Note to my American readers: If the word estate makes you think of a grand English country house be advised. In England council house developments, the equivalent of American public housing, are called estates.
In 1955 when I was seven years old we moved into a brand new house on Marks Gate Estate outside London in Essex. We were a family of five, my parents, my grandmother, my sister and I. Because my mother was pregnant with a third child we were moved up the waiting list for a council house. The wait was long. My parents had been on the list since shortly after I was born.
I remember the excitement of that day. The estate still had the raw appearance of a building site, our road not yet paved. The back garden was a patch of dirt, graced only with a washing line. My sister and I ran through the empty rooms. The front door led into a narrow entry hall with a small storage room at the back. Off the hall in front was a kitchen with an eating area and in back a living room with fireplace. Outside the kitchen door was a covered space for dustbins and coal storage. Upstairs the bare board floors were stained in places where it looked like the builders had mixed their materials. There were three bedrooms, one not much bigger than today’s closets, a lavatory, and a bathroom with something known as an airing cupboard where the hot water heater sat. By today’s standards it was a tiny house for a growing family but to us it seemed a mansion. It was one of over a million council homes built in Britain between 1945 and the late 1950’s.
At the end of World War II one of the biggest problems facing the new Labour government under Prime Minister Clement Attlee was a lack of housing. Thousands of returning servicemen were marrying and starting families. Unlike later generations they did not crave a period of adventure and experimentation before settling down. They had had enough of adventure in the war and just wanted a job and a decent place to live. Meanwhile much of the housing in London and other big cities had been bombed into rubble and much of what was left were slums in deplorable condition with no indoor toilets or hot water. “People everywhere are clamoring for houses,” wrote one observer. Families were crammed into rented rooms with few amenities and even these were hard to come by. The middle class were not spared. Novelist Kingsley Amis, his wife and young children, including future novelist Martin, lived in a series of cramped two room flats until an inheritance enabled them to buy a home of their own. Many people crowded in with other family members. We were among the lucky ones; we lived in a house in Dagenham that belonged to relatives who lived abroad, until we rose to the top of the council waiting list.
Aneurin Bevan was a name I often heard in my house. He was the Minister of Health in the Attlee government and was also given responsibility for housing. The task was daunting. It was estimated that a million homes were needed. The first solution was temporary prefab housing that could be erected quickly. Between 1945 and 1949 156,623 prefab houses were built. Ugly on the outside, disparaged as “rabbit hutches” by Bevan himself, they were surprisingly popular with the residents because of the modern conveniences. Inside toilets and hot water! But Bevan had larger ambitions. He wanted council houses to be of high quality so as to attract the middle as well as the working class. The Labour government shared a Utopian vision of a future society in which Britain’s rigid class system would dissolve. The classes living side by side in quality housing would further this goal, they thought. The government also restricted private building, pouring all resources into housing built by local council authorities.
The council house should in the future provide the amenities, space and surroundings which hitherto have often been the monopoly of private building.Local Council Report
When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951 they continued the program, albeit with some changes. They eased the restrictions on private building, scaled back the size of the houses, and mixed in more flats. Churchill himself said “we must build the houses for the people,” appointing future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan Minister of Housing. Macmillan had hoped for a more prestigious position but embraced his role.
We can no longer afford to put off the question of the slums. We can no longer leave people living in cramped, dark, rotten houses with no water, sometimes no lavatories, no proper ventilation.Harold Macmillan
The task of designing the new council houses attracted many prominent architects including Sydney Cook, Neave Brown and Denys Lasdun whose buildings are now on the National Heritage List. Council housing estates sprang up on open land outside all major cities of the UK causing a massive migration to the suburbs. Nowhere was the effect more dramatic than in London where so much of the working class East End was destroyed in the war. The population moved eastward into the county of Essex where I grew up. Not everyone was happy to move. A house might be a slum but it was home, often to generations of a family. One woman told an interviewer:
“I was bred and born in Bethnal Green and my parents and their parents before them: no I wouldn’t take a threepenny bus ride outside Bethnal Green.”
