Insanitary Housing

In the 19th century Liverpool had some of the worst housing conditions in the country. The lack of clean running water, effective sewerage and refuse disposal systems and severe overcrowding became a serious cause for concern. Many people lived in overcrowded courts, cellar dwellings or lodging houses. A court consisted of houses grouped around a narrow paved yard and set at right angles to the main street. The court was accessed via a single, narrow entry from the street. There could be several courts off one road and the houses of one court would back on to the houses of the adjoining court. These court dwellings became hotbeds for sickness and disease. There was often only one water pump or tap per court and one lavatory to be shared between the houses which were badly overcrowded. A number of families lived in one house and sometimes whole families would live in one room or even in a cellar. The Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Duncan, put together a report on this accommodation:

?The cellars are ten or twelve feet square; generally flagged ? but frequently having only the bare earth for a floor, and sometimes less than six feet in height. There is frequently no window, so that light and air can gain access to the cellars only by the door, the top of which is often not higher than the level of the street . . . There is sometimes a back cellar, used as a sleeping apartment, having no direct communication with the external atmosphere, and deriving its scanty supply of light and air solely from the first apartment.?

From the middle of the 19th century the Council became conscious of the need to improve the conditions in which many people lived. Under the terms of various Acts of Parliament the Council cleared and demolished large numbers of insanitary properties, and re-housed some of the displaced families. However, as the building programmes were outpaced by slum clearance work, more houses were being demolished than built. Fewer houses were being built because the cost of new building was high. This led to further overcrowding.

Housing Solutions

The Labouring Classes? Dwelling Houses Act of 1866 was the first national legislation which allowed for the provision of local authority houses. Liverpool Council was one of the first authorities in Britain to provide municipal housing. Its earliest project was a block of labourers? dwellings, St. Martin?s Cottages, completed in 1869. The next housing project was the construction of the Victoria Buildings, opened in 1885, and the Juvenal Dwellings followed in 1890.

In the 1890s and the early 1900s, the Council provided new working-class dwellings in the central area of the city. 122 new corporation houses, in Arley Street and Gildarts Gardens were opened in 1897. Other dwellings followed, such as Dryden Street (1901), Kempston Street (1902), Fontenoy Street (1902), Kew and Newsham Streets (1902), Adlington Street (1903), Upper Stanhope and Mill Streets (c.1904).

In 1903 450 tenements were built in the Hornby Street area and housed 2,446 people. The rent charged on the new dwellings was to be as cheap as possible. These tenements were built to a minimum specification. Most of them were small with shared sculleries and water supply, and no hot water.

One important pioneering project during this period was the construction of the Eldon Street dwellings from slabs of prefabricated concrete. These were designed by the City Engineer, John Alexander Brodie. The Corporation adopted a policy of burning refuse and the resulting clinker aggregate was used to make concrete slabs for building. These slabs were made in a mould at Cobbs Quarry, on St. Domingo Road, and taken to the building site on a traction engine. The assembly of the slabs began in September 1904, and by the end of November all of the main slabs were in position in Eldon Street. The tenements were completed in 1905. This offered an inexpensive and quick method of house building, but was not exploited and did not solve the housing problem as hoped.

The First World War put a stop to further developments. Following the war, the Council was keen to resume housing development in the central areas, but it was decided that efforts should be concentrated on suburban housing. The reason for this was that land in the central areas was expensive, there was a lack of suitable sites and it was believed that the inner city was essentially an unhealthy place to live.

By July 1919 the Housing Committee had purchased land in West Derby and had accepted tenders for the construction of 200 houses. Between 1919 and 1923, housing development was undertaken on nine different sites around the perimeter of the City. These low-density developments marked the beginning of an energetic programme of land purchase and housing development in the suburbs. The City Engineer, John Brodie, had been the main instigator behind the suburban developments and in 1925 he was joined by a new Housing Assistant, Lancelot H. Keay. Between them they established the suburban housing programme which became a major part of the Corporation?s activities in this period. By 1929 18,051 units had been built in the suburbs. 75% of the houses built in Liverpool between 1919 and 1934 were built by the Corporation, 96% of which were in the suburbs.

In the central area of the city slums were cleared and replaced with blocks of walk-up flats, four or five storeys high. Lancelot Keay and his contemporaries believed tenement blocks were effective in providing homes on limited ground space in the central areas and that they gave many families cleaner, more comfortable homes than those they had previously occupied.

The Second World War delayed the progress of new housing development in Liverpool. Not only were slum clearance and new housing schemes postponed, but much damage was done during the air raids when 6,585 houses and flats were totally destroyed and 125,310 dwellings were damaged. After the war there were severe housing shortages and a lack of land for house building was still a matter of concern for the Housing Committee. Housing for a greater number of people in a small area with reasonable living conditions was needed and one method of providing this was by building upwards, in multi-storey blocks. The first multi-storey block to be built in Liverpool was the ten-storey block, Coronation Court, on the Sparrow Hall Estate.

Other types of accommodation were developed, such as housing for the city?s elderly population. Between 1932 and 1939, 350 one bedroom flats and bedsitters were built on sites within and adjacent to the city housing estates. In 1963 work commenced on two special units. These were
designed in accordance with the latest thinking in regard to accommodation for old people. One of the units was in Booker Avenue and the other was on the Deysbrook Estate. These consisted of a group of dwellings with communal laundry, living and recreational facilities, supervised by residential wardens.

