Deanne Walker has written two books about Essex plotland communities, first “Basildon Plotlands: The Londoners’ Rural Retreat” by herself and then “A Portrait of Basildon Plotlands: The Enduring Spirit” with Peter Jackson (who maintains a plotlands website.) The books are complementary pictures of plotland experiences and history and so I’m going to post about them together.
“Basildon Plotlands” is based on her own childhood experiences of her parents’ chalet in the 1960s to 1980s, and is primarily concerned with the “weekenders” who used huts as holiday homes in the countryside. “A Portrait” has more emphasis on the other group, the “residents”, who lived in their huts full time.
This division is still reflected in plotland communities that have survived into the 21st century such as Carbeth and the Humberston Fitties (where year-round occupation is the subject of a legal dispute with the council.) One of the strengths of the plotlands before the 1948 planning laws was the way in which boundaries between leisure and residential dwellings could be blurred to respond to the changing needs and wants of their owners.
“A Portrait” devotes a chapter to the plotlanders’ experiences during the Second World War when this flexibility allowed families to partially move out of their East End homes and occupy their huts to avoiding the bombing. For example by the mother and children moving permanently and the father joining them at weekends.
For some families the move became permanent if their home in London was bombed and when the housing shortage of wartime and its aftermath made their place in the country the most attractive option.
Both books describe some people’s transition from weekenders to residents when they retired, with familiarity of their chalet being more attractive (and cheaper) than a flat in the city. Again this is a testament to the flexibility of this kind of housing.
One of the important features of the plotlands was the ownership of their own plot of land by the individual chalet owners. This led to some very long periods of occupation, far longer than you might expect for a static caravan pitch for example. Many of the plots had stayed within generations of the same family since they were originally bought before the First World War. As “A Portrait” shows, this often led to groups of families being plotland neighbours for generations, even if only at weekends in many cases. The books’ co-author, Peter Jackson, is a graphic demonstration of this, as the son of parents who met as children on neighbouring plots.
Furthermore, the plotlands developed a strong community spirit including improvised entertainments, rudimentary services like water standpipes, and a supply of groceries by delivery boys (like Peter Jackson) who were willing to negotiate the unmade roads in all weathers. I’d not realised that the near universal practice of giving names to plotland chalets was needed to be able to receive the post in areas without properly laid out and numbered streets. This practice does seem to occur even in modern locations like the Humberston Fitties where the chalets are also officially numbered, so I suspect both the desire to name your property and the practicalities of receiving the mail are aligned.
The presence of residents helped sustain all this for both themselves and the weekenders, and they also appear to have significantly contributed to the security of the plotlands by their presence. As the efforts of the Basildon Development Corporation to destroy the plotlands came to their ultimate fruition in the 1980s, the last few owners experienced vandalism and break-ins at a level they were unprepared for.
“A Portrait” describes this process in its later chapters, although with less of the attention to the administrative and ideological background dissected in “Arcadia for all” by Hardy and Ward. One of the most chilling passages is a comment by the Labour minister for housing who revealed the government’s animosity to the mostly working class East Enders who had the audacity to own their own land. If the State decided they would be permitted to continue to occupy their plots after compulsory purchase, they would nevertheless be denied ownership on principle: “Freeholds should be in the hands of the community and transfer of land should be leasehold only.” As Walker and Jackson say “For the residents who had probably previously rented rooms or houses in London … and might therefore have been the first in their family to own their own piece of land, this edict from above constituted an intolerable outrage.”
Deanne Walker’s first book, “Basildon Plotlands”, touched on elements of this controversy, but also has more material about the weekenders that her own family represented. She begins with a vivid description of travelling out from London on a Friday night, opening up their chalet in the dark, settling in, and then waking up in the countryside with all the possibilities of a weekend stretching out before them.
It is the more personal of the two books, although both of them are well illustrated by photographs taken by the authors’ own families and friends. It also covers the practicalities in more detail, including experiences of constructing the chalets with “real DIY” (in a way which would have made Jonathan Meades proud.)
In my next blog post I will write about a visiting the preserved Haven Plotlands Museum in the one chalet the Basildon Development Corporation decided to keep as a historical record of what they had destroyed. But I’m going to end here with a comparison of the kinds of kits plotlanders were buying and building in the 1930s and today’s equivalent. The picture on the left is from Albert’s catalogue of chalet kits and one of the options was used to build the chalet “Eleanor” on the Berry Park Estate. On the right is a Lugarde log cabin you could buy today.