Urban Culture Network

Abstracts (2002)

Workshop 2002: Women and Built Space, 1860-1960


Anne Anderson, Southampton Institute
'Work itself is Pleasure: Mary, Lady Lovelace, the Kyrle Society and the Home Arts & Industries Association'

The Kyrle Society, founded in 1876 by Miranda Hill, was to ‘Bring Beauty Home to the Poor’, while the Home Arts and Industries Association, founded in 1884 by Mrs Eglantyne Jebb, promoted the crafts as a recreational hobby for the poor. Both organisations considered the home environment to be vital to the health of the nation: ‘happy homes and smiling faces’. Both were also largely run by women, who either decorated public spaces, like hospitals and schools, in the case of the Kyrle or ran evening or Saturday classes in the case of the HAIA. Both attracted women who pursued ‘moral’ or ‘missionary’ aesthetics, believing that art was for the public good and had a social role to play. Having created a beautiful home, with its improving and civilizing benefits, it was vital to spread the word to the poor. Lady Mary Lovelace is typical of the women involved with the Kyrle and the HAIA. She began her career as a serious artist, studying at the Slade and exhibiting at the Grosvenor Gallery, but after marriage in 1880 she devoted herself to public causes rather than ‘selfishly’ perusing her own desires. After 1893, when her husband inherited his family estates, Mary took the usual step of undertaking architectural training. She is thus something of a rarity, a female Arts and Crafts architect, constructing ideal workers cottages on the Lovelace properties. 

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Trevor Keeble, Kingston University
'Negotiating Their Space: The Hall Sisters of West Wickham, 1860-1900'

Emily and Ellen Hall were two unmarried sisters who, for nearly sixty years used theirr personal diaries to document and describe their life and society in the small suburban village of West Wickham, near Bromley. These diaries show that throughout their lives, through both economic necessity and social imperative, the sisters were required to continually reconsider their relationship to their property. In the late 1860s the sisters commissioned the architect Richard Norman Shaw, who they had met through their friend and neighbour, the novelist Dinah Craik to convert an old attic into a library at their home, Ravenswood. The progress of this commission would be detailed in the sisters' diaries and forms the basis of this paper which questions the role of the woman as client during the mid-late nineteenth century. In the absence of any husband or father (or seemingly responsible brother) to act on their behalf, the sisters engaged, negotiated and battled with both architect and builders, Emily threatening at one stage to "come to fisty cuffs" with Mr. Shaw who had painted the woodwork of her library with a "detestable white paint" when she had requested that it be left. This incident leads both Emily and Ellen to rue the absence of a contract between them and their architect having trusted Mr. Shaw "as though he were a gentleman....". The paper attempts to situate these incidents within a broader understanding of the sisters' social position and freedoms. They traveled extensively both locally and abroad, visiting the attractions of London and spending much time in Algiers. Although the sisters remain atypical, these factors and the evidence of their lives challenge and complexify any "assumed" position of the female householder in the second half of the nineteenth century as well as convey a clear sense of the social purposes to which taste and style could be deployed. Visiting their new neighbour the food industrialist GustavMellin and his family in the mid 1880s, Emily commented "rich but uneducated" and later pronounces of their house, under reconstruction that "it will be very ugly and built of white brick".

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Emma Ferry, PhD Candidate, Royal College of Art
'"Decorators may be compared to doctors": An analysis of Rhoda and Agnes Garretts’ Suggestions for House Decoration.'

Domestic advice manuals are, like any other texts, constructed discourses that cannot be used as conventional historical evidence. They need to be understood both as historical documents that engage with contemporary notions of design and taste, and as a genre of Victorian literature: they need to be placed in an historical and a literary context, and explored using both historical methodologies and literary theories. Of the twelve volumes that comprise the 'Art at Home' series published by Macmillan (1876- 83), four deal exclusively with interior design and decoration. Written by 'Lady Experts' described as ‘the professional advisers of the middle-classes’ these texts seem to contribute to the Victorian ideology of the proper sphere of womanhood and to the cult of the 'House Beautiful'. This paper considers perhaps the best known of these texts, Suggestions for House Decoration, written by Rhoda and Agnes Garrett. Ostensibly a text defending the 'Queen Anne' style and offering advice on the design and decoration of the home, read analytically, it can also be understood as a resistance to patriarchy and a subversion of Victorian domestic ideology through its demonstration of the hard-won knowledge and skills gained by England’s first professional female architects and interior decorators.

