Heritage: Forgotten local authority was Havering’s parent

Harrow Lodge Park, where a boating lake was created in the 1950s. Picture: Ken Mears

Harrow Lodge Park, where a boating lake was created in the 1950s. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Before the London Borough of Havering, we had Hornchurch UDC, as Prof Ged Martin explains

Half a century ago, the initials "HUDC" were a familiar sight throughout the eastern half of today's Borough of Havering.

Hornchurch Urban District Council became part of Havering in 1965.

In the 19th century, Britain evolved two forms of local government below county level. Towns became boroughs, each with a mayor, aldermen and councillors, running a broad range of services.

Country areas were run by parish councils, loosely grouped under rural districts. But some parishes grew in population and importance. Although not big enough to become boroughs, they needed more powers to tackle local problems.

A half-way category, urban districts, met their needs.

Hornchurch became an urban district in 1926. One complication was that urban districts usually evolved from historic parishes, whose boundaries dated from the Middle Ages.

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The various communities in the long north-south parish of Hornchurch had little in common. Emerson Park and Harold Wood people rarely visited South Hornchurch. The Park Lane area was really an extension of Romford.

Nearby Upminster and Rainham also sought promotion from parish status, but Whitehall thought them too small to become separate urban districts. In 1934, they were added to Hornchurch UDC.

Upminster flowed into Cranham, Wennington was an adjunct of Rainham. In 1935, part of North Ockendon was added.

But the invention, at this time, of the concept of a Green Belt around London meant that expected urban growth to the east stopped dead.

In the 1930s, Elm Park's "garden city" completed the ribbon of housing north to south, but strong local identities survived.

They still do.

Hornchurch UDC was a curious mixture, half farmland, half disparate suburbs - 30 square miles in total.

Yet it was a success. Population rose from 12,000 in 1926 to 131,000 by 1961.

Hornchurch Council built 3,600 council houses, including over 1,000 in Elm Park, nearly 600 at Hacton and 400 on South Hornchurch's Dovers Estate.

There were 27 public parks and playgrounds, the largest being the 120 acres at Harrow Lodge, where a boating lake was created in the 1950s. Other major facilities were the recreation grounds at Harold Wood and Upminster, Haynes Park with its bowling green, the half-hidden Grenfell Park near Roneo Corner, Hylands Park and a children's play area at Rainham.

In 1929, the Billet Lane mansion, Langtons, was gifted to Hornchurch UDC. (There were already council offices nearby). Its fine gardens became headquarters of the council's parks service, its greenhouses producing flowers and plants for all the public areas.

In 1950, land was purchased at Upminster Bridge to build a sports stadium. The local football team, the Urchins, moved in two years later. AFC Hornchurch play there still.

The Queen's Theatre followed in 1963, originally housed in an old cinema in Station Lane. Quite a coup for a mere urban district!

Hornchurch Swimming Pool at Harrow Lodge opened in 1956. Then one of the most modern in Britain, it's functioned for sixty years.

Hornchurch wanted to move up another notch. Romford, a borough since 1937, had a mayor, with robes and a cocked hat. Hornchurch UDC had a chairman.

But it wasn't just about swank. As a borough, Hornchurch could operate a wider range of services, such as libraries which were controlled by Essex County Council.

In 1955-56, Hornchurch made a strong case for borough status. The question was put on hold while a Royal Commission looked into local government across Greater London.

Hornchurch Council called its 1960 report "a brilliantly composed document" - it endorsed Hornchurch's claims for promotion. Then came a bombshell. The government announced that the new London boroughs must have a minimum population of 200,000. There was no alternative: Hornchurch had to merge with Romford.

The Hornchurch motto was "A Good Name Endureth". Sadly, that did not prove to be true. But Hornchurch UDC deserves to be remembered for helping to lay the foundations for modern Havering.