Rainham, Wennington, South Hornchurch and Elm Park: some glimpses of the past

These short articles on the history of southern Havering appeared in the Romford Recorder between 2012 and 2020.


Some Rainham people complain that they live in the Borough's Cinderella district. But visiting Havering's Deep South isn't like a mission to Mars. Honestly, Rainham even has shops and car parks! There are frequent buses from Hornchurch and Romford. Here are ten things everybody should know about Rainham.
One. A Grade II listed building, Rainham Hall is Havering's only National Trust property. Built around 1729, it has the trademark flat facade of an elegant Georgian house. Exhibitions explain its history, and bring to life characters like Captain John Harle, the entrepreneur who developed the village as a Thameside port. There was a £2.5 million restoration project in 2015. With gardens and a cafe, it's a great place for a family visit. Check the website for details.
Two. Although linked to London by the Thames, Rainham remained isolated from the city by land until 1810, when New Road was built through Dagenham and South Hornchurch to provide a fast route to Tilbury Fort.
Three. One of Havering's oldest organisations, the Rainham Horticultural Society, celebrated its centenary in 2020-21. An earlier body, the Rainham Literary Society, began in 1879. Its reading room grew into Rainham Library – today, one of the biggest branches in the Havering network.
Four. Rainham is the last stretch of the London Loop, the walking track around the capital. The Thameside landscape can be grim but it's interesting. Look out for abandoned concrete barges, built for the D-Day landings, and for the metal statue of a diver standing in the river. Some enthusiasts prefer the walk in winter, when the landfill project is less aromatic.
Five. Rainham Marshes are a major bird sanctuary. The RSPB has an information centre and glitzy cafe, but – be warned: it's at the Purfleet end of the marshes, a four-mile trek from Rainham village.
Six. In Victorian times, London-to-Margate pleasure steamers called at Rainham and deposited trippers for a day's fun on the muddy riverside beach. Havering's Riviera went out of fashion when industry spread along the Thames.
Seven. The history of Rainham Village primary school can be traced back to 1779, when the vicar left £50 to educate local children. It's been closed twice in its history, the first time from 1838 to 1846, when villagers ran out of money. The second interruption came in 1944 when Nazi bombs destroyed the buildings. For the next three years, youngsters were bussed to Dagenham for their education.
Eight. A First World War tragedy at Rainham was hushed up for 97 years. In September 1916, seven people were killed when a munitions works blew up. The full story was finally broken by the Romford Recorder – in 2013. A memorial tree planted outside Rainham Library commemorated the centenary of the tragedy.
Nine. When suburban growth spread into Rainham in the 1920s, some house sites were so cheap that the linoleum used by the new residents as floor-covering was more expensive per square yard than the land. Much early development was of poor quality. In 1944, a government report even recommended clearing the east side of Rainham and returning the land to agriculture. For years, many local streets were just mud tracks. Rainham people fought to get them properly surfaced – and they still fight for their interests.
Ten. Rainham's Anglican church is the oldest in Havering. Built around 1170, the style is Norman. The chancel arch is a mystery. It has the classic semi-circular shape of Norman work, but it's unusually large. Experts think it must have been widened, but when and why, nobody knows. The architect who restored the church in the 1890s liked the robust 15th-century timber roof in the chancel, so he copied it for the whole church. See if you can spot the difference.
And let's throw in one more. Opposite the church, Havering's most dignified War Memorial dates from 1920. It's a six-sided miniature clock tower, built of Portland stone and red bricks – imported from Belgium, the country British troops fought and died to liberate in the First World War. Take a look at the old buildings around the clock tower, and you can sense a feel of the one-time village of Rainham.
So it's eleven out ten for Rainham – a more interesting place than you might think!


Rainham records tell us something about how past eras policed moral issues.

In 2015, the parents of almost half the children born England and Wales were not formally married, although most did live together. Nowadays, we can't understand the reference to a baby "unlawfully begotten" in North Ockendon in 1619. How could a child be illegal? Martha Warner's fatherless daughter Ann, born at Rainham in 1723, was a "spurious child". Was she was a forgery?

The problem in bygone times was that each parish was responsible for supporting its own poor people. There was no national system. Your birthplace had a permanent duty to help you, even if you were living somewhere far away decades later. 

With only 777 people at Britain's first census, in 1801, Rainham's resources were limited. Many vulnerable people passed through the small Thames port. Rainham was keen to keep them moving. In 1729, the parish constable paid 3 shillings (15p) to "a Great Bellyd Woman to get her away." It's an unpleasant description of pregnancy, but Rainham residents didn't want her to give birth on their patch. In fact, three months later, the same constable paid money to "the woman that was with child att my house". In 1730, another "greate bellyed woman" was paid to travel on.

Rainham had its own hard-luck cases, such as "Widdow Philips", who gave birth to a boy in 1669, "her husband leaving her with child". Mother and son would need parish charity to survive. 

Rainham life was not one long riotous orgy. Births outside marriage were infrequent, and not always the responsibility of local people. Rainham baptised a little boy described in 1577 as "filius populi" (son of the people), but he'd been born at Dovers (now a local roundabout), across the Ingrebourne in the parish of Hornchurch.

The splendidly named "Bounsinge Bess" was a "servant" (maybe a barmaid) at a Rainham Ferry inn when she had a "base daughter" in 1591. Some passing Thames mariner was probably the father. William Dowset, a Rainham tailor, was accused in 1659 of fathering a child at North Weald, whose ratepayers were keen to make him pay.

Where possible, the father was compelled to marry the woman he'd seduced. In 1735, Rainham's parish constable obliged Upminster's ratepayers by arresting James Curtis "& keeping him three nights till he could be marryed per Order of ye Worshipful Justice Branfill", squire of Upminster Hall and local magistrate. James didn't want to be marched to the altar, and men had to be hired to guard him. Rainham billed Upminster for £2, 8 shillings and tenpence (£2.44p) – still cheaper than years of ratepayer-funded hand-outs for the mother and child. The fate of a young woman contemptuously referred to by her surname ("Pavitt") in 1728 gives us a glimpse of childbirth outside marriage.

Tiny Rainham did not even have its own midwife. Ms Pavitt went into labour on 25 November. A local official's account begins: "Sent for a midwife from Aveley att 12 a clock att night a hard frost & snow". She was paid five shillings (25p.) for her services. Ms Pavitt was given medicine, probably an opium-based pain killer. One shilling and sixpence (7.5p.) was spent on "a comfortable draught for the whore". 

A young woman called Hannah Ward received two shillings (10p.) for a week's nursing, half of it an "extraordinary" bonus. Three years later, Hannah had to be hastily married off before she, too, could burden Rainham's ratepayers with a child. The parish not only gave her cash, but even bought her wedding ring "when she was Cast away on Ludgate Hill". It seems Hannah had become pregnant in London. The ponderous phrase indicates that she was married off at St Martin's Church on Ludgate Hill. The shotgun wedding cost Rainham £2, 17 shillings and ninepence (£2.89).


Why did Rainham never become a major port? In 1801, Rainham was called "the grand lodging and loading place" for south Essex trade. Yet its population was just 444, mostly farm workers. By contrast, London, twelve miles away, was home to a million people, and a major centre for global trade.