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Ruth Livesey, Birkbeck College, University of London
'Women Rent-Collectors and the Rewriting of Class and Gender in Late Nineteenth-Century London: The Case of Katherine Buildings, East Smithfield'.

This paper will start by outlining the strategies of philanthropic housing management pioneered by Octavia Hill from the mid-1860s, in which material improvements to dwellings played a secondary role in the reformation of the lives of the poor compared to the visible moral example of the "lady" rent-collector. I will explore how Hill's writings worked to extend the "natural" authority of middle-class women over their own domestic spaces and households to property management in deprived slum courts and tenements. An essential basis to her prolific output of articles and fund-raising pamphlets from the late 1860s onwards was the representation of herself and her "fellow workers" as authoritative maternal figures, disciplining and moralising their recalcitrant "childish" tenants.

The paper will then draw on the diaries, letters, memoirs and published writings of the women rent-collectors of the purpose-built workers' dwellings, Katherine Buildings, during the 1880s and 1890s. Using the accounts left by Beatrice Webb, Ella Pycroft, Margaret Nevinson and others, the paper will explore how the process of managing the buildings in London's East End led these middle-class women to question the model of ladylike authority advanced by Hill, and experiment with new models of selfhood, power and freedom in the city. The building itself and the conditions under which it was managed made the maintenance of rigid boundaries of private and public, masculine and feminine, maternalist lady collector and deferent tenant impossible. It was not just the tenants whose domestic relations were under scrutiny from the compulsory weekly visits of the philanthropic collector, but the collectors also, whose personal lives were laid open to scrutiny and speculation by the tenants as they went about their daily work. Whilst one mission of philanthropic housing schemes was to encourage working-class men to stay at home, and the rent-collectors taught them domestic pursuits like sewing to this end, the collectors themselves ranged across London with confidence. The paper will conclude by suggesting that the erosion of the conventional bourgeois markers of gendered space in the East End allowed these women to identify themselves in their writings as "new" asexual beings who defined themselves through their work.

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Karen Hunt, Manchester Metropolitan University
'Gendering The Politics Of Rent'.

This paper explores one of the ways that women can relate to built spaces: as consumers of domestic housing. It asks whether rent, as an aspect of day-to-day consumption, can provide a site for a woman-focused politics. In particular, does the rent strike offer a way for women not only to confront the power of particular landlords, but also, more fundamentally, to challenge the dominant perception of politics as concerned with production rather than consumption? Can the politics of rent be gendered? By taking a very specific historical example, the relationship of British socialist women to the politics of rent in the early decades of the twentieth century, this paper explores whether rent could provide a focus for a politics of consumption. In so doing, it raises broader questions about the political potentialities which underlie women's relationship with built spaces.

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Sally Alexander, Goldsmiths College
'"turned lazy": housework, homes and housing in London in the inter-war years'.

"Mrs. Lane turned lazy. She had ten children of her own and for a time went charing; 'Women for rough work' the advertisement used to say. She worked for a woman who had no children but this seemed only fair because the lady had a much bigger house and naturally needed someone to keep it clean. After this task, Mrs. Lane would then do her own place and sit, unwashed, on her front doorstep, with her hair in curlers. Then without warning she turned lazy. She went out no more a cleaning, nor did she bother about her own children." (Edith Hall, Canary Girls and Stockpots, WEA Luton, 1977, p.16.)

Domestic work was women's work. Washing, cleaning, scrubbing, polishing, cooking, mending, sewing and ironing were learned in the home. Ceaseless toil in pursuit of white stone steps, white pinafores, clean hands, Sunday best, the clean, unused front room was absorbed unconsciously. Mothers seldom taught their girls, 'I just saw things done' one woman told me; 'I put my things where my mother put hers' another said. Children in poor families (those without domestic servants) each had their chores; they earned extra money for the household by scrubbing steps, collecting washing, running errands, minding smaller children. Married women took in sewing, or washing, or lodgers, or homework; they went office cleaning, or charing or to laundries to earn money. Domestic tasks were irksome, exhausting, they drained the energy. So many young women growing up in the 1920s remember their mothers still, silent, waiting; several remarked on their mothers' capacities for sitting still. And yet the weeks were driven by the rhythms of domestic work; washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning through, often one room, in London; or two rooms and scullery on one floor of a house; or two or three rooms with kitchen in a council or private 'building'.. Mass Observation's study of wash-day in the 1930s commented on the ceaseless activity, as though an unconscious defence against the slackening of effort which might follow if habit was not obeyed.

