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Filming the living history of the Becontree Estate in Dagenham

Ioannis Athanasiou, the leader of the project wrote an article describing the vision and the process while filming the Stories of Becontree. This article published in the November/December 2013 issue of the InterpNEWS (the international heritage interpretation news magazine).

A community’s sense of itself rests on its understanding of the past. Sharing this vision in the summer of 2013, Catch22 worked in partnership with Valence House (the local history museum in Dagenham) and University College London’s research team Dig Where We Stand” to record the stories of people about living in the largest public housing estate in the world: the Becontree Estate.

Catch22 is a UK based social business with over 200 years’ experience of providing services that help people in the toughest of situations. Formed in 2008 by the merger of the charities Crime Concern and Rainer (previously the Royal Philanthropic Society), Catch22 runs services in more than 150 towns and cities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It aims to deliver social benefit and turn chaotic lives around; from steering clear of crime or substance misuse to doing they best they can in school or college, developing skills for work, living independently on leaving care or custody and playing a full part in their community.

For three years, I have been leading the community engagement service for Catch22 in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham running a range of programmes and building on local partnerships with various agencies and communities to support people across the borough. A committed small team in this Catch22 office in East London strongly shared the belief that when people become more positive and productive, the whole community develops and flourishes. Among a variety of regeneration, arts, environmental and social action programmes, I managed the Community Space Challenge All Ages, a national volunteering programme engaging different age groups to lead on and deliver improvements to public spaces so they would become places for communities to use and enjoy. This programme was the catalyst to explore further possibilities of bringing together older and younger generations.

I inspired after meeting a grandmother (at a parents’ forum) and hearing her speak about the glorious days on the Becontree Estate in the past when she could enjoy spending time outdoors in the local parks without fear. The beauty of her narration made me think about ways to stir the memories of the estate and allow diverse ages to learn from each other about their everyday places. My keen interest in museum learning motivated me to speak to the heritage manager of the Valence House Chris Foord, and then to apply for and successfully secure an All Our Stories grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a community heritage project about the Becontree Housing Estate. ‘Stories of Becontree’ (as the project was called) was one of 70 regional projects out of a total of 542 successful projects funded by the HLF through the All Our Stories programme.

Becontree Estate is a large estate of approximately 4 square miles (10 km2) housing the vast majority of Barking and Dagenham’s population. In the interwar period, The Housing Act 1919 permitted the London County Council to build housing outside the County of London and Becontree was constructed between 1921 and 1935 in the parishes of Barking, Dagenham and Ilford in Essex. The official completion of the estate was celebrated in 1935 with 26,000 homes completed and a population of around 100,000 people. Most people had come there from the East End slums or were soldiers returning from the First World War. People who moved to Dagenham had, for the first time, running water, indoor toilets and private gardens. The large area was designed in ‘cottage garden style’ with uniform architecture and wide streets. A centre was never built and there was little commercial development and lack of social amenities to support the population. The building of the estate caused a huge increase in population density, which led to demands on services and reforms of local government. Until the opening of May & Baker and Ford Dagenham, parks, pubs and gardens formed a crucial component of the community life and were as important as the houses.

This community reality of the early days made the ‘Stories of Becontree’ project focus on uncovering personal and family stories and exploring the urbanization and transformation of the Estate’s community spaces along the years. The aim was to record the life of the past to create a legacy for the local community in Dagenham in a drive to inspire people to act together and constructively and improve their life of today. Due to the high levels of deprivation and illiteracy among population in Barking and Dagenham (this borough has the lowest average income in London Metropolitan Area), I decided to adopt an oral history approach and to capture the stories through the medium of film to reach the local people.

Catch22 run the project between July and September 2013. Initially, 15 young people aged 14-19 living in different wards of the estate signed up and most of them (12) were committed for two months to participating to the programme. In addition to our community focus, the support of volunteers and the participation of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds added more value to our project. Recruited or referred by a wide range of agencies (youth crime prevention services, social care agencies and targeted school units and colleges) young people became part of the group on a first come first served basis and the project was aided by an appointed film-maker and four volunteers who took on marketing, outreach and accreditation roles. The project formed and delivered a range of opportunities and activities for different ages to get involved in their heritage.

