Idealism, secrets and paranoia in Burnage Garden Village

The community was built on utopian principles and has a long waiting list. But it doesn't welcome prying eyes.

Good morning - today’s story is about Burnage Garden Village, an interesting neighbourhood in South Manchester that operates like a co-operative.

It’s by Sophie Atkinson, who grew up in Manchester and has spent the last seven years living and working as a journalist in Berlin and Leipzig. She writes about culture for publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times, and this is her first story for The Mill.

It started out in September as a piece about the interesting history of a radical experiment in urban housing but ended up morphing into something more complex, and more strange. You’ll see what I mean.

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By Sophie Atkinson

It’s difficult now, after so many twists and turns, to remember why I wanted to write about Burnage Garden Village in the first place, but I think I wanted to write about utopias.

“Utopian” was the word often used to describe “garden cities” — the concept that spawned Burnage Garden Village. Ebenezer Howard, the man behind the idea, wasn’t an urban planner, but a shorthand reporter in the London law courts with a passion for social issues. In 1898, he published To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform in which he proposed that “Town and Country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization.” 

Instead of having to choose between life working on a farm or living in squalor in a slum, Howard wanted workers to enjoy a blend of countryside and city in his garden cities, where they would benefit from healthier surroundings (public parks, spacious boulevards) and live close to their place of work. More radically, he wanted each garden city to have its own industry so it would be entirely self-sufficient. Howard’s ideas were translated from the page to reality in the Edwardian period when Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were built.

Following Howard coming to Manchester to address a group of clerks on the topic, a committee was formed “to investigate the possibility of building a garden suburb in Manchester.” Construction work on Burnage Garden Village began in 1907 and 136 houses were built, with enough space for around 500 people, as well as a bowling green and tennis courts. An early prospectus described the project aiming “to do something to meet the housing problem by placing within the reach of working people, clerks, etc. the opportunity of taking a house or cottage with a garden at a moderate rate.”

A street in Burnage Garden Village today. Present-day photographs by Dani Cole/The Mill.

Housing for many Mancunians was so poor that when 11,000 volunteers from the city put themselves forward to fight in the Boer War, 8,000 were turned away on account of their poor physical condition. The academic Michael Harrison quotes a housing reformer writing at the time: “Although coal smoke, drinking and licentiousness are among the factors which produce this physical deterioration, bad housing is the chief factor.”

Strictly speaking, Burnage Garden Village isn’t a garden city because it doesn’t have any industry. John Boughton, author of Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, explains that it was actually set up along the lines of a co-partnership society — where members buy shares in the society and pay rent for their home. That’s still the case. If you want to live in the village you have to buy two shares and then join the waiting list. As Boughton stresses, it’s a model that demands a certain engagement from its residents, both financially and in terms of effort, which might explain why it didn’t win out in the subsequent decades of council house building.

I was initially drawn to writing about Burnage Garden Village because of its past as a hotbed of left-wing activism, a topic which feminist historian Ali Ronan has researched extensively. Ronan notes that amongst “the great and the good” who contributed to the initial capital raised to start building work was one Margaret Ashton, the first female city councillor for Manchester.  

Photograph courtesy of Toni Hunter.

This would be par for the course for Burnage Garden Village, which went on to house multiple suffragists, like May Dent, Clara Doughty and Maud Dean, who were members of the Women’s Freedom League, an offshoot of the suffragettes. Ronan also observed that the village was a magnet for conscientious objectors. In his study on the Labour party in Manchester, Declan McHugh notes that the village had an “unusual concentration” of Labour activists in the 1930s — six of these activists became Labour councillors and one became a Labour MP while living there.

Ronan quotes a resident in the 1960s, Mrs Luby, who when asked about living there, responded: “It really was a socialist ideal. It was to be a community of everyone loving you and being kind.” Former resident Toni Hunter tells me what a privilege it was to grow up there and sends me photos of the same events that keep cropping up in stories when I interview residents: how the roads were closed off for the sports days that used to take place for the children, the fancy dress competition at Christmas, the plays. A current resident mentions a senior citizen party each year. PC Sampson, who grew up in the village, wrote that these communal events were “conducive to more than a warm and friendly neighbourliness,” — they created “a true spirit of being one family.”

According to a current tenant who wishes to remain anonymous, the same community spirit is flourishing under Covid-19. They describe a red card being delivered with a note inside, allowing residents to notify the community if they are struggling. If the recipient has any issues, they are to place the red card on their windowsill so people can see it and check in. The same person describes the support from their neighbours during the pandemic as “absolutely wonderful” and says that residents have been phoning up the most vulnerable members of the community, asking them what food they require then dropping it off at their doorsteps.

Photograph courtesy of Antonette Hunter.

It all seems impossibly idyllic. I’m almost ready to sign up for a place on the waiting list. Almost.

