Meeting Reports: 2015 - 2016

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Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 18th September, 2015

For our first lecture of the season (and at very short notice) we welcomed back Linda Rhodes, Local Studies Librarian at Valence House. Her well illustrated and entertaining talk covered its history and collections. It was originally built in 1269, founded by Barking Abbey and later named for the de Valence family. It is the last remaining Manor House in Dagenham, said to be haunted by Agnes de Valence’s ghost. The earliest surviving parts date from 1424; by 1771 it was a private house with a moat and has 20th century extensions. There was a large cultivated garden and the last residents were the May family, market gardeners and breeders of shire horses. After WW1 it was purchased by the London County Council as part of the Becontree Housing Estate and in 1926 bought by Dagenham UDC who used it as their headquarters, museum and library.

A 3½ year complete refurbishment started in 2007. There is now a new archive and local studies centre, new displays, a café, a new herb garden and family plot, including an Anderson shelter. Their extensive collections include Barking Abbey records with displays of glass, jewellery etc. They also have parish registers and family histories, including the Hewitt family who were prominent in the Barking Fishing Fleets. Apart from books, maps, plans and local industry records their collections include apprentice indentures, various charity records, rate books and school records. They also have a large photographic collection.

They hold various events throughout the year and welcome children. The surrounding park covers nearly 28 acres, a perfect setting for such a lovely house.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 16th October, 2015

At our October meeting we were treated to a well illustrated History of Chadwell St Mary by Philip Edgar of the Tilbury Riverside Project. The place name comes from the Saxon meaning cold spring, the original Tilbury church being founded by St Cedd in 670. The population grew from 262 people in 1851 to 6500 by 1911. The boundary with West Tilbury runs through Tilbury Fort and if you died there your place of burial depended on which side of the fort you died in. The first fort was a blockhouse built by Henry VIII and reinforced during the Spanish Armada campaign by Elizabeth I, who made her famous speech to her army in 1588 nearby. The ferry went from Tilbury Fort to Gravesend and was moved westwards in 1631 where a public house was built, named as the World’s End in 1677. The fort was heavily armed and in WW1 a two-lane pontoon bridge was built over the Thames.

The parish boasts several building of note. Sleeper’s Farm, is 15th century, named after the Sleeper family who lived there. The Cross Keys public house owned by the Seabrooke brewery dates from 1878 and is now a Masonic Lodge. Chadwell Place was the home of James Temple, one of those who signed the death warrant of Charles I; it has a well which is still used today by the present owner. Daniel Defoe lived in Chadwell and owned brickworks on the marshes; he wrote Robinson Crusoe whilst there and a man named John Friday looked after his farm. A 1930s art deco house in Sandy Lane won an award. The Old Manor House was demolished in the 1960s. The original railway station was called Tilbury Fort Halt, close to where Tilbury Hotel was and superseded by Tilbury Riverside station, now redundant.

A school for 50-60 children was built in 1914 and remains of a Saxon hut were found when it was expanded. In the 1930s the road was widened for the expanding Tilbury docks, school children planted trees in 1933 for a new clinic and the library was built in 1967. The prefabs have now been demolished and the 1940s Ruskin Road estates are still expanding. Even Thurrock College has been demolished and is now a housing estate.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 21st November, 2015

Local metal detectorist Steve Newman gave us a very enlightening illustrated talk on his hobby entitled 25 Years of Saving Lost History. He had always been interested in history and his metal detector provided him with many finds, including a lot of rubbish. Fields are still producing items missed 20 years ago, having been turned over by ploughs. Sites for new buildings provide archaeology and are ideal for responsible detecting with the new lightweight detectors. Steve is out in all weathers and works methodically, taking photographs of their positions, with important finds sent to museums.

The Bronze Age provides arrow heads, axe heads, coins and the occasional gold ornament. Iron Age discoveries include decorated Celtic coins in bronze, silver and gold, also rings. During the Roman Empire bronze coins were thrown away during high inflation, so turn up regularly, together with silver coins, brooches and other fashion accessories. As Roman hygiene was paramount, even nail cleaners and ear wax removers are found! The Saxons didn’t use much metal, but harness and helmet fittings are among the finds for this era. In the Medieval period silver coins often turn up, sometimes clipped and melted down for personal use. Other finds include pilgrimage souvenirs, buckles, keys and tokens, used when small change was in short supply. The Tudors and Stuarts left grander coins, Civil War artefacts, tokens, fishing weights and musket balls. The Georgian and Victorian eras provide more elaborate coins, jewellery and infantry buttons. The artefacts from two World Wars include cutlery, helmets and dog tags (used to identify soldiers). Bomb and plane parts are usually too far down to detect, as the detector’s range is only about 12-18 inches.

