Social Housing, a history – part 1 | S1 E1

Social Housing plays a dramatic and hugely important role in our society. Before we delve into how marketing sits within this landscape, let’s take a look back over the last 150ish years at the history of Social Housing in the UK. In today’s episode we look at the origins of Social Housing in the UK and follow its development up to the beginning of WWI

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Below you will find the rough transcript for today’s episode, and below that are links to resources you may find interesting.



Social Housing and Council Housing are two sides of the same coin. Both, by definition, are dwellings – either flats or houses – providing shelter to people who are unable to meet the rent demands of the private sector or without the capability to buy their own home. Council houses, as is described by the name, is housing owned and managed by district and borough councils. The term Social Housing has come into play with the more recent involvement of Registered Social Landlords – which includes semi-independent and non-for-profit housing associations – who have stepped in and are playing a larger role in providing and managing housing. Yes, the names are different but the fundamental reason for both are the same. The private sector has historically failed to provide affordable housing for everyone, and intervention was needed to ensure good quality, affordable housing for the low-income households persistently overlooked. 

Before the 1850s, urban accommodation for the working class was a means to an end – cheap, perfunctory shelters provided by profit-orientated industrialists and landowners for local mine, mill and factory workers. Some landowners even went as far as to evict tenant farmers working their land in a calculated move, forcing them out of their rural, self-subsisting lifestyles and into work in their industrial endeavours. This urbanisation of the population only increased throughout the 19th century, reducing the urban housing available to squalid, cramped, over-populated hovels. In the poorer areas of cities, it was common to find entire families forced into dark, unsanitary courts and basements without facilities and natural light, and single rooms being sublet in larger houses with those subleasing tenants going as far as having to rack-rent space on their floors. As the middle class moved out of the cities, larger houses were split into tenements without any regard to upgrading the sanitation or cooking facilities suited to servicing one family. 

These conditions were, of course, only seen as a problem when Middle Class Fears of infectious disease spreading from the slums put sufficient pressure on Government. That intervention was slow in coming, though. Their argument? New housing was too expensive for the workers to afford, and land available to build on was too far from their sites of employment. However, with the French Revolution happening just over the Channel, the Government couldn’t risk the population rising in revolt themselves. As a way of combating this very real risk, Acts were passed that addressed housing seen as unfit for habitation and gave the power to improve or demolish those houses. The biggest leap towards true progress was the 1890 ‘Housing for the Working Classes Act’, which gave urban authorities the legal power to buy land and to construct tenements and housing estates. Having said that, it wasn’t until the end of the 1st World War that very few of them did anything about it.

So, if Councils and local governing bodies weren’t coming to the party till a bit later, then who was? It was left to wealthy philanthropists, free-thinking businessmen and sympathetic developers. It was this group that houses and model villages for those working in their mills and factories. 

Arguably the most famous of these Victorian philanthropic employers is Titus Salt, who started building his model village of Saltaire near Bradford in 1853 for the workers in his cotton mill. Mr Salt built stone terraced houses, wash-houses with tap water, bath-houses, a hospital and an institute for recreation and education, with a library, a reading room, a concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and a gymnasium. The village had a school for the children of the workers, alms houses, allotments, a park and a boathouse. The breadth of services and facilities Mr Salt provided for the residence of Saltaire is remarkable at a time when so little care was taken for the working-class poor. 

As lush as that all sounds it wasn’t entirely the eutopia that that list of facilities might lead you to believe. The Victorian Era is famously known for its moral compass and family values, and the residents of Saltaire were no exception. They weren’t simply given the keys to their new homes, a library card and a new lab coat and left to do what they liked with their evenings and weekends. They were expected to live up to the social and moral code that Mr Salt saw as being the key to proper living. Almost down to the man, Mr Salt screened and vetted the applicants of his new village. Each mill worker was vetted based on his character, performance at work, and of course his past behaviour. And it didn’t stop there, either. No one given a cottage in Saltaire was single – they all had to be married – and heaven forgive the man whose wife was problematic because quarrelsome, bad tempered womenfolk meant Application Denied. 

Once in, though, it got easier, right? Nah. Not a chance. Now that your wife had passed muster and you’d been given a home, it was your kids that had to toe the line. If they misbehaved and it got back to Mr Salt it wasn’t just the kids that got a clip around the ear – Dad did too, and at work no less!

Family values and moral expectations were not demands singular to the residents of Saltiare. The Cadbury bothers, both Quakers, built Bournville in 1893 which included 313 cottages with the aims of alleviating “the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions” for those working in their chocolate factory. The village was designed and built as a dry village and it stayed like that, actually, for 120 years until the local shop got a liquor licence. 

Port Sunlight is another well known Victorian Model Village founded by the Lever Bothers for the workers in their soap factories. The village was championed by William Lever who was deeply involved in all aspects of the village’s design, down to the images in the stain glass windows of the church. Now listed as a World heritage site, and with another 100 houses added to the original 800, the village is still very much as it was when originally built, in both a physical sense – everything about the layout and architecture has stayed the same – as well as the security and sense of community that it gives to those living there. 

For the workers and their families, arriving into these village really would have been like arriving into a utopia. Even the smallest cottages, like the kitchen cottages in Port Sunlight designed for labourers on the lowest wage, had a large front living room with a range in it, a separate scullery and yard on the ground floor and at least three bedrooms on the first floor. Here are families who will have shared the cellars and back-to-backs and courtyards that we spoke about earlier being offered something that they would never have imagined possible for themselves. I have not got the capacity to comprehend what it would have felt like to walk through the front door of your home that first time, knowing that it was all yours, that you didn’t have to share the toilet with 12 other people and that, for some, you had your own bedroom and bed for the first time in their your life … Life changing is a naff, diluted description that simply doesn’t do justice to what villages like Port Sunlight, Bournville and Saltaire would have meant to the families living there. It is, however, as close as my wee comprehension can get. 

Now, these developments were by no means entirely selfless. In fact, these villages are filled with the vanity, self-interest and commercial aspirations of their founders. Port Sunlight is a living advertorial for the Levey products, and even if we overlook the fact that Mr Salt point blank named the village after himself, he also named the streets in Saltaire after his kids. The thing is that these guys had cottoned on to something that most others hadn’t – they knew that their desire for healthy profits came from healthy workers, which in turn could only come from healthy living. For them that was clearly an investment worth making, and the positive impact it had for their workers, and the influence it would have on our society on a larger scale was undeniably positive.  

Saltaire, Port Sunlight and Bournville provided crucial and gratefully received homes for their workers and removed them and their families from the dire situation in which many of them had been living in before. These examples though, sadly, were not the norm and as the 19th Century drew to a close, access to affordable housing in larger cities grew ever more difficult. What started with the farming depression was compounded by the railway boom between the 1850’s and 1890. London was hit particularly badly with stations and termini being built on deliberately cheap, easily acquirable land. This was, more often than not, slum areas where the compensation to landowners and leaseholders was minimised. Tenants, of course, did not factor in anyone’s consideration. 

To say that all councils weren’t interested in alleviating the issues of housing for the working-class poor is not entirely true. In fact, the first council housing in the country was built by the Liverpool City Council under the recommendation of Dr Henry Duncan. Dr Duncan estimated that half of Liverpool’s working-class population were living in cellars. Liverpool had grown fourfold in the first forty years of the 19th Century, and those moving to the city – many from Ireland – were forced to find space wherever they could –  in crowded courts, back-to-backs and of course, cellars. 

The 1842 Sanitary Act was an early step in the right direction, giving Liverpool magistrates the power to order landlords to clean any ‘filthy or unwholesome’ houses they owned. Just four years later, the Liverpool Sanitary Act passed the responsibility of drainage, paving sewerage and cleaning of the city to the Council, and in turn, the Council appointed Dr Duncan as the Council Medical Officer of Health, another first for the country. It was a result of his zeal that 1847 saw over 5000 cellar dwellings close having been declared unfit for human habitation and another 10,000 were officially registered as accommodation. Sure, this progress was something to be celebrated, but it was far from enough to stem the tide. 17 years after Dr Duncan’s initial effort, it was estimated that one fifth of Liverpool’s population still lived in unsanitary conditions – that’s 22,000 homes, courts, back to backs and side to sides, and in many cases a dozen people were reliant on a single tolet people. God. Can you imagine the smell?

Although the Council implemented further Acts – there was an additional Sanitary Act in 1864 strengthening enforcement – but enforcement couldn’t and didn’t boost the supply of houses. With the closing of each unsanitary place, it not only depleted the number of “affordable” accommodation, but it forced those who had been living there to find space in equally unsanitary conditions somewhere else. The Council had hoped for many years that the private sector would step up and provide the housing the city needed. When it became clear that wasn’t something to hang their private sector, profit-hunting top hats on, the Council took it upon themselves to address the housing shortage and build. Ironically – what they built broke their own by-laws regarding the spacing and height of buildings. It seems it’s easy to put the rules in place but to follow them when you realise what the bill’s going to be is an entirely different kettle of fish? Hmmm. Sound at all familiar? Aye, well. We’ll get into that in the next episode. 

What it did mean, legislation and by-laws aside, was that the country’s first ever Council Housing, St Martin’s Cottages, was built in Ashfield Street, Vauxhall introducing 146 flats and maisonettes in two four-storey blocks, brick-built with open staircases and separate loos placed on the half-landings. Yeah, it weren’t great. Actually, a trade magazine at the time, The Builder, had a suggestion that those building for the poor in the future should “mix a little philanthropy with their percentage calculations”. Well, I guess it was a start, right?

Liverpool’s next Council Housing project was opened in 1885. In the two years leading up to this, the Council formed an Insanitary Committee lead by Sir Arthur Forwood. This Committee took hold of the 1864 Act and cleared a notorious slum area in Nash Grove. When the private sector continued their resolute disinterest in Social Housing, especially when significant profits waited in Middle Class Suburbs, the Council built Victoria Square and housed over 1000 people in 270 dwellings. 

The problem with slum clearing is that, although it might clear the conscience and sightlines of the affluent, it simply meant, as I mention earlier, that there were less roofs to cover the heads of the poor. Victoria Square was one of these projects aimed to rectify just that, and legislation was put in place that dictated new developments must prioritise rehousing those effected by the slum clearing, rather than being offered to those who could already afford the rent. Because that’s what had been happening before, by the way. Slum cleared, houses built, more affluent families moved in, and another slum was formed somewhere else until the process started again. 

By 1914, Liverpool Council had built 2,747 flats and houses, of the original 22,00 unsanitary houses identified 50 years earlier, only 2,771 remained, and death rates of 60 per thousand had fallen to 28 per thousand in the redeveloped areas. Fletcher Turton, a Deputy Surveyor for the Liverpool Council, observed that improvements in the housing wasn’t the only positive seen. “There is a higher moral tone, a stronger regard for self-respect, and, above all, a greater love of home is evident in the people residing in the Corporation dwellings.” 

Outside of Liverpool, the majority of new houses built before 1914 were built by private builders but the 1st WW changed everything. Building came to a standstill while the country was at war. By the 1918 General Election, the housing crisis was painfully evident, and it forced the government into action. 

Would you like to be a guest on our podcast to discuss marketing in social housing or either of these topics in general? Contact us and let’s talk about your ideas


Social Housing History
Port Sunlight Village Map
Port Sunlight Kitchen Cottage front elevation and floor plans