Garden cities figure prominently in government aspirations for house-building these days. They seem to be the politically acceptable face of New Towns. While garden cities have establishment support, the only really practical solution to the housing shortage – more council housing – is still political anathema. So it is worth knowing that garden cities and council housing share the same origins and are linked by the same ideals. In this article I report on the utopian movement that created the early garden cities and inspired the first council estates.
Garden Cities emerged from a socialist and anarchist movement for better housing that was committed to communal living and the co-operative values which council housing continues to inspire among many today. Architect Raymond Unwin forged the connection between garden cities and council housing when he applied the planning principles and designs of Letchworth garden city to the standards of new housing estates built under the 1919 Addison Act. In addition to these ideas Unwin brought a vision of co-operation and community to council housing that stemmed from his involvement in the socialist movement, and its more millenarian groups.
As a young man in his first job Unwin met and became firm friends with Edward Carpenter, the Sheffield socialist and gay rights campaigner. Carpenter had inspired a nearby commune at Norton Hall whose members were determined to get back to the land. Hugh Mapleton, a founder member, wrote:
“Our little beginning here is strictly on communistic lines: we have no rules, all business is discussed and work arranged over the communal breakfast table. We grow our own vegetables and fruits in fair variety. Included in our Return to Nature principles is vegetarianism, teetotalism, non-smoking, and abstention from salt, chemicals, drugs, and all fermenting and decomposing foods.”
Unwin was a member of the Socialist League, William Morris’ new political movement which aligned arts and crafts principles to a utopian vision of a just society – set out in News from Nowhere serialised in the Commonweal newspaper. Unwin was a frequent visitor to Morris’ Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League and met there the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin whose theories of mutual aid provided the intellectual framework for the communes and co-operative living experiments. The anarchist was also the inspiration for the political manifesto of co-operation and solidarity adopted by the Socialist League in the founding of the Independent Labour Party. Unwin was a great friend of Labour MP, Keir Hardie, and his commitment to housing was not limited to master planning but was aligned to a labour movement campaign for better housing conditions.
The father of Garden Cities, Ebenezer Howard gave the first public presentation of his planning ideals, set out in his book Common-sense Socialism, to a meeting called by the anarchist Brotherhood Trust. The Brotherhood Church and its Trust founded in 1893 was inspired by the ideas of Tolstoy, Kropotkin and the French anarchist Proudhon. The Brotherhood had established a number of communes, using their newspaper The New Order to promote a rural idyll and sell their fresh produce. Some of the first members of the Garden City Association founded in 1899 were disciples of the Brotherhood and its leader Bruce Wallace became Ebenezer Howard’s close ally.
The Brotherhood went on to establish two anarchist industrial communes in Leeds and Blackburn which were set up by blacklisted union members who now turned their hand to bicycle making and fixing electrical goods. According to their newsletter the Free Commune:
“The organisation is entirely Anarchist & Communist in character. Each man receives according to his needs, on the basis of a common agreement, without the aid of any laws or rules. The profits from the business are to be devoted to its extension and ultimately to the establishing of a regular Community Colony – an oasis is the desert of commercialism”
As Letchworth Garden City began to take shape from 1905 onward, former commune members of the Brotherhood were among its first residents, while Unwin opened house to members of the Labour Church, and the editorial of the Letchworth Gazette was in the hands of the ILP. The town became something of a magnet for those seeking an alternative lifestyle with a booming Esperanto class, and co-operative society, with their pageants celebrating the internationalism of labour. Its reputation as a home for cranks was satirised in a cartoon showing visitors from London arriving to see the long-nebbed sandal footed raisin shifters, and the hairy-headed banana munchers
Although the anarchist communes and sandal-wearers were on the utopian fringe of the socialist movement, organisations like the Socialist League and the Independent Labour Party had made the campaign for housing reform part of their political platform. They had been organising Tenant Defence Leagues and Tenant action groups in the private rented sector, and it was in the 1891 London Dock Strike, that the tenant rent strike emerged as the tactic of choice for the radical labour movement. Writing in the Commonweal newspaper the anarchist John Greaghe explained:
“When a black flag bearing the words ‘no rent’ floats over a single slum, when streets are torn up and barricaded, when from the windows and roofs of the houses there comes a shower of hot water and storm of stones and brickbats, what can the police or bailiffs do?”
The passing of the Housing for the Working Classes Act in 1885 gave municipalities the power to build the first council housing. But few took the opportunity and slum clearance only increased housing shortages leading to rent rises in the private sector. A series of rent strikes across the country erupted in the early 1900s. In Leeds in 1914 a rent strike in the back to back streets of Burley was stirred by the Labour Party into a city-wide protest in favour of municipal house building. Although the strike lasted only two months and ended with the eviction and victimisation of activists, it strengthened the labour movement’s resolve in the campaign for council housing. In 1915, 30,000 tenants across Glasgow went on rent strike, and threatened a general strike in the armaments industry at the height of the World War I. This rent strike was co-ordinated by the Independent Labour Party and the government was forced to pass the Rent Restriction Act to freeze private sector rents. The spectre of this working class revolt was one of the prime drivers behind the 1919 Addison Act and the mass provision of publicly subsidised council housing.
The first council housing reflected much of the collective spirit and communal ethos of the Garden City movement and its idealistic belief in a better future. The vision of solidarity and reciprocity shared by Morris and Carpenter, and planned by Howard and Unwin, was given form in the first council estates. The Garden City design principles of space, light and nature were inherited by the millions who benefited from the mass building of council housing from the 1920s and again from the 1940s. Council housing at its best provided high quality affordable homes that improved the lives of generations. It gave a collective boost and a sense of aspiration and hope to a third of the population until the 1980s. It was the Garden City idea made democratic and affordable, as Howard and Unwin had initially dreamed.