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Some of what we know, and how to discover more

by Tony Fox

Unquestionably, Upminster is an ancient place. The stages in how this community came about were gradual transformations: the story is evolutionary not revolutionary. Agriculture and London have always been crucially important.

Occasionally, ancient objects come out of the gravel pits. These include stone age tools, roman wine jugs and various other things. How they got there we are not quite sure: the Thames used to be higher and wider, and these may simply represent ancient flotsam !

However, people did live permanently in Upminster before the Roman invasions. These people (called "ancient Britons", "Celts", or "Belgae" because of similar pottery in Flanders) were farmers. In southern Upminster, we can still see the landscape that they created. A glance at the Ordnance Survey map shows how the field and road boundaries in the south, and alongside the Ingrebourne, are mostly rectilinear. In the north it is quite different: the map is very irregular, making cobweb shapes, and other chaotic patterns. This rectilinear landscape is very ancient. The land round here, if left uncultivated, rapidly reverts to woodland, and these field boundaries, in the south, are probably unchanged since the Bronze Age. The archaeologists have just completed a major dig at Hunts Hill Farm (a bit south of Harwood Hall), and although their report is awaited, it is clear that people lived in Upminster, from about 500 BC. St. Mary's Lane may be a very old road, dating from these times of the earliest agriculture in Upminster.

The Romans took over this established farmland. We don't know whether Upminster's Ancient Briton peasants were kicked out, or whether they simply paid their tributes to the Empire instead of their former chieftains. The rectilinear landscape (stretching to Thurrock and the Dengie peninsula) is interesting because there seem to be no Roman villas in it, whereas villas are quite thick on the ground in the chaotic landscape parts of Essex. It is possible that villas were permitted as Roman entreprenurs cleared more woodland in the north, creating their chaotic field boundaries, but that the old rectilinear fields were kept as the Imperial estate. We do know that corn was exported from Essex to the continent by the Romans: also, their coins, minted in Colchester, emphasize the importance of agriculture in Essex with designs containing ears of corn. Southern Upminster was a small part of the vast breadbasket for Gaul and Brittania.

The withdrawal of Roman troops did not mean the collapse of Roman life in Essex. At Upminster the fields were kept under cultivation. Although the written history of Upminster in the Anglo-saxon period is almost non-existent (the nearest charter concerns North Ockendon), this is the era in which the parish, and St.Laurence's church, were established, and something like the mediaeval manors first took their shape.

Old maps show the parish boundaries. Upminster has the Ingrebourne as its western border, all the way from Harold Wood in the north (Cocklebourne Bridge, where Squirrel's Heath Road crosses the river, is in Upminster), to Rainham in the south. It is a relatively long parish and its other borders are concave: as if the parishes around it (Cranham, North Ockendon, etc), have been cut out of a larger, original Upminster. Notice also where St.Laurence's is situated: this is not the typical Essex pattern of a parish church right next door to a manor house, but rather a church on the village green, from which the roads radiated (now obliterated by the crossroads). It is likely that St.Laurence's is an ancient saxon mother church, perhaps established by the first Essex bishop, St. Cedd (buried at Lastingham). Meanwhile, this was the era when the ancient precursors of the manors of Gaynes and Upminster Hall were being organized. The former was again on the old rectilinear, and the latter was based above the fertile, west-facing slopes of the left bank of the Ingrebourne.

In terms of landholding, there was a revolution, of course, in 1066. But the average Upminster peasant probably cared little whether his boss was a Saxon Thegn or one of those funny-speaking Frenchmen ! The mud still needed ploughing.

The Conqueror commanded Domesday to be written. The manors of Upminster are clearly recorded in 1086, and their owners twenty years earlier are also named. For this part of Essex, they were reasonably valuable properties, and one of the manors (Upminster Hall) belonged to Waltham Abbey.

The early middle ages saw the transfer of lands into private ownership, and the demise of the feudal system. But Upminster was still an agricultural community, and the system of lesser manorial rights (which had been worked out in great detail) survived long after the Black Death of 1348. There was certainly now a larger number of landowners, who owned smaller properties, at Upminster, and an argument can be made that this was why the expansion of the 17th-19th centuries took the form that it did. The was the era in which Great Tomkyns was built, as an outholding of Upminster Hall; our lack of building stone meant that this fine, but rather standard, 14th century house was made of timber. Probably there were many other such houses in the area (at least half of one appears on a map of Cranham in 1596, and survived until about 1601), but these were generally replaced during the Tudor and Elizabethan periods: Upminster's first period of urban renewal !

