Harlow got a mixed press in the 1950s. To some, it was ‘Pram Town’, a tribute to the preponderance of young families who had moved there and perhaps, by extension, to the new life that this New Town heralded. To others, it was little more than an urban prairie, one which left an unfortunate pedestrian ‘with a feeling of hopelessness in face of a terrifying eternity of wideness’. (1) Let’s look more sympathetically at the ideals which inspired it and, with the benefit of distance, at its successes and failures.
Harlow, like Stevenage and the six other New Towns located around the periphery of London, was born in the confluence of two powerful currents. The first, the belief in planning – that society and the economy should be rationally organised to benefit all – had emerged as the inhumanity of Victorian capitalism became manifest and was most idealistically expressed in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement, an early inspiration for the New Towns. Its reach and ambition grew when the very model of free market economics seemed in terminal crisis as the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.
The second was Social Democracy, taking planning as its keynote but rooted in the working-class politics and more broadly shared ideals of fairness and equality which triumphed – too briefly perhaps – in Labour’s landslide 1945 election victory. Leah Manning won the Epping constituency for Labour in 1945 (she lost the seat in 1950) and it’s a sign of the confidence of this new dawn that she believed even the benighted dwellers of village Essex would welcome the New Town to be built, in her constituency, amongst them: (2)
I did not find people pleading and crying that they would be turned out of their shops, theirs houses and farms, but a great mass of people who looked forward to the day when a new town would arise in this very ill-served town educationally, culturally and industrially…
In fact, there was some local opposition. A Harlow and District Defence Association was established but, fiercely attacked by the local Labour Party which criticised the self-interest of ‘those who live in comfortable homes and very large houses’, it made little impact. (3)
Naturally, for all that, in Britain, this was a conservative revolution, waged by civil servants, fought out in committee rooms and offices rather than the streets and barricades, but it remains important to mark the moment and register the ambition. Sir Ernest Gowers, the first chairman of the Harlow Development Corporation, the government quango set up to build the New Town, wrote of the first, 1949, Master Plan that: (4)
Some who read these pages at this time may feel almost as if they had wandered into fairyland, that it is too good to be true, that such things can have no relation to the present bleak and troubled days.
The reality, he asserted, was that ‘what is sketched here is a practical and urgent task’; the task was to reduce the population of London – Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan had suggested by 0.5m – and house those removed in decent and healthy surroundings.
Construction began in 1949, the first 120 homes were built in Old Harlow – one of the small villages and hamlets that made up this rural, predominantly greenfield 6100 acre site with an existing population of just 4500. These were allocated to the Development Corporation staff and contractors who would oversee the project. By 1961, Harlow’s population stood at over 61,000.
There was a certain excitement in the process which makes the dependence on private developers in the faltering new wave of supposed ‘garden cities’ such as Ebbsfleet look pretty shabby. Lady Russell (wife of Bertrand), one of the Development Corporation boards’s first members, describes how its members: (5)
often had the feeling that we were playing at towns. It was wonderfully exhilarating. Most of us were having the chance to put into practice ideals we had held all our lives, but never really expected to see carried out.
Eric Adams, the Corporation’s first General Manager, is described arriving at the station with some of his staff, declaiming, ‘it’s all ours, it’s all ours’.
But Harlow’s presiding genius, almost a City Father in the truest sense of the term, was Frederick Gibberd. Gibberd is perhaps a slightly overlooked figure now – a member of the Modern Architecture Research (MARS) Group in the 1930s but disdained by some of his erstwhile modernist colleagues for his wholehearted embrace of the Scandinavian-inspired New Humanist style which – through his influence – held dominant sway in this immediate post-war period (manifest in his work in the Lansbury Estate and some of Hackney’s schemes).
The first priority for Gibberd was to ‘make the maximum possible use of existing character, genius locii’; in Harlow this meant exploiting what was held to be to be the most favourable landscape of any of the New Towns by use of four ‘green wedges’ reaching to the town centre and plentiful open space:
Every possible use must be made of existing buildings, villages, trees and place-names to give a feeling of continuity with the past…I remembered my own youth in Coventry and Birmingham where it was a whole day’s excursion to get to the country…I didn’t want any of these children to grow up without having seen a cow.
Another key element of the plan – this central to post-war planning ideals – was the emphasis on neighbourhoods. Gibberd planned three neighbourhood centres or ‘clusters’ around what Sylvia Crowe – the landscape architect employed as a consultant – described as the ‘central massif’ of the town centre itself. But he refined the idea further with eighteen sub-centres each with a small group of shops, a pub and ‘common room’ to serve as a focal point for their immediate communities.
These ideas are best seen in the first of the neighbourhoods to be completed, Mark Hall North whose neighbourhood centre, The Stow, was opened in 1954. Nettleswell and Great Parndon followed. Other areas were set aside for industry.
In terms of housing, Gibberd was clear that ‘the majority of the people want a two-storey house with a private garden’ (which had also the benefit of being ‘the cheapest form of dwelling’). As an apostle of ‘mixed development’, however, he believed that around 20 to 30 per cent of homes should be flats and, in fact, he fought – against the opposition of the Development Corporation – to build the country’s first point block. The Lawn, at nine storeys with 36 flats, would be a tiny prefiguring of what was to come. (For other examples and images of Harlow high-rise, check out my Tumblr post.)
If you walk Harlow, which I (perhaps mistakenly) did, most of it is undeniably – some would say, boringly – suburban with a range of two-storey, mainly terraced housing and maisonettes which is practically a pattern book for the homes which dominated Corporation suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s. (Devotees can see examples in this Tumblr post.) However, a closer look and particular schemes can excite architectural enthusiasts and Gibberd made a point of commissioning a number of modern movement architects to design elements of the New Town’s housing.
The Chantry, built in the early fifties, was designed by the husband and wife team, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, also responsible for the Tany’s Dell scheme. It’s a restrained composition (‘flat fronts of coloured render and shallow monopitch roofs – all very Swedish’ according to Pevsner) but it makes good use of its location and its arched section gives an attractively framed view of Mark Hall’s St Mary-at-Latton Church. (6)
Northbrooks in Little Parndon, completed in 1957, was the work of Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya (the architects of the Churchill Gardens Estate). It’s a mixed scheme, mostly two-storey houses with maisonette blocks striving for greater effect.
HT Cadbury Brown (the architect of the World’s End Estate), designed housing and a junior school at Cooks Spinney; FRS Yorke housing at Ladyshot – ‘all variations on denser arrangements of two-storey stock brick terraces and proving the inherent difficulty of avoiding monotony over a large area’, Pevsner comments rather damningly.
By far the most architecturally exciting scheme is Bishopsfield and Charter Cross, the result of a competition won by Michael Neylan (who collaborated with Bill Ungless in the subsequent scheme) in 1961. A striking podium provided the roof for an underground car park (100 per cent parking provided – a sign of the times) and a pedestrian concourse ringed by flats. Fingers of patio housing, separated by narrow lanes which earned the scheme its later nickname, The Kasbah, run down the hill to the rear. (7)
Such tokens – and, to be fair, they take some finding – did little to appease the critics. Perhaps Harlow was unfortunate to have been selected for a site visit in 1951 from the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM). At any rate, JM Richards was excoriating in a follow-up article for the Architectural Review describing what he believed was the ‘Failure of the New Towns’. The neighbourhoods lacked ‘the urban qualities required of them’ – ‘judging by results so far achieved, most of the new towns themselves are little more than housing estates’. (8)
Gordon Cullen, in the same issue, was more colourful in his criticism:
It is as though the drive to the country has been undertaken by people all studiously avoiding each other and pretending that they are alone. The result is a paradox, the paradox of concentrated isolation, the direct antithesis of towniness, which results from the social impulse…[The] results are deplorable – foot-sore housewives, cycle-weary workers, never-ending characterless streets, the depressing feeling of being a provincial or suburbanite in an environment that doesn’t belong to a town or country…
Gibberd fought back, decrying what he saw as the ‘confusion between the word ‘new’ and novelty. Because the towns are new many people are disappointed that they are not novel’. In response, he asserted an English urbanism which: (9)
prefers segregation of home and work, which enjoys open-air exercise, which has an innate love of nature, which makes use of motor transport and which, although demanding privacy for the individual family, likes some measure of community life.
Later, he was more astringent: (10)
It has been suggested that a correct aesthetic and architectural solution would, in the end, have been the correct social one – in other words, that people should have been given what they ought to have wanted.
It would have been fun to surround the town centre with a dozen or so tower blocks, as at Vällingby the new Stockholm satellite, but it was perhaps more important to encourage development of human personality and the English way of life. The process was started by giving people more freedom, not less.
There’s probably no compromise judgment to be reached between these two competing visions; the one celebrating a contemporary urbanism, the other a more conservative suburban lifestyle. The argument continues to play out among architects and planners although, as population rises, ‘densification’ is very much the current flavour. Somewhere in the middle stood the new residents of Harlow, most of whom seem to have embraced the new town and a few who surely missed the ‘towniness’ of their former homes.
A great many of Harlow’s new residents would know nothing of the latter. In 1957, almost one in five of the population was below school age, two in five under 15. The Daily Mirror headline of the 1950s which dubbed Harlow ‘Pram Town’ was more than justified as the image illustrates.
In next week’s post we look at what these new residents of Harlow (and their parents) made of the town and how it has fared since.
(1) Gordon Cullen, ‘Prairie Planning in the New Town’, Architectural Review, July 1953
(2) Quoted from a wall panel in the Museum of Harlow.
(3) Leaflets from both sides can be seen in the Museum of Harlow.
(4) Frederick Gibberd, Harlow New Town. A Plan Prepared for Harlow Development Corporation (Second edition, 1952; HDC, Harlow) which includes Gowers August 1947 foreword. Gowers was the mandarin par excellence (though best known now for authoring Plain Words). He was succeeded as chair by the even less revolutionary figure of RR Costain of the construction group.
(5) Quoted in Monica Furlong, ‘Harlow: New Town’, The Spectator, 29 September 1960. Quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.
(6) James Bentley and Nikolaus Pevsner, Essex (2004), p457
(7) Ian Colquhoun, RIBA Book of British Housing (2nd edition, 2008), pp172-73
(8) JM Richards, ‘Failure of the New Towns’, Architectural Review, July 1953
(9) Quoted in ‘Design Problems in New Towns. Result of Building “for all classes”’, The Times, 6 February 1962
(10) Frederick Gibberd, ‘The Architecture of New Towns’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 106, No. 5021, April 1958
The image of Leah Manning is the copyright of the National Portrait Gallery and is used under the terms of a Creative Commons licence.