The Show Houses – Tackling the Housing Problem in an Age of Austerity

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St John’s Church, Ermine Estate, Lincoln – justly acclaimed as ‘a church of tomorrow’. Is Ermine Estate, Lincoln the housing of tomorrow?

An invitation to view

At 6.15 pm on Friday, July 4th 1952 the Mayor of Lincoln (Councillor J.W. Giles) used a “specially inscribed key” to open officially one of four show houses on Lincoln’s Ermine Estate (at that time called the Riseholme Estate) and proceeded with other members of the Council to inspect the four houses.1 One of those accompanying the Mayor was the Chairman of the City Housing Committee, Councillor W.A Hughes, and it was his idea to invite Lincoln’s citizens to view the houses. For the following two weeks they would be open for viewing from 3 pm. to 8 pm., with members of the City Architect’s Department on hand to explain the design and construction.

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The Show Houses today

Uppermost in the Mayor’s mind was the vanishing countryside: “Here is another piece of open, rural England that soon will vanish forever”.2 Uppermost in the minds of the Lincoln people who went along to see the houses in the following two weeks was probably the opportunity the new estate would provide for good quality housing at a rent “within the means of any average wage earner”.3 Like most British cities after the Second World War, Lincoln experienced a severe housing shortage. Applications for council housing were very high topping 3,000 at one point. Homeless people resorted to squatting in empty War Department property and the City Council requisitioned former RAF huts on the aerodromes surrounding the City, such as RAF Fiskerton, as housing for the homeless.4

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A grainy photograph of the show houses in 1952 – reproduced by kind permission of  Lincolnshire Echo

The driving forces

The two driving forces behind the development of the show houses and what was to become Ermine Estate were Councillor Hughes and the City Architect, Mr R.R. Alexander. Councillor Hughes, the manager of a City coal merchant, had become Chairman of the Housing Committee of Lincoln City Council in 1949 and was regarded as “tough minded and an excellent administrator”.5 Qualities he frequently had to draw upon in lengthy battles with central government and local builders in order to bring the City Council’s plans to fruition. Though council housing is often associated with the Labour Party, Councillor Hughes was an Independent and in fact Lincoln City Council was controlled by an Independent and Conservative coalition between 1947 and 1956 – the main period for the development of Ermine Estate.

Planning Ermine Estate

Plans for the estate date though from 1943. At this point in the Second World War defeat by Nazi Germany appeared unlikely and local authorities had been instructed to prepare for post-war reconstruction. The 1943 plan, drawn up by the City Engineer & Surveyor, Mr Adlington, shows an angular road layout reminiscent of the inter-war St Giles Estate in Lincoln. As well as housing it features many more facilities than were eventually constructed: a swimming pool, mini-golf course, tennis courts, a bowling green, two pubs and allotments. An ambitious dual carriageway (‘Parkway’) links Nettleham Road and Riseholme Road.6 Revisions in 1946, again by Mr Adlington, produced a less angular road layout very similar to what was constructed from 1952 onwards but included suggested sites for a new City School and a Girls’ High School which did not materialise.7

Plans for Ermine Estate were one thing but actual construction was another. The post-war period was the original ‘Age of Austerity’ and Britain’s finances were weakened by wartime destruction and debt. Nevertheless the incoming Labour government made housing a priority, promising 300,000 new houses in the first two years of office.8 When the Conservatives returned to office in 1951, they went one better pledging to produce 300,000 houses a year but to do this standards had to be cut to produce a smaller kind of house.9 In Lincoln this horrified not only the Labour Councillors but the Independent/Conservative alliance as well.

This is where the newly appointed City Architect Mr R.R. Alexander – the other driving force behind the development of Ermine Estate – stepped in. Only appointed to his post in 1952, he had a wide experience of local authority architecture. Born on 12 January 1905, he trained at Aberdeen School of Architecture, where he received his diploma in 1925 with Distinction in Civic Design. Gaining experience in Aberdeen, Bolton, Hampshire and Dewsbury, he had worked on designs for civic centres, schools and hospitals.10

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City Architect R.R.Alexander – photograph reproduced by kind permission of Lincolnshire Echo

The ‘streamlined design’

In order to meet Central Government requirements, he and his staff produced a ‘streamlined’ design, reducing the amount of space taken within the houses by plumbing, heating and sanitary facilities thereby minimising the loss of living space. So that they could evaluate the City Architect’s design, Councillors visited Desford, a village in Leicestershire, where the first houses designed to the new Conservative requirements had been built and had in fact been opened by the Housing Minister, Harold Macmillan.11 They were very pleased to note the Lincoln design provided a bigger total floor area. In the view of Councillor Hughes, “the houses were excellent dwellings”. Though Central Government had required savings to be made and now placed more emphasis on quantity rather than quality of council housing, the Lincolnshire Echo reported that the standards laid down in the 1949 Housing Manual were still being adhered to with the exception that the houses no longer contained a second WC.12

The show houses, designed by Mr Alexander, were and are a small terrace of four houses – two three-bedroom and two two-bedroom houses – situated at the southern end of what is now Redbourne Drive, Ermine Estate, Lincoln. Externally the show houses share the characteristics of the rest of the council estate eventually constructed around them: plain two-storey semi-detached and terraced houses in red/brown brick with shallow pitched roofs of concrete tiles and limited decorative detailing. The architectural style of the show houses and Ermine Estate in general may be described as ‘soft’ modernism drawing on Scandinavian approaches as opposed to the ‘hard’ modernism associated with the French architect Le Corbusier with his ‘cities in the sky’ high rise blocks of flats.13 In fact as far back as 1943, Mr Adlington the City Engineer and Surveyor had commissioned a social survey of 195 council tenants on what they wanted in housing. 94% of those surveyed replied and their answers revealed a preference for conventional good quality housing rather than Le Corbusier style ‘high rises’!14

The show houses were designed to be ‘easy to run and easy to work’ and by the standards of the day incorporated the latest technology. There were built-in cupboards and wardrobes and power plugs in every room. A local firm Jacksons Hardware Limited (now Jackson Shipley) fitted the houses with “Jackard Modern Fireplaces” which had been designed and made in Lincoln. The fireplaces included a ‘back boiler’ to heat water and this was supplemented by either gas or electric water heating. Tiling of the fireplaces was in two colours and tiling was also a feature in the kitchen and the bathroom. The houses were decorated with wall paper in the living room and front bedroom and ‘distemper’ elsewhere. A typical 1950’s colour palette of eau-de-nil, french beige, cream, mansion pale pink and ivory was used! Colours used on the outside of the houses included cream, eau-de-nil, orchid and maroon.

To give citizens an idea of what it would be like to live in the houses, eight local furniture shops, two hardware shops and the nationalised gas and electricity companies provided furniture and equipment for the show houses. The ground floor furnishers were Bainbridges, Curtis and Mawer Ltd, Smarts and Lincoln Co-operative Society. Of these only Lincoln Co-operative Society survives today but no longer selling furniture. The first floor furnishers were Mawer and Collingham (now House of Fraser of High Street, Lincoln), Neale Brothers (Lincoln) Ltd, G.H. Shaw, 126 High Street Lincoln (still trading today and at the same address) and Alexander Sloan and Co. Jacksons Hardware (now Jackson Building Centres Ltd) and W. Gregory of Bailgate, Lincoln provided kitchen and gardening equipment.15

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Advertisement for Neales of Lincoln reproduced by kind permission of  Lincolnshire Echo

The hyperbolic paraboloid roof

According to the Lincolnshire Chronicle, “visitors who have travelled from all parts of the city and surrounding districts, (were) very favourably impressed” by the show houses.16 From 1952 onwards the City’s largest housing area, Ermine Estate, developed around them. Mainly consisting of semi-detached and terraced housing, the estate also had bungalows and flats and eventually one 17 storey high-rise development (Trent View). Notable public buildings included Ermine Infants School and Ermine Junior School (constructed in the 1950s), branch library (1962), Lincoln Imp pub (1957), and St John’s Parish Church (1963). The latter designed by local architect Sam Scorer is justly celebrated for its hyperbolic paraboloid roof – a ‘church of tomorrow’. Today Ermine Estate makes up some 9% of Lincoln’s current total built up area.17

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Sketch Map of part of Ermine Estate in 1958. Reproduced by kind permission of Ermine News, St John’s Church, Lincoln. The Show Houses are on Redbourne Drive just above Site for Girls Grammar School.

