A brief history of Pitsea and the ideology of urban regeneration

It is not only true, but also necessary, that all that is solid melts into air and change disturbs the inner functioning of people and places over periods of time. This notion is as true as for towns, villages and cities as it is for us as humans.

But there is something significantly more influential about the disruption that is caused by a geographical location unto its human subject, something deeply and incalculably disruptive that cannot be said to be returned in kind. The task of qualifying to what extent the geographical landscape is said to affect the normal functioning of the psychical realm is little more than a footnote in the Situationists’ repertoire, yet it is their work and influence that has gone the furthest into such a collation of results. The word which has come to define the task of qualifying how far a geographical landscape is said to be a determinant on the human subject is psychogeography, and as can be expected it is usually anthropocentric in that it concerns itself with measuring the extent to which passive places alter active minds, but less is said within psychogeography of how minds alter places since this is delegated to the realm of town and country planning.

Equally, urban geography at its elementary stages tended to concern itself with the extent to which towns could influence its surrounding area. Sir Dudley Stamp in his crucial book Applied Geography drew up two points that summarised the raison d’être of urban geography, namely the ‘study of the actual town itself’ and ‘the influence of the town on its surroundings’. Now maintaining allegiance to these two points I would like to supplement them with my own, scilicet the influence with which the surrounding area has on the town itself.

Highlighting the influence furnished upon a town by its neighbouring area sutures the gap present in Stamp’s urban analysis, or what I am prepared to call topographical revealing. It is surely necessary when focusing ones attention to the location and history of a town to look at what makes it distinct, what makes it unique, whilst also observing the part it has played in developing its borders. But if one is to really reveal the power relations at play, one must go further. With this as my backdrop I can begin to reveal the relationship between Pitsea – a small town in South Essex – and London.

Observing Stamp’s agenda for urban geography and applying that to the history of Pitsea will assure some interesting revelations, including the apposite land it once had available to provide an arms factory and accommodate pillboxes during the Second World War, and how being situated on the Thames Estuary made it ideal for exporting produce. But with the inclusion of my third point, I can reveal how Pitsea has always been something of a plaything for London, an extension for its own purpose, an experiment and dumping ground, a place that jumps when London tells it to jump.

With its mention in the Domesday Book, it is acknowledged that Pitsea existed as far back as the Norman Conquest, but according to the Rochford Hundred Field Archaeological Group managed to go unnoticed by local historians. As T.C. Chisenhale Marsh’s translation of the Domesday Book relating to Essex explains ‘Pitsey is rather inland for land,’ one possible reason as to why there is little to no pre-Norman history on Pitsea, other than blind speculation.

It’s the legitimacy of this view that lends itself to the common perception that Pitsea is a kind of product of Basildon new town, a residential remainder. Its geographical location, however, does form its name, emanating from pic (point) on sea. The proximity of the point to the estuary rendered it quite ideal to install a public a railway line, especially given the uselessness of all the surrounding boggy marsh, made even more useless by its agricultural ineptitude, of which more in a moment. The Fenchurch Street line was initiated in 1852, eventually reaching Pitsea in 1854 and commenced proper commercial use by 1st July 1855, joining all other sites linked by marsh and creek, Benfleet, Leigh-on-Sea and Standford-le-Hope.

Most of the designated area for Basildon new town (all the areas once under the jurisdiction of Billericay, with its then Member of Parliament Bernard Braine) – and the south east of England – is covered with London clay, a marine deposit, well known for the fossils it creates and the immense thickness (150 meters) – able to support the deep foundations and tunnels found in and around Essex – of the Ypresian age (which span from 48.6 to 55.8 years ago), which on the geological timescale (time that is used by geologists, palaeontologists and other earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred during the history of the Earth) is the earliest stage of the Eocene sub-epoch (which span from 55.8 to 33.9 million years ago). Owing to this, much of the said area is agriculturally unsuitable. And since 40% of the area swallowed up by Basildon new town was originally planned to be agricultural heaven, a re-think was made necessary.

Pitsea and Vange were not part of the 40% of designated land for Basildon new town composing of London clay, instead they were composed of alluvium, the product of a heavy amount of dropped solid rock particles due to fast river flow, but still this meant agricultural incompetence. Production through farming and foods ceased to exist as a consequence, so another method of capital squeezing was needed (this couldn’t be any more apparent, and simultaneously a slap in the face, by the presence of a budget priced, chain supermarket called Farmfoods in Pitsea today).

The commercialisation of Pitsea was not a problem for anyone with political punch near town. Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward in their book Arcadia For All note that the landowners near the railway routes were usually shareholders or board members of railway firms; they profited from diminishing farmlands and the volume of traffic that the development of the railway would bring.

They, too, were probably happy to see the methods used by The Land Company, possibly the brainchild of Protheroe & Morris, who operated from the same address in London and the South East, and their estate agents who used techniques of wooing potential plotland development buyers with free railway tickets or cheap fares refunded to purchasers, not to mention the utterly frivolous champagne auctions they used to hold. It is noted that East London families would go out to the country for a cheap outing and come back property owners. Pitsea was soon turned into a place for Londoner weekend homes – hard to believe now. It wasn’t until 1925 that local entrepreneur Harold George Howard decided that Pitsea was going to be “something really special”. It was he who designed the Tudor style buildings around Pitsea in the thirties, the Railway hotel public house (now a place of brick throwing target practice for local bored youths, sheet metal instead of windows, grand ideas of a neolithic historical museum by idealistic councillors), the cinema (which has since been a successful bingo hall, now closed down, posters advertising local carnivals, shelter for rained-in early morning bus users), Tudor Mansions and Tudor Chambers with its cab firm, kebab shop, and betting office, and finally, Anne Boleyn Mansions used by Lloyds bank.

