Tag Archives: speculation

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: Post WWI

Final post on Burnett’s A Social History of Housing, looking at everything that happened after WWI (read part 1, part 2, part 3). The  beginning of the great rise of council housing, the welfare state, the building spree, the great sell off and the period of building no more…we are still in that period of course, but now we call it crisis. The new tower blocks that are being built to sell direct to investors in the UK and oversees for either rent or landbanking hardly bear discussion as housing, but I am getting ahead of 1985, way ahead. Better to savour those days when the government saw housing as a human right and worked to provide it.

Still, I confess I have a much deeper delight in earlier periods, I am not sure why. But everyone seems to cram these last decades into the end of their histories…

Council Housing 1918-1939

So, the King was totally on board with social housing in 1919 — not that I care much about what the King things, but it just shows how the consensus was building around the right to a decent, secure home:

While the housing of the working classes has always been a question of the greatest social importance, never has it been so important as now. It is not too much to say that an adequate solution of the housing question is the foundation of all social progress … The first point at which the attack must be delivered is the unhealthy, ugly, overcrowded house in the mean street, which all of us know too well. If a healthy race is to be reared, it can be reared only in healthy homes; if drink and crime are to be successfully combated, decent, sanitary houses must be provided; if ‘unrest’ is to be converted into contentment, the provision of good houses may prove one of the most potent agents in that conversion. (Extract from the King’s Speech to Representatives of the Local Authorities and Societies at Buckingham Palace; The Times, 12 April 1919, p. 220)

So what was going on? The war for one, but above all it had highlighted the depths of poverty existing in the country, and this:

The crucial change was the reluctant recognition that private enterprise would not be able to supply houses of the quantity and quality now demanded at rents which many of the working classes could afford. (220)

This was also an official finding in 1917 of Advisory housing panel chaired by Lord Salisbury. Joesph Rowntree was on the panel, and submitted a memorandum on the topic, ‘which crystallized the new thinking…‘ (220). And thus the Tudor Walters Committee in 1918, formed to help create the standards of post-war local authority housing. Burnett describes it as ‘revolutionary, constituting  a major innovation in social policy and in the future character of working-class life.’

The committee drew on the garden city movement, model towns, and pre-war proposals from the Local Government Board. They recommended a maximum of 12 homes to the acre in towns, eight in the country, a maximum of 70 feet between opposing housing (all of this working to prevent for-profit developers cramming as many flats into a small area as possible. The committee was particularly opposed to the ‘monotony of long, parallel terraces having rear access by back streets and alleys‘. It gave plans for houses of a variety of types suited to need and locality, which had wider frontages with front rooms orientated to sun as well as  gardens (223). They also provided two types, ‘A’ (non-parlour) and ‘B’ (parlour). Which I find ‘funny’, just like the whole parlour controversy — what do working class people want with parlours, they don’t even use them? question. On the one hand I hate the idea of an unused dusty parlour, but yet if people desire them for a sense of home and the ability to have people visit according to their measure of what is required, they should damn well have them.

Gaining acceptance of all this, despite the King, was not so easy of course, but as Swenarton argued, this was the time of Bolshevism and threatened revolution. More on Swenarton later though, I loved his Homes for Heroes.

So the Tudor Walters Committee set a high standard, which became a baseline for others building housing:

Burnett page 227
Burnett p 235

From 1919 local authorities were providing housing, and building cottage estates on the outskirts of town where land was cheaper. This meant moving people out of cities and neighbourhoods — Becontree is the main example in East London (well documented in Young and Wilmott’s brilliant work on Bethnal Green) and Wythenshawe here where I am  but have not as yet visted: Manchester Corporations’ ‘vast satellite garden town‘. (236)

The next big moment in housing? The Wheatley Act (1924):  Rents were to be fixed in relation to the prevailing controlled rents of pre-war houses, so the contribution of the local authorities was fixed at a maximum of £4 10s 0d a house for forty years.

