I was born in Liverpool in 1952, and for the first four years of my life lived ‘above the shop’ of Grove Mount Community Centre on Penny Lane where my father was the warden. The Community Association was one of the social hubs of the local area with all sorts of meetings, classes, entertainments and drama clubs, and where the young, yet-to-be-famous Leonard Rossiter and Ken Dodd first trod the boards.
This life was in stark contrast to my father’s experience in the previous decade. Straight after the Second World War he was in Brunswick, Germany, for a year with a team from Save the Children whose aim it was to help and settle the homeless and orphaned children who’d been unwittingly caught up in the ravages of war. After this he stayed on for several more months with a Quaker Relief Team working alongside the Red Cross to alleviate suffering.
When he returned he was a shadow of his former self. How in good conscience, he had thought, could he consume his food rations while in the presence of malnourished Polish refugees who arrived at the station on cattle trucks having been liberated from concentration camps? His soon-to-be fiancée, my mother, resolved to feed him up as soon as she was able.
When war began my father had exercised his right to refuse conscription. Being a conscientious objector wasn’t an easy choice – he did his stint in prison and was judged harshly by others – but arguably he paid his dues through all his post-war humanitarian work. One factor in his decision had been his own father’s sacrifice. My grandfather, a veteran of the First World War, witnessed untold trauma in the trenches of France. Like my father he had a peace-loving nature and a desire to help others, and managed to contain the effects of shell-shock (or post-traumatic stress disorder as it’s now known) as best he could until the onset of the Second World War. However, the incessant ‘memory-laden’ sound of bombs and gunfire from anti-aircraft emplacements in north London was too much for him to bear and he gradually lost his mind.
After studying Social Administration, my father began a career in community work – trying to build good relations and understanding between people at home and abroad. After Liverpool we moved to Cheltenham where he took on the community centre which served the developing Hesters Way Estate for the next eight years.
Although Dad loved this work and wasn’t overly concerned with money, he soon realised that his modest salary wasn’t sufficient to feed what was now a family of six. He therefore took a job at County Hall, Hertford, as a Youth Probation Officer and we moved to Ware. This also helped him to be nearer, and to support, his mother and ailing father in Enfield.
Within the year an invitation came from Sewell Harris – Harlow’s first Community Association Warden at Moot House in The Stow and a notable figure in the New Town’s community infrastructure – to consider applying for Sewell’s post as his retirement was beckoning. To my father Sewell Harris was rather a hero and he was well acquainted with his inter-war years’ pioneering community work in London. He jumped at the chance, was appointed and we moved to Harlow in the summer of 1964.
In comparison to Ware in the early 60s, life in Harlow was modern and forward-thinking. Having passed my eleven-plus exam I could choose where I wanted to be educated. After consideration I opted for Burnt Mill – strongly attracted by the beautiful curve of the assembly hall roof as much as anything else. Looks aside, Burnt Mill was among the first comprehensive schools in the country and was seen as very much the blueprint for modern education. As such, highly motivated university graduates – looking for a sure-fire way to accelerate their careers – were keen to conduct their teacher training at the school.
The headmaster of Burnt Mill, Ray Stirling, sought excellence in every aspect of the school’s life. He was invited to a conference at Cambridge University which was keen to increase the number of applications from female students. On his return I was earmarked, partly due to my ‘O’ level results, to sit the University entrance exams and interviews and so became the school’s first pupil to attend Cambridge University.
My first few weeks at university were an eye-opener. Prior to leaving Harlow I’d spent a lot of time around idealistic individuals. Now, in one of the world’s leading centres of academia, I was shocked that I had to reaffirm my status as a product of Harlow New Town. I was angered and saddened by many of the half-baked snobbish prejudices that many of these highly intelligent individuals had towards my home. I did my best to explain the virtues of Harlow but it was an uphill struggle.
In 1973, with thoughts of my career leaning towards landscape design/architecture, I approached Sir Frederick Gibberd’s firm for some holiday work. After all, it was his vision that Harlow’s design should complement and develop the natural flow of the existing landscape that had so inspired me. An invitation to the Harlow home he shared with his wife Patricia followed, where he sounded me out and then agreed that I could shadow his team of landscape designers at his London office. It was an invaluable experience and not the last time our paths were to cross.
It wasn’t my intention to come back to Harlow after graduating, but it felt right to regroup and reflect before making any rash decisions. It was a decision I was never to regret. Soon after I secured a temporary position as planning assistant at the HDC (Harlow Development Corporation). My desk was in the architects drawing office with several of the key players who’d been instrumental in Harlow’s development from the start.
While there I decided to apply for a permanent job as Public Relations Assistant in the Social Development Department. My role was to inform the public about Harlow and promote or defend its interests via the press or public exhibitions, sometimes involving Sir Frederick.
Once asked by a Times reporter if he felt immense pride as he drove round the town he said, ‘No, I tend to notice the places where design opportunities have been lost.’ Despite all his positive achievements he was a modest man.
In 1978 I was part of the transfer of assets from the HDC to the elected body of Harlow Council. My role included giving tours of Harlow to VIPs, business people, students and schoolchildren. We’d often start from the pavilion at the top of the Town Hall with its commanding view of Harlow, before concluding with a sightseeing tour, with me at the front of the coach giving a running commentary. People were fascinated. Harlow was held up as a prime example of a successful and economically viable New Town.
When the HDC was finally wound up any physical assets that hadn’t been transferred to the council were transferred to the New Town’s Commission, so creaming off the profits. For the council, with dwindling budgets but an expensive housing stock and generous landscaping to maintain, further development of the town was curtailed.
In the early 1980s I was fortunate to work with Sir Frederick to produce the first illustrated catalogue of the town’s art collection, most of which he had gifted to Harlow. After his death in 1984 he also willed his home, garden and possessions to the people of Harlow for their enjoyment and education. Like many self-made men he was no doubt complex, but he was always courteous, thoughtful, charming and had a great sense of humour.
Harlow Council later suffered swingeing financial cutbacks by the government. In the 90s hundreds of staff were laid off and I opted to take voluntary redundancy. I’d had a good innings – it was time to make a clean break during what was a turbulent era for Harlow.
Still living in Harlow, I retrained and became a primary school teacher. Then in 2005 I became a student at Writtle College and qualified as a gardener with the Royal Horticultural Society. My first full-time contract was at the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green, near Much Hadham – a stone’s throw from Harlow.
Henry Moore had become a friend of Frederick Gibberd when the fledgling Harlow Art Trust commissioned the first sculpture for the New Town. The stone carving of a father, mother and child (now sited in the Civic Centre) that Henry produced came to epitomise Harlow as a place that many families eagerly came to looking for a fresh start.
I continue, as I’ve done for many years, to volunteer as a House Steward at the Gibberd Garden and I’m now a holding trustee of Moot House Community Association. However, in recent years due to family commitments many activities have had to take a back seat. I keep aware of current issues in Harlow and I’m still as passionate as ever about the town. Who knows, one day I might get more involved again – I still feel I may have something to offer.