'HEALTHY DWELLINGS for the Working Classes'


Close by Sneinton Market there looms a gaunt building which, for over a century, has been a feature of Nottingham's townscape. Conceived in the 1870s, the block known to most people as Victoria Buildings, but recently renamed Victoria Park View, owed its origin to the terrible conditions existing in nineteenth century Nottingham.

With the 1845 Enclosure Act, the town was able to spread on to its undeveloped common lands and to escape the confined site which had so cramped its development. Inherent in this Act was a building code designed to prevent a continuance of the appalling housing which many people had to endure, and from 1845 no house could be built back-to-back or without separate privy and yard or garden. Surprisingly there was also a stipulation that all new houses must have at least three bedrooms. While all these provisions were made with truly philanthropic intent, the requirement of a minimum of three bedrooms made it impossible for the very poor to find houses that they could afford to rent. Indeed many families with three bedrooms at their disposal chose to sub-let part of their home to other families, and before long overcrowding became a serious problem.

The Town Council was well aware that this clause of the Enclosure Act needed altering and that other municipal improvements were desirable, and so set about the drafting of a General Improvement Bill. This sought powers of compulsory purchase and the right to build artisans' dwellings. After a long struggle the Nottingham Improvement Act of 1874 emerged, and, armed with the powers conferred by it, the Council set about its task of providing housing. In 1875 the Artisans' Dwellings Act made it possible for all towns to take similar steps, but Nottingham had by then begun to carry out its own programme of housing action.

The year 1875 saw the Council decide on the construction of two blocks of workmen's dwellings. One of these was Victoria Buildings. The other, although at the far side of Nottingham from Sneinton, must be mentioned briefly as it proved to be one of the strangest of Nottingham’s 'ghost' buildings. This was a block of houses for Corporation workers at Basford Gas Works. A competition for designs resulted in the adoption of a scheme by the rising local architect Fothergill Watson, who sent in plans under the arresting pseudonym 'Gas'. Watson's scheme for a 63 dwelling block met with a discouraging response when the Basford Local Board rejected the proposals. The Gas Committee then decided to give up the block plan and settle up with the architect, but Fothergill Watson produced a compromise plan which proved acceptable to the Basford authorities. Construction began in 1876 of a block of 40 dwellings, and tenants moved in during the summer of 1877, with a rule forbidding them to keep dogs or pigeons or to use their flats as shops. Despite a statement in the Gas Committee annual report that these dwellings would have 'a cheerful aspect, with gardens in front, and yard or garden space in the rear', Corporation Buildings, as they were called, proved so unpopular that it was difficult to find tenants. In April 1881, less than four years after they were completed, no fewer than 26 of the forty flats were empty. It appears that about 1887 the block was renamed Albert Buildings for a year or two, perhaps in an attempt to change its dismal image. All was to no avail, however, and an examination of the voters' registers suggests that the block, by now Corporation Buildings again, became empty about 1896. It was pulled down sometime before 1901 with no apparent publicity and without a mention in the printed Borough Records. The site of this first block of Basford flats to be demolished before its time is marked today by Flewitt's woodyard on Nottingham Road, opposite the end of Scotland Road. It seems very probable that the impressive wall topped by iron railings, and the gateposts with stone balls that front the woodyard, once enclosed the unhappy Corporation Buildings.

But it is time to return to the sequence of events leading to the construction of Victoria Buildings. At a meeting of the Town Council early in 1875 Councillor John Earp Minnitt proposed that Nottingham put up buildings for work people in its employment. On February 8th a committee was set up to look into this proposal, and shortly afterwards considered which of six recommended locations in the town would be best for such a purpose. A site on Bath Street, between the Board School and the Baths and washhouses was decided upon, the committee initially suggesting a block of about 50 dwellings. At a meeting of the Town Council to discuss these suggestions, Councillor Minnitt dwelt on the advantages of such a scheme, pointing out that many people in the locality, including corporation employees, were living in 'tenements of a very inferior description' for which they paid as much as 3/9d. a week rent.

