Heritage: The feudal backwater of Havering-atte-Bower

The class system was on display every Sunday at St Johns church. Picture: Ken Mears

The class system was on display every Sunday at St Johns church. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Even in the 20th century, Havering village was dominated by gentry and parsons, says Prof Ged Martin.

In 1901, 407 people lived in the parish of Havering-atte-Bower, but they supported three shops and three pubs!

The village was dominated by a few Big Houses, such the Bower House, the Hall and Pyrgo Park. The Round House was supposedly built by a successful tea merchant in the shape of a tea caddy. It was the home of the Reverend J H Pemberton, a famous rose grower, who doubled as the unpaid curate at the church of the Ascension in still-rural Collier Row.

In the early 1960s, Phyllis Harvey recalled that everybody worked for the gentry, and they knew their place.

The class system was on display every Sunday at St John's church. "Pews to the front of the nave were exclusively for the gentlefolk." These pews had cushions, even curtains, and some even had a little gate to keep out interlopers.

From the back of the church, Phyllis watched breathlessly as the gentry took their places. "I felt quite certain God looked down in a special way upon these very special people."

That, of course, was what she was supposed to think.

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The pecking order kicked in again as the congregation left the church after service. "The village children were expected to bob and curtsey as the elegant ladies and grand gentlemen drove off in their highly polished carriages."

And we're talking about 1920, not the Middle Ages!

One imposing but over-dressed lady, large and purple-faced, was attended by an obsequious footman, who carefully tucked a fur cloak around his mistress.

A local horror story claimed that the cloak was made from the skins of cats, shot on her orders by the gamekeeper "whenever one of the unfortunate animals dared to stray over the precincts of her vast domain".

Villagers whose pets were slaughtered for trespassing dared not complain. (I suspect this tale was exaggerated.)

On the plus side, there was a reciprocal element to the forelock-tugging. Ordinary Havering people could turn to their wealthy neighbours if they fell sick or became too old to work.

Treats for children were paid for by the Big Houses. Phyllis affectionately recalled the annual Sunday School treat, given on the last Saturday of the year.

Here youngsters encountered Havering's other power structure, the clergy.

Oddly enough, the job of vicar at St John's was not well paid, because the parish had only been split off from Romford in recent times. Clergy tended to come and go.

The vicar, the Reverend Edward Symonds, had previously worked in South Africa, which suggested that he lacked influential backers. He'd been appointed by Mrs Pemberton-Barnes at the Hall. The children's party was held in the parish room, built in 1903 and paid for by Mrs Pemberton-Barnes.

The Reverend Symons was assisted by a curate. They seemed to have a competition to recite the longer grace. "Thank-yous" were offered to all the bountiful well-wishers, and the hungry children had to bow or curtsey to each one.

There was no electricity in Havering, and parish room was lit by paraffin, which flavoured the sandwiches and cakes.

The parish room was draughty. Some youngsters grabbed places near the stove, and soon resembled "small boiled lobsters". Those relegated to the frozen periphery could hardly grasp their mugs of tea in their numbed fingers.

The party closed with the local baker handing out sugar buns as the children scrambled into their overcoats. Some put their buns carefully on the floor while donning their coats, only to have them trodden on in the crush. Others tried to hold their confectionery while shoving their arms into their sleeves, with equally disastrous results.

Feudal Havering collapsed very suddenly when Collier Row's suburban frontier crept towards the village in the 1930s. The gentry fled to quieter pastures. Mansions like Pyrgo and the Hall were demolished, others like the Bower House and Havering Grange were adapted for institutional use.