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By historian Prof Ged Martin
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
There’s a legend about nightingales at Havering-atte-Bower.
The story goes that the saintly king Edward the Confessor used to visit the royal palace there, and being a holy man he liked to pray.
But nightingales disturbed his devotions singing with a racket that he prayed to have them banned from the park.
According to Essex historian Philip Morant in 1768, “credulous neighbouring swains” (he meant Havering people) insisted that nightingales never again sang around the palace, although plenty chirped away locally.
Unfortunately, Domesday Book indicates that Earl Harold of Wessex (later King Harold) had taken over the royal estates in Essex well before 1066, and so it’s unlikely that the Confessor spent much time at Havering.
He may have been the heroic loser at the Battle of Hastings, but Harold was not such a nice guy.
Miller Christy’s Birds of Essex (1890) says nightingales were common summer visitors, especially to Epping Forest.
But there is evidence that their numbers had already been hit by bird-catchers, who trapped the beautiful songsters and stuffed them as ornaments. Horrible! In 1858, some moron at Leytonstone caught 38 of them.
But they were still around Havering during the First World War.
EC Montagu who was a journalist on the Manchester Guardian. In 1914 he was 47, but he was determined to fight. He dyed his grey hair (which turned yellow) and joined an exotic outfit called the Artists Rifles, a special unit made up of writers and poets.
In March 1915 he found himself billeted in a hut at Hare Hall Camp.
Hare Hall later became Gidea Park’s Royal Liberty School.
Training was tough. One day in May 1915, the men started digging trenches at 5.30am. By the time they men got back to camp, they were exhausted.
Montagu wrote to a friend:
“Last night a nightingale started executing masterpieces in a tree over this hut, just after ‘Lights Out’, and we all lay still to listen to it; but none of us could remember, this morning, that he had heard more than a minute or two of the singing.”
Roll on three years to Sunday 19 May 1918. The Germans launched a major raid on London with about 30 aeroplanes at around 11 o’clock at night. For two and a half hours searchlights probed the sky and from anti-aircraft guns opened up in thunderous bombardment. Hornchurch residents recalled an odd accompaniment “provided by a nightingale trilling its beautiful song in the Millfield, its sweet notes being distinctly heard between the gunfire.”
The Millfield was the old quarry just south of St Andrew’s Church. Perhaps birdie was annoyed at being woken up.
I have been told that there was a nightingale in Castellan Avenue, Gidea Park, in the 1940s.
But when my Havering sixth form class read “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats in 1962, nobody had ever heard one. I’ve never read any Keats since.
Perhaps the nightingales retreated as Havering became built up.
Maybe pollution drove them out. There’s a skit on a romantic song, “A nightingale coughed in Berkeley Square.”
But, despite the saintly monarch, nightingales once flourished in Havering.
Could they be reintroduced?