From slums to suburbs: Britain’s council house revolution

A century ago, the government triggered a massive housebuilding programme aimed at freeing Britons from the scourges of rats, damp, poor sanitation… and Bolshevism. Historian Eugene Byrne chronicles Britain’s council house revolution

Families in a London slum, c1900

In the middle of the Sea Mills estate on the edge of Bristol there is an open green space generally known as Sea Mills Square, though it is actually a semi-circle. It was here, on 4 June 1919, that Dr Christopher Addison, president of the Local Government Board and the architect of the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, formally inaugurated Bristol’s council house building scheme. A large crowd looked on.

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Cutting the first sod, Dr Addison said he could not imagine a more glorious location for housing than Sea Mills, a greenfield site close to the upmarket suburbs of Sneyd Park and Stoke Bishop. Addison proclaimed himself happy that the famous and ancient city of Bristol was now at the forefront of the nation’s great postwar drive to create new homes. Around the square, tidy red-brick houses, which are still there today, would be built in the coming years.

Bristol’s lady mayoress planted an oak tree to mark the occasion, and the attending great and good drove off to inspect plans for the houses. That evening, Addison gave a speech in which he said that, under legislation just passed, he was to become the country’s first minister of health, and that housing would most definitely be part of his responsibilities. Housing would remain the preserve of successive health ministers for decades to come, because everyone understood that housing was a health issue.

His remarks reflected the fact that the living conditions of many of the poorest in urban Britain were truly shocking. Numerous Victorian and Edwardian social reformers and journalists had catalogued the atrocious living conditions of the poor in towns and cities around the country, yet little had been done about it. Rats, mice, lice, damp, dry rot, bad or non-existent sanitation and overcrowding all curtailed the lives and opportunities of millions of Britons. Army medical officers were appalled by the poor health of many recruits in the First World War, just as they had been during the Boer War less than a generation previously.

A new blueprint

Councils had powers to build houses before 1919, though few used them. Just a handful of corporation housing schemes were carried out, notably in London, Glasgow and Liverpool. There was also a patchwork of working-class developments in major cities, run by charitable and philanthropic organisations. Most of these were quite practical, offering decent housing for decent rents, which would provide equally decent returns for investors – so-called ‘five per cent philanthropy’. Many of the developments that survive are now homes to the comfortably off or very wealthy. London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb, for instance, was started in the early 1900s as an idealistic community where all social classes mixed, but poorer tenants were priced out decades ago.

The prewar schemes were seriously underpowered, and any well-intentioned council trying to clear its most egregious slums came up against the problem of finding sufficient affordable accommodation for displaced tenants. The war put the housing problem on hold, then made it worse. With labour and resources diverted to feeding the war machine, few new houses were built and little was done to maintain existing ones.

Children tend a garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb
Children tend a garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb. This tree-lined north London neighbourhood was envisioned as a place where all classes and income groups could live together, but poorer families were priced out. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

But the war also caused a massive cultural change within the establishment. The Victorian attitudes of minimal government intervention in economic and social affairs evaporated with the need to mobilise and direct the nation’s resources. Now it was taken for granted that government would intervene more in peacetime, too.

Before the war’s end, policymakers were already thinking about future housing. The influential Tudor Walters report, published in late 1918, laid out detailed standards for housebuilding. And by the time Dr Addison visited Sea Mills, the government had another pressing incentive to trigger a boom in housebuilding: self-preservation. The end of the First World War had ushered in a period of great political turmoil and uncertainty. There had been a revolution in Russia, and Germany and the Austrian empire appeared to be going the same way. Now the nervous British establishment saw signs of revolt at home. Irish nationalists were fighting for independence and labour unrest was rife on Glasgow’s ‘Red Clydeside’ and in other cities. There were even police strikes.

In the general election of December 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George successfully traded on his history of prewar radicalism, and promised “a country fit for heroes to live in”. So the Housing, Town Planning &c Act of 1919 was partly a product of national solidarity at the war’s end, and of establishment goodwill towards working-class people who had made so many sacrifices. But it was also driven by the need to head off discontent. In an oft-quoted observation by Waldorf Astor, parliamentary secretary of the Local Government Board: “The money we are going to spend on housing is an insurance against Bolshevism and revolution.”

Parlour games

The Addison Act marked the start of wholesale government intervention in the housing market. The costs would be shared by central government through subsidies, by local government through the rates, and by the tenants through the rents they would pay. Construction of new estates started all over the country and many of the first dwellings that resulted were of a high quality, but there were nowhere near enough of them.

All my life, I’d had to go down a yard to the toilet. You can imagine what it was like having it next to your bedroom. You felt like a queen

By 1923 the Conservatives were back in power, and this brought a change in housing policy. Neville Chamberlain, as Conservative minister of health, oversaw a housing act based on the belief that private enterprise would provide housing more cheaply and effi-ciently, and which offered a smaller subsidy favouring private builders. In general, homes built under the Chamberlain Act were smaller, and usually came without a parlour.

This changed the following year during Ramsay MacDonald’s short-lived Labour government. Health minister John Wheatley increased subsidies, insisted that all houses be built for rent and secured the confidence of the building industry by promising the scheme would last 15 years. It was scaled back in the economic crisis of the early 30s, but the Wheatley Act would account for the majority of council houses built between the wars.

By now, the ideological differences that would dominate Labour and Conservative debates over council housing for decades to come were clear. Labour politicians wanted good-quality housing for all, while Conservatives wanted to encourage owner-occupation. They viewed council housing as just being for those who could not afford to buy.

