‘It was like Buckingham Palace’: Gascoyne Estate’s past explored in Hackney Museum exhibition
16:49 16 February 2017
The Gazette speaks to filmmaker Derek Smith, whose chance discovery of a photo has led to the creation of a whole museum exhibition about the estate where he lives
When Derek Smith moved in to his flat on the Gascoyne Estate, he found two discarded photos of the elderly woman who’d lived there before him.
The unexpected discovery led him on a fascinating 20-year journey that saw him speak to some of the first people who moved to the South Hackney estate after it opened in 1948.
At the time it was an architectural showpiece, with red-bricked, balconied blocks.
Neighbours past and present have shared memories and more than 300 cherished photos for Hackney Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘The Golden Age of Social Housing? Life on the Gascoyne Estate’.
The journey began when Derek tracked down Amelia Sawyer’s children John and Carol through a forwarding address.
He found out Amelia, who’d occupied his flat until her death aged 87, had been widowed just two weeks before the end of the Second World War.
Her tank driver husband was killed in the D-Day Normandy landings.
Derek said: “She had to bring the children up single-handed, carrying coal and groceries up two flights of stairs.
“She was never ill – she never complained about anything, according to her daughter. It was inspiration, really, and that led me on to other things.”
He added: “As the years went by, I thought it would be interesting to look at the first 50 years of this estate and capture the stories before they disappear – the generation of people in their 80s and 90s.
“I’ve done several projects like this. A lot of them start with a single photo and I get intrigued and try and explore.”
He spoke to 30 people – including Amelia’s son John Sawyer, who said the family “thought this was Buckingham Palace”.
Some of the families who moved in had come from East End slum clearances while others had been made homeless through the Blitz.
For many it was the first time they’d had “luxuries” like indoor baths and toilets.
Derek said: “It was an interesting time. Wages were low but the rents were low. The people loved the estate. They loved their flats. People who moved to Dagenham in the ’70s want to come back.
“The main thing that everybody agrees on, residents past and present, is that in terms of social housing this estate has been a tremendous success. Very early on there was a bond – a community created on the estate that’s survived through the years.
“The flats are very good examples of social housing, with large living rooms and balconies. The way the flats are laid out there’s a central courtyard, which is like a village green. People can go and talk and children play. Right at the beginning they got it right.”
Derek believes his project has captured a moment in time.
“In 1948 the NHS was started,” he said, “and these social housing estates were being built all over Britain. This is about the stories of post-war Britain through the eyes of social housing tenants. It’s there for the future.”
The “turbulent” challenges faced by those living on the estate in the ’90s and at the turn of the century are also explored, and the intergenerational project has seen the estate’s youth club get involved to learn about their heritage.
Derek has made a film, Gascoyne Lives, which will be screened at the museum on March 16 at 6.30pm.
The exhibition opens today and runs until June 3.