Treasure trove belongs to the Crown and must be declared. Artefacts have to be at least 300 years old with more than 10% gold or silver, including coins. The hoard is usually split 50/50 with the finder and land owner. Steve’s best find was a gold ring worth £180,000, once worn by a king of England, but very often only ring pulls turn up! This is certainly a very interesting and satisfying hobby.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 11th December 2015

Our 2015 Christmas meeting was the usual combination of food and drink, followed by a light hearted quiz on the excellent slide show of old photographs of Thurrock, provided by our Chairman Susan Yates. We were delighted to be joined by the Mayor of Thurrock, Councillor Sue Gray.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: January 15th, 2016  

For our January meeting we welcomed back Jonathan Catton, recently retired Museum and Heritage Officer. Before his third talk on WW1 he spoke about two green plaques that were unveiled last year. The first was at Orsett Hall to mark the centenary of Lt.Col. Sir Francis Whitmore‘s command of the Essex Yeomanry. The second commemorated Gunther Pluschow, the only successful prisoner of war to escape from Britain. He had bought a meal at the Tilbury working Men’s Club (known as the ‘Tute’) before escaping via Gravesend. A further plaque at St Clement’s, West Thurrock is planned to mark the loss of 16 cadets and an officer from the T.S. Cornwall who were killed in an accident on the Thames 100 years ago.

There had been a huge loss of life in Gallipoli, including many Thurrock men and in 1916 conscription was started, Lord Kitchener being depicted on recruitment posters. Companies applied for Certificates of Exemption on behalf of their staff and conscientious objectors were sent to Princetown on Dartmoor. As so many men went to war more women worked in industry, at railway stations and of course nursing. Income tax was raised to 5s in the £1, lights had to be off at 6pm and bicycle lamps could not be used, for fear of attracting zeppelins. The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Charles Wakefield, offered a prize of £500 for whoever shot down the first zeppelin in Great Britain. However, on 31 March when one was tracked by anti-aircraft guns and shot down at Purfleet by observers on the water tank the reward was not available for the gunners. Instead, gold medals were struck, showing the name of the recipients. A commemorative plaque was later erected at Woodlands Pre-School at Purfleet.

There were camps at Purfleet and Aveley and explosive works at Kynoch . Tilbury Fort became more important, being the HQ of area ordnance depots and was full of ammunition. At Coalhouse Fort allotment gardens were tended by soldiers and in June 1916 an R.E. Workshop and garages were opened there. Anti-aircraft guns were used more and more for defence and posters were issued identifying German and UK planes. Tilbury Docks played an important part in the war, including shipping two Sopwith Camel aircraft en route to east Africa. Also, ambulance trains were shipped to France, bringing casualties home, soldiers missing limbs being carried in baskets. In Grays the Empire Theatre showed news and a special matinee was held to raise funds. Other charities also raised funds and a league was set up for children to raise money. The ‘Tute’ at Tilbury held dances for 4p, a new Capital & Counties Bank was opened in Grays and Payne & Co. sold overcoats etc. Local advertising showed suitable items and clothing to send to menfolk serving abroad.

By the end of 1916 there was more information on war in Europe. Letters only took two days to get to France and Belgium. Postcards from the army were restricted to limited wording, i.e. I am/am not well. Souvenir cards were sold and a unique soldiers’ language evolved, e.g. trench coat, duck boards, pushing up the daisies. The Lord Mayor’s Show in 1916 attracted the crowds, even showing a captured German plane. There were 163 Thurrock war dead in 1916 and people were asking “will it be over soon?”

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: February 26th          

Unfortunately Susan Yates, our speaker for the Society’s February meeting was stuck in traffic, so we were unable to hear her talk on Jack the Ripper. However, we passed an enjoyable evening when several members came to our rescue.

The first to speak were Mike Ostler and Philip Edgar who told us about new funding through the Tilbury Riverside Project for Guided Heritage Walks this year. They will be once a month Mar-Sept and must be booked (see the Tilbury and Chadwell Memories website); free but donations are welcome.

Secondly we welcomed John Matthews who enlightened us on Chadwell Place. Sir Alexander Temple was living in Rochester having married a rich widow with property. When she died the property went to her eldest son and Sir Alexander had to look elsewhere, eventually settling on Chadwell Place about 1607, where he established a deer park providing venison. He was a JP and in 1619 took on the captaincy of Tilbury Fort, a residential post. His eldest son John fought in a campaign on the Isle of Ré; he was first off the ship in 1627 and killed by arrows. Alexander Temple commissioned Cornelius Johnson to paint his portrait in 1620, which emphasised his military status. Johnson flourished and became a court painter.

Our next speaker was Kath Ostler who spoke of her early days as a nurse. She had trained at the Royal Free in London. After training she joined the RAF and was posted to troop ship Devonshire at Tilbury, which was complete with padded cells. Her full uniform was air force blue with a black trilby. It took five weeks to get to their destination, Singapore. Her duties included giving bed baths and tending those with seasickness. The ship stopped at Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus, where she was shown around Famagusta ruins; then the Suez Canal where staff were told not to wave or be seen on deck (this was in 1961). They stopped at Aden, where Kath had to take a lady shopping in Crater, quite a seedy area. Then on to Columbo where she went swimming in the sea and visited the main town. After Kuala Lumpur they arrived at Singapore on Christmas Eve. There was no one available to unload but between the staff they carried Christmas decorations to the hold, where they celebrated. Mrs Ostler also mentioned that half naked Chinese ladies painted the ship, two miles off shore! A memorable voyage.

Finally, Dennis Parker regaled us with his early memories of St John Ambulance, joining as a cadet in 1941. His training at Brooke Road included providing slings and setting collarbones and he also joined the army cadets in 1942. You were a man at 16 if you were a cadet. His first trip through the Bay of Biscay was rough and everyone except Dennis was sick; then on to a North African POW camp. Back in the UK he helped with first aid when a Doodlebug struck Grays in October 1944. He assisted at Tilbury docks with troop ships returning from D Day; there were horrific injuries, stretchers being carried via straps over the shoulders. The ships only came at night for fear of torpedoes. Dennis became the Social Secretary and organised whist drives at Park school; before that they met at Quarry Hill, also the old fire station in Orsett Road. Later on he was a first aid man at Purfleet Deep Wharf, his duties including rat catching when shrimps were used as bait. As a tally clerk he asked for a rise and when this didn’t happen he left and went to London. New premises were needed for St John Ambulance in Grays as the old hut was being pulled down. The Council provided £1000, the rest being made up with donations. It was opened in 1974 by Sir William Pike. Mr Parker has certainly had an eventful life in St John Ambulance, which dates back to 1095, having served for 75 years.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: March 18th               

Mike Tabard from the Bata Heritage Centre gave us an interesting and well illustrated talk on the History of the Bata Shoe Company. Born in 1876 Tomas Bata and his sister set up business in Zlin, now in the Czech Republic. Tomas came to England to expand his business, tapping into trade via the British Empire, his vision being ‘ to shoe the world’. He advertised nationally for land with good access and eventually bought 600 acres in East Tilbury in 1932. Construction of the light and airy leather and rubber factories began in 1935, the building of the estate in a chequerboard style starting the following year. Four bedroomed houses on corner plots were for managers and those with three bedrooms also had big gardens with flat roofs. Workers were allocated houses, with subsidised rent being deducted from their wages.

Czech management ran the factory at first and staff were sent from the UK to Zlin to learn the ropes. A conveyor system was brought in, copied from Henry Ford. The hotel was brought over from the Czech Republic in kit form and the canteen provided 600 meals a day. Bata also built a cinema, swimming pool, tennis courts and sports ground with a grandstand, where West Ham played once a year. They had their own garage and lorries and ran their own fire brigade. They even printed their own stationery, including the Bata Record. Bata also made Power sportswear, with ambassadors including Dave Ottley and Fatima Whitbread.

The nearest railway station at Low Street was a 2 mile walk away so a halt was created at East Tilbury in 1935, built on Zlin principles. After the war the half-completed estate was finished, using traditionally built houses. All the roads were named after the Royal Family or Bata family members, Princess Margaret Road being completely built in the 1960s. Shops included a supermarket and butcher. There was a Recreation Club and Espresso Bar, but no pub or church on the estate.

In the 1953 floods managing director John Tusa met the Queen when she visited the site. Tomas Bata had died in a plane crash in 1932 and his statue was unveiled at Tilbury in 1955. Founders Day was recently resurrected, when homage was paid to him and a wreath laid.

The factory became uneconomic and closed in 2005 and the estate is now a conservation area with a Heritage Centre which has grown and holds open days, with hopes for more funding. The Bata WW2 memorial has been refurbished, with further names added, members of the Heritage Centre currently researching the history of all names.

Bata are still shoemakers to the world in over 70 countries. In Nigeria shoes are known as ‘Bata’ and plimsolls are now made in India and sold by Selfridges. This was a very enjoyable talk, bringing back memories to several of our audience.


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