Karen Rushton, Borough Archivist at Valence House Museum London, introduces the Wellcome Trust funded “Building Becontree” project, reflecting on the estate’s history and significance at the time of today’s global pandemic and the relevance of archival work in unravelling racial bias.
The Becontree Estate in Dagenham, East London was constructed by the London County Council (LCC) between 1921 and 1935 after the Housing and Town Planning (Addison) Act of 1919 had permitted local authorities to purchase land outside of their boundaries for the construction of social housing. Upon completion the estate had 26,000 new homes which housed 120,000 people with the LCC making the bold statement that it was the largest housing estate in the world (LCC, 1933: 5). Considering the size of the original estate, it was split between three different local authorities – Barking, Dagenham, and Ilford. Boundary changes and local government reorganisation means that the estate is now entirely contained within the Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Intended to provide ‘healthier homes’ for the working-class communities of East London, this was one of the country’s largest experiments in public health.
The vast open area of rural Dagenham was selected in part for its potential to offer large open spaces and fresh countryside air as the area was mostly market gardens and country lanes (Home, 1997: 19). Nearly 100 years later in the midst of a global pandemic these characteristics have once again come to be highly valued when considering our living spaces. The vast urban sprawl and outward growth of London means the area is unlikely to be viewed in this way today, but the original estate designs undoubtedly factored this in and can still be seen in the surviving public parks and wide streets.
As the Becontree Estate heads towards its centenary year now seems to be the perfect opportunity to look back at the ambitions of this project and its success and failures. Early on, Dagenham Borough Council demonstrated an awareness of the need for a critical approach in the first edition of the Dagenham Digest, a quarterly journal dedicated to local affairs: “The flaws and faults of the citizens of Dagenham and their community will be paralleled in future estates as yet unbuilt. It is up to us to discover and remedy those faults of structure and to set an example of civic leadership that will act as an example for the towns of tomorrow. For, if we fail now, others will fail later.” (Borough of Dagenham, 1948: 7) The backdrop of Covid-19 and Barking and Dagenham Council’s current plans to provide 10,800 new homes at Barking Riverside as part of the NHS Healthy New Towns Scheme makes the story of Becontree all the more pertinent today.
Thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust, Barking and Dagenham Archive Service will commence a project called ‘Building Becontree’ in Autumn 2020 and run for 18 months to make the records relating to the construction of Becontree and subsequent life on the estate more widely accessible. This will involve the cataloguing and digitisation of key records, which will then be added to a dedicated Becontree website. Collections to be addressed include building plans and estate layouts, tenants’ handbooks and other community publications, disease registers, medical officer of health reports, housing management files, and photographs. Research guides will also draw on a range of related collections including records of the earliest schools on the estate and local sports and leisure groups.
In the case of the disease registers this project is key to making them publicly accessible. As medical records they contain personal information which mean we cannot make them available as they are, but the data they contain on outbreaks of certain diseases in different areas could be invaluable to the study of Becontree’s ‘healthier homes’ and the mass movement of people. By digitising the registers and redacting names and house numbers we can make the information available on the Becontree website. The registers only survive for the Barking district, not Dagenham and Ilford, but this is quite fortuitous in that it allows for a direct comparison between the new Becontree houses and the older working class housing of the industrial town of Barking, which have all since been demolished.
The plans and estate layouts also offer many research opportunities when investigating the creation of new communities. As John Boughton points out, Becontree is “not a pretty estate. In fact, to its critics, it is a relentless splurge of rather anonymous municipal suburbanism. The early estate, in particular, lacked facilities and suffered a certain dull sameness” (2018: 36). Outward appearances may very well corroborate such a statement, but it does not tell the full picture of the concerns of the estate architects. Whilst the LCC claimed to use approximately 91 different house designs, some of the differences between them were negligible, but design features aimed at community cohesion are very noticeable (Willmott, 1963: 1-2). The shared front porch is a distinctive feature of Becontree even today and was included to encourage neighbours to talk to one another and presumably build, what would be termed today, support networks. Shared porches are a design element that might not be considered Covid-friendly yet were arguably an important aspect of a healthy community, striking a balance between physical wellbeing and mental health. The architects also experimented with different building materials and techniques during the early years of construction, including timber framed housing.
In addition to accounts of Becontree contained within the official record it is a priority over the next year to include accounts of the lived experience of residents of the Becontree Estate. Terence Young, in a contemporary report made for the Pilgrim Trust, acknowledges the importance of assessing the impact of a move to Becontree on individual families whilst recognising the difficulties of understanding this with the existing statistical data (1934: 202-3). A proper understanding of a large-scale public health project cannot be fully achieved without some account from the subjects themselves. It is here where oral histories, online forums, commenting facilities, and public workshops will come in to play.
When considering the importance of collecting accounts of the lived experience to complement the official archival record one cannot help but think of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, which has really helped bring to the fore a problem which has long been bubbling under the surface of archival practice – a lack of representation. The more conservative and traditional laissez-faire attitude when it comes to collections development and appraisal has noble aims of maintaining impartiality and not imposing the personal prejudices of the archivist upon the collections. However, in reality it is the exact opposite of impartiality that is achieved. Instead when this approach is taken to the extreme the official archival record becomes the mouthpiece of the prevailing hegemony largely down to a focus on relationships with official bodies rather than individuals and looser groupings within society. This approach fails to account for the more subtle nuances of everyday life amongst the general populace and the lives of minority sections of society. It would be unfair to say that archives across the country have not made efforts to address this to some degree and the more extreme laissez-faire approach is not the norm, but there is certainly a sliding scale of approaches taken by different institutions. It is quite clear that there is more to be done to entrench these considerations in future practice and a more proactive methodology is required. This is also relevant when we come to consider how we will record the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has affected individual lives.
Through the public engagement elements of the Becontree Project we hope to make the first steps to rectifying some of these structural biases by collecting personal experiences of a cross section of Becontree residents. Impartiality in how we work is still an important consideration and a thorough awareness of the archive service’s existing audiences and use of statistical data on the estate’s current population will drive our outreach work. We know that our existing audience in the archive and heritage service is not representative of the estate and the borough as a whole, and so advertising workshops through our usual channels will not reach a diverse cross-section of the current population. Instead, it will be important to work with local partners to directly approach other groups and organisations in the community based on population data to achieve a more representative sample. As always, the provenance of personal accounts that are collected and the collecting methods will be made clear in any catalogues produced as a result.
Borough of Dagenham, 1948. Dagenham Digest, 1, 7.
Boughton, J., 2018. Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. London: Verso Books.
Home, R., 1997. A Township Complete In Itself. A Planning History of the Becontree/Dagenham Estate. London: London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.
London County Council, Becontree Tenants’ Handbook, 1933.
Willmott, P., 1963. The Evolution of a Community: A Study of Dagenham after Forty Years. London: Routledge.
Young, T., 1934. Becontree and Dagenham: The Story of the Growth of a Housing Estate. London: Pilgrim Trust.
About the Author
Karen Rushton is Borough Archivist for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and will oversee the Building Becontree project. She has previously worked on other medical history based archive projects on the subjects of tuberculosis, medical manuscripts, medical artwork, and neurosurgery.