The 20th century was an age of fast innovation, discovery and change. In this area the presence of the river Thames and proximity to London continued to have a dominating effect on developments here. This greatly influenced defence measures, industrial developments and migration, all of which put the agricultural landscape under considerable pressure.
At the end of the 19th century farm-labouring households were still relying heavily on family gleaning wheat for flour to bake their own bread. Through the century the farming society and its culture here, as elsewhere in the countryside, gradually changed. The agricultural landscape did begin to produce new signs of prosperity at the turn of the 20th century but the individual family vegetable plots and allotments still provided essential supplies for local families. Gradually as income and choice increased so people preferred to buy provisions from local shops and they became less self-sufficient and this change was coupled with the introduction of agricultural mechanisation. The better mechanical harvesters left little usable wheat for gleaning and milling became threatened. During the early years of the 1st World War, Orsett and Aveley mills had ceased working and by this time the country was no longer self-sufficient in food production. In this desperate situation the Government acted by guaranteeing farm prices, with a fixed minimum wage and regular hours for farm workers. This changed after the War and by 1921 a slump had settled again and in 1923 South Ockendon mill shut. Although some Government assistance was again introduced from the mid 1920’s and agricultural wages rose at that time, farming suffered from a lack of national agricultural policy and in 1934 Upminster Windmill finally followed the others and closed.
The 2nd World War reintroduced a national agricultural policy and austerity measures. Then from 1945 a more flexible agricultural policy was adopted more suited to peace-time and allowed farmers to plan ahead and invest. This area with its highly suitable soils continued developing in market gardening and leaving a legacy in local names including Pea, Pike and Cherry Tree Lanes, The Cauliflower and Cherry Tree pubs, and advertisements for the Early Rainham Cabbage still being supplied until 1957. Land at Davy Down was also used for market gardening, but this was abandoned and the Country Park formed when the construction of the new A13 split the land holding. During the 1950’s and 1960’s agribusiness developed as agriculture became conducted on a strictly commercial basis. In this southern part of south west Essex many local farms were destroyed mostly through gravel winning but early attempts at agricultural land restoration were successful here in the late 1960’s and inspired further land restoration. On the marshes, with a local farmer the RSPB have reintroduced the centuries old use of the land for cattle grazing as part of a wider land management programme.
Defence of London
Throughout the 20th century this area continued in the forefront of the defence of London. At the turn of the century Warley Camp became part of the London Defence Scheme – which included actual construction of earth works. During the 1st World War Rudyard Kipling’s son John was one of the officer cadets at Warley, but by this time at outbreak of the War the barracks were said to be wholly unfit, and the tenement married quarters were notorious even in the 1960’s. After the 2nd World War the barracks were used as a training depot for national service recruits until closed in around 1960.
During WW1 Purfleet military hospital was used as a place of internment including for Prisoners Of War. Between 1906 and 1915 the Government set up Rifle Ranges on Purfleet, Aveley, Wennington and Rainham marshes to form one of the largest military training centres in rifles and small arms. Some of the buildings survive including a range of shooting butts and an anti submarine blockhouse on what is now the RSPB Reserve. That same year enemy airships were terrorising Londoners, and the London Air Defence Area (LADA) was set up with a number of airfields, including Royal Flying Corps Sutton's Farm airfield (now Hornchurch Country Park), constructed around London for its defence. Finally in March 1916 the first Zeppelin was shot down with the aid of the machine-gun mounted on the anti-submarine blockhouse on the Purfleet marshes, Captain J. Harris of the Purfleet garrison and others received medallions from the Lord Mayor of London in recognition of their action. Three of the next four zeppelins were downed by three fighter aces from RFC Suttons Farm. On the 2 December 1916, Flight Commander William Leefe Robinson was the first, for which he received the Victoria Cross and public adulation. Having found the way in which to conquer the airships the next was then brought down by Second Lieutenant Frederick Sowrey on 23 September 1916, he received the Distinguished Service Order. This burning wreckage came down at Great Burstead near Billericay and drew enormous crowds for the following week – Harry had re-enlisted by this time but his wife Rosa, now billeted in Warley, pushed her pram with baby and her four other children from Warley to see this long-awaited achievement, many others arrived blocking the lane with “motor cars, motor-cycles, bicycles, traps, tradesmen’s carts, and pedestrians, all jammed together". On October 1st Second Lieutenant Wulstan Joseph Tempest, like the others of the 39th Home Defence Squadron flying a biplane essentially made of wood and paper, brought down another airship. When the fuel pump on his engine failed, in order to keep flying he had to hand-prime it at the same time as flying his plane and firing his machine gun; he was also awarded the DSO.