Meanwhile, Roman London had, of course, become a prosperous city, with a large middle class made up of merchants and skilled craftsmen, and an even greater hunger for the agricultural products of south Essex. The merchants were interested in developing country estates for their families, as a resort from their townhouses. Upminster, just 18 miles from town, was an ideal place for this. This is how Upminster got so many of its fine, large, 17th - 19th century houses (see places). This is also why the Branfills, of merchant ship fame, ended up in Upminster, a decidedly non-maritime place ! Yet still, the basic economy in the area was agriculture: the London merchants saw their Upminster houses as agricultural investments, in an era when there was not much else to invest one's money in. These people also generated road traffic: that's why we got "The Bell", which was an innovative investment, by one of the Lords of the Manor (and whose demolition must be viewed as one of Upminster's tragedies).

Great change came with the railway. In the 1880s, London was fast expanding eastwards, and there were many more middle class people looking for a nearby escape from the filth and dangers of the city. The railway brought Upminster within 30 minutes travelling time from London, behind a sturdy tank engine. The first estate developments were the response, and many of these houses were built on fields sold from the agricultural estates: notice how the larger Victorian and Edwardian houses (again called villas) may be found north of the railway along Hall Lane, Daynecourt Gardens, and so on, whereas the small ones are to the south, e.g. Howard Road. These people needed shops, and this is how we acquired our fine Edwardian shopping terrace (of 1908) just south of the station on Station Road (look up to see the red bricks and the date of the building). This time, our lack of stone created houses of bricks, which were made, again from land taken from the fields, up at Bird Lane (there was even a small railway line to the works, whose cutting may be found in the back gardens of houses in Clairmont Road).

Today, Upminster is a dormitory suburb (London is as important now as before, if for different reasons), but there is still about 2/3 of the parish that is under cultivation. We tend to forget the ancient agricultural reasons for why Upminster got started, but, in fact, the fertile surface is still being used for the same purpose after 20 centuries.

So much for the landscape and community shape. What about people ? There were so many, but I shall pick just one. Apart from a few professional soccer players, the most famous people to live in Upminster came with the 17th to 19th century, pre-railway expansion.

Dr. Derham's papers on the speed of sound (in the Proceedings of the Royal Society), describe how he used paired pocket watches, a telescope up the tower of St. Laurence's, and friends around the area (even as far away as Rainham) who could be trusted to fire a gun at a precise moment. You can still see the doors in the south side of the spire that he put in for this purpose. Just one of Upminster's famous characters.

Anybody can make a truly original contribution to our local history. This includes children. There is an enormous amount about the people who lived in Upminster that we don't know. Here are a few ideas for things in Upminster history that really need looking into:

  • Every school has its own history, and these deserve to be written.
  • St.Laurence's tower has been written up by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as 13th century, but is there reason to reconsider ?
  • The history of Law and Order and Social Welfare at Upminster were tackled in the 1960s, but there is much at the Essex Record Office that could be used to update these fascinating parts of historical peoples' lives, back then so different from today.
  • The political history of Upminster is virtually untouched (old newspapers ?).
  • There must be much to uncover in the history of Upminster's surprisingly diverse non-conformist churches.
  • In the north of the parish there is what people call "Upminster Common"; it is actually "Tyler's Common", and there was another (the real Upminster Common) to its west: what happened to that ?
  • Why is Bird Lane called so ? (the answer may lie across the boundary in Cranham).
  • Why is it called Cocklebourne Bridge ?
  • Is it really a Tithe Barn ?
  • How many pubs were there in Corbet's Tey, and why so many more than in central Upminster ?
  • Given the average distances between mediaeval houses in Essex, where should we be looking for the remains of those as yet unrecorded ?
  • Why do the spires of Hornchurch, Upminster and Cranham lie in a straight line ?
  • Can any bricks from the local works be found in Upminster's existing buildings ?

One EMERGENCY PROJECT: we need to learn the oral history of Upminster. Try to find some old people with long personal knowledge of Upminster, and who are prepared to talk into a tape recorder.

In this small space, much has to be left out. Where can you find out more about the history of Upminster ? The story of Domesday Upminster has been told very well in its own book. Collections of old Upminster photographs are also now published. The Victoria County History covers Upminster in Volume 7 (and 8 a bit), but is not infallible. Go to our booksellers, and ask for authors like Brian Evans, John Drury, Tony Benton, and the late (and sadly missed) Ted Ballard. Our local history journals are called "Havering HistoryReview", and the "Romford Record"; these include good articles about Upminster, for example Kenneth Newton's studies of Upminster's railways and station. "Hitler versus Havering" is an excellent book with much about Upminster. There is also a website on the History of Cranham, which contains, here and there, information about old Upminster.

Do visit the Tithe Barn and Windmill. Most people never get the chance to visit such rare types of building. Look into joining the Hornchurch and District Historical Society whilst you're there (see societies).


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