The changing face of Blackpool's Grange Park

Grange Park was one of hundreds of housing estates built in Britain after the Second World War. Life has changed in the decades since; here Antonia Charlesworth Stack of The Blackpool Lead speaks with residents past and present...
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When Helen Bouchami’s mother first stepped into her new home on Convent Crescent, Grange Park, she danced in the living room. 

“There wasn’t a stick of furniture but she was overjoyed to have a house. It was heaven!” 

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Bouchami was just two years old when her parents received the keys to their council house in August 1948. Her father, Harold Palmer, reckoned he had worn out two pairs of shoes traipsing to the Town Hall to try and secure it.

The waiting list, even for ex-servicemen like him, was up to three years and to be eligible you had to present your marriage certificate and prove you were able to afford the rent. Priority points were awarded for each child in the family so the birth of Harold junior just days earlier had marked a turning point in the lives of the young family. 

“For the first two years of my life we were housed in my grandmother’s coal cellar,” Bouchami, who now lives in Reading, tells The Blackpool Lead. “It was condemned as unfit for human inhabitation and we all, including mum pregnant with my brother, shared a bed.” 

The Palmers were some of the first residents on Grange Park, one of hundreds of housing estates built after the Second World War, when Britain faced its worst housing shortage of the twentieth century. An estimated 750,000 new homes were required to provide all families with accommodation.

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The foundations for this mass building of homes for the working classes had been laid following the end of the First World War when the nervous British establishment sensed unrest among the servicemen returning from war and promised major social improvements.

 

Grange Park was one of hundreds of housing estates built in Britain after the Second World WarGrange Park was one of hundreds of housing estates built in Britain after the Second World War
Grange Park was one of hundreds of housing estates built in Britain after the Second World War

The passing of the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act saw legal recognition of the idea that housing was a public health issue and Liberal prime minister Lloyd George promised that returning soldiers would have “homes fit for heroes”. 

A few minor developments emerged in Blackpool but many families continued to live in overcrowded houses, basements, lean-tos and caravans.

In 1926 the vicar of Blackpool, Canon Little, visited a “colony of caravan dwellers tucked away a discreet distance” from tourists where 1,146 people, including 400 children, were living. He described one dwelling as a hut with an old sack for a door, housing a family of nine and costing 12 shillings a week.

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It was the election of a Labour government in 1945 that led to more concerted welfare reforms. The establishment of the welfare state and the NHS along with mass council house building were designed to take care of the British people from the cradle to the grave.

A call at the Grange Park Estate Office with District Housing Manager Stephanie Harrison and Repairs Officer Tony Walton, 2001A call at the Grange Park Estate Office with District Housing Manager Stephanie Harrison and Repairs Officer Tony Walton, 2001
A call at the Grange Park Estate Office with District Housing Manager Stephanie Harrison and Repairs Officer Tony Walton, 2001

Homes like those on Grange Park were aspirational – good quality housing with three or four bedrooms and large gardens for families on estates where, as Labour housing minister Nye Bevan put it, “the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to one another”.

On the eastern edge of Grange Park, set back from St Walburga’s Road on Rodwell Walk, Marine Villa is the last remaining vestige of the 70 acres of farmland the council acquired for the estate at the end of the war.

Situated 2.5 miles inland in north Blackpool, the land then contained just two houses, six cottages and wooden caravans occupied by Romani Gypsies who Bouchami remembers living harmoniously beside before the sprawling estate took more land.

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“The women would come to the door with metal buckets to ask for water and the men would whittle clothes pegs and come and sell them,” she says. “I imagine they’d been there for decades.”  

To bridge the gap in housing for returning servicemen while building took place, around 140 prefab houses were erected on the land prior to 1948. Built from asbestos, they were compact but contained everything a young family needed including a gas cooker and fridge with a tiny freezer compartment – something not even the new council houses would have.

Vivien Shoesmith was three years old when she moved into her family’s newly-completed house on Dingle Avenue in 1948. Her mother had been a Wren and her father a Royal Navy petty office.

“We’d been boarding in a two-up two-down in a small backstreet near North Station with a shared kitchen and front room and no electricity,” she says. “Not only was the new house comparatively large it was fully electric with hot water, a bathroom and two toilets. We had a laundry and coal shed, a kitchen with an electric stove and a coke stove for heating. Apparently I liked it but wanted to know when we were going back home.” 

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Despite the modern conveniences life was semi-rural for the first children living on the estate – a huge baby boom cohort who all played out together in the lanes, on the fields and in the streets where the freshly poured concrete was marked by horses’ hooves.

Shoesmith, who now lives in Australia, remembers feeding the chickens at the farmhouse which still stood on the corner of Dingle Avenue and Rowell Walk. For those early residents their alarm clock was the crowing of a cockerel or the lowing of a cow. 

Building underway of the new houses in Grange Park, BlackpoolBuilding underway of the new houses in Grange Park, Blackpool
Building underway of the new houses in Grange Park, Blackpool

“The back areas were not fenced off at this point so we children had the run of the semi-enclosed oval surrounded by the houses. Parents only had to stand on the back door step and shout your name to bring you home.

Later the council divided the gardens and so we all had our own long cottage-style gardens. Most people took a pride in them and also used them to produce fruit and vegetables. Any horse manure dropped in the street was usually scooped up quickly.”

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Bouchami’s mother became a keen grower and anything they couldn’t grow was procured from the Co-op van which visited the estate twice weekly.

“Mum had this little book and she’d make a list up and take it to the van and then the delivery boy, with a cage on the front of his bike, would bring our box of groceries. Everything was packaged in twists of paper, not in plastic,” she says. 

The nearest high street was a ten-minute walk away, where residents would often traipse to the nearest phone box or post office. Especially for those who had moved from densely-populated urban areas, the new luxuries offered by council estates came at the cost of relative isolation. 

Within a few years though, the estate had expanded to include two churches and two schools – Anglican and Catholic – and a parade of new shops.

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“I remember the Chepstow Road shops being built and we children played in the them when the workmen went home, some daringly walking along roof beams one storey up,” says Shoesmith. “We then suddenly had a wonderful bakery, Raynor’s, a butcher, Stevenson’s, where we queued alongside huge carcasses, a fruit and vegetable shop and a newsagents-cum-sweetshop-cum-post office where I had a standing order for comics.

“There was also a fish and chip shop and a general store. When that first opened you queued up with your list whilst the owners walked around putting it all together for you.” 

A strong social and community scene emerged on Grange Park, with annual trips to the Lights on a charabanc and even short holidays to the Lake District. The Christus Rex church community centre, the Dinmore Pub and the Top Club offered adults the opportunity to socialise while extra curricular activities and youth clubs, as well as a park and playing fields, kept children busy. 

“There was certainly a community feel,” says Bouchami. “If anyone was ill on the street, a woman in particular, other women would cook for them or bring in their washing. All the curtains would be closed if there was a funeral in the street.”

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“This African saying, it takes a village to raise a child, it was a little bit that way on Dinmore Avenue,” says Linda Kvist, who was born at home there in 1952. “All the mothers knew what all the kids were doing. Everyone had an eye on you, you couldn’t get away with anything. They had their own social support in that way.”

Grange Park. Credit: Claire Walmsley GriffithsGrange Park. Credit: Claire Walmsley Griffiths
Grange Park. Credit: Claire Walmsley Griffiths

She recalls her childhood as a very happy one. 

“There was a little girl born four months before me in the house next door and we were just given to each other as best friends. We played every day and went to school together and I think were probably the bane of the teachers because we had so much fun and giggled so much. The estate gave me a built in sister.”

Like Shoesmith’s, Kvist’s father had been a petty officer during the war, in the Fleet Air Arm, but was also a joiner – very handy to know on the estate and very employable. When she was 13 the building firm he worked for gave him the opportunity to build his own home in the middle-class village of Thornton, four miles north of Grange Park. 

“That was such a step up, believe you me. We had central heating and a fridge,” says Kvist, who eventually moved to Sweden and became a PhD researcher.  

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“I got rather upset a few years ago when I saw a TV show that featured Grange Park. It was horrific and very sad to see how it had gone down so much.” 

