, works in communications within local government and has been assisted in research and writing by his father, Philip Evans, who has been a councillor on Aberconwy Borough and subsequently Conwy County Borough councils since 1976 and was twice Mayor of Llandudno, in 1983/4 and 2006/7. Many of the details of council minutes, personal details and recollections in this piece come from him. Most photographs (unless otherwise credited) have been kindly taken by the author’s sister, Kimberley Evans.
We left the story of Llandudno’s council housing in the last post on the eve of the Second World War, when the town had built substantial numbers of properties in several different parts of the town. But despite this activity, the pressures of the war and its aftermath would spur the building of large numbers of new houses as the town entered the post-war era.
The post-war era
The immediate years following World War Two, like elsewhere in the country, saw a housing shortage in Llandudno. Unlike many other areas this was not linked to bombing, as only a single recorded bomb fell on Llandudno during the war, on the side of one of the hills overlooking the town. But it was the safety of its location on the west coast of Britain that caused the town to become overcrowded. Unlike many similar seaside resorts on the south coast, whose populations declined to escape the bombing, numbers of people living in Llandudno increased significantly.
The town was chosen as the site of the Coast Artillery School, which was evacuated from Shoeburyness to Llandudno during the war. It was also the home of the Inland Revenue throughout the war (Colwyn Bay next door was home to the Ministry of Food), which meant an influx of 4000 civil servants into the town, alongside refugees from the war in Europe. James Callaghan, future prime minister, was the entertainments officer for this new contingent.
The diversity of people working or finding refuge in Llandudno is shown by the fact that Jewish services at the synagogue in the town attracted, on occasion, 400 attendees during the war. (1) At the end of the conflict, this increased population did not reduce immediately. The Inland Revenue only moved slowly back to London and a number of the demobbed soldiers had married into local families.
In today’s world, where the Government is keen to be seen to ‘level-up’ and move civil service posts out of London, such as to Treasury North in Darlington, it is interesting to consider how having well paid professional jobs remain in resort towns like Colwyn Bay and Llandudno might have helped diversify the local economies in a more sustainable way in the decades when many declined after the war.
An example of the housing situation in the immediate post-war was related by an old friend of the family called Betty Mylett, who grew up in Llandudno and had obtained work with the Inland Revenue during the war. Her job was relocated to London after the war and she lodged for a time in Harrow, but couldn’t settle and returned home in the late 1940s. She married and she and her husband firstly lived in what had been a large private family home in Upper Craig y Don – in what is still today a very comfortable and quiet area of Llandudno. However, in an illustration of living conditions at the time, their accommodation consisted of one room in a house occupied by over 20 other adults – a situation that could be multiplied throughout the town. Furthermore, at least ten families squatted in various abandoned buildings on the western slopes of the Great Orme’s Head at the site of the Coast Artillery School, which had relocated back to Essex. A further five families occupied Nissen huts used formerly by the RAF Police on the summit of the Great Orme.
The ‘squatters’ were mainly ex-servicemen who had been unable to find accommodation for their families on returning from active duty. Two of the men who lived at the Coast Artillery School site, George Williams and Eric Quiney, subsequently served as members of Llandudno Urban District Council (UDC) and were prominent on the Housing Committee.
Conditions were very spartan, with no real utilities or services and the buildings were in wind-swept locations. The families were eventually re-housed or temporarily placed in Arcon MkV pre-fabs erected at Maesdu in 1945, which lasted until around 1964. But the UDC, in much the same way as had been seen in 1919, got to work straightaway on building new housing. As a stopgap, aside from the prefabs, the authorities also adapted ex-army buildings. In 1949, there was an attempt to bring some regularity to the squatting at the Coast Artillery School site – known even today locally as The Gunsites. Four dwellings there were adapted on a temporary basis for £227.10.
In April 1949, the Welsh Board of Health were asked for approval for the UDC to adapt ‘hutments’ at Waterloo Camp, Conway Road to house families occupying hutments at the rear of the Nevill Hydro Hotel so that the hotel could be de-requisitioned from use by the Inland Revenue.
