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Revisiting the cottage council estates: England, 1919–39

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The suburban cottage council estates of inter-war England are an example of how hopes for social transformation emerging in a new physical environment produced by planning worked out in practice. Their roots lay in the anti-urbanism of the nineteenth century. To improve the physical and moral health of the population, reformists had rejected the contemporary city in favour of a more rural environment. The adoption of the pre-industrial English village as the model for development appeared to offer harmonious social relations and a sense of community too. Although these sentiments were diminished by the end of World War I, their legacy was still apparent. Under the influence of Raymond Unwin, the promotion by the Tudor Walters Report of picturesque cottages, streets, gardens and greens presupposed an improved way of life for the cottage council estates that drew upon these romanticized images of the past.

Rarely has the social life that developed on the estates been associated with such images. Instead, one of the strongest narratives of suburban working-class life is the loneliness and desolation of the cottage council estates. The estates are usually depicted, especially by modern commentators, as bereft of any sense of community. In particular, the layout of the housing, together with the absence of other facilities and amenities are thought to have hindered the development of social life. Rather than engendering a sense of community, the physical environment is held chiefly responsible for its absence.

This paper re-examines these assumptions about the relationship between city plan and social relations by detailing the development of social life in the inter-war period upon the Roehampton and Watling estates, two of the London County Council's cottage estates. Community, it is argued, was not absent from either estate. The precise nature of community that emerged on each estate, together with the wider development of social life, is linked not to the estates' physical planning, but instead their social composition.

Document Type: Regular Paper


Publication date: 2001-04-01

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