Search

Heritage column: How Ice Age river shaped our 19th century farming

PUBLISHED: 10:00 30 July 2017

The wheat belt. Picture: Ralph Blackburn

The wheat belt. Picture: Ralph Blackburn

Archant

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.

Related articles

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Romford Recorder visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Romford Recorder staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Romford Recorder account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest Romford News Stories

Yesterday, 17:00

Hospice staff and nurses made it their mission to make sure a poorly 89-year-old woman could go to her granddaughter’s wedding on time.

Yesterday, 16:29

West Ham icon Sir Trevor Brooking caused a stir at Romford’s Cancer Research charity shop, South Street.

Yesterday, 15:00

A church which has been standing for more than a thousand years, with plans to partly demolish the building so it can be modernised with new facilities, is campaigning to raise £650,000.

Yesterday, 13:00

The belting voices of a choir with a twist gave it their all in a singing contest but fell at the final hurdle.

Yesterday, 12:54

From supporting iconic acts like The Who and Tom Jones to violent clashes between Mods and Rockers, the life of Colin Stoddart was never boring.

Yesterday, 10:28

With Halloween just around the corner, our team of reporters opted to return to Havering’s one and only escape room and step into a live action horror movie.

Yesterday, 07:00

A Recorder reporter donned a hard hat and high-vis jacket on Friday when he got a guided tour of the works currently underway at Hornchurch’s new Lidl store.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Recorder readers this week.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Most read news

Show Job Lists

News from your area

Competitions

Having a brand new kitchen is something that lots of people want but can only dream of. Sadly keeping up to date and making our living spaces as nice as they can be is a costly and incredibly stressful business. Even a fresh coat of paint makes all the difference but isn’t easy or quick.

Who wouldn’t love the chance to go on a shopping spree. Imagine being able to walk into a shop and choose whatever your heart desires without having to worry about how much it costs.

Digital Edition

cover

Enjoy the
Romford Recorder
e-edition today

Subscribe

Education and Training

cover

Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now