Heritage: Romford shopkeeper who helped build Trinity Methodist Church
PUBLISHED: 15:00 27 August 2017
Businessman Frederick Westgate’s 50 years in Romford made him a rich man, as Prof Ged Martin explains
Frederick Westgate was born in 1839. Son of a Norfolk farmer, he was one of thousands who left the countryside for the growing cities.
The 1861 census records Frederick, aged 22, living near the Elephant and Castle, in a hostel packed with drapers’ assistants. It was probably run by a London store, where the young man was apprenticed.
After marriage to Sarah Maddams in 1866, Frederick launched out for himself. In 1871, the Westgates lived off Romford’s Victoria Road. The first three of their 11 children had already arrived. Only seven would survive childhood.
In 1871, the family could afford to employ a 13-year-old girl as a servant. Somehow, they also squeezed in five shop assistants as lodgers into their Victorian house in Kings Road.
By 1881, the growing family occupied an imposing building at the South Street end of Romford Market. Now a leading Romford shopkeeper, Frederick employed nine staff. There were also 12 young lodgers, 11 of them drapers and one a dressmaker.
Like many shopkeepers, Westgate was a Wesleyan Methodist. Methodists were hard-working and trustworthy teetotallers who formed a handy business network.
Over the years, he “held every office which it was possible to hold” in Romford’s Wesleyan congregation, including 13 years running the Sunday School.
In 1887, Frederick Westgate was a driving force behind building Mawney Road Methodist church. Nowadays it’s awkwardly squeezed alongside Romford’s ring road. His daughter Kate laid a foundation stone on behalf of the family.
Westgate’s prime market location was a mixed blessing. In 1888 he complained about the way it was run. Market day was Wednesday, but the organisers started setting up stalls early on Tuesday, and often did not clear them until Thursday.
Stalls were crammed close to shops, forcing Westgate to rent a space himself to keep his entrance clear.
Itinerant fairground operators were another nuisance. They would set up roundabouts on Thursdays, and churn out raucous music until Saturday.
On Sunday mornings, the fairground people washed themselves in public, “nearly naked”.
Soon after Westgate made a career change, becoming a house agent in Eastern Road. His main business was renting properties (few people purchased in those days) in the fast-growing suburb.
Westgate was also elected to the Local Board of Health, distant forerunner of Havering Council. He clashed with the board’s medical officer, Dr Alfred Wright. Westgate thought Dr Wright was officious and over-zealous.
In October 1893, Romford was hit by an outbreak of scarlet fever, a throat infection especially dangerous to children.
The epidemic was part of wider local public health crisis. Diphtheria was rampant in Hornchurch.
In the first 10 months of 1893, Rainham had 100 cases of diphtheria and scarlet fever. Even the dreaded disease smallpox had appeared.
Dr Wright advised headteachers to close Romford’s schools.
Westgate was furious. Wright was their servant, not their master.
Dr Wright had been “disrespectful” in not consulting the board. Newspaper reports of a town “stricken with a plague of fever” were “most detrimental to the letting of houses”.
Of course, Westgate was wrong. Scarlet fever did not hang around waiting for Romford’s civic leaders to hold meetings. Covering up the crisis would have been irresponsible.
Relocated in Romford’s rising commercial heart, South Street, Westgate’s business flourished. He moved to a large house in Mawney Road (near Palm Road). Sarah died there in 1909.
Soon after, Frederick’s health broke down. A partner now ran the business. His daughter Annie, now a widow, returned to nurse him.
An honoured citizen, Frederick Westgate died in May 1917, during the First World War. One of his sons attended the funeral in uniform.
He left almost £10,000 – worth about £350,000 today. But property prices have risen faster than general inflation, and Frederick had also set up his children with their own houses. Fifty years in Romford had made him a rich man.