In 1948, the UK government produced a propaganda cartoon to sell New Towns, and it is mindblowing

A screenshot from Charley in New Town. Image: Central Office of Information/Public domain.

In the late 1940s, the Labour government headed by Clement Attleee set about remaking Britain. It created the modern welfare state. It created the National Health Service. Less famously, except perhaps among readers of CityMetric, it also passed the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, which placed limits on the growth of large cities in the form of green belts, and which created “development corporations” empowered to build new towns.

As well as passing all these reforms, of course, the government had to explain them. Enter the Central Office of Information and its cheeky, animated chappie Charley. From the BFI:

At the behest of then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, the animation studio, Halas & Batchelor, produced a series of eight lighthearted films featuring Charley, a kind of ‘everyman’ cartoon character, to convey information about the various reforms – Charley’s March of Time (1948), explaining the purpose of the National Insurance Acts of July 1948 or Your Very Good Health (1948), illustrating how the National Health Service operates.

What strikes me about that is quite how existential those titles are. “Your Very Good Health” is a film about not being in very good health. “Charley’s March of Time” is a film about the fact that you too will get old and there is nothing you can do about it, it comes to us all, you laugh now but one day you too will have back pain and hate modern music and hang on what did I come in here for.

Anyway. The reason I mention all this is that, in one of his other adventures, Charley also moved to a new town. Here’s the film’s title card:

They thought long and hard about that name, clearly.

The film begins with Charley cycling to work, cheerfully saying “Hullo!” to passers-by. This being 1947, you can definitely tell that he spells “Hullo!” with a U”.

At 00:44 he gets overtaken by a bald old bloke, which is a bit embarrassing.

Then in direct contravention of decent road safety, he starts chatting direct to camera, totally ignoring the road ahead. Charley is that cyclist the Daily Mail is always whining about. Charley is a bloody menace.

“My this is a grand way to start the day. Bit different from what it used to be - I can tell ya!”

Then we get a flashback to What It Used To Be – specifically, to before the new town came along – and things get a bit frightening. Suddenly, poor old Charley is on a bus, looking uncomfortably like the old bloke has just put his hand on his leg:

Meanwhile, the bus is full of sinister, shadowy figures, of the sort that one imagines inhabiting Soviet information films of the same era:

“Took a bloke a good hour to get to work. As for the view – if you could call it a view!”

You could not call it a view.

It goes on in this vein for a bit (“You didn’t ask when you were getting near the town. You knew without looking... Not even a blimin’ place for the kids to play, poor little blighters…”) before we get to the most disturbing moment of the film. That’s when it accidentally makes the population of Britain’s towns – the people it is, presumably, intended to appeal to – look like a stream of cockroaches or something similarly verminous, flowing off the bus...

...and into the factories:

Charley, you will notice, is the only figure in this crowd given any individuality. The others are just an undistinguished lumpen mass of humanity.

Anyway, he’s in his drab little office, thinking about this, when he has a brainwave:

At that point, he and a dozen overs spontaneously develop the ability to fly, crash upwards through their roofs, and all nip off to a town planning meeting.

I absolutely promise I am not making this up.

There we are quickly appraised of the problem:

“Our town has turned into a monster! The surrounding country is being eaten up, it by bit!”

At this point, the film shows the town spreading, like a stain.

But it rapidly becomes clear that densification is easier said than done:

“If we’re to make room for everyone without spreading out, we must build upwards!”

“Don’t be silly, I won’t get a pram up there!”

“What about my garden!”

Despite these teething problems, they come up with a solution surprisingly quickly: a new town out beyond the green belt. It will have separate industrial and residential areas, linked by “byways and cycle tracks”, and with the factories downwind to ensure smoke doesn’t get into people’s homes. We are promised a nursery school within 400 yards of every home (ambitious), “good shops, a posh theatre, cinemas, a concert hall and a civic centre”…

But it’s all deeply surreal. We see Charley laying a carpet, which turns out to be a flower bed, and sprouts flowers the minute he gives it any water. At one point, the one bloke who turns up at every meeting who is mostly concerned about pubs demands a pub. He tries to put one down on the town, and all the other buildings freak out and run away from it.

You can tell the pub is a pub because it wobbles like a drunk, and the music suddenly goes a bit trombone-y. Look, it’s in the road and wobbling:

On the whole though everyone is pleased with their new town:

The line that vexes me most, though, is this:

“Flats for people who want ‘em, hostels where the young people could get together, and bungalows for the elderly...”

Wait... “Where the young people could get together”? Get together how, exactly? Was this a thing in 1948? Did people go stay in hostels so they could... get together? What?

“I’m telling ya,” Charley says at the end, “It works out fine. Just you try it.”

Some people did try it, in the end. The result was Stevenage.

Anyway, If you want to watch the whole thing – and I quite genuinely suggest you do – it’s here.

And if you have any suggestions for animated characters that might help us solve the current housing crisis, please do feel free to write in.

Thanks to Paul Swinney of the Centre for Cities for alerting me to this work of post-war genius.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.