Charles Jenkinson (1887-1949)
Priest, Socialist, Housing Reformer

Charles Jenkinson (1887-1949)Charles Jenkinson has been described as a one-man phenomenon that any city could count itself lucky to have. He was the dynamic, inspirational force for slum clearance and housing development in Leeds in the 1930s, though some accused him of bringing ‘red ruin’ to the city. Always in the thick of controversy, he was impervious to criticism, convinced of the rightness of his cause. His vision helped to shape the city as it is today – though his iconic project, the massive, modernist Quarry Hill flats, is just a distant memory now, demolished in 1978.

Charles Jenkinson was 40 when he came to Leeds in 1927 as the new vicar of impoverished Holbeck, with its narrow dirty streets, foul smoky air, and cramped back-to-backs. He was no stranger to hardship. He was born in 1887 in London’s East End, where his father worked in the docks. Home was overcrowded so he had to live with his grandmother. At thirteen he left elementary school for office work, but devoted his spare time to the local church, working among extreme poverty. This fed his radical politics: he joined the Labour party, and in 1912 went to work with Conrad Noel, the ‘Red Vicar’ of Thaxted, where he campaigned to help exploited farm labourers. In 1914 he married Emily Caton, daughter of a local farm worker – she was his loyal supporter throughout his turbulent life.

A committed pacifist, in the war he was a conscientious objector, working on ambulance duties. On his release he decided to study for the church, combining his strong Christian faith with his passionate socialist principles. After graduating at Cambridge and serving as curate in Barking, he arrived in Leeds, where he found people living in unbearably wretched conditions. He felt bound to act. In 1930 he was elected to the City Council, and began to press for immediate, massive slum clearance – Leeds was lagging behind other cities. With two fellow councillors he published a powerful report calling for the demolition of 30,000 houses over the next six years and the re-housing of 110,000 people, in well-equipped houses and flats designed to meet different needs, including the elderly and the sick, preferably in garden suburbs with fresh air, green space, local amenities and good transport. The cost would be enormous (£12 millions) but the argument was unanswerable.

The opportunity to put his plan into action came in 1933 when Labour won control of the Council and he was appointed Housing Committee Chairman, alongside a new Director of Housing, the architect RAH Livett. They began work immediately, identifying (mapped in red) the thousands of slum houses to be demolished. There was huge opposition from owners and landlords, and from some tenants too, unwilling to leave their homes. He swept aside all argument. Under his energetic leadership the new garden suburbs of Gipton and Belle Isle began to take shape. He introduced an innovative scheme of differential rents to help those in most need – this too caused uproar and bitter accusations of injustice. He even had a scheme for providing furniture.

A new development of flats was planned for the city centre, on a prominent site at the end of the splendid, newly created Headrow – Quarry Hill, once site of the worst slums. The design followed the modernist model he and Livett had admired in Vienna – 938 flats in huge curved blocks, constructed by a new method using steel and concrete, with balconies and flower-boxes, lifts, a sophisticated garbage disposal system, communal facilities, green spaces, nurseries and playgrounds. Building began in 1936 but completion was hampered by WW2. This idealistic vision won international acclaim – but there were constant maintenance and other problems which led finally to demolition.

Jenkinson was not re-elected in 1936, and devoted himself to the building of a new church in Belle Isle where his Holbeck parishioners had moved. By 1943 he was back on the Council picking up the reins again. By then he was recognised nationally as an expert, serving on several government committees. In 1948 he was appointed Chairman of the Stevenage New Town Development Corporation, at a salary of £1500 – which he quickly gave away! He combined that job with his role as Labour leader in Leeds, travelling overnight between the two, but in 1949, aged just 62, he became ill with cancer and died in August at the LGI.

He was a distinctive character – tall, rosy-cheeked, with a high Cockney voice. He never owned a car but rode an old bike everywhere, wearing his shabby old raincoat and ancient surplice. He loved to work, tackling whatever manual jobs were needed. He could be impatient, difficult, uncompromising, but he was admired and loved. Leeds was indeed lucky to have him.

Eveleigh Bradford
September 2017