Untold history of London’s boroughs
Half a century has passed since Hillingdon and all of the other London boroughs came into being, and their story is being told in a new book. reports.
IT IS hard to imagine a London without Ealing or Harrow, or a time when Hillingdon was just rural farmland outside the border, but it wasn’t all that long ago that the 32 London boroughs that we know and love didn’t exist at all.
In April this year, the London Boroughs celebrated their 50th birthday. Professor Tony Travers, who works in the Department of Government at London School of Economics, has written a book celebrating half a century of London boroughs.
London’s Boroughs at 50 tracks the growth and development of London since the new system of local government was introduced in 1965 and roots out some of the quirkiest stories about each Borough’s past.
Tony said: “One of the great joys of doing a book is that you have to come up with extra nuggets of history which have probably been denoted but are never told as part of the history of London.”
The section on Hillingdon explores the early days of the borough when it was still a very new addition to London, with its farmland just beginning to be engulfed by the urban sprawl.
The Labour leader there in the 70s was a municipal expansionist who oversaw the building of the Civic Centre in Uxbridge where Hillingdon Borough Council has its headquarters.
“It is probably the most important civic centre built by any council since 1965,” said Tony.
He said that it is comparable only to the civic centre built in Kensington and Chelsea in terms of the impact it had at the time and how architecturally striking it was.
The book uncovers some interesting stories on all the west London boroughs and it is these little snippets of history that have helped form each borough’s unique character.
Hounslow, for example, prided itself on being a highly modernized micro welfare state.
In footage from films made about the area shortly after the boroughs were created, you can see a crane delivering a new computer to the council offices.
“The computer was as big as a car,” Tony laughed, “And by having it, Hounslow was the zenith of modernity.”
Ealing and Brent were important industrial centres and it was in these areas that women first began to become part of the labour force.
“The factories making televisions and washing machines were part of a social as well as an industrial revolution,” said Tony.
Tony’s book also touches on Kensington and Chelsea’s extraordinary transition from poor to wealthy and how, as hotels sprung up along Cromwell Road, it earned itself the nickname ‘Costa Cromwellia’.
One thing Tony highlights in the book was how much of a contentious issue road building became in London after 1965 and how the new borough councils actively shaped London’s development into the city it is today.
The Greater London Council (GLC), which was often at odds with the borough councils, proposed a network of major roads running outwards from the city centre, and all linked to one another, which would have resembled a giant spiders web.
Thanks to opposition from the new borough councils, these plans never saw fruition and the GLC was eventually abolished in 1986.
It isn’t the first book that Tony, who lives on the border of Westminster and Camden, has written about local government and politics and it is a subject that is clearly very important to him.
“I think that for most people, ‘government’ is what they see outside their front door. This is what has more of an impact on your life,” he said.
“Local politics are the basis of all our politics. Even members of parliament are locally based and in that sense what the council does is important democratically.”
Writing the book was no mean feat and to unearth these stories took months of research.
“I was relying on national collections of newspapers and national newspaper archives, local history societies and books about architecture,” he said.
“But you can’t really understand a place until you go and explore it in real time. Hillingdon still has some countryside in it which is even more interesting for a big city borough.”
Given the almost constantly changing nature of Britain’s local government system however, what does the future hold for London’s boroughs?
According to Tony, change at the moment isn’t something high on the agenda for the oldest local authorities in the country.
“I think that the boroughs as they are currently are broadly understood,” he said. “Over the 50 years they have existed they have done a lot. Most councils’ social services departments work well, most have reasonably good schools.”
While he couldn’t pick his favourite borough, Tony understands why everyone in Britain says that their own borough or district is their favourite. “All the boroughs have a character,” he said, “and they are all very interesting.”
n The town crier in the London Borough of Hillingdon in the 1960s. Tony Tr Travers’ book London’s Boroughs at 50 chronicles the story of the Capital’s local co councils from 1965 until the present. Inset below, Tony Travers Photo Hilingdon Council