In the fifteenth century, Rainham ships had sailed to Calais. Somebody scratched a carving of a two-masted vessel in the local church. Records mention watermen, in 1533 even a shipwright. In 1571, there was a mariner, although as he was the parish constable, perhaps he did not sail away very often.

Why did Rainham's trade fail to grow? 

There were two possible locations for a Rainham port. One was beside the Thames. An 1848 directory reported that "the Ingerbourn rivulet receives vessels at its mouth, where it has a good quay and a ferry." There were two ferries, one across the Thames to Kent, the other upstream to London. Rainham Ferry was a lonely place, surrounded by marshes which were too squelchy to support a town.

Grays, Rainham's rival downstream, had the advantage of a chalk ridge, providing firm ground beside the Thames.

Rainham Ferry's principal amenity was an inn. In 1591, barmaid "Bounsinge Bess" gave birth to a child. Her surname was not recorded and the father was not mentioned. This was not an upmarket establishment. 

In the 1720s, entrepreneur John Harle dredged the Ingrebourne to re-launch Rainham village as an inland port. In 1729, he built Rainham Hall.

Harle imported coal, timber and building materials – but what did Rainham export? The fifteenth century Calais trade had shipped wool from marshland sheep flocks. The area also produced hay to feed London's  horses. In 1561, 22 year-old William Slane was killed after falling under the wheels of a cart carrying hay to the wharf. It was five o'clock in the morning – Rainham's working day was dictated by Thames tides.

Rainham had no real hinterland: the winding lanes of Upminster and South Hornchurch reveal that nobody had ever wanted to get there urgently. 

Nothing came of an 1809 scheme in for a canal to Romford. The waterway would have followed the River Rom down to Mardyke, and then cut across to Rainham Creek.

Railways invaded Rainham's trade.  When Upminster station opened in 1885, the Abraham family at Upminster windmill became local coal merchants, obtaining their supplies by rail.

Nineteenth-century Rainham was a market gardening area. But fresh vegetables were delivered to London markets horse-drawn waggons. Sending them by river would have meant extra loading and unloading  – and Thames barges depended on the wind.

South Essex was cattle country – hence the importance of  Romford Market. London butchers either herded animals to town or – after Romford station opened in 1839 – sent them by train.

From the 1880s, industry spread along the Thames. Cement works and chemical factories engulfed Rainham Ferry. A long jetty encouraged Southend and Margate pleasure steamers to land passengers – but a smelly fish manure plant and barges loaded with dung for the market gardens discouraged tourism.

Only small vessels could use Rainham Creek. Barges carried timber to the wharf by Rainham station. When that trade ended in 1949, Rainham effectively ceased to be a port.


Rainham Hall, the only National Trust property in Havering, has over three centuries of atmospheric history. The Hall was built in 1729 by mariner and entrepreneur John Harle, who had successfully dredged Rainham Creek so that cargo vessels could unload at his new wharf in the village. 

Built in the Queen Anne style, the red-brick mansion was probably inspired by the grand merchant houses lining the canals of Amsterdam. Dutch influence can be seen in the fine Delft tiles, many showing maritime scenes, that still decorate the mansion.

Harle was succeeded by his son, another John, who joined the new Methodist movement to pep up religious life in Rainham. When sermons were preached in the Anglican parish church, the congregation often fell asleep. In 1767, Harle invited local preacher John Valton to hold a service in Rainham Hall. Harle's father-in-law, London merchant and Rainham resident William Dearsly, disapproved. A huge bully armed with a horsewhip, Dearsly invaded the service, accompanied by a local clergyman screaming "Villain!" at the head of a mob. 

Most of the worshippers fled up the elegant staircase, but Valton retreated to the kitchen, where he prayed for Dearsly's heart to soften. But forcing his way in and finding the AGA-style kitchen stove alight, Dearsly pushed Valton across it and tried to roast him alive. Somehow the preacher escaped, evading the mob who planned to cool him off in a pond.

A century later, Rainham Hall became the home of a milder cleric, the Reverend Nicholas Brady. Brady was the son of Sir Antonio Brady, a wealthy civil servant and amateur scientist, who lived at Maryland near Stratford, then a residential district. Backed by family money and wanting to be near his father, Nicholas Brady became Rector of Wennington, a job so poorly paid that few clergymen had ever bothered to live locally. Brady revived Wennington's community life. A local school honours his name. A scientific enthusiast himself, the Rector built a physics laboratory in the attic of Rainham Hall and experimented with electricity.

When the Reverend Brady reviewed his career, one event that stood out was the January 1881 snowstorm, which buried a train in a Rainham snowdrift, stranding the passengers all night without food or heating. It sounds like Murder on the Orient Express, but nobody died on the slow train to Fenchurch Street.

After Brady's widow died in 1914, the Hall passed to Colonel Mulliner, an industrialist who collected fine china. He used the Hall to showcase his collection, but both were sold off after Mulliner's death in 1924.

As Rainham became built up, the Hall ceased to be suitable as a country house. In 1949, it passed to the National Trust. The Trust let Rainham Hall to a series of tenants, including some exotic personalities. In 1963, one of them (he'll remain nameless) criticised a judge for sending sex offenders to prison. No criminal should be punished, he argued. Rather, all lawbreakers should be treated as persons needing to be cured from illness. I doubt whether many Rainham people agreed.

Happily, today's splendidly revamped Rainham Hall is a partnership between the National Trust and the local community.


The study of place names is great fun, because it combines abstruse scholarship with wild guess work.

The Saxon arrived around 400 AD – but they created few written records, and most place names were first recorded in Domesday Book, the tax ledger compiled in 1086, 600 years after the early settlers had named the landscape around them. In that time, speech had changed – the English language had diverged from German. And the bureaucrats who compiled Domesday Book were French-speaking Normans who couldn't always understand the peasants.

It's a fair guess that Thameside Rainham was one of the first places the newcomers occupied. So – does the name mean that those early Saxons grumbled about the weather? Was Rainham the "ham" (farm or hamlet) where the sun never shone?

Most Essex place-name theories come from two brilliant men, both active decades ago. Eilert Ekwall was Professor of English at Lund University in Sweden from 1909 to 1942. Dr Percy H. Reaney was a Walthamstow schoolteacher. (Appropriately, his name was pronounced to rhyme with "brainy".) In 1935 he published the massive Place Names of Essex.

Ekwall and Reaney considered the earliest evidence – two versions of the name in Domesday Book, one "Renaham", the other "Raineham". Although Rainham, Essex was not recorded before 1086,  there was an earlier form for the identical Rainham, Kent. It led the two formidable scholars to make a bold guess.

The Kentish version suggested an Old English verb, "rogian", meaning "to prevail". Perhaps Rainham was the place of some powerful family – maybe royalty? The Normans would have heard it as a similar French word, which gives us "reign".

We know little more than the names of the rulers of the old East Saxon kingdom, which included not just Essex but also Middlesex and part of Herts. Presumably East Saxon monarchs like Sexred and Saeward and Sigeberht the Little shuttled between the kingdom's two main towns, London and Colchester. If  they travelled by boat, Rainham would have made a sensible stopping-off place.

Unfortunately, as academic guesswork goes, that was about that. But in 1937, two years after Dr Reaney's book, there was a sensational archaeological find in a gravel pit near Gerpins Lane, between Rainham and Upminster. It was a Saxon burial ground that obviously belonged to important people. There were swords, bits of shields, and – unique to England – the remains of two glass drinking horns. These luxury items suggest the powerful rulers guessed at by Prof. Ekwall and Dr Reaney. Two coins dated the graves to around 600 A.D.

There may be another clue. Rainham church is dedicated to St Helen. Helen (or Helena) was a Roman lady, mother of the Emperor Constantine who imposed  Christianity on Europe. Legend associates Helena with Colchester, the only other place in Essex to have a church dedicated to her. A Rainham-Colchester link again suggests the East Saxon royal family.

So don't think of Rainham as the damp and drizzly place. Let's celebrate it as the majestic home of the long-lost kings of Essex. Perhaps!


You could argue that local democracy in England began in 1894, with the introduction of parish councils. All ratepayers – even women, if they owned property – could vote to choose councillors to run their affairs. No longer would squires and clergymen rule the villages. New people came forward to tackle local issues.

Parish councils were supervised by a government department, the Local Government Board, distant ancestor of DEFRA. Relations between the Board and Rainham's parish council were poor.

In 1899, the Board rejected a proposal to lay a water main to local cottages. The council wanted a one-inch pipe buried 15 inches deep. No, said the Board, it must be a two-inch pipe, three feet deep. Cllr James Fowles, gentleman farmer of South Hall, objected that this would add £100 to the cost. Why not ask the Board "to come and do it themselves?", he asked, amidst laughter.

Rainham's churchyard was full, and the parish council urgently wanted to open a new cemetery. The Board asked whether the all of the proposed cemetery was to be used for burials – just the sort of stupid question you would expect from bureaucrats.

"We don't look like getting the Cemetery yet," commented Cllr Edward Randall, a large-scale market gardener. Randall formed a double act with Cllr George Saxby, a lighterman whose bluff, blunt wit reflected a lifetime working on Thames barges. "I had an idea I was going to live to see it finished," Saxby wisecracked. "You've got a good idea of yourself if you think that," Randall shot back.

By now, councillors were splitting their sides with mirth. Fowles tried to inject a serious note. "We shall have to start burying in our gardens shortly," he warned. "Well," interjected Saxby, "I think I shall bury my old woman in mine." Randall was ready with his punch line. "Yes," he agreed, "then you can dig her up now and again, and have a look at the bones." Good taste was not the hallmark of Rainham debates.

There was further hilarity as councillors discussed contractors for the cemetery job. How about Mr White, at Barking, suggested Randall. No, said Saxby, his name is Brown. Again, Fowles tried to be helpful. "Mr White is the man who used to work for Pink." This was too much for Randall, who quipped: "It's rather a coloury affair, then."

As a local newspaper reported, Rainham councillors had treated the issue as a "grave" matter. But local democracy delivered the goods. Rainham's new cemetery, in Upminster Road North, opened in 1902. It's still there, but nowadays there is no space for new graves.

Rainham's parish council was absorbed into the new Hornchurch Urban District in 1934. It became part of Havering in 1965.


Criticised when the British Army failed to break through German lines in March 1915, the generals claimed they'd run out of shells. This caused a political crisis. The dynamic Lloyd George was appointed Minister of Munitions. His job was to produce shells, lots of them, by any means.

Two Swiss scientists had invented a new process to manufacture picric acid (trinitrophenol), a volatile component of explosives. They needed investment. Two unlikely backers appeared. Samuel James Feldman was a retired solicitor. Robert William Partridge was art dealer, who lived in London's West End. They knew nothing about chemistry, but Partridge had money and Feldman was a smart lawyer.

The pair hired a manager, Captain Church, and secured a government contract on very favourable terms. Safety was not a major concern. Before the war, fireworks manufacturer Brock had operated a factory deep in the fields beyond Prospect Road, Harold Wood. Bangers and sparklers were made in huts scattered across a large area, to contain any risk of fire. By contrast, Feldman and Partridge rented a cramped site at Rainham from a company that made soap. Buildings were close together, and surrounded by other riverside warehouses.

Amazingly, the location was directly under the route flown by Zeppelins on their way to bomb London. Workers were not even warned that they were handling a dangerous substance.

On 14 September 1916, fire broke out, and quickly spread. Within minutes, the whole factory blew sky high. An official report (kept secret in wartime) blamed an employee for smoking, but this was never proved. Alerted by the explosion and a massive plume of smoke, Romford's fire brigade rushed to the scene. Seven people were killed, 69 were injured, over twenty of them seriously. Among the dead was Captain Church, praised for his "energy and bravery" in the disaster. But another report, in 1917, criticised "futile efforts to extinguish the fires". Priority should have been given to evacuating people. In fact, a brave young Welshman, Griffith John – a science teacher in peacetime – lost his life warning women workers to get away.

Hiding behind wartime press censorship, the government issued an anodyne statement, intended to check rumours. It didn't even mention Rainham. Not until 1919, after the War, did the truth emerge. The explosion had damaged nearby buildings, including warehouses belonging to Ind Coope, the Romford brewery. Ind Coope sued for compensation.

Feldman and Partridge argued they'd been working for the Ministry of Munitions, so the government was responsible. Judges rejected this. The defendants also claimed that it wasn't their factory anyway. In March 1916, Feldman and Partridge had transferred ownership to a company, Rainham Chemical Works Limited. But this outfit was completely controlled by two directors – Feldman and Partridge. Its formal capital was £5,000, made up of 100,000 shilling (5p) shares. But only two shares were actually paid up, making the company's actual resources a mere two shillings (10p). Feldman and Partridge had each contributed just 5p.

If you've a problem, they told their Rainham neighbours, sue the company that owned the chemical works. Of course, it had gone into liquidation.

The case dragged on until 1921, with appeals all the way to the House of Lords, then Britain's highest court. At every level, their learned lordships decided that the company, Rainham Chemical Works Limited, was "essentially a sham". The business was "substantially carried on by Feldman and Partridge".  Verdict: they were "personally liable for damages". It was a good decision. Feldman and Partridge had aimed to profit from the war. When lives were lost and families torn apart, they tried to hide behind the dodgy device of a phantom company.

In recent years, stories in the Recorder have lifted the veil on this forgotten tragedy. There's now a local project to create a memorial that will name the victims. I'm sure it won't mention Feldman and Partridge.


Illegal caravan sites trigger angry debates, as we saw at Basildon's Dale Farm. The 6-year stand-off over Lake Avenue, Rainham, pitted local people against squatters, one side arguing that the caravan site was in the wrong place, the other pleading they had nowhere else to go.

And this is a story from the past where we can actually see and hear the people involved. When the Lake Avenue confrontation reached its crisis in 1957, cameras were sent to report on the clash. Pathe News provided a weekly cinema newsreel. You can find the 3-minute clip through an Internet search: "British Pathe Rainham caravans". This is multi-media Havering history!

World War Two left Britain with a housing shortage. In 1951, Ted Bastow applied for planning permission to start a caravan site on a plot of land he owned in Rainham's Lake Avenue. Hornchurch Urban District Council, Havering's forerunner, said "No", but Bastow went ahead anyway.

Soon there were 40 caravans in the small field. In 1953, Ted Bastow was fined £20 for breaching planning laws. Next year, the fine rose to £30. But with residents paying £1 a week for each site, and some renting caravans from him too, the fines were nothing.

