Friday, 18 December 2009


Architect's impression of St Martin's Flats, Emily St, Highgate, 1938

Following the Great War, Birmingham Corporation began to address the issue of its massive population growth and overcrowded and decrepit housing. Returning soldiers had been promised 'Homes fit for heroes,' but, despite the Corporation's efforts, these homes had not been fully realised by the beginning of the next war.

During the inter-war years the city expanded outwards into the large areas which had been purchased by the Corporation. Private sector housing was proving too slow in meeting the needs of the people and these houses were beyond the means of most, and so, municipal housing, deemed too socialistic before WWI, became a reality.

The planned suburban sprawl was designed for skilled workers who could afford the rents, but the majority of back-to-back dwellers couldn't. Slum clearance had been in the minds of the Council for many years but real advance was not made until after the Second World War. However this did not stop a limited series of housing experiments conducted just outside of the inner ring road.

The pictures above and below show the Holme estate which consisted of the first municipal flats built - "in a Dutch style" - by Birmingham Corporation in 1927 on Garrison Lane, Bordesley. Although the first residents complained they were too small, the Mansions, as they were known by the residents, still exist today and are listed.

The second central area experiment didn't happen until about six years later when a row of maisonettes were constructed in Great Brook Street and became Moorcroft Place (below). Then the whole area along neighbouring Barrack Street was cleared to build the Ashcroft Estate which was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1934.

St Martin's flats (below) in Highgate were the first concrete-only flats built in the city. During 1935 there had been much debate in the Council House about a return to flats as a solution to the housing problem of the inner city. It was decided that any further experimentation would have to be done using concrete instead of brick. This was simply due to the shortage of bricklayers. The design of the St Martin's flats reflected the research done by Council committees in the German cities of 1930. They were opened by the Queen in March 1939 and demolished in 1980.


[Three other photographs of St Martin's flats at Emily Street by the great Phyllis Nicklin can be found here, here and here. Much credit is due to Keith Berry for hosting them, along with his own collection of old Birmingham photos.]

After the financial crisis of 1931, the private sector began to catch up with local authorities, and by the outbreak of the Second World War over 50,000 municipal homes had been built and over 200,000 people had been re-housed in the expanded area of Birmingham.

Although living conditions were better, there were new problems. Long-established communities had been broken up and dispersed, new pressures on transport, distance to employment, and then there were those who were left behind. The scale of suburban construction had been enormous but it had left the issue of the worst housing near the city centre (within walking distance of the factories) unresolved, and that was still the case in Autumn 1939.

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