Becontree Estate saw East End ‘reborn’

One of the greatest social experiments of the past century has been the council estate.

A by-product of Fordism and industrialisation, it only seemed fitting that what was then the world’s biggest estate should be built in motor city Dagenham – home to dozens of thousands of Ford employees.

Many people still believe that the Becontree Estate was built to accommodate the huge numbers of Ford workers who descended on Dagenham, but the development was planned and started before Ford bought a 500-acre site from S.Williams in 1925, and in 1931 production had shifted to Dagenham from Manchester.

Ford workers were initially not eligible to move into any of the council houses.

But when the London County Council later struggled to keep East Enders in the vast sprawl of identikit homes – which lacked the pubs, markets and social life of the East End – and slum dwellers could not afford to make the move into the countryside, the rules were relaxed to accommodate car workers – many of whom had moved from Manchester.

The development started the complementary relationship between the two monolithic cornerstones of the borough’s identity – Becontree and Ford.

The estate was split between three local authorities – Dagenham, which received the lion’s share (15,287) of more than 25,000 cottages. In Barking, 7,332 houses were built, and on the Ilford patch 2,464 were constructed.

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As part of the national Homes for Heroes programme, it was both an honourable as well as politically paranoid move aimed at providing homes for those who had returned from the disastrous First World War, and at trying to deal with the “threat” of socialism by offering the working-class of Britain decent housing.

The uniformity of the estate’s planning, with its lack of pubs, shops and social facilities, was new to city dwellers used to living in tight-knit communities.

It may be hard to believe that a staggering 91 different house types are said to have been built on the 2,767 acres of land that accommodate the estate.

However, these are thought to be mere variations on the repetitive design that confuses visitors.

In Dr Robert Holme’s book about the Becontree estate– A Township Complete in Itself – a resident reminisces: “I went for a walk and when I came back, all the houses looked alike. I was in a terrible state – in tears. The workmen said ‘What’s the matter, ducks?’ I said, ‘I can’t find my house’.”

The cottage estate design was supposed to offer a life of tranquillity and comfort away from the overcrowded and poor conditions of the traditional East End.

Yet, despite the initial lack of a community and the overwhelming sameness of the vast estate, the living standards were a huge leap forward for most people, some of whom found themselves with an indoors bathroom for the first time.

According to Dr Holme, a 1947 survey found 85 per cent of tenants liked their houses and 63 per cent liked their neighbourhood.

A former Bethnal Green tenant was quoted as saying: “With cupboards, the stove and everything, I thought it was like a palace.”

Eventually, facilities were brought into the neighbourhood, and the community spirit began to flourish around the existing networks of family and friends again.

According to another study quoted in Holme’s book, “Becontree was perpetuating the social patterns of the East End” through extended families growing up in much the same way in the same kinds of houses. The East End was being “reborn”.