But more permanent housing was badly needed. In 1946, four houses were built on Cwm Road and in 1947 in the West Shore area of Llandudno, the UDC constructed the Dolydd and Denness Place developments. In 1949, outside the main urban area of the town, in its large rural hinterland, Cae Rhos, Llanrhos (then part of Llandudno, now part of Conwy), four agricultural workers’ dwellings were built by Peter T Griffiths, a local contractor for £6271.7.7. Also in 1949, eight houses were erected for agricultural workers in Waun Road, Glanwydden.
These were small estates of less than 50 houses each and a larger number of families in need of new housing eventually found accommodation on the Tre Creuddyn Estate. This was the first large scale post-war housing estate, built between 1948 and 1952 – with further flats and bungalows built at Canol Creuddyn in 1955. The houses are a mix of two storey terraced family homes, with four-storey single houses and flats facing Conway Road on the main approach into the town. They were far higher density than the pre-war houses and very well situated for tenants working in the town’s main industries, being only a five minutes’ walk to the seafront, shops and railway station and areas of light industry.
The names of the roads were all in Welsh, marking a move towards recognising the local culture and national language more overtly in the area, in roads like Ffordd Las, Ffordd Gwynedd and Ffordd Dwyfor (where ‘Ffordd’ means Road). Incidentally, the use of these names and the subsequent connotation with council estates caused local controversies, and when names beginning ‘Ffordd’ were proposed for private developments nearby there were objections from purchasers and the suffix ‘Road’ was used instead. For example, it later took several months to name the nearby – and private – Powys Road, Elan Road and Harlech Road because the matter was batted around the Council and a petition was received not to use the fully Welsh form.
The homes on the Tre Creuddyn estate were built by a number of local builders, to a common design. For example, records show one block of four houses was built by a consortium of Wm Jones & Son, Griffith Roberts, David Davies & Son, and John Owen for £5,117.3.5. The same group built one block of four flats for £3,371.12.11. Likely each builder specialised in one aspect of the building. One block of six houses was built for £7,227.8.10 by Thomas Idwal Jones of Llandudno and one further block of four flats for £3,371.12.11 by McNeill & Co of Llandudno.
Some of the builders were prominent locally – Griffith Roberts was a former chairman of UDC; David Davies was the longest serving member of the UDC; and Thomas Jones’ firm is still going and the oldest building firm in Llandudno.
The groundworks for the development – roads, pavements and sewers – were done by local builder Frank Tyldesley. The UDC itself put in street lighting and water mains. During the post-war years, because of the housing developments, the UDC employed an in-house architect – a Mr C N Bancroft ARIBA. He was born 1912 at Stockport and died in 1990 in Penmaenmawr.
A personal example of the impact of these new estates after the war is my own mother’s family. My mother was born in 1947 in an old miner’s cottage near the summit of the Great Orme; part of a row called Pant-y-Ffridd. The houses were extremely isolated and situated high above the town. I doubt if anyone who lived there owned a car, so all people either walked up or hitched a ride on the Great Orme Tram which still takes tourists to the top of the Orme. The provision of utilities would have been as sparse as the options for transport. My grandmother, Nanna Breeze mentioned in the previous post, had moved to Llandudno, alone, at 14 in 1928 from Horsehay, Dawley in Shropshire where her father was an Iron Founder at the Horsehay Ironworks (now part of the new town of Telford) to work as a Chambermaid.
But by the time my mother was born she was working in Llandudno General Hospital, down the mountain and on the other side of the town, as a cook. She had to make the journey to the hospital twice a day for her shifts and then back to look after the children, of whom there were five by that point (her husband was still serving in Germany after the war). The family was moved firstly down to King’s Road – the estate first developed after the First World War mentioned above – and then to Cwm Place, and then in 1957 onto the Tre Creuddyn Estate, living there in two different houses until around 1970. I know my grandmother was very grateful for a modern house, nearer work and on far more forgiving terrain. It made a huge difference to her and her family’s standard of living.
As an aside – at the same time my mum’s family were living on the Tre Creuddyn estate, the Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall and his family were living in Cwm Place and the Liverpool and Chelsea footballer Joey Jones was growing up in Ffordd Las, just around the corner.
