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South Ockendon a delight for Havering historians

PUBLISHED: 15:00 03 September 2017

South Ockendon. Picture: Paul Bennett

South Ockendon. Picture: Paul Bennett

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In the latest of a series about day trip ideas for people interested in history, Prof Ged Martin looks at South Ockendon

Just over the border in Thurrock, South Ockendon is worth a visit – but you needn’t pencil in a full day!

South Ockendon has two unusual features – a church with a round tower, and a village green.

It’s surprising that Essex has only six round towers, since the county lacked the hard building stone needed for sharp corners.

South Ockendon’s tower was built in the 13th century, mainly using flint. It was originally topped by a wooden spire, but this was destroyed by lightning around 1652, and never replaced.

The tower was rebuilt after partially collapsing in 1744. The Victorians inserted fake Norman windows in 1866.

A more genuine feature is the Norman doorway, characteristically round-headed and carved with chevrons. It was originally built around 1180, and was moved to its present location during a rebuilding in the 15th century.

Inside, there’s a fine monument, and charming inscription, to Sir Richard Saltonstall, Lord Mayor of London in 1597. His wife was from North Ockendon. They had sixteen children. Sir Richard added a seventeenth by a girlfriend.

Around 1630, his nephew emigrated to Massachusetts, and founded one of the smartest families in Boston, about as close as the USA gets to an aristocracy.

In 1606, the village court was held under an elm tree on the green.

In Charles II’s time, South Ockendon was terrorised by a couple of hoodlums called John Foakes and Thomas Levitt.

In 1664, South Ockendon demanded action against them as “Deare Stealers, Sheepe-stealers, Geese-stealers, cheates, idle and Lazei fellows, seldom or never doing any work and given to all Cunning and Craft[y] Villainie whatsoever.”

Their criminal skills included forging the signatures of the parish constables to official documents, so they could dodge prosecution.

A local satirist in 1790 hinted that “South Knockthemdown” was still a lively place.

The Royal Oak pub, a quaint feature of the village green, dates back before 1500. Next to it stands a single-storey “Gothick” cottage, so-called from its pointy church-like windows.

In 1795, the king of Spain gave George III a valuable flock of merino sheep. The animals fell sick at Windsor, but some were bought by a South Ockendon farmer, Thomas Sturgeon.

He nursed them, bred them and exported them to New South Wales, where they became the basis of Australia’s wool industry.

In the 19th century, villagers quarrelled with the rector, the Reverend Henry Eve. Out of a population of 1200, only fifteen attended Anglican services. The Methodist chapel, near the station, bears the date 1847.

The railway arrived in 1892, but did not immediately shake up the village. The red-brick station building still has a rural “feel”.

During the First World War, captured German soldiers were held at a prison camp in South Ockendon.

In 1932, the site was re-developed as “The Colony” to house children with learning difficulties in a farm setting.

As health services improved, children with disabilities lived longer. The Colony became South Ockendon Hospital, providing long-term care for vulnerable adults.

As so often, patient numbers increased faster than resources. Local families were proud to have been employed at the hospital, but in 1974 a critical report into conditions forced a national rethink of the way Britain dealt with mental health.

South Ockendon Hospital closed in 1994. The site is now housing.

Unlike its nearby twin village of North Ockendon, part of Havering but still very rural, South Ockendon is now a detached part of London.

It’s about forty minutes by train from Romford, with a change at Upminster. By bus, it’s around half an hour from Hornchurch on route 370, and about the same from Harold Wood on the less frequent route 347.

If you don’t want to spend the whole day in South Ockendon, both buses go on to the Lakeside Shopping Centre!

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