Heritage: Why Passingford Bridge, Stapleford Abbotts, changed from its original spelling

The River Roding at Passingford Bridge, Stapleford Abbotts. Photo: Nigel Cox/Wikicommons

The River Roding at Passingford Bridge, Stapleford Abbotts. Photo: Nigel Cox/Wikicommons - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin looks at a mystery community on Havering’s northern border – and finds a bridge with an embarrassing history

Havering people don’t know much about Stapleford Abbotts, that mystery area somewhere north of Collier Row.

There are golf courses and an aerodrome, but no real village.

If you drive north along the B175 from Havering-atte-Bower, you pass through a ribbon development of modern housing – pleasant, but hardly picturesque.

It’s easy to miss the old parish church, screened by trees and tucked away down an incredibly narrow lane to the east.

It was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who disliked everything Victorian, unkindly called it “hideous”.

This was unfair. The brick tower, erected in 1815, is solidly reassuring. Inside there are handsome Minton tiles on the chancel floor, and decorative tiles behind the altar by the famous artist Pugin.

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For a nowhere place, Stapleford Abbotts has a long history.

In the year 869, King Edmund of East Anglia was murdered by invading Danes, heathens who mocked his pious faith. They tied him to a tree and used him for archery target practice.

The slaughtered monarch soon became a saint, and the site of his martyrdom called Bury St Edmunds.

Around the year 1010, the marauding Danes returned. The monks who guarded his shrine removed St Edmund’s coffin to the safety of London. On its way home in 1013, the holy relic stopped off somewhere in Essex.

An unnamed local Saxon landowner was miraculously cured from a serious illness, and gratefully gifted his estate to the Abbey – Stapleford Abbotts.

That’s what the monks claimed, anyway.

A thousand years later, nobody is sure whether there should be one T or two in the name.

In the Middle Ages, the Abbot of Bury was an important personage, who often visited London on business. The Abbot maintained a house here, to break his journeys from Suffolk.

In 1208, Stapleford Abbotts hosted an international meeting.

King John was staying at Havering Palace when his nephew, Otto IV of Germany, arrived to discuss an alliance against France.

Havering Palace was full of royal hangers-on, so Otto was boarded out down the road.

At the Abbot’s lodging, Otto agreed to become England’s ally – in return for English cash.

The deal was costly to the English taxpayer, but – eventually – Otto invaded France in 1214 leading a combined Anglo-German force.

Outnumbering the French army two-to-one, he should have won the battle of Bouvines easily. Unfortunately, Otto was routed.

The next year, 1215, King John’s disgusted barons forced him to issue Magna Carta, the charter of English (and British) liberties.

That summit conference at Stapleford Abbotts had mighty consequences.

Across the Roding lies Stapleford Tawney. Obviously Stapleford was the original name for the river crossing. “Stapol” is an Anglo-Saxon word for a marker post.

But, at least since 1224, it’s been called Passingford Bridge.

Except, well, this is embarrassing, it wasn’t always exactly called Passingford Bridge. I know of over forty documents in which Passingford Bridge was spelt not with a letter A, but with a letter I.

Why Essex Man used this crude name, nobody knows. The Roding flows very slowly here.

An unknown official confronted the problem in 1818. Times and values were changing. The Victorian era, with its narrow propriety, was just around the corner.

Five years earlier, Jane Austen had published Pride and Prejudice. You couldn’t imagine Miss Austen’s well-mannered young ladies mentioning such a scandalous place name.

Reporting on the bridge, the unknown bureaucrat firmly dropped its lavatorial moniker, calling it Passingford Bridge. Passingford Bridge, with an A, it’s been ever since.

The roundabout here – there’s an hourly bus from Romford – is a dull spot, but Albyns Lane, a narrow road to the east, leads about a mile to a site of special scientific interest, Curtismill Green, twenty acres of common land, plus a network of footpaths in private woodland.

There are detailed notes and maps on the www.brentwood.gov.uk website.