Blue Plaques

BARCLAY, Irene (1894–1989)

Plaque erected in 2024 by English Heritage at 1A St Martin’s House, Polygon Road, Somers Town, NW1 1QB, London Borough of Camden

All images © English Heritage


Housing reformer and surveyor


Architecture and Building, Philanthropy and Reform


IRENE BARCLAY 1894–1989 Housing reformer and Britain’s first qualified woman surveyor worked here 1964–1972



Irene Barclay campaigned passionately for better housing, spoke up on behalf of people living in slum conditions, and was the first woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor in Britain. She was Estates Manager and Honorary Secretary of the St Pancras House Improvement Society Limited for 48 years, and her work brought about improvements to housing more widely. A blue plaque commemorates her office in Somers Town at 1A St Martin’s House, Polygon Road.


Irene Barclay signing copies of People Need Roots, 17 November 1976
Irene Barclay signing copies of People Need Roots in 1976 © Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

Early Life

Irene Turberville Martin was born on 27 May 1894 in Hereford, the eldest of four children of (David) Basil Martin (1858–1940), a Congregational minister, and (Alice) Charlotte née Turberville. She grew up in a politically freethinking, nonconformist household. Irene became interested in social work, the vocation of two aunts.

While studying Sociology at the London School of Economics, Irene met Edith Neville, welfare worker and secretary of the St Pancras Council of Social Service. Neville introduced her to Maud Jeffery who had recently taken over management of the Cumberland Market estate, an area of run-down, overcrowded housing to the east of Regent’s Park. Jeffery, the first woman Crown Receiver, ran it on ‘Octavia Hill lines’, where female rent collectors visited families as a form of social work. Irene became Jeffery’s chief assistant, working to ease overcrowding in 1,800 tenancies with a population of 6,000 and where fifty families each lived in one room.

Surveys and Slums

In 1919, when the Sex Disqualification Removal Act was passed, which removed barriers to women’s entry into some of the professions, Irene began to study for the Surveyors’ Institution exams at evening classes. She and Evelyn Perry (1896–1976), another of Jeffery’s employees, were the only women.

Irene Martin was the first woman to qualify as a surveyor, in May 1922. In 1924, she set up in practice as a chartered surveyor in Finsbury. She carried out her first slum housing and overcrowding survey at the urging of Chelsea residents. Armed with this survey, the residents’ group successfully took out private prosecutions of local slum landlords and publicised the victories.

In 1926, the now-married Irene Barclay went into partnership with Evelyn Perry. Over the next ten years, they produced surveys in the London boroughs of Shoreditch, Southwark, Westminster, Fulham, Kensington, Paddington, and St Pancras. They also covered central areas of Birmingham, Manchester, and Edinburgh.

Somers Town

In January 1925, Barclay became the honorary secretary of the St Pancras House Improvement Society, created in 1924 by Fr Basil Jellicoe (d. 1935) and others. Jellicoe ran the Magdalen College mission in Somers Town, St Pancras, where most of the 25,000 residents were living three families to a house.

Somers Town Housing was Barclay and Perry’s first report for the Society, and its publication was accompanied by the ceremonial burning of huge models of bedbugs, lice, and other vermin – the bane of overcrowded tenants – as a publicity campaign for the cause of improved housing.

The Society built new ‘garden estates’ on the site of former slums in the 1930s. The estates in Somers Town embodied Barclay’s conviction that people should have healthy and beautiful environments. They featured attractive buildings, play spaces, trees and gardens, community and educational services, qualified housing managers, social workers, a loan club and a furniture shop. The Society sought to rehouse people without breaking up communities, and to keep rents affordable.

Barclay and Perry’s work in Somers Town had wider impact, contributing to the movement which led to the Housing Act 1930 and the anti-slum campaign which ensued. They defended those forced to live in poor conditions, focusing on rotten housing stock and bad landlords rather than tenants, whom they advised on their rights and defended in print.

General Hamilton lights bonfire during ceremonial burning of models of vermin to mark start of building St Christopher's Flats, 1931
General Hamilton lighting the bonfire during the ceremonial burning of bed bugs to mark the start of building St Christopher's Flats, 1931 © Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

Other campaigns

In 1931, Barclay became a Fellow of the Surveyors’ Institution (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors from 1947), which qualified her to become a housing manager. From 1942, she was the Chairman of the Association of Women Housing Managers. She campaigned to change the name to the Society of Housing Managers, and to also admit men.

Barclay was part of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare alongside Marjory Allen, Margaret Bondfield, and Elizabeth Denby. The Group’s Our Towns: A Close Up (1943), commissioned by the International Federation of Women’s Institutes, provided an eye-opening picture of inner-city deprivation, and gave momentum to reformers tackling such problems when reconstruction began after the war.

Black and white photograph of Mrs Irene Barclay and Miss Margaret White studying plans for St Richard's House III, 1964
Irene Barclay (left) and Margaret White studying plans for St Richard’s House III, 1964 © Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

Later life and death

For 25 years, Barclay was the vice-chair of the Family Service Units. She also sat on the boards of NACRO, the London Rent Assessment Committee, and was a director of the North Thames Gas Board. She wrote and broadcast regularly on housing matters and in 1966 was awarded an OBE for her housing work.

Barclay and Perry’s partnership effectively ended after the war due to Perry’s ill health, though the practice name continued. Barclay continued managing the St Pancras estates until her retirement in 1973. Barclay died aged 94, on 21 March 1989.

Plaque location

1A St Martin’s House, Polygon Road, was Irene Barclay’s office from late 1964 until 1972. From this location in Somers Town, she worked as Estates Manager and Honorary Secretary to the St Pancras House Improvement Society.

The Society’s minutes show that Barclay tweaked the design of the office by removing the men’s lavatory to make room for a canteen and that she improved the plan for the kitchen in one of the flats above; she was as engaged with the design of the environments the Society improved as she was with their management.

Nearby were the first properties reconditioned by the Society as ‘decent’ self-contained flats and later replaced with new dwellings.

Black and white photograph of Barclay and Perry's newly built office, 1A St Martin's House, Polygon Road, 1965
Barclay's newly built office, 1A St Martin's House, Polygon Road, 1965 © Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

Further reading

Building better housing and community life: two new blue plaques to pioneering women’, The English Heritage Podcast.

Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, ‘Learnings from Britain’s First Female Chartered Surveyor’, The RICS Podcast.

Carrie de Silva, ‘Barclay [née Martin], Irene Turberville (1894–1989), chartered surveyor’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required) 

Nearby Blue Plaques

Nearby Blue Plaques