As Llandudno moved into the 1960s, flats became more popular as opposed to the single-family homes that had been built up until that point. In 1964, the UDC built Ffordd yr Orsedd (named after the Gorsedd Bardic Circle of the National Eisteddfod of Wales which took place the previous year in Llandudno) and Ffordd Elisabeth – named after the Queen, but with spelling changed to conform to Welsh. This was a development of terraces of family homes and four of blocks with three radiating wings of flats on each floor.
Much of the council’s housing activity during this time was overseen by Glyn Roberts (known locally, as is common in Wales, by his job – thus he was always known to all as ‘Glyn Sanitary’). Glyn was a long-serving council employee and a locally born man, who joined the UDC just before WW2. He trained as a Health Inspector with the UDC by day release attendance course at Warrington. He also took a keen interest in meteorology and looked after Llandudno’s weather station, reporting readings daily to the Met Office. For his endeavours, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.
By reorganisation in 1974 he was Deputy Chief Public Health Inspector and Housing Manager. He transferred to Aberconwy Borough Council in 1974 as Principal Housing Officer, in which role he reported to the Director of Environmental Health & Housing, Idris Griffiths, who had also been his Chief at Llandudno UDC. The author’s father remembers Glyn as a well-known local character who brought to his work a common-sense approach and practical attitude. He also recalls Glyn had an excellent working relationship with the Councillors and was highly regarded for his legendry, encyclopaedic knowledge of the Llandudno tenants, their history and family connections. He worked as Principal Housing Officer until he was 65 in 1986 – although he could have retired at 60. To celebrate his long service to Llandudno’s housing management, the Mayor presented him with a plaque of the town’s armorial bearings on his retirement.
In 1965/67 further building took place. Lon Cymru, Lon Gwalia, and Llys Gwylan were constructed alongside the main road into town and showed a move in architectural style influenced by the Radburn movement, with orange brick and slate-hung houses and maisonettes overlooking pathways and off-road green spaces. These homes were designed by S Powell Bowen ARIBA of Colwyn Bay, who in 1970 established the Bowen Dann Davies Partnership (BDD) with Frank Dann and Bill Davies and the practice designed many developments for local authorities across North Wales. The practice established a strong reputation for its housing work, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, and many of its developments were award winners. (2)
This is the estate I knew best as a child. In 1986, we moved from Jubilee Street, a classic street of terraced two-up-two-downs next to the railway station in Llandudno, to a larger three-bedroom house that had previously been part of a small row of police houses. These were built in 1950 in a similar style to the local council housing by the Police Authority to house police constables and their families. Many of these were being sold off countrywide at the same period in time as the Right to Buy took hold in council housing. Our new house backed directly onto one of the Lon Cymru estate playgrounds, which led in turn directly onto another green patch and then yet another, all overlooked by houses. This meant that we could play safely with all the children on the estate without crossing any roads, which exemplifies one of the original perceived benefits of the Radburn style. These attractive houses are still highly sought-after by people today, one former resident being the photographer of all images on this post – my sister, whose first house after leaving the family home was five minutes’ walk away on the estate.
Moving into 1970, 38 flats in five blocks were built for aged persons at St Andrew’s Avenue in the centre of the town. The architect of these was H. Vincent Morris, C.Eng, ARICS, ARIBA, MIMunE, Surveyor and Architect to Llandudno UDC. A few years later came Parc Bodnant, Llandudno’s 1970s social housing showcase. This large estate of several hundred flats and houses was designed in-house under Leslie Miller, who had joined the successor to Llandudno UDC, Aberconwy Borough Council, from Cheshire County Council at reorganisation in 1974. Parc Bodnant continued the Radburn influence of housing from the late 60s, but in a different style. The housing was brown brick with white and black render and comprised both four storey blocks and terraces facing each other on narrow paths and walkways. It was higher density than the Lon Cymru estate of a few years previously and where the earlier one was sited on mainly flat and gently sloping land, Parc Bodnant was built on a steep slope emphasising the height of the block and terracing of the houses. It was an innovative design and was initially popular with residents and experts, even winning a Welsh regional housing award.
