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A City for Becontree

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A City for Becontree
 
 
Ron Price
 
 
 
2019 is the centenary of the London County Council (LCC)’s decision, using the “Addison Act”, to build new dwellings and effect slum clearance outside of its boundary; primarily on 3,000 acres of farmland in suburban Essex. It is considered the first state housing scheme and was to be completed in five years with a population of 120,000.
 
With house completions slumping since 1910, Dr Christopher Addison, the first Minister of Health offered developers a subsidy of £150 per new dwelling, about 20% of the cost, with a nationwide target of 500,000. The Treasury allocated £15m offset by savings from reducing infant mortality, tuberculosis, and crime and drunkenness. He became a victim of factions within the medicine profession.
 
Becontree is a (licensing) district mostly in Ilford, although contemporary newspapers suggest a Domesday Book connection for its selection for the title of the Estate. Those opposed to the site advocated Wanstead Flats with its cheaper land and no loss to the 30,000 tons of vegetables Becontree’s market gardens produced.  
 
The Garden Cities Association, who supported the LCC’s regional concept for local government, proposed a Thames-side Garden City from Canning Town to Tilbury with no more than 12 dwellings per acre and support for temperance. Barking and Ilford UDCs proposed that Dagenham parish be taken from Romford RDC.
 
In June 1923 when King George V and Queen Mary visited Becontree, the vision and reality were diverging. The vision was an octagonal boulevard on the perimeter of the Estate with neighbourhood centres at each of its points; dissected by three central avenues to a civic centre, community facilities and shops. About one-fifth of the land was allocated to open space, allotments and playing fields. By a majority of 5 the LCC began the Ilford section; one of eleven. Materials were delivered by the River Thames and a railway line which terminated near Chadwell Heath station. There was a significant shortfall of skilled labour. Trade unions opposed training for young people, unless their members were guaranteed work. A blue plaque at 26 Chittys Lane, then Ilford, marks the first completion. Occupation of the first section was delayed after Ilford UDC refused to connect them to their sewers. A sewerage scheme (£21,000) was approved as the Dagenham Dock section began.  Completions averaged eight dwellings per acre. In May 1924 work began on the first Valence section. In 1926 Dagenham RDC was granted urban district powers by Essex County Council (ECC).
 
With an average weekly wage of £3, and outgoings for rent (four roomed cottage - 25 shillings) and fares (8 shillings) there was reluctance to relocate from east London with 600 empty properties reported in 1925. Rents were considered high but councils were not allowed to have housing account deficits greater than the product of a penny rate.  Resentment to the incomers and their former parish loyalty were occasionally stirred.
   
Empty properties became a problem of the past when the Ford Motor Company, who had acquired land at Dagenham Dock in 1924, announced plans for a factory. In 1927 their Trafford Park Manchester workforce (2,200) relocated. The incentive of a job and a dwelling assisted its recruitment and a workforce of 10,000 was soon achieved. The deferment of the Barking section in 1928 was short-lived as a domestic materials shortage was solved by imports and Innovative experiments including concrete blocks, timber and glass roof tiles.
 
The infrastructure catch-up began but not before the ECC asked who should pay for education at Becontree. It became a matter of pride they met their commitments despite ratepayers’ objections. The use of halls gave way to six schools opened in less than two years with others extended. The foundation stone of the first permanent Anglican Church was laid in January 1926. Its parishes struggled to meet the fund raising quotas set by the diocese. As the war began payment to the LCC for sites was outstanding and the church building programme was incomplete. Other faiths, from Roman Catholic to Plymouth Brethren, built places of worship on the Estate.
 
Bottlenecks at Aldgate and Whitechapel affected commuters. The 1902 electrified District Railway terminated at East Ham. The London Tilbury & Southend Railway steam service via Pitsea served Barking and Dagenham (now East). Tube lines east from Finsbury Park and Liverpool Street to Ilford floundered on cost. In 1925 a monorail, with stations just below street level; was proposed for the Estate as was a District Railway extension from Becontree to Manor Park. The Gale Street Halt proposed in 1902 opened in 1926. Upon electrification in 1932 it was renamed Becontree with new stations at Upney and Heathway.
 
The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) who marketed their services as open air to everywhere battled with the police authorities and local councils for services beyond Seven Kings and East Ham.  In 1932 Green Lane was improved between Bennett’s Castle Lane and Valence Avenue overcoming objection to a service between Barking and Romford. Another improvement at Central Park Avenue allowed a Dagenham Station to Ilford service. This gave housewives, before the development at Heathway, access to shops at Chadwell Heath and Goodmayes. LGOC route numbering was revised in 1934 when Becontree Avenue, Valence Avenue and Bennett’s Castle Lane were separately served.
 
The LCC’s land acquisition for the Estate included four licensed premises. The Robin Hood, with a refreshments and wine licence, relocated from Bennett’s Castle Lane to the junction of Becontree Avenue with Longbridge Road. Research suggests the others were the Church Elm, the Royal Oak and the Ship and Shovel.
 
In 1924 a licensed community facility was built at the north eastern corner of Becontree Avenue with Bennett’s Castle Lane. It included a concert hall and a recreation ground. Becontree United were first reported in this year. The football section progressed to the second division of the South Essex League in 1926; and was probably superseded by New Town United, who played in the Dagenham & District League (Premier Division). The last mention of the cricket section with its suffix is 1933 when their ground was adjacent to Whalebone Lane. Their fixtures included several town clubs.
 
Goodmayes Park had opened in 1905 on the Ilford boundary of the Estate. Valence House and grounds was acquired by Dagenham UDC in 1926 for £1500. An adjacent 24 acres were gifted by the LCC and renamed Valence Park. It had a football pitch and cricket wicket. In 1931 a lido was added when lawn tennis hard courts and a bowls green are also noted.  
 
Companies such as William Warne, Howards, Sterling and Pritchett & Gold established factories either side of the 20th century. Union Cables were at Dagenham Dock by 1918, Following a promotional campaign these were joined by, amongst others, May and Baker and Berger Paints in 1934. Briggs Motor Bodies initially set up at the premises vacated by Sterling in 1931; all these companies, and the Ford Motor Company provided sports grounds and social clubs for their employees. The latter two’s American connection creating an interest in baseball.
 
Cinemas such as the Mayfair (Whalebone Lane), the Embassy (Chadwell Heath High Road) and the Princess (New Road) were adjacent to bus routes. An adjunct to Route 106 served West Ham Stadium in Custom House. Becontree connecting to Upton Park for Football League games at the Boleyn Ground. In 1929 senior amateur football at Glebe Road began.
 
In July 1931 the King and Queen returned to open the King George’s Hospital and its associated Dagenham Health Centre at Five Elms. Fundraising of £50,000 for a 300-400 bed hospital had begun seven years previously. Donations were made by Henry and Edsel Ford. It incorporated the Ilford Emergency Hospital.
 
In 1938 Dagenham UDC became a municipal borough three years after the Estate, providing 9% of Addison’s national target was completed with him ceremonially opening Parsloes Park. The following year the Ordnance Survey’s request to add an ‘A’ to Becontree was ignored. In 1946 Harlow New Town using a Development Corporation, showed that a lesson from Becontree had been absorbed.
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