In the mid-1960s, vast blocks of concrete began to rise out of London’s Erith marshes on the south bank of the River Thames. 50 years on, a new book celebrates one of London’s most famous social housing projects as it gears up for another bold redevelopment
In the mid-1960s, a vast concrete housing estate began to rise out of neglected marshland on the south bank of the River Thames. Headed by the Greater London Council (GLC), the scheme intended to solve the post-war housing crisis, and was heralded as visionary. Offering a marina-esque lifestyle with plenty of greenery and wide walkways that connected residents with schools and local amenities, all set within striking brutalist architecture, Thamesmead was to be the “town of tomorrow”.
At the beginning, the estate was so exclusive that families had to be vetted to get a home there. When its first residents arrived in 1969, Thamesmead was essentially a construction site, but by 1971 there was a school, a NatWest bank, a butchers, and a VG Supermarket. In the same year, the estate provided a backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film, A Clockwork Orange, then two years later the soon-to-be starchitect Norman Foster co-designed the factory for Modern Art Glass, drawing in both film and architecture-buffs from across the country.
But despite early success, there were complications. Spiralling construction costs forced the council to scale down its original plans. Then, in 1986 the GLC was abolished, and the estate was taken over by a trust ran by residents. Throughout the 1990s, they encountered serious problems relating to investment and maintenance, and suffered from a lack of reliable transport links and soaring crime rates. The riverside shopping centre, new train station, and ambitious bridge across the Thames became false promises, and “the town of tomorrow” a fading dream.
Still, there is hope. Five years ago, it was announced that the estate would undergo a £200million redevelopment. On top of that, the new Crossrail, due to be complete in late 2019, will ship commuters into central London within 15 minutes; there are also talks of extending the Docklands Light Railway. Now a new book published by Here Press, titled The Town of Tomorrow: 50 years of Thamesmead, celebrates the estate’s past, present, and future.
The book is a collaborative effort between three artists: Peter Chadwick, author of This Brutal World (Phaidon) and popular Twitter feed @brutalhouse; Tara Darby, who produced all the newer photographs that accompany the book’s archival images, maps, and posters; and Ben Weaver, graphic designer and co-founder of Here Press.
“There was no other option, this was the team I wanted to do it with,” says Peter Chadwick, a “brutal architecture nut”, as Tara Darby describes him. He first visited Thamesmead 10 years ago, and for the last year has been returning regularly with Darby.
Both wanted to tell the human story as well as the architectural, though the latter is what Thamesmead is usually known for. So, as well as photographs of buildings, maps, and models, they included portraits that accompany first-person interviews, and landscape photographs of the river and surrounding greenery. “It’s a crazy place,” says Darby. “Because of its geographical location it feels like you’re on the edge of London, but then coupled with that you get this amazing feeling of nature.”
Thamesmead is built on land that once belonged to the Royal Arsenal, a site that was used to store military ordnance and ammunition from as early as the mid-1500s up to the Second World War. Between 1973 and 1985, when preparing the land for the development of West Thamesmead, the council discovered over 40 iron guns from the 18th and 19th centuries, some of which were of immense historic value and now belong in museum collections worldwide. Darby says there are still rumours today of hidden ammunition, and in one interview, an early resident of the estate recalls her son coming home with a grenade in his pocket.
The Town of Tomorrow not only touches on the history of the land before development, but also the people. Thamesmead was, and still is, a popular settlement area for travellers, and their lifestyle is very much part of the culture there, which can be seen in photographs of carriages, and horses grazing on the sidewalk.
Both Chadwick and Darby were overwhelmed by the amount of material they found while researching, mostly from the Bexley, London Metropolitan and RIBA archives, but also from residents who came forward with their personal collections. “I was very conscious of the fact that I wasn’t from Thamesmead, which is why we tried to speak to as many people as possible,” says Darby, who as well as making portraits, interviewed residents for the first-person stories in the book. Among them are Rick Beavis, a policeman in the 1980s who set up an adventure camp for children during the summer holidays, and Victor Lambert, who has been working as the minister with other churches and charities to improve the town for over 40 years.
Among the inspiring stories are also emotional ones, like Salliann Heaton, who was a resident of Thamesmead for 10 years, from the age of 12. Her portrait, taken by Darby, is placed next to a striking image of her as a young girl, taken in 1978 by George Plemper, a teacher in Thamesmead who made photographs of his students in the 1970s, and whose images appear throughout the book. For Heaton, the photograph brought back painful memories of being bullied for having ginger hair and buck teeth, but after speaking to Darby at length about her experiences, she was able to come to terms with it, and now has the portrait framed in her home.
In general, Darby found that though people who lived in the earlier days of Thamesmead spoke fondly about their childhood – many moved from the cramped, damp, conditions of East London housing estates – those that were teenagers through the 1990s had a completely different experience, mostly because of the rise in crime. To protect against flooding, walkways and paths were designed to be lifted above ground level, which in turn transformed dark alleyways and underground car parks into a blind spot for crime. It’s one of the things that the new developers are trying to combat, by demolishing parts of the estate that might harbour antisocial behaviour.
In 2014, it was announced that Peabody, a major London housing association, would be heading the £200 million redevelopment project. Many of Thamesmead’s original buildings have been, or will be, knocked down, which Chadwick suspects is due to asbestos, and expensive maintenance and preservation costs. “Thamesmead isn’t in anyone’s eye-line. It’s right on the edge of the city,” explains Darby. “When you go to the barbican and see how beautiful it is, it’s sad because you wish that’s what would happen with Thamesmead.”
With help from Peabody, Chadwick and Darby were able to access some of the disused buildings, including one on Binsey Walk – the front-cover image, and the iconic street in A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex beats his droogs into the water. Inside the flats they found left-over photographs, CDs, and posters on the walls, “the signs of people’s lives,” says Darby. They also found a set of three sharpie scrawlings on a bedroom door, which read: “Teniola’s Room”, “Where a star was born”, and “A place where dreams come true”, which they photographed and later printed onto the inside back cover of the book.
“It was really magic,” says Darby, who hopes that the girl who wrote it will make herself known, like so many others who have come forward through the course of making the book. “There was a nice story there with that graffiti, it was a lovely way to end the book,” Chadwick reflects. “New places are built with hope, and I think there is a hope there today for a better future.”
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.