‘Deficiency of housing accommodation is one of the most prolific causes of industrial unrest.’ CAB 24/42/94
This is the first of two blogs relating the story of the birth of council housing in Britain. It is a subject that has inspired a new Outreach project, ‘This is our Home’, which will work with adults at SHARE. Although the community aspect of the project has been postponed for the time being, when the project eventually goes ahead participants will visit an estate built as a consequence of the 1919 Housing Act. They will then create artistic outputs inspired by records held at The National Archives and Wandsworth Heritage Service.
The project has engaged local people as well as archivists, and has inspired me to research the path towards the Act that enabled new council housing at a national and local level. In my second blog I will describe how the students used the resources here at The National Archives and Wandsworth Heritage Service, and discuss learning outcomes. But first I will explain how the Act came to pass.
The 1919 Housing Acts
In February 1918 George Barnes MP, member of the Wartime Coalition, wrote a Memorandum to the War Cabinet (CAB 24/42/94) quoted above. The Great War had accelerated the view that housing policy could no longer be left to the vagaries of the market. The question facing politicians at the conclusion of war was whether it was legitimate for government (both central and local) to intervene in the housing market. At Armistice, the pressure for intervention – due to a national housing shortage, increasing threats of social unrest and rising costs – was overwhelming. Was Prime Minister Lloyd George forced to call for ‘homes fit for heroes’?
The context of the housing crisis at Armistice can best be explained by the political and social climate at the end of the war. Professional groups – trade unions, architects, social reformers, even some MPs – were calling for a different kind of society.
Earlier, a few benevolent industrialists, like Lever at Port Sunlight and Cadbury at Bourneville‚ had created ‘model villages’ or ‘garden suburbs’ for their workers. Ebenezer Howard had created a ‘garden city’ at Letchworth (1903) with green public spaces and social amenities normally only experienced by the prosperous middle classes. Similarly, the architect Raymond Unwin had designed houses and green spaces for the ‘garden suburb’ at Hampstead (1906). Why could such houses and estates not be built for the working class?
Politicians were deeply worried that revolution and social unrest, already evident in Russia and Germany, would spread to Britain. Industrial unrest and the boycotting of peace celebrations were evident across the UK in 1919. In Cabinet, Lloyd George believed Britain would hold out (against Bolshevism) ‘only if the people were given a sense of confidence if made to believe things were being done for them’ (CAB 23/9 (539)).
In this atmosphere Christopher Addison, head of the Local Government Board, presented a housing bill to Cabinet. Addison recommended that local authorities submit plans for housing schemes and limit the local authority’s financial responsibility to the product of a penny rate per annum: the residual cost to be borne by the Exchequer. The work would be supervised by the new Ministry of Health through a Housing Commissioner in each of 11 regions. The bill became law in July 1919. In December 1919 an additional Powers Act helped private builders gain a lump-sum subsidy to build.
The Housing & Town Planning Act 1919 allowed local authorities, like the London County Council, to clear slum dwellings and compulsorily purchase land, while also submitting new estate plans embracing ideas from the ‘garden suburb’ movement. Housing standards were to be improved, with the inclusion of an indoor bathroom and WC as well as front and rear gardens.
The Dover House Estate, Roehampton
One such estate built was the Dover House Estate in Roehampton. Land was purchased in July 1919 and approximately 1,250 houses would eventually be built. As a consequence of the increase in both materials and labour costs, only 17 houses had been completed by May 1921 and the final houses were not completed until 1927. The cost of houses increased enormously between 1918 and 1921 from an average £500 to £1,150 per house – labour shortages and increased prices for materials being the reasons for this increase.
Nevertheless, the Dover House Estate set a standard. Carefully tended, square-cut hedges match the square-cut red brick, red-roofed houses. Many houses are set back in ‘neo-Georgian’ curved street patterns. There is also attention to detailing in porches, doors and windows and variety in a range of rooflines – gable and hipped ends, dormer windows and mansard roofs. Instead of a pre-war density of 27 houses to the acre, the houses at Roehampton were built at 15.8 per acre on a small estate of 76 acres.
‘This is our Home’ will use archival documents to inspire art works by SHARE students that will subsequently go on display to the public. Further details of this will be released at a later date.