The news that Tesco is to build a new ‘supermarket suburb’ at the Bromley-by-Bow corner of the Olympic site, with 460 homes, a school, a park, hotel, library and high street with shops has excited a mixture of delight and horror. A brownfield site gets what appears to be a balanced development and Tesco can certainly make things happen. On the other hand, do you want to wake up in a Tesco house, send your kids to a Tesco school and buy your groceries from a Tesco store. And how will those 18 other high street shops compete with the company’s own hypermarket – small local shops are hardly fans of the supermarkets.
But with IKEA also planning to build a mini-town on the giant Olympic site (cue jokes about flat-pack homes) it begins to look as if something rather strange and different is happening in urban development. In truth though, it’s a modern take on a very old idea – the company town – one company providing work and leisure activities, a roof over your head and a school for the kids. The most famous early example was industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen. In the late 1700s, at New Lanark near Glasgow, he realised his dream that the lot of the workers needn’t simply mean drudgery, poverty and an early death. In the latter half of the 19th century, mill-owner Titus Salt followed with Saltaire in Yorkshire, chocolatiers the Cadbury brothers at Bournville in Birmingham, and soap magnates Lever Brothers at Port Sunlight near Liverpool.
The idea was given new momentum by social reformer Ebenezer Howard, who in 1898 wrote a book called ‘To-morrow: a peaceful path to real reform’, swiftly republished under the more browser friendly title ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’ (notice Victorians wordsmiths still manfully resisting the idea of ‘tomorrow’ as a single word).
Howard’s ideas were derided as bonkers – yet today seem brilliant. The press scratched its head, wondering why builders needed to provide trees and grass spaces between the houses. To explain, Ebenezer whipped out his diagram of ‘The Three Magnets’, which showed a pull between Town, Country and Town-Country (which would later be called ‘sub-urbia’). ‘The People’ would be held in the centre in a state of glorious magnetic balance, from which they could walk back from work, grow vegetables in ‘green belt’ areas which would girdle the development, watch their children play on the green, and buy their groceries from local shops.
The Victorians were big believers in the magical power of magnets and in any case Howard’s ideas were being picked up by radical thinkers among the Quakers and the Arts and Crafts Movement. CR Ashbee, a leader in Arts and Crafts, had set up the Guild and School of Handicraft in Mile End a decade before – a radical experiment in co-operative working which, alas, would soon foresake the city for the greener fields of the Cotswolds.
Ebenezer would build his first garden city at Letchworth in Hertfordshire in the early 1900s and would follow up with Welwyn a few years later. They continued the Victorian industrialists’ policy of no booze on site: Letchworth even had a dry pub which sold Cydrax, Bournville’s drinking chocolate and sarsparilla. It wasn’t a policy pursued when the New Towns sprang up half a century later – though you might think twice about drinking in some of the pubs in Basildon or Harlow.
The New Towns were conceived as offering that precious balance of work and life, town and country, industry and leisure, but in those post-War days it was accepted that the only way to offer East Enders that was to move them out to the countryside. And though they were anchored by a clutch of big employers (Ford, Yardleys and Carreras in the case of Basildon) they weren’t one-company towns.
Now, with its plans for a ‘Tesco town’ at Bromley-by-Bow, Britain’s biggest supermarket will nod back to Salt, Owen and the Cadburys. Those enlightened capitalists built towns that still delight and astonish today for their architecture and balance. Some are UNESCO World Heritage sites, some simply posh suburbs appropriated by the middle classes. The new Bromley does have the advantage (post Olympics) of having the world’s swankiest new leisure centre on its doorstep. Will Tesco do as good a job as its Victorian forebears? Maybe we’ll be able to judge in the year 2110.
BOXOUT – NEW MODEL TOWNS
Founded 1853 by Sir Titus Salt, a leading industrialist in the Yorkshire woollen industry. Salt moved his five mills from Bradford to near Shipley to site his large textile mill by a canal and a railway, while providing better homes for his workers.
On the River Clyde, founded in 1786 by David Dale, who built cotton mills and housing for the mill workers. Under Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, a Welsh philanthropist and social reformer, it became both successful business and model utopian socialism. The mills shut in 1968 and were due for demolition. Now restored, New Lanark has become a major tourist attraction and is one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland
Built by the Cadbury family to house workers when they moved their factory to a greenfield site from the centre of Birmingham in the 1860s. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has claimed that it is “one of the nicest places to live in Britain”.
Set on the Wirral in Merseyside, the town was built by William Hesketh Lever in 1888 for the employees of Lever Brothers soap factory (now part of Unilever). Name derived from Lever’s most popular soap, Sunlight. Plans afoot to have it given World Heritage Site status.
Crespi d’Adda, Italy
In northern Italy. Built by Cristoforo Crespi around his cotton mills on the banks of the River Adda. Still intact and partly used for industry, although fighting for economic survival. Since 1995 it has been on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.