Born: Irene Turbeville Martin
Sector: Real Estate
For a woman described in her Guardian obituary in 1989 as ‘one of the most influential social reformers of the 20th century’, Irene Barclay has a relatively low profile. The first woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor in 1922, Irene spent her fifty-year career improving housing conditions in local communities across Britain’s major cities, particularly in London. Damp walls, leaking rooves, insect-infested furniture and unscrupulous money lenders were just some of the issues she kept firmly in her sights and during the 1920s and 30s she played a major role in developing new-build housing in the Somers Town area of London that still stands today.
Irene was born in Hereford on 27th May 1894, the eldest of four children and was given her mother Alice’s maiden name, Turberville, as her middle name. Her brother, Kingsley, who went on to edit the New Statesman, described himself as a ‘child of Victorian dissent’. Their maternal grandfather edited a Congregationalist paper; their father, Basil Martin, was a non-conformist vicar who embraced F.D. Maurice’s philosophy of Christian socialism and clashed with church leaders and congregation members throughout his career. He most wanted to spend his working life in the London slums but his failure to toe the parish line thwarted his ambition.
Instead he was offered a parish in Hereford. There he continued to pursue his agenda, giving lectures on socialism and organising Sunday afternoon conferences where guests included Charlotte Despard, later co-founder of the Women’s Freedom League. He became leader of the Labour Party in the local parliament, butting heads on almost every issue with his Conservative opposite number, Laurence Housman: the only thing they agreed on was that women should get the vote. (Housman went on to become a stalwart of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, working alongside Louise Jopling, and is one of four men to be named on the statue of Millicent Fawcett.).
At school Irene’s religious beliefs often made her feel like an outsider and it was only when a dwindling congregation forced a family move to North London in 1913 that her sense of strangeness started to dissipate somewhat. Her father became Minister of the Finchley Unitarian Church and now she was part of a larger community of people with similar views.
Growing up, Irene was, like her siblings, instilled with a sense of importance of a career with social purpose. At first she wanted to be a doctor, then a teacher but she realised that what really motivated her was eradicating poverty and she decided that the best route to doing that was ‘Octavia Hill’ work ‘because I was interested in people and their housing and I found it absorbing.’ She always held that housing was basic, the first essential to help people lead happy lives. In 1915 she enrolled as a day student at Bedford College, cycling from North Finchley to Regent’s Park every day. After completing her degree in social studies, she won a scholarship to study for a diploma in sociology at the London School of Economics.
As part of her LSE diploma Irene did a work placement with Edith Neville in St Pancras and when she graduated, since municipal estate management was not open to women, Edith put her touch with Maud Jeffery. Maud had been Octavia Hill’s secretary and in 1916 she had also embarked on a career in property management. Now she had a job with the office of Woods and Forests managing one of London’s Crown Estates, Cumberland Market.
If this conjures up images of greenery and luxury, they can be dismissed. These streets to the north east of Regent’s Park lay a hundred meters and a world away from John Nash’s grand creamy terraces. There were ‘few worse slums to be found than in some of the back streets of vermin-ridden tenements with damp basements, leaking roofs, smoking chimneys, rotted flooring and total lack of reasonable sanitary arrangements for houses occupied by a number of families,’ Irene later wrote.
She started with office work, doing the estate accounts, preparing rent rolls and bank balances, managing correspondence and filing and keeping records. To understand what repairs were needed, she had to learn about building construction and sanitation, the cost of labour and materials, the causes of damp and deterioration in houses and different methods of remedying defects.
Surveying was one of the professions that opened up to women as a result of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 and Maud encouraged Irene to study for the exams that would enable her to become a Fellow of the Surveyors’ Institution. She took a two-year course at the College of Estate Management, which covered three main areas: Land Agency, Valuations and Building Surveying.
When Irene passed the exams in 1922 she made headlines, the first, and for a while, the only woman surveyor in the country. A couple of years later she described the attitudes from men in the industry as generally courteous and encouraging. ‘Probably our friend Mr Anti is still muttering about home and washing but I have not heard his voice much lately.’
Irene gained some experience in architectural work with Louis de Soissons, architect of Welwyn Garden City, and then returned to the Office of Woods and Forests for a short period. In 1924, two years after qualifying, she took the bold step of setting up a business with Evelyn Ellis Perry (1896-1976), who had qualified as a surveyor the year after Irene. Evelyn’s father, William James Perry, was headmaster and chaplain of St Anne’s School in Redhill from 1896 until the school closed after the end of WWI and Evelyn shared Irene’s views on the importance of social housing.
Their first office was in Finsbury Square and Irene was less than impressed by the ‘foolish fuss’ that was made of two women setting up a surveying business: ‘cheap press publicity is very disagreeable’. That year they made a survey of the poorer areas of Chelsea in 1924, commissioned by a group of wealthy residents who wanted to tackle local slum landlords. The driving force behind this was an ex-MP George Currie and the project resulted in legal action.
