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.

SN McWilliam Portrait Figure

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.

SN Rodin Eve

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.

SN Brown Meat Porters

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.

SN Mitchell 2

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.

SN Muller Returning from Work

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.

SN Chadwick Trigon

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.

SN Frink Boar 2

Elisabeth Frink, Boar (1957) in its original location

SN Frink Boar

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.

SN Brazdys Echo

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.

SN Brazdys Solo Flight

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.

SN Harlow Sculpture Town


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)

SN Gibberd bust

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.

SN Hepworth Contrapuntal Forms

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.

SN Sorrell Boats

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.

SN Chiron

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.

SN Moore Family Group

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)

SN Moore Upright Motive No 2

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.

SN Soukop

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.

SN Soukop Donkey 2

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

The Speke Estate, Liverpool II: ‘Speke is not Sarajevo; Speke is quite a nice estate’


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Last week’s post left Speke, in the 1960s, a thriving community. It would be easy now to focus on its decline and later troubles, to lapse into the language of ‘failure’ that has been affixed so readily to it and other council estates with its implication of some Original Sin, some fatal flaw of conception and planning but, in fact, the Estate has been a good home to many people over time.

The McCartney family were early residents.  Paul spent his early years in 72 Western Avenue and then at 12 Ardwick Road in Speke. The Harrisons lived in a tiny terraced house with outside toilet in Wavertree until, in 1950, they and George moved to a brand new council house at 25 Upton Green, Speke.  (You can read more about the childhood homes of the Beatles in an earlier blog post.)

George Harrison Upton Green Speke

George Harrison at 25 Upton Green, Speke

Their success story could hardly be typical but plenty of others look back to these years fondly.  You’ll find many of these recollections on the community forums but I’ll begin with one example – from ‘Gillian’ who thought she had better write something or else risk collapsing in ‘floods of sentimental tears’: (1)

My family moved to Speke 1950; from what they had moved from this was luxury. My sister Agnes told me about everything being new, hot running water, toilets inside, the only downside to this paradise was for a while was it was a building site, very, very muddy. In time things changed but it was very much a community, groups and activities were formed. OK, there wasn’t enough schools but other arrangements were made.

She remembers spending time at what passed for the local beach on the Mersey shoreline at Oglet. She recalls her own childhood home, a small block of flats ‘with their three floors of landings and stairs [which] had been brushed and scrubbed and neatly finished off with whiter than white edges and front doorsteps’.

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Central Avenue

Another correspondent, resident in Speke for over forty years describes it as ‘a great place to live in the 60s and some of the early 70s’.  But, in a common refrain, he’d ‘seen it change over the years’: (2)

It used to be a lovely place to live…

I lived by the Park when I was younger and it was a lovely park.  There were bowling greens, tennis courts, the lads could play football.

It was a good area for employment when I was younger…

You won’t miss the elegiac tone in those comments, something more than a typical nostalgia for younger days. Those comments contain their own codas: ‘a lovely place to live…Yes, about ten or fifteen years ago’; ‘a good area for employment…and now there is nothing’.

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Ardwick Road

Speke did suffer from the outset from its location some seven miles from the city centre. The 45-minute bus ride wasn’t too much of an issue so long as the Estate was, as planned, relatively ‘self-contained’ and economically self-sufficient but that isolation – that sense of ‘an enclave surrounded entirely by the barrier of roads, fields, the airport runway and the River Mersey’ later proved a problem.

Dunlop Rubber Co Works and Environs, Speke, 1952 EAW047310 (c) Historic England Britain from Above

‘Dunlop Rubber Co, Works and Environs, Speke, 1952’ EAW047310, Britain from Above (c) Historic England

The major problem, though, was the collapse of a once vibrant local economy.  Between 1978 and 1985, Liverpool as a whole lost 40,000 jobs but Speke was particularly hard hit.  British Leyland had opened its Speke Number Two Plant in 1970. Industrial relations were poor and the TR7 unsuccessful. The closure of the plant and 3000 redundancies were announced in 1978.  Dunlop announced the closure of its Speke factory with the loss of 2400 jobs in 1979.

Eddie Loyden, the local Labour MP, estimated 8000 jobs lost in his constituency in two years: (3)

If one recalls the dream of the post-war period that Merseyside would develop alternative industries to deal with the decline in the docks, in transport and in warehousing, upon which the city had depended for so long, one can see the serious problem on Merseyside.

Loyden would lose his seat to the Conservatives in 1979 and the first attempt to revive Speke’s fortunes was signature Thatcherism – the creation of the Speke Enterprise Zone in 1981. Enterprise Zones offered tax breaks and infrastructure incentives to private companies to relocate to areas of high unemployment.

In Speke, however, the (more or less) free market failed to work its magic – not a single company opened in the Speke Airport Enterprise Zone. As one later observer noted: (4)

Even with the tax incentives nobody wanted to come here – the place still looked awful, still felt awful, still performed really poorly…The area was extremely unwell, almost terminally ill, and the [Enterprise Zone] was like a couple of paracetamol.

The creation of the Merseyside Development Corporation in 1981 was a small boost but, in Speke, nothing much happened until the formation of the Speke Garston Development Corporation in 1996, a joint initiative between the North West Development Agency and Liverpool City Council benefiting from some £14m government funding. (5)

Economic regeneration efforts have continued. Liverpool Vision – an economic development company (the first Urban Regeneration Company established in England) – was established in 1999 and from 2008 has funded the redevelopment of Speke’s district centre. The arrival of Morrisons, Iceland and TK Maxx, alongside smaller retailers, mark the retail successes now taken as an essential marker of economic well-being.

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The new Speke Centre

Overall, it’s reckoned that 20,000 jobs have been created locally by the late 2000s though many of these were in the new biopharmaceutical and biomanufacturing sectors – skilled employment in an area where, only a few years earlier, 43 per cent of people had classified themselves as unskilled. (6) The success of Jaguar Land Rover’s Halewood plant just across Speke Boulevard, with its workforce of around 4200, is a welcome boost to more traditional working-class employment in the area – a further £130m extension was announced in January this year. (7)  Printing firms Prinovis and Communisis are also providing good jobs to local people. (8)

In reality, none of this is easy. It’s true that earlier and more direct interventions by the local and national state created substantial employment in Speke’s early years (boosted by the war and post-war prosperity) into the 1970s. But, despite the vigorous efforts of the local labour movement to retain jobs, globalisation (abetted by neoliberalism) has taken its toll on this generation of industry and has created an unemployed working class ill-fitted to the new high-tech industries.  Call centres – aided by the perceived friendliness of the Scouse accent – sprang up in Speke in the 1990s and, no doubt, more zero-hours, unskilled jobs have been created since. (9)

SN Central Avenue

Central Avenue

Meanwhile, an estate which had once catered for a disproportionately (and relatively) affluent Liverpool working-class – those in work who could be reliably expected to pay above-average council rents – was now one of the poorest areas of the city, indeed of the country.  In 2000 it was the judged the second most deprived ward in England; only Benchill in Wythenshawe fared worse.  In 2002, average household income was £5000 below the city average.  Those statistics reflected the high unemployment in Speke (in 2001 over 8 per cent of the ‘economically active’ were unemployed compared to the national average of 3.4 per cent) and the high level of sickness and disability (almost 17 per cent; over three times the national average).

