Mother & Child: The (Re)Birthing of Basildon

Image ©The Foundation for Essex Arts

Image ©The Foundation for Essex Arts

Bio: Rose Cleary is a writer from Essex. She writes mainly on gentrification and the working-class experience, you can read more of her work here:

All views expressed are the writer’s own.


Rose Cleary writes about the symbolism of the Mother and Child public artwork in Basildon town square for its residents:

Image ©The Foundation for Essex Arts

Image ©The Foundation for Essex Arts

The Mother and Child fountain communicates an interesting message for Basildon. The bronze sculpture depicts a woman laid back, holding aloft the fountain, while a young child sits astride her chest, head thrown back, eyes closed. In the warmer seasons, water showers down upon the shoulders of the boy and the woman’s hair. Created by Maurice Lambert in 1962, the commission was intended to celebrate the birth of Basildon, or more accurately its rebirth via its new town status. 


The fountain sits next to Brooke House, 14 storeys of dark brown brick and jagged windows. Built in the same year that the Mother and Child was unveiled, it was initially planned as a luxury tower with the uppermost floors earmarked for visiting Ford executives. As with much of Basildon’s architecture and civil structuring, it was intended for lofty ideals - but the building now accommodates predominantly social housing tenants.


Brooke House has a Grade II listing status, is declared as a heritage asset and was recently incorporated as part of Basildon’s heritage trail, however, these words of intangible value are not intended to protect the existing residents from the possibilities of regeneration. In 2012, council members proposed that Brooke House be converted into a luxury hotel. This plan didn’t come to fruition but did make the current residents wonder why they have not seen any form of refurbishment for their own benefit and has left them feeling deeply neglected. 


I visited the home of Zelda Jeffers in Brooke House,an activist concerned with Brooke House and its residents. She takes me on a tour of the building’s communal areas; concrete steps exposed to the elements under a wire roof, a security camera system which may or may not function, and half-finished maintenance jobs. With ironic enthusiasm, Jeffers reveals the end point of the tour as “the most modernised part of Brooke House” - the waste disposal room, where wheelie bins sit encased behind automated doors, perfectly comfortable in a freshly painted and air-conditioned room. 

I ask her whether the rest of the building, with its chipped interior in outdated shades of blood red, has ever been renovated. Jeffers tells me that having applied for a Freedom of Information on this topic, she found no actual record of this ever being done. 


And now a new topic is on the Brooke House Residents’ list of concerns, the East Square regeneration and cinema development which Jeffers is actively following. The project will begin this year with the demolition of Freedom House opposite the tower to make way for a ten-screen multiplex cinema. However, the urgency of its dispatch has left residents again wondering why it has come much faster than any necessary maintenance to Brooke House. It certainly begs the question of who the cinema is intended to benefit? Is it intended for Jeffers and her neighbours, for whom the existing bright lights of the town centre already beam into their windows throughout the night?


The theme of rebirth, as embodied in the Mother and Child sculpture is still relevant today - the cinema comes alongside numerous housing developments, as the town continues to grow. Basildon has reached a precarious point between its histories; from the utopian projections of its new town conception to the economic struggle of the town centre in recent decades, despite being the largest economy in Essex.  


It is more important than ever to ensure that the residents of Basildon are not forgotten, amongst marketing buzzwords like ‘leisure destination’, or ‘employment hub’. From the renaming of streets in the Five Links estate, to the demolishing of the existing East Square - the history of the area is continuously subject to renaming or redevelopment. In this way, sentimentality is subject to bulldozing, removing the emotional ties between residents and the landscape.  


Therefore the Mother and Child, the expensive restoration of which was widely approved by locals, is an important monument for this community - whose lives are seemingly being forgotten in Basildon’s reincarnations.  A town's public art and buildings are, after all, what allow us to orientate and relate to our environment, which in the case of Basildon seems to be ever changing: indeed, for the East Square cinema development, another much-loved and listed sculpture has been temporarily removed, to be reinstalled in the future


With Brooke House’s near-fate as a luxury hotel at the expense of the lives inside, the role of regeneration is thrown into question: who is it for? Perhaps the Mother, bearing the weight of her Child, is not celebrating rebirth, but a singular birth instead - in the responsibility to nurture and provide. A true cherishment. After all, Brooke House is not just a heritage asset and Basildon is not just a town in ruins. People live here.