Growing up on the Speke Estate, Liverpool: a personal perspective


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One of the most important aspects of this blog has been to give voice to the experience and views of council estate residents, so often ignored, too often maligned. I’m pleased to feature today a post from Tom in response to posts on Speke on the blog in April and May this year – who describes his own experience of growing up on the Estate and his views on the mistakes that were made in its planning and design. 

Thank you Municipal Dreams for remembering the Liverpool suburb of Speke: a forgotten part of a forgotten city.

I was born in 1951 in, now demolished, Mill Road Maternity Hospital, Liverpool. My parents lived in the Dingle, a wartime bomb-damaged part of Liverpool 8, in a one-room bedsit with an outside toilet. They registered for a new city corporation rental house. For two and a half years my mother attended council surgeries for an update on the request. In 1954 we were allocated a two-bedroom house in Speke, on the city’s southern limit.

Properties in Speke were several orders of magnitude better than accommodation most of its residents had lived in previously. Houses were well built, brick throughout, and had front and back gardens. There were indoor toilets and plumbing for hot and cold water. If you wanted hot water however, you had to light the coal fire an hour before: electric immersion heaters were some time off yet.

Growing up as a child in Speke was idyllic. We lived on the northern perimeter road opposite a farm. Childhood was exploring woodland and playing ‘hide and seek’ in wheat fields. South of Speke was more farmland, more woods and the River Mersey, three miles wide at that point. The river was too polluted to swim in, but it had a sandy shoreline and off in the distance up river, an afternoon’s walk away, Hale lighthouse. What more could a child ask for?

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Alderfield Drive from Speke Boulevard, February 1972 (c) Tom Speke

Speke Town predates the City of Liverpool, and had been fertile farmland for centuries. The genesis of Speke as a Council Housing Estate dates from the 1930s when Liverpool City Planners became enamoured with the ‘Garden City’ concept as a solution to the problems of a post Industrial Revolution inner city full of overcrowded slums. Plans were made for a ‘self-contained satellite town’.

The desperate need for new housing was exacerbated by Second World War bomb damage and further hastened by the post war ‘baby boom’ population explosion. In the space of a few years (c.1938-1953), Speke mushroomed from a pre-war census of ‘400 souls’ to 25,000 people. In the process, any vestige of old Speke, or its farming history, was bulldozed off the map. Speke Town was buried under the intersection of the newly constructed Speke Boulevard and Speke Hall Avenue.

Close scrutiny of the 1952 photograph, Dunlop’s factory in an earlier post, reveals that large chunks of Speke had still to be built, specifically the central shopping area known as the Parade. From memory, I was nine or ten years old before there were any central shops to go to. There were vans driving around Speke selling groceries, a practice that lasted until the mid 1970s. I have a cine film record.

This ‘Garden City’ idealism never progressed beyond the drawing board. Houses were built and then the building stopped: schools, shops, churches and community centres, all took up to a decade to build. The promise of a ‘self-contained’ Speke went unfulfilled.

The ‘Garden City’ idealism also contained an ill-founded assumption that city people would prefer to live in the country and could be transposed en masse. The ‘self-contained satellite town’ of Speke degenerated into isolated, urban, frontier country, still within the city limits, but a bus ride away from its nearest residential city neighbour.

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Rear north-west corner of Stapleton Avenue and Ganworth Road, 21 November 1973 (c) Liverpool Echo

This ‘open play area’ (above) had been left fallow since the day the flats were built, twenty years previous. Within another twenty years, all the blocks of flats would be gone.

Tenement blocks surrounding open play areas besotted Lancelot Keay, Liverpool City Council Chief Architect responsible for Speke, and a knighthood for his efforts. Watch Sir Lancelot make his case: Liverpool Tenements of the 1930s.

Lancelot Keay was a nineteenth century dinosaur trying to solve a twentieth century problem. Speke residents didn’t share his enthusiasm for living in tenement blocks. By the 1980s, just thirty odd years after they were built, low-rise blocks of flats in Speke lay abandoned and derelict awaiting demolition. Structurally they would have been good for a hundred years, but within less than two generations they were considered not fit for purpose. People didn’t want to live in them. People wanted to live in houses.

All the low-rise blocks of flats in Stapleton Avenue and Ganworth Road (photo above), East Mains, West Mains, Millwood Road, Alderwood Avenue, Central Avenue, Central Way and Conleach Road were demolished and replaced by houses with gardens. Testament that ‘tenement blocks surrounding open play areas’ was a failure.

In the mid ’70s I made a cine film record of Speke. It was an Art School rant intended to show the estate in a less than favourable light: not a difficult task. The irony is that it has become historically significant, as less than half of what was filmed still exists.

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Ganworth Road looking south, October 1973 (c) Tom Speke

Above is a street view of Ganworth Road with Speke’s signature three storey blocks of flats either side. It may look odd, from a 2017 perspective, to see two children and a toddler wandering around unaccompanied, but it was nothing out of the ordinary in the 1960s and 1970s. The legacy of living in flats was that children had no back gardens to play in, and resorted to playing in the streets.

Speke Castle NW

A child admires ‘Speke Castle’, 13 November 1974 (c) Liverpool Echo

This concrete eyesore, above, is a 1960s’ interpretation of a children’s play area. By 1974 it was condemned by the National Playing Fields Association as grotesquely dangerous and only fit for demolition. The low-rise blocks of flats behind (West Mains) would soon join it awaiting demolition.

The 1950s and 1960s presented a paradox for Liverpool. The ring of housing estates that surrounded the city, of which Speke was but one, were overflowing with children, yet the population of Liverpool had been in steady decline since the 1930s, and continued to decline for the rest of the century. The inner city was being rehoused further and further afield, outside of the city. The population of Liverpool went from a 1931 peak of 855,688 to a 2001 census of 439,473.  (2)

The ‘baby boom’ years were followed by a shift to smaller families. This left a problem for Speke: what to do with all the three storey ‘large family’ houses, of which there were many. After abandonment, these were reduced to two storeys.

The section of Speke in the aerial shot (below) was built in the 1950s, but I doubt if anyone younger than forty can remember it as such. Half of what you see is no more. The white roofed rectangular buildings, centre, was All Hallows Secondary School, boys and girls, now All Hallows Drive houses. The school was demolished, not enough students.

The open space two blocks above the school was Speke Park, now Morrison’s shopping precinct. The retail hub of Speke shifted from the centre to its edge to access Speke Boulevard, top right diagonal. Fords [Jaguar/Land Rover] off picture, right.

To the left of Speke Park is the ‘open play area’ behind the flats, in the top photograph. The main road in the picture, top to bottom, is Stapleton Avenue / Alder Wood Avenue which runs east-west. Just visible at bottom right of the picture is Eastern Avenue. Check Google Maps and see what little remains.

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North central Speke estate, c.1963, looking west (c) Lancashire Records Office, Preston

For ‘Beatles’ cognoscenti, the street second from the bottom, on the left, is Ardwick Road, the McCartneys’ second residence in Speke (1950-1955). Half way up on the left is Upton Green, surrounded by three storey blocks of flats, and home to the Harrisons (1950-1962).

On 20th December, 1958, on the occasion of George’s brother Harry’s wedding reception, 25 Upton Green, Speke, was the venue of a pre-Beatles Quarrymen performance with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison – drummer, if any, not known. (2)

George Harrison and Paul McCartney spent most of their formative years in the Liverpool suburb of Speke (George 12 years, Paul 9 years), but you have to look hard in the plethora of biographies to find any mention of their early childhood in Speke. Phoney Beatle mania has produced two ‘Caverns’ in Mathew Street, but ‘Beatles’ tour buses don’t go anywhere near Speke.

In the early 1960s, the Ford Motor Company car plant [now Jaguar/Land Rover] replaced the farm on the northern side of Speke. Speke Boulevard, forever known to my generation as ‘Ford’s Road’, was extended to run between the car factory and the estate, for the full length of Speke and beyond. To compound Speke’s isolation, this arterial road prohibited pedestrians for five miles or so, all the way to Widnes.

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Eastern Avenue bus terminus from Speke Boulevard, February 1972. The sign reads ‘Any Person found damaging this fence will be prosecuted’ (c) Tom Speke

One of the consequences of this pedestrian prohibited road was that it separated the factory from the workers arriving by bus at the Eastern Avenue bus terminus. There was an underpass 200 yards away, but for whatever reason, people insisted on making their way through the fence to cross the road. This conflict persisted for thirty odd years until the terminus relocated to Morrison’s at the new shopping precinct. Progressively stronger fences were built with ever more ingenious ways found to get through them. It would have been cheaper to build a footbridge. I viewed this perennial conflict as individual protest against imposed isolation.

When I visit Speke, the difference I find most striking between now and even up to the 1980s, is not the missing or changed dwellings, but the amount of trees there are. Driving along Speke Boulevard is like driving through woodland. Trees now obscure all the sight lines of my childhood memories. Belatedly, the city has made amends for wiping a thousand years of history off the face of the earth in Speke’s construction. I cannot see, or remember there being, a single mature tree in the 1963 aerial photograph of Speke.

The 1960s’ Speke of my teenage years was a depressingly bleak, isolated, rectangular Gulag, devoid of any sense of history or community, built to house factory fodder. By the time I was sixteen, my life’s objective was to get out of Speke. Three years later I went away to Art School, never to return. I did visit, but never lived. My Mother, give her a medal, is still there: Speke resident for 63 years and counting. (RIP Father, 2010).

Speke as a Housing Estate did have two redeeming features:

  • All the properties were solidly built with brick throughout.
  • The estate was built before the advent of the ubiquitous high-rise tower blocks that blighted other estates.

The failings however were legion, chief among them was that it didn’t comply with the house buyers’ mantra of ‘location, location, location’: Speke Estate was built in the wrong place. Its isolation was, and remains, its handicap.

