The Five Estates, Peckham, Part II: ‘It wasn’t all bad’


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Last week’s post looked at the diverse origins of Southwark’s so-called ‘Five Estates’ and the ideals which inspired them.  This week, I’ll examine how those ideals failed or rather, perhaps, how they were betrayed by wider society. That also gives us a chance to assess some of the broader charges levelled against much of the mass housing of the period.

Already by 1987, an ex-local councillor was complaining how the snake-like design of the Gloucester Grove Estate amplified noise and – less a design flaw than a problem of upkeep – that towers and rubbish chutes at the end of each block were stinking and verminous. (1)  A Times report of the same year reported of the same estate that ‘gangs of youths roam constantly. Within days of being repainted, the miles of corridors and elevated walkways are an eyesore of filthy graffiti’. (2)


In happier times – Gloucester Grove: completed housing development 1978 (c) London Metropolitan Archives.

In the 1994 bid for Single Regeneration funding, it was claimed £250,000 a year was being spent on repairing vandalised properties in the area. Some 42 per cent of residents of the Five Estates area as a whole reported that they felt unsafe. (3)

That proportion, though high, might seem low given the bid’s interest in accentuating the negative and the alarmist media portrayal of the estates. It’s maybe the more matter-of-fact assessment of one long-term resident which captures the reality better: (4)

It wasn’t all that bad once you lived on it, you knew your neighbours and you were basically fine if you were sensible…you don’t go around flashing your cash that’s for sure, but you were all right.

damilola_web_250_250That, of course, was hardly a ringing endorsement and the truth of crime, and fear of crime, was real enough.  Back in 1987 again, the police had recorded 70 muggings across the Five Estates area in one week. (5)  The reality of crime, in its starkest form, became evident in November 2000 with the death of Damiola Taylor, a ten-year old Nigerian schoolboy whose family had recently moved to the UK – killed in an isolated stairwell of the North Peckham Estate.

coleman-utopia-on-trialThe death occurred as the estate’s regeneration was already underway but it seemed to confirm the worst fears and strongest criticisms of those who blamed the estate’s design for its troubles.

That criticism had previously been most forcefully expressed by Alice Coleman. (6)  Coleman began with a simple premise: ‘Even without the scientific details one has only to think how criminal youths abound in problem estates and are quite rare in roads of single-family houses’. But she was adamant too that her King’s College research team which surveyed Southwark’s multi-storey housing – its aim ‘to establish whether there were specific design features contributing to 21 types of crime and social breakdown’ – had provided a ‘scientific’ explanation.

Sixteen such features were identified, for example:

two or three storeys are harmless, but more are harmful. Up to four flats per corridor are harmless but more are harmful. If an entrance serves no more than six flats it is harmless but with over six it is harmful.

And so on…North Peckham achieved a 13.1 design disadvantage score on Coleman’s index.


(c) Russell Newell

There was a common sense truth to some of this.  With 72 linked blocks in all, 92 vertical routes and 49 access points around the perimeter, the complaint of one resident that ‘you never know who’s prowling around because the walkways and the stairs are open to everybody’ seemed reasonable. (7) That article continued editorially:

These characteristics all contribute to a sense of anonymity due to intrusion by non-residents through each block, as well as providing escape routes for criminals.  The walkways are faceless with a series of doors to upper and lower flats, and the doors frequently front directly on what is a public highway.

This was the defensible space thesis incarnate.  It blamed both the nature of public housing – as neither literally or psychologically ‘owned’ by its residents – and its modern form – its spaces encouraged and facilitated crime – for the rise of anti-social behaviour.


Normal residents but the kind of shadowy stairwell to give Alice Coleman nightmares (c) Russell Newell, 7 Bridges

Coleman’s sweeping analysis (we’ll critique it later) received more genuinely scientific backing in the 1994 study ‘space syntax’ study by Bill Hillier of the Bartlett School of Architecture.  He concluded that North Peckham’s design ‘had literally generated a pathological pattern of space-use by creating lacunas in the system of natural movement’; spaces into which ‘kids were moving unsupervised and forming gangs’. (8)


Image 1: Bill Ellery explains Space Syntax theory to a group of residents; Image 2: a diagram of the North Peckham Estate showing restricted sight-lines (screengrabs from the Tomorrow’s World documentary)

Back in 1966, the ‘case for segregating people from traffic ‘had seemed ‘urgent’ and those walkways were praised for their cleanliness, safety and promotion of neighbourliness. (9)  The irony that they had now become, as ‘space…structurally excluded from everyday patterns of use’, ‘terrifying’ (in Hillier’s words), is almost too much to bear. Damiola Taylor had been killed in just such a location, one suffering from what Hillier labelled ‘perpetual night syndrome’.

Alice Coleman discounted socio-economic explanations of council estate troubles as vigorously (to paraphrase Owen Hatherley) as she counted dog turds but her statement that problems of crime and anti-social behaviour were ‘rare in roads of single-family houses’ was simply empirically wrong. ‘Suburban’ estates such as Norris Green (Liverpool), Blackbird Leys (Oxford) and Meadow Well (North Shields) suffered similar troubles and worse.  What connects these very different estates to Southwark’s is, of course, poverty.

Let’s begin with straightforward demographics.  In Liddle Ward (since abolished but then basically comprising the Five Estates) in the 1990s, 28 per cent of the population was under 16 – a similar proportion had been held to explain the problems of Southwark’s Brandon Estate back in 1975. Fifty-seven per cent of these children lived in low-income households (the highest in London); 16 per cent of households were lone-parent (the third highest in London). (10)


(c) Russell Newell, 7 Bridges

At the same time, unemployment stood at 31 per cent (the highest in London) and reached, among 16 to 19 year-olds, a staggering 62 per cent.  This had been a long-term problem.  Unemployment had rocketed from 22 to 43 per cent in the early 1980s.  A local Labour councillor, Mary Ellery, described the North Peckham Estate as ‘brilliant’ till then but: (11)

Unemployment knocked six kinds of shit out of people. Careers officers came into schools with the bad news when kids were fourteen, and from then on they knew there was no bloody point.  All you need to know is how to write your name and how to go on the dole. If you’re forty-plus, you’re on the shit-heap.

To the local vicar, in this context, burglary, where you could make £200 a night (in contrast to the £40 or £50 a week that scarce, regular employment offered), was ‘the kind of work that’s seen to be viable’.  Drugs also played their part in this alternative economy.

Race was a further complicating factor.  Previously people from the ethnic minorities had frequently been excluded from council housing through residency rules.  The primacy of needs-based assessment after 1977 and the fact that minority populations were often confined to the worst private rented accommodation saw this change in the eighties.

The Five Estates, then, had a population disproportionately drawn from the black and ethnic minorities – 57 per cent by 1991; in two local primary schools, around 60 per cent of children spoke English as a second language. That liberal vicar commented on the disempowerment of the estates’ minority population and the criminality of some of the community’s young people as a compensatory way ‘to seek power in other ways’.  Of course, some longer-established locals saw these newcomers as the cause of their problems rather than as fellow victims and so another layer of tension was added to a toxic mix.


‘Martin’ (c) Russell Newell, 7 Bridges

By the 1990s, the annual turnover of homes on the estates had reached between 20 to 25 per cent and it was claimed 70 per cent of residents wanted a transfer though usually they found no problem with their individual homes.  As homes emptied, squatters moved in – generally transient and disinvested in the local community – with the Council and police seen as apathetic or powerless in dealing with the issue.

As the estates became hard to let and as the local council housing stock diminished through Right to Buy, new bona fide residents were disproportionately those re-housed as homeless or vulnerable.  Many, it was said, came from the nearby Maudsley Hospital as longer-term patients were removed as part of the (misleadingly named) ‘care in the community’ programme.


The Camden Estate (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block (1984)

Such a combination of problems – and they were found most often on council estates, not because council estates were awful places marked out by some foundational flaw of concept or design but rather because wider society dumped its problems on them – naturally demanded greater resources.  They didn’t get them.  In 1979, Southwark had a budget of £60m to maintain its 36,000 homes.  By 1987, as Thatcherite cuts kicked in, its budget to manage 62,000 homes (more inherited from the GLC) stood at £28.5m. It would have required £90m just to maintain its 1979 level of spending. (12)

Despite this, and in a very changed world – which saw councils fighting against the odds to effect positive change in a context where they were seen as part of the problem rather than a means to solution – regeneration efforts began in the mid-1980s.  Those will covered in next week’s post.


Special thanks to Russell Newell, who grew up in the area and took the photographs featured as a young photographer in the 1980s.  Visit his 7 Bridges project for further evocative images of the estate and its African-Caribbean community in particular and to find out more about his larger body of work.

(1) Quoted in Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter (1987)

(2) ‘Culture Shock Strikes Home’, The Times, 14 July 1987

(3) Peckham Partnership, A Bid for Single Regeneration Budget Funding (September 1994)

(4) Rose (in her 60s) quoted in Luna Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’, PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, January 2013

(5) Joanna Coles, ‘Is There Life in Peckham?’, The Spectator, 3 July 1987

(6) The quotations which follow are drawn from Alice Coleman, ‘Design Disadvantage in Southwark’, The Dulwich Society Journal, Summer 2008.

(7) This quotation from Mrs Emminia Onua and the following are drawn from Southwark Sparrow, February 1987

(8) Quoted in Matt Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’, Building Design, December 15 2000.  You can see images of the North Peckham Estate and Bill Hillier explaining the application of space syntax theory to it in this fascinating video from a 1993 edition of Tomorrow’s World.

(9) Christine Rouse, ‘City Village for the Birds?’, South London Press, 6 December 1974

(10) These figures and the following taken from Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’

(11) This and the quotation from the Reverend Graham Derriman which follows are drawn from Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter

(12) Dick Mortimer (coordinator of North Peckham Project) ‘Breaking the high-rise spiral of decline: one authority’s campaign of refurbishment’, Municipal Journal, 15 May 1987

The Five Estates, Peckham, Part I: ‘Planning is for people’


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The ‘Five Estates’ were a figment of Southwark Council’s imagination.  That’s not to say that the five estates – wedged between Peckham High Street and Burgess Park – didn’t exist but rather that they were artificially combined for a £60m bid for Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) funding in 1994.  That bid required a single narrative of design failure and social breakdown and it succeeded – it secured the largest SRB award ever made.  Some £260m and ten years later, one of the country’s most sweeping regeneration projects was complete.  This post will examine the high hopes and ideals which inspired the estates’ initial construction.


The ‘Five Estates’, with thanks to

The five estates had little to unify them save that loose geographical proximity.  The Sumner Estate was the oldest – an LCC scheme from the 1930s comprising 13 blocks, all traditional brick-built four- to six-storey, walk-up and balcony-access tenements of their time.  It was extended in the post-war period with nine new blocks designed along essentially similar lines though now with lift access and jazzed-up, white concrete-faced balconies as a nod to modernity.  The older blocks had to wait to the mid-70s to get lifts and central heating.


Sumner Estate, 1973 (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

The Willowbrook Estate between Sumner Road and the former Surrey Canal was anchored by the twelve-storey Tonbridge House, completed in 1963. The block’s striking acid-etched concrete cladding slabs designed by William Mitchell didn’t save it from later demolition.  A series of tile-faced, four-storey maisonettes followed, still standing and largely unaltered but for their new pitched roofs.


Willowbrook Estate, 1964 (c) London Metropolitan Archives,


Willowbrook Estate, 1964 (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

The other three estates form more of a package, at least in the sense that they were all completed in the early-mid 1970s, all at relatively high density and all incorporating contemporary ideas around the separation of pedestrian and road traffic and use of aerial walkways.  It was possible, they said, to walk from Burgess Park to Peckham Road without touching the ground


The Camden Estate (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block (1994) captioned ‘Camden Redevelopment, from 1972, designed by FO Hayes et al. Ample car parking below to the communal facilities within the complex are provided’

The Camden Estate (including the earlier Monkland House built in the 1950s) comprised 874 homes of traditional brick construction.  The other two estates –Gloucester Grove and North Peckham – were more innovatory and, given their prominence in the arguments for regeneration, I’ll spend most time talking about those.

Gloucester Grove is the northernmost of the estates, fronting Burgess Park. It remains (substantially unaltered) the most striking architecturally, notable for its long, linked, snake-like construction – 1210 homes in 29 blocks in total, of brick-clad, heavy panel construction, between three and eight storeys in height joined by high, semi-circular, glass-tiled entrances containing stairways and lifts which provide a deliberately and eye-catchingly ‘modernist’ look to the estate as a whole.


