Debden History - 50 Years On

Debden History 2

The Background. 

The London County Council (LCC) was formed in 1889, and one of its main aims was to rid London of its slums. Following the First World War and a call for "homes for heroes", the LCC started in 1921 to build the Becontree Estate, which provided 27,000 homes for a wide range of people, including many from the slums of London. 
 
There is some debate as to whether or not the LCC would have built an estate in Loughton had it not been for the Second World War.  Documents from the inter-war period are scarce. There are some indications that one of the main Loughton landowners may have been planning to build houses on the site, but no matter what the LCC wished to do prior to 1939, war intervened. As soon as hostilities ceased, the LCC submitted applications to build the Debden Estate.  There is more about this on the following page. 

1944 was an important year. Two Acts were passed (The Town & Country Planning Act and the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act) allowing Councils to develop extensive plans for redevelopment of land, and the Government made the money available for them to do so.
 
 
On 15 March 1944 the Chigwell Urban District Council (CUDC), which was responsible for Loughton, acquired the right to purchase land off Oakwood Hill, Loughton under Section 6 of the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act.  
 
On 1 July 1944 an article in The Times referred to a proposed housing estate on the eastern side of Loughton.  Throughout the remaining year and much of 1945 there was speculation about what might be about to happen, but nobody knew for sure until 13 October 1945, when the headline in the Independent and Express read: "£4,8000,000 LCC HOUSING ESTATE AT LOUGHTON". 

By early 1946 many people in Loughton were unhappy about the plans. At a meeting on 2 November 1946 Councillor Davie referred to the LCC as a “gigantic administrative cuckoo bent on laying one of its eggs right in the centre of our village.”
 
 
On 1 August 1946 it was reported that over 1,000 people in the area needed housing. Many people in Loughton hoped that the new LCC estate would provide homes for their adult children, but they would soon discover that despite having spent all their lives in Loughton their children would not be entitled to a new LCC home.   

This news caused a major upset, especially when in the following year the LCC confirmed that only London families would be housed on the LCC estate, and that their own children who had lived in Loughton all their lives would only be offered homes in Harlow New Town, which was under the control of Essex County Council.  
  
The need for housing was desperate and there are records that some families  were forced to squat in disused military buildings even during the severe winter of 1946 – 1947, which  was one of the worst on record.  
When the snow melted much of the area between Abridge and Chigwell flooded, delaying construction work on the new estate even further.  
There is an excellent example of an Arcon V prefab at Avoncroft Museum of Building, which is well worth a visit!
For images of prefab interiors, please see: http://www.styvechale.net/local_history/images/prefab_interior.htm  
 
 

 
 
The prefabs built in Oakwood Hill were Arcon V prefabs and it appears from anecdotal evidence that the first houses to be built on the estate were British Iron and Steel Federation (BISF) houses in and around Barfields and Hillyfields. 
 

 
New residents recall seeing the rusting frames of the first British Iron and Steel Federation (BISF) houses as the temperatures fell as low as –20ºC during their first winter in Debden, but they may be mistaken about this as the tops of the BISF houses were often coated in red oxide before being painted.  

 
 
 
 
 
Older people were provided with their own little end-of-terrace bungalows comprising one room, a little kitchen and not much more and flats were planned to rehouse single people or small families.  
 
It was no wonder many people said they thought they had "died and gone to heaven" because even though some of the new homes were a little on the small size, they were usually far better than the ones that had been left behind.
 
Not everyone stayed, of course. Some people missed their families and returned to London. One woman told me her brother returned because he missed the pubs, but later regretted this as the estate began to take shape.
Among the people who returned to London were those who did not earn enough to pay for the daily commute or to pay their rent, and these were often widows who were struggling to care for their families.

The people who stayed say they did so because Debden offered them a far higher standard of living than they were used to in London. They also made new friends, learned new skills at Loughton Hall, joined clubs and so on, but for many young couples the most important factor keeping them in Debden was the healthy lifestyle for their children. In addition, living there might offer them independence from their families.There was also a strong community feel in Debden, helped by the number of activities on offer mostly for children and their parents. 
 
In London, many daughters felt tied to their mothers and the Willmott & Young book describes this well. Moving away, albeit not that far by train, allowed married daughters to cut the family ties that traditionally bound them to their mothers and turned their husbands into being at the very least, equal partners in the home. What was missing, however, were the traditional family support networks that many women had relied upon. Many of my respondents told me that this meant they had no choice but to rely on one another as there was nobody else to share the chores and the childcare and this strengthened relationships between couples and also within the community.
 
Of course there was some initial loneliness, and women particularly felt this as they were often at home during the day, but it was not too long before various social activities were being organised. The St Francis Mission was the first local organisation to see there was a need to support the new residents.  Their members quickly circulated a welcome letter to the Oakwood hill tenants, and then set up a social club in November 1947 which was held every Thursday. Later there would also be the Oakwood Tenants Association, the Oakwood Pub and when Loughton Hall opened, there would be lots of other opportunities to meet neighbours.  
 
There was also a great deal of poverty, and I will expand on this subject when I produce my oral history, but it is interesting to note here that many shops were broken into - and often, the only thing stolen was food.
 
© Sue Taylor
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