Thamesmead: London’s No-Go Zone
I was interested to read about Stella English, the winner of the show ‘The Apprentice’, who grew up on Thamesmead and still managed to land the £100,000 job. Thamesmead is London’s most notorious housing estate, home to some 50,000 people.
In recent years it became known as the fraud capital of the UK because of its association with West African criminal gangs. One fraud prevention service told the BBC last year that Thamesmead’s SE28 postcode had the worst record for credit card fraud of any postal address in the country.
In the 1990s, when Ms English was a teenager, gangs with names like the Goldfish Gang, the Natty Turn Outs, the Firm and the Woolwich Mafia patrolled the streets there. Racially motivated murders were common, and the British National Party once planned a “Wogs Out” campaign outside the area’s rows of run-down shops.
Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was shot there. That’s how grim it is. But when I was a kid it was still marshland close to the river, home to London’s last wild horses. A local newspaper competition was run to find a name for the urban paradise that was to be built there (see the piece on architectural philistinism below) and a little girl won with ‘Thamesmead’, a bucolic image that had nothing to do with the miles of grey concrete terraces and underpasses that were shoved up there.
Thamesmead’s foundations proved inadequate and it promptly started sinking back into the marsh. Homes cracked in half, water flooded the alleys, the air was always damp. And London’s roughest families were moved in en masse.
As teenagers, we played hide and seek in the tunnels after dark, but never told our parents because it was a no-go zone. Cut off by the river on one side and a motorway on the other, nobody from outside ever went there. Why would they? Without social interaction, the inhabitants were left to create their own social rules.
This, of course, was the architects’ utopia, a fantasyland of social community that any idiot could see through. I remember the architects themselves being interviewed, condescendingly describing the working class tenants who would populate this nightmare world they had created. The only way forward with such places is to tear them down and end doomed social experiments; people need to be mixed together, not ghettoised.
The lovely film ‘Beautiful Thing’ was also shot here, and made the place look rosier. Some of the walkways are being removed but it remains an estate most Londoners don’t even know about.