The first story about Becontree is not actually the first ever heard or recalled. There are so many stories we never learn or record and listen that are going to remain on the living memories of people who lived or live today in the wards of the Becontree estate. The following narration is the story that inspired Ioannis, Catch22’s manager of community programmes in Barking and Dagenham and director of this project.
Catch22 is a UK based social business with over 200 years’ experience of providing services that help people in tough situations to turn their lives around. In 2013, I used to work for their local service in Barking and Dagenham. In a very beautiful and shiny day of May, I was invited by the head teacher to go and speak to a parents forum in a primary school in Dagenham about Catch22’s programme “Community Space Challenge All Ages”. This lottery funded national programme engaged different ages and generations across the UK to complete public spaces improvements for the whole community to use and enjoy.
I have been a teacher for a while. When I arrived in the school where the forum was to take place, I realised how excited I was to visit a school environment. I still remember the walls packed with kids drawings, maps, colourful pencils, the plenty of funny faces of animals painted on the boards in the long typical school corridors. A group of roughly 15 parents – all women – were seating around a table in a reading room near the open windows. After some introductions, it didn’t take so much time to realise that mothers, carers and grandmothers didn’t share the same mood to mine but mainly looked very cautious about my drives to be there with them. I really felt to be seen as an exotic man starting with his Mediterranean temperament to explain how together we can organise and deliver community space improvements in their borough. When especially I said that I was going to be keeping some notes and showed them a consultation form to complete about recommendations for local changes, I received the first question: “Where are you coming from?”. And they didn’t talk about my Greek nationality. They wanted to know from which council department I was coming from.
Parents were familiar with consultations and they didn’t believe that any change would happen. When I gave them more details about the programme (groups of all ages take responsibility and ownership in actively improving public spaces for everyone in the local community) and they saw how actively and attentively I was listening to what they were saying (without taking notes), a real forum started to happen. The women mentioned very important things about their everyday life in this area of Dagenham. In general, the energy in the room was negative about living in the area, not very negative, but negative and the most prominent issues related to where to take their kids to play, the ongoing closures of community centres due to high costs of running, lack of one more local swimming pool, problems with transport, concerns about their safety and youngsters’ antisocial behaviour, etc. I thought that they might be thinking about the summer coming and the closing of the school to explain the focus of most of the conversation on the lack of community amenities but seemed to be a reality for most of the participants.
At a moment we were spending time on talking about play areas, a lady around eighties and the oldest participant in white short hair and holding a walking stick started talking about her own time, when she used to be a mother. In the calm and sad tone of her voice you could hear a glorious past of motherhood when she was visiting a local park combined with narration about present time.
“Today you cannot go to Goresbrook, where to seat, there is nothing there to do, on my time we used to prepare sandwiches and snacks from the previous night so to have a full day there and more time to spend in the park”
The older lady said and continued talking about her experiences at the Goresbrook park (later I learned that was a local park nearby), how much different life used to be in Dagenham and how easily and safely they could get to the green fields existed everywhere, when people were spending much of their summertime in the park, organising fairs, games, even theatre performances. When that lady, most possibly a nan of a kid in the primary school started sharing her memories and experiences, I noticed an absolute change in the room. The rest of the mothers attending the forum fully concentrated their attention to her narration to the point they had started asking her about the subject of the performances.
It was in May 2012 when I visited this primary school in Goresbrook ward in Dagenham. On the 4th of July 2012 and after reading some articles about the local history, I sent an email to Valence House Museum (the local history museum) saying among other things the following: “We actually want to develop an oral history project that gets young people to record stories from older ages over community spaces in the Borough in a hope to deliver visible changes on these spaces based on elderly people’s life stories and memories”.
Young students of this school planted all the new flowers after a huge redevelopment outside the only community centre in this area in 14 July. This was the catalyst of the project “Stories of Becontree”. Thanks to Heritage Lottery Fund (“All our stories” grant), Valence House and University College London (UCL), today you can visit the website of Stories of Becontree (www.storiesofbecontree.com) and watch the film an amazing group of 12 young people and 5 volunteers prepared in all aspects and Patricia Gomes edited. Goresbrook is one of the parks formed as part of the Becontree Estate, the largest public housing development in the world on the time of its creation.