Burnett continues:

Typically, then, the council tenant of the 1920s and early 1930s was a man in a ‘sheltered’ manual job which had not been seriously endangered by the depression, who earned slightly more than the average wage and had a family of two young children. (238)

Although the Wheatley subsidies had been specifically designed to reach the mass of poorer workers, it rather failed in this. They continued to live in old, rent-restricted property, because of course rents were lower. This was not really believed to be an issue, as there was an idea of ‘filtering up’: better off workers would move out, poorer tenants could then move into the housing they were vacating, so that ultimately the slums would ‘wither‘ away.  but by the late 20s there was a realization that these policies were not having much impact on the problem. Of course, some still blamed poor people, but this was another push for stronger state intervention. (243)

This came with the Greenwood Act, the foundation of slum clearance, passed by the Labour Government in 1930. It didn’t properly start until 1933. This period also saw an increasing use of flats given lack of money to pay rents. Despite this, only 5% of subsidized buildings between wars were blocks of flats across the country, though with concentrations (not unexpected really) of 40% in London and 20% in Liverpool. As Burnett writes: ‘...in the thirties multi-storey living began to acquire a less grudging acceptance as a normal means of accommodation…‘ (247)

Burnett describes the ‘lavish’ inter-war flat development was to be found in Quarry Hill, Leeds — I’m not entirely sure that ‘lavish’ is the word I would use myself, but it is an extraordinary building.

Speculative Housing 1918-1939

Patterns of building were changing,  and homeownership growing.

The creation of a mass market for home-ownership depended on the expansion of building societies which, although well-known since the Act of 1836, had generally been small-scale, local, and little developed.

  • 1910: 1,723 societies advanced £9,292,000 on mortgages,
  • 1938: £137,000,000 advanced,
  • 1966: £1,244,750,000 (253)

Most of this housing was still being built by small firms. In 1930 84% of firms employed 10 or less workers, and only 1.5 percent a hundred or more. At the height of the building boom in 1935, 76,112 contractors were registered. (259)

This was also the period that brought in early experiments with the Modern Movement. ‘New Ways’ was built in 1925, the 1st cubist, rectilinear house built in Wellingborough Road, Northampton. I quite like it.

New Ways, Northampton (1926) by Peter Behrens. Designed by German architect Peter Behrens for toy manufacturer Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke

New ways northampshire. Basset-Lowke House interior

There wasn’t a big market for this, though. Most builders were looking backwards to the vernacular for inspiration (and surety they were what people liked), So there was little innovation while housing types for upper range always sought to be unique through an irregularity of outline, mystery in disposition of the rooms.

Public and Private Housing 1945-1985

So here is where we enter the final stretch, the familiar and maybe that’s why it feels a bit grey, especially when Thatcher comes along. Burnett notes the many very large changes in policy, but also large changes in the population. Small households of 1-2, increased from 21.5% in 1911 to 45.9% in 1966 to 55% in 1983. This came of younger people setting up household earlier, and of curse people living longer. He notes that between 1945 and 1975, English people as a whole were more prosperous than at any comparable period in the past — as Malpass notes, this is what underpinned social housing and the welfare state more broadly. Yet by the late 70s and of course the 80s ushered in mass unemployment once more. Burnett writes of where we are now (or were, though arguably this holds true) :

Housing has been a particular victim of inflation–a favourable circumstance for owners or those who have been in the process of buying…but unfortunate for those seeking housing for the first time. (282)

Immediately post-war also saw the building of the new towns, all beginning with the 1944 Abercrombie Plan, which suggested development of such satellite towns roughly building on ideas of the garden city. The New Towns Act 1946 was passed amidst great enthusiasm — 12 new towns designated in England and Wales in their first period between 1946 and 1960, between 1961-1970 ten more.

Mark 1s: Stevenage (1946), Crawley, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Newton Aycliffe (1947), Hatfield, Welwyn, Peterlee (1948), Bracknell, Basildon, Cwmbran (1949), Corby (1950)

Mark 2s: Skelmersdale (1961), telford (1963), Redditch, Runcorn, Washington (1964), Milton Keynes, Peterborough (1967), Northampton, Warrington (1964), Central Lancashire (1970).

Alongside new building, this also ushered in new urban renewal policies, which Burnett divides into 5 main phases after the war:

  1. slum clearance, which reached its height in the 1960s;
  2. a change to housing and environmental improvement early 1970s;
  3. gradual renewal combined with selective clearance in the mid-1970s;
  4. priority area experienents concerned with urban deprivation;
  5. 1980s, and attempts to formulate a more comprehensive approach incorporating economic renewal. (295)

The building programme was, of course, much greater post WWII than it had been post WWI, though Burnett describes it as economic policy driving the ‘deceleration and acceleration‘ (296). As in previous periods, the design was guided by key government documents. The Dudley Report was published in 1944, its recommendations embodied in the Housing Manual upgrading the Tudor-Walters report. For the first few years building often exceeded the recommendations.