  1. Using collections, archives and historical resources.

Working in close partnership with UCL’s Information Studies Department, Borough’s Archives and Local Studies Centre in the Valence House Museum, the project provided a bespoke four-day training as a course accredited through Trinity College and leading to an Arts Award Qualification. Young trainees had direct access to the archives and museum collections and developed research and interviewing skills with the support of PhD researchers and experts in community archives, oral history, film studies and the use of digital technologies in engaging the public in community heritage. The team worked at the museum from the first day (having an introduction and a tour guided by the then borough archivist Tahlia Coombs) and spent a full day at the archives to provide young people with an opportunity to access historical material related to Becontree Estate, familiarize with different places and locations and create portfolios of past photos. The People and Communities Gallery at Valence House Museum has a reconstructed Becontree Estate kitchen and living room along with photocopies of house plans, local newspapers, maps, photographs and a small cinema showing a rotating series of films about Becontree Estate (created by the Dagenham Co-Operative Film Society) that were all used as training resources. The delivery of the training sessions at the Valence House really helped remain strong commitment from the young participants due to its proximity to Dagenham. It also ensured high quality of arts and learning provision throughout the three months of the project. Also, the workshop focused on oral history helped young learners put in practice interviewing skills, practicing spontaneous questions over the material and raising confidence while keeping records of these questions, their research process and personal notes.

  1. Talking to elderly people and holding sessions exploring people’s memories

With young people trained and ready to interview, we organised the reminiscence event “Tea and Tales about Becontree” at Valence House to explore the past and talk to older generations and so unfold their life histories. Through local press coverage, social care homes and outreach work, 19 elderly residents of the Becontree estate (average age was 81 years) attended the event. We used a range of techniques, including old snapshots of young people’s portfolios, objects from the museum itself and people’s objects with personal meaning relating to this area (requested in advance with a letter) to get them on board and trigger their memories. This variety of methods provided valuable channels to help them remember, explore and give voice to their stories, as the majority of them were coming from very poor, working class communities and they were not familiar with these kinds of activities. A broad range of memories came to life during the reminiscence session: the heroes who returned from the war and found homes to live, the greenery surrounding their homes, the overflow in the estate, football memories, the pubs, social events and the bandstands in the local parks, Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Kingsley Hall, the tough winter in 1962. Young people were part of the reminiscence session listening to the first stories and speaking to older participants and deciding on the older person they would like to interview. Bringing the generations together broke down barriers between different ages and enabled them to develop relationships in a creative and respectful environment before the home interviews. All participants had a meal together in the Oasis Café in the museum’s Visitor Centre to create a memorable bridge for connecting younger with the estate’s older residents and build on physical and mental wellbeing and a stronger sense of community.

  1. Recording people’s memories and community life

The project documented in a film the stories of 14 elderly (6 men and 8 women) who remembered several events and experiences: from family stories, playful and touching moments in their gardens and outdoor spaces (like the Valence Circus and Parsloes park) to weddings, working life, daily transportation and personal experiences with strong impact like the loss of family members after a bombing of the estate at the second World War. The interviews took place mainly in their homes and only two happened at the museum and at Kingsley Hall. Young people were given the choice to act as film-makers or interviewers or both. At the end almost each young person interviewed at least one older age person. The fact that they have met at the reminiscence event had been really helpful to achieve a rapport not only between the participants (interviewers and interviewees) but also between the volunteers, museum and Catch22 staff members. The final film lasted 28 minutes long, documenting key stories of the whole journey of the project and including photographs, objects and shots by using all this material from the research stages to outdoor filming. In the last day of the project and with copies of old photographs in hand, young people actively searched for elderly’s people everyday places around the estate and filmed how they look today.

  1. Sharing the learning outputs and celebrating achievements with others

Supported by young people and other project volunteers, a volunteer fully dedicated his time on building a WordPress blog and running two social media channels (the Facebook page with the same title and a twitter account named BecontreeTales) to share news, updates, and the process throughout the project. The idea was to promote the living history of the Becontree Estate in visual digital forms and help us reach audiences locally and beyond while creating a digital record of all project activities and events. Along with photos, reflections, notes, historical records, the documentary was uploaded on the website and Catch22’s YouTube channel. A final DVD was given out to people in Barking and Dagenham and two local screening events provided two different celebratory occasions to share the film with the local community. On Saturday 28 September, Catch22 launched the ’Stories of Becontree’ community film as part of the Local History Fair at the Valence House Museum. Also, a second screening event dedicated to older residents took place at Kingsley Church Hall at the heart of the Becontree estate on 1 October (Older People’s International Day) with young people, families and local people coming to enjoy a real community experience and celebrate the announcement of young people’s successful moderation and accreditation of their participation in the project. After the screening at the Kingsley Hall, a panel of older and younger participants had time to speak about their involvement in the project and shared their experiences with the audience. In all events, a comments book captured the opinions of the viewers.