Mr. Minnitt said that the Committee felt that they could provide better housing at lower rentals in the proposed Industrial Dwellings. It was stated that the outlay on the building could be easily recovered by borrowing at a 4% rate of interest and getting back 5 or 6% per annum through rents. There had been a suggestion that the Council save money by instructing the Borough Engineer, Ogle Tarbotton, to design a simple building, but it was decided that a competition for the best design should be held, with prizes of £50 for the winner and £25 for the runner-up. Advertisements were to be inserted in the local and the professional press, and the following guidelines were to be observed by architects submitting designs: the cost not to exceed £40 a room, the height of the building to be four storeys for family dwellings, with a fifth for single men's sleeping rooms. A common room was to be provided for the tenants, and accommodation was to be 'for as many as the land will allow'. On April 29th the committee selected 'two designs as superior', and these were sent to the next Council meeting with the identities of the architects in a sealed envelope. On May 12th the Council awarded first prize to the plans submitted under the name 'Economy' which were the work of the local architects Bakewell & Bromley, and second place to Holtom & Connor of Dewsbury, whose plans were sent in under the pseudonym 'Experientia'. Councillor Minnitt told members that the committee 'had come to the conclusion that the block system was much the best'. These dwellings were to be like those in Farringdon Road, London, 'with an elevation much superior'. The cost would be £7,200, or £37.17.0d. per room. Bakewell and Bromley's design was for a block shaped like an 'E' without the middle stroke. It was to be five storeys high, with open cement staircases, and would include ninety-three living units plus the common room already mentioned. Each house, or flat, was self contained, with living room (containing a kitchen range), scullery (some with clothes copper), water closet and from one to three bedrooms. The most dramatic external feature was the treatment given to the open stair-landing balconies. These were flanked by buttress-like projections at either side, and divided up the middle by a thinner column of brickwork. The outer buttresses contained water closets, and there was even a lavatory at the top of each, reached from the flat roof. The middle columns contained rubbish chutes; these forked above the top landings and continued up to the roof level as ventilators, allowing foul air to escape from the rubbish shafts. On the three main frontages of the block the lavatory buttresses were topped by pyramid roofs, with a tall pointed gable between them. The general effect was that of a giant unglazed window, and was undeniably imposing, if rather forbidding. The middle of the Bath Street facade had another roofline feature with pierced brickwork, and tall chimney stacks bristling with pots were prominent on the roof. Not all members of the Council were happy about Bakewell and Bromley's design for the block. Councillor Simpson thought the second-placed plan a far better one, Alderman Howitt felt that it would be preferable to erect dwellings for people nearer their places of work, and Alderman Thackeray remarked that in London such blocks had an agent living on the premises 'whose duty it was to see that the arrangements were carried out. If it were not for this, he imagined that these places would become a great nuisance'.

The money for the block was provided by a loan of £10,000 from the Public Works Loan Board, to be paid back through a sinking fund charged on the rates. The Industrial Dwellings Committee was given the responsibility of overseeing the building of the dwellings, and its minutes over the next couple of years provide a series of fascinating glimpses into the progress and problems of the work. In July 1875 the tender of £7,676 for building was accepted from Fisher, Hutchinson and Ashling of St. Mark's Street, Nottingham. Other matters dealt with by the committee included compensating the lessee of the Public Baths for the loss of the Turkish Baths, ordering the provision of an extra water closet on the roof, and requiring 'that the parapet, where necessary, be tied to the roof so as to prevent a crowd of persons pushing it out'. It is not clear what circumstances the committee were envisaging here, but nonetheless the work was done. On November 11th, 1876 the dwellings acquired an identity when it was resolved that 'the name of the block of buildings shall be Victoria Buildings.' Other developments were the provision of
cement floors for the upstairs sculleries and the planting of the front garden with trees and shrubs.

LOO WITH A VIEW: A Rooftop Lavatory LOO WITH A VIEW: A Rooftop Lavatory

The committee decided that the day room was to be fitted up under the direction of a sub-committee. This was the first mention of the 'day room'; the original stipulation had been for a 'common room' and there were to be many later references to the 'reading room1. The internal arrangements of the block proved to be somewhat fluid, but it does seem as though there were originally two rooms set aside for the recreation of the tenants. In January 1877 the committee inspected Victoria Buildings, revealing a significant change in the future role of the block when resolving that their agent 'be authorised to let the buildings to any persons whether they are employed by the Corporation or not'. So it came about that these dwellings begun by the Council to house its own workpeople were now, and ever after, thrown open to all.

During the next month the caretaker of the block was appointed at a wage of 10/- a week 'with house rent free and gas'. Mr. Bromley, the architect, was told that the contractors would be fined unless they hurried up and finished the job'; he was also busy attending to springs on the water-closet doors and bonnets for the parlour fireplaces. The committee also asked for twelve seats, six in the courtyard and six on the roof. (They soon decided that these latter were dangerous and ordered their removal.) Mr. Bromley showed his personal interest in the Buildings by presenting ten large engravings for the reading room, and it was decided to buy a grass cutting machine and roller for the front garden. The committee resolved that when the reading room was used for a mothers' meeting, the ladies concerned should have the room free of charge. No rents were to be charged for the day room.

On August 24th, 1877 William Smith, the Estates Surveyor, reported that the Buildings were completed and all houses occupied. He had one or two quibbles about the building, but the committee felt itself able to prepare a report for the Town Council, confirming the completion of the block. The committee had to report an overspending of £886 on the estimate of £10,000 for all works, and submitted a detailed statement of expenditure on the dwellings, including such small outlays as £8 for buying and fixing brass plates. Introducing this report in Council was Councillor Pratt, who had succeeded Councillor Minnitt when that poor man was declared bankrupt and had to give up his political career. Mr. Pratt declared that 'The Corporation had formed eighty-two healthy dwellings for the working-classes. He believed that they would be a blessing to those who observed cleanly habits, and kept their house in order'. Once again a lively debate ensued, with some predictable criticism of the overspending, while Councillor Trevitt gloomily gave it as his opinion that the Buildings would never pay, and that 'every man liked to go up his own staircase'. A month later the Industrial Dwellings Committee laconically made it clear where they felt responsibility would lie from now on: 'Resolved that all complaints from the tenants be left with the caretaker'.

The Chamber Estates Committee of the Corporation took over the management of the block, and did not have far to look for problems both structural and social. Difficulties were quickly encountered with the sewers and chimneys, a tenant was warned for overcrowding, and the Chief Constable had to be asked to arrange for policemen on the beat to inspect the staircases, corridors and exposed water-closets. Then there were the rents: those for the largest flats were at first 6/- a week, which, not surprisingly, was too much for people who had been struggling to find 3/9d. The highest rents were reduced to 5/-, still beyond the means of the poorest, and the Committee ran into trouble over their collection. It was at this point that Victoria Buildings became acquainted with the Nottingham Town and County Social Guild. This organisation, run by intrepid middle-class ladies of a philanthropic disposition, aimed 'to raise the moral and physical condition of the people without regard to sect or party'. The Guild’s first programme of work included 'the improvement of the dwellings of the Working Classes, the boarding out of pauper children, the provision of suitable and innocent recreation for the people, and the establishing of a creche or public nursery'. Then, inspired by the work done in London by Octavia Hill, the Guild resolved to begin the management of certain properties in Nottingham. Their principles were to avoid anything that smacked of Charity, but to inculcate in the poor the notions of self-help, hygiene and pride. They aimed to teach their tenants to train themselves to pay their rent promptly and regularly, and even to save a little money each week. The Guild took over rent collecting at Victoria Buildings during 1880, under an agreement that they should keep 5% of the monies collected and use this on the repair and well-being of the block.

The year before, Victoria Buildings found itself on page one of a local humorous magazine. The 'Midland Jackdaw' of May 9th, 1879, in describing a Fire Brigade training exercise at the Buildings, remarked 'The Victoria Buildings will go down to posterity as 'Minnitt's Folly', but since we have them it is well to make the best use of them'. The column went on to describe how one of the tenants was persuaded to try out the fire escape rope, but the use of the tag 'Minnitt's Folly' suggests that even by this early date the block was regarded as something of a burden.

