Wellington's First Council Homes
Even before the First World War had ended, plans were already afoot to build a new generation of state-funded council houses across Britain. When peace returned, over 200,000 homes were provided by the 1919 Housing Act, a pivotal piece of legislation in Prime Minister David Lloyd-George’s plan to create a ‘country fit for heroes.’ In Wellington, the act heralded a transformation that within just a few decades profoundly changed the town forever. However, to really understand what happened we need to look back to a time before the trenches of the Western Front became reality.
The rise of council housing after World War One is often attributed to wartime concerns about the poor physical condition of working class recruits. Yet, the idea that health, housing and national efficiency were interconnected was not in itself new. In the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century, successive governments empowered local councils to clear slums and improve sanitation for their residents. The problem was that in sweeping away insanitary properties, there existed no means to replace them — private developers having little interest in filling the void when prospective tenants were unable to provide them with a financial incentive to do so.
Housing The Working Classes
In Wellington the town council attacked the problem of slum housing with gusto, condemning some 80 properties in the years immediately preceding the advent of the Twentieth Century. However, its actions were largely confined to the numerous serried courts and alleys leading off New Street and High Street. By this time, the first national legislation devoted specifically to council homes was a decade old but so few local authorities had adopted the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890) its affect proved fairly negligible beyond major towns and cities. Yet, east Shropshire was not immune from the problems blighting many of those larger conurbations. In 1895, Wellington was supposedly the first council in the country to conduct a house-to-house survey of overcrowding. Writing in his annual report four years later Dr Whittaker, Wellington’s Medical Officer of Health, underlined the growing difficulties of a problem he thought required ‘serious consideration’:
“Wellington is overgrowing itself… whilst there are in the town a large number of small insanitary dwellings the difficulty is not of emptying houses unfit for habitation but of providing houses in which such persons may live… there is a serious want of cottage property and until this requirement is met in something like an adequate manner, little can be done in the way of removing the insanitary dwellings now existing.”
In July of the same year, the council began developing a scheme to deal with the shortfall but received only a solitary tender for the work. Its slovenly progress betrayed a high degree of reticence among local politicians eager not to upset the town’s taxpayers by saddling the corporation with house-building debt in an era when such activities were widely regarded as the preserve of private enterprise.
The Workmen's Dwelling Society
In February 1900, a letter appeared in the Wellington Journal announcing the formation of a local Workmen’s Dwelling Society, which aimed to ‘support the council in its efforts to erect and improve workmen’s dwellings.’ The following month, its members presented a petition to the full council calling for it to adopt those parts of the Housing of the Working Classes Act required to borrow money and build houses. This the council duly did but the opinions reportedly expressed by some of those at the meeting provide an interesting snapshot of underlying sentiments at the time.
Richard Groom and Wesley Clift, two of Wellington’s most prominent businessmen, were both supporters; Groom even described the task of providing homes for working men of the town as ‘one of the council’s most pressing duties.’ However, their counterpart Edward Lawrence (by then a well-known, large and colourful presence in local public life) was sceptical of his colleagues’ motivations:
“How was it that the largest employers of labour who made their fortunes out of the working classes in the days gone by had not built homes for their workmen and let them at a nominal fee? There was not a single member of the mercantile community in the Parish of Wellington who had ever built a house for his workmen.”
Clift, who would become the leading figure in the drive to build council housing in Wellington during the first half of the Twentieth Century, took great exception to the remarks. He pointed out that he had already done so, for it was he who was responsible for the attractive villas of the Victoria Avenue development, finished in 1902. Lawrence countered that ‘the movement was only a little sop for the gentlemen they hoped to drag to the polls at the next election’ adding, presumably with reference to Clift’s prospective tenants, ‘there are workmen and there are workmen!’
Councillor Lawrence’s withering assessment highlighted an issue that would eventually come to frame a much wider debate about council housing in the post-war world. Such was the cost of building new homes, charging an economic rent that enabled councils to recover the capital they’d invested put the properties beyond the means of those who most needed them. Indeed, Mr George Jackson of Regent Street, the leader of the Wellington Workmen’s Dwelling Society and author of the aforementioned letter to the Journal, was himself a skilled artisan employed at Richard Groom’s timber works in Bridge Road. At the same meeting, councillors heard that of the eighty locally condemned houses only half had been replaced, the tendency being to erect a better class of home in their place — which was typically let for around £12-13 a year. As Councillor George Wilkinson pointed out:
“A working man in receipt of £1 a week could not afford to pay — he wanted a house for about 3s and he was doubtful as to whether the gentlemen capitalists of the town could erect such houses to pay them a profit on the sum expended.”
The council’s solution was to form a committee, which was charged with the task of enquiring ‘as to the advisability of erecting such dwellings.’ Some months later it delivered a favourable report but the reticence of Wellington’s good burghers was still evident when a scheme ‘in the direction indicated’ passed through the chamber by just a single vote! Without a clear mandate the councillors then turned to the taxpayers themselves, calling a public meeting at a crowded Town Hall in January 1901. ‘In the end’ reported the Wellington Journal ‘a large majority decided to support the council’s scheme for the erection of 48 houses, the total cost of which should not exceed £165 per house.’ Indeed, the paper’s normally cautious editor was a surprisingly strident advocate of what he labelled an ‘up-to-date policy which ought to materially contribute to the town’s progressive prosperity.’ With the weight of public opinion now firmly behind it, Wellington Urban District Council’s foray into a brave new era of social house building was about to begin.
The 1902 Scheme
Work on the houses finally got underway early in 1902, nearly three years after they had first been mooted. In total, the council acquired seven and a half acres of land in the Millfields area of town at a cost of £1200, borrowing an equivalent sum and a further £2930 to build the first instalment of 16 homes (in total, just over £500, 000 in today’s money), all repayable to the Local Government Board over a period of 40 years. Wolverhampton architect TH Fleeming was appointed to design the properties and oversee their construction. Fleeming was a seasoned professional with a solid track record in civic architecture, having been responsible for a number of impressive gothic-style buildings in his home town, including the Municipal Grammar School, Midland Counties Eye Infirmary and Barclay’s Bank in Queen’s Square. Yet, progress was not as smooth as might have been imagined. In February, Fleeming informed the council he was unhappy with the contractor, had stopped all brickwork and requested a clerk of works be employed on a full-time basis. Refusing his request, the council insisted the original plans and specifications be followed to the letter and, once again, appointed an ‘independent committee’ to look more closely at the work. However, the council also requested sanction to borrow another £1000, suggesting Fleeming’s demands were not without foundation.
By May 1902 the all-important weekly rent for the properties was set at five shillings, immediately putting them out of reach of those most in need. However, tenants were in place the following month, when complaints were heard from those unable to receive mail — owing to the properties having no address! Councillor Lawrence, clearly still harbouring misgivings, suggested ‘Town Hall Folly’ as an appropriate name for the development, but the decision was left with the housing committee who eventually chose the more sedate Urban Terrace (in tribute to the local council itself). Ten years later, in 1913, the other 32 houses envisaged as part of the original scheme had failed to materialise, some of the vacant land having been let to a local farmer upon which to erect cowhouses. Simply put, the properties had not paid their way, and had in fact made a loss on the rates in every year since their construction. However, the portents attending their existence had not changed — if anything, the problems of overcrowding and lack of available private property were getting worse. Undeterred by its initial setback, the council again drew-up plans to meet the housing shortfall and the story of Wellington’s pre-war council housing history was set to gain one final chapter before the clouds of war descended over Europe.
Many thanks to Lee Harris for providing the image of St Jude’s parish church!