In amongst the many gems in the John Flower Archive is a book of newspaper cuttings compiled by a WS.Wood of Woodwinds, Penshurst. The following are excerpts from an article written by the journalist Frank Hird who wrote occasionally for the national newspaper, The Morning Post. Frank Hird lived at Hammerfield in Penshurst (see under Houses) and was the young lover of the owner, Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower.
The article, entitled “New Cottages for Old Acres” recounts the struggle to build affordable housing in Penshurst and shows nothing much has changed in the last nigh on 120 years!
The first part of Hird’s article sets the scene by observing that for all but the most philanthropic landlords it was uneconomic to build new housing for “the peasant of to-day”. Hird goes on:
“Still the peasant has rights to adequate and healthy accommodation, and though the Legislature by its many enactments and by placing unduly heavy burdens on land has made it difficult, if not impossible, for their landowning employers to provide that accommodation, it has on the other hand passed a Housing Act as long ago as 1890, Part 3 of which permits District Councils to build cottages in the parishes they represent. It was thought the Act could not be carried out in country districts, but the Rural District Council of Sevenoaks, on the representations of the Parish Council of Penshurst, has just completed under this clause, six cottages , which fittingly may serve as an example to every village in England. Penshurst is scarcely a typical agricultural village, as the majority of its inhabitants are employed on the estates, large and small, by which it is surrounded for several miles round. There is also an unusually large artisan population. Consequently the wages are higher than average, but in lack of house room in supply to the demand it is on an unfortunate equality with many other villages. A large majority of the men are forced to live miles away from their work, and since the idea of the parish cottages was mooted no less than thirteen families of the original forty applicants have moved away to the towns, growing hopeless of securing proper homes. This is a distinct loss to the village, for the places of these men have been taken by temporary workmen who come from a distance and have a bed or share a bed for the inside of the week. Being mere sojourners they can take little interest in the life of the place.
This all points to the pressure, and also to the unhealthy overcrowding that must take place when more than one family lives in an abode so small as a village cottage. Our young men when they marry must either go away or continue to live as before-the wife with her parents- until a room in a cottage falls vacant and may be rented. It has not been merely a question of lack of cottages for married people in our village, but lack of single rooms. Happily, thanks to the enterprise and dogged perseverance of Penshurst Parish Council, six well-built, thoroughly hygienic cottages have now been added to the parish.
Frank Hird goes onto describe “the rivers of red tape” that followed on from the initial canvassing of the village in 1895 through to the commencement of building in November 1899. It took four years of backwards and forwards between the Parish, District and County Councils to get the show on the road. At one point Hird recalls that “The District Council then appealed to the landowners-an unnecessary proceeding , seeing that the Parish Council did not make its appeal until it had evidence to show that the landlords would not build”
In early 1898 ” a site of three-quarters of an acre was obtained from the glebe land of the parish, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners agreeing to sell it for £130, and after much trouble over plans and tenders £1,463 and 10 shillings was accepted by the District Council on the advice of the committee as the price of building.”
This wasn’t the end of the long and winding road as the the Local Government Board stepped in with public inquiry , which directed that before a loan of £1,800 (for the development) could be granted ” you must dig a trial well, submit your drainage schemes to us and give up some of the reductions in your building plans”
Happily these particular hurdles were overcome but the cost of the cottages had now risen to £1,539 3 shillings and 9 pence.
Penshurst, Hird observed, “is one of the prettiest villages in a county of pretty villages, and the Parish Council, with a feeling not common among public bodies, was determined that the beauty of the place should not be spoilt, and in this feeling they have been admirably seconded by their architect. The cottages stand two and two together, each having twenty rods or perches of garden” (approximately 20.5 metres).
The redoubtable Frank Hird concludes with :
“Such briefly, is the history of the Parish Council cottages at Penshurst, which the beautiful little village is justified in in proudly calling “pioneer cottages”.