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‘Modernism began in Essex’: new book celebrates the movement’s birthplace

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Mary Douglas is fascinated by Radical Essex, a documentation of the county’s alternative history 

Essex – in particular its less urbanised parts – is having something of a cultural moment. Five years ago Jonathan Meades’ The Joy of Essex attempted to debunk stereotypes of the county via juxtaposition (‘Look: all you can see is piles of bling as big as slag heaps,’ voices Meades over footage of 2,000-year-old Colchester Castle). Grayson Perry and Charles Holland famously declared their love for their home county with A House for Essex, sited in remote Wrabness. More recently a documentary about Basildon, New Town Utopia, aired at the Barbican. And now we have Radical Essex, a new book that documents an ongoing project by Southend’s Focal Point Gallery to reveal an alternative history of the county.

Of particular interest is an essay from Holland surveying Essex’s more interesting architectural moves. ‘Modernism began in Essex,’ he says, with Charles HB Quennell’s design of Clockhouse Way in Braintree 99 years ago. The surprising truth is that Essex is home to Modernist enclaves that still exist today. Even Holland, at a Radical Essex event in September 2016, revealed his ‘mind was blown’ when he discovered as a student that a whole Modernist village existed only miles from where he grew up. That village is called Silver End.

Built in 1926, Silver End was an industrial-rural project commissioned by window manufacturer and ‘idealist and dreamer’ Francis Crittall. Not only did Crittall build a factory there, but he also commissioned houses for its workers; the majority semi-detached terraces, with some grander properties for management designed by Thomas Tait and Frederick MacManus. The workers – some of whom were disabled First World War veterans – were well looked after, living in houses with electricity, running water and large gardens. There was a strong civic element: a huge village hall (England’s largest) designed by C Murray Hennell, a hotel, a bus station, a picture house and even a three-storey department store.

Among the headlines when Silver End opened were ‘City of 2000 AD’ and ‘Communism in Essex Village’

In his 1934 autobiography Fifty Years of Work and Play, Crittall writes of how the idea to create the settlement came to him ‘in the small hours one morning when, in a silent house, sat with my nightly whisky and soda, calling up the future in the blue haze of my cigar… I saw a pleasant village of a new order… and above all I saw Crittall families enjoying the amenities of town life in a lovely rural setting.’

He also reveals that the choice of Modernist architects was not entirely down to design considerations: ‘We built cottages with flat roofs, this being the simplest solution to the problem of achieving maximum space… [we believed] that the primary duty of a house is to the occupant and not to the aesthetic principles of passers-by’.

It is also widely believed that Crittall designed the houses to show off his windows to best effect: a living showroom. Among the newspaper headlines when the village opened were, ‘A village of straight lines’, ‘Silver End – City of 2000 AD’ and ‘Communism in Essex Village’.

Crittalls went into decline in the second half of the 20th century – although it still exists today under new ownership – and Silver End’s heyday came to an end. The company sold most of the housing stock to the council and some of its Modernist singularities were lost to unsympathetic alteration. The department store burnt down in the 1950s, but the village hall, and Crittall’s own residence, the Manors, are still there.

Today Silver End is not a lovingly restored monument to British Modernism. In truth it’s a mixed bag: tasteful reinvigorations, pastiche, decay. The Manors is now a care home, one of three in the village. Why so many? Did the developers feel it appropriate to situate the elderly in a setting so redolent of the past? I’m told, however, that younger families have recently moved in, joining older generations dedicated to the preservation of its unique heritage. The people of Silver End take pride in being different.

The most admired houses in the village are Wolverton and Le Chateau, both designed by Tait and listed. The former has been brought back to life by its current owners and is now the ‘public face’ of Silver End. Back in the day it had a model railway in the garden, and all its furniture was also designed by Tait. Le Chateau has had a more troubled history, having been divvied up into flats at one point, and now lies unoccupied and on the Heritage at Risk in Essex Register.

Tilbury is home to Bata-ville, a worker colony set up by Czech shoemaker Tomas Bata in 1933

The village was designated a conservation area in 1983 and many of the properties are owned by a housing association. Outline planning has been granted for a 350-home new development on the edge of the village, despite local opposition. This growth could even be good for the village in the long term, making the historic part busier and more desirable. In the future, who knows, Silver End may become something of a tourist attraction – you can see one of the original houses becoming a museum. 

Essex Modernism wasn’t confined to Silver End. Head to the infamously conservative resort of Frinton-on-Sea to admire a collection of handsome properties that have benefited from being in a more prosperous location. And Silver End wasn’t even the county’s only experimental socialist community. Tilbury is home to Bata-ville, a worker colony set up by Czech shoemaker Tomas Bata in 1933, which prospered throughout much of the 20th century but is now in decline. In Radical Essex, writer Rachel Lichtenstein takes us along on a hiking trip she made with Iain Sinclair, who says: ‘[Bata-ville] was a mini benevolent communist state and as long as you went along with that you were really well looked after … Bata was family.’ Other contributors to the book include Gillian Darley, writing about the new towns of Harlow and Basildon; Ken Warpole on the religious retreat Othona; and Jules Lubbock on the University of Essex’s Brutalist campus.

All the authors have a connection with Essex, either born or acquired, and are clear that it inspires their work in some way. As such the book may hold a limited appeal to those unfamiliar with the county. I must also own up to an interest, being Essex-born and once living in Silver End – I never understood why Modernist houses felt so like ‘home’ until I returned there two years ago. 

Picking up the baton from Meades, Radical Essex goes some way in its stated aim of reversing preconceptions of the county. As Warpole says, ‘Essex is neither part of East Anglia nor one of the Home Counties; it contains both radical and conservative elements, and is therefore open to all possibilities’.

1814 fpg radicalessex book.artwork web lores 1

Radical Essex is published by Focal Point Gallery and is on sale for £20 here 

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