Commonweal means for the welfare of the public good. The word is taken from the family motto (for commonweal and liberty) of the Scottish housing pioneer, innovator and public benefactor Sir John Mactaggart.
Sir John Mactaggart.
About Sir John Mactaggart Bt.
In the 1930s, Sir John provided investments underpinning the source of funds that now enable us to carry forward his vision of resolving social injustice through housing. The Mactaggart family still play an important role in Commonweal, with Sir John’s great granddaughter and former Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart a member of our board of trustees.
Childhood and Early Life
Son of a Glasgow coppersmith, his education prepared him for the Civil Service, but he took a job in a timber merchant, where he was described as “a wizard with figures”. He became Chief Accountant at age 21 then turned his attention to the property and building potential of his employer’s business.
At the age of 31, having produced 1,500 houses for his employer, Sir John decided it was time to start his own business. By 1900, Sir John was both building houses and pioneering concepts of pre-fabrication so that within a decade, his output exceeded 2,500 affordable homes.
Pioneering Standards of Housing
Sir John understood human aspirations; every one of his houses was designed, specified, financed, managed and marketed so that it was affordable but still met the occupier’s aspiration for a better standard of living.
Consequently, his homes featured an internal WC and separate bathrooms, which was almost unheard of at the time. A Scottish Office enquiry into housing described him as “the man who made Glasgow bathroom conscious.”
On reaching the age of 60, Sir John turned his attention to producing housing both in London and the United States. In the former, his developments included flats adjacent to the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane and another upmarket development that now funds the activities of Commonweal Housing. In 1936, his impact in the United States resulted in him being a special advisor on housing matters to President Roosevelt for his “New Deal.”
When developing in Central London, Sir John also built affordable homes both to buy and to rent. The portfolio of rented homes later came under the stewardship of his son, Jack, and, later, his grandson Ian. Ian had already established a reputation for leading and sponsoring innovation in solving housing need in London. Over the years, through careful management, the value of this asset grew, allowing the purchase of additional investments that fund activities undertaken today by Commonweal Housing.
It is typical of Sir John that in 1938, to celebrate his Baronetcy for his contribution to housing, he used his celebratory dinner to launch a new scheme to relieve overcrowding through the renovation and refurbishment of tenement properties. Even when building affordable homes, he was concerned with building wholesome communities, resulting in many of his larger developments including parks and playing fields donated to the communities occupying his homes.
As in life, in death Sir John continued to surprise people, this time by the small value of his estate. Thinking about the future, he had long since divested himself of nearly all his personal wealth so that his vision of providing better housing could continue into the future.
In 2003, Sir John’s legacy came under the chairmanship of his great grandson, Sir John A. Mactaggart, who commissioned a strategic review on how to adapt to current housing needs in London.
The conclusion was that focus and effort needed to be intensified, so a new vehicle, Commonweal Housing, was formed to implement 'housing solutions to social injustice.'
In 2006, the first Sir John’s great granddaughter, Fiona Mactaggart MP, took over the Chair to contribute her wide experience of campaigning for social justice and improving the effectiveness of charities. Fiona stepped down from this position in 2019, yet remains a member of Commonweal's board of trustees.
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