April 2020 marks the centenary of a forgotten event but an event which nonetheless changed thousands of lives. On the 14th April 1920, Atherton’s first four council-built houses were occupied by their tenants. Nowadays this might seem trivial but we cannot underestimate the huge impact social housing had on living conditions. This was a ground-breaking social experiment and these ordinary, often over-looked houses are just as important to our understand of history as castles, country houses and grand suburban villas. Here is a short history of local authority housing in the area.
Providing housing for the less fortunate was not a twentieth-century phenomenon. From almshouses of the early modern period to purpose-built workers estates in the nineteenth century, we have examples of social housing. However, these were often built as the result of charitable efforts by religious groups, businesses or private individuals. Moreover, these properties were constructed on a small scale for small communities with specific requirements, for example the cottages at Howe Bridge were built solely for the miners of the Fletcher Burrows Company.
In the late-nineteenth century more efforts were made to improve housing for the working classes. The Torrens Act (1868) and the Cross Act (1875) were Government legislation which gave certain specifications for the buildings of terraced houses, such as ceiling heights and the width of roads. Despite this, terraced housing pre-1914 was reflective of speculative construction. Streets were laid out in a piecemeal fashion as when money allowed building, which is why today we can see different variations of terraced houses on the same streets, even the same block.
The First World War created a nationwide housing crisis. In response, the government introduced the Rent and Mortgage Restrictions Act (1915). This was to prevent landlords from profiting from working-class families, many of whom had lost their main breadwinner to the front lines. In 1917, the Tudor-Walters Report revealed that only 25% of the British population owned their own homes. This meant the majority of people, rich and poor rented. The Rent Act was further amended in 1920.
“Habitations fit for heroes who have won the War”
The House, Town and Planning Act (Addison Act 1919) followed up on the promises of new social housing offered by David Lloyd George of “habitations fit for heroes who have won the War”. This legislation directly challenged the persistent social issues of inadequate living conditions faced by working-class communities in Britain. In 1911 there were 138 households in Atherton which consisted of nine or more people living in houses of four rooms or three rooms. The Addison Act marked the pinnacle of social reform enacted by the Liberal party in this period, such as the Old Age Pensions Act (1908) and the National Insurance Act (1911).
In May 1919 Atherton Urban District Council (UDC) adopted the Act and began to purchase land around two key sites to build their new local authority houses: Colliers Brook Farm and Hag Fold Farm. The undeveloped land was ideal, especially as these new estates featured unprecedented designs for working-class housing, including semi-detached properties and large front and rear gardens. Hag Fold Farm was consumed by the Estate in the 1930s, it was located on the junction of Formby Road and Warwick Road. Collier Brook farmhouse still survives but it is currently derelict.
In April 1920 the first four houses, out of a planned 68, were completed and available to rent for seven shillings a week with rates included. However, in accordance with the Urban District Council’s guidelines, two-thirds of local authority housing was allocated to returning soldiers and sailors of the First World War, or to their widows who had two or more children. Greater preference was given to those men who had enlisted prior to conscription in 1916. This was something of a controversial decision. Although a large number of Atherton’s men fought in the war, many others were exempt from military service as they were employed in the mining industry, which was a vital service. Therefore, without a war record many of these men and their families would not have benefited from the first wave of social housing in the 1920s.
Subsequent housing acts in the 1930s attempted to rectify this problem. The 1930 Housing Act provided local authorities with a financial incentive to conduct mass slum clearance projects and the Housing Act of 1933 stopped subsidies for any building projects not aiding slum clearance. The 1935 Housing Act compelled local authorities to rehouse families who lived in overcrowded conditions. Streets built on the Hag Fold Estate at this time were named after geographic locations; Seaforth, Knowsley, Dorset, Norfolk, Kirby, Devonshire to name a few. Never before had the state played such a prominent role in the lives of ordinary people. However, they could not build the houses quick enough. In 1934 some 850 people in Atherton were on the register awaiting a council property. However, the number of council-owned properties in Britain had risen from 20,000 in 1914 to 1.1 million by 1938 showing the huge amount of change made within two decades.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain faced another housing crisis. In 1951 Harold Macmillan promised to build 300,000 homes and subsequently, new estates were constructed in Westleigh, Bedford, Shakerley and Higher Folds. After the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1946, homes which had been built by philanthropic mine owners were transferred to the council. In 1948 Atherton UDC built 110 council houses, 21 pre-fab houses and only 3 houses were built by private contractors. Over the following decade the UDC constructed an average of 15 houses and 16 flats a year. On the Hag Fold Estate, houses were built on the northern side of the railway line up to the boundary with Over Hulton. Several of the streets were laid out in the early 1950s and their names reflect the cultural events of the era: Coronation Avenue, Everest Road, Nepal Avenue and Peak Avenue. With several avenues named after the men who climbed the mountain: Hilary, Gregory, Lowe and Tensing (although his name was actually spelt Tenzing).
What was it like to live in an early council house?
The first four local authority houses in Atherton were numbers 2-8 Gloucester Street. These occupants of these houses were:
- Number 2: Roger and Margaret Wilson and their children
- Number 4: Luke and Mary Harper and their children
- Number 6: Seth and Sarah Henthorn and their children
- Number 8: Thomas and Ellen Morris and their children
Why were these families chosen? Well in the case of the Henthorns it was probably due to the extreme overcrowded living conditions the family faced. Seth, Sarah and their 11 children had previously lived in a ‘two up-two down’ terrace on Alma Street.
