Towards the end of the 1950's the Victorian terraced houses on Buckingham Road and Tottenham roads were demolished and replaced by the Kingsgate Estate, opening in the early 1960's. Shortly later hundreds of Victorian houses, pubs, shops and about half a dozen streets (almost all land between Downham Road and the canal, bar the industrial buildings surrounding the Kingsland Basin) were swept away to make way for The De Beauvoir Estate. In 1968 plans were then developed to demolish almost all of the rest of De Beauvoir Town with low rise housing estates replacing the Victorian terraced houses. Two newcomers to the area, Stuart Weir (who would go on to become a local labour Councillor for the area) and Robin Young, both journalists on The Times who lived next door to each other on Balls Pond Road, were appalled with the threatened destruction of the community. They decided to do something about it and leafleted the whole area shortly before the council elections in order to hold a meeting with local residents and the ward Councillors in the crypt of St. Peters Church. On the night the Crypt was crammed with around 200 angry local residents and within weeks the De Beauvoir Association was formed with Stuart Weir serving as Chairman.
I know that this is what happened in 1968 as it is detailed in an interview with Stuart Weir in issue number 31 of the De Beauvoir Association newsletter, which is archived here, along with over a decade of other issues. These newsletters give a fascinating insight into the early years of the De Beauvoir Association, the politics and struggles behind implementing the road closures, and general activism in the area during the 1970's.
The De Beauvoir Association tried, but failed, to save the Eastern side of De Beauvoir Square which was replaced by the Lockner Road estate, after council officers persuaded the newly elected Tory Hackney Council that these houses were beyond repair. Staggering to think these beautiful homes were destroyed, they'd each be worth several million pounds today. However a year after their creation the association managed to ensure that most of De Beauvoir Town became a conservation area, almost certainly saving it from destruction. A year later the Central General Improvement Area (GIA) plan was set up with an advisory committee of local residents. During 1971 surveys and meetings were arranged with local residents to try and gather ideas and plans for improvements to the Town with environmental issues figuring prominently, including play & amenity areas for local children along with road closures to divert dangerous through traffic. Plans were put forward to the council with Issue Five of the Newsletter in January 1972 declaring that the
"Road plan goes on show"
Most of the closures that were proposed did eventually happen, however the plan was for traffic to be banned from De Beauvoir Square entirely except for Milk Floats, removal vans and emergency vehicles. The plan stated that Pedestrian Ways were to be left through the closures so that you can still "pop round the corner (only more safely)". The closures followed two traffic surveys - the first, a count of all vehicles using local roads (in which residents helped the council); the second, a study of where the vehicles had come from and were going to. They showed that much of the traffic had no business in De Beauvoir. Before these plans were put forward to the council The GIA Residents Steering Committee had argued strongly that De Beauvoir Road and Downham Road should also both be closed. In particular it was felt that De Beauvoir Road cut the "New Town" in half.
It is worth noting here that the "De Beauvoir Estate" is never mentioned by name in any of these newsletters; it is always referred to as either "The New Town" or "The New Town Estate" with the rest of De Beauvoir referred to as "The Old Town".
The closure of De Beauvoir Road or Downham Road looked unlikely as borough engineers argued that the roads carried too much traffic that couldn't be thrown onto busy main roads and relieved overburdened roads like Englefield and Southgate Roads of traffic they couldn't bear. Planning officers warned that they had tried to close it when they built the De Beauvoir Estate but the ministry of Transport vetoed it. The Greater London Council (which had overall responsibility for traffic in London) also restricted the road closures to the central area GIA. New Town residents argued that commuter traffic was the problem and that their children should not unnecessarily be exposed to risk just to cut a few minutes off a commuters journey.
Issue Five of the newsletter was paid for by Hackney Council to try to ensure local residents engaged with the plan and submitted ideas, suggestions and criticisms. It was stressed that the plan were only provisional, not fixed and gave alternative ideas to choose between. To quote the newsletter "We hope parents will take their children along and get them to write their comments too; if they don't, go along by yourselves kids!" An improved quality of life for the Children of De Beauvoir was a large part of these proposals and this was emphasised further on in this issue under the headline "But mum - where CAN we go?"
We assume that a broken glass window caused by a boys ballgame on the street begs an apology & replacement of the glass by the boys. Less expected is the apology which the children in De Beauvoir are owed because of the total lack of play facilities. This is how some of them feel.
Also in this issue of the newsletter five local people discuss the plans impact on the area and we start to see the divide in opinion on the "old" and "new" areas of De Beauvoir:
Most people would agree that traffic in Northchurch Road should be severely restricted, if not banned altogether. It is questionable, however, whether adequate thought has been given to the effect of such a closure on the southern area. Downham Road is already both busy & dangerous; the Council has plans for a library & community hall on Downham Road and a workshop for the elderly is being built. Downham Road could link, rather than divide, the two communities. The present proposals for the central area are to be welcomed in that they deal adequately with some of the major problems. No plan will ever please everyone but by confining the proposals to the central area, the Council lays itself open to the charge that it is looking after the interests of the central area residents at the expense of the rest of the Town.
In the next meeting to debate the plan local people overwhelmingly voted for the closure of De Beauvoir Road, however most criticism came from people living near the proposed "play areas"
Local children, it seems, swear vociferously, kick footballs everywhere, and can climb even out of 50 ft. deep pits (Obviously Hitler is lucky he did not win the war!) Parents protested back. "What do you want us to do, drug them?" an irate mother shouted. "No, drown 'em" a man called back. A few people suggested reasonably that boys would kick footballs about anyway; it was surely better that they weren't dodging cars at the same time?
During 1972 it became clear that the trial road closures would be delayed due to new legislation. Hackney Council also delivered a huge blow to the residents steering committee that they had agreed that De Beauvoir Road would not be closed to through traffic. They also back tracked on the plan to close the road around De Beauvoir Square to make room for play and amenity areas. Now the council officers proposed to keep a 13-16 ft. road around all sides, much to the shock of the committee.
"NONSENSE - If you, your children or your old folk:
- Have to cross from one side of the new town estate to the other (to reach shops or the new community centre, when it is built)
- Want to send your children to play in the new amenity areas in the square from the other side of De Beauvoir Road
- Have to cross Ardleigh, Stamford or De Beauvoir Roads, particularly at peak traffic periods
THEN THE COUNCIL'S DECISION SHOULD BE OF REAL CONCERN TO YOU. LET'S GET READY TO PROTEST ABOUT IT."
Pending the closures there were several other matters relating to roads in the area that the association or local residents, presumably brought together through the association, began to turn their attention towards. A petition of over 400 signatures was collated calling for a pedestrian crossing on Southgate Road between Northchurch Road and Downham Road following the death of an elderly woman and a child being seriously injured after being struck by a car. The petition had no effect as no crossings exist between these two junctions today and a report in issue nine in December 1972 explains why
"GLC puts van before lives: Officials took a count of the people trying to cross Southgate road and the traffic. They got the right people count and the right traffic count, for a crossing. However the GLC and police said there wasn't a good case for a zebra crossing as shops could not load or unload goods. They may put traffic refuges in the middle of Southgate Road in a couple of places. Big deal. Give us our crossing. Lots of local residents are already angry as the news travels."
"Extend School onto road - and shut out traffic"
The GLC and the Inner London Education authority were seeking to extend RC Kingsgate Junior and Infants school by compulsory purchasing seven houses next door to it along with Gardener's warehouse (a hay merchant for any horses still knocking about). However the association argued that it made more sense to extend the school over Tottenham Road and onto derelict land opposite it, saving the houses and bringing the added benefit of closing Tottenham Road to through traffic.
Left: The DBA's plan for the school extension and the modern view (right) of the extended school as it is today, showing the plans failed to be taken seriously. Tottenham Road remains open to through traffic today, despite having two schools located on it and the A104 Balls Pond Road located less than 100 metres away
There was strong backing locally for the closure of Tottenham Road, which was used by through traffic as a notoriously dangerous slip road alternative to Balls Pond Road. The parents and staff of the De Beauvoir School had expressed their concern, and Hackney Council had been willing to agree to the road closure.
"Balls Pond Road Block"
The Balls Pond Road lollipop lady, Mrs. Hubbard, was knocked down in July 1973 during the school run. Local parents protested for a crossing by blocking Balls Pond Road on the first Monday after the Summer Holidays, wheeling Mrs. Hubbard, in her new wheelchair, into the road. Mrs. Hubbard describes the demonstrations in a follow up issue of the newsletter, along with advice to others planning any demonstrations:
"The first demonstration was on the Monday and this was a great success. The drivers did not know what had happened and this came as a surprise to them. When doing this make sure it is the busiest time of the day, and do it unexpected as the police and bus officials will divert the traffic. Never let them know too soon or else you are left without any traffic.
|"How many more deaths before we get a crossing?"|
Initially the council used a formula to determine if a road needed a crossing although, quite unbelievably, any children aged under twelve were not counted when working out this formula as "they were not thought responsible enough to use a crossing properly"!
|The pedestrian crossing the parents of children from De Beauvoir Primary School fought for still stands and is well used to this day. A short two-way cycle track will soon replace the barely used bus lane on the left|
What is striking about these demonstrations in the early 1970's is that similar demonstrations were taking place at the same time in the Netherlands. This fascinating post by Mark Wagunbuur is worth reading if you haven't already, featuring children and parents fighting for roads to be closed to motor traffic in the Amsterdam suburb of "De Pijp" in 1972. Also the accompanying edited and subtitled video of the documentary which inspired the post is well worth taking ten minutes out of your day to watch. De Pijp is a very different area today, thanks in part to these demonstrations in the early 1970's, just as the rest of the Netherlands is very different today than it was in the early 1970's after Dutch authorities deliberately turned their attention away from demolishing areas of their cities to make space for cars and instead turning them back into safe places for people. This did not happen by accident and it took a long period of campaigning to turn the Netherlands into the people and bicycle friendly country it is today. This all started with parents blocking roads to campaign to make their streets safer for their children in the Early 1970's, just as the parents of children in Hackney were doing at the exact same time.
December 1973 and the newsletter reported that it was looking likely that the much-delayed temporary road closures in the central area of De Beauvoir would be introduced by the end of January 1974.
The play area in De Beauvoir Square was to have been in the roadway near the houses but a new plan removes the play area (and the kids with it) to the centre of the square. A few people on the residents steering committee would like to see the all the play facilities planned for Northchurch Road transferred to the Square. But if the play areas are removed from Northchurch Road, much of the case for closing the road to through traffic is removed too. One thing is certain; the majority of De Beauvoir residents who live outside the central area won't be prepared to suffer from the extra traffic and parking which will result from the road closures unless facilities are provided in the traffic free areas created.
The experimental, temporary road closures finally went in place on the morning of Monday, April 8th 1974. Two months later and Issue 16 of the newsletter showed that not everyone was happy.
"Road Closures: New Town 'cut off and abandoned'. Militant mums demand action now"
New Town tenants are in a militant mood over the experimental road closures and a Tenants' Action Group, headed by Emilie Chalk, has been formed to make their voices heard above the roar of traffic thundering along Downham Road. As we were going to press, the action group announced plans for demos on June 13 and June 14 to block De Beauvoir Road and Downham Road at the crossroads. They feel cut off and abandoned and want Downham and De Beauvoir Roads closed before a child dies. If the council do not agree they demand that Northchurch, Hertford and Enfield Roads are reopened to through traffic. Backed by worried mothers, Mrs Chalk of Trinity Court, has been collecting thousands of signatures for a petition protesting that the closures have made some roads more dangerous than ever for their children.
"We must fight together. If the pressure is built up then we can get something done when the six months (of experimental closures) is up."
"We can't wait six months."
"Take the barricades down now!"
"All these committees are no good. We'll close roads ourselves and chop down the barriers"
People who are against play areas outside their homes want the best of all possible worlds. They already live in the best houses in the best roads in the area. Now - after many years hard work by members of the Residents advisory committee and the councils officers they are to benefit from a traffic scheme which will keep through traffic away from their doors. But instead of being delighted they now want the whole scheme abandoned in favour of a watered-down alternative which will make their own roads more attractive than ever, but without providing anything for the community in return.
Naturally there is a strong argument against the proposed play areas on aesthetic grounds (wouldn't we all like our own streets to be closed, paved and tree-lined!) but in my view this is over ridden by the need for community play and amenity space. If it can be proved that no such need exists, would they be prepared to see the whole scheme dropped in favour of a traffic scheme based on the closure of Downham Road? Such a scheme (which could provide a linear park for the benefit of both the old and new towns) would make good sense. But it could mean a cement mixer along Northchurch Road every few minutes. The residents must sort out their priorities.
From the critical reaction there has been to the experimental road closures from many people outside the 'closed' area and from the New Town, it would seem that any further discussion about weather or not designated play areas are to be provided at the Northchurch Road intersection is now irrelevant. It is clear that residents living outside the 'closed' areas will not continue to suffer from extra heavy traffic unless the closed roads are put to community use. If they are not to be used, the closures must be transferred to areas where community use will be welcome.
And finally a letter from Mr and Mrs Parrott, who's son was killed on Northchurch Road, the street where they live just two years before the closures went in:
My wife and I have now had the opportunity to enjoy living in this area after such a long period of excessive traffic noise which until now had been a constant disturbance. It is our opinion that the proposed changes to this area will vastly improve the local environment. More is the pity that such changes were not possible earlier. The idea of play areas must surely be welcome to those families with small children who cannot for so many reasons find the time to go the distance to suitable recreation places for young children. And who would deny the opportunity to those that are less fortunate and have no space at all. We feel that the authorities have a duty to the New Town especially and everything possible and within reason should be done to make provision for them and the various age groups to cater for their interests. The trouble caused by some young persons is very likely due to the lack of facilities to release their energy into something more constructive.
The only complaint printed about the inconvenience the closures brought for those driving in the area was from Dr. Ashan of Southgate Road "The closures are costing us time and money and of course it is causing us a lot of worry. It disturbs us that the closures seem to have been the wish of a few rather than the Majority."
There were also complaints from some residents that "Those bloody buses are shaking my house to pieces" referring to the 10 buses per hour (or as many as 20 per hour on Saturday afternoons} which had been re-routed through De Beauvoir Road and Downham Road to complete a 'turnround' which used to be made through St. Peter's Way, the South Eastern corner of De Beauvoir Square and the bottom of Hertford Road before the road closures.
|Astonishing today to think that such a quiet and tranquil place such as De Beauvoir Square once had up to 20 buses an hour using this section as a turnaround, along with all the other through motor traffic.|
A year on from the experimental closures and Issue 15 in April 1975 looks ahead to the council voting on the road closures becoming permanent
"Crucial roads vote on Wednesday"
During the first nine months of the experimental road closures the accident toll on the road affected fell by 37%. This represents a saving to the community of approx £32,500. In Downham Road accidents fell from 10 in the previous nine months to three after the closures. On De Beavoir Road the drop was from five to four. In Northchurch Road, previously with a bad accident record, there were none. In 1972 the council approved the plan with only one vote against the principle of road closures. In 1975 the situation is different, and it seems likely that some votes may be cast against the permanent road closures. Objectors to the scheme say all the benefits are for the Old Town residents, mainly at the expense of the New Town. The main purpose of the scheme is to create open space and play areas in a part of Hackney severely deprived of them, from which all residents of De Beauvoir will benefit. People outside the area may be aware of the 800 strong petition against the road closures but may not know the signatories were led to believe they were petitioning for something quite different - the closure of Downham Road and De Beauvoir Road, something the council has always refused to consider.
That same month Hackney Council voted to make the road closures permanent by 29 votes to 17. The main opponent to the scheme was Councillor Bob Hasters who said that "one person's traffic free area is another person's traffic problem". He and several other councillors claimed that traffic had increased in their areas since the closures.
Councillor Eileen Cox said that the road closures were necessary to provide two acres of much-needed play space with no housing loss and that the closures had already cut down accidents throughout De Beauvoir by more than a third. She ended by arguing that "people were more important than cars" receiving warm applause as a result. Councillor Alf Linzell argued that the scheme was not just for one privileged area, but should be the first of many other schemes. He stated that these traffic-free areas were needed to make Hackney a more pleasurable borough to live in.
The newsletters of the De Beauvoir association continued for a few more years until they became semi-regular, appealing for more volunteers as many of the contributors were moving out of the area, before ceasing publication in 1984. The final issue gives an insight into life in Hackney in the 1980's and how times had changed since the community-minded, optimistic activism of the previous decade
The facts are clear: Hackney has the lowest average incomes in London, one adult male in four unemployed, one in five dwellings unfit, the people living there express greater dissatisfaction with their area than people living anywhere else in the country, children achieve the worst educational results in Inner London, and so the list goes on. The Department of the Environment recently classified Hackney as the most deprived local authority in England.
Paul Harrison - De Beauvoir newsletter, March 1984 in response to criticism of his book Inside the inner City.
The De Beauvoir association, which had achieved so much in its lifetime ceased to exist until it was reformed in 2004. With its closure the play areas were never built. The bollards, which were only intended to be temporary and were to be replaced by seating and trees, remain there to this day. New Town residents who voted for the scheme in 1975 would probably be furious to see that what they had expected to become play areas for their children are now areas that are mostly used by cycling commuters from outside the area, bar some local kids kicking a football about away from the threat of motor traffic. The residents in the Central area of De Beauvoir now live on quiet streets and many people who choose to cycle in Hackney have a pleasant and safe East-West route to use in the West of the Borough. This was never the intention but I believe these closures did do much to benefit many Hackney residents from outside the area. It is a shame that this was not duplicated on a much larger scale across Hackney or Inner London.
