An Historian Looks at Corby

A friend of mine sent me a copy of Rosemary Wakeman's book on modern utopias. I had never realised that I grew up in large part in one, but, well, Corby is included and I still love it in my memory, so here is the extract. The full book itself is very interesting.


“The new town of Corby in the English Midlands is a more detailed example of how designation as a new town played out. Corby was located near England’s largest supply of accessible ironstone and also the coalfields in Yorkshire and Durham. Mining rights and steel production were owned by the Stewarts and Lloyds Company. By the mid-1930s, the town was budding into a premier steelworks and steel tube-making centre. Thousands poured into the sleepy village of fifteen hundred souls, especially young Scottish workers from the Clyde Valley. Ten years later, in 1945, Corby was a boomtown of twelve thousand people, its steel mills churning out war materiel, including the steel tubes used in the cross-channel pipeline supplying fuel to Allied forces on the European continent. The makeover also made Corby into a layered landscape of progressive social reform experiments. Stewarts and Lloyds constructed housing, shops, cinemas, and a football pitch. It hired architects to design a road system and town plan for Corby’s future, replete with a town square and central avenue. But it did little to resolve frequent skirmishes between the new immigrants and the local population. Townspeople were divided along the sociological frontier of the railroad tracks, with the old village to the south and the “company town” spread north around the steel smelting plant. A hodgepodge of council housing dotted the landscape. Corby gained a reputation as a hard-knuckle steel town of ‘broken bottle and ragged weans…prodigious feats of drinking’ and frequent violence.

When Corby was designated a new town in 1950, its population stood at eighteen thousand, and its newest immigrants were workers from Eastern Europe. The official title came at the same moment the British steel industry was nationalized, putting it directly under government control. This raised the expectation that Corby’s steel production would be critical to the nation’s recovery, as would the workers themselves. New Town status ‘would last 100 years,’ and the population was forecast to reach forty thousand.

New Town status meant the chance to consolidate a scattered industrial workforce into an ‘integrated and socially balanced community’ with housing, infrastructure, and services. The master plan laid out a shopping, entertainment, and social centre for Corby, with seven low-density residential neighbourhoods to welcome the anticipated growth. Each neighbourhood unit would contain all the facilities typical of a small community. Corby suddenly transformed into a vast construction site with new housing estates, new shops and pubs, and a new bus station. The design was a model of state-sponsored industrial modernization and social reform. As the Manchester Guardian effused, Corby ‘breathed steel…steel is the meaning of Corby.’

It resolved to establish a new kind of industrial society. All the old squalors of industrial living would be swept away. All is gentle, delicate…thoroughly nice. Hardly anything is ugly. Hardly anything is whole-hog. The Corby Development Corporation has set out to create a sensible, decent, healthy, neighbourly kind of Elysium, and has succeeded absolutely.

It was the New England’.


Rosemary Wakeman, Practicing Utopia (April 2016, Chicago), Chapter 2: The Futurology of the Ordinary pp56-57.

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