When Socialists Built our Homes

In the early twentieth century, socialist guilds across Britain built thousands of quality homes for working families – and provided a real alternative to housing profiteers.

Britain's socialist guilds were inspired by William Morris' arts and crafts movement. (Credit: AAM Images)

In her 2018 report on building safety initiated in the aftermath of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, Dame Judith Hackitt argued that the British building industry has for decades constructed low-quality housing due to a ‘race to the bottom’ caused by the maximisation of profit.

For the Right, the fire at Grenfell points towards the failure of the post-war social housing programme. Conservatives either dispute the worth and safety of high-rise housing altogether, or — backed up by developers — contend that only private initiatives spurred on by unfettered competition will provide better quality building. The Left quite rightly respond that this marginalises and displaces many people, with even ‘affordable’ units far above that which someone on the average salary could hope to afford.

However, when confronted with the myriad inequities of the private housing market, leftists often fall back on the state for a solution. This stems from a tendency to see the statist post-war consensus as the telos of a long history of social housing, from which we have unfortunately slid. Yet in the history of housing there have been many other edifying building initiatives. One of them is that of the ‘building guilds’, a socialist experiment which managed to adopt a strand of Victorian aesthetics — the Arts and Crafts school — and out of it, create a radical working-class movement.

‘From Guildsman to Builder’

The Arts and Crafts was a literary and aesthetic movement that began in England in the mid-nineteenth century. It advocated a return to the spirit of the medieval age, untainted by the industrialised technicalities of the modern era, and in which crafts and decorative arts were seen to represent both beauty and authenticity.

Architecture held a pre-eminence among the major theorists of the Arts of Crafts movement due to their conception of it as the most complete art form, requiring the teamwork of countless skilled builders for structural and ornamental ends. They believed that the Gothic architecture of the medieval period represented the cooperative work of every labourer involved. This stood in stark contrast to the nineteenth century, which increasingly prioritised the architect over the builders as the ‘author’ of a building.

The critic and artist John Ruskin believed that Gothic stonework was indicative of the workman ‘altogether set free’. He saw its often-imperfect structures as evidence of a trial-and-error process in which masons would negotiate the complexities of the site with each other in comradely fashion. William Morris, the artist and revolutionary, echoed Ruskin’s concerns when he argued in 1889 that architecture is ‘man’s expression of the value of life.’

Today, the Arts and Crafts movement is derided as hopelessly romantic. Indeed, it is commonly viewed to have died out a long time ago, around the turn of the twentieth century. Yet its very escapism proved influential to a potent brand of socialism in the immediate build-up to the First World War: ‘guild socialism’. In this ideology, different industries would organise themselves around a ‘guild’ structure which would communalise labour, pay its members well, and reinvest any profits made back into the unit.

A.  J. Penty, an architect and guildsman, wrote in 1906 that this type of organisation was a ‘solution to the problems presented by modern industrialism’ derived from ‘the writings of John Ruskin.’ Strongly opposed to the dominant Fabian tendencies of the Labour Party, he was conscious to develop the link between his brand of socialism and the Arts and Crafts.

It soon became clear that a guild movement could feasibly develop in the building trades, due to structural incentives as much as political belief. These included the low amount of fixed capital required for construction, and the fact that building labour tended to be localised. The post-war Liberal government of David Lloyd George also helped, willing as it was to experiment with new methods of housebuilding in order to deliver on its promise of ‘homes fit for heroes.’

Everything was in place, and by 1919 the guildsmen’s theories of developing a ‘building guild’ were quickly becoming a reality among builders. As one enthusiastic bricklayer argued, the building guilds would do work ‘worthy of the Middle Ages.’

Guilds Underway

The first building guild was founded in Manchester by the guild socialist S. G. Hobson. At a conference in January 1920, Hobson laid out its three main principles. The first was the construction of cost-efficient, good-quality housing. The second involved the payment of builders in times of sickness, accident, and bad weather. Lastly, and most importantly, came the guilds’ abolition of the profit initiative, with all surpluses being shared with the relevant local authority.

Based on these three tenets, Hobson and the other guildsmen believed that in the long term they would be able to outcompete private contractors and drive them away from the housing market for good. All builders who joined the guild accepted these principles without signing a contract, in order to avoid the yoke of ‘capitalist autho-rity’. As one observer noted in The Times, the guilds were attempting revolution ‘in a non-revolutionary way’.

