Britain Sixty Years Ago (II): Prisons in the Sky   Leave a comment

The middle and late 1950s in Britain was the period of ‘affluence’. Slowly at first, after the defeat of the post-war Labour government, Britain entered a period of rapid change. It was a period of growing prosperity, when a great deal of money flowed into the purchase of newly available consumer goods, underpinned by the revolution in welfare, and by full employment. The rebuilding and reconstruction of the urban and suburban environment – made necessary, partly, by large-scale bombing and by the massive social neglect of the inter-war period – got under way.

The new housing schemes – the development of urban flats, of new housing estates and of the new towns – and the slow processes of rehousing certainly did not destroy the typical and traditional urban working-class environment, but they seemed to be making inroads into it, to undermine it, robbing it of something of its corporate stability. For the first time, there was an emergence of contrasting images of the ‘extended family network’ of the old working-class neighbourhoods, and the ‘family-centred’ or ‘nucleated family’ life of the new working-class estate.

Phil Cohen, a sociologist writing in 1972, commented on the effect of high density, high rise schemes:

The first effect… was to destroy the function of the street, the local pub, the corner shop, as articulations of communal space. Instead there was only the privatised space of the family unit, stacked one on top of each other, in total isolation, juxtaposed with the totally public space which surrounded it, and which lacked any of the informal social controls generated by the neighbourhood. The streets which serviced the new estates became thoroughfares, their users ‘pedestrians’, and by analogy so many bits of human traffic, and this irrespective of whether or not they were separated from motorised traffic. It is indicative of how far the planners failed to the human ecology of the working class neighbourhood that they could actually talk about building ‘vertical streets’. The people who had to live in them weren’t fooled. As one put it – they might have hot running water and central heating, but to him they were still prisons in the sky…

001 (2)

(It was demolished in the 1980s)

The second effect of the redevelopment was to destroy kinship networks; nuclear families of marriage were separated from their families of origin, especially during the first phase of redevelopment. The isolated family unit could no longer call on the resources of wider kinship networks, or of the neighbourhood, so the family itself became the sole focus of solidarity. This meant that any problems were bottled up within the immediate relationships within the family unit, and those relationships were invested with a new intensity in order to compensate for the wider diversity of relationships previously generated through extended kin and neighbours. Although these traditional kinship and neighbourhood networks had broken down, the traditional patterns of socialisation, communication and control continued to reproduce themselves within the nuclear family. The working class family was therefore not only isolated from the outside, but also undermined from within. Women became ‘housebound’ wives and mothers, since they could no longer send their children out to play in the street under ‘neighbourhood’ supervision. Mum or Auntie was no longer just around the corner, able to look after the kids for the odd morning. The only safe play-space for the kids was the home, and the young mother was the sole supervisor. Cooped up with the kids, and cut off from the outside world, it was hardly surprising that she occasionally took out her frustration on her husband, if not on her new washing machine, and possibly aided by her non-stick frying pan.

Source:

Theo Barker (ed.)(1978), The Long March of Everyman, Harmondsworth: Penguin. 

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