An early architectural sketch of Gloucester Grove (c) Southwark Archives


Gloucester Grove: completed housing development, 1964 (c) London Metropolitan Archives,

North Peckham is the best documented and – the most notorious – it’s often taken to represent the Five Estates regeneration as a whole.  It was the largest of the five – 65 five-storey blocks in all on a 40-acre site, comprising 1444 homes.  Despite its traditional, load-bearing brick, crosswall construction, this was the most innovative of the designs – a large-scale realisation of the ‘streets in the sky’ concept fashionable when construction began in 1966.

The estate was made up of two types of block – residential and parking.  In the latter, three lower floors provided lock-up garages for residents and parking spaces for visitors; at the second floor level a large platform contained ‘shops, pubs, laundries, and communal facilities such as halls and meeting rooms’.


North Peckham Estate parking block with shops and walkways at second floor level and maisonettes above (c) Southwark Archives

This was linked to a wide pedestrian deck which, according to the celebratory account in the Southwark Civic News, joined ‘the whole scheme together, forming a network of ways containing housing, shops and other facilities and forming the service route for postman, milkman, dustman and other tradesmen’.  Residents, it continued, could ‘walk freely along this two and half miles of deck away from the dirt, noise and danger of London traffic.’ (1)


Layout of the North Peckham Estate, 1972 (c) Southwark Archives

Let’s forget hindsight for a moment and examine the good intentions here.  There was the variety and mix of housing for a start – one to five bedroom maisonettes and flats, each with their own front door to the deck and the whole planned to serve a wide cross-section of the community. As the Civic News continued, praising the scheme’s ‘visionary planners’ led by Borough Architect FO Hayes:

Far from being the stereotype ‘Little Boxes’ the four basic types of homes will be put together in so many different ways that they will have individuality and variety.


North Peckham Estate with service road to rear, 1973

And the ground on which the Estate stood (excepting service roads) was ‘to be used entirely as an amenity for residents [as] a series of interconnecting courts, designed to cater for different age groups and family activities’:

Some will be planted with grass, trees, and shrubs where families may sit out, alone or with their neighbours, on summer evenings; others will be paved and out of reach of windows, so that the younger members may play ball games and make a noise in safety.

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?  And it had emerged with due deference to the community of the run-down streets it replaced. Hans Peter Trenton, who succeeded Hayes as Borough Architect in 1969 (he had earlier designed Southwark’s Aylesbury Estate), praised the ‘social coherence’ of the former terraced housing and described its ‘closely-knit social ties’ as ‘one of the foundation stones essential for the preservation of a civilised society’. (2)  This thinking informed preparations for the new estate.

The new design emerged from ‘detailed sociological and technical surveys’, initiated by the Council, and executed by the construction company Bovis, ‘before a brick was laid’. (3)  Trenton himself toured the old streets, talking to their residents and ‘explaining what was meant by such unheard of things as patios’.

If all this sounds like good PR or self-deceiving rhetoric, it’s worth pointing out that the finished estate earned widespread acclaim – to Lord Robens, it was a ‘European showpiece’.  A hard-bitten journalist (or perhaps I’m lapsing into cliché there) for the Municipal Review touring the Estate in 1972, found his ‘enthusiasm steadily mounting’: (2)

There are no towers or soulless slabs at North Peckham, no bleak expanses of exposed concrete, no grassed areas with ‘keep off’ notices to apply a cosmetic touch to harridan features. Instead there is grass which is meant to be played on and trees everywhere.  The authority’s adoption of low-rise, high-density – it was one of the first in the country to latch on to this – has been continued with a layout which disposes the buildings around a series of courtyards where children can play in safety…The courtyards and the soft contours of the buildings around them…convey a feeling of enclosure and intimacy rarely found in large projects of this kind.

This, he said, was an (apparently successful) ‘attempt to recreate the neighbourly atmosphere of old-established districts’ and he concluded almost lyrically:

the housewife can open the door to the tradesman much as she does in an ordinary street. The children can also run around unmolested by traffic, just as they used to do in the days of hop-scotch and the hoop…For once the idea that planning is for people has been infused with some meaning.

Residents’ views could be positive too.  Tina recalls (4)

her flat was beautiful…split over five levels, huge, with a big patio at the top…rooms for all her children, and the kitchen was so big they had a sofa and a telly in it, her children could play there, so they could keep the living room spotless for when family and visitors came along.

‘Mrs Smith’ remembers moving in: ‘We really liked it. It was more like a holiday camp.  It was very, very good’. (5)


North Peckham Estate, 1972

I’ve spent some time on this pre-history, not to exonerate planners and councils but, at the very least, to acquit them of the charge of ill intent.  It allows us too to examine ‘what went wrong’ without prejudgment because, if there was a honeymoon period, it seems to have been a relatively short one.

By 1977, the Peckham Society noted that the Estate was suffering ‘wear and tear’; the overall appearance of the Estate was ‘handsome’ but the ‘uniformity of the design and decoration’ (everything was cobalt blue apparently) left visitors, even residents, feeling disoriented. The vicar described an active community and the estate as ‘a place designed for neighbourliness and meeting’ but the walkways, according to the article, had become problematic – ‘used for a variety of games including primitive football, cricket and tennis with the result that windows in the public areas are frequently smashed’. Those promised play areas don’t seem to have materialised. (6)


Later, less inviting images of the Estate’s walkways

But this is tame stuff compared to what came later, a trajectory summed up in one magazine headline as ‘a dream in the 60s, a reality in the 70s and a nightmare in the 80s’. The report went on to claim that North Peckham had been described by the European Economic Community as ‘the most depressed housing area in western Europe’. (7)

We’ll look at the truth of that next week. What had happened to North Peckham and the other estates to turn such high hopes into ashes and what was the new thinking that would transform what were now so unquestioningly seen as the catastrophic errors of a previous generation of planners?


(1) ‘Life at Deck Level’, Southwark Civic News, July 1968

(2) HF Wallis, ‘A Living Showpiece at North Peckham?’, Municipal Review, November 1972

(3) Christine Rouse, ‘City Village for the Birds?’, South London Press, 6 December 1974

(4) Quoted in Luna Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’, PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, January 2013

(5) Quoted in Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter (1987)

(6) Bob Smyth, ‘The North Peckham Estate: a Brief Guide’, Peckham Society Newsletter, February/March 1977

(7) Sky Magazine, March 1988

‘The plan might look well on paper but it would not be London’: How the London County Council used art and architecture to rebuild the communities of London



I’m delighted to feature another guest post this week, this by Rosamund West who is researching ‘London County Council housing schemes and public art, 1943-1965’ for a PhD at Kingston University.  She’d be pleased to hear from anyone with an interest in her work – further information and contact details are given at the end of the post. 

The London County Council’s post-war attitude to Londoners and the communities of London stems back to the 1943 County of London Plan. A rebuilding plan for London, written while the war was still being fought, and the outcome uncertain, the plan imagined the city improved. My research begins in 1943 with the County of London Plan and ends in 1965 with the demise of the London County Council and I am looking at how the London County Council expressed its intentions for London and Londoners through both architecture and the artworks installed within residential settings: (1)

To ignore or scrap these communities in favour of a new and theoretical sub-division of areas would be both academic and too drastic; the plan might look well on paper but it would not be London.

The post-war situation

After the Second World War, London faced a housing crisis that feels very familiar to us in 2016, though its cause may be different. There was a general sense that Londoners had endured the bombing and destruction of their homes and communities (as shown by the frontispiece image and quote from the Prime Minister below) and after the war they deserved something better. The solution was driven by optimism and a hope for the future, for a better standard of living for all: council housing was the answer. For the London County Council, re-housing Londoners ran conveniently alongside creating a new – and improved – London.

Lord Latham, the then leader of the LCC, describes in the 1943 County of London Plan the ambition to rebuild London: (2)

We can have the London we want; the London that people will come from the four corners of the world to see; if only we determine that we will have it; and that no weakness or indifference shall prevent it.


Frontispiece image from the County of London Plan (1943)

Winston Churchill, quoted in the Plan, had earlier expressed similar sentiments: (3)

Most painful is the number of small houses inhabited by working folk which has been destroyed…We will rebuild them, more to our credit than some of them were before. London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham may have much more to suffer, but they will rise from their ruins, more healthy and, I hope, more beautiful…In all my life I have never been treated with so much kindness as by the people who have suffered most.

The County of London Plan was commissioned by the LCC, written by Patrick Abercrombie and John Forshaw, and published in 1943. The plan is ambitious about the future of London. Emphasis is placed on the importance of communities within London, and communities are referred to throughout the plan. For the LCC, decent housing is central to a strong community: (4)

Housing is a matter which, whether considered as individual dwellings or in the broader, community sense, directly effects every citizen, young and old. A good house, with all the amenities necessary for a full and healthy life is a primary social need for everyone and must be the constant objective.

Recognising communities

The LCC was proud of its role as a paternalistic municipal body that knew London and Londoners well, meeting the needs of the communities it served. LCC publications express pride in the post-war rehousing schemes. The LCC publication of 1951, The Youngest County expresses this pride in improving the lives of Londoners. We are told of an imaginary London family, ‘The Citizens’ living in their council block, ‘Everyman House’: (5)

As she gets the tea ready for her husband, two sons and two daughters who will soon be home from their Saturday afternoon shopping or football match, she thinks – for the hundredth time that day – of her delight in this new home…

…Mrs Citizen is one of many thousands of mothers who are at last, thanks to the efforts of the London County Council, able to make a real home for their families after years of discomfort in cramped or miserable quarters.

Communities are defined in the County of London Plan as ‘neighbourhood units’ of 6,000-10,000 people, based on the amount of children it took to fill a primary school. These communities were planned to be self-sufficient centres in their own right, ideally containing their ‘own schools, local shops, community buildings and smaller amenity open spaces’. (6)  The communities of London were mapped and defined in the County of London Plan:


County of London Plan, ‘Communities and Open Space Survey, coloured plate 2, facing p28

This map shows the existing community structures within London: where town halls were, where shopping centres were, and where community boundaries lay.


Detail of Communities and Open Space Survey, coloured plate 2, facing p28


Detail of ‘Communities and Open Space Survey’ coloured plate 2, facing p28

The LCC faced the immense task of re-housing Londoners, alongside improving their living conditions. For the LCC, this meant decreasing the population density by relocating people further out of London. The County of London Plan aimed to displace between 500,000 and 600,000 people. The ideal density was 136 persons per acre. 1938 figures of population density in London go as high as 436 persons per acre. To achieve 136 persons per acre in the Stepney/Poplar area, one of the Reconstruction Areas identified in 1943, a 42 per cent thinning of the population needed to occur. (7)

For those that remained, new structures and perhaps new neighbours faced them. The LCC used artworks in residential settings to create a link for people from the past to their new architectural setting, re-establishing the community. By using artists that responded to the history and culture of a specific community, the LCC were signalling a continuation of that community, still established in its native environment.


County of London Plan, ‘A Social Framework for Reconstruction Areas’, ‘a proposed grouping of the existing communities of the East End and South Bank areas into separate and definite entities, with schools, public buildings, shops and open spaces allocated to each unit’, plate XXXVI, facing p104

The above map shows the proposed neighbourhood units for the East End and South Bank areas of London, both areas that were identified as in need of reconstruction in the County of London Plan. The map shows the neighbourhood units that would become the Lansbury Estate in Poplar and the Silwood Estate in Rotherhithe. Industrial areas are identified as areas coloured black, and the proximity of both of these estates to the docks and the river is clear: (8)

In need of radical reform are the depressed residential areas, particularly of the East End and other industrial boroughs, where there are large areas of dreary and monotonous streets. The invincible cheerfulness and neighbourliness of the Londoner makes the best of these areas…

…there is much to be learnt from the urban co-operation and sturdy individualism of these London communities, typical examples of which are the eastern boroughs. To try to remedy their obvious defects by a rigid formula of reconstruction which ignored their natural grouping would be to shirk the problem of meeting some of the essential human requirements.

The Lansbury Estate, Poplar

The Stepney/Poplar Reconstruction Area was identified early on by the LCC, and is explained in the County of London Plan. The area was divided up into 11 neighbourhood units, and the Lansbury Estate site was neighbourhood number 9. The Lansbury Estate was featured as the Live Architecture Exhibition in the Festival of Britain, and so would act as a showpiece community for the LCC in its rebuilding of London.