?Prefab? Housing

One of the problems after the Second World War was re-housing the large number of people whose homes were destroyed in bombing raids on the city. One solution, which at the time was intended to be short term, was the provision of temporary prefabricated houses on sites around the city. ?Prefabs? were sponsored and manufactured by the Ministry of Works. In all, Liverpool received 3,500 temporary bungalows or ?prefabs?. These, together with two experimental bungalows which the City Architect and Director of Housing of the time had designed, were erected during the years 1945-1947 on 40 different sites. The smallest site was Larkhill with only two bungalows, and the largest site was the Belle Vale Estate, which had 1,159. This made it one of the largest ?prefab? estates in the country.

New Estates

Towards the end of the inter-war period, the Corporation had been forced to develop large estates beyond the city boundary. Three areas of land had been purchased prior to 1939, but the outbreak of the Second World War meant that new building developments were halted. With the end of the war, the developments resumed as land was already available. One of the three development sites was the Brook House area at Huyton. 800 mixed houses and flats were constructed around a central block of shops.

A second estate, built on new land purchased by the Corporation, was the Cantril Farm Estate. This estate comprised 716 dwellings constructed between 1946 and 1950. There was a shopping centre on the estate, and also plans to build a church, library, schools and a health clinic. Building on the estate continued in the years that followed.

The third such estate constructed was that at Speke begun in 1936. By 1957 the estate was almost complete with a total of more than 6000
dwellings. Additional community facilities were later added including a central shopping area, a community hall, swimming baths and civic laundry, a public library, police and fire stations, licensed premises, a public garage and a new Anglican church.

Despite the creation of these large estates, still more houses were needed and the search continued to find other sites for similar developments. Further schemes were pursued in the areas around Horrocks Avenue and Mather Avenue. The Horrocks Avenue Estate, developed between 1950 and 1954, comprised 163 houses and 54 flats and the Mather Avenue Estate consisted of 191 houses and 202 flats. The Croxeth Estate was another important large-scale municipal development. Work began on the estate in 1949 and when complete the estate provided 2,151 dwellings, from cottages to flats and maisonettes. By 1965 the estate had expanded to 2,480 dwellings and had a population of around 10,000.

Another major development was the Kirkby housing estate. This followed recognition in Liverpool that there was a real need for the city to diversify its industry, as it was solely dependent on its docks. The plan for Kirkby was to develop a new industrial estate, and to build housing for the workers alongside. This was the third such estate to be developed, the first two being Speke and Aintree.

Although the plans for Kirkby had been started before the Second World War they had to be put to one side until the war was over. Land was purchased to the west of the trading estate at Kirkby, and the new town of Kirkby was constructed between 1952 and 1961. A total of 10,000 dwellings were built. The estate was further expanded in later years with private enterprises, and by the end of 1965 there was a total of 11,869 dwellings at Kirkby and a population of over 50,000.

Other estates were developed around the city, such as Lee Park Estate, the Childwall Valley Estate, Bluebell Lane, Macket?s Lane Estate, Halewood Estate and Netherley Estate.

Many of these new estates became towns in themselves, self-contained communities with provision for work and leisure. Most provided the
amenities needed for a community to thrive, such as shops, churches, schools, libraries, health services and community halls.


As the population grew in the mid-19th century and over-crowding became rife, the city centre became an unhealthy place to live. A subsequent trend developed for those who could afford it to move to what became known as the ?suburbs? on the outskirts of large towns and cities. In Liverpool people began moving from the elegant town houses in the heart of the city to the quieter, leafy suburbs around Sefton Park and Aigburth. There were growing numbers of fairly affluent people who were not wealthy enough to keep a house in the country and a town house, but who wanted to attain a similar lifestyle. Park estates, such as Cressington Park and Grassendale Park, provided villas with grounds attached. These park estates are now designated Conservation Areas for their architectural and historic importance.

Although suburban housing has its roots in the 19th century, it was not until the 20th century that the typical middle class suburban housing developments appeared. After the First World War private builders saw the investment potential in building houses for the growing numbers of prospective homeowners amongst the middle classes. Rows of detached and semi-detached houses became symbolic of suburban living. The private suburban house was typically set in a curving tree-lined road or cul-de-sac with plenty of space and privacy. The municipal estates, like Speke, lacked the individuality and spaciousness of the neighbouring private estates.

Housing ? suggested further reading:

Bradbury, Ronald, Liverpool Builds 1945-65
Liverpool City Council (1967)
Hq 720.9 PUB

Pooley, Colin and Sandra Irish, The Development of Corporation Housing in
Liverpool, 1869-1945
University of Lancaster Central Printing Unit (1984)
Hq 352.750942753 LAN

City of Liverpool Housing Department Reports 1928-1937
Hq 643 HOU

City of Liverpool Housing Department, Housing Progress 1864-1951
H 643 HOU

City of Liverpool Housing Committee Report on Speke: A Township in the Making
Liverpool City Council (1946)
Hq 643 HOU

Source: Liverpool City Council Records Office