How the White Hart became the 'heart of Hornchurch'

The site of the old White Hart in Hornchurch

The site of the old White Hart pub in Hornchurch. - Credit: Google Earth

The original White Hart in Hornchurch was a centuries old hostelry, described as being "the most picturesque building in the village", having gables and an overhanging front, with a large sun-dial on its main chimney stack.

It was undoubtedly Hornchurch’s oldest-established inn and there are some accounts that it contained architectural remains of an ecclesiastical character from a very early date, possibly being related to Hornchurch Priory.

During the night of November 7, 1872, the landlord, William Elliott and his family had retired to bed at around 11pm but were awoken a couple of hours later by a strong smell of smoke and the crackling of burning wood.

Elliott raised the alarm and with assistance from outside managed to get his wife and 10 children to safety before the building and its stables were completely engulfed by fire.

With only limited access to water and rudimentary firefighting equipment available, it wasn’t long before the timbers of the roof collapsed with a terrific crash. Through valiant efforts, the local inhabitants, assisted by police officers and Romford Fire Brigade, managed to save most of the surrounding timber-framed buildings.

The fire continued to smoulder throughout the following day, leaving only remnants of masonry walling. Fortunately the building was insured, enabling a new hotel to be built on the site by 1873.

In time, this would too become known by older residents as the "old White Hart".

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Suttons Lane (later Station Lane) ran round the rear of the pub to join the High Street. The junction to the east of the building became known as Rumsey’s Corner. To the west of the building, a pathway from Suttons Lane named White Hart Alley emerged onto the High Street.

The advent of motorised transport brought additional hazards at Rumsey's Corner. Although plans were submitted for the improvement of the dangerous junction, the impending war put these on hold and it was not until the 1920s that further moves were made.

By 1928 Essex County Council agreed to fund half of the cost of land purchases that were necessary to undertake the proposed works.

The plans entailed the widening of White Hart Alley, which was to become a new 45ft wide highway. This resulted in the site of the old White Hart becoming a triangular island, surrounded by a roadway on each side.

These works were completed during 1929 and two-way traffic could travel in either direction along any side of the island.

The White Hart was subsequently rebuilt and reopened on March 17, 1933. However, within five years the façade had been altered again to include a balustraded parapet and an arched top central bay. It was around this time that the iconic deer statue on its projecting pedestal was added to the façade.

As post-war traffic through Hornchurch continued to grow, the road layout around the White Hart became increasingly prone to accidents. Vehicles emerging from Station Lane at one of the two junctions onto the High Street were a particular hazard, but so too were those turning from the High Street into them.

By the 1950s the situation demanded a solution and by July 1955 plans were submitted for the demolition of buildings on the west side of the High Street, from opposite the junction of North Street to the junction with Station Lane. This enabled the narrowest section of the High Street to be widened.

In addition, a one-way system was adopted around the White Hart, effectively creating a roundabout there. Thus was formed what many would fondly remember as the "heart of Hornchurch"; the White Hart had become a major landmark.

Sadly, in 1986 the pub was converted for use and became the Madison Exchange. In its final days the statue of the white hart stood forlornly on its pediment against a backdrop of flaking white paint, shortly before it was removed and consigned to a skip.

* More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford Memories Facebook group