Self-build | Brian LewisPosted: February 29, 2016
There’s a kind of line, of light, a thought line, which cuts through false histories and comes towards us from the devastated zones. […] And always the experience wrapped in the line is that of the work force.
The Ascent of Kinder Scout, Peter Riley
The reconstruction of post-war London is a story of displacement and drift. An estimated one million homes were erased from the capital during the Blitz, the rubble later reburied in pitches, mounds and the airfields of East Anglia. A smaller number of properties vanished under the auspices of the Slum Clearance Act, introduced in 1955, a revival of a programme interrupted by the Second World War. Before the bomb sites and bad houses could be scratched from the streets, before a vision of high-rise living could be built up from sketches, temporary solutions to the housing crisis were being pieced together at the city’s edges: the quick, new prefabs, plotted in 1944 and delivered within weeks of the war’s end, their concrete walls framed in timber or steel, the steel recycled from Anderson shelters. The Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act legislated for 300,000 prefab units for the UK, only half of which were built. The immediate demand for new homes, unmet by the recovering city, led the London County Council to adopt a policy of dispersal, relocating families from Inner London to satellite estates in the Home Counties, and further afield, to the designated ‘overspill towns’ and new towns of East Anglia, the South East, and settlements in the west. Like the East End evacuees of the 1940s, many of the rehoused Londoners would never return to the capital, the short-term plan drifting in the middle distance, the future dragging on, and the prefabs becoming fixtures, outliving their span, some still standing decades later, asbestos in the bungalow roofs.
Among the overspill towns was Swindon, 71 miles west of London, halfway between Reading and Bristol. Unlike a number of its counterparts in the South East, Swindon was not a new town. Recorded in the Domesday Book as Suindune, the Anglo-Saxon settlement, built on limestone and chalk, developed as a centre for barter trade, its growth accelerating with the construction of two canals in the early 19th century. A few decades later, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was authorised to build a central repair works for the new Great Western Railway a few miles north of the old settlement, resulting in further expansion, and Swindon’s transition from a market town to a railway town. With the works came a workers’ community, the first houses appearing in 1846, terraced cottages on parallel grids, a model village in Bath stone. The Mechanics’ Institute, formed in 1844, offered a series of evening classes, concerts and lectures in borrowed factory space, moving into purpose-built premises ten years later with the support of The New Swindon Improvement Company, a local co-operative. These organisations helped to make the railwaymen among the best-educated manual workers in the country. The Institute also established the UK’s first lending library, starting with a small collection of books gathered by toolmakers; and a health centre, built up through a subscription-based medical fund, that provided first the railwaymen, then other Swindonians, with a cradle-to-grave service that Nye Bevan later adopted as a blueprint for the NHS.
The town was still expanding in the 1960s, even as the power drained from the railway works, its role downgraded from locomotive building to rolling stock maintenance. The Pressed Steel Company, a car manufacturer, had rapidly overtaken the GWR works as the largest employer, rivalled by Plessey (electronic components) and Vickers (aviation), orbited by secondary industries. Many of the employees of these companies were Londoners, incomers, overspill, rinsed from the city; others had relocated from South Yorkshire, following Plessey’s decision to close its Rotherham unit and open a new factory in Swindon; and some were Polish refugees, temporarily quartered in POW barracks after the war, at the sharp end of the housing shortage. North of the railway works, the new estates of Pinehurst and Moredon saw their prefabs gradually replaced with brick houses; to the east, the even younger suburbs of Walcot, Park South, Park North, Covingham and Lawn, a mix of council and private estates. During this period of expansion, the borough council also offered support to small groups seeking plots of land on which to build their own homes from scratch. The land for these projects, provided by the council as part of an interest-free loan package, was mostly sourced in the east of the town, in the gaps between light industry and open country. In April 1961, a group of 14 men entered one of these gaps, a small piece of the Lawn estate, and started to dig out their settlement.
The Tenby Close self-build scheme included bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and plasterers. Among them was my father, a carpenter, newly married, employed by a local building firm, with which he would remain for the next 38 years. Under the terms of the scheme, the men were contracted to work on the site for a minimum number of hours per week, with any extra hours at their own discretion. My father worked all day on Saturdays and Sundays, and a few evenings during the week, the hours lengthening as the scheme developed. Throughout the two years spent building the close, my parents lived with my father’s mother in her council house in Wroughton, a large village south of Swindon, close to The Ridgeway, an ancient track that spans the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs, and Avebury, where the track has its origin, shadowed by chalk mounds and chambered barrows. It’s unclear if or how often my parents visited these landscapes, as most of their waking hours were spent at work. Towards the end of the self-build scheme, the men drew lots for each semi-detached house, an agreement drawn up to ensure consistency in their collective endeavour, to write fairness into the design. My father drew number 6. My mother joined him in decorating their new home, their first and only home, finally moving in during the cold spring of 1963. The total cost of the house to them was £2,000, including the land, the legal expenses, the laying of road. They’d reached it by hard work, applied skill, thrift, patience, love, at a time when this was enough, when the means were enough, and the ends were enough.
