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​The Thamesmead Estate

The basic idea behind Thamesmead was to create a new model community of social housing that avoided all the problems that plagued previous high storey developments. Uniquely in London, this meant that an entire community infrastructure had to be established from scratch. David Luck looks at the considerable range of archive and other sources held by London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) which illuminate the history of Thamesmead, one of a number of housing estates for which LMA holds material.

After the Second World War the London County Council (LCC) was responsible for building housing in some of the ‘Expanded Towns’ between 30 and 100 miles from London, such as Andover, Haverhill, Huntingdon and Thetford. By 1962 it had completed 200,000 dwellings. Its plans to build its own New Town, initially proposed for Hook in Hampshire, eventually materialised in the building of Thamesmead on the Plumstead and Erith marshes by the Greater London Council (GLC), which had replaced the LCC in 1965. Mention of the project can be found in the LCC minutes from 1962, and the plan was solidified in ‘Woolwich-Erith: A Riverside Development Plan’ from 1966 (LMA reference GLC/DG/PUB/01/027/0049, with a draft in GLC/DG/PRB/35/001/237), which outlines the plans for the estate that became Thamesmead.

Archives at LMA

The land for Thamesmead was reclaimed from the Woolwich Arsenal, and was extremely marshy. This led to the unique design of Thamesmead, described as a ‘town on stilts’. Some of these plans relating to different stages of the estate are held at LMA as part of the GLC Building Act case files series (use the online catalogue to search ‘Thamesmead’, and filter by ‘Files’ and then sort by reference code - the GLC files begin GLC/AR and are listed as including plans).

However, some of the more striking design work (some photographed) lies within the printed material used to explain and promote the project, including 'Thamesmead A Riverside Development' published by the GLC in 1967 (P28.061 THA), which contains many different design drawings and plans (some pictured), and other GLC publications about Thamesmead (held under our library ref P95.541 THA). There are also GLC films publicising Thamesmead available on our youtube channel:

Thamesmead 1970 an introduction to the project; and Living at Thamesmead, a fictionalised account of living on the estate, designed to attract new families

Thamesmead design drawing

​Thamesmead design drawing

​For photographs go to Collage searching for ‘Woolwich’, ‘Erith’ and ‘Woolwich-Erith’ also returns results.

The basic idea of Thamesmead was to create a new model community of social housing that avoided all the problems that plagued previous high storey developments. The architects wished to use the water features to calm and engage the community, and the new landscaping of the estate was perhaps the most impressive part of the plan.

Uniquely in London, this meant that an entire community infrastructure had to be established from scratch. At LMA we also have files on the building of a new church in the Diocese of Southwark collection (DS/OP/1973/033), schools in the ILEA collection (ILEA/DBPS/AR/01/157 - ILEA/DBPS/AR/01/159), as well as a sewer and road system (GLC/AR/SW/07/001).

Although the GLC had inherited the capital projects of the LCC, by the early 1970s its powers for housing development and control passed to the relatively new London Local Boroughs. In the early 1970s it had some 250,000 dwellings under its control, but by 1982 this had shrunk to just 45,000. Many of the estates built by the LCC had been transferred to new owners, either new ‘owner/occupiers’, or the mass transfer of estates to other Local Authorities. However, the GLC remained the only organisation large enough, and powerful enough, in London to see the Thamesmead development through. The Thamesmead Committee 1967-1984 presented papers (in series GLC/DG/HG/15) and minutes (in series GLC/DG/MIN/214) reflect the general development of the building work and the progress of the estate, though they do not mention the social issues the estate had to cope with. Representatives of Bexley and Greenwich Local Boroughs also sat on the Committee.

However, from the start Thamesmead suffered from major planning problems. The basic estate when opened in 1969 lacked even rudimentary social facilities and a town centre. In her study of Thamesmead, Valerie Wigfall talks of the disorientation suffered by the new inhabitants because of the relative isolation of the estate. Thamesmead was also a victim of political instability. In the initial stages funding was lavished upon it, despite clear problems with the overall scheme. However, by the recession of the late 1970s, and following the election of a new Conservative Government, this had dried up. With no central resources available and only half the estate built, there had to be a rethink of the general plan, and a move away from the uniform style of the first blocks.

London Community Builders (ref GLC/CB) was formed in 1982 to take on the operational functions of the Housing Department. A large part of the London Community Builder’s job was to enter into private arrangements to build the remainder of the estate. The resulting buildings looked startling different to the first part of the Estate, and more like suburban houses with gardens, though often with ingenious designs to counter the marshy nature of the land.

Thamesmead houses

​Thamesmead houses

​When the GLC was abolished in March 1986, Thamesmead was passed initially to the London Residuary Body. In 1987 Thamesmead was transferred to Thamesmead Town Limited (TTL), an organisation whose executives were directly elected by the Thamesmead community. In 2000 TTL was wound down, and replaced by two organisations: Galleons Reach Housing (a subsidiary of Peabody Housing) manages the existing structures on the estate, and Tilfen Land (owned by Galleons Reach Housing and Trust Thamesmead) owns the remaining undeveloped land.

Further reading

This essay has been heavily informed by Valerie G Wigfall’s excellent ‘Thamesmead: A Social History’ (The History Press, Greenwich 2009) which contains a vast amount of detail and analysis of Thamesmead. LMA has a copy under reference 28.061WIG on the open library shelves.

Dr Wigfall’s notes and other papers from this project are held at Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre  under their collection PEWIG, and they also hold many photographs and other collections relating to Thamesmead.

Thamesmead was a large and important development so there is much useful and important information in contemporary media coverage, especially the architectural press.

12 May 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018