History of the Debden Estate
This is a draft. Please do not copy anything from this page without permission, and if there are any inaccuracies please let me know.
© Sue Taylor
“Loughton LCC Estate Taking Shape”
“On the other side of the railway line, giant scars mark the fields where mechanical shovels are still busy preparing the site for permanent houses.” (Loughton Express & Independent 30 August 1947.)
The residents of Loughton looked upon the new estate that was being built on the outskirts of their village as something of a mixed blessing. It would mean of course that the bombed-out Londoners who had been billeted with them or who lived in rooms near to their homes would be able finally to leave ‘the village’ (Loughton), and many thought that a good thing. Yet it also meant that their treasured rural landscape along the Roding Valley would be lost forever, and that prospect caused a great deal of upset not only in Loughton but also in neighbouring villages.
For example, the Theydon Bois Preservation Society was set up in 1943 to preserve the rural nature of Theydon Bois village. It published an article in the West Essex Gazette on 15 January 1944 entitled: Post War Planning. The article made the case for not building new housing in the village and for retaining Theydon Bois as “one of the beauty spots of Essex”. Later they would object to the estate as threatening the green divide between themselves and Loughton, particularly once it appeared to be narrowing the gap between the two villages.
For Donald Gillingham, a Loughton resident and published naturalist, the construction of the housing estate meant that:
The war was not over. A new invasion had begun – all the more tragic because, perhaps, necessary. It had begun insidiously when surveyors went out like a fifth column and drove in red and yellow stakes. I had heard rumour of the project, mind you, for the LCC, desperate for new houses for the bombed homeless of East London, were acquiring great blocks of land in the urban and rural areas, but I was not prepared for the reality. Lorry after lorry of the War Department came ripping and clanging along quiet Borders Lane, covering it with a slime of mud, and turned into one of the fairest meadows, there to dump their loads of brick and rubble from the ruins of London until in time an enormous pile formed like the beginning of a jerry-builder’s Cheops, a monument to the new age. Another sprang up in Rectory Lane. The rubble was to be used in road-making.
Gillingham described how his beloved countryside would be torn apart before his very eyes, bough by bough: animal and bird habitats destroyed, blown away as though they were of no consequence.
The first road came through, quickly, brutally – through Maize Plough, Oat Acre and Upland Meadow, a broad ribbon of concrete. Between Oak Acre and Maize Plough the fine old oaks, which in their day had housed a host of birds, including kestrel and owl, were felled. One by one they fell, and I saw them, chained and shackled to great lorries as if their drivers feared they might yet have life enough to rise against them, come past my house, making the very walls tremble. (Donald Gillingham Unto the Fields, 1955).
A Clash of Cultures?
During the war, concern grew about the changing nature of Loughton.
After the war, this unease developed as it became clear that the village would soon become a town.
Two Little Girls in their back garden.
Several people have described the differences between Loughton High Road and the Broadway areas in terms of a 'clash of culture'. One respondent explained this with the following example: her mother was horrified to see a woman in the Co-op bakery with curlers in her hair.
Another respondent told me her mother told her not to play with the children off the estate because they were different from her. Yet there are also many acts of kindness to report too: churches in or near to the High Road collected household items for families who did not have anything to take with them into their new homes.
A report of a talk by W. Addison on 6 March 1948 appeared in the Independent & Express:
“The oldest part of Loughton was to be occupied by the new LCC estate.”
“Mr Addison told how land-owners had tried to ‘grab’ more land for building and industrialisation in the last century, the LCC had acted as a fairy godmother and prevented the total destruction of the rural character of the district.
“He spoke of the irony of the situation which now found the LCC itself proposing to alter the character of the area it had once fought to save. It was possible to circumvent greedy land-owners, he said, but impossible to circumvent one’s fairy godmother.
“Mr Addison thought Loughtonians should welcome the new residents into the district and the changes which were to come, but he felt also that Loughtonians should maintain an interest in the history of their area. “It is our duty” he said, “to preserve the spirit of social and historical integrity.”
In 1954, two young researchers, Peter Willmott and Michael Young, set up the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green, East London. Their book, Family and Kinship in East London, was first published in 1957. The book describes how working-class family life changed when families moved from Bethnal Green to Greenleigh, a modern post-war cottage housing estate built some miles away in rural Essex. We now know Greenleigh to be the Debden Estate.
Willmott and Young described Greenleigh as characterized by:
“up-to-date semi-detached residences” that were “practically identical, each beside a concrete road, each enclosed by a fence, each with its little patch of flower garden at front and larger patch of vegetable garden at back, each with expansive front windows covered over with net curtains; all built, owned and guarded by a single responsible owner.”
Neither Willmott or Young ever revealed that Greenleigh was the Debden Estate, at least, not in public.
A 1986 reprint of Family and Kinship suggested that Greenleigh lay within the area controlled by Epping Forest District Council, but although that narrowed down the possibilities, the estate could still have been anywhere on the Central Line, including Loughton, Debden, Epping, North Weald or Ongar.
In some ways my research will overlap with Willmott & Young's book, but in addition to my research questions what really interests me is the way that memory works to create alternative realities. Having read some of the original research papers, it is interesting to see clear differences between what people said then and what they say now.
Memory does Indeed Play Funny Tricks on Us!
I have an interest in architecture, so it will be no surprise to those who know me that I plan also to draw attention to a few of the most common houses on the estate. These include the British Iron and Steel Federation (BISF) houses developed by Frederick Gibberd, who was employed by BISF in 1934 to design a permanent steel-framed house.
Among the last houses to be built were Cornish Units, which were designed by John Williams and Selleck Nichols & Co around 1948. 120 were built on the estate and irrespective of whether they are houses or two-storey flats they all possess a very distinctive and attractive mansard hipped roof.
I am looking for more photographs from the 1940s and 1950s that I can publish on this website or in any book that I publish. Can you help?
You can email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
© Sue Taylor