Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The 'Revised Plan'

This is little me, peeking cutely out from my Silver Cross pram. I reckon that this photo would have been taken in the Spring of 1962. I’m in the yard of what was our house at that time, within a back-to-back terrace that had the amazingly Dickensian name of Popplewell’s Row. At this time, Gainsborough was a small market town, with a population of around 17,000. The working life of the town was dominated by Marshall, Sons and Co, manufacturers of tractors, traction engines, boilers, founded in 1848. In 1962, Marshalls employed anything up to a quarter of the town’s population (my Dad included) and the firm still housed many of its employees in these Victorian terraces.

But things were changing, and I fancifully and idealistically imagine a group of the town’s planners poring over the ‘Revised Plan’ for Gainsborough: demi-gods of modernity huddling around a 3D balsa-wood model of the town centre.

In order to bring this old town into the twentieth century even the old council offices they were standing in were set for demolition, and I see the planners waving a slightly regretful, but undoubtedly necessary hand over these ancient terraces, as they condemn them to destruction. This was a good thing, and I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise – Popplewell’s Row, along with many other ‘Rows’ in the town like it, were working-class slum dwellings, and needed to go. Two years after I was photographed in my pram, Popplewell's Row was demolished and we opted to be re-housed in a brand new council house on ‘Dunstall Walk’, on the very edge of the Middlefield Lane estate.

In her book, Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment (Routledge 2001), Alison Ravetz states that slum clearances and the re-housing of families in new estates represented ‘state intervention’ that was ‘being invoked in working-class interests’ (p. 5). So far, so good. But Ravetz then goes on to suggest that ‘The whole operation was a culture transfer amounting to a cultural colonization: a vision forged by one section of society for application to another … It asked nothing more of tenants than to live in houses and to participate in estate life in ways approved by middle-class reformers.’

It is true that there was a kind of cultural, and indeed, social ‘transfer’ going on in the case of the rehousing of Popplewell’s Row’s residents, who are listed in the 1962 Caldicott’s Directory for Gainsborough and District. We lived at No. 7 and my Dad, ‘Waites, John A’ is listed there. Amongst others along the row were:

9.             Brown, Leslie
17.           Bacon, John W
21.           Reid, James
23.           Brooks, Gordon
29.           Hollingsworth, C
33.           Biddles, Frank
37.           Brooks, Leslie

When we look at the 1965 directory listing for the then one-year old Dunstall Walk, we see none other than ‘Bacon, John W’ at No. 18. Next to him, at No. 20, is his old neighbour, ‘Reid, James’. At No. 22, is ‘Hollingsworth, C. Next door to him at 24 is Gordon Brooks. Two doors down, at No. 28, we find Frank Biddles, next to Les Brown at No. 30. We were further along, at No. 36.

Those who obviously chose to move up to the new estate were placed in these new houses in almost exactly the same order as they were at Popplewell’s Row. I don't think there was anything patronising in this: it was just a simple, rational move to try and keep old neighbours together and to preserve the old neighbourhood community. Ravetz however seems to suggest that this sort of thing added up to ‘institutionalization’ and precluded ‘spontaneous estate evolution’ (whatever that is – did my Dad want to be ‘spontaneous’ after coming home from working a 2 ‘til 10 shift at his lathe at Marshalls? Was my Mum was always secretly thinking about creating an estate ‘happening’ while doing the ironing? Was my 9 year old self being spontaneous when I got into big trouble for helping my mate to mess up his Dad's front lawn by digging foxholes for our Action Men?). 

Perhaps as a working-class kid making a mess of the neighbour's garden, I was 'spontaneously evolving' into a working-class estate kid. What is clear is that we weren’t forced to live there. There are many names listed in the directory entry for Popplewell’s Row that do not appear on the listings for any of the houses on this new estate. Maybe they were the true working-class heroes, somehow perhaps refusing to ‘live in houses and to participate in estate life in ways approved by middle-class reformers’, and we were the poor dupes succumbing to middle-class ways. It’s the endless, enormous condescension of posterity all over again.  Speaking of EP Thompson, I'm reminded of how he very rightly berated an academic for calling early nineteenth century Lancashire cottage weavers ‘proto-industrialists’. The weavers were ‘proto-nothing’, Thompson said, they were ‘for themselves and not for us’. They were ‘not bugged’ by modern notions of status and equality. Neither were we in 1965: all I know is that, as far as my family was concerned, we just wanted to live in a nice, modern, house. Given the state of our previous home, this was a simple necessity and requirement, and the Middlefield Lane estate provided it.


  1. Hi Ian, I was struck, when reading Ravetz, by her attempts to unravel the complex intersecting of philanthropic, utopian, Christian, socialist, communitarian, idealistic, pragmatic and expedient motives that lay behind council-estate construction. BUT, as a geographer or historian, pinpointing which intersection of these motives applies in each town-by-town, estate-by-estate scenario is especially challenging. Andrew.

  2. Andrew - Ravetz does make a valiant attempt to unravel all of those issues but it seems that she still can't help but to perpetuate the same old, slightly regretful, slightly disdainful, opinions of post-war developments. If we were given a paternalistic taste of middle-class life (which, as I hope I make clear in the post, never once crossed our minds) then it seems that the Right condemns these estates and their residents for not being 'aspiring' enough in wanting to take them up on their nice middle-class example and get out of there after a
    while, therefore 'ghettoising' ourselves in the process. The left, possibly academic, view appears to condemn these estates for being
    paternalistic and dogmatic, and the residents for swallowing the architects/planners dose of false consciousness by not sufficiently
    organising ourselves into 'spontaneously evolving' communities. It IS complex and challenging - which is why micro-studies like ours are important!