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Leicester Special Collections

Housing

In 1946, after the Second World War, 10,000 houses were urgently needed for returning service people and the families they were starting. Quick solutions included 573 ‘prefabs’ in Braunstone, New Parks, Ambassador Rd, Hughendon Drive, but there were shortages of labour and materials and by 1951 only 4,000 houses had been built.

However, production increased and between 1946 – 1959 13,000 houses were built, around 3,000 in New Parks, over 1,000 in Stocking Farm & Mowmacre Hill, over 1,500 at Thurnby Lodge, and over 2,500 at Eyres Monsell. By 1957 the cost of all the building caused targets to be reduced to 600 houses a year, and these houses were built for people displaced by slum clearance.

The pre-war slum clearance programme started up again in 1953/4 and was in full swing by 1956. Slum clearance continued into the 1970s. In the late 1950s estates at St Matthew’s, St Mark’s, St Peter’s, and Rowlatts Hill started to be planned and built, with St Matthews starting in the late 1950s.[1]

Slum housing in Leicester

Court housing in Russell Square, 1955.

Slums

Prior to 1945 many people lived in red brick pre-1914 terraced streets. New council housing had been built between the wars at Coleman Road, Saffron Lane and Braunstone, while many privately owned semi-detached houses had also been built around the city. For most people, though, life was lived in a terraced street, and most of these streets were looking pretty run down by the end of the 1940s. Walls were often only a single brick in width, toilets were outside, there was no central heating, lighting could still be gas rather than electricity, conditions were damp. A huge slum clearance programme demolished the older housing and moved residents into new housing, usually on the outskirts of the city.[2]

Dorothy Oliver and Brenda & Ron Brewster talk about slum housing in the St Nicholas Circle area.

Link to website about Leicester's terraced housing - https://www.le.ac.uk/emoha/leicester/terraces.html
Link to memories of slum housing in Leicester - https://www.le.ac.uk/emoha/community/resources/braunstone/slums.html
Link to ‘Home Sweet Home: A century of Leicester housing 1814-1914’ by Dennis Calow - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll5/id/1304
Further reading - 'The Slums of Leicester' by Ned Newitt (2009)

Pre-fab housing

The kitchen of a pre-fabricated house. Note all the modern conveniences, such as a refrigerator.

Temporary Solutions

Immediately after WW2 there were shortages in both materials and manpower. Some people had to squat in former prisoner of war camps or military barracks, while wartime Nissan huts might also be converted into homes. Over 500 pre-fabricated houses (pre-fabs) were built and some lasted until the 1970s. These were compact, modern homes that could be put together quickly and easily. For many people they represented an improvement on what they had been used to, having indoor bathrooms and well-equipped kitchens.[3]

Olive Feestone recalls her first, pre-fabricated, home.

Further reading - 'Living in a Box. Leicester's Post-War Prefabs' by Brian Johnson

Getting a council house

Houses that could be rented were built by Leicester City Council all over the city with rents that were affordable for all but the poorest members of society. The houses were warm and had inside toilets and bathrooms, as well as good sized gardens. The streets were wide and there were green spaces for children to play on, while the countryside was often not far away. However, amenities that people took for granted in the city centre - shops, doctors, cinemas etc. - were now miles away and it often took a long time for them to be built locally. People who were being moved out of slum cleared areas were usually given a choice of several locations but, as might be expected, not everyone got their first choice.

At one point 162 houses were built in 162 days on the New Parks Esate. Brick building may have been the best quality, but steel and concrete houses could be built quicker and with less-skilled workmen. These three basic building materials were promoted by central government with the result that many post-war council estates across the country look very similar. Worries about the uniformity created by the mass production of three bedroom houses for families led the Council to experiment with flats at Aikman Avenue (following exploratory trips to Scandinavia to look for ideas).[4]

Further reading - 'A Home of Our Own. 70 Years of Council House memories in Leicester' by Bill Willbond.

Dorothy Oliver and Brenda & Ron Brewster talk about moving to Eyres Monsell in the 1950s.

The Eyres Monsell housing estate under construction.

Eyres Monsell under construction in 1958.

Buying a house of your own

As with council housing, housing estates were built by private firms all around the outskirts of the city. For couples with no children council houses often weren't an option, so many saved for their own house. In 1953 Margaret Rud paid £1,028 for a house built by Jelson on Scraptoft Lane. Most people who were interviewed for this project and who bought their own homes in the 1950s mention paying up to £1,600. As Brian Belcher recalls, being on a low wage meant it could be tricky getting a mortgage:

"We got married in 1960. I'd saved up a small deposit while we were courting. I mean, I was only getting an apprentice's wage. My first week's wage for 44 hours was only £2.55, that's what I came out with. I used to save all my spending money, we hadn't used to go to the pictures, we saved really hard, we saved £200 in a short time. We couldn't get a mortgage... we were very disappointed, we didn't know what to do, and someone said, 'Why don't you try the Abbey?'... They said, 'Yeah, we'll give you a mortgage'. Of course, we were over the moon... we went down to Jelson's and they gave us three plots to view. In those days they used to put you on a separate agreement... £10 for the land and £25 for a house, signed over a stamp, separate agreements. The house went up in price four times while they were building it, but we only paid £1,600 for the house and £200 for the land. That was Jelson's at Birstall."

Inside the home

Having spent all their money on the house, a lot of people remember not having enough left for carpets, or even furniture sometimes, and it took time to save for the creature comforts many of us now take for granted (listen to the sound clip above of Dorothy Oliver and Brenda & Ron Brewster). Dennis O'Brien (interviewed for this project) recalls the utility furniture that was produced between 1942-1952 in an attempt to make the best use of limited resources:

"The Government brought in a scheme for people who’d been bombed out or had no furniture. They brought in a ‘utility’ scheme and furniture was built to a specification, which meant that they had a very modest streamlined design, often using recycled plywood and other materials, but were made to a certain standard, and these were available on application, you had to be assessed before you could get utility furniture. We managed to get quite a few things, a table and a couple of easy chairs. From Wigfalls in the High Street, and it was good stuff. The design is still fashionable, in fact […] I look at IKEA furniture today and think that its origin and simplicity, and its modest price and simple construction and design, it’s really a progression from what we had when utility furniture was produced. Now, I’ve got practically a full set of Woods’ Beryl Ware – that was a utility design originally and they’re still attractive, still very useful, good quality, set of crockery."

While new houses had modern amenities - although central heating came later for many people - conditions in older housing were often far removed from what we would expect today. Lucy Faire points out that in 1951 18% of households lacked piped water, 9% didn’t have a stove of any sort, 12% had no kitchen sink, 18% lacked a toilet that could be flushed, and 47% didn’t have a fixed bath. By 1971 a quarter of households still didn’t have an indoor toilet.[5]

Further reading - The transformation of home? by Lucy Faire in ‘Leicester a Modern History’, Chapter 9.

The photos below show family life in a semi-detached house in 1945.

A living room in 1945

At home in 1945

Incomers

One of the features of the post-war period was how the medieval villages surrounding Leicester - Aylestone, Belgrave, Braunstone, Evington, Humberstone and Knighton - continued the pre-war process of being drawn closer to the city as new housing filled in the gaps between the villages and the city. As Phillip Bull, recorded in 2011, recalls, this wasn't always welcomed by local people:

"What was Evington like in the early 1950s? Very rural. I can give you an instance. You know where the library is on the apex, well, there was a thatched cottage there, when we lived there (the corner of Evington Lane and The Common). The Common wasn’t developed, where the busses come down, wasn’t developed. So, it was quite rural, shall we say. But you see… when this estate was built in 1950, the majority of… 90% of the inhabitants were all ex-servicemen. I don’t know quite how to put this, I don’t want to be rude, but the WI (Women’s Institute), were people, the old diehards lived on Spencefield Lane, all round there, and I know they said when we all moved in, ‘We don’t really want council house women in the WI do we?’ You know. I mean, it really hurt us. Consequently, my wife never joined the WI."

Being modern

When Margaret Carter and her husband designed their own home Margaret knew she didn't want a front room that was only used for 'high days and holidays', a typical feature of terraced houses up to that point. New designs, such as open plans and split levels, took people away from the past towards a modern future.

Having said this, in Leicester in the 1950s it was extremely unusual to see a house that didn't look like a standard terraced, semi-detached or detached home. In 1954 a strange new sight appeared in Clarendon Park, a modernist bungalow built for Mr & Mrs Goddard. Although the Goddards' influences were European designs and architects, the house has an American feel with an open plan and floor to ceiling double glazing (which, for a house, was very unusual at the time). Local people didn't know what to make of it![6]

Mr & Mrs Goddard talk about their modernist house

A modern house in Leicester

The modernist house on Avenue Road, built in 1953/4.

[1] ‘Leicester in the 20th Century’ by Nash & Reeder (1993) pp19-26.

[2] See ‘Leicester in the 20th Century’ pp8-18 and ‘Home Sweet Home: A century of Leicester housing 1814-1914’ by Dennis Calow - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll5/id/1304

[3] Nash & Reeder, pp19-26.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The transformation of home? by Lucy Faire in ‘Leicester a Modern History’ edited by Richard Roger & Rebecca Madgin, Carnegie Publishing Ltd., 2016, Chapter 9, p.225.

[6] See https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1375665 and an interview with the Goddards held by the East Midlands Oral History Archive Ref: 1822, EM/108/A&B