A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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HOUSING AND SUBURBAN DEVELOPMENT, 1918-39
In 1914 most working-class Cestrians lived in 19thcentury terraced housing with tiny back sculleries, outside lavatories, small back yards, and front doors opening on to the street. In the city centre, conditions in the courts of Princess Street, Goss Street, and Crook Street remained below that standard into the 1930s. (fn. 1) In Princess Street alone there were 224 houses, of which 140 were damp and 120 verminous; 103 shared lavatories, 118 had no suitable washing accommodation, and 108 lacked a sink or internal water supply. In one sublet house in Crook Street lived seven separate families, 39 people in all. (fn. 2)
By the early 20th century the corporation had accepted the principle that it should provide housing as long as it did not become a charge on the rates. Encouraged by the success of its first small estate of 12 houses at Tower Road in 1904, (fn. 3) the council commissioned Professor Abercrombie to design a garden suburb for the 13-acre Buddicom estate at Lache. (fn. 4) Abercrombie planned what was initially called the Buddicom Park estate in 1914, and work began in 1919 to a revised layout; by then it formed part of an enlarged scheme to provide Chester with 800 houses, drawn up in response to the Addison Act of that year which inaugurated the government's national housing programme. (fn. 5) Abercrombie preferred formal layouts and house designs, against the prevailing taste for the picturesque garden-suburb style. (fn. 6) Consequently, the first phase of the estate was centred on an oval of houses lining Sunbury and Abingdon Crescents and facing a central green, which was enclosed by a rectangle of streets bounded on the east by the estate's straight spine road, Cliveden Road. The housing committee favoured local architects, from whom Abercrombie chose James Strong, who designed terraced and semi-detached houses in early 19th-century urbancottage style; they were built of pink brick, with diapering in the manner of 19th-century Grosvenor estate buildings. (fn. 7) The 138 houses approved in 1919 were occupied by 1921, and by 1922 only 24 houses were needed to complete the estate. (fn. 8) The housing was extended after 1924, when the city surveyor drew up plans and it was decided to sell off surplus land for private housing, (fn. 9) but completion was delayed until after the Heath Lane estate was completed in 1926. (fn. 10) The later houses along Cliveden Road and east of it, probably designed after Strong died in 1921, were different in style, their brick detailing inspired by 17th-century Dutch architecture.
Abercrombie was also responsible for a similar layout at the centre of the Boughton Heath estate off Heath Lane, Great Boughton, planned in 1920, (fn. 11) based on a central rectangular green facing outward to Neville, Westward, and Kingsley Roads. The cottagestyle brick houses, designed by the city surveyor, were similar to the later houses at Buddicom Park. Specifications were approved in 1923 for 212 houses, to be built in blocks of four, six, and eight, mostly without separate parlours and bathrooms; (fn. 12) the first 16 were finished in 1924 and those in Neville Road and Heath Lane in 1926. (fn. 13) The green was linked to the east, off Marian Drive, to a similar layout, not built until after 1945. The large central open space was later partly built over. The same type of layout was planned in 1926 by the city surveyor between Meadows Lane and Appleyards Lane on the Handbridge estate, which had, in contrast, a picturesque mix of houses laid out in classic garden-suburb fashion round a large informal green at Watling Crescent. (fn. 14) The Handbridge estate had the greatest variety of house types, ranging from variants of the last ones built at Buddicom Park to a plain hipped-roofed kind along Meadows Lane.
The Lache estate, a southward extension of Buddicom Park begun in 1931, (fn. 15) also followed the government's recommended garden-suburb layout with houses set obliquely at road junctions and round a green at the junction of Clover Lane and Sycamore Drive. Some corner terraces had central passages leading to an open space at the back, originally shared in common but later divided up.
The very high cost of the earliest post-war housing schemes led the council to consider concrete construction as a cheaper option as early as 1920-1. (fn. 16) Experimental methods were examined again in 1925 when members of the housing committee inspected demonstration houses at the Empire Exhibition and made site visits, but attempts failed to persuade contractors to build trial houses on the Telford All-Steel, Triangularblock, and Univers poured-concrete systems at Bottoms Lane, Handbridge. Eventually Universal agreed to allow six Univers houses to be built by licensed contractors. (fn. 17) Inflated building costs were reflected in high rents, since the council was determined to minimize the charge on the rates. (fn. 18) Even the rents for later houses built at Lache in the 1930s were relatively high. (fn. 19)
The city's council houses provided working people with improved living conditions. They were larger than most 19th-century terraced houses, free from damp, and had more bedrooms, better cooking and laundry facilities, internal plumbing, and small gardens. (fn. 20) They were also more spaciously laid out, conforming to the government standard of 12 houses an acre. However, not only were council houses more expensive to rent, their tenants also incurred higher costs in travelling to work from the suburbs. The new estates, all of which lay south of the city centre, were socially uniform and segregated from the city by a belt of privately owned houses in established suburbs. Men found their homes little more than dormitories, (fn. 21) while mothers of young children were isolated, and there were no play areas. (fn. 22) Residents of the Lache estate campaigned continuously for facilities such as a public house or a fish and chip shop, which the council was reluctant to allow. (fn. 23)
While Chester's municipal housing met a great need among relatively well paid workers, it was too expensive to alleviate the plight of the poor. Indeed, in 1929 a councillor criticized the corporation for becoming a speculative builder, 'hoping to make money but not meeting the difficulty that was still rampant'. (fn. 24)
Although the council, prompted by government initiatives, maintained a continuous building programme between the World Wars, there were never enough new houses to reduce the waiting lists, and overcrowding remained a serious problem. By 1928 it had completed 725 houses and had 417 more under construction, figures which included 235 built privately in Curzon Park and Handbridge with the aid of corporation mortgages supported by government subsidy. (fn. 25) Flats were provided for old people in Hoole Lane and Heath Lane. By 1939 the council had built 1,628 houses and flats, besides 206 taken over from Hoole urban district council in 1936. (fn. 26)
In 1928 the council appointed its first housing manager, a woman graduate trained on a system devised by Octavia Hill, which Chester was only the third local authority to adopt. (fn. 27) It continued to appoint female housing managers until the 1970s because the housing committee thought it easier for women to deal with social problems. (fn. 28) There remained unhealthy courts in all the wards, but the council resisted building cheap blocks of flats to replace them because it was 'not prepared to put people in barracks'. (fn. 29) In 1924, when the government began to encourage slum clearance, 59 back-to-back houses were pulled down in Handbridge, and replaced by a row of shops. Although the government paid half the cost, there was no rent subsidy for the evicted tenants. (fn. 30) Other small-scale demolition schemes followed, (fn. 31) but an effective general slum clearance did not start until the 1930s.
In 1935, after the government had offered large financial inducements to persuade councils to carry out slum clearance, Chester produced a report which showed that 902 houses, inhabited by 4,117 people, were in need of demolition, and considerably more of extensive renovation. The first clearance area to be dealt with, and the only scheme completed before 1939, was near the town hall, in Princess, Crook, and Goss Streets. Their dreadful condition did not deter vociferous objections to demolition, but clearance was encouraged by the possibility of a lucrative redevelopment of the site. (fn. 32) During the 1930s over 1,000 tenants from the demolished houses were rehoused on the Lache estate. The new tenants were thought to have settled down well and 'standards of housekeeping improved'. (fn. 33) Opposition to the Princess Street clearance at the public inquiry in 1935 probably deterred the council from embarking on further schemes, and all such plans were abandoned at the outbreak of war, leaving at least two thirds of Chester's slums intact. (fn. 34)
Most private houses built in Chester between the wars were inexpensive. Speculative builders and contractors included George Austin, who built round Stocks Lane in Great Boughton, (fn. 35) Enoch Kennerley and Sons, (fn. 36) Thomas B. Gorst and Sons, active at Blacon and in Sealand Road, (fn. 37) Henry and A. H. Moorcroft, (fn. 38) A. Bornstein, (fn. 39) and H. V. Basil Thorington, responsible for many houses of a slightly superior type in Curzon Park. (fn. 40) Many houses were designed by Chester-based architects, among whom John H. Davies and Sons, Richard B. and Arthur R. Keane, Arthur J. Hayton, and Douglas, Minshull & Co. (later Douglas, Minshull, and Muspratt) were particularly prolific. Some developers, for example Thorington, supplied their own designs. A few architects and builders came from Liverpool, such as Brown and Sanders, and O. Williams and Sutcliffe, (fn. 41) or further afield.
All the designs were conservative, and materials were restricted to brick and render, with a minimum of tilehanging, half-timbering, and other decorative finishes. The simple character of much of the private housing and its proximity to similar council housing gave visual cohesion, or in some places monotony, to many of the outer suburbs, for example at Lache, where private houses of c. 1930 faced contemporary council houses across Circular Drive. (fn. 42)
Semi-detached pairs and small detached houses were built on individual plots or on small parcels of land as ribbon-development by arterial roads, for example c. 1937-9 along Sealand Road. (fn. 43) Larger concentrations were built with the aid of corporation mortgages on land sold off by the council as surplus to requirements for public housing, particularly at Lache, Handbridge, and on the 52 acres at Curzon Park which the council had bought in 1925. (fn. 44) Between 1925 and 1931 several different developers built groups of semi-detached houses in roads laid out at the west end of the last area. (fn. 45) Elsewhere from the mid 1920s existing suburbs were enlarged by the addition of mainly inexpensive houses. At Newton they were built first at the south end of Newton Lane and in and off Brook Lane in 1932-3, (fn. 46) and later on Kingsway. (fn. 47) Cheap houses were developed along Stocks Lane, Heath Lane, and Christleton Road, (fn. 48) and in 1939 permission was granted for a cinema (never finished) and a neo-Georgian shopping parade to serve them. (fn. 49) House-builders were also active east of the Lache council estate in Lache Lane from the mid 1920s (fn. 50) and near Bache station between 1935 and 1939. At Blacon, groups of houses sprang up in the late 1930s along Highfield Road, St. Chad's Road, and Saughall Road, (fn. 51) all near the station, and permission was granted in 1936 and 1939 for over 150 more at Blacon Point. (fn. 52) In the south-east corner of Hoole, housing begun just before 1914 was continued after 1918, while at Handbridge houses spread along Brown's Lane near the cemetery.
Speculative houses of higher quality, detached and semi-detached and still Edwardian in style, were built from 1935 on a limited grid of roads between the Lache council estate and Lache Lane, including Lache Park Avenue and Marlston Avenue; further east in Queen's Park detached houses were built in Bottoms Lane c. 1927, (fn. 53) St. George's Crescent, and Victoria Crescent. Small pockets of land on and just off Parkgate and Liverpool Roads, north of the centre, were developed with tight closes, for example Abbots Grange of 1929, (fn. 54) some houses being built in the former gardens of larger houses, as at Abbots Park. Building in Curzon Park continued until the early 1950s, though after 1933 the pattern of development changed slightly as more plots were developed individually; the building of houses for individual clients seems to have reached a peak throughout Chester in 1936-7. (fn. 55)