Havering’s awkward birth: Ugly sisters and a Romford takeover recalled as borough turns 50

PUBLISHED: 16:28 02 January 2015 | UPDATED: 17:04 02 January 2015

2015 marks 50 years since the London Borough of Havering was dragged kicking and screaming into existence – but how has it grown up?

Havering Council as we know it was birthed on April 1, 1965, by the unhappy marriage of Romford and Hornchurch, then separate political entities with two distinct identities.

In the north there was the Municipal Borough of Romford, in the south the Urban District of Hornchurch – a fact still preserved today by an old white boundary marker at Roneo Corner.

For both, merging as part of a Greater London project was not a first choice.

Romford felt it was a self-contained community whose identity was tied to being the first town in Essex, not the last town in London, says Havering historian Professor Ged Martin.

“Many people had moved to Hornchurch and Romford from inner London.

“They had ‘made it’ out to Essex and did not want to feel dragged back again.”

Initial plans, remembers Ged, would have seen Greater London comprising 52 boroughs each of around 100,000 people, meaning Hornchurch – with its 130,000 population spanning Harold Wood to Rainham – could have been left roughly as it was.

But when Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government got hold of the proposals they opted to carve up the capital in 32 larger boroughs. Faced with the inevitable expansion, it wasn’t Romford that Hornchurch initially looked to. With its lucrative rate-paying factories, a merger with Dagenham was favoured.

Ged, himself a former Harold Wood resident, recalls one Hornchurch official’s comments on the matter: “If you’ve got to choose between two ugly sisters, pick the one with the bigger dowry.”

In the end, there was no dowry, with Hornchurch taking an additional dent to its pride in the form of the loss of its seat of power.

Romford Town Hall became Havering Town Hall. Langtons House – used as Hornchurch’s council offices from 1929 – turned into a register office.

“It meant that it looked like a Romford take-over,” says Ged. “And that did cause some noses to be put out of joint in Hornchurch.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that the district, with its now-defunct motto “A good name endureth”, should have exhibited such displeasure.

But not everyone was so negative about the future. Come April 1965 – 18 months after Havering was written into law – the Recorder struck a more positive tone with its souvenir edition.

In it, chief reporter Ron Kentish wrote: “In years to come when the towns of Romford and Hornchurch are vague memories revived in history text books, we can tell our grandchildren proudly: ‘We were there when Havering was born.’”

Today you might be able to find pride in the borough, but there’s nothing faded about the identities of Hornchurch and Romford.

What’s more, with its 50 years on the clock, Havering may be running out of residents who remember its birth – but there are still plenty refusing to accept its implications. Few issues split the community more than the question of whether they live in London or Essex.

In the early days of Havering’s political life, an unstable Labour administration gained the borough a bit of reputation, local history buff Ged recalls, and the phrase “wavering in Havering” entered into use.

Half an century on much has changed, but with the borough still struggling to cement a coherent single identity, the sentiment is no less resonant.

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