But despite having been highly regarded when first built, the Parc Bodnant estate had become unpopular by the late 1980s and 1990s, acquiring a reputation for anti-social behaviour among some residents though – as is often the case – this was only a minority of tenants. The initial residents of the estate when built were carefully selected families or mature couples, who had been living in flats and who had been on the transfer list for some years because of the slow turn-over in houses.
Over a period of about 15 years, the demographic make-up of the estate gradually changed and several of the original features, such as soft landscaping, became subject to vandalism. This, in turn, led to many of the original tenants wanting transfers out of the estate. The design and layout, with many secluded paths, much concrete surfacing and the stark black and while painted detailing, also eventually proved unpopular. This was compounded by the location of the estate, far from the town centre and on an exposed site backing onto open land leading up to Cwm Mountain. It also directly overlooked the town gasworks and gasometer, an abandoned brickworks, the site of the old town dump, and a scrapyard. The steeply sloping site meaning many residents had a clear view of all of this industry. All but the scrapyard are now completely redeveloped, with a post office sorting office, light industrial units and the town’s redeveloped secondary school now covering the other sites.
In recent years, the estate itself has seen much investment, with soft landscaping and re-rendering and repainting giving the estate a more welcoming, positive and popular image than previously. (3)
The Present Day
As with council properties across the UK, many homes in Llandudno were sold under the Right to Buy, which was eventually abolished in Wales in January 2019. The sales of large numbers of homes, especially on what had been the more popular estates, has severely depleted the stock of socially rented properties. The housing in the Tudno ward of Llandudno – the electoral division containing the bulk of the former council estates in the town south of the railway line – is now only 35 percent socially rented as opposed to 51 percent owner occupied. Until the Right to Buy and increasing private development from the early 80s, the housing in this area was overwhelmingly socially rented, bar one relatively small section. The employment base in the area has remained fundamentally the same as ever, with 21 percent working in wholesale and retail, 17 percent in health and social work, and 16 percent in accommodation and food services according to the last census. (4)
The building of social housing did not totally stop, however. North Wales Housing Association built Cwrt W M Hughes on the main approach into town in 1989, named after one time Llandudno resident William Morris Hughes, Labor Prime Minister of Australia 1916-23. In 1993, McInroy Close was built at Parc Bodnant as an infill development.
The first large scale social housing development after the 1970s was the building in 1996/7 of Lloyd George Close, Attlee Close, and Churchill Close. These were Housing Association developments built largely on the site of 1960s blocks of three-storey flats, which had declined in the intervening years and whose residents preferred to be housed in single-family houses, rather than flats.
The current local authority, Conwy County Borough, transferred its remaining 3,800 homes to an independent not-for-profit Registered Social Landlord in 2008. This new body is called Cartrefi Conwy (Welsh for ‘Conwy Homes’) and it has plans to develop 1,000 homes in the coming years. (5)
Recent developments on brownfield sites include Llwyn Rhianedd, completed in 2015 on the Tre Cwm estate, consisting of four two-bedroom properties and five three-bedroom properties; 16 two-bed flats in the centre of the town in Gloddaeth Street completed last year; and the building of new sheltered housing for the elderly in Abbey Road and redevelopment of outdated elderly people’s flats in Trinity Avenue.
These developments, aimed at a range of single people, families and retired persons continue a proud tradition of building quality homes for people in Llandudno that dates back more than a hundred years, to the very earliest decades of modern social housing provision in the UK. This history of progressive action demonstrates that the delivery of good standards of housing for working people was as much of a consideration in what many might consider a conservative seaside resort as it was in the larger cities, and Llandudno can be rightly proud of its record.
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
(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’.
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.
I’m very pleased to feature the second post from Peter Claxton on Cottingham. Peter rekindled his love of history at university following his retirement having spent 40 years working in IT. He now focuses most of his research time on Kingston upon Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. He is currently researching the contentious relationship between private interests and public improvements with regards to health and housing in Kingston upon Hull between 1854 and 1914.
In my previous blog I reviewed the first ‘tentative steps’ made by the Cottingham Urban District Council (UDC) regarding the provision of council housing between 1921 and 1930. In this follow-up blog, I pick up the story in the early 1930s and examine the efforts of the local authority through to the 1960s. It was a time, when for a brief period, provision was undertaken by someone with a national reputation, the village witnesses the creation of the ubiquitous council estate and the local authority ‘strayed away’ from the standard tendering process.
In 1932 with land remaining on the Southwood Estate, for some unexplained reason – possibly hoping to sell yet again at a favourable price – the council purchased land on the north side of the village to erect a further 18 houses. At 1/7d per square yard, it was in fact double the price paid in 1919. Superficial areas were now reduced to 760 and 630 feet super for the three- and two-bedroomed houses. Building again under the 1924 Act, with guidance from TC Slack, Surveyor to the Council, the Park Lane contract was awarded to Robert Greenwood Tarran who at the time was planning his own and subsequently ill-fated garden suburb just to the east of Cottingham.
Tarran enjoyed considerable success during the 1930s and 40s, and was known to adopt, when necessary, a somewhat cavalier approach to both business and civic duties. He later became the city’s Sheriff, welcoming the King and Queen to Hull in August 1941 following the heavy bombing raids in May. As Chief Air-Raid Warden, he instigated a personal crusade assisting many of the citizens to ‘trek’ out of Hull each evening to escape the ever-present threat of air-raids. Press exposure and concerns over morale ensured that the early evening movement of citizens out to the countryside, was eventually, placed on a more formal footing.
Tarran frequently attracted both criticism and publicity in the press. None more so than his company’s involvement as a contractor for the Leeds City Council on the futuristic Quarry Hill flats. Suffice to say that the acrimonious relationships between the parties involved with the build – relating primarily to the pre-fabrication of the blocks with which to cloak the building’s steelwork – extended the project considerably.
Yet for Tarran overcoming the on-site casting difficulties proved to be of immense value during the post-war push for prefabricated housing. Under the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, Tarran Industries manufactured in excess of 19,000 homes. After exhibiting a pre-fabricated house at the Tate in London, he erected, under the public’s gaze, his ‘Experimental House’ close to his works in Hull. The four-day process attracted more than 6000 visitors; a tactic he had previously employed in the city during the 1930s when his company built a pair of wooden ‘Cedar Houses’. A benefit of such a house, according to one of the first residents, was that you could ‘hang a picture without swearing.’ When it came to large-scale speedy production, to some, Tarran was the ‘Henry Ford’ of housing! (1)
By the middle of the 1930s the council completed the Southwood Estate building 20 dwellings a mix of two and three-bedroomed non-parlour houses under the 1933 Housing Act. It was however a swan-song for the Cottingham UDC, as a reorganisation of local authority areas in March 1935 – the second in seven years – resulted in its demise. The same fate befell the adjacent Hessle UDC, with the provision of housing becoming the responsibility of the newly formed and much larger Haltemprice UDC. In Cottingham between 1918 and 1939, seven percent (86) of the houses had been by local authority provision.
The post-war push for housing was manifest in the immediacy of the actions taken by the Haltemprice UDC. A swift yet temporary measure was the requisitioning of numerous large houses, becoming ‘makeshift’ accommodation for multiple occupancy. On a similar tack, former Ministry of Defence Nissen and Maycrete huts in the district were acquired and converted into temporary housing. One such site close to Cottingham had previously served as a National Services Hostel housing refugees from the Netherlands.
The shortage of accommodation was further tempered by the allocation of 30 AW Hawksley prefabricated aluminium bungalows, the first one completed was opened by Mr Thomas Williams, Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food. in 1949. It is interesting to note that with a unit price of approximately £1450, taking a £600 subsidy plus Exchequer grant into account, at just over £2 per foot super, the temporary aluminium bungalows were close to twice the target build price of conventional permanent housing.
The provision of permanent local authority housing from 1946 onwards was achieved in a number of ways, represented today in the form of the Bacon Garth Estate plus a number of smaller ad hoc developments around the village. The post-war estate is now the usual mix of privately owned properties purchased under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, and those that remain within the remit of the East Riding of Yorkshire County Council. Irrespective of the modifications made to many of those properties now privately owned, the estate continues to confirm central government’s post-war intentions of equitable housing for the masses.
