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The Making of the Modern British HomeThe Suburban Semi and Family Life between the Wars$

Peter Scott

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199677207

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199677207.001.0001

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(p.247) Appendix: A Note on sources

(p.247) Appendix: A Note on sources

The Making of the Modern British Home
Oxford University Press

This study makes extensive use of personal testimonies from people who moved from inner-urban areas to new suburban estates during the 1920s and 1930s, mainly as either young adults or children. The temptation to conduct new interviews was rejected, owing to the advanced age of most surviving interwar migrants and concerns that my research agenda might influence the responses. Instead I conducted a thorough review of existing testimonies. These included published and unpublished autobiographies, together with contemporary interview survey material. However, the most important sources involved transcripts and recordings from oral history projects, compiled at various dates, from the 1970s to the recent past. Relevant information was entered into a textual database, hereafter referred to as the Life Histories Database, a summary of which (for the 170 working-class testimonies) is available online via the Economic and Social Data Service.1

As Paul Thompson has noted, the history of the family is a field for which oral history can provide particularly valuable source material.2 Yet oral history evidence has sometimes been viewed as problematic for a number of reasons, including the possibility of accounts being ‘polluted’ by the interviewer’s agenda, the fallible nature of memory and its filtering through subsequent experiences, and the possibility that interviewees might mythologize, withhold information, or otherwise distort their accounts.3 The vetting of accounts followed Thompson’s procedure of examining each interview for internal consistency, cross-checking with other sources, and evaluating in terms of wider context.4 Problems of interviewer bias and the impact of subsequent experience on earlier memories were minimized by the use of material collected by a large number of interviewers over a period spanning several decades, and comparison with evidence from autobiographies and a few contemporary interviews.

Life histories examined for this project often provided a good deal of quantitative information regarding such things as rents, mortgage instalments, and house purchase costs. When checked against documentary sources, these revealed a very high degree of accuracy. While recollections concerning values and attitudes were less amenable to such checking, the fact that the same views emerged from large numbers of accounts, assembled over a period spanning more than half a century by different interviewers, considerably increases the weight that can be attached to them.

The Life Histories Database summarizes 170 biographical accounts of working-class people who moved from inner-urban areas to council estates or into owner occupation, (p.248) covering a total of 174 relevant house moves.5 The sample composition was largely determined by the availability of sources. For example, municipal tenants account for 116 of the 174 relevant house moves, partly due to the fact that oral history studies of new estates have generally focused on large municipal estates rather than their smaller, owner-occupied, counterparts. In terms of broad regional composition, the sample achieved significant representation of the North (covering 74 moves), Midlands (26) and South (74). Yet at the level of standard economic regions the sample is heavily dominated by the South East, North West, and West Midlands.6 This reflects both the more limited growth of working-class suburbia in regions dominated by depressed heavy staple industries or agriculture and the uneven regional coverage of oral history archives.

Council tenants’ testimonies represent a very broad range of urban working-class occupations (though workers in very-low-wage or insecure jobs are under-represented). Owner-occupiers were more concentrated among workers with relatively high earnings and/or secure jobs, the sample being heavily dominated by motor vehicle and other engineering workers, public transport and utility employees, non-engineering factory workers, and building-related trades.7 Meanwhile, they were more dominated by certain regions than the municipal sample. The 58 accounts for owner-occupiers were highly concentrated in two regions: the South East (34) and the West Midlands (15).8 Six accounts concerned northern England (3 each from Yorkshire & Humberside and the North West); and there were 2 from the East Midlands and 1 from East Anglia.

A similar life history approach was attempted for lower-middle-class suburban migrants. However, it proved extremely difficult to find usable testimonies. Autobiographies are less common for this group and typically focus on professional, political, or other non-domestic activities. This probably reflects both the fact that lower-middle-class families typically faced a less intense struggle to make ends meet and that their domestic lives were often regarded as unsuitable topics for autobiography. Lower-middle-class households have also been neglected in both contemporary social surveys and oral history research, again reflecting the fact that this section of society was widely regarded as having private and independent lifestyles that were not deemed suitable topics for social investigation.

After an exhaustive search, some 19 testimonies were identified for middle-class families. Like the working-class sample, these sometimes provide fascinating insights into the relationships between suburban migration and household behaviour, management, priorities, and aspirations. However, the low sample size obviously limits the extent to which general conclusions can be drawn from them. Their use is, therefore, generally limited to areas where they can be corroborated by other types of evidence.

(p.249) A broad range of more conventional historical sources are also used in this study. Council housing was viewed as an important area for contemporary social investigation and there are a number of extremely valuable studies of life on the early municipal estates. Outstanding examples are Terence Young’s survey of the LCC’s Becontree estate at Dagenham and Ruth Durant’s survey of another major LCC estate, Watling in Hendon.9  There are also a number of shorter, but very informative, studies of estates developed by various provincial cities, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, and Brighton.10 Some council estates have also been subject to detailed historical investigation, including excellent studies of Becontree and Manchester’s Wythenshawe estate, while studies of interwar suburban migration from particular towns or cities have also proved extremely valuable.11 The archives of a number of contemporary social survey organizations, particularly Mass Observation and the Nuffield College Social Reconstruction survey, also yielded much useful information.

