Little Palaces: the Millfield Saga of the 1960s

During the industrial revolution, Britain’s towns and cities experienced rapid expansion. Faced with the problem of housing the new industrial classes, Sunderland, in the North East of England, evolved a distinctive form of low-cost housing: single-st

During the industrial revolution, Britain’s towns and cities experienced rapid expansion. Faced with the problem of housing the new industrial classes, Sunderland, in the North East of England, evolved a distinctive form of low-cost housing: single-storey terraces that came to be known as Sunderland cottages.  The legacy of the Sunderland cottage is problematic for modern homeowners and conservationists alike.  This was never more evident than in the 1950s and 60s.  In an era when town planners were preoccupied with modernity and an ideal of progress, Victorian terraced housing came to be viewed unfavourably.  Questioning the Council’s preference for high-rise flats, one interviewer was told that ‘high-rise blocks are essential to the skyline of the town,’ an indication that planners were committed to Modernist architectural aesthetics as a means of boosting Sunderland’s profile.[1]  Acres of Britain’s nineteenth-century townscapes were swept away in the name of slum-clearance.  Unfortunately, Sunderland cottages were erroneously classed as part of this notorious housing, leading to many unnecessary demolitions. 

The late Norman Dennis, a sociologist based at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne (and my former next-door neighbour), produced a study of the ‘slum-clearances’ that took place in Millfield between 1968 and 1975.  As a Senior Research Fellow at Durham University, Dennis had previously been in charge of a team studying Sunderland's housing needs, and recognised that the cottages continued to offer comfortable, affordable housing.  As well as being an academic and a resident of Millfield, Dennis was a Sunderland Councillor and therefore had access to all the planning department documents relating to the area.  He was aided by the Reverend Jack Taylor, Vicar of St Mark’s Church, Millfield, who acted as a focus for the opposition to the clearance proposals.  Demolition proceeded, despite the fact that 64% of residents were satisfied with the structural condition of their cottage.[2]  The Sunderland Echo printed numerous letters of protest from Millfield residents.  One resident wrote, ‘Housing today is a social evil because families are turned out of their cherished cottages in mis-named “slum-clearance” schemes.’  [3]  Nevertheless, Dennis was instrumental in transforming the public perception of Sunderland cottages, which came to be termed ‘little palaces.’  As this attitude gathered popular support, Sunderland Council was obliged to adopt a ‘retain and refurbish’ policy.  The residents’ campaign was undoubtedly aided by the presence of educated advocates, but also by the fact that many were owner-occupiers rather than tenants (landlords would probably have opted for the compensation).  The Millfield saga not only changed the attitude of Sunderland Council, but arguably led to a rethink of clearance policies in general.


[1] See Dennis, N. People and Planning, p214.

[2] See Dennis, N. People and Planning, p212.  However, it is important to realise that Millfield residents were not opposed to cottage-clearance per se; they simply wanted to know that the new housing would be superior to the old. 

[3] Sunderland Echo, 11 November 1965

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