Jon Lawrence, Me, Me, Me: The Search for Community in Post-war England (Oxford University Press, 2019)
A myth of ‘community’ became a dominant motif of post-war planning, significant both for the partial truth it contained and the ‘truth’ it created. Planners, taking their cue from the sociologists of the day, criticised the sterility of the interwar cottage suburbs. They hoped through the creation of ‘neighbourhood units’ and the provision of more community facilities to foster the intimacy and sociability believed to be a feature of the slum areas from which many of the new council tenants were being displaced. Later, after the 1960s era of high-rise and mass public housing, council estates were held peculiarly responsible for the anomie and social breakdown widely decried by media pundits and social commentators. The reality, as ever, was far more complicated.
We are fortunate, therefore, to have this new book by Jon Lawrence, an historian at the University of Exeter, to provide an informed and nuanced guide to the debate. The book, in his words:
challenges many of preconceptions about community and individualism in recent English history … It seeks to overturn simplistic assumptions about the ‘decline of community’ since the Second World War.
Lawrence’s method is to re-examine the surviving field notes from ten major social science studies conducted between 1947 and 2008. In doing so, he does indeed challenge much of the conventional wisdom that has surrounded discussions of community since 1945. What follows is not a comprehensive review – the book is a richly detailed and wide-ranging survey – but rather an analysis of his account and conclusions where they touch upon themes and issues raised in my own study of council housing.
Green Street, Bethnal Green
The Holy Grail of sociological research and planning was working-class community, never more so than in the early post-war years. Lawrence looks at Raymond Firth’s study of Bermondsey and the more well-known research of Michael Young on Bethnal Green. For both and particularly for Young (a co-author of Labour’s 1945 General Election manifesto), a clearly political agenda was in play. They went, Lawrence argues:
in search of ‘community’ – or, to be more specific, in search of the community spirit they believed had animated people’s defiant response to the Blitz and had underwritten Labour’s decisive electoral breakthrough.
In this context, Young’s published work – written in conjunction with Peter Wilmott – made much of the matrilocal kinship networks held to sustain family and community life in the East End. But, of these, Lawrence comments mildly, ‘one struggles to find supporting evidence in either his field-notes or in Firth’s’. (1)
Lawrence, using Young’s research data, found married daughters resentful of their mother’s role or neglectful of their duties towards it and mothers themselves equally keen to be shorn of their supposed family responsibilities. There were countervailing examples too, of course, but there was little overall to sustain Young’s argument.
New housing at Little Hulton on the Worsley Estate
Tellingly, when Barry Cullingworth came to study Salford’s new and distant council suburb in Worsley in the late 1950s, he found: (2)
Separation from ‘Mum’ has not been the hardship which some sociologists have led us to expect; on the contrary it has often allowed a more harmonious relationship to be established.
Young’s defence of an imagined traditional working-class community was matched by his active disdain for the new ‘out of county’ council estates many former slum-dwellers were moving to. He praised the East End’s ‘sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries’, contrasting it positively to, a later case-study, the ‘drawn-out roads and spacious open ground’ of the London County Council’s new Debden Estate in Essex. The latter, he argued, represented a shift from ‘a people-centred to a house-centred existence … relations are window-to-window not face-to-face’.
The Debden Estate under construction, 1950 © Britain from Above, eaw031776
Lawrence finds instead a ‘fierce culture of domestic privacy’ common among working-class households in both districts – a desire to resist intrusion into the home. And, in relation to the migration to the new council estates, he notes, many ‘wanted the chance to withdraw from forced sociability – to socialize instead on their own terms, with the family and friends of their choosing’.
This finding is echoed by Stefan Ramsden’s work on Beverley. He found: (3)
The decline in older-style neighbourhood sociability and mutuality was compensated by new forms, frequently conducted between relatives and friends who did not live on the same street but were scattered across the town.
What some decried as ‘increasing “privatism”’, Ramsden concludes, was, in fact, ‘a more expansive sociability’.
Lawrence identifies another change in the early post-war years:
For the first time, the vast majority of working people believed that it was their birthright to enjoy a decent standard of living ‘from cradle to grave’.
The enhanced role of the state in ensuring just that was nowhere better seen than in the programme of New Towns and expanded towns that developed in the late 1940s and 1950s. Lewis Silkin, Labour’s Minister of Town and Country Planning, addressing a town hall meeting in 1946 in the first designated New Town, Stevenage, proclaimed they were ‘building for the new way of life’. In 1959 the town came under the critical eye of Raphael Samuel, then working as a researcher for Michael Young’s Institute of Community Studies.
This was an era of rising living standards for the many, not (just) the few. But some middle-class socialists worried that all this affluence might be corrupting; that, in particular, working-class people might start voting Conservative. After a third consecutive Conservative election victory in 1959, this concern had some apparent validity and it was the focus of John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood’s study of Luton in 1961-62.
Writing of Stevenage in 1963, two New Town advocates may have unwittingly encouraged such fears: (4)
The people have had well-paid regular jobs in the factories and this has conduced to producing a feeling of contentment. It has enabled them to furnish their homes well, to acquire television, cars, and domestic gadgets, so that many who came as habitual grousers were transformed into contented citizens in a few years.
In fact (and further supported practically by Labour election victories in 1964 and 1966), the evidence gathered from the social surveys was heartening. Of Stevenage, Lawrence concludes that it was:
striking how many people displayed a strong sense of being part of a shared project of self-improvement and self-making as residents of the new town … [At] least in Stevenage, people’s ambition to ‘better’ themselves … was intertwined with an awareness that this was also a collective endeavour.
Residents understood post-war prosperity as ‘something that was at last to be shared by “people like us”. Its ethos was as much communal as individualist.’
Broad Walk, Harlow, in the mid-1950s when it became know as ‘Pram Town’
Later recollections of another New Town, Harlow, though possibly suffused with nostalgia, seem to attest to the same feeling. The journalist Jason Cowley remembers Harlow as ‘a vibrant place, with utopian yearnings’; another recalls the town he left in 1971 as one marked by ‘youthful energy, enthusiasm, and social sharing’. ‘I guess the Great Dream was still alive and thriving’, he concludes ruefully.
Marymead, Broadwater, Stevenage
In their early decades, most New Towns residents lived in social housing built by the Development Corporations. This was, in effect, council housing built for ‘general needs’, the classless vision upheld in Labour’s 1949 Housing Act (albeit one overturned by Conservative legislation in 1954). Gary Younge, another journalist brought up in a New Town, remembers that there ‘was no sense of incongruity in Stevenage between being a young professional and living in social housing’. Lawrence notes more broadly the lack of stigma attached to living in council housing in the 1950s.
But this was changing. By the early 1960s, a majority of workers both in Luton and Cambridge (another subject of study) owned their own homes and many more wanted to. Their collectivist attitudes notwithstanding, many Stevenage residents also expressed support for a Right to Buy their Corporation homes.
Before any of the widely publicised (and usually exaggerated) problems of council estates in the 1970s and beyond, a significant psychological shift had taken place in popular attitudes towards council housing. It came to be seen as inferior to home ownership. Stefan Ramsden noted this in the comment of one estate resident in Beverley: ‘I think because you got a stigma with it … you were seen to be a lower class of people if you were in a council house’.
Attitudes towards new council homes more generally were positive though there seems a widespread dislike of flats. ‘You don’t get privacy in flats; everyone knows all your business’ and ‘they mix you up with all sorts’, according to two Bethnal Green residents in Young’s study. In Stevenage too, the Development Corporation found incomers expressing ‘their desire to get away from communal staircases, balconies or landings, and to have a house with its own front door’. It’s a reminder of that desire for privacy already noted.
A Harlow kitchen as featured in the town’s publicity material.
Almost unanimously, of course, people were grateful for the cleanliness, conveniences and comfort of their new council homes. Those carrying out the surveys could sometimes fail to properly appreciate this step change in working-class life. In summarising the words of one new resident settling into life as Debden, Michael Young, seems almost disdainful :
There was the usual stuff about more shops, better bus services, greater privacy, value of garden, improvement in children’s health and in particular the advantage of a new house was stressed.
On that matter of health, as an aside (though it should hardly qualify as such), at the South Oxhey Estate (another of the LCC’s out-of-county estates, in Hertfordshire), 55 percent of new tenants had initially been re-housed on health grounds. In Harlow New Town, the mortality rate of newborns in 1964 stood at 5.5 per 1000 compared to the national average of 12.3. Some people literally owe their lives to this ‘social engineering’.
In comparison, the acquisition of new stuff – televisions, washing machines, furniture and the like – might seem trivial. It was sometimes seen as corrosive. Some of the social survey interviewers seem to have wanted their working-class respondents to emulate their own more Bohemian life-styles. Raph Samuel lamented the purchase of new (not second-hand) furniture by one Stevenage household as a ‘pattern of mass media-imposed misery’. Some decried these improved living standards as embourgeoisement, a belief that working people were adopting middle-class lifestyles and values. We, I hope, will see it simply as poor people getting less poor.
Barnham Cross, Thetford
As for the friendliness (or otherwise) of the new estates compared to the former slum quarters, the story is naturally mixed but a significant proportion of new residents – probably a preponderance – describe them as more sociable. In the expanded town of Thetford in Norfolk (another destination of some Bethnal Green residents), some residents believed that ‘there was a much friendlier atmosphere than in London and that one got to know one’s neighbours better than in a big city’. (5)
One disgruntled resident even compared the large overspill estate of Houghton Regis near Luton to, irony of ironies, ‘a chunk of Bethnal Green on a bright evening, with kids committing hopscotch and vandalism and grannies leaning over the garden-gates or sitting on the step’. (That children might be thought guilty of ‘committing hopscotch’ perhaps tells us more about the interviewee than the estate.)
Lawrence goes on to discuss later social surveys conducted in the north-east and Sheppey in changed and generally harsher circumstances. There’s much of interest here too – on occupational cultures, gender relations and social attitudes – but I’ll stick to my housing brief and draw this post to a conclusion.
Lawrence’s conclusion from the early post-war social surveys can stand more widely: what they revealed was a ‘remarkable diversity of lifestyles and attitudes’ – a diversity, he argues, that ‘exposes the absurdity of imagining that there was ever such thing as a single “working-class culture” or “working-class community”’.
We might, therefore, ask why middle-class professionals took such interest in this alien territory. Ostensibly, it reflects a laudable concern for the less well-off. But it could also be seen, by more caustic observers at least, as an extension of the elite anxiety that has seen the working class as a fit subject (‘subject’ being the operative word) for study and improvement since Victorian times.
There were sometimes more clearly political agenda at play too as we’ve seen. Here perhaps it reflects one of the foundational myths of left-wing politics – that working-class people should think and behave in a certain (i.e. broadly left-wing, communitarian) way. The agonised debate over the last general election and the fall of Labour’s supposed ‘Red Wall’ of working-class constituencies reflects this too with many on the Left seeking to blame malign external forces rather than examine Labour’s own political failings or contend with the complexity of the actually existing working class.
Lawrence’s conclusion (written well before the election) makes its own more thoughtful contribution to this debate. He argues, rightly I think, that:
that any new politics of community has to enhance, rather than erode, the personal autonomy and independence that the majority of people have fought hard to secure for themselves and their families.
But, in a challenge to the alienated and self-centred atomisation this could represent, he also argues that this new politics ‘needs to re-focus on promoting the aspects of public life and culture that are open to all’ (art galleries, libraries, museums, leisure venues, etc.) in ways that ‘help us facilitate social connection and promote a general sense of living in an interconnected, shared social environment’.
Given the purpose of this blog and my book, I could hardly disagree with that though a small part of me wonders if it isn’t a (cautiously expressed) continuation of the improving, rational recreation agenda promoted by middle-class professionals in earlier times. At any rate, it’s a great book which you should read and assess yourself. For a hardback book with academic heft, it’s fairly reasonably priced and, hopefully, there will be a paperback edition in the near future. Or better still, borrow it from a library!
Jon Lawrence, Me, Me, Me: The Search for Community in Post-war England (Oxford University Press, 2019)
(1) Michael Young and Peter Wilmott, Family and Kinship in East London (1957)
(2) JB Cullingworth, ‘Overspill in South East Lancashire: The Salford-Worsley Scheme’, The Town Planning Review, vol. 30, no. 3, October 1959
(3) Stefan Ramsden, Working-class Community in the Age of Affluence (Routledge, 2017)
(4) Frederic J. Osborn and Arnold Whittick, The New Towns. The Answer to Megalopolis (1963)
(5) Rotary Club of Thetford, Norfolk, ‘Thetford Town Expansion: Report on Social Survey’ (March 1964); DG/TD/2/95, London Metropolitan Archives