Reform & Revolution 9 - 1950s slum clearance
Published by Hannah Wooderson for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Featured
Valerie, Roy and Philip in front of their house at 7/2 Low Road, taken in May 1950
Over the coming months 24housing is unraveling – through personal testimony – the top 10 events, chosen by our panel of experts, to have shaped housing in the last 60 years.
Number 9: 1950s slum clearance
The slum clearance programme of the 1930s was suspended at the outbreak of war, but was restarted in the 1950s. Post-war British governments sought to replace both bomb-damaged and slum housing requiring local authorities to submit estimates of the number of unfit dwellings together with programmes for dealing with them. In 1955 the government estimated a total of 850,000, with Parliament passing the Slum Clearance Compensation Act in 1956. By 1979, 1.5 million dwellings had been demolished and more than 3 million people had been relocated.
After seeing the house he was born in flattened to the ground as part of the post-war government’s slum clearance programme, Philip E Robinson then saw the house he grew up in suffer the same fate nearly 20 years later. Here, he tells Ross Macmillan about the immense spirit built up in a time of poverty and paints an envious picture of life in Sheffield’s ‘slums’
So, both the houses you grew up in were demolished as part of the slum clearance programme?
Yes. The house where I was born was demolished in the 1960s, the house where I grew up was demolished in the 1980s. I’m keeping one jump ahead of the bulldozers. Wherever I go they knock the house down.
Tell me about the house you were born in?
I was born in a back-to-back-type house in Low Road, Sheffield in 1948. It didn't have a name but the address was 7 court 2 Low Road (that is, the second house in the seventh "court"). We lived in the middle one of three. To the left of, and at right-angles to us, was a row of 12 – affectionately known as the mucky dozen – where my grandparents lived. That’s how my parents met. Two rows of five houses now occupy the site of the original 15, all of which were built towards the end of the 19th century.
Can you remember what the rooms were like?
With the house being on a slope the cellar was on the same level as the living room, and it went under the part of the house that was at the top of the slope. The cellar was the nearest thing to a freezer we had to store food in.
My parents had one room and my brother, sister and I had the first-floor bedroom. I was the youngest. There were five of us originally in the house. We managed without a bathroom – we used to have a tin bath once a week in front of the fire in the kitchen/living room. It was the room where everything happened.
What are your memories of the house?
It was one room deep like a back-to-back house and there was no window at the back. We had a little garden and a communal yard where there was lots of social interplay, which you tend not to get these days. Doing the washing on summer days, people would wheel their old mangles outside and they’d have a tub of water, which they’d have heated in the "copper" and would have a natter while washing their clothes.
Did it have a toilet?
We had flush toilets, but there would be one between two houses, so we shared ours with number three. The toilet block was at the back of the small gardens that belonged to the houses in the main row of 12. Alternate weeks you’d clean the toilet. I remember it was absolutely perishing in the winter. We would put a small paraffin "Tilley" lamp beside the cistern to stop the pipes freezing.
What are your memories of the structure of the house?
It was certainly cold upstairs in winter – we just had the one coal fire in the living room; often in the bedrooms the condensation on the windows would freeze overnight. The house never seemed small to me (probably because I was small as well) and in fact the living room must have been fairly large; I would guess maybe 16 x 14 feet or so. We had visitors all the time – the neighbours would pop in and there was lots of contact.
What sort of people lived in the mucky dozen?
It was very much a Yorkshire community. In all these areas, there was always an old lady or middle-aged lady, who, in our case, was Mrs Sharman. She brought people into the world when the midwife couldn’t get there and she also looked after people at the other end of their life – laying them out – that sort of thing. There was someone good at carpentry and he would knock up a rabbit hutch or whatever you needed; someone with a bit of legal knowledge – if you were having trouble he would give you a bit of advice – or write a letter for you. My father used to repair all the wireless sets because he had a bit of electronics knowledge and there’d be a plumber if you wanted a pipe joint mended, and they’d all look after each other.
During the war there was of course food rationing. One chap in the end house – he was a slaughterman by profession – had a van and would rustle up sheep up on the Moors and people would be placing orders for legs of lamb. It was almost a self-sufficient community in many ways.
Did people have high moral standards?
The people living there had very high moral standards for that time. People didn’t live together like they do now. If you weren’t married you didn’t share a house. Any young girl who had aspirations and got a bit flighty with boyfriends and that - that was all frowned upon. The couple that took over one of the local shops had an adopted son. When he went to prison, you’d have thought the sky had fallen in. The shop was boycotted and they had to move away eventually. A similar thing happened in the case of another shopkeeper. He sold his late father's Victoria Cross medal, and this caused such ill-feeling locally that eventually he sold up and left.
It sounds almost envious…
It was poverty, no doubt about that. But as children we were never aware of being poor, because we were rich in the things that mattered. We had loving parents, we were well fed and had clean clothes and we had the woods on our doorstep. We used to run all day in the fields.
You say poverty – could you give me some examples of the worst times?
When I was very small we were comparatively well-off compared with the neighbours, as my dad had got some compensation from an accident in the war. This left him with a permanent limp and he received £1,850 in 1947. We were posh because we had a washing machine. We even had a TV – a 12 inch Pye.
My dad also bought a motorbike and sidecar, and so we would go to the seaside at weekends. A few years later, after we moved house, the money had run out and, for example, we could never afford holidays. Just twice a year we would go on a local pub or social club's children's day trip by coach to Skegness, Bridlington etc. I remember when the washing machine mangle mechanism needed repair in 1956 we couldn't afford the repair, and so my mum had to use an old hand-cranked mangle for a few years. The same thing happened when the vacuum cleaner packed up – the floors were swept with an old broom. Sometimes in winter there would be no coal left in the cellar, and my mum would send me to the "rag place" with a sack of old clothes, to get a few shillings to buy a bag of coal. But my dad (a skilled electrical fitter) was always in work, and so it could have been worse.
Was the house in Low Road part of slum clearance?
The house in Low Road was part of the slum clearance programme when it came down in 1964. We moved out of there in 1952 and it must have been in the late 1950s when the word came from the council that they were going to take them down.
My father used £600 of his war compensation to buy a house in Dykes Hall Road, Hillsborough, which we moved into in 1952, when I was four, a few years before a demolition order was placed on the house in Low Road.
I can't remember what I was doing, but I know that my first thoughts were for my grandmother – who had lived at number 61 since she was two – she would have to move out with her unmarried son and her two bachelor brothers. They moved to a very nice new three-bedroom house as mentioned below, about 10 minutes' walk up the hill. So the people kept in touch and the community was kept alive.
When my grandmother and the other people on Low Road went up to the hill they all thought it was marvellous when they got there, they had no complaints at all, it was just the inertia – they didn’t like moving. Overall the new houses and flats were much better, and rents were affordable. Most of all was the fact that people still mostly lived near one another, and the neighbours my grandmother had known all her life were not far away.
Was it happy ever after?
The general feeling, as I remember it, was that no-one wanted to move – they all liked where they lived – but once they had moved, they all thought ‘why didn’t we do this years ago’, as they were much better off? But some areas get better and then deteriorate. People that moved into the north of Sheffield for example – to the old Flower Estate, up Shiregreen Way – thought they had won the pools; they thought they were marvellous. But by the 1980s, they’d gone down hill. It had become a drug-ridden sink estate. Some of the older people were still living there but were surrounded by all this depravity and it must have been awful for them.
What was the house in Dykes Hall Road like?
The house we moved into in Dykes Hall Road was much bigger. By the 1960s when you could get grants to make improvements, my father more or less had one approved in principle, and then found the house had just been scheduled for demolition.
By the time it came down in 1982, the demolition order had been on it for about 16 years because the council kept putting back the demolition date. When my father came to sell it to the council, through negotiation, they offered him £4,000. It said although the house was in good structural condition, it could hardly be called modernised, hence the low offer. Well, of course we never modernised it as we knew we were living in a condemned house! So we were never actually subject to a demolition order – we did it our way, on our terms.
There were only four of the six houses occupied when the demolition order finally came in and those people moved into council accommodation. The houses eventually came down in 1982. I bought the house across the road in 1978 and we moved in April 1979, so we were never actually subject to a demolition order, we did it our way, on our terms.
Did it feel nice to be able to do things on your terms in your own way when thousands of people around the country were pushed and shoved into and out of homes?
Yes – my father was a big believer in being independent, and owning your own property. He didn't like being dictated to by a council or, (as was quite often the case in the 1940s-50s) paying rent to what might be a Rachman-type landlord. But it was of course very difficult for an ordinary working person to buy property in the mid-20th century, and most such people lived in rented accommodation of some kind. Had it not been for my father receiving the compensation money, we would probably have moved to a council house, or another rented house, in the early 1950s. But dad instilled in us all this belief in owning our own property and maintaining it well, and he was very pleased when Valerie, Roy and I all had nice houses of our own.
1956 – What else was happening?
- Prince Rainier III of Monaco marries American film actress Grace Kelly
- A baby gorilla named Colo enters the world at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, becoming the first-ever gorilla born in captivity
- Suez crisis erupts over Egypt’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal
- Health Minister, RH Turton rejects calls for a government campaign against smoking
- Elvis Presley enters the US music charts for the first time, with Heartbreak Hotel