How Big Society-style caring was alive and kicking . . . in Essex in 1965

Big Society? Old hat. People have been quietly working hard for ages to help the needy. STEVEN RUSSELL discovers how some folk spent 40 years giving hope to the homeless – overcoming challenges such as transatlantic phone cables in inconvenient places and uppity neighbours

HOMELESSNESS was crowbarred into the public consciousness in 1966 when the BBC showed the emotional drama Cathy Come Home – a tearjerker about how misfortune, eviction and poverty prompted the break-up of a young family. The TV play led to changes to the laws about housing.

The Wednesday-night TV play might have proved an eye-opener for many of the 12 million viewers, but it was a familiar story for three Quakers who quite some time before had been relaxing on a beach at Holland on Sea in Essex, one day, mulling the state of the world.

They were already more than aware of the problems. Ella Vinall, personnel manager at the Betts factory in Colchester, had trouble keeping young female staff because it was difficult for any single person, let alone a single woman, to find local accommodation.

Ted Dunn, meanwhile, was keen to find homes for ex-offenders who encountered discrimination when trying to rent a room. Denise O’Brien, who had a social work background, knew about the stigma borne by young and pregnant unmarried women.

In 1965 there had been several discussions at Colchester Quaker Meeting House about such issues. The answer seemed to lie in doing something practical if they wanted to make reality the dream of giving everyone a roof over their heads, especially families with children.

The 1960s had brought affluence for many people. But not everyone. If you were not well off, and hadn’t managed to secure private rented accommodation or a council house, life was tough. Like “Cathy”, families could fall on hard times because of bad luck or illness, and then be confronted by homelessness.

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Christian Action (Colchester Quaker) Housing Association Ltd was officially born late in 1965. (It became the easier-on-the-tongue Colchester Quaker Housing Association in 1992. By the way, its management committee was never exclusively Quaker. It drew on the support of members of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, the Jewish community and many other interested people who wanted to make a difference.

For more than 40 years it was there for those who needed a hand, growing from small beginnings into an organisation that at one stage was housing 270 families and individuals, employing 88 staff and relying on an army of volunteers.

It all came to a halt when the world in which it operated changed too much and heralded the end of many small housing associations. For CQHA the stark choice was: merger or insolvency.

The story of the organisation’s triumphs and tribulations is told in a book called Housing & Hope. It’s a heart-warming chronicle of how caring people – most of them volunteers powered by their wits, humour and drive, and happy to make do with secondhand office furniture and the like – made lives better simply because it was the right and humane thing to do.

CQHA wasn’t a corporate beast. For many years it was run from the bedroom/sitting-room of founding secretary Bernard Brett, a man with cerebral palsy who was well known in Colchester and a devoted campaigner for social justice. It didn’t take on its first paid staff until 1979, and even after that a huge amount of work was still done by volunteers.

Throughout its history, it succeeded because of the ingenuity, drive and philanthropy of its members. Folk such as first chairman Derek Crosfield, a farmer and magistrate. He had been a social worker in the valleys of South Wales. A conscientious objector, he’d spent the war in the East End of London, running a hostel for families bombed out of their homes.

Another founder member, Denys Rendell, was an engineer with local firm Paxmans. In his spare time, he put his skills to good use as the association’s maintenance worker.

Many of his repairs were ingenious and economical – perfect for some of the temporary housing stock used until it was demolished to make way for new development. Holes in floorboards might be covered with flattened baked bean tins, for example. When one family used the banister rails as fuel, he replaced them with chicken wire!

John Cole, a lawyer and early committee member, worked with Denys to come up with the novel “self-repair” scheme. This let squatters in some of those semi-derelict houses owned by Colchester council – the buildings waiting for redevelopment schemes to start – to live there legally. They paid half the rent in return for helping to maintain the property.

Kathleen Tufnell was appointed treasurer at the founding meeting in 1965. She lived in what had been a thatched cottage in Bulmer, only the thatch had deteriorated so badly that it had to be taken off. The roof was covered instead with red corrugated iron sheeting. The house became known as “Tin Tops”.

Before the association was created, Kathleen had taken in and befriended young unmarried mothers and their babies, who would otherwise have been cast adrift.

And then, of course, there was Bernard Brett: confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, yet a worker for the needs and rights of disabled people. Sometimes he went to meetings by train, travelling in the guard’s van. His work brought him the MBE in 1973.

Bernard would communicate by using his finger to spell out words on a letter-board.

The first milestone for CQHA came in the spring of 1966, when Hythe House – a dilapidated Georgian property on Hythe Hill – came onto the market. There was another potential buyer, so vice-chairman Ted Dunn scurried about to raise the money needed.

He put together a bridging loan from Barclays Bank, a short-term loan from chairman Derek Crosfield and the possibility of a mortgage from Colchester Borough Council. Hythe House was bought for �5,500 – funds raised largely from local Quakers. An architect drew up plans to turn it into seven bed-sits, something that would cost another �5,000-plus. The appeal for money stepped up a gear, with begging letters dispatched. “The Buttle Trust declined to help unless it was to assist the illegitimate children of women from the professional classes. After more correspondence they gave �500!” the book tells us.

Later, CQHA worked with another body to buy a house in Artillery Street for an ex-prisoner and his family to live in. In 1967, Colchester council offered a short lease of a house in Abbeygate Street. It was used as three flats for families. Soon, three more family houses were leased from the borough.

The book points out that in those days “some families had six or more children and they could be split up and taken into care just because the parents were unable to find housing. Occasionally the sub-committee were able to act very quickly to offer a house to a family threatened with eviction, thus saving the children from being put with foster parents.”

By 1971, CQHA was looking after seven families: 13 adults and 37 children – “befriending” tenants, helping them find furniture and settle in, and visiting regularly.

Repairs were usually done by volunteers, with builders employed only for major jobs. Many people also needed advice about housing. During 1971, Bernard Brett saw about 270 families and individuals with housing difficulties.

In 1972 house prices started to rise: a two-up, two-down terraced home in Colchester leaping from about �1,500 to �6,000. This made it impossible for the association to buy houses for a while.

Not that life was quiet. Plans to build a new police station and court in Colchester saw houses in roads such as Denmark Street and Stanwell Street standing empty, waiting for demolition. The association was offered the chance to lease 15 from Colchester borough and Essex county councils. Most needed quite a lot of work to make them habitable; and bathrooms and inside loos were rare or non-existent, but they were put to use.

And so the years rolled by, with the association identifying needs and doing its best to meet them – groups such as disadvantaged young people struggling to establish themselves as independent adults.

Houses were bought in Clacton, though there was at one point a bit of tension with some district councillors, where CQHA “was accused of increasing the problems of homelessness in Clacton. Offering housing to battered wives encouraged them to leave their husbands, and flats for unmarried mothers encouraged teenage pregnancies!

“They [the councillors] did not want to provide move-on accommodation, and house the sort of people the association housed in their respectable council houses. It is hard to imagine now, but political correctness had not been invented, and councillors would make derogatory remarks in public about the homeless, unemployed or victims of domestic violence.”

By the late 1970s there were eight family houses and between 10 and 20 short-term leased properties at any one time in Colchester. Hythe House had 13 bed-sits for mothers and babies; and the Tendring arm managed seven homes.

Ann Rouse writes: “Looking back I see that a lot of what was achieved was really done on a wing and a prayer – we had none of the organization and little of the expertise that the Association had in later years, but we ploughed on and tried to help people; always, it seemed, with difficulties in the way. But one of the benefits of this was that we weren’t engulfed in the bureaucracy and regulations that housing associations are nowadays.”

After Bernard Brett died in 1982, Ann Rouse and Liz Taylor-Jones continued to work in his room, keeping it manned five mornings a week to dispense housing advice.

In the early 1980s, thanks to “a unique alliance between two unusual and determined men” – Alan Twyford, the senior probation officer in Braintree, and Derek Campbell, the district council’s chief housing officer – a hostel for young, single, homeless people was opened in Braintree.

