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‘We don’t want Hackney to look like Los Angeles’: Hackney Society marks 50 years saving landmark buildings

PUBLISHED: 15:38 25 January 2017 | UPDATED: 18:08 06 October 2017

Lisa Shell, John Finn and Nick Perry of the Hackney Society on Sanford Terrace (Photo: Polly Hancock)

Lisa Shell, John Finn and Nick Perry of the Hackney Society on Sanford Terrace (Photo: Polly Hancock)

(Photo: Polly Hancock)

A book will be published this year to mark 50 years of the Hackney Society. Emma Bartholomew looks back in time at its creation in 1967

The Gazette published on January 17 1967 - the article The Gazette published on January 17 1967 - the article "Fight to Preserve Old Hackney" (Photo: Hackney Archives)

The Hackney Society was founded in 1967 – effectively to check the council’s enthusiasm at the time for bulldozing just about everything in its way to make way for new housing estates.

Georgian terraces like Sanford Terrace in Stoke Newington, Shepherdess Walk in Shoreditch and Paragon Road in Hackney Central would not be standing today were it not for the efforts of its members.

The organisation continues to campaign for the protection of historic Hackney, and a book to be published later this year will mark 50 years of the society. It will have 50 authors, writing about 50 episodes – one for each year.

Historian John Finn writes the first chapter about the society’s birth, first announced in the Hackney Gazette on January 17, 1967.

"We shouldn’t like people to think we are in favour of propping up old ruins"

Michael Thomas quoted in the Hackney Gazette in 1967

“We shouldn’t like people to think we are in favour of propping up old ruins,” its founder Michael Thomas was quoted as saying.

At Hthe time, Hackney was facing a massive housing crisis. It had the third-largest housing waiting list in London and many working-class families were living in over-crowded, multi-occupied, privately-rented housing, and were desperate to move into a clean, dry and warm council houses.

“That, I remember, was the great hope of many of my father’s family, living in Hackney’s Victorian terraces, sharing outside WCs, and some in gas-lit rooms,” said John.

But plans for slum clearance and house building threatened historic buildings.

Sir John Betjeman in 1972 when he was appointed Poet Laureate (Photo: PA Archive) Sir John Betjeman in 1972 when he was appointed Poet Laureate (Photo: PA Archive)

“Whole areas of sub-standard accommodation and bomb-damaged houses would be replaced, along with any other viable buildings, shops and factories as necessary, in order to plan for self-contained estates that would include shops, health centres, community halls, laundries, open spaces with industry segregated away,” writes John.

The idea for the Hackney Society came from an action group set up in 1966 by Albion Square residents “to preserve the pleasant Victorian charm of the square” against compulsory purchase.

Michael Thomas found its formation “encouraging”, and questioned whether there could be “a more centralised kind of society, open to all those who are genuinely interested in the history and character of the borough”.

He enlisted the support of John Betjeman, co-founder of the Victorian Society, and later Poet Laureate and national treasure – who became president, presiding over its first meeting on February 6. 
“It is only by local effort that anything is ever done and I am sure that the people behind it will back up the council in its efforts to keep the character of the borough,” Betjeman said at the time.

Sanford Place plaque on the original row of Terrace Houses saved from demolition by the Hackney Society almost 50 years ago. (Photo: Polly Hancock) Sanford Place plaque on the original row of Terrace Houses saved from demolition by the Hackney Society almost 50 years ago. (Photo: Polly Hancock)

“We shall lose something that we can never replace if Hackney is destroyed in the name of what used to be called progress, and we don’t want Hackney to look like Los Angeles.”

Leaflets advertising that meeting in May had words John points out are still redolent today: “I love Hackney. But what will it be like in 10 years’ time?”

The new Civic Amenities Act 1967 brought in conservation areas and improved the scheme for statutory listing of buildings of architectural and historic interest.

The first committee decided two decaying mansions at 187 and 191 Stoke Newington High Street and Sanford Terrace, a Georgian Terrace overlooking Stoke Newington Common, could benefit from the new legislation.

Saving Sanford Terrace – which had been under compulsory purchase order because of the Smalley Estate – became one of the Society’s first achievements.

Director of the Hackney Society, Nick Perry, points out the nature of their battles have not changed much: “If you were to pick only the phrases such as ‘new housing’, ‘London Plan’, ‘Woodberry Down redevelopment’, ‘housing targets’,’action groups’, ‘decaying mansions’, ‘take on planning authorities’, from John’s account of the Hackney Society, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was writing about the society’s activities today, rather than the nascent society of 50 years ago.

“I don’t doubt that the society will still be challenging the local authority and developers to regenerate our built environment for the needs of the people of Hackney, while preserving the best of our built heritage in 2067 and beyond.”

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