T. Dan Smith remains as one of Tyneside’s most controversial political figures. Hero or villain? Visionary or crook? Smith’s legacy distilled into four narratives.
History has not been kind to T. Dan Smith (1915-1993). Every hole in Newcastle’s 19th century architecture, every ugly building ever assembled in the city, has become the work of that notorious Labour leader of the City Council (1959-1965), Mr. Dan Smith. Smith, it is said, not only destroyed significant portions of the city’s architectural heritage for political reasons, he did so while lining his own pockets. The seven-year jail sentence awarded to this “villain of Tyneside” at Leeds Crown Court in 1974 for corruption and his involvement in the Poulson Affair was justified. Smith rightly suffered for the damage he did to the city and North East.
This story has become more or less conventional wisdom. Today, we mourn the loss of Eldon Square, the Royal Arcade and other Dobson-Grainger buildings demolished and replaced by the works of high modernism fashionable in Smith’s time. The ugliness of Eldon Square Shopping Centre, Commercial Union House, the Pearl, Swan House, Princess Square and the Central Motorway still infuriate those dreaming of appreciating Grainger’s original vision. A counterfactual is seductive here. Wouldn’t the city be so much better without Smith and town planner Wilfred Burns’ rotten schemes?*
More so than the loss of municipal pride experienced by the flâneurs of Tyneside, the great crime of Dan Smith’s legacy revolves around the destruction of traditional communities: the experience of those uprooted by Smith’s schemes and sent to live in high-rise flats overlooking the now demolished traditional working class spaces of Tyneside. And this was how Smith, himself, played out the end of his life. 92 Mill House, a high-rise flat overlooking the Town Moor, ultimately became his home. No longer would he live at “Millionaires Row”, Belle Grove Terrace.
Smith’s death in 1993 appeared to coincide with the beginning of the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation and the Grainger Town Project’s actions to redevelop and regenerate Newcastle and the North East region. The end of Smith’s life seemed to allow the North East to be reborn. A new chapter had begun, one that would emphasise conservation and repair, instead of demolition and replacement. The vision of a modern Newcastle, transformed by developments in political thinking and architectural practice was securely in the past.
Meanwhile, deindustrialisation and high male unemployment were crippling the local economy. It was decided that tourism would become one of the city’s key industries. Heritage became the new obsession. With the T. Dan Smith era over, the city would now look back to the 19th century, towards the days of Dobson and Grainger, Stephenson and Armstrong. They were our new heroes. Smith was a blot on the history of Tyneside. The sooner forgotten, the better.
If this is the dominant narrative of Smith’s legacy, I would like to show that things are in fact much more complex. Who was the real T. Dan Smith? How have ideas about his legacy twisted and turned throughout the last fifty years?
The Pacemakers: T. Dan Smith (1970)
Made before his fall from grace, this short film describes Smith as an “American-style city boss”, fighting poverty and privilege to create a “region of tomorrow”. He is astute to the problems of 1970s Tyneside: the looming threat of deindustrialisation, the need for the region to move away from its industrial past towards a service and tourism-oriented future. Change was the mantra and essence of his political career. This was after all why he got into politics in the first place:
I think in the world Newcastle would be be famous above all else for one saying: “Bringing coals to Newcastle”. This meant to imply that it was built on coal, they mined coal, they shipped coal, everybody worked in coal. And it seemed to me as a young fellow that this had to be changed.
He is, however, portrayed as a controversial figure, someone opposed by many of the region’s factional groups. But Smith is shown to be ahead of the curve, urging his opponents to move on and change their ways of life for a modern age. The courting of the major architectural and artistic superstars of the moment (attempts to bring Le Corbusier and Pablo Picasso to the Tyne) suggests that he wants the best for the North East. He will not be satisfied by second-rate planners, developers and artists.
His charisma and dreams for the city are immensely attractive. He speaks of Newcastle in the highest of terms, likening it to Athens, Rome and Brasília. And he is a local lad turned good: a politician who has avoided the offers of Parliamentary high politics in order to stay in the provinces and dismantle the centralised power of the “Establishment” from the outside.
While some of his achievements are dated – few would describe the 1960s housing developments at Peterlee New Town today as “natural as a herd of cows or a flock of sheep” – his visionary rhetoric regarding the establishment of a science campus in Peterlee is compelling: “all the miner’s sons will grow up to be scientists and computer men,” he says.
Unmarred by his subsequent conviction, T. Dan Smith is here an uncompromising visionary, an articulate and foresighted figure described by this film as the “economic overlord of the North of England”.
T. Dan Smith: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Utopia (Amber Collective, 1987)
Amber’s experimental documentary wrestles with two questions: was Smith guilty of his crimes or was he a “political visionary sacrificed by the establishment to protect bigger fish who escaped the scandal untouched”? The film uses arguments between two filmmakers – Murray Martin and Steve Trafford – to illustrate the different views one can have on Smith’s legacy. The impossibility of conventional documentary to arrive at “truth” is emphasised by a postmodern approach.
Smith stars as himself in the film, watching and responding to a collage of interviews and short films in Amber’s editing suite. The two filmmakers join in this game of deconstruction and contextualisation by examining and interpreting his positions as they unfold. Meanwhile, dramatic sequences, shot with a B-movie film-noir aesthetic, are juxtaposed with these interview sections. The seedy underworld of Tyneside politics and the Poulson affair is emphasised by such scenes.