After the War RFC Suttons Farm was returned to agricultural use although bi-planes were soon flown again from there. War memorials were set up by local parishes – at Rainham the War Memorial & Clock Tower is now a listed building. It was erected in 1920 on what was then a Green outside the parish church. Adjoining Suttons Farm, Suttons Institution had been built in Classical architectural style as a Home for Elderly People in 1939. But during the Battle of Britain it housed RAF airman, becoming St. George’s Hospital in 1948 used mainly for geriatric care. The buildings are an historical landmark for which it is held in great affection locally.
During the Second World War RFC Suttons Farm was reopened as RAF Hornchurch, and was again an important site for air defence and home to the renowned WWII Spitfire Station during the Battle of Britain and the Battle of France. Many of its heroes are commemorated in local street names including Mitchell, Finucane, Bader and Milan. (Walk no. 5 Spitfire, Berwick Ponds). Defensive rings of anti-aircraft batteries were set up, Bowaters Farm at East Tilbury, a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM) and Warren Farm Gunsite at Chadwell Heath (Listed Building and Conservation Area) were built to defend RAF Hornchurch from aerial attack. There were also decoy sites like Doesgate Farm, Bulphan (SAM) that was a bombing decoy for RAF Hornchurch and made to replicate it in order to attract bombing raids away from the essential airfield target. It operated by both day and night through most of the War and was successful on at least one heavy night-time bombing raid. Another successful site was at Wennington where decoy beacon fires were lit during WWII air raids. RAF Hornchurch was decommissioned after World War II, and sold to an aggregates extraction company. After much of the site was quarried, the site was used as a refuse site, before being redeveloped as Hornchurch Country Park in the 1980s, although some restoration work is still needed. A number of war-time features remain including several of the rare one-man Tett turrets. Some sixteen Ferro-concrete and steel-framed barges are moored in a bay on the Thames between Rainham and Purfleet marshes (London Loop Section 24). Some 200 of these barges played a crucial role in World War II operations where, as part of the Mulberry harbour defences they were used for the transportation of petrol, munitions and so on, and as floating pontoons. This group is said not to have seen active service but were held in the Thames Estuary as backup supply vessels during the D-day landings in 1944. Today they are an important and rare habitat for various birds including water and meadow pipits and have generated an important habitat for plant species within the bay.
During the Cold War of the 1950’s and 60’s threat of an Atomic bomb attack caused Government concern over the supply of foods and especially tea noting ‘The tea position would be very serious with a loss of 75 per cent of stocks and substantial delays in imports and with no system of rationing it would be wrong to consider that even 1oz per head per week could be ensured. No satisfactory solution has yet been found.’ In 1955 Purfleet, along with 13 British cities, was identified as a sensitive target for an A-bomb attack affecting imports of tea and other essential foods.
The arrival of the railways during the 19th century, and the expansion of the London, East End and Tilbury docks attracted new industries and workers along Thames-side. By 1901 the population had spread eastwards towards here from London so that over half the county’s population were settled in metropolitan Essex. The expanding industries included the vast Ford Motor Company at Dagenham, and the development of the cement industry in Grays and Purfleet which is also the home of the world’s largest margarine works, and oil storage and refinery at Canvey Island and Shell Haven. The Cranham Brick and Tile Company developed the local brick earth that backs these coastal marshes and was in operation from 1900 to 1920 supplying local areas and the London market. With increased demand on the river the Port of London trust (PLA) was set up in 1908/9 to ensure navigational safety along the tidal Thames and to protect the river’s unique marine environment.
During the First World War women were needed to work on the land and in industry including at the cement works. In 1916 Lady Petre set up a milking school for children and women at Thorndon Hall, in 1918 she organised a Woman’s Land Army recruiting rally in Brentwood. There was a Prisoners of War camp set up in a chalk quarry; some internees also worked the land. Day-tripping was curtailed as the hamlet of Rainham Ferry became industrialised at this time. Industry continues here despite the closure of the Creek to tidal flow as part of the Thames flood defences in around 1982. The later 1930s became more prosperous with effects like the boom in the car industry helped by the growing work force and easy riverside access. Some of the chalk pits closed in the 1920’s and others in the mid 1970’s and Lakeside Shopping Centre and Retail Park developments were then built in the chalk quarry. From 1927 liquid clay was being transported to the Tunnel Cement Works by pipeline from Aveley; by 1968 they were the largest cement works in Western Europe with 1,200 employees. At Davy Down the Stifford Pumping Station buildings were erected in 1926-7 to house large diesel engines to provide power to extract water from a 138ft (42m) deep borehole in the chalk below. Water extraction continues today by using a modern electric pump. Beginning around 1887, by 1964 the Thames Board factory grew to be the country’s largest of its kind and occupying 45 acres (1.8 sq km) between Grays and Purfleet and with over 3,400 employees producing cardboard and fibreboard for packing. By 1968 the Tunnel cement works were the largest in Western Europe, with 1,200 employees. Today, against a backdrop of wildlife on ancient marshes, commercial wharfs still operate a world-class port infrastructure in this area including at Barking, Dagnam Dock, Purfleet, West Thurrock/Grays, Tilbury, Coryton, and Canvey Island.
Transportation improved throughout the century with the better road and rail networks; the radio kept people in touch with what was now available for them to buy and to enjoy, seasonal local foods became less necessary as tinned and frozen foods were increasingly available; public telephone boxes (like the listed Type K6 box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1935 in Rainham village centre on the London Loop Section 23) made it easier to keep in touch with friends and family and make arrangements to meet, and the introduction of bicycles made reasonably distant journeys possible for many people and opened up evening outings to local dances and cinema trips and jaunts to the seaside including outings by charabanc and by steam train to Rainham Beach, Botany Bay Gardens at Purfleet and Grays Beach. In this way the area became well known and popular and during the Depression of the 1920’s and 30’s many East Enders bought £5 plots when farmers sold off land in this manner as far east as Canvey Island. In Rainham the self-sufficient week-end plotlands were gradually redeveloped, often by self-builders, during the 1950’s for permanent bungalows and housing. Elsewhere ‘Garden Suburb’ developments by local builders became popular. In Upminster (Walk No.6b) the first of the house building phases began in 1906 and progressed according to the changing economic situation even through the 1st World War until 1938 with more development in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. After 1945 the Post War New Towns like Basildon, and Harold Hill New Neighbourhood, Belhus Housing Estate and Kenningtons Estate were constructed to re-home people away from bomb damaged areas and for slum clearance.
In the face of the effects of so much change to the landscape over the last century, from 1990 some 38 square miles (9,800 ha) of countryside has been managed as the Thames Chase Community Forest to renew and regenerate the landscape for the future and with the Thames Chase Visitor Centre at its heart in this area.
© 2015 S.J.Smith
‘Two Men in a Trench II: Uncovering the Secrets of British Battlefields’ by Tony Pollard & Neill Oliver, pub. Michael Joseph, 2003, ISBN 978-0-7181-4594-1
- ‘Second To None’, by Richard C. Smith, pub. Grub Street, 2005, ISBN 1-904010-78-4
- Purfleet Heritage & Military Centre set up in Magazine No. 5 of the royal Magazine of Gunpowder.
- At Davy Down the pumping station has a 50m borehole down into the chalk and is still in use today; the two massive diesel engines once used to drive the pumps although no longer operational are on display in the visitor centre; the impressive railway viaduct across the Mardyke Valley dates from 1892; from here the Mardyke Way links to Aveley and to Bulphan.
- ‘The Haven’ a surviving plotlands bungalow at Langdon Hills Country park & Nature Reserve. The bungalow is now used as a museum entirely fitted out in original 1930’s and 1940’s style. Dunton once had hundreds of bungalows and chalets in an area known as ‘Plotlands’, which is now a Nature Reserve and an excellent habitat for reptiles.
- High House Production Park, Purfleet, is an historic farm setting to creative industries buildings that include tours of the Production Workshop of the scene-making facility for the Royal Opera House operas and ballets; ‘The Backstage Centre’ is here opened by Creative & Cultural skills and now houses their national headquarters; also situated here are 43 artist studios in the park opened by ACME Studios.
- The Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch built hidden beneath a bungalow, 100 feet underground to house up to 600 government personnel in the event of nuclear war.
- Section 24 of the London Loop takes you alongside the river Thames between Rainham and Purfleet and overlooks the RSPB Reserve which has also preserved Anti-Submarine Blockhouse and a section of the Firing Ranges, the Cordite Store and an Anti-Aircraft Ammunition Magazine on the marshes. 'The Diver: Regeneration' sculpture by John Kaufman stands near to the concrete barges in the Thames and was erected in 2002, shortly before his death. The sculpture is made of galvanised steel bands on a steel frame and stands 15 feet (4.6m) tall and some 6 feet (1.8m) wide and at the time it was the only sculpture in the Thames. It is partly-submerged every high tide and totally submerged by spring and neap tides.
© 2015 S.J.Smith
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