Housing remained a severe challenge to local councils throughout Britain after 1918 as problems of overcrowding and insanitary dwellings persisted. Manchester faced some of the worst housing in the country, as areas near the city centre including Hulme and Ancoats, were home to damp, cold, leaky dwellings. They were not far from being the ‘most horrible dwellings’ Friedrich Engels had ever seen when he visited Manchester in the early 1840s.
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Older, high-density and insanitary housing persisted in Manchester
Manchester was ‘furnished with an inner ring of slums’, a report on housing by the University of Manchester Settlement found in 1930. The report focused on one of these areas, Ancoats, close to the city centre. It described an overcrowded, high-density area with ‘two up and two down’ houses that were over a hundred years old. ‘Plants will not grow’, warned the report due to the lack of light. Most worrying were the health problems and low life expectancy of the area: it found an infant mortality rate of 125 per 1000, around twice the national average.
Although Manchester was not the only city to face such acute housing problems, it responded with perhaps the most ambitious project: the Wythenshawe Estate. To the south of the city, Manchester’s famous Wythenshawe estate, the largest council estate in Europe, provided suburban homes specifically for the working classes. The houses were spaced apart in green, leafy areas to avoid overcrowding and to ensure all homes received natural light. Strict regulations prevented soot, smog or smoke from polluting the air.Embed from Getty Images
Wythenshawe was a garden suburb for Manchester’s working-class population
The council aimed to ensure 100,000 Mancunians made their home in Wythenshawe. The homes tended to be semi-detached and designed so all families had hot running water, their own bathrooms, and electricity and gas. At the same time, new consumer durables such as refrigerators offered to make a home more comfortable, for those affluent enough or who took up hire purchase (the never never).Embed from Getty Images
An interior image of Wythenshawe home with the new consumer durables
Wythenshawe was ‘a bold experiment’, wrote the planning expert Wesley Dughill, in the Town Planning Review in 1937. ‘Other schemes in this country may have their parkways, their neighbourhood unit planning or their agricultural belts and so on, but in no other example have all these elements been correlated and combined to form one self-contained entity.’ The estate was a great source of pride and optimism for Manchester Corporation and it featured heavily in the council’s 1947 documentary film, A City Speaks.
Solving Manchester’s housing problem was not straightforward, however. Whereas many inhabitants embraced suburban life, others found life in Wythenshawe isolating, especially because the building of pubs, cinemas, shops and churches were slow to follow the housing. The council struggled to build enough houses and the ‘slum’ areas persisted as housing remained a problem into the post-war period. Nevertheless, as an example of the council’s dynamic responses to social problems, Wythenshawe points to an important story about civic ambition.
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