This was updated by the Parker Morris Report, Homes for Today and Tomorrow, published in 1961. The Essex Design Guide for Residential Areas followed in 1973. Burnett writes it ‘perhaps represented the last ‘optimistic’ approach of local authorities towards public provision.’ (314)

Then the cuts begin.

As always:

It remained important in the fifties and sixties, as it had in the inter-war period, that the private house should be readily distinguishable from the council house, both externally and internally. It should reflect membership of a distinct group, the possession of distinct tastes and values and the ownership of a distinctive level of material possessions. As the size and design of private and public housing converged ever more closely, it became increasingly important to accentuate remaining differences. (320)

from 1975-1984

In brief:

The industry is still characterized, as it was in the last century, by many small firms, relatively low investment in plant and machinery and, hence, relatively low productivity: over the decade of the seventies the number of firms fluctuated between 75,000 and 100,000, standing at 91,520 in 1978 of which 31 per cent consisted solely of proprietors, employing no workers. (326-27)

Retrospect and Prospect

Viewed over the whole period this study, the housing experience of many people showed little major change until, in the years after World War II a period of rapid house-building, both public and private, coincided with full employment and a rising standard of living to produce and effective demand. (331)

It’s curious reading this from today’s vantage point, when the private rented sector is now larger than the socially rented, when people are desperate for ‘council’ housing that no longer exists. When racism continues to be a key factor in access to housing, but the patterns of it are shifting.

The contraction of privately-rented accommodation to only 9.1 per cent of all tenures has had especially unfortunate consequences for those on low incomes and those who cannot fulfill the residence qualifications for local authority housing: recent studies have shown clearly that ethnic minorities, and particularly coloured families, are over-represented in poor quality rented accommodation. (333)

Over all, what has been the country’s success?

If we turn…to the quality of houses themselves, it is clear that the most striking improvement achieved since the early nineteenth century was in the accommodation of the working classes. The pace of that improvement was quicker in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth, it varied importantly between town and country, and again between town and town. The development of a sanitary house, with adequate standards of construction, water supply and sewage, was the product of the Public Health Acts and, more especially, of the building by-laws from 1875 onwards, which brought about a major, and largely unrecognized, advance in working-class housing standards. (335)

Not a victory fully won however.

This book is too big, broad, sprawling to do justice so i’m just giving sweeps to remind myself of big pictures and zero in on what I liked most. Something that must be read for those interested in UK housing…

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]

Balzac: City, Country & Speculation in Le Pere Goriot

I enjoyed Father Goriot more than I thought I would.

Stately Paris ignores the existence of these faces bleached by moral or physical suffering; but, then, Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature. The Maison Vauquer is one of these curious monstrosities.

Reading this rush of French literature I realised just how anglocentric I had become when it came to anything written over a hundred years ago — particularly in the 1800s, I was too busy reading Dickens there for a while.

There is so much to explore here, not least exciting (well, actually, to my mind it was the least exciting) being the story itself. It’s a good enough story and after so many depressing and ‘realistic’ novels (I just finished something by Zola, my god), I confess I loved being told up front that everything ended happy ever after, though you never see it all work out. I was rather fascinated that seeing how it all works out had quite a nice amount of dramatic tension. Zola has a dig at melodrama, though this was also published in serial form in 1834-35 (note to self to look more into publishing forms) it has the feel of something written as a whole. This is before The Mysteries of Paris, so he’s not talking about that when he writes:

That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may perhaps be shed intra et extra muros before it is over.

I feel that this sentence still holds true. Funny that.

Perhaps what I liked most is that, like Dickens, this is a window on a physical world long disappeared, and Paris is revealed in an immensity of detail that engages all of the senses:

Will any one without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to doubt. The only audience who could appreciate the results of close observation, the careful reproduction of minute detail and local color, are dwellers between the heights of Montrouge and Montmartre, in a vale of crumbling stucco watered by streams of black mud, a vale of sorrows which are real and joys too often hollow; but this audience is so accustomed to terrible sensations, that only some unimaginable and well-neigh impossible woe could produce any lasting impression there.

In a way I think those of us without the walls of Paris might enjoy it more as we an enter another place and another way of life and we are not trapped there like so many of the protagonists. The centre of the story is this boarding house, the lives of those on the edges of most desperate poverty that are still called middle-class — it is descriptions like this that make me realise just how far everyday life for most of us has come, the comforts we take for granted. But this is class and city as prison:

PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)
Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)

The lodging-house is Mme. Vauquer’s own property. It is still standing in the lower end of the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, just where the road slopes so sharply down to the Rue de l’Arbalete, that wheeled traffic seldom passes that way, because it is so stony and steep. This position is sufficient to account for the silence prevalent in the streets shut in between the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of the Val-de-Grace, two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of their leaden-hued cupolas.

