Housing for Single Working Women in Inter-War London, 1919-1939

Emmett, Bonnie (2023). Housing for Single Working Women in Inter-War London, 1919-1939. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00017032


This thesis investigates the provision and design of housing designated for single women in London between 1919 and 1939. The housing type catered to the needs of many thousands of single women workers who had carved out careers before and during the First World War. Others, newly empowered by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, were entering the professions for the first time in fields previously barred to women. The human losses sustained during the conflict compounded the pre-existing imbalance between men and women in the population. Such circumstances swelled the ranks of the so-called ‘surplus’ women to around 1.75 million, rekindling fears over the potential decline of the nuclear family. Faced with meagre incomes and a dire shortage of small affordable flats, the desire for a home of their own amongst these women was more acute than ever. Spurred on by the promise of Lloyd George’s ‘Homes for Heroes’ programme and the more favourable terms for public utility societies in the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, a new generation of housing reformers attempted to resolve the housing issue for self-supporting women. Drawing upon a wide range of underused archival sources, architectural plans, contemporary publications and census data, this thesis focuses on the efforts of these inter-war women’s housing organisations, analysing their business and design practices as well as their and architectural achievements. It explores the impact of discourses of home efficiency and labour-saving in the alternative context of homes designed for single women. It further considers how normative assumptions of gender and class shaped and were shaped by these newly created living spaces. Uniting architectural history and women’s history, the resultant synthesis offers a more inclusive, holistic view of the inter-war built environment which foregrounds women’s contribution and experience.

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