How a London merchant secured his Romford legacy for over a century

John Laurie

A portrait of John Laurie, from the London Illustrated News 1858 - Credit: The collection of Andy Grant

Historian Andy Grant takes a look at the life of John Laurie, and how his dream to develop a town in Romford secured his legacy for over a century and beyond.

Perhaps once the most beautiful part of central Romford, Laurie Town stood as a testament to John Laurie until the ring road was conceived.

John Laurie was of Scottish descent, a London merchant, banker and government contractor who had been appointed sherriff of London and Middlesex in 1845.

He came to Romford in 1848, renting Marshalls House from the McIntosh family.

Immersing himself in civic affairs, he was involved in building the new St Edward’s Church in 1849.

He became a local magistrate and deputy steward of the liberty of Havering from 1848 until 1858.

As a magistrate, he had noted the inadequacies of the courthouse and by the 1850s resolved to do something about it.

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In June 1851, it was reported that he had purchased a "tract of land on the rising ground adjacent to the town” at the end of the market place.

It was further stated that it was his intention to erect several houses, based upon the Prince Albert model dwellings exhibited at Crystal Palace.

At this time work was already underway erecting St Edward’s Hall, intended for public meetings, vestry, concerts and other purposes.

However, the scheme was not without its detractors, who complained that St Edward’s Hall consisted of only one room of moderate size and any sign of Laurie Town was purely illusory.

Earlier that year, Laurie incurred the wrath of a number of influential local farmers, who accused him of false accounting and exaggerating the profitability of his farm.

The building of Laurie Town was a protracted undertaking; St Edward’s Hall was opened in September 1851 and it was reported in January 1852 that the development was “progressing slowly”.

It was not until the summer of 1853 that Laurie Town Hall was completed and by September it was announced that the lords of the treasury had adopted the building as the county court.

St Edward’s Hall in Laurie Town around 1865

A 1900's postcard view of St Edward’s Hall in Laurie Town around 1865 - Credit: The collection of Andy Grant

In that same year. Lord Petrie purchased land to the north of the development for the erection of a Roman Catholic church, which was consecrated and opened on May 8, 1856.

In March 1854, “eight semi-detached villas of tasteful design, and adapted for respectable families” were offered for rental at £32 per annum each.

A further detached building to the east of St Edward’s Hall was also completed in the following months, later being named Gresham Lodge.

At this juncture, John Laurie turned his attention to politics and stood as the Conservative candidate for the seat of Barnstaple, which he won in August 1854.

He was subsequently accused of bribery and corruption relating to his election expenses by William Tite MP, and was ejected on March 2, 1855.

At the 1857 election he regained the seat. Further development continued at Laurie Town, with plots adjacent to the Catholic church having been acquired in 1856.

Two “very neat, newly built, brick cottages” were offered at £30 per annum each during December 1858.

Laurie Town plan

A plan of Laurie Town, showing the dates the houses were built - Credit: Grant

Laurie Town Hall ceased to be used as the county court in 1859 and was offered to let.

Laurie’s vision was that other developers would erect houses at Laurie Town, although this was never fully realised.

It has often been said the plan stalled due to an inability to secure further adjacent land to continue the development.

However, this ignores four acres of freehold building land near the Catholic church (fronting onto Park End Road) and a plot with a 114ft frontage onto Main Road he held.

Due to ill health, Laurie resigned his positions in 1858 and moved out of Marshalls House to his London address.

He died during the evening of August 2, 1864.

On September 27, 1865, Laurie Town was due to be sold at auction in five lots. However, the sale was postponed until later due to the absence abroad of a devisee.

Although Laurie’s dream was never completed, his legacy endured for over a century.

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