HE was a working class hero - one of Glasgow's best-known councillors, an MP and a Cabinet Minister in the UK’s first Labour government.

However, John Wheatley’s greatest legacy was social housing.

Born in 1869 in Waterford, Ireland, John moved to Braehead, a small village near Baillieston, when he was seven. His parents and their eight children (sometimes with two lodgers) lived in a single room miner’s cottage.

At St Bridget’s School, a charismatic Dutch missionary priest inspired him to join the Catholic Young Men’s Society, the League of the Cross and the Irish National Forester’s Friendly Society.

Glasgow Times: John Wheatley, the 'father of social housing'John Wheatley, the 'father of social housing' (Image: Newsquest)

John joined his father down the pits when he was about 12 or 13 and he was a miner for around 12 years. He determined on a different future, however, finding time for reading and enrolling in evening classes in the Atheneum, Glasgow. This was a 10-mile return trip, often on foot, from Baillieston.

From 1901 to 1906, John was employed by the Glasgow Observer, which was widely read by Catholics of Irish descent in the west of Scotland.

In 1906 he became a partner in a new printing and publishing company, which published leftist political works. 

The company came under his sole control in 1921 and he moved into newspaper publishing in Glasgow. The best known of his publications was the Glasgow Eastern Standard which widely covered John’s activities and speeches until his death in 1930.

Glasgow Times: John Wheatley, whose legacy lives on in Glasgow and across the UKJohn Wheatley, whose legacy lives on in Glasgow and across the UK (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

His politics were shaped by his experience in the mines, slum housing, his Irish background and his strong Catholic convictions.

His first venture into politics was with the United Irish League which was supported by the immigrant Irish community in Britain. He became president of the local Daniel O’Connell branch in Shettleston. 

By 1906 he had broken with the league, and in a letter in the Observer, encouraged all Catholics attracted to socialism to attend an open meeting.  This led to the foundation of a Catholic Socialist Society.

His growing reputation as a speaker and his various pamphlets brought him into contact with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and its most prominent members in Glasgow. In 1907 he stood unsuccessfully in Shettleston as the ILP candidate for Lanarkshire County Council.  He was elected there three years later.

Shettleston was absorbed into Glasgow in 1912, and John was duly elected a Glasgow Corporation councillor for the area.  He was very active. serving in many committees, including tramways, health and city improvement.

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John was appalled at the slum housing and squalor of life in Glasgow. Housing became his political driver.  In 1913 he published his pamphlet Eight Pound Cottages for Glasgow Citizens.  This argued that the profits from the municipal tram services should be used to subsidise the building of cottages for Glasgow’s poor. 

Glasgow Times: John's proposals for affordable housing for the poor were rejectedJohn's proposals for affordable housing for the poor were rejected (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

On April 26, 1913, Forward - the newspaper of the ILP - reported the names of officials who supported his proposals.  These included the city engineer, Corporation architects, Lord Provost, town clerk and the medical officer of health.

The scheme would have reduced rather than raised the rates.  It would also have  provided municipal cottages at rents lower than private enterprise cottages. However, many opposed the use of municipal funds in this way.

A week later, the Corporation agreed to look at the establishment of municipal cottages for monkeys and other animals at Rouken Glen park.

This caused outrage. John commented that it was in bad taste for the Corporation to provide municipal cottages for monkeys and not for Glasgow’s poorest citizens.

Alongside James Maxton and other ILP members, John opposed the UK’s involvement in World War 1.

Glasgow Times: One of the early petitions supported by John WheatleyOne of the early petitions supported by John Wheatley (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

He also assisted in organising and supporting the rent strikes which swept through Glasgow during the war. He was one of the best-known Glasgow councillors and became one of the ILP Clydeside MPs elected to Westminster in 1922.

A supporter of Ramsay Macdonald, John was appointed Minister of Health in the first Labour Government, 1924. 

He created what became known as The Wheatley Housing Act, arguably his greatest achievement.  Prime Minister David Lloyd George had promised “homes fit for heroes” after the war, but it was John who delivered a huge expansion in affordable housing throughout the UK.

John died in 1930, but his contribution lives on, and his name is rightly memorialised by Scotland’s largest social landlord, Wheatley Homes Glasgow.