This paper will trace the experience of and resistance to domestic work in London in the interwar years, both through oral histories and autobiographies of two generations, and through feminist and welfare investigations, Ministry of Labour and other reports on the housewife and domestic service.

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Jill Greenfield, Independent Scholar
'Homebirds: Women's place as depicted in popular interwar magazines'.

This paper investigates the birth of mass-circulation women's magazines that occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, coterminous with the birth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and describes an ideology of domesticity similar in character to that identified by Janice Winship in the post-World War Two period. The major tenets of the ideology promulgated by the women's magazines under investigation were those of the "professionalisation" of housework utilising labour-saving equipment, "scientific" motherhood, efficiency in the home and consumption of domestic goods by women. Thus women's place in the built environment was almost entirely within the private home. This ideology is examined with reference to wider social and economic changes and is seen in terms of a long-run trend in the industrial capitalist system towards a consumer society. Thus, it is argued that the 1930s were the period in which the birth of an ideology of domesticity markedly different from the more familiar Victorian ideology of separate spheres in which women were "angels in the house" occurred. The new ideology of domesticity emphasised the importance of women's role as efficient homemakers and active consumers, and included working-class women as well as their middle-class counterparts. This was possible due to changes in the economy, which saw the employed working class enjoy levels of affluence hitherto unknown to them. At the same time many in the traditional middle classes had to practise strict economy as taxation rose rapidly over the period and many middle-class women were forced to manage homes without domestic help for the first time. Thus the appeal of women's magazines straddled the working and middle-class market for the first time.

In order to unpack the ideology of domesticity promoted to both working and middle-class women, three magazines are examined: Woman (established 1937), Woman's Own (established 1932) and Good Housekeeping (established 1922). It is argued that these magazines may be viewed as vehicles, which provided advertisers with the incentive to target women as consumers of the products of the new industries, particularly household commodities. The aftermath of World War One saw the collapse of staple export industries and the growth of the production of consumer durables dependent largely upon demand from the domestic market. The climate of economic crisis and readjustment was juxtaposed with the fear that the birth-rate, which had been falling since the turn of the century, would not reproduce the labour lost in WW1. This led to a reinforcement and intensification of domestic ideology in the inter-war period, which emphasised the importance of women's roles as wives and mothers. The importance of the persuasiveness of this ideology of domesticity should not be understated as in a time of growing educational, occupational and political opportunities for women, few married women undertook paid employment outside the home.

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Elizabeth Darling, University of Brighton
'‘A Woman In Touch With Working Women’ Elizabeth Denby and Working-class Housing in 1930s Britain'.

In November 1936, the housing consultant Elizabeth Denby (1894-1965) became the first woman to address a sessional meeting of the Royal Institute of British Architects. A well-known housing expert, by 1936 she was renowned for her writing on the design and furnishing of the working-class flat and her work on two blocks of model flats, R.E.Sassoon House, Peckham (with E.Maxwell Fry, November 1934) and Kensal House (with E.Maxwell Fry, completed March 1937). Her audience might have imagined that she would use this opportunity to talk about such work, instead she chose this occasion to move away from the ‘expert’ figure she had become and to launch some new ideas about what form the working-class dwelling should take.

In a paper entitled ‘Rehousing from the Slumdwellers’ Point of View’ Denby launched a searing attack on the housing built since the end of World War One to rehouse Britain’s workers, declaring: "with all my heart I agree with the working man and woman that the choice for a town dweller between a flat at fifty and a cottage at twelve to the acre is a choice between two impractical and unnecessary extremes".

By allying herself with the rehoused, rather than the rehousers, Denby was moving away from a model of women’s engagement in housing which had been constructed since the end of the 19th century. Middle-class women had built a respectable career in fields such as housing management and household engineering which ignored or overlooked any tension between women of one class telling those of another how to behave.

