Kensal House, Ladbroke Grove
Kensal House, Ladbroke Grove © Historic England CC66/00705
Kensal House, Ladbroke Grove © Historic England CC66/00705

Gaining Recognition

At a meeting on new professions for women in 1915, Agnes Maude Royden (1876-1956) spoke of women architects, emphasising that "The need for them was evident when one saw the astounding mistakes made in planning houses by men architects".

But it wasn't until 1917 that the Architectural Association school (AA) was finally opened to women. The principal, Robert Atkinson declared that women would be better suited to designing domestic architecture and 'decoration' than multi-storey buildings.

However, earlier, in 1905, a group of women decorators known as the Society of Artists, was concerned that architects 'do not study the requirements from a woman's point of view.' Their representative, Elspeth McClelland, who had studied architecture at a London Polytechnic, was the only woman entrant in the '£150 Cottage' competition at Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire, designing and supervising the building of 106 Wilbury Road ('Elspeth Cottage').

Her desire to help the housewife by putting the coal store and toilet inside while providing 'a bright…(scullery) with two windows instead of a dismal back kitchen' demonstrated her originality. In 1917, the London Government Board's Design Manual was still placing the fuel store and the toilet outside, an arrangement which persisted in council house design beyond 1945.

After the First World War, in an attempt to provide state housing reflecting housewives' needs, 11 women were recruited to the 1918 Ministry of Reconstruction Women's Housing Sub-Committee.

This included representatives of working class groups such as the Women's Co-operative Guild, and the Women's Labour League who determined that women should not settle for anything but the best for their families. But there was a lack of recognition by the authorities of the tension between middle class social policy and working class needs.

Working families needed large kitchens to cook and eat in, not large dining rooms for entertaining. The women also emphasised the need for light and sun in a house, to banish the dark enclosure of the old courtyard slums. They wanted quality housing but at affordable rents.

Sensitivity and ambition marked out the social housing reformer and consultant, Elizabeth Denby (1894-1965) who was concerned to represent working class tenants' needs and tackle slum housing.

Working with architect Maxwell Fry, they created a Modernist housing scheme, Kensal House, North Kensington, W8 (1933-1937) plus a development of progressive flats, Sassoon House, Peckham, London SE15 (1933-1934). Denby pursued the idea of an environment to enhance people's lives rather than the demands of house building at the expense of the resident. Yet these developments deliver social housing with style.

She also designed the All-Europe House, terraced with a garden, shown at the 1939 Ideal Home Exhibition, Earl's Court, intended for a workman's family of five, providing comfort, privacy, and the latest facilities within a restricted budget.

In 1942 she co-organized the planning and design exhibition, Living in Houses, to provide accommodation with sufficient space for family life, in line with her goal of  'homes' as opposed to just 'houses'. Denby also worked on the design of Tarran pre-fabricated houses for post-war housing.

During the Second World War, women architects were employed on the construction of wartime facilities such as camps and hostels, and by 1943 some were working on reconstruction plans in Coventry and West Ham. Women's participation in post-war reconstruction was high on the 1943 political agenda because of the estimated 4-5 million post-war houses needed.

As a specialist in low cost housing Elizabeth Denby was a participant at the 1943 Women's Parliament meeting. Convened during the war to represent women's employment rights, the Women's Parliament urged the London County Council to institute a five-year plan for houses and flats plus shops, schools, nurseries, and community centres.

The Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women's Organisations produced a report, 'Post-War Homes, Design and Equipment' for the Ministry of Health's 'Design for Dwellings', as did the Society for Women Housing Managers who commended the facilities for housewives and children including clothes lines, window boxes, space for prams and safe play on the balconies at Lennox House, Cresset Street, Hackney, London E9 as an example to be emulated.

However, the emphasis on women's needs in the home caused other class-based concerns.

Middle class women did not want to play into the post-war policy of 'returning women to the home.' These women had choices, whereas many working class women were still faced with living in slums or inadequate temporary accommodation.

The challenge was to gain recognition for the wider contribution to society of the housewife's work, while not reinforcing the traditional stereotype that a woman's place was in the home.

Visible in Stone - Gaining Recognition

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