Some of the worst slums of Leeds were in the Quarry Hill area. This was one of the places where the property speculators of the Industrial Revolution had built rows of back-to-back houses, crowded together, with no proper sanitation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was recognised by the council that something had to be done about the 'unhealthy areas' of the city, and that the slums would either have to be improved or demolished. By 1914 half the slum dwellings in the Quarry Hill area had been cleared.
Gradually people moved away from the area, or were re-housed in council houses in the suburbs. But many working class people missed the close knit communities of the back-to-back terraces, and wanted to live in the city. The council decided to build flats on the Quarry Hill site, which would provide affordable houses for council tenants.
Charles Jenkinson and the Director of Housing, the architect R A H Livett, decided to base their design on that of the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna. This was a new estate, of huge blocks of flats, which had communal facilities for the tenants. There were formal gardens and courtyards, playgrounds, kindergartens and laundries and shops. There were flowers cascading from the balconies, a feature which impressed delegation from Leeds who visited the flats.
Quarry Hill flats were designed by R A H Livett. He and other members of the Leeds housing committee visited an estate at Cite de la Muett at Drancy in France to investigate the revolutionary new building technique used there. It had been designed by Eugene Mopin who was commissioned to produce a structural design for the flats to be built at Quarry Hill. The Mopin system used a light steel frame, encased in pre-cast concrete units, which were then filled with poured concrete. Floors, walls and ceilings were constructed from prefabricated concrete blocks, made in a factory on the site. As the building was erected in stages, it did not require scaffolding. The system eliminated the need for brickwork and plastering, so there was no need to employ a skilled labour force. All this meant that there were big savings in materials time and labour costs, which made the scheme very economical.
It was decided that Livett's design would use the Mopin system. It was originally proposed to build 800 flats, but the height of the buildings was increased to seven or eight storeys, and the number of flats to 938, each with between one and five bedrooms. Livett's original design incorporated a community hall, seating 520 people, with a stage and dressing rooms, 20 shops, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a wading pool, courtyards and gardens. There was to be an estate nursery, playgrounds, lawns and recreation areas. There was a communal laundry, with driers, and even an estate mortuary for laying out the dead. In the final design the swimming pools were replaced by tennis courts and a bowling green, but these were never built.
The estates Livett had visited in France incorporated the new Garchey method of waste disposal, and he used the same system at Quarry Hill. Domestic refuse was placed in a hopper below the sink, and when enough waste had accumulated it was flushed, along with waste water from the sink, into the waste stack. This carried it to a central processing unit, where the refuse was dehydrated and incinerated. It was originally intended that the heat from the furnace would heat the swimming pools, but this idea was abandoned. The Viennese flats on which Quarry Hill was modelled had no lifts, only stairs, but at Quarry Hill 88 two-person passenger lifts were installed.
The estate covered 26 acres, with a density of 36 dwellings and 125 people to the acre. The design was put out to tender in 1934, and was to be built in stages. Building continued until 1941, but the estate was never finished, and some of the flats were never lived in.
The first flats were occupied in March 1938. A typical flat had a living room, scullery and bathroom, and two or three bedrooms. There was also a balcony, and a ventilated larder. The scullery door opened onto a balcony where there was a coalhole and a window box. Drying of clothes on the balconies was prohibited; all washing and drying was to be done in the communal laundry. The living room had a china cupboard, and airing cupboard, and a gas point for a poker. A baking oven in the scullery was connected to an open coke grate in the living room. The master bedroom had a fitted wardrobe, and a coke grate with a gas point; there was an electric point for a fire and a corner hanging bracket in the second bedroom. In the bathroom there was a bath with a basin fitted over the end to save space, and a WC. Every flat had an outlet for radio, which was relayed, and electric lighting
When they were built the Quarry Hill flats were seen as a model housing scheme, and became internationally famous. However there were problems with the experimental building system; the concrete slabs on the face of the building worked free and had to be replaced. The steelwork supporting the slabs was found to be corroded. These and other structural defects meant that costly on-going repairs had to be carried out. The Garchey refuse disposal system also caused problems; the waste stacks fractured and leaked, and the hoppers under the sink were smelly and difficult to clean.
Many of the projects in the original scheme were never carried out; the community hall was never built, and only a few shops opened on the estate. Many of the people who had been temporarily re-housed when their homes were demolished preferred to stay where they were rather than move into the new flats. It was intended that the flats would be a model community, but social problems, and vandalism meant that the estate became increasingly run down. In 1973 the decision was made to re-house the tenants and demolish the flats, only forty years after they were built. The West Yorkshire Playhouse and Quarry House now occupy the Quarry Hill site.
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Quarry Hill Flats, site plan
Quarry Hill Flats, construction
Making concrete slabs
Construction, placing slabs
Plan of flats
Plan of Garchey system
Family at dinner, 1939