Bristol's garden suburbs
Gerry Brooke takes a look at a new publication about Bristol’s Garden Suburbs.
Garden cities - a radical reaction to Victorian industrialisation - were intended as well planned, self-contained communities set in a rural environment.
The movement was instigated in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard via his book “To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform” reissued a few years later as “Garden Cities of To-morrow.”
His utopian city, as well as being self sufficient, would have open spaces, public parks and radial boulevards extending from its centre.
In fact Howard envisaged a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central one of some 50,000 people, linked by road and rail.
Everyone, he said, should ideally live within walking distance of their workplace.
Howard also spoke of lives being, “stunted and maimed” by overcrowding in the dark and polluted industrial slums.
“The task which is before us (is) reconstructing anew the entire external fabric of society” he said.
Yes, it was social engineering - but as he saw it, for the public good.
Some years later Quaker activist Elizabeth Sturge and radical doctor Eliza Walker Dunbar, much taken by Howard’s ideas, decided to instigate a modest, scaled down version on the outskirts of Bristol in Shirehampton.
The idea, says Stephen Hunt in an interesting little booklet, was to “provide working people with affordable, high quality homes in a healthy environment.”
In 1909 - a hundred years ago this year - the two women set up a board of directors with responsibility for raising the £10,000 necessary to fund the project, the Bristol Garden Suburb Ltd.
Twenty seven acres of land, it was decided, would be bought off Philip Napier Miles, the last squire of King’s Weston.
The prospectus, endorsed by Howard himself on a visit to Bristol, promised “houses for all classes.”
It was anticipated, says Hunt, that the local co-operative societies would “ play a supportive a mutually benefit role.”
The scheme got off to a good start with an initial 300 attractively designed cottage style houses on the drawing board.
Then the enterprise, and indeed the whole country, received a massive body blow as England declared war on Germany.
After the war things changed radically with the original company being taken over, in 1923, by the Bristol Housing Company.
Although another 900 homes were built, the quality of design and planning was drastically reduced.
Applications to set up light industry were welcomed, but with the proviso that “factories (were to be) fitted with up to date appliances for the prevention of smoke and fumes.”
As at Shire, pubs here were notable by their absence, as they were throughout all of Bristol’s municipal housing estates of the 1920s and 30s.
As Hunt points out drink was still seen as a scourge of the working class which had be strictly controlled.
But the major feature which distinguished these enterprises from paternalistic estates such as Birmingham’s Bournville or Port Sunlight on the Mersey, was the degree of personal freedom and control which came with community ownership.
Around the same time exciting plans for over 1,000 workers homes, backed by leading trade unionists such as Ernest Bevin and Ben Tillett, were formulated for nearby Avonmouth.
But this floundered, as did many other similar schemes, over lack of capital, and in the end only 150 homes were built on a much more conventional estate for the wartime Ministry of Munitions.
The grand plans, which shopping centres, swimming baths, gymnasia and allotments, were eventually dropped in favour of the Penpole housing estate which, says Hunt, “ owed only its low density of development and spacious gardens to the garden city movement.”
But, despite the disappointments, the idea had taken root and, even before the Great War had ended, council plans were afoot for 5,000 homes (“Fit for heroes”) to be built in garden suburbs at Fishponds (Hillfields) Horfield and Knowle, as well as at Shire and Sea Mills.
Other developments, says Hunt, took place on Bedminster Down, St Anne’s, Southmead, Speedwell and St George.
The Sea Mills Garden Suburb, still fighting hard to maintain its unique identity, was constructed throughout the1920 and 30s.
The 1000 or so “Dorlonco” homes here, constructed using Parkinson Pre Stressed Reinforced Concrete and steel, are less “cottagey” looking than those in Shire.
But their construction, by Bristol builders William Cowlin and Son, also made them vulnerable to so called “concrete cancer” which often leads to demolition.
Sea Mills’ green spaces, cul-de-sacs and avenues, however, help to bring the estate closer to the true garden suburb ideal.
The development, says Hunt, was “well regarded, earning, it is said, third place for design in the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association’s national competition in 1935.”
Similar developments covered by the booklet include Hillfields (Bristol’s first municipal housing project) Speedwell, Knowle West, Upper Horfield, St Annes, Southmead and Keynsham’s Somerdale, built for the Fry’s workers in the 1920s as a “Garden Village.”
Unfortunately, lack of local government finance and larger economic restraints coupled with severe housing shortages caused by slum clearance and the Blitzes led to a dilution of the garden city idealistic vision.
The advent of the motor car plus the post war baby boom certainly didn’t help matters.
And by the affluent 1960s and a time of mass production we had entered the era of the tower block.
At the same time new, privately funded housing estates mushroomed in old villages such as Yatton and Yate turning us into a nation of petrol guzzling commuters.
Perversely, notes Hunt, those garden estates which were meant to help the human condition have become the most deprived areas of the city.
Will the government backed eco towns - one is planned for Hanham - fare any better?
UWE librarian Stephen Hunt is a member of the Bristol Radical History Group (BRHG) who publish a range of pamphlets investigating quirky aspects of Bristol’s history.
BRHG organises a range of events - walks, talks, gigs, films and exhibitions as well as trips through the archives and fireside story telling.
Yesterday’s To-morrow - Bristol’s Garden Suburbs by Stephen Hunt is published by Bristol Radical History Group
To obtain a copy please go to www.brh.org.uk