Harlow Housing and Design Interviews Online

Harlow New Town was established in 1947, when the New Town Development Corporation began to purchase land around the old town and erect new housing estates. The houses primarily served to relieve housing pressures on bombed-out, overcrowded London, particularly from the East End. The first residents began moving in from 1949.

So say the textbooks, but what personal stories lie behind these brief facts? At the Essex Sound and Video Archive, we hold a wonderful collection of oral history interviews conducted by Dr Judy Attfield in the 1980s for her research project, Harlow Housing and Design (SA 22). These interviews reveal what it was like to live in the new town. Our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, has enabled us to digitise all of the original cassettes and make them freely available through Essex Archives Online.

Screenshot of SA 22 catalogue

A satisfying sight: the icons show that there is audio material attached to that catalogue entry.

At first, we thought the digitisation would be a straightforward task. Shortly after the collection was first deposited with us in 1996, we created access copies on cassette, to safeguard the original masters (our standard procedure in the Sound Archive). The access copies are all neatly labelled and clearly identified, one cassette per interview.

However, when we looked in the box containing the original cassettes, things were not quite so straightforward. We digitise from the original recording (or as near to the original recording as we can get), to capture the purest sound. On revisiting the masters, we realised that the interviewer had used one cassette for multiple interviews – a common practice when you want to make the most of the cassette tape you have. Piecing each recording together to make one complete interview has caused our digitiser, Catherine Norris, several headaches.

But now they are all digitised. Similar to our procedure with physical analogue recordings, we keep a master, uncompressed .wav file safely in storage. We then create compressed .mp3 copies as our new access copy. You can still come into the Searchroom and listen to the recordings, but you can also now listen from home, through Essex Archives Online.

Each interview is valuable in its own right, but as a collection it is even more fascinating. Dr Attfield spoke to a range of people: developers, architects, and town councillors who shed light on the planning of the new town; shopkeepers; people who moved to Harlow before the new town; and people who moved as part of the new town settlement. Putting these different viewpoints together gives a rich, rounded impression of this time in history. Some interviewees say that women found it more difficult than men to settle in new towns and felt lonely and depressed; some say that women found it easier to form new bonds because they were surrounded by women in a similar position, raising children away from their parents in unfamiliar surroundings. Some were ecstatic to have their own front doors, their own staircases in two-storey homes; some missed the familiarity of London, even if they were living in cramped, shared housing. The multiplicity of memories challenges generalisations about life in a new town. It also demonstrates (by listening to the accents of the interviewees, if nothing else) that not everyone in Harlow in the 1950s was an ex-Eastender.

The collection also serves as a good example of how to conduct an oral history interview. Dr Attfield had a specific interest in the interior design of the new houses. She directed questions to gather information on this topic. However, she also asked wider questions for context. She let her interviewees say what they wanted with minimal interventions, but also guided the interview to cover her set of questions. Occasionally she probed her interviewees for more details, or challenged their viewpoints to get a better understanding, without revealing any judgement of their opinions.

Dr Attfield made a significant research contribution in the fields of material culture, gender studies, and design history, among other overlapping areas. Based for many years at the Winchester School of Art, her book Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life (Oxford: Berg, 2000) has become a key text in her field. She passed away in 2006. We are very grateful that she deposited her recordings about Harlow with us, for future researchers to use and enjoy.

One particularly moving interview from the collection is that with Mrs Summers, who moved to the new town from Walthamstow in 1952 (SA 22/1364/1). At several points in the interview, Mrs Summers describes the long adjustment period when ‘home’ still meant London before completely settling in Harlow. As well as missing her family, in this clip she describes how she ‘couldn’t get used to the newness of things’ after coming from Walthamstow with its ‘houses with big windows… little tiny houses… nice houses… [and] grubby-looking houses’.

At a time when neighbourhood plans for vast numbers of additional houses are being developed across Essex – across the country – perhaps these experiences of new settlers can help with the process of creating new communities.

Dr Attfield published an article based on these interviews in the book that she co-edited with P Kirkham, A View from the Interior: Women and Design (London: Women’s Press, 1995). The article can be consulted at Colchester Library.

We hope to showcase clips from these recordings on a listening bench in Harlow, in time for the 70th anniversary of the New Town in 2017. If you are interested in helping to work on the bench for Harlow, please get in touch: info@essexsounds.org.uk

The passing of the plotlands

Archivist Lawrence Barker takes a look at the rise and fall of the Basildon plotlands…

Anyone exploring the history of the development of Basildon New Town is quite likely to encounter the curious phenomenon of the ‘plotlands’.  These developed throughout the first half of the 20th century but were to more-or-less disappear with the development of Basildon New Town for which much of the land was purchased, compulsorily if necessary, during the 1970s.  The history of this process has recently generated quite a lot of interest (a talk given at ERO in April 2014 in April by Ken Porter proved to be the best-attended of the year).

In searching for original records for another project on the same subject, we uncovered many more previously hidden in the large collection associated with Basildon Development Corporation which was responsible for the creation of the New Town. The development of the plotlands had is origin in the decline of agriculture in this country during the second half 19th century.  In particular, cheaper grain imported from America in the mid 1870s knocked the bottom out of the grain market resulting in many farms switching to pasture.

Great Gubbins sale poster watermarkedSouth Essex, with its heavy clay soils which were more difficult and therefore more costly to work, was particularly hard hit.  On top of that, an extended period of bad weather finally finished off arable farming in south Essex.  Many farms collapsed and were sold off as cheap building land; farms such as Great Gubbins near Laindon.  The sales catalogue (left) and map (below) dating from 1885 (D/DS 4/20) shows the extent of the original farm land which was put up for sale.  Towards the bottom, one can see the proposed route for the new extension of the railway to Southend and the location of the new station to be built for Laindon. Great Gubbins sale map watermarked

It is interesting to compare how the same area looked 50 years later on an OS map in 1939 showing the plotlands landscape fully established (below, with Great Gubbins Farm outlined in red).

OS map new series 1939 81-9 watermarked Yet, little seems to have happened at first.  Another sales catalogue with map for the same land dated 1893 (D/DS 15/2) shows the vacant land this time split into 5 lots.

Laindon Station estate sale cat 1 watermarkedIt was the coming of the railway that seems to have boosted sales but not perhaps in the direction the vendors had originally hoped.  Records dating from the 1890s for the development of the neighbouring estate surrounding the new Laindon station (D/DS 4/35), called the Laindon Station Estate, include posters and catalogue (left) advertising cheap building land and show the aspiration held by the vendors Protheroe and Morris that the area would ‘shortly become an important residential neighbourhood’ served by shops and even featuring a new Essex racecourse.  This time the land was parcelled up into hundreds of smaller 20-by-140 foot plots (hence plotlands) which buyers could combine to create larger plots if they wished as shown on the accompanying map (below).

Laindon Station estate 1892 watermarked

Instead, although a new hotel and some shops were built near the station, most of the plots were bought up by hoards of ordinary folk as individuals who erected all kinds of chalets and shacks which they used as weekend retreats.  The pictures below were found among many such photographs in the first box of Basildon Development Corporation records (A9238) and demonstrate the variety of buildings erected by the plotlanders, in this case in Victoria Road on the former Great Gubbins farmland.

Victoria Road Photos watermarked Deanna Walker provides a fine first-hand account of the process in her book Basildon Plotlands published in 2001, where she describes her childhood memories as a resident of Dagenham spending weekends in the plotlands at Langdon Hills. Later still, many people replaced their shacks with more substantial bungalows and came to take up permanent residence. When the time came for the land to be designated for development for Basildon New Town, the Development Corporation commissioned surveys of the land which include maps of the various plots based on copies of large scale OS maps with each plot numbered, linked to a description, name, no. of rooms, condition, life, architectural quality, services (e.g water, sewerage, gas, electricity), rate value, condition of plot, and remarks (see below).  These have been catalogued as A/TB 1/8/10/1-14. Laindon Station estate 1949 watermarked Material uncovered Box no.1 of A9238 includes aerial photographs of the Basildon area prior to development of the New Town showing the plotlands, and later photographs showing the transformation from plotlands to new town.  For example, the photograph below shows how the streets planned for residential estates were created first with building following on after, and one can just detect a few remaining plotlands before they were obliterated. Baslidon Aerial Photo 1 watermarked Typically, people whose properties were affected were encouraged to accept the inevitable and take the initiative in coming to an agreement with the Development Corporation to sell their plot to them and so avoid compulsory purchase. A typical letter is one received by a plotland owner on 30 January 1962 which begins by outlining the Corporation’s intention to develop the area and that their property will be affected.  It then goes on to say that the Corporation has authority from the Minister of Housing and Local Government to:

…buy by agreement the land and property required for this redevelopment and it is hoped that you will be prepared to consider opening negotiations for the sale of your property by agreement to the Corporation.

The Corporation also offered to pay for legal costs, surveyors’ fees and ‘reasonable removal expenses’ if an agreement is reached and, in addition, to offer alternative accommodation. Not everyone was affected though.  Another box (no.33) includes individual case files of plotland properties which were not to be affected by the creation of the New Town and which possibly still exist today.

If you would like to find out more about plotlands for yourself, there is plenty of material to explore in the ERO archive and library.