The council house revolution hits Burnley

This photograph of Lockyer Avenue shows council houses of a slightly later vintage than those in Barry Street (S)
This photograph of Lockyer Avenue shows council houses of a slightly later vintage than those in Barry Street (S)

Last week we looked at the houses of Burnley’s wealthier families and how they gradually migrated out of the town centre moving to better locations in the Rose Hill, Padiham Road, Colne Road and Ormerod Road areas.

Last week we looked at the houses of Burnley’s wealthier families and how they gradually migrated out of the town centre moving to better locations in the Rose Hill, Padiham Road, Colne Road and Ormerod Road areas.

Some of the better-off families moved out of Burnley altogether, to such places as Reedley Hallows, Simonstone and even the Quaker Bridge area of Brierfield. The very wealthiest moved out of the area altogether – the Dugdales of Lowerhouse, who had some fine houses in Burnley, eventually moved to Gloucestershire.

There were, of course, especially in these expansive times, always people to take up the properties vacated by the wealthy but, as the years went by, areas that had housed some of Burnley’s most prosperous commercial families became the homes of ordinary working people and, sometimes, of casual labourers.

This is a pattern which can be seen in most, if not all, manufacturing towns and cities. Burnley was no different. As with other places, speculators also built houses, to buy and for rent, for those who held jobs in Burnley’s mills and foundries.

This was in the days when there was little, or no, planning and we have seen that many of these properties – back-to-backs, cellars and tenements – did not take long to become slums.

Many were poorly built, without foundations, with inadequate windows and doors which did little to prevent wind and rain. Such properties were without piped water and proper sewage. Some had insanitary cess pits nearby. Others shared dirty hand pumps for water.

Many were huddled together near industrial buildings, sometimes even joined on to such properties, with no through ventilation. Dampness was a problem at any time of the year and winters were often bitterly cold for families who could not afford coal for their few fires.

Thanks in part to the Ordnance Survey, it is still possible to identify many of these sites and, perhaps surprisingly, many of them survived into the 1930s and even to the post-war years. We have looked at them before in previous articles in this series so I will not repeat the locations here.

The point I am trying to make is that, for many years in the 19th Century, Burnley, as with other similar towns, was creating the problems with which we remain beset. It is, of course, more complicated than that because the abandoned houses with which we are familiar today are of a later vintage than the back-to-backs, cellars and tenements of an earlier period.

When built, the terraced houses that have survived to today might have lacked modern conveniences but they did have running water, back yard toilets and adequate sewerage, considerable improvements on the properties demolished some 70 years ago.

The replacement of these early houses, often privately rented properties, became a priority for Burnley Councils in the early 20th Century. The late Leslie Chapples, as a boy, lived at 12 Brown Street in Burnley. He described the area in which he lived as follows: “The Clubhouses comprised two rectangular blocks of cottage homes that stood roughly where the Post Office engineering department now stands in Brown Street.

“The houses, nowadays, would be regarded as undesirable slums, built piecemeal with the finances coming from weekly sums subscribed by interested local men. As the houses were built they were occupied and others commenced until the two plots were completed”.

Mr Chapples then describes the houses as he remembered them a century after they were built – they had no hot water on tap, simply a cold tap; no bathroom; gas was the only source of illumination – upstairs, candles; toilets, in the back yard, alongside open ashpits, but, for other houses, the toilets, built in blocks (for which householders had keys) were some way from the houses and he concludes by saying rats and mice were in evidence.

How could it be otherwise? These appalling conditions, you might think, might have been the worst in town. They were not. It surprises me, to this day, that so little was done about the poorest of properties but, although improvements were made to sanitation and running water by the third quarter of the 19th Century, what went on in a poor man’s house was a matter only for him and his landlord.

In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act was passed into law. It was an attempt to give greater powers to growing towns and cities but Burnley was not covered by the Act. Similarly, Burnley did not benefit from schemes promoted by housing reformers such as George Peabody or Octavia Hill. It was not until 1851 that the government in Westminster got involved in housing.

Lord Ashley’s Labouring Classes Lodging-Houses Act made it possible for Parish Vestries to borrow funds for the construction of what we would now call “council houses” but, so far as I know, only one town, Huddersfield, took advantage of the powers of this Act.

At this time Burnley was governed by a Vestry, although it called itself the Town Committee, and another group, the unelected Burnley Improvement Commissioners. They made no attempt to implement the provisions of the Act and, even when Burnley got its own council, in 1861, it ignored the 1875 Artisans’ & Labourers’ Dwellings Improvements Act and the recommendations of a Select Committee of the House of Commons which reported in 1881.

Similarly, the considerations of a Royal Commission of 1884 were not addressed and although a number of Housing Acts were passed, Burnley contrived to ignore them all.

This was the age of “laissez-faire” which, in simple terms, meant “do not interfere”, “leave things to evolve themselves” and, not unlike the modern equivalent, “let the market decide”, the policy was too simplistic and, consequently, a failure.

In Burnley, its political leadership supported laissez-faire in a big way, what was happening, as I have already inferred, was that problems were being built up that the private sector had not got the resources to resolve, even if it wanted to.

They still took rents from their tenants while the properties in which the tenants lived continued to deteriorate.

The Royal Commission of 1884 did, however, have an effect in that, six years after its report was published, Parliament passed the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890). The Act gave powers to councils to purchase and demolish slum areas and construct new houses but the Act was permissive, not compulsory, and few local authorities took up the legislation until after the First World War.

Burnley, however, can claim one small feather in its housing cap. In 1909 Burnley Council built a number of houses for rent on the Small Holdings above Towneley. They were the first council houses constructed in town and these were followed, in 1913, by 24 houses in Mansergh Street and Killington Street in the Lanehead area.

These latter had been started by a private builder who got into difficulties when the properties were under construction. The council stepping in and completed the project. Officers of the council always regarded these as Burnley’s first proper council houses as they were not connected to agriculture as were the properties at the Small Holdings.

The schemes of 1909 and 1913, small as they were, indicated that the council would have to become more involved in housing than had been the case before. However, the First World War intervened and house building was put on hold.

The war, though, did have an effect on the housing problem in that the nation was shocked at the health of many of the men who volunteered to fight in France and Belgium.

The Press, at the time, was full of references to the terrible living conditions of some of the volunteers, a parallel being drawn between their loyalty to the nation and the nation’s lack of interest in them.

It was soon being reported that, when the war was won, there would be “homes fit for heroes”. Council housing had got the impetus that it had been looking for and the attitude of the authorities in Burnley, and many other towns, changed almost over night.

In 1919, 378 houses in the Rosehill and Palace House areas were planned and soon under construction.

At the same time, there was also considerable impetus to get rid of the slums which existed in large numbers in most towns and cities, especially in towns in industrial areas.

A number of Acts of Parliament were passed in the mid 1920s, and one in particular, in 1930, which set Burnley on a course to remove the early 19th Century slums and replace them with garden homes for working families. It was a laudable scheme and one which I will continue in a further article.

Before I conclude, let me say one last thing. Residents of Burnley, when speaking to me about Burnley’s current housing problems, quickly blame the council. The problems were not created by the council, which indeed has done much over the years to resolve them, but by the private landlords of the 19th Century, often local men, who cared nothing for their tenants and took their rents. This has been repeated into the 20th Century when the situation has been exacerbated by additional factors.

In July 1897 there were 1,076 empty houses in Burnley and by November of that year the figure had risen to 1,250. There is nothing new, is there?