If there are Town Planners out there who still adhere to ‘self-contained satellite town’ thinking, I will happily maroon them on the eastern edge of Speke, without a car, to experience what isolation feels like.

Speke’s contribution to town planning dogma is a nail in the coffin of the ‘Garden City’ concept. Speke was designed as a solution to a problem, but resulted in generating its own problems. Speke planners may not have anticipated the changing shift in family sizes, but they are guilty of not ensuring that Speke would become a solution.


Speke could never develop as a community because Speke was never self-contained. If you wanted to do anything, you had find somewhere else that catered for your interest.

The founding vision of Speke as a township ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’ was as delusional as its ‘self-contained’ status. Speke, and all the other post war housing estates around Liverpool, were not communities, they were overspill.

In the absence of any community identity, people from Speke, and all the other Liverpool estates, were perceived differently. In a time of full employment, people living on estates were not accorded the ‘working class’ designation, but were thought of in the then unused demographic of ‘underclass’. Like the estates themselves geographically, people from the estates were regarded as ‘peripheral’, not part of the mainstream. You came from ‘an estate’. It didn’t matter which one, we were all tarnished with the same brush. I lived all my teenage years with this, and left at the first opportunity.

My parents tried for years to get out of Speke, but eventually resigned to staying when they were able to buy their house. My siblings left Speke, and Liverpool. I took it a stage further and emigrated.

I still talk ‘Scouse’. My accent was set in concrete by the age of six, and I have yet to find an alternative that I would want to emulate. I still follow Liverpool FC from a distance, but I could never live there again. Morrison’s precinct in Speke, and the Liverpool ONE complex, are commendable and possible turning point improvements. The irreconcilable is remembering the fifty years it took to get to there.

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The Orient public house, Eastern Avenue (December 2016) and bar (November 2013) (c) Tom Speke

The Orient is the last remaining pub in Speke, and worth a visit if just to see a bar dedicated to both Liverpool and Everton football clubs. It is difficult to say how much longer The Orient can last. For decades, supermarkets in Britain, Morrison’s included, have been underpricing pubs out of existence.

Speke Estate is suffering the malaise experienced by small towns after a bypass is built. The town slowly dies: people leave, schools close, pubs shut, churches downsize. Speke in the 21st century has half the population it had in the 1950s. St. Christopher’s Church (capacity 1,000) has the distinction of being built and demolished in a single lifetime. Schools are torn down as the numbers of children plummet. I had intended to show my film and photographs to the students at Parkland’s School, but it closed, only twelve years after it opened. Depending on whom you ask, it was either falling intake or falling standards. Either way, Speke no longer has a secondary school.

Speke’s fate was sealed on the drawing board: it was designed to have a bypass. No one ever goes through Speke: making a brief detour off Speke Boulevard to shop in Morrison’s doesn’t count. The problem was there from its inception. Speke, as the city planners envisioned it, should never have been built.


(1) A Vision of Britain through Time: Liverpool population

(2) Gratitude to the Quarrymen website for information.


A Long History of Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate

My article for iNews on the longer history of Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate to which it belonged was published yesterday. You can read it here:  A perfect storm of disadvantage: the history of Grenfell Tower.

When you visit Grenfell and the Estate, as I had to for the article, it’s hard not to feel intrusive. Taking photographs can seem even more insensitive but it seemed important to record something more than what, inevitably, have become our dominant images of Grenfell.  I hope the photographs which follow are a respectful tribute to the estate and its residents.

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Barandon Court SN

Hurstway SN

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Grenfell and green court SN

Grenfell tribute

Justice for Grenfell SN

Ian Waites, ‘Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time’



Ian Waites, Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time (Uniformbooks, July 2017)

This is a modest, gentle, elegiac evocation of an ordinary council estate of its time.  If that sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise, it shouldn’t.  I think this is an important little book – a corrective to our focus on the grand projects and architectural showpieces (for good or ill) and a reminder of the unassuming decency of the vast bulk of council housing.  Between 1945 and 1979, almost two-thirds of new council homes were located on so-called cottage estates.9781910010167Ian Waites moved with his parents to the Middlefield Lane Estate in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in 1964.  He brings that child’s experience, as well as the eye of his later incarnation as a lecturer in art and design at the University of Lincoln, to this account of Middlefield.

This ‘New Gainsborough’ (as the local press described it) was defined, as Waites tells us:

by the clean architectural lines of postwar modernism and by experimental ideas in planning which aimed to separate the car from the family.

This was an unfussy, humanist modernism – ‘the front of the house is plain, asymmetrical and rectilinear’ (though a parabolic concrete canopy over the front door adds a small high-tech touch). Wimpey were responsible for most of the estate’s design and build but the local council architect – ‘keen to keep Wimpey at bay’ – designed the maisonettes which made local children think they were living in Marineville (a Stingray reference to the uninitiated).

The Green grey

Waites points out too the small and easily overlooked detail: the Phosco P107 lampposts (‘the local authority lamppost of choice during the 1960s’); the large cobbles on some street corners designed to prevent cars and pedestrians from cutting across; the privet hedges, an earlier council favourite, delineating back gardens.  His photographs capture this detail and make us look at it anew.

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A ‘cut-through’ and privet hedges

That separation of traffic and people – recommended in the 1944 Dudley Report on housing design and layout and re-emphasised in the Government’s 1953 housing manual – was a more ubiquitous fashion of the age.  This was the Radburn style (named after the New Jersey town founded in 1929 as ‘a town for the motor age’) now generally excoriated for its loss of the ‘permeability’ and ‘natural surveillance’ of the street.  But in Middlefield it seemed to work: according to Waites, ‘the pedestrianised nature of the estate…gave its children an enormous space to play in’.

Another, more contemporarily, criticised feature of Middlefield and many like estates was its peripheral location – on the ‘distant rim’ of the town, in Waites’ words. This, in combination with the expansive, low-density nature of the estate, was the ‘prairie planning’ that architectural critics so despised in the new towns such as Harlow.  But early residents seemed to ‘have few complaints’ according to a 1964 press report, and most, apparently, liked the ‘fresh-air feeling’ of the estate.

The distant rim grey

The ‘distant rim’

The detritus of out-of-town suburbia has grown around the estate since then but a field remains, no longer growing wheat but providing grazing for a horse which nearby residents keep a solicitous eye on.  That space, that little bit of nature, remains valued.

In all, Middlefield epitomises what Waites calls the ‘paternalistic modernism’ of the post-war era.  And he cites, as a small but telling example of this, the communal aerial erected in 1965 intended to keep the estate tidy, free of the visual litter of individual TV aerials.  There’s no snobbery in pointing out that it is the individualism of Right to Buy which has done most damage to the ‘look’ and feel of estates since 1980.

And there, in essence, is the clash of values which has seen our council estates so scorned in recent years.  This ‘paternalism’ is often portrayed as heavy-handed, statist – a constraint on personal enterprise and freedom.  Waites should encourage us to rethink this lazy characterisation.

Trees grey

For one, ‘modernism’ had a personal meaning and value to those who experienced it first-hand on the new estates: ‘a bathroom and inside toilet, kitchen “tops”, hot and cold running water, a TV aerial socket, and a “picture-window”’. This was a new world to embrace; there was no romance in the slums.

And, furthermore, the residents:

were taking new decisions; they moved to the front.  In the old slum terraces, the front door was never used.  Everyone used the back door.  Now it was different. The residents began to live in the living room, rather than existing in the kitchen.

The baby park grey

The ‘baby park’

Much else, in Waites’ telling, is personal – the well-remembered and half-remembered friends, the playgrounds and dens of childhood.  And ‘open doors’:

People sat out in the sun on their doorstep while kids bombed up and down the footpaths on their bikes.

Maybe I’m being starry-eyed but this sounds like ‘community’ to me – paradoxically both the Holy Grail of post-war planning and allegedly its greatest victim.  Decent homes, salubrious surrounds, healthy play – everything the paternalistic social democratic state prescribed and, surely, what most of its citizens wanted.

I’ve provided a personal response to Ian Waites’ book. Do read it for more of Ian’s own recollections and insights and for the many well-chosen photographs which illustrate it.

Middlefield: a postwar council estate in time is available direct from Uniformbooks or from online booksellers and independent bookshops.

You can also follow Ian’s blog, Instances of a changed society.

Tackling the Slums: Addison and the Sanitary Inspectors: Part 2, 1914-1939



I’m very pleased today to feature the second of two guest posts by Dr Jill Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health and Housing at Middlesex University, covering the important and sometimes neglected work of our earliest environmental health practitioners. You can follow Jill on Twitter @Jill_L_Stewart and see more of her work on her personal website, Housing, Health, Creativity

As the Great War drew to its end, the Sanitary Inspectors put forth their values and vision for housing for a new era of Homes fit for Heroes to live in: (1)

Proper housing is necessary on account to our climate, which makes it requisite, or at all events, desirable, that we should have shelter and protection from the elements. Also, in accordance with our modern ideas of civilisation, having progressed beyond that age of cave-dwellers and gipsy life…it is also very necessary for the proper upbringing of our children, so that they may develop into a healthy and virile race, sound in body and mind, and worthy of our great Empire, which, in due course, it will be their duty to maintain.

Before the War, as we saw in last week’s post, some more progressive councils has begun the process of slum clearance and area redevelopment, but the situation was erratic across the country. The war-time Munitions Estates, based on garden city ideals, had provided good housing for munitions workers in locations including Well Hall, serving the Woolwich Arsenal. (2)

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Homes on Dickson Road in the Well Hall Estate

It is here that Dr Christopher Addison, then Minister of Munitions, later President of the Local Government Board and then the first Minister of Health, really comes to our attention for his work in state subsidised housing estates. As doctor turned learned politician, Addison’s understanding of poverty and health provided comprehensive impetus behind the Housing and Planning Act 1919 (Addison Act), recognising the need for council housing that was of decent quality and set in good environments in accordance with the recommendations of the 1918 Tudor Walters report.

