I went to school in a new town: Harlow, seen above in 1956. In truth, I spent much of my time then denigrating it, and much since. In part, that is because it was somewhere my teenage self had only one ambition about: getting out (or, more accurately, getting the twenty-odd miles down the road to London. Ironically, I even ended back there a few years later before making a final escape. To be honest, I wouldn’t go back. But, looking at Harlow as history, well, perhaps I was very, very wrong.
We ought to start with what the people of Harlow had so often started with, as this polemical 1935 documentary makes clear.
In post-war Britain, housing was big politics, as was the notion of improving the lives of ordinary people. One of the most ambitious policies was the building of new towns.
So what have we forgotten? Primarily, it is the idealism that underpinned the idea of new towns. For me, in the ‘seventies, their hallmarks were endless bloody roundabouts, boredom and dull shopping centres. In truth though, they represented a genuinely idealistic belief in providing a better life for ordinary people, a mix between architect led and organic community building.
This public information film, another in the Charley series, from 1948, makes the case eloquently.
Looking at the Harlow of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, what you actually see is an attempt to build spaces in which people could make lives which were almost wholly different from those of the East End they came from. It’s easy to mythologise the East End, many of us with roots there are prone to doing just that (I can confess to be as guilty as many). In fact, the East End of the ‘sixties was pretty grotty. I can clearly remember the bomb sites, with weeds growing out of the rubble and the houses with which my relatives struggled to force into some kind of respectability.
What did Harlow give them? It gave high quality housing, with all mod cons and gardens, each estate with its own architect, under the overall direction of its Development Corporation and its driving force, the architect Sir Frederick Gibberd. It offered local shops, and a bustling town centre. It offered high class public services, including the successful comprehensive schools such as the one I went to, Burnt Mill (more of which anon).
In short, it gave that generation a new start in life, and a new life in vastly superior surroundings.
This documentary clip features Gibberd himself.
This rather strange film shows the optimism and bustle of the new town.
So, Harlow, maybe I owe you an apology.
Oh, ok… here are the Newtown Neurotics…