The film repeatedly questions the arguments presented by Smith, the onscreen filmmakers and the local press. It offers three major lines of interpretation which collide with one another: the often wooden dramatic reenactments of sleazy behaviour, persuasive criticisms of his legacy – especially those regarding high-rise housing – and the analysis of history offered by Smith himself.
Although it appears that the film wants to avoid drawing conclusions, satisfied by the ambiguity conjured by the clash of various opposing interpretations, Smith does not escape unscathed (his contemporaries John Poulson and Wilfred Burns are, however, much harshly treated). His convictions are challenged, his actions are criticised and shown to not have withstood the test of time. Ultimately, however, the filmmakers admit that they are “still none the wiser”. For a film which from the start does not wish to arrive at a definitive judgement, this is the natural conclusion.
Our Friends in the North (Peter Flannery, 1996)
The T. Dan Smith of Our Friends in the North is the fictionalised Austin Donahue, local politician and villain of the series. Donahue begins by arguing that we can “no longer resist the logic of the 1960s”: the brick-built terraced house must be substituted by “high-quality, high-rise, apartment blocks”. His dream is to “demolish every slum in this city and replace them with bright clean modern housing”. Like Smith, Donahue also emphasises rebuilding the city centre in order to make Newcastle an “international-class European city”.
His desire for Newcastle to be at the cutting edge of change is inspiring for many characters of the series, especially the young Nicky (Christopher Eccleston) who is swept up into the world of local politics, riding the wave of Donahue’s rhetoric.
The series then moves to depict the divide between Nicky’s ideals and Donahue’s corrupt practices; the dreams of change versus the reality of local politics. The municipal socialist fantasy of defeating the centralised powers from outside the system is ultimately shown to fail. Donahue becomes increasingly involved with the dishonest practices of John Edwards (read: John Poulson), while Tory MP Claude Seabrook (read: Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maudling) avoids imprisonment due to Parliamentary immunity.
The series does not move to suggest that Donahue was a scapegoat for a larger web of corruption. Our Friends in the North, instead, reflects the narrative outlined at the beginning of this article. Donahue uprooted the traditional working class communities of Tyneside and forced them to subsist in cheap, damp, faulty high-rises. His legacy is one of betrayal and insensitivity to the needs of the people of the region.
T Dan Smith: Downfall of a Visionary by Chris Foote Wood (2010)
Chris Foote Wood’s book T Dan Smith: Downfall of a Visionary seeks to rescue Smith’s legacy from the mythology of conventional wisdom. For Foote Wood, Smith is “still the most charismatic political leader the North-East has ever produced”. The main thrust of his argument rests on the notion that his imprisonment has obscured many of his achievements. Foote Wood earnestly believes that Smith was wrongly imprisoned and a scapegoat for a nasty web of parliamentary elites. His fall overshadowed the fate of three MPs, including Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, who were granted immunity from greater charges of corruption.
Aside from Smith’s experiences in the court room, Foote Wood makes a number of compelling – if not exceptional – arguments for Smith’s achievements:
In five short years, T Dan Smith transformed Newcastle upon Tyne from a backward-looking, decaying and neglected city into a dynamic, modern metropolis – perhaps not quite the “Brasilia of the North” or the regional capital as Dan would have wished, but a city that had regained its pride and optimism for the future. Eldon Square secured Newcastle’s position as a major shopping city, and the Central Motorway resolved much of its traffic problems. Newcastle became the first city in Britain to clear all its slums, with the Byker Wall – recently Grade II listed – still regarded as a masterpiece of modern housing redevelopment. T. Dan Smith supported an independent University and a Polytechnic for Newcastle, and pushed through the purchase of land to help these hugely important institutions develop close to the city centre. He preserved the historic City Walls and regenerated its towers and gardens. He developed Newcastle Airport and cleaned up the River Tyne.
Foote Wood is aware that some of these arguments – especially those regarding his redevelopment of the city centre – are particularly contentious:
Not everything T Dan Smith did was to the ultimate benefit of Newcastle – the loss of the Royal Arcade and the Eldon Square façade are blots on his record. But Dan did save the Holy Jesus Hospital (which some local architects wanted demolished!), and it was his determined action to revoke a previous planning permission for a modern office block in the middle of Grey Street that preserved the historic heart of the city that would otherwise have been blighted for ever. The majority of the much-criticised “concrete monstrosities” in and around Newcastle city centre were not Dan’s responsibility – most of them were built after his time in office, and some are now happily demolished.
T Dan Smith: Downfall of a Visionary does make a reasonable case for the re-evaluation of Smith’s legacy but perhaps not full-heartedly on the lines that Foote Wood proposes. What is needed is a critical account of the life of Smith which attempts to reconcile the myths surrounding him with the direct experience of Tyneside throughout history. This piece has shown that Smith’s life has been approached by many artists, filmmakers and historians, with a lack of agreement illustrating the complexity of his life and achievements. Yet, if Foote Wood’s book tells us anything it is that dwelling solely on the failures of his regime will not work to correct the injustices of history. We must look towards the good that was done that has now been forgotten.
*See John Pendelbury on the legacy of Smith and Wilfred Burns’ 1963 plan to transform the city centre and their “conscious policy of conservation”: Conservation in Newcastle upon Tyne City Centre 1959–68, which may help untangle some of the myths referenced above.