Heritage: The Collier Row bus driver who tried to keep Essex speech alive

Driver J London drove the 174 bus route. Picture: Google

Driver J London drove the 174 bus route. Picture: Google - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin looks at James London from Collier Row, who drove a 174 bus and wrote poetry in the Essex dialect

London Transport called him Driver J. London. Although christened James, he called himself Jack – causing mild confusion with the famous American author, Jack London.

Born on the marshes near Maldon in 1899, Driver London only discovered when he started school that his parents’ Essex speech wasn’t “proper” English.

Aged 15, he joined the Essex Regiment and served throughout the First World War.

But he’s a mystery man. He can’t be traced in the census, and there’s no record under that name in military archives.

He was probably underage when he enlisted. Boys joining the Army often used fake identities so they couldn’t be traced.

Clues suggest that he emigrated to Australia in the 1920s, possibly helping to build the bush city of Canberra, which became the national capital in 1927.

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But by 1933, he was driving a London bus. He lived in Lowshoe Lane, Collier Row, worked out of North Street garage and drove a 174 between Dagenham and Harold Hill. He also wrote verse in the old Essex speech, to keep it alive. On paper, his poems look like scripts for The Two Ronnies.

But you can hear Jack London reading his poems in a recording via the Essex Record Office Seax website (you’ll need to register).

His voice sounds normal; it’s his language that’s weird.

Here’s one about an Essex custom called “take top orf ‘ee”. When you bought your pint, you handed it to a friend to take the first sip. Unhygienic, and open to abuse! Try reading it aloud.

Thet oi loikes a drop o’ beer, ut’s plain f’r onny fule ter see,

An’ when in the Feathers Three Josh says “take top orf ‘ee!”

Oi lifts ‘is mug, tips a wink; an’ oi takes a deep drarft,

F’r ‘e doos same to moine yinna! cuz he finks oime bit daft.

I’ll translate:

Any fool can see that I enjoy a drop of beer. At the Three Feathers, Joshua invited me to take the first sip of his pint. I lifted his mug, winked and took a big swig. For he does the same to mine, you know! Because he thinks I’m stupid.

Somehow, Jack London became interested in the remote Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha. The community of 250 people spoke a dialect that sounded very Essex.

After visiting the island in 1957, the Duke of Edinburgh commented that he couldn’t understand them.

Driver London helpfully sent Prince Philip a copy of his own poem, Ware Woild Woilets Grew (Where Wild Violets Grew), and received a polite letter of thanks from the Palace.

He wanted to make more gramophone records of Essex poetry for the people of Tristan. The British Council, our national cultural organisation, wished him success but refused him cash.

He asked the BBC to commission him to read his verse on the Third Programme, its intellectual network (now Radio Three). He planned to use the fee to make recordings.

But the rotten snobs who ran the BBC wouldn’t give air time to a Romford bus driver.

Jack London wrote other poems, like “Strow Up-stret” about a kindly Essex custom. When somebody was seriously ill, neighbours would spread straw on the road outside their home, to reduce the noise from the clip-clopping of passing traffic – especially if they lived on a busy main road, “Up-stret”.

There was also the sad tale of Rat-Tayled Tinker, a skinny old horse, retired to plough the fields of an Essex farm after a lifetime on the cobbled streets of London. The experiment failed:

Cuz ‘e ‘ouldn’t walk a furrer, ‘ould that owd bag o’ bones!

Thet ‘ud warked orl es loife up the Smoke on ther ston’s.

The old bag of bones had worked all his life on the hard paved streets of the Smoke (London), and he couldn’t plough a straight furrow.

Next time you board a 174, think of Driver Jack London.

Prof Ged Martin has posted a revised edition of two recent Romford Recorder Heritage columns on his website. “Lockdown in Havering: exploring old maps and photographs online” offers tips for getting online and seeing what your neighbourhood looked like in bygone days. See the martinalia section of www.gedmartin,net: