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Havering Council’s past: Pipe smoke-filled chambers and people-smuggling

Pat Ridley in the early 80s. Picture: Havering Councils Library Service  Local Studies Pat Ridley in the early 80s. Picture: Havering Councils Library Service  Local Studies

Saturday, May 17, 2014
12:00 PM

Pipe smoke-filled chambers, drink brought into meetings and even a bit of people-smuggling – this was not the Wild West of America, but the early years of Havering as a London borough.

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Wilf MillsWilf Mills

The Recorder spoke to Cllr Denis O’Flynn, who has served more years in the chamber than any current member, and Wilf Mills, a former Labour council leader who was a representative in the borough for 42 years.

Labour’s Cllr O’Flynn spoke fondly of past members, both of his own party and others.

Johnny Johnson, a Conservative who was first elected in the Sixties, was the “self-proclaimed clown prince of the council chamber”, said Cllr O’Flynn.

“He was a hell of a nice bloke and when he got up and made a speech, he waved his arms about.When you are 6ft 4in, you can do a lot of waving with your arms.”

Mr Johnson, who died not many years ago, once came up with a scheme to entice tourists to shop in Romford after hearing that councillors in Southend had decided to fly in people from France to shop in their borough.

“He had the idea of hijacking their plan,” said Cllr O’Flynn. “He turned up with coaches at Southend Airport and when they got off the airport, he took them to Romford. It was audacious – the cheek. It was hilarious.”

But this was not the only cheeky behaviour by councillors.

Mr Mills, 85, of Hazel Crescent, Collier Row, recalled the days before smoking in the chamber was banned in the early Seventies.

“People used to come down with pipes and cigars. The place was covered in smoke,” he said.

Cllr O’Flynn said one former Labour councillor who first took a seat in the Sixties, Pat Ridley, had a particular fondness for his pipe.

“He had a terrible pipe he was always smoking in the council chamber. People used to hate the stench,” said Cllr O’Flynn.

“He would argue it was his freedom of choice, but I would argue it was my freedom of choice not to breathe his stinking pipe.”

Cllr Ridley also tried to bring in alcoholic refreshments to enjoy with his pipe.

“One time he took a couple of bottles of Guinness in and started drinking. The mayor told him off. That was quite right,” said Mr Mills.

“He argued that you could have tea and coffee in there. He couldn’t see the difference. Really, it was quite funny.”

Reflecting on councillors past, Cllr O’Flynn said: “Me and Wilf are the sole survivors of that generation.”

Historian Ged Martin, 68, took the Recorder further back to 1853 when the “new-fangled” idea of drainage was discussed.

The Local Board of Health had been in office for two years and was Romford’s first elected body.

Its duty was to clean up the rapidly expanding town.

“More people meant more sewage,” said the Harold Wood-born scholar.

Romford was short of sewers and narrow alleys off Market Place were packed with people living among overflowing drains.

“Did the town cheer on board members as they spearheaded the clean-up?” asked Mr Martin. “Well, no.”

A campaign was fought by North Street miller Edward Collier promising “to save public money and not squander it away on new-fangled, extravagant notions”, as he called the proposed sewers.

Collier was victorious and an angry observer said people would have to enjoy the “privilege” of having “overflowing cesspools at their doors”, said Mr Martin.

Considering this tale, the town has certainly cleaned up its act since the earlier days of democracy here.

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