Rehousing Exeter after the War:
Factory Made Houses and Model Estates
Talk by Clare Maudling on Thursday, 11 February 2021
On Thursday 11 February, we featured our first Zoom lecture. There was great enthusiasm for this and a very large audience.
Clare Maudling, who told us so much about the rebuilding of the High Street (write up available on the website under https://www.exeterlocalhistorysociety.co.uk/details-of-talks-walks-2012-2016/2014-10-09-post-ww2-rebuilding/) gave a fascinating talk about the council’s efforts to rehouse 5,000 families after the May 1942 air raid devastation.
Even before the war there had been the realisation that people who lived in filthy tenement housing were greatly inclined to ill health and that some healthier alternative should be provided. The housing around Burnthouse Lane is a supreme example of attractive comfortable homes with space and clean air. They are still desirable today, 90 years later.
During the war plans were being made to accommodate those who had lost their homes due to the bombing. People were staying with family members and overcrowding was a serious problem. The determination to provide healthy accommodation for these people was the driver and the first homes were what we now know as pre-fabs. Clare showed us photographs of the different styles which were erected. There was a bulk buy of American houses which were not always satisfactory in our British climate and when the ovens didn’t work the Council replaced the lot – an example of the determination of the Council to care for its residents.
There was much discussion about what accommodation poor people needed. Did they need a separate living room or perhaps they only needed one room in which to cook and eat! Fortunately, this latter suggestion was overruled and the houses all had separate living rooms and kitchens with bedrooms upstairs. There was new thought about how best to build housing, or more importantly, how to build communities and the Exeter post-war estates demonstrated many of these ideals.
The pre-fabs were not expected to last for many years (though many of them did) and were simply to stop the gap while building more substantial housing of the garden suburb type. Also called “neighbourhood units" the planners wished these areas to be almost totally self sufficient. They were designed to have an optimal number of residents with a mixed demographic of ages and socio-economic groups with local shops within an easy walk of all homes. They should also contain other essential amenities, such as a health centre, a community centre and a church. There should be local pubs placed nearby, and a primary school for each neighbourhood which should have green space, both in the form of playing fields and playparks for small children, with the playing fields being both the buffer and the link between each neighbourhood.
The Stoke Hill estate is a supreme example of this. The houses are solid and spacious but in the centre of the estate is a large open area with playgrounds for small children, football areas (though nowadays this generosity has been somewhat overwhelmed by “No Ball Games” notices!). The estate won a RIBA award for its excellent design.
Stoke Hill has its own pubs and primary schools were placed where children need not cross any main roads on their way to school. Secondary schools were close by and often served two estates. Churches were considered an integral part of these estates and Stoke Hill at one stage had three though two have since been demolished. Most of the estates had shops as well although Stoke Hill was considered near enough to central Exeter for local shops to be unnecessary.
Roads were carefully planned, with main roads running round rather than through the estate, and quieter residential streets making up the heart of the neighbourhood – this later morphed into the idea of housing areas linked by footpaths only, as seen in many New Towns.
They would have housing for everyone, from small one bedroom or ‘hostel’ type accommodation for young, single working people to sheltered accommodation for the elderly. Housing would be a mixture of flats and houses, and would be varied in type – short terraces, semi-detached and detached, interspersed with low-rise blocks of flats or maisonettes. What is remarkable is that it was also considered desirable that leisure facilities be provided – a library, cinema and even swimming baths were considered as essential.
If we look at Exeter’s post-war estates, we can see the physical expression of most of these ideals. Housing was the priory in building for the immediate post-war years, so much so that the planning of housing in Exeter actually overtook the planning of the city centre, meaning that housing plans cut across the main Exeter plan and actually made bits of it obsolete before it was published!
In 1944 the government asked all local authorities to identify land in their area which could be used for building houses – sites able to take 200-300 houses. Meanwhile, as war work, such as the building of airfields, was no longer required labour was available to prepare housing sites so that work could begin immediately the war was over.
Exeter possessed land that had been bought before the war at Whipton, Wonford and Stoke Hill. The latter had been bought, after a long monetary wrangle with the executors, to provide housing, some industrial land and allotments. Land at Countess Wear and Hollow Lane was also identified as suitable for housing.
The Hollow Lane site seems to have been an odd choice, as it was quite far out and didn’t join up with any other housing and the project was then scuppered by Devon County Council’s plans to alter the route of the A30 as it came into the city. The city council decided to acquire land at Hill Barton instead, which brought the proposed housing closer into the city and joined it up with existing housing. They also later decided to use for housing a site in Whipton at Summerway which had been previously purchased for a different purpose.
There are some rather sad aspects to the sites which were chosen, which at this time were all farm land. Several of the farmers who worked the land at Hill Barton and Countess Wear were tenant farmers, who lost everything as a result of the development.
The land at Countess Wear, which was acquired by compulsory purchase in 1945, was worked by a tenant farmer, who also lived in the farmhouse attached to the land. He lost both his livelihood and his home in one fell swoop and, as he was a tenant rather than the landowner, would have received no compensation.
Other farmers fared better, losing only some land, but still the handover provided some amusing moments such as the farmer who claimed compensation for a field of cabbages he insisted that council surveyors had damaged. He was rather overstating the value of said cabbages but, none the less, the council paid him a reasonable amount.
Prefabricated bungalows as short-term housing for bombed-out families was certainly one of the most distinctive and innovative programmes put in place post-war. The bungalows captured people’s imaginations, and still do today, with their quick build-time and their modern, innovative interiors. They were also intended to make use of war materials which were in heavy production, particularly those from the aircraft industry, as well saving traditional housing materials, such as timber, which were in short supply.
About a dozen designs went into production, utilising different materials including steel, aluminium and concrete (particularly asbestos concrete, a wonder-material at the time), but several designs dominated – the Aluminium Bungalow, the Uniseco and the Arcon Mk.5.
However, Exeter acquired some unusual bungalows with an allocation of the Uni -Secos – US-made imports. Only 8,462 of these bungalows were imported into the UK. They were timber-built and less durable than their UK counterparts, generally lasting only about 15 years. But then, none of the bungalows were actually meant to last more than ten years! Exeter’s lasted about 20 years. These bungalows were erected in Vaughan Road, Hill Barton, Abbeville off Topsham Road and St Loyes, where the first bungalows were opened in August 1945. They were also built at the bottom of the Hill Barton estate, at Bodley Close, Bowring Close and Wayside Crescent. There was some concern that embers from the steam trains running along the Exmouth line might pose a fire-risk to the timber houses! They were assured that this wouldn’t happen.
The bungalows had a living room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms. They were set in generous gardens and often had a shed made from an old Anderson shelter in the garden.
The kitchen and bathroom were considered revolutionary, having built-in units and coming complete with a cooker (usually gas), copper for washing and a fridge - sheer luxury!
The US bungalows had a ducted air heating system, fired by a coal ‘back boiler’ and main hearth so they were very warm.
But the US-made cookers turned out badly. Most became seriously, the ovens didn’t heat well and the hobs were somewhat unreliable. The council replaced most of them within two years - an example of the care which the council took over their post-war housing. There was also much discussion and thought given to the best ways to finish the interiors – would staining or painting the interior woodwork give the best finish? What sort of paint should be used? Should the exterior woodwork be painted the same colour on every house or should it be varied to avoid monotony? But the Ministry of Works who told ECC to get on with it and stop dithering. All the woodwork was painted green.
The main, permanent estates received similar care and thought regarding the placement of houses and their design. The Pinhoe estate, as it was known despite being in Whipton, was the earliest estate to begin in 1945, with housing at Rifford Road, Hill Barton and Countess Wear following. Stoke Hill lagged a little due to a dispute over relocating allotments.
The immediate emphasis was on family homes, with mostly three-bedroom houses, although flats and masionettes did follow in the early 1950s with, most strikingly, the continued use of prefabricated housing – this time permanent rather than temporary.
Shortages led to the use of non-traditional materials and building systems. Councils were required to take a quota of non-traditional houses in every application for permanent homes.
Exeter’s non-traditional builds worked out well and provided decent homes for many decades. The rest of the estates were built in traditional brick, with a mixture of designs with ‘cottage’ type designs dominating the estates.
Money was allocated swiftly for school building. The Summerway school was built to serve the new Pinhoe and Whipton Barton estates –a bit of a trek for a 5 year old from the top of Whipton Barton – while Stoke Hill and Countess Wear schools were built for their new estates. The secondary schools of Priory and Vincent Thompson (later St Lukes) are contemporary with them, built as girls and boys secondary modern schools respectively. Later schools were added at St Thomas (now West Exe) and Beacon Heath (St James), along with Beacon Heath First School.
Countess Wear had a small parade of shops built at its centre, opposite a small green and close to the new schools, while on the other side of the road land for the health centre and church were allocated. Similar parades of shops were built on the Whipton Barton estate and were later joined by the Whipton Village shopping parade (originally earmarked as green space).
Churches appeared as well: St Pauls at Burnthouse Lane while St James at Stoke Hill replaced the bombed St James. A site was earmarked at Countess Wear, but the church was never built presumably the old Countess Wear village church was considered to be adequate.
Whipton, which already had the small All Soul’s Church – a chapel of ease for Heavitree – had three new churches built. St Boniface was a new parish church to serve the entire area, and is still there. Additionally a Catholic church – St Bernadette’s, was built along with a new Methodist church. Both have since been decommissioned and demolished.
Leisure facilities were not forthcoming - there are no branch libraries for these estates, nor cinemas, swimming pools or community centres. This partially reflects lack of funds – although Countess Wear did gain a community centre which also acted as a church – and partially reflects changes in leisure pursuits and transport (as television became popular cinema audiences reduced). In fact the most common items in the estates’ files in later years are requests for rediffusion services, including television and telephony.
New pubs were also lacking. However, the Countess Wear Inn and the Tally Ho were close to the Countess Wear estate and Whipton had two existing pubs – the Half Moon and the Whipton Inn - plus Pinhoe, Polsloe Bridge and Heavitree weren’t far away from other parts of the estate. Stoke Hill did gain its own pub – the Stoke Arms.
The estates also gained retirement bungalows, flats and maisonettes. Some of these were very innovative such as Toronto House at Stoke Hill which estate won a prestigious RIBA award for its design and layout in 1952.
As the estates were finished, focus on housing moved elsewhere. At Beacon Heath and Broadfields both private and council housing was provided. The temporary prefabs were slowly removed as permanent housing was completed and the prefab sites were used for later housing programmes, so that nothing now remains of them.
However, the post-war estates provide us with noteworthy examples of careful planning and continue to demonstrate what good housing and estate building look like.