An extraordinary generation: Woodberry Down Memories

During lockdown, UOSH volunteer Tim Hughes finished cataloguing Woodberry Down Memories, a collection of oral histories recorded on the Woodberry Down estate in 1986 and 1987. In this post, he explores the context of the collection and shares some of his favourite clips…

Home to over 6,000 people, Woodberry Down Estate is situated in the London Borough of Hackney. In a picturesque setting, next to two reservoirs and alongside the New River, the four acres of large houses and gardens that preceded it were compulsorily purchased from the Church of England in 1935 by the newly elected Labour London County Council. The estate was planned with relatively low densities and large open spaces for working class Londoners, although war intervened and the first residents did not move in until 1948. By the time the project was completed in 1962, 57 blocks of flats had been erected on 64 acres of land. The health centre – a model for the new NHS – opened in 1952 and Woodberry Down School – the first purpose-built comprehensive in the country –opened in 1955.

Map of the Woodberry Down estate, showing the main roads, housing blocks and two reservoirs.
Map of Woodberry Down Estate, 1949 (London Picture Archive 278158)

In the 1980s the oral historian Joanna Bornat led an oral history project on the estate, working with a group of older residents as part of the Over 60s club. The project culminated in the community publication ‘Woodberry Down Memories -The history of an LCC Housing Estate’.

Bornat’s experience was captured in an interview and discussion published in Oral History Magazine Volume 39 Past and Present 2011:

You said in ‘Woodberry Down Memories’ that it was a very diverse community. Is that diversity reflected in the oral history cohort that you managed to record?

JB. Yes it is. I mean, it wasn’t so much in the group who actually formed and met every week. There was one woman who came, an Afro Caribbean woman who would come but who would never speak, even when Grace (her fellow worker) was there. Grace went out and interviewed a couple of people who are in the book – Mr and Mrs Kalra.  And Mr Shah, he was very much part of the group and very keen and he and his wife were stalwart members of the Over 60’s Club as well.  And of course the group themselves, their histories were very ethnically diverse, you know, Sid Linder’s Jewish, Olga Adams Italian …”

Photograph of the Over 60s group.
Some members of the group at London Weekend Television’s award ceremony, June 1987, from the booklet published after the project. Left to right: Grace Harris, Sid Linder, Fred Townsend, Olga Adams, Les Tucker, Edythe Daly, Mr Kalra, Mrs Kalra, Jack Cox, Joanna Bornat, Dora Marks, Doris Hampton.

Joanna describes the estate: “This was an exceptional piece of housing, social housing, it was well researched, well designed, [the LCC] spent a lot of money on it, people liked living there and you had everything you needed you know. It had a school, two schools, a doctor’s surgery, it had an old people’s home.”

As the Star newspaper headline put it in on 7 November 1953: ‘Woodberry Down Estate: London County Council’s Great Experiment’.

Three photographs of Woodberry Down School, including one of a classroom, one of a tuck shop booth, and one of a workshop.
Photographs of Woodberry Down School.
Left to right: classroom, 1954; tuck-shop, 1959; workshop, 1955 (London Picture Archive 192000, 199256, 199285)
Model of Woodberry Down Health Centre, 1949 (London Picture Archive 229423)

The tapes, held at Hackney Archives, have recently been digitised and catalogued at LMA as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project – resurfacing the voices of this resilient generation, one shaped by poverty, war, discrimination, prejudice and disadvantage. Listen below to discover a wonderful range of rich stories of working class people, brought together through the common experience of being allocated a flat by the authorities and together forming a new community.

Yet the interviews also reveal common experiences with current generations – preoccupation with family and relationships, the local area, schooling, dealing with people in authority and the rules we have to live by, and concern about the affordability of housing for their own children, who are priced out beyond their locality and roots.

There are so many personal stories to listen to, value, learn from, and enjoy. Here are a few brief excerpts:

Sid Linder talks about gangs in Clerkenwell and Aldgate (ULMA031/1)
Olga Adams talks about training as an oxy-acetylene welder during the Second World War (ULMA031/3)
Interviewees talk about the issue of rats when the workmen moved out (ULMA031/4)
Olga Adams talks about hosting visitors from Belgium and Scotland at her flat on the estate (ULMA031/6)
Olga Adams talks about her father being classified as an ‘enemy alien’ during the Second World War (ULMA031/1)
An interviewee describes fitting out his flat on the estate – and how he secured one (ULMA031/7)
Dora Marks talks about the lack of amenities on the estate when she first moved in (ULMA031/8)

Explore more photographs of Woodberry Down on the London Picture Archive, and read about Hannah’s experience of cataloguing the collection on placement here.