Thamesmead: A late 20th century New Town

The Need For Housing

By this time, largely due to the effects of the war, London’s housing situation was critical. Pre-fabricated houses such as the ones that stood for a time in Brook Street, Belvedere, were being put up as a temporary measure to cope with the shortage. But a long-term solution was desperately needed. Some of London’s overcrowded population might be tempted out to Harlow, Hatfield and other towns built outside the metropolis in response to the New Towns Act of 1946, but it was clear that a development within the capital was also needed.

In 1963 a report highlighted the age and condition of much of the housing in inner London and declared that 500,000 new homes were needed in the following 10 years. The Erith marshland had been mostly unused but some was given over to allotments that were cultivated by the residents of Abbey Wood. The area was inhospitable and unsuitable for housing, but the expansion of London meant that land was desperately needed.

Over the years various efforts were made to drain the land and protect it from flooding. The site originally chosen for development by the then London County Council straddled the London Boroughs of Bexley and Greenwich, which were created in the mid-1960s.

Thamesmead was actually developed by the London County Council’s successor, the Greater London Council (GLC), in conjunction with these two boroughs. The Ministry of Defence’s decision in the early 1960s to give the LCC 1000 acres of marshland previously occupied by the Royal Arsenal gave impetus to the project.

In 1966 the Woolwich-Erith Project, as it was then known, was formally launched by Sir William Fiske. In the foreword to the launch document, Sir William wrote: "It would be hard to exaggerate either the challenge or the opportunity which this three-mile stretch of London’s riverside offers to all those concerned with the planning and execution of its development. From land which has for centuries formed the marshes of Plumstead and Erith and in part has been given over to the munitions of war, a community of 60,000 will rise over the next 10-15 years. Between the broad reaches of the Thames and the hills of Abbey and Bostall Woods, a desolate scene will be transformed for the well-being of Londoners." (Woolwich-Erith: A Riverside Project, Greater London Council, 1966)

The project was not without its critics, who described the choice of location as ‘ridiculous’ because of the problems involved in land reclamation and building on peat, and also because of pollution from the nearby sewage works and heavy industry and incineration on both sides of the river.

The architect Richard MacCormac appraised the project in the Architects’ Journal in 1972 and made reference to this, stating how absurd was: ‘the decision to build a new community at Thamesmead, on 20ft of peat, next to a major sewage works and under an umbrella of pollution from Barking (on the north bank) and Belvedere power stations, which is obnoxious enough to prohibit building above 200ft’.

But the architects saw the problems associated with the site as a challenge. They were determined to design buildings that would thrive in this type of environment. There was the added incentive of offering homes to 60,000 Londoners who were desperate for decent housing.