They Made It Happen! exhibition in the Heritage Gallery on the first floor of The Core Library, Solihull from July-September 2018 celebrated the self-build housing associations which were set up by people so desperate for a home of their own to rent that they built their own, and then rented it from the housing association. At the time, they had no expectation of being able to buy the houses although, when regulations were relaxed a few years later, most were subsequently able to buy.
In the 1950s there was a housing crisis. Years of war had left cities like Birmingham with immense housing shortages – some 13,000 houses had been destroyed in Birmingham in the Blitz. During the war, council house building was all but suspended, although some private building did take place.
There were 70,000 people on the housing list waiting for council houses in Birmingham alone, a figure that was rising with returning National Servicemen. Many of those people had been on the waiting list for seven or more years.
Most people on the waiting list for a council house had almost no hope of being allocated a property. It was possible to build privately if you had the money to do so, but you would also need a licence, land, planning permission and materials.
One million homes were needed in five years. Materials were in extremely short supply, and many construction workers had become casualties of the war resulting in a national labour shortage as well as a shortage of building materials. The government had a strict control on house building, with limited numbers of building licences being issued to local authorities. A further restriction was that for every private dwelling built, four social housing dwellings had to be built.
Many young couples and families found themselves living with their in-laws, and it was not uncommon for newlyweds to live apart from their spouse and with their respective parents, not just for months but for years. The situation seemed hopeless.
In 1949, George Lavender, an enterprising ex-serviceman employed at the Post Office Factory, Fordrough Lane, Birmingham realised that it wasn’t only local councils who could build social housing. Section 94 of the Housing Act 1936 provided for Government money to be paid to a housing association building “houses for the working classes” on the same basis as if the houses had been built by the local authority. Money would be paid by the Government to the local authority, which would then give an annual grant to the association of not less than the money provided by the Government.
George Lavender realised that there was a much better chance of obtaining a scarce building licence if men grouped together and formed a Housing Association under a Trust Deed. Such an association could arrange mortgages, lease land and get permission to build. Provided that members would not own the houses but would rent them from the Association, there would be a government subsidy of £16 10s per house per year for 60 years.
George Lavender selected 49 ex-servicemen, all members of the British Legion, to join him in the scheme. They obtained the necessary permits, bought preliminary materials, and set to work building semi-detached bungalows in Tallington Road, Sheldon on behalf of the Post Office Branch, British Legion Housing Association. News of the enterprise spread and, by 1951, it was reported that George Lavender was advising some 2,000 amateur builders in more than 40 similar schemes across the country.
Solihull, being in close proximity to Birmingham, having a supply of land available, and with a Council that wanted to encourage self-help housing associations, was home to more than 35 self-build housing associations.
Staff at The Core Library, Solihull are trying to produce a comprehensive list of the self-build associations, with details of which houses they built. If you have any information to add to the list, please let us know. So far, we know of:
- A.I.T. Housing Society Ltd built four houses in Wychwood Avenue, Knowle and dwellings in Broadfern Road, Knowle
- The Acorn Housing Association built 40 houses in Portia Avenue and Fabian Crescent
- Cateswell Self-Build Housing Association built 34 houses including 10 in Ebrington Avenue. We’re told that the association wasn’t as “hands on” as some of the others, and that building work was done by paid labour rather than directly by association members
- Fortitude Housing Association built 40 houses in old Lode Lane (nos. 659-717) and Fallowfield Road (nos. 64-74 and 83-89)
- The Garwood Group – according to the Birmingham Weekly Post, 20th July 1956, this group was just starting to build in Scott Road, Olton, opposite the Lavender Hill ‘Mob’
- Ideal Benefit built houses in Fallowfield Road (on the Tanhouse Farm Estate)
- Invicta Housing Association built houses in Regan Avenue
- Lavender Hill Housing Association Ltd had 26 members and built 26 six-roomed bungalows in Scott Road, Olton (on the Pierce Avenue Estate). The group was formed on 5th May 1952, taking its name from the popular film, the Lavender Hill Mob, but had to wait for almost two years before it could find land. In the meantime, group members spent 18 months being trained by the U-Built-It group. Building began in the summer of 1954, and the first bungalow was occupied in December 1955.
- Oak Avon Housing Association built dwellings on the Shakespeare Manor Estate
- Shakespeare Housing Association built 32 houses in Portia Avenue (nos. 44-62) and Fabian Crescent, Shirley (nos. 53-67 and 74-100)
- Shirley Self-Building Housing Association built bungalows in Catesby Road and Antony Road
- Silver Birch Housing Association (formed by GPO workers) built 28 bungalows in Ebrington Avenue, Sheldon (nos. 38-72, and 49-67)
- Solihull Progressive Housing Association Ltd (formed by workers of a subsidiary company of the Dunlop Rubber Co.) built 50 bungalows in Dovedale Avenue, Shirley
- Sparkhill Self-Build Housing Association, or SSBA, (comprising 40 members, mostly from Lucas Electrical Company) built bungalows on both sides of Ebrington Avenue from Charingworth Road to the right of way leading to Hobs Moat Road. The house numbers were no. 7 Charingworth Road, and nos. 1-47 and 6-36 Ebrington Avenue. One of the original self-builders, Ken Waugh, told his story to a member of staff at Hobs Moat Library in 2021, a few months before his death.
- Supreme Self-Help Building Scheme built 35 bungalows in Oberon Drive. It had been planned to have land in Regan Avenue as well but some members of the scheme dropped out so the land was not needed and was instead used by the Invicta Housing Association.
- U-Build-It Housing Association (formed by employees of Joseph Lucas) built bungalows in Charingworth Road and Glenside Avenue
- United Effort had 30 members and built 18 dwellings in Scott Road and Scott Grove, Olton, as well as dwellings in Fernhill Road, Olton
Bungalows and houses are also known to have been built by self-build associations in Queens Avenue.
There were also pockets of self-build housing in Chelmsley Wood in the 1960s, including by Ward End, Digby and Astek housing associations, as well as a group of sergeants from the newly-opened police station who built their own houses in Sheepclose Drive, Chelmsley Wood. Please let us know if you have any information about any self-build housing in Chelmsley Wood.
Solihull Libraries have a number of books relating to self-help housing schemes in Solihull in the 1950s. Most are unpublished, and available in the Core Library, Solihull for reference only:
- Solihull Progressive Housing Association by W. C. Hiscox
- The Shakespeare Housing Association by Pamela Davis
- We Built With Fortitude by Rex Grogan
- Self-built in Solihull by James Debney
- Building the Dream by Jean Debney
Local newspapers carried a number of articles about self-help housing associations and their progress. All libraries in Solihull have a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive, accessible free of charge in libraries from library PCs or your own device connected to our free Wi-Fi.
If you have any photos, memorabilia, reminiscences or information about self-build housing in Solihull, please get in touch.
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian
tel.: 0121 704 6977
© Solihull Council, 2018.
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