At the end of World War I, “Homes Fit for Heroes!” was a government promise. Soldiers who had fought for their country would be entitled to decent, affordable housing instead of the slums of the Victorian era. The results of the 1921 census tell us about the poor housing conditions endured by many households at the time, as well as the anger and concern these conditions engendered. This public discontent was very worrying for a government that was aware of recent revolutionary movements across continental Europe. The Housing Acts of 1919 and 1924 introduced grants to local authorities to build good quality affordable housing, and the government commissioned Tudor Walters Report of 1918 made recommendations for the design of high quality housing.
In 1919 a survey of housing need was carried out at Watford. It recommended that a total of 2,046 new homes be built over the next three years: 1,092 to meet unmet housing needs and reduce overcrowding, 474 to rehouse families living in substandard housing and 480 to meet demand arising from new industrial development.
Prior to the war, Watford had experienced a house building boom. Between 1901 and 1914, over 3,000 houses were completed in the city. These houses were primarily two- and three-bedroom terraced houses to the north and west of the town center, each with its own backyard adjoining a common lane. However, Watford’s chief medical officer was concerned about the high rents being charged and that “many families are paying a greater proportion of their income for housing than there is enough left over for the other necessities of a healthy and vigorous existence”. He had evidence that low-income families were having to resort to renting in the core of older, lower quality housing mostly off the main street, some of which had been deemed unsuitable for habitation.
With the outbreak of war, house building in Watford came to an abrupt halt. Only 193 houses were completed between January 1915 and December 1918. Yet demand for housing increased dramatically, with the population rising from 45,000 in 1914 to around 50,500 in 1919. People flocked to the city to work in the new munitions factories at Sandown Road and Bushey Mill Lane. Additionally, a homeless crisis erupted in early 1918. The city saw an influx of Londoners seeking refuge from air raids by German Gotha bombers. These London households would buy homes from Watford landlords at a premium and quickly evict incumbent tenants. In a debate on the matter, Watford council members said it wouldn’t be a huge problem in peacetime: “Now, however, if a family is sent away, it’s impossible for them to rent another house. because there are none to rent”. In 1919, 720 houses in Watford intended for a single household were occupied by more than one family.
Harebreaks Estate Square
Watford Council has taken steps to acquire the new Department of Health grants for new homes. Four new Council-owned estates were planned: Harebreaks, Wiggenhall Road, Willow Lane and Sydney Road. Harebreaks was to be the largest, with a total of 875 homes built primarily by local building firm Charles Brightman and Son between 1919 and 1922. The West Herts and Watford Observer of 1919 reflected that the estate’s name was “unknown to Watford, although it appears on the district munitions map and may have some connection with the abundance of hares for which the district was once known”.
A national survey in early 1918 asked housewives what they wanted most in their homes. In descending order of importance, their six main aspirations were: a third bedroom to avoid having to use a cold, damp attic as sleeping space; a separate kitchen and living room; a separate pantry or pantry; a copper in an outdoor shed to avoid steam in the house; a non-smoking fireplace; and tight-fitting windows to prevent drafts.
It was determined that new homes owned by Watford council would be designed to a high standard, despite accusations of extravagance in the pages of the local newspaper. A delegation from the Inter-Allied Housing and Town Congress visited some newly completed flagship homes on the Harebreaks estate in June 1920. Each house on the estate is said to contain three or four houses, a living room, a scullery with a separate pantry , indoor bathroom, indoor coal store, linen closet and a front and rear garden. Church records from the 1920s show that heads of households living in Harebreaks houses were more likely to be clerks, laborers, railroad employees, and workers in the printing and paper industries.
By the early 1920s, unsuitable housing was an increasingly pressing problem at Watford. A total of 249 families lived in substandard homes in Ballard’s Buildings, Meeting Alley, Grove Circus, New Road, Fox Alley, Lower High Street, Well’s Yard and Chater’s Yard. The faults in the houses consisted of insufficient ventilation, dampness, broken gutters, leaky roofs, lack of light, no separate water supply and no facilities for storing food. The Ballard buildings were judged to have the worst conditions. It was demolished in 1924 and its inhabitants relocated to new family homes on the Wiggenhall estate. “The re-housing of the tenants of the Ballard buildings has had the most satisfactory results in every respect,” Watford’s Chief Medical Officer said in his annual report for 1925. “The tenants are satisfied with their new homes.”
The Housing Act 1930 required local authorities to prepare slum clearance programs for their areas. In a bid to finally rid the town center of unsuitable housing, Watford Council has secured funding to build the new 130-home Leavesden Green Estate on the northern outskirts of the town. Spacious houses with gardens were built and the first tenants moved into Chilcot Road, Comyne Road, Desmond Road and Rosebriar Walk just before Christmas 1933. However, concerns were soon raised about the practice of building houses in an area that at the time was not close to commercial motorcades, convenience stores, schools, train stations, or workplaces. The impact on household budgets of longer journeys to school and work and more distant errands must have been hard felt. Watford Council acknowledged it had learned lessons, that moving households to more remote sites with little infrastructure had caused difficulties. However, at this time it was competing with private developers to acquire sites closer to the city centre. To make use of smaller sites around the central area, Watford Council built ‘experimental’ apartment blocks at Water Lane and Albert Road South. This was considered quite innovative in the 1930s.
The 1930s saw a boom in new home construction in Watford, this time fueled by demand for home buying. The city’s prosperity grew and mortgages became more affordable. “No need to rent!” said an announcement from the National Building Society. “You can buy your home now, so easily, safely, with the help of the National. There is no need to wait. Among the estates built for owner occupation between 1931 and 1935 were: the Tudor estate, planned to be self-contained with its own social hall, tennis courts and bowling greens; the Cassiobury Station Estate with homes priced at £816; the Bradshaw Estate off Bushey Mill Lane with homes priced from £700; the Kingswood Estate with houses priced from £495 to £725; and Leggatts Way, where houses were marketed as labor-saving in design and fittings. The cottages of the new Woodlands Estate, priced at £675, epitomizes modern living: “You won’t need a maid! Household chores cut by 25%!”
Yet the old practice of taking in tenants still prevailed, perhaps to provide additional income to help meet higher rents and mortgage costs. Between 1922 and 1930, 73 brides or grooms who married in one of Watford’s six main churches were staying on the Harebreaks estate at the time of their marriage. In 1934 Watford’s Caretakers Committee pondered the question of why so many spinsters claiming public assistance lived on the owner-occupied Bradshaw Estate; the Relief Officer enlightened them – they were mostly tenants of rooms in the houses on the estate.
Despite house building schemes, 500 households were still on Watford Council’s housing register in April 1935. As with World War I, Watford’s population grew during World War II, from 66,520 in 1939 to 73,420 in 1948 and generating additional demand for housing. . In October 1944 Watford Council announced plans for prefabricated bungalows on open public space to meet some housing needs, and in December 1945 the Town Clerk issued an emergency appeal to town households so that they rent all the free rooms to the men and women returning from the armed forces. . Plans for the new Garston Park Estate, Meriden Estate, Woodside and Hillside estates were soon underway. A new generation of Homes for Heroes was needed and would soon see the light of day.
Helen George lives in Watford and has always been fascinated by the city’s 20th century history. She gives presentations on topics including Watford’s experience of the Spanish Flu pandemic 1918-19, the first 25 years of the National Health Service in the city 1948-1973, and the role of retail businesses on the frontline interior between 1914 and 1918. She is currently studying the lesser-known aspects of life at Watford during the Second World War.