However, there remained the perpetual problem of the thousands who continued to live in slums, despite ongoing interventions by the Sanitary Inspectors and Medical Officers of Health. This massive challenge resulted from sheer numbers, legal processes involved, and where to house those displaced by clearance.

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Many streets continue to bear Dr Christopher Addison’s name, the housing here shows Arts and Crafts influence. Photo Jill Stewart

Whilst still President of the Local Government Board, Addison received deputations from the London County Council and the Greater London Local Authorities supported by the Sanitary Inspectors and relating to government financial assistance for large scale slum clearance and local housing development. The deputation asked for two things: that the deficiency grant be similar for those displaced but remaining in the slum cleared area as those re-housed in land not previously built on; and that processes to acquire slums from landlords prior to clearance should be both cheaper and quicker. In turn, Addison urged those present to deal with sanitary areas and build new homes without delay in advance of the forthcoming new legislation.

Betrayal SNHowever with a lack of progress related to inadequate resource for both slum clearance and new houses fit for human habitation, the situation was bound to come to a head and, following the Government spending cuts of the 1922 Geddes Axe, Addison resigned. He published The Betrayal of the Slums in 1922, displaying fascinating insight and perception of what it meant to live in slums, the effect on health and costs to society. (3)

In Betrayal, Addison observed that in 1922 there were nearly a million ‘homes’ consisting of a maximum of two rooms, and that there was no nowhere else available for the tenants to relocate to. He referred to such places as entirely hindering people’s lives, development and opportunities, with no privacy, no opportunity for quiet or rest, no space for the mind and a ‘poison’ for the body. He clearly states the fact that this is entirely unacceptable for tenants and has wider cost to the rest of society: (4)

It is not the people’s fault that their life is spend in unsavoury tenements wherein they and, often enough, two or three other families have to share the same tap in the yard or on the next landing, as well as a dirty closet which it is nobody’s business in particular to keep clear. It is no fault of theirs that the mother of the family has only an ordinary fire grate in which to cook the meals and that the same room has to serve as a wash house, living room and bedrooms. It is not their fault that there is no possibility morning, noon or night for any member of the family to have any manner of privacy whatever; that the infant and the little child have to sleep in the room which other have to frequent when they come in for supper and during the evening; that is it not possible for fresh air to get through the tenement because if opens either on to a stuffy landing or is backed by another house; that boys and girls have to sleep in the same room together; that even at the time of birth, or in the hour of death, the same unyielding conditions, save for the kindliness of neighbours, similarly circumstances govern the whole conduct of their family life.

Following his resignation, Addison continued to campaign for better housing for the working classes and featured regularly in the early post-war editions of The Sanitary Inspector, praising their work and contribution to the housing process: (5)

The public are apt to forget the valuable work accomplished by the Sanitary Inspectors throughout the country, the steady maintenance of general conditions of effective sanitation is due to their devotion and toil under the guidance of the local Medical Officers of Health…The Sanitary Inspector is a hard-working and little praised official, who carries out much of the unpleasant work in keeping up the general level of the health services.

The Sanitary Journal discussed what the Inspectors found in the nation’s housing stock: houses that were originally built to cheap, low standards with bad materials and lack of planning and forethought. This was seen to aggravate deplorable conditions; overcrowding; rats, mice and vermin and reports on the substantial health effects. Unhealthy areas of slums, with underground rooms and back to backs regularly feature, referred to as an “evil trinity – dampness, darkness and dilapidation”. Tenants were seen as victims of their circumstance; and some landlords criticised for failing to take responsibility for repair (6).

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Sanitary Inspectors’ 35th Annual Conference, Buxton 1922. Reproduced by kind permission of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health

Between the wars, with a shortage of both rural and urban housing, overcrowding was particularly problematic. In a 1922 Sanitary Journal, a Mr JG Banks, Chief Sanitary Inspector at East Ham, said that overcrowding was ‘a national disaster for it must result in increased disease and mortality, immorality, drunkenness and vice being also fostered and fed in the overcrowded homes…’ (7).

Already overcrowded, many households were also forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet, leading to disease and premature mortality and, it was said, immorality, drunkenness and vice. By 1926 The Sanitary Journal reported a case of incest that the Judge directly attributed to the deplorable conditions the family lived in, and more widely the numerous common lodging houses in the street. Though the prisoner was found guilty, he was granted mercy; the Judge said that it was no one’s fault individually, but the fault of the country for allowing such housing conditions to exist. (8)

There was no let-up on poor housing and still little hope for those who had endured slum living sometimes across decades. There were numerous health risks relating to poor housing, and multiple physical and mental health effects as well as heightened risk of infectious disease such as tuberculosis and high child mortality.

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A mother and three children in a slum dwelling, c1920, from A and LG Delbert Evans, The Romance of the British Voluntary Hospital Movement (1930) (c) Wellcome Library and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Drainage remained paramount to the Sanitary Inspector’s role, affecting both hygiene standards, then a public health priority, but also the need to control rats, an ongoing problem. Much advice was given, such as in the lengthily-headed 1926 publication ‘Drainage and Sanitation: A practical exposition of the conditions vital to healthy buildings, their surroundings and construction, their ventilation, heating, lighting, water and waste services: for the use of architects, surveyors, engineers, health officers, sanitary inspectors, and for candidates preparing for the examinations of the various professional institutions’ as the diagram below shows.

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EH Blake, Drainage and Sanitation (BT Batsford Ltd, 1926). Image courtesy of the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University

The problem of rat infestation was further addressed in Stewart Swift’s work Housing Administration of 1938 (9)

Rats, mice and vermin not infrequently infest old and structurally unsound houses. In some cases they are present to such an extent as to render the house unfit for human habitation, and on every occasion they may be a contributory factor thereto. The sanitary inspector should pay particular attention to these pests, examining the house for their presence besides making inquiries from the tenant. Not every householder likes to admit the presence of vermin, and walls, back of pictures, bedding, etc., should be carefully scrutinised wherever necessary for the presence of vermin. The presence of rats frequently indicate defective drains or the presence of accumulations of matter and filth, which should be dealt with under the Public Health Act. The presence of vermin – the bed bug chiefly – may be such as to render a house unfit for human habitation, and in the case of very old houses it may be quite impossible to eradicate them from the premises.

The Housing Act 1930 forced slum clearance and area improvement programmes to house those displaced; it also introduced powers to reduce overcrowding but problems remained entrenched.

The full extent of the tenants’ plight was revealed in the 1935 social documentary Housing Problems.  Tenants present their own narratives of living in slum housing and problems with rat and insect infestations. The film reveals the sheer length of time – sometimes decades – that many families had to endure such poor, sometimes dangerous and decaying living conditions and how they tried to cope with rats, overcrowding, no internal water supply or WC, child mortality, trying to cook next to the bed, with homes decaying around them and how this meant that they had to live their lives.


‘Slum housing’ (1937) (c) London Metropolitan Archives.

However the film also offers hope. It shows two then innovative ideas of new working class housing schemes at Quarry Hill in Leeds (10) and Kensal House in Ladbroke Grove (11). Now suddenly with an option for new housing, tenants describe their excitement and dreams for their new homes. A Second World War was of course not then on the horizon but, for many, their municipal dreams had once again to be put on hold.

Dr Jill Stewart (


(1) The Sanitary Inspector, 1918: 11

(2) The Historical England webpage First World War: Wartime Architecture provides some useful background.

(3) Addison, C., The Betrayal of the Slums (Herbert Jenkins Ltd , 1922)

(4) Addison, pp62-63

(5) Addison, C., ‘The Sanitary Inspector: his Valuable Work’, The Sanitary Journal, (1922) p104

(6) The Sanitary Journal (1924)

(7) The Sanitary Journal (1922) p202

(8) The Sanitary Journal, The Housing Problem [Referring to Birmingham Daily Post, 3 February 1926], (1926) p148

(9) Swift, S., Housing Administration (2nd ed), (Shaw and Sons Ltd, 1938) p85

(10) See also Ravetz, A., Model estate: planned housing at Quarry Hill, Leeds, (Croom Helm, 1974)

(11) Stewart, J. (2016) Housing and Hope: the influence of the interwar years in England, (available at the iTunes Store)

Tackling the Slums: Inspectors of Nuisance and the Sanitary Inspectors: Part 1, 1848-1914


I’m pleased to feature the first of two very interesting guest posts by Dr Jill Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health and Housing at Middlesex University.  They cover the important, sometimes neglected, work of our earliest environmental health practitioners. You can follow Jill on Twitter @Jill_L_Stewart and see more of her work on her personal website, Housing, Health, Creativity

The idea of a job dedicated to dealing with industrial smells, boiling bones, accumulations of filth, offensive trades, drains, effluvia from public graves, abattoirs and sewage contaminated basements may not be everyone’s ideal career path. Thomas Fresh apparently thought otherwise and practically invented this new job for himself in the progressive borough of Liverpool (1).

The aptly named Fresh effectively became the first Inspector of Nuisance statutorily appointed by Public Health Act 1848, setting the path for a professional trail of Sanitary Inspectors, Public Health Inspectors and latterly Environmental Health Practitioners to intervene into environmental factors affecting the health of the nation.

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No 7 Pheasant Court, Gray’s Inn Lane, from Sanitory Progress [sic], the fifth report of the National Philanthropic Association (1850) (c) Wellcome Library and made available under a Creative Commons licence

Many had been pushing for the state to intervene in public health for some time although there was also much opposition.  Those proposing change included Edwin Chadwick who first linked environmental conditions and health in The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population  in 1842, which he researched and publicised at his own expense. (2)

Chadwick and many other prominent figures continued to wrongly attribute disease causation to miasma, or ‘foul air’, yet many of the interventions instigated were to nevertheless show improvements in health. Chadwick became the first president of the Association of Sanitary Inspectors in 1884. Sanitary Inspectors – in some places still named Inspector of Nuisance – were seen as the ‘practical doers’ who intervened in poor housing (amongst other things), working closely with the higher status – and far higher paid – Medical Officers of Health.

