Heritage: Vicar was vociferous in his condemnation of early 20th century Romford Market

Romford Market. Picture: John Hercock

Romford Market. Picture: John Hercock - Credit: Archant

The end of World War One brought challenges for Romford’s twice-weekly market, explains Prof Ged Martin

Two fine paintings show us what Romford Market was like a century ago. Both are beautifully illustrated on the ArtUK website.

Louis Burleigh Bruhl, an English artist of Austrian descent, captured Market Day in 1891, the town so crammed with people you can hardly see the cattle staring at passers-by.

Edith Mary Garner's colourful painting of 1917 shows sheep crowded in a pen, plus a few puzzled cows. In both pictures, traffic is sparse and horse-drawn.

Edith Garner included a cyclist, plus a long-skirted nursemaid pushing a pram along the middle of the road.

But the end of the First World War brought changes to Romford Market, and the vicar of St Edward's, the Reverend G.M. Bell, didn't like them.

Wartime food prices had soared. It was decided to increase the number of stalls, in the hope that competition would cut the cost of living. Extra jobs would also be provided for ex-servicemen.

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But the result, said the Reverend Bell, was disastrous.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, large crowds filled "the lower part of the market" - right outside his church - "only a tenth of whom have come on any real market business".

People gathered around half a dozen "cheap jacks", who hawked rubbishy toys and trinkets.

These undesirable hucksters "compete with one another in the loudness of their vociferations". (The Reverend Bell had studied at Oxford, which is why he talked like that.)

Their "intolerable din" could be heard in Junction Road, 500 yards away (and, of course, ruled out prayerful contemplation inside St Edward's).

These "plausible gentlemen" swindled the public and made life difficult for "legitimate stall-holders".

They also took trade from shopkeepers who paid rent and rates for their premises.

Not only was Romford Market being turned into "a cheap edition of Petticoat Lane", but money was flowing out of the town, into the pockets of "these men and women who come by train or car and take away, and spend away, what they have taken".

Mr Bell's solution was to make it "very expensive for those who come from outside the area of the old Liberty of Havering for which the market was originally intended".

Since the Liberty had been abolished in 1892, this might have been legally and politically difficult.

He also favoured "absolutely prohibiting the calling out of wares in stentorian voices", which was Oxford-speak for "keep the noise down".

Open-air political rallies annoyed the vicar too.

Romford Council banned public meetings "except at one particular spot" and "only if they are satisfied with the speakers' good faith" - a condition that suggests censorship of radical opinions.

"Yet every Wednesday and Saturday they allow six public meetings to crowd up the road and the space near the church without any such guarantee, and with a babel (uproar) of competitive noise."

This new, democratic Britain was hard for a traditional clergyman to take.

The function of Romford Market was obviously changing. But the Reverend Bell also pointed to a "big matter" - the larger question of whether the market should be there at all.

Was it right to continue "the cattle market with all the movement of beasts which it implies, on an area closely bordering a main road which has become as full of fast moving traffic as the present London-Chelmsford road"?

The vicar feared the combination too often caused cruelty to the animals.

The traffic problem was eased by the opening of Eastern Avenue (A12) in the mid-1920s.

But Romford Market continued to change.

As housing spread across the fields of Romford and Hornchurch, there were fewer farmers to deliver cabbages and cows every Wednesday. The cattle market closed in 1958.

With the opening of Romford's ring road in 1969, through traffic came to an end.

After 770 years, most people want Romford Market to continue. But its identity and function are still debated locally, sometimes even with loudness of vociferation.