The LCC were keen to bind this new landscape to the local community. The first residents were Mr and Mrs Snoddy, Poplar people, who were rehoused from their older Victorian home. Many of the residents of the Lansbury Estate were local Poplar people. The LCC further tied the area to the people of Poplar by inviting Poplar and Stepney Borough Councils to pick a name for the new estate. The chosen name was in honour of Labour politician George Lansbury, a figure of great significance to the people of Poplar. (9)

As part of its patronage of the arts programme, the LCC, in consultation with the Arts Council, installed The Dockers by Sydney Harpley in 1962. It was located on the edge of the Lansbury Estate in Trinity Gardens next to the Trinity Methodist church, East India Dock Road, which had been completed in 1951.


Trinity Church, East India Dock Road (Photograph Rosamund West, August 2016)


Sydney Harpley, The Dockers, Trinity Gardens (c) London Metropolitan Archives (LMA/4218/01/025)

The proximity of the docks to the Lansbury Estate clearly informed the subject matter for this sculpture. Many of the people housed on the Lansbury Estate were employed either in the docks, or in the many associated industries reliant on the docks. At the time of planning, London was still a major port. The demise of the docks and subsequent collapse of industry in London, particularly focussed on the East End and river communities, was not yet known. As the County of London Plan explained in 1943: (10)

London is a great industrial town as well as a capital city and a governmental and administrative centre.


Sydney Harpley, The Dockers, Trinity Gardens (c) London Metropolitan Archives (LMA/4218/01/025)

The sculpture references the industrial culture of this part of London as well as suggesting a camaraderie between the figures. The two dockers bear a heavy load between them, their figures merging with their shared load and with each other. A depiction entirely fitting for an industry supported by a close-knit community where traditionally sons had often followed fathers into the docks.


Sydney Harpley, The Dockers, Trinity Gardens, with St Mary and St Joseph Roman Catholic Church in the background (c) London Metropolitan Archives (LMA/4218/01/025)


Empty plinth where The Dockers once stood, Trinity Gardens, East India Dock Road (Photograph Rosamund West, August 2016)

With the demise of industry on the river, a sculpture for a community familiar with the docks quickly lost its relevance. Sydney Harpley’s sculpture was badly vandalised until only the legs of the dockers remained. Today, only the plinth remains.

Silwood Estate, Rotherhithe


County of London Plan, ‘Aerial view of an area in Bermondsey’, coloured plate no. 5 (2)

This image from the County of London Plan depicts the area of Rotherhithe, which would become the Silwood Estate, as a perfect example of a site that could be developed at the ideal 136 persons per acre. (11)  Within this neighbourhood unit, or community, was planned a school, a nursery school, shops and businesses, and a community centre. As with the Lansbury Estate, the LCC used its patronage of the arts programme to install an artwork on this estate. Whereas the sculpture at the Lansbury Estate referenced the local industry, the sculpture chosen for the Silwood Estate referenced the location of the site.


Uli Nimptsch, Neighbourly Encounter, 1961 (c) London Metropolitan Archives (LMA/4218/01/046)

Neighbourly Encounter by Uli Nimptsch was installed on the Silwood Estate in 1964. The Silwood Estate straddled the borders of the Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey and Deptford. The fence represented the boundary between the two boroughs and the two figures the neighbourliness that existed between the two communities (12). The piece further references the area with the artist’s use of two local children as the models, David Grist and his sister Doreen. Sadly, as with The Dockers, Neighbourly Encounter is missing.

The London County Council, in its enthusiastic tackling of the post-war housing crisis, put emphasis on communities and Londoners. By also installing artworks in residential settings, the LCC was introducing art into the environment of normal working people. Perhaps patriarchal and over-bearing to us today, the LCC wanted to be seen as a caring municipal body that re-housed Londoners, and re-housed them well. Installing artworks within housing schemes went above and beyond the basic urgent need for shelter. By selecting artists and artworks that referenced the local history or culture of an area, the LCC was investing in the less tangible, emotional crux of what community means and what makes that community thrive.


Further detail on Rosamund’s research can be found on this information page.  You can follow her on Twitter at @Rosamund_Lil.

(1) Abercrombie, P. & Forshaw, J. H. County of London Plan, (Macmillan & Co, 1943), p.8

(2) County of London Plan,iii

(3) Churchill, 8 October 1940: County of London Plan, frontispiece

(4) County of London Plan, p74

(5) London County Council, The Youngest County. A Description of London as a County and its Public Services, (London, 1951), p.166

(6) County of London Plan, p101

(7) County of London Plan, p83

(8) County of London Plan, p4

(9) ‘The Lansbury Estate: Introduction and the Festival of Britain exhibition’, in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse (London, 1994), pp. 212-223. British History Online

(10) County of London Plan, p84

(11) County of London Plan, p81

(12) Reverse of LCC photograph, LMA/4218/01/046



Open House London 2016: Town Halls – Civic Pride and Service


This bonus post – the final post relating to Open House London on the 18-19 September – offers a whistle-stop tour of some of the other municipal buildings featured, some grand, some more humble.  We’ll begin with municipal seats of government: in chronological order, the town halls which manifested the civic pride of local government in its heyday.


City of London Guildhall (c) Prioryman and made available through Wikimedia Commons

It’s appropriate then to begin with the oldest and one of the most impressive of these, the City of London Guildhall and its present Grand Hall, begun in 1411 – the third largest surviving medieval hall in the country.  Externally, it’s probably the 1788 grand entrance by George Dance the Younger in – with apologies to contemporary sensibilities – what’s been called Hindoostani Gothic that is most eye-catching.  The adjacent Guildhall Library and Art Gallery are also open to view – great facilities along with others provided by the City but as the Corporation is hardly a triumph of democracy we’ll move on.


Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

At the other end of the scale what is now the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow is a modest affair.  It started life in the mid-18th century as a workhouse but included a room set aside for meetings of the local vestry.  It was later adapted as a police station before becoming a very fine local museum in 1930. If you can’t make Open House, do visit it and Walthamstow Village at another time.


Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall, on the other hand, almost matches the Guildhall in its civic pretensions – chutzpah indeed for a building, designed by the impressively named Caesar Augustus Long and opened in 1866 as the headquarters of a mere vestry, the modest form of local government which preceded the Metropolitan Boroughs established in the capital in 1900. Shoreditch, however, was far from modest – it was one of the most ambitious and innovative such bodies in London, taking particular pride in its path-breaking municipal electricity undertaking.  The Vestry and later Borough’s motto ‘More Light, More Power’ had more than metaphorical meaning.  You might recognise the figure of ‘Progress’ enshrined in the Town Hall tower too.

After a long period of decline the Town Hall was reopened in 2005 and is now a thriving community venue operated by the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust.  Look out for a full programme of events celebrating the building’s 150th anniversary later this year.


Limehouse Town Hall

Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881, is a humbler building despite the Italian palazzo styling adopted by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston. It also started life as a Vestry Hall but one intended nevertheless as ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’.  It went on to serve as offices for Stepney Metropolitan Borough Council – while its great hall hosted balls and concerts and even early ‘cinematograph’ shows.  It was well known to Clement Attlee, mayor of Stepney in 1919 and later the district’s MP.  It’s been run by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust as a community venue since 2004.


Battersea Arts Centre (former Town Hall)

Battersea Town Hall, begun in 1892 – an ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ design by Edward Mountford – has had a similarly chequered history, most notably surviving a disastrous fire in 2015.  Fortunately, repairs and improvements have re-established the Battersea Arts Centre – in business again – as a wonderful local resource.  Its local government heritage survives, however – a worthy memorial to the time when Battersea’s radical politics earned it the title, the ‘Municipal Mecca’. (The Latchmere Estate, a fifteen minute walk to the north and the subject of my very first post, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour in 1903.)


Richmond Old Town Hall

Richmond, a municipal borough founded in 1890 in the County of Surrey, was a more conservative body although it can boast (since its incorporation in Greater London in 1965) the first council housing built in the capital.  Richmond Old Town Hall, also designed in Elizabethan Renaissance style by WJ Ancell, was opened in 1893 and now houses (since the creation of the London Borough of Richmond) a museum, gallery and local studies archives amongst other things.


Finsbury Town Hall

Finsbury Town Hall was opened in 1895, another Vestry Hall at that time, designed by C Evans Vaughan in ‘free Flemish Renaissance’ style according to Pevsner.  Look out for the Art Nouveau entrance canopy and internal fittings too.  It’s a beautiful building making good use of a tricky site, subsequently home to one of the most radical of London’s Metropolitan Borough Councils. If you visit, take time to look at Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre five minutes to the south and the Spa Green Estate just to the north though neither feature in the Open House programme.  The headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board, opened in 1920 just across the road, do, however.

Back to Finsbury Town Hall, it’s been the home of the Urdang Academy – a school of dance and musical theatre – since 2006 and, in its words, ‘an inspiring and fitting environment in which to train’.  The Town Hall is still a local registry office for weddings and, for that reason, close to my heart and that of the woman who puts the ‘dreams’ into ‘municipal’.


Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower

Croydon, created a County Borough within Surrey in 1889, didn’t amalgamate with London until 1965 but the Town Hall, to plans by local architect Charles Henman, was opened in 1896 to provide ‘Municipal Offices, Courts, a Police Station, Library and many other public purposes’. The Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower complex retains some local government functions – the Mayor’s Parlour and committee rooms – but also offers a museum, gallery, library and cinema.


Redbridge (formerly Ilford) Town Hall (c) Sunil060902 and made available through Wikimedia Commonsw

The first ‘free Classical’ phase of Redbridge Town Hall, by architect Ben Woollard, was opened in 1901 for Ilford Urban District Council. A new central library was built in the 1927 extension for the newly created Municipal Borough and further office space in the 1933 extension, contributing to the eclectic Renaissance of the overall ensemble. Since 1965 it’s served as the headquarters of the London Borough of Redbridge. The Council Chamber is one of the finest in London.


Tottenham Town Hall, fire station and public baths illustrated in 1903


Tottenham Town Hall today

A visit to the Tottenham Green Conservation Area gives you an opportunity view a whole slew of historically significant buildings.  With my municipal hat on, I’ll draw your attention to Tottenham Town Hall (HQ of Tottenham Urban District Council from 1904 to 1965) and the other examples of local government endeavour and service adjacent – the public baths next door (now just the façade remaining but, as the Bernie Grants Art Centre supported by Haringey Council, still serving a progressive purpose), the fire station (now an enterprise centre), and technical college (built by Middlesex County Council). Passing the new Marcus Garvie Library, you’ll come across Tottenham’s former public library built in 1896 just up the road.  It’s as fine an ensemble of civic purpose and social betterment as you could find in the country.


The Victoria Hall, Woolwich Town Hall

And without doubt, Woolwich Town Hall, an elaborate Baroque design by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, is one of the most impressive town halls in the capital.  Queen Victoria presides over the main stairway of the building’s staggeringly impressive central lobby but the building was opened, following Labour’s capture of the Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903 by local MP and dockers’ leader Will Crooks.  That take-over by one of the largest and most active Labour organisations in the country (don’t neglect the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society here) heralded a proud era of reform to raise the health and living standards of the local working class.



Deptford Town Hall

Another fine example of Baroque revival is Deptford Town Hall, designed by the noted team HV Lanchester, JA Steward and EA Rickards and completed in 1907.  Its exterior sculptures capture local pride in the area’s naval heritage. The guided tours focus on more controversial times – the Town Hall’s role as a court for trying conscientious objectors during the First World War.


The UK Supreme Court (formerly Middlesex Guildhall) (c) Pam Fray and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Moving to the immediate pre-war period, the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster – originally housing, amongst other things, the offices of Middlesex County Council – was an unusual building for its time, designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in free Gothic style.  It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.

The interwar era featured a new wave and new style of municipal architecture.  Probably the most notable example, Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End, doesn’t feature in Open House this year but, now a local arts centre, can be viewed at other times.


Havering (formerly Romford) Town Hall (c) MRSC and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Opened one year later in 1936, Romford Town Hall (now serving the London Borough of Havering) is a less elaborate building, designed by Herbert R Collins and Antoine Englebert O Geens in an architectural competition stressing the need for strict economy. It remains, however, a very fine example of the new International Moderne style in vogue at the time. Though its steel-framed construction is hidden here by brickwork and stone, rather than the white cement often favoured, this was a consciously forward-looking, more democratic architecture shedding the detritus of the past.


Waltham Forest (formerly Walthamstow) Town Hall

Walthamstow Town Hall (now belonging to the Borough of Waltham Forest) probably has the best setting of any town hall in London – a grand civic complex fronted by sweeping lawns and a grand central pool and fountain. The Town Hall itself was commissioned by the new Borough of Walthamstow created in 1929 and designed by Phillip Hepworth in a stripped down classical style with Art Deco touches owing something to Scandinavian contemporaries.


