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The publication of a new and revised edition of Chris Matthews’ fine book is a good reason to re-post this earlier blog. As noted (in a later addition to the original post), it was probably Chris’s judgement in the book (which I endorse) that council housing provided the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’ that was favourably quoted by then prime minister Theresa May in a speech to the National Housing Federation last year. 

For publication and purchase details, go to this Nottingham City Homes webpage.

Chris Matthews, Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses (Nottingham City Homes, 2015; revised edition 2019)

It’s a pleasure to see this fine account of Nottingham’s council housing history.  It’s a story well worth telling and one – in Nottingham and elsewhere – that this blog has sought to share.  Above all, it is a people’s history, a history of homes and communities but it encompasses high (and low) politics too, architecture and planning and much, much else: a history of concern to anyone interested in the fabric – in the broadest sense – of our society.

If all that reads like a shameless plug for this blog, it is also a very definite recommendation for Chris Matthews’ new book.  It’s a warts and all history, recording the highs and lows of Nottingham’s council housing and Nottingham City Homes is to be congratulated for commissioning a serious and well-researched account.  There’s a place – a very proper place at a time when social housing’s past is traduced and its future near written off – for a more straightforwardly celebratory history but this is a book which anyone interested in a nuanced understanding of our housing history should read.

Chris Matthews provides a thorough chronological account which I won’t attempt to replicate in this brief review – the illustrations alone (over 120 carefully selected and well reproduced black and white and colour images) tell a compelling story.  But I will pull out a few of the themes which struck me in my reading of it.

Victoria Dwellings, now the Victoria Park View Flats under private ownership

We’ll begin with the need for – the absolute necessity of – council housing.  In this, Nottingham was a comparatively slow starter despite a problem of slum housing which was – as a result of the Corporation’s failure to expand into the open land enclosing the city’s historic core – amongst the worst in the country.  Early efforts, notably the Victoria Buildings on Bath Street completed in 1876 (and second only to Liverpool), were not followed through and it was the large peripheral cottage suburbs built in the 1930s which constituted the city’s first serious attempt to rehouse its slum dwellers.

Narrow Marsh, 1919

Council plans for the redevelopment of the Red Lion Street area of Narrow March, 1920s (with thanks to Dan Lucas)

What is more easily forgotten is the persistence of unfit housing.  As late as 1951, 43 per cent of Nottingham homes lacked a bathroom.  Into the 1960s, in the long neglected St Ann’s area most houses lacked an inside toilet and bath; 53 per cent had no proper hot water supply.  All this provides a context for the mass housing programmes of this later period which we are quick to condemn – for their undoubted deficiencies – but so little understand.

St Ann’s, an image taken from the City Council’s 1970 redevelopment brochure ‘St Ann’s: Renewal in Progress’ (with thanks to Dan Lucas)

New housing in St Ann’s © John Sutton and made available through a Creative Commons licence

It follows, therefore, that these new homes were embraced by their residents: ‘the sheer luxury of four bedroomed houses with an inside flush toilet…a really big bath’ as a tenant of the interwar Broxtowe estate recalls.  But even high-rise dwellings, later condemned (literally so and demolished in many cases), were welcomed.   One new tenant of the maligned Hyson Green flats describes ‘an indoor bathroom, beautiful kitchen. It was paradise, absolutely paradise’.  Marcia Watson, a young black woman (now a city councillor) remembers:

High rise was popular then. People weren’t fussy back then. The view was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.  I loved it…for me, moving in and living there, it was the first home of my own.

Council homes were important for providing a disadvantaged minority community with their first decent homes and a step up, as they did for so many others.  Matthews argues, rightly, that council housing provided the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’.

It was good to see this quoted – and hopefully sincerely endorsed – by prime minister Theresa May no less in her keynote speech on social housing made to the National Housing Federation in September 2018. The speech was taken to herald a sea change in contemporary Conservative attitudes towards both the past value and present necessity of social housing.  We’ll wait and see.

This looks like a 1950s development but the privet hedges and greenery are in keeping with Howitt’s ideals © SK53 and made available through a Creative Commons licence

We might take those sanitary essentials celebrated by Marcia Watson for granted now (though too many can’t) but the quality of much council housing is striking too, how much could be done ‘by the steady and consistent exercise of careful thought and skilled imagination’.  That was Raymond Unwin, no less, praising Nottingham’s interwar council housing, recognised – thanks to the visionary leadership of City Architect TC Howitt – as some of the best in the country.

In fact, most Nottingham council homes – even in the 1960s – were solid, well-built terraced and semi-detached two-storey houses which, though sometimes lacking the aesthetic of Howitt’s work, continued to provide decent family homes for many who could not afford or did not wish to buy.  It’s an irony that some of the very best council housing up and down the country was built in the 1970s when, with lessons learnt from recent mistakes, low- and medium-rise, predominantly brick-built estates were erected.  Nottingham built more council housing in the 1970s than in any previous decade.

Osier Road, the Meadows

The Meadows scheme was built with such intent, its Radburn-style cul-de-sacs and greens incorporating the planning ideals of the day by their separation of cars and people.  Those ideals are now held to have ‘failed’ and there are proposals to restore a more traditional streetscape to the estate.  You can take this as an emblem of planning hubris or, more properly in my view, as a reminder of how transitory the ‘common sense’ of one age can seem to another.  Posterity should perhaps be a little more humble and not quite so condescending.

This brings us, inescapably, to the politics of council housing.  There has in the past been – these seem now like halcyon days – a broad consensus on the topic.  William Crane, a Conservative and building trades businessman, was chair of the Housing Committee from 1919 to 1957, surviving several changes of administration and building over 17,000 council homes in the interwar period when Nottingham was among the most prolific builders of council housing in the country.

Edenhall Gardens, Clifton Estate © Alan Murray-Rust and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Then there is the politics of the post-war period when Labour and Conservative governments vied to build the most houses with council housing as a central element of the mix. The Clifton Estate, a scheme of over 6000 homes housing 30,000 built to the south of the city between 1951 and 1958, encapsulates some of these ideals, not least in its focus on neighbourhood.  Planning ideals are not always fulfilled, particularly in local authority building where they nearly always conflict with budgetary constraints, but still the Estate’s early isolation, expense and lack of facilities probably didn’t merit its description (in a 1958 ITV documentary) as ‘Hell on Earth’ and certainly didn’t do so in the longer term.

The house-building ‘arms race’ came to a head in the 1960s when high-rise and system building were seen as the modern means to build on a mass scale and rid the country, once and for all, of the scourge of its slums.

The refurbished Woodlands group of high-rise blocks in Radford © John Sutton and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Here Nottingham provides some salutary lessons.  The city embraced these methods, these ambitions and, yes, these ideals.  High-rise and deck access developments were adopted; major contractors, notably Wimpey and Taylor Woodrow, employed to build their off-the-peg schemes across the city.  Matthews is candid in acknowledging the defects of these estates whilst rightly noting the legislative and economic changes which were also afflicting disproportionately the communities which lived in council homes. Equally honestly, he addresses the dissatisfaction with the council as landlord in this period, particularly in relation to repairs. The combination was stigmatising – ‘no longer was renting a council house aspirational’.

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On June 4 1919, Christopher Addison cut the first sod on Bristol City Council’s new Sea Mills Estate.  The city’s lady mayoress planted an oak tree which today bears his name. At the time, Addison was still President of the Local Government Board. His flagship Housing and Planning Act received the Royal Assent on July 31st and he then became the first Minister of Health and Housing. One hundred years later to the day, I was proud to be part of a community event celebrating Addison and the estate he inaugurated.

Speaking to an appreciative audience under the Addison Oak at Sea Mills. Christopher Addison, in the person of Cllr Paul Smith (Cabinet Member for Housing, Bristol), looking on to the right.

The Addison Oak is, so far as I know, the only tree named after him but, across England, Scotland and Wales, there are streets of council housing which mark Addison’s formative role in arguably the most important housing legislation of the last century.

