New exhibition at Stevenage Museum
Explore town centre stories and never-before-seen colour images.
Stevenage Museum has been exploring stories from the town centre over the years.
An exhibition, Talking Shop – funded by Historic England’s Everyday Heritage Grants – is part of the project, alongside free workshops for local schools in the autumn and for people living with dementia and their families.
Shopping habits have changed dramatically since then and the exhibition explores the town centre in the late 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. In the exhibition, you can watch the film made with local people sharing their memories of visiting the town centre, with the option to add your own by filling in a postcard and adding it to the memory wall. There’s also the chance to see some never-before-seen colour images, including the first of the Queen’s visit to Stevenage in 1959. For younger visitors there’s a play café and self-service shop that has been keeping little ones happy since the exhibition opened. It’s the perfect place to spend a bit of time over the summer.
When Stevenage town centre opened in 1958, it was the first pedestrian-only shopping centre of its kind in the country. Others quickly followed and nowadays, traffic-free shopping is the norm, but back in the 1950s it was a truly radical idea. New town residents fought hard to make it a reality as opposition from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and retailers led to arguments at the Development Corporation over which model to adopt: the more traditional high street or the pedestrian-only version favoured by the lead architect and his team.
By September 1953, the Corporation’s architects were asked to produce detailed drawings for a scheme with a central road (down what is now Queensway) that would allow for conversion to a pedestrian way at a future date. But local people were concerned about the increase in traffic accidents and in January 1954, they called an open meeting and passed a unanimous resolution asking for a pedestrian-only town centre. With all the new evidence provided, the ministry was convinced, and the plans were revised.
An architect’s drawing showing Queensway with traffic, 1953.
Councillor Loraine Rossati, Portfolio Holder for Culture and Leisure, said:
“As well as the existing archive of mainly black and white photographs from the Development Corporation, we’ve also uncovered some colour slides recently. Thanks to Peartree Photo Limited who scanned them free to test a high-tech piece of kit they’ve just acquired, we’ve got some great colour shots, including the first colour image we’ve seen of the Queen’s visit to the town in 1959, alongside the visit from the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, later in the same year and other shots of the town centre we’ve never seen before. We’ll be sharing them on the museum’s social media over the next few weeks, so keep an eye out.”
One of the newly discovered colour slides, showing the Queen’s visit in 1959.
Tony Calladine, Historic England Regional Director, said:
“When it was created, over 75 years ago, Stevenage town centre was a ground-breaking pedestrian development, one of the earliest and most influential of its type in the world. I’m delighted to see Stevenage Museum celebrating its importance as the first post-war new town, in this new exhibition supported by our Everyday Heritage grants. The newly discovered images will give people a fascinating insight into Stevenage life.”
The exhibition is free to attend and runs until 30 September. The museum is open Wednesday-Friday 10am - 4.30pm, and 10am - 5pm on Saturdays. For details on where to find us, parking, admission fees and more visit our About the Museum web page.