1924 was also the year of Irene’s marriage to John Barclay. John had fought in the First World War as a teenager, surviving the horrors of Passchendaele to be invalided home with mustard gas poisoning and shell shock and converted into a committed pacifist. Meeting and marrying Irene was generally agreed to be a great turning point in his life and in John, Irene had a husband who was totally supportive of her work and career.
Regenerating the Somers Town slums
In 1936, Irene contributed an essay on Property Management to a careers guide, subtitled ‘rehousing; administration of new and old housing estates; surveying and architectural planning; and social work in connexion with rehousing.’ This sums up the scope of work in the next project taken on by Barclay and Perry, one to which Irene would stay connected for the rest of her working life: the re-generation of Somers Town.
Squashed between two of London’s major railway stations, Euston and King’s Cross, the Victorian terraces of Somers Town had degenerated into slums before the First World War and now they were even more squalid. Four families squeezed into seven or eight rooms in buildings that were neglected, damp and dilapidated, with rotting woodwork and plaster, infested with rats, black beetles and bed bugs. The consequent illness resulted in unreliable incomes and poor nutrition, all contributing to a poverty spiral. When residents were later moved into their new housing, their furniture and clothes all had to be chemically dis-infested to avoid cross-contamination.
In 1921 a young priest, Father Basil Jellicoe, was put in charge of the Magdalen College Mission in Somers Town. Funded by the Oxford college, it had started working in the area in 1908, combining social work with Christian Evangelism. Jellicoe was an adherent of F.D. Maurice and like him a radical reformist who took practical action. The Trust paid Jellicoe’s salary and volunteers, drawn from the undergraduates and recent postgraduates, also lived on site.
Unsurprisingly, given the involvement of Edith Neville and the influence of FD Maurice, when the not-for-profit St Pancras House Improvement Society was founded in 1924 (later the St Pancras Housing Association), its objectives were very similar to those pursued by Octavia Hill in her housing schemes: to provide housing of a good standard at an affordable rent, with associated community services, overseen by Housing Managers who had both technical and social work experience. A core principle was that re-housing should not mean up-rooting: local communities should remain intact. A year in the Honorary Secretary resigned and Edith persuaded Irene to take on the role, one which she would hold for 48 years.
At first the Society bought houses to re-furbish but this approach was quickly abandoned for a strategy of re-building and mass re-housing. The architect for the new-build schemes was Ian Hamilton and although great attention was paid to cost, it did not come at the expense of beauty, with ornamental details were included in the buildings’ structure
Gilbert Bayes (who also designed the famous Queen of Time Clock that still stands over the main entrance of Selfridges) made lunettes to go over some of the windows. The thoughtful approach to the design is best exemplified by the washing lines. Instead of the traditional wooden posts stuck into asphalt, which quickly rotted, a circular structure was created in building courtyards, with twenty-four concrete posts set around one central higher post so the washing lines radiated out from the centre like maypole streamers. Bayes designed glazed stoneware sculptures to adorn the posts that reflected the name or purpose of the building: the one outside the block that included the nursery school had twenty-four posts, on which were placed four and twenty blackbirds; other designs included ships and fish, thistles and roses.
Jellicoe was a charismatic speaker and a very effective fund raiser, attracting influential patrons – an early shareholder was Edward, Prince of Wales – and pulling in high-profile figures to lay foundation stones and open new buildings. He understood the power of visual communication, staging publicity stunts, such as the ceremonial burning of large-scale papier-mâché insects, encouraging news teams to come and film the conditions and supporting the production of documentary films to publicise the organisation’s work. One of the most influential was Paradox City, made in 1932 and still available to watch today.
Beyond Somers Town
Irene and Evelyn moved their offices to Euston in 1926 to be better able to carry out their day-to-day property management work but their work went far wider than this. They were employed as estates managers for a number of housing associations and local councils, enabling them to build up a small staff. They also had a portfolio of surveying and valuation work for private clients. However, it was probably the sixteen surveys of housing conditions, some in London boroughs including Shoreditch, Southwark, Paddington and Fulham, and others in Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh that had most impact.
The surviving reports of the Victoria Ward of Westminster and the two poorest areas of Edinburgh, Canongate and St Andrew’s, show the in-depth approach they took, going into people’s homes to assess the extent of over-crowding, the state of the rooms, the access to light and fresh air and the conditions for preparing food. The Edinburgh study was triggered by huge disparities in infant mortality across the city: in 1930, the infant mortality rates in Canongate and St Andrew’s was over 10%, with only 892 babies surviving for every 1,000 born. In wealthy Morningside, it was 1.3%. (For comparison, in 2021, the infant mortality rate in Britain was 0.35%). Behind the elegant Georgian terraces of Princes Street, from St James Square to India Place, they found terrible overcrowding: of the 443 families visited, over half were living four or more to a room. Their reports mobilised local groups and councils.
During the 1930s, Irene started to speak up more on housing and housing-related issues. . In October 1933 she took part in a radio debate with Sir Edward Hilton Young, Minister of Health and Local Authorities, challenging the government policy on slum clearance and after this made repeated appearances on BBC Radio. Another of her campaigns was against unlicensed money lending, which she called ‘A Scandal of our Time’. She established a loan club for the St Pancras community so they could avoid the dangers of taking on debt with punitive repayments. She was a founder member of the London Soroptimists and in 1936 she travelled to Birmingham to speak at a lunch of the Birmingham Rotary Club and Soroptimists. There she made the case for more women in property: in her experience, while men focused on the technical side, women took a wider view of the personal, social and human side, which was needed for effective property management.
xWhile Irene was focused on a housing agenda, John had become involved with the Co-Operative movement and in 1934 was one of the founding members of the Peace Pledge Union, joined by, among others Vera Brittain, Storm Jameson and Basil Martin’s old adversary Laurence Housman. Amidst all this activity, Irene and John were also raising two sons, born in 1926 and 1929.
The war years
During the war, Irene often found herself on her own. John was busy with anti-war protests and trying, not always successfully, to avoid arrest; Evelyn who had married Douglas Howard, a civil servant, on 14th February 1931, re-located with him to the USA when he was posted there at around the time of the Blitz; the boys were sent to boarding school outside of London and spent their holidays with family in the countryside and Irene was unable to see them as much as she wanted.
She busied herself with her property work, dealing with all the emergencies caused by the bombing raids over London, and expanded her writing and speaking. She was part of a group of influential women established to understand better the causes of the outcry triggered by the evacuation of city children to rural communities: the first wave in 1939 had led to headlines about dirty children infested with head-lice and more thorough investigation was needed. It took three years to complete and publish the report.
In 1943 she participated in a conference on The Homes of the Future in Tyneside alongside Irene Ward, the MP for North Tyneside. She laid out the six principles she saw as being key to success: central supervision of building materials and layouts; careful selection of building land; types of foundation and position of estates; reasonable rent charges; decent sized rooms; houses instead of flats where possible.
She joined the Heating and Ventilating Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, one of only two women with twenty men. From this came the Women’s Committee for Solid Fuel, which focused on the use of coal in the home, which alongside the Electrical Association of Women and the Women’s Gas Council, explored domestic energy sources. In 1946 she was one of the participants in a conference to discuss ‘Fuel and the Future’ alongside Caroline Haslett.
Post war activities
At the end of the war Evelyn came back to the UK but was not in good enough health to return to the partnership. Irene carried on with a re-configured team. All the people who worked for her were women and Irene had joined the Society of Women Housing Managers right at the start of her career. However, she now proposed dropping the word ‘Women’ from the name in a bid to encourage more men to join who bought in to their management principles. The resolution was carried in 1948 but it had little effect and in 1965 the SHM merged with the Institute of Housing to create the Institute of Housing Managers, now the Chartered Institute of Housing. In 1953, she made her first television appearance to discuss her work in housing and in 1959, work on a new development on Drummond Crescent was started on the site of the first building bought back in 1927 and converted into flats. She expanded her reach beyond housing, taking a seat on the board of North Thames Gas in 1949, which she held for twelve years, the only woman, but most of her activities were connected to agenda of social justice.
John had his fifteen minutes of fame on 9th November 1959 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews with his big red book for ‘This is Your Life’. In 1946 he had started working with Margaret McEwan on the Dutch Relief Scheme. Together they went on to found International Help for Children, a charity to give holidays to British children left in poverty and European children who were now refugees as a result of the war. When he died in 1966, his memorial service was attended by over 600 people.
Irene received an OBE for her work in 1966, which she continued for another six years, finally retiring in 1972. She subsequently wrote about her work in two books, providing a valuable record of career but revealing relatively little about her personal life. She lived her last years in Canada to be nearer her children. There is a house named after her on Eversholt Street in London and a campaign for a blue plaque continues.
The Woman’s Leader 8/12/1922; 10/8/1923; 17/10/1924; Daily Herald 29/9/1933; Westminster and Pimlico News 5/5/1944
Reports by Irene Barclay and Evelyn Perry: Westminster Survey Group: Report on and Survey of Housing Conditions in the Victoria Ward, Westminster (April 1927); Behind Princes Street A Contrast: Report on Survey of Housing Conditions of 443 families situated in St Andrew’s Ward Edinburgh (June 1931)
‘Property Management’ by Irene Barclay in The Road to Success by Margaret Cole (1936); The St Pancras Housing Association in Camden: What it is and why – A History 1924 to 1972 by Irene Barclay (1973); People Need Roots: The Story of the St Pancras Housing Association by Irene Barclay (1976)
Father: Basil Martin, An Impossible Parson (1935); Father Figures by Kingsley Martin (1966)
‘Housing Happenings in Somers Town’ by Roland Jeffery in
Twentieth Century Architecture 9: Housing the Twentieth Century Nation (2008) ed Elain Harwood and Alan Powers