- The Making of the Modern British Home: The Suburban Semi and Family Life between the Wars by Peter Scott
The interwar period in Britain is overshadowed by chronic unemployment, but there is another, brighter side. This is the social breakout into suburban living, facilitated by a sustained building boom in the 1930s, whose peak annual magnitude has not been matched since. While the coal belt and its legacy industries were depressed, the wave of innovation in electricity, communications, public and private motor transport, and urban services transformed the rest of the country, and even parts of the coal belt itself, while production of housing, furniture, flooring and appliances kept millions more in work. Peter Scott’s jacket illustration, taken from an advertisement, shows (as if from a low-flying plane) a bridge crossing over from tight, grey, grim rows of urban terraced houses to a new suburban bungalow drenched in sunlight, its roof blazing red, a green lawn, and a child on a tricycle on orange pathways.
This transition is familiar to historians, but that does not reduce the warm glow it can still invoke. Alan Jackson, Ross McKibben, and many others have vividly depicted this migration as primarily a middle-class movement. Peter Scott’s contribution is to lay out, in greater detail and penetration than before, the experience of manual workers and the lower middle class. Stefan Muthesius showed that before the First World War, the dominant housing form in England (a single-family house with a narrow street frontage and a long backwards extension) was universal across the social classes, differing in scale, space, amenity, and the presence of gardens depending on cost. Likewise, housing in the interwar period was dominated by a new format, in which the single-family house (usually built in “semi-detached” pairs, the “Semi” of the title) was turned sideways to maximize air and light, and surrounded with a substantial garden, though still differentiated socially by size and style. This design first appeared before 1914, was associated with politically progressive aspirations, was formalized in wartime by the official Tudor Walters Report, and became hugely popular. Solidly constructed housing of that period has endured well and is still popular today.
When wartime rent control was not lifted, this crippled the previous housing supply mechanism of letting-out by house-landlords. In its place, the suburban [End Page 1005] movement into municipal rental and home ownership was first subsidized by national and local governments, and when this effort began to ebb in the twenties, it was taken up by private enterprise. Scott provides a comprehensive narrative and analysis covering both forms of enterprise. After a single chapter on municipal provision, most of the book is devoted to private development. He covers the development process, construction, marketing, and finance. Other chapters describe the transition from the social intimacy of inner-city working-class life, and the adaptation to more middle-class conventions of respectability and aloofness. Innovative chapters are devoted to what that new life was like. A particularly fascinating one covers the devotion to gardening, a distinctive feature of British urban living.
Evoking the emotional life-world of new suburban living draws on oral history interviews and on contemporary sources of every kind. But happiness is boring, almost literally so, as conveyed in Dennis Potter’s brilliant 1970s TV series “Pennies from Heaven,” in which a monochrome housewife’s reveries of Hollywood films periodically turn into Technicolor reality. Scott’s focus on getting and spending and everyday aspiration (a word he uses a lot) is probably closer to the lived experience. An effective chapter is devoted to social gradation and differentiation and the means by which it was achieved. Suburbanization was a movement of social integration, but by bringing the classes and their customs into closer proximity, it made them more wary of each other in daily life. All this is done very well. The suburban boom was also an extraordinary financial achievement. An enormous expansion of the housing stock...