In association with The National Archive Sweeping street scene of terraced housing Sweeping street scene of terraced housing

How the 1930s changed housing

From factory terraces to leafy suburbs, housing was changing in the 1930s

In the mid to late 1930s, a housing boom was in full swing. This explosion led to huge changes in the way houses were being designed, built and located.

Since the 1920s 4.3m houses had been built, and by the end of the 1930s one family in three was living in an interwar house. Fuelled by low interest rates, there was also a rise in home ownership, from 10% of families in 1914 to 31% by 1939. The majority of these mass building programs did not take place in the crowded inner cities of the old industrial heartlands, but on the outskirts of the city, where land was cheaper and more easily available.

The majority of these mass building programs did not take place in the crowded inner cities of the old industrial heartlands, but on the outskirts of the city, where land was cheaper and more easily available.

Despite this, it was estimated that there were 350,000 houses that were overcrowded in 1936 and many others that were unfit for human habitation. Even as late as 1943 it was estimated that 40% of houses in Hull, and 90% of houses in Stepney were without baths.  

A row of Victorian terraced houses in an East London street, due for demolition

A row of Victorian terraced houses in an East London street, due for demolition Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

Many houses that sprung up during this decade were a simple evolution of the Edwardian home. The 1939 house tended to be terraced or semi-detached, with council housing being uniform in design. The private owner-occupiers opted for a design that showed their individualism. With the most popular house style being the ‘Tudorbethan’ style from the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement, house styles moved away from the previously popular pebble-dash to brick and half-timbering. Bungalows were also rising in popularity during this period.

With the most popular house style being the ‘Tudorbethan’ style from the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement, house styles moved away from the previously popular pebble-dash to brick and half-timbering

The new homes of 1930s suburbia featured a bathroom, inside toilet and a third bedroom. They also tended to be dry, better insulated, light and airy. The homes of this era featured a new style kitchen in which the cooking and washing were both done. The new kitchens would have gas or electric cookers and a freestanding hot water boiler.

As railways, trams and cars enabled workers to commute from a distance, suburbs developed on the edge of towns or along arterial roads, swallowing up great swathes of cheap farmland. This enabled the houses being built on the land to have a larger ground plan and spacious gardens. Back in the 1930s, building in green areas was more feasible than it is today. Restrictions were later to be introduced in the shape of the 1947 Town and County planning Act.

1930s Back Of Tenement Housing With Laundry Hanging Out On Clothesline

1930s Back Of Tenement Housing With Laundry Hanging Out On Clothesline Image: Mary Evans/Classic Stock/H. Armstrong Roberts

These new estates of avenues, crescents and cul-de-sacs, with their curving roads lined with trees, became the quintessential image of British suburbia. Most of the new estates sprung up across the South East and West Midlands as parts of the north were still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

These new estates of avenues, crescents and cul-de-sacs, with their curving roads lined with trees, became the quintessential image of British suburbia

In London, the population of the centre decreased by 400,000, while that of the suburbs increased by 1.4m. The appeal for many families seeking to escape the decaying 19th Century industrial city, with its landlord owned houses, was an obvious one. Though middle class families could now enjoy suburban life, many working class families were not able to benefit from the new building developments and saw limited improvement to their living conditions.

However, the government did make a concerted effort to make more council housing available. Only 1% of families rented council accommodation in 1914 but by 1939, this had risen to 14%. Equally the 1930s saw the initiation of serious slum clearance programmes. The coming decade, however, was to bring about new challenges around housing, as more than a million houses in London alone were destroyed by German bombs. 

Main image: Sweeping street scene of terraced housing Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/MARGARET MONCK