However, Ted Bastow believed in what he was doing. Hauled into court again in 1954, he refused to pay a £75 fine and went to prison for a month. In 1955, he defied a £100 fine – and he served a second term, this time three months.

In January 1957, Hornchurch Council went to the High Court, and got an injunction that would lead to eviction. Pathe News was sympathetic to the squatters. It featured some yummy mummies and a suspiciously well-scrubbed schoolboy. Like most Rainham roads then, Lake Avenue had no tarmac surface. It was a winter mud bath.

It was clear that the 40 caravans were crammed too close together, with some spilling out on to the roadway. And with 180 people living there, some vans must have been overcrowded. Pathe News said nothing about facilities on the site. Was there a washhouse? Were there pavements? Who emptied the dustbins?

Many Rainham people had come from the East End, seeking to own a little patch of Essex. In Cockney accents, neighbours put their dignified case to the camera. They had no quarrel with the caravan people but the site was in the wrong place. One elderly lady sounded straight from Albert Square, as she grumbled about the "carry-vans".

The story fades away. Although some caravanners threatened to resist eviction, I am sure Hornchurch Council won. Councils usually win in the end. I hope the caravan people were given proper housing. 


When Rainham's Norman parish church, St Helen and St Giles, was built around 1170, a small doorway was inserted in the south wall of the chancel. This gave the priest direct access to the altar. You'd hardly give the narrow timber door a second glance. Its four vertical oak planks are about seven feet tall, roughly hewn and weather beaten. But in 2009, scientists found that they had an interesting story to tell.
Dendrochronology is the science of dating timber. The term is derived from the Greek words for tree, time and measurement. As a tree grows, each new layer of bark forms an annual tree ring. In warm wet seasons, trees grow faster than in cold, dry summers.
By comparing the rings from felled trees, it's possible to compile growth patterns over hundreds of years. These are then used to date individual samples. Miniature cores were drilled through the planks. The gaps were blocked with stained oak pellets.
Dendrochronology is impressive, but it can't be an exact science. It's easier to date whole logs than sawn timber, because nobody can know how much has been shaved off the planks to square them.
Legend claimed that the famous timber church at Greensted near Ongar had been erected by the Saxons in 1013 AD. But tests showed that the logs were felled fifty years later, around 1063. Allow a few years for the timber to season, and it now seems that Greensted church was erected by the Normans, soon after they arrived in 1066, using local carpenters who built in the only style they knew.
The Rainham planks came from trees felled at various times after 1379. But how long after? Skilled carpenters would have trimmed away the soft outside layers, called sapwood, from the tree trunk, leaving the hard innards to be cut into planking.
Scientists reckoned that they should add somewhere between eight and 24 years to guess a felling date. This gave a range from 1387 to 1403, when Richard II and Henry IV were on the throne.
There aren't many local clues from so long ago. The timber roof inside the chancel of Rainham's church has fifteenth century workmanship. Its sturdy vertical supports called king posts seem to float down from the ceiling. They're worth a close look.
Were the two jobs done together? Unfortunately, we don't have a precise date for the roof. More important, it was obviously built by experts. By contrast, the door looks like rough planking just knocked together.
There's another intriguing possibility. In 1381, Essex people rebelled against an unfair Poll Tax. Sent to Brentwood to restore order, leading official Sir John Gildesborough narrowly escaped with his life. Gildesborough owned a mansion at nearby Wennington. His property was targeted during the Peasants' Revolt. A rebel rabble probably marched down from Brentwood. Perhaps they wrecked Rainham church on the way?
Was the church door reconstructed after England's most famous attempted revolution? All we know is that the chancel doorway was built around 1170, but the door itself had to be replaced 200 years later.
But there was one more surprise. Obtaining oak planks would be easy, wouldn't it? A few miles to the north of Rainham, the higher ground was thickly wooded. In some places, it still is. Records show that medieval kings often allowed churchmen and other loyal supporters to cut oak trees from the royal park at Havering-atte-Bower palace.
However, scientists found that the timber in the Rainham door came from the Baltic. Nobody expected that. Small ships sailed from Rainham as far as Calais in the later 15th century. There was a boat builder working on Rainham Creek in 1533. Evidently, Rainham's overseas trade was older (and wider) than anybody had guessed.
We think of globalisation as a modern phenomenon. It's a shock to learn that, 600 years ago, it was easier – and maybe cheaper – to source quality oak timber by ship from Sweden or Finland than to drag it from Warley Woods or Epping Forest a few miles away.


"No man is an island entire of itself." Those striking words written 400 years ago by John Donne (his surname rhymed with "fun") still resonate today.

He was a reluctant clergyman, persuaded to go into the Church by James I. The King made him Dean of St Paul's Cathedral. But Donne preferred to write love poetry, part mystical, part fruity.

In his 1624 Meditation, he insisted "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." Donne's message is that we're all in this together. You can't wall off somebody else's life and ignore their problems.

It's a message we should apply to Orchard Village, the housing regeneration project that is replacing the failed tower blocks of Rainham's Mardyke Farm estate. It matters to everybody that Orchard Village is a success, not just the people who live there. 

In the 16th century, wealthy London merchant, Sir Sebastian Harvey, lived in a fine mansion at Mardyke, listed in 1594 as one of the biggest houses in Essex. However, by 1630, his nephew Samuel had inherited the land, but lived at Aldborough Hatch in Ilford. Why was the Mardyke mansion abandoned?

In 1591, the Thames broke through badly maintained river walls, and flooded the South Hornchurch marshes – the area we now call Rainham. Flood water spread almost to Mardyke. It took four years to reclaim the land. There was more flooding in 1613. Nearly 700 men were employed to repair the wall. When the river walls gave way again in 1621, the Dutch engineer Vermuyden, who was draining the Fens, was brought in to tackle the problem.

Until the 19th century, the Essex marshes were notorious for ague, a shivering fever like malaria, spread by mosquitoes. Repeated floods would have left ponds of stagnant water, where insects could breed. It made sense for Sanuel Harvey to collect rents from his trembling tenants, but live safely on dry ground inland.

In 1630, Samuel Harvey married John Donne's daughter Constance. Harvey's father-in-law was a sick man. A 17th-century biographer blamed "vapours from the spleen". Modern experts think Donne had stomach cancer. He moved to his daughter's Ilford home to escape the filth of London. But it was probably not cancer that killed him.

The story of John Donne's final illness isn't very clear: medical science was so poor that it's often hard to make sense of health problems. But we know Donne "fell into a fever" that made him literally waste away. The symptoms may have been a by-product of his rampant cancer. But it's also possible that one of England's greatest poets had caught the Essex marshland ague. That shouldn't have happened in healthful Ilford.

Maybe he'd accompanied Samuel to collect Mardyke Farm rents. Perhaps Harvey's tenants sent over a wagon-load of farm produce, complete with disease-carrying mosquitoes. "No man is an island entire of itself." Donne was right. You can't put impassable boundaries around people. Or places. Or diseases.

John Donne died in 1631. He was obsessed by death. He had himself depicted corpse-like in a funeral sculpture, wearing a shroud. The monument survived the destruction of Old St Paul's in the 1666 Fire of London, and stands today in Sir Christopher Wren's noble cathedral.

