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.

12 comments on “Thamesmead: London’s No-Go Zone”

  1. Cherry Kent says:

    You really ought to take a better look before you criticise the area it would appear that you haven’t been here recently.

    A great deal of regeneration is going on and Southmere Lake is still home to a variety of water birds.

    Also you missed a trick “Misfits” the most popular teen programme for years was also shot in Thamesmead on and around Southmere Lake.

    Yes we have a bad press but most of the crime is committed by gangs from nearby Woolwich and the majority of residents on Thamesmead are ordinary law abiding citizens who just want to get on with their lives.

  2. admin says:

    I certainly would never disrespect the residents, Cherry, I went there a few months ago, and couldn’t see much difference – but then I’m seeing it from the outside. Southmere Lake is easily the most attractive part, and I hope there have been changes. The fact remains that it should never have been built in the way it was, and it’s thanks to the energy and resilience of the residents that it survives.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    London’s wild horses?

  4. Alan Morgan says:

    True. I used to manage a store in west London and lived in and knew well south London – but when a couple of members of staff said they lived in Thamesmead I had never heard of the place. Indeed and for some reason thought it sounded like it could be found in Berkshire, somewhere towards Reading.

    It’s a little amusing though that expressing a mild dislike for the place results in Chris receiving a slating. Clearly we are not prickly enough herebouts and something therefore we should keep one eye upon rectifying (also, we should mix more metaphors). I shall do so forthwith!

  5. Steve says:

    Metaphormix, brought to you by the folks who strangled the world with wheatabix (oh, and more poor spelling please)!

    Mustn’t mex your mitaphors.

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    Metaphormix and Wheatabix were in Asterix & The Droogs weren’t they?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    So, there’s a song called Wild Horses of London, but I can’t get a context from it. Why were there wild horses in London?
    And any discussion that can reference Asterix is a wonderful and fruitful one. No, ‘highly productive’ would be a better choice of adjective.

  8. moid says:

    If I was going to do a British re-make of “Escape from New York” I’d have Tony Blair crashing in Thamesmead, having failed to make it back to City Airport in his executive jet. All the elements are present, tunnels, derelict buildings, the concrete monstrosities, gangs, weapons, drug crazed residents. Perhaps “the duke” could have turned HMP Bellmarsh into his stronghold.

    The tower blocks would provide an excellent location for the modern day “Snake” to land his glider too.

    I’d cast Ray Winston as “cabby”, Benedict Cumberbatch as “brain”, but am stuck for casting the lead role of Snake Plissken. Jason Statham isnt quite right, perhaps Gerard Butler. Suggestions? Perhaps Michael Caine as “Hauk”.

  9. filmlocations says:

    Thamesmead is awesome.

    It also has a ww2 pillbox and a massive wasteland that is for in case london floods. There is a whole housing estate bit to the north that has little rivers everywhere. But it might as well be in Reading it takes that long to get there and back

  10. mbowoade says:

    What a load! I lived in Thamesmead for over a year, in the SE28 postcode no less, and never had a problem. In fact, I loved it! I walked home from work AFTER DARK (gasp) alone many times, and was never even accosted. Coming from the plains of Alberta, I found the place one of spectacular beauty. There was a canal behind our house where we could feed the geese; there were gorgeous tree-lined parks everywhere, and quiet Thames side walkways, and lakes where the swans floated. There were wetlands where the herons roosted, and secret fantasy-like places that you could only find by accident. The residents weren’t always nice but the majority were peaceful, normal people just trying to live normal lives, as Cherry mentioned. Yes, the cement block houses were disgusting, but when I left, they were in the process of being torn down, and had been mostly replaced by well-kept red brick apartments with white windows and roses growing in the front. Now that I’ve left, I miss the place every day. Perhaps you ought to go there, Chris. You might be surprised at the changes. After all, IT IS NO LONGER THE NINETIES. In case you haven’t noticed.

  11. admin says:

    Fair comment – I’ll go down to check it out again. The article was about Thamesmead’s past, though, not its present. I’m glad it has changed from being the ‘Floodplain Estate’ to something better.

Comments are closed.