The New Jerusalems: post-war new town archives in Britain and Ireland receive Wellcome Trust grant

The Wellcome Trust has awarded a network of archive service £427,809 to catalogue and conserve eleven important post-war new town collections.


Release date: 10 August 2021

West Sussex Record Office, on behalf of a network of archive services, has been awarded a grant of £427,809 from the Wellcome Trust to secure the future of eleven new town collections.

The grant will be used to catalogue, conserve and increase accessibility to these important post-war planning and building documents held by nine separate archive services in the UK and Ireland.

The first wave of new towns were created after the New Towns Act, 1946 and were a pillar in the construction of the ‘New Jerusalem’ - the prosperous and egalitarian society envisaged by the new government.

New towns were proposed to eradicate the ‘urban disease’ of inner cities by providing good-quality housing, solving overcrowding and addressing wider public wellbeing.

These collections, held by archive services across the country and Ireland, are mainly from the new town development corporations - public bodies given wide-ranging powers to build new towns between the 1940s and 1960s, and include early designs, residents’ surveys, and tens of thousands of photographs.

The eleven collections represent: Basildon, Bracknell, Crawley, Cwmbran, Newton Aycliffe, Peterlee, Redditch, Runcorn, Shannon, Stevenage and Warrington.

This project will create a fundamental change in the evidence base currently available for research into the new towns movement, resulting in a significant new resource for researching the impact of housing and urban design on public health.

Dr Alina Congreve, an independent consultant in sustainable planning, who brought together the partners to work on the proposal said: “There is renewed interest in many aspects of new town design as we reflect on how life might change in the aftermath of Covid-19.

“New Towns have much to contribute to current policy making in urban planning and public health, including: wide pedestrianised shopping streets; generous public green space; amenities within 15 minutes of people’s homes; and supporting walking and cycling. It is exciting to be working with new towns across England, Wales and Ireland on this project.”

Many of the records in the care of these nine archives have not been catalogued and are still in the boxes that they were stored in when the development corporations were dissolved.

Some of the stored materials are fragile and are in need of repair and careful conservation; for example, maps that were used every day and photographs that could be lost forever if not properly conserved.

When the cataloguing and conservation is complete, there will be user guides and local events to share these exciting, newly accessible collections.

Wendy Walker, County Archivist at West Sussex Record Office said: “New town archives are such an important part of our heritage and provide a vital resource for our understanding of these developments and their impact on those who live there. This grant will enable local communities across the UK to access and engage with these records for the first time, to explore the history of their local areas and share their stories with us. We are extremely grateful to the Wellcome Trust for all of their support in making this happen.”

The bid was developed by the Association of New Town Archives and Museums (ANTAM), which received initial funding from The National Archives’ ‘Networks for Change’ fund in 2020.

Emma Markiewicz, Head of Archive Sector Development at The National Archives, said: “We are delighted to see how the Association of New Town Archives and Museums has built on the support of our Networks for Change grant to create a project that will preserve and open up the collections of so many new towns. This is really important work and we look forward to seeing the results.”

Where other new town records, such as Milton Keynes and Peterborough, have already been catalogued there has been a surge of interest.

Local museums, history centres and heritage societies have used them in exhibitions, websites and even to produce a new play.

For researchers of all levels, from A-level projects and undergraduate dissertations to international university professors, there is a resurgence of interest in what people can learn from the experiences of post-war new towns.

Additional information on the project

This grant is a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Award in Humanities and Social Science, a funding scheme that helps collection and information professionals develop library and archive material for humanities and social science researchers.

The new town records that will be catalogued and conserved in this project are all held in county archives (except Shannon records which are held in the University of Limerick archive). The partner archives participating in this project are:

  • West Sussex Record Office - Crawley 
  • Berkshire Record Office - Bracknell
  • Cheshire archives and Local Studies - Runcorn and Warrington
  • Durham County Record Office - Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee
  • Essex Record Office - Basildon
  • Gwent Record Office - Cwmbran
  • Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies - Stevenage
  • Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service - Redditch
  • University of Limerick - Shannon

This grant has been awarded to West Sussex as part of the Association of New Town Archives and Museums (ANTAM) in partnership with Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, Durham Record Office, Essex Record Office, Gwent Archives, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Shropshire Archives, University of Limerick, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and Berkshire Record Office. The partners were brought together with the support of a Networking Grant from the National Archives. The network was launched in October 2020 and has been meeting virtually to develop this project.

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