We looked last week at the building of the Watling Estate and its early residents. Watling was seen – for good or ill – as a symbol of the ‘new England’. Middle-class observers – particularly the new breed of sociologists and planners – asked what type of community was it, was it a community at all? Perhaps what really concerned them was that it should be the right sort of community.
As we saw last week, it certainly wasn’t that for many of the well-heeled residents of near-by Mill Hill and Edgware, shocked by this supposed incursion of uncouth slum-dwellers. A 1927 letter to the Hendon and Finchley Times reported flowers stolen from gardens, fruit trees stripped and language that apparently even shocked a local workman. (1) Children attending the Watling Central School from outside Watling saw the Estate as ‘dirty’ and ‘rough’, according to Ruth Durant. (2)
All this, of course, tells us far more about the prejudices of middle-class observers than it does of the reality of the Estate or its people and it’s a reminder that demonising caricatures of those who live in council homes are nothing new. Still, not all the local middle class were prejudiced. As one ‘Millhillian’ recounted:
On many occasions it has been my pleasure to employ for household duties young ladies from the Watling Estate. In practically every case I have found them to be most diligent in their duties, kind to my children, and exceptionally clean.
Actually, for all its unconscionable patronage, there is something so guileless about this particular letter that it’s hard not to warm to its well-meaning author. Read the extended version in the footnotes. (3)
Meanwhile, the antagonism or condescension of what some called the ‘snobocracy’ of Mill Hill and Edgware was a powerful factor in creating an assertive sense of identity among early residents of the Estate.
The middle class also feared the new Estate’s politics. Some named it ‘Little Moscow’ though in reality the Estate was a long way away from the South Wales valleys or Scots coalfields where that term might have had some validity. There was a small branch of the Communist Party (we’ll come back to them) but the local Labour Party had 250 members in 1936 and Watling returned Labour councillors to Hendon Urban District Council. When two Communist candidates ran in 1932 they received just seven per cent of the vote. Even the Estate’s Conservative Association had 150 members.
To put all this into some sort of final perspective, the largest social organisation on the Estate – with over 500 members – was its horticultural society.
That would have pleased those who wanted a community life rooted in constructive leisure activities. Their chief tool in this was the Watling Residents’ Association, founded in 1928. In its early years, it was active – and popular among residents – in campaigning for facilities that the new Estate lacked.
The Association’s campaign for a community centre brought it in touch with some of the liberal and reforming currents of the day represented in the National Council of Social Service, the British Association of Residential Settlements and the Educational Settlements Association. In 1929 these organisations had joined to form a New Estates Community Committee.
With the lure of financial support, the Residents’ Association was persuaded to rename and reorganise itself as the more civic-minded Watling Association in 1930 and include representatives of these middle-class bodies on its board. It also appointed a full-time Organising Secretary whose salary was paid by the New Estates Committee. (4)
I don’t want to be too critical of a middle-class take-over here. There was genuine idealism here and one shared by the local residents who were typically the most active in local bodies – those with experience in ex-servicemen’s organisations, the political parties and trades unions.
It was expressed strongly in an editorial of its newsletter, the Watling Resident, in the following year:
We must all cooperate to make a success of Watling, to develop a community of which we may be proud in every way, to make the most of the opportunities which have been given to us, to play our part in building the new England.
The Association got its community centre – opened by the Prince of Wales – in 1933 after receiving a £2000 grant and £700 loan from the Pilgrim Trust. The Times celebrated it, claiming rather disingenuously that it would provide residents with ‘some of the normal social facilities to which they were accustomed in their former environment…a hall for meetings, a room for games, a committee room and a kitchen’. (5) (The Times didn’t report a hall opened later in the same year on the Estate by the Labour Party.)
But despite this apparent success, the influence and attraction of the Association was waning. The Resident was purchased by 81 per cent of households in 1929 and just 24 per cent by 1936. This decline in active membership, by an irony that might please more radical readers, provided an opportunity for the local Communists. By packing meetings, they were able to get the Centre to organise a lecture series on the class struggle and briefly it played host to a Communist Sunday school. This was very definitely not the sort of active citizenship the Association wished to promote and when the Communists attacked the Association in print they were duly expelled. (6)
It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw that the large majority of Estate residents lacked interest in either the worthy self-improvement the Centre offered or the class war that Communists promoted. Certainly, a reasonable number continued to attend the earnest evening lectures (on town planning and youth hostels, for example) and the new wireless discussion groups but it is the complaint of the ex-service Old Comrades perhaps which captures the wider mood: they wanted, they said, ‘ordinary things…not the singing of high-brow folk songs and the reading of poetry’. (7)
Other locals missed a pub: ‘there was no means of going to have a drink like the families used to in London. That was part of your community’. The LCC banned public houses from its estates in this period. It had in 1928 sought tenders for a ‘bona fide refreshment house for the supply of food and alcoholic and non-alcoholic liquors’ on Watling but its stipulation that employees have no ‘direct pecuniary interest in encouraging the sale of alcoholic liquor’ did not encourage takers. (8)
This, of course, reinforces a second strand of criticism of the new estates’ lack of community – that they lacked the sociability and neighbourliness of traditional inner-city working-class areas. Some commentators have blamed the comfort of the new council homes and the physical layout of the new estates for encouraging a family-centred domesticity. Examined more closely, this might seem like an academic variant of a ‘poor but happy’ nostalgia for the slums. Others lamented the loss of the kinship ties that previously connected working-class women in particular.
There was change, of course; even loss. As we’ve seen in Wythenshawe, in the Dover House Estate and elsewhere, this was a new working class – more mobile, more aspirational, more private. Politics, sociology and geography combined with economic shifts that would have altered – and broadly improved – working-class lives with or without the accelerant of the new estates.
But the narrative should still be challenged. Firstly and straightforwardly, why this prescriptive middle-class concern for how the working class live their lives? Who goes into the middle-class suburbs to calibrate ‘community’ and – more or less explicitly – urge ‘better’ ways of living? Much of the political and sociological analysis of working-class community has reflected the agenda of the observer far more than the concerns of those they would observe.
In any case, against those who perceived a decline of neighbourliness, some Watling residents recall an intense sociability on the Estate: (9)
When I moved in here, there wasn’t a house along this road that I couldn’t go into and have a cup of tea…Everybody knew everybody and everybody’s house was open to everybody.
You soon knew people. If you imagine the cul-de-sac, it was like a banjo, and that was a nice community, you know. Everybody, well people had their keys behind the door and you used to pull a piece of string and go in.
Such memories are partial and may be suffused with nostalgia. They’re not the ‘truth’, certainly not ‘the whole truth’, but they offer direct testimony and a challenge to the conventional narrative.
In any case, estates evolved. Robert Elms grew up on the Estate – he describes it as ‘a vast, low-rise, low-rent ghetto in Burnt Oak…a red-brick NW9 Noweto’ – in the 1960s. But he also describes somewhere boisterous and bustling: (10)
Resolutely and noisily working-class, Burnt Oak had a high street and a street market, a huge branch of the Co-op and a big bingo hall. It also had the Bald Faced Stag, a pub so notoriously rowdy that people still stop me now and ask what it was really like in there. It was the O.K. Corral with a dartboard. For all sorts of reasons Burnt Oak had a bad name. It was a good place.
Add the territorial teenage gangs of the era and the questionable fashion choices and all this was a long way away from the improving community envisaged by earnest interwar reformers. But then life is generally what happens between the plans and good intentions.
It’s clear, though, from the numbers who read last week’s post and many of the comments, that the Estate is regarded with great affection by many: (11)
Wonderful people every one of them. Gardens were always looking tidy and privets cut, everybody did their bit, no airs and graces, just really nice people that’s what I remember, No regrets being born and reared in Little Moscow.
Meanwhile Watling has changed again – it’s almost 50 per cent owner occupied now and, since 1980, in the hands of Barnet Council. Robert Elms remembers the second-generation Irish families of the Estate and one in five of Burnt Oak’s population still identifies as white Irish. It is now though a far more diverse community overall –one in ten describe themselves as Black African and over 40 per cent of Barnet’s council tenants now belong to black or minority ethnic communities.
It’s a new England and it continues to make its own history.
(1) Quoted in Anna Rubinstein, Age Exchange, Just Like the Country. Memories of London Families who Settled in New Cottage Estates, 1919-1939, 1991
(2) Ruth Durant, Watling, A Survey of Life on a New Housing Estate (1939)
(3) The letter, sent to Watling Resident in March 1935 is included in Durant. A fuller version reads:
‘On many occasions it has been my pleasure to employ for household duties young ladies from the Watling Estate. In practically every case I have found them to be most diligent in their duties, kind to my children, and exceptionally clean.
Is it, I wonder, that a small part of the inhabitants of the Estate take no interest in themselves or their families that these [negative] remarks are so often passed by Mill Hill people? I rather think it is, but it is, I know, the endeavour of the inhabitants of Watling to improve themselves.
If I may say so, the fault lies in the inferiority complex that some of the Watlingites have. May I suggest that if you dear people would only for a short space of time imagine that you are equally as good as Mill Hill people, and in many cases infinitely better, you would in time develop a superiority complex and forge right ahead.
It is a wonderfully organised estate, and, with the improvements the inhabitants are making, it ought to be a model estate, and no doubt in time Millhillians will say ‘Those too sweet people of our wonderful council estate’
I know it hurts to be termed inferior, but even the greatest man of earth founded our faith on His very inferiority. I say this with all reverence.
Good bye and keep bucking up your ideas.
(4) Alison Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment (2003)
(5) ‘Community Centre on Watling Estate’, The Times, 18 January 1933
(6) Edward Sewell Harris and PN Molloy, The Watling Community Association: the first twenty-one years (1949). Sewell Harris, a Quaker, Cambridge graduate and founding member of the New Estates Community Committee, was the Organising Secretary of the Association. He would go on to work in Harlow New Town in 1953.
(7) Watling Resident, September 1931 quoted in Darrin Bayliss, ‘Building Better Communities: social life on London’s cottage council estates, 1919-1939’, Journal of Historical Geography, Vol 29, No 3, July 2003
(8) ‘Public Notices’, The Times, 3 July 1928
(9) Quoted in Bayliss, ‘Building Better Communities’
(10) Robert Elms, The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads (2014)
(11) Comment on blog, 5 October 1014