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Heritage: A saucy song at Harold Wood

PUBLISHED: 15:00 29 December 2019

The King Harold Hotel in Harold Wood in 1910. Picture: Chris Saltmarsh and Norma Jennings

The King Harold Hotel in Harold Wood in 1910. Picture: Chris Saltmarsh and Norma Jennings

Chris Saltmarsh and Norma Jennings

Prof Ged Martin shows how a song in poor taste forced the question: What sort of community was Harold Wood?

Everybody agreed the dirty ditty should never have been performed in polite company. But the saucy song raised a basic question: what kind of place was Harold Wood in 1907?

Harold Wood began in 1868 with plans to build upmarket houses around the newly opened station. But the train service was poor and progress was slow. The ambitious King Harold hotel failed to lure fashionable visitors. Harold Wood remained small. Just 53 people voted at a council by-election in 1907.

Its few smart residents lived alongside farm workers and railwaymen, plus draymen employed at the Gubbins Lane flour mill opened in 1906 by the brothers James and George Matthews. Holdbrook Way occupies the site.

A prefabricated church had been erected in 1871, giving its name to Church Road. Officially subordinate to Hornchurch, its clergyman was called the curate-in-charge.

But when the Reverend Joseph Toole Stott arrived in 1907, he promoted himself to Vicar.

A Northerner in his early forties, Stott was determined to make his mark. He quickly announced plans to raise £5,000 for a permanent church. The 1871 building wasn't elegant, but it seated 300 people. A new church was Stott's vanity project.

In the era before cinema and TV, people made their own entertainment. Harold Wood's working men's club met for singsongs and humorous recitations. In 1907, there were 42 members. Some were middle-class well-wishers, who paid their sub just to help the funds.

The men's club met in the parish room, adjoining the iron church. Stott wanted to control it.

One summer evening, a visitor to the club contributed a song, "The good, old-fashioned pub." The words can't be found on the Internet (believe me, I've looked) but they were "objectionable".

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The salacious singer "was politely told that he had mistaken the nature of the club", and banned from warbling again.

But the Reverend Stott sent an ultimatum. He must be elected club president, and his two churchwardens added to the committee, with absolute control over future programmes.

The churchwardens were Charles Payton, a stockbroker who lived in Avenue Road, and Robert Warren, a businessman in the London Docks.

At issue was the future of Harold Wood. Was it going to be like Cranham and Havering-atte-Bower, rural backwaters where Anglican clergy ruled the roost, or like busy Romford and Hornchurch, where clerics were respected but not obeyed?

The club committee denounced Stott's demands as "a gross insult" to their intelligence. As working men, they refused to defer to their social superiors.

The small community supported them. The club called a public protest meeting at the Gubbins Lane school, now a neighbourhood centre. Permission to use Council property showed that public opinion was on their side.

In another sign of solidarity, twenty new members joined. Local people supported an appeal to raise £300 for the club to build its own premises: over £50 was soon collected.

Meanwhile, businessman and club supporter Otto Seefels, offered the club the use of an empty house. A naturalised British subject from Germany, Seefels manufactured dressing cases, luxury goods for ladies. He'd named his Harold Wood home Baden House after his birthplace. Maybe he'd invested in local property - but couldn't find a tenant!

In effect, Harold Wood had massively rejected the Reverend Joseph Toole Stott. In March 1908, he resigned. A local newspaper reported that he was moving to Cheltenham, "where one of the largest men's services in England is held"- spiteful "spin" from the rejected reverend. By 1911, he was living in south London.

In 1919, the men's club took part in planning Harold Wood's War Memorial Hall, which still stands in Gubbins Lane. Their unspent clubhouse funds probably went into that project.

St Peter's church, the permanent building Stott had dreamed about, was built in 1939 by the Matthews brothers. That, too, was a war memorial, honouring their brother who had died serving in France.


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