In 1920, a group of suffrage campaigners set up Women’s Pioneer Housing (WPH). It aimed to provide individual homes at moderate rates for professional and other women who wanted to live independently or to earn their own living. In 2017, as the centenary of the housing association approached, staff were thrilled to discover a number of minute books and other records from the organisation’s earliest years and in late 2018, a folder of original plans and drawings, some dating from the 1920s to the 1940s.
The Pilot Project
In 2017 WPH set up a pilot research scheme in order to prepare for an application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund in order to set up a project to explore WPH history in greater depth. A dedicated band of volunteer researchers was recruited through the University of the Third Age. They looked at various subjects using online websites as well as the WPH records. Topics included the lives of the founders, many of them involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, women like the Irish suffragette Etheldred Browning; and women able to gain professional qualifications for the first time, including the association’s first architect, Gertrude Leverkus. The research team also started to look at the questions of who lived in Women’s Pioneer Homes, what work they did and what jobs were women doing for the first time. Also investigated was the tricky question of the initial funding of the fledgeling body.
National Lottery Heritage Funding
The award of National Lottery Heritage Funding at the end of 2017 allowed WPH to recruit a project coordinator to oversee a project to fully explore and interpret the early history of the WPH, Pioneering Courage: Housing and the Working Woman 1919 – 1939. Some of the original volunteers stayed on to help. They were joined by a PhD student working on the design of housing for women in this period. Other volunteers, some of them residents, have joined the team. All made a valuable contribution to the first major public achievement of the project, a short film on the history of WPH (available on this website) by variously providing historical background, writing scripts and taking the roles of early residents and staff. This was launched in March 2019 and also formed part of the Royal Holloway College’s Citizens online lifelong learning course.
The volunteer researchers continue their meticulous work, exploding a few myths that have grown up about the organisation whilst uncovering lots of interesting facts and figures and fascinating details about previous WPH staff and residents alike.
Future plans include an additional 5-minute film in which WPH staff and others explain how the lives of the WPH pioneers have inspired them in their own lives; a touring portable exhibition; public internet access to much of the research and extracts from oral history interviews undertaken as part of this project and complementary learning materials.
The centenary will be a time for celebrations as well as commemoration. We look forward to involving more volunteers, especially residents, to help with events promoting the project and marking the achievements and future ambitions of WPH.
Sue Kirby, Project Lead and Social History Researcher