Street-surfing in Victorian and Edwardian Havering

This note is based on two Heritage columns published by the Romford Recorder on 14 and 21 August 2020. As part of the general call for holidays-at-home during the Covid-19 crisis, it outlines ways of exploring Havering's past through its architectural legacy.

What did the Victorians ever do for us? If you're not going away this summer, how about some time travel, staying put but exploring Havering's Victorian days? Because nineteenth-century survivals are scattered, you'll do a lot of walking. Respect private property. Develop the skill of street-surfing, walking purposefully and taking in the details with the corner of your eye. Don't look as if you're casing the joint. Our area didn't change much in Queen Victoria's days. Suburban growth was faster in Leyton and Ilford, places nearer London. Romford expanded slowly, Hornchurch, Rainham and Upminster hardly at all.

Churches tell interesting stories. The classical pediment of Salem Baptist Church in London Road Romford, built in 1847, proclaims that Baptists were free citizens, who defied the official Church of England. Forty years later, Trinity Methodist Church – now on Romford's ring road – translated Anglican Gothic into respectable Wesleyan red brick. The Church of England added new real estate too. Contrast St Thomas' at Noak Hill, a pretend-village church built by the local squire in 1842, with St Andrew's in urban Waterloo Road, Romford, dating from 1861-2. Outside, St Andrew's is unexciting grey stone with a goblin-hat spirelet. But inside, its high roof made space for aromatic High Church services that offered colourful escape from the drab lives of its working-class parishioners. Very different from Collier Row's Church of the Ascension (the dedication was a joke – it's uphill from Romford) – a humble chapel for farm workers, described when it was built in 1884 as "quaintly designed". It's now squeezed beside to a busy roundabout. Romford's first post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church, opened in 1856, used the Gothic style and the dedication to the local saint, Edward the Confessor, to say "we belong here, our roots are medieval ". But Catholics were a distrusted minority, and the tiny, folksy chapel tucked away in Park End Road was also carefully unthreatening.

Victorian institutions projected their message through architecture. Oldchurch workhouse, opened in 1838, was intentionally grim, warning the poor to work hard and support themselves. But St Leonards, the Hornchurch children's home, was friendly if businesslike.  Built as a village between 1886 and 1889, St Leonards offered problem kids a fresh start. Both are now housing. "Don't worry, everything will be fine" was the message of Romford's first public hospital, now the Victoria medical centre in Pettits Lane. It resembled a cricket pavilion – plus nurses and doctors. Schools also tried to look welcoming. There are fine examples at Albert Road in Romford, Gubbins Lane, Harold Wood (both now in other use), Dame Tipping at Havering-atte-Bower and in Upminster Road North at Rainham, where the 1872 building with its quirky bellcote is now a children's centre. North Street Halls in Hornchurch tell an unusual story. Built in 1855, the original building included a teacher's house.

Although this was the Steam Age, Havering's railway stations are either twentieth century or much rebuilt. The best Victorian example, at Upminster, dates from 1885. Tucked away down Station Approach, it includes the stationmaster's house. Like the schools, it seems to say: "Come on a journey. It's fun and it's safe." The engine repair works in Elvet Avenue, now flats, is a reminder that Gidea Park narrowly escaped becoming a railway town. Built in 1841, its workshops were moved to Stratford six years later.

Thanks to later infill, Havering has few complete Victorian streetscapes. In Romford, Victoria Road and Albert Road date from around 1860. Observe tiny differences in the fight for status: did your home have a bay window, twiddly gables or an ornate doorcase (plaster moulding around the front door)? Romford's Victorians weren't keeping up with the Jones. They were trying to catch up with the Gladstones.  Mawney Road, Olive Street and Willow Street reflect the comfortable 1890s. So too do the sensible homes of Cotleigh Road and Honiton Road off Waterloo Road. What did the Victorians ever do for us?  Search the streets of Havering and maybe you'll find out.

Edwardian Extravagance  In the years before 1914, the brash Edwardians challenged inherited ideas and daringly broke narrow Victorian rules. Locally, they produced some striking, even eccentric, buildings which are worth seeking out. Most are still occupied: please respect private property. Sometimes there were hints of new artistic movements. Time hasn't been kind to the Art Nouveau floral decoration over the entrance to Langtons Infant School in Hornchurch, built in 1902. In 1908, Romford's Crowlands Primary was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris, which emphasised traditional workmanship.

The Edwardians boldly mixed styles. In 1905, Makins the grocer decided to erect a blowsy emporium in Romford Market, next to St Edward's church. Although it's been a bank since 1920, the concrete splodge of his logo still decorates the frontage. Oddly, it has colonnades on its gable – just showing off? Something similar happened when four shops appeared next to Upminster Station in 1907, topped by double-storey flats, which tried to look like Buckingham Palace. Their enormous first-floor balconies are screened by stone arches and topped by pointless colonnades. What did the architect hope to achieve? The building was erected by a brewery, but is it sober?

A mile to the north in Hall Lane is Havering's finest Edwardian extravaganza, Upminster Court, built for a local businessman in 1906-8. The architect, Charles Reilly, was a professor who designed very few actual buildings, but championed the neo-classical style. Reilly's critic, the brilliant Glasgow artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, unkindly called him "only a 23rd rater". Upminster Court's cheerful red brick is fronted by a breezy white colonnade, an entrance porch on steroids. The energetic windows are mostly rectangular threesomes, but two give a saucy wink. The chimneys are oddly pencil-thin.  Although it's screened by trees, you can view Upminster Court from Hall Lane. Feminine touches – softly rounded windows, pastel-coloured bricks – characterise the former girls' secondary school in Romford's Heath Park Road, opened in 1910, its mishmash style called "Wrenaissance". The ladylike reply to Upminster Court's noisy masculinity, it's now part of the Academy Fields housing development.

The greatest achievement of Edwardian Havering, Gidea Park's garden suburb, was built between 1909 and 1911. The biggest houses, priced at £500, were in Heath Drive, fronting the golf course, and Parkway, overlooking Raphael Park. Side streets like Meadway and Reed Pond Walk were for "cottages", at £375. They're worth a bit more today. Modelled on Hampstead Garden Suburb, Gidea Park was the project of Herbert Raphael, owner of Gidea Hall. In 1902, he'd presented part of his estate to Romford Council, which opened the park named after him two years later. He probably planned his development then, but nothing came of a scheme to run trams to Gallows Corner. It became possible after he persuaded the Great Eastern Railway to open a station at nearby Squirrels Heath (soon called Gidea Park), which began operation in 1910.

Over 100 architects, many of them famous, designed houses for a competition, followed by a sales exhibition in 1911. Some buildings were impressive, neo-Georgian and flat-fronted, but most were dinky Arts and Crafts homes from an idealised olde-England. As you stroll around, remember Gidea Park is a residential area, not Disneyworld. Drink in the atmosphere, don't peer in the windows. Gidea Park was Edwardian cosiness, but the suburb's southward extension towards the station was planned to end in a huge colonnaded shopping piazza. Only one tiny section was built, at the corner of Balgores Square. Sad to say, Havering's Edwardian world, whether comfortable or naughty, was shattered by War in 1914.

For more information on Havering's buildings (and how to look at them), see Bridget Cherry, Charles O'Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England. London 5: East (Yale University Press, 2007 ed.).
For Gidea Park Garden Suburb, see and the excellent website of the Gidea Park and District Civic Society:
The catalogue for the 1911 exhibition is available on Page 140 gives an artist's impression of the proposed Balgores Square shopping piazza.
There is an evocative short video of Upminster Court on