Between the wars, a big public housing build in other parts of the United Kingdom was not replicated in Northern Ireland. Nor had there been grants for slum clearance. What public housing there was, had been built on a small scale, generally by the private sector, often in rural locations. In the interwar years, only 2,500 houses of all types had been built per annum in the province.
In 1944 a report was published by the Housing Committee of the Planning Advisory Board. 44% of the houses in the county borough of Belfast were in need of extensive repairs. Belfast suffered the most crowded living conditions of a major industrialised city in the UK, with 28 people per acre and 847 people per acre of open (recreational) space. The figures for Glasgow were 27 and 333, Sheffield, 13 and 200. The report estimated that 100,000 new houses were needed in the province, immediately.
Belfast had the highest levels of tuberculosis in the UK. One in ten babies died before their first birthday. 60% of Belfast’s population of 438,000 lived in wards so overcrowded that two-thirds of the inhabitants would have to be rehoused elsewhere in order to meet health standards.
The Northern Ireland Housing Trust was set up in February 1945, tasked with providing 25,000 of the required houses, whilst the other 75,000 would be provided by local authorities and the private sector. Wary of Belfast Corporation’s need of urban land for its own build, the Trust would embark upon the construction of a series of suburban housing developments around the periphery of the city. One of these was the Rathcoole estate.
The Trust was governed by appointees, advertised as five charitable, unpaid positions for “good men and women”. It was chaired by Sir Lucius O’Brien. They began from a standing start, with neither plans nor any administrative or technical staff. In their first year of existence, the Trust was able to place contracts for over 3,000 houses in 14 locations but simultaneously struggled with a lack of supplies, building materials and skilled labour.
In order to speed up the construction process, non-traditional building techniques were adopted, such as the use of No-Fines concrete and the Easiform and Orlit “system built” methods. These were no cheaper than traditional housing but did have an advantage. Being prefabricated, factory-built and then assembled on-site, homes could be completed quickly, in all weathers and with the use of low-skilled workers.
The trust mass-produced a large number of these dwellings from a small number of designs. They were of a lower standard than would be allowed in England and were smaller, about 900 sq ft in floor size, rather than 1000 sq ft. As a more flattering comparison, in the Soviet Union under the comparable “Khrushchyovka” mass-production method, the standard apartment size was only 320sq ft.
The Trust was funded by government loans which attracted interest and had to be re-paid. This made the cost of construction, and the level of rents that could be charged, all important. Pre-war and wartime accommodation in Belfast had been miserable but rents had been very low.
Although system built houses were no cheaper to build, flats and apartments were, because of the lower expenditure required on roads and other connecting infrastructure. Savings were also made by making the dwellings more basic than in other parts of the UK. Sir Lucius observed,
“The visitor [from over the water] will, however, regard some of the houses as being smaller and more austere, with few of the fitments to which he is accustomed in such housing at home. This is the result of the Trust’s deliberate policy to keep down the rents, and the visitor will probably be astonished at how low these are, although they may seem high to Northern Ireland tenants.”
Construction of the Rathcoole estate began in 1952. Intended to be a self-contained neighbourhood, it covered 366 acres, 6 miles northeast of Belfast city centre. It was to consist of 3,800 dwellings housing 10,000 people. Employment would be provided by thirteen Ministry of Commerce factories which were to be built nearby.
A large number of system build houses and old peoples bungalows were constructed, as well as ‘M’ style low rise blocks. Some system built designs were factory-made prefabricated concrete slabs assembled on site. Others were assembled via a removable metal frame which was filled with concrete. In both cases, there was a ‘single skin’ exterior, rather than a wall, then a cavity, then another wall.
By 1955 the population of the Rathcoole estate had swollen sufficiently to allow for the advertising of door to door salesman and insurance premium collectors,
“The Prudential Insurance Company invites applications from Men between 23 – 40, of good appearance and reasonable standard of education for a progressive and pensionable appointment on the Outdoor Staff.”
Although the estate was dry there were pubs nearby also quaintly advertising for staff,
“An attractive young lady to manage a Lounge bar in Whiteabbey district.”
Dry or not, other opportunities were available for women. The Housing Trust estates, including Rathcoole, had an onsite housing office with an all-female staff.
Contact between tenants and the housing trust was intended to be contractual. The trust was obliged to keep the houses in good repair and to provide facilities locally. The tenant must take proper care of the house, pay the rent and keep the garden in order. Sir Lucien commented,
“It must be remembered that few Trust tenants have ever had a house before, and the Housing Manager undertakes a great deal of educational and welfare work. It is her ambition to be regarded as a friend and not as a rent collector.”
The lady housing officers served an apprenticeship and were trained up to Certificate of Housing Estate Management level, awarded by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. As well as education and rent collecting, their duties included choosing the tenants. Tenancies were offered on a strict points system with tuberculosis sufferers, ex-servicemen and those without an indoor toilet receiving the most points. Allocation of tenancies was not supposed to be sectarian, unlike local authority housing, where locally elected officials would allocate housing in accordance with the province’s religious divide.
