Book Review: Homes for Welsh Workers by Stephen Kay

Review essay by Matthew Griffiths

Stephen Kay, Homes for Welsh workers: from Robert Owen to the Garden City movement, with a gazetteer of planned communities in Wales, 1800 to 1939. Foreword by Jan Morris. 325 Press, Abergavenny. Paperback 2014: £10 pp. 129, illus.  ISBN 978-0-9563160-1-1

Front cover

Jan Morris puts her finger on it in her foreword. This is both a labour of love and a major contribution to the study of housing and society in Wales. It is history book, architectural study, and reference aid. Its focus is above all the townscapes imagined and built by well-meaning industrialists, social reformers, philanthropists, local councils; people who in their different ways wanted workers to live in healthy, pleasant homes and surroundings. Primarily, Kay is interested in housing associated with the Garden City movement (or at least its reflections) in Wales, but he also surveys earlier planned communities and their background. He has been influenced by a neglected work by the architectural historian, Gillian Darley, whose 1975 Villages of vision was reprinted in 2007, but having lived in New Lanark it’s not hard to work out the wellspring for this project!

It’s a project that strikes an immediate chord. As a dedicated Barrian, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t recognise that our local Garden Suburb is something special, even if, by the time I grew up, it was much more the part of town where the teachers lived than a community of railway workers whose leafy streets and white-painted semis were a world away from the terraces that characterised earlier housing in the town. Naturally, I couldn’t be unaware of Cardiff’s Rhiwbina Garden Village, nowadays pretty posh, and cut from the same cloth – the pre-Great War idealism of Raymond Unwin and his acolytes, particularly T. Alwyn Lloyd.

Unwin was an engineer who became an architect and planner. His early inspiration came from Ruskin and William Morris (he was at one time secretary of Morris’s Socialist League). He and his brother-in-law Barry Parker promoted Arts and Crafts style housing, designed a model village for the Rowntrees, and played a part in the creation of Letchworth, the first Garden City, inspired by the ideas of Ebenezer Howard. Amongst a host of other schemes we have Unwin to thank for Hampstead Garden Suburb. T. Alwyn Lloyd was one of the founders of the Town Planning Institute (1914) (and incidentally of CPRW). He was a Liverpudlian with Denbighshire roots who worked as Unwin’s assistant on Hampstead, and in 1913 became architect to the Welsh Housing and Town Planning Trust. He lived in Rhiwbina, and late in his career, partnered with Alex Gordon.

Rhiwbinagardenvillage_1916

Source: The Welsh Town Planning and Housing Trust Limited Cardiff

The irony is that I have picked up far more awareness of garden cities in England (and indeed of the whole ‘model village’ saga, reaching back to Robert Owen – another Cymro – and New Lanark) than I have about the story of planned communities and garden villages and suburbs (no cities, of course)[1] in Wales. I’ve recently found out a lot, for different reasons, about planned workers’ housing schemes in Morriston and Llanidloes; Wyndham Park, Peterston is more or less on my doorstep; and I have driven in and out of Townhill in Swansea more than once, but ignorant until now of the story behind this early example of Welsh local authority public housing. I won’t be alone in my patchy comprehension of Welsh model housing, whether related to early industrialisation, or connected with the garden city movement. That’s because all the literature has an English focus, and there was a job to be done in researching what has happened in our country.

Hence Kay’s mission. He doesn’t accord his book the status of a formal academic work on architectural history. Frankly, if this had been his aim the outcome might well have been dry-as-dust. Fortunately this the work of an enthusiast, fascinated by ‘landscape and the houses that are in it, or on it.’ And he is enthusiastic about settlements ‘intended to improve the quality of life of their inhabitants’ – whatever their origin. Wales has its own history, and while he finds parallels and influences, he argues that the history of model housing here is quite different to that of England.

To be honest, I think that argument can be sustained when it comes to the makers of the garden suburbs and the early public housing estates; it seems to be less true for the earlier period, when Owenite, Chartist and Fourierite ideas, let alone the notions of nutty religious sects who wanted to live apart and on the land, are as much part of the English landscape as they are of Wales. But for the period before 1914 Kay has a convincing argument that relates housing reform and a concern for popular amenity to the contemporary Welsh cultural revival, and links the aspirations of academics, politicians and architects.

