The name Commonweal
Definition of Commonweal – /kom’an-wiːl/
Commonweal is an archaic noun for public welfare or the common good. The modern equivalent being Commonwealth.
Our name is taken from the family motto (for commonweal and liberty) of the Scottish housing pioneer, innovator and public benefactor Sir John Mactaggart who, in the 1930s, provided investments underpinning the source of funds that now enable us to carry forward his vision of resolving social injustice through housing.
Our benefactor – Sir John Mactaggart Bt.
Described in his obituary as “in the front rank of Scottish industrialists” John Mactaggart, was a visionary of how to deliver affordable housing and the writing of housing policy for Scotland, England and the United States. He was also promoter of peace through the League of Nations and sponsor of the film industry. Such achievement is all the more surprising given John Mactaggart’s modest start in life.
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 merchants, 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, Mactaggart having produced 1,500 houses for his employer, decided it was time to start his own business. By 1900, John Mactaggart 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
More amazing however, was his approach, which 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 Mactaggart’s houses had the then unheard of feature of an internal WC and separate bathrooms. A Scottish Office enquiry into housing described him as “the man who made Glasgow bathroom conscious.”
The post First World War “Homes for Heroes ”initiatives and the Addison Act of 1919 provided vast subsidies to local authorities to produce houses and it was primarily to Mactaggart that Glasgow Corporation turned for a solution. In response, he added thousands of innovative houses to the Glasgow housing stock.
London & The United States
Over the years, Mactaggart acquired or launched companies to cover all his diverse activities. Just one of these companies had a property portfolio of 6,038 houses for rent under the 1924 Act, a housing stock larger than many of the Scottish boroughs. These houses were maintained, let and managed in-house, and his company’s management procedures were the role models proposed for local authorities to adopt in a report on the subject in 1938.
On reaching the age of 60, John Mactaggart 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 funds the activities of Commonweal Housing today. 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 Sir John’s son, Jack, and, on his death, his grandson Ian. Sir 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 John Mactaggart 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, Sir John was concerned with building wholesome communities with the result that many of his larger developments included parks and playing fields that he donated to the communities occupying his homes.
As in life, in death Sir John continued to surprise people, this time by the surprisingly small value of his estate. Thinking about the future, he had long since divested himself of nearly all of 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.