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War is over. Over 2 million men
are dead and many more are
injured, leaving one in three
women with no means of support.
But during the war many women
have for the first time done work
that has engaged their brain and
given them financial independence.
Two million women who stepped
up to fill jobs left vacant by men
sent off to war are demobilised.
Still more are sacked so their jobs
can go to men, or ‘bread winners’.
Many women have lost their
partner in the war and now have
no choice but to work to support
themselves. Working class women
are expected to return to the long
hours of back-breaking, dreary and
badly paid domestic service. Even
professionally qualified women
who hold on to a job are vilified in
public. No self-respecting landlord
will let a room to a working woman.
But women’s suffrage campaigners,
still fighting for the right of all
women to vote on equal terms
with men, have now broadened
their goals to include equality in
work. One, now an expert on the
rapidly growing number of
homeless women, has a plan.
The shortage of domestic
servants has hit the value of large
houses designed to function on
the back of cheap labour. In once
wealthy central London, hundreds
of large houses now lie empty.
Browning conceived the
A lady much interested in the
idea of converting large houses, “ welfare of professional women is
which owing to the cost of
upkeep and the difficulty of
obtaining servants, there were
many to be had at a moderate
price, [into] flatlets...
Dorothy Peel, Daily Mail
women’s page editor and
Women’s Pioneer cofounder
ready to invest £1000 provided
she can then nominate four
tenants for small flats in Pioneer
houses. In this way her £1000
gets a good return and the
housing problem is solved for four
people in difficult circumstances.
Etheldred Browning,
Time & Tide 23 April 1926
Browning called on me after
I got back from [war service in]
France.With a capital of one or
two pounds she had already taken
one house and filled it with
tenants. I was so keen on the
idea I promised I would send her
a list of people who I thought
would be interested and who had
money. She [was] very pleased
with the response [she] received.
Suffragette and Women’s Social
& Political Union (WSPU)
organiser Geraldine Lennox
Women’s Pioneer Housing is
formally registered as a public
utility company by Miss Etheldred
Browning on 4 October 1920.
Its aim is ‘to cater for the housing
requirements of professional and
other women of moderate means
who require individual homes at
moderate rents’.
In 1924 our first offices are rented
at 92 Victoria Street, shared with
the Six Point Group – set up by
former suffragette Lady Rhondda
to campaign for women’s equality
in other spheres, with Women’s
Pioneer co founder and suffragette
Helen Archdale editing the group’s
newspaper Time & Tide. Other
women’s suffrage campaigners
have helped avert several financial
crises, among them author Ray
Strachey from the National Union
of Women’s Suffrage Societies,
who in 1921 raises £2,500.
Our first corporate
brochure, offering small
but dignified homes with
no dull uniformity to
women of exacting tastes
price of everything has gone
up – rates, coke and lighting.
Practically everything in the
building line is double if not four
times the price before the war...
Rationing of hot water and fuel
has hit all flats yet some of our
tenants, [in] spite of all the
restrictions imposed on the
country, have never faced up
to this fact. They write abusive
letters, telephone the secretary
with the most appalling complaints
and drive office staff mad with
their pettifogging complaints, as if
it were all the fault of the
[management] board.
Geraldine Lennox, now a board
member, addressing a meeting
of tenants in 1948
We now own 55 properties, from
Eaton Place in Belgravia, to Sussex
Square in Brighton. Gertrude
Leverkus, one of the very first
professional woman architects in
the UK, becomes our in-house
architect, designing four new
blocks of flats and undertaking our
property conversions. She takes
one flat herself, living there until
her retirement in 1962. The first
woman to qualify as a chartered
accountant by exam, Ethel Watts, is
our auditor. For three years we
have had our own office space at
83 Buckingham Palace Road.
By 1939 we have sufficient financial
independence to buy properties
with our own reserves. But waves
of evacuation and the Blitz leave us
with unpaid rent, empty flats,
damaged buildings and liability for
the rates. Number 31 Gledhow
Gardens, designed by Gertrude
Leverkus, is destroyed but some
tenants survive. One, rescued from
the rubble of her top floor flat,
declares she has ‘done the Gledhow
Glide’. The post-war tally of lost
income, deferred maintenance
and bomb damage leave us with
huge bills. Some of our stock has
to be given up or buildings sold to
pay for repairs. Many had been
bought cheaply on the tail end of
leases but immediately after the
war values start to escalate, along
with once notional ground rents.
There are crippling penalties if
properties fall into delapidation.
was the very best landing.
My neighbour Joyce had a windup record player and every
Sunday morning she’d play
Harlem. The minute we heard it
we rushed out in our petticoats
to dance around the landing.
Gwen Winterson, tenant at
Brook House, 1936 to 2001
By the 1950s parts of Notting Hill
are marked by extreme poverty,
in stark contrast to Holland Park
just streets away. Slum landlord
Peter Rachman is one of the only
private landlords willing to house
Afro-Caribbeans newly arrived in
the UK to work in low paid public
service jobs. Their presence in an
already poor area is fuel for fascist
agitators, leading to riots in 1958.
Women’s Pioneer is still one of
the few not-for-profit landlords
operating locally but our controlled
rents make it hard to raise sufficient
funds to restore buildings that are
now 80 years old. A change of law
in 1954 allows us to raise rents.
Our furious tenants are lobbied
by Communist Party activists and
many sign up.
excited about buying
for 2 Horbury
Crescent which we’d had until
then on leasehold. Of course
Eaton Place was by then quite
unsuitable for a housing association.
