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Nostalgia: Printmaker Christopher is haunted by ‘Billy Barlow’, the Colchester Road tramp

The Colchester Road tramp was known as 'Billy Barlow'. Print: Christopher Rolfe The Colchester Road tramp was known as 'Billy Barlow'. Print: Christopher Rolfe

Sunday, April 6, 2014
12:00 PM

Tramps were a common sight, when I was a boy in Harold Park just after the War.

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Former Havering resident Christopher Rolfe remembers tragic 'Billy Barlow'Former Havering resident Christopher Rolfe remembers tragic 'Billy Barlow'

Euphemistically known as “gentlemen of the road”, some were probably ex-servicemen, too traumatised by their wartime experiences to settle back into “civvy street”.

In the early 1950s, a Colchester Road tramp was a familiar sight. Known as Billy Barlow, he made his home in a hut on the former Maylands aerodrome.

Established in 1928, Maylands aerodrome was on the north side of the A12 near Woodstock Avenue, next to today’s golf course.

The first permanent airfield in Essex, in the early 1930s it was home to Hillman’s Airways, the brainchild of a well-known Gidea Park coach operator, Edward Hillman.

'Billy Barlow's' body had been nibbled by rats, according to some. Print: Christopher Rolfe'Billy Barlow's' body had been nibbled by rats, according to some. Print: Christopher Rolfe

Years later, Harold Park residents still recalled the aerodrome’s heyday, when famous aviator Amy Johnson had been a Hillman’s pilot. The airfield was abandoned after the hangar was mysteriously destroyed in 1940.

Was Billy Barlow the tramp’s real name?

In fact, Billy Barlow is a familiar name in ballads and traditional songs, here in Britain and further afield in Australia and America.

It seems the original Billy Barlow was an oddball, well known in London’s East End, who died in Whitechapel Workhouse.

“Billy Barlow” became a nickname for any unusual character.

As a child, I didn’t query the name nor did I wonder how my parents knew it. Somehow, its friendly, alliterative quality made the tramp seem less enigmatic.

On our frequent walks to South Weald, we children would peer through the hedgerow obscuring the former airfield to see if he was about. Usually, the only sign of life was smoke spiralling up from the chimney of his hut, a building that survived from the abandoned airfield.

Sometimes, Billy Barlow could be seen walking along the Colchester Road carrying two pails.

Hiding in the bushes opposite the long-demolished lodge at the entrance to Petersfield Avenue, we watched his shabby figure trudge past.

People said he walked into Romford, a round trip of more than eight miles, to buy live eels.

Again, I didn’t find this odd. You could certainly buy live eels from the fish shop in the Quadrant Arcade.

I was always fascinated to watch them slithering about on their tray. Anyway, why else would he be carrying pails?

If he bought eels, he must have had money. Did he receive a pension or some sort of remittance?

Perhaps, like other tramps, he did seasonal work, picking peas and strawberries.

There was a PMS dairy in Colchester Road between David Drive and Geoffrey Avenue, the depot for delivering milk to your doorstep. Billy Barlow used to buy milk from one its roundsmen.

It was the roundsman who went to investigate because he hadn’t seen the tramp for several days. He found Billy Barlow’s body in his hut. He’d been dead a while. It was rumoured that rats had nibbled his corpse.

Some time later, they demolished the hut where Billy Barlow had lived his solitary existence, where he’d cooked and enjoyed his eels.

Brambles quickly spread across the site.

Every autumn, they were laden with luscious blackberries.

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