The Swansea Cottage Exhibition 1910

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Below: One of the classic designs from the exhibition. Semidetached with lots of exta windows in the side of the structure for health giving light and air. The significant change in housing policy in Swansea (i.e. from streets to Garden City layouts) can be traced to the visit by two Housing Committee councillors (C. T. Ruthen and H. G. Solomon) to a Housing Reform conference held under the auspices of the National Housing and Town Planning Council in December 1906. (14)

It was at this conference that the possibility of holding a cheap Cottage Exhibition at Swansea was first discussed. The chairman of the Housing Committee had, in fact, visited the first Cottage Exhibition at Letchworth in 1905(15). Unwin’s work at Letchworth (which was in turn a development of his ideas at New Earswick) must have been discussed at several meetings, but it was from this 1906 conference that the Unwin association with Swansea was to emerge (16) . The original date for the exhibition was set for summer 1909, although problems with finance and preparatory building works forced the organisers to postpone for a year. Local builders in particular were reluctant to put forward designs for (in their perception) such a remote and awkward location. The organisers of the Newcastle cottage exhibition of a year earlier faced a similar problem.   The South Wales Cottage Exhibition was eventually held in the Summer of 1910 and is often mentioned by Swansea historians (17). But what is more significant and until now I believe overlooked, is the contribution made by the corporation to the exhibition.

Right: Another pair of cottages combining high quality with value for money. The site of the exhibition was a natural choice, near the town centre, largely owned by the corporation and famous for spectacular views over Swansea Bay and the Valley facilitating plenty of light and air deemed so necessary for healthy housing. The upper reaches of Gibbet (renamed North Hill) were already the subject of municipal building at Baptists’ Well. As early as 1908, the Estate Agent had been ordered to prepare plans for a 200 house estate above Baptist Well (18) and it seems very likely that this would have been a street development had it not been for the effects of the Cottage Exhibition. The Housing Committee felt they should have some form of response to the Exhibition that was to exhibit 29 houses of various kinds suitable for local authority schemes. The appropriate action, they felt, was to erect garden city cottages of their own to show the corporation’s desire to meet the challenge. The Housing Committee went to great pains to point out that the corporation designs were for exhibition and not competition(19). Perhaps the committee did not feel confident about having their designs critically judged against so many from architects with a national reputation. After deliberation, it was decided that the corporation would build 12 cottages; 4 of each class A, B and C . Designs were commissioned (20) and completed within 5 weeks and an application made to the Local Government Board for a loan of 2250 for building costs (21).

The LGB, who by this time were acting as a quality control for local housing schemes, refused to lend money for the Class ‘B’ houses until amendments were made to increase floor space. For reasons not specified, the Housing Committee did not see fit to amend the designs and so the LGB would only sanction loans for the Class ‘A’ and ‘C’ houses. The Council immediately began (22) building 8 houses (4 Class ‘A’ and 4 Class ‘C’) next to the exhibition site at Mayhill Farm, Townhill. The development was sufficiently small to be adequately handled by the Council itself and so the houses were built by Direct Administration, whereas the Exhibition houses were built by various private builders. In February 1910, the Estate Agent was able to report to the Committee that not only had the houses been completed, but that the 8 had been completed at a cost of 300 beneath the lowest tender for the job (23). This is one of several instances where Direct Administration was seen to be superior to private sector building and from this point on the Council becomes very favourably disposed to Direct Administration, particularly after 1919.

The wonderful indian summer of 1910 saw a constant flow of visitors make their way up the steep hill of Terrace Road and Pen y Graig Road to wonder at the beautiful houses with tasrteful decorations and furnishings by some of Swansea's most prominent department stores including Ben Evans. To make the occasion a day to remeber, a small ornamental garden was laid out with a pavilion for tea and cakes so that people could linger over the fine views of the bay and the 'ideal homes' that offered so much above the dirt and grime of the town. The local newspapers, sceptical at first over concerns for ratepayers money being wasted were quickly won over by the 'Garden City' concept.

These first 8 houses are particularly significant. The exhibition cottages were purely for exhibition and I know of no instance where their design was taken and replicated. The Council’s cottages, however, are the first instance in South Wales of a local authority building on Garden City principles. Their success was immediately apparent and, upon their completion, plans were initiated to build a further 100 on the Mayhill site. (24) These further 100 houses were never built because of other important events that intervened. However, the 8 cottages are revolutionary in the face of the street developments at Baptist Well and Trewyddfa and also in comparison with developments in neighbouring local authorities.

NOTES (List of Abbreviations, List of Sources)

14. WGAS, TC4/Housing/1, p.59, 6 January 1907. (Sir) Charles Tamlin Ruthen (1871-1926), one of the councillors in question, was, at the time, a Swansea-based architect whose career was heavily dominated by housing matters. Originally from the north-east of England, he established an architectural practice in Swansea, and was responsible for the design of many important buildings there, including the Carlton Cinema, the Mond Buildings, and Pantygwydr Chapel. From 1907 onwards, he was advising government departments on accommodation and housing, becoming Chief Inspector and Deputy Controller of Accommodation for the London area in 1918, and serving as H.M. Director-General of Housing in the Ministry of Health between 1921 and 1926 (Who’s Who in Architecture, 1926 (London, 1926)).

15. Ibid., p.36, 6 September 1905.

16. Unwin was closely involved with the National Housing and Town Planning Council and he was one of the honorary judges at the Swansea Cottage Exhibition, see Swansea Garden City Souvenir Programme (1910, London).

17. For example, Graham Humphrys, ‘Twentieth-Century Change’, Swansea. An Illustrated History, pp. 326-7.

18. WGAS, TC4/Housing/1, p.95, 6 May 1908.

19. Ibid., p. 15, 7 October 1908.

20. Ibid.,p.115, 7October 1908.

21. Ibid., p.117, 4 November 1908.

22. Ibid., p.l4l, 2 June 1909.

23. Ibid., p.168, 2 February 1910.

24. Ibid., p.168, 2 February 1910.

 

 

The View for Sunday October 15 2000

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