Exhibition: Unlocking New Town Archives

If you think new towns are dull, built of concrete and lacking in culture the New Jeruslems project encourages you take a fresh look…..


The New Jerusalems project is making accessible for the first time, archives from eleven post-war New Towns in England, Wales, and the Republic of Ireland. New Towns were a key part of the ‘New Jerusalem’; the post-war welfare state which also created the NHS. They represent a radical approach to building whole new communities. New Towns went beyond just providing a house, and built into the fabric of the town all the other features of the welfare state including the healthcare, education, social welfare, secure employment, and greenspaces. Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past there was an opportunity, to use a modern phrase, of ‘building back better’.

Lord Reith, who founded the BBC, was the chair of the Committee that established the first New Towns. Peoples’ lives would be made better by good quality housing, healthcare, and education. Culture was important too, and new towns were provided with theatres, arts centres, and sculptures by some of the best known artists of the day. New Towns were places of experimentation, with innovative architecture and new ways of organising neighbourhoods. The 15-minute neighbourhood, where all your daily needs are met in walking distance of your home, was pioneered in the New Towns. They attracted some of the most important architects and designers, and their work was shared widely through photographs, posters, and brochures. We hope that by sharing just a few of the many thousands of maps, plans, drawings, brochures, and photographs, you find something that makes you look at New Towns in a fresh light.


New towns represent a big departure from the sprawling and unplanned developments of the 1920s and 1930s. Before any homes were built, detailed masterplans were prepared by a development corporation. Stevenage was the first New Town to be designated on 11th November 1946, and the Stevenage Development Corporation was established soon after.

Stevenage New Town Master Plan, 25 March 1949
[Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Ref. CNT/ST/15/1/2]

The first Stevenage Master Plan of 1949 was drawn up for a population of 60,000, with housing located to the east, separated from industry to the west. Six neighbourhoods were planned which would consist of 10,000 homes, each with their own community centre, pub, and shops. Everyone would be within walking distance of the things they need in day-to-day life. Open spaces were an important part of the thinking behind the New Town, and they are clearly marked on this Master Plan. One of the neighbourhoods was the ‘Old Town’ which incorporated the pre-existing small market town of Stevenage.

Stevenage was to be the first town in the country to have a completely pedestrian town centre; a radical idea at the time. The planners were unsure about entirely removing cars, and prepared drawings showing the town centre with and without traffic. These are interesting to current residents, to see an alternative future of what their town might have been. They are also of great interest to people studying the history of planning and urban design.

Redditch was part of the second wave of New Towns that were begun in the 1960s.

The Redditch Development Corporation (RDC) launched the Master Plan in an exhibition in March 1967. Archivists working to catalogue the collection found one copy of the Master Plan tucked inside a Report on Planning Proposals. This substantial volume was prepared by Chartered Architects and Town Planners Hugh Wilson & Lewis Womersley, with input from the Landscape Architects Michael Brown. The key principles of the Redditch Master Plan are: amenities within walking distance; fast-moving vehicles separated from pedestrians; dispersal of traffic to avoid congestion; and new developments relating to existing buildings and the natural landscape. The New Town was designed for a balanced of population including different age groups, family structures, and employment. Numerous statistics were collected to ensure the plan would best accommodate an estimated population of 35,960, later increased to 90,000.

Redditch Development Corporation Basic Plan Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Ref. 009.12 BA1422626

The ‘plan form’ arising from the principles can be likened to a necklace, the beads varying in shape and size representing the districts such as housing and industry, and the string the public transport system. Visually, the proposals are marked out clearly on the plan with striking simplicity. It incorporates bold blocks of colour, combined with hatching, cross hatching, and other patterns to represent the mix of land use. The archivist who worked to conserve and catalogue the Redditch materials remarked that, it would not look out of place as a retro-poster on the wall of a chic converted warehouse apartment. 

Masterplan launch exhibition at Redditch College, 1967. Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Ref. BA11883-93(xxvi)


New Town Development Corporations were undertaking the ambitious task of building whole new communities. Despite lacking the roots of a traditional town, a tight-knit community quickly grew in the New Town of Shannon. Brendan O’ Regan, the chairman of the Shannon Development Company, looked into New Towns in the UK and was aware of the importance of forming community ties amongst the isolated new residents. A qualified social worker was hired as a community officer who helped new residents settle into the town. This community officer gave residents typed details of social activities, organisations, and services in the town. An annual ‘Getting to Know You’ ball was also held by Shannon Development, beginning in 1960.

