A Land Fit For Heroes
At the end of 1918, David Lloyd George’s Liberal-Conservative coalition swept to power in the ‘Khaki Election’. So-named for the large number of demobilised servicemen voting (many of them for the first time, under the newly introduced Representation of the People Act), winning their approval was key to the Government maintaining its grip on power. Lloyd George had positioned himself as the man who’d won the war and would now win the peace, too, by making a land fit for returning heroes. Central to that plan was building a new generation of state-funded homes.
The Talk of the Hour
‘Housing is the talk of the hour’ declared the Wellington Journal in its weekly News in Brief column for Saturday November 1st 1919. ‘Talk of empire and commercial eminence is futile unless the welfare of the communities is assured’ it reminded its readers — ‘a virile domestic policy is paramount‘! All the better then, as the local paper was only too quick to point out, that Wellington was ‘well in the van of progressive effort’.
The reason for its triumphal tone was the sod-cutting ceremony for the local council’s inaugural post-war housing scheme, which had taken place the previous Wednesday afternoon. A representative crowd of Wellington’s great and good had gathered in the south of the town at Millfields, near to Watling Street and the Buck’s Head field. The new scheme represented the first fruits of the 1919 Housing Act, which is much better known by the surname of the Minister overseeing it, Christopher Addison. This landmark piece of legislation impelled councils to survey local housing need and develop schemes to address it — for which the Government would subsidise 75% of the deficit for a period of 7 years.
The Long Road to Urban Gardens
Just over a year after the Armistice, the pathway to Urban Gardens (the self-referencing name adopted in 1920 by the council for its estate) had been a long one. Wellington Urban District had been in the first wave of British authorities to build ‘workmen’s housing’ but the momentum created at the end of Nineteenth Century was quickly lost in the Edwardian era. Despite the council’s early intervention, this was a time when house building was considered the preserve of private developers and the slump in the trade in the years immediately before World War One served only to increase the chronic local shortage of new properties. While that scarcity, and the need to do something about it, was widely recognised, the war curtailed a great deal of public spending. By 1917, however, thoughts were turning to peacetime again and the Local Government Board published a circular entitled Housing After The War, which promised substantial support for councils willing to build a new generation of working class homes. Wellington was quick to respond and by July had developed plans for 50 houses, for which it proposed to apply for a loan of £17, 780 (or around £900, 000 in today’s values).
When those plans were discussed, Councillor Dr George Hollies expressed a widely held sentiment in hoping private builders might still fulfil the housing requirement when the war ended. Yet, this proved to be practically impossible. This was an era when very few people owned their own homes and key to the problem was the question of low rent. Under the terms of the Housing Act the council was legally required to provide a survey of housing need by the end of October 1919, which was duly completed by the Medical Officer of Health, Dr White, and the Surveyor George Reilly — whose drawings formed the basis of council housing in Wellington for much of the decade to come. Of the urban district’s 1773 houses, 1310 were categorised as working class dwellings — 756 of which were rented by tenants at less than three shillings a week. The council had estimated the economic rent of building its new homes at Millfields was 21 shillings each but felt it would not be possible to charge more than 6 shillings in the prevailing economic climate. When it came to formally setting the rate the following year, Rent Collector Alfred Jones submitted another report to the council. It showed that it was only possible to raise the rents of the tenants in the cheapest ‘2s.6d.’ properties by 7 ½ pence on 1914 levels. Put simply, without major intervention, no one could have afforded to build the estimated 134 houses required in the town.
The Cost of Doing Nothing
An equally pressing problem that was keenly felt everywhere in 1919 was the rising price of things. According to the council leader John Wesley Clift, the cost of labour and materials had risen 200% since 1915 alone. Yet, Clift (the leading public figure of the first half of the Twentieth Century in Wellington) was the prime mover in driving the housing programme forward, cajoling fellow councillors and persuading sceptical ratepayers that a community level response was necessary — for one penny was required to be added to the rates as the council’s end of the bargain for accepting state subsidies under the Act. The links between poor living conditions and bad health were well-established, and had been of particular concern in recruiting halls across the land during the conflict. At the opening ceremony, Clift’s equally long-serving colleague Councillor Harvey opined that ‘the war had pointed out the number of unfit men in the country and in their own town’ stating categorically ‘we can’t have A1 men when they are brought up in C3 houses’.
