News from the Archives: The Political Life of John Nettlefold, 1901-6

Winterbourne was built in 1904 for John and Margaret Nettlefold and bequeathed to the University of Birmingham 40 years later by John Macdonald Nicolson. Follow our dedicated team of archivists as they explore Winterbourne’s past and share with you the special objects, photographs and documents contained within the Winterbourne Archives.

John Sutton Nettlefold’s work as a pioneer in town planning for the Birmingham City Council is featured in ‘They Called it Winterbourne’, our exciting collection of linocuts by Sarah Moss.  Sarah’s linocuts focus upon eight key moments in the lives of John and Margaret Nettlefold. This blog post is the second in a series which expands on some of those themes.

The Nettlefold Courts, linocut by Sarah Moss, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

The Nettlefold Courts, linocut by Sarah Moss

“A pioneer of housing reform, having at heart the desire that all classes should live in decent dwellings.” This description of John, taken from his obituary in the Birmingham Daily Gazette on  6th  November 1930, sums up his commitment to the provision of good quality housing for working people.  Housing reform was John’s passion, but his achievements came at personal cost. His eldest daughter Evie was interviewed by the Birmingham Daily Post in 1973, at the age of 80.  She offered a poignant insight into John’s political struggles: “[It’s] a great mistake to be a pioneer.  It’s a killing job. They all argue with you and they don’t believe you.”

John Sutton Nettlefold, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

John Sutton Nettlefold

In 1898 John was elected as member for the Edgbaston and Harborne ward of Birmingham City Council, and he served on several committees. In 1901, the Birmingham Daily Gazette conducted an investigation into the condition of Birmingham’s slums. The Gazette’s articles, entitled “Scenes in Slum-land”, highlighted the cramped and  insanitary conditions in which the poor were living, leading to dramatically high death rates.

 “f the whole of the slums are taken into a calculation then we shall find that three thousand lives are lost in Birmingham every year because of the foul and abominable conditions under which thousands of the poorest and most neglected citizens are living.” Birmingham Daily Gazette, 6th February 1901, quoting the Medical Officer’s report of 1899

In the same article, the newspaper highlighted the issue of overcrowding:

“In these houses it is possible to find families of four or five, of all ages and both sexes, herding like swine in a single room. In such “homes” decency is a thing unknown, the preservation of morals and the protection of mere physical health are alike impossible.”

Sanitation was a particular problem:

“…any of the privies are in close proximity, within a few feet, of the nearest dwelling-house. Some of the courts on the area are partly unpaved, leading to an accumulation of solid and liquid filth and saturation of the soil with the most dangerous impurities.” Report by Dr. Alfred Hill, 1901

Conditions in Birmingham, from  “Housing Reform”, a lecture by John Sutton Nettlefold, March 1906, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

Conditions in Birmingham, from “Housing Reform”, a lecture by John Sutton Nettlefold, March 1906

Scenes in Slum-Land” led to a sustained demand for reform, culminating in a debate in the council on 19th June 1901, at which John Nettlefold passionately advocated the creation of a Housing Committee. John’s campaign succeeded by the narrow margin of 32 votes to 30.

The formation of the Housing Committee provoked political turmoil. The Health Committee, from which the new Committee took over, had been discredited by the Gazette’s exposé. The newspaper accused the Health Committee’s Chairman, Alderman Cook, of being a slum landlord, and blamed the Health Committee for the continuation of atrocious living conditions. It compared Birmingham unfavourably with Liverpool, where great strides had been made in resolving similar issues.

Alderman Cook brought a libel action against the newspaper for attacking his integrity. Although the court agreed that the Gazette’s reports on the state of housing were factually correct, it was guilty of libel on a point of law. Damages of £250 were awarded – a paltry sum compared to the £5,000 which Cook had demanded. The Health Committee then contested the new Committee’s terms of reference, asserting that it should only be responsible for new housing and the slums were still their responsibility. Clearly, they wanted to continue generating profits from the suffering of the poor. However, this challenge was unsuccessful, and John and the Housing Committee began work to improve people’s lives.

The Housing Committee demolished obstructive buildings in courts and alleys to let in light allow air to circulate, and they served notices upon landlords to improve properties not fit for human habitation. However, the Gazette reported that “Thieves, loungers, peaky blinders, roughs, and vagabonds in general, most of them associating with prostitutes of the lowest type…” preferred things as they used to be.

“[For these people] the slums are a happy hunting-ground. They do not want cleanliness, fresh air or anything else that makes life healthy, decent, and orderly. They would make the Council House a slum if it were surrendered to them. The very best landlord is wasted upon them. It would be easier to keep tidy dwellings for pigs than to make them appreciate improvements and respect owner’s rights in the property they inhabit.” Birmingham Daily Gazette, 8th November 1901

The Committee pressed on with improvements, despite some internal disagreements about the nature and extent of reform required. Some of John’s colleagues distrusted him, and it is clear from his daughter Evie’s comment (above) that she still remembered these days as a 7-year-old when her father had opposition from within the Birmingham Council to contend with.  However, there was considerable support from the wider public for him to be appointed as Chairman.

