The 1930s: The golden age of house building

As part of our 100 years of social housing series, we turn our focus to the 1930s when the housing boom was in full swing.

In the last edition of Tap4, we featured Bolton life in the 1920s when the first council house was built in the town. Moving on, the 1930s became known as the ‘golden age’ of house building with thousands of homes built by councils and private developers.

It all began with the Housing Act 1930 (also known as the Greenwood Act), which encouraged councils to clear the overcrowded slums, largely made up of Victorian back to back terraces built during the Industrial Revolution.

Residents in Bolton were to be re-housed in new council homes with an adequate water supply and improved ventilation and sunlight. Many of the homes featured a bathroom, a third bedroom and a new-style kitchen where both cooking and washing could be done.

An article from the Bolton Evening News announces slum clearances.

Mostly built in the 1930s with a few extra houses added in the 1940s, Kay Street estate in Little Bolton had around 40 homes. The estate still exists and has since been re-modelled.

Recognise any names? Taken from the 1939 Census, this shows a list of heads of household living on Fernhill Avenue, on the Platt Hill Estate, in the 1930s.

The Great Depression

While the government pushed on in its endeavours to provide better housing for the working classes, the country was also in an economic downturn. The Great Depression, a global phenomenon resulting from the 1929 stock market crash in the US, led to mass unemployment in Britain, particularly in the manufacturing industries. The north was hit hard and many cotton workers in Bolton lost their jobs. By the end of 1932, unemployment in Britain stood at almost 23%.

Back then, unemployment benefit was given for up to 26 weeks but it was grossly inadequate, and millions of families were plunged into poverty. This led to increased cases of child malnutrition, causing scurvy, rickets and tuberculosis. In protest, 'hunger marches' were arranged by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM). In 1932, around 400 people marching from Scotland to London took an overnight stop in Farnworth.

Neville Chamberlain, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, reacted by introducing a ‘cheap money’ policy which meant reducing interest rates. The move, coupled with relaxed planning restrictions and cheap land available on the outskirts of towns and cities, enabled private developers to step up supply and build houses for sale. These homes were much more affordable compared to today’s prices due to the availability and low price of the land.

This expansion of the private sector contributed to an economic recovery and, by the mid-late 1930s, the development of both private and council housing peaked at 350,000 homes in one year.

An early aerial shot of the Johnson Fold estate. The first phase was built in the 1930s and the estate was extended in the 1950s to provide 1,000 homes.

By the end of the 1930s, council homes were an important form of housing provision, accounting for 10% of all homes in the UK. Around 4,500 council homes were built in Bolton during this decade.

The shops on the Hall i’ th’ Wood Estate where 600 homes were built (a further 100 were added in the 1960s). Current and past residents of the estate have carried out a research project into the history of Hall i’ th’ Wood, which can be viewed online at:

An aerial view of the Willows Estate hangs in Bolton library. The 1960s films 'The Family Way’ and 'Spring and Port Wines' were shot here. And later in the 1970s, the Willows became the town’s first regeneration project to actively involve tenants in the re-design of the estate.

A growth in civic pride

In the 1930s, building in green areas was more feasible than it is today. This meant that houses could have a larger ground plan and spacious gardens. These new estates of tree-lined avenues, crescents and cul-de-sacs, became the image of British suburbia and led to a strong sense of civic pride.

Proud of the new communities being created across Bolton, the council produced a tenant handbook showing pictures of the new homes and estates. And in 1937, calendars were sent to every tenant, giving tips on how to grow food and look after their gardens.

The tenants’ calendar was produced to promote pride in the community

Leafy Johnson Fold Avenue in the 1930s.

Garden competitions were introduced and here are the winners of the 1937 competition, Thomas and Elsie Kilburn, who are pictured in their garden at Greenroyd Avenue (picture kindly provided by Thomas and Elsie’s granddaughter, Jade Cameron, who works for Bolton at Home).

In the late 1930s a group of young idealists led by anthropologist, Tom Harrison, began a Mass Observation project to explore the habits and customs of working class people. This large-scale social study began in Bolton in 1937 which led to the town being named ‘Worktown’ by Harrison. In the years that followed, the group carried out similar studies and its work paved the way for the welfare state we know today.

Towards the end of the 1930s, Britain was looking more prosperous and people were living in better conditions. The coming decade, however, was to bring new challenges around housing, as men once again went to war and millions of homes were bombed. In the next edition, we’ll take a look at the key events that shaped housing and social change in 1940s Bolton.

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