SN All Saints Road

All Saints Road

This was an indication of both the economic tsunami which had befallen Speke in particular and the more general transition of council housing since the 1970s to housing for the least well-off of our society.  In Speke itself around 46 per cent of homes remained social rented but that term denotes another shift – from ‘Corpy’ houses to housing association, largely the result of a large-scale voluntary transfer of stock from the Council to South Liverpool Housing in 1999.

Urban regeneration (as opposed to economic) has affected Speke too.  As the population fell and unsightly voids rose, some housing was ‘tinned up’ and then demolished (which added its own sense of blight for a period) in the late 1980s, some unpopular maisonette blocks were ‘top-downed’, and some new housing built.  The scheme announced by South Liverpool Homes in 2012 offers a cameo of this new world – 110 ‘residential units’ in all: 66 for ‘affordable rent’, 16 for shared ownership and 28 for private sale. (10)  In this case, it is perhaps not so far from the founding vision of Speke as a township ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’.

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New South Liverpool Housing scheme (artist’s impression)

The difficulties of social engineering through housing design and tenure are well illustrated by the story of the Dymchurch Estate, built earlier on the western edge of Speke to accommodate predominantly older people.  The Estate’s closed court, Radburn-style layout proved unpopular and its homes were increasingly allocated to young and transient single people: ‘the flats became notorious for drug abuse and giro drops’. (11)

For a time Dymchurch was judged locally to the worst part of Speke (the Liverpool Housing Trust has led later regeneration efforts) but the Estate’s residents had become to a more generalised stigmatisation – the taxi-drivers who would refuse to drive to the area were typically the most visible element of this.  Paddy Ashdown, then Liberal Democrat leader, visited in 1998 (presumably he didn’t need a taxi) and likened Speke to Sarajevo, then in the throes of civil war.

That was a gross caricature as one resident commented: (12)

Speke is not Sarajevo; Speke is quite a nice estate. The only problem is that you have people, who come flying in here, there and everywhere who actually don’t live on the estate, nor can they see the potential of what is going to happen over the next few years.

SN South Liverpool HousingAnd indeed much has happened since then.  I won’t privilege my own flying visit over the knowledge and experience of local residents who I invite to add their own impressions but the Estate looked fine to me, its housing in good nick, not visibly depressed and with very little evidence of vandalism and anti-social behaviour and certainly none out of the ordinary.  New schools, a new library, a revived shopping centre look to have lifted the Estate and, of course, it continues to offer decent homes to many.

The story of Speke continues. The story to date is, unavoidably perhaps, of high ambition only partially or perhaps briefly fulfilled – a reminder that we need an economy that works for people as much as those people need good, affordable housing.


(1) This quote from 2012 and the following from 2014 are from the Speke Guestbook.

(2) The following quotes are drawn from David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’ in Ronaldo Munck (ed), Reinventing the City?: Liverpool in Comparative Perspective  (2003)

(3) Eddie Loyden, House of Commons Debate, Dunlop Plant, Speke (Closure), 26 March 1979

(4) Rob Monaghan (Liverpool Vison) quoted in London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Enterprise Zones: Only One Piece of the Economic Regeneration Puzzle (July 2012)

(5) Thomas Ellerton, Exploring the impact of New Labour urban regeneration policy at the local scale: the implications of an approach to ‘joining-up’ on the coordination of urban regeneration, University of Sheffield PhD thesis (April 2014)

(6) Pavan Mehta, The Impact of Urban Regeneration on Local Housing Markets – A Case Study of Liverpool (ND)

(7) Alistair Houghton, ‘Jaguar Land Rover Extending Halewood in £130m Investment‘, Liverpool Echo, 30 January 2017

(8) My thanks to Kenn Taylor whose comment above pointed me to this positive detail.

(9) Linda Grant, ‘Calm Yourself Down’, The Guardian, 10 July 1999

(10) Homes and Communities Agency, Speke Regeneration Liverpool (November 2013)

(11) Liverpool Housing Trust quoted in David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’

(12) Quoted in David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’

The Speke Estate, Liverpool: a ‘satellite town…planned to accommodate all classes of the community’


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Speke, lying just over seven miles south-east of Liverpool’s city centre, wasn’t planned as just another large council estate.  The Corporation envisaged it as a ‘satellite town…planned to accommodate all classes of the community’. (1)  At times, the reach of that ambition must have seemed close to fulfilment but by the 1980s some called it – and not in a good way – ‘Beirut’ or, a few years later as civil war raged in the former Yugoslavia, ‘Sarajevo’. (2)  That was never fair and much has changed since.  This post looks at the longer history, the hopes and the fears and the more complex story of the community’s ups and downs.

Housing estate, Speke

‘Housing Estate, Speke’

Liverpool – a securely (though idiosyncratically) Conservative authority until 1956 – built over 42,000 council homes in the interwar period, most in large cottage suburbs such as Norris Green, some famously in imposing ‘Continental-style’ tenement blocks.  The Speke Estate represented another strand in this ambitious agenda, providing not just housing but employment as the Corporation sought far-sightedly to shift the city from its dependence on precarious and low-waged dock labour.

The keystone of this approach lay in the 1926 Liverpool Corporation Act which empowered the council to develop industrial estates and parallel housing developments. The Corporation bought the Speke estate – the local gentry family had died out in 1921 and the land had been placed in trust –for £200,000 in 1928.   Then in the neighbouring Rural District of Whiston, the area was formally incorporated into the County Borough of Liverpool in 1932.

Speke Aiport (c) Dave Wood Creative Commons

Speke Airport’s original terminal building, built 1937-40 to the designs of EH Bloomfield of Liverpool Corporation Land Stewards and Surveyors Office (c) Dave Wood and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Speke Airport, operational from 1930, was the first fruit of this new venture – one of 35 municipal airports opened between 1929 and 1937.  Near at hand lay the Speke Industrial Estate, the first factory completed in 1934.  By 1939, 28 factories were built or under construction, eleven of these provided directly by the Corporation which also advanced over £300,000 in loans to encourage firms to locate in the new estate.  Some 7000 jobs had been provided, most – as war loomed – in the government airframe factory. (3)

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A contemporary image of Little Heath Road

Factories needed workers.  At the same time, Liverpool citizens living in the city’s many slums needed decent homes.  In 1935, the Corporation had committed itself to an eight-year programme clearing 15,692 slums and the construction, within five years, of some 5000 new homes.  The Corporation’s transfer of 650 acres of land in Speke to the Housing Committee in April 1936 was central to these plans.