Christopher Addison (1869-1951) was a doctor and surgeon and a Liberal MP for Shoreditch in London, one of the most overcrowded districts of the capital.  He brought that expertise and experience to his vision and drive for housing as the first Minister of Health and Housing.

Christopher Addison, MP

When he spoke in Bristol that evening of June 4th, he told his audience:

They did not want houses built in dismal streets. Until they had houses with air about them, so long would they have to spend enormous sums annually on sickness…They wanted big production and they were prepared to pay big prices.

In the event, those ‘big prices’ were a problem and his housing programme fell victim to the austerity of the day when public spending was cut in July 1921 with only 176,000 of the promised 500,000 ‘homes for heroes’ completed that prime minister Lloyd George had promised.  Addison resigned and went on to a distinguished career in Labour ranks, serving as Leader of the House of Lords where he helped secure the legislation of another reforming Minister of Health and Housing, Nye Bevan, in Attlee’s post-war Labour government.

But his own 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act had set a vital precedent. Firstly, by providing generous grant regime (not in any meaningful sense a subsidy – as Addison knew council housing pays for itself); secondly, by its requirement that councils not only survey local housing needs but prepare schemes to actively meet them – the first time local authorities were compelled to build council homes; and, thirdly, by its commitment to quality. The wartime Tudor Walters Report which provided the template for interwar design had recommended ‘cottage homes’, no more than 12 to the acre, with front and back gardens, many with parlours.

Addison Road, Allenton, Derby – an interwar development

It is, then, entirely fitting that we not only celebrate Addison and the centenary of his 1919 Housing Act this year but the roads and streets across the country that continue to provide the concrete legacy of his housing revolution.

The map below identifies all those streets named to commemorate Addison’s role.  They are formed, without exception, of council homes.  I have made the assumption that these streets are named after Christopher Addison and that other streets named Addison are very likely so named for other reasons.  Please let me know of any mistakes or omissions you find.

At the moment, just a few of the entries have photographs attached – just Derby, Swindon, Enfield and Cardiff (marked in red on the map).  It would be wonderful to crowd-source photographs of each and every one to provide a lasting record of the rich and diverse legacy of council housing that Addison did so much to create.


I could not have created this map without the data and cartographic skills of Jerry Clough.  You can follow Jerry on Twitter @SK53onOSM and his blog, Maps Matter, at https://sk53-osm.blogspot.com/.

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As we saw in last week’s post, Sidney Hilton, Banbury’s multi-disciplined and talented Borough Surveyor from 1925 had turned the People’s Park in Banbury into a well-used and popular green place for fresh air, recreation and light exercise.  While the council totted up their expenditure on and income from the tennis courts, the putting green and the bowling club annually – and acknowledged their overall losses – they knew that the park offered invaluable green space.

A contemporary map of the park, courtesy of Sacha Barnes Limited

Neithrop House, part of the Council’s purchase from the syndicate in 1918-19, became vacant in 1929.  The Education Committee took on a lease of the first floor at £100 per year as an Infant Welfare Clinic and a school clinic.  In the 1940s this included the treatment of cases of scabies and pediculosis.  Countless schoolchildren went to Neithrop House for eye tests, vaccinations and to the dentist – and to the playground and paddling pool afterwards.  Parents collected orange juice, dried milk, cod liver oil and gas masks.

The cottages in Paradise Square, also part of the original Neithrop House estate, were more problematic.  Paradise was a misnomer.  There were many cases of drunkenness and breaches of the Elementary Education Act, one tap served about 20 households. (1) The Council had other rental streams by then and Hilton had no time for it.  Soon after the Medical Officer had issued closing orders he saw to it that the cottages were demolished and the tenants rehoused in brand new council houses.  Paradise was lost when a new shrubbery and a car park was created on the site of the square.

Hilton’s stone pillars at the entrance to the park from Horse Fair.  Originally there were wrought iron gates.  Photograph May 2019

The design and execution of Hilton’s plans for new walls and paths perhaps best demonstrate his understanding of what the People’s Park is for and how it is used.  The outer boundaries of the park are encircled by paths.  Those in a hurry can walk the length of the park without being distracted by flowers and trees.  Hilton put in dwarf stone walls along the edge of these paths in place of the old high walls and fencing that had surrounded the Neithrop House estate.  Barely noticeable now, it is easy to think that they serve no purpose.  I don’t see it as an exaggeration, however, to say that Hilton’s provision of these walls was the physical confirmation that the park was open for everyone to enjoy.  Originally there were railings set into the top of the walls and some now have privet or hawthorn hedging alongside them.  Even when the park gates were locked, the people of Banbury could see into their park.

An example of Hilton’s dwarf walls allowing a clear view into the People’s Park on the right.  Public footpath towards The Shades on the left.  Photograph May 2019

Hilton demonstrated great foresight too in his provision of paths within the park.  There are no muddy ‘desire lines’; people in 2019 use the same routes provided by Hilton.  He respected the old footpaths in place before the Enclosures – The Leys, for instance – and his paths take people where they want to go: to each exit, to the aviary, to the playground.

And, since 1912, people have treasured the park as a convenient route to the town centre; a pleasant short walk accompanied by birdsong.  What makes the People’s Park so useful to local people then and now is its dual function: a place for leisure and recreation and a quick cut through to work or into town.

As Hilton’s new houses and streets added substantially to the residential population to the north-west of the park, the greater the value of its location.  The Banbury Advertiser in July 1939 carried a headline ‘The Quickest Way to work from King’s Road District’. (2)  

Plans for a new path across the park were described as a plea for something that would save 60 yards and cost £60.  Councillor Jones had carried out his own informal census one sunny afternoon and found that 348 people had walked across the grass.  He felt his research proved that: (2)

the majority of people living in that district were of the working class, who had only a limited time to get home to meals and back to their place of business …..unless a footpath is made there will always be the present eyesore of a mudpath across the field.

The new path went ahead quickly.

The aviary was first put up in 1927 and rebuilt in 1992.  Photograph May 2019

People had enjoyed listening to bands playing in the park since the early days of the syndicate’s tenure.  The council acknowledged public pressure for a bandstand and there were, of course, numerous others up and down the country.  The People’s Park bandstand was opened in June 1932.  A rather grand affair, the money for it was donated by a charitable trust.  Hilton’s design was tailored to the site – on falling ground that forms a natural amphitheatre near the centre of the park.

The bandstand is in the centre of this aerial photograph taken in 1947.  Photograph courtesy of Richard Savory.

Hilton supervised the entire construction by the council’s direct labour force. The rectangular bandstand with a bow-shaped front could house 40 musicians.

The opening of the Bandstand, June 1932 (2)

Fete after fete, rally after rally, parade after parade, a war time nursery and a British Restaurant kept spirits up in World War II.  With little physical damage in Banbury, a shortage of deckchairs in the People’s Park kept the council busy.

With its new facilities in place, the People’s Park was, by the late 1930s, well established as a place of leisure and relaxation.  The reduction in average working hours during the 1930s through to the 1960s only increased its popularity; Hilton’s facilities in the People’s Park are good examples of well-designed facilities provided by local councils to meet a need for local, safe and ordered recreation.

Sidney Hilton photographed in 1954 and close to his retirement.  Plans for his housing schemes are in the background. (2)

The People’s Park had become Banbury’s most popular outdoor venue.

Banbury Grammar School’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed in the bandstand in June 1951.  The council gave a grant of £50 towards this production. (2)

Summer music festival 1973, photograph courtesy of Michael Amor

The post-war borough council’s thoughts turned to horticulture.  In the gloomy and cold late 1940s there was a new appetite for municipal horticulture and landscaping.  Mindful of the extent of Hilton’s new housing estates under construction, the council asked the Institute of Landscape Architects for an outline scheme to improve all of their present and proposed parks and recreation grounds, the People’s Park included.  For a fee of 100 guineas the Institute sent a Miss Crowe of London to produce a report. (3)

In April 1947 the council considered her more detailed recommendations and decided that

having regard to the abnormality of the times and the fairly heavy capital expenditure likely to be involved … the further consideration of (Miss Crowe’s) report be adjourned and … that the matter must probably lay in abeyance for a period of at least two or three years.

Miss Crowe’s report is not included in her archives and we do not know her thoughts on the People’s Park.  She had a reputation for producing rushed scruffy sketches bursting with ideas; we can imagine her sketching plans for new trees and flowerbeds in the park, perhaps with Hilton in tow.

Part of Sylvia Crowe’s plans for the Garden of Rest at St Mary’s Church Banbury, adjacent to the People’s Park.  Her plans were implemented by the council in 1950.  Drawing courtesy of the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading.

Sylvia Crowe was born in Banbury. ..

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I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Jane Kilsby who has previously contributed excellent articles on pre-First World War council housing in Banbury and interwar schemes in north Oxfordshire. Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury over five years ago. Here she writes on the People’s Park in Banbury, a public park celebrating one hundred years of municipal ownership in 2019. 

From the Banbury Advertiser (1)

On 19 July 1919, a Fine Lady on a White Horse led a stunning procession through the streets of Banbury.  In a gown of brocaded plush with an ermine border and a veil of valenciennes lace and in pouring rain, the Fine Lady made her way to the People’s Park to celebrate peace and a new beginning for the park.  Her horse, a white arab charger, had served throughout the Great War and wore the Mons ribbon on his brow.  She was followed by wounded soldiers and sailors, Red Cross hospital nurses, the Fire Brigade, boy scouts and guides, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the Co-operative Society and many, many more representing the town’s public services and commercial interests.

Unlike a majority of towns in England and Scotland, Banbury did not have a public park laid out in the Victorian period.  Banbury’s Aldermen felt that there was so much open countryside surrounding their town that there was no need for one.  But, as Banbury’s population and industrial activities grew, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions became more common and a place for fresh air began to be seen as an essential.

There are several People’s Parks in England: some of them have proper names too such as Victoria Park in East London and there are larger and much older People’s Parks in Halifax and Tiverton, for example.  Banbury’s People’s Park came about through a combination of late Victorian benevolence, imagination and a sense of public responsibility on the part of the town’s council in the early 20th century.  Let’s return to the decorated wagons and the large crowd in the park in July 1919 to hear how the story began.

The Town Clerk read out the will of the late George Vincent Ball.  Ball had left a legacy of approximately £3,200 for the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of Banbury:

to be applied by them in the purchase of land in some suitable situation near the town as a Park for the recreation of all classes during every day of the week from sunrise to sunset all the year round, to be ornamentally laid out, and called the People’s Park.

Born in Banbury in 1814, George Ball owned a chemists shop from 1844. (1) A borough councillor from 1858 to 1864; the provision of accessible stiles into fields around Banbury was among his achievements.  He died in 1892.

In response to his legacy the borough received offers of land but rejected all of them either because they were too small or the locations were not quite right.  In any event Ball’s legacy was deferred until his sister’s death.  The burgesses were reluctant to raise money via the rates before the legacy was available.  It was to be eighteen years before the perfect opportunity presented itself.

Central Banbury 1882 indicating the location of the People’s Park and the Neithrop House estate. The ‘Old Flower show Ground’ was rejected as a potential site.  Map courtesy of Banbury Museum Trust

The Neithrop House estate came up for auction in October 1910.  The lot comprised the house, gardens and pleasure grounds – about three acres – and six and a half acres of rich turf, stabling, gardener’s and coachman’s cottages, and 19 cottages in Paradise Square.

Neithrop House, a hunting box built for the Croome family in 1839.  Photograph c1988 courtesy of the Oxfordshire History Centre

As a site for their people’s park this was irresistible.  The Council had no funds to bid and did not expect the Local Government Board to grant a loan; the rules on councils taking on mortgages to buy land at that time only applied to sewage disposal schemes.  But, the week before the auction, the Mayor, Joseph Chard, called for the formation of a syndicate.  The People’s Park Syndicate was the only one in Banbury which announced, from the outset, its intention to give no interest or profits to its subscribers. (1)

Within days, the syndicate received a donation of £500 and went ahead in the knowledge that there was no better location and price for a people’s park.  The estate did not meet its reserve; the syndicate bought the whole lot privately shortly afterwards for £5,250.  Ball’s sister, Mrs Luckett, was 83; the syndicate assumed the council would be able to use Ball’s legacy to buy the estate from them before long.

By December 1910, total subscriptions from the great and good of Banbury, including several councillors, were £990 and the final purchase account including conveyancing was £5,305 17s 6d.  A bank loan made up the difference.

People’s Park Syndicate certificate, 1910.  Copy courtesy of Oxfordshire History Centre.

Syndicate members set about managing their estate with competence and efficiency.  They put up sanitary conveniences and did some repairs to the cottages.  Members were able to visit the parkland; some were a little resentful of the 2s 6d they had to pay for a key.  The park was not open to the public; new fencing protected their investment.

The syndicate held some enchanting garden parties.  Photograph 1912 courtesy of The Banbury Museum Trust

Councillor Brooks, elected Mayor in November 1910 and then Chairman of the People’s Park Syndicate, nevertheless saw the syndicate solely as the park’s temporary caretaker.  By February 1912 the syndicate offered the council:

a rent of £80 per annum to include all liabilities… the syndicate will apply any balance of income arising year to year to reduce the ultimate purchase price of the estate.

Councillor Herbert Payne , local housing campaigner, pounced on the syndicate’s proposal.  In the council’s debate on it, Payne pronounced: (1)

three things were wanted in Banbury: a public lavatory, a people’s park and a public library…The place could be made a very pleasant outdoor pleasure resort….  It was easy of access and the splendid trees and undulating turf made it a delightful spot and they (the Council) should encourage the present tendency of taking pleasure in the open air.  There would be no first class, second class or third class; the youngest and oldest, the richest and poorest could meet here.

His fellow councillors agreed that this was a very good deal; some expressed their embarrassment that Banbury did not already have a public park. With a joint committee of council and syndicate representatives set up the council took on the rent of the parkland.

A ceremony was held on 25 June 1912 to mark this landmark in the park’s history.  The Mayoress, Mrs J.Bloomfield, planted an oak tree and, as a symbol of the park’s opening to the public, she was presented with a key.

Only a week later, the Banbury Guardian reported: (1)

The People’s Park is evidently going to verify its name.  Ample evidence of this was given on Sunday afternoon when there was a very large number of the inhabitants taking advantage of this charming ‘rus in urbe.’  Strangers from a distance – as well as residents – were loud in their praise of the foresight of the public-spirited gentlemen who had secured such a sylvan spot for the recreation of the people.

The council continued to rent the park from the syndicate until 1918.

Understandably, no action was taken on the option to buy the estate during the First World War.  In February 1918 the legacy became available on the death of Ball’s sister and, with a bank loan making up the difference, the council bought the park, Neithrop House and the cottages in Paradise Square for £5,186 18s 2d.  The land’s value had doubled during the syndicate’s ownership but no profit was paid to the subscribers.  The council anticipated that the rents from the cottages would, over time, clear the overdraft from the bank; the People’s Park came into local authority ownership without any funds from ratepayers.  The 1919 procession and garden party to celebrate the council’s ownership of the People’s Park was a huge success.

The Banbury Advertiser in 1932 described the whole process of the acquisition of the People’s Park by the council – with its combination of private generosity and public opportunism – as ‘the brightest spot throughout the whole history of the Borough.’ (1)

Municipal ownership brought in some talented and diligent municipal managers.  Recreational facilities, thoughtful planning and ordered cultivation turned approximately eight acres of green fields and trees into a recognisable and well-used public park.

But first there was the need for commemoration.

The cenotaph in the People’s Park designed by T Gardner, FRIBA in 1922. (2) Photograph May 2019

In municipal ownership from 1919 and open to all, the people of Banbury were not the only occupants of their new park.

In August 1917 four sheep were found dead beneath an elm tree after a violent thunderstorm.  Photograph from the early 1920s courtesy of Banbury Museum.

The syndicate had tendered for sheep grazers throughout their tenure of the park.  Equally loathe to waste money on a lawn mower, the council followed like sheep.

Cicely Bailey describes how much she enjoyed the park during her childhood: (3)

there were sheep in the park then and … we children loved them.  They used to wander back and forth, eating the long grass which was sometimes as high as the smaller children.

It was not until spring 1926 that the council enjoyed showing off a new Ransome’s triple mower.

The council wanted to make its presence felt and instil some discipline.  It’s byelaws for the People’s Park were approved by the Minister of Health in 1920.  Drying washing, beating rugs, singing, injuring birds, wading or bathing in the stream and playing any sports or games that needed a..

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I’m very pleased to host this second post by Chas Townley, a follow-up to his article last week which looked at the background to Dursley’s pre-war housing scheme. Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control; authority in Gloucestershire. He is currently chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing.  He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision.

Returning to Dursley and our 38 first houses, the decision to investigate providing housing started in January 1912 as a result of a circular letter from the Government which offered meetings with officials to assist the council. They also had information from Cirencester Urban District Council, which was already seeking to build houses with rents of 4 shillings a week. Dursley Rural District Council (RDC) members considered this to be far too much rent for ‘the workmen they were concerned about in the area’ – as the rents of those to be evicted from their closed hovels had very low rents. (1)

The plaque marking the opening of the new scheme in Lower Poole Road

Despite such early negativity discussions proceeded and a news report of the Dursley Annual Parish Meeting addressed by Mr Sidney Bloodworth, Chairman of the Dursley Parochial Committee (DPC) and Vice-Chairman of the RDC presented a narrative on why they were looking to build council housing.

It is worth explaining the membership of the DPC which was a Dursley RDC committee consisting of all parish councillors and any RDC members representing the Parish of Dursley. I have come across this form of committee in several researches and it appears to have been a normal method of delegating purely local matters for action. Sadly, as they appear to have operated on an ad hoc basis their records have rarely made it into the official archives. In this case my account is based on occasional newspaper reports.

Bloodworth reports the dilemma that the RDC faced following the Housing and Planning act which ‘demanded the closing of houses which were declared unfit for human habitation’ and that the District Council ‘wanted to be assured that there was somewhere else for them to go’. It is stated that the condemned houses were let at a shilling or 1 shilling and 6d per week (5p to 7.5p). It was admitted that it was impossible to build at anything like that rental ‘without being a burden on the rates’.

They had approached the owner of a site on the Uley Road and ended up conducting discussions with Mr Vizard through his drawing room window overlooking the site with him posing the question pointing at the land ‘Now, if this was your house would you like to sell that field?’ Consequently, he was not prepared to sell at any price. The idea of compulsorily purchasing the site had been gone into but in transpired that compensation would have had to be paid for the devaluation in the house overlooking the site.  Another site was now under consideration and it was hoped to reach agreement with the two owners but it would be necessary to remove a rubbish tip.

Sir Ashton Lister, Managing Director of R A Lister & Co and later Liberal MP for Stroud, 1918-1922

An argument against funding the housing was advanced suggesting that the ‘firm that imported the labour which overcrowded the town should provide the dwellings and the Parochial Committee should ask them.’ Counter-arguments claimed that workers should not have to live in houses provided by their employer.

Later in the debate Sir Ashton Lister spoke on behalf of the engineering firm stating they were not the only employer in the town and that ‘if the town did not think the building would be in the interest of the town, then they should not endorse the scheme’. In the discussion he commented that the firm had erected 64 houses and bought 20. Lister also believed there was a need for a further 50 houses in the town.

Houses in the completed scheme on Upper Poole Road

Despite the passion and heat of the debate the meeting was brought to a close with a unanimous decision to request the DPC to prepare a scheme. (2)

By July an Inspector from the Local Government Board visited the town and was accompanied by a large group of local councillors and inspected some housing sites, the preferred site in two separate ownerships of a Mrs Poole and Bristol Corporation – hence the scheme being in Upper Poole Road.

This contemporary map shows the two sites eventually chosen for the scheme.

Agreement had been reached with Mrs Poole but Bristol Corporation were reported to want a ‘ridiculously high value’ on their land. The inspector was shown a variety of other sites including the garden of the workhouse. The report concludes by noting ‘the opinion of the Inspector was that there were two possible sites to choose from’ which are understood to be the Upper Poole Road site and the land they could not purchase at any price. (3)

It now transpired from an enquiry from a member of the House of Lords that the compulsory purchase powers could not be used to obtain the land from Bristol Corporation and John Burns had written that the Rural District Council had been advised to consider a smaller scheme or a slightly different site. (4)

Lower Poole Road

Later than month, a press report referring to the DPC as the Dursley Housing Committee noting that they wanted to persevere with the Poole Cottages scheme and would enter further negotiations with Bristol Corporation. It is suspected that these were fruitless and the scheme was designed to fit the land available, but ironically four or five years later Bristol flogged off the whole of their Dursley land holdings by auction. (5)

It was reported in November 1912 that 150 architects had applied for particulars of the design competition. The rent was not to exceed 4 shillings and 6d (22.5p) and the accommodation was specified as being one living room, three bedrooms, kitchen, scullery with bath and also larder, etc. (6)

Upper Poole Road

Later in the month Arthur Probyn, a 46 year-old architect and surveyor from Gloucester, was announced as the winner. It transpired later that his was one of 40 designs submitted. (7)  From newspaper reports, Probyn undertook works for various organisations mainly in Gloucester including the Gloucester Cooperative Society, the Gloucester Royal Infirmary (at their original Southgate Street premises) and he was one of seven architects engaged on the Tuffley housing scheme in 1920. He was also architect for a school hall for Dursley Tabernacle completed in 1914 and perhaps this scheme meant he was a known quantity. (8)

When it came to the official Board of Health loan sanction inquiry held in March 1913 before the same Inspector who had considered the appropriateness of the site chosen there were no formal objectors. However, Mr Loxton, a member of the Rural District Council who had provided critical challenge to the project, explained some of the deficiencies that had been considered to exist in the scheme including whether the site was sufficient for the number of houses and whether the scheme could be built within the estimated costs.

Upper Poole Road

When the tenders came in in August 1913, all of the tenders exceeded the original estimates. As is often the case, the cheapest from S Williams & Sons of Bristol at £7030 did not represent good value as it excluded the cost of roads and drains. W J B Halls Gloucester £8050 was the next lowest with the highest of seven including being nearly £10,000. One bid had been from Lister & Co, suggesting they had their own building team. It is interesting to note that the actual tender costs all appeared in the newspaper, transparency indeed! Even with Halls’ tender the consequence was to increase both the loan for the scheme and the proposed rent from 4s 6d to as high as 6 shillings.

Given the high level of democracy attached to the scheme, a parish meeting was held to ascertain the views of ratepayers and this is reported at length in the Gloucester Journal. Much of the debate focused on the rental costs with, for example, Arthur Shand arguing that the ‘rent was too high for the working man of Dursley’ and Mr A S Adams suggesting ‘the council would be catering for an entirely different class of people to that which was originally intended’. There were some voices that the Council should abandon the scheme.

