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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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