Irene Barclay, the first woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor and a social housing pioneer, is widely recognised as one of the leading social reformers of the 20th century.

Born in 1894, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, Irene qualified as a chartered surveyor in 1922, just three years after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 which held that women could no longer be barred from “entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation”.

She started her career working for the Crown Estate, managing its housing estates near Regent's Park, London. Over the next 50 years Irene worked tirelessly to improve living conditions for the poor of North London and further the cause of social housing. One of her greatest achievements was her work to improve housing conditions in the slums of St Pancras between the First and Second World Wars.

Irene worked with the St Pancras Housing Trust in London from its inception in 1924. The first eight flats were finished in 1926. By the time she retired in 1972, 830 homes had been created along with schools, halls and commercial properties.

Social housing across the UK

She also made a significant contribution to social housing across the rest of London and the UK.  She played a leading role in the foundation of a number of housing associations in the 1920s and 1930s, including Kensington Housing Trust, Stepney Housing Trust, Isle of Dogs Housing Society and Bethnal Green Housing Society.  In addition, Irene was joint author of housing surveys on 11 London Boroughs and on urban estate development in Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. This work helped to raise national awareness of the plight of slum dwellers in UK cities, paving the way to a revolutionary improvement to the living conditions of the poor in Britain.

In her book “People need Roots” Irene wrote:

Instead of just telling stories of families rehoused, I tried to make my audience understand what poverty, overcrowding and slum life was really like ... I meant to make their flesh creep, and sometimes I succeeded.

Following her retirement Irene moved to Canada in 1986 and died in Toronto three years later. Irene became a FRICS in 1931 and received an OBE for her voluntary work in housing societies in 1966.

Pride in the Profession

2018 marks the 150th anniversary of RICS. To celebrate this milestone, we're launching our Pride in the Profession initiative to showcase the significant and positive impact surveyors have made to society. We've already dug into the archives to find some exceptional examples, like the once above. By promoting these incredible people and projects we want to demonstrate how varied and rewarding a surveying career can be.

To make it happen, we need you to nominate the people and projects you admire most.

Nominate now

Comments (2)

  1. It would be very interesting to know know much Irene Barclay's work was inspired by the previous work of Octavia Hill – the housing reformer founder of the National Trust, etc. Anyone involved in housing should be familiar with the the latter's work.

    Philip Bowcock Philip Bowcock, 25 September at 10:49AM

  2. Barclay started with the Association of Women House Property Managers soon after gaining a Diploma in Social Work from Bedford College (having earlier got a BA in History), i.e. a direct link to the ethos and training system set up by Octavia Hill.

    Carrie de Silva Carrie de Silva, 17 April at 10:13AM

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