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Ronald Price

150 years ago the fledging steps to modern society began. I will examine democracy, public services and education to illustrate contrasts between 1865 and 2015 and occasionally in between.

In the 21st century Dagenham is a vibrant part of a Greater London Borough created five decades ago. A century previously the Chelmsford Chronicle reported " What was twelvemonth ago a quiet rural village...." The hub of the parish, its church in Church Elm Lane was within the Becontree Hundred, an ancient administrative unit that incorporated the five Essex ‘Greater London’ Boroughs.

The heaths of Becontree and Chadwell met near to the Five Elms. This formed part of the boundary between two ancient manors, but whether they have further significance is not known. Much of the Chadwell Heath was subsequently subsumed into the Becontree  Estate. It and the Becontree Heath owed much to the 1845 Enclosure Act, which encouraged larger farms; with landowners taking advantage of mechanisation to reduce their labour costs.  This statute also protected forests and commons.

The redundant farm labourer, in part, found new opportunities as companies relocated along the Thames shoreline, some of who were forced out of the metropolitan area by its clean air legislation. Barking retained a connection with fishing, albeit processing,  through the long established company of Hewetts.

In 1865 a Parliamentary committee of enquiry recommended the protection of open space including much in Barking, Dagenham and Hainault Forest. Established cricket pitches were given village green status. This sport recognised as the national game, lacked  town clubs in Barking or Dagenham.  This being remedied, respectively in 1878 and 1879, but were destined to have stop-start existences. Barking was recognised as among the strongest in the county, and was the first to offer the requested two guineas  towards a challenge cup proposed by the Essex CCC in 1883. When it started in 1887, the club denied the use of Vicarage Field, were using West Ham Park. Popular with the lower classes was Quoits whose ‘beds’ were often on land attached to  inns. In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, Cycling, Football and Bowls gained participants at its expense.

Tradesmen joined the gentry in investing in railways including the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway Company (LTS). Dividends were satisfactory; despite a downturn in passenger revenue. The LTS directors continued to seek opportunities. To  meet the challenge, by the fledgling London Chatham & Dover Railway Company, to its ferry between Finsbury and Gravesend, the company invested in the newly floated Dagenham Dock Company.

Its prospectus planned to convert the 60-acre ‘Dagenham Lake’, created, it was believed, early in the 18th century, by a land shift on the Thames to a modern dock which  would provide a quicker turnaround for shipping with rates 30% less than the five London docks, further upstream. Its projected cost of £220,000 was sufficiently met to allow the first sod ceremony to proceed on 1 May 1865. The LTS planned to add a  spur from the new dock to its main line to provide a knock-out blow to its competitors. An attempt in 1852, for a dock, seeking £120,000, had failed to raise the necessary funds as what became the LTS began operating between Forest Gate and Tilbury.  William Glenny exploiting the opportunity of land adjacent to the original station at Barking built commuter cottages for City workers.

The Metropolitan Sewage & Essex Land Reclamation Company was seeking to capitalise on the Metropolitan Board of Works 5-mile extension of its sewers from Old Ford to Barking Creek. The Board’s Northern Outfall Project had cost £643,000 including  negotiating the River Lea and six other streams. The company proved successful in using the discharge, 14 million gallons per day, to create rich agricultural land on the Thames shoreline near the present day Lodge Avenue.

LTS’s enthusiasm for the Dagenham Dock dimmed amid difficulties in buying the land for the spur and its subsequent developments included a faster service to Southend via a new line to Pitsea through Upminster - in part the present day District  Line. By the turn of the century Samuel Williams, despite the collapse of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, had attracted much industry to the area, reinforced in the 1920s by the arrival of the Ford Motor Company. Today its regeneration  is part of the London Gateway project.

