Debden History 3
I will use this page to answer some of the questions I have received since setting up this website.
When did the LCC decide to build in Loughton?
I have written a very brief history of the prefabs on the previous pages. The prefabs were the first houses to be opened on the estate, with two-storey houses being completed shortly afterwards.
There is a debate as to whether or not the LCC planned to build an estate at Debden before the Second World War, and I have been asked to expand on this issue.
Many people have told me that the estate was built to rehouse the poor from East London, and it is clear that this version of history has entered the neighbourhood mythology. But is it true?
It is as well to remember that the first residents to move to the prefab estate were not from the East End of London: they came from Dagenham and their neighbours came from Chadwell Heath. I have not been able to find out what proportion did come from London's East End, although many did.
There is very little in the archives to allow me to specify a time or an event that led to the estate being conceived, but there is some evidence to suggest that if the LCC had not built the estate, local landowners might have tried to do so. The 1930s saw building work being carried out in Loughton, as elsewhere, and I have no doubt that this building work would have been extended up to what was then Chigwell Lane station, given that the drainage was already in place.
Certainly we know that the London County Council planned to build an estate in the Chigwell/Loughton area prior to the war. Chigwell Urban District Council (CUDC) minutes show that in 1936 the LCC wished to build a housing estate in Chigwell. It is important to remember that at the time Chigwell included Loughton (rather as Epping Forest now includes Epping and all of the other towns and villages in the district).
The 1936 plans included a 306-acre cottage estate, with provision for shops, open spaces, schools, churches and other amenities. Similar plans had been prepared for nearby Hainault.
This is not the place to present a detailed history of the arguments over whether or not the estate should have been built. As we all know, the war intervened in 1939. In 1942, Herbert Westwood from the LCC submitted plans for the Debden Estate and as soon as the war ended the Debden Estate began to be built.
Why Build Out-of-Town Estates in Essex?
There were three main reasons why the LCC chose to do so. First, the new houses and flats allowed the council to house its homeless. Second, the LCC was able to clear and redevelop the slum areas in London. Lastly, the LCC had realised, as a result of having built the Becontree Estate, that the responsibility for caring and educating the new out-of-town estate tenants would quickly transfer to the receiving local authorities who had no choice but to provide schools, nurseries, and so on.
A Bit More about Prefabrication.
Prefabrication pre-dates us by many centuries, and the Victorians developed prefabrication on an industrial scale. They exported houses, "flat-packed" prefabricated churches and other buildings right around the world.
An article in the Manchester Guardian (21 July 1947) refers to an 1850 catalogue of prefabricated houses that were manufactured by Messrs. Tupper & Co. A three-roomed house could be purchased from the Tupper catalogue for £80 - £120 and a ten-roomed house for £550 - £1,000.
As well as houses, the company also offered "a tin tabernacle" and other kinds of prefabricated buildings, including schools. The buildings were either timber or iron framed, and in design they were not too different from the kinds of houses that would be built on the Debden Estate a century later.
The prefabs in Oakwood Hill were not the first prefabricated buildings to appear in Loughton. Some older readers might remember the former St Edmund's church in Traps Hill, which burnt down in September 1934. This Roman Catholic church was a prefabricated corrugated iron building lined with wood.
There was a lot of excitement in Loughton and elsewhere about the development of prefabricated buildings. I will write more about that on another occasion.
In May 1944 a new prefab was displayed outside London's Tate Gallery. By early 1945 letters were being written to the local paper demanding that prefabs should be built in the Loughton area. In April 1945 it was announced that 50 temporary houses would be built. There would eventually be around 200, half rented from the Government by Chigwell Urban District Council and half rented by the LCC.
In June 1946 the first prefab bases were installed at Oakwood Hill. Prefabs could be erected by 30 non-skilled men in an hour, and there is an excellent Pathe News film showing this being done. Skilled construction workers were scarce, but prefab construction was simple - it has been described to me as 'tightening a few bolts.' All the men had to do was connect the two or four sections, connect the electric, gas and water pipes to the appliances, and the new home would soon be ready for its first family.
During and after the war, labour was scarce and I have been told that POW's built many of the prefabs. I will explore this at another time, but German POW's were first used for labour in January 1944, and Italian POW's slightly earlier. Some of the POW's were skilled builders, which led to British builders fearing for their livelihoods. On 19 April 1945 a Ministry of Production memo recorded:
"...the JCC has now agreed, subject to conditions, that Italian Prisoners-of-War may now be employed on skilled work when no British labour is available." (TNA, BT 168/85).
By August 1946 the CUDC had received 1,126 applications for accommodation from homeless families. To deter further applications the council upped the residential qualification to ten years, so that people billeted in the area could not apply.
By November 1946 the first two prefabs were ready to be occupied and at the same time contracts were placed for 240 three-bedroom houses on the Roding Valley Estate, including 100 Wates prefabricated houses.
It was not until 21 December 1946 that the LCC’s plan for Loughton was approved, at a cost of around £4 million, plus £1,143,000 for the construction of roads.
The winter of 1946/47 was terrible. A lot of the Roding valley flooded right up to Abridge and housing development slowed or stopped altogether, so it was not until April that the first "bungalows" were ready for occupation.
The first family to move in were Mr and Mrs Godfrey Rains and their two sons Tony, aged five, and Stewart, aged six months. The first residents did not come from the East End of London, but from Dagenham.
The term "prefab" includes not only single-storey bungalows but also two- storey houses, and the first houses on the Debden Estate were prefabs too.
There is some dispute about where the first houses were built, but it seems likely that they went up around Hillyfields and Barfields. Both roads were built using British Iron and Steel Federation construction types, which could be erected in a matter of hours.
Ron, a young boy, recorded in his diary in 1948:
Saturday 21 February Moved to Loughton in dad’s lorry.
Sunday 22 Feb Deep snow. Dad made sledge. Played out with friend.
By 17 May 1947 the building of the estate was well under way, and Cllr Leach complained that it was unfair that the houses went to the people with the best tale to tell. He proposed that councillors should themselves investigate every application personally so that the most deserving cases were rehoused.
The reality was that CUDC councillors had absolutely no power to allocate housing, because that job fell to the LCC. The only houses that CUDC could offer at that time were on the prefab estate.
People's views about the prefabs were mixed. Cllr. Leach said in 1947:
"The LCC are dumping in this area some 3,000 properties. They have refused to give us 1% of them for our residents. Surely they can house their own people who are living in this area and that is the position we are trying to force.”
From the beginning there was a dispute about what to call the new estate. In 1947 it had been proposed that there should be north and south Loughton, but that idea was dismissed in September 1949, around the same time as the local station name changed from Chigwell Lane to Debden. The Debden Estate was here to stay.
© Sue Taylor