“The Proud City” is a wonderful bit of film freely available on the Internet Archive. Made to sell the idea of the Abercrombie plan for London, it is passionate about the need to tackle the unsanitary conditions in which much of London’s inhabitants were forced to live, and about the benefits to all of a planned city where transport moved freely, where children had somewhere to play, and where ‘communities’ would thrive and develop. It also provides a great window onto the people and the landscapes of wartime London. I especially like the ‘men from the ministry’ types in their hats and three piece suits clambering over rubble and into living rooms, tape measures in hand.
The Abercrombie Plan (more accurately ’plans’ – there was the County Of London plan of 1943 and the Greater London plan of 1944) has its roots pre-war, but the same thinking behind the 1941 Beveridge report into social security – that common sacrifice in wartime should result in common benefits in victory – provided a catalyst for the Plan to be drawn up. And like Beveridge, who fought against the five evils of squalor, want, ignorance, idleness and disease, the Abercrombie plan set out to tackle London’s own miseries of “decay, dirt and inefficiency”.
(As an aside, you have to feel sorry for Abercrombie’s co-author, J H Forshaw. Although Abercrombie was the main author and driver behind the plan, Forshaw seems to have been almost entirely forgotten. This blog post will do little to rectify that – I am using ‘Abercrombie’ as a name for the plan itself.)
Further impetus was of course given by the fact that there was almost literally a clean slate where the Blitz had razed whole areas (50,000 homes in inner London were destroyed, over 60,000 in outer London); across the city as a whole over 2 million properties had suffered some bomb damage. In its scale Abercrombie is similar to the plans drawn up the previous time large areas of the old city needed to be redeveloped, after the Great Fire, with Sir John Evelyn’s plans and Wren’s vision of the City both giving long, wide, straight roads linking new urban spaces.
Certainly, the scale and ambition of the Plan would have had no hope of even being considered had not wartime devastation meant that some form of citywide reconstruction had to happen; the Plan prescribed widened roads, factories to be moved, new housing to be built around new public green spaces and the resettlement out of the city of a huge number of the current population. And this wouldn’t just be new build on bombsites as thousands of surviving buildings would need to be cleared to make way for the vision. Continue reading