The Manchester guild built thousands of houses, beginning at the small Lancashire village of Irlam and expanding quickly thereafter. Overall, they delivered at cost, relying on a local authority subsidy to pay the guilds’ workers according to its generous conditions, guaranteed by Christopher Addison’s eponymous 1919 Housing Act. The buildings were architecturally plain, but sturdy and safe.

By the middle of 1920, a London guild had been established by a left-leaning Quaker called Malcolm Sparkes. It was soon rapidly securing contracts from London boroughs such as Walthamstow. The London guild proved instructive to other towns, with guilds shortly afterwards being set up in Wigan, Rotherham, and Portsmouth.

The paradoxical result of the building guild experiment was that their rapid expansion necessitated an increasingly complex bureaucracy, transforming the guilds into a hugely rationalised industrial enterprise that would have been unthinkable in the medieval period. Yet the guild socialists were never dogmatically revivalist. Rather they deployed certain historical themes to deal with pressing modern concerns. The guilds-men contended throughout that they were always continuing the spirit of the medieval guilds.

In 1921, after some deliberation, the Manchester and London guilds amalgamated at a conference to create the National Building Guild, with Hobson and Sparkes as its respective leaders. The conference’s memorandum reminded the builders that their ultimate mission was ‘the elimination of capitalist enterprise.’ For a short while, it looked as if their mission, based as it was ultimately on a medievalist romanticism, was unstoppable.

The Fall of the Guilds

The building guilds experienced astounding success. Unfortunately, they also amassed significant debts in the process — particularly to their associated union, the National Federation of Building Trades Operatives (NFBTO), and the major cooperative bank of the twentieth century, the Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS). Very quickly Hobson and Sparkes turned against each other, with each accusing the other of incompetence and profligacy.

The guilds’ difficulties were not entirely owed to the political and financial ineptitude of their socialist administrators. David Lloyd George’s Cabinet, initially hospitable to the new modes of building, became increasingly hostile to the project, and after his appointment in 1921 the new minister of health, Alfred Mond, promptly cut subsidies to the guild.

Such a ‘retrenchment’ drive was encouraged by influential figures in the press. The Daily Mail was particularly aggressive, attack-ing the housing programme under the banner of a sustained campaign known as the ‘Anti-Waste League’, run by the paper’s proprietor Lord Rothermere. In 1922, George Hicks, president of the NFBTO, concluded that the campaign had contributed to a sense of widespread anger against ‘public authorities’.

The National Building Guild was declared insolvent by the end of 1922. Its swift decline heralded the end of the building guild experiment, and with it the entire guild socialist movement. Building trade unionism mostly returned to campaigning for piecemeal reform instead of a systematic attack on the whole industry. Meanwhile, the housing industry was returned to what one minister’s private secretary called ‘its legitimate and rightful sphere’: profit-driven business.

The Spirit of the Guilds

In 1921, a writer noted in the NFBTO’s journal, The Operative Builder, that the guilds represented ‘the imperfection of a struggle for an aim out of reach.’ This seemingly poetic and empathetic reading is actually rather cynical, implying as it does that the building guild experiment was naïve, unedifying, and inherently doomed from the start.

In fact, the building guilds’ failure does not stop their ability to provide a critique of the world of construction in the twenty-first century. The guildsmen sought a return to a conception of work in which construction was enjoyable and worthy, and not a mere commodity to be brought in and dismissed by contractors as and when. As well as this, the guildsmen were careful to create an architecture that valued the contribution of the operative as much as the designer. These efforts speak to an industry that still construes building labour as comparatively unskilled, and where architects take most of the credit.

Most importantly, the history of Britain’s building guilds emphasises the necessity to consider a contemporary socialist politics ‘beyond the state’. Leftists have often looked to central government as the most moral arbiter of social housing, based on a period of modernist hegemony that has long since finished. They have simultaneously largely regarded voluntarist ideologies as suspicious, associating them with conservative attempts to create a smokescreen for right-wing spending cuts to public services. Both tendencies deserve scrutiny and deconstruction. In their place, a cooperative and associative architectural imaginary is worth entertaining.

Such an imaginary does not necessitate replicating the building guilds’ organisation, or indeed renewing their brand of medieval historicism. Rather, it means capturing their spirit, and thinking about the possibilities of an architecture that relies not on the market or the state, but rather the collective endeavour of people.