By 1977 there were 80 organisations and clubs in the town, and the facilities included churches, schools, community halls, health centres, sports clubs, swimming pools, tennis courts, children’s play areas, handball alleys, and two pubs. Discos were held in the community hall, supper dances in one of the pubs, and dinner dances in the local hotel. Films were also shown every two weeks in the community halls. There was a drama group that presented plays once a year. There were traditional music sessions every week and the only jazz band in the county was based in Shannon, with performances every weekend. In the summer, sports events at the Community Centre were a fun and informal way to meet neighbours.


New Towns have been sites for experimentation including: the first pedestrianized town centre (Stevenage), and the first residential high rise building in the UK (The Lawns in Harlow).

The public were sometimes wary of these new designs, and architectural models were a great way to demonstrate new ideas in architecture to a cautious populace. Although West Sussex Record Office does not hold any architectural models of Crawley New Town in its collections, the New Town archive does include several photographs. This particular model, pictured below, was created to show a design called the ‘Star Flats’, and were built in the West Green neighbourhood in Crawley. These blocks were three storeys high and had nine dwellings to each block. This was a compact but comfortable way of living, making use of all available space whilst not impacting the quality of living new towners expected.

Crawley Star flats model. West Sussex Record Office. Ref. cnt 8-2-2-33

As the first New Town in Ireland, Shannon took inspiration from existing New Towns built in the post-war period. Shannon Development Company built 136 flats and ten executive houses on Drumgeely Hill in response to the need for accommodation for the workers in the Airport and the industrial estate. The designs for Shannon also drew on aspects of the Garden City Movement and the Radburn Design Principles.

Downes, Meehan and Robson were hired as architects. Fred Rogerson was a specialist in interior design as well as town planning. Overall, twelve full time technical staff were employed making plans for the town at the development corporation, Shannon Free Airport Development Company. The flats were ultra-modern for the time, with conveniences such as under-floor heating and fitted kitchens with electric cookers and refrigerators. The blocks themselves had laundrettes, elevators, and rubbish chutes.

Working as an architect in a New Town was an exciting and prestigious opportunity. As a result, the New Towns attracted both experienced and ambitious younger architects. The artist Victor Pasmore famously designed housing at Peterlee from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Pasmore collection at Durham County Record Office contains a number of his architectural drawings and plans for the town. Peterlee had been envisioned as a miner’s utopia, but the early building of the town had been arduous and, architecturally speaking, uninteresting. Pasmore changed all that, and he and his design team purposefully ignored entrenched architectural cultures of the day.

Early layout sketch of Southwest 5 area in Peterlee by Victor Pasmore. Durham County Record Office Ref No: D/VP Acc 8326(2)

In the early plan above, Pasmore’s artistry and vision can be seen quite starkly. The reason for showcasing this particular plan, is the way it documents the working design process. It has pencil sketches around the sides and on the back, as well as the odd coffee stain! With these details, the plan gives off a sense of Pasmore and his team working feverishly on their brave foray into town planning and urban design, however many cups of coffee it took to succeed.

Green space

Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning said during the second reading of the New Towns Act in May 1946, “Large numbers of people are living in grossly congested and overcrowded conditions, and there is almost always a serious lack of open space”. Open space and in particular green space, is therefore prominent in New Towns. This drawing of Stevenage illustrates the importance placed on the provision of communal open space, to ensure residents had places outdoors to relax in, to benefit their health and wellbeing.

Architectural drawing of a terrace of 3-bedroom, family houses, as seen from the garden common, with a young girl picking flowers, 5 May 1949. Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies. Ref. CNT/ST/793/24/1/3.

The illustration is drawn by the prominent British architect, Leonard Manasseh. After serving in the Second World War, Leonard Manasseh joined as an assistant architect at Hertfordshire County Council and then as a senior architect for the Stevenage Development Corporation in 1948 – 1949. The Stevenage New Towns collection contains numerous drawings by Manasseh during this period. During his career Manasseh had a close relationship with the Architectural Association, as a teacher and, from 1964 to 1965, as its president. This was an important way that the New Town Movement reached an emerging generation of young architects. Manasseh also had close ties with the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and he was elected a Royal Academician 1979.

The nature of play was also changing. Adventure playgrounds were a departure from the formal park layouts in Victorian towns. Those built immediately after World War Two made use of bombed out sites, rubble and junk. By the 1960s the movement for adventurous play had matured, and it was seen as good for children to take small risks while playing. Those in the new towns often used left over building materials including concrete, timber, pipes, and bricks. These examples from Basildon and Warrington are representative of many built at the time.

The Bracknell Development Corporation tried to retain as much of Bracknell’s woodlands and natural landscape as possible while developing Bracknell New Town. The Corporation also ensured part of each architectural contract was set aside for landscaping. Many residential neighbourhoods today are surrounded by woodlands because of the Corporation’s work. These houses in Heathermount and Woodmere in Harmans Water Neighbourhood, like many others in Bracknell are surrounded by woodlands. The homes were designed by Anthony B Davies and Associates and built between 1970-1972.

Homes in Harmans Water Bracknell . Royal Berkshire Archives.  Ref. NT/B/A5/6/3/5

Residents were encouraged to explore their new surroundings on foot, and assisted in doing so with leaflets and brochures. The Redditch New Town Walks was a series of leaflets containing walks in and around the New Town. The maps were accompanied by a description of the route along, pointing out things in both the natural landscape and the new urban landscape that you would see along the way. The descriptions were prepared by Roy Winter who was a landscape architect for the Redditch Development Corporation.

Redditch New Town Walks No. 1 – Woodrow Centre to Town Centre (about 1 hour) 1974. Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service Ref. BA10300/787 (xxxiv).

The series of walks aimed to not only provide residents with guides to the pedestrian routes in the town, but also give interesting information about features of the town, areas of natural interest and the wildlife found there as well as the history of the area. The walks could provide a ‘basis for pleasant evening and week-end rambles’. They were accessible by public transport, so they opened up walking around the town to everyone, promoted exercise, and increased access to the greenspaces.


Health was built into the New Towns, by creating a good environment in and around the home. In South Wales, the New Town of Cwmbran was built to address the exceptionally poor public health with malnutrition, diphtheria, and tuberculosis present in the 1940s. These illnesses resulted from very low-quality existing housing and economic deprivation. Moving to a modern home in a well-designed neighbourhood was key to improving health. The Development Corporation was focussed on raising health standards, and also on providing medical advice in neighbourhood centres that would improve health – for mothers and young children in particular.

Maendy Way, West Pontnewydd, Cwmbran. (1954) Gwent Archives. Ref D2603/C/3447

Dedicated healthcare facilities were important too, and Development Corporations built new medical facilities into the fast growing communities. If you were not feeling well in Crawley New Town, you could easily visit your neighbourhood doctor’s surgery. Crawley Development Corporation early designs were for live-in surgeries, like many practices were pre-NHS. It shows the curious mix of the new NHS and pre-war ideas about how healthcare was organised. Here, you can see an architectural plan of a doctor’s house and surgery designed for Southgate neighbourhood in 1955. Dr Philip Wynn Jones was selected as the local health officer and he occupied this property. Dr Wynn Jones acted as the local GP for residents for many years. The plan shows that the surgery area had almost the same ground space as his living area.

Crawley Doctors house and surgery in Southgate plan. West Sussex Record Office.  REF. cnt-1-3-34


Employers were attracted to New Towns with their promise of modern workplaces and good quality housing for employees. For example, Waitrose and Partners opened its new head office, central warehouse and vehicle workshop in the Southern Industrial Area, Bracknell. The warehouse had an innovative design; at seventy feet in height and with a storage capacity of more than 2.2 million cubic feet, it was the first high bay warehouse in Britain. Waitrose and Partners are one of the many companies which relocated to Bracknell and its central warehouses are still located in Bracknell today. The drawing is a fine example from the many architectural drawings in the Bracknell collection: hand drawn and finished in watercolour.

East and west elevations of Waitrose warehouse stage 3 In Bracknell 1971-1972. Royal Berkshire Archives. Ref.NT/B/G4/194/21

The New Towns in the south-east of England benefited from businesses wanting to leave older and crowded workplaces in London. An example of this is the Yardley factory in Basildon. It was designed by David Creighton Branch and John David Morgan. In 1963, Yardley acquire a lease on the site at Pipps Hill No.2 Industrial Estate at 4 Miles Gray Road, Basildon and built a factory. They started transferring their operations and warehouses from Stratford in east London to the new plant in 1965 and completed the move in 1966. Although the factory has now been demolished, the area is still called the Yardley Business Park.

‘Basildon – Yardley factory by night’. ‘A Stanland Photograph’ by C.G. Stanford of Little Waltham, number 8775, c. 1965. Essex Record Office. Ref. catalogue ref: I/Mp 22/1/10

Several of the new towns got a boost to their employment from their proximity to growing airports including Crawley and Harlow. But the strongest connection was between Shannon Airport and the New Town. Shannon Airport started out as Europe’s most important transatlantic airport. Transatlantic flights had to stop at Shannon for refuelling from 1946 until 1959, when jet planes removed the need. Shannon Airport provided a model for future developments, as the world’s first duty free shopping generated significant employment.

Accommodation in the area was scarce and the shortage was increased by the development of a new industrial estate near the Airport. There was also a lack of public transport, and in the early days, workers had to travel on private bus for staff to and from the city of Limerick. It became clear that nearby housing was badly needed for workers if the growing Airport and industrial estate was to be successful. There was pressure on the Shannon Development Company, as businesses were reluctant to invest in the industrial area if their skilled workers could not be housed nearby. Between 1963-1966 with employment in the industrial estate doubled.

Aerial shot of the Industrial Estate at Shannon Development, featuring the Rippen Factory, and the flats and houses for employees, in March 1962. University of Limerick. Ref. SDN_LF_4273M

EI Electronics opened its factory in Shannon the industrial estate in 1962. This company was a great success, and went on to become the biggest supplier of smoke detecting equipment in Europe. Workplaces, including EI electronics, opened up many opportunities for women to work outside the home. EI Electronics remains in the Shannon Industrial Estate, with a significant workforce to this day. 

Women at work inside the E.I. Factory in May 1963. University of Limerick. Ref. SDN_LF_5894  

This striking image below shows employees modelling clothes made at the Runpoint clothing factory on Newton Aycliffe’s industrial estate. The colours, fashion and hairstyles radiate a sense of time and place, and the factory employees modelling some of the garments shows a certain entrepreneurial 1980s flair. It illustrated the vital role that industry was intended to play in the success of Newton Aycliffe as a New Town. The first factories in the area pre-date the new town and were for the Royal Ordinance, producing munitions in World War Two. New housing and an available workforce encouraged other business to locate in Newton Aycliffe. 

Photograph of the Runpoint factory, Aycliffe Industrial Estate, Newton Aycliffe, five Runpoint factory workers pose while modelling clothes made at the factory, n.d. [c.1980] Durham County Record Office. Ref No: NT/Ay 7/5/1/13(5)

Public Art

New Towns were about more than a place to live and work. Bracknell Development Corporation’s motto was ‘Home, Industry, Leisure’. They wanted Bracknell’s residents to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled. To help achieve this, the Development Corporation purchased and renovated South Hill Park Mansion, transforming it into an Arts Centre. The Italianate mansion was built in 1760. In December 1962 the Corporation purchased South Hill Park from the BBC. In 1969 it decided to transform South Hill Park into an arts centre for the local community. The Corporation created a trust with Bracknell Parish Council and Easthampstead Rural District to govern the Arts Centre. South Hill Park Arts Centre opened in 1973 and continues to serve as an Arts Centre today.

South Hill Park, Bracknell. Royal Berkshire Archives. Ref. NT/B/G26/4/14A

But culture in New Town was not confined to arts centres. New Town Development Corporations were keen to democratise the arts, putting artworks in public places including shopping centres, parks, colleges and neighbourhood centres. Eduardo Paolozzi was a widely renowned artist and one of the founders of the Pop Art movement in Britain. His work features in many prominent locations including at Tottenham Court Road underground station, the University of Birmingham and British Library. At the Kingfisher Centre, he created 12 mosaic panels inspired by the rich industrial history of Redditch, which celebrate the town and it’s community. The mosaics were created using hand cut and painted tiles and took three craftspeople two weeks to install. They can still be seen today in Millward Square today.

The unveiling of mosaics by artist Eduardo Paolozzi at the Kingfisher Shopping Centre in April 1983, Redditch. Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Ref. WAAS Ref: 499:4 BA11883/93(ix)

Artists working in New Towns had to balance their desire to produce modern artworks, with more cautious attitudes towards contemporary art from residents. One way of balancing the two was to produce works in a modern style, but choosing subject matter that would appeal to residents. New Towns were very popular with young families, and artworks that feature a mother and young family would get a warm reception. An example is the Mother and Child fountain by Maurice Lambert in Basildon. It was commissioned in 1959 to symbolise the growth of the New Town. The statue stands in Basildon’s Town Square near to Brook House and was unveiled in 1962. It is now protected with Grade II listing. The sculpture was used frequently in publicity materials prepared by the Development Corporation to promote life in the New Town.

Looking to the future

The 1970s marked the beginning of our current concern for the environment when Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were founded, Earth Day started, and The Good Life was one of the most popular shows on TV. In the early 1970s, work had just begun to build the New Town of Warrington, where planners embraced this new environmental awareness in society with an ‘Ecological Planning Approach’. This distinctive approach was implemented by the visionary landscape architect Rob Tregay. There was a lot of emphasis on young people including an urban ranger programme. This provided educational activities, particularly engaging the New Town’s younger residents.

Risley Moss Nature Reserve in Warrington. Cheshire Record Office. Ref. NTW_147_5_127_001

We are once again seeing the value in forest schools and other outdoor learning; and many young people today are passionately concerned about the environment. The world has changed so much since 1946 when the first New Towns were designated. There are practical lessons we can take when designing new communities, such as locating everyday facilities in walking distance. But the most important lesson from the New Town Movement is that it is possible to Build Back Better.