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Housing Standards & Expectations - Then & Now


We seem to constantly debate housing standards and younger people particularly forget how rapidly standards improve - perhaps this reminiscence of one persons housing history will help put things in perspective. 

My 82 Year Housing Experience

 I was born during WWII, in a rented farm cottage on the edge of a Yorkshire mill town. The cottage was built in the 1700s. It had a stone flag floor, and was slightly below the road level. When it rained really heavily, water would come in the front door and had to be swept out the back. There was no ceiling in the living room. From the bedroom, I could look through the gaps between floorboards to see what the grown-ups were doing downstairs. It didn't have gas. Cooking was done on a solid-fuel stove in the living room, and if that wasn't lit, a Primus would be brought out. There was no mains water; but we had a hand-operated pump in the passage to draw water from a well. It wasn't connected to a sewer or septic tank, and didn't even have a cesspit. The outhouse in the yard was just a dry toilet, with a flap at the back allowing for the waste to be periodically shovelled onto the midden with the animal dung for later use on the fields. When my father got back after the war, my mother and I moved, but my maternal grandmother continued to live there, a place I always loved visiting on Sundays, right up until the mid-1950s. I guess she possibly was one of the last people in the country to live in an unimproved 18th century home. You might find it hard to believe such housing conditions are still within living memory, but they are, just about. Although not for long as I have barely any heart function left now. So I thought I'd share this old timer's personal perspective on the progress in housing conditions over my lifetime before the ticker gives out.

After my father was de-mobbed, we moved as a nuclear family to a back-to-back in a short dead-end street in the town about a mile from the cottage. It had mains water and gas. Coal gas (aka town gas) not natural gas that is. The WC was in a small block halfway along the street with the same arrangement aligned in neighbouring streets. These houses had been built circa 1860-70 during that short period in between the age of courtyard housing, before sewers, and the advent of terraced housing built in lines parallel to the mains drains. The back-to-back was cosy and warm having neighbours on three sides and small rooms. My paternal grandfather made his living by delivering solid fuel door-to-door so our family was never in want of a warm fire. My mother baked in the cast-iron oven that was set into the chimney breast next to the fire, but not as much as she would have wanted due to the post-war rationing. A hearth rug was a practical safety device in those days to catch embers popping out of the fire.

I was nine when we moved again, into a newly built semi-detached council house across town, with an indoor bathroom, and a gas boiler heating the hot water. The house was next to the recreational grounds and my father liked the comfort of being able watch the local league football games from indoors through a bedroom window, but my mother found it too cold from it's exposed situation. The living room was heated, but other rooms generally not. We used paraffin heaters to take the edge off, and hot water bottles for bed in the depths of the Yorkshire winters. My mother loathed having flies in the house and would refer back to her earlier life in the cottage, often remarking: "never had flies in the house with a midden outside the back door".

I left home at 15 to join the Royal Navy that would later bring me to Portsmouth. I lived in barrack huts at first. They were cold in winter, really cold. We weren't issued with enough blankets or anywhere near enough coal for the stove that was the only heating. So we were forever on missions at night to pinch some more coal without getting caught. I met a lovely Wren, Patsy and we married in 1962. Married women weren't allowed to remain in the forces in those days, so Patsy was dismissed from the Wrens. I couldn't get married quarters straight away, so I bought an old 22' touring caravan to be our marital home, permanently sited, no indoor toilet of course. That was far too cramped after our son was born. For my wife to wash the nappies, we bought a twin-tub washing machine on Hire Purchase. I had to build a new shed to keep it in. When our daughter was expected, I had a new posting and we rented a proper static caravan, an old one again, but larger and well designed. It was one that Canadian forces had shipped over in the war to house their servicemen stationed over here. The twin-tub still needed it's own shed though.

Not long after our daughter was born, I took a tour of duty in the Far East during the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation. My wife didn't want to be left on a caravan site in the middle of nowhere, as she saw it, so she went with the children to live with her parents whilst I was overseas. Two of her younger siblings were still living at home, so that was a crowded house.

When I returned, we were assigned married quarters, similar in size and pattern to 1950s council houses, but generally better built. We still used paraffin heaters in winter. To my constant chagrin, my wife wasn't careful to avoid over-filling them, or in trimming the wick before lighting them, dangerous habits I worried about, especially with small children in the house. Our quarters had its back boiler converted to natural gas about 1972, and there were radiators installed to the bedrooms not long after, but we didn't really get much use from them.

I left the Royal Navy in 1974, and the four of us crammed back into the spare rooms of Patsy's parents' council house. That house was only just over 20 years old then, but it was ageing fast, one of those designed to be built as cheaply as possible with modern methods and very tight engineering tolerances, with amenities defined by planners who referenced norms from the 1930s. Window panes cracked often as steel window frames were set in the outer leaf that were neither stainless steel nor galvanised, and simply rusted. It had been wired with just one single electrical socket in each room. So, we had Christmas tree arrays of adapters to plug everything in. The roof was low-pitched and sheet metal with no insulation. Bedrooms were baking in Summer and freezing in Winter. Internal doors felt like they were made of cardboard. Bakelite lights switches were mounted on wooden back plates.

