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Faith, bricks, mortar, and reinforced concrete

08 February 2019

The Bishop of Burnley announced last year that the Church was ‘back’ on housing estates. John Boughton picks up the threads of history


The Kitson House playground, one of the three playgrounds within the Quarry Hill Flats complex, 1939

The Kitson House playground, one of the three playgrounds within the Quarry Hill Flats complex, 1939

“There is no more hopeful sign in the Christian Church of today than the increased attention which is being given by it to the poor and outcast classes of society. Of these it has never been wholly neglectful; if it had it would have ceased to be Christian. But it has, as yet, only imperfectly realised and fulfilled its mission to the poor.”

THE form of language might betray the fact that that is not a contemporary statement, although the sentiments are echoed today. The Revd Andrew Mearns, a Congregational minister, was writing in 1883. His pamphlet, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, became a best-seller, and played a significant part in the attack on the slums and in the rise of the council estates that were intended to replace them.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, noted last year how those very estates were suffering economic decline and neglect, and how many of their residents felt “marginalised and overlooked” (News, 26 September). He acknowledged the Church’s seeming complicity in this, noting the closure of estate churches and the withdrawal of clergy. But, he proclaimed when launching the Estates Evangelism Strategy last September: “The Church is coming back!”

LEEDS LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SERVICEA row of Victorian terraced houses in Leeds, in 1916. The area was noted as having the most unhealthy slums in Leeds at that time

In truth, the longer story is mixed. In researching my blog on council housing, Municipal Dreams, and the book of the same name, I found the Church often more notable by its absence, or, at best, marginal. But there is good news, too. This was sometimes in the form of idealistic individuals practising their Christianity in practical ways; and often in the work of churches unusually embedded and active in their communities.

And, throughout, there was the sense — from outside the Church as much as from within — that, if estates were to thrive as communities, churches were central to that ambition. Some examples will tell that story, and perhaps illuminate a future path.


WHEN the Revd F. D. Perrott became Vicar of the parish of Ixworth, in Suffolk, in 1888, he found that “the Church had scarcely anything to do with the people, and the people scarcely anything to do with the Church.” He was determined to change this state of affairs, and began by helping to form a trade union, the Ixworth Agricultural Labourers’ Association.

LEEDS LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SERVICEThe Revd Charles Jenkinson (1887-1949), Vicar of Holbeck. He became chairman of the Housing Committee in Leeds, in 1933

The Association, with Perrott in the forefront, then carried out a survey of local housing needs. This was no rural idyll, and those needs were dire. Armed with the data, Perrott forced — against enormous opposition — the building of the first council housing in rural England, in 1892. Perrott left the parish in that year of triumph, and resigned the ministry just four years later, to pursue a (largely unsuccessful) career in radical politics. But he had left his mark.

While, for many, the Church remained a bastion of that old alliance of throne and altar which had helped maintain near-feudal relations in rural England in particular, there were others who espoused a Christian Socialism that sought to challenge this order.

The Revd Conrad Noel, the “Red Vicar” of Thaxted, in Essex, was among the best-known, and his appointment of Charles Jenkinson as his lay secretary in 1909 proved an inspired choice.

Jenkinson is a remarkable figure. The son of a London docker, he left school at 14, initially to work as a bookkeeper. His life’s work, however, would be formed by his experience as a chorister, Sunday-school teacher, and, latterly, member of the Church Socialist League.

He was a conscientious objector during the First World War, but served as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps while somehow studying Latin and Greek in his spare time. A law degree at Cambridge followed, so that, as he stated, “my wits might be sharpened to help me wage a more successful battle against the devil in man”.

He took Holy Orders in 1923, and, having requested “the hardest parish in the country”, he was appointed Vicar of Holbeck, Leeds, in 1927. Leeds, Holbeck in particular, was notorious for its back-to-back housing, and, although 7000 new council homes had been provided by 1930, the problem of the poorer slum-dwellers who could not afford the relatively high rents remained.

Jenkinson saw only one solution: “The creation of houses for the present slum population at rents which that population can pay”; and, unusually, he sought political power to achieve it.

Elected a Labour councillor in 1930, and as chairman of the first housing committee in Leeds, in 1934, he enacted the most radical rent-rebate scheme in the country. “We shall not begin to talk about rent until there is sufficient money in the household to provide that family with the necessities of life,” he declared.

Under the new rules, 11 per cent of tenants paid no rent at all. The wider record — 10,000 back-to-backs demolished, 9000 new council homes built in four years, and some 85 per cent of former slum-dwellers rehoused in council accommodation — represents an extraordinary testimony to his idealism and energy. The newly built church that he took on, St John and St Barnabas, on the council estate of Belle Isle, was a small but visible symbol of his housing revolution and pastoral mission.

LEEDS LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SERVICE  Gardens at Quarry Hill flats: once the largest housing scheme in the country. The first tenants moved in in 1938

Jenkinson died in 1949, just nine months after his appointment as chairman of the Stevenage New Town Development Corporation, in a new era of social housing.


FEW could emulate Jenkinson’s activism, and many might question his direct political engagement, but the belief that the Church should play an important part in post-war housing schemes was widely shared. Some 1.1 million council homes had been built in the interwar period, the majority in suburban cottage estates. These offered undeniably good and decent housing, but observers were critical of the estates’ lack of community.

