After All: a model village that hit a brick wall
Image credit: Christine Bohling
Continuing his quest for Britain’s industrial utopias, Vitali visits the formerly thriving Bedfordshire village of Stewartby.
‘When all else fails, read notice boards’ is one of my self-invented rules of journalistic research.
“Do you need financial help?” runs the one and only notice on the village notice board. “Who doesn’t?” I want to reply. But there’s no one around to whom I could address my rhetorical question.
It is early afternoon on a Saturday, but the village seems empty and abandoned, as if evacuated hastily in the wake of some impending environmental disaster – an earthquake or a volcano eruption. I turn around to make sure there are no volcanoes, or mountains or even sizeable hillocks around – total flatness, with lots of Soviet-style ‘public voids’ (Owen Hatherley’s euphemism for squares and other purposeless public spaces of a typical ‘socialist’ townscape), with handfuls of red-brick Arts-and-Crafts cottages scattered here and there. And – towering above it all – four huge priapic chimneys, the tallest I’ve ever seen, like some giant sentries of all that seemingly pointless nothingness. It appears as if the place itself is in dire need of help, and not just financial.
I am in the centre of Stewartby – a former ‘model village’ in the very heart of Bedfordshire. I’ve put ‘model village’ in quotes because, just like a New Town, or a Garden City, it denotes a particular type of self-contained community, in this case a settlement built by land or factory owners specifically to accommodate their workers. Other, much more well-known, examples of British model villages include Port Sunlight, Bourneville and Saltaire, all of which were created as industrial communities. Although much less known than the latter, Stewartby is supremely graphic and therefore is indeed a model (this time without quotes) for studying the nature of a post-utopian settlement.
Started in 1926 to house the workers of the famous London Brick Company and designed by the company’s own architect FW Walker, the village was named Stewartby after the company owners – the Stewart family. It was conveniently located near the places where the raw material for bricks, read clay, could be easily found.
North Bedfordshire has always been famous for its special Lower Oxford Clay, formed 150 million years ago. With its 20 per cent moisture and 5 percent marine organics, it could be pressed into a mould and fired without drying – all due to a high inbuilt carbon content that ignited itself and brought itself up to full burning temperature without the need for using coal, a method that made the bricks much cheaper to manufacture.
By 1936, Stewartby had become the world’s largest brickworks and the biggest producer of bricks. It was home to the enormous Hoffmann kiln (furnace) and... wait for it... 167 giant chimneys, of which there were just four left at the time my first visit in August 2020.
In its heyday, the factory churned out an astounding 18 million bricks a year, and its brick-makers enjoyed exemplary working conditions: pension schemes, paid holidays, own ambulance crew, profit sharing and the use of an in-house indoor swimming pool – a truly utopian scenario for the 1920s-30s, all courtesy of Sir Malcolm Stewart, who succeeded his father as the company’s chairman in 1924.
The village quickly evolved into a model settlement, with Scandinavian-style workers’ cottages, sports grounds, offices, canteens, and a memorial hall. It all but absorbed several nearby hamlets and transformed itself into a lively near-urban community of the type of Cadbury’s Bournville.
None of the original 167 chimneys are left at the moment of writing (as I made sure during my latest visit to the village a couple of months ago). The last four were demolished on 26 September 2021, and the brickworks themselves closed down in 2008, unable to meet the UK limits for sulphur dioxide emissions. Thus, the village had lost not just its main – and pretty much the only – distinctive feature, but its identity and raison d’etre.
On that last visit to Stewartby, I could sense a strong feeling of something important being amiss, probably because the chimney silhouettes were still showing prominently on the village’s emblem opposite the Village Hall, depicting a red-brick house and a kiln on the background of the Stewart clan tartan. They also featured in the letterheads of the parish council official letters, displayed on the notice board, as well as on the sign above the barred windows of the closed Kiln restaurant, where letter “I” was cleverly executed by an anonymous sign painter in the shape of a smoking chimney. It was in the style of legendary Georgian primitivist artist Niko Pirosmanishvili, who used to draw pub signs in exchange for food and booze.
Ironically, they are now talking of restoring one of the chimneys either as a historic monument, or as a functioning state-of-the-art giant incinerator of the type of Vienna’s Spittelau one, designed by the famous Austrian artist Hundertwasser. That strikes as a typically dystopian Soviet-style scenario: it was habitual in the USSR to allocate lots of money and other resources to undo recently completed jobs. On numerous occasions, I witnessed how a bunch of navvies would be stubbornly digging out a trench in the middle of a street all day long, only to return to the same spot the following morning and start filling it up again – with the same drunken abandon.
Yes, history has nearly made a full circle in Stewartby – the village that had reverted to the declining farming settlement it used to be prior to the brickworks.
Apart from the suggested one-chimney revival, there have been other attempts to breathe a new life into that post-utopian settlement. The most unlikely of them was the plan to make the inland village the location for the would-be ‘National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats’ (no less!)’ – just another name for a freshwater public aquarium. The project, with an expected cost of £350m, was bound to fail, for a ‘public aquarium’ was probably the last thing needed in a village struggling for survival. So it did, with the proposed aquarium site of 100 hectares sold with a loss of £4m in 2015.
To me, it was almost physically painful to see the formerly thriving utopian community in decline. I firmly believe that Stewartby, with its amazing industrial history and its unique identity, must be saved. While staring ruefully at the now-chimneyless and therefore disturbingly empty Stewartby skyline, I suddenly had an idea. Instead of the aquarium, good only for drowning one’s sorrows ,why not to open in the village an open-air Museum of Britain’s Industrial Utopias, with many potential exhibits already in place?
I would be keen to visit such a museum. Wouldn’t you?
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