By 1939, 1631 homes had been completed on the Estate although demand was much higher. Companies drawn to the industrial estate by the lure of local housing for its workforce complained about slow progress and the failure of the Corporation to fulfil its side of the bargain; Rootes alone claimed it needed 1285 homes for its workers. (4)  This urgency led to Speke’s early housing being built without subsidy under the 1925 Housing Act.

Lancelot Keay

Lancelot Keay

Just over 50 per cent of this housing were parlour homes, a high percentage in these straitened times and an indication of the prestige of the Speke scheme and the commitment of Speke’s mastermind Lancelot Keay, Liverpool’s dynamic Director of Housing, to high-quality housing.  Even the non-parlour homes were – at 750 square feet – relatively spacious and included upstairs bathrooms. (5)  The rents – reaching 18s 6d (92.5p) for a three-bed parlour home in 1939 – were relatively high and, although some 88 per cent of heads of household were classed as skilled or semi-skilled, there were reports of a high turnover of former central slum dwellers who had moved to the Estate. (6)

These homes were, in the fashion of the day, laid out on ‘Garden City’ lines though, in this case, the lines themselves were rather pronounced.  The existing village of Speke housed around 400; its parish church was judged ‘not of such importance as to be made the focal point of the new development’.

SN 1936 Report Plan 1

A 1936 proposal for the layout of Speke, later modified, drawn from Keay’s 1936 Report to the Housing Committee

Furthermore, the ‘absence of any natural features, the levels of the grounds, and the regularity of the boundaries,…all tended to suggest a formal layout and the consequent need of a central spacious boulevard and one main cross-road’. (6)  Western Avenue running north-south and Central Avenue east-west continue to mark that original plan with the Estate’s basic grid broken up by the cul-de-sac ways and closes which nodded towards Ebenezer Howard’s more bucolic ideals.

Speke plan

A post-war layout scheme, from Gale. Modern Housing Estates (1948)

Typically, for all community ideals proclaimed at the Estate’s inception, other facilities were slow to follow.  In 1941, tenants were complaining that only three shops had been provided though they had been resident for two years.  (7)

The war had naturally hindered further construction though the important military role of the airport and industrial estate no doubt played its part in the permission granted to build an additional 367 houses during the war itself.  Post-war efforts were dedicated – in the words of Labour’s 1945 election poster, to winning the peace. The attempt to fulfil Speke’s founding ideals was redoubled.

In 1949 Stanley Gale described Speke as ‘unique among housing estates developed by local authorities’.  Although it was not yet a ‘self-contained community’ as planned, its 29 factories were reported to employ some 11,000 workers; the completion of the Estate’s 6000 homes confidently projected.

Greyhound Farm Road, Speke

Greyhound Farm Road, Speke (later the home of the actor Leonard Rossiter)

It’s worth looking at the detail of the latter: that total was made up of over 5143 two- to four-bed family homes with living room and dining room (the change of terminology from ‘parlour’ was itself telling of new times), 250 cottage flats for the elderly, 92 single person flats, and 221 two- to four-bed flats for families with living room and dining room.

This was the ‘mixed development’ – a larger range of housing types to accommodate people in different life stages and circumstances (though, as yet, without high-rise) – which became standard in the post-war years.  In Speke, there was an important added element to reflect that original intent to ‘accommodate all classes of the community’ – 294 large houses with garages and four bedrooms for ‘professional men, managers, etc.’. (8)

Houses with garages Speke

‘Houses with garages’, Speke

Here Speke had anticipated the ethos of the New Towns programme launched in 1946 and reflected the vision which Aneurin Bevan – who argued council housing shouldn’t be just for the poor – outlined eloquently in 1949.  Bevan insisted that the ‘segregation of the different income groups [was] a wholly evil thing’, creating ‘castrated communities’, and his new Housing Act removed the stipulation that it be specified as working-class housing.

Gerneth Road Speke

Gerneth Road, Speke

Lancelot Keay, who considered Speke his last major project, echoed these ideals and hoped, in 1946, to oversee the scheme’s completion – ‘a projected community of about 30,000 persons with all the buildings that will be necessary and with houses for all those who may desire to share in the life of that community’ – in three years. (9)  In a period of such genuine austerity that was over-optimistic.  Keay retired in 1948.  The Estate was completed in the late 1950s with those 6000 homes and a population (its peak population as it happened) of around 25,000.

But Keay understood that Speke’s new community required more than just good housing.  It was, he said:

most essential that we should endeavour to bring back a greater measure of gaiety into the lives of ordinary people.  They should have the opportunity of enjoying all those excitements and pleasantries of life which are too often reserved for those in the higher-income levels. It is for this reason that a central community building will provide, with its dance hall, concert hall and restaurant, for the pleasures as well as the adult education of the people.

The phrasing remains a little patrician, a little ‘improving’ although there’s no mistaking the good intent.  That good intent, however, was slow to be fulfilled.  Keay’s successor as Director of Housing, Ronald Bradbury lamented three years into his term (he served till 1970) that it had ‘not been possible as yet, owing to present conditions, to erect the Civic libraries, departmental stores, swimming baths, hotels, etc., for which sites have been reserved’.  (10)

Austin Rawlinson Swimming Baths, Speke

Austin Rawlinson Swimming Baths, c1965

Speke Central Library

Speke Central Library, c1965

The new Austin Rawlinson Swimming Bath and Civic Laundry (named after a local swimming Olympian and national coach) and Speke Central Library weren’t opened till 1965.

We’ll leave Speke in its heyday – a place with decent housing, facilities and, most importantly – always the economic underpinning of working-class prosperity – good jobs. Next week’s post will examine its later more troubled history and recent attempts to revive the Estate conceived with such high hopes.


