Dreamstreets: A Journey Through Britain’s Village Utopias, by Jacqueline Yallop - book review: a fascinating study of how human life

The trouble with toy town

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The Independent Culture

Shortly after our recent election, a newspaper urged its readers to remember their duty. “When the cuts fall,” the editor wrote, “the weakest must be protected … Now is the time for a burst of philanthropy.” A noble thought – but what really happens when the health and happiness of everyday folk are placed in the hands of blue bloods and big business?

It’s a question at the core of Jacqueline Yallop’s Dreamstreets: A Journey Through Britain’s Village Utopias. A historian of the 19th century, Yallop takes the reader on a walk through a handful of the model settlements that were brought to life in Britain by the needs of industry and the whims of the wealthy.

Yallop is clearly devoted to her subject. At the age of 21, she spent an entire summer twiddling her thumbs in Nenthead, a Quaker-built mining town at the base of the Pennines, offering guided tours to visitors who rarely, if ever, came.

These toy towns tell chilling tales of coercion and control. Nenthead, for instance, was the first place in the UK to make schooling obligatory. This, at a time when Tory MPs argued that the poor should be taught only “the virtue of subordination”, would have been a radical development, had the company not used it as a tool to weed out troublemakers. Failing to attend Sunday school one too many times could see you struck off the books for life.

Should adults deviate from their role as model citizens they too could expect punishment; drunkenness was discouraged, fines were handed down for swearing, and anyone who dared father an illegitimate child was offered marriage or immediate dismissal. It was, Yallop writes, “a culture of scrutiny and control”.

As Yallop notes, “questions of expediency and philanthropy are difficult to unravel; impulses are often murky and intentions ambiguous.” Port Sunlight, built by William Hesketh Lever for his soap factory workers, was unusually lavish. The work of 30 architects, amongst whose number was included Edwin Lutyens, who went on to build New Delhi, it contained hospitals, schools, a concert hall, and even an outdoor swimming pool.

And yet villagers were ashamed to live there. “No man of an independent turn of mind can breathe for long in the atmosphere of Port Sunlight … it lowers them to the level of machines tending machines,” one union boss complained. Lever, a pioneer of advertising, had built the place as a living, breathing hoarding for his Sunlight soap. Clean living was strictly enforced.

While Yallop’s prose occasionally dawdles, Dreamstreets is, for the most part, a fascinating study of how human life is moulded and shaped by big money. It is, like a visit to a Quaker town, sobering.