Sir Edwin Airey (1878-1955)
Building Contractor, Entrepreneur and Inventor

Sir Edwin Airey (1878-1955)‘Airey’ houses have been in the news recently – pre-fabricated concrete houses named after their designer, the Leeds builder Edwin Airey, built in thousands post-war to relieve the housing crisis. Controversial and problematic, they cast a shadow over his reputation. But there was more to Edwin Airey than housing. He was contractor for some of Leeds’ most iconic 1930s buildings, played a part in the city’s public life, and masterminded the development of the Headingley cricket and rugby ground, establishing Leeds as a world-class sporting venue.

He was born and brought up among the crowded terraces of Woodhouse, the second son of William Airey, a stone mason who moved into building. He went to the local Blenheim Board School, then on to Leeds Central High School and the Yorkshire College (now Leeds University). His elder brother left for an academic career, but Edwin joined the family firm, Wm. Airey & Son, and took over in 1905 when his father died. He transformed the business, winning major lucrative building contracts not just in Leeds but across Yorkshire. Ambitious and inventive (a bedside notebook always ready for new ideas), he began to explore new construction methods and experimental materials like concrete.

The First World War brought massive opportunities which he seized – government contracts for gun-ranges, factories, and innovative hangars for the fledgling Air Force, and a role as chief adviser on transport for the Ministry of Food. This work brought him influential contacts and powerful connections. Post-war the firm ran a substantial reconstruction project in the devastated areas of northern France, while at home Airey responded to the desperate need for housing by developing a system for building concrete houses cheaply, using unskilled labour. With government backing Leeds contracted him in 1920 to build 1600 of these ‘duo-slab’ houses, 800 in green fields at Meanwood. The first residents of the ‘white houses’ loved them but were soon disillusioned by damp, cold and cracks.

These were good years for Edwin Airey; a knighthood in 1922, Freedom of the City of London, and Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1923, when he raised £100,000 for the Leeds hospitals. That same year he took over as chairman of the Leeds Cricket Football and Athletic Company, vowing to make its Headingley ground the best in the country. He masterminded the building of impressive new stands and the transformation of the ground into a major international venue for cricket and rugby league. He remained chairman for 40 years, well-known and respected in the sporting world.

He was involved in some landmark building projects. Builders are not usually in the limelight – architects get the glory – but Airey was high-profile. His firm was chief contractor for the magnificent Lewis’s store in the newly redesigned Headrow – the largest department store outside London and a coup for Leeds in the depression. Airey’s own patented system of ‘Aerodome’ concrete flooring was used, saving tons of steel. When Lewis’s opened in 1932 people flocked to admire its marble walls, and to ride nervously on the first escalators ever seen in Leeds.

Several contracts followed at the University: the magnificent Brotherton Library, opened in 1936, and the handsome stone buildings fronting Woodhouse Lane. But perhaps the highlight was the luxurious Queen’s Hotel in City Square, opened by the Princess Royal in 1937 – a ‘masterpiece of hotel building’ which he had overseen personally. He appears in the pictures: lively, dapper, always sporting a white carnation.

WW2 brought further government work and was followed by yet another housing crisis. Airey had developed a new range of pre-fabricated concrete houses and flats, tested with prototypes in Seacroft, which got official blessing. Over the next decade some 26,000 ‘Airey’ houses went up around the country and in the Netherlands. These houses, he claimed, were built to last – bricks would soon be obsolete.

He enjoyed a settled personal life: married for more than fifty years, five children, a life-long Methodist and teetotaller, member and benefactor of his local Oakwood church, a Freemason, staunch Tory, supporter of numerous charities, a lover of music as well as sport. He lived all his life in Leeds, moving early on to upmarket Roundhay, and around 1920 to Oakwood Grange – coincidentally famous as the scene of Louis Le Prince’s first film. When Edwin Airey died in 1955 he was remembered as one of Leeds’ ablest sons.

As for his namesake houses, serious structural faults emerged over time and in the 1980s they were classed as defective and due for demolition. Many went, including the old Meanwood estate. Today methods exist to repair them, and currently residents in Oulton are fighting to save their cherished Airey homes. Ugly, controversial, faulty, or loved, they are part of our social history: four from Gateshead are now to be rebuilt and preserved at the Beamish museum in county Durham.

Eveleigh Bradford
May 2018

The opening of Lewis's commemorative album