The construction of the estate at the southern edge of the village, continued on an ‘as the needs dictate’ basis for more than 20 years, and now reflects the changing form of local authority provision. In 1946 the Ministry of Health requested that a minimum of four designs be adopted to avoid monotony and further insisted that a maximum build price of 22/3d per foot super be negotiated, the achievement of which regularly exacerbated the relationships between local authority, contractors and ministry. On one occasion an additional 2d per foot super was deemed unacceptable. Still with a preponderance of agricultural workers in the area – following instructions from the Ministry of Health – a number of horticulturalists were the first to be allocated permanent houses.
As an alternative to the standard practice of closed tenders – with contracts invariably awarded to the company with the cheapest quote – used during each phase of construction of the estate, to something a little less formal, the results could be markedly different. On several occasions the council used the Small Builders’ Scheme (SBS), the origins of which were based around a submission to the Ministry of Health by the building trade. Comprising of two parts, the first enabled local authorities to employ a builder to erect houses on his own plot(s) of land and purchase upon completion. The second part empowered councils to provide the land on which properties could be constructed on its behalf.
Using both options, the Haltemprice UDC acquired small clusters of properties around the village. Catering for the building of dwellings of a minimum 900 foot super, at prices that did not exceed those in tenders for comparable properties, there was also flexibility over design. Thus with options to negotiate a build price prior to construction, or purchase price post-construction, councils were well-positioned to procure limited numbers of houses that mirrored private provision. I suspect that today, there are very few, if any Cottingham residents mindful of the origins of these small assemblages.
A good example of the SBS is in evidence at the Hull-Cottingham boundary. Across three phases 52 houses were built along one of the arterial roads from Hull into Cottingham. A variety of designs successfully avoided the monotony so often the case along our main roads.
When the opportunity arose in 1947, the council purchased 20 houses close to the centre of the village on the newly built Westfield Estate. And in so doing created an enclave of local authority housing amid those offered for sale. But as the saying goes, ‘beauty is only skin deep’, and one can only hazard a guess as to whether or not the internal finish of houses purchased under the SBS always matched their external appearance.
An incident on the Westfield Estate suggests that sometimes this might not be the case. The baths in all 20 houses were found to be defective and had to be replaced by the council. On this occasion, purchasing post-construction, proved problematical. Efforts to maximise profit margins was often reflected in the internal finish of houses built for sale compared to those built for local authorities through the tendering process and subject to scrutiny during the build cycle.
However, by way of comparison, some of the early Bacon Garth Estate houses clearly lacked kerb appeal. Fortunately, they bear little resemblance to the rest of the estate. One wonders what the architect involved with these houses was thinking of when he sat at his desk and came up with the following!
However, they did benefit internally from a ‘woman’s touch’. Co-opted lady members were asked to advise on the types of fittings necessary to make the houses more homely. Sadly, the opportunity offered to the ladies was somewhat restricted as they were denied complete freedom to express their opinions regarding ‘all matters domestic’. Oddly, cooking ranges remained the remit of male committee members. A Yorkist type range – Wilsons & Mathiesons or equal not weighing less than 4.5 cwt – had to be fitted!
Unusually, when the first estate houses were built, the decision was taken not to erect fencing and gates to the front gardens. It was thought prudent to retain direct responsibility for the appearance of the house-fronts rather than rely on residents whose horticultural ambitions, based on previous experiences, appeared to fall well-short of the council’s expectations.
The provision of local authority housing in Cottingham continued well in to the 1960s. From those rather utilitarian dwellings of the interwar period, to a variety of post-1945 styles that catered for and reflected the needs of differing family sizes and age range. The village was spared any pre-cast ‘bolt and hope’ concrete tower blocks, the medieval church clock tower remaining the tallest structure. Those that fancied living in the clouds could gaze wistfully across the fields to the high-rise developments on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate. All now reduced to hardcore and probably finding a second use as foundations for garage floors.
Yes of course the provision of approximately 500 houses over four decades pales into insignificance when compared to the provision in many of our towns and cities during the twentieth century. But spare a thought for those small urban and rural district councils with limited human resources that were suddenly thrust into the roles of both builder and landlord a hundred years ago. What stories are still to be told?
(1) ‘Here’s a Real Housebuilder’, Daily Mirror, 25 January 1943