If you heard the church bell ringing mournfully for a funeral, said Donne, don't ask who has died. Just remember that we're all going the same way. "And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." The alarm bells have been ringing at Orchard Village. If the regeneration project fails – I hope it won't – it will cast a blight across a wider neighbourhood. 

We'll never know if John Donne was killed by the malarial mosquitoes that once infested Orchard Village. But his message remains clear. We don't live on isolated and impregnable islands. We're all in this world together.


For fifty years before the 1914 War, farmers across southern Havering supplied London with fresh vegetables. 

During the 18th century, London was surrounded by market gardens: in 1760, Ilford was a major centre for potatoes. But as housing spread over West Ham, so farmers further out switched to vegetables. By 1830 South Hornchurch was a power in the spud world.

The 1841 census reported 160 itinerant Irish pea pickers at Wennington, more than doubling the local population. Later, harvest workers came from the East End for a working holiday.

Greater London had 2.4 million people in 1851. By 1891, its population had doubled to 5.3 million – lots of hungry customers! From the 1870s, vegetables became big business locally. In 1881, the Royal Agricultural Society awarded a prize to Isaac Gay of Great Sunnings, near today's Corbets Tey cemetery, for inventing a "new model" system of market gardening. A farmer in nearby Aveley was nicknamed the "Marrow King".

In Wennington and Hornchurch, farmers rotated vegetables with the traditional wheat crop. Potatoes cleaned out the soil; peas added natural nitrogen fertiliser. But Rainham went over totally to market gardening.

"The chief crops are vegetables," Kelly's Directory said of Rainham, "great quantities of which are grown for the London markets." "Early Rainham" was a recognised variety of cabbage from 1876. By 1880, there was a pub called The Cauliflower in Upminster Road North. It's now a tandoori restaurant.

Rainham grew onions for pickling. In 1881, Corbets Tey produced potatoes, onions, peas and cucumbers. Wennington developed asparagus and rhubarb. The market gardening belt stretched east across Thurrock: Aveley was noted for early peas, Stifford for strawberries.  Turnips were grown around Grays.

Fields of vegetables made pleasant countryside. A 1906 guide book advised cyclists that Dagenham was dreary but things improved after crossing the Beam River into South Hornchurch. "The mainly pastoral county of Essex now assumes a more favourable aspect."

But this intensive culture came at a price. Rainham's light soils required heavy applications of manure. Playing on words, a writer in 1871 complained that "Rainham is in bad odour with railway travellers for the evil odour of its barges on the Ingreburn, discharging their cargoes of London dung by the railway station."

This smelly gift was "returned to the grateful town" in the form of cabbages and asparagus. Protests were ignored. Rainham opened a  new wharf for shovelling out manure in 1872. From late spring to autumn, vegetables were loaded on huge waggons, each drawn by four draught horses, and hauled through the night to Covent Garden. Labourers worked around the clock, often for days at a time, delivering the expertly stacked produce. A sudden glut could destroy prices, causing waggon loads to be dumped, but market gardening generally made money. Workers were well paid. Weeding vegetables meant employment right through the winter, when other labourers were often laid off.

Much of Rainham was built over from the 1920s.  Rising labour costs made market gardening uneconomic. But Havering gardeners still grow vegetables – and enjoy eating the produce coaxed from their own backyards.


If Havering people have heard of Wennington, it's usually in the phrase "Rainham and ...",  But, in the far south of the Borough, tiny Wennington clings to its identity.

The 1300-acre parish owes its separate existence to one of London's most famous buildings, Westminster Abbey. Wennington was granted to the Abbey in Saxon times by Aetsere the Swarthy and his wife Aelfgyth. She may have given her name to Aveley. He obviously had a five o'clock shadow. Westminster Abbey was dedicated to St Peter, as is Wennington's Anglican church.

At the Reformation in the 16th century, some of the Abbey's assets, including the right to appoint the rector of Wennington, were transferred to St Paul's Cathedral. Hence the phrase "robbing Peter to pay Paul".

It wasn't population pressure that made the Abbey build Wennington's church. Only three families lived here in 1086, and in 1801 the population was just 91.

When Rector Henry Bust died in 1625, it would be 250 years before another clergyman bothered to live locally. Part of the church was demolished around 1600. It had probably fallen down, and it wasn't rebuilt until 1886.

In fact, in this scattered community, there was really no village centre until houses were built at The Green in the 1920s. Wennington was mostly marshland. Lonely Coldharbour, beside the Thames, was an island until around 1690.

A narrow creek led to a wharf 400 yards west of the church, where produce was shipped up the Thames to the monks of Westminster Abbey. The creek was blocked off around 1664.

The 1381 Peasants' Revolt saw some excitement locally. Sir John Gildesborough, a hated royal official, owned land at Wennington. Rebels ransacked his property.

Despite its small population, Wennington ran its own affairs. It continued to elect its parish constable, with an ornate staff of office, until 1874, over thirty years after the establishment of the Essex Police. Wennington even had its own title for the job: the constable was sometimes called the "headborough".

In 1818, a desperate character called Peter Godfrey stole a prayer book from the church. Wennington paid £6 in expenses to prosecute him for sacrilege. Godfrey was transported to Australia for life.

In the 19th century, Wennington became a market gardening area, specialising in peas and – later – rhubarb and asparagus.

Tiny Wennington was always on the route to somewhere else. By 1810, there was a main road from London to military installations at Purfleet and Tilbury. In 1924, Wennington was by-passed to the north by New Road (A1306). By the 1990s, a motorway-style A13 ran to the south. Wennington Crossovers is one of the landmarks of the Channel Tunnel rail link, HS1.

Back in 1906, a guidebook praised Wennington marshes, for "scenery of a true Dutch type, where picturesque brown sails of slow moving craft mark the river's winding course." There were 2,000 Thames sailing barges in 1900, but the last one retired in 1970.

Wennington today may not be very scenic, but there's a fighting spirit. In the year 2000, the community celebrated the Millennium with a commemorative map. Its feisty website, www.wenningtonvillage.org, insists that Wennington refuses to be Havering's "poor relation".


Mary Benton was born in 1855 at Wennington, Rainham's twin village. Her prosperous father, Aaron Benton, farmed 250 acres at East Hall, employing sixteen labourers. Around 1859, the family moved to nearby Lenthorpe House, still standing in the fields opposite Wennington's church. Mary's mother died when she was very young. She was brought up by a young governess, Emily Pollett from Dagenham, who later ran her own school in West Ham. Emily seems to have inspired Mary with a love of learning. 

When Mary was nine, she was sent to an academy for girls in Ramsgate, to learn "ladylike" skills that would attract a gentlemanly husband. She disliked the curriculum: marriage was never on Mary Benton's agenda. Aaron sent her to another school, in Germany – an adventurous move for a farmer's daughter, especially so soon after the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War. Then she worked as a governess in France. By the age of nineteen, Mary was fluent in both German and French. But she still yearned for more a structured education.

Two women's colleges had recently opened alongside the men-only Cambridge University. One, Newnham College, welcomed students without formal school qualifications. In 1875, Mary Benton enrolled. The Principal of Newnham, the kindly but muddle-headed Miss Clough, depended upon a handful of sympathetic male dons. They supported female education but didn't want to rock the gender boat. Newnhamites should be discreet and feminine.  