In 1986, CQHA bid successfully for funding for a Colchester hostel and the council identified a site on the busy Southway. Bernard Brett House, 19 bedsits, began to rise from the ground.

“The development was not without its problems,” the book recalls. “The soil was sandy and unstable, and the foundations of a wiggly Georgian wall and a Victorian ice factory had failed to be picked up by the soil survey.

“Another crisis was the international telephone cable, shown in the survey as running under the pavement fronting the site, but in fact running at least a metre inside the boundary. The expensive solution, rather than lose living space in an already narrow building, was cantilevered foundations along the frontage, over the cable.”

By the end of the 1980s the association was managing 51 homes. There were three full-time and five part-time staff:

Over the following decade a new project opened almost every year, including a new hostel in Witham that had to overcome considerable local opposition. At Braintree, 25 new flats were opened by TV presenter Paul Heiney. They provided a degree of independence for tenants who had moved on from hostel accommodation. By the early 1990s, Hythe House had been running for more than 25 years and the Georgian building was dilapidated and damp. Happily, a partially-built sheltered complex in Colchester, whose builders had gone bankrupt, was converted . . . and called Newhythe.

The 1990s brought changes in housing legislation. It also became harder to find enough committee members with the time to support tenants. The association gradually employed more housing workers to provide this important backing.

Work carried on. There were projects such as converting a house in Drury Road, Colchester, into nine flats for vulnerable young people; the buying of six flats in Chelmsford for young, homeless people nominated by the council; and flats in Clacton and Witham for the needy.

CQHA grew from 51 homes at the start of the 1990s to well over 200 by 2000, despite a decade of increasing competition between housing associations for limited public money. But there was turbulence ahead.

The book explains how small operations had become vulnerable. “The Housing Corporation [which dished out funds] began to favour larger housing associations as they provided economies of scale and gave them fewer organisations to supervise.” During the early 2000s central costs grew ever higher for the number of folk being housed. “This was partly because most tenants had special needs of some sort and, unlike large associations, CQHA did not have a large general housing stock, requiring less intensive management, to offset the costs.”

Then there were changes in the funding regime for looking after vulnerable people. These didn’t help. The thrust of central government “seemed increasingly to be a concern for efficiency and cost effectiveness at the expense of the quality of service provision”.

CQHA once had money in hand; now it was barely breaking even. Some redundancies had to be made and two of the oldest houses –uneconomic to maintain – were sold to plug the gap.

It was hoped this would be enough. It wasn’t. When CQHA was re-tendering for what was called “floating support” services – helping the needy, basically – larger associations had begun to dominate. “The world of housing associations was moving into a harder-nosed business world of efficiency and cost effectiveness and the days of the Association as it had been were numbered.”

Trying to forge a consortium with other small bodies failed to do the trick and CQHA lost 25% of its income at a stroke when it was undercut. It proved the final straw. A merger was sought and Family Mosaic, seen as sharing the same values, was chosen. On March 31, 2007, CQHA ceased to exist. Property and tenants transferred across.

In many ways, points out the book, Colchester Quaker Housing Association’s work continues under a different name.

Bernard Brett House still welcomes men and women, and helps them move on in their lives. “Newhythe still gives a home to young parents and supports them in the crucial early stages of bringing up children. Hundreds of others live in flats and houses in the Colchester area and beyond, which were originally acquired and established by CQHA. And – just as important – there are thousands of people who can look back on a difficult stage in their lives and know how much they were encouraged by the skills of the staff and the practical help they received.

“It is too soon to know how these values will be maintained in the uncertain days of recession, rising unemployment and hardening of public attitudes to those living in poverty. Across the country, the temptation will be to pare support down to the minimum, expecting people to stand on their own two feet, come what may.

“The challenge will be to resist the ruthlessness that that implies. For what is certain is that many people young and old will continue to struggle as they make their way in the world, set up home or care for their families. They will need the kind of practical help and imaginative support that CQHA offered. They will need housing and hope.”

Housing & Hope is published by Wivenhoe Bookshop’s Wivenbooks imprint at �7.99. ( and 01206 824050.) Any proceeds will go to the charities Quaker Social Action and Shelter.