Solway is a tough industrial city somewhere on England's North Sea coast. The Great Depression laid waste to its proud engineering and shipbuilding heritage, creating poverty on a Dickensian scale, but the onset of World War Two offered the dying city a lifeline; moribund industry was resurrected for the war effort and thousands went back to work.
But now the city faces a new threat, this time from above; docks, factories and military installations are prime targets for German bombers, turning long winter nights into hours of relentless, soul-destroying terror.
Movie-obsessed Sylvia Bullock and easy-going Sidney Williams grew up together in the working-class terraced streets around Old Forge Lane. As young adults, they are now on the frontline, working the late shift on the buses, and facing dangers as real and immediate as many of their friends and family fighting overseas.
One foggy night in the bleak January of 1943, with storm clouds and enemy bombers in the skies above them, life-and-death decisions confront many of Solway’s home front heroes and villains. That night, Sylvia and Sidney are brutally propelled into a strange and incomprehensible world, easily as terrifying and uncertain as the one they had left behind.
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Original Image Credit (bus); Ed Webster
Image Credit (clippie); Lothian Buses
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Many of the people living in and around Old Forge Lane would have been right behind the
Labour Manifesto of 1945, particularly concerning commitments to health and housing.
The social changes in Britain, for better or worse, in the years following World War Two, form the backdrop to Lost in Solway. You can read some more about this period here, in a piece written originally in the context of the
Lost in Solway tells the story of a tough industrial city through the eyes of Sylvia Bullock and Sidney Williams; a pair of brave, hardworking young people, home front heroes, who find themselves on a remarkable, terrifying, and occasionally comical journey into the unknown. They live with their families on Old Forge Lane, a working-class street of two-up, two-down terraced housing in the shadow of the ironworks chimney and the hilltop coalmine. During World War Two, Solway is a thriving city on the frontline, 'somewhere on England's North Sea coast'. Its people had suffered terribly through the Great Depression, which 'laid waste to its proud engineering and shipbuilding heritage, creating poverty on a Dickensian scale'. Any number of real industrial communities provided some inspiration for our fictional Solway. Jarrow, on Tyneside, was one such place, following the closure of the main employer, Palmer's Shipyard, in 1934. One resident recalled to the BBC over fifty years later, "The Jarrow of those days was a filthy, dirty, fallen down consumptive area in which the infantile death rate was the highest in the country, and TB was a general condition." Local MP Ellen Wilkinson described Jarrow thus, "There was no work. No one had a job except a few railwaymen, officials, the workers in the co-operative stores, and a few workmen who went out of the town...The plain fact is that if people have to live and bear and bring up their children in bad houses on too little food, their resistance to disease is lowered and they die before they should."
The BBC drama, When the Boat Comes In (1976-77, 1981), created by James Mitchell and with an incredible cast including James Bolam and Jean Heywood, painted a haunting picture of an aspirational working-class community in the years following the Great War, and provided at least some visual inspiration for the communities around Old Forge Lane. Our Friends in the North (BBC 1996), written by Peter Flannery, told the story of post-war changes in Britain over several decades through the eyes of four friends from Tyneside, although their journey was a little more conventional than ours. Researching the real people and events that inspired some of these great dramas, from the Jarrow March to the Miners' Strike and so much that happened in between, has provided the foundation not only for Lost in Solway, but for the Armstrong and Burton Series as well.
There are a number of Great War veterans amongst our Solway characters, still living with the scars, physical and emotional, many years beyond the Armistice. Selected reminiscences of life on and around the Western Front were inspired by real personal recollections told to the BBC for their remarkable 26 part television series from 1964, The Great War, and also from the Radio 4 Series, Voices of the First World War, broadcast for the centenary.
By 1945, with a new Labour government elected in a landslide, things were going to be different for our own Solway, and for Britain as a whole. Cradle-to-Grave welfare, housing, and full employment; the heroes and villains of Old Forge Lane would have been right behind these initiatives set out with such optimism in the new government's manifesto. But what would happen in the coming years? The roller coaster of post-war Britain; changes of government, industrial upheaval, economic chaos, unemployment and social change. What of the cause so close to the hearts of our friends in Solway, working-class housing? What will be in store for the descendants of the remarkable generation who lived, loved, and worked around Old Forge Lane?
Thank you for joining us on this journey.
In Context; Post-War Housing Challenges
Having won the 1945 UK general election with a huge mandate, one of the Labour government’s principal election pledges was to confront the critical housing shortage, with over 4 000 000 British homes having been destroyed or badly damaged during air raids. They promised a Non Stop Drive For Housing, pledging that; “…The homes of the people must come before the mansions of the rich…"
The responsible Minister, Aneurin Bevan, stated;
“…We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of each citizen - to see the living tapestry of a mixed community…”
A key part of the overall housing strategy, conceived before the end of the war, was the mass construction of modest prefabricated dwellings, known as EFM (Emergency Factory Made) housing, using some POW labour, as a temporary solution. (Many of these structures outlasted any temporary intentions, and some have been heritage listed).
The post-war government would ultimately struggle to reach their reconstruction targets, hampered by shortages of building materials, labour, and money. In 1948, building peaked at 227 600 new homes, but the rate of construction was in decline by the following year. During the subsequent decade, with Labour out of office, future Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan assumed the housing portfolio unencumbered by other responsibilities. (Aneurin Bevan had also been Minister of Heath with responsibility for the foundation of the NHS). Macmillan also did not have to contend with chronic shortages, and was able to step up construction to 300 000 new homes per year. But policies such as incentivising high-rise constructions would lead to the adoption of ‘streets in the sky’, tower block housing estates, built using the controversial large panel system, which would have major social implications for future governments, and for the country.
In May 1968, the partial collapse of a council tower-block in Newham, East London, killed four residents and injured 17. The BBC reported that an explosion on the 18th floor, at around 5.45 am on May 16th, sent the floors below collapsing ‘like falling dominoes’. A public inquiry held three months later, concluded that a gas explosion had triggered the collapse, and that the building was structurally unsound, although this was disputed by the building company. It had been built using a process known as large-panel system building, in which prefabricated concrete panels were bolted together, ‘like a giant Meccano set’, and had been occupied for just two months.
This construction process had been embraced by local authorities keen to manage their housing budgets, expedite their slum clearances and solve lingering housing shortages as a result of World War Two bomb damage. Government subsidies actually incentivised high-rise construction, the results of which were marketed as ‘streets in the sky’.
But many tower-blocks built in this way did not age well. In addition to the lack of strength and stability identified in the Ronan Point inquiry, panels would often mis-align, causing cracks leading to moisture and damp creeping inside. Many buildings required extensive refurbishment and strengthening, and many more have since been demolished.
Numerous instances of bribery and favouritism infected the awarding of building contracts, with large building firms forming close relationships with local authority Councillors. Although these arrangements were often made at a local level, Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maudling resigned over his ties with disgraced property developer John Poulson, who later served several years in prison; as did leader of Newcastle City Council, T Dan Smith.
As of 2018, there were still 41 000 flats in nearly 600 surviving tower-blocks built using this system; around 10% of the total number built during the post-war reconstruction boom. In many instances, concerns remain over safety and structural soundness.
(Sources include BBC Reporting, Newcastle Chronicle, and The Independent online).
There are more in-context posts and articles here;