We can learn much from the early days of the De Beauvoir association; it is impressive that a small number of people managed to inspire their community to not only save such a lovely area of London from destruction but then vastly improve it for future generations. It was well organised campaigning, lobbying and protesting that saved De Beauvoir Town, restricted motor traffic in the area and ensured local children had a safe walk across Balls Pond Road to get to school. It seemed to help immensely that the association listened to local people and campaigned for what people told them they wanted, not what they thought they wanted. Stuart Weir explains the openness behind the association:
The DBA was non-party political right from the start, and its membership was a political cross-section in the same way that our meetings always showed a cross-section of tenants, leaseholders and owner occupiers. I think one important thing was that we took care to set up an Association which was broadly based and stayed alive to new needs and new issues through the informal open committee idea. We carried out opinion surveys to find out what people really wanted to happen to the area, and the success of the association can be measured by the fact that as many as 75 to 80 per ' cent said they were aware of the DBA and what it stood for. We organised an advice centre, every Saturday, to help residents with their problems and to take up cases. We organised stunts, we got tenants together to demand repairs from their landlords, we tackled the GLC about extending the Conservation Area, we got the Victorian Society and John Betjemam to take an interest in the area. We started a playgroup, we carried out a survey of Welfare rights with the council. 'We tried to find out what people thought and what they wanted for their community. We were never just concerned with conservation and the environment - that would have been disastrous.
The Future of Filtered Permeability in De Beauvoir Town
40 years since the road closures went into place and they're referred to in campaigning circles these days as "filtered" roads instead. That is, whilst they stop rat running motor traffic from using these roads they are well used routes for bicycles. Currently out for consultation is for five new "filters":
Whilst all the of closures from 1975 are located in the Central area, between Downham Road and Englefield Road, these new closures are located in the northern area, between Englefield Road and Balls Pond Road. TFL also launched another consultation earlier this year to close Stamford Road and Tottenham Road where they both meet at the A10. This consultation wasn't launched to create "play areas" for local children, or even to make routes safer for cyclists. This consultation is about "improving the traffic flow" on the A10 by moving the loading bay from its current location outside Tesco to where these two roads currently meet, in the hope this will reduce the queue of buses that often builds up whilst Tesco lorries unload. The added advantage is less traffic making it's way to the A10 south of Dalston Junction thereby relieving the traffic lights that exist due to the ridiculous waste of money that is Dalston Junction Bus station. If these two consultations go ahead as planned then that means all through motor traffic will be completely eliminated in the northern section of De Beauvoir Town . There will be no way to travel to travel East-West between Southgate Road and the A10 or North-South between Englefield Road and Balls Pond Road unless you're on a bicycle or on foot. Interestingly as part of this consultation De Beauvoir Road is also set to be closed just South of Englefield Road, meaning that the only route that it has been possible to travel through the central section of De Beauvoir Town in a motor vehicle since 1975 is now also set to be closed. The same De Beauvoir Road that the council spent so long blocking from being closed in the early 1970's.
However the southern section of De Beauvoir Road which cuts through the centre of the De Beauvoir Estate (or the not-so-new-anymore-Town) remains open to through traffic, as does Downham Road. The residents of the southern district of De Beauvoir have been let down again, consistently gaining nothing from these schemes for over 40 years. I'm sure if these consultations had been proposed back in the mid 1970's they'd have been blockades of both roads in protest.
Although TFL describe this as a "cycling" consultation that is only because it is coming out of the money pot for the cycle superhighways program after TFL wrongly decided to build CS1 along back streets rather than on the more direct, and more dangerous, A10. This scheme is about improving neighbourhoods for all residents by keeping out rat running traffic from outside the area. It should not be about "cyclists", if anything it should be about making the roads safer for children, just as the Dutch mothers campaigned for in the 1970's and British mothers also did on Balls Pond Road at the same time.
Please respond to this consultation by November 16th and say yes to the closures in order to improve the area for all.
Then once you've done that please then campaign to close De Beauvoir Road at Whitmore Bridge, as should have been done in the 1970's. Then ask for filters along the awful car dominated rat run that is Pitfield "cycle superhighway" Street. Then help campaign for similar closures in London Fields. Then ensure you campaign for the next mayor to build cycle tracks on the remainder of the TFL road network (including the A10) so they are safe enough for children to use. If they say no then get your neighbours together and start protesting until they do. And always remember this is about children and giving them safe space to play, cycle and more freedom; it's not about cyclists.
Now, time to crack on with making that banner Mrs. Hubbard told me to make.....