Owner-occupied estates were rarely subject to contemporary social surveys and have been less popular topics for historical investigation. Business archives initially appeared a potentially fruitful resource. Unfortunately, there are only a very limited number of speculative house-builders with extensive and accessible business archives for this period. Scotland’s largest interwar housing developer, Mactaggart & Mickel, has left an excellent collection of business records, preserved at the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments, Scotland, which proved particularly useful for this project. John Laing plc has also preserved an extensive corporate archive, held at Northampton Record Office, which again provided a good deal of very useful material. I am also very grateful to Henry Boot plc for allowing me to examine their archival records for the interwar years. Some archival evidence was also available for Wimpey, held at the Circa trust. For most other speculative builders, surviving copies of estate brochures, other publicity materials, and correspondence with purchasers provided the main sources of primary data.

Primary sources on building societies included the archives of several leading societies, including Abbey Road (at London Metropolitan Archives), Woolwich (at the Barclays Archive), and the Halifax (at Lloyds Banking Group plc Archives). The Building Societies Association Library also holds some archival material. Meanwhile, the interactions between representatives of the building trade, building society movement, and government are well-captured in records at the National Archives (see the Bibliography for documents which are specifically referenced).

(p.250) Local authority archives and local history libraries proved useful sources of information regarding both municipal housing development and the activities of local speculative developers (often proving a fruitful source for brochures and other builders’ ephemera). Other valuable sources of ephemera included the Bodleian Library’s John Johnson Collection, Middlesex University’s Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, and the National Library of Art. I assembled a significant ephemera collection over the course of the project (mainly through eBay purchases); for convenience, these items are referred to in the text as belonging to the ‘Peter Scott collection’. I am also deeply indebted to a large number of individuals who generously made their research notes, oral history transcripts, and other materials available to me, as noted in the Acknowledgements.


(1) Economic and Social Data Service, SN5085, Peter Scott, ‘Analysis of 170 Biographical Accounts of Working Class People Who Moved into Owner-occupation or Suburban Council Housing During the Inter-war Period, 1919–1939’ (2005), http://www.esds.ac.uk/findingData/snDescription.asp?sn=5085&key=owner-occupation+Scott〉.

(2) Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 7.

(3) Thompson, Voice of the Past, 91–137; John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in Modern History, 2nd edn (London: Longman, 1991), 213–14; Ronald J. Grele, ‘Movement without Aim: Methodological and Theoretical Problems in Oral History’, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds), The Oral History Reader (London: Routledge, 1998).

(4) Thompson, Voice of the Past, 209–21.

(5) The number of house moves is greater than the number of life histories, due to the inclusion of one interview involving two people who moved to different houses as children; two interviews involving people who had moved to both local authority and owner-occupied housing; and one interviewee who described house moves both with her parents and following her marriage.

(6) Three regions—Scotland, Wales, and the northern region—were not represented in the working-class sample. These had relatively low levels of suburbanization.

(7) For a more detailed discussion of the occupational composition of this group see Peter Scott, ‘Did Owner-Occupation Lead to Smaller Families for Interwar Working-Class Households?’, Economic History Review, 61 (2008), Appendix.

(8) Accounts concerning the South East covered a large number of expanding London suburbs and other centres; conversely, all but one of the West Midlands accounts were taken from a single city, Coventry, due to the very limited amount of suitable material for other West Midlands centres.

(9) Terence Young, Becontree and Dagenham (London: Becontree Social Survey Committee, 1934); Ruth Durant, Watling: A Survey of Social Life on a New Housing Estate (London: King, 1939).

(10) Manchester and Salford Better Housing Council, The Report of an Investigation on Wythenshawe (Manchester: privately published, 1935); M. S. Soutar, E. H. Wilkins, and P. Sargant Florence, Nutrition and Size of Family: Report on a New Housing Estate—1939, Prepared for the Birmingham Social Survey Committee (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1942); Rosamond Jevons and John Madge, Housing Estates: A Study of Bristol Corporation Policy and Practice between the Wars (Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1946); Marion Fitzgerald, Rents in Moulsecoomb: A Report on Rents and Other Costs of Living in Three Brighton Housing Estates (Brighton: Southern Publishing, 1939).

(11) Andrzej Olechnowicz, Working Class Housing in England between the Wars: The Becontree Estate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Audrey Kay, ‘Wythenshawe circa 1932–1955: The Making of a Community?’, PhD thesis (University of Manchester, 1993); Madeline McKenna, ‘The Development of Suburban Council Housing Estates in Liverpool between the Wars’, PhD thesis (University of Liverpool, 1986); Margaret Judith Giles, ‘Something That Bit Better: Working-Class Women, Domesticity, and “Respectability”, 1919–1939’, DPhil thesis (University of York, 1989); Lesley Whitworth, ‘ Men, Women, Shops and “Little, Shiny Homes”: The Consuming of Coventry, 1930–1939’, PhD thesis (University of Warwick, 1997).