Irene Barclay – pioneer

Image of lady in hat alongside imege of priest walking with 2 ladies in 1920s clothing in street.

Irene Barclay OBE – arguably the woman who initiated the slum clearance and housing project – has been shortlisted for a Blue Plaque by Historic England, after our nomination. We held a talk in March 2021 and clips can be heard below.

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.

Irene Barclay was the first women to qualify as a surveyor. She qualified as a Professional Associate in 1922; and became a Fellow in 1931, and Evelyn Perry a Fellow in 1937. Irene and Evelyn formed their own partnership, called Barclay and Perry, which continued until at least 1940. From 1940 onwards we only have a private address listed for Evelyn.

Irene was in practice for 50 years and she was very much involved in social housing in inter-war Britain. Her practice managed the St Pancras Housing Association’s properties from 1924 until her retirement in 1972 , and she wrote an autobiography called People Need Roots, which covers her life and work. Irene is regarded as one of the key social reformers of the 20th century for her work improving housing conditions in the slums of St. Pancras, and as a result she received an OBE in 1966 in recognition of her work.

Clips from our talk on Irene Barclay

Talk by Carrie de Silva March 2021

What was her family background?

Irene Barclay’s family background

The first women to qualify

Audio on Irene and how she qualified as a surveyor

A personal recollection of Irene as ‘landlady’

A local remembers Irene

Early achievements in her career

What motivated Irene and was she religious?

What motivated Irene

Why housing was not enough?

Housing was not enough – on community

St Pancras Housing

St Pancras Housing Interview with Irene Barclay

Why are street names such as Somers Town?

Why are the streets names as they are in Somers Town?

A Blue plaque

Irene Barclay OBE – arguably the woman who initiated the housing project in Somers Town – has been shortlisted for a Blue Plaque by Historic England, after the History Club’s nomination over a year ago.
We’re very pleased and hope she does get the plaque.
There is a Irene Barclay house in Eversholt street but we hear that she worked in the offices adjacent to St Martin’s House.

Background to Irene Barclay


Women in housing improving lives and reforming society
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.
Irene qualified as a Professional Associate in 1922; and became a Fellow in 1931, and Evelyn Perry a Fellow in 1937. Irene and Evelyn formed their own partnership, called Barclay and Perry. We know that partnership continued until at least 1940. From 1940 onwards we only have a private address listed for Evelyn.
Irene was in practice for 50 years and she was very much involved in social housing in inter-war Britain. Her practice managed the St Pancras Housing Association’s properties from 1924 until her retirement in 1972 , and she wrote an autobiography called People Need Roots, which covers her life and work. Irene is regarded as one of the key social reformers of the 20th century for her work improving housing conditions in the slums of St. Pancras, and as a result she received an OBE in 1966 in recognition of her work.
“…We were the only girls in a crowd of young men and I remember that the lecturer who dealt with drainage and sanitation was acutely embarrassed, poor man…”

Her pioneering social and housing surveys in the 1920s drew attention to the plight of slum dwellers in Somers Town, Pimlico, North Kensington and parts of Edinburgh.


Beyond her work for the association, Irene Barclay played a leading role in the foundation of several housing associations between the world wars, including Kensington Housing Trust, Stepney Housing Trust, Isle of Dogs Housing Trust and Bethnal Green.


Women in housing improving lives and reforming society


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.
Irene qualified as a Professional Associate in 1922; and became a Fellow in 1931, and Evelyn Perry a Fellow in 1937. Irene and Evelyn formed their own partnership, called Barclay and Perry. We know that partnership continued until at least 1940. From 1940 onwards we only have a private address listed for Evelyn.


Irene was in practice for 50 years and she was very much involved in social housing in inter-war Britain. Her practice managed the St Pancras Housing Association’s properties from 1924 until her retirement in 1972 , and she wrote an autobiography called People Need Roots, which covers her life and work. Irene is regarded as one of the key social reformers of the 20th century for her work improving housing conditions in the slums of St. Pancras, and as a result she received an OBE in 1966 in recognition of her work.


“…We were the only girls in a crowd of young men and I remember that the lecturer who dealt with drainage and sanitation was acutely embarrassed, poor man…”

Her pioneering social and housing surveys in the 1920s drew attention to the plight of slum dwellers in Somers Town, Pimlico, North Kensington and parts of Edinburgh.


Beyond her work for the association, Irene Barclay played a leading role in the foundation of several housing associations between the world wars, including Kensington Housing Trust, Stepney Housing Trust, Isle of Dogs Housing Trust and Bethnal Green Housing Association 


“In the decades of mass slum clearance, Irene and Evelyn broke new ground with their surveys… unique in the extent of their internal surveying and engagement with residents, as opposed to the more cursory, external surveys conducted for councils. This not only gained tenants’ support but provided depth to discussions of housing need… After the war, Irene continued to campaign for better housing and joined a number of public boards, expressing the hope that she had been chosen on the strength of her skills as a surveyor and not as a token woman.”


Carrie de Silva, Principal Lecturer at Harper Adams University, commenting in the RICS Building Control Journal, Sept/Oct 2017
https://www.rics.org/uk/news-insight/latest-news/rics-150th-anniversary/pride-in-the-profession/irene-barclay-frics-social-housing-pioneer/

3 comments

  1. Irene was my Grandma and I have very fond memories of the residents of somerstown as I was babysat by various people who took me in as one of their own in the early 60’s

  2. The commentary is lacking in who my family is and their history, I would be more than happy to fill in whatever gaps I can.

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