Heritage: Romford workhouse demo almost turned into a revolution
PUBLISHED: 10:00 25 March 2017
In 1922 protesters seized Romford's workhouse in anger at growing poverty. Prof Ged Martin tells us more
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution began with an attack on the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Five years later, over 2,000 demonstrators seized Romford’s workhouse (later Oldchurch Hospital). Was history repeating itself?
Britain’s primitive welfare system, the Poor Law, was run by local Boards of Guardians. Society’s casualties were dumped in workhouses.
Active people temporarily (so it was hoped) out of work were tided over with unemployment pay. Each district set its own rates. 1922 was a bad year for jobs.
The Romford Poor Law area stretched from Barking to Upminster. Barking unemployed complained that they faced London living costs, but weren’t given the London-area dole.
On October 17, 1922, 2,000 of them (all male, it seems) marched on Oldchurch, to lobby the Guardians at their weekly meeting.
It was a good-humoured demonstration, with banners and bagpipes, headed by two Metropolitan Police officers on horseback.
At Rush Green, the Essex Constabulary took over – just three bobbies.
Would the Board hear the men’s case? A majority of Guardians took a hard line. The rules said deputations must give seven days’ notice. The Barking men had no appointment.
A minority sympathised with the marchers. Edwin Lambert, a Labour Party activist from Park Lane, Hornchurch, pleaded to give them a hearing.
The demonstrators had walked a long way – at least allow them some bread and cheese.
The Board refused, ordered the Workhouse gates to be closed, and adjourned for their own luncheon.
The Guardians resumed their meeting in the afternoon. At some point, the gates were opened so a vehicle could leave. The angry men swarmed into the compound, helping themselves to loaves from the bakery. Some streamed through the hospital wing, stealing towels and blankets.
Their spokesmen gate-crashed the meeting but, refusing to be intimidated, the majority of the Guardians ordered them to leave.
Reinforced by 600 Romford unemployed, the demonstrators now barricaded the Guardians and refused to let them leave.
Two Guardians tried to drive through the throng. In 1922, only wealthy people owned cars. Both vehicles were badly damaged.
At 8.15pm, the Chief Constable of Essex arrived.
He advised that it would take three hours to assemble police reinforcements.
Better to calm the situation by letting the men state their case. By a narrow majority, the Board agreed.
Surprisingly, they found that the unemployed had a strong case. Nine shillings (45p) a week was hardly adequate to live on. The Guardians promised action.
Outside, the demonstrators cheered the news. But victory did not inspire them to proclaim the Soviet Republic of Romford. Rather, they marched home to Barking.
Yes, they marched. Most of them had served their country as soldiers in the 1914-18 War. Now they asked their country to support them.
Romford’s Guardians kept their word, trying to steer through government regulations and their own lack of cash to increase unemployment pay.
They also asked local councils to create jobs.
If only they’d agreed that morning to welcome the deputation.
The hero of this forgotten episode was Edwin Lambert.
When he died in 1931, one tribute spoke of “a heart of love in a man of great common-sense”.
A Hornchurch school named after him closed in 2009.
Romford’s Bastille had fallen, but there was no revolution.