From the Walthamstow Town Hall Council Chamber

Begun in 1937 and completed in wartime, these straitened circumstances led to some economising in fixtures and fittings but it remains an impressive building. Walk round the back to see five figures by Irish sculptor John Francis Kavanagh, inspired by local hero William Morris, and note the Borough Coat of Arms mosaic at the entrance (and elsewhere) with its motto taken Morris – ‘Fellowship is Life’.  You’ll see this inscribed on the pediment of the Assembly Hall, contemporaneous, to the right.  The Magistrates’ Courts to the left weren’t built until the 1970s.

All these buildings, in different ways, reflect perhaps the proudest and most progressive era of local government – seen most practically in the health centres, washhouses and baths and housing which I’ve written of elsewhere but manifested too in administrative headquarters intended to represent and mobilise a civic patriotism.


Harrow Civic Centre (c) Nigel Cox and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Some of that shine had rubbed off by the 1970s – an era of civic centres in which function outweighed form in terms of design.  Harrow Civic Centre, despite a distinguished architectural pedigree – it was designed by Eric Broughton, the winner of an architectural competition judged by a panel including Sir Basil Spence and Sir Hugh Casson – is no exception in this respect.  Opened in 1973, it’s essentially a Brutalist, checkerboarded concrete box built around a large central courtyard.

Now it’s due for demolition.  According to Chief Executive, Michael Lockwood:

45 years ago, Harrow Council built this Civic Centre because local government was growing and workers needed a building to match. Today, with the cuts faced by every Council, local government is changing all around the country.

It’s proposed to relocate, in his words, ‘a smaller and more agile organisation’, in three new centres.  Presentations on the regeneration scheme will be presented in the Council Chamber during Open House.


Brent Civic Centre

All that could stand as an epitaph for local government but the new Brent Civic Centre, opened in 2013 near Wembley Stadium lets us end on a positive note.  Brent chose a different path; the centre unites Brent’s civic, public and administrative functions under a single roof – in the words of its designers Hopkins Architects, ‘a new hub and heart for the community where residents can meet, shop and eat’.  The latter, of course, is another reflection of changed times and priorities and an ethos in which public service is at best complemented by commercial imperatives and, at worst, subordinated to them.

I haven’t seen it but it looks, to be fair, a rather stunning building and, since it houses a community hall and library as well as a civic chamber and offices for the 2000 employees who keep the borough’s services going, let’s celebrate it as a worthy update to the civic heritage this post records.


I could add much, much more.  I’m conscious that I’ve not included the many schools which feature in Open House, nor the libraries, old and new.  Those endeavours reflect the cultural ambitions and achievements of municipalism but I’ll conclude with a brief mention of examples of more prosaic but vital functions.


The former Shacklewell Road Baths

Two example of Hackney public baths feature, firstly the small but beautifully formed bath and washhouse on Shacklewell Road now the Bath House Children’s Community Centre, designed by Borough Architect Percival Holt in what’s described as Modernist Classical style, opened in 1931. It’s been converted as the name implies.


The former Gainsborough Road Baths, now the Cre8 Centre (c) Dr Neil Clifton and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Four years later, Holt designed a grander Art Deco scheme in Hackney Wick. The former Gainsborough Road Baths are now the Cre8 Centre, a busy cultural and event space.

Ironmonger Row Baths

The modernised Ironmonger Row Baths

These provided slipper baths and laundries.  Finsbury was again more ambitious. The Ironmonger Row Baths, designed by specialist architect AW Cross and opened in 1931, included those, two pools and then – unheard of luxury for working men and women – Turkish baths.

The Council believed ‘facilities for healthy recreation and personal cleanliness…essential for the health and well-being of our people’.  The words speak to the best of service to community which local government has embodied.

Open House London 2016: A Tour of the Capital’s Council Housing, Part Two


Part One of our look at council housing featured in Open House London on the weekend of 17-18 September left us in the East End in Bethnal Green where a progressive Labour council had commissioned Denys Lasdun, one of the leading architects of the day, to design high-quality housing for its working people.



Moving westwards, we’ll begin this week’s post in another radical Labour stronghold and with the architect who probably brought the greatest political commitment to that task.  Berthold Lubetkin famously declared – in relation to his celebrated design for the Finsbury Health Centre – that ‘nothing [was] too good for ordinary people’.  His Spa Green Estate nearby, completed in 1949 and described by the Survey of London, not prone to hyperbole, as ‘heroic’ and by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time, also reflected that ideal.

SN Bevin Court

Bevin Court

Neither of these appear in Open House but two of Lubetkin’s schemes for the Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council – one of the most progressive in the capital – are featured.  Bevin Court was opened in 1954; the Cold War having put paid to plans to name the building after Lenin (who had once lived on it site).  Its innovative seven-story Y-shape capitalised on its site and ensured none of the flats faced north but, visually, its crowning glory is its central staircase.  Visit to see that and the newly restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.

640px-Bevin_Court_(3318843174) Steve Cadman

Bevin Court, Peter Yates mural (c) Steve Cadman and made available under a Creative Commons licence

SN Priory Green

Priory Green Estate

A few minutes’ walk to the north, you can also visit Lubetkin’s Priory Green Estate, completed three years later.  It’s a much larger estate – 288 homes in seven large blocks but with similar attention paid to lay-out and landscaping and more striking, sculptural staircases.  The Estate was transferred from Islington Borough Council, Finsbury’s successor after 1965, to Peabody in 1999 and, having fallen on hard times, has since been renovated with the aid of a £2m Heritage Lottery grant.

SN Cranbrook Estate

Cranbrook Estate showing the old people’s bungalows and Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Blind Beggar and Dog’ (1957)

Our final example of Lubetkin’s work takes us back to Bethnal Green. The Cranbrook Estate was built between 1955 and 1966.  With 529 homes in total – arranged in a geometric ensemble of six tower and five medium-rise blocks artfully diminishing in scale to the single-storey terrace of old people’s bungalows on the Roman Road – it is one and half times the size of le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation.  Lutbetkin’s biographer, John Allen, rightly describes it as a ‘stupendous tour de force’ and only detracts from that compliment by seeming to lament the ‘domestic intricacies of municipal housing’ which lie behind it.  I’ll take those – as Lubetkin would – as, in fact, its crowning achievement.

SN Dawsons Heights

Dawson’s Heights

Dawson’s Heights, in East Dulwich, literally crowns its dramatic hill-top setting, so much so that English Heritage (in a listing proposal rejected by the Secretary of State) was moved to almost lyrical praise of the scheme’s ‘striking and original massing’ and its ‘evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’.  The Estate, two large ziggurat-style blocks designed to offer views and sunlight to each of their 296 flats, was built between 1968 and 1972 – an in-house design for Southwark Borough Council by Kate Macintosh then aged just 26.  She’s alive and kicking and still a doughty defender of social housing and its social purpose.


The World’s End Estate

Another estate which capitalises on its superb setting is the World’s End Estate, completed in 1977, set on the banks of the Thames across London in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms it comprises seven 18 to 21-storey tower blocks, joined in a figure of eight by nine four-storey walkway blocks but the whole, clad in warm-red brick, possesses a romantic, castellated appearance, providing  great views within and without.

SN Gascoigne

Gascoigne Estate (c)

All this might seem a world away from the Gascoigne Estate in Barking, a sprawling 1960s estate with seventeen tower blocks, housing some 4000 people.  It’s been a troubled and unpopular estate in recent years whose design and history might stand as representative of many much-criticised estates built in an era of mass rehousing when scale sometimes outpaced finesse.  For all that, it’s been a home to many and it’s good to see – as a major regeneration scheme takes off – that history of community celebrated in the Open Estate Living Museum that features in this year’s Open House programme.  I’m looking forward to finding out more.

If the Gascoigne Estate – demonised and stereotyped like so many so-called ‘problem estates’ – might be taken by some to represent the worst of a flawed era of public housing, two London boroughs – learning from mistakes made elsewhere – built some of this country’s finest council housing.  The typically high-density but low- to medium-rise developments built after the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in 1968 represent the best of what public housing might have achieved in the longer-term had it been supported.

Hollamby 1974

Ted Hollamby

As Chief Architect for the new (post-65) Borough of Lambeth, Ted Hollamby had concluded that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’.  Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments.  They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’.  His vision can be seen enacted in two very fine council estates on show during Open House.


SN Central Hill

Central Hill Estate

Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973, is a stepped development designed to make best use of its attractive site but it reflects Lambeth and Hollamby’s signature style in its intimacy and human scale.  It’s worked; it’s a well-loved estate with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, as part of Lambeth’s commendable pledge to build 1000 new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact, the threat of demolition.

All these council estates – like homes everywhere – require upkeep and maintenance (and too many have fallen prey to poor maintenance over the years) but ‘regeneration’ in this context means the destruction of good homes and the wiping out of existing communities.  One driver of this madness is ‘densification’ – an ugly term to describe the ugly reality that many of our politicians and planners believe working-class homes must be built at greater density.  The other is money or the lack of it – the pressure to sell council real estate and build private housing for sale in order to raise capital for social housing at best or so-called ‘affordable’ housing at worst.

The lunatic logic of this should be plain to all but those with a naïve faith or vested interest in the unfettered market – the very market which failed ordinary people in years past and fails us now.

IMG_0085 (a)

Cressingham Gardens

The plans to wreak this havoc on Cressingham Gardens, one of Lambeth’s finest estates – described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’ – have already been approved, its residents still fighting valiantly a rearguard action.  It’s a beautiful estate nestling on the edge of Brockwell Park which manages superbly, in Hollamby’s words again, to ‘create a sense of smallness inside the bigness…and to get the kind of atmosphere in which people did not feel all herded together’.   It’s worth a visit and its residents deserve our support.

Sn Whittington Estate Lulot Gardens (6)

Lulot Gardens, Whittington Estate

Across the capital, another progressive borough, Camden – under the enlightened leadership of Borough Architect Sydney Cook – had also developed its own striking house style.  This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, another young architect then in his mid-twenties.

Sn Whittington Estate Stoneleigh Terrace (2)

Stoneleigh Terrace, Whittington Estate

It’s a larger, grander scheme than those of Lambeth – in signature Camden style, six parallel linear stepped-section blocks of light pre-cast concrete construction and dark-stained timber.  It was designed to be a ‘form of housing…which related more closely to the existing urban fabric than the slab and tower blocks, and which brought more dwellings close to the ground’. Each home had its own front door and a walk through the front door of 8 Stoneleigh Terrace during Open House will allow you to glimpse the innovative interior design of the housing too, chiefly the work of Ken Adie of the Council’s Department of Technical Services.

Sn Dartmouth Park Hill (2)

Dartmouth Park Hill

When you leave take time to visit a later stage of the Highgate New Town scheme along Dartmouth Park Hill, marking a turn away from the estate conception to streetscape and more in keeping with local vernacular form but still housing of the highest order.  Finally, a view of the Chester-Balmore Scheme, built to Passivhaus standards to ensure the highest levels of sustainability, at the corner of Raydon Street and Chester Road opposite the Whittington Estate, will show you the very latest advances in social housing.

Dunboyne Road

Dunboyne Road Estate

Aside from Cook, Camden’s superb council housing of this era is chiefly associated with Neave Brown, the only living architect to have had all his UK work officially listed. This year’s Open House features, the Dunboyne Road (formerly Fleet Road) Estate (no. 36 to be precise), designed by Brown in 1966 and finally completed in 1977.  Its three white, stepped parallel blocks and now mature gardens provide a striking ensemble, noted by English Heritage in their 2010 Grade II listing for its ‘strong modernist aesthetic’ and a ‘simple, bold overall composition’ belying the scheme’s complexity and sophistication.


Rowley Way, Alexandra Road Estate

The other Brown scheme in Open House is generally judged one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, the Alexandra Road Estate,  listed Grade II* in 1993.  It’s better seen than described but, in its scale and confidence, it marks (in the words of modernist architect John Winter), ‘a magical moment for English housing’.  Make sure to visit the recently renovated Alexandra Road Park and Tenants’ Hall (also featured in Open House), both integral to the design and original conception of the estate.

Alexandra Road was completed in 1979 – the year in which such high ambition would be consigned to the graveyard of history.  It’s a sad irony that some of the very best of our council housing was built just as its near-century long story of practical idealism and shared social purpose was drawing to a close.


I hadn’t intended this tour of some of London’s finest council estates to be so elegiac but the contemporary picture of social housing’s marginalisation and market-driven ‘regeneration’ creates a poignant counterpoint to the energy and aspirations of previous generations.  If you visit any of the estates on show during Open House London, my plea to you is to think of them not as monuments to a bygone era but as beacons of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.


The residents of Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens both have active campaigns fighting to preserve their homes and communities.  See Save Central Hill and Save Cressingham Gardens to find out more and lend your support.

SHOUT (Social Housing under Threat) has its own website and is actively campaigning to defend social housing and promote it as the best and necessary solution to our housing crisis.

Open House London 2016: A Tour of the Capital’s Council Housing, Part One


The most important buildings in London – those with the greatest social significance for the mass of its people and those which have made the greatest visual impact on the capital – are council houses.  It’s partly their ubiquity and relative accessibility that means most council estates don’t make it into Open House London, the capital’s annual celebration of its built heritage taking place on the weekend of the 17-18 September this year. And, then – let’s be fair here – there’s the fact that not all municipal schemes have represented the very best of architecture and design.

But there’s another process in play – the marginalisation of social housing and its contribution to the lives of so many. We are asked to forget or even malign all that social housing has achieved.  And, by the supporters and beneficiaries of a boundless free market, we are asked to discount it as a solution to the present housing crisis.

Housing protest

Housing crisis and protest

A ‘pure’ focus on architecture and design can be complicit in this.  Indeed, Open House London is complicit in this – its listing on Trevelyan House, which it describes rightly as ‘a classic 1950s Grade II listed Brutalist building designed by Denys Lasdun’, still ignores the cardinal fact of its existence (despite my comments last year): that it was built by Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council to provide high-quality and affordable homes for local people.  This is a kind of architectural social cleansing to match the sad reality on the ground in London.

This post offers an alternative perspective: a chronological tour of the Open House London venues which do mark this progressive history – council housing to savour and celebrate.  I’ve written on many of these in the past so click on the links to get to those earlier posts and further information. Open House locations are picked out in bold.


The Boundary Estate

We’ll begin with the country’s first council estate, the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, opened in 1900.  It doesn’t feature in Open House this year but I want to publicise the Boundary Estate Fun Palace, taking place on October 1.  You’ll find Fun Palaces up and down the country that weekend, all dedicated to a belief in ‘the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better’.  Check out the great programme of the Boundary Estate Fun Palace, including lots of significant social history for those of you who are interested.

SN Progress Estate 2

The Progress Estate

I’ll cheat slightly with my next suggestion too.  The Progress Estate in Eltham was built by the Ministry of Works during the First World War and designed by the Ministry’s Chief Architect, Frank Baines; its role, to support the war effort by providing high-quality housing to the workers of the nearby Royal Arsenal Munitions Works. Almost 1300 homes were built in the single year of 1915, showing what can be done when housing needs are prioritised.  Originally named the Well Hall Estate, it was renamed in 1925 when the Government sold it to the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society.  Fifty-five years later, the 500 remaining social rented homes were sold on to the Hyde Housing Association.

SN Progress Estate

The Progress Estate

The Estate represented the fullest flowering of the Arts and Crafts garden suburb ideals of its time, ideals enshrined in the 1918 Tudor Walters Report which shaped the massive growth of council housing in the interwar period – 89,049 council homes were built during the period by the London County Council alone.  The estate remains a tribute to the best of social housing and almost to the present a pastoral idyll, well worth a visit for its architecture and history.

Becontree Estate (7)

The Becontree Estate

The Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919 at the height of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ campaign, represents the other side to these ambitions – the desire to build at massive scale to meet the pressing housing needs of the day.  It was the largest of the LCC’s interwar estates, comprising by 1939 over 26,000 homes and housing a population of 120,000.  Such size (and an unpromising site) led some – despite the planners’ best efforts – to criticise the mass and uniformity of the Estate but to many, moving from inner-city slums, ‘it was heaven with the gates off.’

If you’re there, make sure to visit the Mobile Museum too which will based at Barking Town Square, in Clockhouse Avenue, a mobile library van converted by the artist Verity-Jane Keefe to collect the memories and artefacts of those who have lived in Becontree and the other council estates of the Borough of Barking and Dagenham.  Valence House, on the Estate, a 15th century manor house purchased to serve local needs by the LCC in 1926, is a now a local museum recording the distant and more recent history of the area, including some interesting records and re-creations of Becontree.

Chilcott Close (2)

Chilcott Close, Lansbury Estate

The Lansbury Estate in Poplar would serve as a model for another era of post-war council housing when it was opened in 1951 to serve as a living ‘Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research’ for the Festival of Britain.  It’s easy to be unimpressed by its modest yellow-brick terraces and small blocks of flats and maisonettes – and much contemporary architectural opinion was – but take time to savour a moment when (in the words of the Festival’s on-site town planning exhibition) our politics were driven by ‘The Battle for Land’ and ‘The Needs of the People’ and the question ‘How can these needs be met?’.

SN Chrisp St Market

Chrisp Street Market from the clock tower (the canopies were added in the 1990s)

SN Clock TowerThe Estate epitomises the ‘neighbourhood unit’, a key element of post-war planning envisaged as a means of preserving and enhancing an ideal of ‘community’ which some felt betrayed by larger, more anonymous council estates such as Becontree.

Its centrepiece was Frederick Gibberd’s Chrisp Street Market and clock tower – the first pedestrianised shopping centre in the country.  For Open House, you can visit the micro-museum on the Lansbury set up by the V and A in collaboration with the National Trust and Poplar HARCA and have a rare opportunity to climb the clock tower.

If you visit, go critically with eyes and ears open to the tensions and contradictions of the ‘regeneration’ which is being visited here as on so many of our council estates.  Poplar HARCA and developers have plans to make Chrisp Street a ‘new commercial and leisure destination’. Of course, all the right noises are being made about respecting local heritage and the interests of existing traders but some locals – campaigning for  ‘fruit and veg and social housing, not corporate brands and luxury flats’ – see an insidious process of gentrification underway, in part legitimised by what some see as the ‘art-washing’ of the V and A and National Trust.

SN Balfron

Balfron Tower

With Canary Wharf just to the south and Balfron Tower a five-minute walk to the west, such fears are not groundless.  Designed by Ernő Goldfinger and opened by the Greater London Council in 1968, Balfron is famous (or infamous according to taste) as one of the most imposing Brutalist designs of its time but it was, first and foremost, housing for working-class people being moved from local slums.

According to Ursula Goldfinger (she and Ernő lived briefly in the block on its opening to gauge its successes and failures), its early residents ‘all said the flats were lovely’; she ‘never heard anybody express regret for the terrace houses they have mostly come from’.  Now the block’s council tenants have been ‘decanted’ and the flats are to be sold to those with the means to buy them on the open market


Trellick Tower

Balfron Tower doesn’t appear in Open House this year but its younger sister, also designed by Goldfinger, Trellick Tower in West London, opened in 1972, does and this, fortunately, despite Right to Buy, remains social housing owned by the Royal Borough Kensington and Chelsea.  I haven’t written on Trellick but I hope the posts on Balfron can provide some useful background.

P14307. Robin Hood Gardens, 1972 300dpi

Robin Hood Gardens. Image by Sandra Lousada, 1972 (c) The Smithson Family Collection and used with permission

As we’ve skipped our chronological focus for a geographical one, I’ll continue here by taking you five minutes to the south to Robin Hood Gardens.   Balfron was Grade II listed in 1996, Trellick Grade II* two years later. Despite the best efforts of the architectural great and good, no such security has been granted to Alison and Peter Smithson’s path-breaking scheme, opened in 1972 and now due for demolition as part of the Blackwall Reach regeneration project.

RHG July 2

Robin Hood Gardens, still occupied, July 2016

Run-down, largely cleared, Robin Hood Gardens presents a sorry picture now but visit it before it’s gone and savour something of its scale and grandeur.  While not all its aspirations were fulfilled, its ‘streets in the sky’ and overall design sensibilities represent some of the highest ideals of social housing.  The Estate’s subsequent real-world difficulties – understood sensitively – also have much to teach us.

Trevelyan House

Trevelyan House

And, finally today, back to Trevelyan House, built – I’ll labour the point – by a Labour council determined to rehouse a working-class population living in some of the worse slum housing in the capital, wrestling with the problem of limited land and awkwardly shaped plots, yet reluctant to build too high.

The Council commissioned Denys Lasdun to provide a solution and he devised (with the adjacent Sulkin House) a pioneering example of the cluster block – a central, free-standing tower containing lifts and services with separate towers containing accommodation.  The eight-storey block comprises 24 maisonettes arranged in a design which maximises their light and air whilst simultaneously providing greater privacy and quiet.

Lasdun was determined to build maisonettes, approximating more closely to the two-storey terraced housing from which most new residents had come.  Enjoy the ‘modern re-design’ on view this year but don’t forget its history.

SN Keeling

Keeling House

A fifteen-minute walk away to the east off Bethnal Green Road, you can see a more fully worked-out and larger-scale version of the cluster block design by Lasdun in Keeling House (not in Open House), completed one year later.  Sixteen storeys-high, four blocks around the central service core containing 64 homes in all – 56 two-storey maisonettes and, on the fifth floor and deliberately visible in the building’s profile,  8 single-storey studio flats.

After a history of neglect and unable to pay for necessary repairs to the now Grade II-listed building, the block was sold by Tower Hamlets Council to private developers for £1.3m in 1999. I was told, on good authority, that almost half its current residents are architects.

I’ll continue this look at the council housing heritage celebrated in Open House London in next week’s post.

A Housing History of the Beatles: Three ‘working-class heroes’ and John

It’s a ‘long and winding road that leads to your door’: my final post inspired by a recent visit to Liverpool looks at the early homes of the city’s favourite sons. (1)  We took the Magical Mystery Tour of Beatles’ venues on the final day of our stay.  It hardly needs justification – they really did change popular culture for ever – but the tour itself offered unexpected insights into some significant social and housing history.

Beatles Pier Head 1962

Pier Head, 1962

As tour guide Jay Johnson (the brother of Holly, of Frankie Goes to Hollywood) pointed out, what became obvious as the tour progressed from inner-city to suburbs was that Ringo, George and Paul were working class and John was clearly, if a little embarrassedly, middle class.  We began in central Liverpool with Ringo Starr who was probably the most working-class of the Fab Four or, at least, the group member from the poorest background.

Ringo Starr Madryn Street

Ringo Starr’s first home, Madryn Street, prior to planned demolition

Ringo was born in 1940 in 9 Madryn Street in the so-called Welsh Streets of the Dingle district.  When his parents separated, he moved, aged three, with his mother, to a cheaper house at 10 Admiral Grove, a few yards away.  He lived there twenty years. His mother worked as a cleaner and later as a barmaid in the local Empress pub.


Ringo Starr outside no 10 Admiral Grove with mother Elsie and stepfather Harry

Admiral Grove (c) John Lord

Admiral Grove (c) John Lord and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The Welsh Streets, a 21-acre estate of the 1870s, less than a mile from the city centre and close to Princes Park, were so named from the fact that they were designed by Welsh-born architect Richard Owens who gave the streets mostly  Welsh names and employed his fellow-countrymen to build them.  These were mostly humble homes and Ringo, in particular, had a hard childhood, not helped by two bouts of life-threatening illness.

If to Beatles’ fans the Welsh Streets have been put on the map by Ringo, to anyone interested in housing they’re well known as one of the most egregious victims of the Labour Government’s misguided 2002 Pathfinder Housing Market Renewal programme. This was a plan to demolish generally structurally sound – sometimes neglected but rarely slum – housing in order to build smaller numbers of new homes and revive local housing markets.  Up to 400,000 homes in the Midlands and the North were affected; against residents’ wishes, 400 homes on the Welsh Streets were earmarked for demolition.

Veolas Street before adn after

Veolas Street, before and after (from the Welsh Streets website)

Powis Street (c) John S Turner

Powis Street (c) John S Turner and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Although the area has been systematically blighted since then, a long-running campaign has resisted clearance and fought to defend local housing and a local community.  The plans were initially revised to safeguard the Beatles heritage of no. 9 and last year Communities Secretary Eric Pickles rejected the proposals wholesale.  Now alternative regeneration plans are being discussed. (2)

SN Ardwick Grove

12 Arnold Grove

SN Albert Grove

Albert Grove, the identical street adjacent to Arnold Grove (but without the crowds of sightseers)

George Harrison was born three years after Ringo in Wavertree, around three miles to the west.  No. 12 Arnold Grove was another small working-class terraced house.  Harrison remembered it as very small – with rooms ten foot square, a basic kitchen comprising an iron stove in the backroom, and a backyard with ‘a one-foot wide flower bed, a toilet, a dustbin fitted to the back wall [and] a little hen house where we kept cockerels’. Four children were brought up in this tiny home.

The prevalence of unfit housing at this time has been lost in the subsequent narrative critical of the council housing which largely replaced it but, according to the 1951 Census, over one in five households nationally either shared a WC (this total included outside toilets) or lacked one completely and 45 per cent of households lacked a fixed bath. For all our later romanticisation of the nineteenth-century terraces, the great wave of slum clearance and post-war council house building which followed were long overdue.  In January 1950, the Harrisons moved to a brand new council house in 25 Upton Green, Speke, six miles to the south.

George Harrison, Upton Green Speke 1

George Harrison in Upton Green, Speke

The Speke Estate, begun in the late 1930s, was among the most ambitious of the Liverpool Corporation’s housing schemes; it was, in intent, almost a new town prefiguring, in spirit at least, the New Towns of 1946.  As The Times reported in 1937, the ‘Speke satellite town’ was (like its successors) ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’; in this way, ‘avoiding that segregation of one class which was now widely recognised as a deterrent to social progress’. In 1949, Stanley Gale described the scheme, revived after a wartime hiatus, as ‘unique among housing estates developed by local authorities’. (3)

Speke plan

Plan of the Speke Estate

Of its 2209 acres, 626 acres were allocated to factories (11 built by the Corporation itself), 430 to Liverpool’s airport (now, of course, the John Lennon Airport), 626 to housing, and 710 to open space.  Of the planned 6000 homes, there were a few ‘cottage flats’ for the elderly and larger flats for families but most were two to four-bed homes, including ‘294 large houses with garage and four bedrooms for professional men, managers, etc.’. George’s father was a bus conductor and his mother a shop assistant so naturally the family didn’t qualify for one of the posh houses.

For Lancelot Keay, Liverpool’s City Architect and Housing Manager and the scheme’s driving force, Speke was about far more than shelter and work. He also wanted planners to: (4)

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.

And to that end, a ‘central community building…with dance hall, concert hall and restaurant’ was provided ‘for the pleasures as well as the adult education of the people’.

Keay – whose discourse (for all his commitment to the people’s pleasure) retained a self-improving tone – surely hadn’t anticipated, and probably wouldn’t have approved, the rock and roll craze that captured George in the mid-50s.  At any rate, the Quarrymen and the Beatles played elsewhere.

Nor could Keay have anticipated the devastating industrial decline that affected Liverpool, and Speke with particular force, from the 1970s.  Between 1978 and 1985, Liverpool as a whole lost 40,000 jobs; the closure of the British Leyland Standard Triumph works and Dunlops in Speke contributed over 6000 of this total.

South Parade, Speke (c) Sue Adair

South Parade, Speke, in 2007, showing the later decline of the estate (c) Sue Adair and made available through a Creative Commons licence

It became, if you could, a place to avoid – ‘Beirut’ to some – and one of the poorest areas of Merseyside.  The Harrisons moved out in the early 1960s.  The residents who remained remembered it then as ‘a lovely place to live…we used to have tennis courts and everything – bowling greens’ and, critically, ‘good employment…and now we seem to be the forgotten people’. (5)  In 2000, Speke was the second most deprived ward in England and Wales.  From the 1981 Enterprise Zone onwards, there have been concerted efforts to revive the promise of Speke, too many to detail.  I didn’t visit but I hope people who live there can tell me it’s doing better.

Paul McCartney 72 Western Avenue Speke Liverpool Echo

72 Western Avenue (c) Liverpool Echo

12 Ardwick Road Speke Paul McCartney

12 Ardwick Road

The McCartneys were another early Speke family, living at 72 Western Avenue and then at 12 Ardwick Road.  Paul passed his 11 plus – another class marker of the time – and one year later he met George Harrison on the bus from Speke to their grammar school, the Liverpool Institute in the city centre.

In 1955, there was another shift upwards for the family, significantly to another council home but this at 20 Forthlin Road in the leafy suburb of Allerton.  His mother, a midwife, needed access to the phone which their new home afforded though, tragically, she was to die just one year later.

SN Forthlin Road

Forthlin Road, fans outside no. 20

Though not unreasonably described as ‘extremely modest’ by Historic England who listed it Grade II in 2012, this is a good council house, built, in 1949, just as Nye Bevan was insisting that council housing be built to the highest standards. (6)  Downstairs, there was a living room, dining room, kitchen with a small extension to the rear which still contained an outside toilet.  Upstairs, you’ll find – and you can see all this as the home was purchased by the National Trust in 1995 – three bedrooms and a bathroom with toilet.  This was a comfortable family home in an unashamedly suburban setting.  Further down the road, there are some three-storey council flats placed around a large open green.

SN Forthlin Road flats

Forthlin Road flats

Other than its cultural association (around one hundred Beatles songs were composed within its walls), all this is profoundly unremarkable unless you take time to consider that it symbolises in some ways the best of an era when the state built on a massive scale to decently house its people.  The McCartneys lived there till 1965.

John Lennon lived about twenty minutes away at 251 Menlove Avenue in Woolton. This was a semi-detached house, built in the 1930s, with all the accoutrements that the middle class required to differentiate it from the plainer Corporation housing of the working class.  To begin with, it had a name (‘Mendips’) not a number, and then there are the large bay windows and front porch with their leaded, stained glass.  The internal layout, apart from the ‘morning room’ which complemented the two ‘reception rooms’ on the ground floor isn’t too dissimilar from Paul’s home but there’s no mistaking that, socially, this was a distinct notch above. (7)

John Lennon Mendips Wikimedia Commons Havaska

‘Mendips’, Menlove Avenue (c) Havaska and made available though Wikimedia Commons

Yoko Ono bought the house in 2002 and donated it to the National Trust and it too, as of 2012, is Grade II listed by Historic England. John lived there with his Aunt Mimi from 1946 to the early sixties, in the final years sleeping with his wife Cynthia who he married in 1962 in the dining room adapted as their bedroom.

He’d met Paul five years earlier when the Quarrymen played a set at the St Peter’s Church garden fête in Woolton.  Aunt Mimi didn’t approve of John’s musical interests and famously remarked ‘the guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it’.  She berated his strengthening Scouse accent too as he became more famous but John was matter-of-fact: ‘That’s show business, they want me to speak more Liverpool’.

According to Paul, she was also ‘very aware that John’s friends were lower class’. Conversely, Paul’s father, Jim, disapproved of John, believing that he would get his son ‘into trouble’. (8)  You can play with the class sensibilities there – Mimi as a Hyacinth Bucket of her time and Jim as an authentic voice of working-class respectability.

Mimi and John (c) Rex Shuttercock

John with Aunt Mimi

Mimi could be stern but she was the dominant maternal figure in John’s life and the two stayed close – he phoned her weekly – till John’s death in 1980.  For all his relative privilege, John had had a difficult childhood. His father was absent; his mother, Julia, apparently unable to care for him properly.

Mimi, her childless sister, took charge and Julia – who had nonetheless stayed close to John and inspired his musical tastes – was tragically killed crossing Menlove Avenue in July 1958.  John was devastated and the anger he felt fuelled the bad boy behaviour which alarmed Jim McCartney.

John understood that he was no ‘working-class hero’.  He described his childhood home and all it signified in an interview in 1980: (9)

After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie who lived in the suburbs in a nice semi-detached place with a small garden and doctors and lawyers and that ilk living around…not the poor slummy kind of image that was projected in all the Beatles stories. In the class system, it was about half a class higher than Paul, George and Ringo, who lived in government-subsidized housing. We owned our house and had a garden. They didn’t have anything like that.

For all that, the lyrics of the song he wrote in 1970 capture important truths about the class system and the cruelties it imposes:

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working-class hero is something to be
A working-class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working-class hero is something to be
A working-class hero is something to be

I’d like to think, though, that the council homes – unheroic, quietly decent – the state provided to George and Paul testify to another possibility: a society and culture that values and nurtures all its people.


(1) My first post was based principally on a walk through the city’s housing history with Ronnie Hughes of the fine A Sense of Place blog.  The second was a more eclectic pick of housing and municipal history discovered over the days which followed.

(2) BBC Liverpool, ‘Welsh Streets regeneration go ahead in Liverpool as council drops appeal’, 15 December 2015.  See also the website of the Welsh Streets campaign and the Report on the Welsh Streets Public Enquiry (pdf) from SAVE Britain’s Heritage.

(3) ‘Estate for all classes’, The Times, 17 September 1937, p7 and Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates (1949), pp230-232

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

(5) Quoted in Ronaldo Munck, Reinventing the City? Liverpool in Comparative Perspective (2003)

(6) Historic England listing details, 20 Forthlin Road

(7) Historic England listing details, ‘Mendips’, 251 Menlove Avenue

(8) Wikipedia, John Lennon

(9) Interview with David Sheff, Playboy, January 1981

Early Council Housing in Exeter: ‘decent houses for the working class’


, ,

Labour increased its majority on the council in May this year but before 1945 Exeter was a conservative and mostly a Conservative city. That, nevertheless, it was in the forefront of early town planning efforts before the First World War and built some 2200 council homes between the wars is proof that many in all parties believed in the duty of the state and local government to ensure decent housing for the working class.

Back in 1907, though, it was a Liberal administration which erected the city’s first council housing – on Isca Road, a by-product of slum clearance on nearby Alphington Road. The 49 plain two-storey, two-bed, red-brick terraced houses with gardens to the rear cost £149 each to build. A petition from tenants saw weekly rents reduced from 5s to 4s 9d; just enough, it was calculated, to repay construction costs. (1)

Isca Road

Isca Road

Thompson ground and first floor plans Isca Road

Floor plans of the Isca Road houses from W Thompson, Housing Up-to-Date (1907)

Though the Conservatives gained a majority on the Council in 1908 they kept for twenty-five years, a reforming politics still held sway, led by the chair of the Town Planning Committee, Alderman FJ Widgery and the Town Clerk, Hubert Lloyd Parry.  The Council hosted a regional town planning conference in 1912 and approved plans for further slum clearance and building in the years before the war.

In the event, a scheme for new housing in Pinces Garden was dropped in October 1914 due to high costs and in the mistaken anticipation of ‘prices falling within the near future’. (2) Perhaps they expected the war to be over by Christmas.  The war was to last much longer but it did in the end redouble the drive to build.

The Local Government Board’s Circular 86/1917, ‘Housing after the War’, promising ‘substantial financial assistance’ to councils ‘prepared to carry through without delay at the conclusion of the War, a programme of housing for the working classes’, marked that shift.  In Exeter, where the Town Clerk in response reported that there were ‘at present practically no vacant houses suitable for the working classes and in all respects fit for human habitation’, the need was urgent. (3)

Buddle Lane Estate

Buddle Lane, Buddle Lane Estate

The Council responded swiftly, buying land for housing on Buddle Lane in July 1918 and, in December, endorsing plans to build 300 homes.  A deputation from the Trades and Labour Council protested that such plans fell far short of what was needed. It wanted 1000 new homes and demanded, in a sign of the times and its expectations, that the new houses: (4)

should comprise two living rooms, a scullery in which the cooking could be carried out, a bathroom and three bedrooms [and] should be built away from the centre of the City with the provision of ample garden space [at rents] within the means of the labourer as well as the skilled mechanic.

Their case was backed by the City’s Medical Officer of Health. He reported 106 families displaced through proposed slum clearance schemes, some 600 back-to-back houses in the city and around 500 on which repair orders ‘should be served’. One thousand new homes ‘would not be excessive’, he concluded. The Council accepted the case, amended its plans and purchased additional land for building near Polsloe Bridge.

Pinces Gardens

Pinces Gardens 2

Pinces Gardens

The 27 houses at Pinces Gardens proposed before the War, were completed rapidly and the white-rendered homes with their imposing doorways set around a substantial green remain among the most attractive of the Council’s early schemes.

A further 161 houses on the Polsloe Estate and the first thirty homes by Buddle Lane were also completed under the generous terms of the 1919 Housing Act. At a price – reflecting inflation and shortages of materials and labour – approaching £900 each, the new houses demonstrated the cost of the Council’s earlier decision to delay their construction.