The nickname can have done little to sweeten Mr. Minnitt's involuntary retirement from public life. Some idea of what the magazine was hinting at may be gained from the Social Guild's annual report for 1881, which quoted the police as saying that the Buildings were 'the worst houses in Nottingham1. There was considerable overcrowding, and the police were frequently called in to quell rows and to keep order. The Guild stated that a gradual improvement had been achieved by ejecting the worst tenants, cleaning and stoving their flats, and moving 'a better class of person' into them. The report remarked that all the homes were now let and that very little rent had been lost, 'except in one or two cases where the tenants have 'gone off' in the night'. A community spirit was being fostered in the block, with a Sunday service, readings and free entertainments in the 'club room'.

In the light of these comments the 1881 census returns assume a special interest, giving as they do details of everyone present in Victoria Buildings on the night of April 3rd. Seventy-six flats or houses were occupied, with seven empty, and No. 42 was taken up by the reading room. The block was home to 115 males and 108 females, and only five of the households seem to have been without someone in work. A wide variety of jobs was represented among the residents, with twenty-six people working in the lace,textile and hosiery trades. Eight men had occupations connected with the building trade, and a similar number of people did some job in the boot and shoe making business. There were four paper box makers and three iron moulders, and among other occupations followed by more than one dweller in the Buildings were cook, butcher, baker, charwoman and basket maker. The biggest family was that of James and Mary Daykin in No. 8. Mr. Daykin was obviously one of that 'better 'class of person' referred to by the Guild. He was a hall porter with an Irish wife and 7 children ranging in age from 17 to 4. The birthplaces of the children betray Mr. Daykin's previous occupation: surely only an old soldier could have had offspring born in the Isle of Wight, New Zealand, Queensland, Plymouth, Aldershot and Colchester.

The oldest occupant of the block was Sarah Hill, a 78 year old shoe binder, while the youngest was William Westhitch, aged '1 day'. Of the 223 residents, only thirteen were aged sixty or more, while there were at the other end of the age scale 49 children described as scholars, and a further 21 under school age. Given Nottingham's terrible infant mortality rate, at that time 30% worse than the national average, one wonders how many of these young children survived to maturity.

In his report for 1882 Edward Seaton, the Medical Officer of Health, referred to the problems at Victoria Buildings, pointing out that although labourers earning 18 shillings a week found it hard to save 4 shillings for rent, it was impossible to provide healthy houses for less than this amount. Seaton conceded that the Buildings were a real substitute for the ill-built tenements many people had to endure, but pointed out that its rents had at first paid less than 2% a year on the capital outlay, and even with the efforts of the Social Guild, were reaching only 3%. This was the insoluble problem; the poor who most needed housing such as Victoria Buildings had little likelihood of ever being able to pay the kind of rent which would have made the Buildings an economic proposition.

The Social Guild annual reports for the period make it clear that when the ladies found it necessary to come down hard on an unsatisfactory tenant, they did not shirk their duty. There was, however, a distinct air of 'This is hurting me more than it hurts you'.

As the Secretary wrote, 'Sometimes in the interest of the other tenants, they have to enforce the dismissal of an unruly or disorderly one, and it is often hard to take money and leave want behind. It is only by recognising the rightness of the principle...that the collectors are enabled to persevere with their duties'. That the Buildings cannot have been regarded as ideal homes is clear from a glance at the 1885 Terrier (or register of property) of the Chamber Estate. Of the 75 tenants listed in the 1881 census, only 11 can be identified as living there four years later. Whatever the merits of Victoria Buildings, a turnover of 85 per cent of the occupants in four years suggests that something was wrong. The rents charged in 1885 ranged from one to five shillings a week, and seventy flats were tenanted, with two described as 'uninhabitable'. For many years after this the Social Guild continued to collect the rents in the block. In summer tenants of properties managed by the Guild were invited to go on an excursion; in 1886 this was to Bridgford, and the report remarked 'To many of them it was the only glimpse of the country during the year, and it was touching in some cases to witness their delight in gathering wild flowers and sitting on the grass in the fields after tea'. Throughout the 1880s and 90s the twin themes of firmness and kindness were apparent in the Guild's reports, with references to mothers' meetings, sewing classes and and Sunday mission services cheek by jowl with stern reminders that delinquent and irregularly-paying tenants were not tolerated. In a newspaper interview in 1938 Mrs. Cattle, who had been one of the rent collectors, looked back on the days when the Social Guild did this work, concluding that 'The object of having lady workers was to encourage the housewife to talk about her problems to one of her own sex who had the advantage of education'.

