During the Second World War 25% of the housing in West Ham was destroyed by enemy bombing, (some 14,000 houses being destroyed and 500 acres of land cleared). Most of the houses that survived were in poor condition and were without modern amenities. After the War the Council implemented modern building programmes but by 1965 when the London Borough of Newham came into being, there were around 8,000 names on the Council’s housing waiting list. This was a situation repeated all across the country.
High rise blocks seemed to offer the solution. Built using new, fast industrial building techniques, which used a high degree of prefabrication, tower blocks sprang up all across the UK, assembled from pre-fabricated concrete panels lifted into position by crane and held together by bolts. ‘System-built’ blocks – an easily assembled structure “more like a giant meccano set than a work of architecture.” – were an easy way to build lots of houses quickly, and in the year previous to the disaster, 470,000 new flats and houses had been built- the largest number recorded.
The sheer scale of this production meant that architects were often not directly involved in the production of these blocks – this was considered more of an engineer’s job. But in some ways the massive sprouting of tower blocks, estates, huge housing schemes, owed much to the utopian ideas of modernist architects like Le Corbusier, who envisioned self-contained egalitarian living machines that would enrich their residents lives… Now whether or not these visions were flawed (a debate that runs and runs), the way the watered down version of it actually put into practice was a top-down, hierarchical, one-size fits all, like a car-crusher for people, jamming them into concrete boxes and expecting them to be grateful. It wasn’t long before the flaws in the building processes blew up – literally – in people’s faces.
In Newham the first stage of the programme started with the demolition of the Clever Road area of Custom House. Ronan Point in Butchers Road was one of nine identical tower blocks that were built. Over 200 feet tall, with 22 floors and containing 110 flats, Ronan Point was handed over to Newham Council on 11 March 1968 and by the second week of May only eight flats remained vacant. Replacing a previous generation of slum housing, small back to back houses with outside toilets, the new spacious flats with underfloor heating seemed at first to be a new start. It’s fair to say that politicians of all stripes felt that working class people should be grateful to be granted a chance to move to the new street in the sky, didn’t much care for their opinions or take notice of their problems, and did their best to push cost cutting when they could. Many were also on the take from the developers building the blocks, and turned a blind eye to massive shortcomings in their construction.
On 16th May, 1968, Mrs Ivy Hodge wandered into the kitchen of her 18th floor flat in Ronan Point. She leaned over her cooker and struck a match. Instantly, an explosion blew out the pre-cast concrete panels which formed the side of the building. The entire end of the block collapsed like a house of cards. Mrs. Hodge survived, but five other people died. 17 were injured.
The explosion happened when most people were still in bed but if it had happened an hour or so later when many when people would have been in their kitchens having breakfast, the death toll could have been much higher. Remarkably, Miss Hodge survived the incident and was later treated in hospital for shock, cuts and burns.
The inquiry into the cause of the disaster found that “gas had escaped into the flat due to a sub-standard brass nut joining the flexible connection from the gas cooker to the gas supply pipe. The explosion occurred when Miss Hodge struck a match to light her cooker.”
Ronan Point and other system-builds had as much to do with politics as with architecture. Municipal leaders saw high-density housing as a means of preventing population drain: the more people they governed, the stronger their city’s position would be vis-a-vis Whitehall. And since the 1956 Housing Act introduced subsidies to local councils for every floor they built over five storeys, there existed a clear financial incentive to build high.
Ronan Point was in effect a visible symbol of post-war political rhetoric. When people saw these blocks going up quickly, they could be sure that whichever government was in power was striving to fulfil its promises to tackle the housing problem.
Unfortunately, quality control, certainly at Ronan Point, was almost completely absent. When local architect Sam Webb examined joints within the structure he found them to be filled with newspapers rather than concrete. Instead of the walls resting on a continuous bed of mortar they rested on levelling bolts, two per panel, and rainwater was allowed to seep into the joints. The whole weight of the building was being taken on these bolts, which were under enormous pressure as a result. This caused the load bearing concrete wall panels to crack.
The inquiry recommended that “gas supplies should be disconnected from those existing tall buildings, the design of which renders them liable to progressive collapse, until they have been strengthened.”
Politically, Ronan Point also undermined careers of several prominent local and national politicians, as the press began to investigate connections between them and companies which specialised in system-built tower blocks.
Ronan Point also later served as a crucial point for tenants organising. Moved back into the block when repairs were made, told it was now safe and fit to live in, it took several years, but a concerted campaign eventually forced the council to close the block , rehouse them and demolish Ronan Point in 1986.The entire Freemason estate has now been replaced with two-storey terraces. In the face of a system that ignored their views to impose an alienated way of life in cheap shit flats badly put together, Newham tenants turned it around…
Today, other pressures are now central for London’s social housing tenants. The determination of the very classes that imposed Ronan Point and its ilk, on those they considered fit only to be pushed around like counters, is now to destroy social housing almost entirely, and rid the city of as much of the working class who cannot pay vastly inflated rents and mortgages as they can. But the ‘counters’ are standing up, refusing to be manipulated… interestingly, a trend that also might be said to have its spark in Newham, with Focus E15 … is a new tenants movement beginning?
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online