Mary Benton was a challenge. She adopted masculine attire, despite Miss Clough's pleas that Victorian opinion was shocked by cross-dressing. Mary Benton's attempt to organise a cricket match – a men's sport – was vetoed by a flustered Miss Clough, who claimed it would injure the grass.

After one year, Mary left to become a teacher. New independent schools were springing up, providing academic training for girls. One of them, South Hampstead High School, hit problems after moving into modern premises in 1882. It needed a headmistress who could supply firm leadership. In 1886, Mary Benton got the job. She filled the role – for 32 years. Short, thickset and determined, she wore a tailored trouser suit, with shirt, collar and tie. Younger girls were scared of "the brigadier general", but older pupils found her a lifelong friend.

Her standards were high. Insisting that there were no "girls' subjects", she encouraged her students to study science. Many went on to take science degrees, something revolutionary a century ago. Girls also had to study three languages, until a parents' revolt forced her to drop German in 1917. Miss Benton did not welcome parental involvement. She received complainants standing up: if they weren't invited to sit down, awkward interviews were soon over.

The headmistress reserved a chair in every classroom, so she could drop in and intimidate staff and students alike. She taught Scripture – probably a legacy of Sunday services in Wennington church – but her main subject was Geography. A familiar sight in the corridors was this small woman carrying a huge globe.

Naturally, Mary Benton supported wider feminist campaigns. In 1909, she signed a memorial from 200 headmistresses asking Prime Minister Asquith to give the right to vote to "properly qualified women". Officially a Liberal but actually a male chauvinist, Asquith refused even to meet the signatories. She backed one of her teachers who was imprisoned in Holloway for violent suffragette activities.

Mary Benton retired in 1928, and settled in the New Forest, where she reportedly took control of the nearest village. She died in 1944. Aaron Benton had died in 1879, and was buried at Wennington. Nowadays East Hall Farm is mostly used for gravel extraction. 

Today, Newnham is one of three women-only colleges at Cambridge University. A century and a half on, Britain still needs confident women in leadership positions, the classic Newnhamite role. If you're female and planning to do well, really well, in your GCSEs, think about applying to study there. Just say Miss Benton sent you.


There wasn't much for the day trippers to see on the Essex bank of the Thames on that September evening in 1878, fifty years before Fords built on the empty marshes. The ebbing tide poured from Rainham Creek, leaving a few barges stranded on the Ingrebourne mud. In the twilight, it was difficult to spot the spire of St Andrew's church, a celebrated navigation mark, four miles north at Hornchurch.

Many passengers headed below decks to join the singsong in the saloon where a band was playing. Just 252 tons, the Princess Alice had been built of timber on the Clyde in 1865 and called the Bute. Coming south two years later, she was renamed in honour of Queen Victoria's daughter. Sailors believed it was unlucky to rename a ship.

Amazingly, this tiny craft was licensed to transport 500 passengers. In fact, nobody knew how many she carried that fateful day. Small children did not require tickets. Victorians produced hordes of toddlers.

She was on a regular holiday run, from London Bridge to Sheerness, stopping at Gravesend, where the Rosherville Gardens were a proto-Disneyland, popular with Cockneys. Leaving Gravesend on her return trip at 6 o'clock, the Princess Alice probably carried as many as 900 people.

In holiday good humour, day trippers still on deck actually cheered when they spotted a sturdy collier sailing downstream towards them. The Bywell Castle was four times the size of the Princess Alice, and she had an iron hull. The two vessels converged at Tripcock Ness, roughly between today's Thamesmead estate and London City Airport.

The Princess Alice was close to the north bank. Guided by an experienced Thames pilot, the captain of the Bywell Castle decided to pass on his port side. But the powerful ebbing tide swirled around the bend on the Essex side, too fast for the tiny paddle steamer. 

Suddenly, the Princess Alice turned towards the slack water right ahead of the Bywell Castle. The collier sliced into her like matchwood, skewering her timber hull. Too late, the Bywell Castle rammed her engines full astern.

The Princess Alice broke into two. Both halves sank within four minutes. There was no time to launch lifeboats – and there were only two of them anyway.

Hundreds of people were drowned below decks. Some passengers jumped on to the Bywell Castle's anchor chain – but the collier dropped anchor and drowned them. Ropes were lowered to save floundering passengers, but as soon as people grabbed hold, they were dragged down by others desperate to save themselves.

The exact death toll is unknown. Probably 650 perished. Nine bodies were recovered at Rainham. Gruesomely, a tenth corpse became wedged underneath the keel of a barge, needing a spring tide to float it free.

A government enquiry blamed the Princess Alice, but a coroner's jury – men who knew the river – also criticised the collier. Its pilot should have known that small vessels tried to avoid the tide race. Many of the safety recommendations were repeated after the Marchioness disaster, when 51 people were drowned in a similar accident in 1989.


South Hornchurch is big – over a mile across, bounded by the Ingrebourne and the Beam rivers, and stretching three miles north from the Thames. But why not call it West Rainham or East Dagenham?

Until 1810, when Rainham New Road linked London with Tilbury Fort, connections to nearby places were weak. The tree-trunk bridge in Rainham Road South was probably barely a footbridge. Hence it was called Beam Bridge – which became the name of this stretch of the River Rom.

South Hornchurch was originally the South End of the vast manor of Havering. A guide book in 1818 called the scattering of cottages south from Wood Lane  "the little village of Southend". Local agriculture was long dominated by cattle raising. Animals were grazed on the lush lowland meadows in summer but moved to drier, higher ground in winter. For centuries, Dovers (near Dovers Corner) was owned along with Gooshays (Harold Hill) and Bretons with Redden Court (Harold Wood).

Another Essex parish with a South End was Prittlewell, on the Thames estuary. When Southend-on-Sea mushroomed into a holiday town in the 1890s, the Post Office decided it couldn't handle two Southends, and by 1902 ours became South Hornchurch. But Southend Road recalls the older name.

By the 19th century, South Hornchurch was a thriving community but a bit of a Cinderella. A mission church opened in Southend Road 1864, but it had no resident clergyman. Services were taken by lay readers, except when the Vicar of Hornchurch visited to give Holy Communion. The tin church was only replaced in 1957. Whybridge primary school dates back to the same period. By 1899, it was teaching 150 children.

By 1920, the north-south links were weak. "South Hornchurch is to many modern Hornchurch folk an unexplored land," wrote City gent Charles Perfect in 1920, adding with embarrassment, "there are probably few parishioners who know very much about its people."

Hornchurch "proper" had become a smart commuter suburb. Meanwhile, market gardening had taken over in South Hornchurch and Rainham. The area specialised in spring cabbages and autumn fruit. The "Cherry Tree Publick House" was mentioned in 1773. The orchards sound idyllic, and a 1907 guide book called Cherry Tree Lane "a pretty spot".

But there was a hitch. London before motor vehicles depended on horses – a quarter of a million of them by 1900 – and horses cannot be toilet trained. Thousands of tons of manure were shipped downriver each year. And it was not just horses. Few of London's four and a half million people had access to proper sewerage. The stink at Rainham Creek, where the barges were shovelled out, was notorious. The cabbages and the cherries flourished on the natural fertiliser, but the respectable suburbanites further north held their noses and turned their backs.

It's no surprise that when building began in South Hornchurch in the 1920s, sites were cheap and houses were down-market. Streets like Sunningdale Road and Elmer Gardens lacked tarmac and sewerage even in the mid-1950s. (I remember them!) Problems triggered a strong sense of local identity shown in vigorous local residents' groups. Patchy development helps explain the survival of two South Hornchurch farmhouses, Albyns and Bretons.

South Hornchurch would never be "posh" but it is the proud product of its own heritage and history, not just an add-on to somewhere else!


In 1914, Dr Edward Canny Ryall began to ask: how could his 33 year-old hospital clerk afford to rent a country house in Hornchurch? The distinguished surgeon had founded All Saints Hospital in 1911 to deal with kidney infections. A small unit, in London’s Vauxhall Bridge Road, All Saints was not a money-making project. It depended on donations. Ryall often paid the bills himself.
Frederick Panter was appointed as hospital secretary in July 1913. He had experience of raising money to train midwives in West Ham. His salary was £150 a year, plus a percentage of the cash he raised. Somehow, by January 1914, Panter was quietly pocketing 100 percent.
He and his wife had rented Ford Lodge, an eighteenth-century farmhouse which stood in Ford Lane, opposite Brittons Academy. Ford Close marks the boundaries of its nine-acre mini-park.
In August 1914, the hospital’s account book disappeared. On October 16, Ryall demanded Panter’s resignation. Over £40 in charitable donations was missing. £409 paid by patients in fees had vanished. Panter claimed that a cash donation of £25 for X-ray equipment was locked in the safe. Ordered to pay it into the bank, he later produced a forged paying-in slip.
Meanwhile, Panter converted Ford Lodge into a convalescent hospital for Belgian soldiers. Thousands of Belgians were refugees from the fighting. Hiring a nurse, the Panters took nine of them into Ford Lodge. On 25 October, the Belgians attended Hornchurch’s Anglican church, where the vicar welcomed them in French. Their appearance at St Andrew’s was a major gesture. Belgium was an intensely Catholic country. As Catholics, Belgians were forbidden to attend Protestant services. One of them, an accomplished musician, played a cello solo at a Sunday service. Panter was using the poor Belgians as props.
He claimed to be “astounded” when he was arrested in December for fraud and forgery. Rule Number One if you’re caught with your hand in the till is – get a brash lawyer. At Westminster magistrates court, his barrister, Mr Goodman, ridiculed the charges. The Belgian hospital project showed that Panter was a high-minded do-gooder. The only problems came from “the muddle and rush” of running two projects at once. Loftily, Goodman assured the court: “there is a perfect answer to everything.” The case was adjourned for the lawyer to prepare his case.
At Panter’s next court appearance in January 1915, the magistrate would either dismiss the charges or send him for trial at the Old Bailey. But a close look at the books was enough to make lawyer Goodman change his mind. He struck a deal. Panter pleaded guilty to embezzlement. The more serious charges of forgery were dropped. The magistrate was unhappy about this, but accepted that All Saints wished to avoid the expense and bad publicity of a criminal trial. So he sentenced Panter to “the greatest punishment in his power” – six months, with hard labour. He escaped lightly. Was Panter a common thief, or perhaps a fantasist who convinced himself his grandiose plans entitled him to pocket other people’s cash?
The Belgians deserve our sympathy. Driven into exile, they were used as dupes to cover a scam.


Elm Park began in 1933. It was developed by Costains, the builders, with finance from the Halifax Building Society. The name came from a farm (remembered in Farm Way) but Costains probably wanted to borrow the cachet of a smart street in Chelsea, Elm Park Gardens. The aim was a population of 35,000 people, living in owner-occupied houses. Elm Park would have eight schools, five shopping centres, two churches and an inn. 

Costains donated Harrow Lodge Park as a public amenity. The proprietor of a major Oxford Street cinema bought a site to erect a 3,000-seater picture house, part of a chain that already operated cinemas at Upminster, Hornchurch and Chadwell Heath.

But when Elm Park was formally launched in May 1935, only 500 houses had been built. Elm Park was a downmarket project. Sir Enoch Hill, President of the Halifax, spoke of encouraging "the migration of the working class population from rented houses in overcrowded areas to healthy, up-to-date houses in the outer suburbs." To our ears, Sir Enoch sounds patronising, but he had turned the small-town Halifax Building Society from a local benefit club into one of the world's largest financial organisations, offering cheap mortgages which made house purchase possible for ordinary people.

Costains' market research found that housewives wanted a large family kitchen, where they keep an eye on the kids while they cooked. This was a feature of early Elm Park houses. 

Two factors helped launch Elm Park. One was the arrival of Ford's in Dagenham. Ford workers were well paid and wanted to live near the factory. The other was the District Line, which was extended from Barking to Upminster in 1932, alongside the existing Fenchurch Street railway. Electric trains ran every twenty minutes, right into central London.

On May 18, 1935, the Minister of Health, Sir Hilton Young, formally opened Elm Park Station, unlocking the gates with a silver key. Then he entered Elm Park through a ceremonial arch and cut a ribbon to declare the estate open. The Times hailed Elm Park  as "London's Newest Suburb".

Sir Hilton Young was a brilliant man. President of the Union at Cambridge, he went into politics as a Liberal, but switched to the Tories when the party broke up. He had served in the Navy, losing his right arm in the 1918 Zeebrugge raid, a daring attempt to block a German U-boat base on the Belgian coast by sinking elderly British warships right inside the harbour. He married the widow of Captain Scott, the Antarctic explorer who died heroically trying to become the first man to reach the South Pole. This made him stepfather to Peter Scott, the wildlife painter. She accompanied him to Elm Park. 

By 1939, 2,600 houses had been built, and Costains were now calling the suburb "Elm Park Garden City". In April that year, there was a week-long community festival, which featured "a display of ju-jitsu by women." Elm Park ladies enjoyed unarmed combat.

World War Two ended the Garden City. Post-war housing needs led to large-scale building of council housing. Maybe Elm Park could become a Garden City again?


The murder of a 9 year-old Hornchurch girl almost led to the hanging of an innocent man. 1939 sounds a long time ago, but it could be within family memory, so I omit surnames from this terrible story. Pamela's naked body was found in a ditch by Hornchurch Aerodrome in January 1939. 

There were only two clues. She had been trussed up with an electrical chord, with pieces of string tied across it. This was how local gardeners made climbing frames for runner beans. There was a cigarette end, a home-made fag made from different tobaccos. The killer collected cigarette butts, mixed the contents and rolled his own.

4,000 people were questioned in a massive police hunt. Suspicion fell on Leonard, a 28 year-old factory worker who lived in Elm Park's Coronation Drive.

His wife, Iris, had been in hospital having a baby when Pamela was killed. He had given a neighbour a length of cable to mend a radio. There were blood spots on his raincoat. He collected cigarette ends and rolled his own fags. 

The case against him sounds thin. Pamela's clothes were found near Elm Park Station. Leonard walked that way every day, but so did hundreds of other people. And why dump evidence in such a busy street? Being arrested must have been traumatic. If convicted, there would be no mercy for a sex maniac child killer. He would be hanged, leaving Iris and the baby destitute.

Leonard was tried at the Old Bailey in March. But the 4-day prosecution case left unanswered questions. Leonard's movements could be accounted for on the day Pamela died – all but 25 minutes, hardly long enough to rush to the airfield and kill a shy girl who distrusted strangers.

