Nostalgia: Socks, docks, jam and prayer - How the war was won

King Harold

King Harold - Credit: Archant

In 1914, about 1,100 people lived at Harold Wood. A railway development launched in 1868, it was a detached suburb posing as a village.

Zeppelins wrecked havoc over Britain during the First World War

Zeppelins wrecked havoc over Britain during the First World War - Credit: Archant

Across the tracks from the Church Road brickworks, a few residential streets with fake Saxon names, like Ethelburga Road, recalled an imaginary link with King Harold.

Prof Ged Martin

Prof Ged Martin - Credit: Archant

Local bigwig Edward Bryant lived in Harold Wood Hall, a Victorian mansion - still standing in Widecombe Close, Harold Hill. He had built an Entertainment Hall in Gubbins Lane “to combat the dullness of village life.”

Bryant’s gesture was probably a move to rescue his family image after the 1888 strike against pay and conditions by matchgirls at the Bryant and May factory.

After the War, it became the War Memorial Hall. Bryant Avenue, Gallows Corner, remembers him.


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Outwardly, Harold Wood was barely touched by the War. Its hospital, opened in 1909 by West Ham Council, was for children, not soldiers.

A searchlight unit in Hall Lane, near Tylers Common, swept the night skies looking for Zeppelins. But over 200 men joined the Forces.

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Headmaster Thomas Rose, a Shakespeare enthusiast, was too old for Army service.

He coped with large classes at the Gubbins Lane primary school (now the neighbourhood centre) helped by two women teachers for 145 children.

Children dug up their playground to grow potatoes. Harold Wood was still surrounded by hedgerows, not housing, and pupils collected a massive 1,200 pounds of blackberries to make jam.

New opportunities opened for local women. Some did farm work, others delivered letters. Many took clerical jobs at Warley Barracks.

Harold Wood ladies formed a War Work Guild, raising money for charities and knitting for victory – 333 pairs of socks helped stop the Kaiser!

Prior to 1914, there was a great gulf between the Church of England and the Nonconformist groups. Harold Wood broke the barriers, with joint Anglican-Methodist services praying for victory from January 1916.

Some believed that “the marvellous holding of the great German offensive” of March 1918 was the result of such prayers. Local churches will draw inspiration from Harold Wood’s leadership in ecumenical worship.

One local man was vital. Gubbins Lane resident Joseph Broodbank, chairman of the Port of London Authority, was put in charge of all Britain’s ports.

The U-Boat campaign threatened to starve us into surrender. With many dockers away fighting, it was vital to keep food and munitions flowing into Britain. Had Broodbank failed, the War might have been lost. In 1917, he was knighted.

Twenty-six Harold Wood men lost their lives. One, 33 year-old Private Frederick Matthews, left a permanent mark. His 1916 death, from heart failure as a stretcher-bearer in France, was mourned by his brothers, James and George H. Matthews, who operated a flour mill near the Station (now Holdbrook Way).

Devout Anglicans, they helped pay for a new church, St Peter’s in Gubbins Lane, as Frederick’s memorial. Consecrated in 1939, it replaced an 1871 temporary building in Church Road.

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