In that district the pavements are clean and dry, there is neither mud nor water in the gutters, grass grows in the chinks of the walls. The most heedless passer-by feels the depressing influences of a place where the sound of wheels creates a sensation; there is a grim look about the houses, a suggestion of a jail about those high garden walls. A Parisian straying into a suburb apparently composed of lodging-houses and public institutions would see poverty and dullness, old age lying down to die, and joyous youth condemned to drudgery. It is the ugliest quarter of Paris, and, it may be added, the least known. But, before all things, the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad hues and sober images. Even so, step by step the daylight decreases, and the cicerone’s droning voice grows hollower as the traveler descends into the Catacombs. The comparison holds good! Who shall say which is more ghastly, the sight of the bleached skulls or of dried-up human hearts?

Yet still, for all this value-laden description, this place is still far more closely tied to the country than any city I know of today. This too I find fascinating, thinking not just about food chains and how we sustain ourselves, but also perceptions of things:

The central space between the walls is filled with artichokes and rows of pyramid fruit-trees, and surrounded by a border of lettuce, pot-herbs, and parsley. Under the lime-trees there are a few green-painted garden seats and a wooden table, and hither, during the dog-days, such of the lodgers as are rich enough to indulge in a cup of coffee come to take their pleasure, though it is hot enough to roast eggs even in the shade.

Imagine this written today, in terms of celebration of fresh, organic and local produce, self-sufficiency, lowered carbon footprints. But wait, there’s more:

Behind the house a yard extends for some twenty feet, a space inhabited by a happy family of pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the wood-shed is situated on the further side, and on the wall between the wood-shed and the kitchen window hangs the meat-safe, just above the place where the sink discharges its greasy streams. The cook sweeps all the refuse out through a little door into the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, and frequently cleanses the yard with copious supplies of water, under pain of pestilence.

It’s like a little city farm, this lodging house. In comparison with my own lodging it seems potentially idyllic once I strip Balzac’s adjectives away. Though I suppose it might have been fairly ripe, especially in the summer.

I cease to feel that so strongly when we venture inside — I love this description of smell, always so evocative of a kind of place, joining different buildings together in the imagination:

The first room exhales an odor for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the odeur de pension. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing; after-dinner scents seem to be mingled in it with smells from the kitchen and scullery and the reek of a hospital.

In short, there is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet it has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags as yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces.

Meet it’s owner — and the brilliance of this disagreeable little description:

She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes.

This is the world inhabited by those trying to emerge from poverty into the world up above, and those on the opposite trajectory, sinking tragically down. The world of the renter, at the mercy of others and unsupported by property. Perhaps that is the defining sadness of this place, the flow of transience, hopes, more often illness and despair. This is a place though, where I’d love to be able to jump back in time, experience, decide for myself.

I’d like also to meet the cat Mistigris.

It’s a fictional road of course, but there is a whole website dedicated to finding Balzac’s Paris I’d like to return to.

Apart from the relationship between home and food and renting and owning and sustainability, there is a later fascinating section in here about the forces moving to destroy places just such as this and reshape the whole of the city. Here is Madame Nucingen explaining the nature of her vile husband’s work:

Do you know what he means by speculations? He buys up land in his own name, then he finds men of straw to run up houses upon it. These men make a bargain with a contractor to build the houses, paying them by bills at long dates; then in consideration of a small sum they leave my husband in possession of the houses, and finally slip through the fingers of the deluded contractors by going into bankruptcy. The name of the firm of Nucingen has been used to dazzle the poor contractors. I saw that. I noticed, too, that Nucingen had sent bills for large amounts to Amsterdam, London, Naples, and Vienna, in order to prove if necessary that large sums had been paid away by the firm. How could we get possession of those bills?

What a novel this is for an urbanist, though I know I am among many to mine its treasures as David Harvey’s book on Paris has a whole chapter on Balzac. Still, for my own pleasure there is more to come.

For more on writing cities…




A Beginning Infrastructure of Death

930118In thinking about cities and how they work I never considered death in its proper light, and what burial and its infrastructure requires in a crowded metropolis. Having  just finished Necropolis: London and its Dead,  that has certainly changed. Neighbourhoods founded on putrescence, typhoid, bones emerging from the ground along with noxious gases and flying beetles, all of these things were unknown to me and dwelt upon at greater length here.