But between the wars, council houses were aspirational. The rents were often quite high, and while this did nothing for the poorest people living in the most abject conditions, the thinking was that improved housing would ‘trickle down’. As more and more moved into new homes, the quantity and quality of privately rented housing would have to improve.

Moving into a home on a council estate meant you were going up in the world. Countless families left old Victorian terraces and courts in the middle of grimy industrial cities for bright and airy estates, and a home with a garden and an inside toilet. You might also have a bathroom and a gas cooker and perhaps a parlour – a ‘front room’ – for guests and special occasions. There was often (but not always to start with) electricity as well.

“Compared with the old houses they were a dream to keep clean,” remembered a woman who moved to a new home on Liverpool’s Larkhill estate in 1922. “And then having running hot water, well, that was wonderful, especially for women with young kiddies. All my life, till we came here, I’d had to go down a yard to the toilet. You can imagine the difference it made, having the toilet next to your bedroom, especially in winter. You felt like a queen.”

New homes, new Britain

Four ways in which council housing changed a nation

The growth of the garden

Tenancy agreements obliged council householders to keep their front gardens neat and tidy, and many grew vegetables in their back gardens. Gardening clubs sprouted on many estates to share knowledge, tools, seeds and cuttings. On middle-class estates, a neat garden was an essential hallmark of respectability.

The rise of the car

People on new developments had to travel further to work. In 1919, there were just over 100,000 privately owned cars on UK roads. By 1939, there were more than 2 million. Public transport in regional cities also shifted from trams running on fixed rails to motor bus services, whose routes could be more easily modified.

Smaller families

Suburban homes were more healthy, with lower infant mortality, and couples of all classes felt they could safely restrict the number of children they had in order to maintain their new lifestyles.

The age of the housewife

As estates were often far from places of employment, many middle and working-class women had no choice but to be full-time home-makers. But women did have the vote, and politicians had to talk up the needs of ‘the housewife’.

Neat gardens – but no pigeons

Would-be tenants had to jump through a lot of hoops. You would be interviewed by a council official, who quizzed you about your income, children and whether you kept pets. Women might be asked about how often they did their washing.

One woman allocated a council house recalled: “When I moved here in 1929, you needed a letter from the Holy Ghost himself to get a council house. You had to show your birth certificate, marriage lines, rent book, everything. You see, they had to make sure you were decent. It used to be a really lovely estate, had a really good class of tenant.”

Tenancy agreements included a long litany of dos and don’ts: you cannot keep animals or livestock (chickens or rabbits might be overlooked, but pigeons usually weren’t); no banging nails into any of the walls; no erecting a garden shed without permission; keep the front garden “neat and cultivated”; clean the windows once a week; get the chimneys swept once a year; no repainting the front door; and definitely no sub-letting. The rent collector would report any infractions back to the Housing Department. In practice, though, the majority of evictions were for non-payment of rent.

A council home might be a palace compared to your previous abode, but there could be drawbacks. Estates were often miles from the family breadwinner’s workplace. (This goes some way to explaining why the number of privately owned cars on UK roads rocketed from around 100,000 in 1919 to more than 2 million in 1939.) When you added public transport fares into the rent, such a wonderful home might be beyond your means.

There were other problems, too. The Becontree estate was a vast development, built in the Barking/Dagenham area by the London County Council between 1921 and the mid-30s. One day, the story goes, a policeman was patrolling the estate when he was stopped by a woman in floods of tears: “We’ve just moved in,” she said, “and I went for a stroll and now I can’t find my house!” (The story may be a legend; it gets told about other big estates around the UK, too.)

Flats in mid-air

By the 30s, writers, journalists and sociologists had descended on the new estates, and didn’t always like what they found. The well-travelled George Orwell couldn’t understand the British preference for suburban semis instead of continental-style blocks of flats in town: “Apparently a house in the middle of an unbroken block of houses a hundred yards long seems to them more their own than a flat situated in mid-air.”

Women, particularly housewives who were stuck at home while their husbands spent long hours working and commuting, reported feeling lonely and alienated. People became nostalgic for the warmth and friendliness of their former urban communities, no matter how squalid and smoky.

People became nostalgic for the warmth and friendliness of their former communities, no matter how squalid and smoky

Nearly every estate was built in a hurry, with little initial regard for community facilities. People moved into brand new homes in places where the nearest shops, schools, libraries, churches, cinemas and pubs were miles away. This was a commercial advantage for some: the van selling fruit; the man selling fish from a motorcycle side-car; hucksters trying to sell overpriced encyclopedias (because council estates were aspirational). Meanwhile, George Orwell, noting how the pub was often the heart of an urban working-class community, observed that the few built on estates were often “dismal sham-Tudor places fitted out by big brewery companies and very expensive”.

Other commentators were more positive. In 1937, the poet John Betjeman was broadcasting a talk from the BBC’s Bristol studios, and mentioned the estate where Addison’s Oak had been planted 18 years previously:

“I drove… around my favourite parts of Bristol with a friend. Bristol was looking at its best. Sunset behind the Avon Gorge and the new Sea Mills estate, with a surprising beauty, showing off in the evening sunlight; and vistas of trees and fields and pleasant cottages that the magic estate has managed to create.”

Eugene Byrne is a historian, fiction writer and journalist specialising in the history of the British Isles

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This article was first published in the September 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine