In the early 1960s, London was boring. The population was in decline, the buildings were black with pollution and there were still bombsites in the City. Public transport was hard to come by after 11 p.m. and many shops in the West End closed at 1 p.m. on Saturday, not reopening until Monday. Sunday was so dull that in 1964 a guide was released with tips on what you could actually do on the Sabbath. The people looked old-fashioned; Mary Quant recalled that women ‘wore stiletto heels and corsets. They had no bottoms … but seats. They didn’t have nipples but great appendages of bosom and none of these things fitted together: the bosom came into the room first and the woman would follow.’ At Cazenove, a stockbrokers, the partners still wore bowler hats and most men wore stiff collars; women did not wear trousers. London was still a major centre of manufacturing and its docks were at the heart of global trade networks. People who lived in the inner city were generally poor, and they got richer as you went further out into the green and pleasant suburbs. All of this changed over the following two decades.
As John Davis points out, the idea that London started to ‘swing’ in the 1960s was largely the concoction of journalists in need of a story, most of them American. But in Soho and on the King’s Road in Chelsea, ideas were taking shape that would eventually change what people all over the country wore, what they listened to and what their houses looked like. Quant started making her own clothes for Bazaar, her King’s Road boutique, because she thought that ‘the young were tired of wearing essentially the same as their mothers.’ And the boutique revolution wasn’t just for women. Mod fashion was so changeable and lucrative that in 1964 John Stephen could set up the John Stephen Custom Made Shop in Soho’s Carnaby Street, where customers’ own designs were run up for them on the premises. By 1966, Carnaby Street was overrun with ‘buyers from the more staid clothes retailers who have come to spy out what the young are buying next’.
The consumer boom owed much to the rise of the office, itself a result of the inexorable growth of the service sector and the Tory government’s decision in 1954 to lift controls on commercial development. Those who had bought land in the city centre when it was cheap during the war now became very rich, and office blocks sprang up like mushrooms. Secretaries also did well. Between 1950 and 1962 an unskilled female office worker’s pay rose 180 per cent. By 1962, most girls leaving East End schools, and around one in five boys, went into office work. They travelled into the centre of town every day and spent their wages in the record shops, the new coffee bars and, of course, the boutiques. Soon teenagers and young adults all over the country were doing the same. Indeed, they came from all over the world to see what was happening in London: in 1969 young tourists were so numerous that Hyde Park and Green Park were officially opened to rough sleeping; one journalist counted ‘hundreds of hairy young people’ in Green Park.
The new popular culture was popular; it wasn’t, however, classless. Many commentators were taken with the idea that Britain, that bastion of class-consciousness, was undergoing a process of social levelling, with ‘dukes shopping in Carnaby Street and secretaries shopping in Chelsea’. In fact, social elites were alive and well. The ‘expectant rich’ were the first gentrifiers: before it was known as gentrification, estate agents called it ‘Chelseafication’, as bright young things began to move from the mansions of Mayfair to the townhouses and cottages of Chelsea. They were joined by the up and coming middle classes, particularly those in the ‘near-arts’ of photography, media, fashion and interior design. The old aristocracy and the new merged into a ‘new class’, classless only in the more superficial senses. Its representative figure was Antony Armstrong-Jones, the commoner (and photographer) whose engagement to Princess Margaret caused a stir in 1960, and who liked to wear jeans rather than his old Etonian tie. That year, Armstrong-Jones singlehandedly transformed the dress code of stylish London restaurants when he arrived at the Trattoria Terrazza in a rollneck – and was admitted by the reluctant proprietor, Mario Cassandro, who had recently ‘received a briefing on the dress etiquette of London’s new elite’. The Trattoria Terrazza was already in the vanguard of the transformation in London’s eating habits, replacing Michelin Guide-approved French haute cuisine with Italian food in a colourful setting. After Armstrong-Jones, ‘Mario would hardly let in anyone wearing a tie.’ But even if public schoolboys didn’t wear ties to dinner, or cleave to their RP accents, or patronise their fathers’ Savile Row tailors, they still wanted to go to the most fashionable restaurants, and perhaps to marry princesses. This, as Davis points out, wasn’t social levelling so much as ‘generational sparring’.
Nor was there a revolution in popular and governmental attitudes to sex. Soho’s booming sex trade has often been taken to represent the new permissiveness, but in reality it owed little to underlying cultural change. Soho had long been associated with sex. It had been the centre of the pornographic book trade since the late 19th century and in the 1920s and 1930s clip joints and erotic revues had grown in number. Nudity was allowed so long as the performers remained static while naked, so proprietors went in for nude tableaux vivants or ‘life drawing’ bars (easels and art materials provided). The rise of striptease in the 1960s and 1970s was the result of the discovery by a few entrepreneurs that the rules about static nudes could be circumnavigated by the simple device of describing a bar as a ‘private members’ club’. Paul Raymond, patron of the Revuebar, was so determined to give his club an air of respectability that he appointed a Church of England chaplain and played the national anthem after shows.
But Raymond and his fellow club owners were also prepared to pay the fines they regularly incurred for operating in a legal grey area. These were just another running cost in what was an astonishingly lucrative trade. By the mid-1970s, Soho was packed with sex shops, the only kind that could afford the high rents. This didn’t mean that Westminster City Council and the Greater London Council approved of the sex trade: they had merely concluded that if it couldn’t be prevented, it should at least be licensed and confined to one neighbourhood.
Davis suggests that none of the women working as Soho strippers who were interviewed in the 1960s ‘appears to have felt demeaned by her work’, but much of what they said suggests an unpleasant side to the job. Ray Durgnat recalled that when a punter touched one performer’s foot, ‘she muttered through gritted teeth, “Do that again and I’ll kick your fucking face in.”’ Another would stop the show when she got annoyed: putting a chair on the ramp, she would sit down and say, ‘Now it’s my turn to look at you.’ Nickie Roberts articulated the widespread dislike of women audience members: ‘It adds insult to injury when your own sex tries to demean you.’
It’s a shame Davis doesn’t devote much space to the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. In these years, London feminists set up more than three hundred groups, as well as communes, nurseries, refuges, bookshops and feminist photography collectives, and magazines and newsletters including Spare Rib, Shrew, Speak Out! and Red Rag. In the second issue of Spare Rib, Denise Winn interviewed Hilary, who gave up her work as a stripper in the Midlands in order to set herself up as a sex worker in a West End flat. Hilary told Winn bluntly that ‘it was a means to an end – paying bills.’ Some women interviewed about working as strippers in the 1960s said that they enjoyed the sense of power they got from being on stage; all of them liked the money. But the fact that women working in strip clubs refused to say they felt degraded by their work doesn’t mean they felt they were living in sexually emancipated times.
In 1961, in the inner London boroughs, home ownership stood at under 20 per cent, less than half the national average (though levels were well above average in the outer ring). Almost three-quarters of privately rented housing was classified as ‘unfit’. Much of this was Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian, either cheaply built in the first place or, later, split up into flats and allowed to decay. But after 1957 the Tory government’s decision to ease rent controls on more expensive properties helped initiate a wave of change. ‘Young couples with Chelsea ideas but Notting Hill Gate pockets’ began buying up dilapidated housing and transforming it. Property developers quickly got in on the act, lured by government grants for rehabilitating old houses. ‘Chelseafication’ became ‘gentrification’, and a great swathe of London’s run-down inner-city housing was saved from demolition. Georgian and Victorian houses once dismissed as ‘secondhand’ homes were turned into highly desirable properties (and rapidly appreciating assets), while a broader understanding of ‘conservation’ focused not just on fine individual buildings but also on the ‘group value’ of a pleasing – if architecturally commonplace – ensemble.
Trends set in Notting Hill and Islington spread: Chelseafication could even be observed on council estates after 1967, when the Tories, in charge of the GLC for the first time, began to offer its council houses for sale. (The new strategic authority had been created in 1965, replacing the London County Council, which had represented a smaller area of inner London so homogeneously working-class that Labour had a monopoly on control for several decades.) Council house sales were highest at first on peripheral estates like the huge Becontree Estate in East London, where more than 1700 people had bought their houses by August 1972 and where ‘coach lamps’ duly began to ‘appear at the side of the front doors’. Council house sales further fuelled house price inflation, which had taken off in London from 1959: by 1965, prices had risen by 53 per cent in real terms – a much higher rate than elsewhere in the country. Cycles of boom and bust in the 1970s entrenched the problem. It was during these years that the regional gap in house prices opened up; it has only widened since. By 2021, the average price of a home in London was 11.7 times the average London salary. This staggering disparity is pushing some young, middle-class couples – who a few generations earlier would have been moving to the inner city – out into the suburbs.
