The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Lenton Times Issue 1 - October 1988

The Crane Houses Of Wollaton Park

Simply Ahead Of Their Time?

If you've lived there all your life it's possible you don't find the houses of Wollaton Park Estate at all odd. Certainly outsiders often tend to be struck by the slightly strange appearance of all those bungalows with their tiny walls and huge expanse of Middleton Boulevard in the late 1920s. Photograph courtesy of Nottinghamshire County Library Service.roof. You won't find anything quite like them elsewhere in Nottingham and similar estates of such homes are pretty thin on the ground anywhere in Britain. The Wollaton Park Estate was conceived as a bold experiment in new building techniques, one on which the Council ultimately turned its back. We leave it to the reader to decide whether the Council made the right decision.

Photo courtesy of Nottinghamshire County Library Service

Middleton Boulevard in the late 1920s.
Photograph courtesy of Nottinghamshire County Library Service

Lloyd George, at the tail end of the First World War, eager to keep up morale, promised that he would strive to make Britain 'a place fit for heroes to live in'. He recognised that much needed to be done and high on his list was an improvement in working class housing. In 1919 his minister of Health, Dr. Christopher Addison, introduced a housing act which gave local authorities the task of helping to secure that improvement. Nottingham City Council energetically took on board this responsibility and suitable building sites were soon being sought all over the City. Schemes were drawn up and tenders obtained from local building firms. The first to get off the drawing board was the Stockhill Lane Estate in Old Basford. By the end of 1924, it had been joined by nineteen other housing developments and more than 1,500 new homes had now been completed.

This number, however, was not as many as William Crane, chairman of the Housing Committee, would have wished for. But then Nottingham, along with other councils the length and breadth of the country, found itself continually hampered by the fact that both materials and skilled labour were in short supply. To get round these twin problems a number of companies offered houses built in an entirely new fashion. Bricks and bricklayers might be hard to come by but there were plenty of metal fabricators and steel for them to handle. In the 'steel' house, sheet metal was fixed to the outside of a timber-framed structure while various materials were offered for use as internal walling. Another approach was the 'concrete' house, where naturally enough the walls were formed by pouring concrete into shuttering made of wood or metal. It was claimed that houses so built could be constructed much more quickly, were as cheap if not cheaper than a conventional brick built property, and used relatively unskilled labour of which there was no shortage.

The Ministry of Health showed considerable interest in these new building techniques and in January 1925 convened a conference of local authorities where they discussed in particular the merits of steel houses. As a result each authority present agreed to erect a steel house in its own locality, which once constructed could be inspected by the general public. The authorities were then to report back on how well the steel houses had been received. Nottingham's Housing Committee had already been looking into these new developments and shortly before the conference a deputation of councillors had gone to Glasgow and Blackpool in order to inspect various different types of new housing. On his return, the chairman of the committee, William Crane, who also happened to be the head of a building firm, was prompted to come up with his own design for a 'house of special construction'. When the Housing Committee saw his proposals it got the Ministry of Health to agree that a 'Crane' house be built alongside the proposed steel house. (Ministry approval ensured that government grants towards the cost of the construction could be obtained).

Photo courtesy of Mrs A Lowe

Some of the workmen who built the Crane Houses.
Photograph courtesy of Mrs A Lowe

What had Councillor Crane dreamt up? He envisaged a house where the main framework of the walls and roofing trusses were made of steel. Once erected the framework walls were filled in with precast concrete slabs while were used for the interior walls. A demonstration pair of bungalows using the Crane technique was built alongside the pair using steel cladding. These were to be found (where they still are to this day) at the St. Ann's end of the Wells Road.

The Housing Committee were evidently highly pleased with the Crane house and, hardly giving the general public time to form its own impression, the Committee began to look for firms who would be willing to submit tenders for the erection of between500 and 1,000 Crane houses. These they initially envisaged would be built at several sites around the City. By this time, mid 1925, it was clear that a portion of the parkland surrounding Wollaton Hall was going to be given over for housing. The City Council earmarked a site at the eastern edge of the Park where the Housing Committee calculated some 1,000 Crane houses could be built. Messrs. John Booth & Sons, who had built the show home on the Wells Road, were then handed the contract for the Wollaton Park job. As they were a Bolton firm in the business of constructional engineering they must have been primarily responsible for the manufacture and erection of the steel framework. The rest of the work on the buildings was presumably in the hands of their subcontractors, Harold Arnold & Sons Ltd. Work commenced on the scheme in March 1926.

The contract drawn up between John Booth and the Council permitted either side to back out of the deal after the completion of 250 or 500 houses. In July 1926 the City Council indicated that its Housing Committee must not proceed with the final 500 Crane houses without the matter being brought before the full Council. Clearly there were councillors who had reservations about what was happening at the Wollaton Park Estate.

By the beginning of 1927 disenchantment with the Crane houses had definitely set in. Various proposals were made but the eventual upshot was that production of Crane houses ceased when it reached 500. John Booth & Sons were paid off and new tenders sought for the construction of 313 houses using traditional building techniques. These took some three years to complete and were built by Messrs. Bosworth & Lowe of Nottingham.

Photo courtesy of Mr G Roberts

Orston Drive houses, Wollaton Park.
Photo courtesy of Mr G Roberts

Constructional techniques apart, the estate was fairly unusual in that the City Council had commissioned their construction with the intention of selling them to the general public. A semi-detached Crane house was on offer for 490. The Council realised that most prospective buyers didn't have that sort of money to hand and so offered easy terms of payment. After a deposit of 40 had been handed over you could pay 14s. 6d. a week. After paying this for twenty years the house was all yours. The brick-built houses were also offered for sale, although these proved to be a little more expensive, prices ranging between 530 and 675. It is not made clear in the Housing Committee minutes, but it seems fairly certain that it was not so much concern over the constructional aspects that gave the councillors the jitters as the fact that the houses weren't selling very well. People at that time were evidently unconvinced that the houses were a good investment. Faced with this fact the Council had little option but to revert to more traditional building techniques. Those houses, which remained unsold, were eventually added to the Council's housing stock and offered for rent.

The Council may have lost faith in the Crane house as an answer to the City's housing needs and returned to more traditional fare, but sixty years on it is fair to say that those houses in Wollaton Park appear to be in perfectly good order and well cared for. And they look likely to last for just as long as the more traditionally constructed houses of that era, something that you can't say for certain of the houses we've built in more recent times.

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