When some people hear the phrase “Council Estate” they tend to form an image or opinion in their head. Often that image or those opinions can be slightly misguided. Read on…
The state of housing in the late Victorian era was becoming increasingly more dire as the century went on, partly because various initiatives to improve housing and sanitation had failed and partly because of a massive population explosion taking place in all of the major cities across the United Kingdom, further adding to the problem and ironically being the main reason that most of those initiatives were failing in the first place. The population of Norwich had more than doubled between 1801 and 1851 and this was leading to an increasingly severe shortage of housing and local amenities. Only the privileged tended to own their own homes whilst the rest of the working classes were left to put up with increasingly-expensive private rents whilst being restricted to the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the yards and terraces that were emerging all over Norwich as a by-product of the 19th century.
The housing and it’s associated welfare issues were becoming too large to ignore and It was time for change.
The Public Health act (which went by the rather catchy title: An act for consolidating and amending the Acts relating to Public Health in England ) was finally published in 1875 and in a nutshell it stated that state-owned housing needed to be built and that this housing needed to be built to a high standard; with running water, toilets and bathrooms, good light, plenty of space and with good local amenities.
One of the drawings from the Mile Cross plan:
The comparisons that can be drawn between the Victorian housing crisis and the housing crisis looming large today prove one thing; we – as a nation – tend not to learn from how short-sighted we were in the past.
The act was finally given the Royal Assent in 1875 and wheels were put into motion, albeit very slowly. At about the same time the UK became involved in various overseas wars, particularly ‘The Second Boer War’ and then ‘The Great War’ (WW1) which inevitably put massive strain on the public purse, putting the brakes on most, if not all building projects. It wasn’t until the inter-war years of the early 20th Century that the ball started to roll again and that the Government began to focus once again on the large-scale construction of the much-needed housing estates. I say ‘large-scale’, but the truth is that the numbers being produced weren’t large enough, the legacy of which we are still feeling the knock-on effects of almost a whole century later. As I’ve covered already the Mile Cross Estate was one of the first estates to appear in the UK and its first houses started to spring up in the early 1920’s.
Being one of the first Corporation-built estates to appear in the Country, Mile Cross is often smeared with the same bad press that now blights all of the many Council Estates dotted about our not-so-fine land. The phrase “Council Estate” is often used as a negative way to describe a place and a the people that live within it. Why? Well there are number of reasons, some of which are of the mind: ignorance, snobbery, class-divide and media portrayal. Then there are the more physical elements such as lack of Local Authority funding and care, low or stagnating wages and sub-standard education for parts of the poorer classes; people often let down by the state and then blamed for various problems by the press. This is a problem that I could go into great depth about but I’d be typing all week, and time is short. I’m not going to fix the problems with our society with my inane ramblings on this little blog!
Growing up (and still living) on Mile Cross has led to me being on the receiving end of many derogatory opinions over the years. You can be referred to as ‘Council’, ie “Oh, him – yeah, he’s Council” or “That girl from the estate” or that “Social scumbag”. Even in the professional workplace I was once asked if ‘all of my windows were boarded up’ because of where I live. When you think about it, it really is a form of hate; belittling a person just because of where they happen to live and it really makes no sense. Sadly, we seem to be in a time where it doesn’t matter what you think, and people feel emboldened to just come out and say what they feel. This is a bubble that will – thankfully – burst very soon. I hope. Anyway, I digress…
Some people assume that the Estates are there just for ‘the poor’, or just for ‘people on benefits’ and this really isn’t the case, you don’t have to be poor and on benefits to struggle to find housing in a housing crisis. The problem is simple, there are not enough homes for a growing population and just as it was(n’t) back in the Victorian era, the problem is not being addressed properly (if at all) by the Government. Half-arsed schemes are often floated out into the mix but more often or not they’re sinking before they even leave port, take a look at the unfunny joke that is touted as ‘Affordable Housing’. Pfft! Affordable, my backside.
Great Britain has always been on the back foot when it comes to building homes and it’s not an issue of space. The worst elements of the press will point the finger at every scapegoat going, from the poor to migrants, whilst purposefully ignoring the real issues, pouring even more fuel onto an already out-of-control fire. Most of the younger people I work with now give away a large portion of their monthly wages (often more than half of their disposable incomes) just to privately rent from (in some cases unscrupulous) Landlords taking advantage of the lack of affordable housing, or Landlords simply using tenants to pay for the increasingly expensive mortgages that come about because of rising house prices, that in turn are caused by a shortage of housing. It really is a Catch-22 situation and it’s rapidly spiralling out of control. This problem isn’t just going to go away.
Anyway, back to those early days of the Mile Cross Estate and the people moving into their lovely new homes. These were everyday people from all walks of life. There were Professionals with good incomes, people with honest jobs and fair wages, people with low incomes, and probably a few people struggling to find work. A broad selection of society, all living together on the Estate just like they do today; people brought together by a lack of housing and the need for somewhere to call their homes. The only difference being that about half of the houses on the estate are now privately owned and in some places it is beginning to look very tired. We have to remember that the old place is nearing 100 years in age and has survived many political ups and downs along the way, it also took its fair share of abuse during the Second World War. Dotted about the estate are a few small pockets where it has been seriously neglected – by both Landlords (be they private owners or Norwich City Council) and their tenants – and this isn’t simply because it’s a ‘Council Estate’, it’s because its a place inhabited by humans.
This all leads me on to a fantastic picture sent to me by a fine gentleman who happened to be born here on the estate back in 1929. His Grandparents and Parents were part of the first wave of tenants to be given the keys to their new Mile Cross homes:
This great picture is of father and son, Harrison and George Wall and they’re both stood proudly in the front Garden of Harrison’s new Bolingbroke Road Home posing for the photographer. Harrison (on the left) was a retired Chief Warder of HM Norwich Prison and his son George Wall was the Showroom manager for the British Gas Light Company, which I think stood on the corner of Dereham Road and Heigham Road, before being destroyed by enemy action in World War Two. George lived a few streets away in Civic Gardens where his son, Dennis (who kindly donated this image) was born. I really do love this photograph, it’s nice and sharp, you can see many houses and their gardens, the two subjects look fantastically 1920’s and you can see that the road had yet to be properly metalled and that there were no real paths. These must have come later with the increase in traffic. It’s rare to find such a photograph of Mile Cross from this era and the two gentleman would have had to pay a professional photographer a good sum of money to come out and record this interesting little moment of history on film. What gets me is that if you added in a bit of colour and a few cars into this photo it would look like it could have been taken yesterday. The road heading off to the right behind the two subjects will bring you out onto Aylsham Road opposite Kerrisons and next to the (then newly-built) Boundary Pub.
The point of all my rambling today? Well I guess it is this: The estate was never really just for ‘the poor’, the estate was built as a place for people to live. It’s still a place to live, and just like back then it is inhabited by all walks of life, some of which like myself and the gentleman in the photograph were (and still are) proud to call it our home.
Thanks once again for taking a bit of time to read this stuff,