In 1965 the new GLC began unveiling its plans for London’s road system, which proposed bulldozing a series of new urban motorways (‘Ringways’) through inner and outer London. Ringway 1 – also known, unpalatably, as the ‘Motorway Box’ – was to go through Hampstead, Highgate, Islington, Greenwich, Blackheath, Battersea and a whole range of other places where ‘young couples with Chelsea ideas’ had put up their coach lamps. At least eighteen anti-motorway groups were founded, and local antiquarian groups like the Islington Society joined the charge. Many of the activists owned cars, but that didn’t mean they wanted a motorway running through their neighbourhoods. The one that was already under construction, the Westway, was the nail in the coffin: even the British Road Federation called it ‘insensitive and socially unacceptable’. The Ringways plan was abandoned, and, with London rapidly deindustrialising – the city lost a third of its manufacturing jobs between 1961 and 1974 – some began to argue that the modern city couldn’t be planned in the same way that industrial development had been.
From the Second World War through to the early 1960s the lofty ideals of reconstruction and modernisation held sway. The concept of listing buildings was introduced in 1944 so that when the time for redevelopment came, planners would know what not to knock down. Victorian buildings were viewed with scepticism by the promoters of listing, who thought only ‘outstanding’ buildings constructed between 1850 and 1914 should be conserved. Those in favour of demolishing the monumental Euston Arch (built in 1837) argued that it wasn’t fit for purpose and observed (rightly) that the Victorians did away with the old whenever they fancied. It was pulled down in 1962. But subsequent plans to remodel the Victorian city were less successful.
When we tell the story of the rise and fall of modernist architecture, council housing and municipal buildings usually take centre stage. In fact, commercial developers were just as prominent. By the 1960s ‘almost any Central London site would be most profitably exploited by putting an office block on it, whatever its current use,’ and local authorities were keen to increase their income from the rates. Only a few ‘monolithic enterprises’ could afford the price of land in the city centre, and once they had bought it they usually put up bog-standard commercial buildings with the goal of maximising the return that could be got for the building’s ‘plot ratio’ between footprint and floor area. Unsurprisingly, there was an increase in the number of complaints about ‘louring hostile cliffs of concrete’ and the ‘glass-caged tower’. And as hostility to modernism grew, Victoriana came back into favour.
In these years, London planners suffered four defeats over their plans to remodel Piccadilly Circus, which was, by the late 1950s, a congested road junction around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain (erected in 1892-93 and commonly known as ‘Eros’). The first proposal, in 1959, was led by a commercial developer; the other three – in 1962, 1966 and 1972 – were based on plans by the prominent architect-planner William Holford. The 1962 plan put Eros on a pedestrian plaza surrounded by office blocks; the one from 1966 included a raised-level piazza with traffic running underneath. One response to the 1962 proposal called it an ‘atrocity’ that would ‘entirely wipe out the character of the place; not that it possesses any architectural value … but it is familiar, and not hideously American.’ Some people were even willing to vouch for the architectural value of Victorian buildings: Nikolaus Pevsner, chairman of the Victorian Society, argued in 1964 for the listing of the warehouse and offices of the vinegar makers Hill, Evans at 33-35 Eastcheap, in the City of London, which he described as ‘crazy’, one of the ‘follies’ of Victorian Gothic, but well worth saving on that account. In 1964 his plea was rejected, but seven years later the building was listed, and still stands today. The built environment was no longer to be cleared whenever necessary in the service of modernity, efficiency and commercial value, but was now to be understood – with all its idiosyncrasies and familiarity – as an amenity in itself.
In the 1960s, Tower Hamlets had London’s most deeply entrenched tradition of municipal welfarism, stretching back to the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921, when thirty councillors were jailed after protesting against an unfair local taxation system that ensured rich boroughs stayed rich and poor ones poor. Forty years later, Tower Hamlets was prospering: dockers were among the best-paid manual workers in the country, and in 1965 Bethnal Green got its own boutique. The local authority provided public baths, a laundry, a children’s home, a special care unit, an industrial training centre, old people’s homes, ‘problem family’ units and, of course, council housing, which accommodated 75 per cent of the borough’s households. The council was obsessed with slum clearance, and for good reason. Much East End housing was of poor quality even when it was built, and the area had been devastated in the Blitz. Unless there was new housing, residents would leave, the local tax base would shrink, and the foundations of municipal welfarism would be weakened. The East End authorities responded with a rush to build, so that by the early 1960s the area was starting to look like ‘a dazzling city of skyscrapers’. Then, in 1968, a gas explosion at Ronan Point, a tower block in Newham, caused the collapse of one side of the building, killing four people. Increasing numbers of tenants wanted to leave high-rise flats, but councils had nothing else available and forced people on waiting lists to accept them. Popular faith in local authorities was irreparably shaken.
With many high-rise tenants fruitlessly protesting against distant and apparently uncaring local authorities, left-wing radicals in the late 1960s were calling for a ‘second revolution in the welfare state’ to bring power closer to ordinary people. Some of them began doing it for themselves, building a 30,000-strong squatters’ movement. They occupied blocks such as the one on Arbour Square in Stepney, where Tower Hamlets council, which planned to demolish the building as part of its urban development scheme, was keeping sixty of the seventy units empty despite the severe lack of housing in the borough.
The welfare revolution never came. Instead, Britain got Margaret Thatcher. Her ‘Right to Buy’ policy (introduced in 1980) allowed tenants across the country to buy their own council houses, and in London led ultimately to a resurgence of the private rental sector, further acceleration of house prices and a crisis in social housing. In 1989, the two-bedroom council flat in which I now live was sold to its tenants for £18,500; in 2017 we paid £383,000 for it. By 2020-21, 27 per cent of households in London were private renters, and the average private rent in London was £340 per week, more than twice the average outside London.
The East End councils’ fears came to pass: from the late 1960s, with industry contracting and the docks moving downriver to deeper waters, the East End went into economic decline. Young people left the area in search of work, and housing at ground level they could afford. The case of the London cabbie exemplifies the cockney exodus from the inner city. In the mid-20th century, cabbies were workers: most were based at a garage and worked shifts, kept about 40 per cent of their fares, and were members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union Cab Section. But as trade picked up in affluent London, drivers came to prefer a system called ‘the flat’ – hiring a cab by the week and keeping all of their fares. Most saw this as a stepping stone to the status of ‘mush’, or owner-driver. In 1961, 27 per cent of drivers were mushes; by 1981 it was 44 per cent. Mushes moved out to the suburbs and worked long hours to make the most of the investment they had made in their cabs and Green Badges (which licensed them to ply for hire anywhere in Greater London). As they migrated to outlying suburbs like Chingford and Woodford Green in the north-east, they helped ensure that these areas remained Tory heartlands throughout the Thatcher years and beyond (though Iain Duncan Smith’s majority in Chingford and Woodford Green has been slashed in recent years by young, middle-class migrants to the area, themselves seeking houses they can afford, who tend to favour Labour). The migration undermined municipal welfarism in the East End and cast doubt on its future as a working-class area. In 1973, a government-commissioned report on the future of the docklands made proposals involving golf courses, equestrian centres and even a safari park. In the Thatcher years, high finance won out and Canary Wharf was built on the Isle of Dogs. Tower Hamlets never got its golf course.
In 1970, when residents of the Isle of Dogs wanted to protest against high rents and inadequate schools, shops and buses, they made a ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’, echoing the white settlers of Rhodesia five years previously. This was just one instance of the racism pervasive in London in the decades after the arrival of the Empire Windrush. In the 1960s, Woolworth’s proclaimed that ‘under no circumstances’ would it allow ‘immigrant girls to serve loose biscuits’. (‘Immigrant girls’ clearly referred to women of colour.) After the 1958 white riots in Notting Hill, however, there was a heightened elite anxiety about racial tension, and a liberal consensus – broadly adhered to at the top of the Labour and Conservative parties – that racism should not be acknowledged as a national issue. At a London Council of Social Service conference in 1958, the social anthropologist Sheila Patterson argued that ‘if we label it as a colour or racial situation now … we are halfway to making it into one.’ The press settled on the line that ‘the “colour problem” is simply a problem of housing, unemployment, poverty and social evils for which the immigrants are not responsible.’ This didn’t do much to tackle racism, but it did create a climate in which people half-stifled their racist views: ‘I’ve nothing against them, but I don’t think I would entertain them in the house,’ one Willesden resident said; ‘I’m not prejudiced against them, but I don’t think they should share the same house as white people,’ another said. Racism generally went unchallenged. (The race relations legislation of 1965 and 1968 was pretty toothless.) It’s no surprise to read the authors of a report from 1985 on policing in London relate that ‘where someone in a group of police officers started on a line of racialist talk we never heard a member of the group explicitly oppose his views or saw the person made to feel that he was being a bore, speaking out of turn or erring against unspoken convictions or inhibitions.’
In the 1970s, young Black people – who were suffering disproportionately from the effects of deindustrialisation and housing stress, and saw no reason they should be treated differently from other British people – confronted the Metropolitan Police, probably the most visible and violent incarnation of state-sanctioned racism (it had been exempted from the scrutiny of the new race relations agencies). Many of these young people were attracted to Black Power and direct action, and their conflict with the Met erupted spectacularly at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, when heavy-handed policing convinced many that the Met was determined to ‘label all black youth as muggers, thieves and petty criminals’ and to do away with the carnival for good. Relations between the carnival crowd and the police were so poor that twenty officers were allegedly needed to attempt an arrest; there were reports that when police tried to arrest pickpockets some of the victims turned on the officers and helped protect the thieves. The following year, police were supplied with riot shields: the scene was set for even more serious clashes with young Black people in the 1980s.
By the second half of the 1970s, then, the grand ideals of urban planning and municipal socialism were severely damaged, if not dead, and the Tories in local government were selling off council housing. The general prosperity of the 1960s had given way to polarisation: the rich were getting richer and the gentrifiers’ Victorian and Georgian houses were swiftly appreciating in value, while the poor were missing out. Tensions between young Black people and the Met were at boiling point. Much of the old postwar orthodoxy had crumbled and some of the features associated with Thatcherism had begun to emerge before anyone thought that the MP for Finchley might one day be prime minister.
Davis, like several other historians in recent years, demurs from the view that Thatcher was the sole or primary instigator of political and social change in Britain after 1979. Deindustrialisation – in train well before she entered Downing Street, and driven by technological change, affluence and shifts in the global distribution of industry – altered patterns of work and increased inequality. Criticisms of the welfare state as bureaucratic and paternalist came not only from the right but also from the radical left. Powerful property developers and bankers pursued their own interests and, in the process, drove the financialisation that we often associate with Thatcher. This is not to suggest that Thatcher’s impact on London was negligible – Right to Buy, the development of Canary Wharf and the Big Bang, to name just three interventions, transformed the social fabric and the built environment of the city – but it is an important corrective to the many popular and academic surveys of Britain after 1945 that have presented 1979 as the pivot from a ‘social democratic’ to a ‘neoliberal’ age.
London is Davis’s territory: his first book was a study of the reform of its municipal government in the late 19th century. Reading Waterloo Sunrise, you begin to suspect he must have read the minutes of every GLC committee and subcommittee, as well as every issue of the Evening Standard (a newspaper whose back catalogue had not, at the time of his research, been digitised) between 1960 and 1980. He has scoured local archives in Barnet, Bexley, Bromley, Westminster, Croydon, Enfield, Hammersmith and Fulham, Harrow, Havering, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Kensington and Chelsea, Kingston, Merton, Richmond, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, and delved into the Hackney Gazette, the London Property Letter, West Indian World, the Upminster and Cranham Residents’ Association Newsletter, plus many other publications both obscure and well known. The task he has undertaken calls to mind the Borgesian project of creating a map of the world on a 1:1 scale, and flicking to the footnotes is like peering over a precipice and glimpsing that map laid out on a plain far below. But Davis is a magnificent tour guide for the world he has reconstructed, for the King’s Road and Carnaby Street, the Trattoria Terrazza and the Revuebar, the Willesden suburbs and the Notting Hill Carnival. He shows us how London stopped being so boring, what we gained and what we lost.
Listen to Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite discuss this piece with James Butler and Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.