Barking and District Historical Society

Go to content

Main menu

The Dilema of Immigration

Articles > Vic's Memories of Barking

The dilemma of immigration and integration

Vic Howard

I have done a lot of complaining in recent times about immigrants taking over Barking, but I have a confession  to make, I’m a second-generation immigrant myself. Not that my parents came very far. Dad was born on the Isle of Dogs and my mother came originally from Norfolk, though she did spend some of her childhood in Barking.

Barking has expanded a number of times in short bursts. One of them was in the early thirties when the Leftley and Glenny estates were built. Previous to that there had been another expansion during the 1880s and 1890s, when King Edward’s Road  and adjoining streets came into being. Each expansion brought newcomers to Barking. Modern Dagenham almost owes its existence to the Ford Motor factory and the influx of workers from many areas outside of town that came to work there. I am one of those  people who grew up when Barking was Barking and Dagenham was Dagenham, so I can’t quite get used to the idea of the two being talked about in the same breath, but for anyone who thinks that Dagenham never existed prior to Fords arriving on the  scene, I have news for you. On the wall in front of me I have an original Speed map of Essex dated 1662, which clearly shows Dagenham as a village. West Ham, Playstow (sic) Becontree and East Ham are there too along  with many other familiar local names including Barking. There is a lot of history under all those streets and pavements and the expansion that took place in each of those towns was almost all from other areas.

Dad, as I said, was born on the Isle of Dogs or at least on the edge of it. There used to be a row of cottages just outside  the gates of the West India Dock, which were called Dock Cottages. My grandfather, Elijah, and his wife Mary Ann set up home and raised nine children in one of those cottages, because Elijah was then employed as a PLA Policeman. Immigration was nothing  new even then. Elijah was born in Beaumont, Essex as his father’s caravan wandered down through East Anglia. Elijah’s father was a Tinman or pot-mender. People move around; they always have done. My grandmother Mary Ann, for instance, was  born in Ireland where Elijah met her whilst serving in the Enniskillen Fusiliers.

Another confession I must make is that, although I was born and grew up in Barking, I have lived in Sweden for the past forty years, so I too am an immigrant in somebody else’s country. With a family history like mine it is perhaps no wonder that  I can’t stay in one place for long.  Of my 22 cousins, most of whom are sadly now dead, there are those who emigrated to Canada, the US, Malta and Switzerland.

Barking, then, has seen several waves of newcomers, though many of these, like my own family of aunts, uncles and parents belonged to the same cultural background and ethnic group. The odd and wonderful thing is that children are often blind and deaf  to differences in people. I can think back now to several regional dialects that were spoken by neighbours, and there was some degree of variation in skin colour and facial types at my school that, my older self, now recognises as indicating a foreign  relative somewhere in a family tree; but at the time, I was completely unaware of this. The contrasts today are much greater. Many languages and many ethnic groups and cultures have suddenly been thrust together and culture clashes are perhaps inevitable  – between the adult populations. But the children born in Barking will grow up accepting this mix as the status quo.

The real tragedy is that too many of the indigenous population have left Barking. I left long before Barking was taken over by immigrants so I don’t feel all that guilty. Since then, however, many more have left, probably because they began to  feel like strangers in their own town. When I was a child the Pole who worked in Stewarts Iron Mongers after the war, and Pescsi the fish and chip family who came from Italy in the thirties and others, came to a town and a culture they could learn to  enjoy and become part of. The immigrants coming to Barking today have only other immigrants as neighbours. They don’t know the history of Barking or its culture. One cannot expect immigrants to assimilate into a culture when the owners of that  culture have all left town.

I don’t like the changes that have taken place in recent years, but that is to be expected. I don’t like the variety of dress codes, ethnicity and languages that are spoken in Barking today. Nor do I much like the religions that are moving  in, but I have never liked religion of any kind so that isn‘t surprising. Organised religions divide peoples like nothing else. All the old shops have gone and their replacements sell foodstuffs I don’t recognise, but people like me are  no longer customers. The major stores have all moved away; even the banks have closed and may now be taken over by betting shops. There will soon be no pubs left and the cinemas vanished years ago. The biggest food store in town is now German owned. What  would mother have thought of that, I wonder? What hope is there for Barking if the people who once made it what it was have all left?

The young generation is the hope for the future, just as it always is. It is a difficult task and I don’t envy the teachers, but I hope that the schools in Barking are able to foster a feeling of belonging to Barking and not to a culture and country  that was their parents’ and which the children have never seen. As a parent it is not easy to see your children straddling two cultures and gradually leaving the one you knew yourself. I know from experience, but it has to happen.

On a recent visit to London I took the Underground out to Barking and walked the length of East Street. The only obviously local natives were a small group of pensioners sitting outside a café. I wanted to join them, but it seemed to be a private gathering  so I didn’t try to intrude. Everything else was unfamiliar: the people, the smells of street food, the shops, the market stalls. It felt like the place had become a transit camp for passing immigrants. I walked down Ripple Road as far as Westbury  where I once went to school and felt uneasy and out of place the whole time. Whole rows of shops have gone. The Vicarage Field shopping centre, which was reasonably lively when I first saw it soon after it opened, was deserted and soulless. I couldn't wait to get back on the Underground and return to the tourist metropolis.

In ten days in London I met three people who I would say were real Londoners with roots there. The rest were tourists being served by foreigners in hotels and shops owned by foreigners. Even Portobello Road now has more than its share of Russians and  Americans selling English antiques to foreign tourists. In many ways, Greater London and some other cities in England, is becoming a second united states. The early years of modern USA, from the 1880s onwards, was a collection of ethnic groups who gravitated  to certain areas, excluding other groups from their own. The Italians, Poles, Chinese, Scandinavians, Irish and others all lived in their own enclaves; the native population long having been driven out. So it is with large parts of London.

In many ways, this is a recurring theme in the history of Britain. The Angles and Saxons drove the Celts to the extremities of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall and replaced the language with their own, which is the base upon which modern English rests. The  Romans arrived bringing their roads, social structures and language with them. Then the Danes took possession of large parts of eastern England at a later date and added more words to the language. The complex grammar of Saxon English became simplified  in the process, largely because the newcomers couldn’t be bothered to learn it. It was easier to introduce bits of their own language than to learn the language of the native population.

Then French culture arrived with William and brought a whole new range of words to go with it. A cow is Anglo Saxon, but turn it into beef and it becomes French. Little wonder that even today the language of the expensive restaurant is often French.

As we look back we can see that England and the English language have been enriched by all these influences. But for every generation that was invaded it must have been a similarly traumatic experience to the one we are having today. No doubt in a hundred  years time people will look back and say what a wonderful enriching time it was when England was reinvaded at the beginning of the 21 st century. But it will be the decedents of  today’s invaders who will be saying it, and in a language we might have difficulty in understanding. The descendants of my generation, which was born in England, will belong to the new generation of tourists – from Scandinavia, Australia,  Canada and a dozen other countries we ran to, to escape the invading hoards.  

Vic Howard

Back to content | Back to main menu