Daniel Defoe's Monument
Daniel Defoe’s Monument, Bunhill Fields

I enjoyed this book, though it is more an historical presentation of quirks and facts around death and burial that does not much interrogate that history. It relates portions of A Journal of the Plague Year, for example, as essentially the straight transcribing of Henry Foe’s diaries without discussion of claims that it is one of the earliest novels, and just how much of it is fiction flowing from the pen of nephew Daniel Defoe, the actual author, who was five during the events described. There is no exploration of what drove George Walker and Edwin Chadwick to exhaustively catalog burial grounds and campaign against them, or Isabella Holmes to dedicate her life to cataloging them so that they might be converted into public parks. Views on death are presented as essentially monolithic, though changing over time. Nothing is ever monolithic.

So with that caveat, here are a collection of just some of the more interesting facts. There was something about a writer’s skull, I can no longer remember now, in fact numerous stories about skulls, bodies left to science, bodies stolen, bodies mummified on public display. I never knew that during the French Revolution people took an entire month destroying the tombs of the Bourbons and the bodies within them, then continued back through the dynasties. I appreciate that kind of revolutionary commitment to such unpleasant work, clearly all of those kings inspired an immensity of fury among their people. Fascinating on a different level was the business of death, though this is hardly a robust political economy of burials and cemeteries:

In addition to existing burial grounds, new ones were founded as speculative ventures by entrepreneurs, These were either attached to existing churches and chapels, or created on plots purchased by developers. There were fourteen of these by 1835, including Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, which had started life as a tea-rooms but was then converted to the rather more profitable purpose of human burial: New Bunhill Fields, Islington; Victoria Park Cemetery, Bethnal Green at Cambridge Fields (five acres); and Sheen’s New Ground in Whitechapel (two acres) (97).

Architects and planners were quick to take note of Loudon’s suggestion. Joint stock companies devoted to the foundation of new cemeteries sprang into being…Cemeteries had become a form of property development (125)

It is interesting to think of this in relation to the new business of cremation, how hard the possibility of it had to be fought for (aided by Shelley’s untimely death, interestingly enough), how that impacted land use in the city and suburbs. In addition to Walker, Chadwick and Holmes there is another figure to investigate further — Stephen Geary (1797-1854), who over the course of his career designed one of London’s first public houses — The Bell in Pentonville Rd, moved on to design London’s first ‘gin palace’, opened near Aldgate in 1830, and then moved on into cemetery design and formed the London Cemetery Company. He became a teetotaler and I presume slightly less fun all around in his third phase of work, but I love how this can be seen as a progression through alcoholism but also on more metaphysical levels.

To find and read, there is Charles Dickens the ‘City of the Absent’ and the ‘Soul of London’ by Ford Maddox Ford.

Unexpected was the discovery that Victorian mourning dress was actually poisoning people — the veil was ‘Originally made from crape, this oppressive garment frequently afflicted wearers with asthma, catarrh and even cataracts as a result of exposure to the black dyes.’ (208) That seems worth more study as well.

At the end there comes a description of Charlie Brown’s lavish funeral within recent East End memory, owner of the pub the Railway Tavern found at the corner of Garford St in Limehouse. It’s like she doesn’t quite know what to do with this rowdy outpouring of emotion that doesn’t fit into her schematic, like that over the funeral of the Krays (or of Princess Diana). There is story in Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets that exemplifies the spirit of what funerals meant to the poor of the East End, if not the widespread actions of those who are grieving. But I also couldn’t help remembering Maud Pember Reeves describing the pennies laid by in societies for the burials of family members, her incomprehension of it until investigation proved the decision as sound as any other. These kinds of nuances and outside sources not directly related to the business of dying and Dickens as old standby aren’t much in evidence in here and would have added a good deal I think.

I wanted to note also that I never found Bunhill Fields a gloomy place as she does — somehow that made me question every judgment in here. I find Bunhill Fields quite a wonderful place, unlike say Norwood which I do find overwhelming and creepy. That was the last cemetery I visited and I almost decided once and for all I am no longer fascinated by such places as I once was. But I do love these smaller burial grounds, and all these other cesspools of human remains now made such beautiful and welcome pockets of green filled with flowers, and so I will spend more time tracking down Isabella Holmes, who made that possible.

Bunhill Fields Cemetery

Bunhill Fields Cemetery

William Blake's Monument

John Bunyan's Monument

Bunhill Fields Cemetery