From the Archives: ‘Awful Conditions’

This is the third in our series of guest posts from the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers archive project at the Library of Birmingham.  Now that the project is complete, you can explore the archive catalogue online.

‘Awful conditions’ in Birmingham slums –  Quaker action on housing

Main image: An example of slum housing at 6 – 11, Brass Street, Birmingham, Warwickshire Photographic Survey, MS 2724.

At this year’s Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, one of the areas which Quakers will focus on is housing and how to actively respond to the widening inequality in housing provision across the country. As part of their commitment to social justice, the Quakers have long been involved in working to improve housing conditions, both nationally and locally, and this is not the first time the issue of housing has been considered at the Yearly Meeting. In a letter addressed to Friends attending the Yearly Meeting on 25th May 1929, Florence M. Barrow wrote that as a result of a minute of the Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire Quarterly Meeting, the Saturday morning sitting of the Yearly Meeting would focus on the question of housing.

Letter to Friends attending Yearly Meeting from Florence M. Barrow, [19/5/1929], Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Housing Committee minutes.

The issue of housing was a matter of increasing concern in Birmingham in the inter-war period, both for the city council and for a number of religious and voluntary organisations.  With the help of subsidies under a several Housing Acts passed between 1919 and 1925, the city council implemented a programme of house building to counter the housing shortage. However, this did not address the problem of the deteriorating conditions of slum housing which were still prevalent in large parts of the city and totalled 40,000 back-to-back houses. In 1925, the Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Housing Committee minutes reported that according to the city council’s Medical Officer of Health reports, 4000 people had one room to live in, 12, 600 people had two rooms to live in and 58, 000 people had no separate sanitary accommodation.

A Housing Committee was initially appointed by Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting in November 1925 to consider the proposal put forward by Florence M. Barrow that Friends might assist the newly formed Birmingham (Copec) Housing Improvement Society Ltd. with which she was involved, by offering financial support in the form of shares, loans or donations. Due to the shortage of new housing, the Birmingham (Copec) Housing Improvement Society Ltd. aimed to purchase slum houses, carry out work to improve the standard of accommodation they provided and rent them out at an affordable rate. This it did very successfully, due to generous contributions, support and involvement from a number of Friends and other benefactors and volunteers. Further details about Copec’s work can be found in articles by Carl Chinn and Neil Connor and in the sources listed at the end of this post.

Reconstructed housing at numbers 6, 7, 10 and 11 Brass Street, Birmingham, Warwickshire Photographic Survey, MS 2724.

The Housing Committee also aimed ‘to draw public attention to the appalling conditions still prevailing in Birmingham slums’, and called on Friends, ‘…to acquaint themselves with the deplorable housing conditions which still exist in the City, and do all they can to help their betterment.’ (Report to Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting, n.d. [c.1930-31], Warwickshire North Housing Committee minutes)

To this end, it arranged visits for Friends to see the variable conditions of houses in the slum areas of the city, as well as the new approaches to housing which were being undertaken on the new estates on the outskirts of the city. In 1929, it organised a survey of 500 houses, which highlighted how serious the housing issue was and culminated in a published report in 1930 entitled ‘Five Hundred Birmingham Houses’, which received considerable publicity. It distributed pamphlets and arranged a number of talks and presentations for Friends given by housing specialists, city councillors and others working in the field of housing aimed at raising awareness of the housing problem. Subjects included ‘Personal Experiences of Housing Improvement in London’, ‘Some local Housing Regulations and their Application’ and ‘New Housing and Slum Clearance Act with Special Reference to Birmingham Conditions’.

. Invitation to a talk on housing improvement at Bull St. Meeting House, February 1926, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Housing Committee minutes.

It suggested that a conference on housing be held and worked with the Friends Industrial and Social Order Committee to arrange a conference at Friends House in 1929, with additional conferences being arranged at George Rd. meeting house, Edgbaston and also in Manchester in subsequent years.

Housing Conference programme, February 1932, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Housing Committee minutes.

In addition, it brought the subject of housing conditions to the attention of both Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting and the Yearly Meeting on a regular basis, and called for the Meeting for Sufferings to organise its own special committee on housing (Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting, 9 September 1930 minute 764).

Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute 764, 1930.

Another strand of the committee’s work related to the provision of community facilities on the new housing estates which were being built. It was felt that many of the estates lacked a sense of community and this could be rectified by the introduction of community halls in which residents could take part in spiritual, educational and social activities. The committee appealed to Friends to contribute to the costs of constructing or purchasing a number of community halls. As a result, a hall was built on the Allens Cross Estate in Northfield, a hut was purchased at Perry Common and a small hall was erected on the Kettle House Farm Estate, with land being leased from the City Council for the purpose. Friends were called on to help with promoting educational and social activities through Community Associations.

Plan of Birmingham Housing Estates, ref 663007.

The committee was also involved in a number of other activities. It petitioned the city council about excessively high rents for furnished rooms in 1930, and successfully campaigned to ensure that the city council’s Public Works Committee provided new housing with hot water supplies, which prior to 1931 had not been the case. It called for the total abolition of slum housing, stating, in its 14 November 1933 report to Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting,

‘Thousands of our fellow citizens are still living in conditions which are deplorable, and the Committee would urge Friends to do all in their power to help forward the movement for the complete abolition of the Slums’.

In 1934, with other groups across the country, it called for a consistent housing policy at a national level and for a nationally accepted definition of overcrowding which excluded the downstairs living room from being counted as a bedroom to be enshrined in legislation. In 1936, it engaged in a campaign which ensured that the new housing estates consisted of the larger ‘parlour type’ houses with an additional room downstairs as well as the smaller ‘non-parlour type’ houses consisting of just a kitchen and a living room downstairs. Realising that the suburban housing estates encouraged segregation it hoped that having a variety of house sizes would encourage a greater mix of social classes on the new housing estates.

Among others, members of the committee included Florence M. Barrow, Theodora M. Wilson, Elizabeth M. Cadbury, Albert Bradbeer, Evelyn Sturge, Ronald Salter, Charles Watkins, M. Louisa Wilson, and Leonard P. Appleton.

The committee stood down in March 1939 because it felt that it could no longer actively contribute to resolving the housing problem. Much of the work it had initiated and supported was being and continued to be successfully undertaken by organisations such as the Birmingham (Copec) House Improvement Society and the Council for Community Associations.

Eleanor Woodward, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)

Additional sources:

Warwickshire Monthly Meeting Housing Committee minutes, 1925-1939

Copec Adventure, F. Margaret Fenter, 1960

A Ten Years’ Retrospect and Plans for the Future, Birmingham Copec House Improvement Society Ltd. [1935]

First published on The Iron Room blog on 2/05/2015 as part of the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers project, 2014-2017. For permission to reproduce, please contact:

Archives & Collections,  Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Birmingham, B1 2ND