Upper Poole Road

The result was that the DPC was asked to go away and find a way to build the houses for rents of 4s 6d, which was way off the original concern felt by Council members back in January 1912 – perhaps showing that the council by inclusion had taken the community with them. It is notable that, despite the contentious nature of the meeting, it was unanimous in thanking DPC ‘for their labours on behalf of the working men of the town’. (9)

In the face of community protest, which wanted low rents, local industrialist Sir Ashton Lister, owner of an expanding engineering factory and later a Liberal MP, dipped his hand in his pocket and gave £500 on condition rents were 5 shillings a week. (10)  Was this an act of ‘charity’ that his Party in Parliament condemned or enlightened self-interest – perhaps the latter as he had already supported the provision of housing by his company.  Consequently, when the matter came before the fortnightly meeting of the District Council, it was agreed to make application for an increased loan of £7852 to enable the housing scheme to be built. (11)

The contract which was let to Halls of Gloucester provided for the first block of four houses to be completed by 31 January 1914 and then two houses to be handed over every two weeks until the scheme was completed. An attempt was made to invite John Burns MP, President of the Local Government Board, to inaugurate the housing scheme but he advised the Council he was unable to attend. (12)

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I’m delighted to host this article by Chas Townley which is not only a fascinating account of some early council housing in Dursley, Gloucestershire, but a significant contribution to the debate around the significance of a pre-war spurt in council house construction pre-dating the 1919 Housing Act. This first post examines the background to the scheme; the follow-up will examine the scheme in detail.

Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control’ authority in Gloucestershire. He is currently chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing.  He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision.

I have the privilege to be Chair of Housing at Stroud District Council which this year has been a housing provider for 105 years, despite still only being 45 years old!  This arises from the construction of 38 working class cottages by Dursley Rural District Council, one of seven pre-1974 rural and urban districts which served our patch. (1)

While it remains a housing provider the council has not built at scale since schemes were planned in the late 1970s, although we have delivered a programme of new council homes over the last five or six years, mainly to replace defective housing or utilise sites in Council ownership. We aspire to more but this isn’t the place to write about the future.

Dursley at around the time of the First World War

As a local historian, I am presently trying to piece together the motives that drove at least four of our predecessors to actively contemplate housing schemes in their areas in the Edwardian era. In addition to the Dursley scheme, two other sites at Wotton-under-Edge and Stroud had been purchased ready and active discussions were taking place elsewhere, before the skids were put on further progress by the chaos of war in August 1914.

While at first glance the Stroud District is very much a rural area with stunning landscapes in the Cotswolds and the world-renowned Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands on the Severn Estuary, it has an industrial heritage to compete with places like Ironbridge or the Black Country. Maybe I’m just a little biased but we have a fantastic industrial heritage story.

The Budding lawnmower patent © Museum in the Park, Stroud (2972/2)

Near Stroud, Edwin Budding developed from machinery in the cloth industry invented the lawnmower. If that wasn’t enough, he also gave us the adjustable spanner; What good toolbox is without one of those?

Two coopers outside the Lister Churn works © Museum in the Park, Stroud (1975.131)

In the south of the District, the growth of Dursley had been greatly influenced by the development of RA Lister and Co as a major engineering company famed for its diesel engines which started life as an agricultural implements company in 1867. Sadly what little remains – not even based in Dursley – is a minuscule reminder of the past successes of its enterprise and innovation.

Much of the industry was linked to the woollen industry and our council offices are a converted mill – as is the headquarters of Renishaw, a world leading engineering and scientific company. The last remaining cloth firm, once famed for its scarlet for military uniforms, remains in production producing vibrant yellow and green for tennis and snooker.

And perhaps it is worth remembering that the industrialisation of the weaving industry was the start of a long tradition of active trade unions defending the rights and working conditions of employees.

Collectivism also extended to strong support for the Cooperative movement and some towns and villages at one time boasted 50 percent participation. The main society in the area, the Cainscross and Ebley, in addition to renting out cottages also supported home ownership. Fifty loans had been granted, mostly in the Dursley area, perhaps indicating this was an area with enormous housing demand, but this activity was small fry – the neighbouring Gloucester society claimed to have given out 700 loans! (2)

Bramwell Hudson, photographed in 1912 as General Manager of the Cainscross and Ebley Cooperative Society

The links of industrialists to our predecessor councils are well known but it is worth remembering that our councils represented all shades of opinion – as they do today. Bramwell Hudson, the inspirational general manager of the Coop for much of the early years began his sixteen-year stint as Chairman of Stroud RDC on his retirement from the Coop in 1928.

Margaret Hills, photographed as a suffragist speaker and campaigner in Manchester, 1909

And, of course, we find amongst the women on our councils Margaret Hills, who learnt her political craft in the suffrage movement. She too was inspirational and could hold a packed Manchester Free Trade Hall audience in the palm of her hand. As Stroud UDC Chair of Housing, she developed housing for older people back in the early 1930s.

While this article is relatively early thoughts on our predecessors’ initiative, I am convinced they were responding to a housing crisis which is probably of as great an impact as we face today; Gloucestershire’s inspirational community action was not some isolated action but part of a national response to a growing crisis. For example, in the 1917 debate about whether Gloucester City should support an initial 200 dwelling post-war scheme, in response to Government requests, Councillor Fielding (a partner in the now lamented Fielding and Platt Company) highlighted a successful housing scheme undertaken by Hereford City Council. (3)

The Government Minister who created the impetus for action was John Burns, a trade unionist who served as President of the Local Government Board from 1905 until 1914 when he was moved to another Ministry. As a pacifist, he inevitably resigned from Government on Britain entering the Great War and never again played an active part in national politics.

John Burns MP, President of the Local Government Board, c1911

Burns’ influence on housing policy and the wider ‘activist’ role for local government before the Great War is underrated. In part, this is because he did not make the transition to the Labour Party and remained as a radical in the Liberal Party. On the other hand, there are significant anti-Semitic character flaws which do not make for comfortable reading today.

In the period before Burns there had been considerable complacency about poor housing conditions. When Rider Haggard (Yes, he of King Solomon’s Mines) visited Gloucestershire as part of national agricultural survey in 1901, he interviewed Dr Martin, the Medical Officer of Health for a combined area covering three councils in the Stroud area. Haggard reported that: (4)

The cottages were fair with good gardens, and there were few cases of overcrowding; still he had been obliged to condemn some of them.

Martin’s own Medical Officer of Health reports for this period are similar in tone with a degree of blame on tenants for poor conditions. (5)

Burns, through the Housing and Planning Act 1909 (which our Dr Martin had claimed ‘was one of the most important public health Acts of recent years’), instigated systematic inspection of housing conditions in the whole area of each District. This had been actively opposed by one of the local government associations of the day and one of Dr Martin’s employers, Stroud Rural District Council, joined the campaign to oppose this as they thought it was an unneeded imposition on the council and there was nothing to see here.

The personal interest in housing reform of John Burns is illustrated by this signed copy of an influential book of the time.

Systematic inspection had instant results. In Bristol over 1000 unfit properties were found in the first year, many were improved but 110 were closed, an astonishing increase on the average of just twenty in previous years. Perhaps, a lesson from history as to why we need to rediscover the zeal for high levels of inspections of housing standards? (6)

While it is difficult to be certain of the numbers in Gloucestershire rural districts the language used in annual reports of the Medical Officers of Health significantly changed to one of heightened concern with poor housing conditions and a failing housing market, with carefully crafted polite encouragements to members to act, usually based on external evidence. (7)

Such appointments were precarious before one of Burns’ reforms as they served at the (dis)pleasure of the council, often relying on annual reappointment. In Gloucestershire one such victim was Dr Thomas Bond who was sacked by Sodbury Rural District Council in 1905. He retained the confidence of other employers and had the temerity to write about his grievous injustice publicly. His cause was taken up nationally and eventually he was reinstated following Government action. (8)

Within Stroud area there is also strong evidence of political campaigns by Liberals, Conservatives and the relatively new Labour and Trades Council to advocate for council housing in the period from 1910 onwards rising with intensity to copy Dursley and also Cirencester. (9)

In the Stroud Rural District, under pressure of campaigning, surveys had identified an urgent need for additional lower cost housing in five of seventeen parishes. In the case of the village of Minchinhampton, the cause was blamed on the number of properties owned by ‘weekenders’ who then remodelled cottage properties to their needs – apparently at the expense of local manual workers. The impact of second homes remains of concern today across many rural areas like the Cotswolds. (10)

An odd feature of Rural Districts was the allocation of some costs as ‘special expenses’ rated on specific areas of the District – usually but not always a whole parish. This approach resulted in cost shunting..