Widgery Road, Polsloe Estate

Widgery Road, Polsloe Estate in the 1930s

Bennett Square, Polsloe Estate

Bennett Square, Polsloe Estate

Higher costs in the mid-1920s may also have reflected a ‘builders’ ring’ – a conspiracy of local contractors – to maintain their profits. The Exeter Master Builders’ Federation submitted a joint tender in November 1923 for the construction of 45 houses and the Council was informed that brick was three times more expensive than before the war.  One councillor, however, alleged discussions within the Federation where ‘in a whisper it was suggested that it might be got cheaper but that no mention must go outside’.  The Federation protested its innocence of any wrong-doing but the Ministry of Health stated such joint tendering practices – accepted as necessary in the immediate post-war period – were no longer approved. (5)

Buddle Lane Estate concrete houses

Laing ‘Easiform’ concrete houses, Buddle Lane Estate in the 1930s

Even without any dirty dealing, shortages compelled Exeter (like many other authorities) to investigate alternative, non-traditional, means of construction and a contract was agreed with Laings in 1926 for the building of 154 Easiform concrete homes on the Buddle Lane Estate. Despite long-running problems with their steel reinforcements, these homes survived many decades. One hundred were rebuilt in the 1990s; currently there are plans to demolish and rebuild the remaining 20. (6)

Burnthouse Lane (c) Historic England

‘Housing off Burnthouse Lane and environs from the north-east, 1933’, EPW04117, Britain from Above (c) Historic England

Traditional building methods dominated in the Council’s major interwar schemes to the south-east of the city in Burnthouse Lane, commenced in 1928, and northerly extensions in Wonford and St Loye’s from the mid-thirties. The city’s 2000th interwar home was opened by the Minister of Housing, Sir Kingsley Wood, at no. 10 Lethbridge Road in St Loye’s in March 1937. (7)

Burnthouse Lane

Burnthouse Lane in the 1930s

Milton Road, Burnthouse Lane Estate

Milton Road, Burnthouse Lane Estate

City Architect, John Bennett, oversaw their design and construction.  The layout along Burnthouse Lane was a very geometric expression of garden suburb ideals which were more sensitively applied in the St Loye’s Estate which followed. Miss Barber, an early resident, complained that: (8)

the tedious straight main line [of Burnthouse Lane] and the parallel Hawthorn, Chestnut, and Briar Crescents, suggest that the planners had very little imagination and little eye for anything more pleasant.

Recent attempts to make the area more pedestrian-friendly have brightened it but left it looking a little cluttered.

Burnthouse Lane Hawthorn Road

Hawthorn Road, Burnthouse Lane Estate

In both estates, the houses, almost all in semi-detached pairs, are individually attractive – with a distinct Exeter house-style of patterned red and darker brick – but they’re repeated with such little variation that the whole suffers from that council estate uniformity criticised after the war. The 1948 Committee on the Appearance of Council Estates, for example, later slammed ‘the depressing appearance’ of some estates which resulted from their ‘monotony in design and layout, and the repetition of the same architectural unit in dull, straight rows or in severe geometrical road patterns’.

St Loyes Hoker Road

Hoker Road, St Loye’s Estate

Typically also, other facilities followed rather slowly on the housing and – in language often repeated of these early suburban council estates – Miss Barber remembers that:

Burnthouse Lane for a long time while in the process of developing had almost nothing except houses and fields, so cold and bleak people said, especially in winter, it was just like Siberia.

Paul Street area before redevelopment

The Paul Street area was one of three areas ‘represented’ for slum clearance in 1919

Inner-city Exeter (the connotations are not inappropriate) suffered other problems. In the 1932 municipal elections, Labour activists in Trinity Ward (south of the cathedral) claimed ‘housing conditions in that part of the city…were a disgrace’.  One house, they stated, was occupied by 14 families each paying 5s a week rent.  They continued: (9)

There were rack-renters in Exeter and they would have to go. These miserable hovels would have to be pulled down and decent houses provided for the working class – the class that produced the wealth of the nation.

Labour won that contest and became the largest single party in 1945 though still – for the time being – excluded from power by the more or less formal Conservative-Liberal coalition that had operated since 1919.

Labour was at pains to claim credit for recent rehousing efforts but, in fairness, there were others, notably Councillor Shirley Steele-Perkins (a local doctor and the son and brother of two Exeter Medical Officers of Health), who also made the case: (10)

S-PIn the clearance area the population was 410 to the acre, by which it would be seen the congestion that was going on…in one case a man, his wife and five children were living in one room…Was that a condition which the Council should tolerate?…

I think I have shown you that if the time is ripe for us to put these people into houses where they can live a decent life and the children have a decent chance of being brought up in healthy surroundings, we should take every advantage of it.

With such sentiments in Exeter, slum clearance efforts, also encouraged by central government in the 1930s, continued but the question of the form of housing to replace them remained, particularly for the lower-paid working class who needed to be near central places of employment.

Preston Street

Preston Street rear

Preston Street flats, front and rear

A small three-storey tenement block of twelve homes (since demolished) had been built in Coombe Street in 1924 and a Housing Subcommittee was set up in January 1932 to investigate the viability of flats in the inner-city.  In Exeter, where schemes had of necessity to be small, there were no economies of scale and no savings to be made but some rather bijou two-storey flats (some surviving) were built to the west of Fore Street. In all, of those 2200 interwar council homes, just 44 were flats.

Walking those same streets now, of course, much has changed, not least as a result of the bombing raids which devastated central Exeter in May 1942. Some 1500 homes were destroyed, another 2700 severely damaged; 161 people lost their lives.  Post-war Exeter faced new problems of rebuilding but the success, failure and aborted hopes of that ‘Exeter Phoenix’ form another story. (11)

The narrative of interwar Exeter is less dramatic but it’s a reminder of a time when our duty to provide decent homes for those who needed them was widely accepted across the political spectrum. Those efforts were imperfect, the results unspectacular perhaps, but they provided good, secure and affordable homes for many.


(1) Alderman W Thompson, Housing Up-To-Date (1907) and Exeter City Council, Workmen’s Dwellings Committee minutes, March 13 1907

(2) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, May 26 1914

(3) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, October 23 1917

(4) Housing and Town Planning Committee minutes, May 7 1919

(5) ‘Building Rings and Housing’, The Times, November 30 1923; the Federation’s response came in a letter from EC Lea (president of the Exeter Master Builders’ Federation) in The Times, December 3 1923; and the Ministry of Health’s comment in The Times, December 3 1923

(6) ‘Rebuilding plan for old Exeter council homes’, Exeter Express and Echo, February 24 2016

(7) City of Exeter, ‘Housing. Opening of 2000th Post-War Municipal House by Right Honourable Sir Kingsley Wood, 9 March 1937’

(8) Miss K Barber, ‘The Development of Burnthouse Lane’ (1990). Unpublished manuscript in the Devon Archives and Local Studies Service.  You’ll find more detail on the early Burnthouse Lane Estate on the Exeter Memories website.

(9) Quoted in Bob Morley, Sam Davies, County Borough Elections in England and Wales, 1919–1938: A Comparative Analysis: Volume 4: Exeter – Hull (2013)

(10) Steele-Perkins, June 1932, quoted in Julia Frances Neville, Explaining Variations in Municipal Hospital Provision in the 1930s: A Study of Councils in the Far South West, PhD in Politics, University of Exeter, 2009

(11) Catherine Flinn, ‘“Exeter Phoenix”: Politics and the Rebuilding of a Blitzed City’, Southern History, vol 30, 2008

Collage picture archive: ‘tired of London, tired of life’

This is an unashamed plug.  Collage, the picture archive managed by the London Metropolitan Archives, has always been a wonderful resource.  The good news is, it just got better. The new website is more user-friendly and includes added features – a geo-tagged location map and, using newly digitised content, a zoom function allowing you to get to the finer detail.  You’ll find some short film clips too for the first time.


The sheer numbers testify to the breadth of the collection – over 250,000 photographs, prints and drawings, over 1000 maps, plus some 6000 images of paintings, watercolours, drawings and sculptures from the Guildhall Art Gallery collection.

Most are London-related in some shape or form but, if that sounds too narrow for readers beyond the capital, they’re worth another look. The collection provides a social history of much wider relevance – covering schooling, the workhouse, pubs and popular entertainment, religious observance…basically, you’ll likely find something of interest whatever your focus. Use the map to search your neighbourhood if you have a local interest, use the search box to look up specifics, or just browse – the list of subject tags covers an enormous range of topics

Since this blog is principally about council housing, that’s going to be my particular focus here and, since there were 769,996 council homes in Greater London by 1981, there is, as you can imagine, plenty to see.  The tag ‘Housing estates LCC/GLC’ throws up over 17,000 images.  That’s practically a lost weekend for me!


‘Andover: children playing on a housing estate’ (1973) (c) Collage, London Metropolitan Archives

To prove the point about looking beyond London, let’s begin by using ‘New and expanding towns’ as a search term – from Andover to Wellingborough, you’ll find over 5500 images of the London County Council and Greater London Council’s post-war overspill programme.


‘Wellingborough: interior of a new build property’ (1971) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

The particular strength of the collection is the variety of images and moments captured. There are plenty of photographs of the high-quality housing that London was proud to build for its displaced population, of course, but factories, shopping centres, playgrounds and schools, and interior images feature too – the latter providing an insight into the lived lives so rarely captured in the architectural record.


‘General view of the Britwell Estate’ (1964) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Or look up the Britwell Estate in Slough, home to Alan Johnson when our former Home Secretary was just a jobbing postman and fondly remembered by him as ‘Arcadian’. (1)  Or Sheerwater, or Harold Hill.  These are just three of the thirteen out-of-county estates (with 45,500 homes in all) built by the LCC before its abolition in 1965.  A strength of many of these images is that they are not striving for architectural effect.


‘Sheerwater Estate: shopping centre (1960) – anchored by the Co-op as was typical (c) London Metropolitan Archives


‘Boundary Estate: Arnold Circus’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

But for anyone seeking an architectural record of housing history, the archive does, of course, provide a wonderful record.  There are 228 photographs of the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, the LCC’s very first housing estate, opened in 1900.  There are fine external shots of the dignified and attractive housing the Council provided but later photographs too showing unmodernised interiors, reminding us just how basic this early municipal housing was.  (Look up ‘slums’ and you’ll have another reminder; this time that council housing was, almost without exception, immeasurably superior to the working-class housing which preceded it.)


‘Boundary Estate: old lavatory’ (1959) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Moving on to the interwar period, you’ll see some of the LCC’s major schemes, for example, the Becontree, Watling and Downham Estates – three of the so-called ‘cottage estates’ which provided just over half of the 89,000 homes built by the Council in the 1920s and 1930s.  For all the criticisms of their suburbanism, the images testify to the quality and essential decency of these new homes.


‘Watling Estate: 1 Dean Walk’ (1931) – obviously proud winners of the LCC’s competition for best-kept gardens (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Meanwhile, in the inner city, walk-up, balcony-access, five-storey blocks provided the bulk of the Council’s new build.  The Honor Oak Estate in Lewisham was typical.


Honor Oak Estate, Cayley Close: residential tenements’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

The Ossulton Estate in St Pancras, completed in 1931, was a rare LCC foray into more modernist design though its innovative exterior concealed a more conventional tenement block form.  Rather charmingly, a number of these photos cover refuse disposal.  Such is the unglamorous nitty-gritty of local government service.


‘Ossulston Estate: woman entering rubbish into a chute’ (1936) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

In the post-Second World War period, 162 images celebrate the ‘before and after’ of the Lansbury Estate and the thoughtful planning which went into it.  Here was a portent of the emerging, more democratic world to which the nation aspired and, though it too was criticised by some architectural critics of the day as too modestly suburban, its housing looks as attractive and neighbourly as its architects intended.


‘Brandon Estate: Warham Street looking west to estate’ (1962) (c) London Metropolitan Archives


‘Pepys Estate: construction work progress’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

With the later emergence of high-rise and mixed development schemes, though, there was more scope for architectural daring.  The archive provides a superb record of the planning, construction and opening of the Brandon Estate in Southwark and the Pepys Estate in Deptford, for example.


‘Alton Estate: aerial view’ (1964) – Alton East in the far background, Alton West in the foreground (c) London Metropolitan Archives

Let’s conclude by focusing on one estate I’ve never quite summoned up the courage to write about in detail yet – the Alton Estate in Roehampton, described by a contemporary American commentator as ‘probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world’. (2)  Alton East, the earlier half of the Estate, constructed between 1952 and 1955, retained a Lansbury-esque ‘picturesque informality’ in Pevsner’s words, reflecting the New Humanist, Scandinavian influences which inspired its design team. (3)  Alton West was more uncompromisingly modernist in aesthetic – Brutalist as the newly-coined term would have it – and took its inspiration from Le Corbusier.


‘Alton Estate, Roehampton Lane: artist’s impression’ (ND) (c) London Metropolitan Archives


‘Alton Estate, Hyacinth Road: architectural model’ (1965) (c) London Metropolitan Archives


‘Alton Estate, Hyacinth Road: architectural plan’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

That detail is elsewhere or for another time but browse the archive and you’ll find the artists’ impressions and plans and a range of images which capture the excitement and hope – and careful design – which underlay the new scheme. You’ll see clubrooms too and an old people’s day centre, children playing in generous open space – a testament to the community being built – and, above all, interior shots of the living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms which made this Estate, like so many others, a good home to its new residents.