We were too impatient to wait to be allocated our own council house. Everything in the private rented sector, was shorthold tenancy with weekly rent periods, meaning the landlord could give just one week notice which was far too insecure for a family like us. My brother luckily found a ground floor flat for us in a large Victorian semi-detached villa that had just been split into 4 flats; called a Section 257 converted building these days. It was a 40-year rent-to-own scheme, rather like Hire Purchase, where the landlord had no maintenance responsibility. It gave us security of tenure, but full maintenance responsibility fell to us. It had been re-wired and had a reasonable number of sockets. The front door separating our flat from the hall and stairs that was a escape route from the upper floor flats was a solid fire door, but our ceilings were the original lath and plaster albeit in good condition. The rooms were large, ceilings really high, huge draughty sash windows, the bathroom had been installed in a single skin structure that might have been a coal shed originally. I purchased a Calor bottled gas heater for the Lounge, and we carried on with paraffin heaters for the bedrooms. My son was ten and I taught him to fill them and trim wicks more safely than was my wife's habit. One of our upstairs neighbours had unsavoury friends, and we were burgled whilst living there. My wife switched from part-time to full-time work to help us qualify for a mortgage and buy our own place. I sold my car to raise the deposit. The building society didn't want to give us a repayment mortgage as I had been bouncing from one thing to another work-wise since leaving the Navy but they allowed us an interest-only mortgage together with an endowment policy. Looking back, I suppose in 1976 we were amongst the first to buy a house on that basis.

We moved into our own Victorian 3-bed terraced house in Stamshaw, and we're still here. That had been just modernised by a house-flipping couple. There was an upstairs bathroom installed, and the sash windows had been replaced with picture windows and louvres. The louvre glass could be removed silently from outside and it was terrible from a security viewpoint, and as draughty as a sash window. We heated one room at a time, with electric bar fires downstairs and fan heaters upstairs. It wasn't until our children moved out that we had the money to make improvements other than install a shower over the bath and insulate the loft with 100mm of fibre-glass wool. In the late '80s, we had economy-7 electric storage heaters installed, the slate roof replaced with concrete tiles. That was a mistake as the extra weight caused the roof frame to bow. In the early 90s, we had the roof-frame strengthened and more insulation added to the loft. Double glazing costs had dropped massively in the ~20 years that had been on the market and we had that installed. The double glazing has been replaced again since, at even lower cost than the first installation. Our current windows have Tilt'n'Turn large opening casements upstairs. So now that we've long ceased doing anything as hazardous as using paraffin heaters, bottled gas, or fan heaters, we finally have the great safety feature of escape windows that we are too old to jump out of. We have a stair-lift and a few grab handles at the front door and in the bathroom as practical adaptions for our age. Our daughter has solar panels on her roof, and we would do that ourselves if ten years younger.

As advice for my children's generation, born in the 1960s, and there's really a lot of them, more than from any decade before or since, I will say my biggest regret, at my stage of life now, is not having a downstairs WC installed at a time when I could still handle the stress of having contractors in to do the work. And that might be useful advice also to anyone offering homes to older renters too.

For those keen to see housing standards improve through their lifetime, don't worry, you will most certainly witness that. I remember my grandmother drawing water by hand from a pump. My children remember visiting elderly relatives that only had an outside WC. My grandchildren have never seen a paraffin heater used indoors or anyone cleaning out the grate of a solid-fuel stove. My great grandchildren have possibly never been in a house with single glazed windows or without loft insulation, as was the norm still when my children were growing up. Such progress will naturally continue at the same pace I have no doubt at all.

To aid the improvement in housing conditions, it is the Architects and Planners that have the most important role. We should build new homes to the standards we want people to live in 50, 60, 70 years, maybe even 200 years from now if we can imagine it. Build in practical proportions with structures that can be altered and adapted later. I have seen housing demolished that was only 30 years or so old due to short-term thinking when it was designed and built. That seems terribly wasteful. A lot of that 1950s ex-council housing stock is in a terrible state now as it was only ever designed for a 40 year life-span. Those who designed and built the cottage I was born in could not anticipate the advent of mains water, sewers or gas. But what they built served for about 200 years because it was solidly constructed and a practical size for a family. It could have been modernised and used still now except for the development value of the farmyard it stood in, being on the edge of an expanding town.

There's no need to push amenities onto people in existing housing stock that they have never been used to. My grandmother didn't miss what she hadn't grown up with. When the farm was sold, and cottage demolished for new modern houses to be built, my grandmother's landlord moved her to a flat with all mod-cons. The best he could do in the circumstances. She would have far rather stayed in her familiar home as out-dated as the amenities were. Growing up there, we never noticed the midden that an outsider inspecting for the Council would likely have found offensive to their senses. The outsider would not know either that we "never had flies in the house with a midden outside the back door".

I remember that cottage most fondly, simply as a place of joy and laughter when the family came together after church on Sundays.

By the "Old Buffer".

Dedicated to the memory of two boys who grew up in that cottage but died far too young. Clifford who died in the trenches of WWI, and Jack who died in Army training during WWII.

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