By the 1990s Grange Park’s 1,200 homes housed more than 6,000 people. It had the greatest proportion of its population living in council houses than any other English area. A summary of the Grange Park Initiative by Lancashire Constabulary in 1998 describes how it was suffering from high rates of crime and disorder. 

A “hardcore of tenants” were involved in crime, drugs and disorder and were “taking control of the neighbourhood”. The estate had become a major demand for police resources and reports of crime, nuisance and disorder were considerably higher than anywhere else in Blackpool. Grange Park achieved notoriety and was in a spiral of decline.

Municipal housing historian John Boughton describes this as a result of a “psychic shift” in the 1960s and ‘70s when social housing was no longer seen as the “top of the tree” for working-class people and owning your own home became the thing to aspire to. 

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A “perfect storm” of events followed. A shift towards high-rise building led to a less favourable view of council housing while the 1977 Housing Homeless Persons Act – a progressive piece of Labour Government legislation that prioritised council housing for those with the greatest need – created a shift in demographic towards a poorer and more deprived working class. 

“Then in 1979 Thatcher comes into power with a New Right Conservative government that is very hostile to council housing and virtually stops council house building.”

Enacting the right to buy scheme, Thatcher’s government allowed council tenants to buy their properties with huge discounts from the public purse. Popular with tenants, it fulfilled a Conservative ideology of creating a home-owning democracy, while diminishing the powers of local authorities and winning the working-class vote. It also fuelled a 40-year housing crisis. 

Around 2.5 million of the country’s 5.5 million council homes have been lost since 1980. Some 1.2 million people are currently on social housing waiting lists in England – 12,000 in Blackpool. Housing that was bought by sitting tenants has now been sold on with 40 per cent of those now in the private rented sector.

The Eileen Powell Dance group on Grange ParkThe Eileen Powell Dance group on Grange Park
The Eileen Powell Dance group on Grange Park
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These key changes to the social fabric of council estates also unfolded against a decline in traditional working-class employment, with youth unemployment reaching up to 50 per cent on some estates and fuelling social disorder. 

“Social housing became housing of last resort for the least well off, which of course is very different to how it was planned and how it worked originally,” says Boughton.

The 1997 New Labour government perpetuated some of the problems too, by transferring huge amounts of housing stock from councils to housing associations, which it viewed as “a much better, more flexible way of managing social housing”, says Boughton. But Tony Blair’s government did introduce the Decent Homes Standard in 2000, which ultimately improved council housing and council estates. 

The final school bell of the day has only just rung on a sunny winter afternoon on Grange Park and groups of children are already playing out on the streets. Unlike in Bouchami’s day, when Convent Crescent had just two cars on it, there’s plenty of traffic but still a wealth of green space and large front lawns for them to play in. They have little chance of playing on a building site like estate children did 70 years ago, however. The new development of 131 new homes is happening safely behind fencing. 

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The first new residents have moved into their homes in the £20 million development, which includes 96 affordable houses, five bungalows and 30 sheltered apartments across two sites on Grange Park. Deborah Crompton is one of them. 

“I lived in Bispham where I rented from a private landlord but just couldn’t afford the rent,” says the 58 year old who moved into her brand new two-bedroom home with her adult son a few weeks ago. “I’ve been lucky with landlords over the years but the prices are getting ridiculous.” 

After a year on the housing list, Crompton’s rent is affordable – she’s saving £200 per month and she’s hoping to save on her energy bills since the new houses are fitted with heat pumps. A lifelong Blackpool resident, 20 years ago she says she wouldn’t have wanted to live on Grange Park but it seems like a good place to live now.

The northern development occupies the space that was once the neat row of shops on Chepstow Drive. Today the estate has just two – Nisa at the top end and One Stop at the bottom, operated by Tesco and known locally as Harrods due to “the extortionate prices it charges for basic goods” as MP Paul Maynard put it to the Commons last year. “A classic example of a poverty premium,” he said. 

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“A parade of shops is desperately needed,” says Cath Powell, who retired from her position as community development manager at @TheGrange community centre in December – though she can’t keep away. 

