Hearthlands: a memoir of the White City housing estate in Belfast, by Marianne Elliott, Blackstaff Press, 260 pp, £12.99, ISBN 978-0856409974
Marianne Elliott is one of Ireland’s outstanding historians and socially committed academics, best known for her books on Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and the Catholics of Ulster, her membership of the Opsahl Commission in the 1990s and her leadership of Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies. In this latest book she returns to her roots in the religiously mixed housing estate where she grew up, on the northern edge of Belfast.
Elliott is that relatively unusual Northern Irish person: somebody from a working class background, passionately middle ground in her politics, without a sectarian bone in her body. This book goes a long way towards explaining why. When her young mother and father – she from Kerry, he from Belfast, both of them Catholics – became tenants of a brand new council house in the White City in north Belfast in the late 1940s, they were part of an experiment in exporting the British Labour government’s welfare state concept of good housing for working people to the UK’s most socially backward and politically reactionary province.
Belfast Corporation’s housing record until then had been a disgrace. “There was no city in England, Wales or Scotland,” commented future Northern Ireland Housing Executive chairman Charles Brett, himself a Labour man, “whose house-building record in the inter-war years, whether in the public or private sector, or taking the two together, was worse than that of Belfast.” Fear of socialism, the stranglehold of moneyed interests, the pusillanimity and prejudice of local councils, and class snobbery – the power of the ratepayers – made Belfast a city of slums. It was estimated that a complete programme of slum clearance and ending overcrowding would probably involve the building of at least two hundred thousand houses, nearly two-thirds of the entire existing stock.
Amazingly, that was about to start to happen. When he introduced his 1944 Housing Bill, William Grant, the new minister for health and local government and a working class unionist with Labour sympathies, set himself the huge task of building at least half that number. One of his tools for achieving this was a new body separate from the corrupt and right-wing local councils, the Northern Ireland Housing Trust. Grant countered unionist accusations that he wanted to create some kind of socialist utopia by giving working class people “luxuries like bathrooms” with a “homes fit for heroes” argument:
Who was to enjoy the so-called luxury of a bath? Were they to be reserved for a certain section of the community? Were the millions of men and women who were serving their country on the different battlefields and in the various industries engaged in the war effort to be told that they were entitled to live as free men and women in the postwar period but that they could not have a bath?
The NI Housing Trust was set up in February 1945. It was a significant organisation with nearly two thousand managers and six hundred architects. Grant outlined plans for building five thousand new council houses immediately and twenty-five thousand in its first ten years. Its aim was to build three-bedroomed houses for working class people in well-planned estates with community buildings, shops and schools and “ample open spaces for recreational purposes”. Allocation of houses would be based on need – there would be none of the discriminatory cronyism practised by Northern Ireland’s local authorities – and tenants had to be “workers” as defined by the enabling legislation. In practice, the tenants tended to be the better-paid workers (in the mid-1950s sixty per cent of tenants in NIHT estates were skilled manual workers), with ex-servicemen and families bombed out during the war going to the top of the list. But most of them came from poor and overcrowded dwellings and had never before had a home of their own.
The Trust’s most innovative aspect – at least for Northern Ireland – was that it would employ exclusively female housing managers. This idea was taken from the Octavia Hill system in Britain. Hill was a nineteenth century social reformer who emphasised prompt payment of fair rents; good maintenance of properties by the tenants; cleanliness, tidiness and resistance to anything like a dependency culture; personal contact by managers, and the scrupulous repair and maintenance of the houses by the responsible public housing body. The housing managers were benevolently intrusive in a way that would be completely unacceptable in contemporary Ireland, visiting prospective tenants and recommending their suitability, and then, when they moved into their new homes, advising the women on budgeting and making best use of the modern equipment they contained. But few tenants had a bad word to say about them, although two former housing managers interviewed by Elliott remembered “a rather militaristic organisation, run by formidable tweed-dressed women who were sticklers for rules and procedures”.
The new body moved quickly: within two years of its formation it had built or contracted for over four thousand houses. Faced with sharply rising building costs, the Housing Trust chose to economise on house size and design rather than to raise rents. It was conscious of the limited ability of workers to pay high rents, and evictions for non-payment of rent were rare. Legendary town planner Sir Frederick Osborn and British colleagues came to Northern Ireland and wrote glowingly of the Trust’s efforts. The distinguished (and liberal) Northern Ireland civil servant John Oliver considered its work “a high watermark in British housing”. It was a rare example of the North learning from the new post-Beveridge Report age of reform and social justice in Britain and doing its best to match the Attlee government’s drive to build a welfare state across the Irish Sea. The Trust – which was to build nearly fifty thousand houses throughout the North in its twenty-five years of existence – was “a rather admirable organisation”, says Elliott. “It was committed to the idea that good environment as much as good housing determined working class experience and aspirations, and it designed its estates accordingly, with a new sense of space and beautiful landscape.” The Republic’s pathetic housing providers seventy years later in this incomparably more prosperous age could learn a thing or two from those pioneers of Irish public housing.
In 1949 Marianne Elliott’s parents, Terry and Sheila Burns, who had been living in a dilapidated cottage in Co Down with no running water or inside toilet since Terry had been discharged from a Belfast TB sanatorium, were given the key to a state-of-the-art modern house in the White City, a Housing Trust estate. They were among the twenty-seven per cent of tenants who were Catholic, not far below the proportion in the overall population. For in a unique departure for the North, the NIHT’s houses were allocated on a needs-based, religion-blind basis and thus its estates were of mixed religion. While not denying the underlying sectarianism of Northern society, Elliott emphasises that in such estates neighbourhood identity could trump religious division.
Certainly the White City had the open space and the beautiful landscape. It was situated on the northern outskirts of the city, four miles from the centre, between Belfast Lough and Cave Hill. The residents of the well-heeled Antrim Road above the estate were discomfited, to say the least, by the arrival of these working class “guttersnipes” (the word used by one grammar school headmaster) in their neighbourhood. There was an abundance of outdoor and leisure activities in the area: the magnificent Bellevue gardens, amusement park and zoo, complete with the Floral Hall, Belfast’s Art-Deco masterpiece, with a floor area which could seat a thousand people and support hundreds of dancing couples. It was to be “Belfast’s pre-eminent ballroom of romance” until 1964, when the kill-joys and hard-line Calvinists on the Corporation finally prevailed and it was ordered to be closed on Sundays.
Elliott paints a picture of a very different Belfast from the bleak and violent place which would later make world headlines. The White City children treated the whole area around Belfast Castle, Bellevue and the slopes of Cave Hill like a big, open-air playground and Elliott “never remembers being bored, even in my difficult mid-teenager years”. She had a sense of “living in a wild and wonderful place – quite the opposite of estate living stereotypes”. It was also considered a great place for “courting”.
That was the pre-Troubles idyll of the White City housing estate: Protestant and Catholic young people going to Irish dancing in the local GAA club; Protestant boys trying out at hurling; Catholic girls attending Girls Brigade events; no Orange bonfires until the end of the fifties; the opening of the first wide-screen cinema – the forty-fifth in the city – on the nearby Shore Road. Even allowing for a certain element of nostalgia, Elliott, like the excellent historian she is, has done her homework in the archives and talked extensively to former residents of the estate, and the picture she paints of a well-functioning and largely harmonious community is a convincing one.
There are no prizes for guessing when it started to go wrong, and to go wrong in a terrifyingly short time. In June 1971, in contrast to the worsening situation elsewhere in Belfast, the Community Relations Council worker in the Whitewell (mainly Protestant) and adjoining Greencastle (mainly Catholic) areas reported that community relations were still good. A month later they were “deteriorating rapidly”. After internment was introduced in August, there was widespread intimidation and “complete chaos”. By December the atmosphere of sectarian confrontation was complete, with a two-hundred-strong loyalist “tartan” gang attacking Catholic businesses in Greencastle. The loyalist Shore Road, which ran along the northern edge of the White City, would become one of the “murder arteries” of the 1970s, with Greencastle’s bars being regular targets.
Bloody Sunday in January 1972 saw IRA recruitment in the neighbouring mainly Catholic Bawnmore area escalating, with three teenagers from a family with a tradition of serving in the British armed forces being blown to pieces by their own bomb in a lock-up garage on the estate. In time the White City would become known as a UDA stronghold, complete with “Protestant killer squads” venturing into surrounding areas to murder Catholics. “It was hell, hell, hell and you were scared,” recalled one resident.
In 1971 twenty-three per cent of residents of the White City were Catholic. By 1991 this was down to five per cent. In the words of the University of Ulster conflict studies specialist John Darby: “The tensions raised by intimidation forced everyone to opt for one side or the other. An ambiguous position was untenable.”
