Municipal Memories

London's 1960s new town, Thamesmead, is remembered in a new book. A former resident wonders what went wrong, and where.

I lived in Thamesmead from the age of 4 till the age of 11, because my dad was the vicar. My earliest memory of what has come to be mythologised as South East London’s premier brutalist hot-spot (although technically it’s in Kent) is of eating fish and chips with my family in the medieval ruins of Lesnes Abbey – looking down from the leafy sanctuary of Abbey Wood upon what was then a vast building site, while my startled-seeming parents told me and my younger sister that this was to be our new home.

The takeaway was meant to soften the blow, but the bold response to the capital’s chronic housing shortage which was then rising like a concrete phoenix from the marshlands to the east of the Woolwich Arsenal would in many ways turn out – as a number of the personal testimonials tucked away towards the back end of Chadwick and Weaver’s handsome if somewhat scattershot volume affirm – to be a great place to grow up. Salliann Heaton remembers the Thamesmead of the mid-seventies as being “like a giant playground – you never had to cross any roads”, while Philip Samuel euphorically recalls a place where “I could ride my bike for miles without my feet ever touching the ground. I felt like I was in a Judge Dredd futuristic paradise”.

The ‘streets in the sky’ concept pioneered on other estates by Alison and Peter Smithson has not been (to put its mildly) without its practical problems, but for kids that had bikes, Thamesmead’s rapidly expanding network of overhead walkways were the capillaries of freedom. We arrived on stage 1 of the development in 1971, not with the earliest pioneer tenants like the Gooch family – whose much photographed maisonette was for six months in the second half of 1968 the only occupied property in the imposing barrier block structure of Corraline Walk, because at that point none of the others could be relied upon not to let in water – but still early enough to experience the birth pangs of a new community. 

As challenging as some of these labour pains were – from the plague of cement-eating ‘super mice’ (conventional poisons meant nothing to them) unleashed by the construction of a Tarmac play area on the other side of Wolvercote Road, to the frequent fights which erupted in and around the phone box outside our house when someone stayed for too long in one of what were a woefully inadequate number of public telephone facilities – none of them were grave enough to prompt fears for Thamesmead’s long term future. With the concept of ‘defensible space’ still yet to get off the ground, the open balcony which linked the three storey maisonette we lived in with those of our neighbours  was the spinal column of what felt like a real sense of, to revive a discredited phrase, everyone being in it together. 

“Everybody knew everyone back then,” remembers Robert Dyer, “so if you did anything bad someone would tell your mum”. Of course there is a rose-tinted element to Sheniz Bayraktar’s childhood memory of a place where “Everyone was excited because we all moved there at the same time”, but much as it might be punk rock heresy to admit it, I know that at least some of the jubilation at the silver jubilee street party at which she was photographed was real, because I was there too (if not at the exact same one, at one very like it – it’s so hard to differentiate between these system-built environments).

When my family left in 1978, it was with no sense that what public housing enthusiasts and brutalist romantics would term Thamesmead’s “heroic phase” was already coming to a close. But in retrospect the upping of owner/occupier proportions from Stage 3 of the development onwards – council houses were being sold off there before Mrs Thatcher had even come to power – combined with a catastrophic failure to deliver on promises of enhanced transport infrastructure (at the time of writing, Thamesmead is still forlornly waiting for its Crossrail) and a decisive shift in architectural fashion, to turn the dream into a nightmare. 

The erosion of Thamesmead’s beautiful possibilities by a toxic alliance of private capital and (local and national) government neglect was every bit as brutally dystopian as anything Stanley Kubrick or – 35 years later – Chris Cunningham and Aphex Twin could come up with. The “trellis, dinky caravans, hanging baskets and picket-fencing” picked out without condescension in John Grindrod’s broad strokes introduction were the bland icing on a very poisonous cake. Robert Dyer (who’d moved from Lewisham to become the only black kid in his class in 1976) recalls 1991’s racist murder of 15 year-old Rolan Adams at a bus stop on the way home from the Hawksmoor youth club. “It seemed as if it was forgotten because it happened in Thamesmead. Someone wrote graffiti on the ‘A’ bridge after Stephen Lawrence was killed. It said ’Niggers 0 – National Front 2’ and it stayed on there for months. People had to walk past it every day and despite many complaints the council were slow to move it”.

As Lawrence’s very similar but more widely publicised death a few miles down the road in Eltham had already proved, Thamesmead had no monopoly on racism. What was unique to this environment was the openness of the conflict between backward-looking and forward-looking ideas. The picture caption “An 18th century clocktower, salvaged from the Great Storehouse at Deptford Royal Navy Dockyard, is hoisted into place in Thamesmead’s town centre, 1986” reads like the lowering of modernism’s flag. 

The Town of Tomorrow’s seemingly haphazard blend of archive material and Tara Darby’s excellent new photos actually does a very good job of conveying how easy its been for the interests of the people who live there to be overlooked in the course of that ideological struggle. The fact that this book was made possible by the “generous financial support” of Peabody – current holders of the purse-strings on an £8 billion regeneration project – does not necessarily make it the propaganda of the victors. 

The Town of Tomorrow – 50 Years of Thamesmead by Peter Chadwick and Ben Weaver (eds), John Grindrod (introduction) and Tara Darby (photos and interviews) is published by Here Press.

The images used in this article come from the Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre.

About the Author

Ben Thompson is a critic and ghostwriter, and the host of The London Ear on Resonance FM.