Harlow New Town: An incomplete history

“Some who read these pages at this time may feel almost as if they had wandered into fairyland, that it is too good to be true, that such things can have no relation to the present bleak and troubled days.”
Sir Ernest Gowers, foreword to the Harlow New Town Plan, 1947.


Harlow is a town in Essex, population 82,000. It is notable for being one of the ‘new towns’ of the 1940’s. New towns were devised in order to deal with some of the problems of destruction and overcrowding in British cities in the aftermath of World War II. In the boom of idealism following the war the perception was that life in the big city was a relatively squalid existence, particularly for the working classes. Rather than just rebuild and repeat the same mistakes there was a window of opportunity to create an alternative, a better place to live. The New Towns Act was passed in 1946 and plans were drawn up for new towns across the country. The Harlow master plan was drafted by Frederick Gibberd in 1947, and approved soon after.

A site was chosen in the Essex countryside, located between a number of historic villages. Harlow village, for which the new town was named, was recorded as far back as the Domesday Book. Other villages or hamlets included Churchgate Street, Tye Green and Potter Street, all of which became incorporated as districts of Harlow New Town. The incorporation of the old villages was intended to provide a sense of history, of time, which was believed by the planners to be essential to the quality of a place, fostering a ‘feeling of permanency and continuity’. Another benefit of the location was the land itself, described in the plan as ‘rural… of exceptionally beautiful character’. Woods, fields, brooks and valleys were kept as green leisure spaces for the enjoyment and well-being of the new residents, as well as ensuring a level of balance to the brick and concrete of the new estates. Farmland and open countryside provided a natural boundary at the southern, eastern and western edges whilst allowing room for future expansion. The River Stort and the London to Cambridge railway line created a more abiding border to the north.

Construction began in 1949 and keys were officially handed over to the first new town residents shortly after. Many of the newcomers were young families, relocated from northeast London. Few amenities were available to the earliest arrivals as the town was still far from complete. Dislocated and placed alongside relative strangers, it was up to the first inhabitants to build the foundations for the future community. The town at that point resembled a large, muddy building site, and in that barren landscape the earliest gardens were planted. Building continued over the following thirty years, each element overseen and approved by the Harlow Development Corporation. Every perceived need for modern living was catered for. A town centre was built, a blend of shops, market stalls, civic buildings, municipal centres and offices, terraced gardens and car parks, a theatre and a cinema. The first pedestrianised shopping precinct in Britain was in Harlow. Beyond the town centre sports stadiums, parks, playgrounds, churches, cemeteries, cycle paths, schools and sub-shopping centres known as ‘hatches’, were erected. Numerous architects were commissioned to design the various housing areas, all imparting a distinct style and ideology. Many sculptures were bought or commissioned and placed in public spaces, including works by Rodin and Henry Moore. Pubs were distributed evenly throughout the suburbs, each one named after a species of butterfly or moth, such as The Willow Beauty and The Painted Lady. Frederick Gibberd himself designed a number of developments including The Lawn, a pioneering residential tower block. More tower blocks followed. Gibberd envisaged a perfect synthesis of low to high-rise accommodation, and grander homes situated in harmony alongside more modest dwellings. The initial population limit of 60,000 was increased to 80,000, and then 90,000 as Harlow expanded. In order to provide jobs two industrial estates were built in the northern and western areas of the town. Shimmering new roads were arranged to connect everything as efficiently as possible. The intention was to make a fully self-contained town, a place where all one’s needs would be accommodated.

Not everything went according to plan. The M11 motorway was originally supposed to pass by the northwest edge of Harlow but ended up passing by to the east, starving the western industrial estate of direct motorway connections. Large-scale employers came, some left, unemployment rates fluctuating accordingly. Certain facilities were lacking having been overlooked in the initial plan, leaving members of the community to try and plug the gaps. Car ownership vastly exceeded expectations leading to congested roads and improvised parking in suburban areas, as well as an underused and atrophied public transport system. Demographics and tastes changed, causing feelings of unease in those used to the old ways. Some areas, deemed failures of design, were torn down and rebuilt. The original sports complex was moved, the land now occupied by modern housing developments. Secondary schools closed, merged and became academies. The rise of the supermarket was unanticipated, as was the growth of commuting. An Odeon cinema opened it’s doors in the town centre in 1960. By 2005 it had closed, replaced by a multiplex on the outskirts of town. Gibberd, who ended up settling in the town he designed, died in 1984. His house and gardens left open to the public.

Sixty-five years passed. Expectations evolved, desires changed. Some left the town to follow their aspirations elsewhere, some stayed, and others arrived hoping to fulfill theirs. The first generation grew old having borne witness to the entire lifespan of the new town. Second, third, fourth, and now fifth generations have followed them. Each generation adding to the history, changing the town, making their own mark collectively and individually. All having their own decisions to make, their own idea of Harlow.

Paul Czyzyk, August 2014