The Troubles sounded the death knell for any vision of mixed-religion public housing. Charles Brett recalled the “distress and mortification” of the Housing Trust in its fading days at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s at “the final collapse of their well-intentioned attempts to create wholly integrated estates”. The new Northern Ireland Housing Executive, set up in 1971, tried at first to follow the same policy, but it had to admit that it was hopeless in Belfast and “with much distaste and dismay” felt it necessary to ask applicants whether they preferred to live in mixed, Protestant or Catholic estates.
It is easy to forget nearly fifty years on that the notion of spatial freedom and movement, without which no city can function efficiently or humanely – and which was such a large part of Marianne Elliott’s memories of north Belfast – was one of the early victims of the Troubles. “In the worst years of the 1970s walking was no longer safe, particularly in the evenings. Random sectarian attacks were common. As the communal violence segregated working class areas, it was all too easy to presume the religious identity of those attacked. Visiting friends in the old areas could be a death sentence.” She gives the example of sixteen-year-old John Rolston, a Catholic, whose family had moved away from largely Protestant Rathcoole, but who still spent every Saturday night with a friend in the estate. In June 1975 he was celebrating finishing his schooldays at the local Catholic secondary school, Stella Maris, when he was murdered by two teenage UVF members who knew him. By 1993, when it closed, Stella Maris had seen twenty-seven of its pupils or former pupils killed in the Troubles.
By 1985 the White City on Charles Brett’s housing maps of Belfast was a “wholly or predominantly Protestant patch” surrounded by “wholly or predominantly Catholic” enclaves, in turn surrounded by some mixed and largely Protestant areas, including Rathcoole and the Shore Road. At a 2002 public session in the estate for a government survey into the Troubles in that area – four years after the Good Friday Agreement and the effective end of the major conflict – the survey team found “the level of harassment, conflict and hatred at [an] all-time high”. The White City had become a dumping ground for the Housing Executive, as “good” families moved out and “problem” families moved in, particularly when frequent loyalist feuds involved “all those mad families moving from the Shankill”. The area’s Protestants now had a strong perception of being surrounded by hostile Catholics.
The clock had turned full circle: from something approaching a mixed-religion utopia in the mid-twentieth century to a violently sectarian dystopia in the early twenty-first. In her interviews with older and former residents of the White City, Elliott finds broad agreement that in a previous age this estate had been a good place to live, even if the flat-roofed and therefore not totally rainproof Orlit houses – modern and innovative when they were built in the 1940s, but discontinued in the 1960s – eventually left a lot to be desired. By 2005 one man was telling a journalist that his daughter’s house on the sectarian “front line” had been attacked fifty-six times in one year. Another resident told of how they were taunted and attacked when walking to the shops or the doctor’s surgery in the adjacent nationalist area. “It was a war zone,” one resident told Elliott. “We seriously could have been wiped out.”
A deep irony is that the electoral district where the White City is situated also contains some of the wealthiest areas in Belfast. An information bulletin for the 1997 Belfast City Council elections, after listing the working class areas (both Protestant and Catholic) which suffered from economic deprivation, concluded: “The rest of the constituency is middle class or even better off.” Let nobody pretend there is not a strong class dimension to the Northern conflict.
Marianne Elliott describes this book as “something of an alternative history of the institutions of Northern Ireland. It does not deny the iniquities that arose from one-party unionist rule, but it shows that the high-octane rhetoric that made its way into the press was not reflective of most people’s lived experiences and that democratic values operated more often than commentators recognise.” For a generation the neighbourliness of the people of the White City and the fair-mindedness of the people who set up and ran the Northern Ireland Housing Trust were necessary correctives to the prevailing view in nationalist Ireland that nothing good ever came out of the unionist-ruled North. However, as in Bosnia in the 1990s, it was extraordinary – and even incomprehensible – how that neighbourliness could turn so quickly into murderous internecine violence.
As Sinn Féin moves towards becoming the new power in the land – and the DUP retreats back into its cocoon of fear and backwardness – there appears to be little room for wise, moderate voices like Elliott’s: voices which tell us that nothing in history is black and white, and Irish history, in particular, has never been a simple account of British oppression versus Irish resistance. For in places like the White City, many Catholics made their peace with the Britishness of Northern Ireland and sought to live in harmony and with as much equality as possible alongside their Protestant fellow-citizens. One important thing they all shared was the common working class predicament of not having much money. The pig-headed refusal of unionist politicians to learn from the past and the drive for power of physical force republicans notwithstanding, are there no lessons to be learnt from the experience of the residents of places like these in the mid-twentieth century for the ordinary, decent people of the North today?
Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies (1999-2013), a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin, and co-author of a biography of Rev Ian Paisley.