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The History Of Harlow

Wednesday 10th May 2017

As you will know, we are celebrating Harlow turning 70 this year and as many residents will agree, it most certainly has developed substantially in those 70 years. Many locals will recall the opening of the first Odeon cinema in 1960 or that Harlow back then was known as ‘pram town’ because of all the mums out and about with their babies.

However, despite New Town Harlow turning 70, as given away by some of the historic buildings still standing today and by the quaint beauty of the old town, Harlow itself is actually a lot older than 70.

It is not exactly known where the name ‘Harlow’ originally came from. The theory is that it came from the Anglo-Saxon words for ‘here’ and ‘hlaw’ meaning ‘Army Hill’. This most likely refers to Mulberry Hill which was used as the meeting place for the district.

The original village was that of a typical rural development at that time and is what we know as Old Harlow. This historic town pre dates the first written record of the Doomsday Book of 1086 so it is unknown when exactly Harlow first came into existence. Some of the buildings dating back to around that time are still standing today such as St. Mary’s Church in Churchgate Street which is a Grade II listed building and dates back to 1190. Just like Harlow itself, St Mary’s has gone through some changes in her long life. The grounds of Harlowbury also house ruins of an ancient chapel which is now a scheduled historic monument and is also the earliest recorded surviving building in Harlow, dating back to the 12th Century. 

Up until 1947 Harlow was still mainly an area of small villages, the largest of which was Old Harlow however that was all about to change. Following the New Towns Act of 1946 and with plans drawn up by renowned architect and landscape designer , Sir Frederick Gibberd, Harlow was about to undergo a major makeover. New Towns were devised to relieve overcrowding in north-east London following the devastation left by bombing in World War Two. So many families were homeless and so many streets and towns had been left in ruins but now that peace had been declared, it was time to begin rebuilding.

Harlow was a mark one new town, developed at the same time as other mark one new towns Basildon, Stevenage and Hemel Hempsted and it was designed to respect the existing landscape. The plans included a number of ‘Green Wedges’ as they have now become known which were devised to separate each of the towns neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood was purposely built to be self supporting with their own shopping and community facilities and pub.

Gibberd invited many of England’s best-known architects, including Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, to design buildings for the town.  One way to solve the issue of rehoming so many people after WW2 was to build tower blocks, this way less land space was being used but plenty of new housing was being built. The Lawn, built in 1951, was Britain’s first residential tower block to be built and is now a Grade II listed building.  

Because Harlow was designed by Sir Gibberd it was considered one of the best of the new towns to live in and a great place to bring up children because of its parks (Harlow Town Park is actually one of the biggest urban parks in Britain) football pitches and green land. Her majesty The Queen and Prince Philip have even visited Harlow!

What began as a rehoming project after the Second World War became a whole new family life for many; it gave people their future back.  Harlow was considered a safe place to live with nice new family homes and as it developed it gave people great job opportunities with local businesses such as Cosser Electronics, Dorstel Press or Cyclax of London. It gave those families a stable job for life.

So much has changed in Harlow over 70 years, it has been developed and redeveloped but one thing is for sure, it has continued to grow and thrive. Here is to the next 70 years and beyond!

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