Denby’s transition from technocrat to ‘grass roots’ activist was thoroughgoing and led her to develop new models of housing which were based on the needs and practices of working-class life. Her first attempts at a new type of housing were introduced in this lecture. She envisaged ‘a close urban development for working people'[with] proper provision for play, for recreation, for health, for fun' Instead of 5-storey walk-up flats or cottages on peripheral estates Denby’s design was for a mixed developments of terraced family houses built at a density of 40 to an acre alongside flats for the childless and unmarried. Social amenities would also be provided. She declared ‘as a woman in touch with working women [this scheme] embodies things which are important to working people and discards things which are unimportant, such things, for example, as wide roads for motor cars which are not very much used in a working-class district’.

Denby’s designs for a better, more worker-oriented housing and the model of practice she developed to achieve this, will be considered in this paper in order to make 3 main points. First, Denby’s activities serve as a means to explore the changing nature of women’s engagement with the built environment in this decade. Second, her ideas about housing will be proposed as an early example of the housing type which would be adopted by central government after 1945. Finally, Denby’s disappearance from housing debates after 1945 will be used to suggest that her refusal to remain a technocrat harmed her career in the expert-dominated world of the Welfare State.

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Jill Seddon, University of Brighton
'Modernist Living: Sadie Speight and The Flat Book'.

Architect Sadie Speight (1906-1992) was an invaluable chronicler of the Modern Movement in architecture and design in Britain, as well as one of its practitioners. This paper will examine her contribution to debates about twentieth century urban living, concentrating particularly on her publications The Flat Book (1939) and 'Inside the Home' a chapter in The Practice of Design (1946). Her personal and professional partnership with her husband, Sir Leslie Martin, raises complex questions concerning specialisation, collaboration and attribution, all of which have a gendered dimension. Some answers may be found both in Speight's own working practices and in the advice which she gave to other home creators.

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Lesley Whitworth, University of Brighton
'The Housewives’ Committee of the Council of Industrial Design: A shortlived experiment in domestic reconnoitering'.

The existence of a single slender file within the Design Council Archive at the University of Brighton entitled, “Housewives’ Committee”, gave reason for optimism that the Council of Industrial Design, founded with state sponsorship under the auspices of the Board of Trade in 1944 showed some sensitivity to issues of gender in the deployment of its resources and the development of its strategy. Charged with stimulating an informed appreciation of well-designed products among British manufacturers, retailers, educators and the buying public in the aftermath of World War II, during which women’s groups of many different kinds had found a strong voice to articulate their concerns, the Council had every reason to view a feminine perspective as a useful device. However the single file proved to be evidence not of earlier ruthless archival pruning, but of the short duration of the Housewives Committee, and closer scrutiny of the Minutes reveal the sharp delineation of their opportunities to influence policy and the firm but unmistakeable hand of senior Council staff in the steering of debates. This paper takes the experience of the Committee to question the efficacy of the Council’s early forays into re-educating and engaging with its many constituencies.

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Gill Scott, University of Brighton
'Homes fit for housewives? The Women's Co-operative Guild and housing policy in postwar Britain'.

At the end of the Second World War, Britain faced an acute housing shortage. Aerial bombardment had damaged 200,000 houses beyond repair, and left another 250,000 uninhabitable without major structural work while the national emergency had drastically reduced the size and output of the building industry. Official estimates in 1945 were that 3-4 million new houses would be needed in the next 12 years, in addition to an extensive programme or repairs. In the context of the 'new consensus' around the desirability of economic planning and social justice, much was made of the need for qualitative as well as quantitative improvements in housing stock: 'the better the house, the better the people' as Ernest Bevin put it. The determination to use reconstruction as an opportunity to rid the country of residual Victorian slums as well as to make good the depredations of the Blitz stimulated widespread debate about housing needs. A relatively marginal but important voice in this debate was that of the wives and mothers for whom houses were workshops as well as homes. This was the perspective taken by the Women's Co-operative Guild, an organisation whose membership consisted of tens of thousands of married working-class women, and which had for more than half a century sought to represent their needs and interests on a range of social questions. In this paper I will explore some of the views expressed on housing by the Women's Co-operative Guild and the ways in which they illuminate not only aspirations for the 'ideal home' but the difficult conditions in which many wives and mothers laboured.


Urban Culture Network

Department of Classics
School of Humanities
University of Nottingham
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