It is due in great measure to Councillor Nettlefold and the ‘forward party’ that such a committee has come into existence, and all who care or know of the history of this aid to health and sanitation ask for and demand that Councillor Nettlefold should be the chairman. In his hands, as a sound commercial man, and one who has culture and intelligence, the affairs will have careful study combined with prudent action.” Letter to Birmingham Daily Gazette, 9th November 1901

John’s name was permanently linked with the renovated courts and alleys: they became known as “Nettlefold Courts”.

Interior before and after repair, from “Housing Reform”, a lecture by John Sutton Nettlefold, March 1906, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

Interior before and after repair, from “Housing Reform”, a lecture by John Sutton Nettlefold, March 1906

Whilst his town planning work continued in earnest and John developed his reputation as the expert in town planning, there was another political issue on the horizon. In 1904, tariff reform became a major bone of contention between John and his uncle by marriage, Joseph Chamberlain (formerly Secretary of the State for the Colonies). Both men were members of the Liberal Unionist Party.  Chamberlain wanted to protect the home industries from foreign competition, by transforming the British Empire into a single trading organisation that imposed duties on imports.

John Nettlefold disagreed with this “protectionist” approach. Along with other prominent members of the party such as Winston Churchill and the Duke of Devonshire, he favoured free trade and was involved in the creation of the Free Trade Committee.

John was treasurer of the Midlands Liberal Unionist Association. When he refused to sign cheques for salaries and expenses in connection with protectionist activities, Joseph Chamberlain demanded his resignation.  John clung on, arguing that the issue was above party. Throughout 1904 John continued to promote his free trade views, and it was reported in The Sheffield Independent on 6th May 1904 that at the annual meeting of the Edgbaston Ward Liberal Unionists Association, John raised a discussion on fiscal policy. As John failed to gain support for his views he resigned from the party as they were clearly following a protectionist agenda.

The free trade and protectionist arguments continued unabated throughout 1904-6 with both groups endeavouring to influence public opinion in their favour. Against this backdrop the municipal elections were held in November 1906 and John stood as an independent candidate against the Liberal Unionist candidate, Mr. Turnbull. Joseph Chamberlain was MP for Birmingham, and the Liberal Unionist candidate claimed that Joseph Chamberlain had endorsed him, although this was disputed. He also alleged that Chamberlain wanted John removed from office, presumably due to his free trade stance.

The entire Unionist organisation weighed in against John Nettlefold. Even Edward Nettlefold, John’s own brother, issued an appeal against him.

Edward Nettlefold, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

Edward Nettlefold

The Birmingham Daily Gazette took the Unionist side, challenging John’s housing record:

Those who know how ludicrously molehills have been magnified into mountains of achievement in regard to progress with housing reform in Birmingham, of course do not regard Mr. Nettlefold in quite the same light as he is regarded by people who are too well off, or too indolent to seek out the real state of things in darkest Birmingham for themselves.”

Cartoon of John Nettlefold, Birmingham Mail, 1906, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

Cartoon of John Nettlefold, Birmingham Mail, 1906

However, the Birmingham Mail supported John, in view of his achievements with the Housing Committee. This cartoon portrays John as St. George, slaying the “dragon” of poverty through housing reform.

It is clear that the electorate believed the Birmingham Mail version of events, as John won the election by an amazing 403 majority. This victory was a glowing endorsement of John’s achievements and gave him a springboard from which to turn more of his ideas for housing reform into reality.

“Housing reform had been attacked by two powerful political organisations… In spite of all they had done, however, housing reform had triumphed. The cause of the people had beaten the moneybags of the slum owner and the jerry builder.” Report of John’s acceptance speech, Birmingham Mail, 2nd November 1906

The next blog will focus on John’s subsequent achievements.

This article was written by Archive Volunteer Tony Bucknall. The Archive Team lead free tours of the house at 2pm most Tuesdays where you can learn more about the history of Winterbourne. Please ask at reception for details.

One comment on “News from the Archives: The Political Life of John Nettlefold, 1901-6

  1. Keith Bracey


    Me Grandad Arthur Lewis Joseph Augustus Merriman worked for HIM or Nettlefold as he called it for over 30 years as a Metallurgist at their Heath Street Smethwick HQ. Arch as he was known to his Merriman family died in 1971 of heart failure after valiant service for two regiments in The Great War the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the Roman Catholic Regiment The Royal Scots when Arthur was sent to Ireland with the Royal Scots to put down the Irish Rebellion in 1916…..When Arthur worked at Nettlefold where the “Father of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain of the famous Birmingham political dynasty made up of the founder of Birmingham University Joseph and his son’s Nobel peace prize winner for his work on the Locarno Pact in the mid 1920’s and possibly the most famous or infamous for his appeasement of Here Hitler in 1938 at Munich Neville Chamberlain who was Prime minister after Bradley’s Stanley Baldwin in the late 1930’s and the revisionist view of history leading up to the WW2 is that Neville Chamberlain ‘s appeasement of Hitler have Britain time to learn ready to fight Adolf Hitler and Nazism in the second world war

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *