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Learning from 1919

Mark Swenarton looks forward to a conference in London celebrating the centenary of Homes Fit for Heroes.

On November 11 1918, as everyone knows, the first world war came to an end. The following day the prime minister, David Lloyd George, called a general election and promised ‘habitations fit for the heroes who have won the war’. This pledge – generally abbreviated to ‘homes fit for heroes’ – marked the start of the nationwide system of council housing as we know it today.

With the 1918 election out of the way, legislation followed, with Christopher Addison as minister of health guiding the new Housing Act onto the statute book in July 1919. Local authorities were charged with building working-class housing in their areas and to make sure they did so, a system of open-ended (yes, really!) Treasury grants was introduced to cover their losses. Half a million ‘homes fit for heroes’ were promised. Following the recommendations of the famous Tudor Walters Report (1918), these were not to be terraced houses packed into streets on narrow plots, but low-density garden suburbs where generously proportioned houses were set in large gardens – something very different from the typical working-class housing of the time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Addison’s programme was not carried out in full. By 1921 the immediate post-war crisis had passed and in July 1921 the programme was axed – limited to houses on which construction had started or for which tenders had been approved (176,000 in England and Wales). But subsequent governments could not simply ignore the housing problem, with the result that the 1920s as a whole became a decade in which local authorities built housing in garden suburbs, following the principles set out in the Tudor Walters Report and often using the sites that they had acquired in 1918-20.

The Tang Hall estate, an Addison Act estate in York

To commemorate these momentous events, a conference is taking place on July 18-19 at the Institute of Historical Research in London (www.history.ac.uk/events/event/16727).

The Homes fit for Heroes Centenary Conference has been organised by the Learning from 1919 Steering Group, a group of historians and architectural specialists from across the country, in partnership with the Institute of Historical Research. The Steering Group comprises Dr Elizabeth Darling from Oxford Brookes University, Dr Michael Passmore from University of Greenwich, Professor Mark Swenarton from University of Liverpool, Dr Matthew Whitfield from Historic England, plus Matthew Bristow from the Institute of Historical Research.

The conference will explore new historical perspectives on the 1919 Housing Act and the housing that was built under its provisions (and those of subsequent Acts in 1923 and 1924), which established the principle of state-subsidised social housing for the next 60 years, as well as wider themes in social/council housing policy and design across the centenary period, and look towards the future of housing in the next century. The conference themes are:

  • New historical perspectives on the 1919 Act and the housing that was built under its provisions (and those of subsequent Acts in 1923 and 1924), especially proposals that add to, amend or challenge received wisdom about inter-war housing.
  • Issues in social housing policy and design across the centenary period, especially the broader themes that have informed housing theory and practice from 1919-2019.
  • Looking towards the future of housing in the 21st century – how social housing can and might develop and/or what might be learnt from the previous century.

While Homes Fit for Heroes was a national programme – covering England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – its manifestation was local, with hundreds of housing developments undertaken by councils large and small across the country. The projects ranged in size from the London County Council’s mega-development of Becontree (Dagenham) to mini-schemes of less than a dozen homes.

The centenary is therefore local as well as national and the occasion for community history and celebration. A case in point is at Sea Mills in Bristol, one of the four garden suburbs planned by Bristol corporation under the Addison Act, where ‘Sea Mills 100’ (seamills100.co.uk/) is planning a series of events, including in June 2019 the centenary of the planting of the ‘Addison Oak’. In projects such as these local historians can play a crucial role: a grassroots celebration of an event that changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of families for the better.

Mark Swenarton is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Liverpool. His 1981 book, Homes fit for Heroes, was re-issued by Routledge last year.

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