At the forefront of this concern lay the settlement movement, which had emerged in late Victorian Britain as a means by which, primarily, middle-class university students could do “good works” among the poor. Often, though not exclusively, these were religiously inspired. Toynbee Hall, for example, in the East End of London, was founded by the Revd Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, and numbered Clement Attlee and William Beveridge among its most famous “graduates”.

The settlement movement was an important component of the New Estates Community Committee, founded in 1928. Its aim — as the name implies — was to create “community” among the residents of the council suburbs that were now springing up across the country. But not just any old community: this was to be a moral — even ideal — form of community, “a New England”, as was proclaimed on the opening of a new community centre on the Watling Estate, in London.

This self-consciously “improving” agenda, especially when seen as foisted on estates by outsiders, proved problematic. The idealist young warden, fresh from Cambridge, of a community centre on the Manor Estate, Sheffield, alienated many residents when he removed its billiards and card tables, and rebranded the space a reading and debating room. On the Watling Estate, the ex-service Old Comrades declared that they wanted “ordinary things . . . not the singing of high-brow folk-songs and the reading of poetry”.

CREATIVE COMMONS/J.Hannan-BriggsInterior of St John the Baptist, on the Ermine Estate, Lincolnshire

Despite the obvious tension between such middle-class views of what constituted — or should constitute — community, and the concerns of ordinary residents, “neighbourhood” became the new planning mantra after 1945. The idea was best encapsulated in the plans of its foremost advocate, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, for “neighbourhood units”: areas formed around the catchment area of a primary school and possessing, in his words, a “natural gravitation” towards a centre comprising a church or chapel, a library, a cinema, a restaurant, café, or hotel, a laundry, and a health clinic.

None the less, as pressing housing needs took precedence, community facilities, including churches, often followed more slowly, if at all. The first church on the Mackworth Estate, in Derby, was a temporary structure, but, even when St Francis’s, a permanent church, was completed in 1954, the “black hut” (as it was known to people in the area) continued to serve as an important meeting-place, particularly for women. The estate’s four pubs provided “most men with the companionship that the majority of ladies find elsewhere”, the latter commented, sardonically.

Canley, in Coventry, was described as a “godless” place, until the first Methodist chapel opened in 1952, and the Anglican St Stephen’s in 1955. During the latter’s consecration, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Neville Gorton, noted “a mass of souls around the church in very great need of God’s mercy and truth”, and expressed the hope that the new church would be “a new outpost from which Christian witness would spread”.

An Evangelical church built a gospel hall on land where it had previously conducted an open-air mission. For the adults of the new estate, religion was mostly about the rituals of christenings, weddings, and funerals, but the Sunday schools and range of children’s activities organised by the churches are remembered fondly by residents, now adult themselves, for the community that they fostered.

If that sounds happily ordinary, the part played by St John the Baptist, on the Ermine Estate, in Lincoln, is exceptional. The combined Anglican church and community centre were the first public buildings opened on the estate in 1956, and the church became, in the words of a local historian, “an essential agent in the fostering of a sense of identity” among new residents.

CHURCH TIMESThe Revd John Hodgkinson outside “Britain’s most modern church”, St John the Baptist, on the Ermine Estate, Lincoln, the month before its opening in 1963

One means was a newsletter, the Ermine News, published monthly from 1957 to 1965. As well as regular articles on Christian faith and church activities, the journal is notable for its coverage and support of the estate’s wider community life: a ladies’ darts team, football teams, the Evergreen Club for older residents, youth groups, fêtes, beauty contests, dances, flower shows, and so on. The population of the estate stood at 10,000 in 1963, when just 160 families were recorded as regular churchgoers, but the part played by the church, centre-stage in this vibrant social scene, is striking.

A new, permanent church was completed on the estate in 1963. It was planned as a “tent of meeting” rather than a “static temple”, and was described in the Church Times as “Britain’s most modern church”. For the Vicar who commissioned it, the Revd John Hodgkinson, “the emphasis was very much on church as people rather than a building,” though it was, as it happens, a beautiful and remarkable building: it had an innovative modernist design, and is now Grade II* listed.


IN OUR more atomised, home-centred times, community life may have diminished, but the church stands as a living witness to a Church serving at the heart of its parish.

The ambition of the Estates Evangelism strategy is “a thriving, growing, loving church on every significant estate in the country”; in Bishop North’s words, not necessarily a building, but “a joyful, Christ-centred community of people who exist to serve and proclaim”.

Naturally, and perhaps in contrast with some of the more secular approaches described above, the Church’s explicitly evangelistic mission to save souls and bring people to God is uppermost. History suggests — as even the primarily secular example of the inter-war community movement illustrates — that such efforts can be fraught when both the object and its means are seen as alien. The Church will need to work with the grain of existing communities to embed itself within them, and to find local leadership. Humble service will necessarily precede proclamation.

CREATIVE COMMONS/J.Hannan-BriggsSt John the Baptist, on the Ermine Estate, Lincolnshire

But a Church that acts as “the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions” (to provide the more sympathetic continuation of Karl Marx’s famous attack on religion as “the opium of the people”) will find converts, and deserve to do so. These are hard times for many council estates, and challenging times for the Church itself, but I hope that church leaders and members can find both admonition and inspiration in some achievements of its past.


Municipal Dreams: The rise and fall of council housing by John Boughton is published by Verso at £18.99. A paperback version will be published in April.


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