Early Housing in Swansea 1902-1910

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Above: Tudor Court in Swansea in 1929.

As mentioned earlier, the Housing Act of 1919 was not by any means the first attempt to improve local housing. The compulsions of the 1919 Act were certainly meant to force many unwilling local authorities into providing housing plans. For example, in 1914 Leeds only had 36 council dwellings with no plans to provide any more. (1) . In Swansea, however, there had been quite a history of local authority provision, albeit tempered by funding difficulties.

Earliest Efforts

As with many large towns, Swansea had accumulated a large number of unsanitary dwellings throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Swansea’s Urban Sanitary Authority was one of the few authorities to try and address the housing problem using the 1875 Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act (2). The flanks of Townhill were crowded with small cottages and courtyards, many surviving until the 1950s (3). The drawback with early housing legislation was that it did not give enough provision to rehousing those made homeless through demolition of slum housing. The Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890 simplified procedures and also required local Medical Officers of Health to report on unsanitary housing (4) giving substantial and substantive data on the appalling situation that undoubtedly existed. The 1890 Act gave far more provision to build council housing and charge rents and encouraged local authorities to create administrative frameworks for both building and rentals. In the case of Swansea, a Housing Department was set up in 1901, followed by an Estates Department in 1904 .(5) Shortly after its establishment, the Housing Department was involved in several building schemes.

Early building schemes were exclusively concerned with the built up area of the existing town or that area of Gibbet Hill which lay closest to the town centre. The outskirts of Swansea also saw some early development at Trewyddfa Common, but the majority of sites were in Swansea itself. At the Housing Committee’s very first meeting in March 1902, it was agreed to apply to the Local Government Board for a loan of 860 for 4 houses in Well Street, Brynmelyn (6). The years 1903 to 1907 did not see much building activity but the minutes reveal intense discussion on design and suitable layouts. For example, a site at Gibbet Hill Road was first mooted in April 1902 but debate over design and costing and, eventually, an architects’ competition stretched out the process until early 1906, when the LGB were approached for a 2000 loan for building works (7)

. By 1905, at least 9 sites were under consideration for schemes; the emphasis, however, was on the Gibbet Hill area (renamed North Hill in 1902). July 1905 saw the start of streets of houses (33 at first) in Waun Wen and Colbourne Terrace; only 18 months later, the plans for the significantly larger Baptist Well Estate (of 142 dwellings) were already being costed (8)

At this point, it is worth considering the design and layout of these early houses. Many of the early schemes are for small numbers or for infill plots amongst established or new speculative developments: the Colbourne Street, Well Street and Llangylefach Street being examples. Shelley and Byron Crescents, Cwm Road and Trewyddfa Common are larger more substantial developments of greater numbers of dwellings laid out in streets. All these developments are essentially improved terraced housing. No effort was made to change roof lines, building lines or viewpoints. However, the absence of the notorious ‘tunnel back’ projection inhibiting light and ventilation clearly indicates their municipal, and not speculative, origins. The ‘Tunnel Back’ was the device used by builders to enlarge a normal terraced house. It was a projection from the rear of the house which contained an extra bedroom and a scullery below. The light and ventilation to the house were severely reduced by the use of this rear projection. Municipal architects tended to avoid the use of the ‘Tunnel Back’ wherever possible. However, most speculative builders freely incorporated it into their designs during this period.

The visual appearance of these houses is superior to the traditional pennant sandstone speculative terraces that surround them. The unity of design based on red brick and horizontal decoration again clearly marks them as municipal housing. However, the completion of the Trewyddfa Common houses in 1912 is the final chapter in the development of the municipal street.

The Garden City movement can, in many ways, be regarded as the zenith of the philanthropic housing concerns of the nineteenth century. The developments of Ackroyden (1859) and Saltaire (1853) can be seen in some interpretations to address the problems associated with bad housing (9). Architecturally, early working class housing was fussy and impractical, using too much emphasis on the picturesque .(10)

The real advance in terms of design came with the development of Port Sunlight in 1890, Bournville in 1898 and New Earswick in 1902. the development of the Garden City villages has been detailed by a great many sources but, perhaps, most relevant to Swansea’s case is the New Earswick village (11).

New Earswick was largely designed by architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker. Unwin had formed his theories at Oxford in the 1880s, when the ideas of Ruskin and William Morris were very prevalent. His partner (and brother-in-law) Parker was also a follower of the Arts and Crafts Movement - emphasising basics at the expense of frills and luxuries. Their work at New Earswick (and later Letchworth) expressed their ideas to the full - arranging the layout of the streets in relation to the existing features of the site; having straight main roads and curving subsidiary roads and groups of houses around culsde-sac. Unwin was particularly critical of the ‘tunnelback’ mentioned earlier…

‘These projections effectually shade the rooms from such sunshine as they might otherwise get and impede the free access of fresh air.. Every house in a row should contain all its rooms under the main roof and present an open and fair surface to the sun on both its free sides.’ (12)

The houses designed by Unwin at his developments are quite unlike the Swansea houses discussed earlier, and Unwin’ s ideas proved to be central to the housing movement in the years that followed. The detailed design of Garden City houses will be discussed in a subsequent chapter, however, it is important to say here that a rather unique set of circumstances made Swansea’s housing programmes quite different from most other local authorities. The 1919 Housing Act came as quite a shock to many authorities who had not considered the possibility of building houses on garden city lines. Swansea’s council, on the other hand, was able, willing and had even completed a small scheme based on an Unwin inspired design. This meant that Swansea was well prepared to meet the stringent requirements of the 1919 Act, whereas most authorities practically did not know where to start ( 13)

The 1910 Cottage Exhibition

NOTES (List of Abbreviations, List of Sources)

1. Robert Finnegan, ‘Council Housing in Leeds’, in Daunton, op. cit., p. 104.

2. Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act. 1875.

3. Bernard Morris, ‘Swansea Houses. Working Class Houses, 1800-50, Gower, xxvi (1975), pp. 53-61.

4. Noel Coley in Science, Technology and Everyday Life 1870-1950, ed. Colin Chant (London, 1989), pp. 282-3: S. Cohen, A Guide to the Annual Reports of the Medical Officer of Health (Swansea, 1991).

5. JR. Alban, ‘Municipal Administration and Politics, from the I 830s to 1974, Swansea. An Illustrated History, ed. Glanmor Williams (Swansea, 1990), pp. 311-2.

6. WGAS, TC4/Housing/1, p.3.

7. Ibid., pp.4 -31.

8. Ibid., p.80.

9. Barrie Trinder, The Making of the Industrial Landscape (London, 1982), for excellent discussion of these early estates.

10. Gillian Darley, Villages of Vision (London, 1978), Chapter 3, ‘Planning Picturesqueness’.

11. Darley, op. cit., deals very fully with the early Garden Cities.

12. R. Unwin, ‘Cottage Plans and Common Sense’, quoted in M. Swenarton, Homes Fit For Heroes (London, 1981).

13. Typical is the case of Epsom R.D.C., who lobbied many councils, including Swansea, to oppose the Housing Act (WGAS, TC4/Housing 3, p,3 16, 7 December 1917).



The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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