Gated Communities: Class Walls

Gated communities may be growing in number but they are nothing new, as Michael Nelson knows from personal experience.

The wall across Valeswood Road at its junction with Alexandra Crescent prevented ‘vulgar’ people from the Downham estate using it as a shortcut to Bromley town centre.Recently I investigated the site of the ‘class wall’ that stood near the house where I lived as a child. In 1926 residents of Alexandra Crescent, a private road in Bromley, Kent, about a third of a mile from my family’s house, built a seven-foot wall, capped with broken glass, across the road. The wall was constructed to stop the working classes from the Downham estate, like our family, entering the streets of the adjoining middle-class estate. The Downham estate had been built by the London County Council (LCC) to house people displaced by the slum clearances in the East End of London. That prewar class wall brought to mind the striking rise in gated communities, barrier-walls and the adoption of private security for affluent communities.

On February 16th, 1926 Albert Frampton, the developer of Alexander Crescent, applied to Bromley Council to erect the wall. The application was the result of pressure exerted by residents on Frampton’s estate, who objected to ‘vulgar people’ using their road as a short cut to Bromley town centre. The council declined to take a decision, but the wall went up anyway. Later there seems to have been some confusion about responsibilities because the LCC made its objections to the wall known to Lewisham Council, who decided it was not in a position to remove it.

Disputes about the Downham wall raged for nearly a quarter of a century and it was not taken down, by Bromley Council, until 1950.

In 2009 an old Downham resident recalled on a local history website: ‘My Gran was taken ill on a visit and my father had to climb the wall to get to the doctor, Dr Bellingham, who lived in Alexander Crescent. Needless to say, he cut his hand.’

I recalled from my time as an undergraduate at Oxford University that two similar class walls were built in 1934 in Oxford between the council housing estate at Cutteslowe and the middle-class Urban Housing estate. These walls were over seven feet high and topped with spikes rather than glass. In 1936 Abe Lazarus, a Communist politician, and his supporters marched on the walls with pickaxes. The police barred their way and the attempt to dismantle them failed. The Oxford city authorities eventually demolished the wall with steamrollers in a secret night-time operation on June 7th, 1938, their powers derived from the Private Streets Act of 1892. The Urban Housing Company sued the city council and a judge severely criticised the council, forcing it to re-erect the barrier.

In 1953 councils were given powers of compulsory purchase and Oxford City Council bought the strips of land on which the walls stood. They were finally taken down on March 9th, 1959. On March 9th, 2006 a blue plaque commemorating the destruction of the hated walls was unveiled on a former council house near where a part of the wall once stood.

Gated communities are not new. Loudwater on the fringes of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, St George’s Hill in Weybridge and Burwood Park in Walton-on-Thames (both in Surrey) have existed for up to a century. The walls separating Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland have increased since the ceasefire. But at the turn of this century the Labour government was so concerned about the social implications of the growth in gated communities that the office of the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, commissioned a study into them from Glasgow University, which appeared in 2003. It found that there were 1,000 such gated communities in England and 50 more in the pipeline.

Gated communities have implications for the raising of local taxes. In recent court cases in the US several groups of residents in gated communities have challenged their obligations to pay local taxes. There is now a growth in private security patrols in affluent streets in London. It can cost a participating resident £2,000 a year. The patrols are addressed more to stopping muggings than burglary. Will members of gated communities begin to object to paying for the police? Gated communities, it seems, were not conducive then and are not conducive now to a ‘Big Society’.

Michael Nelson’s memoir, Castro and Stockmaster: A Life in Reuters, will be published by Matador in December.  

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