The Building of a New Town: An Architecture Tour of Thamesmead
Greater London Council
- Original design
- Greater London Council, 1967
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In the 1950s the London County Council (LCC) intended to use underdeveloped land in Erith Marshes that adjoined the LCC’s Crossness sewerage treatment works, as the site for a new riverside town to help cope with the post war demand for housing in the London area.
In 1963 a report highlighted the age and condition of much of the housing in inner London and declared that 500,000 new homes were needed in the following 10 years. The LCC entered into discussion with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to acquire additional surplus land in the Woolwich Arsenal. In 1965 the LCC’s successor, the Greater London Council (GLC) purchased 1045 acres, which included three miles of river frontage, for £6,820,000.
In 1966 the Woolwich-Erith Project, as it was then known, was formally launched by Sir William Fiske. Sir William wrote: "It would be hard to exaggerate either the challenge or the opportunity which this three-mile stretch of London’s riverside offers to all those concerned with the planning and execution of its development. From land which has for centuries formed the marshes of Plumstead and Erith and in part has been given over to the munitions of war, a community of 60,000 will rise over the next 10-15 years. Between the broad reaches of the Thames and the hills of Abbey and Bostall Woods, a desolate scene will be transformed for the well-being of Londoners."
On 1 November 1966 a local newspaper ran a competition to “Name the New Town.” Readers were advised that the name should “readily relate to the development of the river, fix the site geographically, be simple and graphic, be new to London and lend itself necessary to the additions of East as a prefix of suffix.” The name “Thamesmead was chosen by a resident of Barnehurst, Mr Anthony Walton, who won £20 for his suggestion. The final revised Mast Plan published in early 1967 formally adopted the new town’s name of Thamesmead.
The project was not without its critics, who described the choice of location as ridiculous because of the problems involved in land reclamation and building on peat, and also because of pollution from the nearby sewage works and heavy industry and incineration on both sides of the river.
The initial idea was to build a series of villages on concrete platforms linked by bridges to keep the residential areas well above ground level and therefore safe from the threat of flooding. This plan was originally dubbed the ‘town on stilts’. In 1953 the Abbey Wood area had been badly effected by flooding and as a result the former Erith Borough Council passed a byelaw which prohibited building habitable dwellings below 8ft 6”.
Architects working on the project visited The Netherlands several times to look at buildings in the Dutch Polders (areas of land reclaimed from the sea in a region very similar to the Thamesmead site). Before any actual work on residential buildings could begin the engineers had to ensure that the site would be suitable for the builders. To this end a new central pumping station was provided, linked to canals and channels to ensure efficient drainage of what was still marshland. Three miles of Thamesmead’s riverbanks were raised and strengthened to prevent any future flooding. But water draining onto the marshes could only be discharged into the Thames either side of low tide and so had to be stored somewhere temporarily. The architects came up with the innovative solution of building into the design of the site five lakes, which as well as being functional in storing water could also be used as amenities for the population and would be aesthetically pleasing as well. The first of these lakes, none of which would be more that 2ft (0.6m) deep was Southmere Lake, opened officially in 1971.
Building of the first neighbourhood (as the different areas were called) near Abbey Wood began in January 1967. This was later known as Newacres. The first phase of the building of Thamesmead comprised three stages and was in the area bounded by the railway line, Harrow Manor Way, the sewer bank and the Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. It comprised just over 4000 homes.
The first two stages were built using concrete slabs that were then fitted together, with the main accommodation on the first and second floors to reduce the danger of flooding. Space for car parking and garages was located under the accommodation and walkways connected the different buildings. The piled foundations, in addition to lifting the areas to be inhabited above the danger of flooding, also served to transmit the weight of the structures through the clay, peat and alluvium to the load-bearing gravel stratum below.
This method of building was changed to more conventional, lower-level brick building after the river walls were raised and the danger of flooding subsequently reduced. The first residential construction, part of Stages I and II, was the five-storey tower block at Coralline Walk and Binsey Walk comprising 4/5 person maisonettes and older people’s flats.
The first family, the Gooches, moved into their three bedroomed maisonette in Coralline Walk in June 1968 to much fanfare and publicity. Accompanied by Mr Horace Cutler, the Deputy Leader of the GLC and Chairman of the Housing Committee, Mr Desmond Plummer, Leader of the GLC presented the family with a key mounted on a wooded plaque.
Stage III was delayed for a variety of reasons, including the discussion over the merits of high-rise tower blocks and also because of worries over the possible impact on the new town of the river crossing that was being discussed at the time. There were doubts, too, over the suitability of the heavy concrete building system for this type of housing and as a result for many of the low-rise parts of Stage III the architects reverted to brick build.
The train-like blocks were however integral to the whole design as they were meant to act as noise and wind barriers for the lower-rise housing they surrounded and they were finally completed in the area to the north of the sewer bank in the early 1980s.
Thamesmead has often been used as a film location. Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel 'A Clockwork Orange' filmed in 1971 featured scenes in along Southmere Lake. In 1996 the film ‘Beautiful Thing’ directed by Hettie MacDonald tells the story of teenage boys on a tough housing estate. In addition a number of adverts and music videos have been filmed in the town; luxury brand Gucci, rock band Kasabian and singer Plan B.