In 1909, plans were drawn up for the first development of social housing in Portsmouth. These plans followed a wave of private housing initiatives in the nineteenth century lead by industrialists providing accommodation for their workers. Some of these heeded increasing scientific knowledge and understanding of the relationship between housing conditions and the health and well being of their workers. Improved sanitation and water supplies, building layout, density of housing and wider street widths were considered vital to the improvement of air flow which in turn had positive affects on the rates of infectious diseases. These principles were adopted by central government in regularly revised housing and poor laws and by the beginning of the twentieth century, local councils or corporations became responsible for embedding them into the development of their towns and cities.
In Portsmouth, the responsibility fell to Dr Mearns Fraser, Chief Medical Officer from 1896-1934. His annual reports chart the progressions of infectious diseases across Portsmouth and highlight the relationship between pockets of slum housing built to accommodate an increasing dockyard workforce and deaths caused by infectious disease. Among the worst was much of the area of Portsea and this became his priority in improving conditions for the working classes.
Targeting the alleyways around White’s Row, Mearns Fraser with the assistance of the engineers department, set out plans to improve social and health conditions by redesigning the layout of the streets and constructing new semi-detached houses. They presented three design options to the Corporation, each focussing on improved light and airflow and the inclusion of generous outside space for the residents. In the public realm, trees were to line the streets with a semi circular green space to improve air quality and to accommodate communal activities.
Accepted by the Corporation, the process of obtaining and demolishing the existing dwellings began and much publicity surrounded this first foray into town planning and development. Tensions between ambitions and budgets redefined priorities and by 1912, plans show compromised street and housing layouts. Debate about the permanent displacement of residents, rising rent costs and tenant selection was also underway. Despite being a steep learning curve, the development of Curzon Howe Road and its forty-six new homes, offered an improved quality of life. It also initiated a continuous wave of slum clearance and redevelopment over the decades to come.