Swansea's housing problem; A background

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King George V

‘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. (1)

It is significant that even King George V saw fit to discuss the housing problem in 1919. It is an accurate indication of how far the debate on housing standards had reached in post war society. The immediate post war months saw debate and expectation about women’s emancipation, educational reform, national insurance and many other issues. However, Lloyd George’s coalition government based its election campaign on a housing policy with a slogan that has echoed down the years -‘Homes fit for Heroes’. The state of the nation’s houses, which had been a contentious issue since the Boer War, was at last elevated to a question of national importance. For the first time ever, the government of the day was to commit itself to a programme of public spending the like of which had never been seen in the country’s history. The commitment was indeed massive and without parallel; half a million houses were to be built for the families of the heroes returning from the Continent. The enabling legislation for this enterprise was the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act.(2)

The 1919 Act was by no means the first attempt to improve housing standards; legislation in 1875, 1900 and 1909 had already given local authorities some incentive.(3) Many authorities, including Swansea, had made considerable effort to improve housing quality for the working classes’. The 1919 Act was much more significant for it transformed local authorities into suppliers of housing, creating an expectation amongst the population that the Council should provide accommodation for a large section of the community. An expectation not finally challenged until the Housing Acts of 1980 and 1985.

The 1919 Act initiated a process whereby the urban fabric of every town in Britain was transformed within 40 years. In the years 1919-39, local authorities built over 750,000 houses. Today, those houses are the homes of 1 family in 20. Locally, the figures are more significant: between 1902 and 1914, 321 houses were built by Swansea Corporation. In the 20 years after 1919 Swansea added well over 4000 houses to its stock. The 1919 Act only endured for 3 years before being terminated by the then Minister of Health, Alfred Mond. It resulted in 170,090 houses being built (828 locally).(4)

 The quality of the houses built was seen to be just as important as the quantity. For perhaps the first time, the quality of design was used to bring about economies in building expenses. The teachings and lessons of the Garden City Movement and its famous exponents such as Sir Raymond Unwin and George Pepler, were accepted by the Government in the form of the famous Tudor Walters report.(5) The importance of design is often neglected by historians but it will be seen that it had a crucial role to play in the events that this study deals with. The concept that quality was just as, if not more, important than quantity is important and this was one of the obstacles on which the Act foundered in 1921.

The political origins of the 1919 legislation are controversial. Mark Swenarton's view that the housing programme was seen as an insurance against revolution by a government mindful of happenings in Russia and Germany and apprehensive of a large conscript army returning home in the years 1919-20, has been hotly contested by other historians.(6) Michael Daunton has seen the origins of the Act in a response to the distortions of rent control during the war years.(7)

Both arguments are persuasive, although they will not be repeated here, as this study is only concerned with the response of Swansea Corporation to the housing programme. However, it is worth mentioning that the author subscribes to the Swenarton view that the 1919 council house was a response to the political and emotional needs of post-war Britain.

 The commitment to build half a million houses was imposed on an economy overburdened by the strains of the war in France. Both labour and resources were scarce, timber and bricks being in particularly short supply. The 1919 Act suggested 3 possible solutions to the problems faced in building houses. The first solution was to buy houses from speculative builders originally built for the private sector. This often explains the unusual and nonconformist designs seen in some Addison Act estates. Secondly, the Government’s own building contractor, the Office of Works, could be employed by the local authority.(8) The third solution was to use unskilled labour and new methods of building, i.e. to dispense with bricks and bricklayers. The most significant methods in Swansea’s case were the ‘Dorlonco’ system and Airey Duo Slab, whereby houses were constructed of pre-cast concrete sections which could be quickly erected mostly by unskilled workers. (9) In addition, one other method was used which was of great importance: in Swansea’s case this being the use of Direct Administration. The Corporation were very proud of its achievements using its own Direct Administration scheme which was exhibited to all who expressed an interest, particularly in 1928 when the Town hosted the Trades Union Congress.(10) All the above methods were used at Swansea as the following sections will show.

As mentioned earlier, this study will concentrate upon the response of a single local authority to the provisions of the 1919 Housing Act. National events and the workings of central government will only be dealt with when they affect the workings of the local authority. It is important to place the 1919 Act in its correct context, subsequent sections  will therefore provide an overview of early council housing in Swansea. A brief discussion of the Housing Act itself will be followed by a series of chapters dealing with each site upon which Addison Act houses were built. There has been a considerable amount of subsequent building on most sites so that the early estates are mostly surrounded with later buildings. The author feels it is important that the early houses are identified for the reader so that the true effect of design and layout can be compared with earlier estates and also inferior but later schemes. later sections deal with some important facets of the Swansea experience of the Addison Act - the impact of the Women’s Advisory Committee on Housing and the importance of Design.

Early Housing developments

Notes (List of Abbreviations, List of Sources)

1. Extract from King George Vs ‘speech to Representatives of the Local Authorities and Societies, The Times, 12 April 1919.

2. Housing, Town Planning & c Act,1919 (‘The Addison Act’) [9 & 10 Geo. V, c. 35].

& 10 Geo. V, c. 35].

3. Artisan’s Dwellings Act, 1875; Housing, Town and Planning Act, 1909; Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890.

4. It is extremely difficult to be precise concerning figures of houses completed. These figures are from contemporary documents and are, I believe, as accurate as possible. Nevertheless, a number of discrepancies exist for local figures.

5. PP 1918 Cd. 9191 vii, ‘Report of the Committee appointed by the President of the Local Government Board and the Secretary for Scotland to consider questions of building construction in connection with the provision of dwellings for the working classes in England and Wales, and Scotland, and report upon methods of securing economy and despatch in the provision of such dwellings’ (The Tudor Walters Report), Micro 64/314, Vol. VII, Card 5.

6. Mark Swenarton, Homes Fit for Heroes: The Politics and Architecture of Early State Housing in Britain (London: Heinemann, 1981).

7. Councillors and tenants: local authority housing in English cities, 1919-1939, ed. by M. J. Daunton (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1984).

8. The Office of Works built approximately 5314 houses of the 170,090 erected 1919-21 (c. 380 locally).

9. Dorman Long and Co.’s Dorlonco system was but one of many building systems.

10. ‘Housing by Direct Administration’ in Trades Union Congress Conference 1928 Souvenir (Swansea, 1928).

Above: Early Swansea council housing in 1928.

 

 

The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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