By 1921 there were 114 houses built on the Collier Brook Estate, including more houses on Gloucester Street, Prestwich Street and Nelson Street and 50 houses on the Hag Fold Estate, on Car Bank Street and Car Bank Square.
The new council houses were different depending on location, for example some were terraced houses, others were semi-detached. Some properties had basic layouts with a living room and kitchen/scullery downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. Most houses featured a plumbed-in bathroom which was an extremely rare luxury at the time in working-class housing. Other properties were slightly larger, with an additional room downstairs, the ‘front parlour’. The parlour was a common feature in all kinds of working-class housing, from the nineteenth century right up until the 1970s, when the tradition of keeping a parlour began to decline. This room, often at the front of the house, was filled with the best furniture and ornaments but rarely used by the family. It was a symbol of social mobility and domestic pride. Unsurprisingly, these ‘parlour-type’ local authority houses were more expensive to build so they were less common but they were still more highly sought after by tenants.
In the 1920s houses were fully decorated internally and externally by the Atherton UDC every four years. This was eventually dropped as it proved too costly during the Depression era. Tenants also struggled. As early as 1921 four households on Gloucester Street had already fallen into arrears with their rent.
There were also strict rules about what a tenant could or could not do to their property. Some post-Second World War rules from Tyldesley’s Urban District Council to their tenants included:
- The rents are due on Saturday each week.
- The tenant will be required to pay all rates, water chargers and taxes.
- Fencing, paving, doors and woodwork, or any other part of the premises or the fixtures and fittings therein damaged by the tenant […] will be repaired by the Council at the cost of the tenant.
- The tenant shall not sublet.
- The tenant shall not keep a shop, store, warehouse, laundry or carry on any business whatsoever on the premises.
- The placing in the water closet of rags, cotton, papers, bottles […] is prohibited.
- The driving of nails into the walls or woodwork is prohibited.
- No fowls or pigeons shall be kept on the premises.
“You lived on Hag Fold? You were posh you!…”
The above quote was mentioned during an interview I conducted with two Atherton residents about their homes during the Second World War. It represents the divide which had opened up between those who lived in the local authority properties and those who were left behind. By the 1950s this was plain to see in Atherton and Leigh. In 1953, eight houses in Atherton were found to be too dangerous for human habitation and 587 were condemned as being unfit for human habitation, including lacking a flushing WC and even piped-hot water in some cases. In 1955, 970 houses in Leigh were condemned as being unfit for habitation and 31 families were found to be living in overcrowded conditions.
Whilst physical living conditions were undoubtedly improved by these newly-constructed local authority estates, in other ways they were wholly inadequate. They were often geographically distant from town centres and places of employment and recreation. Early residents of new estates complained of a lack of amenities such as shops and public transport.
The post-war years also saw a huge change in home ownership and the origins of working-class home ownership can be traced to this time. Private landlords in the 1950s and 1960s were reluctant to modernise their older properties as the rents were still stabilised under the 1920 Act. For many, it was cheaper to sell their properties to their private tenants rather than conduct repairs.
By the 1960s there was a shift in the construction of housing and the local authority programme began to dwindle. In 1965, in Atherton, 78 council houses were built compared to 268 privately-built houses. The situation was similar in Leigh, in 1969 only 8 council houses were built compared to the construction of 158 private houses. By the 1960s home ownership had become an achievable aspiration for the working classes and social mobility had changed. In just a generation there was a mercurial shift from the ideal of renting a council house to owning a new house in a cul-de-sac.
Councils were able to sell their properties to their tenants from 1936, but there was a very slow uptake of this policy until the 1970s. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher planned to capitalise on the home-owner aspiration by introducing the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme which allowed tenants of council properties to purchase their homes, often at much reduced rate than the market value. This ranged between 33%-50% cheaper for houses and up to 70% cheaper for flats. This also tied directly into other Thatcherist policies of reducing dependence on the state, a pivotal shift away from the inclusive housing policies just 50 years before.
Whilst the scheme was successful in offering tenants the chance to own their home, a failure of the programme by Thatcher and successive Conservative and Labour governments is that they did not build enough social housing to replace the depleted stock. The number of social housing units in the country had fallen from 6.5 million in 1979 to 2 million in 2017.
A hundred years on the housing crisis and disparity in living conditions seem to have never left us. A survey by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2017 found just 17% of UK households were renting social housing. Over 20% were private renters, 28% owned a home with a mortgage, 34% owned their home outright.
As we face a new decade of economic uncertainty, I wonder how we will approach these social issues. Are we too far removed from the unified, optimistic aims of the Addison Act or will we tackle these issues with the same compassion and vigour as our ancestors did?
Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath
The majority of this research comes from my unpublished MA thesis, 2017. Several of the key texts used were:
- John Burnett, A History of Social Housing 1815-1985, Second Edition, (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1986)
- Alison Ravetz & Richard Turkington, The English at Home: English Domestic Environments 1914-2000, (Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 1995)
- Ben Jones, The Working Class in Mid-Twentieth Century England: Community, Identity and Social Memory, (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2012)
- Anne Power, Property Before People: The Management of Twentieth-Century Council Housing, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987)
- Tony Ashcroft & Nicholas Webb, Around Leigh (Gloucestershire: The Chalford Publishing Co. Ltd. 1996)