Yet there were other equally pragmatic reasons to support schemes such as Urban Gardens. 1919 was a year of great social and political unrest, with a very active labour movement intent on upsetting the established order. At a local Trades and Labour Council meeting that summer, the Journal reported that members had been warned to watch coming elections for men likely to keep their wartime promises. Wesley Clift had been a notable critic of the conditions endured by the wives and children of Wellington servicemen in the town’s slums during the conflict, labelling some of the houses they lived in ‘a disgrace to civilisation’. So, when he remarked at the opening ceremony that ‘another reason for the desirability of more houses was the wish by many people for better houses than the ones they at present occupied’, it illustrated the increasing power of the working classes in setting the agenda for change in the post-war world.
The problem of what to do about Wellington’s ‘2s.6d.’ tenants vexed the great and good throughout 1919. With no financial incentive for slum clearance they were effectively trapped in the cottages that were a numerous and notorious feature of the town, especially in the crowded alleys and courts of High Street, Chapel Lane, Wrekin Road and Princes Street. Mrs Hope, an Edwardian-era resident, sums up a typical scene with which anyone who lived in Wellington at the time would have been familiar:
“Parton Square was surrounded by cottages, one up and one down, and one door; at the back of the cottages would be a row of toilets, they stood in one big yard, there was no water in the house, they had an outside communal tap.”
Worse still, the town’s water supply was so bad in the last quarter of 1919 it had to be turned off between the hours of 7pm and 6am. As the council met to consider its plans on the evening of the Millfields ceremony (which also included a new borehole in the Wrekin Forest), the clerk Mr Littlewood pulled no punches, as the newspaper report of proceedings reveals: ‘he did not think anyone who had not seen those buildings would believe the disgraceful conditions of existence in some of them. Those were the people for whom he was sorry, for their houses were to be condemned and they had not the means to pay higher rent’.
However, Wesley Clift believed a third way was possible. While the wages of the low paid could not in his words ‘permit them going into the houses proposed’ if the higher salaried workmen could be accommodated, the houses they left behind could then be filled by the poorer tenants, enabling the worst slums to be removed. To some extent, this tailoring of the new properties to the financial means of better off tenants found expression in their design. The Housing Act brought with it a raft of new standards for habitable living that were based on guidelines set down in the Tudor Walters report two years earlier — they would shape council housing for the rest of the Twentieth Century. The less expensive properties, known as ‘scullery houses’ were defined by their off-kitchen utility rooms, while the more expensive ‘parlour’ variety contained the addition of a front sitting room deemed a necessity for the up-and-coming artisan! Bedroom overcrowding was a notable feature in Wellington, too, and for families that had outgrown their homes, the council also proposed three bedrooms in every property (in some, four) and a separate bathroom.
Laying the Foundations
The 1919 Addison Act promised half a million new homes in three years yet fewer than half that amount was delivered. In 1921, the estimated need in Shropshire stood at nearly 3500 yet only a thousand homes had been built. By that time, the economy had begun to enter a severe recession and over 500 men and youths were registered at Wellington Labour Exchange. For many, council housing was still viewed as a temporary measure and the generous terms of the Housing Act were subject to newly critical eyes. The idea of controlling ‘waste’ began to gain traction and found expression through organisations such as the Middle Class Union, which had established a local branch with 170 members by the end of that year in Wellington.
While subsidies were temporarily removed, and standards watered down somewhat, the Housing Act returned in several guises during 1923 and 1924. Wellington Urban District Council had begun modestly at Urban Gardens, constructing just 22 properties but by 1925 that number had risen to 94 — with another 22 on the way. In that year, just 10 of the 83 houses constructed locally were developed privately and the die was very much cast for the rest of the Interwar years. While a second groundbreaking development of 40 houses was also begun at Ercall Gardens in 1925, the residents of the town’s infamous courts and alleys would have to wait until the 1930s for the worst offending addresses to be condemned. They were replaced by new homes in the Haygate area of town, on Hollies Road, which ironically takes its name from the Doctor who had hoped back in 1917 that the need for council intervention would prove to be temporary.