In 1899 it was reported that the 'institute room' had been altered to make three more houses. That summer the tenants were taken on outings to Lambley, where the Vicar addressed them in the church, and to Sherwood Lodge, where Mrs. Seely 'added to their pleasure by playing on the organ in the chapel after tea'. The response of the tenants to these improving experiences is not recorded. So Victoria Buildings entered the twentieth century. They were, as has already been mentioned, a disappointment to the Council, as they had failed, despite the zeal of the Social Guild, to pay their way as model dwellings ought. A Corporation report of 1901 on 'Proposed Dwellings for the Working Classes' summarised the accommodation afforded then by the Buildings. The largest flats had a living room, three bedrooms, a scullery 15 feet by five, and a water closet; the rent for these was 5 shillings a week. In the smallest flats the sculleries were only six feet square, and on the top floor were 16 single rooms used as additional bedrooms. The report closed with a wry little comment by Arthur Brown, the City Engineer. 'High buildings for dwellings for the working classes have never been looked at with favour by the people who were expected to inhabit them.' The 1903 Chamber Estate Terrier recorded 79 tenants, paying from l/9d. to 5 shillings a week, and in 1923 the Terrier showed eighty flats occupied, with the rents ranging from l/9d. to 7/4d.

By the 1970s Victoria Buildings had become an anachronism, an example of 19th century vision to be studied as a relic rather than a place for decent modern living. The Victorian Society, while conceding that the block was of high interest, admitted that the alterations necessary to bring the flats up to reasonable modern standards would be bound to destroy some of their value as Victorian model dwellings. One serious problem was the isolation suffered by older tenants; four elderly people were found dead in their flats in the space of about a year, and coal merchants, chimney sweeps and window cleaners had stopped calling. There were no lifts, the sculleries still had stone sinks and the larger ones contained coppers. The block contained no baths or showers and only a handful of flats had power points. The number of flats had been reduced over the years by joining some of them together, and from over eighty in 1881 had fallen to about 65. In May 1973, John Carroll, leader of the City Council, was moved to remark that he was 'ashamed to say the Corporation own an appalling block like this'. After an enquiry into conditions at Victoria Buildings it was reported that £400 or £500 would have to be spent on each flat to instal modern kitchens, and probably showers, and to put in hot water systems. In the following October the Director of Housing proposed an extensive series of improvements including full water supplies, baths or showers, gas fires, power points with rewiring, and general repairs.

The Chairman of the Housing Committee emphasised the difficulties of the job when he said 'the architect assigned to this project said this was the most bewildering job he has ever encountered'. He went on to point out that no two flats in the building were alike, and that each would have to be dealt with individually. In February
1975 the Council resolved to improve Victoria Buildings, gutting the existing accommodation to provide 79 bed sitting rooms with kitchen/diner, watercloset and shower or bath. Four passenger lifts would be provided, and the total cost was estimated at £490,000. By 1977 it was reported that the work was costing more than this, and, that the revised total for the renovation would eventually amount to some £628,000. When all was done there were changes inside and out.

Gone were the coal fired kitchen ranges, the outside lavatories, the stone sinks and the clothes coppers: gone too were the chimney pots from the roof. Gone most significantly was the name Victoria Buildings; public relations dictated a change of name to match the block's refurbished image, and the flats became Victoria Park View. In this new name there lurks a possible paradox; the Buildings are today named after the open space across Bath Street, but Bath St. Recreation Ground received the name Victoria Park only in 1894. Could it, one wonders, have been renamed after the block of flats which most of us still think of as Victoria Buildings?

AS A POSTCRIPT, one oddity must be recorded. The nameplates now attached to the block proclaim its name to be Victoria Park Flats, although the register of electors is adamant that the name is officially Victoria Park View. It is all very confusing, and reinforces one's feeling that there was nothing wrong with its historic title of Victoria Buildings.