Fifty Men of Brum
Despite (or perhaps because of), the horrors of war, some felt that it engendered a sense of community. Following the war, people worked together to rebuild their communities. It was a time of optimism, hopes for a better future with opportunities for everyone.
After the war, a Labour government set about developing the NHS, the welfare state, comprehensive education, and an intensive building programme of hundereds of thousands of homes. A decent home is one of life’s necessities to which every one is entitled. Later, Thatcher’s Right to Buy Policy led to the depletion of social housing stock, which eventually fell into the hands of unscrupulous landlords, and to contributors to the Tory party. The immorality of Buy-to-Let mortgages forced up the price of housing out of reach of many ordinary people, and Housing Benefit paid to rich landlords is now necessary so people become trapped by the system.
After the war, fifty men of Birmingham set about building their own homes, after a day’s work. This inspired more self-build schemes to be set up around the country, demonstrating it is possible to take the system on, if people get together, and organize. How could this be done today? What could people-power achieve?
Article 1: Reproduced from Illustrated magazine – October 1949
FIFTY MEN OF BRUM
Published in ILLUSTRATED, October 8, 1949
Housing experts all over the country are watching the progress of a team of pioneers who are building their own homes
Bright new roofs push upwards in the suburbs of those cities made dusty grey as the homes of the people crumbled under Hitler’s bombs. Clean brick walls show their friendly redness against the trees and grass of the countryside. In town and village there is a great movement as those who lived for so many years in single, crowded rooms or shared discomfort with parents and relatives in houses built for one family, pack up their belongings and find peace in homes of their own.
Since the end of the war, say the latest figures, 541,531 permanent houses have been provided to shelter those who enjoy it so much with so great a patience, while
157,146 temporary roofs cover those families who hoped for something better in the future.
But up and down the country there are those who get restless with waiting. They want to see their houses growing brick by brick. They do not want to hear about official priorities. And so they set to work.
There are fifty such pioneers in the city of Birmingham……..fifty among the population of 1,104,000. They are men who work in Birmingham Post Office Factory and all are members of the British Legion. When they came back from the war they joined in the moaning and groaning at the delay and frustration over getting a home again. Birmingham was building fast – by now 3,395 permanent and 4,625 temporary houses have been put up by the local authority and 1,665 by private concerns but not swift enough for the fifty ex-Servicemen.
It is now that ex-paratrouper George Lavender drops into the story. What was the good of moaning and groaning, he asked. “Why not build our own homes? The best way to get things done is to roll up your sleeves and start to work.”
And that is what George and his friends did. They studied the rules and regulations. They applied for licences and were lucky in getting some expert advice and assistance from a well-known local architect. This scheme was based on voluntary labour. Trade union men themselves, they wanted to be sure not to cross the path of the professionals among the builders.
Since their plan relieved the hard-pressed building trade, all obstacles were soon removed. George Lavender selected forty-nine of his comrades and devised a scheme by which each of them contributed £20 for essential preliminaries. They bought a lorry, a concrete mixer, and other equipment and obtain the support of the building society.
Then began a training period of more than six months during which the men spent their leisure hours – every evening and every weekend – building walls and pulling them down, mixing concrete, handling trowels; doing every kind of job that goes into the making of a house. At last they were ready to start.
That was last May. Today is the first home is ready and grace a pleasant site at Sheldon, not more than half an hour bus ride from the centre of Birmingham.
No. 1 bungalow goes to Tommy Morris, thirty-one, married, with two children. When I saw him he was sorting out bricks at the far end of the busy building site. He was smiling and humming away. His equally cheerful companion was young Murry Smith, who handled a concrete mixer as if he had done so all his life.
The fifty pioneers agreed among themselves on the system of priority, which took into account the living conditions of each. Every quarter-hour of work lost on the site means dropping in the priority scale. There have been a few changes in the original list, which had Morris as No. 1 and Smith as No. 50. The only professional on the job is Fred Moss, and builders’ foreman who seems to have walked into Sheldon straight from an American pioneering film. Tattooed, his bare backed tanned and glistening in the sun, Fred is always on the job and has inspired the amateur builders of Birmingham. “Never before have I enjoyed working as much as I am doing now!” he says.
Each bungalow will have a lounge, a kitchen, three bedrooms, and will be worth £600. Outgoings for each of fifty will be 24 shillings a week. Wives have had their say in such details as the position of sinks, fireplaces and cupboards. There have, of course, been hitches. George Lavender, Fred Moss and their team have laughed them away and clerks, engineers and mechanics have gone on digging drainage ditches, putting in window frames, plumbing and welding with great zest. On Saturdays, at lunchtime, a fish-and-chips van calls at Sheldon. When the hooter goes, the men who are building their own homes hurry to form a queue for their midday meal. Only a few who live nearby go home during the half-hour break. It is difficult to appreciate that these men are doing a full hard full day’s hard work at their own job. But then, work done, instead of going to the pub, the club, the football match or the cinema, they get together on the building site.
And it is significant that their efficiency at their regular work has increased since they started on their own scheme. Life seems to have acquired a new purpose. To see their own homes going up has stimulated every one of them.
The Birmingham scheme has echoed throughout the country, and building experts have journeyed to Sheldon to see how the men who are working on it are achieving their purpose. It has been declared that housing is no longer a subject of acute political controversy and that a fairly even level of progress is in sight. When you are among the fifty pioneers of Birmingham, you discover that their talk is not of politics, but rather of The Plan and their method of putting it into practice. They are never tired of talking about it and explaining their motives, although they grudge even that time away from their bricklaying and trench digging.
Now the first unit is ready. Steady progress is being made with the remainder. George Lavender, Fred Moss and the others will go on working until the last of the fifty homes is built. Then there will be fifty more happy families who have carved out for themselves a home life which had been stolen by the tragic years of war.
The First Six Neighbours in Tallington Road
Build-our-own-home families move in
Article 2: Reproduced from John Bull magazine – December 1951
“They didn’t wait to get on any housing list. They decided what they wanted, leased the land, borrowed some money, bought the materials and went to work.”
Published in JOHN BULL, December 1, 1951
By KEITH ELLIS
When Sergeant George Lavender was demobbed from Airborne Signals after six years fighting in the Middle East, he had, like most ex-servicemen, definite ideas about the sort of home he wanted. It was to be a bungalow with combined dining room and lounge, kitchen, bathroom, three bedrooms, a large garden and space at the side for a garage. He preferred it in the country but not too far from Birmingham, where he worked as a Post Office engineer.
Lavender and his wife Eileen and their four and a half old Barry now have just such a home. Though only half an hour’s bus ride from the centre of Birmingham, their large back garden adjoins King George V Memorial Park, a National Trust property that will never be built on. They did not achieve it through waiting patiently on a housing list or paying a fancy price on the open market. Their good fortune is entirely due to an idea put forward four years ago at the Birmingham Post Office Factory branch of the British Legion.
Wives could not be left
At that time Lavender was assistant secretary. When he asked members why they did not turn up for meetings, they almost invariably said: “We’d like to come but we can’t leave the wife alone in rooms. It would be different if we had a house.” Bill Spencer, the chairman, had a commonsense answer: “Let’s build some houses, then.” They took him literally and, as a result, twenty-one of the fifty members are settled in semi-detached bungalows. The rest are looking forward to similar accommodation in the next eighteen months.
For more than two years, after a full day’s work, members of the Post Office Branch, British Legion Housing Association, have worked for three nights a week as bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters and plumbers from six-fifteen, when a line is drawn across the signing-in-book, to nine-fifteen, when Foreman Ray Walton blows the final whistle.
They work all day Saturday and all day Sunday. In winter the site is floodlit so that work can go on after dark.
Their only relief is once a year at Christmas and when rain, snow or frost make work impossible. Since there are no labour costs, they are building for under £1,000 bungalows whose market value is well over £2,000.
At 53, Lavender is a six-footer with receding hair and a strong jawline – a jovial hustler, known to his fellow-builders as the Big White Chief. His stock answer to all queries about his health is “over-worked and under-paid,” which is probably half-true, as he is now full-time free adviser to any self-help building scheme that comes along. No longer a Post Office engineer, he has an office (with dictaphone) provided by the estate agent who handles a large part of the self-help builders’ negotiations. He also holds several agencies and draws commissions on orders for various supplies. “Without these, I couldn’t give my full time,” he says, “and, after all, it costs the boys nothing.” His office is the headquarters of a truly national movement. More than 2000 amateur builders organized in forty groups scattered all over the country now take his service.
