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Austin Village

Austin Village, Birmingham, U.K.- A monument to Michigan's Industrial Power   

During the war, Michigan changed the world, it showed Europe and the World how to wage a modern industrial war and in the process became an economic power house in the United States. Michigan’s economy during the early 20th century was based on forestry, mining and agricultural. During the Great War, the  economic focus shifted to engineering and manufacturing. Through the introduction of the well known “assembly line” process engineering and manufacturing employed un-skilled labor and developed the capabilities of those employees to assemble highly engineered parts.  Besides manufacturing automobiles in this way, houses, airplanes and other war materials were manufactured using the assembly line. One of Michigan’s success stories of the World War One era is the story of Austin Village in the United Kingdom.

To the author’s knowledge, there are no monuments for Home Front victories. The Great War changed the lives of the people of Michigan, both those that went overseas and those who served on the “Home Front”. The soldiers obvious influence can be seen as battles won or lost and great victories are marked with monuments, but what about the Home Front victories? If, however, our definition of monument is changed, Home Front victory monuments can be identified One such example of a Home Front Victory monument is Austin Village, Birmingham, United Kingdom.  Almost 100 years later, it still stands as a monument to the Aladdin Company, Bay City, Michigan and the assembly line.


Austin Village

Austin Village is a  community of 200 homes located between Longbridge and Northfield, Birmingham, U.K.. In 1905, Herbert Austin, started the Austin Motor Company in Longbridge. During the Great War, his factory was making war material so he hired more workers to meet the demand. In 1914, the company employed 2,500 people but by 1918 it had grown to 22,000, most were women. Transportation at that time was very limited especially in this very rural area. Housing was needed for his work force so on  November 16, 1916 he decided to buy 120 acres of farm land in Hawkesley Mill Lane from Thomas Middlemore for $21,000. With the necessary land procured, next he needed houses thus providing the opportunity for the involvement of the Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan. The Aladdin Company of Bay City made pre-fabricated houses. Herbert Austin became aware of the Aladdin Company and on December 20, 1916 with a down payment of $28,750, he purchased 200 Canadian cedar wood bungalows. The total cost of the housing  contract was $115,000.

Mr. Austin financed the project by taking out a mortgage in 1917 with the British Secretary of State for War and the Minister of Munitions, which allowed it to have access to a maximum of $203,300. to develop the estate. Interest on the loan would be at 5.5 % per annum.

Before the new village could be built, services such as sewers, drains, gas and electricity had to be planned and installed. Since the land was undeveloped access to the Village was an additional hurdle to overcome, agreements were made with Morland & Impey Ltd, a local printing firm to grant access to lands they owned that were necessary for access to the village and with the Hawkesley Mill Farm for the use  of an existing private roadway.
The estate was laid out in the shape of a horseshoe and designed by J. W. Wilson. The main road through the estate was aptly called Central Avenue, which at one end divided into a dual carriageway and is rumored to be the first dual carriageway in the City of Birmingham. Mature trees were planted along the roads: Central Avenue, Hawkesley Crescent, Hawkesley Drive, Coney Green Drive, Cypress Way, Cedar Way, Laburnum Way, Rowan Way, and Maple Way. The village was completed in eleven months and rented to Austin workers with seven in each bungalow and twelve in each house.

The houses were erected with twenty-five conventional brick-built semi-detached houses at intervals to create firebreaks. They were fitted with coke-fired central heating, gas cooker, gas water boiler, sink and drainer, and a bathroom with bath. The external size of the bungalows was 20 Feet 6 inches wide by 35 Feet  3 inches deep with an additional porch at the front and boiler room at the rear. The three bedrooms were each 9 feet 7 inches by 9 feet 7 inches.

After the war the requirement for workers reduced and the bungalows were sold. The village is still occupied and surrounded by conventional suburban housing. The Austin Village Conservation Area was grant by the Birmingham City Council in 1997.

The Aladdin Company

The Aladdin Company was a pioneer in the pre-cut, mail order home industry. Its primary competitors were Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company in the US and Eaton's in Canada. Two other kit home manufacturers, Lewis and Sterling, were also based in Bay City.
The Aladdin Company was founded by two brothers, W. J. Sovereign and O. E. Sovereign in Bay City, Michigan in 1906 after W. J. observed the success of the Brooks Boat Mfg. Co. in selling knock-down boats. The Sovereigns started advertising "knocked down dwelling houses" in boating magazines. These house kits included pre-cut lumber, paint, plaster, shingles, etc.

The Aladdin Company grew to become one of largest mail-order house companies in the world. In 1918, the Aladdin Company had over 2% percent of all housing starts in the United States. The Aladdin company's greatest success came from sales to industries which constructed company towns around new plants, mines and mills. The town of Hopewell, Virginia was largely developed by the DuPont Company using Aladdin homes. In 1917 Aladdin shipped 252 houses to BirminghamEngland for the Austin Motor Company who built Austin Village to house workers for munitions, tank and aircraft manufacture during World War I.

The Aladdin Company’s output fell below 1000 homes in 1928 on the eve of the Great Depression, and never recovered. The company continued to produce catalogs, and maintained sales of a few hundred homes per year through the 1960's.

During the 1970s sales fell further and by 1982 the company ceased manufacturing. The company ceased all operations in 1987.
In March of 2014, The Aladdin Company was re-launched via the web. Charles W. Munro filed the trademark, incorporated it as an LLC, and took ownership of the company. Today's designs feature the same historic exteriors, but completely modern interiors.
The Aladdin Company, along with other catalog-home businesses played a key role in providing affordable housing to Americans in the period between the turn of the twentieth century and World War II. It also made key advancements in the prefabrication of housing which enabled the post-war housing boom. Finally, it helped to propagate preferences across the U.S. and Canada for common architectural styles such as the CraftsmanBungalowFour-Square and Cape Cod homes.

As we approach the 100 year anniversary of Austin Village, the residents of Michigan and Bay City can feel proud to know that they were responsible for giving life to a community over 3,000 mile away.  Austin Village is a product of  the Great War Home Front and survives to this day. It is a war time monument to the “Assembly Line” process and exemplifies the manufacturing and engineering skills  of Michigan.  As of the writing of this article, no centennial celebration is planned in Bay City, Michigan for the Great War or for Austin Village.