Book Review: Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes: Garden City Influences on the Development of Scottish Working Class Housing

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Martin Crookston is an A&DS Board Member and also the author of “Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? – a new future for the cottage estates” (Routledge 2014). He has reviewed the new publication Scotland’s Homes Fit For Heroes which will be published by the Word Bank in September 2016.

Scotland’s Homes Fit For Heroes: Garden City Influences on the Development of Scottish Working Class Housing 1900 to 1939
Lou Rosenburg in collaboration with John Rosser

Lou Rosenburg’s new book focuses on the story of the nearly quarter of a million new council homes that were built in Scotland between the wars. It was a huge achievement. They built 25,000 of them in just five years after the ‘homes fit or heroes’ Act of 1919 – a scale which you might think has a certain resonance given the Scottish Government’s current 50,000 commitment. They built them all over Scotland, not just in the cities. Two thirds of them were in the now-familiar ‘cottage’ form of corporation suburbia, in semis or short terraces. 80% were brick-built, 11% in stone where materials and skills made that sensible. And some areas where you might think that resistance would have been encountered were amongst the most active: East Lothian, anyone?

So, of 350,000 homes built in Scotland between the wars, two-thirds were by Councils – the rest were mainly private for sale, in the Edinburgh hinterland in particular. They were not of course all ‘net new build’: 130,000 of the 240,000 were associated with slum clearance and overcrowding, so demolitions were the likely concomitant of much of the new construction.

What did they think they were building? Page 19 uses the phrase ‘well-designed working-class dwellings along garden city lines’. Unexceptional, you might think. But actually, no: this was Scotland in the early twentieth century – the switch from predominantly tenements to mostly cottages, as a way of housing working-class families, was much more surprising here, in urban Scotland, than it would have been in England: a tribute to the power of the ‘garden suburb’ idea.

Although Rosenburg’s focus is the interwar years, there’s some fascinating stuff on the pre-1914 antecedents. Garden suburbs and co-partnerships, in places like Westerton, Gourock and Renfrew were already producing the characteristic ‘cottage estate’ form – think Riddrie or Mosspark in Glasgow, or Aberdeen’s Torry. Not all were cottages: the schemes already included a good mix of “4-in-a-block” and 3-storey tenement forms.

As in the rest of Britain, there was a stylistic argument. Pages 77-78 recap the argument about appearance, when the ‘Liverpool’ school (Abercrombie et al) advocated the stripped-down neo-Georgian look against the more ‘romantic’ Arts & Crafts attempts to “recapture the traditional character of the [English] village”. And this was a British debate – from which Chapter 3 eventually takes us to “The Scots Dimension of the Garden City movement.”

En route, we see the importance of the housing response in the context of the First World War’s war effort: Rosyth, Gretna, and the Gourock torpedo factory all feature. With the added dimension that English munitions workers transferred north of the border were really not impressed by the tenement idea: cottages, please …

From an A&DS perspective, it’s noticeable that “Place” is not really a big feature of the book, which is mainly about individual schemes (and does show some beauties). But on page 236 there’s a telling quote from Councillor (later MP) Jean Mann at a 1941 Largs conference: ‘Between the two wars… we did not build any new towns, but we built the equivalent in houses of 17 new towns, and threw up these houses around the perimeters of towns…” Sound familiar?

Rosenburg’s book is probably the first attempt to piece this whole story together. It goes from solicitor and garden city advocate James Roxburgh in 1912: “hardly any progress has been made in Scotland. Garden Suburbs and Garden Villages are growing up everywhere in England…”(p98); through meticulous treatment of Garden City branches in Edinburgh & East of Scotland and Glasgow & West of Scotland, and on to the relations with the main Garden City movement, in considerable detail. It includes the story of ‘Garden City tenants’ groups in, for example, the Lower Clyde: Gourock, Greenock and Port Glasgow: including Ebenezer Howard turning up in ‘The Port’ in 1908 and triggering a young workers’ initiative on housing – a fascinating tale of the zeitgeist interacting with confident young tradesmen in what was then one of the country’s leading-edge industrial economies.

Dunbar 1 High Str panorama

It is a lovely thing to look at. Beautiful pictures (such as the page 218 image from Dunbar (above), which is an actual recent photograph, but could be a loving watercolour); pictures of an often-beautiful housing product, but one which is so often under-valued. As Sir Peter Hall said in his Foreword to my Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow (2014), “not only are they forgotten: when the rest of us recall them, our image is almost universally negative. These are ‘council houses’ on ‘council estates’…”

The book’s introduction  – concerning the books supported by The Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies – says it is intended as a ‘traditional scholarly publication’( p5), and it is indeed quite didactic and academic. It isn’t till page 169 that we reach a Chapter (6) called “1919 Act Homes Fit for Heroes in Scotland” – which after all is the title and subject-matter of the book. Nearly thirty pages (pp179-206) are devoted to ‘A Selection’ of loving estate studies, with OS map and photograph each time, of schemes from Lerwick to Lockerbie. And the final chapter (7) is a bit of everything (“a number of related themes”, it promises). It includes the contribution of two individual architects (Weekes, and Grant), a bit about interwar tenements, and a disquisition on the limitations of interwar ‘town planning schemes’. Then it just stops.

This is an absorbing and detailed look at an era in Scottish planning and housing which still has lessons for us today, as they built in both quantity and quality for ordinary working-class families. As with many other aspects of our culture, Scotland’s story was different from, though interwoven with, the all-Britain debate and experience of its period.

Published by SCCS/The Word Bank 2016

Main image: View of braehouse in the Dunbartonshire Village of Rhu, one of the outstanding 1930s local authority developments designed by County architects Joseph Weekes (photo by John Reiach).

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