As such, the Trust estates, including Rathcoole, became religiously mixed. The Housing Trust being seen as a benevolent public body, MA Neill noted,
“The primary objective of the planners was to create a balanced neighbourhood within a new urban community.”
In April 1955 Rathcoole received, at first glance, an unusual visitor. The Malayan commissioner in the United Kingdom, Mr Enche Othman Bin Mohamed, on a seven-day tour of Northern Ireland, wanted a guided tour. The Malay States and outer North Belfast may seem a strange combination, however, the Belfast Telegraph provided an explanation,
Mr Athman Bin Mohamed to-day saw round Rathcoole housing estate – a visit that was of particular interest to him. When he was Prime Minister of Selangor, a state of Malaya, he was concerned in the development of such a satellite town.
At the very south of the then Malay States lay Singapore, with its own 1950s satellite towns and its own version of the Northern Ireland Housing Trust. Called the Housing and Development Board (or HDB), it still exists to this day. Singapore had its own post-war problems, having been recently occupied by the Japanese. It also had its own sectarian divide, caused by a mixed population of Chinese, Malays and Indians. HDB housing was and still is, seven decades later, strictly and deliberately ethnically mixed, a policy which, as we shall see, proved to be unsustainable in Northern Ireland.
In 1964, a cluster of four 15 story Sectra constructed blocks of flats were approved for Rathcoole. They were added to the estate in 1965. The towers, or ‘multis’, contained 65 flats each, were 140ft high and became an iconic local landmark.
These were named Carncoole House, Abbotscoole House, Monkscoole House and Glencoole House. They were built by John Laing Construction, who owned the patent for the Sectra construction method. My father was an employee of Laing’s. We lived on the third floor of Abbotscoole.
There were some problems with the flats from the outset. They had unreliable lifts, open access (and therefore insecure) ground floor entrances and rubbish chutes on each landing which were liable to become blocked.
Likewise, elsewhere on the estate the single skin nature of the construction made the houses cold to start with, difficult to heat and prone to condensation and damp. There were also problems with the location. Rathcoole was both too close and too far away from Belfast to be able to sustain its own facilities. There was a shopping centre called “The Diamond”, which was brutalist, bleak and windswept. There was no community centre and, the estate being dry, no pubs.
All of these problems were exacerbated further by the emergence of the Civil Rights movement, and associated disturbances, towards the end of the 1960s. Only a few years after the multis had been built, the continuing difficulties of sectarian inequality in housing in Northern Ireland had very serious consequences both for the Northern Ireland Housing Trust and for the Rathcoole estate.
In 1969 Lord Cameron’s Commission drew the following damning conclusions regarding housing in the province,
(a) inadequacy of housing provision by certain local authorities
(b) unfair methods of allocation of houses built and let by such authorities, in particular; refusals and omissions to adopt a ‘points’ system in determining priorities and making allocations
(c) misuse in certain cases of discretionary powers of allocation of houses in order to perpetuate Unionist control of the local authority.
The Northern Ireland Housing Trust’s days were now numbered and it was replaced by a much bigger organisation, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in 1971. This was a single all-purpose housing authority, which not only replaced the Trust but also took responsibility for the housing departments of 61 local authorities and new towns.
By this point, the Civil Rights movement had become a low-intensity civil war between Irish nationalists and the British state. In 1971 there were 171 deaths related to these ‘troubles’ and in 1972, 476. As Protestant families were displaced from their homes in other parts of Belfast, they moved to Rathcoole which in turn saw its Catholic population leave. Author and retired police officer Johnston Brown, who lived in 5a Abbotscoole, recalls,
“there was an exodus of decent Catholic families from the notorious Rathcoole estate due to the blatant intimidation by unruly thugs. Local vigilante and UDA patrols were in evidence on the street corners as rumours of civil war circulated.”
Rathcoole had now changed from being a mixed-religion area to being one of the provinces most infamous estates. Under the influence of the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and vigilante groups, it retained this reputation across the next five decades.
The Belfast Telegraph.
John Darby, “Conflict Archive on the Internet: Housing”.
M B Padden, “A Study of Rathcoole”.
M A Neill, “Rathcoole: A study in social relationships”.
Johnston Brown, “Into the dark: 30 years in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the troubles”.
Sir Lucius O’Brien, “The Northern Ireland Housing Trust”.
Northern Ireland Housing Trust, “Challenge”.
Professor Marianne Elliot, “Challenges Faced by the Northern Ireland Housing Trust in Belfast City”.
The Honourable Lord Cameron, D.S.C., “Disturbances in Nothern Ireland”.
Meuser & Zadorin, “Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing”.
Peter Gullery, “Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular”.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file