Before moving on to the housing schemes developed after the war and to the financial schemes and Acts of Parliament to provide the impetus, it is worth understanding how worker’s housing was affected by the war. The most notable and obvious effect was the almost halting of house building in Britain. The reasons were many-fold: the labour-force signing up to fight; the diversion of funds to the war industry; and the need to construct factories and barracks in priority to housing. These issues are to be expected and have been repeated across centuries. However, World War 1 was the first in modern British history that was an industrial war – the whole country went on a war footing where equipment and munitions were the priority. Even small factories, used to building domestic articles on a small scale, turned over production to meet the military requirements of the war. These factories required workers, and on a bigger scale than before the war. This resulted in a large movement of workers across the country in search of better employment, or sometimes with little choice if their skills were needed at a new factory. The Ministry of War (Ministry of Munitions from 1915) created large munitions factories such as the National (Shell) Filling Factory No. 2 at Aintree in Liverpool, the HM Factory at Gretna on the Scottish border, and the National Projectile Factory at Templeborough (Sheffield). Although these factories made more use of female labour as the war progressed as the menfolk went into the services, they employed large numbers of people. Where were they to live?
The government built most factories near cities where the local workforce could be transported in by bus or train, but this was sometimes not enough. Factories at Queensferry (Chester) and Gretna/Eastriggs had permanent housing built for the workers as there was no suitable accommodation nearby. Woolwich Arsenal had such a large increase that a large garden suburb was built. All other factories relied on workers living nearby or being able to find accommodation at digs. The latter was seen by some as an opportunity to make a profit and increase rents. This would have seriously affected the ability of factories to encourage skilled staff to their area, and the government reacted with commendable speed to counter this. To prevent unscrupulous landlords profiteering the Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restriction) Act, 1915 prevented landlords raising rents (and banks raising mortgage interest rates) above those in place on 3rd August 1914. This 1915 Act had minor updates in 1917 and 1918. All these Acts allowed the rents to increase by 10% (and 0.5% for mortgage rates) only 6 months after cessation of hostilities. As the next section will describe, the freezing of rents and rates were to have a significant negative impact on house construction immediately after the war, but it did have the desired affect during the war of allowing skilled workers to be able to move around the country to factories and military building projects.
The H.M. Factory near Gretna resulted in two wooden townships, at Gretna and Eastriggs, but also permanent housing in both towns. Designed by Raymond Unwin, an experienced Garden Suburb architect, the houses are relatively plain but with a hint of neo-Georgian in their styling with their large and symmetrical windows. In all, there were 287 houses and 29 hostels (converted to housing after the war). Most of the Gretna housing has lasted well but much of the Eastriggs housing seems to have have suffered over the years with many rendered over to make them look plain. Unwin also designed the housing at Mancot Royal, near Chester, to house workers at H.M. Munitions Factory, Queensferry. This development consisted of 191 houses and 6 hostels and are plainer than those in Eastriggs, but look in good condition today. To house the extra workers at Woolwich Arsenal the Well Hall Estate in Eltham was designed by architect Frank Baines to the Arts and Crafts style. This estate was completely different to the ones described above and the 1,298 dwellings were built in just 6 months to high standards that resulted in a desirable Garden Suburb, but at a considerable cost-overrun. The management of Well Hall was handed to the LCC in 1918 but the government sold the estate to the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society who renamed it the Progress Estate. It became a Conservation Area in 1975. Well Hall also had it’s temporary “Wooden Township” housing. These four estates were the first housing developments in Britain built by the government using their own H.M. Office of Works.
Construction of working-class houses for the public only resumed after the end of the war, but only then with financial assistance from the government that emanated from a number of well-meaning, but not entirely successful, Acts of Parliament. All these were triggered by Lloyd George’s campaign of “home fit for heroes”