York Historian Alison Sinclair shows that the ambitious designs for new housing developed by Joseph Rowtree in New Earswick in the 1900s influenced not only the development of Tang Hall twenty years later but also set a template for social housing nationwide under the Homes fit for Heroes scheme.
In 1901 land was bought at New Earswick by Joseph Rowntree for the construction of an experimental village of ‘improved houses’ for working people in York. In 1902, he engaged the partnership of Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin as the architects for his experimental village. In the same year, the first tentative plan for the village was drawn up by Parker and Unwin, and between 1902 and 1907 the first houses were designed and constructed in Western Avenue, Station Avenue and Poplar Grove.
In various lectures and publications, Parker and Unwin set out the basis of their ideas for New Earswick. Most were applications of the principles of a book entitled Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform published in 1898, and containing proposals for the alleviation of the appalling housing conditions of working people of the time. The book led to the founding of the Garden Cities Association, the first conference of which was held in 1901. Here it seems Joseph Rowntree’s son, Seebohm, met the two men who were to become the architects of his father’s visionary plan for a new village.
From Garden Cities ideas came features at New Earswick which became influential in the development of national social housing policy in the early twentieth century. The layout of the new village would use existing natural features on the site, and houses would be set in gardens along streets edged with grass verges. Blocks of houses would be built in short terraces of four or sometimes more, giving the opportunity to make an architectural composition. New streets would be far from the long unbroken terraces of uniform houses commonly provided for Victorian working people.
It was a fundamental belief of the architects that their responsibility did not end with the walls and roof of a house but extended to the internal arrangements as well. The internal plans of their houses were designed to change the standard arrangement of rooms in a typical Victorian terrace house, with an under-used parlour at the front, the living-room behind, and an extension at the back containing the scullery, and earth closet and coalhouse accessed from outside.
In consultation with the first tenants at New Earswick, the two architects developed three types of room layout for their house plans. Houses had no back extensions and all the services were accommodated under the main roof. The most basic was the ‘through living room’ plan in which there was one large ground floor room stretching from back to front of the house, lit from back and front, in which all the daytime activities were carried out. In the second type the ground floor was divided into two rooms, one the living room, the other the scullery. The third type was not at first proposed by the architects until the first residents in the village requested it, and that was a house with a separate parlour which could be used for ‘best’. In their innovative plans, domestic services were accommodated beneath the main house roof and no longer in a back extension; all houses were provided with two or more separate bedrooms, a kitchen range designed to provide hot water for both kitchen sink and bath, and an inside lavatory. Room arrangements were made inter-changeable so that house layouts could be orientated to make the most of fresh air, natural light and “cheerful outlook”.
With the start of the First World War, building at New Earswick came to a halt and Raymond Unwin was appointed Chief Town Planning Inspector to the national Local Government Board. In this role, he brought the principles behind New Earswick to early twentieth century national planning policy. Crucially the three house plan types developed at New Earswick were included in a government Manual produced in 1918 to accompany national legislation leading to the ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ campaign. Under this initiative, government funds were made available to local authorities for building good quality homes for returning war heroes and their families. The Local Government Board Manual on the Preparation of State-aided Housing Schemes was produced in 1919. It advised that “… houses should be designed to provide the sunniest aspect to the living-room and the majority of the bedrooms”, and each house should ordinarily include a living-room, scullery, larder, fuel store, lavatory, a bath in a separate chamber, and three bedrooms. Model plans illustrated included a half living-room house, a through living-room house, and a parlour house.
In 1919, York Corporation responded to the ’Homes fit for Heroes’ campaign by setting up a Housing Committee whose first action was to purchase land at Tang Hall. The following year, contracts were let for the construction of 185 houses. These were for a number of through-living-room house plan types, some with 3, some with 4 bedrooms; and many for the parlour plan type, similarly with 3 or 4 bedrooms. In this initial phase of social house building in Tang Hall it appears that no half-living-room plans were provided, although they were introduced on the estate subsequently. Nor were different house plans specially orientated to take advantage of natural light and outlook. By the end of February 1921 the first houses in Carter Avenue were completed, and work was in hand in 4th and 8th Avenues.
By 1928, more than a thousand new houses had been completed in Tang Hall. A few years ago, two older ladies of my acquaintance told me how, as children living in poor housing in Walmgate, they had run down Hull Road to look at the beautiful new houses they were going to move into with their families. From these early beginnings, York Council continued to build social housing right across the City, until legislation in the 1980s altered the statutory duty of local authorities to provide low cost housing.