Then, on Day 4, the Crown case geban to fall apart. The judge was critical when an expert witness admitted that he had not checked Leonard's bloodstains against Pamela's blood group. 

Next day, Iris gave evidence, calling Leonard a "jolly good husband". Then theaccused himself went into the box and indignantly denied the charge. There followed a moment worthy of TV drama.

Leonard's counsel passed him a cigarette paper and a tobacco pouch, and asked him to roll a fag. There were different ways of rolling your own: some people pinched the gummed ends of the cigarette paper together, others folded them over. The silent court watched as Leonard made his gasper.  It was nothing like the butt found by Pamela's body.

Soon after, the jury said they had heard enough. The accused was not guilty. This was not some technical acquittal. Leonard was an innocent man. The foreman of the jury publicly shook Leonard's hand and congratulated him. Leonard would not be marched along a grim prison corridor to a terrifying, shameful death. He would go home to Coronation Drive, to Iris and the baby.

I hope Leonard survived the War, kicked the fags and lived to a fine old age, He'd be over 100 now, with children in their 70s. They can be proud of the father one witness called "a jolly good sort". Pamela's death was horrible, but hanging an innocent man would have been a double tragedy. Her killer was never caught.


Elm Park was built in the 1930s by Costain, the builders, who aimed to create a "garden city" of 35,000 people, with schools and shopping centres. As well as donating Harrow Lodge Park, Costain opened the Elm Park Hotel in 1938. (It's now shops). By 1939, with 2,600 houses completed, the suburb was about one-third built. To sell Elm Park, Costain used modern promotion tactics, including "events" with celebrity appearances. That's how 5,000 people turned out to welcome Miss Jean Batten in March 1938.  The company had organised a house-furnishing competition, and they needed a big name to present the prizes.

The 1930s were a golden age for aviation. It was also an era when women were carving out new roles. Female pilots – "aviatrixes" – broke through gender barriers. One day in 1930, Yorkshire woman Amy Johnson climbed into her tiny plane and took off from Croydon airport. Nineteen days later, she landed at Darwin in northern Australia, 11,000 miles away. American heroine Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic solo in 1932.

Jean Batten was the third of the trio of famous flying females. Born in New Zealand in 1909, she moved to England when she was twenty and trained as a pilot. She bought her first plane with a £500 loan from a man who hoped to marry her. A second admirer borrowed £400 from his mother to fund her purchase of a larger aircraft.

Jean Batten wanted to beat Amy Johnson's time to Australia. Her first attempt ended in a sandstorm near Karachi. Second time, she ran out of fuel and crashed in Italy.

She's been criticised for taking advantage of men to finance her adventures in the air. But who else was she to exploit? Hedgehogs? Tortoises? Men controlled money and power. When the aviation industry held a banquet in her honour, she was the only woman present!

By 1934, she was engaged to a third boyfriend, a stockbroker and amateur pilot. Returning from Italy, she took the wings off his plane to make her own machine airworthy again. I wonder what a psychiatrist would say about that? On her third attempt she reached Australia, breaking Amy Johnson's record by four days.

Everybody wanted to meet the beautiful and resourceful Jean Batten. At Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) "was wonderfully charming, and with her sweet smile and gracious manner immediately put me at my ease". Jean also met "little Princess Elizabeth". Our future Queen was eleven years old. "She has a charm of her own, and with a delightful gesture brought her pet terrier into the room to show me." Her Majesty still loves her dogs.

No wonder Elm Park turned out in force for this superstar of the skies. One schoolboy remembered her looking like a film star. The President of the Residents' Association proudly told Miss Batten that New Zealand soldiers had been cared for at a convalescent hospital in Hornchurch during the First World War. elcoming her, local MP John Parker predicted that Elm Park would become "a happy family of 30,000 people." Miss Batten found this amazing, remarking that the whole of New Zealand contained barely one million people. It was an odd comment: she'd lived in Auckland, a city of almost 100,000.

This was Jean Batten's first visit, but she delighted the crowd by adding that "she had many times flown over Elm Park". This was probably true: she would have used the runway at nearby RAF Hornchurch as a visual navigation aide. Indeed, after inspecting the households that had entered the furnishing competition, she visited the RAF station. I hope none of the airmen fell in love with her. She never married.

The Second World War put an end to her long-distance solo flights. But Jean Batten should remain a role model for girls. There were no glass ceilings for a woman with her own aeroplane.


Geoff's maternal grandparents moved from East Ham to escape wartime bombing. The Council gave them a three-bedroom  house in Ullswater Way Elm Park. Geoff's mother soon left to get married, with Geoff appearing exactly nine months later. Years later the Council made his grandparents downsize to a maisonette in Gillam Way after their son left the home.

"I was born at 48 Station Lane Hornchurch – now a restaurant," Geoff recalls. "The weekly visit to the grandparents was by District Line train from Hornchurch to Elm Park with a walk either end."  When he was eight, in 1955, they moved to The Avenue, at the Abbs Cross Lane end. "Visits to the grandparents were now by 165 bus, but on nice days my parents decided to walk it through Harrow Lodge Park.  I wasn't too impressed with the idea of that exercise!", he confesses. 

Elm Park had an impressive shopping centre. Opposite Woolworths was a DIY shop and a toyshop. Station Parade had one of the first Tesco supermarkets.  There were launderettes, newsagents and sweetshops. The best sweetshop was opposite the Elm Park Hotel. They often called into Gardiner's, a sports equipment store near the station, so Geoff's father could chat to the owner. "They'd been prisoners of war together in the same camp in Germany," he explains.

Geoff spent his spare time roaming Harrow Lodge Park. He watched the two original boating lakes being excavated at the Elm Park end. 

"My pals and I would hire canoes when we had the money," Geoff relates. "We'd hire a canoe each, sit at the back to lift the prows out of the water, then have races or try to ram or drench one another in mock battles.  Capsizes were a risk and not appreciated by the authorities!"

The Elm Park Hotel (now a supermarket) was well known for its male entertainment evenings (‘Smoking Concerts’), sometimes hosted by comedian Mike Reid. The acts included an exotic dancer called Lady Jane Grey who had a very (very!) unconventional way of picking up beer bottles, and a wheelchair-bound comedian who bravely laughed at his disability. He appeared on the TV show ‘The Comedians’. One of his jokes was about going to Lourdes hoping for a cure. He was unlucky, but his wheelchair miraculously acquired new tyres!

Hornchurch aerodrome was in its final days. Geoff was a Royal Liberty School CCF air cadet. "I made my first ever flight there in July 1961, in a Slingsby T21 Sedbergh glider," he remembers. When the airfield  closed in 1962, air cadet gliding transferred to North Weald.

Elm Park didn't produce many famous people, but one pal achieved notoriety. Colin "Buster" Levy came from Mungo Park Road. His wife, Norma – Geoff never met her but thinks she was Wife Number Three – was a prostitute whose clients included a politician, Lord Lambton. In 1973, Buster secretly photographed them in bed at their London flat, and sold the pictures to the tabloids. Lord Lambton was forced to resign from the government. 

The sex scandal didn't make Buster and Norma friends in high places. "I'd even visited Buster at his London flat," Geoff recalls. "When Buster disappeared with the police in pursuit, I was concerned they'd be round knocking on my door."

Where did Geoff meet Buster? Smiling, he replies: "At Hornchurch Methodist Youth Club in 1964!"

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