52. August 1966 – 50 years ago – the newcomers from London
Paul Ryland, who was brought up in Witham, tells me that his “most vivid memory of the first arrivals from London in 1966, was the surprise to my Father. We were walking along Newland Street, to be met by a Red haired young man with a ruddy face and three friends. They were dressed as Teddy boys and wore drainpipe trousers. My Father thought this would be the end of Witham and we should move ! I and many others are still here.”
I should point out that Witham had seen teddy boys before, but I believe they had mostly come from Maldon, whereas these were London ones.
The “arrivals” that so alarmed Mr Ryland were the pioneers of the Town Development Scheme, or, to use a very unpopular word, the “overspill”. It had its origins in the 1930s, when London had prepared to disperse people and jobs beyond the Green Belt, and Witham’s councillors had been keen to receive them.
The first of the Londoners arrived in Witham in August 1966, fifty years ago this month. The buildings and other arrangements were masterminded by the Greater London Council and Witham Urban District Council. To start with, most people came with their employers, many of whom took premises on the newly-built industrial estate.
The jobs were the lynch-pin of the scheme. This was what made it quite different from building houses on their own.
The first families lived on the Templars estate (the Courts), and then, over several years, new houses were provided round the outside of Witham in a clockwise direction.
I haven’t managed to work out a breakdown of the numbers; only that in 1961 the population of Witham was about 9,000. Now it is about 23,000, which of course includes residents of all the privately built houses since 1961.
The innovative design of Templars provided outdoor spaces in the courts, separated from vehicles. This enabled one of my friends to cheerfully let her toddler out to play with the other children, until she shouted for him to come in and eat.
But the place did look unusual from the outside. This allowed people who disliked the whole enterprise, to direct their venom at the houses themselves, often in the local newspapers, calling them “hideous”, “an army barracks” and “a concentration camp”, which “lowered the tone”. An attitude that was not calculated to make the new residents feel welcome !
And it meant that the design was not repeated in later phases, in spite of the fact that many people found the houses and the layout to be good to live in. But many of the later phases did have paths running through them, at Witham Council’s insistence.
Some critics were even more direct. Someone who already lived in Witham at the time, has told me that “There was an evil rumour put about that the newcomers were all criminals and the lowest of the low!!!!!!! How snobbish the people of Witham were!!!!!”
Other local residents reacted more positively. Mrs Dorothy Ireland had spent her life in Witham, and when she was 88 she told me “Oh, oh it’s not Witham, is it? But I must say this, the overspill people, London people, or strange people, they’re more friendly. Oh, much more, because if they’re entire strangers, they can be looking in a shop window, especially Shelley’s in the precinct, you know the fashions, well they’ll pass a remark, they’ll say ‘That’s rather nice, but it’s pricey’. Well, our people wouldn’t. I notice the London people are far more friendly, yes, they chat.”
She told me this in 1983, when it seems that it was still possible for her to distinguish a Londoner from a Witham person, mostly I suppose by their speech. A friend of mine arrived from London in the 1960s. She went into the electricity showrooms, and browsed unnoticed till she opened her mouth to ask something. Then everyone in the shop turned and stared at her.
So it was not easy for the newcomers. Many had left family and friends behind, to come to what was virtually a foreign land. I once saw a young man in tears when someone asked him how he was getting on. Quite a number went back to London. Even the sociologist who came from Canada to study us, went home before he had learnt very much.
Valerie Ahern wrote to me about the mixed blessings. She came to Witham in 1973. She eventually became a very successful chairwoman of the Templars Residents Association, and was awarded the BEM as a result.
She said “It was very hard the first few years adjusting to a new way of life, moving from a town that never sleeps to a sleepy village was really hard. And knowing some of the Witham people didn’t take to us Londoners …
“I had lived in two rooms in Holloway, with an outside toilet shared by other tenants; the only hot water was an Ascot. So when offered a house on Templars I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I have been in my house 43 years and still love it …
“The sad thing was, when a lot of people came down from London they couldn’t take the transition so moved back, very sad. The shops not opening on Wednesday afternoon, the bus service compared to London minimal, but we persevered and slowly people began to accept us.
“I feel that we learnt a lot from the local people, and hopefully and slowly they learnt a lot from us, and we weren’t bad people after all, just lost souls, trying to have a better life than the slums of London for our children”
A friend of Valerie’s, June Richardson, moved into her house in Templars in February 1967, only six months after the very first residents came fifty years ago, and she is still there.
She said “My Husband and I moved down with his firm Stuart Surridge (the cricket firm) … It was great for us to have a new house, we were lucky to have it.
“We made some good local friends, but it was very quiet. So a group of fellows got together and started up a football team called Templars. They met every Sunday outside the Cherry Tree Pub which was run by Cis, and met there when the game was over, for a drink.
“There was a few shops but it was funny to see them close on a Wednesday afternoon. It took quite a while for the locals to take to us, but now we have some good friends.”
Witham’s shops closing on Wednesday afternoons is a shock that has been mentioned to me several times. I believe that at least one of them still does it, fifty years later !
I am sorry that I don’t have space to quote exactly from all the other people who kindly sent me their experiences. But they have all been invaluable in showing me the spirit of the times, and I will keep them. Most followed a similar pattern – problems at first, but with life improving as time went on.
Talk of the Templars football team does remind me that the benefits of being a bigger town soon showed themselves in such matters as the sheer number of sports teams in Witham, for all ages. They were helped by provisions made under the London scheme, especially the new Bramston Sports Centre and swimming pool, and the new Football club and Rugby club.
Other new facilities included the Spring Lodge Community Centre, the offices at the Grove, the Fire Station, the Health Centre, the shopping precincts, schools, local shops and halls, and new bus routes.
Nowadays it’s very hard to remember the great impact of it all. But in 1980, fourteen years after the first Londoners came, a writer from the Braintree and Witham Times investigated the situation. He found some London families still unhappy, though often their children liked it here. But the long and thoughtful article concluded that overall “the plan to move jobs and families out of the capital and into mid-Essex has been surprisingly successful”.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in August 2016.