A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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PART I - Introductory

(i) Historical

The growth of the Willesden Borough has been closely linked with the overall development of the Greater London area. In the various stages of its growth can be seen reflected the way in which London has been transformed from a compact urban area of fairly small dimensions into a vast, sprawling conurbation, densely populated and congested at its centre, but with a continuously expanding fringe of dormitory suburbs. In the passage of years this continuing development has reached, included and passed beyond Willesden, leaving in its wake serious and far-reaching problems of town-planning.

About two hundred years ago, Willesden was no more than a small rural parish absorbed in quiet occupations appropriate to an agricultural community. The contact of this community with the outside world had been, for years before, restricted to encounters with travellers on the old Roman highway of Watling Street, or with pilgrims to the famous shrine of the Madonna at the parish church (1) . It was not until toward the end of the eighteenth century that Willesden ceased to enjoy this comparative isolation, and began to assume much the same functions for contemporary London as do the Home Counties for the capital of our own day. Willesden had gained some popularity as a health resort because of its mineral springs, situated in Kilburn, off Watling Street (Edgware Road). Probably it was partly because of this that the district had come, by the 18th century, to be regarded by wealthy London people as a suitable spot for retirement. Already communications had been improved. There had been, by the turn of the eighteenth century, a well-established coach service between Church End and the City of London, which catered for business men living in the district. In 1801, the Paddington Cut of the Grand Junction Canal, fringing the southern boundary of the parish, was opened. Finally, with the coming of the railways in the nineteenth century, the opening-up of the Borough was assured (2) .

In 1875 the district was still predominantly rural, apart from a small area of housing development in the south-eastern corner adjacent to Paddington. In the forty years that followed, the speed of transformation was more than doubled: by 1914 the character of the district had changed beyond all recognition (3) . In this period the population of Willesden rose from a mere 3,000 to as many as 164,000. The increasing industrial and commercial development of the central London region was resulting in the decentralisation of the resident population of the inner area of the city. In the course of this population movement formerly undeveloped districts fringing the city, including the greater part of the County of Middlesex, became residential suburbs for the working population. In Willesden itself provision of houses for this population was at first concentrated on the existing narrow roads and lanes, especially near the railways and in the central area near the parish church of St. Mary's.

[1] This figure was credited with miraculous powers in curing disease. During the Middle Ages, Willesden had gained some notoriety because of the hucksters who accompanied the pilgrimages, selling their wares, and so forming an unauthorised fair. In 1538, as a result of an order by Thomas Cromwell, this, in common with other notable images, was burnt.

[2] See below, pp. 14, 16.

[3] Cf., “When Kilburn was a Pretty Village: an octogenarian's interesting recollections,” in ‘The “Willesden Monthly Illustrated’, 1937: “In the days of my youth,” said this man, “there were delightful country lanes, fine trees and lovely green fields, chiefly pasture fields for horses, cattle and sheep, but there were also some cornfields, too, about the place. Many a time I have stood in the middle of the lane and looked up and down, and never seen a living creature.”

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The form of local administration eventually developed into one more appropriate to the increasing importance of the district. For many decades, local affairs had been discussed at meetings of the Vestry. In 1875 this system was replaced by a Local Board of Health; and in 1895 this was superseded by an Urban District Council, the old four wards being increased at the same time to seven. Later, in 1909, the district was split into eleven wards, and it was in this form that Willesden continued to be administered until 1933, when its status was raised to that of a Municipal Borough, with a further subdivision of wards (1) .

By the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Willesden had lost much of its character as a place of residence for the wealthy and had become rather a dormitory suburb for city workers. In addition, by 1914, industry had already begun to move into Willesden, in search of space and lower operating costs, and assured of a sufficient skilled labour supply by the outward movement of the London population. The Great War itself was the final stimulus which created the first concentration of industry to appear in north-west London; and after the war had come to an end, Willesden, in common with other north-western boroughs, became a centre for light industry (2) . The district had ready-made factory sites in the area intended for the Wembley Exhibition, there was flat backland becoming increasingly accessible through the construction of roads giving rapid access to the west end of London, there were extensive railway facilities, and there was clean air. For new and expanding firms in search of accommodation, Willesden was in many ways an ideal area.

In the meantime, all available land was gradually becoming built-up. Cricklewood and other areas, which had previously been meadowland, were opened up by the improvement of the road system. By 1938 practically all the residential development that was possible had been completed, (3) yet housing accommodation had not by any means kept pace with industrial development. The demands for labour made by these industries were so great that a considerable proportion of their workers came, and still do come, from outside the Borough (4) - although these, in part, take the place of Willesden people whose place of work is elsewhere.