His legacy lives on in the row of houses bordering the park that bears his name (Howards Park), and one cannot criticise him for his earnest effort. But even he could not have helped what was to happen to the area next, despite the efforts of many men. The German forces’ bombing of East London meant that many families were forced out of their obliterated homes, seeking a safe haven in nearby towns with land to accommodate them (and incidentally, if there is one good thing to be said about the digging up and destruction of East end history for the purposes of the 2012 Olympic games, it is that excavators uncovered an unexploded bomb near to Bromley-by-Bow Tube station). It is precisely here that a parallel with settler hegemony, like that of the state of Israel, can be drawn: the Second World War brought about ghastly deaths and forced evacuations of many innocent people, but how to deal with populating another area of land was mishandled, with Israel it meant making second class citizens out of the existing Arab population, forced into suppression by the Nakba of 1948, with Pitsea, the re-accommodation of innocent people affected by the war gave legitimacy to the compulsory purchasing of over 10,000 homes, some weekend homes, some freehold owners, all for the good of Basildon new town.

After the Second World War the Tory government only had the iconography of Churchill as muscle for their election campaign, needless to say it was Clem Attlee’s Labour government that won in 1945, bringing in many of the institutions we take for granted now such as the NHS. Owing to the housing problem after the war the Labour government introduced two new acts taking control of the issue; namely the Town and Country Planning Act and the New Towns Act of 1946/7. It was the idea to create new homes where possible, but the destruction of existing homes seemed a little counter-productive. It was here that the Residents Protection Association (RPA) took force, which campaigned against the creation of a Basildon new town on the basis that it would destroy existing homes.

The Labour initiated acts generated much enthusiasm at first since it set out to clean up the district, finish unmade roads, fix unconnected sewers and deal with the cramped conditions many people lived under. However in the 1951 elections, due to the first-past-the-post system, and in spite of the fact the Labour party fielded a record number of votes (even to this day), Churchill’s Tories made it back into government. The first thing that Mr. S.A. Perry did, an owner of a London printing firm and a staunch ally of the RPA, was to write to Churchill on the 24th of September 1951 asking him to shelve the New Town plans. He received a reply from Churchill’s secretary on the 27th saying the Tories were not opposed to the act or the forming of a new town, but “the socialist Town and Country Act of 1947 imposed a most unjust basis for compensation”. After much campaigning, and even fielding George Ross, member of the RPA committee and author of The Brink of Despair: A History of Basildon 1915 – 1986, as candidate for the council, with modest success, it was realised that the slogan “Down with the New Town” had become obsolete when in the early fifties buildings were beginning to fall down.

The Rt. Hon. Hugh Dalton MP, Minister of Housing, approved the first Master Plan for the new town, August 1951.

The corporate logic over the introduction and overspill of Londoners had spelt the destruction of many people’s homes and had turned Pitsea into a consumer plot. There is something distressingly logical that Pitsea is the site of the biggest Tesco in Europe straddling over 125,000 square feet of floorspace. The new Masterplan for the area, approved in April 2007, and entitled the Regeneration, will provide Pitsea with 20,000 more square metres of retail space, which among many other things includes an opening up of Station Lane, the path that reaches the train station, which will include a French Market (and if there is one thing Pitsea is not crying out for, it is a French market). It will also fill space with 500 new homes, many of which are flats on the cusp of Station Lane itself, for the sole purpose of designing trendy flats appealing to 20/30-somethings, in order for easy access to the city; an act of blatant London subservience.

No wonder there is an ink daubing of “EC2” on the fence that blocks the site where these flats will occupy; far from being a sign that East end gangs are rearing their ugly heads in Essex, it is a signalling gesture that the re-colonisation of Pitsea through corporate regeneration is imminent.

The sum components of the Pitsea regeneration seemed designed entirely in order to make access out of it easier for part-time lodgers in trendy flats. Why else would Station Lane be such a focal point, why a French Market, why when housing prices in London are so, that millions of pounds are spent creating another bubble just waiting for 15 years of equilibrium elsewhere, before a burst threatens to cause ruin. House prices soar in London, (and so what is the thinking? Thus) let’s just move the problem to the towns, then when house prices soar there maybe the city and suburbs will be affordable again. I smell a rat – the rat of London, telling Pitsea to jump, and jump it does.

Guy Debord’s great work Thesis on Traffic opined that planning and architecture, rather than being designed to accept the automobile as its central theme, should instead phase it out in the aim of reintroducing civil society as the foreground of urban life, social relationships included. Now, in urban planning, the problem isn’t just the automobile, it is area designed only to point to the most efficient way out. As such the opening out of Station Lane spells the antiquatedness of civil society in Pitsea (like it needed any more of a reason). The problem today of urban regeneration is that it is held hostage by the infectious capital centeredness of the city; more precisely it is the influence with which the surrounding area has on the town itself. Practical geographers, under the jurisdiction of Sir Dudley Stamp, take heed.


2 Responses to A brief history of Pitsea and the ideology of urban regeneration

  1. Keith says:

    A really interesting piece mate, great

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