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Last week’s post looked at the controversy surrounding rival plans – one a more traditional cottage suburb submitted by Borough Engineer Bertie Robinson, the other an ostensibly more visionary re-imagining of community life proposed by the architect Sir Charles Reilly – for Birkenhead’s Woodchurch Estate.  The former had been preferred by the Conservative majority on the Council and they had appointed the Liverpool architect Herbert James Rowse to ‘to draw up designs for the houses to be erected on the estate’. (1)

This plaque is placed at the main entrance to the estate on the side wall of a house on Ackers Road

To general surprise, Rowse, perhaps unwilling to work within the confines of a scheme suggested by the Borough Engineer, returned to the drawing board and, in January 1945, submitted an entirely new scheme.  Labour pressed for reconsideration of Reilly’s plans but in March 1945, the Council – dividing again on party lines – endorsed those of Rowse. Building of the estate, after a twenty-year gestation, finally began in 1946.

Rowse’s 1945 plan from Architecture and Building News, 1950

Whilst he eschewed the social engineering proposed by Reilly, Rowse’s own proposals reflected the spirit and ambition of the time: (2)

The Woodchurch Estate is not a mere assemblage of houses placed on a plot ground in the maximum possible density and monotonous regularity of layout and pattern, after the manner of the vast unplanned and uncontrolled suburban development of the inter-war years: it is the architectural setting of a fully developed sociological conception of a community of people living within a defined neighbourhood, having a conscious identity of its own and equipped for the maximum possibilities of the full intercourse of such a community. The comprehensive character of this project makes it of outstanding interest.

For Rowse, the fulfilment of these promises lay in the layout, facilities and housing forms of his new estate.

The overall plan was ‘developed on the basis of the natural topographical features of the site’ with:

Every effort … made in the planning of the Estate to provide prospects of the attractive rural surroundings from every possible point and to allow the maximum amount of rural character to permeate the estate by means of planted green closes, forecourts, quadrangles, recreation spaces and allotment gardens.

Broad parkways divided the estate whilst a central square provided ‘for the social life of the community’ with shops, baths and assembly hall, community centre, cinema, library and clinic:

In contrast to the familiar monotony of streets or their suburban counterpart, the estate will present varied internal prospects of groupings of terraces and small blocks amidst trees and green spaces, having the general character of a contemporary version of the traditional English village scene.

For the 2500 houses of the estate, Rowse proposed brick of ‘good, common quality’ with ‘architectural interest … achieved by the application of lime-wash, pigmented in a range of quiet tones of yellow, blue, pink and grey, alternating with white’.  His interest extended to their interiors – those of the first homes completed being ‘decorated in warm ivory shade on the walls and a pale shade of blue on the ceilings’.  Criticism of this colour scheme led to a uniform white being applied externally by the early 1950s.

Rowse’s illustrations of Woodchurch housing from Architecture and Building News, 1950

The estate’s early housing reflects Rowse’s ambitions though, on a cold January day such as when I visited, those broad parkways can seem rather bleak.

Shops on Hoole Road © Rept0n1x and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Rowse’s supervision of the scheme was superseded by that of new Borough Architect TA Brittain in 1952 who, in Pevsner’s astringent words, ‘continued building to inferior standards of design’.  The volume dislikes the estate’s early neo-Georgian-style shopfronts but reserves its greatest disdain for the Hoole Road shops, once planned as a centrepiece of Rowse’s central parkway. (3)

This early image closely resembles the 1000th house on the estate, opened in 1953

The estate’s 1000th home, no. 84 Common Field Road, was officially opened by local MP Percy Collick in 1953 – a gabled, tile-hung, arts and crafts-inspired design, clearly a legacy of Rowse’s tenure.

Early photographs of the estate

Later housing was plainer but the biggest departure from Rowse’s founding vision were the two 14-storey tower blocks – Grasswood Gardens and Ferny Brow Gardens – built in 1960 on New Hey Road; the architect, ironically was HJ Rowse. (4)  By the end of the decade, three 14-storey blocks were added, built by Wimpey – Leamington, Lynmouth and Lucerne Gardens, at the Upton end of the estate.

Leamington, Lynmouth and Lucerne Gardens, photographed in 1987 from the Tower Block website

Typically, for all the preceding rhetoric, even the most basic community facilities were slow to appear: the first shops in 1953, a health clinic in 1954, and the first local library (at first housed in the new secondary modern school) in 1959. A community centre followed in 1965.

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If you’re not from Merseyside, you probably haven’t heard of Birkenhead’s Woodchurch Estate but in 1944 it featured in a Picture Post article which, it was claimed, ‘had repercussions over the Empire’. (1)  That might have been an exaggeration but for a time conflicting ideas around the estate’s design dominated not only local politics but generated fierce debate in wider planning and political circles.  This post examines that controversy.

First, some background because there had been little previously to suggest that Birkenhead would merit such prominence in housing policy.  Unlike its neighbour Liverpool (which had built the first council housing in the country and pursued grandiose housing schemes in the interwar period), Birkenhead’s housing efforts had been modest.

It had grown as a docks and shipbuilding town from the early nineteenth century; from around 200 inhabitants in 1820 to 77,435 when incorporated as a borough in 1877.  Eleven years later and 22,000 inhabitants larger, it became a County Borough.

The Dock Cottages

That rapid growth had created appalling housing conditions for Birkenhead’s working-class population. The Queen’s Buildings (better known locally as the ‘Dock Cottages’ or just the ‘Blocks’), constructed in 1846 and financed by the major local employer John Laird, had been one early effort to ameliorate such conditions – 350 dwellings in four-storey blocks; built to the ‘Scotch’ plan (Laird hailed from Greenock) and claimed to be the first multi-storey tenements in England. Despite their compact design and dense layout, the flats themselves – equipped with a cold-water supply, gas burner, two iron bedsteads and a WC – were advanced for their day.

The 1917 plans for the Gilbrook Estate

The later council, for its part, proceeded more cautiously, clearing some 388 unfit houses but building just 18 cottages and 88 tenements to replace them by 1910. (2)  Its first major housebuilding scheme – the Gilbrook Estate in Prenton, north Birkenhead – was planned in 1917 but completed, to modified design, after the war.  The Council also purchased and renovated the Dock Cottages to let as council housing in the 1920s.

Vaughan Street, Gilbrook Estate, January 2019. (It was snowing!)

Arkle Road, Gilbrook Estate, January 2019

The ideological preferences of the Conservative-controlled council –  or perhaps an early version of the current preference for ‘mixed communities’ – were shown by the development of the Tranmere Hall Estate in the 1920s where, unusually, 400 of the homes were built for sale, available for purchase from the Council under the advantageous terms offered by the Small Dwellings Act.

When it came to the purchase of an area of farmland in the centre of the Wirral peninsula beyond the then boundaries of the Borough – what would become the Woodchurch Estate – in 1926, the Council was even more ambitious. There was a suggestion that the area could be developed along Garden City lines (though without self-governance) with land sold to developers on a leasehold basis and revenues accruing to the local authority.  Meanwhile, the Council approached one of the most prominent architects and planners of the day, TH Mawson, a lecturer at Liverpool’s prestigious School of Civic Design, elected president of the Town Planning Institute in 1923.

Mawson’s first recommendations were made in 1927; a more complete illustrated and typewritten report in 1929. He promised: (3)

a scheme that shall be of benefit … to posterity – aesthetically, hygienically, practically and in every way … the nicest and most tasteful of its kind in the Kingdom.

It was a plan explicitly referencing the arts and crafts ideals of William Morris and Raymond Unwin and the principles of the 1918 Tudor Walters Report.  Mawson talked of wide grass verges and tree-lined streets, even the ‘somewhat unusual step’ of planting roses instead of trees along some of the best streets. As to the housing itself, it reflected the usual reality of a ‘mixed community’ – large houses for the wealthy, lesser versions for the middle class, and small, terraced homes (at council rent) for the working class though he suggested the latter be built around ‘little town squares’ to avoid monotony.

I could write more but the formal adoption of Mawson’s plans was deferred and then, at some point in the mid-1930s, quietly abandoned. That controversy I teased you with is yet to come though the ideas raised here around ‘community’ would be central to later discussion.

Elsewhere, planning continued.  By 1939, land for what became the Mount Estate in Prenton had been purchased and Borough Engineer Bertie Robinson drew up plans for a garden suburb of some 502 homes.  War would delay their implementation but the Corporation had built around 4500 council homes by the outbreak of war in 1939.

Birkenhead suffered heavily from that war; 2079 houses were destroyed by bombing and 26,000 seriously damaged. Some 3464 people lost their lives.  But planning for better tomorrow began early. In 1944, Bertie Robinson unveiled new plans for the Woodchurch Estate. At around the same time, the Council appointed Professor Charles Reilly as a planning consultant with a brief to produce an outline plan for post-war Birkenhead. Reilly had been Professor of Architecture at the University of Liverpool from 1904 to his retirement in 1933; a charismatic figure, better known as an influential educator than as practitioner.

Robinson’s 1944 plan for the Estate

Robinson published details of his scheme in The Builder in November 1944. He first described the site in the Fender Valley: 457 acres of which the large municipally-owned Arrowe Park, containing golf course, bowling greens and football pitches, would be retained and the ‘attractive suburb’ of Upton conserved. So far as the residential areas were concerned, he proposed ‘a garden city for the purpose of housing on the basis of a neighbourhood unit’. (4)

A model of Robinson’s Woodchurch proposals from The Builder

In terms of layout, he planned two 100-foot boulevards in the form of a cross in a central square – these had given, he claimed, ‘the scheme the title of the “Green Cross”’ – and a 60-foot boulevard from which the estate’s service roads would radiate. These should be laid out on ‘attractive lines with grass verges, shrubs, trees and gradual curves’.  There would be little encouragement to traffic ‘other than that serving the estate itself’.

The estate as a whole was conceived as containing 2540 homes, serving a population of around 10,800 – a range of two, three, four and five-bedroom houses ‘suitable for north or south aspect’ built in ‘blocks of two, up to terraces of eight’ and set back to ‘varying building lines’.

With a central and two subsidiary shopping areas and provision for 156 shops in all, a public hall and community centre, 22.5 acres of allotments, ten schools and a ‘Young People’s College’, and plentiful open space, it was an ambitious and considered scheme which reflected contemporary planning ideas around community-focused design to improve on the widely criticised form and character of the interwar cottage suburbs.

Sir Charles Reilly, a 1943 portrait by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Enter Reilly. He described: (5)

not liking very much the look of this layout which was on ordinary garden suburb lines … I suggested to the Borough Engineer that we should make a new layout plan together.

Less emolliently, in an article in the left-wing journal Tribune, he called Robinson’s scheme ‘a damn bad plan’. When Robinson rejected his offer to collaborate, Reilly, in his own words, ‘explained the ideas I thought would be welcomed everywhere and told him he would make his name by it if he did’.

Reilly’s Greens, as envisaged in Wolfe, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life 

Reilly’s uninvited intervention and the spat, at least on Reilly’s side, which developed then became a much larger controversy. In essence, as they were further developed, Reilly’s alternative plans contained one big idea – the greens around which housing would be grouped.  He explained them in an April 1944 report in the Birkenhead News:

The motives of the scheme are the English Village Green and the small squares of the country town, where children can play and neighbours see one another and retain the friendliness of the little streets and slums. With pairs of semi-detached houses on the curved roads of the Garden Suburb type of plan this friendliness … turns to suburban snobbishness through not..

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Jill Stewart and Zena Lynch, Environmental Health and Housing: Issues for Public Health (Second edition), Routledge, 2018

Environmental health policy is far from my area of expertise but I know a lot more now and this wide-ranging and comprehensive book has convinced me of the vital role it plays – or can play when fully resourced and effectively implemented – in securing decent housing for all. In fact, environmental health practitioners might just be the unsung heroes of the housing sector.

As Jill Stewart and Zena Lynch argue:

Housing is a key social and economic determinant of health, perhaps the most important for the multiple roles it can play both in security and as part of anti-poverty strategies.

That might seem obvious if a little bureaucratic. For me, a strength of their approach is its emphasis on housing as home:

somewhere to feel safe, secure, do mundane day-to-day things; have access to school, health and healthcare services; as well as social services; somewhere to develop socially, change, and have a level of wellbeing and quality of life across the life course.

It reminds me of the words of the late Doreen Massey, the geographer and social scientist, at a housing conference some years ago: her upbringing on the Wythenshawe Estate in Manchester didn’t create dependency, she argued, it provided security – the foundation we all need to live healthy and fulfilled lives.

Illustration from William Henry Tucker’s Inspector of Nuisance notebook, Cardiff, dated 1899 onward. Permission to copy given by Dr Hugh Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Public Health

I know Jill Stewart as a passionate and knowledgeable advocate of decent housing for all – the same, I’m sure, is true of Zena Lynch too who I don’t know personally – and I’m pleased to say she has been a contributor to this blog.  Her first post charted the rise of the environmental health profession from the humble Inspector of Nuisances to the latter-day Sanitary Inspectors before the First World War.

Addison Close, Northolt © Jill Stewart

A second, fittingly in this centenary year, focused on interwar sanitary reform in the wake of Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act.  That breadth of background is found throughout this book but is highlighted in interesting and well-illustrated sections providing a brief history of housing (with a strong focus on social housing) and guidance on how to assess the age of dwellings.  Jill’s photographs provide an excellent context to each and the book as a whole is unusually well-illustrated for an academic work.

Roupell Street, Lambeth, dating from the 1830s © Jill Stewart

All this provides background to the far more extended and increasingly pressurised role of environmental health professionals today outlined so clearly and fully in the book.

An opening chapter ‘Why environmental health?’ covering the range of environmental health interventions is followed by one more specifically for practitioners in the field on ‘Gathering Evidence’. Chapter 4, ‘Legislation for Healthier and Safer Housing’ is an important guide to current law. This, despite (or perhaps because of) contemporary housing problems, has been usefully strengthened in recent years.  (A quick shout-out here to Karen Buck MP whose Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act, extending that basic requirement to all private landlords, was passed in December 2018.)  Chapter 5 ‘Working More Effectively Together’ focuses on implementation and strategy.

A bed in a shed © Russell Moffatt

One powerful feature of the book is its range of case studies – drawn from both academic sources and practitioners in the field, sometimes a combination of the two – charting not only the variety of problems dealt with but positive strategies to tackle them.  These range from hoarding to public funerals, from ‘beds in sheds’ to the particular issues affecting gypsies and travellers and those living on houseboats.

It’s no surprise, overall, that the issue of homelessness features strongly. Statutory homelessness – requiring councils to provide accommodation – applies only to those in ‘priority need’.  Stewart and Lynch report a Shelter estimate that 150 families are made homeless in Britain each day. Elsewhere Shelter estimate that homelessness (understood as affecting all those in, at best, temporary and insecure accommodation in addition to perhaps 4000 rough sleepers) affects some 277,000 nightly. (1)

This is not a polemical or campaigning work but the authors don’t shy from the obvious conclusion:

The main problem is, of course, lack of affordable housing. Home ownership has fallen and private renting has risen, and the ending of a private rented tenancy is now the biggest cause of homelessness.

External disrepair © Jill Stewart

Government figures suggest that almost one in three cases of statutory homelessness result from the termination of a private tenancy, a symptom of the tenure’s insecurity since the 1988 Housing Act introduced assured shorthold tenancies (usually of a six to twelve months’ fixed term) and ‘no fault’ evictions. The 2002 Homelessness Act ‘requires local authorities to have a strategy to reduce homelessness and put better services in place for homeless people’. With little social housing stock available (some 1.15 million households are on waiting lists) and stretched resources, this, with the best will in the world, has become increasingly difficult for councils.

Stewart and Lynch report a 60 percent increase in homeless families being placed in temporary accommodation between 2011 and 2017.  And only this month, the Guardian reported that London councils – where pressure on housing is highest – had paid private landlords £14m in sweeteners simply to persuade them to accept homeless families. (2)

Basement flat, Margate © Jill Stewart

This brings us to the Private Rental Sector (PRS) which naturally occupies a large part of the work of environmental health professionals and this book.  The authors provide the context for this: there are 945,000 more households with children living in the PRS now than in 2005. Private tenants pay an average 35 percent of their income on rents, compared to 18 percent for mortgagors and 29 percent for social renters.   What they get for this (apart from insecurity of tenure) is in many cases some of the oldest housing stock in the country – 34 percent of the PRS dates from before the First World War.  It’s estimated therefore that 28 percent of privately rented homes fail to meet Decent Homes Standards (compared to 13 percent in the social rented sector and 18 percent of privately-owned homes.)  The welter of statistics confirms that far too often the PRS does not provide secure, decent and affordable accommodation.

Housing in Multiple Occupation © Jill Stewart

In the new paperback edition, the book is reasonably priced but it will remain primarily a book for the specialist – an essential book for environmental health students and professionals (a virtual one-stop shop for so much of the broad field they must understand and practise) and a useful one for many others in the housing sector including local councillors.  I recommend it to anyone interested in housing law and policy and the many social issues raised by our highly dysfunctional housing market. And, if you don’t buy your own copy, I hope you’ll find it on the shelves of your local library.

For further publication and purchase details, please visit the Routledge website


(1) Shelter Commission on the Future of Social Housing, A Vision for the Future (2019)

(2) Robert Booth, ‘London councils pay landlords £14m in “incentives” to house homeless people’, The Guardian, 25 March 2019

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The Town of Tomorrow: 50 Years of Thamesmead (Here Press, 2019)

At times, Thamesmead must have seemed less like the ‘Town of Tomorrow’ than the ‘Land that Time Forgot’.  It’s been a chequered story to say the least and it’s one that’s leant itself easily to the usual tropes of planner overreach and misplaced architectural ambition. But Thamesmead, in its latest iteration since 2014 under the stewardship of Peabody, lives on. Perhaps, with Crossrail looming and a DLR connection mooted, some of those earlier promises will be more fully fulfilled though typically, as is now the way, in less visionary form.

So it’s time to celebrate Thamesmead and we’re fortunate to have a newly published book which does that in a positive though clear-eyed way. The Town of Tomorrow: 50 Years of Thamesmead is, above all, a superb pictorial record of its past and present – of the ideals and plans which formed it, the buildings and landscapes which shaped it, and the people who have lived it.

John Grindrod’s introduction lays out the broad outline of its history with typical panache.  The eyes of the London County Council first looked eastwards towards the Erith Marshes in the early 1960s after their ambitious plans for a New Town at Hook in rural Hampshire were thwarted. Ted Hollamby’s vision of a series of ‘platform villages’ was abandoned as too costly and impracticable but the new Greater London Council (GLC) formed in 1965, seeking to fulfil its strategic housing mandate and aided by Government plans to redevelop abandoned Ministry of Defence land such as the Woolwich Arsenal site, returned to the concept.

Images from ‘Woolwich-Erith: A Riverside Project’, (GLC, 1966) © London Metropolitan Archives

‘Woolwich-Erith: a Riverside Project’ was born in 1966 – a plan, in conjunction with the Boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley, to create a new town of some 60,000 people on 1300 acres of largely unused land lying on the southern back of the Thames.  Water was one of its defining features – Robert Rigg, the GLC planner, had been influenced by Scandinavian schemes built around the presence of water and how, in Grindrod’s words, that ‘helped create an atmosphere of calm and wellbeing’.

Construction of towers on Southmere Lake, 1970 © London Metropolitan Archives

More practically, the risk of flooding demanded unusual means to keep people safe and dry – towers raised on stilts, deck-access homes and high-level walkways dotted around the artificial lakes which would ensure proper drainage. But the conceptual genius of the scheme was to make virtue of necessity. If separation of cars and people was a contemporary planning mantra, there was in Thamesmead, as Grindrod describes:

a more Venetian approach, with bridges and paths floating above what might at any moment become canals and overspill from the river.

The architects’ impressions featured in the book capture a ‘Cool Britannia’ in its first, sixties’, iteration and with a heavily Continental slant:

It was pure south of France, white concrete buildings shining in the warm blue waters, reflected alongside yachts, bikinis and polo necks.  The ambition for Thamesmead would bring the lifestyle of the European jetset – the kind of world portrayed in art house movies and racy novels – and combine it with the more functional aims of created much needed council housing.

The prosaic minutes of the GLC’s Thamesmead Committee in 1967 record the latter – the ‘central objective of the development [was] to provide housing, and in so doing, create a reservoir of housing for decanting population from the hard-pressed inner area’ in an era when slum clearance was in full spate.

Detail of model showing Coralline Walk (front) and Yarnton Way (left), 1967 © London Metropolitan Archives

The long spinal terraced ziggurats of Coralline Walk and Binsey Walk and adjacent thirteen-storey tower blocks were the first fruits of this approach; system-built and ‘as modular and groovy as any Habitat stackable moulded plastic furniture of the day’.

The southern end of Coralline Walk, viewed from Lensbury Way, 1969 © London Metropolitan Archives

The first residents, Joan and Terence Gooch and their two children, moved into 64 Coralline Walk in July 1968 – the sole residents for six months at a time when the new ‘stark white modernist homes were marooned in a wasteland of mud, puddles, concrete and construction equipment’.

Children’s playground and the Lakeside Health Centre, Tavy Bridge, 1973  © Bexley Local Studies & Archive Centre

The first school opened in 1968. The health centre – a wonderful modernist building built at Tavy Bridge over one of the artificial lakes and sadly demolished in 2008 – opened in 1970; the first shops amazingly not till 1971.  By 1974, the population stood at around 12,000.

Crossing Eastern Way (A2016), via the ‘A’ Bridge, built 1973, c1979. Photography © George Plemper

Philip Samuel – one of a number of residents who tell of their own experience in the book – moved to Thamesmead in 1975 with his family at the age of eight:

We lived on Maran Way. I could ride my bike for miles without ever touching the ground. I felt like I was in a Judge Dredd futuristic paradise. It was a good place to be a kid. There was so much nature and wide-open space. In the spring, there would be grass fights, in the summer there’d be water fights, autumn would be mud bombs and winter would be snow balls.

Thamesmead: A Place in London’s Future. Fold-out leaflet, published by the GLC, 1982. © London Metropolitan Archives

Salianne Heaton, who arrived the following year, has similar memories:

Thamesmead was like a giant playground. You never had to cross any roads, everywhere had flyovers. We used to play knock and run in the squares in the middle of the housing estate.

Generally, looking back as adults, people remember a close-knit community – as Robert Dyer recalls ‘everybody knew everybody back then so, if you did anything bad, someone would tell your mum’.

Of course, nostalgia and selection plays its own part in these perhaps unusually affectionate remembrances but it’s vitally important to allow people to tell their own stories which, all too often are at odds with dominant media narratives.

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