Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage is a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.

The Rev DH Hall – The Building Parson

In 1918, an energetic young Protestant clergyman called David Henry Hall arrived at St Barnabas Church [on Sheriff Street?] to commence what would be an eleven-year stint in the community. Upon his arrival, Hall walked the length and breadth of his parish. It was a heavily industrialized landscape, bounded by railways, canals and the docks. The River Tolka ran to the north, the Liffey to the south, Dublin Bay to the east and the Great Northern Railway line to the west. It was amongst the poorest areas not just in Dublin, but in all of Europe. The death rate in the Parish was 46 per 1000, nearly triple the City’s average of 18 per 1000. Housing conditions were particularly wretched. An extreme instance was 10 Commons Street where Canon Hall found 84 children living under one roof. Ironically these houses were frequently surrounded by large wastelands and derelict warehouses. Canon Hall’s solution was practical and obvious. To reduce overcrowding, they needed to build more houses.

When Canon Hall took this notion, it ran in the face of all advice from contemporaries. Much of Europe still lay in ruins after five years of warfare. Ireland was about to enter another period of internal war that would destroy large chunks of the city. The political climate was considered far too precarious to risk investing in housing. The whole building trade was greatly unsettled and there were chronic shortages of both labour and materials. But Canon Hall was clearly a persuasive soul. He understood the situation and believed that urgency was required. There was no option but to build if he was to sustain life in his parish. As he sermonized one Sunday, new houses would not only ‘render happy the lives of many existing under conditions too awful to be described” but they would also create local employment.

In the autumn of 1919, Canon Hall acquired a site of about 3 ½ acres (c. 1.4 ha) in his parish at a cost of £700 freehold. In January 1920, he established the St Barnabas Public Utility Society, the first operative public utility society in Ireland. This voluntary organization was formed in response to the Housing (Ireland) Act of 1919 by which local authorities and voluntary associations were offered substantial grants to build houses, particularly where those houses were for the working class. Under the terms of the Housing Act, the British Government was prepared to lend 75 % of the capital if the builder raised 25 % first. This was to be done by raising loan stock and issuing shares. Canon Hall took his quest to the pulpit and raised the first £1000 from his parishioners, giving a particular nod to ‘sixty-seven gallant ladies [who] invested in the scheme’.

On June 24th 1921, Lord Mayor Laurence O’Neill laid the namestone of the society at St Barnabas Gardens, a short cul-de-sac of ten semi-detached houses built on a one acre site. With the Anglo-Irish War in full swing, those gathered for the occasion must have anticipated a nerve-wracking future; only two days earlier, 15,000 additional British troops had poured into Ireland.

St Barnabas Gardens was built by a local firm, Messrs J. & R. Thompson of Fairview using the expeditious new Colway method of walling that required very little skilled labour. These three bedroom houses were designed and ‘economically planned’ by Messrs. Batchelor and Hicks in consultation was a number of women who were able to pitch their ideas as to how each house could work most smoothly. The inclusion of women in the planning process was particularly unique and radical. Each house included a bath and “other necessary conveniences” with a small garden.

Work soon commenced on building a further 26 houses on the neighbouring 2 ½ acres. In time Lady Ardilaun was to present three tennis courts, a ‘pavilion’ and a piano for the enjoyment of the tenants while other ladies donated plants from their gardens, thorn hedging and fruit trees which added to the character of the area.

The houses were owned by the society but there was a form of tenant purchase which ensured that these artisans could become full owners in due course. One of the remarkable aspects of the St Barnabas scheme, particularly given the troubled political situation, was the ecumenical ambience. Hall may have been a Protestant but all denominations were present among the shareholders and tenants. Of the first 36 families who occupied the houses, fifteen were Protestant and 21 Roman Catholic.

In terms of resolving the overcrowding, the new builds did not have all that much impact. In order to pay back monies owed, the Society was obliged to charge relatively high rents, meaning that the first wave of tenants tended to be from the “most useful and intelligent section of the working classes”. Indeed, five of the houses went to former RIC men.

By 1925, Hall’s Society had completed a further 62 five-roomed houses at Seaview Avenue and Crescent Gardens, designed by architect, Frederick George Hicks who later converted ‘Hick’s Tower’ in Malahide. In 1926, 73 four-room houses were built by Messrs. J. & R. Thompson on Leinster Avenue, Faith Road, Hope Road, Stoney Road and East Wall Road. These smaller houses extended the reach of the Society to those with lower incomes.

Between 1920 and 1926, Canon Hall oversaw the construction of 176 houses in his parish. Bankrupt and rather directionless, Dublin Corporation had only managed to build 162 dwellings between 1918 and 1925. In 1929, Hall was moved from St Barnabas to Glenageary, where he remained until his sudden death on 27th February 1940. In paying tributes to Hall, the 1924 Church of Ireland Synod described how he ‘contended alone with disappointments and seemingly insuperable difficulties that would have cast down a man of inferior mettle’. In a special issue in 1934, the Irish Builder and Engineer referred to Hall as ‘the pioneer of public utility societies in Ireland, who, not content with extending sympathy and writing on the subject of the sad housing conditions of Dublin, translated his sympathy into deeds [setting] a headline that many others have followed to the public weal’. Ruth McManus declared him one of Ireland’s genuine unsung heroes; ‘his contribution to the field of housing in Dublin, and indeed in Ireland as a whole, is huge’.

Canon Hall was subsequently considered one of the key figures in Irish housing reform, assisting Dublin Corporation with their plans, and establishing the idea of public utility societies as agents in housing provision. The final houses of the St Barnabas Scheme were bought out in the 1960s and Hall’s Society was formally wound up.


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