Thamesmead, 1970 (London Metropolitan Archives)
The iconic towers and elevated walkways of South Thamesmead – made famous in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ - were originally built to solve London’s housing shortage in the sixties and seventies.
At this time, London was struggling to cope with the post-war housing crisis, and many people in the East End and parts of south London were living top-to-tail. Conditions were terrible, houses were damp and mouldy, disease spread fast and people were getting ill.
With tens of thousands to find homes for, the Greater London Council (GLC) turned their sights to a vast expanse of marshy land between Plumstead and Erith. It was overgrown, dense and waterlogged, but the GLC took a deep breath and started to build.
As word got out, London grew excited about this self-contained city in the sky, with its elevated walkways, man-made lakes and expansive green areas.
Post-war, Thamesmead felt optimistic. People could walk from place to place, the buildings worked with their natural environment, and living areas were spacious. The ‘dwellings’ even had central heating and indoor bathrooms – almost unheard of in the East End.
And to reflect the riverside character of the town, four and a half miles of canals were incorporated into the water network, connecting five lakes. Sailing, rowing, angling and punting were advertised leisure activities – remarkable for London.
It was to be a model city, and everything was planned carefully, right down to the mix of residents. The GLC aimed to create ‘a happy, mixed and diverse community’ and residents from all walks of life were selected from south and east London. But they had to pass a rigorous interview process first.
The measure of Thamesmead’s success was ‘the people’s enjoyment of living and working there and how quickly they would develop a sense of belonging’.
And in many ways, that worked. A mixed, close-knit community is still one of Thamesmead’s greatest legacies.
But despite these futuristic ambitions, the place we now know as Thamesmead has earlier origins.
The area had been an important military site since Henry VIII built his major dockyard at nearby Woolwich, and the Plumstead and Erith marshes were used for ammunition storage from as early as 1565, increasingly so as Woolwich's Royal Arsenal expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries.
By the First World War the Arsenal was at full capacity, employing 73,000 people. What is today Thamesmead was a maze of firing ranges and munitions stores called 'tumps', connected by 147 miles of dense railways and with its own Royal Arsenal canal - a secret city within a city, a hive of activity powering Britain’s war efforts across centuries.
The Royal Arsenal was wound down from the 1950s, but signs of the area's past are present across Thamesmead today. Some are prominent, such as Tump 53 nature reserve and the many cannons displayed from the town centre to the Thames Path; others are only apparent to those who know where to look.
In either case, alongside other local relics Crossness Pumping Station and Lesnes Abbey ruins, they show that London's new town has history and heritage beyond its years.
Despite some undoubted successes, a lack of investment and infrastructure has meant that Thamesmead is yet to fully to live up to initial potential. However, as it approaches its 50th birthday, with investment of over £1 billion now coming in, Thamesmead is now well set to fulfil its promise as London's new town.