Radical politics with a social housing agenda in early 20th century Woodlesford – lessons to learn from

If there’s one thing we can be sure about in this current period of uncertainty is that things rarely stay still for long and there is much to be learnt from history. At a national  level, we have seen a large-scale transformation of labour protections and social housing after Thatcher closed the mines and sold off council housing stock in the 1980s. Since then, our post-industrial towns in West Yorkshire have largely declined in opportunity for the working classes cut off from major commuter routes and housing ownership. For the city-focused, service-orientated middle classes opportunities have arguably soared, as they have benefitted from lower property prices and, in the Woodlesford/Rothwell/Oulton area, decent transport links to the growing urban powerhouse of Leeds.

To say things haven’t always been this way would be to state the obvious. The region’s working class coal mining history is well known, and is of course what birthed our post-WWII Oulton estate of Airey houses. But what about earlier than that? Was the creation of our 1950s council housing estate a bolt out of the blue inflicted upon a middle class region by a post-War reformist Labour government? The answer is a resounding “NO!” and — as with all rhetorical questions that preface a longer blog post — the rest of this short history explains why.

“Homes for Heroes”. These houses on Green Lea, now demolished, on were built by the Hunslet Rural District Council after WWI. This photo, looking east, is from a postcard sent from Woodlesford in 1923. The rest of the street, towards Highfield Mount in the distance, was completed by the Rothwell Urban District Council in 1939. Source: New Woodlesford

At the end of the 19th century and across the first quarter of the 20th, the area of Rothwell, Oulton and Woodlesford was a hotbed of radical politics seeking to transform the establishment’s conservative approach to issues such as housing, health and education.  Local co-operative man Thomas Henry Killingbeck was a key figure in much of this period and it is Howard Benson’s recent post about Thomas that inspired this blog today (I urge you to take out some time to enjoy this long read, which covers far more than this post’s potted history). What is relevant for us is the turbulent times between the 1890s and 1930s.


Taking back control: from private landlords to government housing

In 1893 Queen Victoria had already been on the throne for 56 years (!), William Gladstone was Prime Minister under a minority Liberal government, the UK saw its first national coal strikes, and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in Bradford. This party sat to the left of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party and sought working class representation in political office. As a centre of radical grass-roots worker politics, Rothwell quickly formed its own ILP branch that same year and the party’s policies – such as free education and healthcare, social housing, a welfare safety net for the poor and disabled, an eight hour working day, and the abolition of child labour – are ones we now take for granted today.

Social housing came to the forefront of the Rothwell branch’s political agenda in the first decades of the twentieth century. The opening of Water Haigh colliery and Armitage brickworks in the local area had brought significant numbers of workers and their families to the region but housing construction did not meet demand. As Howard Benson explained:

“Many of the older houses, built from local stone, were cramped, infested with vermin and with only basic gas and water pipes. Practically all of them had outside toilets, or privies, often shared, which were just holes in the ground covered by a board with a hole in it. Ashes from the kitchen fire were spread on the human waste before it was collected by council workmen and taken to a local dump. Some cottages dated back to the 1780s and the early years of the 19th century. Built as investments by quarry owners many had been sold on to landlords who had no connection with the area and were only interested in collecting the rent.”

For years there was talk in the council that “private enterprise” would fill the housing gap, but projects and houses were not forthcoming, leaving workers with excessively long commutes or inhumane living conditions. While some of the town’s prominent figures, such the brickworks Armitage family, put a lot of time and effort into improving sanitation and utilities access for ordinary people, especially their workers, it was insufficient to meet overall need.

Even back then, government legislation enabled local councils to buy land for housing and borrow money for construction costs at cheaper rates but there was an ‘innate conservatism’ among council members who were reluctant to back a policy that would see an increase in their voters’ “council tax” bills as a result of such construction. But it was causing a local housing crisis affecting the poorest the most. The ILP and prominent local figures from across the political spectrum railed against such inequalities. In 1915, one year after the start of World War I, Thomas Killingbeck (a prominent member of the co-operative movement, ILP supporter and soon-to-be local councillor) wrote to the local newspaper stating that:

“Sir, I notice in your issue of July 31st that the miners have sent a complaint to the Executive of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association at Barnsley about the exorbitant rents charged to them at Woodlesford and district. One would naturally have thought this would be a most inopportune time to take advantage of the scarcity of houses, when all sections of the community are expected to show their patriotism by making some sacrifice for the benefit of the country… greedy property owners have been able to raise the rents to [a great] extent…

If a man can borrow money to build houses with, and make a profit on the transaction by letting the houses to the workers, surely the district council can borrow the money which is required, especially when we realise that local authorities can borrow at a far cheaper rate than any private individual can…

A couple of years ago the Local Government Board were anxious to help councils to build where there was a great scarcity of houses such as there was in this district. Had we elected two progressive representatives to the district council we might have had a large number of houses erected by the council before the war.”

Killingbeck’s observation’s and critiques of government inertia were astute. Just two years later, as Prime Minister Lloyd George became increasingly fearful of a 1917 Russia-style socialist revolution in Britain, the government embarked on a series of housing reforms which saw councils being given more subsidies and greater powers to borrow money for construction at lower interest rates.


Homes fit for Heroes

In a now-famous speech Lloyd George declared that “slums are not fit homes for the men who have won this war” and coined the phrase “Homes fit for Heroes”, foreshadowing the post-WWII housing drive that saw the creation of our homes on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close. Before WWI was over, in 1917, the government gave the go-ahead for 100 new homes to be built in the Oulton Woodlesford area (though plans were sat on for many years). Then, in 1924, a minority Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald and supported by the ILP managed to pass the Wheatley Housing Act, which increased government subsidies to local authorities for house building for low earning workers.

Lloyd George giving a speech. Photo source: World War I Centenary

While social housing numbers may not have grown enough to fully meet demand for growing industry in the area, these reforms on a national scale were recognition that the private housing sector, with its greedy landlords, was not equipped to offer the country what it practically needed, if workers were to live in adequate conditions within a reasonable distance of their jobs. More than that, it was recognition that the private housing sector, and its greedy landlords, were not suitable to offer the British people what they deserved: homes fit for heroes. In the early 20th century these heroes mined Britain’s coal and fought Britain’s battles in the First World War.

Today’s heroes in Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close also mined Britain’s coal until the mines closed in the 1980s. And they now staff Britain’s hospitals, teach Britain’s children and work for Britain’s armed services. Today’s heroes have spent decades contributing to this country’s economy in all manner of workplaces and through bringing up families. They deserve a secure and affordable roof over their heads, close to their workplaces and families. Private rental rates in Oulton and a lack of social housing might soon make this impossible.

What Oulton’s early 20th century history teaches us is that private landlords have rarely provided meaningful housing protections or an affordable roof over the heads of Britain’s workers. Government and local councils must step up and take responsibility. It also provides valuable lessons about the difference a radical grassroots politics can make  (in all party colours) to everyday life for Britain’s workers – we wouldn’t have social housing, national healthcare, free education and abolished child labour without it.

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