Looking back: 'Little Birmingham' and the last days before the Telford revolution

Today nobody under the age of 50 can remember life before Telford. And only the over-60s will really be able to recall what things were like before the advent of Telford's predecessor – Dawley New Town.

New housing dubbed "little Birmingham" in Dawley in July 1961 – it was built to house incoming families from Birmingham.
New housing dubbed "little Birmingham" in Dawley in July 1961 – it was built to house incoming families from Birmingham.

Houses, streets, and even whole communities were swept away by the 1960s march of progress.

So we've taken a dip into our photographic archives to bring back to life some of these places as they were before they were so radically changed, and also to chart some of the early years of a revolutionary transformation.

As it happens, our colleagues from those early years could see what was coming and our photographers went out and about to record townscapes and landscapes.

The bulldozers move in. For some older folk this was the quintessential image of the new town taking shape around them.

In the atmosphere of the times the creation of a new town in East Shropshire seemed to many to be go-ahead, progressive, and forward thinking.

A perceived benefit was that vast expanses of post-industrial land and slag heaps would be reclaimed and repurposed. While it is true that there was much reclamation, capping of old mine shafts, and so on, there was also much building on agricultural land.

Buildings of character which surely would today have been preserved were demolished. The conservation lobby was weak and the power of Dawley Development Corporation, and later, Telford Development Corporation, was great in this mission to shape the government-sanctioned project.

Last days for Dark Lane. The community was destroyed by the development of Telford town centre and the Hollinswood housing estate. This picture dates from January 1965. Dark Lane Methodist Chapel is in the background. These houses were known as Bottom Row.

The beginnings of the idea had come in the mid-1950s when it was suggested that thousands of acres of land in the Dawley area of little agricultural value could be turned into housing land and for industrial development.

Dawley was, and still is, a community nestling among pit mounds and spoil heaps, a legacy of long-disappeared workings. So it was an ideal place, it was argued, to cater for the "overspill" population from Birmingham.

Where cows safely graze... This area with the landmark Stirchley chimney was intended to become the new town centre – but instead has ended up as part of Telford Town Park.

The idea took hold, and the upshot was that new homes were built at Dawley in the late 1950s for people from Birmingham, inevitably leading to the new housing being dubbed "little Birmingham".

So it was hardly surprising when sites for new towns were considered in the early 1960s, that Dawley came into the frame.

Dawley New Town was officially designated in January 1963. The target population of the new town, which was essentially based on Dawley and Madeley, was about 90,000, which represented a growth of about 50,000 on the existing population. In fact Dawley New Town was a misnomer, because hardly anything changed in Dawley itself, but the Madeley area was transformed.

Goodbye to Madeley High Street. The Anstice Memorial Hall on the right was spared.

A major casualty was the traditional High Street which was smashed up and replaced by a, by definition, 1960s-style traffic-free shopping precinct.

The first of the new town housing estates was built at Sutton Hill, but all was not well with the new town vision and progress was slow. The basic concept of building somewhere for "overspill" population from the Midlands fell out of fashion, and Birmingham was showing little interest in exporting its residents to Shropshire.

And at top levels, cogs were turning. Before Dawley New Town had got under way in earnest, officialdom was already thinking of a much grander scheme to build a much larger new town.

A 1965 artist's impression of Dawley New Town town centre, which was planned to be built around Randlay Lake, but never happened.

The continuing uncertainty had an inhibiting effect on the pace of development and with the grand plan having been ripped up, things limped along without a master plan until things were resolved with the announcement of the creation of Telford New Town in 1968. This expanded the Dawley concept to rope in the Wellington and Oakengates areas.

A far-reaching consequence was it meant that the "town centre" moved. Under the original Dawley proposals it would have been around Randlay Lake, in what is today Telford Town Park.

With the advent of Telford New Town it shifted to the area of old Malinslee. Naturally that was to change the lives of those people who lived in old Malinslee.

The ruined Norman chapel at Malinslee, pictured on August 15, 1962. According to legend there was a secret passage connecting it to Malinslee Hall in the distance. Jeremy Corbyn's mother was instrumental in saving the chapel from destruction – it was dismantled and rebuilt.

Which brings us on to the lost communities of Telford. Malinslee had a hall – Malinslee Hall – a Norman chapel, a villa called Abbey Villa, a farm, individual homes and agricultural land.

Telford town centre as we know it was built on top, although the Norman chapel was carefully dismantled and the stonework was retained.

Some of the credit for that goes to one Naomi Corbyn, whose son, Jeremy, was destined to be a future leader of the Labour Party. She wrote a letter to the Shropshire Star calling for the chapel to be saved, which seems to have spurred officialdom to put on their thinking caps and prompt talks between the Department for the Environment and Telford Development Corporation.

The pit mounds of the Dawley area meant planners saw the new town idea as a way to reclaim derelict land

At the time the Corbyns lived at Pave Lane, Newport.

The ancient building was rebuilt years later, some distance away from its original site, in Telford Town Park, where it remains a feature today.

Not far away was the community of Dark Lane, with terraced homes and a chapel. That was obliterated and residents moved out as part of the creation of the new town centre.

Lost Telford – Single Row at Hinkshay, Dawley, in November 1963, where residents had to draw water from a communal tap.

In the Hinkshay area of Dawley there was another community, comprising three terraced rows, Single Row, Double Row, and New Row, the latter generally being known as Ladies Row as it was considered to be a bit posher, relatively speaking.

Here the demolition, which came in 1968, was not to do with the advent of the new town, but rather because the homes were considered substandard. Again, the site is now part of Telford Town Park.

During all these transformations there were grumbles from the locals about what officialdom was doing, but there was one aspect of the area's heritage that the "outsiders" showed themselves keen to preserve.

Sutton Hill, the new town's first housing estate, seen here in the late 1960s, created a traffic-free environment for pedestrians.

The rise of Telford coincided with a rise in the appreciation of industrial heritage, and from the earliest days the new town corporation was a supporter of the fledgling Ironbridge Gorge Museum and the preservation of buildings and relics in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

What would things have been like today if Dawley New Town or Telford New Town had never come along?

The view towards Top Farm (in the distance) in March 1969. Top Farm and the buildings in Dark Lane in the foreground were obliterated by the building of Telford town centre. The photo was taken from what is now the Hollinswood housing estate and Top Farm lies under the inner ring road of Telford town centre.

There would no doubt have been some natural expansion, rather than the turbo-charged development that was experienced. With no town, there would be no Telford town centre. No M54, and perhaps no Telford hospital, although the campaign for a major hospital in East Shropshire went back well before the advent of Telford.

While we cannot say for certain what that different future would have looked like, these pictures help us appreciate the common past.

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