Ordinary housing for ordinary working families
In July I gave a talk about early municipal housing in central Birmingham. I showed seven case studies, which went from the first council houses (1890), to the first council flats (1900), and on to the first high-rise flats (1955). I illustrated each one with a 1:1250 scale OS map from the 1950s, when all seven places were still in existence. Now only three of the seven survive. I was a schoolchild at the time these maps were published, living in a suburban high street, and knew next to nothing of these inner city places. But when I look at these 60+ year old maps I experience an acute nostalgia for an inner city fabric which I never knew; and which was soon to be destroyed by postwar modernisation and comprehensive redevelopment. It was a fabric typified by denseness and heterogeneity, before land use zoning and the motor car spaced everything out and simplified it. Surrounding the flats built in 1900 in Milk Street, just a couple of blocks from where I now work in Digbeth, the map shows buildings marked as Metal Stamping Works, Machine Tool Works, Printing Engineering Works, Motor Equipment Works, Glass Sealing Works, Metal Plating Works – industry now all gone.
I am under no illusion that to live in these inner city streets was other than to live a life that was harsh, impoverished and unhealthy – life expectancy was short. Violent too – I know from reading The Gangs of Birmingham that the Milk Street gang was one of the most notorious street gangs from the 1870s onwards, at a time when Peaky Blinders were a nasty and threatening everyday reality and not retro-chic fashion statements. Gang members lived in the squalid courts of back-to-backs, some of which were replaced by the two-storey deck-access flats, but I don’t imagine that the culture changed dramatically with redevelopment.
The Milk Street flats were demolished in 1966, when I was an architecture student in the city; the year before I had worked on the night shift at Alfred Bird’s custard powder factory two blocks away, packing fruit jellies. Yet I was unaware of them; and if I had been aware, I doubt I would have appreciated their significance. This is an element of my nostalgic ache – the fact that I co-existed with these places but did not know them, and that now they are gone. This produces a kind of guilt. An even more direct cause of guilt is that a few years later, in 1970, when I worked in a converted flour mill for Associated Architects, on the opposite side of the street were the council houses built in 1891 in Lawrence Street, the second of my seven case studies. Through the iron windows, I watched them being demolished in 1972, and thought nothing much of it. A few years later, I would have campaigned for their retention, and perhaps for conversion to accommodation for Aston University students.
There were three narratives in my talk – the first the comparative residential densities (not always what you might expect); second, the gradual move over the decades away from the urban typology of the block and the street, towards the freestanding object; and the third, the overcoming of the official prejudice that working class people needed to have houses, flats being an alien continental idea. The extremes of these shifts were the Ryder Street houses of 1890, and my seventh case study, the Duddeston Manor flats of 1955. These are 12-storey architect-designed buildings in brickwork, designed at a time when high-rise flats could be shaped as place-specific pieces of architecture, before they became massproduced factory-made products in the 1960s. Following the destructive fire at Grenfell Tower in London in June, there was inevitably a nationwide anxiety about fire escapes and the flammability of cladding on tower blocks. I imagine the residents of the four Duddeston Manor buildings continued to sleep soundly. Their buildings have their original brickwork envelope, and with six flats on each floor, each building has no fewer than seven staircases. They were unsurprisingly criticised at the time of their construction for being an expensive way of housing working class families. But unlike many subsequent tower blocks, they are still there, and locally listed.
Council flats in Milk Street, 1900
Council houses in Lawrence Street, 1891
The first high-rise flats, Duddeston Manor, 1955
Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation .
He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.