Surprisingly little has been written about the major role of the Inspectors charged with dealing with the nation’s poorest housing stock. However the stage was set for new legislative provision to be developed and enacted.

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Lodging house in Field Lane, from Hector Gavin, Sanitary Ramblings (1848) (c) Wellcome Library and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The Common Lodging Houses Act 1851 sought to respond to the complex social and health issues found in such shared accommodation. It required that such premises met certain registration and hygiene standards as shown in the extract from an Inspector of Nuisance’s 1899 notebook below, together with the recommended sleeping arrangements.

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Common lodge pic SN

Both illustrations taken from William Henry Tucker’s Inspector of Nuisance notebook, Cardiff, dated 1899 onward. Permission to copy given by Dr Hugh Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Public Health

A range of other legislation followed, providing new powers for local authorities to intervene into certain housing conditions but with limited remit. These included the Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act 1851 and the Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Acts (Cross Acts) of 1875 and 1879.  The latter provided powers to intervene in unfit housing, and clear (with compulsory purchase powers) and redevelop land for improvement for the working classes. The Public Health Act of 1875 enabled proactive local authorities to adopt bye-laws to control building standards and the situation remained erratic across the country.

Local authorities were reluctant to do much due to the substantial costs involved. The Housing of the Working Classes Act 1885 required proper sanitary conditions with an implied condition of ‘fitness’ for habitation – a provision to broadly remain in place until 2004. The Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890 consolidated various acts, with provisions dealing with unhealthy areas and improvement schemes, unfit housing and powers to provide lodging houses, but there was no funding. (3)

An 1896 edition of the Sanitary Inspectors Journal said: (4)

To pave streets, to construct sewers and to drain houses, however necessary these works may be, are among the least important of the duties which devolve upon the Sanitary Authority. But to improve the social condition of the poorer classes, to check the spread of disease and the prolong the term of human life, are works of high and ennobling character and are duties which devolve upon the Local Authority…It is often found that when an intelligent artisan has once become acquainted with the advantages of any of the laws of civilisation, he is not slow to avail himself of their aid, and habits of cleanliness [once] formed, his sensibilities become improved to such an extent that he will not live in a room which is unhealthy, or in a house that has bad drains.

This edition also reported on cases of houses unfit for habitation. In one case, the owner was summoned for allowing a nuisance caused by damp sites, defective gutterings, gullies and water closets. The council wanted the landlords to remove the wet clay floors and cover with concrete, leaving ventilation space under the joists and asked for the garden to be lowered and properly paved, estimating a cost of £84. Evidence presented included detail of a neighbour’s death from diphtheria and stagnant water under the floors. The Bench ordered the owner to execute the works within a month and allowed £3 3s costs.


‘Boundary Street: slum housing’ (1890) (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

One of London’s most notorious slums – the Old Nichol – is brought to life in Sarah Wise’s excellent book The Blackest Streets, the title based on Booth’s work around the chronic poverty he had found in that area (5). Thousands of residents lived in poor conditions in around thirty streets. The mortality rate was around twice as high as the rest of Bethnal Green.

The book presents all the challenges faced by the inspectors, with resonance today: how to assess and respond to areas of slum housing; difficulties in identifying owners; rents payable in relation to condition; appropriate level of compensation payable to owners in lieu of loss of property; social isolation; effects on behaviour. In the clearance process, not just homes but livelihoods and communities were displaced and lost. It is reported that of the 5719 residents moved out of this cleared area, only eleven moved back because the rents in the new arts and crafts-inspired buildings were too expensive; an early example of what we would now call ‘gentrification’.


‘Boundary Estate: Arnold Circus’ (1903) – before the bandstand was added (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage,

The resulting new Boundary Estate was to become the London County Council’s first ever council housing, funded locally, and completed in 1900.

With a link of environment and health now firmly established, housing interventions began to take greater prominence as across the county – albeit erratically – poor housing was linked to higher morbidity and mortality with overcrowding, common lodging houses, poor drainage, narrow streets, people living in cellars, inadequate water supplies. More progressive boroughs developed bye-laws to address the worst housing, with positive health outcomes emerging where conditions were tackled. Housing was to take prominence in health debates with Sanitary Inspectors frequently to the fore (6).

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The Corporation of Wimbledon Sanitary Department, 1907.  Reproduced by kind permission of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

The Housing and Town Planning Act 1909 helped local authorities control development and introduced some development controls, such as prohibiting back to back houses. In 1909, the Sanitary Journal reported that Leeds persisted in these and concern was expressed that such property was unhealthy. Concern was expressed that Sanitary Inspectors were trying to do all they could but the magistrates did not always back them up. There was still the bureaucracy of the Medical Officer of Health to make representation to the local authority regarding each house unfit for habitation. Still less than one per cent of housing stock had been provided by municipal and philanthropic activity.

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Plans and pictures of back-to-back  houses in Nottingham, from First Report of the Commission on the State of the Large Towns (1844) (c) Wellcome Library and made available under a Creative Commons licence

By 1910 the Sanitary Inspectors were frustrated at lack of investment into housing and the problems this led to in their work: (7)

Many other towns have tackled bad houses, and yet the sum total of what has been done only touches the fringe of the problem, the solving of which under the Housing of the Working Classes Acts is a financial impossibility. Five million people at the very least are living in houses that require improvement.

In the lead up to the First World War, though still sporadic in practices across the country, the Sanitary Inspectors Association was really becoming a national force to be reckoned with as local government departments consolidated their functions. They argued that ‘everyone person who is interested in the housing problem knows that healthy homes cannot be provided at rents to suit the means of the poor on land that costs more than £300 per acre’. They already felt it highly improbable that the private market would provide affordable housing for the poorer classes and argued that the state should provide funding for housing.


‘Grotto Place: slum housing’ (1914) in Southwark (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

In 1910 the Sanitary Inspectors were very clear on the importance of healthy housing: (7)

The removal of existing evils will be slow. It is said that the people cannot be improved by legislation, but legislation certainly indicates the trend of public opinion, and on the subject of housing, public opinion is steadily growing and in time will be sufficiently strong to sweep away hovels that are called houses, and will provide the people houses fit to live in, and for the children places other than insanitary back streets to play in. Towards that object let me urge all present, whether members of officials of Sanitary Authorities, to do all that lies in their power, for nothing is of greater importance than that our children, the greatest asset of the nation, should grow up in a healthy environment, with healthy bodies and minds, so that they will be able to solve for themselves higher and more important problems than the Housing of the People.

In next week’s post we again focus on the little spoken-of housing powers of the inspector’s work that tackled chronic slum housing conditions and area clearance between the wars.  By then, Sanitary Inspectors and others had informed the decision of the state to fund council house building  to replace slums and a new era of ‘municipal dreams’ would emerge.

Dr Jill Stewart (


(1) Parkinson, N. in Stewart, J. (ed), Pioneers in Public Health: lessons from history (Routledge, 2017)

(2) Edwin Chadwick,  The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842)

(3) Parliament’s ‘Improving Towns’ webpage provides a useful legislative timeline.

(4) Sanitary Inspectors Journal (1896)

(5) Wise, S. The Blackest Streets: the life and death of a Victorian slum (Vintage Books, 2009)

(6) Hatchett, W., et al. The Stuff of Life: Public Health in Edwardian Britain (CIEH, 2012)

(7) The Sanitary Journal (1910)


Grenfell Tower


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For almost four decades, we have been taught to see public spending as a bad thing; ruthless economising as a virtue.  We have come to know the price of everything and the value of nothing…and have ended with the funeral pyre of Grenfell Tower. 

Three days after the night of Wednesday 14 June, I still haven’t written anything about Grenfell Tower.  I’ve been trying to process the tragedy emotionally and intellectually. Even the pronoun jars.  This is – or should be – all about the pain and anger felt by the victims of the tower block fire. Those feelings are shared by many but have been appropriated by a few to fit their existing worldviews, to serve pre-existing agenda. In the meantime, it seems every journalist has become an expert, every pundit has their opinion.

Grenfell nowI do know a bit about social housing but I’m certainly not an expert on all the issues raised by Grenfell Tower.  This is an attempt to look at some of the questions raised and to query some of the responses already emerging.

The first and most important questions are without doubt technical.  The flammability of the cladding has already been criticised but, beyond that, we need to look at the ‘compartmentalisation’ behind and around it which is supposed to isolate and contain any outbreak of fire.  It failed disastrously at Grenfell Tower.

The predominant British model of passive fire protection (using means which prevent the spread of fire, rather than sprinkler systems and the like which extinguish it) is a perfectly sound one but, by God, it has to work.  Why didn’t it at Grenfell?

This takes us to building standards and fire regulations.  There’s a consensus they need updating and a strong belief that Government has resisted that for reasons of cost-cutting and convenience.  We need to know how these standards and regulations are being applied and we have to ensure that those whose job it is to inspect and enforce have all the resources and authority they need.

This is not an issue about tower blocks – which can be as safe as any other form of building. We must resist those who are using Grenfell to attack tower blocks more generally.  Tower blocks provide decent homes for many thousands. The image of Grenfell’s burnt hulk will be used as some dystopic cipher for high-rise failure and the notion that tower block living is to be despised. The truth is that tower blocks, including council built ones, are back in fashion and many social housing tenants are being displaced from blocks in desirable London postcodes.

Grenfell early

The tower in 2011 (c) Inigma, Wikimapia

But there’s something more and we’ve seen it powerfully on our TV screens for days. Grenfell Tower was home to a community. Families, friends, neighbours together and all, of course, intimately connected – cared for and about – to others in our wider community.  Can this awful event please put an end to the demonising stereotypes so frequently and so crudely applied to our fellow citizens who live in social housing?

