»  1950s Northampton

Dec-28-1978

 

The town of Northampton I grew up in 1945-1963 was completely transformed in the 1960s and 1970s. Old buildings were demolished and new ones built; grand malls and parking garages replaced familiar streets; huge road-building projects altered the town's topology. Northamptonians date the transformation from the 1960 demolition of the Peacock Hotel, an old (17th century) coaching inn on the east side of the market square. The really dramatic changes took place mostly in the 1970s, though, when I was living elsewhere. Returning to the town in 1978, I could hardly find my way around.

I took pictures of some of the old landmarks still surviving, like the one on this page. It's the Lankester & Wells building, which stood on the north bank of the Nene just west of South Bridge. It was already derelict in 1978, and was pulled down soon after. The place has special connotations for me, as I had my first paid employment there, in one of those rooms at river level, looking out at the Nene through one of the windows. I operated a machine that put corks in wine bottles. (Lankester & Wells was a bottling company.) That was in the Easter school vacation, 1960. Pay was £4 a week — not bad for a 14-year-old at the time, when working men supported families on less that £20 a week.

The later entries in this timeline give a rough picture of the town's changes.

Those demolitions and "redevelopments" made a lot of people angry at the time. Much of what was done seemed pointless. That fine old Peacock Hotel, for example, was replaced by a hideous shed of a building that then stood empty for several years. (A construction firm I worked for as a student used to use it for storage, and I was inside the place several times. It had plainly been built fast and cheap.) There was some suspicion that the town authorities were in cahoots with the developers for monetary gain. Perhaps they were; but I am sure they also thought they were improving the place.

Poet John Betjeman caught the mood of suspicion and disgruntled conservatism in his poem "Executive," which appeared in his 1974 collection A Nip in the Air. The poem is supposed to be spoken by a sharp young executive type — a type Betjeman detested. Fourth stanza:

I do some mild developing. The sort of place I need
Is a quiet country market town that's rather run to seed.
A luncheon and a drink or two, a little savoir faire —
I fix the Planning Officer, the Town Clerk and the Mayor.

That's pretty much what happened to Northampton.

It wasn't all bad. Some of the buildings that were pulled down, needed pulling down. The Emporium Arcade at the northeast corner of the market square, whose demolition (to make way for the Grosvenor Centre mall) was so much lamented, was in fact a seedy place, whose shops, as I recall, didn't do much business. In any case, towns must change and grow; and there's not much doubt that the townspeople wanted better roads and shopping malls.

You could make a case, in fact, that the people changed before the town did, and that it was the human change that drove the material one. That fine old Victorian fountain in the middle of the market square, for instance, was removed (in 1962) not because some predatory Betjemanian executive wanted to develop the site, but because it was suffering increased vandalism...

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The downward links cover:

  • Life in the town.
  • The boys' secondary school I attended, 1956-63.
  • A street map of the town from 1959 or 1960.
  • The Ordnance Survey 2½-inch maps (i.e. scaled at 2½ inches to a mile) covering the town and neighboring countryside, dated 1955.
  • The Ordnance Survey ¼-inch map for south-central Northamptonshire, dated 1946.