Bicycle search for a site
Lavender’s qualifications for giving advice date solely from his election to the secretaryship of the Post Office scheme. He and Bill Spencer knew only that they wanted houses: they had no idea how to start building them. “It was just a matter of common sense and tackling each problem as it came along,” says Lavender. For instance, they knew their first need was land so “we just tootled about the countryside on our bikes until we found some.” After taking a fancy to the Memorial Park site, Lavender enquired from a nearby tenant the name of the freeholder and found that lots were available on 99 year leases.
A few days later, he was describing his idea to Lockersley Hare, a well-known Birmingham architect. “Well,” said Hare, “I’ve heard of similar schemes in Sweden, but can you get the licenses?” Lavender, who had not yet tried, assured him that he could. “And what sort of bungalows do you want?” That stumped Lavender. Finally, they arranged for him to attend a meeting of members and their wives to discuss the design. “He just drew a rectangle on the board,” says Lavender, “and the womenfolk filled it in.”
Lavender next explained the idea to a solicitor who was interested but uncertain of the procedure. “Let’s take the counsel’s opinion,” he suggested. After a local barrister who specialized in conveyancing had considered the matter for a fortnight, Lavender and the solicitor went to see him in his chambers. “At first he just couldn’t grasp that we wanted to do it all without making a profit.” Then he advised them to form an association under a Trust Deed, thus avoiding the stamp duties and Schedule ”A” income tax payable if they registered under the Companies Act.
Such an association could arrange mortgages, lease land and get permission to build. Because individual members would never own houses but rent them from the Association of which they formed part, they could get a government subsidy of £16 10s. a year for each house for 60 years. Also, the self-help bungalows could be built out of the local authority’s housing allocation instead of by private license. So Lavender’s group became the Post Office Branch, British Legion Housing Association.
They were now in a position to borrow money. After fruitlessly trying one or two small building societies, Lavender finally arranged a mortgage of £1,000 for each house, repayable over thirty years at four per cent. “We chose thirty years because of most of us are about thirty years old now and in thirty years time we should be thinking about retiring.” Though he knew the Association could borrow money from the Public Works Department on even more favourable terms, he reckoned there would be less delay if he dealt with a building society.
Bricklaying classes begin
Next followed the most difficult period of all. They had arranged the mortgages and taken a lease on their land. With a subscription of £20 from each member, they had bought a lorry, concrete mixer and three Nissen huts. A weekly subscription of 3s 6d had been arranged to defray current expenses such as petrol, stationery and telephone bills. But they were unable to start building until all plans had been approved by Birmingham Corporation and the Regional and National offices of the Ministry of Health. “The authorities went out of their way to help other advisors, but a week or fortnight doesn’t mean much to them.”
The delay wasn’t wasted. W. A. Olsson, father of one of the members, was a clerk of works and agreed to take bricklaying classes for two nights a week. They hired a church hall for lectures with an adjoining patch of land for practical work. Meanwhile, as secretary, Lavender was ordering building materials.
So far, most of the people who had heard of the scheme were dubious of its success. When they heard that the building was actually to start, however, offers of help came from all sides. Lavender particularly welcomed the assistance of a friend who had formerly been a surveyor with an official body. Only when he had completely pegged out the first site did Olsson discover that it was four feet out of true. After that, we politely but firmly turned down outside offers of help.”
How homes are allocated
To make sure that everyone does his share, the Association has devised an ingenious system of deterrents. A points scheme based on time married, number of children and immediate circumstances decides in what order houses are to be allotted. The list of names is written on graph paper with five squares between each. For every quarter of an hour he loses, a member drops back one square. If he loses an hour and a half, he thus goes down one place on the list. “In this way we get the wife’s support. It has worked admirably.” When a member has a house, he is charged three shillings extra rent for every quarter of an hour he loses.
