The terraced houses built by private developers did not solve the problem of housing Liverpool’s poor. The combination, already discussed, of rapid population growth, poorly paid and irregular employment and high land values had left an almost overwhelming inheritance of slum housing. As A. B. Forwood wrote in 1883 when discussing the whole problem of poverty, ‘Liverpool is a remarkable illustration - if any justification is needed - of the necessity of public control.’
The move towards a degree of ‘public control’ in Liverpool came as the result of the work of Dr William Duncan. Born in 1805, the son of a Liverpool merchant, Duncan’s early career had brought him, in the words of one biographer, ‘into contact with the poverty-stricken denizens of the borough while engaged as physician to one of the dispensaries, and he seems to have developed strong sympathies with this neglected and downtrodden section of the community.’ Duncan’s investigative and campaigning work established the connection between the overcrowded and insanitary conditions of the town’s court, cellars, and back to back housing with high infant mortality rates and the rapid spread of diseases such as typhus and cholera.
In 1842, the Liverpool Building Act gave limited powers to the corporation to restrict the building of courts. Under the 1846 Sanitary Act, not only was Dr Duncan appointed as the country’s first Medical Officer of Health but he was also given the powers to clear cellars houses. By 1851 about 10,000 cellar houses had been dealt with and as a result some 30,000 people had been evicted. The powers to purchase and demolish insanitary properties were increased by the 1864 Liverpool Sanitary Amendment Act. Demolition and eviction, however, threw up another problem as the Corporation had no powers or finances to build alternative housing and most of those evicted had, along with new waves of Irish immigrants, to crowd into other courts and lodging houses.
An answer was for the Corporation to start building municipal housing. The first such development was St Martin’s Cottages, completed in 1869 and consisting of 124 tenement dwellings. These were the first working class corporation houses built in Britain. Progress was slow at first and it was not until 1885 that a further 282 tenements were built in Victoria Square. After the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes, however, the rate of construction increased. By 1916, there had been 2895 dwellings built, including 224 in Bevington Street in 1912.
During this period and for long after, Liverpool was a pioneer in such housing. At the International Health Exhibition in 1887, the drawings for the Victoria Square Scheme were exhibited with the result that a Diploma of Honour was awarded to the Corporation as well as a Gold Medal to the City Engineer as designer. The city was also an innovator in building techniques. The 12 Eldon Street tenements built in 1905 were constructed of prefabricated concrete.
The Extension of Municipal Housing
The inter war period, under a number of Housing Acts from 1919, was to see a massive growth in the development of corporation housing. By 1939 over 39000 houses and flats had been built. The clearance of unhealthy property in the city’s central areas was speeded up. Many blocks of flats, such as Queen Anne Street (1936) and Myrtle Gardens (1937), were built to in its place. More dramatically, perhaps, was the rapid expansion of the city. A key to this was the building of the Queen’s Drive ring along which grew up new estates. These had been begun shortly after the end of the First World War with the development of estates such Clubmoor, Fazakerley and Springwood under the 1919 Housing Act.
A major figure in these developments was Lancelot Keay, the City Architect from 1925 to 1948. In the words of Quentin Hughes, Keay ‘did brilliant work in fashioning the outskirts of the city’ with ‘well-planned municipal estates …. His best work can be seen in groups of houses along Queen’s Drive, at Knotty Ash and Norris Green.’ Hughes also noted that there was a downside to these developments. He cites the examples of ‘the housing at Speke and Huyton, because of the sheer size and mass of the layouts, tends to become monotonous, although attempts were made to introduce to introduce three-storey flats to punctuate the skyline.’