Heritage column: How Ice Age river shaped our 19th century farming
PUBLISHED: 10:00 30 July 2017
Although it’s barely five miles from Hornchurch village to the borough boundary at Noak Hill, the northern half of 19th century Havering contained both a wheat belt and cattle country.
The contrast is explained by the Thames terraces, former valley floors shaped by the river in past Ice Ages.
The Thames terraces are like shelves. The lowest, at Rainham and Elm Park, only rises a few feet above sea level.
The middle shelf stretches from Romford (20 metres or 55 feet above sea level) across to Upminster and Cranham, which are both slightly lower.
This central terrace isn’t completely flat: St Andrew’s Church in Hornchurch stands on a hill 100 feet (40 metres) above sea level.
Parts of the top terrace are much higher, and have great views across the Thames. Havering-atte-Bower is 344 feet (105 metres) above sea level.
The terraces have different soil types. This explains why the central belt was arable land, but the mountainous north was more suitable for growing cattle feed, such as hay.
Wheat had always formed part of Havering’s farming economy. However, in medieval times, local farmers struggled with the stiff clay soil. Yields were poor.
Agricultural techniques improved in the 18th century. During the wars against France from 1793 to 1815, government policy encouraged national self-sufficiency. Wheat was grown right across Havering.
But by the later 19th century, Rainham, Corbets Tey and South Hornchurch had switched to vegetable growing for London consumers.
Havering’s wheat belt stretched from Cranham to Romford.
“Here may be seen some of the finest grain crops in the kingdom,” wrote a patriotic Hornchurch resident in 1917.
“The sight of the golden corn in August, when the fields are ripe for the harvest, is a thing of beauty, and worth coming many miles to see.”
Upminster Windmill survives to remind us of those waving fields of grain.
Stiff London Clay on the higher ground further north also challenged farmers, especially since Ice Age glaciers had crowned the hilltops with patches of gravel.
Pasture predominated. Collier Row to Harold Hill was cattle country.
At Havering-atte-Bower, entrepreneur Collinson Hall pioneered commercial dairying from the 1840s, using the new railway to whisk milk churns from Romford station to London.
His son extended operations to South Weald. By the 1880s, the business produced 6,000 gallons daily.
In 1886, a Butts Green (Emerson Park) farmer doubled as a straw dealer.
A Hardley (now Ardleigh) Green man operated as a hay carter.
There was a hay and straw binder working at Noak Hill. These occupations aren’t found further south.
Grassland was also horsey country. Hardley Green had a full-time “colt breaker”, who tamed young horses – a horse whisperer in Ardleigh Green?
Conditions for farm labourers were tough across northern Havering.
Branches of the agricultural labourers’ union were formed in 1874-5 at Collier Row and Hare Street (Main Road, Gidea Park). At Romford Common, a scattered settlement north of Gallows Corner, the union branch pledged to “fight the battle for liberty” – but the movement was too weak to last.
There was some overlap in farming methods. Around 1815, a farmer at Chase Cross, Collier Row, experimented with root crops for winter cattle feed.
Hops, usually associated with Kent, were grown at Havering village in the 1820s, presumably for Romford Brewery.
Collinson Hall tried boosting wheat yields with artificial fertiliser. He also invented a steam plough to tackle tough soils.
Grain crops were probably driven off Havering’s marginal upland soils from the 1850s by competition from cheap American (and, later, Canadian) imports.
Collier Row’s windmill, in Lawns Avenue, was demolished by 1871.
The ancient mill on Shepherds Hill, Harold Wood was taken down in 1882.
Local gardeners, take heart. Even our rural forebears had to work hard to coax anything out of Havering’s cussed soils.