In 1865 Lord Eustace Cecil a grandson of Bamber Gascoyne, was elected unopposed as the second Conservative for Essex (Southern Division) which encompassed several of the 19 Hundreds of the county including Becontree, Chafford and Rochford and  the Liberty of Havering. Cecil’s election address supported a reduction in, or repeal of Malt Tax which increased the cost to farmers of barley feed and hence the price of meat. Like the earlier ‘reform’ of the Corn Law vested interests  delayed its repeal to 1880.

An 1861 the Boundaries Commission  identified ‘towns’ with a population of 5,000 without parliamentary representation, but it was more than 20 years before the 1885 Redistribution of Seats Act divided the division into twelve constituencies.  Its quest to equalise the number voters in constituencies continues, recently incorporating Rainham with Dagenham.   The London County Council was formed in 1888 with wider powers and responsibilities than the Metropolitan Board of Works which to quote  the Times "ceased to exist". Subsequently a formal structure for ‘Greater London’ was often frustrated.

Barking and Dagenham trod the well worn path to urban and metropolitan status before in 1960 a Council for Greater London moved a step closer. A ‘North East London Boundaries Convention’ discussed among others the future  allocation of Chadwell Heath, Hainault and Rainham before agreeing to the five Greater London boroughs, which with limited adjustment are those of today.

The South Essex Waterworks Company was established in 1861 to supply water to the Grays area. Of the ten metropolitan water companies it was the worst performer for water purity and it was more than a decade before Dagenham, came into its ambit,  and almost two more decades before the parish was fully on tap. At the turn of the century the battle between municipal control and private investment in respect of public services was at its height. Hitherto 1911 both Houses of Parliament had to approve  individual bills for infrastructure development. Much of this was then delegated to the Civil Service, albeit within control mechanisms which included the price chargeable for services. In 1912 the Gas Light and Coke Company began to supply Barking from  its Beckton site. Fifteen years later the County of London Electric Supply Company began bulk provision to Barking from its recently opened facility at Creekmouth; expanded twice, the site closed in 1981. Many of the early ‘cottages’ on  the Becontree Estate had gas lighting recalling that the two power sources were competing against each other much more than is the present case. Reminiscence of an era when the East Street Baths, opened in 1899, provided communal washing facilities!

In 1870 MP William Forster, advocated the ‘education of our masters’ although two decades earlier an Act of Parliament allowed local councils to collect a 1p in the £ rate to fund libraries, In Barking, the Mutual Improvement  Society continued to hold regular fund raising entertainments towards this purpose. It is possible to think that the National Curriculum is a modern invention but in the 1880s providers of the famed 3Rs (Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic)  had to meet six standards. By 1889 when Barking established its School Board it had four elementary schools which reflected society’s religious divide. The ethos of benevolence to community projects much in evidence, to help build schools and churches.   For the former, weekly fees were payable, although later certain children were assisted from the poor rates. Since Balfour, Hadow and Butler are steps in what is an ever-changing environment.

Municipal provision was no longer seen as the solution! In 1948 the Labour Government implemented its nationalisation aims. Integration of power companies, as the merger of Barking with Dagenham Councils was to, as had the creation of the Big  Four railway companies in 1923 showed the difficulties of change.

Privatisation became the buzz word of the 1980s and in 2015 central government battles against a return to local democracy. If it happens, would Buckinghamshire County Council repeat the support it gave in 1926 to the nearby West Ham Council in building  the Victoria Dock Relief Road? Likewise would the benevolence of Victorian gentry in providing financial contributions to community projects be repeated?

However we may be learning a lesson of the past in advocating that infrastructure must accompany housing development. The proposed Barking Riverside development on the site of Creekmouth Power Station includes extensions from two existing railway lines  to serve its residents.
A contrast from the lack of planning in 1921 for the Becontree Estate including a hospital and a park;  not remedied until the 1930s, respectively at Five Elms and at Parsloes. The former was for local residents earning less than £3 per week and not  registered with a doctor, to whom a fee was payable.  Beveridge’s National Health Service changed that but the quest for a healthy nation had only just begun!

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