Cath Powell at @TheGrange. Credit: Claire Walmsley GriffithsCath Powell at @TheGrange. Credit: Claire Walmsley Griffiths
Cath Powell at @TheGrange. Credit: Claire Walmsley Griffiths

Today she’s here making a seaside-inspired headdress alongside residents, part of project run by socially-engaged arts organisation LeftCoast.

“If you ask people, all they want is a chippy or a takeaway and shops. Aldi is only a 15-minute walk away but you can’t do that with big bags of shopping.”

Gone too are the pub and social clubs but there is a youth club and @TheGrange is a hive of activity. At the front door a rail of coats are available for families to help themselves to and a cafe offers decent and affordable food.

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On a Tuesday and Thursday they offer hot meals for free, which residents can enjoy together or take away. Adults and young people use the small bank of computers in the adjoining library while small children turn the pages of picture books. 

Powell says she’s noticed a significant improvement on Grange Park since the centre opened six years ago, one that is reflected in the appearance of the estate and reductions in crime. 

“In opening up the community centre we’ve built a little community of our own that is more resilient,” says Powell. “We have mums now looking out for each other. People have become friends because they have a place to meet. We take families out on day trips and even last year on a two-night little holiday. Younger people are being mentored by older ones about things like budgeting and meal planning. 

“When people sit down together they just chat and are able to solve each other’s problems. People still have issues but they talk them through and sort them out together. It’s not a violent place and it’s not a scary place. It’s a great place to live.” 

 

Sheila Underwood of Grange Park. Credit: Claire Walmsley GriffithsSheila Underwood of Grange Park. Credit: Claire Walmsley Griffiths
Sheila Underwood of Grange Park. Credit: Claire Walmsley Griffiths
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The estate has been home to Sheila Underwood’s since she was 11. This month she turns 83 and is still living in the same house on Dinmore Avenue. 

“I remember telling somebody that the house had a bay window and a bathroom,” she says, remembering her family of seven’s change in fortunes when they moved from a two-up two-down. 

“The only thing that mum complained about was having to go into town or into Layton shopping because there was nothing up here,” she says. “I saw the shops built, the Dinmore, and the Top Club – when they arrived it improved peoples lives. And then I saw them all go. There’s nothing now. Someone was saying how marvellous all the building is. It’s not – all they can build is houses.”

Grange Park Estate, 1998Grange Park Estate, 1998
Grange Park Estate, 1998

Sheila, who used to help run a youth club on the estate, describes her own childhood as poor, despite her father working as a bricklayer. Her mum used to hate taking handouts but she could always rely on her neighbours for support. In the decades since her childhood, however, she’s had some terrible neighbours. 

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“You name it, we’ve had it. It was a wonderful place to live but in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, it started to deteriorate. They used to call it Bean Island at one point – they thought we all lived on baked beans. There was always something catching fire and then it got onto drugs. You were frightened to go out at night.” 

But Underwood has noted a change in recent years too. She has nice new neighbours – a lovely Romanian couple who she says are struggling but who look out for her. And since her husband died three years ago the community centre has been a lifeline – she’s there every day and volunteers on reception twice a week.

Boughton points out that if you’re of the early post-war generation there’s a one in two chance you spent half of your life in a council house and, for most of those people, it gave them a secure and decent foothold on which they built their lives. 

“They resent the idea that there was anything inferior, subordinate or second rate about their childhood and their homes,” he says. 

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He praises Blackpool Council’s house building programme as ambitious but recognises local authorities as victims of public austerity. He believes that a Labour Government will lead to more homes being built and recognises a shift in public opinion amid the housing crisis.

“Younger generations can hardly expect to own their own homes so there is more of a desire and a political hunger for social housing which is attractive, high quality and increasingly environmentally sustainable. Local authorities can be and are at the vanguard of building housing for the future."

John Boughton is the author of Municipal Dreams (Verso) and A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates (RIBA). Helen Bouchami’s book about the loss of her two sons, Am I Still A Mother? (Troubador Publishing) is out now. Her father, Harold Palmer wrote Home on The Grange about his experience of living on Grange Park, available at Blackpool Libraries. 

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