Alton Estate: architectural model of interior of flat (1957) (c) London Metropolitan Archives


’22 Hinstead Gardens, Alton Estate, living room’ (1960) (c) London Metropolitan Archives

All this has barely scratched the surface but I hope it’s whetted your appetite.  Local history libraries and archive services across the country provide a wonderful resource whether you’re researching a family or local history or something more academic.  We must cherish and – in this time of cuts – defend them.  My thanks to the London Metropolitan Archives for providing this fantastic on-line resource. Do check it out.

You’ll find Collage at 


My thanks to the London Metropolitan Archives for supplying and allowing use of the images used in this post.

(1) Alan Johnson, Please, Mr Postman (2015)

(2) GE Kidder Smith, The New Architecture of Europe, an Illustrated Guidebook and Appraisal (Meridian Books, Cleveland and New York, 1961), p42

(3) Bridget Cherry, Nikolaus Pevsner, London 2: South (Yale University Press, 2002) p689


Harlow New Town: ‘Are you going my way?’


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Last week’s post looked at the origins of Harlow New Town and the architectural and planning ideals – sharply criticised by some – which inspired it.  It was, in every sense, a young town but it’s grown up since then.  This post explores what became of the high hopes.


Frederick Gibberd ‘showing the New Town plans’, 1952

By 1954, the first of Harlow’s major neighbourhood areas – Mark Hall North – was largely complete and it boasted a population of 17,000.   The work on the town centre began – belatedly it might seem – the following year.  Within a further five years, as the Great Parndon and Passmores districts were built, around three-quarters of the New Town was complete and a further 35,000 had made it home.  Further construction followed more slowly – the 24,000th new home of the Harlow Development Corporation (HDC) was opened in Little Cattins, Sumners, in 1974.   Harlow’s population peaked in 1974 at 81,000 and fell slightly thereafter until a more recent surge which has seen that figure narrowly surpassed.

Little Cattins, Sumners and 24000th house

The 24,000th HDC home, Little Cattins, Sumners

The first residents came principally from north London, from the then boroughs of Edmonton, Tottenham, and Walthamstow (it’s still a disproportionately Spurs-supporting town).  Sometimes whole factories transplanted and: (1)

parties of workers came down in a charabanc with their wives and spent the day looking at the town. The morning was spent in doing the sights and the afternoon in looking at possible houses. ‘Everyone was always still pretty fed up by lunch-time,’ one girl on the Corporation staff told me, ‘but once we got to the houses they cheered up.

2000th New Home

‘The 2000th new family are presented with the keys to their new house in Orchard Croft, 1953’ (c) Museum of Harlow

One new arrival, Laura Lilley, who came to Harlow in 1957, was ‘immediately struck by the cleanliness of it and the brightness of it’ compared to where she lived in London: ‘I had a garden and I also had something that I didn’t have in London, my own front door’. (2)

Unsurprisingly such celebratory accounts make no mention of the ‘New Town Blues’ that many new arrivals, particularly the women not in paid employment, were said to have suffered.  Various studies had suggested that those uprooted to new out-of-town estates and the New Towns in particular were prone to various ‘neuroses’ or ‘emotional disturbances’ as a result of their move.

JR James Archives Broadway Avenue

Broadway Avenue (c) JR James Archives and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Harlow, keen to flag the benefits of its careful community planning, commissioned its own study which concluded, in the words of Mark Clapson, that ‘any neurotic symptoms manifested by the newcomers could not be accurately ascribed to the new town, but to the general experience of moving house and district’. (3)  This hardly disposed of the problems that some undoubtedly experienced but the evidence is that the difficulties were transitional.

Another survey of Harlow conducted in 1964 reported that mortality rates of newborns stood at 5.5 per 1000 compared to the national average of 12.3 and for those under four weeks at 6.0 compared to 14.2. (4)  It’s not facetious therefore – and far from trivial – to suggest that there are many who owe their lives to the New Town.


Paddling pool, Potter Street, Harlow c.1963

Interestingly, the same study stated that 40 per cent of the town’s householders had relatives living in Harlow (the HDC had made efforts to house elderly relatives): ‘four generations of one family living in the town was not now unusual’.   This is a worthwhile corrective to the common view that new housing schemes automatically broke the family ties which had bound working-class families together in their previous homes.

Industrial area SN

‘Situated on the outskirts of the New Town: the factory area, planned to provide workers with as much space and light as possible’ (c) Illustrated London News, 15 November 1952

And Harlow was a predominantly working-class town, though with a lower than average proportion of semi- and unskilled workers: 19 per cent in the late fifties compared to the England and Wales average of 30. (Conversely, the figures – 63 per cent for Harlow, 51 per cent for England and Wales – show above average numbers of ‘unskilled non-manual’ and ‘skilled manual’.) (5)

In fact, conscious of this criticism – it was a criticism to the extent that the New Towns were held to have insufficiently benefited the least well-off workers – the HDC made early efforts to attract a range of factory employment to the town. In any case, it was argued that in Harlow ‘the so-called “social escalator” [was] at work whereby the unskilled rise up the ladder’. (6)

For all Harlow’s working-classness, the great hope invested in the New Towns was that a form of classlessness would emerge.  Nowhere is this better expressed than in the speech made by Lewis Silkin – the Minister of Town and Country Planning responsible for the programme – introducing the new legislation in 1946: (7)

Lewis Silkin New Towns BBC Broadcast August 1946I am most anxious that the planning should be such that different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated. No doubt they may enjoy common recreational facilities, and take part in amateur theatricals or each play their part in a health centre or a community centre.  But when they leave to go home I do not want the better off people to go to the right, and the less well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other ‘are you going my way?’

It’s one of my favourite quotations, capturing so much of the self-improving earnestness and essential decency of the Labour Party in its heyday.  (Silkin himself, the eldest of seven in a family of impoverished Jewish Lithuanian refugees, had begun his working life as a tally clerk on the London docks.)  You might point out that these are hardly revolutionary sentiments.  Rather what was envisaged was a form of levelling achieved as much by a ‘mass upliftment’ of working-class lives (a phrase that Bermondsey Labour Party had employed in the 1920s) and a psychological sense of cross-class community (that some perhaps had felt expressed in wartime) as by any economic radicalism.

JR James Archives Upper Park Harlow

Upper Park (c) JR James Archives and made available through a Creative Commons licence

In the New Towns, however, there was one form of social engineering – as much necessity in this time of rationing and private sector constraint as deliberate policy – that did conduce to classlessness: until the mid-1950s all Harlow’s homes were social rented, built by the HDC.   Even in 1971, only 12 per cent of homes were owner-occupied and that the result of later attempts to promote private development and the sale of around 4000 HDC homes.  Even in 2011 Harlow had – at 27 per cent – the third highest proportion of social housing of any English borough.


‘Illustrating the attractive brick-and-timber style of architecture: one of the residential streets in Harlow New Town, tree-shaded and spacious (c) Illustrated London News 15 November 1952

One contemporary journalist, explaining Harlow New Town to an American audience, described how ‘in this village green setting, the houses of the white-collar man and the factory worker stand side by side’ – there was to be ‘no wrong side of the track in Harlow’. (8)

Of course, class in this old and class-ridden country, is never quite that simple. For a start, the HDC built bigger houses for the middle-class and they all had garages.  And then, there were the middle class themselves.  Some saw themselves as idealistic pioneers in this new England – Monica Furlong singles out ‘teachers, social workers, wardens of community centres, probation officers, health visitors, doctors, clergy’ as well as the staff of the HDC itself.

Felmongers 1955

Rectory Field 1957

Harlow interiors: Felmongers, 1955, at top, and Rectory Field, 1957 – does the grand piano signify a middle-class household? (c) Museum of Harlow

In others, the yearning for older demarcations and signifying ‘standards’ was a little more recalcitrant.  Furlong describes the attitudes of an ‘industrialist’ who had moved to the town:

Among the things he missed in Harlow was the prevalence of the public school accent, of people from the ‘right’ universities, of people who he felt confident would not commit any frightful gaffe when he entertained them. What his wife missed was elegance in the shops and in her neighbours, the consciousness of money being spent around her by people with a sense of chic. In the medium to high income groups of the town they found instead young men who talked in grammar-school cockney, and who had acquired their high qualifications on the wrong side of the academic tracks. They had found, too, shops with something slightly gimcrack about them, which seemed aimed at a clientele buying labour-saving gadgets on credit. They had found a passionate intellectualism of an exceedingly earnest type; expressed in the huge piles of literary papers at Smith’s, the library’s non-fiction borrowing figures (the highest in the country), the vast enthusiasm for technical and scientific books, and the bewildering mass of evening classes and clubs. So they moved to Bishop’s Stortford.

It’s a lengthy quote but worth unpicking, I think, for all that it reveals of Harlow’s aspirations and the tenacious snobbery that would do them down.

Those aspirations were expressed for it by the establishment of the Harlow Arts Trust in 1953 and the unequalled programme of arts patronage which has distinguished the town since then.  I’ll write about those in a future post but, for now, let’s bring the story up-to-date.

Harlow Town Hall

The original Town Hall and Water Gardens

There have been changes. The Development Corporation was finally wound up in 1980.  The Town Hall, designed by Frederick Gibberd and opened in 1960, has been demolished and replaced by a new Civic Centre, not unattractive but with the retail outlets now deemed necessary to pay for public infrastructure.  The Water Gardens in front, built between 1958 and 1963 – a centrepiece of the landscape architecture Gibberd thought necessary to the beauty and culture of the town – have been drastically truncated (despite a Grade II* listing). (9)  Google them now and you’re directed to the new shopping mall which has largely replaced them.  I won’t draw the moral.

JR James Archives Harlow Town Centre II

Broad Walk towards Harlow Town Hall (c) JR James Archives and made available through a  Creative Commons licence

To Jason Cowley, raised in the town in the 1970s, Harlow was still ‘a vibrant place, with utopian yearnings’; The High – its central shopping area – ‘seemed to offer everything an energetic young boy could want in those days’.  Revisiting in 2002, to him, Harlow felt ‘like the kind of place you want to pass quickly through on the way to somewhere else: a place that has been forgotten, shut out from the swagger and affluence of the Blair years’. (10)

Broad Walk SN

Broad Walk

North Gate SN

North Gate

Current statistics bear out these impressions.  Long-term unemployment stood at just under ten per cent (compared to an Essex average of five per cent and a national figure of seven).  Wages for those in work were a little lower than the local average.  The town has a whole ranked 101st out of 326 local authorities in England for deprivation – there ‘are few affluent areas in Harlow but many that are relatively deprived’.  Educational attainment was below the county average.  Crime and fear of crime were relatively high – just 28 per cent said they felt safe after dark. (11)  The town centre itself looks tired and many of its flagship shops long since departed to malls and big box stores elsewhere.

Harlow voted by 67 per cent to 33 for Brexit in the recent referendum.  Belatedly, that’s a metric we’ve come to recognise as a powerful measure of disillusion with, and exclusion, from the more comfortable status quo enjoyed by many.

All this indicates a disproportionately working-class town and one, though set within the relatively affluent south-east, which suffers the inequalities and deprivations that class bestows.  What do we conclude?  Is this the failure of the Utopian dreams which inspired it or simply the mark of a society which has given up on those dreams?


(1) Monica Furlong, ‘Harlow: New Town’, The Spectator, 29 September 1960

(2) Quoted from a wall panel in the Museum of Harlow.

(3) Mark Clapson Invincible Green Suburbs, Brave New Towns: Social Change and Urban Dispersal in Postwar England (Manchester University Press, 1998)

(4) ‘Harlow New Town Death Rate Well Below Average’, The Times, 25 September 1964, p7

(5) BJ Heraud, ‘Social Class and the New Towns’, Urban Studies, Vol 5, No 1, February 1968

(6) Rosemary Wellings (Harlow Development Corporation’s social development officer), ‘Living in a New Town’, Housing, vol 17, no 7, July 1978

(7) Hansard, New Towns Bill, HC Deb 8 May 1946, vol 422, cc1072-184

(8) Christopher Chataway, ‘Transatlantic Teleview: New Towns in Britain’ (1956), East Anglian Film Archive

(9) You can read about the Water Gardens in their full finery in this 2002 post from the Twentieth Century Society.

(10) Jason Cowley, ‘Down Town’, The Guardian, 1 August 2002

(11) A profile of people living in Harlow, March 2016, Organisational Intelligence