Sophie Bailey: “I suppose it’s not the place’s fault”

Philip Larkin, when he was “coming up England by a different line”, remembered Coventry as the place “where my childhood was unspent”. New Towns like this are remembered (or unremembered) as gaps in the map of Britain, places to be avoided and embarrassed of. But before they were a joke, they were a dream. Stevenage was one of the many “New Towns” which would be conjured into reality by the New Towns Act of 1946 as part of the construction of Labour’s promised “New Jerusalem”. This included the creation of the NHS and the introduction of the tripartite school system. The old town of Stevenage was selected to be developed as were other well-known New Towns such as Hemel Hempstead, Harlow and Basildon. These were all near London but far enough to allow Londoners to escape the smoke, smog and overcrowding of the city, and would help to reduce the housing crisis in the aftermath of the war. The “Year Zero” phase after the war and the relatively small existing populations in the towns allowed for New Towns to be constructed upon a virtual tabula rasa. Town planning corporations managed the developments of the towns and supplied housing, which was carefully managed to ensure a mix of social classes.

Lewis Silkin, the Labour Minister for Town and Country Planning and the principal planner for Stevenage declared: “[I] am most anxious that the planning should be such that the different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated… 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?””. He intended Stevenage to be “gay and bright” and like all New Town planners aimed to replicate the neighbourly spirit of London slums within a self-contained community, near to the countryside but equipped with its own shops, schools and leisure facilities.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, "Stevenage High Street Constable".

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage High Street Constable”. CC BY NC.

Nonetheless, like all things once designated “New”, the New Towns suffered the indignity of ageing and today the modestly utopian vision of the 1950s has faded as fast as the murals. Hemel Hempstead, part of the original wave of New Town developments, once topped a popular vote of the ugliest British towns, with other New Towns like Hatfield (and Coventry) also made the Top 10. Lewis Hamilton, one of Stevenage’s most famous sons, caused a stir in the town when he seemed to refer to it as a “slum” in reference to his life story when accepting an award. Doubtless Hamilton did not mean to compare the town to a real slum, but it is somewhat ironic that New Towns, once symbols of hope, are now associated with the very environments they sought to replace.

The photographs of architecture in the Conway Library at the Courtauld allow us to see these towns in a different light: already a concrete reality which people inhabited, where they shopped and worked, but not yet touched by stigma or decayed by years of neglect. The Conway Library also contains numerous photographs of innovative new private houses, each remarkable for its modernity and worthy of documentation. However, New Towns represent an artistic and political project on a grand scale. More than those of private houses, these photos preserve a moment in the life of Britain.

Many of the photographs depict new developments in pristine condition, imposingly tall and with spotless concrete.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Kent House”. CC BY NC.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage Mural”. CC BY NC.

However, the most interesting photos are those in which we can see people interacting with the environment around them. As hoped by its planners, crowds of shoppers fill Stevenage town centre, trailing bags and children. An arm curves round a window to wash it from the outside. Children hold hands under the domineering concrete porch of Kensal House. The beauty of these photographs, and the instantly inhospitable effect created in the photos without people reminds us of the original dream of the New Towns. They were not intended to become dilapidated “concrete jungles”, but to provide dignity and security for the post-war generation. Their inhabitants, perhaps defying the photographer’s wish to capture the buildings and towns alone, insist on presenting themselves to the viewer and making their human realities the central issue of the towns.

 

Further material:

New Towns Spotify playlist

These songs are by people who grew up in or want to record new towns, council estates, the great sprawling suburbs. They capture the mood of these places, the boredom, the evocative images of hot tarmac and train station platforms, the struggle of trying to live a new childhood in a place which seems destined to be forgotten.

Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown Project

Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs perfectly captures the monotonous beauty of the suburbs. Their collaboration with Google Labs is an innovative use of technology for an evocative artistic project. Enter your home address and the website will personalise a short film to your location.

 

 


Sophie Bailey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern