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The Coming of the Railways

THURSDAY 11 OCTOBER 1883 was a day of some importance and excitement for the parish of Upminster and its people. At noon that day a distinguished party left Fenchurch Street by train transferring at Rainham Station to seven four-horse coaches which brought them to Upminster. Here they were met by the "leading gentry of the neighbourhood" and villagers who gave them a "hearty welcome" and accompanied them to a hilltop just north of Upminster windmill where the ceremonial cutting of the first turf of the Barking to Pitsea extension of the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway was to be performed. After a blessing and prayer from the Rector of Chadwell, the Rev A E Clementi-Smith, Mr Arthur L Stride, Engineer and General Manager of the Company, invited Mrs Doughty Browne, the Chairman's wife, to turn the first sod, using the silver spade and "miniature barrow of walnut" presented by Mr W H Knight of the contractors Kirk and Parry. This she did "in a very graceful manner" amid "hearty cheers" from the onlookers, before the party retired to the refreshment tents and further speeches.

Upminster had been chosen as the venue as a ceremony, rather than the existing railway towns of Barking or Pitsea, as either of these places would not have held the same significance. But this occasion, although similar to many others held throughout the Victorian period, was notable as many outside observers felt that the coming of the railroads to Upminster undoubtedly would unlock the door to the development of the most eligible parish in Essex. By popular assent Upminster and the surrounding district was "capable of considerable development as a place of residence". In the speeches which followed the turf-cutting ceremony, Mr Doughty Browne, the railway company's Chairman, "expressed the hope that a large residential traffic would be developed" while the Engineer Mr Stride hoped that by "judicious regulations and by excluding the 'jerry-builder'" the district would not be ruined as had other picturesque localities. To the reporter from the Essex Times "it would be more difficult to find a more charming district, and there can be no question that it would have been selected as a site for high-class residential property had not the means of communication with the metropolis been so poor". In his view, now that the "disadvantage" of Upminster's "remoteness from the iron roads" was about to be overcome, the beauty of the area would "tempt people to live there if they could". Although the reporter did not realise it, his choice of words was to prove apt: it was to be over 20 years before people in significant numbers "could" meet their desire to live there. The fact was that land for development did not become openly available in the same way that it had elsewhere on London's blossoming suburban fringe. As a result the expectations of the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway Company's Chairman, and the return on the Company's investment, were not to be realised for several decades.

Among the dignitaries gathered on the Upminster hilltop on that Thursday afternoon in October 1883 was the striking figure of Thomas Lewis Wilson, who two years previously had further raised his already-high local profile by issuing his History and Topography of Upminster, an updated version of his earlier parish history. In addition to his antiquarian and historical interests Wilson was in all ways a man of many parts -- builder, brick and tile manufacturer, contractor, and undertaker amongst other things -- as well a loyal and faithful member of Upminster's Congregational Church. Indeed had it not been for his staunch nonconformist principles and the deep-seated and long-standing personal animosity between him and Upminster's Rector, the Rev Phillip M Holden, he would have added to his talents by taking a more prominent role in parish affairs. But as it was his future civic service as member of the inaugural Upminster Parish Council lay over ten years in the future. Despite his antiquarian leanings Wilson could in no way be viewed as one rooted in the past who wished to see no change in his home parish. In fact the opposite is true, for his business interests ensured that he would be well-placed to profit when the sought-after development of the parish eventually got under way and Wilson was one of those most vociferous in calling for Upminster to be developed.

Born in 1833, Wilson had celebrated his 50th birthday by the time that the turf-cutting ceremony was held. Eight years previously in 1875 he had taken over the family carpentry and undertaker's business in Cranham Road, now St Mary's Lane (opposite the current junior school) on the death of his father Thomas senior. In keeping with his wide-ranging interests, Wilson diversified his business, entering a partnership with Edward Hook, which was to last some 30 years, collaborating on a variety of building ventures, including for a time lessees of the brick kiln and works in Bird Lane, making bricks, tiles and pipes. Wilson's interest in, enthusiasm for, and initial information about, the local parish history was acquired from his father Thomas who clearly did not fit the usual mould of a village carpenter and builder. This interest led him to build up a collection of newspaper cuttings and other documents which offered some insight into parish life as it happened or as it was in earlier years. In 1856, when just 23 years old, Thomas junior published his first parish history Sketches of Upminster, an updated and finely-illustrated version of which was published 25 years later as History and Topography of Upminster. Wilson's contribution to recording Upminster's history is invaluable, for not only did he produce these two readable studies about the local area but from 1880 until just before his death in 1919 he also kept a series of scrapbooks holding his collection of cuttings, documents and jottings, some 14 bulky volumes in all, now preserved for reference at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford.

To the visitors and local dignitaries at the hilltop ceremony the scene "commanded a view which excited the admiration of all and the astonishment of not a few of the visitors". The party's hilltop vantage point was, at most, barely one hundred feet above sea-level yet it offered a view of much of Upminster and on a clear day the hills on the south side of the river could be seen; occasionally the Crystal Palace at Sydenham was a noticeable feature. Indeed it was similar to the "bird's-eye view" from the top of the windmill described by Wilson two years earlier:

Beneath us are two roads, crossing each other in the direction of the cardinal points, the church, the chapel, the schools, and a few dwellings in the village. The grounds of Gaines are seen in the south, with Hacton to the right and Fox Hall on the left; Upminster Hall and Manor in the north, New Place in the east and Bridge House in the west. The features of our neighbouring parishes and of the country many miles round are distinctly visible from this elevation, which commands a panorama of forty miles diameter from east to west, exhibiting that pleasing interspersion of fields, and woods, and homesteads, which is so general in our part of the country, encircled by the hills of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent, and more beautiful than our villagers imagine.

Certainly, the narrow width of the parish, no more than one mile in extent at any point and little more than half-a-mile wide at the village centre, ensured that the east-west perspective was in view. To the west the spire of St Andrew's parish church in Hornchurch and the nearby Hornchurch windmill were prominent across the Ingrebourne valley; to the east the low hills around Laindon were in sight.

From where the group stood the parish sloped gently southwards to a height of fifty feet above sea-level on the Thames flood plain. One mile south of the village centre was the large hamlet of Corbets Tey, at this time supporting three public houses, but contracting in size with two of these hostelries closing before the end of the 19th century. In Upminster's southern part, well-drained and fertile loam masked a deep layer of Thames gravel and sand, forming what Wilson termed "the turnip and barley lands of the parish".

Upminster's windmill framed a southern aspect of a near-idyllic country village set around a cross-roads, often referred to as the "Four-Wantz Corner". In this area -- the "nursery of the parish" -- the lands were friable with fertile brick-earth which was "very productive, and well adapted to the growth of every species of corn and vegetables". Here were concentrated many of the population together with the bulk of the features described by Wilson: the parish church of St Laurence; the well-attended Congregational Chapel on Upminster Hill, west of the village centre; and the National School, with its attached school-house and distinctive turret, and the British School, which stood opposite each other in Hall Lane (soon to be called Station Road), about to be unwillingly brought together under a local School Board. Northwards from the hilltop, the uplands rose gradually, reaching their "peak" of around 250 feet at Warley Street, by Upminster (Tylers) Common. Close to here at Bird Lane lived a small working community employed on the brickfields and on local farms, where the combination of soils -- a thin loam resting on the stiff London clays, with pockets of brickearth, sand and gravel -- made cultivation expensive.

The road pattern had little altered since the 18th century or earlier. Crossing from west to east were three roads: in the centre running from Hornchurch to Cranham was St Mary's Lane, although at this time the part west of the village centre was known as Upminster Hill or Hornchurch Road, while the eastern part was commonly referred to as Cranham Lane; to the north Shepherds' Hill ran from Harold Wood along the south side of the common, continuing eastwards into Great Warley parish as Warley Road; while south of the village centre Hacton Lane ran southwards, becoming Aveley Road and forming the boundary with the southerly neighbouring parishes of Aveley and Rainham. The long six-mile north-south axis was bisected along much of its length by a single route entering the parish from South Weald as Nags Head Lane in the north, crossing the common and running downhill towards the village as Hall Lane, taking its name from the manor house of Upminster Hall. From the village centre the route continued southwards as Corbets Tey Road, the main road swinging eastwards at Corbets Tey hamlet running on past Stubbers House towards North Ockendon in the east, while westwards from the hamlet Harwood Hall Lane ran to join Aveley Road. Other minor routes which reached Hall Lane and its southern extension were Bird Lane, which joined Hall Lane to Warley Road in the north, and Little Gaynes Lane, which ran west from Gaynes Cross on Corbets Tey Road past Gaynes manor house to join with Hacton Lane and Hornchurch parish.

After the hilltop opening ceremony in October 1883, no time was lost in starting work on the railway extension, working eastwards from Barking. But when the excavations reached Upminster in March 1884 there was some anxiety in the local population. Henry Joslin Esq of Gaynes hosted a "Navvies Tea" attended by 130 of the railway constructors who dined on huge sausage rolls, bread and butter, tea and fruit cake and listened to Joslin's encouragement that they carry out their work without disruption to the locality. But despite these exhortations, the works were not without occasional controversy in the area. The crushing to death by a wagon of a well-known railway navvy, "Cambridge George" Wilson in September 1884 cast a shadow on the forthcoming line, while there was bad odour four months later in January 1885 when a gang of over 100 "stalwart navvies were in full swing, apparently forgetful of the fact that it was a Sunday".

In contrast to the inaugural turf cutting in October 1883, as planned rail services connecting Upminster with the London, Tilbury & Southend Company's Fenchurch Street terminus, via Barking, were opened without ceremony just over 18 months later on 1 May 1885. Only a few enthusiasts travelled out of curiosity on the first of the daily service, starting with the 7.13am, which cost from 11d for a third class single to 3s for a first class return. The new service provided Upminster with 15 trains a day to Fenchurch Street, with stops at Hornchurch, Dagenham and Barking. Even though the station buildings were not completed when the line opened when the station at Upminster was finally finished it was seen to be "almost identical with Dagenham but on a larger scale". There was a subway "faced with white glazed bricks" together with a "large number of sidings, engine shed, coal stage and water cranes".

Three years later in February 1888 it was still "a matter of some surprise" to the Essex Weekly News that "no signs are yet apparent of those first class country villa residences for which there is so great a demand". Even if building was not yet in evidence the countryside was at least accessible to visitors. On Bank Holidays hundreds used the railway connections to visit Upminster for the day: the "picturesqueness of the village" being "sufficient attraction in itself".

Although it seems never to have become public knowledge, the Branfill family were spurred by the building of the railway to consider developing a housing estate on that part of their Upminster Hall estate which had been isolated from the main estate by the new railway line. As early as January 1886 a detailed plan of the area south of the railway and east of Station Road was prepared for Capt Benjamin Aylett Branfill by the family's architects Chancellors of Chelmsford. This envisaged a "Railway Road" running roughly parallel to the London, Tilbury & Southend railway -- similar to the route adopted for Howard Road 20 years later -- and "Champion Road", approximately along the line of the current St Lawrence Road. Another proposed road ran south from Railway Road across the end of Champion Road, joining St Mary's Lane opposite the Clockhouse/New Place -- the route later adopted for Garbutt Road. Branfill tried variations on this plan on several occasions over the next 15 years but presumably lacked the finances or failed to attract a developer interested in the plans.

But in the meantime, even if housing developments were not forthcoming, other limited signs of progress had been unavoidable. On the night of 1/2 August 1888 the River Ingrebourne overflowed its banks, with water running over the bridge and deluging the adjacent Bridge House Inn on the Hornchurch-Upminster road and cutting two long channels, five feet deep on the Hornchurch side. The need for a new bridge was recognised and in December 1891 a new and improved bridge was opened over the River Ingrebourne over twice the width of its predecessor. Wilson had a bright idea: to seal into the brickwork a "stoneware receptacle" containing copies of coins, local newspapers, photographs and other items, including a copy of Wilson's book autographed by local residents, to give future generations an impression of nineteenth century life.

In addition to the improved access to Hornchurch which the bridge provided other improvements came in May 1889 when telegraphic communications reached Upminster for the first time. By early 1890 work on the Romford to Grays railway route was under way although this was not without problems -- wagon fillers on the Upminster-Grays section came out on strike for increased pay in February 1891, although the strike collapsed after a few days with a return to work. On 1 July 1892 the rail link between Upminster and Grays, single-track with a passing loop at South Ockendon, was opened. Less than a year later on Wednesday 7 June 1893 the rail line to Romford completed the railway network in the area. There was no formal public opening and just 29 passengers in addition to the railway officials travelled on the first train, the 6.58 am to Romford. The initial service comprised eight trains each way, with three extra on Saturdays and five each way on Sundays. According to the Essex Times "the rail facilities of Upminster were now second to those of no other place within a radius of miles."

Upminster's water supply, mainly provided by the abundant local springs, had been supplemented by the South Essex Waterworks' mains which passed through on their route from Romford to Grays. Nevertheless, drainage continued to present a problem owing to the geography of the parish and it was only in 1893, after threat of prosecution, that the drainage authority, the Romford Rural sanitary authority, piped the Cranham Road (St Mary's Lane) ditch. This was only a limited improvement and during 1894 a petition with 4,400 names led to a public enquiry into the need for drainage in the parish. But it was to be five more years -- and nine years since the first complaint -- before the parish was provided with mains sewage, although this was confined to the village and Corbets Tey.

At the end of 1894 came the election of the first Parish Council by show of hands, without a formal poll. Nineteen candidates offered themselves for election to the new council of nine members which as a newspaper noted comprised "chiefly the leisured and trading classes". The successful members who formed the new body were: Mr Isaac M Gay, farmer of Great Sunnings, 103 votes; Frank Rowe, plumber (and later publican of the Huntsman and Hounds, 101; The Rev A M Carter, 94; E Brown, gentleman, 88; Thomas L Wilson, builder etc (and Upminster's historian), 87; Richard Clark, timber merchant, 82; Mr E Sydney Woodiwiss, gentleman of Hill Place, 82 votes; George West, schoolmaster, 79; and Henry Deering, boot and shoemaker, 69. Henry Joslin of Gaynes was among those who failed to gain election, registering only 56 votes.

But despite these limited signs of progress little else had changed in the village. The Essex "character", Spurgeon, scornfully considered that Upminster remained "a landmark by the wayside where we periodically pull up and take stock of the situation as we march down the streets of Time". From a different perspective, the Christian World in 1897 remarked how it was "really exceptional to come across a village that, whilst proud of its beauty and rural charm, is at the same time anxious to avoid publicity lest the speculative builder should seize on its prey". It was still "almost entirely unknown and where scarce a modern house is to be seen".

But lack of publicity was not entirely the cause, for as the Kent & Essex Globe noted in October 1899 "land has been very difficult to obtain for building purposes owing to the old inhabitants being loath to sell their freehold, and also owing to a very large portion of land north of the line being entailed and therefore only to be obtained on lease". But to some commentators at least the development of part of the Foxhall estate opposite Gaynes Park in early 1899 suggested that inroads were at last being made. The resultant building of Freshfields, bought by Mr W G Horncastle who "removed from West Ham Park" was however hardly typical of the type of development likely to make an impact on the area. This large house had stabling for two horses, a coach house and harness room, together with tennis and croquet lawns, a vinery and a three-quarter acre paddock -- hardly the type of house that speculative builders would have in mind when developing Upminster. Neither was the building from March 1905 of the grand Upminster Court mansion with its 22 acres of grounds to the west of Hall Lane for Mr Arthur E Williams, a director of Samuel Williams & Co, the shipping and coalhandler contractors, to the designs of architect Charles Reilly, owner of High House in Corbets Tey Road.

Yet Upminster's resistance to "the march of progress" was slowly crumbling. In 1901, following the death of Col Brydges Branfill, ten acres of the Mavisbank estate, which ran northwards from Upminster Hill at the east of the windmill, was acquired by James Everett Dowsing and Samuel Davis, contractors of Mawney Road, Romford with the intention of building Upminster's first major housing development. At long last Wilson reaped the reward for his years of critical opposition to those who stood in the way of development: he received the instruction to lay out the estate into building plots. Before long it was reported that "roads, sewers, kerbing and so on are being rapidly constructed", the lines of Gaynes Road, Branfill Road and Champion Roads had been laid out for development on what was described as the "very appropriate name" of the Branfill Park Estate. But over the next few years progress was slow with only limited number of houses erected, just 24 by 1909. The largest number were on the south side of Gaynes Road (currently nos 5-23) built in 1904 and 1905, with the remaining development confined to several plots in Champion and Branfill Roads.

The south side of Gaynes Road on Dowsing and Davis's "Branfill Park Estate" (on the left of the picture) had been completed 1905. The north side was later built by W.P.Griggs & Co.

According to a 1905 press report Upminster was "at last awakening to a sense of its importance as a desirable residential quarter ... and considering the exceptional facilities of the place for railway travelling in all directions, the salubrity of its air and its elevated situation, Upminster will doubtless soon be the scene of much more extended operations in the building line... The exigencies of trade and commerce within a short distance all round are so continually pressing that they cannot in all cases be resisted much longer".

And so it was to prove.

Upminster - The story of a garden suburb    By: Tony Benton with Albert Parish        ISBN 0 9529359 0 2    

Tony Benton and Joan Parish 1996

(Published on the internet with kind permission from Tony Benton)


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