The Cheap Cottages Competition 1905

The Garden City Movement became involved with the Cheap Cottage Movement with the exhibition of 1905.

In 1905 John St Loe Strachey (1860 - 1927), proprietor and editor of The Spectator / The Country Gentleman proposed a Cheap Cottages Exhibition with the intention of producing a cottage, of a quality, at a price that was affordable. To achieve this new methods of building would need to be found.

The shortage of housing for agricultural workers had been a problem for some time. Few cottages were being built, the cost of building making it too expensive for them to rent.

Strachey believed that a dwelling costing £150 (excluding land costs) could be rented for an amount that the labourers could afford (between 3s 6d and 4s per week).

In November 1904 Thomas Adams got the approval of the Board to provide a site for the exhibition proposed by Strachey at a peppercorn rent to be opened the following summer.

Adams viewed the exhibition as a valuable publicity tool in the promotion of Letchworth and as a potential source of housing for industrial workers after the exhibition was over .

The competition was set up to experiment with different methods of construction, and prizes were awarded in different classes.

Most of the cottages still survive although alterations and extensions have been made to some of them. See Nevells Road, Icknield Way, The Quadrant, Wilbury Road, Birds Hill and Paddock Close. on the tour for pictures and more information.

119 dwellings were built in all with several categories competing. The most important was the £150 cottage with living room , scullery and three bedrooms.

Others categories included various groupings of cottages, Cheapest Cottage, best wooden cottage, best concrete cottage to name a few. In the interests of the competition Unwin was not allowed to interfere with the entries to any great degree by the Board. You can see from the tour that the result is a mixture of styles and construction techniques quite different from most of the rest of Letchworth.

The Exhibition was opened by Duke of Devonshire on July 25th 1905 and was a great success with the public attracting 80,000 visitors , and got Letchworth a lot of publicity.

Sheds near the station, previously used for housing unemployed labourers and road builders from London became an exhibition centre where exhibits of products supplied by London stores were displayed.

Both the Press and Unwin were not totally convinced.

The Press made the point that the cottages did not exactly fit in with the stated aims and objectives of the town. While admitting the great publicity it provided, doubt about whether the cottages sent the right sort of messages about Letchworth were expressed. To them the cottages looking like poorly built, middle class weekend retreats rather than for the purpose they were supposed to be for.

Unwin, although interested in the innovative building technology used, felt that the cheaply made cottages were not well enough made to last and that they would end up being very uneconomical.

Many of the exhibits still stand, some are listed, all are within the Letchworth Conservation Area though many have now been altered to some extent.

Another architect involved with the Cheap Cottage Movement, Clough Williams-Ellis was designing cheap cottages for labourers in North Wales and used the local materials (stone , slate and roughcast). In 1905 he was designing pairs of cottages to cost £316.

He later won a competition (again organised by St Loe Strachey) in which he designed a £110 cottage built at Merrow Down in Surrey. He also married Stracheys daughter.

His experiments with designs to be built from compressed earth led to his book about ancient building methods Cottage building in cob, pise, chalk and clay published at a time of extreme housing shortage, and then issued again in 1947 when the post war housing shortages again became desperate .

A website devoted to the cottages can be found here

Any opinions expressed above are personal opinions of the the author of this site, all facts are as accurate as the various sources I have used. Please verify independently if it's important for your work . I have no connection to any official organisation or authority