(1) ‘Housing Progress at Liverpool: Estate for all classes’, The Times, 17 September 1937

(2) David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’ in Ronaldo Munck (ed), Reinventing the City?: Liverpool in Comparative Perspective  (2003)

(3) Stephen V. Ward, ‘Local industrial promotion and development policies 1899-1940’, Local Economy, vol. 5, no. 2, August 1990

(4) Madeline McKenna, The Development of Suburban Council Housing Estates in Liverpool between the Wars, University of Liverpool PhD, 1986

(5) Colin G Pooley and Sandra Irish, The Development of Corporation Housing in Liverpool, 1869-1945, University of Lancaster, Resource Paper for the Centre for North West Regional Studies (1984)

(6) City of Liverpool Housing Committee, Speke Estate: Report of the Director of Housing on a Proposal for the Building of a Self-Contained Community Unit, 21 October 1936

(7) Pooley and Irish, The Development of Corporation Housing in Liverpool, 1869-1945

(8) Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates (London, 1949)

(9) LH Keay, ‘Post-war Housing’, RIBA Journal, vol 53, no 7, May 1946

(10) Ronald Bradbury, ‘The Technique of Municipal Housing in England: with Particular Reference to Liverpool’, The Town Planning Review, vol 22, no 1, April 1951

Most of the earlier black and white images are drawn from Liverpool Corporation, Liverpool Builds 1945-1965 (1967)

Mobilising Housing Histories: Learning from London’s Past: a Review

Peter Guillerry and David Kroll (eds), Mobilising Housing Histories: Learning from London’s Past (RIBA Publishing, 2017)

Back in July 2013, in the very early days of this blog, I attended an invaluable conference hosted by the Institute of Historical Research entitled ‘Mobilising London Housing Histories: the Provision of Homes since 1850’.  I’m pleased to see some of the fine contributions to that conference collected and revised for publication in this new book.  It’s a diverse volume, though pleasingly designed and well-illustrated throughout, with no central theme other than that we can and should learn from our housing history.  As David Kroll’s Introduction suggests:

The book does not provide solutions, but rather affords glimpses into aspects of how similar problems to those faced now were dealt with in the past.

To get the most from the book, accept that simple premise and, in the meantime, enjoy some well-researched and well-written chapters covering a wide range of London’s housing history.


Given the prevalence and continuing and evolving significance of later Victorian and Edwardian speculative housing in the capital – predominantly those terraced homes whose popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years but which now, in London’s overheated housing market, often provide very desirable residences indeed – it’s right and proper that these feature heavily.

The Minet Estate in Lambeth, the ‘miles of silly little dirty houses’ (as they were described by Eric Gill) in south Battersea, gentrified Canonbury, each get informative and detailed coverage as exemplars, both representative and distinctive, of their type.  A later chapter on the ‘sustainable retrofit’ of Victorian houses is highly relevant to contemporary concerns – of high-minded environmentalism at best and middle-class doing-up more cynically.

I’m off-piste here – this is a blog about council housing and we’ll come to that later – but these chapters are important when there’s an almost universal consensus that we must build more homes and, in particular, more genuinely affordable homes.  Today the top ten building companies control around 47 per cent of the new build market (as late as 1980 there were over 10,000 small and medium sized housebuilders; by 2014 that number stood at just 2800) and their primary purpose is to make profits rather than homes.  Together the top ten own sufficient land on which to build well over 600,000 homes but landbanking, restricted supply and higher house prices suit their margins better. (1)


The Minet Estate, Lambeth: Cormont Road gates, Myatts Field Park  (c) Robin Stott and made available through a Creative Commons licence

In Lambeth, the land-owning Minet family promoted large-scale construction by a number of smaller building enterprises.  Design and quality were overseen by their active surveyor; contractor profits were realised by a leasehold arrangement enabling builders to pay a manageable annual ground rent which cut out the capital costs of land purchase.  At a time when inflated land values and corporate capitalism both in their different ways conspire to reduce housing supply, perhaps this is something, as David Kroll suggests, we can learn from.

Shaftsbury park estate

A plan of the Shaftesbury Park Estate, Battersea, built by the Artizans, Labourers and General Dwelling Company from 1872

Colin Thom’s contribution on Battersea makes a similar point about the role of small builders whilst arguing, in the present-day, that local government and the social housing sector should play a more interventionist role in ensuring that rehabilitated terraced housing remains affordable to other than the well-heeled middle-class who dominate this sector of the London housing market.  The general argument that such housing now provides a popular and adaptable housing form is now widely accepted.

Peter Guillery’s chapter on South Acton (he also provides a useful Historical Overview of housebuilding trends and housing fashions since 1850) reminds us this wasn’t always the perception.  South Acton was a rather isolated and largely working-class community; by the 1890s, its 200 laundries had earned it the soubriquet ‘Soapsud Island’.  By the interwar period and with the later assistance of Hitler’s bombs, the need for the replacement of these terraces – at first piecemeal and then by large-scale redevelopment – became pressing though some questioned the loss of community which might result.

South Acton 1962 II

South Acton, 1962

Guillery takes us expertly through the various phases of the area’s public housing history: mixed development to high-rise to the problems and backlash which followed to the comprehensive regeneration of recent years – from a broadly ‘liberal and democratising capitalism’ through post-war socialism to present-day neoliberalism. It’s an empathetic account which understands the unintended consequences of well-meant actions.  Several tower blocks have been demolished; the most recent masterplan envisages the ‘complete replacement of post-war housing’ with the new low-rise, high-density, mixed-tenure developments now preferred.

That might send alarm bells ringing as we look at how similar plans have already affected or threaten to impact the homes of established communities across the capital.  Simon Pepper provides a useful outline of how and why high-rise developments took off in London from the 1960s and why that trend reversed.  The collapse of Ronan Point in May 1968 offers only a partial explanation.

Fig 1 Balfron Tower

Balfron Tower

Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, Grade II listed in 1996, survives and it won’t be demolished but it is being sold off to the private sector and its social housing residents evicted.  David Roberts campaigned to have this social housing heritage honoured, not as ‘exemplar’ but as the essential element of its future use.  Sadly, as he would be the first to acknowledge, Historic England’s Grade II* listing of the building in 2015, made only a token reference to Balfron’s social purpose.

Roberts’s excellent chapter also invites us to re-think how we approach such buildings.  Residents’ participation was central to his campaign, a belated contribution coming long after the media and architectural academics had pronounced their own judgments, positive and negative.  He reminds us too how freighted the term ‘failure’ is and how readily it rests (or is rebutted) on perceptions narrowly grounded in aesthetics or intent rather than lived experience.

Broadwater farm

Broadwater Farm, Tottenham – allegedly one of the ‘sink estates’ targeted by David Cameron.  Its residents are fighting back against plans to demolish and redevelop parts of the estate.

Issues of perception and labelling are also central, once you get through its rather abstruse academic style, to Ben Campkin’s contribution on ‘sink estates’.  He examines how the label, once applied sociologically to estates in decline, morphed into something cruder and pejorative and how it became the political pretext for an attack on those estates and their communities.  He points too to how resistance from these communities can be rooted in part in the very marginalisation and insult they have suffered.