I speak to local architecture critic, Phil Griffin, who moved to Burnage — round the corner from the garden village — when he was nine years old. He waxes lyrical about the architecture of the village but seems less taken with the model it runs under. “Socially, it’s a very interesting experiment! But the thing that’s always got me,” he says carefully, “with all utopias as far as I can tell, you pay quite a high price for it. Utopias don’t always feel like places of great individual freedoms.”

I took a walk through the village last month. The houses are designed according to Arts and Crafts principles, arranged much like a residential London square, around a central focal point (in this case, a bowling green and tennis courts). I’m a sucker for old houses and tree-lined avenues but on climbing out of the car, there is a sort of airlessness. I wonder if it’s the signs — PLEASE DRIVE SLOW! a sign screams at you as you drive into the village — and from this point onwards, practically every sign seems to scold you as you pass.

Or perhaps it’s simply the absence of people? For most of the time, I don’t come across another soul, which gives the village a curiously static quality, like the set of a play. There’s nothing to suggest anyone lives there — no bikes chained up or washing on lines or children playing on the green. The hedges don’t have a leaf out of place. On making my way back to the car, I spy a middle-aged couple on the street, talking to a woman. All three pause mid-conversation, swivel in my direction and watch as I leave. 

A current resident tells me that in order to get a place on the waiting list, you first have to do an interview in person with members of “the committee”. In the interview, you are shown a rule book for the village and are asked if you will abide by the rules. The rules include agreeing to maintain your gardens and they dictate where you should park your car.

The anonymous resident says that up until the 1970s, you weren’t admissible for a house until you were married. That children who grew up there had to move out, marry their partners, and only on showing a wedding certificate would they then be eligible to be placed on the waiting list for a house and could hopefully move back in. Thankfully this is no longer the case. (We offered the committee an opportunity to comment on the claims in this story, but did not hear back).

Some of the older rules seem stranger than this. A former resident who lived there on and off between the ‘70s and the ‘00s tells me about a rule that used to exist: you weren’t allowed to hang up your washing in your backyard on a Sunday. “Perhaps because people would be using the tennis court on Sundays and didn’t want to see everyone’s smalls hanging up?” they say.

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“When I lived there it was utopia, it was wonderful, it was heavenly. Now it’s a bit of an odd place,” the former resident tells me. They note without commentary that they only knew one person of colour who lived in the village and that this man moved in as the husband of a white woman who was already living there. That they never heard of an openly gay person living in the village. That the committee (made up of shareholders and tenants) choose who is eligible to live there.

At this point, I very much want to speak to Manchester Tenants Limited, the organisation behind Burnage Garden Village. I want to know what sort of criteria the committee look for in prospective tenants, how long the waiting list is for a house (according to the rumours, those on the list currently wait between seven and ten years for a place), and I also just want to fact-check some of the claims I have heard from current and former residents.

I get a series of curt but polite email responses. First, they tell me to speak to a historian. But I want to report on the present-day situation, I say. Then they change tack: the information I’m looking for is confidential. Which information exactly, I ask? Finally, they tell me they’ve seen me using the Burnage Garden Village Facebook group “to gather information directly with tenants, which you are more than welcome to do.” 

Is this why so many tenants and former tenants don’t comment under my Facebook posts reaching out for help but send me a direct message instead? Midway through our chat, Phil Griffin says of the village: “You don’t at all get the feeling that you’re allowed to go to the shops in your pyjamas on a Saturday morning for a pint of milk, it just doesn’t feel like that kind of gig.” Suddenly I see what he means. 

One night, I’m at home thinking about how this piece feels like an uphill struggle when I get a phone call. A former resident — who has asked to remain anonymous, but who I’ll refer to as A., has seen my appeals for interviewees on the Facebook group and is feeling sorry for me. “It’s not you,” they say, of the paltry response to my posts. They suggest it might be a tricky time to find people willing to talk about the village. 

What do you mean, I ask? A. hints at something going on in the village, some sort of issue. It’s not exactly a climate in which anyone wants to talk to a journalist, they say. No, they don’t want to talk about it but they might be able to connect me with a current resident — who I’ll call B. here — who would. They instruct me to phone B. at a specific time on a specific day. 

On the day I should be speaking to B., I get a series of messages from A. B. is having second thoughts about talking to me. B. thinks I might be working undercover for the village. I send links to some articles I’ve written for newspapers and magazines. Doesn’t B. think writing long cultural essays would be a disproportionately time-consuming way of winning their confidence if I was a double agent working for the committee? It seems to do the trick. B. permits me to call them.

But when I call B. that evening, I am entirely wrongfooted. I expect them to do all the talking, but after asking me how I am, B. lapses into silence. I attempt to warm them up, we talk about my interest in the village, this article. What did you want to discuss? I say, finally, after we’ve exhausted all possible small talk. B. tells me, in a careful tone that they need to talk to someone else and that they will be in touch soon, probably the next day. Then they go quiet.

I ask a former committee chairperson for contact details for the current chairperson. She politely declines, saying it’s a “delicate time for the committee,” but won’t expand on this. I slash my expectations. I’ll establish the bare bones of how the village is run: how much rent does everyone pay?

One current resident tells me that as a tenant, she isn’t at liberty to discuss rents. Another group of residents gives me a response I’ve come to recognise as typically Burnage Garden Village in tonality: “All the houses and everything else here are owned by our cooperative and how much rent is our business.”

As a Society registered under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014, the village has to file accounts each year. They show the village has assets of £6 million, and brought in £438,000 from rents last year, from 132 members. That would mean on average each member paid £3,318 rent or £276 per month. The houses vary in numbers of bedrooms, so this is just a rough estimate.

A rough estimate is about as close as I'm able to get. Another resident I speak to refuses to reveal their own rent but says “things have changed a great deal over that time for the worst [sic].” At this point in the story, you may not be terribly surprised to learn that they do not respond to my follow-up questions.

Years ago, I went through a phase where I read a lot of anti-detective fiction — novels that presented the reader with a mystery but offered no solution. As per The Crying of Lot 49, which details a woman plunged into a conspiracy, who sees signs everywhere: “There had hung the sense of buffering, insulation…as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix.” I’m submerged in this sensation all the time, writing this story. That I’m this close. That the truth is blurred but maybe I can make it out, if I squint hard enough.

Of course, it’s difficult to decipher what any of this means and maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all. In passing, one of my contacts in the village mentions committee elections being delayed due to the restrictions on meetings because of Covid-19, so maybe this is it, the alleged wrongdoing that’s too controversial to be discussed via phone — some microscopic bureaucratic upheaval that seems important inside the community but trivial to an outsider.

The Burnage Garden Village Facebook group spills over with heartwarming messages. One resident posts photos of some stunning flowers that have been delivered to them, an accompanying note: “Just to cheer you up — from a neighbour,” thanks “Whoever’s responsible”; another resident asks for floorboards to make mounts for his paintings and others write their addresses in the comments, tell him to call round to see if their floorboards are any good for his purposes. 

This all seems genuinely lovely, although far from unique to this community. The upsurge in neighbourly sentiment during the pandemic has been one of Covid-19’s very few silver linings. Across the country, neighbours have joined group chats to offer each other help and organised shopping trips for people who are shielding. Suddenly, the place where we live and the people we live close to matter so much more.

And of course, that has its downsides too. Occasionally, glancing up from where I now work at my kitchen table, I see my neighbour through the window and grow self-conscious: do they think I’m a slob, still in my pyjamas at 2 pm? I’ve recently heard about someone leaving their street’s WhatsApp group after a conversation about clapping for carers turned into a tense exchange about politics and whether people on the road were pulling their weight to fight societal injustice. Knowing your neighbours better can also mean knowing they are more likely to be judging you.

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And this has always been the case. The negative side-effects of close-knit communities have been picked up by researchers in the social sciences for decades. “There was no golden age of community,” University of Exeter historian Professor Jon Lawrence was quoted saying last year as he launched a new book about how we have lived since the 1940s. “The cosy, close-knit community we mythologize today never existed,” he explained. “Yes, poverty and close proximity obliged neighbours to look out for one another, but privacy remained jealously guarded, relations with neighbours were often fraught, and reliance on strangers, as opposed to family, was widely seen as a last resort.”

Burnage Garden Village makes me think of Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel Main Street, in which a librarian called Carol moves from the big city to a small prairie town following her marriage to the doctor there. Her life is comfortable, but she becomes increasingly tortured by what she calls “a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable”. Do the residents ever really do anything so terrible to Carol? No. They attend her parties and make the odd catty comment. But Carol’s internalised sense of surveillance slowly tears her apart — as do her failed attempts to reform the community for the better.

In the course of reporting this story, almost everyone I speak to seems anxious about the potential for surveillance and what everyone else might think about them. A friendly resident declines to be interviewed. They’re going through some health issues, but also: they’ve only lived there for a few years, so they are aware that they are perceived as being a relative newcomer. A resident who has nothing but good things to say about the village is emphatic about wanting to only be cited anonymously, about wanting me to obscure any details at all which could lead to their identification. And then there’s B., who lives in a village they trust so little that they’re concerned they’re being lured into making disclosures to a double agent.

I reach out to B. one more time, ask them if they’re sure they don’t want to talk to me. They write they don’t know what I’ve been told, but they’ve heard that “the ongoing problems are being dealt with.”


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Photographs in this story are by The Mill’s Dani Cole.