People Need Roots, Irene Barclay

Object: People Need Roots

Found: donated by resident

Date: 1976

In 1922 Irene Barclay became the first woman in Britain to qualify as a Chartered Surveyor, closely followed by Evelyn Perry in 1923. As Barclay and Perry: Chartered Surveyors, their female-led practice was groundbreaking in a male dominated profession. 

Together with Basil Jellicoe, Edith Neville and Percy Maryon-Wilson, she founded the St Pancras House Improvement Society in 1924 – eventually to become St Pancras Housing Association and now Origin HA. Irene worked tirelessly as Secretary of the Housing Association for 50 years. Her practice managed the Association’s properties from 1924 until her retirement in 1972.

Her pioneering social and housing surveys in the 1920’s included internal as well as external survey, and engagement with residents. As a result, the plight of slum dwellers in Somers Town and elsewhere was far better understood and taken much more seriously. Housing conditions were undeniably verminous and unsanitary (fleas, cockroaches, rats). Instead of trying to repair slum housing , in 1926 the Housing Association began a demolition / new build programme aimed at rehousing as many people as possible in self-contained flats, with modern services and let at low rents.

Irene Barclay is regarded as one of the key social reformers of the 20th century. In 1966 she was awarded an OBE for her work. She is also commemorated in the Somers Town mural. As a result of action by the Museum, she has recently been shortlisted by Historic England for a blue plaque.

By Michael Parkes