During the recent war, the Willesden population fluctuated greatly, influenced by the official evacuation schemes, the drift back during periods of freedom from air attack, and renewed evacuation following the resumption of bombing. While there was some outward movement of industry from Willesden to less vulnerable areas of the country, this was offset by a greater movement into the Borough, and by the expansion of existing engineering, etc., firms. Indeed during the war employment in Willesden's industry had increased, even

[4] “In 1861 there were no less than three councils holding authority in our parish. There was the old Vestry then there was the Hendon Union consisting of 28 guardians, of whom Willesden sent 4; and the Edgware Highway Board to which Willesden sent only 2.” With the increase in population, “all kinds of new problems and difficulties confronted the Vestry. The problems were the most acute in Kilburn and it was even suggested at the Vestry that Kilburn should be joined to Paddington.” Potter S., “The story of Willesden”, 1926, p.224. When the Vestries were replaced in 1875 by the Local Board of Health, the situation is described by another commentator in the following terms: “The balance of power was retained by Kilburn both as regards population and rateable value, the other (wards) being agricultural and sparsely populated. With no direct routes and no methods of communication there was little intercourse and less cohesion between the scattered hamlets that constitute what came to be known as the rural end, and little interest was taken in annual elections”. Crone, J.S., “Rambling Recollections”, in ‘The Willesden Chronicle’, September, 1933. This lack of cohesion seems to have persisted in the Borough until the present day.

[5] See below, pp. 14, 16.

[6] See Map 5, P. 15.

[7] See below, pp. 61, 63.

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when the total population had decreased.

The total population, which in 1939 had stood at 188,000 or more, was about 40,000 below this figure in 1945. But the return of service men and of evacuees, coupled with an influx of new immigrants from the badly bombed areas of east and central London, had brought the total to 180,000 by September, 1947. These demands upon space in already overcrowded borough have created problems which can only be solved through drastic replanning, and voluntary movement of population.

(ii) General Characteristics of Willesden today

The Borough of Willesden is roughly triangular in shape, with its apex in the north and its base running approximately east-west. The eastern boundary coincides with the Edgware Road, following the line of the old Watling Street, and cuts off Willesden from Hendon in the north and from Hampstead in the south. From the point of view of planning, this boundary could scarcely be improved, since the main road and its traffic forms an effective barrier between the districts lying to the east and to the west of this line. A more definite east-west boundary than the present one might be expected to lie along the line of the main L.M.S. railway, but in fact some parts of the Borough overlap this line. It seems likely that the Carlton and Park Royal districts, for example, have more natural ties with Paddington and Acton respectively (which they adjoin) than with Willesden, of which they form a part at the moment. The railway forms a considerable obstacle to the proper integration of these areas within the rest of Willesden.

The western boundary of Willesden follows closely the line of the River Brent - a river having little importance today, and having little relevance, in an urban area, as a restricting geographical factor. Today, the natural western boundary of the Borough appears to run along the line of the arterial North Circular Road - which is a much more potent delimiting factor than the river. Here once again those parts of Willesden lying to the west of the road are comparatively cut off from the remainder of the Borough.

In addition to the fragmentation of the district which has resulted from the position of the boundaries in the south and west, the interior of Willesden is also remarkably broken by the numerous railways running through it (1) . In broad terms, there are three great half-circles, one S - N.E., and two E. - W., while there are also great marshalling yards at Church End (which has railway works in addition), at Willesden Junction and in Stonebridge. Thus, assuming that each of the lines is equally obstructive to social cohesion, the Borough is split into as many as seven mutually isolated districts. Some of these railways are less of an obstacle than others, but they are still, (and especially for the pedestrian) restrictive to internal movement. In general it may be said that central Willesden, which comprises Willesden Green, Roundwood, Harlesden, Manor Ward and Brondesbury Park, can only with some difficulty keep in adequate contact with the rest of the Borough. The outlying areas, consequently, tend to look outwards to adjoining Boroughs rather than inwards to their own. Neasden and Cricklewood, for example, more easily associate themselves (as interviewers on the present inquiry found) with parts of Hendon or Wembley than with the older Willesden to the south; and similarly with Stonebridge and parts of Church End in the west.

Nor, when we turn to an examination of Willesden's road system, is this picture particularly modified, except, perhaps to accentuate it (2) . Two main London traffic arteries cut through the Borough: the North Circular Road and the Harrow Road; but these, like the railways, tend to restrict rather than to encourage communications within the Borough. The smaller internal roads still follow much the same pattern as the narrow lanes and

[8] See Map 2 p. 8

[9] See Map 3 P. 10

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tracks which served the farms and hamlets of rural Willesden. Well adapted as they may have been to such circumstances, today they have to carry all local pedestrians and supplies, as well as metropolitan traffic and the considerable suburban movement of workers and industrial goods. Their narrowness, and their tortuousness, make communication across the Borough difficult. Moreover, the land on the Borough's boundary has been so utilised (e.g., by railways, factories, etc,) that pedestrian exit or entry has been restricted to “a dozen or so points, which cannot be increased except by constructing bridges and tunnels”. (1)

The road and the railway network, therefore, provides a key to the rough neighbourhoods or districts which exist in Willesden. The shopping centres within each of the fragments resulting from this network usually form the only pivot, however vague, of these neighbourhoods; and even these centres are unsatisfactory when, as they often are, they are built along main traffic roads. Nevertheless, the population, it seems, feel themselves to be members of these neighbourhoods rather than of Willesden as a whole.

Turning now to some more specific aspects of Willesden, a general lack of coordination frequently appears - or where coordination exists it is misplaced. For example, while in the main streets shops, dwellings, workshops, and small factories are intermingled without any consistency of style or of function, many of the purely residential streets share the uniformity of style which characterises much of English suburban development.

Yet, while within districts there is architectural monotony, there is considerable diversity between the districts themselves. At the bottom of the housing scale are the ageing and ramshackle three-storey-and-basement houses of Kilburn and Carlton, almost tenement in character, and first amongst the Borough's plans for redevelopment. At the other extreme lies the Brondesbury Park district, mainly large detached and semi-detached residences occupied, generally speaking, by the wealthy middle-class of the Willesden population. Between these extremes lies scattered what approximates to a cross-section of London styles of urban development. There is good, but unpretentious, middle-class housing in such areas as Gladstone Park and Cricklewood. Other parts of Cricklewood, most of Neasden, Church End and Stonebridge are largely the type of private-enterprise estate housing which can be seen on any arterial road in or near London. There are also areas of bad, almost slum, property in Church End, Stonebridge and Kensal Rise. Quite a considerable part of Willesden has a high population density of 125 persons, or more, to the acre. (2)

In the matter of open space, too, Willesden has fared badly. There is today a total acreage of public open space of 242 acres. Some idea of the inadequacy of this may be gained by the fact that, if one assumes a standard of 7 acres of open space per 1,000 of the population, Willesden would need at least 1,313 acres - or 1,071 acres in addition to that already available (3) .

[10] From the commentary to maps illustrating the Willesden Borough Engineer's provisional post-war reconstruction plan (1944). There can be no doubt that those concerned with the administration of Willesden are most concerned at the present layout of the Borough.

[11] See Map 8 p. 24

[12] Cf., Abercrombie, Sir P., “Greater London Plan, 1944 Appendix 19, Table A, p. 203. These calculations are based upon an estimate of a Willesden population in mid-1938 of 187,600. Calculations on a standard of 10 acres of open-space per 1,000 of the population shows that as much as 1,876 acres would be needed, or 1,634 acres more than at present. Even with a reduction of the Willesden population (as proposed by Abererombie) to 137,726, and calculating on 7 acres per 1,000, the Borough would still show a deficiency of 722 acres of open-space. Except for Croydon, this is the highest open-space deficiency in the inner urban ring of London.

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It seems doubtful, moreover, if additional open-space on this scale can be provided within the Borough without considerable demolition of buildings. The Map showing existing open-space also indicates the areas of undeveloped, waste and other land which has not been built upon; and it can be seen that the total of these areas scarcely equals the area of public open-space already existing, leaving (on the basis of the preceding calculation) some 550 acres still to be found.

Nor is the existing open-space well distributed through out the Borough. The two largest areas, Gladstone Park and the Welsh Harp Recreation Ground are both in the northern part of Willesden. Kilburn, a most densely populated area, is very poorly equipped: it is true that the attractively wooded Queen's Park is not far way, but it is not easy to reach from S.E. Willesden, except by the determined walker. In the south-west, Stonebridge and Church End have only two uninteresting small recreation grounds, which is less than this rather depressing area deserves. In the centre of the Borough, round Willesden Green, although it is better served (for Gladstone Park is nearby), intervening railways discourage frequent visiting.

It is against this background, then, that the data which appear in the following sections must be viewed. Indeed, as we shall see, many of the factors mentioned above were specifically mentioned by informants.



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