Heritage: Slums, a highwayman and a ghost in Hornchurch

Prezzo, High Street, Hornchurch, which used to be The Kings Head. Picture: John Hercock

Prezzo, High Street, Hornchurch, which used to be The Kings Head. Picture: John Hercock - Credit: Archant

Just 130 years ago, Hornchurch was a quaint town with gabled houses, says Prof Ged Martin

In 1883, a journalist called Hornchurch “still one of the quaintest towns one could wish to see, its gabled houses placed anywhere and everywhere the owners pleased”.

Nowadays, only two ancient buildings survive in downtown Hornchurch – The Bull (now the Fatling) and the King’s Head (Prezzo).

The White Hart, at the junction with Suttons (later Station) Lane, occupied an island site large enough to include a pub garden. It was rebuilt in the 1930s, obliterating the garden, and is now divided into restaurants.

Many of the older buildings had to be replaced. For “quaint cottages”, read “primitive slums”.

The Cricketers’ Inn, for instance, rebuilt in 1938, had dangerously low ceilings. Streets had to be widened for traffic.

At the junction with North Street, the Britannia beerhouse had a handsome stone chimney, leading some to assume it was the site of Hornchurch’s lost medieval priory.

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The pub closed about 1907. Thirty years later the tailors, Burton, demolished the buildings.

The last tenants, Mr and Mrs Aldridge, worried about the ghost.

An Australian newspaper reported that they’d often seen a phantom monk, carrying a candle in his brown habit.

One night, Mr Aldridge asked the apparition to make some sign of his presence. Instantly, the buttons snapped off his clothes. I hope Burton didn’t know the story.

Built in the severe Art Deco style, Burton’s 1939 building is the most handsome block in central Hornchurch.

It is now Starbucks. Perhaps the ghostly monk drops in for a cappuccino.

The Britannia was said to have been linked by secret passages to Emerson Park, two miles north, and eastward to St Andrew’s church. Nobody explained why the tunnels were needed.

Workmen demolishing the building broke into a bricked-up cellar passage, but were driven back by the stench. It was probably an old privy.

Opposite, close to Thomas Cook’s, a timber archway with an overhanging upper storey allowed carts to enter a yard behind.

Around 1800, local tearaway Jimmy Wood was shot trying to rob a mail coach near Gallows Corner. Jimmy managed to crawl back to Hornchurch, where his mother hid him a barn behind the arch.

Jimmy recovered, but later “came to an untimely end”.

Facing Billet Lane, Appleton’s Almhouses were founded in 1586. Opposite, on the site of Sainsbury’s, were Pennant’s Almshouses, dating from 1597.

In the 20th century, their sites were sold for commercial development, and the charities merged into the sheltered housing of Skeales Court, in Elm Park’s Sunrise Avenue.

On the west side of Billet Lane, at the High Street end, a pond provided drinking water until the mid-19th century. Maybe that’s why the shops here are set back from the road.

A Whit Monday fair was held in the High Street until 1878, when it was abolished as a nuisance. The merry-go-round was always located at Billet Lane.

From the Middle Ages, Hornchurch High Street was also called Pell Street, its name a variant of “pelt”. By 1911, very few local people recalled the name.

Hornchurch had an important tanning industry. There were smelly tanyards behind many High Street properties.

The last Hornchurch tannery ceased operations around 1840. It was located near North Street’s Fentiman Way car park. Its sheds were demolished before 1900.

Hornchurch had other industries.

The Wedlake family operated rival foundries making farm equipment. One stretched from the High Street beside The Bull to the site of the Queen’s Theatre in Billet Lane. It moved to Barking in 1902.

The other, in what is now Wedlake Close off North Street, continued until the 1940s.

Now forgotten, the Old Hornchurch Brewery was a local rival to Romford’s more famous enterprise. It functioned from 1789 to 1925, when it was bought by a chain, which closed it down.

The buildings were removed in 1930-1.

It stood opposite the King’s Head.