Stevenage at 70
PUBLISHED: 18:00 08 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:47 09 August 2016
Martin Elvery explores the ever-changing history of Britain's first New Town as Stevenage marks its 70th anniversary with a programme of celebratory events
In any history of Stevenage New Town you have to go back to the impoverished yet heady days following the Second World War.
Britain was then picking itself up and dusting itself down from five years of a draining, crippling conflict that had left the economy in tatters and many families struggling to rebuild their futures.
It was against this background that the New Town project arose – a chance for war-weary Londoners to leave Blitzed London for new homes and jobs in the fresh air of Hertfordshire.
In 1946 the government chose the small town of Stevenage as the site of the first New Town, one of eight that would be built in the rural area surrounding the capital, each to house 60,000 people.
Brave new world
Many residents of the then Stevenage – now the Old Town – were unhappy with the proposals and there were noisy protests, including renaming the railway station Silkingrad in a reference to Lewis Silkin, the minister of town and country planning, and what was seen as Soviet-style heavy-handedness over the lives of the people.
But the pressure to rehouse people in bombed London areas outweighed their objections and Stevenage was officially designated the first New Town by Silkin on November 11, 1946.
Planners drew up six neighbourhoods on a novel design; each with its own shops, parks, schools and community centres, as well as a town centre on modernist lines, with shops and pedestrianised streets – the first of its kind in the country. The shopping destination was officially opened by the Queen in 1959.
Neighbourhood homes and shops were built quickly using modern materials with the assistance of a large body of Irish migrant workers.
But like any new venture, the new town was not without its problems. Many of the houses were damp and the first residents arrived before any of the local facilities were built – so they had to walk along muddy roads to get to the Old Town.
But new schools, businesses, an innovative network of cyclepaths, shops and churches followed, and when the new A1(M) reached Stevenage in 1962 its position as a major town was secured.
In 1961, excitement was rife as the Locarno Ballroom opened and quickly became the town’s major venue for acts like The Who, The Rolling Stones and Tom Jones. A new swimming pool and a leisure centre and theatre were built, as well as the impressive Fairlands Park with its series of lakes.
Stevenage’s growing population and road links attracted major employers, with firms including English Electric and Imperial Chemical Industries moving to the town.
Families from post-war London, as well as other areas, snapped up the chance of new homes and jobs in modern industries.
Some would say this brave new world faltered in more recent years, especially at the tail-end of the last century. Stevenage continued to attract major businesses, especially in the space and pharmaceutical industries in the industrial heart of the town around Gunnels Wood Road. Airbus Defence and Space, GlaxoSmithKline and Fujitsu are just some of those multinationals.
But the fabric of the town has suffered. Many of the early buildings have seen better days and while looking ultra-modern in the mid-20th century, tend to suffer the curse of modernist architecture in wet climes – a grey drab look in the early 21st.
The town has also suffered its fair share of social problems and deprivation and is often unfairly derided by those who perhaps just pass through on the train.
Up and Up
Yet in many ways its problems are being transcended. With its excellent rail links and the rapid escalation of house prices in London, Stevenage is on the property hot list for commuters and a series of trendy apartments in former high-rise office blocks are being built to cater for them.
The retail parks attract thousands of out-of-town shoppers, diners and those looking for entertainment, while over at ‘Space City’ Airbus recently set up a satellite link with British astronaut Tim Peake who controlled a Stevenage-built Mars Rover vehicle from on board the International Space Station.
Pharmaceutical firms have also invested in the town creating a leading bio-science park where scientists are working on pioneering cancer beating drugs. Many of the town’s schools are developing state-of-the-art facilities and are aiming for outstanding Ofsted grades.
Life at 70
It’s fair to say the town is proud to mark its 70th anniversary. This is clear from the wide programme of events that councillors and residents have devised to mark the occasion.
The biggest ever Stevenage Day on June 12 marked the beginning of a summer full of celebrations. The following week there was a packed bill of events at Gordon Craig Theatre including a Schools Night, a dance extravaganza and Last Night of the Proms. A flower festival at the parish church, St Andrew and St George, saw the buildings of Stevenage New Town depicted in a series of floral displays.
Events still to come include a major exhibition by Stevenage Photographic Society and a floral display depicting the town’s 70 years. The life and work of Edward Gordon Craig is the subject of a day of celebration and an associated exhibit, and a major exhibition on the history of the town is planned at Stevenage Museum.
Don’t be put off by preconceptions. At 70, Stevenage is thriving and its New Town roots, which have sometimes been derided, are being celebrated as an integral part of Britain’s social history.
Stevenage at 70 events
Edward Gordon Craig 50 Years On, Gordon Craig Theatre, July 31. Stevenage Arts Guild in partnership with Stevenage Museum celebrates the life and work of the town’s theatrical son who became a visionary set designer. An exhibition following the event will go on show at Stevenage Museum into 2017.
Stevenage Art Society Summer Exhibition, Springfield House, until August 13.
Stevenage Photographic Society Exhibition Stevenage Leisure Centre, until September 4.
Maps and Maybe Maps, Stevenage Museum, from mid-August. Exhibition featuring original architects’ plans and drawings for Stevenage New Town.
Stevenage Male Voince Choir Concert, Stevenage District Scout HQ, Poplars Neighbourhood Centre, October 1.
Stevenage Ladies Choir Concert , St Peter’s Church, October 8.
Brave New World, Nobel Music Centre, November 6. Find out more about the history of the town at this entertaining multi-media experience revealing residents’ memories and music including from the Stevenage Male Voice Choir.
Stevenage First and Best, Stevenage Borough Council Chamber, November 12. John Hepworth Memorial Lecture by local historian Margaret Ashby.
Stevenage@70 Finale Concert, Gordon Craig Theatre, November 19. A major musical celebration to round off the town’s birthday.