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THE BLACK COUNTRY MEMORIES CLUB

The Early History of Stowlawn by Frank Sharman
Part 8 The council then started building

Sidwick’s design for Stowlawn   Stowlawn under construction
Sidwick’s design
 for Stowlawn
  Stowlawn under
construction

The Bilston Council Housing Committee minutes (so far as they exist) give some indication of how the building went and accounts of local residents add something to this. The first thing to do – and this was started probably back in 1944 or thereabouts – was to finish restoring the derelict land. Much of the labour was provided by German prisoners of war.

 In 1945 the Government had said that councils could use prisoner of war labour in view of the shortage of any other labour. And Bilston council duly resolved to use German prisoners of war “on the preparatory works to a housing site or sites”. The Stowlawn area was levelled by infilling the pits and dips with hardcore, which is said to have been mainly bricks from bombed houses in Birmingham and Coventry. The first houses built were those on Clement Road and the building then proceeded in stages, back towards the Rusty Brook, which was intended as the northern boundary of the estate. A Housing Committee Minute records the awarding of a contract to build 24 houses to Biddulph & Thrift for £27,287-7s-0d in 1947.

It is also known locally that at least one contract was won by Wright Brothers and it is said that Lawnsmead was built by a different builder from the rest of the estate. So it seems that sections of the estate were contracted for one at a time and there was no single contract for the whole estate. Not everything went swimmingly. The government was concerned that, in the UK as a whole, too many building contracts had been entered into and that the builders concerned had neither the man power nor the materials to advance all the work they had been given with any speed.

This meant that completion of all schemes was being delayed. To deal with this the government told local authorities to stop letting new contracts. Bilston appealed to the Ministry to let them finish off sections A and B3 of the Stowlawn estate and this was probably permitted. But it seems that overall progress was slow.

The council also referred to “the wish expressed by the Minister of Health himself to see the completion of a Reilly green estate in Bilston and that therefore he would personally support the Council in their proposal to proceed with a part of the Bradley Lane (North) estate”. So they also applied for that estate to be exempted from the general moratorium. Whether this succeeded and how far Reilly greens were implemented on that estate has not been established.

The Minister of Heath, who was also responsible for housing, was Nye Bevan, who was mainly engaged in introducing the National Health Service as part of the post-war Labour government’s welfare state. The size and difficulty of that operation probably distracted him from housing issues. In housing he was keen on the idea of community: “We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life a citizen ... to see the living tapestry of a mixed community”.

This chimed with the ideas of Reilly and Neurath – even though it was Bevan’s department that had drastically watered down Bilston’s Reilly plans. The problem was seen simply as putting people from slum dwellings into new dwellings; and that priority, as well as shortage of resources, lead to the idea of moving a community of slum dwellers into a community of new estates tended to get lost. If challenged the politicians would probably have said that new communities would naturally come about in the new estates and new towns. “New town blues” were probably a consequence of this.

In 1946 55,600 new homes were completed. In 1947 the figure was 139,600. In 1948 it was 227,600. (In the 1950s Harold Macmillan as Minister for Housing, got about 300,000 per annum – but housing was of a poor standard and heavily reliant on cheap, mass produced tower blocks, which became new slums far quicker than the older house and low rise flats estates).

The council also had a problem with the Rusty Brook – though they do not refer to it by that or any other name. They said the brook was in a dangerous position and they told the Borough Surveyor to clean it out and to investigate piping it. This seems to have been done as there is no sign of it today.

According to a local resident the building work was affected by a shortage of skilled workers and an inadequacy in the materials. In particular the bricks were of poor quality. The effect of this was that as soon as the houses were occupied it was observed that they were suffering from penetrating damp. To cure this the houses had a white coating paint applied to them. The rain washed it off. A different coating was then applied. This story is supported by a Housing Committee minute of 19th October 1948 which records that “The Borough Architect submitted details of a proposed alteration in the specification in respect of this [Stowlawn Estate] contract to allow for the use of a different material to colour the houses at an estimated cost of £3 each house”.

This, taken with the fact that, while most houses on the estate are now painted but that quite a few (presumably built with better bricks) are not, suggests that the original plan was for unadorned brick houses. The fact that the brickwork is still visible under the paint layers shows that there was no stucco or other skim coat applied. And that suggests that the practice of rendering brick houses and making them white, in imitation of the concrete buildings which were usually so treated, was not originally contemplated in Bilston. Painting houses white was not common in the UK and the fact that the houses on Stowlawn are, mostly, painted white, might be taken as indicating a continental influence in the design – an indication of the Neuraths and Ella Briggs. But it seems that the white finish was accidental rather than designed.

Conclusion Page 9

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