Monday, October 26, 2009

Robert William Gunton - Hayes Housing Pioneer

Councillor Robert William Gunton
Hayes Housing Pioneer

Robert William Gunton was one of the most prominent and influential members of Hayes Labour Party leader and pioneer of Council housing in Hayes.

R. W. Gunton was a Civil Servant and came to Hayes in 1913, living at 1 Westgate Villas, Park Road.

(Picture R.W Gunton and J.C. Drenon - Friday March 26th 1915 Advertiser)

His tenacity in pushing through the first large council housing scheme in 1920 was vital to the well being of many future Hayes residents.

Gunton was clear about the important task of securing decent Housing for Hayes in February 1915, just before his election as a Labour Councillor he boldly stated:-

"It was their desire to build up a clean and health town.....

Where its citizens might under ideal conditions and wish that their children might look back with pleasure to the early work of the Hayes Labour Party and be able to say with truth that the Foundation stone was well and truly laid"

Gunton was fully committed to turning the Hayes Labour Parties commitment to affordable council housing in Hayes into a reality and to build on the work of the first Labour Chairman of Hayes Council Councillor Juan Drenon 1914-1915.

"They were determined that these houses at Botwell should not be built as barracks but on town planning, each laid out in a decent healthy way"
R.W. Gunton March 1915

Councillor Gunton stated that one of the first things the first Labour Council had done when elected in 1914 was to appoint a sanitary inspector to "compel landlords to put their houses in a proper state of repairs".

Labour had secured a majority on Hayes Council from 1914 onwards, with only the occasional interruption, Hayes being one of the First labour Councils in Britain.

In 1916 Robert Gunton was elected Vice Chairman of Hayes Urban District Council
and Hayes Urban District Council Chairman for the period 1917-1918 and accordingly became one of the very first Labour leaders of an English Council.

(Juan Drenon had been elected the first Labour Chairman in 1914)

The Advertiser referring to Councillor Gunton election as Chairman in 1917 " that he was a zealous and level headed leader and on whose abilities have been well proved during his service as a member (of the Council)".

In April 1919 Gunton was involved in ensuring "May Day" became an official Council holiday, seconding the resolution he referred to Oliver Cromwell having done away with it because of heavy drinking. "They had reached a stage he thought when working class did behave themselves better". Hayes became one of the first councils in Britain to allow their employees to enjoy International Workers Day, May 1st as a public holiday.

It was Councillor Gunton who moved the resolution at the Special Hayes Urban District Council held on 12th July 1919 not to participate in the national "Peace Celebrations" on July 1919, on the grounds of cost and glorification of war, an all most unprecedented move. Those voting in favour of not participating Gunton, Mason, Fowler, Manley and Davies.

Councillor R.W. Gunton along with early Hayes Labour Councillors Juan Drenon, Henry Palmer and Percy Langton had pioneered the building of council housing in Hayes and it was Gunton as Chairman of Housing who was present when Dr Addison, Minister for Health laid the first brick
of the planned 2,000 council house estate on the Glebe Field and Townfield Estate, Hayes (around what would become Central Avenue).

On the cold but bright morning of Friday 20th February 1920 Dr Addison, laid the first brick stating
"I think that is well and truly laid", an act the local Advertiser & Gazette referred to as a "birth of a new city".

Such was the speed of the final agreement to build the Council houses in Hayes, that a building contractor had to be found within fourteen days and the contractor that came forward was Robert McAlpine.

The building site was feed by a siding from the Great Western Railway, a network of light railway lines criss crossed the site. Each
Council house was estimated to cost £675 and it was expected that two houses a day would be built, however due to the shortage of bricklayers they initially completed just three quarters of a house.

The situation with the bricklayers took a disastrous turn in April 1920 when the bricklayers went on strike. Councillor Gunton once again came to the rescue and secured agreement from both sides to end the dispute winning the praise of Sir Robert McAlpine.

Councillor Gunton was keen that the new Council estate would enjoy facilities such as shops as well as a Council run Cinema and a Public House (Pub) run on the Carlisle lines (Carlisle had successfully and profitably put its pubs under state control during the war to regulate alcohol (especially spirits) consumption as a safety measure as
Carlisle was a Munitions town).

But not everyone supported the Council Housing scheme the local Conservatives argued that the workers houses should be but by factory owners and not paid for by the ratepayers.

The Council had previously built a few Council houses at Rosedale Avenue (Wood End) 51 houses in 1913 and in 1919 some 20 houses at Yeading (Melior Cottages).

Such was the support for the Council housing scheme locally that by April 1920 the local newspaper could announce that every member of Hayes Council was now a Labour Party member - 100% Labour.

In January 1921 Councillor Gunton could claim with some justification that

"Hayes was one of the few and probably only councils in the country that could say there were no slums existing in their district"

The Council house scheme was so popular, that delegations flooded in to see the developments, delegations from councils across the United Kingdom and as far away as America Austria and Japan.

Despite the cost, Councillor Gunton could boast in 1924 "The Labour Party was generally associated by the reactionary press with high rates, well the rates in Hayes did not happen to be high rates".

Robert William Gunton states in 1925

"convinced that every branch of the Council's work it was necessary to illuminate private contractors as far as possible.......Working people ought to be proud of the work of the Council in cleaning away slums, demolishing them, so that no reactionary Council could open them again.....The decline of the death rate (in Hayes) since the Council houses had been errected"

R.W. Gunton was Hon Secretary of Southall-Norwood "Old
Contemptibles" of ex servicemen founded in 1925.

1924 Gunton states "The Labour Party was generally associated by the reactionary press with high rates, well the rates in Hayes did not happen to have high rates".

In 1924 It was reported that Councillor Robert William Gunton was not standing for Hayes Urban District Council as he was soon to move to Watford, but this does not seem to have materialised and he remained heavily involved in Hayes affairs being elected up until 1936 (?). In 1935 Councillor Gunton had been once gain elected Vice Chairman of the Hayes Urban District Council (a position he had previously held in 1916-1917, and 1919-1920).

Finally R.W. Gunton was elected as a Labour Middlesex County Councillor Alderman
during the first Labour controlled Middlesex County Council in 1946.

Given Councillor Gunton's role in pioneering and securing large scale affordable and good quality housing for many generations of Hayes residents, it is a shame his work and deeds are not better known.

Michael Walker


The 1901 census
Possible match - Robert W Gunton aged 18 in 1901 born at Penge, South East London and a Teller at Somerset House.