Heritage: Crusty but generous, two benefactors named Ford

Sheep breeder Billy Ford would have been a regular sight at Romford Market. Picture: Brian Evans

Sheep breeder Billy Ford would have been a regular sight at Romford Market. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Brian Evans

Prof Ged Martin tells the story of two men who helped shape Havering and beyond

Say “Ford” and most people think of the Dagenham car factory. But long before the Ford Motor Company arrived in 1930, the name was honoured locally.

Dagenham sheep breeder William Ford farmed at Eastbrook End, near Rush Green. He would have been a familiar figure in Romford Market.

A bachelor, “Billy” Ford was mean and bad-tempered. Wearing labourer’s clothes, he sat at the back of Dagenham’s parish church on Sundays, thus dodging the collection plate that passed among the well-dressed parishioners near the altar.

He’d quarrelled with the local gentry, the Fanshawe family, and hated the vicar, the Reverend John Fanshawe.

Billy drove a “tumble cart”, a vehicle with a single wooden chair nailed on as a driving seat. No point in asking him for a lift!

But when Billy Ford died in 1825, he left a massive £10,000 (about one million in modern cash) to found a school. Children would be taught free, and even given a uniform.

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A school started by Vicar Fanshawe had failed to attract pupils. Billy’s school would teach Church of England principles, but nobody called Fanshawe was ever to become a trustee!

Billy also banned the new-fangled classroom-assistant method of education called “pupil teaching”.

Trainees (usually teenagers) drilled groups of children mechanically, thus saving money by enabling one qualified teacher to oversee an enormous class.

Ford’s Endowed School got off to a shaky start. In solidarity with the Fanshawes, posh Dagenham people boycotted the scheme. The Bishop of London refused to act as a trustee.

Havering residents saved the project. Octavius Mashiter of Priests, in Rise Park, and his brother Thomas, of Hornchurch Lodge, joined Digby Neave, squire of Dagnam Park, to act as trustees.

Their mansions are remembered in Romford’s Priests Avenue, Lodge Court in Hornchurch and Harold Hill’s Dagnam Park Drive.

All three also owned land in Dagenham, but didn’t care about offending the Fanshawes.

A permanent school building was erected in 1841. From 1854 until 1935, there was enough money for a second Ford’s Endowed School in Whalebone Lane.

The original school is now William Ford Primary. The address is Ford Road, Dagenham – named not (as you might think) after Henry the car manufacturer, but to honour Billy the stern, miserly farmer!

James Ford was fifty when he became Rector of Navestock in 1830, after 24 years as an Oxford don. Like his Dagenham namesake, the Reverend Ford was a gruff man.

One Sunday morning, his wife, Laetitia, arrived at church late – she was a butterfly collector who’d been chasing a specimen.

Denouncing her from the pulpit, the Rector asked if she would also be late for the Day of Judgement.

The couple had no children.

Like Billy, James was careful with money. A widower when he died in 1850, he left instructions for a simple funeral. The money saved paid for blankets for the poor. He also left £2,000 to Oxford University to establish a professorship in English history.

James Ford knew that £2,000 wasn’t enough to endow a professorship. He instructed Oxford University to invest the money until the fund would yield £100 annual interest.

But by the time that happened, in 1894, academic salaries had risen.

Oxford decided to use the money to fund a lecture series on English history.

Every year since 1896, a distinguished scholar has been invited to speak. Many important books have had their origins in the Ford Lectures, although nowadays probably few dons know much about their benefactor.

The series is now called “Ford’s Lectures on British History”, with contributions about Scotland and Ireland.

It’s a strange coincidence that two unrelated local personalities, sharing the same surname, should have been so generous to the cause of education.

There’s a memorial to Billy Ford in Dagenham parish church, and one to James in his church at Navestock.