There are two novels written about the estates we are thinking about in this post, as different in many ways as the estates themselves. The estates are very interrelated and mutually used but they are completely divided by a railway line. Locals tend to refer to each of the estates respectively as ‘over the other side’ (of the railway line) and know exactly what this means.
We’ll start with Carpenders Park (previously known as St Meryl Estate), as this was the earlier estate, developed from the mid 1930s. It was part of emerging suburbia as London moved outward, catering for a new breed of owner occupiers. Mr Absolum was looking to develop land in the London area, and bought land along the Euston to Watford mainline railway, which was then home to a manor house called Carpenders Park, later becoming a girls’ finishing school, and eventually demolished around 1960. Some of the early residents remember going to dances at the mansion. The site was later a US Air Force base, and latterly densely packed houses for owner occupation.
The sales brochures from 1934 were offering new houses in white painted concrete and sunlight crittal windows, alongside bungalows with modern, luxurious interiors. They were referred to as the most charming houses in Greater London and of advanced contemporary manner. It was to be an idyllic place, with a town and country feel and preserving the “natural sylvan beauty of this Hertfordshire countryside.” The health benefits were strongly promoted, as were the easy links in to London.
“St Meryl Estate, 350ft. above sea level, is distinctly in a class by itself. Undulating acres, interspersed with spinneys and lines of trees, are a delight to the eye, and there is convincing proof of the pure and health-giving air one breathes in this area”.
The style of many of these new houses, nodding toward both a modernist and deco mix – is repeated across many parts of London. But this estate was a little different in that it was quite contained, originally intended to boast far more amenities than were ever to be delivered. The brochures offered housing that inclined toward domestic bliss; emphasising cleanliness, hygiene and light, with sockets to provide for labour saving devices. Some 800 households chose to move here in the 1930s, attracted by the promise of this new suburbia.
“All bungalows on St. Meryl Estate are fitted with kitchen cabinets, domestic boilers for hot water to kitchen and bathroom, chromium-plated taps, tiled bathroom, two electric power points and electric fire, modern tiled fireplace, draining board, etc. Gas and electric light laid on. Company’s water. Main drainage. Coal bunker supplied. Concrete paths. Large garden. Decorations to purchaser’s choice. No Road or Paving Charges. No legal costs.”
Let’s not however forget though that at the same time, thousands elsewhere continued to endure chronically poor slum housing conditions – see for example the social documentary Housing Problems (1935) – when more progressive councils were trying to build new and better housing. The second world war was of course not then anticipated and everywhere development was suddenly and rudely interrupted for several years, Carpenders Park included. It was during this time that another new estate – the nearby South Oxhey – was starting to be imagined.
London of course suffered heavy bombing and even during the early 1940s the London County Council (LCC) was already planning post war construction as well as a ‘catch up’ on its slum clearance programmes. In particular it was looking for the possibility of housing some 5000 households in a new community on land that was ripe for development close to London. The LCC wanted to create something that was garden city inspired, to include houses and social facilities and to engineer a whole new mixed community. It was all very Nye Bevan. The place they identified was the Oxhey Hall Estate, the earlier manor house of Oxhey Place previously having been owned by the Blackwell family (as in Crosse and Blackwell) and boasting a chapel, which is still there. Agreement was confirmed in 1944, as the war still dragged on. The new estate was to be known as South Oxhey, quite separate to Carpenders Park, and divided by the ribbon of railway.
Not everyone was happy with this attractive piece of land being built on, or that the plans were, as they saw, for uniform houses inhabited by people of mainly one income. Others were concerned about the time residents would waste getting to work, the loss of good agricultural land and the utilitarian values seemingly promoted. There was also talk that the residents would be ‘exiles’ (cited in Reidy, 2013).
None the less, development of the new estate began and is a real tribute to what governments can create when they set their minds to it. Most of the building was houses with gardens, radiating from the core of shops, and there was a clinic, library, police station, churches, schools and community clubs. But early on it must have been very hard for the new inhabitants. The sense of dislocation in the strange new place is recorded by LCC documents, press cuttings and interviews with some of the original residents with their recollections of being uprooted from their London communities, dropped into a new (and very quiet) environment, their sense of anomie and isolation. Initially there were no pavements, roads or shops. Old photos show totem pole-like, make shift signs with the new street names pointing the way, the coop van delivering food and new houses pre-privet hedges with nothing at the boundary but a gate.
Meanwhile, over the other side … Mr Absolum’s daughter Meryl married Mr Kebbell, and Kebbell Homes took over the post war development of Carpenders Park. There was a shared vision of good quality and affordable family living, and of owner occupation. Carpenders Park started to develop once again. Some 1000 new houses were constructed from the 1960s, some with the new box styles and flat roofs and new forms of central heating. It was around this time that the novelist Leslie Thomas moved to the estate and began to write The Tropic of Ruislip, to be published in 1974.
Thomas, born in 1930, was an orphan who grew in a Dr Barnardos home, receiving fame with his novels about British National Service. The Tropic of Ruislip was made into a TV series in the 1970s and a film in 1981. In 2004, Thomas received an OBE for services to literature. Thomas calls his estate fictional estate Plummers (Plumbers?) Park, as opposed to Carpenders (Carpenters?) Park. It’s about the imagined goings of people and houses and ‘relationships’ but it is also about a very geographical divide between two estates. He differentiated his Plummers Park from those living, as he put it across the “frontier-line of the railway” and he refers to the residents as “evacuated cockneys” and talks about their neighbourliness (Thomas, 1997: 13).
In his entirely different documentary novel, Schad explores the idea of a promised land and forced relocation. Schad, like Thomas, lived on the estate that would become the subject of his novel, but for Schad it was his childhood home from the 1960s. He went on to become Professor of Literature at the University of Lancaster. His novel, The Late Walter Benjamin, flashes back to a 1940s version of the estate, where relocation and displacement from bombed-out London into a promised utopia are key themes. One character in his novel believes himself to be Walter Benjamin, who had escaped from the Nazis and committed suicide in 1940. This character finds himself in the ‘unlikely’ setting of the LCC’s post war new estate near to Watford. Schad tells us that South Oxhey was known as the Promised Land or Cockney Utopia but initially lacked amenities, even pavements and that some early residents felt very alone and found it really quiet (Schad, 2012). Gradually more amenities were provided and the community developed.
There may be other novels about these estates and it would be interesting to hear if anyone is aware of any more. They have both provided housing and facilities for thousands of families over decades. There is also an autobiography by Iris Jones Simantel (2012). This is particularly interesting because she was born in the private rented sector within the sound of the Bow Bells, after the first world war her family moved to the then new Becontree Estate, and after the second (and evacuation to Wales), to South Oxhey. As one of South Oxhey’s earliest residents, she tells us how the LCC offered her family the chance to move to a new estate in 1947 as part of its all-embracing housing strategy. She talks of feelings of dislocation, of unsettled residents moving back to London, and also her own sense of excitement at a new home, but sadness about leaving Nan and Grandad. Interestingly she also talks about the ‘posh people’ on the other side of the railway, at Carpenders Park. They weren’t posh, they were just owner occupiers, many of whom had moved outward themselves from London, to their own new lives in a new place.
A sociological study first published in 1957 of how policy to build outward from London affected family and kinship links helps us understand community resilience to cope with poor housing and poverty and that many felt lonely and isolated in their new homes (Young and Willmot, 2011). Its not about South Oxhey, but almost could have been.
The South Oxhey estate transferred to the the Greater London Council and later to Three Rivers District Council around 1980. Many council houses transferred to the private sector through the right to buy policy. Contemporary socio-demographic maps of South Oxhey still identify it with pockets of deprivation and resources are often channeled in here and South Oxhey featured in Gareth Malone’s The Choir. Now all the remaining council housing has been transferred to a housing association and a new regeneration of the shopping and living area shown in this picture which seems to favour home ownership is underway, with its own website. But once again, not everyone is happy with what’s happening ….
Jones Simantel, I. (2012) Far from the East End, London: Penguin
Reidy, D (ed). (2013) Poor but Proud: A History of South Oxhey, David Reidy in collaboration with Three Rivers Museum Trust (printed at Hertford by Stephen Austin and Sons Ltd)
Schad, J. (2012) The Late Walter Benjamin, London: Continuum International Publishing Group
Stewart, J (2016) Housing and Hope, available here.
Thomas, L. (1997, first published 1974) Tropic of Ruislip, London: Mandarin Paperbacks
Young, M. and Willmot, P. (2011, first published 1957) Family and Kinship in East London (new edition), Abingdon: Routledge Revivals