Parish pump politics in an 1894 Hornchurch election

Firemen in High Street, Hornchurch. Picture: Brian Evans

Firemen in High Street, Hornchurch. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Brian Evans

Abuse abounded in a 19th century parish council election, as Prof Ged Martin explains

People sometimes argue that elections would be better without political parties.

If all candidates stood as Independents, voters could choose the best qualified regardless of their politics.

In 1894, Hornchurch had its first nearly-democratic election (it was male-dominated), for the 13 seats of the newly created parish council. Every elector could cast 13 votes.

The problem was that Hornchurch did not really have a common identity. The parish stretched from the Thames all the way up to Harold Wood and the modern-day A12.

Hornchurch village had been growing since the railway had arrived in 1885. There were commuters and brickworks employees at Harold Wood. South Hornchurch was inhabited by market gardeners.

A fourth population centre, around Park Lane and Brentwood Road, was really an extension of Romford.

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Fields separated them all.

You might be the Winston Churchill of Ardleigh Green, but if only Ardleigh Green voted for you, you wouldn’t get elected.

So the 17 candidates formed two rival alliances and – of course – they soon started abusing one another. Hornchurch had party politics without political principles.

One side publicised its “ticket” in a leaflet called “A Rambling Rhyming Rigmarole”. It began:

“P stands for Paxon and Payle, that is clear,

A for ‘Alf’ Norris, who to speak does not fear.

R stands for Rayment, a working man sound,

I for integrity in Baker is found.”

The other camp retaliated with “A Peculiar Pertinent Parody”, which was countered by “A Reflective Relevant Rejoinder”. Some of the doggerel was libellous.

Hornchurch parish council first met at a school in North Street on December 31, 1894.

Its first project was to refurbish the village pump in Billet Lane, to use its water supply to clean up the dusty roads – there was no tarmac in those days. Unfortunately, the well promptly ran dry.

But the council had many successes. By 1917 there were 152 gas lamps in the parish – although Harold Wood and Emerson Park preferred darkness.

In 1900, Hornchurch parish council bought a modern fire engine. (Upminster only got around to this in 1927; Rainham waited until 1933!) A fire station opened in Billet Lane in 1907.

The parish council pressed the next tier of local government, Romford Rural District, to build the area’s first council houses in 1913. Eighteen cottages were erected in Abbs Cross Lane, rented at five shillings and threepence (26p) a week.

Hornchurch parish council also provided 166 allotments, and defended public footpaths on Great Gardens Farm (Heath Park) and at Haynes Park.

The big achievement was drainage. Despite campaigns against the cost, sewers were installed in the Brentwood Road area in 1898, in Hornchurch village by 1902, and at Harold Wood in 1903.

Unfortunately, South Hornchurch lagged behind. In 1917, it still lacked piped water.

The first two council chairmen were gentlemen.

Henry Compton’s mansion, The Grange, became Harold Wood Hospital. His successor, Thomas Gardner, a Justice of the Peace, lived at Dury Falls, now a care home near Havering’s Sixth Form College.

Gardner travelled up to London every day. For years, he was only the first-class ticket holder from Hornchurch station.

But in 1912, council leadership passed to Charles Baker, who ran a grocery store in Hornchurch High Street. But it was an upmarket emporium. (He was the agent for Gilbey’s Gin).

But snobbery gave way in wartime. By 1917, Alexander Ferguson, a North Street butcher, was chairman of Hornchurch parish council.

Baker was among those first elected in 1894, thanks no doubt to his “I for Integrity” slogan. In 1916, another pioneer, “Alf” Norris (“who to speak does not fear”), presented an oaken throne for the use of future council chairman.

In 1926, Hornchurch council gained extra powers by becoming an urban district.

In 1934, Hornchurch UDC absorbed Cranham, Rainham and Upminster.

In 1965, Hornchurch merged with Romford to form the London Borough of Havering.