Peabody Avenue

Peabody Avenue (1895)


The new extension to the estate

There’s plenty more.  Irina Davidovici’s article gamely seeks to rescue the reputation of some of the early Peabody Estates, widely condemned by housing reformers as well as the working class for their austere ‘barracks-like’ appearance. She suggests that recent Peabody buildings and refurbishments do offer a viable and attractive solution to the question of housing density that we are now wrestling with.  Richard Dennis addresses this directly in his chapter on the mansion blocks built mainly but not wholly for the middle class from the 1850s.


It would have been nice to see somewhere a straightforward advocacy of new council housing.  We know the mistakes – many corrected in what turned out to be the swansong of council housing in the 1970s – and we know the traductions, many now being questioned.  There’s no secret that policies which confined council housing to the poorest whilst catastrophically reducing overall stock in the context of an economic maelstrom which robbed so many of decent employment have hurt estate communities.  These are to a far larger extent than we are allowed to think political choices and a brave politics might yet reverse them.

Depending on their politics and professional and personal perspectives, readers will emerge with different take-aways from this volume.  For what it’s worth, mine is how susceptible to changing fashion our views on housing are. One lesson we might draw from the volume overall therefore is that we might be more humble in our judgments and more willing to learn from its best practice.

Mobilising Housing Histories is available now from RIBA Bookshops or from their online store.  


(1) Market shares from Tom Archer and Ian Cole, Profits before Volume? Major Housebuilders and the Crisis of Housing Supply (Sheffield Hallam University Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, October 2016); landbanking figures from  Graham Ruddick, ‘Revealed: housebuilders sitting on 600,000 plots of land’, The Guardian, 30 December 2015


Charles Dickens House, Bethnal Green II: The Tide of Tall Building Turns


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I’m pleased to feature this week the second part of Andrew Parnell’s fascinating guest post on Charles Dickens House and its wider context. Andrew is a walking tour guide with Footprints of London who leads walks on architecture and housing history. These include his walk Modernism and Modern Dwellings: Housing in Bethnal Green which takes in Charles Dickens House. More information and tickets for Andrew’s walks can be obtained from the website

The trend for high towers, system-building and prefabrication in the 1960s which, as described in Part I, influenced Tower Hamlets Council in the planning stages leading to the building of the 22-storey Charles Dickens House on the Mansfield Buildings slum clearance site in Bethnal Green in 1969, did not come ‘out of the blue’.

SN Charles Dickens House 3

Charles Dickens House today

From an architectural perspective, tall building had started to be been seen in this country before World War II, with the likes of Highpoints 1 and 2, Berthold Lubetkin’s 8- and 9-storey ‘international modern’ style blocks in north London. Frederick Gibberd’s designs for Harlow New Town included a 10-storey block – The Lawn in Mark Hall North – that was built in 1949 and has been called Britain’s ‘first high block’. The Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green – one of the three boroughs that were merged in 1965 to form the London Borough of Tower Hamlets – had in the 1950s employed avant-garde architects, among them Lubetkin and the young Denys Lasdun, who produced blocks of over 10 storeys.

The Lawn SN

The Lawn, Harlow New Town

Lasdun’s firm in March 1955 had presented to the Bethnal Green Housing Committee a report on a Royal Institute of British Architects’ symposium on high building. Among the findings summarised in their report were: many people prefer living in high buildings because they enjoy ‘better and cleaner air’; low buildings are ‘monotonous’; high buildings can enhance the scene by ‘emphasising prominent points’; and the incorporation of maisonettes (two storey dwellings) in tall buildings had ‘overcome prejudice against living in high blocks’.(1)  This report, whilst seeking to make a strong case for high-rise, nevertheless reflects the view of many design and planning professionals throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s that tall blocks should be used sparingly and judiciously alongside different styles of building (so called ‘mixed development’).

SN Keeling and Cranbrook

Keeling House (to the left) and the Cranbrook Estate

It is hard not to sense in the Lasdun firm’s report an attempt to ‘enlighten’ the Housing Committee in an area – London’s East End – where it was said by others in the field that some councillors clung to ‘pro-cottage’, ‘traditional’ views on housing design and were therefore in need of a little education by professionals! (2) If that was the report’s purpose, it seems to have worked. The Bethnal Green Council went on to commission Lasdun’s and Lubetkin’s firms to produce some noted examples of modernist housing such as Lasdun’s sixteen storey ‘cluster block’ Keeling House (1955-1957) and Lubetkin’s innovative Cranbrook Estate (1961-1966).

From a technical point of view, system-building and prefabrication can be seen as a product of the fertile period of building research and development of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s which had seen such innovations as widespread use of reinforced concrete in cross-wall frame and later box-frame construction (eliminating the need for a steel frame).  Architects had embraced the new materials and techniques. They exploited the new ‘lightness’ achievable by the reinforcement of concrete. The geometrical shape and repetitiveness of a building’s structure were seen as things to emphasise, not to hide. Form followed function and produced beauty.


‘Charles Dickens House, Bethnal Green Road, 1967. Bison block showing the varied kind of facing given to the prefabricated panels’ (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

The other thing that these approaches to construction and design leant themselves to was, of course, prefabrication. A repetitive structure of rectangular shapes could be reduced to a kit of simple parts. By December 1965, the Tower Hamlets councillors were receiving a report on a Symposium at Olympia with the title ‘System Building: Can It Be Economic?’. The reported answer to this question was that system-building was ‘clearly cheaper’ and that in tall buildings it was ‘very competitive indeed’.  The Borough Architect obtained the committee’s approval for one ‘senior member’ of his staff to attend an ‘Advanced Course on Industrialised Building’. In May 1966, members of the council reported on a ‘study tour’ they had made to Denmark to look at industrialised building there. (3)

So the proposal put to the Tower Hamlets Housing Committee in 1967 for a system-built tall block – that would be named Charles Dickens House – on the Mansford Buildings site came as no surprise.

SN P14033 Mansford St area, 1972 300 DPI024

‘Mansford Street area’, P14033, 1972, showing Charles Dickens House to right (c) Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

However, in all of this Tower Hamlets was coming a bit late to the party. Nationwide, the bandwagon of high building was well and truly under way by the mid-1960s. Glasgow, in the vanguard, had built three 20-storey blocks in eight months in 1960 which kick-started the chairman of the housing committee David Gibson’s messianic, largely high-rise, housing production drive. Similar dynamism was seen in other areas, particularly large municipalities outside London. To boroughs like these, high-rise and system-building seemed the obvious way to keep up the necessary pace of their building.

The Tower Hamlets committee did not give approval for its first block over 20 storeys high until 1966, and before the 1965 local government reorganisation its three predecessor councils – Stepney, Poplar and Bethnal Green – had approved only one such block between them and the London County Council (LCC) just three in the area. (4)

This comparative dilatoriness in Tower Hamlets – which was reflected in the wider London area generally – could be ascribed partly to the influence prior to 1965 of the London County Council, which was replaced in the reorganisation of that year by the Greater London Council.  The LCC had wielded greater power than its replacement, the GLC, to influence the housing policy of the second-tier London boroughs. In exercising that power, the LCC’s influential architects’ department stood firmly on the side of the ‘design faction’ – arguing for restraint in the use of high-rise building – in a schism that grew up between the ‘designers’ and the ‘producers’ from about the late 1950s onwards. The consensus among design professionals had always been that high-rise should be used sparingly to add variety (‘vertical accents’) in mixed schemes.

At the Mansford Buildings site, Tower Hamlets Council could be seen to be following, at least in the final result, the design faction’s blended approach to tall blocks. Charles Dickens House was inserted into a pre-existing plan for the site that consisted mainly of ‘cluster blocks’ of up to four storeys, producing a mix of housing for approximately 400 families, with shops, licensed premises and other amenities, all at a population density for the 9.5 acres of roughly 136 persons per acre, the density level recommended for inner London areas by the County of London Plan of 1943, a document which set out a vision for London’s reconstruction after the War in a period – the 1940s and 1950s –when the influence of the designers was at its height. (5)

SN P14032 Birds Eye View Mansford St area, 1969 300 DPI025

‘Bird’s eye view Mansford Street area’, P104032, 1969 (c) Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

By the late 1950s designers had started to turn away from high-rise altogether, towards other approaches such as low-rise, high-density developments. The concept of ‘urbanism’ gained traction – the idea that a sense of community is engendered by close proximity of buildings, rather than by leaving large open spaces between tall buildings.

The ‘producers’, on the other hand, who tended to be local politicians and officials, were driven by an urgent sense of the need to build quickly and in large numbers and sometimes saw the designers, with their concerns about aesthetics and population density, as ‘other-worldly’, even obstructive. By using the systems of large contractors who had their own design professionals attuned to the need for volume and speed, the producers could bypass those design professionals they saw as less practical.

There were strong feelings on both sides. Producers saw themselves as ‘coalface workers’ compared with the ‘quasi-academic’ designers. Many designers were contemptuous of those who were focussed on ‘mere production’ and saw the indiscriminate use of high blocks to maintain the production rate as a parody and misuse of the original concept of high-rise espoused by professionals in earlier decades. (6).

David Gibson 1950

David Gibson in 1950

David Gibson, in Glasgow, voiced the producers’ justification for their approach in characteristically powerful and moral terms: ‘If I offend good planning principles, it is only in seeking to avoid the unpardonable offence that bad housing commits against human dignity’. For Gibson, aesthetics were never the most important consideration, but nonetheless the very shape of tall blocks – their arresting ‘modernity’ – was in keeping with his vision: ‘In the next three years the skyline of Glasgow will become a more attractive one to me because of the likely vision of multi-storey houses rising by the thousand’.

But soon the towers which had been a powerful symbol of the optimism which underlay the post-war housing production drive became the most powerful negative image of ‘modern’ housing. One contributor to the sudden, almost violent change of public mood occurred just a few miles from Charles Dickens House. In May 1968 in Canning Town, a system-built tower block, Ronan Point, partly collapsed when a tenant’s gas stove exploded in a high floor, killing four people and injuring more.

When the Ronan Point disaster occurred, plans for development of the Mansford Buildings site in Tower Hamlets had been approved and work at the site had already begun. Although the Tower Hamlets Council issued an instruction that no new proposals for high blocks were to be put forward pending the findings of a Committee of Enquiry on Ronan Point, work was allowed to continue on tall blocks in the borough that had already been approved. Later that year, the Enquiry found that high blocks were generally safe but that those built using large panel construction with load bearing walls should have their jointing checked. This included the Bison Wall Frame system being used to build the tower at the Mansfield Buildings site, so its joints were duly checked and approved. As a result, the tower, named Charles Dickens House, was completed and opened the following year.

SN Ronan Point

Ronan Point

The Ronan Point disaster probably accelerated rather than caused the decline in high flats and system-building that ensued. Public, political and professional opinion had already started to turn against modern housing and tall buildings before the disaster in Newham. A number of possible causes can be identified.

As already mentioned, design professionals’ thinking had started to move away from high-rise in about the late 1950s. By the late 1960s, the housing shortage had turned, roughly speaking, into a surplus.

Public clamour for production waned and people now asked ‘What is all this building for?’ (a question to which many in the 1960s would surely have responded: ‘Isn’t it obvious? To get people out of slums!’). The political consensus started to break up when, following wins by non-socialist parties in the 1967-1968 local elections, multi-storey building was for the first time branded ‘Socialist’. In 1968 government subsidies for high-rise building, which had been introduced in 1956-1967, were abolished (although this subsidy had probably always been more of a consequence than a cause of the high-rise trend). Later, the 1970s in particular saw the emergence of management problems and severe anti-social behaviour in some modern developments.

The subsequent history of Charles Dickens House is fairly typical for buildings of its kind. By 2003 – then over 30 years old – it was in a state of serious disrepair: interiors of flats were in a poor state and insulation needed improvement. Residents were concerned at the inadequacy of internal security. With local authorities’ housing budgets now severely limited, Tower Hamlets Council was unable to finance the work needed to bring the block up to the government’s Decent Homes Standard. Borrowing limits meant it could only afford £2.28 million for the building’s regeneration.

In accordance with the ‘new model’ for social housing provision, Tower Hamlets Community Housing – a housing association with access to private borrowing not available to councils – was able to offer £18.5 million. Tenants – some of whom had exercised their ‘right to buy’ and owned long leases to their flats – were presented with a stark choice in terms of the ability of the competing owners to fund needed upgrades and opted for transfer to the housing association. (7)

In recent years, flats in the building, advertised as having ‘unbeatable views…in a well-maintained ex-local authority building’ have been offered for sale at prices in the region of £340,000 (2015) and £450,000 (2016). (8) How far the building can now be said to offer accommodation truly affordable to the section of the community it was built for must be questionable, but the prices at which flats seem to be changing hands must also call into question the often cited ‘truth’ that tall towers are universally viewed as undesirable places to live.

SN Charles Dickens House 2

Charles Dickens House today

Over time, architectural preferences and the public mood change, often quickly and radically. Where once the view was expressed that old terraces of housing were ‘past modernising and want blowing up’, they are now cherished and it is tower blocks which, literally, have in some cases been blown up. Charles Dickens House was fortunate to be built before the curtain came down on tower block building and is perhaps fortunate to be still standing and providing homes today. Concerns were expressed about the safety of system-built blocks following Ronan Point and were cited as reasons for some of the tower block demolitions. It is worth noting, though, that Bison Wall Frame blocks in Edinburgh, about which such concerns had been expressed, survived the detonation of 2000 charges of high explosive and had to be smashed by a giant battering ram.

Was it their structural weakness which caused us to start demolishing high towers, or an effect of the changing cycle of public opinion about building styles? Will the cycle one day move on again so that blocks like Charles Dickens House are seen in a more favourable light, as the product of a massive housing production drive that was to no small degree motivated by ideals that deserve our respect?


With thanks to Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives for permission to use the images credited above.

(1) Minutes of Bethnal Green Borough Council Housing Committee, March 1955

(2) Page 180 of Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Yale University Press, 1993), a work on which the analysis of the history of high-rise blocks in this article is largely based and from which the quotations of individuals involved, other than in relation to Tower Hamlets, have largely been drawn

(3) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, May 1966

(4) Gazetteer I, Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

(5) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing, Building and Development Committee, June 1968

(6) The tension between the concerns of designers and the pressure to produce housing output is described at pages 153ff of Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

(7) This account of the later history of Charles Dickens House is drawn from Stephanie Polsky, Dickensian Blocks: East London’s contemporary housing landscape, published in Soundings: A journal of politics and culture, issue 60, Summer 2015, pp 95-106

(8) Rightmove and Find Properly websites

Charles Dickens House, Bethnal Green I: ‘Clear the Slums!’ – the Surge that Produced Tall Blocks


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I’m very pleased to feature, this week and next, two more excellent guest posts, these by Andrew Parnell.  They’ll focus on a particular and, in many ways, unremarkable tower block in Tower Hamlets but will also provide much of the wider story of the era’s high-rise and system-building programme.

Andrew is a walking tour guide with Footprints of London who leads walks on architecture and housing history. These include his walk Modernism and Modern Dwellings: Housing in Bethnal Green which takes in Charles Dickens House. More information and tickets for Andrew’s walks can be obtained from the website. 

A rectangular slab of 22 storeys, Charles Dickens House in Bethnal Green is a typical high block of flats of the mid-1960s, one of the many towers that are now an accepted part of our city skylines and go largely unremarked upon; what little comment they do attract these days tends to be of a negative, often hostile kind. The 1960s is hardly today seen as a golden age of public housing design in this country.

SN Charles Dickens House

Charles Dickens House today

But when high blocks of this kind were being built – as they were in enormous volume in Britain during that decade – they were viewed much more positively. A closer look at the circumstances surrounding the building of Charles Dickens House helps to reveal some of the concerns, pressures and forces of opinion behind the strong tide which brought high blocks to our cities. Even before this particular building was completed, that tide was turning and starting to pull with equal force in the opposite direction, ushering in the widespread condemnation of such high residential towers.

Charles Dickens House was built between 1968 and 1969 for Tower Hamlets Borough Council, one of the relatively new, enlarged London Boroughs produced by the local government reforms of 1965. (1)  An entry in the minutes of that council’s Housing Committee in May 1965 notes that a Compulsory Purchase Order for the ‘Mansford Buildings site’, an area including the current site of Charles Dickens House, had been made in 1963 under Part III of the 1957 Housing Act – legislation which enabled local authorities to acquire and redevelop areas that were deemed unfit for human habitation – slums. An appeal was lodged, delaying the implementation of the order. The committee minutes quote the senior judge hearing the appeal, Lord Justice Salmon, describing the circumstances on the site as: ‘ninety families living in revolting conditions’. (2)

The compulsory purchase order covered an area of 9.5 acres on which stood, among other buildings, a number of tenement blocks built in the late 19th century. They included Mansford Buildings, after which the clearance site was named, Toyes Buildings and Meadows Dwellings which occupied roughly the plot where Charles Dickens House now stands and which had been built in 1893 by the East End Dwellings Company, one of the philanthropic companies forming the Victorian housing movement which produced this country’s earliest social housing.

SN P14569 Toyes Buildings, 1968 300 DPI027

‘Toyes Buildings, 1968’, P14569 – before the site was redeveloped (c) Tower Hamlets Local History LIbrary and Archives

Rehousing tenants during the redevelopment of slum areas was always a major task for council housing departments but Bethnal Green encountered some unusual additional difficulty at the Mansford Buildings site. The council had started to rehouse residents of the site whilst the appeal against the compulsory purchase order was pending but members of the Housing Committee were ‘dismayed’ to be told that the owners of Mansford Buildings who had lodged the appeal, Quiltotex Limited, had re-let homes vacated by rehoused tenants notwithstanding that the premises had been ‘admitted to be in an outstandingly unfit condition’.

The Council successfully prevented further such re-lettings at Mansford Buildings but councillors’ dismay resurfaced when they were advised by Mr J Wolkind, the Town Clerk, that after the appeal was rejected the Council still had an unavoidable legal duty to rehouse the fifteen ‘new’ tenant families allowed in by Quiltotex, meaning that the Council had to go through the rehousing process twice. After the intervention of an indignant member of the Committee, Councillor McCarthy, the Council’s Housing Officer, Mr JM Simpson, was asked to enter into correspondence with Quiltotex’s letting agents, Messrs Donaldsons. It emerged from this that the majority of the fifteen new tenants had no prior connection with the borough so they would not have been given priority by the council for housing in Tower Hamlets. However, Donaldsons declined Mr Simpson’s request that Donaldsons themselves and their clients Quiltotex find alternative accommodation for the new occupants they had allowed into the building, arguing that they and their clients, in re-letting the condemned homes, had been ‘performing something of a public service in assisting these tenants in their housing problem’. (3)

It was not only councils in parts of London like Bethnal Green that still – twenty years after the end of the Second World War – regarded elimination of slum conditions as an unfinished task. The necessary repair of damage to housing done by that war had, to some extent, interrupted and delayed the process of eradicating slums that had started before it. Up and down the country in the 1960s, councillors and local government officials still saw getting people out of slums into decent accommodation as a burning need, sometimes expressed in forceful language like that of Bill Reed, Deputy City Architect for Birmingham: ‘For god’s sake get on and build those houses—and get people out of the slums’. (4)


Bill Reed (in centre) with then Birmingham City Architect Alan Maudsley, 1969 (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

Councillors referred to local people besieging them with demands to be rehoused. In Glasgow, probably the country’s most dynamic municipality in terms of house building during the period, planning officer, Ian MT Samuel said that that people ‘couldn’t get out of the old condemned houses fast enough.’ He recalled:  ‘I had a stream of people coming to my office…with the same question: ‘When’s ma hoose coming down?’’ Undoubtedly there were often other, less exalted, motives at play in the minds of these local leaders – electoral advantage, preservation of rateable value, even sometimes corruption – but it is hard to discount completely the sincerity of their stated desire to improve living conditions.

The fact that the new housing to which residents of slums were to be moved enjoyed modern conveniences rarely found in old Victorian dwellings such as the terraced housing of Bethnal Green – like electrical points in every room, water and space heating, kitchen fittings and generous space – was undoubtedly an attraction for residents being rehoused and offset concerns about moving to flats from more traditional housing. In the words of RD Crammond of the Department of Health for Scotland (responsible for housing): ‘To someone coming out of the slums, the idea of going into a house with a bedroom, a proper kitchen, hot water – it was the millennium for them, it was a dream – and it didn’t matter a damn to them if it was in a multi-storey block or a cottage’.  In these post-war decades, the ‘modernity’ of the design, construction and fittings were perceived as a positive, even exciting feature of the new style of housing.

NPG x165598; Bob Mellish by Walter Bird

Bob Mellish, 1965

Increasing the perceived scale and urgency of the problem, there was – in addition to the need to replace slums – insufficient housing to satisfy general need in many areas of the country. There was a resulting groundswell – almost a tidal wave – of pressure to build houses, accompanied by a considerable degree of political consensus that the housing to meet the need should predominantly be built by local authorities. The Tower Hamlets Housing Committee in late 1965 was reminded that there was an ‘enormous housing shortage in Greater London’. (5)  Robert (later Lord) Mellish, at the time a London MP and member of the government, urged local authorities: ‘Get ahead, get full steam ahead, get bloody building!’.

At the same meeting of the Tower Hamlets Housing Committee, mention is made of what was seen as one of the primary tools available for solving the problem – industrialised building: non-traditional ways of building using modern materials such as concrete and modern methods that sought to bring the techniques of the factory to the building site. These ‘systems’ made use of prefabricated components manufactured off site and assembled on-site using tower cranes. Large construction companies developed their own systems and offered them to local authorities.

‘System building’ was promoted – and perceived by many – as providing an economical, fast and efficient way of building housing in the form of tall blocks that provided both the density levels required in urban contexts and space between buildings for the other desired facilities such as play and parking areas. Building in this way largely eliminated the need for scaffolding, reduced the amount of skilled labour required and used far less steel than the methods that had been widely used for constructing tall buildings in the past. The last two considerations were particularly important given the onset of building shortages in the mid-1960s. The Tower Hamlets Committee was told: ‘The Ministry [of Housing and Local Government, then headed by Richard Crossman MP]  goes so far as to say that increasing demand in the building industry can only be met by supplementing traditional methods of building and making the best use of new methods and materials’.

Bison flat 2

‘Concrete Ltd, Bison Wall-Frame System (1962)’ (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

It was natural, then, that after the appeal against the Mansford Buildings Compulsory Purchase Order was finally rejected the proposal put to the Housing Committee for the site, in October 1967, included a system-built 22-storey tower block of flats. (6) The system to be used was the Bison Wall Frame System developed by Concrete (Southern) Limited – the company name could be that of a caricature 1960s building firm! – which was one of the most prolifically used systems nationally.

With the Bison system, a two-bedroom flat could be constructed from 21 precast components produced in one of the Concrete Group’s five factories nationwide. Most of the components were floor or wall panels with wooden door and window frames included (reducing carpentry needed on site) and provision for wiring and piped services embedded in them. Among the 21 parts, there were separate sections forming stair or lift wells (extending over three stories), staircases and a single bathroom and toilet unit weighing over seven tons (still well within a tower crane’s capacity to hoist up to the required level). (7)

SN Monteith Road under construction

‘Monteith Road under construction’ (c) Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Tower Hamlets Council’s first fully industrialised high-rise block was Bacton Tower built by the contractor Wates in 1966. But it was Concrete (Southern) which established a contractual relationship with the council that would produce a series of seven blocks in a ‘production line’ typical of the high-rise building of the time. All seven were of 22 stories containing 130 dwellings. The first three were at sites in Monteith Road (two blocks) and Wellington Way in Bow.

SN Monteith opening

Monteith Road opening with Anthony Greenwood (c) Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

The cost of building was of particular importance at a time of national financial difficulty. The pound had been devalued in 1967 and in December the following year the Minister of Housing, Anthony Greenwood, had urged the council: ‘we must secure a substantial surplus on our balance of payments’. At an earlier site at Roman Road, the Borough Architect and Planning Officer, Mr J Hume had recommended a last-minute switch from the contractor Rowley Brothers’ planned ‘traditionally built’ 20-storey tower to one of Concrete (Southern)’s 22-storey Bison blocks in order to produce a £1000 per dwelling reduction in cost required to satisfy the government’s ‘cost yardstick’ for obtaining ‘loan sanction’ for funding. He presented comparisons to the Housing Committee showing the traditional 20-storey tower producing 115 dwellings for £568,000 while the Bison 22-storey tower produced 130 dwellings for £455,806.

The committee was not best pleased that substantial professional costs had already been expended on the to-be-discarded traditional building at Roman Road and would now be wasted. They called for an ‘investigation of reasons’ for the situation by councillors with the borough’s professional advisers and officers. Mr Hume obtained approval to proceed with the Bison tower, but the meeting and subsequent ‘investigation’ may not have been entirely comfortable for him! (8)

SN Bison blocks

Bison blocks at the Monteith Road and Wellington Way sites Tower Hamlets

When it came to the Mansford Buildings site, it was decided that the first stage of the development should take the form of another Bison block under a contract negotiated ‘in the same way as Monteith Road’ with Concrete (Southern) with whom the Council had ‘an excellent negotiating relationship’. Mr Hume reported that ‘after much study’ it had proved necessary to revise plans for the site by including a 22-storey block. This would make it possible to develop the site ‘properly’ to the required population density, to keep within the government’s cost yardstick and to provide ‘necessary play spaces, parking spaces and all other amenities required’. (9) He was here voicing some of the principal perceived attractions of industrialised high-rise building.

The stage was now set for Charles Dickens House be built.  We’ll follow that story in next week’s post.


With thanks to Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives for permission to use the images credited above.

The photograph of Bob Mellish is by Walter Bird and is made available by the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons licence.

(1) TFT Baker (ed), A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green,(Victoria County History, London, 1998), republished by British History Online provides a comprehensive history of the politics and buildings of the area

(2) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, 1965

(3) Ibid., 1965-1966

(4) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Yale University Press, 1993) on which the analysis of the history of high-rise blocks in this article is largely based and from which the quotations of individuals involved, other than in relation to Tower Hamlets, have largely been drawn.

(5) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, November 1965

(6) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing, Building and Development Committee, October 1967, Report of Architect and Planning Officer

(7) The Architects’ Journal, 11 July 1962 and illustrated in Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block (see note above) at page 86

(8) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, September 1966

(9) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing, Building and Development Committee, October 1967