‘Homes for Heroes’: The start of state-aided housing in Hackney

St Leonard's Court in New North Road, was originally built as St Leonard's Dwellings by the then Met

St Leonard's Court in New North Road, was originally built as St Leonard's Dwellings by the then Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch and completed in 1921. The flats are typical of many immediate post-First World War municipal blocks of flats in London. Picture: Nigel Cox CC BY-SA 2.0 - Credit: nse) Nigel Cox / Hoxton: St Leonard's Court, New North Road, N1 / CC BY-SA 2.0

The boom in post-war housing is often associated with the Clement Attlee government after the Second World War. Today, however, historian Dr Michael Passmore tells Emma Bartholomew about the post-war social housing built in Hackney after the First World War, and the beginnings of council housing.

As weary soldiers returned from the First World War to a country recovering from the conflict, the government pledged to build good quality homes and provide state subsidies for the first time in the UK.

The initiative took the name "Homes Fit for Heroes" from a sound bite by prime minster David Lloyd George during the 1918 general election campaign to "build a land fit for heroes".

The housing element of the pledge involved a new act requiring local councils to build cottage-style houses with gardens to let to working people. But in practice blocks of flats could be put up in crowded parts of London like Shoreditch where that was impractical, because of short supply. Government officials looked to London County Council (LCC) to be the main provider of the new homes, but expected the 28 metropolitan boroughs to plan and build housing schemes too. Despite the name, the homes weren't restricted to ex-servicemen and their families.

The government Minister of Health in the post-war coalition government who instigated the Housing Act of 1919, Dr Christopher Addison, had practised medicine in Hoxton before being elected a Liberal MP for Hoxton in 1910.

"He was influenced by seeing people's health suffering because of damp and inadequate housing," Michael Passmore of the University of Greenwich told the Gazette. "Shoreditch was one of the most overcrowded parts of London at the time."

At the time working class families for the most part lived in homes built in a substandard fashion, and private landlords only conformed to the minimum standards. Houses previously occupied by middle class people who had moved out to the suburbs were sometimes inhabited by several families sharing rooms.

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While the LCC, the City of London and the 28 boroughs could already build council house dwellings under the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890, there was no obligation to provide housing and rents were not subsidised. By the time war broke out in 1914, between Hackney, Shoreditch, and Stoke Newington metropolitan boroughs in what is now known as Hackney, only Shoreditch had built homes.

Despite its small size and central location, Shoreditch achieved a lot after the war. Homes were built in Teale Street, and a five-story building with 40 flats was built in New North Road, called St Leonard's Dwellings. Unfortunately Hackney Council demolished the building later renamed St Leonard's Court, before it became aware of its historical significance - as revealed in Michael's research.

In contrast, Stoke Newington built just 18 flats on the south side of Lordship Grove - although, it performed better than both neighbouring Finsbury and Stepney, which produced nothing under the 1919 Act.

Hackney built the most cottage-style homes under the 1919 Act, developing 146 on scattered plots in Upper Clapton, Clapton Park and Homerton Road neighbourhoods, some of which exist today. The cottages, whose design was influenced by the arts and crafts movement, which favoured traditional designs, local materials and craft skills in the building trade, proved to be popular. "It was high quality housing and the cottage types were very much liked by tenants. A lot of them have been sold off in right-to-buy," said Michael. "It was the start of things that took off in the 30s but the standards of quality were reduced by then. The cottage style was designed to move people out to the suburbs to Greenfield sites with large gardens, and they were able to build some with decent gardens in Clapton."

There were more than 300 applicants looking for tenancy in Lordship Grove and Michael said: "This level of oversubscription indicates a housing crisis which has resonance today."

By 1936 the number of new homes had risen substantially, with 800 in Hackney, 203 in Shoreditch, 203, and 118 in Stoke Newington.

"It is likely that the significance of the Addison Housing schemes in today's Hackney has been largely overlooked because there are none of the well-designed cottage estates associated with the 'homes for heroes' initiative," said Michael. "The act was something of an experiment in state support for social housing. It led the way in providing subsidised council housing for the next 60 years."

Michael Passmore has written an article about 'Homes for Heroes; in the current edition of Hackney History, available from the Hackney Archives in the CLR James Library.