The time traveller from 1952 would notice big changes on the estate both externally and internally. The planners failed to anticipate mass car ownership: the streets are lined with cars and the large ‘greens’ have had to be modified to incorporate car parking. Houses have been renovated and improved with double glazing, central heating and extensions of various kinds. Though this might not have been obvious to the time traveller, many dwellings are owned by the occupier under the ‘right to buy’ scheme and not the City Council. Similarly a stroll down Lincoln’s Silver Street or High Street,from where in 1952 the show houses were furnished, would reveal great changes. Hardly a furniture shop remains: local department store Bainbridges has been split into four (‘Black’s’, ‘Two Seasons’, ‘Poundland’ and ‘Walkabout’ restaurant); Curtis and Mawer is now ‘Taste’ Chinese restaurant; Smarts is ‘Haart Estate Agency’; Neale Brothers a bar ‘Kind’; Alexander Sloan (13 High Street, Lincoln) derelict or rather a ‘development opportunity’.

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Terraced housing on Ermine Estate

Great changes then, but our leaders tell us that once again we are in an ‘Age of Austerity’ and that something must be done about the housing crisis. Today’s leaders have ambitious plans to solve problems by matching the housing targets of the 1950s.18 Is it helpful to suggest that they might learn by looking back to a time when there was a consensus across the political spectrum on the essential role of local councils in providing housing for rent; at how the Conservative Housing Minister, Harold Macmillan, approached the problem in 1951 and how local politicians such as Lincoln’s Councillor W.A Hughes and public servants such as City Architect R.R. Alexander responded with vision, determination and ingenuity?

Note

The Ermine Community Website (ermine-estate.org.uk) provides a wealth of information about Ermine Estate including an archive of Ermine News.

1Lincolnshire Chronicle, 12th July 1952, p.4

2Lincolnshire Echo, 5th July 1952, p.6

3Lincolnshire Echo, op. cit.

4Hartley, O.A. (1969) Housing Policy in Four Lincolnshire Towns 1919-1959, unpublished D. Phil. thesis lodged in Lincolnshire County Archives, p.187 & 188

5Hartley, op. cit., p.192

6Lincolnshire Archives, LIN CITY/ENG/5/2/1/16/2

7Lincolnshire Archives, LIN CITY/ENG/5/2/1/34/1

8Hennessy P. (1992) Never Again: Britain 1945-1951, London: Jonathan Cape, p.169

9Kynaston D. (2009) Family Britain 1951-57, London: Bloomsbury, pp.53-54

10Dictionary of Scottish Architects (2014), Richard Rennie Alexander, available at www.scottisharchitects.org.uk (Accessed: 17th December 2015)

11Kynaston, op.cit., p54

12Lincolnshire Echo, 4th July 1952, p.6

13Kynaston D. (2007) Austerity Britain 1945-1951, London: Bloomsbury, p.613

14Lincolnshire Echo, 2nd June 1943, p.3; Hartley, O.A. (1969) Housing Policy in Four Lincolnshire Towns 1919-1959, unpublished D. Phil. thesis lodged in Lincolnshire County Archives, p.184

15Lincolnshire Echo, 5th July 1952, p.6

16Lincolnshire Chronicle, 12th July 1952, p.4

17Jackson, A.J.H. (2009) ‘The Development of the Ermine Estate in the 1950s and 1960s’, in Walker, A. (Ed.) Uphill Lincoln 1: Burton Road, Newport and the Ermine Estate, Lincoln: The Survey of Lincoln, pp. 65-67.

18De Castella T. (2015), Why can’t the UK build 240,000 houses a year?, available at http://www.bbc news.co.uk/news/magazine-30776306 (Accessed: 17th December 2015).

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