Kay’s book, like Caesar’s Gaul, is in three parts, though this is not entirely clear from the section titles in the contents! A history of the various individuals and (loosely speaking) organisations involved in the provision of model housing in the period from the later 18th century to the thirties of the last century (I hate writing that) is followed by a series of potted biographies of key individuals, and then, by the real red meat of the book, a gazetteer of sites large and small, successful or failed, vanished or very much part of the modern townscape (after all, garden villages and suburbs were still being managed in some degree by their leading progenitor, the Welsh Town Planning and Housing Trust, until the 1960s). He takes a catholic approach to the inclusion of sites. Some seem thought about but never built (Llanelli – where the council, the GWR and the WTPHT couldn’t get their collective act together); others were miniscule, a row or two of houses on a longer street; others still claimed to be garden villages, but may have been so in name only – this might be the case with Beddoe Rees and his Welsh Garden Cities Ltd that carried out projects for the Powell Dyffryn company prior to the Great War. Kay suggests that the fashionable branding may have been his means of escaping from the boredom of designing chapels to the more lucrative business of house-building. Kay doesn’t see much in the way of the garden city/suburb/village ideal in places like Gilfach Goch and Hengoed.

Be that as it may, and if some of the entries in the gazetteer are interesting but only dubiously part of the great tradition that Kay is investigating, this is a comprehensive and valuable piece of work, with no quarter of industrial Wales omitted, and some interesting rural schemes represented (Trebeferad, Boverton, for example, created by the Welsh Land Settlement Society and designed by T. Alwyn Lloyd (1936), or Lloyd’s (again) model housing at Llanidloes Garden Suburb). Let’s not forget that the President of the WTPHT was David Davies of nearby Llandinam. In the list of dramatis personae Davies is set forward as ‘perhaps the principal figure in the attempts… to transform Welsh housing’. Grandson of the David Davies (if you’re from Barry), the ‘top sawyer’ who ran the Ocean Coal Company and built the Barry Railway, this David Davies was a Liberal MP, a soldier in the Great War, and a director of the GWR; incidentally, he was a campaigner for world peace.

The significance Kay allots to Davies, and to others who figure in the gazetteer as important actors, does not always shine through in the first part of the book, which is a broadly chronological survey of the different origins and influences of planned communities, and an attempt to disentangle the key organisations involved in model housing provision and the social, cultural and moral influences that shaped their endeavors. The discussion of Owenite ideas, Chartist housing schemes (none in Wales) and the Fourierite influence (inter alia) on Ebenezer Howard goes well enough. Key bits of legislation emerge from the undergrowth – the public health acts and the crucial 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act. But the different, and entangled, vegetation represented by the early twentieth century trusts and companies formed, perhaps needed more room to breathe, and the discussion might  have been enlivened if material from the potted biographies and the gazetteer had been worked into the text. There would have been no harm in repetition, and this might have clarified the roles, motives and interests of the key members of the cast.

Notwithstanding this caveat, Kay does important work in documenting the outcomes of both early council housing schemes and the efforts of the garden city/village/suburb movement. There are significant links between these strands, with local authorities finding advisers and architects amongst the professionals and their trusts, and interwar public housing schemes generally borrowing architectural cues from both the Arts and Crafts tradition associated with Unwin and Parker, and the Liverpool school with its taste for the neo-Georgian. The influences of the garden suburb approach were not just stylistic, but to a greater or lesser extent influenced also the urban design and landscaping approach to public housing between the wars. If this led to few planned communities, it did mean that while the private sector’s part in the interwar housing boom tended to lead to extensive ribbon development, and a profusion of semis but little public space, there is often greater coherence to the layout of council housing, which tended to incorporate public open space and to be laid out with an eye to the topography. I would love Kay to build on the closing section of the first part of the book, where he discusses the layout, appearance and style of planned communities and housing schemes, focusing especially on the garden suburbs and villages. He is insightful here, arguing that it was not architectural style that was a common element (it was not, despite the popularity of Arts and Crafts influence) but approaches to site layout and house-plan, with extensions, outbuildings, and back-projections (all typical of by-law housing) rejected – not least to maximise light and reduce heating costs. Unlike the by-law terraces, garden suburb layouts responded thoughtfully to topography, aimed to avoid over-crowding, and incorporate space for play and vegetable) gardening. Streets might be straight, but they could also be curved, concentric, in closes, or shaped to green space.