The first years fly, a son, then a gap, a second son, another gap, another son. The edges of the house soften, the work is continual, to adapt, convert and extend. The sitting room loses its partition, the attic gains stairs, windows, a bedroom. In time, it is followed by an extra garage, the other serving as a workshop, and a white room for white goods. Most or all of this my father does himself. The cupboards are built-in, the shelves recessed in the walls, dry glaze on dark timber. It is a deceptively plain craft, done without fuss or fetish, there are measurements, pencilled plans, materials sourced and cut to size, edges meet or do not meet, there are adjustments, slowly, millimetre by millimetre, the angle is made, and everything fits, and everything works. Nothing is left undone or unfinished. Outside of the house, the firm loads him with jobs, scattering the Wiltshire downs, some landing in Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, but most of them in or near Swindon, new space, old space, set fast in concrete. A thought, in the 1970s, of setting up in business for himself, he and my mother discuss this, she would do the accounts, but the uncertainty, the insecurity, he will not put his family at risk. It is a thought put to one side. And he does not put his family at risk, he does not neglect them, he is gentle and giving with his wife and sons at the end of the worked hours. He takes us to the lending library, where we think for ourselves, to the swimming pool on Milton Road, a legacy of the medical fund, to the hides, forts and clumps south of Swindon. He builds, and the buildings stand. He builds a school, the comprehensive that my brothers and I will attend, a fact of which I am ignorant for years. I learn to build, with Lego and Meccano and then with bits of dark I find in the wardrobe, built into my bedroom wall, idle blocks of pitch. I climb inside and close the doors behind me. I am six or seven. I fold my knees and wait for the blackout, falling back to the war, to a time before me, a time before our house, a time before colour. I fall further, the wardrobe is a limestone barrow, action figures on the damp ledges. And I fall out of time, into space, the dust disc east of Mars, the asteroid rubble. On corrugated cardboard all the known planets line up, in felt pen, red, green and blue, each pleat stands for ten million miles. I scrunch my shut eyes and see a mass drift. Dim spheres, a field of gas giants, dots of light beyond Saturn. The wardrobe ends with Pluto.
All the men are gone from the close, now, my father among them. Several days after he died, my mother handed me a list, names and numbers, men my father had worked with. Names I’d never heard of, names from the 70s, some my father hadn’t seen in decades. My mother wanted them to know what had happened, that the asbestos had caught up with him, and to thank them for their help in the last months, their best recollections of their working conditions, the statements given to the industrial disease lawyer appointed by my parents. I called each number in turn, not knowing how to begin, how to introduce myself, how to find the tone. “It’s Ray Lewis’s son”, I would start, then stop. I knew what my father meant to my mother, my brothers, the branches of our family, neighbours, friends and acquaintances, but I hadn’t heard it from these men, men who perhaps knew him only slightly, but who now sounded as stricken as I felt. Mostly they wanted to thank him, as I did, for the things he’d done, and how he’d done them. He was not a man who sought credit or craved status. Whatever anxieties or disappointments he experienced in his life were shielded from his family. As far as careers advice went, his only wish for his sons was that they didn’t follow him onto the buildings. The most professional worker I ever knew, he was naturally suspicious of amateurs with expensive tastes, of confidence and bluff, but there was no bitterness in his voice. To be ‘made’, to be ‘self-made’, didn’t interest him. To ‘make something of yourself’ was not to elevate yourself above others, but to make yourself useful, to do your best, with the resources at hand. And he did this, I think, to the end of his short retirement, making dolls’ houses, restoring my brothers’ houses, tending his allotment, cleaning the neighbours’ gutters. The craft and the slog, never one without the other. Even when illness diminished his own resources, he was still working, and working for the best: showing us not what to build, or how to build, but that it was possible to build. On occasions after his death, I would visit the community centre in Lawn, the centre that my mother and other local residents had spent decades campaigning and working for and finally secured, and look to the cabinet he’d constructed in a corner of the hall, discreet and useful. It’s still there, of course, years later, loved and remembered.
i.m. Raymond Lewis
01.12.1934 – 23.08.2007