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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Housing in Norwich


 The following is the introduction to the thesis:

"A Fine City, Fit for Heroes?"

The Rise of Municipal Housing in Norwich, 1900-1939

An Historical Perspective

by JJ McLean


To read the full thesis as a PDF, click here.




On their return to Norwich from the trenches on the Western Front at the end of World War 1, the men of the Royal Norfolk and other Regiments must have hoped they would be coming back to a life better than the one they had left. They might have at least expected improvements in their living conditions to be forthcoming, particularly in regard to the poor housing many had left behind when they set off to fight for King and Country. No doubt their expectations would have been heightened by the slogan adopted and the commitment given by the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George as he prepared for the General Election of 1919; returning troops deserved nothing less than "homes fit for heroes."

At the outbreak of the War and earlier, the image of Norwich for many had been penned in 1851 by George Borrow who was moved to exclaim his pride and pleasure when surveying Norwich; 'A fine old city, truly, is that, view it from whatever side you will; but it shows best from the east, where the ground, bold and elevated, overlooks the fair and fertile valley in which it stands..... " Indeed, for many citizens, Norwich at that time offered an environment which exemplified " the most curious specimen at present extant of the genuine English town." (1) It is thought Borrow was viewing the City from  Mousehold Heath, where he could see the River Wensum, the Cathedral and its environs, and Bishop Bridge "flanked on either side by rich meadows of the brightest green, beyond which spreads the city." Had he turned his gaze slightly downwards and to the west however, he would have been able to see that the idea of "a fine city" was an illusion for many of Norwich's citizens. Life, and in particular where they lived, was very different for returning soldier heroes, for whom squalor, poverty and destitution were all too common.


Lloyd George's promise was seized upon by those throughout the country who deplored the distress and apparent hopelessness of the poor. This book examines how desperate were housing conditions in Norwich at the start of the twentieth century and to what extent Lloyd George's promise was fulfilled as far as the city's returning heroes were concerned. It traces the earlier attempts by the City Council to improve the lot of the poorer citizens from the time when there was virtually no direct involvement or acceptance of responsibility by central government, to the beginnings of a massive undertaking of construction of municipal housing, the clearance of slums and the resettlement of thousands of residents, all within a relatively short period of time. Contemporaneously, there was a boom in private housing, and its implications for the municipal sector are also considered.


The focus of this book is not so much on the architecture, design or construction of the many houses which were built, but more on the political processes, national and local, which initiated a major achievement in social engineering. It examines the many obstacles, disagreements, delays and frustrations, as well as the costs, in pursuit of this ideal at time of great national and international economic, social and political upheaval. We shall also consider whether in fact the massive undertaking of the construction of thousands of houses fulfilled the commitment given to honour the heroes of the Great War.


This review is also intended to be a timely reminder of the politicization of housing; in the years following the Great War, the primary driving forces for the launching of national housing scheme were largely those concerned with health and humanitarian issues, as well as a sense of social responsibility by elected representatives at local and national level. There were also a political dimension to the enterprise, but a broad consensus existed between the parties over the main objectives. In recent years however, a sharper contrast has arisen between the principal political parties in terms of the role and extent of municipal housing, and at the time of writing (March, 2011), a raft of policies has been introduced by the incumbent government with a new agenda, which will significantly affect the conditions in which a large proportion of the population have been used to living.


It is also hoped that this book will add to the written history of Norwich and a be fitting tribute to those whose sense of social responsibility prompted them to undertake such a mammoth task at a challenging time in history, and the results of their labours, which we enjoy in a "Fine City, Fit for Heroes."


 The author is indebted to the many people who helped (knowingly or unwittingly) in the writing of this book, in particular to the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society,  the staff of the Norwich Millennium Library  and the Norfolk Archive Centre;  the staff of the Photography Library of Eastern Daily Press Newspapers; Councillors  Judith Lubbock and  Adrian Ramsay, and Tracey Johns, Director for Neighbourhood and Strategic Development, all of Norwich City Council; Mr Tony Whitwood, former City Architect for his guidance and counsel and  to the senior citizens of Norwich who willingly shared  memories of their early lives in Norwich. Finally, thanks are due to my wife, family and friends for their encouragement and support in this venture.


John McLean

March, 2011.