Pioneering Courage: The Women's Pioneer Housing Story
In October 2020 Women’s Pioneer Housing (WPH) will celebrate one hundred years of providing homes for women in London. To mark this milestone, WPH has set up a project funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund to study its history using original documents, websites and library resources to explore the links between housing, feminism and the efforts for women to gain independence after winning the vote. The project’s first major achievement has been the film Pioneering Courage: The Women’s Pioneer Housing Story.
In 1920 with the wake of WW1 and the suffrage movement, our founders raised cash to buy large houses and convert them to low rent homes. Nearly 100 years later we continue this work, with 1000 homes for women in west London and a programme for continued growth. Women’s Pioneer is a not for profit housing association dedicated to housing single women.
The first property was purchased in Holland Park Avenue in 1921.
Many women have lost their partners in the war and have to work to support themselves but no landlord will let a room to a working woman. Meanwhile the shortage of domestic servants has hit the value of large houses designed to function on the back of cheap labour and, in once wealthy central London, hundreds of large houses lie empty. Etheldred Browning formed a plan to buy houses with donations from wealthy benefactors to provide for newly-independent women.
Miss Browning called on me…with a capital of one or two pounds she had taken one house and filled it with tenants. …I promised her I would send her a list of people who would be interested and who had money
– Suffragette and Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) organiser Geraldine Lennox
Women’s Pioneer Housing is registered as a public utility company on 4 October 1920 ‘to cater for the housing requirements of professional and other women of moderate means who require individual homes at moderate rents’.
We now own 55 properties. Gertrude Leverkus, one of the very first professional woman architects in the UK, becomes our in-house architect. The first woman to qualify as a chartered accountant by exam, Ethel Watts, is our auditor.
Ours was the very best landing. My neighbour Joyce had a wind-up 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
By 1939 we have sufficient financial independence to buy properties with our own resources. But then waves of evacuation and Blitz bombing leave us with unpaid rent, empty flats, damaged buildings. Some of our stock has to be sold. Controlled rents make it hard to raise enough funds to restore buildings that are now 80 years old. A change in the law in 1954 allows us to raise rents. Our furious tenants are lobbied by Communist Party activists and many sign up.
Manager Nona Grosstephan has fought off a rogue investors’ asset stripping bid in 1972. In 1974 housing associations became eligible for public money to build new homes or refurbish older ones. Amongst the first that we refurbished are two in Warwick Road, transferred to us by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which they had compulsorily purchased from notorious landlord Nicholas Hoogstraaten.
The 1988 Housing Act shrinks the amount of public grant available to housing associations who now have to borrow money from private sources to fund purchases and refurbishments. In 1997 we build a convent and chapel in Harrow as part of a package in return for land where we create 20 new homes.
We take a change in direction and decide to raise renovation standards on homes as they become empty. Most of our buildings are listed with English Heritage or in conservation areas. Refurbished in earlier decades on a shoestring budget we pay for the work with private loans. This new higher standard cuts by half the amount we need to spend on repairs in later years.
In 1920 London’s working women were crying out for homes they could afford. The need for more homes for the women of moderate needs that our founders wanted to help is as great as now as it was a century ago.
Our properties are now valued at £400m giving us the potential to borrow funds for new homes in existing buildings. We have built seven new flats and building is underway on a further 4, with 16 more in the pipeline. Keeping faith with our founders’ principles remains key to our mission.
We are positive and ambitious about our future, with our vision to make a positive difference to women’s lives.