The 30-min documentary brought the human stories of Becontree Estate into life through the voices of its original residents. All interviews and their transcriptions passed to and are stored at the Valence House to be accessible to residents in Barking and Dagenham and pass to next generations. Looking back on the project, I feel over the moon that we explored the subject of our interpretation with special knowledge and made a contribution to the heritage and local community. The partnership with the University College London (UCL) proved to be highly productive by providing expertise, sharing knowledge and capacity building. Before the start of the All Our Stories programme, professors and doctoral students provided training to Catch22 staff and volunteers and helped with resources and activity tools. The team of the researchers from UCL were keen on taking a more collaborative approach to community heritage and sustaining broad participation particularly amongst young people in interpreting and oral history activities. One of the doctoral students, Anna Sexton reviews her experience here.

The project also succeeded in reaching and talking to older residents of the Becontree before their narratives being permanently hidden from history. It also involved people of diverse ages and backgrounds and enabled them to see their everyday spaces in a different light. Three factors played a significant role on the successful delivery of our All Our Stories programme: my postgraduate museum educational studies and my personal drive to explore the past of this area on the crossing border between London and Essex; secondly, good communication and balanced partnerships with the Valence House and UCL’s research team; and thirdly the active involvement of the project volunteers, Catch22 youth workers and especially film-maker Patricia Gomes who was excellent at capturing the essence of the stories in a half hour out of 18 hours of final filming time. The use of digital technologies, press coverage, easy funding procedures and the accredited training qualification were also important elements for the Stories of Becontree project. The challenges were the lack of previous similar cross-sector work at the local level, the limited public transport and the minimal support from the council. But we worked hard to create a range of best practices and interdisciplinary approaches to community heritage, intergenerational learning, digital media and film.

The Heritage Lottery Fund opened new perspectives for Catch22 office in Barking and Dagenham and the partnership with the heritage and higher education sectors made the team consider more options on the delivery of high quality services at the local level. Building on the challenges and successes of the first partnership, Catch22 was selected by UCL’s research team as one of the best projects (only two invited out of 17) to be part of the Research for Community Heritage Summit on 23 October 2013. The Summit is a collective of university teams, All Our Stories grant holders who have been working with universities, National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) staff and the project’s funders: the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

Storytelling proved to be an excellent way to engage not only different generations but also disciplines and partners to transform the lives of younger and older people in Barking and Dagenham. Community, as English historian Arnold Toynbee said, “is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor”. For the future of this community, the stories of Becontree remind us the constant changes that happen in life through diverse ages and voices.


2013-07-31 13.01.16

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One comment on “Filming the living history of the Becontree Estate in Dagenham
  1. Leonard Rodwell says:

    what the narrative did not reveal was that there was no electricity in the houses.
    Gas was the lighting facility.
    When radios started to become popular in the middle 1930’s they were all accumulator operated. You had two for each radio, one power operating the radio and one away being charged. Somebody operated a service with a van collecting the run down accumulators leaving behind a charged replacement.
    Even the street lights used gas. Mind you they did have a nice strong two feet long bar that the “lamplighter” leaned his ladder against and well supported us kids when we swung from it.
    It was 1937 before the authorities started to install electrical power.
    Another minus was that despite it’s large population Dagenham had no grammar school. 11 plus pupils took the scholarship exam as it was then called and if successful had to travel either to the Royal Liberty School in Romford or Barking Abbey School in Barking. One or two exceptional pupils got places at Brentwood School or Palmers Grays School but in the vast majority of cases parents could not afford the hidden added costs of keeping a child at one of those schools despite the fact that as the title of the exam expressed that it was for a scholarship (i.e a place with the fees paid).
    However before the War it was a happy place for kids to grow up in, playing marbles in the kerbs, football with a tennis ball in the side roads (no car owners anywhere) with the drain covers as the goalposts, hop scotch, tipicat, hi-jimmie-knacker and a host of other pastimes unencumbered by traffic (only bread & milk deliveries and other service vehicles ever disturbed idyllic lifestyle.

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