Heritage: Horse-drawn wagons came through Romford at night

Harrison's Nursery wagon leaves north Romford to take plants to Covent Garden Market. Picture: Bygon

Harrison's Nursery wagon leaves north Romford to take plants to Covent Garden Market. Picture: Bygone Romford by Brian Evans - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin describes the heavily loaded horse-drawn wagons that travelled through the night carrying produce to London’s markets

Shortly before the 1914 War, a little girl called Winifred lived in a house in Main Road, Romford, just up the hill from the Market.

She'd go to bed in a silent world, for there were few cars and no traffic hum in those days. Around midnight she'd be woken by the distant "clop-clopping" of horses drawing heavy wagons from the direction of Gallows Corner.

There were other noises, like the clanking of badly fitted wheel hubs, and the rattling of buckets hanging from the axles, for use in case of fire.

Winifred half-dozed as she listened to the wagons passing - traffic flowed through the Market until 1969 - and the noise gradually became fainter as they headed for London.

The wagons were carrying vegetables to early morning London markets at Spitalfields and Covent Garden. Some were loaded twelve feet high with cabbages and turnips, others carried more specialised produce like radishes or rhubarb. The largest, drawn by four fine horses, seemed as big as houses.

In Hornchurch, heavy wagons were reported in 1917 to rumble through the village every night, "laden with seasonal field produce", on their way to London.

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Wagons were brightly painted, in orange, yellow and cream - like trucks in Africa and India today. With few streetlamps in those days, gaudy colours and individual designs helped identify them even by faint starlight.

Slow journeys meant early starts and long hours. Frank Clarke began driving a wagon from Corbets Tey to Covent Garden in 1902. In summer, he worked up to 120 hours a week, usually in continuous three-day periods.

After a day of farm work, the wagon would leave about 5.30pm on Monday, heading through Romford or Rainham and returning early the following afternoon. Drivers were expected to load another consignment right away, often from fields several miles away.

"So we were out of our beds from 5am on Monday till 9pm on Wednesday." The process was repeated from dawn on Thursday until late on Saturday.

Saturdays were the only nights the wagons didn't operate, because the London markets were closed on Sundays. But there was no rest day for the wagon men: their horses needed to be scrubbed down.

Wages were good, but the lack of sleep was punishing. Tom Stokes worked at Elm Farm, which gave its name to Elm Park. He left for market each day in the early hours, and promptly dozed off. His horse was trained to stop at a café in Manor Park where he woke up, had breakfast and then continued to Spitalfields.

Market gardeners were at the mercy of any sudden glut of vegetables. A Chadwell Heath smallholder once dumped a cartload of marrows in a ditch after the wholesale price fell to sixpence (2 and a half pence) for sixty.

Most drivers nodded off on the return journey, and were sometimes nabbed for "driving asleep" by officious policemen. Many kept small terriers, which were trained to yap when strangers approached.

Some wagons had a two-man team. It was common to see one of them stretched out on top of the piled-high vegetables taking a nap.

Generally, sleeping wagon drivers were no safety hazard - the faithful horses knew their way home!

However, on one occasion a team bolted at Mountnessing on the Chelmsford road, dragging their swaying wagon three miles to Brentwood, where it collided with a lamppost in the High Street.

Many wagons returning from London reached Romford around 9am. A cafe, the Globe Dining Rooms in the Market Place, specialised in serving drivers with revitalising breakfasts.

Wagons were lined up on the cobbles near St Edward's church. Supplied with fresh nosebags, the horses tossed their heads, jingling their decorative brasses in the morning air.

In the 1920s, motorised lorries replaced the horse-drawn wagons. They were much quicker, and nobody then cared about the damage they might do to the environment.