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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.

The Working Women’s House
The Working Women’s House, co-written in 1919 by Marion Phillips (1881-1932), Labour Party Chief Woman Officer. © & source TUCLIB

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.

Kensal House Estate, 1936, public housing designed to banish slums. Each flat had a balcony for drying washing, a second for leisure
The Kensal House Estate, comprising linked blocks of reinforced concrete flats built 1936-38 by F.Maxwell Fry and Grey Wornum. Each flat had a balcony for drying washing and a second for leisure. The flats and the Day Nursery are listed at Grade II*. © Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive

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.

Sassoon House, St Mary's Road, Peckham commissioned by Mozelle Sassoon in memory of her son
Sassoon House, St Mary's Road, Peckham commissioned by Mozelle Sassoon in memory of her son © (2010) Source Historic England Archive

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.

Kitchen in the home of Mrs Tinsley, Uni-Seco temporary house, 29 Lyham Road, London, 1945
Kitchen in the home of Mrs Tinsley, Uni-Seco temporary house, 29 Lyham Road, London, 1945 © (Taken 1945) Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive

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.

No. 57 The Crapen, Cam , Gloucestershire.
This Gloucestershire pre-fab lived in by Elsie Fowler from 1948 until 1996 kept its original kitchen, save for a new fridge. Plans to move it to a museum failed, it has been demolished. © (Taken 1996) Reproduced by permission of Crown Copyright.NMR
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Visible in Stone - Gaining Recognition

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Lennox House, Hackney, London are progressively-designed flats by U.E.M. MacGregor of 1936-37. Note the high-sided balconies that run the length of the flats. Listed Grade II.
© Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England.NMR
  • The campaigning Women's Parliament logo, 1943. © & source TUCLIB
  • Detail of a washing line on a Lennox House balcony, Hackney. © Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England.NMR
  • Lennox House, Hackney, London of 1936-7. A striking ziggurat structure built for Bethnel Green and East London Housing Association. Listed Grade II.
© Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England.NMR
  • Pre-fabricated houses being erected on a site on the edge of Coventry, 1949. © & source Historic England.NMR (1949)
  • Kensal House Day Nursery, one of the incorporated facilities of this 'urban village'. There was also a canteen, laundry and community centre. © Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR (1937)
  • Kensal House, south face, built 1936 for the Gas Light and Coke Company, 68 flats designed to let in as much light as possible. © (Date taken unknown) Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR
  • One of ten Grade II-listed pre-fabricated houses in Birmingham.  Erected in 1945 under the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act by the Ministry of Works, this is a particularly well-preserved group.  
© Geoff Dowling (2001). Source Historic England.NMR

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