Grenfell Tower also tells us little about the inherent design and build quality of tower blocks as a whole.  The sometime failure of system-building methods was devastatingly exposed in the Ronan Point disaster of May 1968. Grenfell may yet be its equivalent for the glitzy cladding refurbs which have become so prevalent.  Here it seems near certain that it is the tower’s recent renovation that is culpable for the loss of life which followed.

And then there are those who are using the disaster to condemn social housing more generally.  There’s room for informed discussion about housing types and models.  There should be no room for any attack on the single form of housing provision offering secure and genuinely affordable homes to those who need them most.

A second set of questions revolves around management and accountability.  The block’s landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) has come under enormous criticism, most powerfully from the unofficial tenants’ Grenfell Action Group.  Its criticisms of the recent refurbishment and tenants’ safety fears were ignored – with the consequences we now know all too well.

Criticism of impersonal and unaccountable landlords is common enough (and probably more prevalent in the private sector, let’s remember) but, here, it’s being applied to the new registered social landlords that have largely replaced council housing departments since the 1980s. The Kensington and Chelsea TMO was formed, uniquely, by a borough-wide transfer of housing – 9700 homes in all – from the Conservative-controlled council in 1996.  It doesn’t conform well to the generally more bottom-up model that TMO’s were supposed to represent.

The irony is that the new landlords were a reaction to the Council bureaucracies which had previously managed social housing and were promoted by advocates as more responsive and more representative.  Often, they were.  I’m not going to comment on Kensington and Chelsea – I don’t have the information I need – but a general criticism of any given system of housing management is probably unhelpful.  Frankly, council control could be good or bad. What counts in every case are forms of genuine accountability and clear and open lines of communication.  Let’s remember that when it comes to their housing, tenants are the experts.

Thirdly, and underlying everything said so far here and elsewhere, comes MONEY.  For almost four decades, we have been taught to see public spending as a bad thing; ruthless economising as a virtue.  We have come to know the price of everything and the value of nothing…and have ended with the funeral pyre of Grenfell Tower.

Every one of the criticisms made above is essentially about cost – about how much or how little we as a nation are prepared to spend on the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.  Public investment enriches lives; here it would have saved them.  The best memorial to all those who have lost their lives in Grenfell is that we as a nation choose collectively to invest in safe and secure public housing for all who need it.

The Blackbird Leys Estate, Oxford: ‘Never accepted as part of the city proper’


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This is the 200th post on the blog.  I’ll be participating this week in the ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s‘ conference at Oxford Brookes University.  For that reason, I hope you’ll forgive a repost – the first to date – of this piece on the Blackbird Leys Estate which seemed appropriate. Rosamund West, who contributed an earlier post on the blog, will be there too, speaking on ‘Replanning Communities through Architecture and Art: the post-war London County Council’. 

Blackbird Leys, situated on the south-eastern periphery of Oxford, is to all appearances a pretty ordinary, not to say humdrum, council estate.  But it’s achieved notoriety.  Some of this is typical of unloved and maligned marginal estates throughout the country but it’s loomed larger in Blackbird Leys and came to a peak in 1991 when three days of rioting followed a police crackdown on joyriding.

1925 production line

Cowley, 1925

Oxford’s history of town and gown disputation is well-known but the divisions within the city grew after William Morris built his first car in 1913.  From those small beginnings emerged the Morris car factory in Cowley, employing some 20,000 people by the 1970s. Oxford acquired an industrial working class and had to deal with it.

Blackbird Leys was one response.  The city’s population had grown massively in the interwar period and demand for housing was high – there were 5000 on the council waiting list in 1946 and Morris Cars were expanding.   Council planners saw the ‘final solution’ to the housing shortage in the development of large estates on the eastern and south-eastern fringes of the city.


Planning permission was granted in 1953 on 260 acres of land then occupied by a sewage works and farm in Blackbird Leys for an estate of 2800 dwellings with a projected population of 10,000.

The first residents moved in to what was still essentially a building site in 1958.  Work continued over several phases into the seventies when the original scheme was largely complete.

A further expansion took place with the development of the Greater Leys estate on adjoining land in the mid-1980s. Around 14,000 people live in the area now.

Druce Way maisonettes 1960s

Druce Way maisonettes, 1960s

Gentian Road, 1960s

A few residents had moved from a slum clearance area in the city centre and some from temporary housing erected during the war.  Most of the men worked in the car factory and around half the population in the sixties had moved from elsewhere – from Scotland and Ireland in large numbers and from elsewhere in England – for employment.

There were tensions here already that the estate itself did little to warrant.  A local newspaper wrote that the (1):

unlit building sites, inadequate police supervision, parental apathy and the provision of a public house catering mainly for young people, has provided the perfect setting for the idle, the mischievous, and the more sinister night people.

Who were these ‘sinister night people’?  They surely weren’t as exciting as they sound but the phrase gives an early indication of the power of the media to shape perceptions and spread alarm.

Some residents surveyed in Frances Reynolds’ extensive analysis of the estate resented the former slum dwellers:

I don’t like it up here getting all the tail end. It’s a disgusting place. Putting all the backend up here won’t give people like us a chance to make this a decent place to live.

But those who saw themselves as ‘respectable’ might be equally resented by others:

from the beginning the estate was associated with ‘foreign’ workers come to get rich at the factories, with large rough families, and to a lesser extent with slum clearance. It was never accepted as part of the city proper and its reputation began the downward spiral…

From the outset, Blackbird Leys carried a stigma and many of its people felt ignored or victimised in equal measure despite the fact that it was in these early years predominantly an estate of the skilled and employed working class.

One resident recalls (2):

There was this big problem of being labelled. People were not able to get credit and hire purchase if they said they came from Blackbird Leys. Even the vicar could not get a phone in without having to pay in advance. None of us knew why. It was a brand new estate with no past as far as we were concerned. People working at the car works were among the best paid manual workers in Oxford.

That was Carole Roberts who had moved to the estate aged 14 from London when her father found work in the car factory.  She went on to become a Labour Lord Mayor of Oxford but Blackbird Leys would remain her home.

The outstanding feature of the new estate, however, was its demography.  It was built for families and in the sixties one quarter of its population was under five years of age, another quarter of school age.  There were a lot of kids on the estate and later a lot of teenagers.

As to the design of the estate, in a word, it’s unexceptional – which points to both its good and bad aspects.  It was solid, slightly ‘boxy’ housing – good accommodation in and of itself though space standards fell in later years.

Merlin Road

Field Avenue flats

Two fifteen-storey tower blocks with four two-bedroom flats on each floor were opened in 1960s. The Conservative mayor of Oxford who opened Windrush Tower in 1962 described the building as ‘modern living at its best’. But it wasn’t long before the common problems of lack of play space for younger children, lifts breaking down and vandalism of communal areas were being reported.

Evenlode Tower with Windrush Tower to rear © Wikimedia Commons

Evenlode Tower with Windrush Tower to rear © Wikimedia Commons

Housing density was relatively high and many complained about poor noise insulation.

According to one resident:

They put you all so close together yet it’s a big estate.  I can’t explain it. My neighbours are friendly and yet it’s not a friendly place.  I think it’s because we’re all so close together that there’s always somebody doing something to annoy you, if it’s only music, or lighting a bonfire, or mending a car, it’s because we’re all packed together.

The quote also points beyond straightforward design failings to what sociologists have termed ‘neighbourhood sensitivity’ – a reduced tolerance to the behaviour of others reflecting social differences within the community.

Blackbird Leys – despite the easy stereotype of council estates – was not homogeneous.  The divisions which existed between ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ residents, between owner occupiers (already 20 per cent by 1981) and council tenants,  and between those of different backgrounds  – though ethnicity itself was never a significant flashpoint – reduced tolerance of behaviours beyond the observer’s norm.

The estate was provided open space – particularly in the cul-de-sacs which were built in the early sixties – and later a large recreation ground but these were often not seen as ‘safe’ areas for younger children or inviting areas more generally.  A single large community centre was provided but community amenities as a whole were thin on the ground. [I have added a response to this post by a resident of Blackbird Leys in the comments below which speaks positively of both the planning of the Estate and its current community spirit.]


Each of these elements are the quite normal features and failings of estates designed in the post-war rush to build – and build economically.  But they came together in Blackbird Leys in peculiarly combustible form.  The final piece in the jigsaw came in the estate’s changing demographics.

The 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act – alongside the unanticipated impact of Mrs Thatcher’s right to buy legislation and the halting of council new-build – ensured that ‘vulnerable’ tenants came to form a large part of new tenancies.  This trend was strengthened by the reality that such tenants –in urgent need of housing – were far more likely to be housed in less popular estates with a more rapid turnover of occupants such as Blackbird Leys.

At the same time the eighties’ collapse of the manufacturing economy hit the estate’s economic mainstay.  By the early eighties, the proportion of male heads of household classified as ‘skilled’ had fallen from half to little over a third.  In the same period, the rate of unemployment on the estate peaked at 20 per cent and 50 per cent for those aged 16 to 19.

Statistics indicate that by this time Blackbird Leys was a ‘problem’ estate with more than its fair share of ‘problem’ families.  To select just a couple of examples, the estate contained 15 per cent of the city’s children and 30 per cent of those under social services supervision;  it contained 17 per cent of juveniles (aged 10 to 16) but 27 per cent of those prosecuted for crime.

Of course, such figures are not ‘innocent’.  Residents felt unfairly labelled and ‘picked on’ by the agencies of the state.  The estate’s reputation may also have highlighted problems which were contained or treated differently elsewhere.  Still, the sociological fine-tuning didn’t alter the lived reality of an estate seen by outsiders – and, increasingly, by its own residents – as crime-ridden and dysfunctional.  The residents’ reporting of their own experience of crime or troublesome neighbours confirms this truth even if it’s understood as a complex one.

HottingAll this came to a head in September 1991.  ‘Hotting’ – the theft of cars followed by displays of driving prowess on the estate’s streets – had become a local sport for some of Blackbird Leys’ youngsters.  A police crackdown was met by resistance when up to 150 youths stoned riot-geared police officers.


An academic analysis describing such activity as ‘carnivalesque’ is probably designed to enrage Daily Mail readers but the pleasure and meaning of it for participants – in its thrill-seeking and oppositional nature – should be understood.(3)  It was correct to blame media attention – some spoke more darkly of media incitement – for giving a distorted picture of the estate but clearly something had gone wrong.  These marginalised youth on a marginal estate were expressing something, however inchoately.

Another, very different, expression of the local community’s disaffection with the powers-that-be came in 2002 with the election of an Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) councillor, defeating Labour, for the estate.  At peak, the IWCA returned four local representatives.  The IWCA stood on an unashamedly populist platform which stressed New Labour’s abandonment of its class loyalties and called for local action against crime and drug-dealing – against those seen as ‘lumpen’ elements of the local proletariat.

All in all, this seems less a municipal dream, more a municipal nightmare. What more needs to be said?

Well, this for a start, though perhaps it comes too late to challenge all the negatives – two thirds of residents in Reynolds’ survey liked the estate and had no intention of moving.  These contented residents reported they were happy with their homes, their neighbours and neighbourhoods and local facilities.  They were also more likely to have relatives living on the estate.

Mrs Knight, 79 years old, got on well with the local children:

They’re ever so friendly. They call out Hello Nellie when I’m in the street.  They’re never any trouble.  It’s a wonderful place…

A few years later perhaps some of them were stoning the police.

Just last year, a resident who had lived on the estate for 51 years stated (4):

I love it here, even if I won the lottery I wouldn’t move. The area is peaceful, it’s lovely and all the neighbours get on with each other, it’s that community spirit.   Blackbird Leys has so many facilities for children and adults and there’s a lot to do if you are prepared to go ahead and find it.

I don’t claim that these views are representative but they do add nuance.  Council estates are not just bricks and mortar; they reflect complex human dynamics within and the impact of – often very difficult and damaging – political and economic currents without.

Blackbird Leys remains a significantly deprived area: in 2010 Northfield Brook ward was amongst the 10 per cent most deprived in the country – a long way from the ‘dreaming spires’, a marginal estate in every sense of the word.(5)


The Glow Tree which evolved out of a community arts project was unveiled outside the Blackbird Leys Community Centre in 2006.

But Blackbird Leys has always had a community which has survived its problems and battled the stereotypes.  That community exists today in its homes and streets and, semi-officially, in that complex nexus of self-help and state-sponsored regeneration which has emerged since 1997. Crime has fallen drastically, new facilities have been built, black spots eradicated – much has been done (too much according to some disgruntled Oxford residents who feel Blackbird Leys has been singled out for favourable attention) and much remains to be done.

If that seems an anodyne conclusion maybe it’s the only one that captures the past and present contradictions of the estate’s story: never the New Jerusalem, nor ever the Hell on Earth that many portrayed.


(1) This quote and unattributed quotes that follow are taken from Frances Reynolds, The Problem Housing Estate. An account of Omega and its people (1986) – Omega was the name Reynolds gave the estate to preserve its anonymity.

(2) Quoted in ‘We’re proud of our estate‘, Oxford Mail, 27 November 1998

(3) Mike Presdee, Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime (2000)

(4) Quoted in ‘Project unveils history of Blackbird Leys‘, Oxford Mail, 9 March 2012

(5) Oxford Safer Communities Partnership, The Indices of Deprivation, 2010: Oxford Results

BBC Oxford has pages on the Development of Blackbird Leys and the ‘Community Troubles‘ of 1991.  The stills of ‘hotting’ and rioting above are taken from the latter.


A Radical Riverscape: Architecture and Revolution down the Fleet


I’m pleased to share another guest post this week; this by Mike Althorpe, aka the London Ambler. This post, based on one of Mike’s guided walks, traces the fascinating housing history and politics of one of London’s most radical quarters. I’ll be participating, alongside author Owen Hatherley and art historian Rosamund West, in Mike’s next tour of the Fleet on June 3.

Of all of London’s great hidden waterways, none can claim the radicalism of the River Fleet. Weaving a route from Highgate to the Thames it has been both life source and life taker, carving out a landscape that became the epicentre for Victorian speculators and have-a-go railway pioneers, but also a landscape where London’s social campaigners, civic reformers and revolutionary agitators found their voice and their architectural expression.


Farringdon Road and the Metropolitan Railway, 1868

To trace its course today, through modern day Kings Cross, Clerkenwell and Farringdon is to reveal the memories of a set of ideas and episodes in housing and urban form that were to have profound national consequences for the UK.

The upper part of the Fleet was locally called the Bagnigge and it was upon the Bagnigge Marsh or Wash where new ideas in housing were pioneered. The river valley defined rich and poor. Put simply, for most of the 19th century the money held the high ground and those without waded in the marsh sharing cheap rents with a host of ramshackle warehouses, service yards, hospitals and factories.

In 1845, living conditions for the poor in Pentonville were deemed critical enough for the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes to step in with one of the earliest philanthropic housing ventures in London. On a narrow strip of land behind Calthorpe Street, they created a ‘Model Street’ of 15 buildings for 23 families in a variety of unit types arranged as two respectable terraces.

Bagnigge housing

The ‘model dwellings’ in Pentonville

In one of them there were 30 rooms designated for widows and single women. It was a major advance, but was panned due to its cramped proportions. Writing at the time of its completion The Builder, an influential trade journal of the day, called it a ‘disgrace’, adding that if they didn’t buck their ideas up:

they will rear a hot-bed for infection, and throw a great impediment in the way of that improvement which they profess to seek.

Learning from the mistakes of the Society, just upstream on Wicklow Street, the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (IIDC) created one of its most outstanding model tenement schemes, Derby Buildings by their builder architect Matthew Allen in 1865.


Derby Buildings (c) Mike Althorpe

The design of the blocks was the outcome of years of refinement loosely based on Henry Robert’s Great Exhibition model dwelling cottages of 1851. At Kings Cross, the IIDC scaled up the idea and gave it a heroic urban form with wrought iron access decks taking pride of place at the street. It was architecture where function and the necessity of plan, creating decent space and good ventilation, led. Many more followed.

The IIDC’s site had been left over by the creation of the Metropolitan Railway who smashed out 50 houses and displaced many local residents in the process. This was a story repeated down the length of the Fleet. The valley was a frenzy of commercial activity. As the railway pushed its way down to Farringdon it laid waste to poor neighbourhoods.


Railway cutting from Farringdon (c) Mike Althorpe

In the 1870s the Metropolitan Board of Works stepped in to make good the destruction, acquiring sites via compulsory purchase and selling them at a discount to private builders who would provide new affordable housing. At the edge of Clerkenwell Green, the Peabody Trust was offered one such site and completed Pear Tree Court, one of its characteristic artisan estates in London stock and Suffolk white brick. Clean and straightforward but, for many critics, monotonous and barracks-like.


Pear Tree Court (c) Mike Althorpe

Critics also highlighted that Peabody, common with many philanthropic housing ventures at the time, operated a strict tenant policy aimed at ‘the deserving poor’. This basically meant that it rehoused those morally upstanding members of the working class who had got married, had stable jobs and the economic means to exercise some choice in their lives. If you were unmarried, jobless, in casual low-paid work or homeless you wouldn’t qualify. It meant therefore that many in most urgent need of housing continued to suffer and were pushed outwards from the area.

By the 1880s, a number of parliamentary acts had been passed to improve working-class housing but the powers and machinery of local government – particularly in London – were grossly inadequate to the task. At a district level, some 30 local vestries existed, most rate-payer dominated and unwilling to act. The Clerkenwell Vestry, on the east side of the Fleet, however, was an unusually activist body as its new town hall, built in avant-garde arts and crafts style in the 1890s, testified.

Finsbury Town Hall (24)

Finsbury Town Hall

In 1900, this became home to Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council – one of the 28 new boroughs created in a radical reform of London’s lower tier of local government.  Finsbury would maintain its predecessor’s reforming traditions.

The controversial problem of London’s strategic governance had been dealt with earlier. The Metropolitan Board of Works, established in 1855 to oversee sewerage, streets and bridges, had long been criticised as unfit for purpose – undemocratic (it was indirectly elected by the vestries and district boards) and, in part, corrupt. The establishment, in 1889, of the London County Council (LCC) transformed this picture and its vision and drive was early manifested in the valley of the Fleet where the new municipal government inherited the Rosebery Avenue urban improvement scheme from its predecessor and expanded and completed it in grand style.


The Rosebery Avenue viaduct from Warner Street (c) Mike Althorpe

Straddling the Fleet Valley by means of a hidden viaduct between Clerkenwell and Holborn and engineered by the Edward Bazalgette (son of Joseph of the engineering dynasty), Rosebery Avenue was a new type of joined up urban improvement. It provided not only improved communication across the river valley, but land for housing, for business, civic infrastructure and amenities, tramways, public toilets, gardens and fire station. Clerkenwell Vestry’s new town hall at its northerly end was recognition of this transformation.

At the turn of the twentieth century where once Georgian slums and Dickensian rookeries stood, the LCC could claim this part of the Fleet valley as a piece of model city, a practical monument to social and urban progress which they continued to develop upon. A few years later, on the western side of the valley in Holborn, work started on the Bourne Estate, the third in a new generation of large council housing schemes by the LCC after its celebrated work in Bethnal Green and Millbank.


The Bourne Estate

Elsewhere on the slopes of the Fleet and later in the century, a confident Finsbury Borough Council embraced revolutionary architecture to demonstrate their commitment to social progress, pushing building design further than any other authority in the country had previously dared.

