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Herbert Simms by Lindie Naughton: a useful if brief biography

This book’s brevity and accessibility will bring the important work of Herbert Simms to a wider audience

Herbert Simms an architect for the people
Author: Lindie Naughton
ISBN-13: 9781848409101
Publisher: New Island
Guideline Price: €16.95

A city gripped by a housing crisis. Years of government over-reliance on an expensive and insecure private rental sector. A war in Europe. Supply chain disruptions. Construction inflation. Does this all sound familiar?

No, it’s not Dublin today, but Dublin of the 1930s and 1940s, the years during which the corporation housing architect Herbert Simms spearheaded the first major public housing programme in the State’s history.

For a long time, the history and architecture of Herbert Simms was ignored. However, recent years have been notable for a welcome revival of interest in the man and his works, including the 2018 Simms 120 conference and the outstanding work of architectural and urban historians Joseph Brady, Ruth McManus and Ellen Rowley.

Unfortunately, if you do not have access to academic libraries and texts, or indeed former south Dublin county architect Eddie Conroy’s MA thesis on Simms in the UCD Richview library, then getting material on Dublin’s first housing architect is quite hard.


This, I suspect, was the motivation behind journalist and author Lindie Naughton’s latest book, Herbert Simms, an architect for the people.

In this short and accessible book, the reader will find an introduction both to the early years of public housing in Dublin and to the period during Simms’s tenure.

The book’s first 70 pages take us through the capital from the 1970s to the early 1930s. Teeming tenements, housing Dublin’s growing population of urban poor middle class, and their flight to the newly created boroughs of Pembrooke and Rathmines.

During these years Dublin Corporation was divided between the influence of councillors, who were also publicans and landlords, and a small but emerging group of reformers demanding action on the housing crisis.

Naughton retells the history of the very first corporation tenement projects on Benburb Street and Ellis Court, to the battles over Ormond Square and Church Street and the delivery, under Cumann na nGaedheal, of Ceannt Fort in Inchicore and the urban village of Marino.

While this background is important, and interesting to the first-time reader, it is a little surprising that the subject of the book, Herbert Simms, is not mentioned until page 72. This leaves just 120 pages to deal with the main topic.

The remaining six chapters take us through Simms’s background as a soldier in the first World War, then on to the Liverpool School of Architecture and finally to Dublin.

After a brief trip to India, Simms returned to Dublin Corporation to take up the newly created position of city architect in January 1932.

Simms brought a reforming zeal to his post and, along with his team of junior architects located in Parliament Street, went about their job with a commitment to providing good quality homes to the city’s working class as well as creating beautiful buildings.

Over the following 10 years, Simms and his team delivered 17,000 inner-city flats and suburban cottages, mainly in Crumlin and Cabra.

Initially, they were aided greatly by the change of government in 1931 to a Fianna Fáil-led administration. However, the onset of recession and the second World War created very real obstacles for the architect, as accessing money and materials became a daily challenge.

In the end, however, the workload was too great, and the pressure took its toll. On Monday, September 27th, 1948, Simms threw himself on to the tracks approaching Dún Laoghaire and was hit by an oncoming train. He was discovered the following morning and died shortly afterwards in St Michael’s Hospital.

His suicide note was brief: “I cannot stand it any longer, my brain is too tired to work any more.”

Despite his tragic and premature death, Herbert Simms and his team transformed the lives of thousands of working-class Dubliners, across three generations. He also left a significant legacy that future generations of corporation workers and politicians would build on.

As Naughton comments: “Simms and his team’s meticulous work are proof positive that well-built social housing can add immensely to the tone and style of the city.” She rightly concludes that “his work remains a touchstone and an inspiration”.

For those who have read the works of Brady, McManus and Rowley, or who have had the privilege of accessing Conroy’s thesis in UCD, Naughton’s short biography will likely be a disappointment. The book is more a summary of existing research and breaks no new ground. Simms aficionados will have to wait for the definitive biography to be written.

However, this does not mean that Naughton’s book is without merit. Its brevity and accessibility will bring the important work of Herbert Simms to a wider audience and, in particular to non-specialist readers, and that is most welcome.

I suspect Herbert Simms, an architect for the people, will be a popular Christmas gift this year, and not without good reason.