The gazetteer offers the information that would fuel a more detailed study of estate layout and house-design. It’s valuable, of course, for the catalogue of failed or disappeared or small-scale schemes. But it is most exciting when it points the reader to the successful, stand-out projects, schemes that made a real impact on their communities. Amongst the garden suburb projects, then, we could return to Barry and Rhiwbina, Caerphilly and Wrexham (and Llay); and I really do think that Wyndham Park, planned by Thomas Mawson in 1907 for the Corys merits Kay’s use of ‘spectacular’ to describe the outcome. Alongside these the early council housing projects at Townhill and Mayhill in Swansea deserve recognition – for the social responsibility felt by Swansea council in the decade before the Great War, and for the ambitious attempt to apply garden suburb ideals to mass housing on a spectacular (there’s that word again) site. With these I’d rank a site I spent a little time studying, and photographing. Before Newtown became a ‘new town’ once more in the 1960s, the council laid out its own small development in imitation of WTPHA projects at Canal Street, Barn Lane and Fridd Bungalows.

garden suburb planOriginal plan for Barry Garden Suburb ca. 1914 (unattributed, from Kay, 2014). Presumably from the National Library, which holds the records of the WTPHT or the Glamorgan Archives which houses the records of the Barry Garden Suburb company.

Barry image corrected web

Detail, Barry Garden Suburb (2010), © The Civic Trust for Wales: The original scheme at Barry was designed by T. Alwyn Lloyd and Raymond Unwin, Fifty-two houses were built in 1915, a further 52 in 1922 and 108 in 1925, before the development, originally by the WTPHT for the Barry Garden Suburb Ltd, was extended by the Great Western Housing Association. The houses were sold in 1969 and the Garden Suburb company dissolved in 1974.

Canal Road Newtown (2012), © The Civic Trust for Wales: Public housing on garden suburb lines by Newtown Council, 1920s.

The technical bit

Kay illustrates his book profusely, reflecting the time he has spent in the archives. He includes some fascinating original plans, makes occasional use of the aerial photography that’s been published by the Royal Commissions as ‘Britain from above’ and prints plenty of photos. Only the cover is in colour, which seems a shame given the potential of architectural photography to capture the eye as much as the imagination. Grey images on shiny paper are not the best way to achieve this. An index is missing presumed destroyed. In every other respect, though, this is a fine achievement. The bibliography is excellent and the depth of scholarship shines through on each page.

[1] Subtext. Howard promoted garden cities but what we primarily have in Wales (and what Unwin himself became associated with) are suburbs that were extensions of existing towns and cities rather than new places. True followers of Howard hated garden suburbs and associated them with ribbon development and urban sprawl. Unwin was of course more realistic, and as a key figure in the Ministry of Health and influential in the outcome of the Tudor Walters report, he had a hand in shaping the rich legacy of municipal interwar housing.

Recommended reading

Municipal dreams (accessed, 14 December 2014) In the course of preparing the review I came across this web site, which is a labour of love devoted to the documentation and discussion of local authorities as social reformers and providers. Inevitably, public housing is central focus, but there are essays here on education, planning, parks and healthcare, amongst other topics. I like it for the honest way in which it attempts to redress the balance and recognise the impact of the local state in building decent places to live, providing effective schooling, and creating public amenity.

Quote: “This isn’t a crudely party political blog but, at a time when the local state and directly provided public services  are under unprecedented attack, the lessons of the past seem relevant.  In other words, this is not an exercise in nostalgia but a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.”

The author, for excellent reasons presumably known to itself, is anonymous.

Gillian Darley’s Villages of vision (1975, revised. 2007) is ISBN  978-0907123507 and can still be ordered from bookshops (or Amazon, if you must).

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Posted in conservation, heritage, information, magazine
One comment on “Book Review: Homes for Welsh Workers by Stephen Kay
  1. Joel Griffiths says:

    Thank you for this. I too remember the Garden Suburb in Barry with fondness. The last time I was in Wales I took my wife for a bike ride through it to have a look.

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