Nona Grosstephan,
manager from 1966 to1982
Miss Murphy, above
left, worked as a carer
for the children of
aristocracy until she
retired. She later moved
to one of our flats in
Collingham Road, Earl’s
Court, where she lived
for the next 26 years
A nationwide shortage of secure,
rented homes affordable to lower
income households is becoming a
national scandal. Ken Loach’s film
Cathy Come Home shocks the
public with its bleak portrayal of a
homeless family. The film inspires a
new wave of housing associations.
We remain one of the few to
house single women and women
raising a family on their own. But
many of our oldest tenants now
live in poverty, having never earnt
enough to put money aside for
retirement. We seek council grants
to convert some properties into
sheltered housing with warden
support. Elsewhere we begin an
ambitious programme of ‘selfcontaining’ flats designed to share
bathrooms and kitchens. A third
and pressing priority is raising cash
to buy the freehold of properties
where the lease is close to expiring.
Equal pay for equal work finally
becomes law, a goal long sought by
our early backers including the Six
Point Group. Board member Lucy
Nettlefold, now a London County
Council councillor but in 1912 one
of the UK’s first women law
graduates, had been one of four
women members of the 1946
Royal Commission on Equal Pay.
Nettlefold and two of the other
women argued strongly for equal
pay in both the civil service and
industry. The commission finally
put forward a more vanilla proposal,
of equal pay for some civil servants.
Prime minister Clement Attlee
accepted the principle but refused
to legislate in its favour.
workers fought for over a
“ British
century for a system of collective
bargaining and for the rate for
the job. It was realised that a man
with three children stood no
chance if a man with no children
was cheaper and a single man
cheaper still. Pay [for men is now]
related to work performed and
not the personal circumstance of
the worker. If the principle of the
rate for the job is right for men,
why is it not right for women?
Auditor Ethel Watts
In January a new law comes into
effect that shrinks public grant for
housing associations. We are told
that funding for any new building
or refurbishment will be conditional
on our raising part of the cost of
works from private loans, to be
repaid from the rents of all tenants.
Ministers assure the public that
housing benefit will foot the bill for
higher rents charged to tenants
who cannot afford them. We are
not convinced and our new building
plans go on ice. But our stock is
being steadily depleted. Since 1980
our longer standing tenants have
had the right to buy. By 2015, one
in 10 of our homes will have been
sold on and are now owned by
private property firms and buy-tolet landlords, many based overseas.
Number 75 Warwick
Road was one of two
properties we took
on after they were
confiscated from slum
landlord Nicholas
benefit will underpin
market rents. We have made that
Manager Nona Grosstephan has
in 1972 fought off an asset
stripping bid by rogue investors.
She succeeds, aided by a slump in
property values, and secures a
change in our constitution to ward
off any further attempts. Housing
associations have since 1974 been
eligible for public money to build
new homes or refurbish to a basic
standard their older properties.
We were quick to join the queue
to register with the new Housing
Corporation. Among the first
properties we refurbish are two
transferred to us by the Royal
Borough of Kensington & Chelsea.
With some still nervous tenants in
situ, the Warwick Road houses had
been confiscated by compulsory
purchase from notorious landlord
Nicholas Hoogstraaten. And we
move from the Dickensian charm
of Buckingham Palace Road to our
own offices in White City.
absolutely clear. If people cannot
afford to pay that market rent,
housing benefit will take the strain.
Sir George Young, junior
housing minister, in the
House of Commons, 1991
By 2015, one in 10 of
our homes will have been
lost through right to buy
By 2012, we own 90
properties, most of
them listed buildings
or in Conservation areas
in inner west London.
The open market value
is estimated at £400m
We begin training
older tenants to use
the internet to prepare
them for the coming
challenges of an online
welfare system
The cost of renting or buying a
home in London has never been
higher. Women are being hit
disproportionately by job cuts in
the public sector and by austerity
measures. For the first time since
1970, the gender pay gap has
begun to expand again. But our
properties now have an estimated
open market value of £400m.
In the way of Etheldred Browning,
we see a new way to uphold the
goals of our suffragette founders.
We have untapped borrowing
capacity, our staff have technical
skills and we also have sites to
build on in some of the most high
value areas of London. All staff
rise to the challenge of identifying
unused and under-used space in
and around our buildings and we
launch our first new building
programme in decades.
In just three years we have built
seven new flats, have doubled the
size of others and have 20 in the
pipeline. They are in neighbourhoods where now only the very
wealthy can otherwise afford to
buy or rent privately. Our model
for growth adds nothing to public
debt and keeps our rents at a level
reasonable for women on modest
incomes. We mean to continue
down this route up to our first
anniversary and beyond. In 1920
London’s working women were
crying out for homes they could
afford, that would allow them
dignity and independence. There
has been no let up in that demand.
current rates of change, the
“ AtWorld
Economic Forum (WEF)
estimates it will be 118 years
before women around the
world can expect equal pay.
Guardian 18 November 2015
women have 72% of the
“ British
economic opportunity available
to men and 34% of the political
Telegraph 18 November 2015
the UK, 29% of women
“ Inearn less than
the living wage,
compared with 18% of men.
Office of National Statistics 2015
We build our first, and last,
convent and chapel. The buildings
are part of a package negotiated
with the sisters of the Congregation
of Our Lady of The Missions in
Harrow. It is one of just a very
small number of building schemes
we will undertake until a change
of direction in 2012. We instead
begin raising renovation standards
for buildings now rising significantly
in value. Most are either listed or
in Conservation areas. Refurbished
in earlier decades on a shoestring
budget, we pay for the work with
private loans, supplemented by
council grants. We also begin
remodelling flats to make better
use of limited space. Our ‘super
makeovers’, given to all flats that
fall empty, cut by half the amount
we need to spend on repairs.