The first sociology book I ever read was Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Wilmott published in 1957, a lovely portrait of the tight knit culture of the East End. The book follows families in Bethnal Green and the effects of their move to a council estate. Some of the people who took the difficult step of leaving this world behind would be my neighbors on Marks Gate Estate.
The land where the estate was built starting in June 1951 was a nondescript patch of open country on the north side of Eastern Avenue, the main road leading out of London into Essex. Wedged between the towns of Ilford, Romford, and Chadwell Heath the site was bordered to the east by Whalebone Lane, with the appropriately named Moby Dick pub on the corner, and to the north by Hainault Forest, a favorite place for family picnics in my childhood. Remains of a fortified hilltop village dating to 600 BC are the first evidence of humans in the area. Marks Gate got its name from the medieval manor of Marks, built by the de Merk family in the 14th century, which stood on the site until 1808. Gate refers to the southern gate into Hainault Forest which was nearby.
The estate that rose on this tract of land was a mix of terraced houses and three storey flats. There was a convenient row of shops just around the corner from our house and beyond the flats opposite a large open green with a children’s playground. My friend Margaret’s house at the edge of the estate on Billet Road looked out onto open countryside. A short walk away off Padnall Road was a favorite place to play. The Newty Field as we called it was a wild overgrown area where a bomb crater had made a pond now full of newts and other wildlife. We played explorers imagining ourselves in a vast alien wilderness.
I can attest that the planners carried out Bevan’s directive to provide good ventilation. Poor ventilation in the slums had been blamed for dirt and disease since Victorian times. Each of our unheated bedrooms had a large square grill open to the air installed at ceiling height. There was no open or close adjustment and we never covered it up, even in the coldest winters when we could see our breath as we got ready for bed. We used hot water bottles and our parents piled winter coats on top of our blankets on cold nights. We snuggled down breathing that healthy freezing air throughout the night. When I first lived in central heating it was hard to get used to sleeping with just a light covering; I was used to feeling a heavy weight over me.
There are any number of gritty novels and sociology studies of crime-ridden council estates full of dysfunctional families. But my experience of living on Marks Gate was nothing like that. The worst thing I remember is a lot of litter on the pavements outside the shops. Front gardens were well tended with pretty flower beds and more than a few garden gnomes. Our next door neighbor grew prize roses. The population was a mix of Londoners and Irish. We were the closest thing to middle class because my father was a “professional” man, a teacher. But we were no better off financially than the families of factory workers and lorry drivers.
The main divide was in attitude to education. The Irish families valued education and sent their children to Catholic junior schools. At age eleven my sister and I won scholarships to a Catholic grammar school while the local children attended a state school and left at 16 to go to work. When another local girl won a scholarship to our grammar school her parents wouldn’t let her go. My father went to talk to them but they were unpersuaded; “that’s not for us, we don’t want her getting above herself,” was the reason. When I won a scholarship to university a neighbor came over and called me selfish, lecturing me that I should help my parents by going to work instead. Of course I knew my parents didn’t agree.
The Labour government’s dream of a classless society with the working and middle classes living together on high quality estates never came to pass. The Conservative governments turned away from building houses to build more high density tower blocks which soon earned a bad reputation. One was under construction at the edge of Marks Gate just as I was leaving home. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister everything changed. Council housing was now considered part of the overreaching “nanny state.” Marks Gate tenants were given an opportunity to purchase their homes at a special price and the estate evolved into a combination of privately owned and council properties. My widowed mother was able to buy our house. The first time I visited after this I saw a lot of change. Many front gardens had been replaced by paved car parking and newly installed bay windows were everywhere. (When I was young I thought a bay window was a sign of a privately owned “posh” house). In front of one house two enormous stone lions guarded the entrance, a touching sign that to these home owners their little council house was as good as any grand estate.
More change is coming to Marks Gate Estate. By now it is seventy years old and showing its age. Council tenants complain of mold and general disrepair. Ironically many are on a waiting list for new council housing. The 2019 Master Plan for the area calls for the demolition of about 500 houses and a new development of about 300 houses called Padnall Lake. The organization Estate Watch and some resident groups are opposed to the plan.
The Newty Field has already disappeared.
To supplement my memories in writing this article I referred to two excellent works of social history: