Of Time and The City – Family and Kinship in East London

Family and Kinship in East London – Michael Young & Peter Willmott (Pelican, 1962)

The old Pelican juggernaut rolls on. Fresh from learning all about the global mercenary situation in 1976, it was time to jump backed to the 1950s to see what family life was like in East London in a book that I only found out yesterday has been described as “arguably the most influential piece of sociology in Britain in the 20th century” – blimey!

As soon as I started reading Family and Kinship I felt like I was onto something special. The authors introduce the work by stating its purpose: “This book is about the effect of the newest on one of the oldest social institutions. The new is the housing estate… The old institution is the family.” (p.11). Brilliant, I thought. This was exactly why I wanted to collect Pelicans in the first place, not just for their lovely colours but for their value as snapshots of bygone times, easily-digestible historical documents.

In a nutshell, the authors undertake a study to explore two things: what is the nature of ‘kinship’ in Bethnal Green, a highly working-class district in East London, and how is it affected by the removal of some families as part of slum clearance exercises by London County Council, which had given these families shiny new semi-detacheds on a brand new housing estate called Greenleigh.

They start off in Bethnal Green, and most of the book is dedicated to family life here. Central to this family life was the Bethnal Green “Mum”. Young and Willmott use a sociological sample of East Enders to illustrate the matriarchal bent of life in the district. Bethnal Green was a place where “Mum” ruled supreme long after daughters had left the house. They chart how families stayed in touch, and how husbands often found themselves subsumed into wives’ families. The portrayal of Bethnal Green as a sort of idyllic paradise where people were financially poor but rich in family life is no doubt idealised to a degree, but elements of working-class life resonated with my own upbringing. In which we as children saw our Mum’s mum and her family far more often than my Nan, who herself keeps court over her children, and grandchildren. The two abiding factors accounting for a healthy social life were, according to the authors – the place of residence, and the length of residence. People never moved far away in Bethnal Green, and thus their relationships with their families of origin stayed strong. Even husbands would regularly visit their own parents in the course of a week.

These first three quarters provide a fascinating and often amusing glimpse into a world that must have long disappeared. Here is how Young and Willmott described the economy in the early 1950s:

You do not have to live in Bethnal Green, you only have to take a bus down the main street, to notice that this is a place of many industries. You pass tailors’ workshops, furniture makers, Kearly & Tonge’s food warehouse, and near to Allen & Hanbury’s big factory. The borough has by itself a more diversified economy than some countries. But the borough has no frontiers: it belongs to the economy which stretches down both banks of the Thames. At its heart is the largest port in the world, which lines the river for nearly twenty miles from London Bridge to Tilbury, and supports on every side a web of interconnected industries – ship-repairers and ship-suppliers, docks and lighterage, stores and depots, railways and motor transport, and the thousands of manufacturers, warehousemen, and merchants who process and pass tea and coffee, palm oil and wool, spices and hides, meat and wheat, from half the world on into the metropolis and the interior.

After a long exploration of the family life of Eastenders, we move with some of them to a new housing estate – Greenleigh in Essex (probably now itself completely subsumed within Greater London). Greenleigh was a housing estate of the type which sprang up all over the country in the twentieth century, as older slum clearance took place in Britain’s bombed-out cities. Unlike older settlements, these estates were specifically designed to be better places to live. Young and Willmott describe the place thus:

Less than twenty miles from Bethnal Green open the automatic doors of the tube train open onto the new land of Greenleigh. One one side of the railway are cows at pasture. On the other, the new housing estate. Instead of the shops of Bethnal Green there is the shopping centre at the Parade; instead of the street barrows piled high with fruit, fish, and dresses, instead of the cries of the costermongers from Spitalfields to Old Ford, there are orderly self-service stores in the marble halls of the great combines. In place of the gaunt buildings rising above narrow streets of narrow houses, there are up-to-date semi-detached residences… Though the Council has mixed different types of houses, row upon row look practically identical, each beside concrete road, each enclosed by a fence, each with its little patch of flower garden at front and larger patch of vegetable garden at back… Instead of the hundred fussy, fading little pubs of the borough, there are just the neon lights and armchairs of the Merchant Venturer and the Yeoman Arms. Instead of the barrel organ in Bethnal Green Road there is an electrically amplified musical box in a mechanical ice-cream van. In place of tiny workshops squeezed into a thousand backyards rise the first few glass and concrete factories which will soon give work to Greenleigh’s children. Instead of the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries, there are the drawn-out roads and spacious open ground of the usual low-density estate.