Life is mostly bed and work, but there is fun in it, too. One of the members said: this is the only place where I can have a good cuss.” Then that was the time a Government film crew arrived to take scenes for a feature entitled Commandos of the Concrete. ( link to clip)
Wanting a shot of someone painting, the cameraman shouted to a man not normally a painter: “Grab a brush, will you? I want a shot of you painting that window.” The man obeyed. “Look happy,” said the cameraman, “talk while you’re doing it and FACE THE CAMERA.” When the shot had been taken did the member find that he had been painting the glass.
In the early days there were all sorts of difficulties. “We thought putting a roof on a house was as easy as putting one on a shed. Actually it needs a pretty competent carpenter to get the angles right. Though Mr. Olsson insists that he is really a master of one trade only, he was able to show us the way. Before the roof could be tiled it had to be felted and for this we have to be like cats. We rolled out the felt and fixed it to the joists with laths, using the lower ones to stand on as we worked higher up. Unfortunately our toes tipped forward and tore the felt, making the roof look like it had been hit by load of shrapnel. Mr. Olsson then showed us how to stand on the laths sideways.”
The first twelve pairs of bungalows were almost finished when Lavender went to see the freeholder’s agent to arrange the lease of the rest of the land on which they had taken an option by gentleman’s agreement. “You’re too late,” said the agent. Birmingham Corporation had taken out a compulsory purchase order on it. Lavender went to see the chairman of the Housing Committee, who suggested another plot of land quarter of a mile away. The Corporation had tried to requisition this land, too, but the residents had successfully appealed on the grounds that Corporation houses would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. “Perhaps they’ll accept you,” said the chairman. They did, but there was a delay of four and a half months before building could be resumed.
Plan for paying the bills
The mortgage which Lavender obtained is a progressive one, which means that the money is advanced in instalments as each house reaches a certain stage of construction – for instance, damp course, plate height, when the roof is complete and when the first fittings have been installed. The materials for each stage are bought on short term credit and paid for out of the money handed over when that stage is finished. John Doble, the estate agent who inspects each stage for the building society, says: “We couldn’t have a sounder proposition. If I make the slightest criticism, the work is pulled down and done it again. They are so sensitive of their high standards that I sometimes have to say ‘that’s not quite right – but don’t pull it down, mind.’ ”
The bungalows are also inspected regularly by the local authority and by the architect. Occasionally a tile has to be replaced and sometimes the amateurs fall foul of professional standards. One day, glazing a bull’s eye window, they decided to put in the glazing bars in the form of a diagonal cross. When the architect arrived for inspection, he saw the window from the end of the road, tumbled out of his car and ran to the site. “You ‘ve ruined my reputation,” he puffed. “Get that window out quick. It must be an upright cross.” “But we’ve taken a vote and we prefer a diagonal.” The architect drew himself up. “You can’t have a diagonal cross,” he pronounced. “It just isn’t done.” Reluctantly they reglazed the window.
There have been blunders, of course – someone falling in a trench filled with wet concrete and the electrician falling through the roof just as the plasterers below were admiring their work. “It was heartbreaking at the time, but these incidents have been few and far between.” Lavender believes that the self-help building schemes are the only societies in which one can find the wartime spirit of comradeship revived. “There is not the slightest discrimination among members,” he says, “just as we did in the mob, we work together for a common end.”
Keeping the rents down
For the first month tenancy a member pays the full economic rent of 38 shillings permitted by the Ministry, so that if the house later falls vacant, the Association will be able to charge the new tenant, who will not have contributed his labour, the full rent. Once the legal maximum has this been established, the tenant pays thirty shillings and sixpence a week, just sufficient to cover mortgage repayments, ground rent, rates and insurance. When the fifty bungalows are finished, there will remain a plot of land so far used for stores. Present plans are to build a clubhouse on it.
Lavender answers queries from people all over the country who have heard of the scheme and want to try themselves. “All sorts of people come to me,” he says, “some in overalls, others with briefcases. They all ask if there is a vacancy in one of my groups. I tell them that there isn’t, but if they’re the right type, they’ll form a group of their own. Then I can help them.”
Lavender is certain, however, that no building scheme can work without the co-operation of the wives. “After all, it means that they are going to see very little of their husbands three nights a week and at weekends for three whole years. But, then, most of them think a house is worth the sacrifice.”