Fire and highwaymen: The history of Hornchurch's old archway

Hornchurch High Street

A view of the old archway in Hornchurch High Street around 1930 - Credit: From the collection of Andy Grant

Historian Andy Grant takes a look at the enigmatic history of the old archway in Hornchurch and its connections to a "notorious" highwayman.

A century ago, most residents would have referred to the centre of Hornchurch as “the village” and if asked what historic feature epitomises Hornchurch, most would probably answer the church or perhaps one of the old pubs.

However, the old archway in the High Street was one of the most well-known and oft-photographed features, complete with an enigmatic past.

Many of the buildings that lined the High Street retained their medieval charm until the redevelopment of the town in more recent times.

Older residents often referred to the archway and its adjacent building as the Manor House, which although very old, is incorrect.

Tales also abound of highwaymen frequenting the building; some would even claim it was a haunt of the infamous Dick Turpin.

According to the owner of an old barn, accessed through the archway, “one of the neighbouring houses was built in the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), and the barn itself was popularly supposed to have been the temporary home of Dick Turpin, whose mother was said to have lived in a nearby room”.

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There is nothing that substantiates any of these claims; the quaint old buildings were most likely built in the 16th century.

The archway was originally flanked on either side by private houses, numbered 138 and 134 High Street.

Hornchurch High Street 1930

A map of Hornchurch High Street - Credit: Andy Grant

In the late 1920s, number 134 had been converted into Joseph Green’s hairdressing shop, but by August 1932 this was acquired for redevelopment and a new branch of Barclay's Bank was subsequently built on the site.

An alleyway ran alongside the bank, where the archway had been, leading to the barn.

The owner of the barn at the rear of the yard was Mrs A Gower of Prior’s Farm and she had let it out to John Tucker, a local carrier, removals contractor and coal merchant.

During the afternoon of July 23, 1934, a fire in a shed at the rear of Green’s stores spread to the old barn.

A horse belonging to Mr Tucker was rescued, together with a coal cart, but much of his other equipment was lost in the blaze.

By the following day, only the skeletal timber framework remained, standing among the still smouldering ruins.

The damage was assessed as over £500.

It was contended that in the past it had been a tithe barn, where the neighbouring farmers brought their corn, and later it was turned into a tannery.

The basis for the stories about Dick Turpin is explained by Charles Thomas Perfect in his book “Ye Olde Village of Hornchurch”. It was related to him by TW Wedlake, as passed down from his father, Robert Wedlake, of the Fairkytes Foundry.

It reads: “A notorious character, who went under the name of Jimmy Wood, and was said to be the illegitimate son of the wife of a butcher living in Hornchurch, held up the Royal Mail Coach one dark night on the High Road between Hare Street and Brentwood.

"He got plugged with a bullet, but was not mortally injured, for he managed to find his way back to an old barn at the bottom of the yard under the old archway in High Street, and there he hid under the straw while his mother nursed him back to health, and by that means was able to elude the vigilance of the preventative men, who had a warrant for his arrest.

"After he recovered from his wound, he got clean away, but it is said that he was ultimately captured, and came to an untimely end.”

It is possible that ‘Jimmy Wood’, the highwayman, might have been the same James Wood, who together with James Cowdery, assaulted James Chilcot and using pistols, robbed him of a silver watch, gilt chain and one guinea on the highway in the City Road.

They were sentenced to death at the Old Bailey on October 26, 1786.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

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