Having recently seen Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (based on JG Ballard’s novel about how tower-block living can warp the psyche) I was very much in the mentality to read about public space, urban design, and so on. In fact, Young and Willmott’s description of what happened in Greenleigh reminded me very much of the excellent classic of anthropological writing, James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, a book about how grand government-planned schemes, designed to improve peoples lives and which often seem fantastic on paper, often fail to achieve their well-intentioned goals. In that book, Scott – consciously evoking an older book, Jane Jacob’s The Life and Death of Great American Cities (which is also a Pelican and top of my list of ones to acquire)  – notes how changes to urban space which are design to improve people’s quality of life actually fail to do so because they destroy existing social practices and structures. These new communities prove far less communal and far more insular than the ‘inadequate’ ones they replaced. In effect, Young and Willmott argue that this is exactly what has taken place in Greenleigh to the families who moved out from Bethnal Green, many of whom seemed to have given up close family ties for the rat race and perpetual status anxiety about who had the nicest clothes on the street, and so on.

But my facetiousness aside, there were real social consequences for the families who moved away. Social lives suffered, with neighbours being poor substitutes for “kin”. Greenleigh, while safer and cleaner, seemed immeasuably duller too: ‘[o]ne reason people have so little to do with neighbours is the absence of places to meet them… at Greenleigh practically no one goes out at night” (pp.142-3). The then-brand-spanking-new television was replacing human contact as a source of entertainment (remember that any time an OAP whinges about today’s technology-obsessed youth). Worse than this, living out at Greenleigh often created much greater difficulties if a member of the family was sick. In the East End where family members lived much closer to each other, they could rely on these informal support networks to tide them over. In Greenleigh distance and cost made this, and subsequently the effect of any sickness on the family, much harder.

Ultimately, Young & Willmott move in their conclusion to recommended a more considered approach to town planning. They argue that planners should consider people not buildings to be the foundation of happier, better lives and – where possible – should upgrade and improve existing inner city communities, or move them en bloc to preserve existing social relations. I would love to know what, if any, impact the book had on government policy – though the proliferation of thoughtlessly-designed urban and peri-urban spaces that continued to spring up throughout the twentieth century suggests to me that it was limited.

As well as being highly readable and focusing on a very interesting subject. Young & Willmott take pains to clearly explain their methodology for the layman, and throughout are often careful to qualify their statements, reminded the reader that they could only be certain of what their sample told them. While British society has moved quite a way on from its state as described here, the book remains and compelling account of a particularly close kind of family life. I am giving it four brutalist tower blocks ∏ ∏ ∏ ∏.

Notes on condition: I have a love-hate relationship with ephemera (the fancy word for stuff people find in books). Part of me, the part that doesn’t like cracking spines or bending pages over to mark my place, despises it. I was once a librarian at my college in uni, and remember vididly spending entire shifts ‘cleaning’ out books students had written all over (it was part of the job, remember that when you scribble your inane thoughts all over a library book). However, as these Pelicans are universally second-hand, and as I have bought them as historical objects – I am going to try and give a run-down of ephemera for any ephemera nerds out there among the several readers of this blog (tell your friends people!).

This copy of Family and Kinship, from 1962 – making it three years older than my dad – is actually in remarkable decent shape for its age. The spine isn’t cracked, though there has been some kind of serious bendage on the front cover. On the first page of text, someone has underlined the words “housing estate” in blue pen for reasons that shall forever remain unknown. Most heinously, some goon has torn out the final page of text containing pages 211-212 so the authors’ explanation of their methodology comes to an abrupt stop two pages early.


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