Behind Exmouth Market they completed the Finsbury Health Centre in 1938. Local in purpose, its bold modernist design by Russian émigré architect, Berthold Lubetkin, was ground-breaking and it became a rallying call across the UK for a bold new tomorrow, cementing Finsbury’s reputation as one of the most radical and progressive local authorities in the country and inspiring those campaigning for a National Health Service and an integrated Welfare State.


The Finsbury Health Centre (c) Mike Althorpe

Lubetkin’s association with the borough of Finbury went deep. In his architecture, the leaders of the council had at last found its radical form. It was bold and it was the future. As the health centre was completed, he turned his attention to housing and began work on designing what became the Spa Green Estate, commissioned in 1938 but completed after the war in 1949.

Spa Green Estate

The Spa Green Estate

During the post-war years, to the north of the borough and up the hill from Bagnigge Wash and 90 years on from the IIDC blocks on Wicklow Street, Finsbury’s resolve was unshakable. Sweeping away Georgian terraces and squares originally built for the rich, the tiny borough continued to punch well above its weight and created Bevin Court in 1954, Y-shaped block of 112 flats and maisonettes designed again by Lubetkin.


Bevin Court

With its gymnastic display of concrete engineering and patterns of alternating balconies and windows, Bevin was inspired by the work of constructivist architects in Russia and it is here that the revolutionary spirit of Finsbury perhaps beats at its strongest with the block marking the site of Lenin’s 1903 London home. It was between here and the secret printing press downstream at Clerkenwell Green that revolution in Russia was forged.

With an election looming a walk through the valley of the Fleet is reminder of London’s own radical inheritance. While some of our most severe urban social problems may now lie elsewhere, it is a landscape loaded with the landmarks of a struggle that in 2017 is as poignant and perhaps as urgent as ever.

There are a few remaining places left for the 3 June walk, A Radical Riverscape: Architecture and Revolution down the Fleet. Click the link if you’d like to book.

You can follow Mike on Instagram and on Twitter.

Harlow: ‘Sculpture Town’


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Last week’s post looked at the ideals which generated Harlow New Town’s unique programme of public art works and its early years.  Frederick Gibberd, Harlow’s architect-planner, had envisaged its civic centre as ‘home to the finest works of art’ both a homage to the past and its Renaissance glories and a mark of the cultured urbanism aspired to in England’s new Elizabethan age.

This is a record of my visit last year, an eclectic mix therefore, rather than a comprehensive record  a sympathetic attempt to see and understand the works in situ and in the context of the mission Gibberd proclaimed.

By the early sixties, Harlow town centre – Gibberd’s broadly conceived civic centre – was taking off. FE McWilliam’s Portrait Figure­, stands in West Walk, bought by the Harlow Art Trust in 1957 after featuring in the London County Council’s open-air sculpture exhibition that year. It’s a portrayal of the sculptor Elisabeth Frink when McWilliam’s student at the Chelsea School of Art.

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FE McWilliam, Eve (1956)

Another female figure of much greater vintage was acquired in 1960.  Auguste Rodin’s Eve (part of an unfinished duo – Rodin died before completing Adam) can be found in the Water Gardens rather awkwardly placed just in front of Five Guys – a burger chain, nothing more laddish.

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Auguste Rodin, Eve (1882)

Not too far away is Ralph Brown’s Meat Porters, commissioned by the Trust from the artist (persuaded to change its original and appropriate name, Figures with a Carcass) and placed in the recently completed Market Square in 1961: ‘a focus of views in two kinds of civic space, a square and a street…and a pivot between them’.  There’s also something fitting, though far less high-minded, about its current backdrop.  It’s another striking work which seems to have a happy association with Harlow childhoods.

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Ralph Brown, Meat Porters 1959)

Gibberd’s Civic Square – his Florentine piazza – and its complement, the Water Gardens, were completed in 1963.  I’ll confess to missing one of the latter’s most striking elements, William Mitchell’s Seven Reliefs/Mosaics which served as fountain heads for the Garden’s elongated water features – my apologies to the redoubtable artist who, born 1925, remains alive and kicking.  That perhaps is a commentary on the now truncated form of this space.  Despite Grade II listing and a vigorous campaign by the Twentieth Century Society, Lady Pat Gibberd and others, new values took priority and, if you Google ‘Harlow Water Gardens’ now you’re more likely to be directed to the ‘300,000 sq ft of retail space and a 70,000 sq ft new town hall’ completed in 2004.

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The front page of this early brochure on Harlow shows the Water Gardens and Mitchell’s reliefs in their original form and place. The first Town Hall stands to the rear.

Also easily missed is a work entitled Returning from Work placed at the entrance of Harlow’s Central Library, ‘assumed’ by the Harlow Art Trust to be by Carl Heinz Müller and purchased in 1963.

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Carl Heinz Muller, Returning from Work (date unknown)

The New Town was taking off and its now bustling centre received another notable sculpture, Trigon, by Lynn Chadwick, bronze-cast in a Swiss foundry and placed in Broad Walk in 1966.  It’s reminiscent in form of another of Chadwick’s works, The Watchers, placed by the LCC in the Alton Estate in the same year.

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Lynn Chadwick, Trigon (1961)

Back in the Water Gardens, Elisabeth Frink’s Boar, though small, is a more eye-catching work.  It was Frink’s first commission, in 1957, the result of a visit by the then Patricia Fox-Edwards to the artist’s 1952 exhibition at the Chelsea School of Art.  Originally made of concrete, it was first placed in Bush Fair, the second of Harlow’s neighbourhoods to be completed, but weathering and vandalism caused it to be recast in bronze and relocated in its present position in 1970. (1)  By 1973, the Harlow Art Trust had installed 27 sculptural works on public sites across the town.

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Elisabeth Frink, Boar (1957) in its original location

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Boar, recast in 1970, in its current location

Leon Underwood’s clenched fist is Not in Anger.  The original Portland stone version was sculpted in 1925 and can now be seen at the Gibberd Garden designed by Gibberd himself in his later years and surrounding the home, a few miles from Harlow, which he occupied until his death in 1984. The cast bronze version was purchased by the Trust in 1979 and now has a place in The Stow neighbourhood centre.

SN Underwood Not in Anger

Leon Underwood, Not in Anger (1975)

Another re-sited work is Echo by Lithuanian-born Antanas Bradzys placed, in 1970, within the Staple Tye shopping centre and moved to an adjacent nearby when the centre was redeveloped.

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Antanas Bradzys, Echo (1970)

Three other works by Bradzys feature in Harlow; the largest and the one most remarked upon by residents for its location and visibility is Solo Flight (1982), commissioned by the Harvey Centre and located in the shopping mall until replaced by a lift.  It now occupies a striking position on First Avenue across from the St Mary-at-Latton church though it’s more likely to be noticed by passing traffic than walkers-by.

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Antanas Bradzys, Solo Flight (1982)

Since this is a blog dedicated to celebrating the work of local government and unfairly maligned local councillors I’m pleased to record that it’s been dedicated in its new site to the memory of Sonia Anderson, a Labour councillor in Harlow for 41 years and onetime trustee of the Harlow Art Trust:  a champion of ‘social causes, the arts and education’, who died in 1998.  She had arrived in England, courtesy of the Red Cross, a refugee from Nazism of German Communist parents.  To her grandson, she taught ‘the importance of a broad education, reading and the arts…to see past people’s foibles and stand by what you believe in’. (2)  In this, she seems to personify the very best of what Harlow stood for.

Westgate, a rather depressed corner of Harlow town centre, might seem to represent some loss of that vision but it still houses Still Life by Fred Watson, his first major commission in 1985.  Its books surely represent a more elevated of their purpose than the premises just behind.

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Fred Watson, Still Life (1985-86)

Anthony Hawken’s Iceni, 1995, a tribute to the Celtic tribe, stands outside a smaller terrace of shops in Colt Hatch, incongruous perhaps but in a good way – a significant artwork placed in the midst of an unremarkable suburban setting.

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Anthony Hawken, Iceni (1995)

Shenzhou by Simon Packard is one of the most recent additions to the Harlow scene, commissioned by the Harlow Heath Centres Trust in 2008 and prominently located in the new Addison House Health Centre.  Perhaps that much-visited site, as much as its arresting form and fabric, accounts for the attention it has received, not all of it complimentary.  ‘It looks like it’s done out of tinfoil’, according to one observer. (3)

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Simon Packard, Shenzhou (2008)

And finally on my way back to the station I noticed Butterfly, made by Madeline Allen for Barratt Homes in 2008 and sited off Fifth Avenue in a modern housing development.

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Madeline Allen, Butterfly (2008)

I went to look at the housing – you can find my earlier blogs on the early years of the New Town and its later development by following the links – but I came away glad to have seen such an array of public art, sometimes for its incongruity but more often for its quality and presence. It was good to see the civic realm – it seems an antiquated phrase nowadays – so prized; pleasing to see Harlow continuing to attempt to live up to its founding values from that era when a post-war Labour government sought to ‘assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation’.

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Gwen Dymond, Harlow (1968) – a celebration by a local artist of some of the town’s major landmarks

In Lucy Lippard’s words, ‘public art is accessible art of any kind that cares about/challenges/involves and consults for or with whom it is made’. (4)  Has Harlow’s collection lived up those ideals?   The evidence seems mixed.  Clare Healey found just under half of her local respondents thinking that its public art made the town ‘a distinctive place to live’, a little under a third believing it had added to their sense of identity. But then again, almost half wanted more public art.

Typically, her sample liked most those works to which they connected personally on some level – Family Group, Meat Porters and Still Life were singled out in this way and ‘it became clear that residents had trouble relating to the more modem and abstract pieces in Harlow’.  That, I suppose, is a tribute to the gentle humanism which typified earlier post-war works.

All that might seem a limited response to the idealistic vision outlined by Frederick Gibberd on the town’s inception but that ‘taken-for-grantedness’ might be taken as natural as Harlow and the other New Towns become more ‘ordinary’ places.  Familiarity – the fact that these varied works become so easily part of the unremarked day-to-day background of busy lives – breeds, if not contempt, a certain casual disregard.  I dare say the citizens of Florence pass by Michelangelo’s David (or at least its current replica) outside the Palazzo della Signoria on a daily basis without so much as a glance.

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As a visitor, I remain impressed by the range and quality of Harlow’s artworks and grateful for their placement amidst shops and streets and houses.  For Gibberd the ‘purpose of the sculpture [was] not to decorate the town.  It [was] not a form of costume jewellery’. Rather it was: (5)

To be enjoyed for its own sake as visual art, and to add interest and visual diversity to the urban spaces in which it is set.

In those terms, certainly, Harlow’s efforts have succeeded. ‘Sculpture Town’ may be a bit of touristic rebranding but Harlow deserves the accolade


(1) Historic England, Wild Boar Sculpture

(2) Cole Henley, ‘Phenomenal People: who’s your inspiring woman?’ (March 2012)

(3) Quoted in Clare Healey, ‘Is Public Art a Waste of Space? An Investigation into Residents’ Attitudes to Public Art in Harlow’, MSc in the Built Environment, University of London, 2008

(4) Quoted in Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (1997)

(5) Quoted in the Historic England exhibition, ‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’, Somerset House, February-April 2016. The exhibition is currently showing, free entry, at Bessie Surtees House, Newcastle upon Tyne

Details of the artworks are taken from Harlow Arts Trust, Sculpture in Harlow (2005)

Harlow New Town: ‘Home to the finest works of art’


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There aren’t too many people perhaps who would compare Harlow to Florence, or at least not favourably, but withhold the cynicism because the Italian city did inspire an important part of the New Town’s founding vision. Frederick Gibberd, Harlow’s architect-planner, believed that the ‘Civic Centre should be home to the finest works of art, as it is in Florence and other splendid cities’.  Later, his book Town Design set out his vision of the ‘kind of environment he hoped to achieve, one in which the creative arts were to be valued and given an important role in the community’. (1)

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Gerda Rubinstein, Portrait bust – Sir Frederick Gibberd (1979) in the Gibberd Gallery, Harlow Civic Centre

What follows is a roughly chronological run-through of some of the sculptures and art works dotted around Harlow which aimed to fulfil the ideals of Gibberd and those who supported him. It’s not a comprehensive account – the Harlow Sculpture Trail guide lists 84 works across Harlow – but rather a record of those which caught my eye when I walked the town (it was a long walk!) last year. (2)

It looks at their origin and form and, in practical terms, it looks at them in their physical context rather than as isolated works of art – not in an ‘ironic’ way but rather in an attempt to assess the extent to which what we’d now call Gibberd’s place-making has been successful in giving Harlow and its community a shared sense of civic pride and identity.

To begin with, though, there is a broader context – a post-war world which, in the words of Labour’s 1945 election-winning manifesto, aimed ‘to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation’.  The open-air sculpture exhibitions organised by the LCC in 1948 were only one aspect of this but its first great flowering was the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Of the many works of art commissioned specifically for the Festival, four were to find their way to Harlow in its earliest days, their transfer approved by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, Hugh Dalton.

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Barbara Hepworth, Contrapuntal Forms (1951)

By far the most celebrated of these was Barbara Hepworth’s Contrapuntal Forms, initially created for the Arts Council with a South Bank setting.  Hepworth herself wanted it placed in the Civic Centre – perhaps echoing Gibberd’s own sense of its defining role and status – but, with that being very much work in progress, she accepted it be located in one of the first residential areas completed, Glebelands in the Mark Hall neighbourhood.

Their reception seems to have been mixed.  A local pub landlord thought he could have done no worse with his own hammer and chisel; local women apparently asked why posts for clothes lines were erected – they would have been more useful.  A ‘water-works engineer’s wife and mother of three small children’, whose windows directly overlooked the work: (3)

Felt disappointed when the figures came. Most of us did. A couple of tall, flat-headed forms with holes through their middles. I can understand something beautiful, or something really grotesque…but these, I can’t see where the art comes in.

But she smiled and added, ‘if they were not there we should miss them’.  And indeed, when a proposal was made to re-site it centrally, local residents objected to losing ‘their sculpture’.  It remains in its suburban setting, perhaps accepted as much as loved but a local fixture nonetheless.

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Part of Alan Sorrell’s Working Boats from Around the British Coast (1951)

Another Festival of Britain piece was Alan Sorrell’s Working Boats from Around the British Coast, originally made to decorate the Nelson Bar on HMS Campania, a converted aircraft carrier which toured the country’s ports as a mobile exhibit for the Festival.  In Harlow, it originally found a place in the Moot Hall, the 19th century vicarage converted to serve as a community centre for Mark Hall but disappeared from view till acquired by the National Maritime Gallery in 2014. (4)

A third seems to have been the design of the architect Leonard Manasseh for a bar – the ’51 Bar – at the Festival site itself but details of how and in what form this reached Harlow are sketchy. Does anyone know?  Manasseh himself died, aged 100, in March this year – the last surviving architect to have been directly associated with the Festival.

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John Piper’s The Englishman’s Home 1951) in location at the Festival of Britain

The trajectory of John Piper’s mural The Englishman’s Home, the final Festival piece to be relocated, is much clearer.  Its home was initially the Assembly Hall of the Harlow Technical College where it remained until 1992 when the building was remodelled and subsequently demolished.  You’ll find it now, ‘price on request’, with Liss Llewelyn Fine Art in Bond Street. (5)  The small black and white image of the work in place on the South Bank hardly does justice to its rich and dramatic use of colour and form.

All this might seem a little careless but, despite these losses, Harlow has cherished and greatly expanded its arts collection and we’ll examine a cross-section of the wide range of works which remain in place in the paragraphs which follow.

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Mary Spencer Watson, Chiron (1953)

With Mark Hall the first neighbourhood completed and the Stow as its first neighbourhood centre, it was fitting that Chiron (the eldest and wisest of centaurs in Greek mythology) by Mary Spencer Watson was placed before the Moot Hall in 1953, a celebration of the coronation.

Chiron was donated by the Harlow Development Corporation but in June 1953 the Harlow Art Trust was formed to oversee future acquisitions.  The Trust was, as you might expect at the time, a body of the great and the good – its first chair was Philip Hendy, Director of the National Gallery and among the trustees were the philanthropist Patricia Fox-Edwards and Gibberd himself. Ms Fox-Edwards would become Lady Gibberd in 1972 when she married Frederick after the death of his first wife.  Fox-Edwards was the youngest trustee – she eventually succeeded Hendy as chair in 1971 – but she played a formative role in the Trust’s early development, visiting degree shows and researching the work of young sculptors to buy or commission.

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Henry Moore, Harlow Family Group (1954)

The signature acquisition of the Trust at this time, however, was commissioned from one of the most celebrated of contemporary sculptors, Henry Moore who happened to live not far from Harlow in Perry Green.  Moore suggested a work ‘conceived on human and classical lines’ and his Harlow Family Group possessed a striking resonance for a New Town dubbed by the Daily Mirror ‘Pram Town’: in 1957, almost one in five of Harlow’s population was below school age.  Moore himself had recently become a father too.

It was unveiled in May 1956 by Sir Kenneth Clarke, the chair of the Arts Council, who congratulated Harlow ‘on behalf of all those who believed in civilisation – for maintaining the great tradition of urban civilisation in making a work of art a focal centre of a new town’.  Quite an imprimatur. Originally placed on an open site near St Mary-at-Latton church in Mark Hall, the Times report suggests it gained an early popularity: (6)

Within an hour of its unveiling, the Family had already entered into the life of Harlow. Small boys were getting up on the pedestal, clambering over the woman and taking occupation of the empty place in the man’s lap. At one moment, indeed, the family of three had expanded to one of seven.

Although it was later moved and now occupies a site in the main foyer of the new Civic Centre, it seems to have retained its hold on the affection of local people, singled out as special to Harlow and linked with the personal memories and childhood associations of its residents. (7)

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Henry Moore, Upright Motive No 2 (1955-56)

Just outside the Civic Centre in the remodelled Water Gardens lies another Moore sculpture, Upright Motive No 2, also created by Moore in the mid-1950s but bought by the Trust in 1963 with the aid of the Gulbenkian Foundation.

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Willi Soukop, Donkey (1935)

In contrast, there’s something charmingly homely about both the setting and the form of Willi Soukop’s Donkey. The original was cast in 1935 for Dartington Hall in Devon but this version was made for Harlow in 1955 and placed unobtrusively in the middle of an ordinary-looking (though, in fact, architect-designed – by Jim Cadbury-Brown) housing estate in Mark Hall South.  It’s actually quite hard to find but seek it out, adjacent to 5 Pittmans Field, and you might treasure it as much as this young girl did.

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An earlier image (c) Harlow Museum

You can continue to follow this journey and the chronology of Harlow’s public art in next week’s post.


You can read my earlier posts on the origins and early years of Harlow New Town and its later evolution by following the links.


(1) Gilliam Whiteley, ‘Introduction’, Harlow Arts Trust, Sculpture in Harlow (2005)

(2) Harlow Sculpture Map

(3) ‘Miss Hepworth Puzzles a Town: the Contrapuntals’, Yorkshire Post and Intelligencer, 29 December 1951

(4) Royal Museums Greenwich Collection, Working Boats from around the British Coast

(5) Liss Fine Art, John Piper: The Englishman’s Home, 1951

(6) ‘Mr Moore’s “Family Group”: Work Commissioned for New Town’, The Times, 18 May 1956

(7) Clare Healey, ‘Is Public Art a Waste of Space? An Investigation into Residents’ Attitudes to Public Art in Harlow’, MSc in the Built Environment, University of London, 2008