A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
SOME FEATURES OF SOCIAL CONDITIONS AND ACTIVITY
Some of the characteristics of social life, especially the broad distinctions between different parts of the suburban area, are implicit in the story of economic development. The location of different industries, the types of occupation commonest among the residents of each locality, differences in the size of building plots that could be bought for a given sum, all these had direct repercussions on the whole way of life of the population. The establishment of docks and heavy industry and the demand for unskilled, casual labourers and for women home-workers in the oldest part of the suburban district were bound to call into existence a community very different in opportunity, interest and behaviour from that in the outer suburbs which grew up around 1900 and contained large numbers of professional and independent business men whose working life was spent in London; while conditions were rather different again in those intermediate suburbs with little local industry and fewer professional families but many clerks and skilled artisans.
Such differences could be expected to show themselves in the physical environment of home life and, if they are borne in mind, an examination of housing conditions offers few surprises. Statistical information about houses was rather thin until the census of 1891, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the accommodation provided in some districts in the early stages of suburban growth in Essex was most unsatisfactory. The census of 1851 tried to give a rough indication of the inadequacy in the provision of houses by listing all the registration sub-districts in which the number of families exceeded by 10 per cent. or more the number of inhabited houses. Stratford, West Ham and Barking Town were all in this condition and stood out in a county where few houses contained more than one family. The criterion was not a very useful one, for the inhabitants of sub-districts in a similar condition amounted to about 60 per cent. of the population of England and Wales, and the average number of persons to a house in Stratford, West Ham and Barking Town was not abnormally high. (fn. 1) There were, however, some small areas where it is probable that there was already a good deal of crowding. In the new ecclesiastical parish of Leytonstone there were 7.8 persons to each inhabited house, whereas the average number was 5.5 for England and Wales and 5.0 for Essex. (fn. 2) As building proceeded in the next thirty years, similar conditions developed in several districts. In 1861 the number of persons to each inhabited house was 7.4 in Leytonstone ecclesiastical parish, 6.6 in that of St. Mary, Plaistow, and 6.5 in that of Emmanuel, Forest Gate. (fn. 3) In 1871 the figure for Leytonstone had fallen again to 7.0 and that for St. Mary, Plaistow, to the more normal level of 5.6, no doubt because part of the parish had gone to the formation of Holy Trinity, Barking Road, where there were 6.8 persons to a house. Emmanuel, Forest Gate, still had 6.1 persons to a house and there were other areas of crowding further south. The parish of St. Mark, Victoria Dock (the most populous ecclesiastical parish in the Essex suburbs), which extended into West Ham, East Ham and North Woolwich, had an average of 7.5 persons to every inhabited house. (fn. 4) The Plaistow Ward of West Ham, which covered the southern part of the local board area had 6.7 persons to each inhabited house and so, too, did the Wanstead civil parish and local board area. (fn. 5) In 1879 the ecclesiastical parish of Leytonstone was divided and the figures showed that the crowded area was the district near the West Ham boundary, which went into the new parish of Holy Trinity, Harrow Green, where in 1881 there were 7.0 persons to each inhabited house. Close to the Thames the opening of the Royal Albert Dock had led to still greater congestion. Boundary changes had confined the parish of St. Mark, Victoria Dock, to Silvertown and in 1881 it had 8.8 persons to each inhabited house. In the two new parishes in the district, St. Luke, Victoria Dock, and St. John the Evangelist, North Woolwich, the figure was 8.3 in both cases. The other suburban ecclesiastical parishes with an average of 6.5 or more persons to each inhabited house were Holy Trinity, Barking Road (7.5); St. Gabriel, Canning Town (7.2); St. Andrew, Plaistow (6.7); Christ Church, Stratford Marsh (7.2); St. Peter, Walthamstow (7.4); and St. Mary, Wanstead (6.7). (fn. 6) Very approximately, it appears from these figures that by the eighties a belt of crowded housing had come into existence that occupied three sides of a quadrangle—a south side in the dock area, a west side along the Lea and a north side close to the West Ham-Leyton and West Ham-Wanstead boundaries — and that outside this belt there was nothing really comparable except in a small part of Walthamstow.
The great deficiency of these figures is that they give no indication of the size of houses, but at each census from 1891 onwards some attention was paid to this subject and the results of these enquiries show plainly that in West Ham, where most of the districts with a high figure of persons to a house were situated, the average size of dwellings was smaller than in the neighbouring suburbs. In West Ham County Borough in 1891, 55.4 per cent. of the dwellings had fewer than five rooms, whereas the proportion of dwellings of this size in the other populous suburbs was 33.5 per cent. for Walthamstow, 32.7 per cent. for East Ham and 32.5 per cent. for Leyton. (fn. 7) In terms of mere quantity the provision of accommodation in West Ham was not in any way outstandingly bad. Indeed, the proportion of the population there who were living in overcrowded conditions, according to the census definition (i.e. more than two persons per room), was, at 9.34 per cent., below the average of 11.23 per cent. for all England and Wales. (fn. 8) The trouble was that so much of the vacant land of West Ham had recently been covered by dwellings that gave a standard of accommodation not greatly higher than that provided in industrial areas a generation earlier — contemporary descriptions emphasize that the structural quality of many of the houses, as well as their size, was very unsatisfactory, particularly in the south of the borough. (fn. 9) West Ham was thus not likely to have much opportunity to apply those rather better standards which were becoming common in new housing, particularly in suburban districts. Its comparative position would therefore probably deteriorate, and the subsequent history of its housing fulfilled this expectation.
The experience of Ilford in the last decade of the 19th century showed the change that could be accomplished in a new suburb. There in 1891 37.5 per cent. of the dwellings had fewer than five rooms, but by 1901 so great had been the preponderance of rather larger houses in the recent rush of new building that this proportion had fallen to 11.9 per cent. (fn. 10) In the older suburbs the proportion did not change much, though it rose slightly: it was 56.9 per cent. in West Ham, 37.1 per cent. in Walthamstow, 34.7 per cent. in East Ham, and 33.0 per cent. in Leyton. It is noteworthy that these suburbs, particularly West Ham, scarcely shared in the general national improvement of housing in the nineties. The proportion of persons living two or more to a room fell very slightly in West Ham to 9.27 per cent. in 1901, but this was now higher than the national average of 8.20 per cent. The figures for East Ham (2.58 per cent.), Leyton (2.58 per cent.) and Walthamstow (3.34 per cent.) remained low. (fn. 11) By 1911 the housing situation in the country generally had probably deteriorated slightly, though a part of the apparent worsening was a statistical illusion attributable to the greater care taken in the exclusion of sculleries, bathrooms and landings from the recorded number of rooms in a house. Overcrowding had become commoner in all the older suburbs, but above all in West Ham where 15.3 per cent. of the population lived more than two to a room, compared with an average of 9.1 per cent. for England and Wales. The percentages for the other Essex suburbs were: Barking Town 10.8, Walthamstow 7.4, East Ham 6.4, Leyton 5.5, Chingford 2.8, Woodford 2.3, Ilford 2.1, and Wanstead 0.7. (fn. 12)
Suburban Essex by this time had become a region of great contrasts in housing, where the best was exceptionally good and the worst was gradually deteriorating. Among the county boroughs and other towns of 50,000 or more inhabitants West Ham in 1891 had occupied the median position in respect of overcrowding, but in 1911 only seven such towns had a higher proportion of their population living at a density of two or more to a room and 89 had a lower proportion. On the other hand, Ilford had a higher proportion (68.0 per cent.) living at a density of less than one person to a room than any other town in this group; and Wanstead was one of only six urban districts of over 10,000 population in the whole country with less than 1 per cent. of its inhabitants living two or more to a room. (fn. 13) The variety of housing in the Essex suburbs may be further illustrated by comparing the commonest size of dwelling in each area. The commonest number of rooms to a dwelling was six in Leyton, Wanstead and Woodford, five in Chingford, East Ham, Ilford and Walthamstow, four in Barking Town, and only three in West Ham. The contrast between the extremes can be put in other striking ways. In Wanstead 44.3 per cent. of the dwellings had seven or more rooms, in West Ham only 5.9 per cent.; in West Ham 41.4 per cent. had not more than three rooms, in Wanstead only 5.6 per cent. In between came such areas as East Ham where 27.8 per cent. contained not more than three rooms and 5.4 per cent. contained seven or more, Leyton with 26.5 per cent. of its dwellings having not more than three rooms and 13.3 per cent. having seven or more, and Chingford where 13.3 per cent. had no more than three rooms and 29.1 per cent. had seven or more. (fn. 14)
The next decade produced no great change in the position, though overcrowding became rather commoner, as it did in the country as a whole. In 1921 Wanstead remained outstanding for the amplitude of its accommodation and West Ham for the shortage of it. Only 43 per cent. of the families in West Ham were in undivided possession of structurally separate dwellings and only six of the towns of more than 50,000 inhabitants had a smaller average number of rooms per person. (fn. 15) The chief quantitative characteristics of housing in the Essex suburbs are summarized in Table 9.
In districts where the houses were most closely packed with people the houses themselves were often built very closely together, and the high population densities of some areas were usually the result of the two influences combined. Figures of net residential density are not available but those of gross density are high enough to indicate considerable congestion in some areas. In 1921 three of the twelve wards of West Ham and two of the ten wards of Leyton contained over 100 persons to the gross acre, the highest figure being 135.1 to the gross acre in the Tidal Basin ward of West Ham. In the whole of West Ham, which covered over 7 square miles, there were 64.2 people to the gross acre. (fn. 16)
It was, of course, not until building was virtually complete that the full effects of such congestion were felt. Though there were districts of close and crowded building at a very early stage of suburban growth they were not far from stretches of vacant land. It might be agricultural land (the last market garden even in Plaistow did not disappear until 1905 (fn. 17) ); it might be a derelict and ugly waste, awaiting drainage and building development; little of it usually was dedicated to the public. But at least it made a break in the view, gave room for ventilation and perhaps provided an open path to walk on. As more and more of such land disappeared under building, attempts were made to preserve a little of it as public open space. But by the time this was done it sometimes happened that little suitable land was left and that land prices had risen so high that little could be afforded. West Ham was fortunate that, thanks to a vendor who was willing to take rather less than the market value and to contribute 40 per cent. of the purchase price himself and thanks to the Corporation of the City of London which provided another 40 per cent., it obtained its 77-acre park in the middle of the district as early as 1874. (fn. 18) But not much open space was acquired in the rest of the borough, and the congested southern part in particular was left with little to break up its continuous area of buildings. Towards the end of the century, when some of the other suburbs were being rapidly built up, it was taken more for granted that a local authority had a duty to acquire and maintain open spaces for the benefit of the public, and rather more was accomplished. The East Ham Local Board opened a recreation ground at Plashet in 1889, (fn. 19) and in 1890 the London County Council opened to the public the Royal Victoria Gardens, North Woolwich (which in fact were in the East Ham local government area), which had formerly been a private pleasure-ground. (fn. 20) East Ham fared rather better than West Ham in the matter of open space, but the inner suburbs as a whole were poorly served. The area of parks and open spaces maintained by the various local authorities at 31 March 1920 was: East Ham C.B. 189.9 acres, West Ham C.B. 76.5 acres, Barking Town U.D. 86.8 acres, Leyton U.D. 122.5 acres, Walthamstow U.D. 40.5 acres. (fn. 21)
The whole region did, however, benefit in differing degrees from the preservation of its greatest and most beautiful open space, Epping Forest. The forest, a surviving fragment of a much larger area, was in danger of complete disappearance as a result of the many private enclosures carried out by the lords of the manors in the 19th century, especially in the fifties and sixties. But the activity of the Commons Preservation Society and of the Corporation of the City of London, which had common rights in the forest in respect of its cemetery estate at Little Ilford, and the support of public opinion which they won saved the forest for the public. The famous case of Glasse v. Commissioners of Sewers, which lasted from 1871 to 1874, concluded with a judgment against the legal claims of the lords of the manors and the grant of an injunction prohibiting them from inclosing in future and requiring them to remove all fences erected within twenty years before the commencement of the suit. After a Royal Commission had come to the same conclusion as the court a scheme was drawn up and enacted in 1878, under which Epping Forest was to remain open and uninclosed for all time for the enjoyment of the people and its control and management were vested in the City Corporation. The forest was formally opened to the public by Queen Victoria at a ceremony at High Beech in 1882. The judgment in the case brought by the City Commissioners of Sewers had resulted in the restoration of about 3,000 acres inclosed since 1851 and, with the uninclosed waste and a few additions obtained by gift or purchase, an area of 5,793 acres was made available to the public. (fn. 22) Twenty years later the recovery of part of Hainault Forest, which had been legally disafforested in 1851, opened a much smaller but very welcome piece of comparable country to the public. A total of 789 acres, mainly in Lambourne and Dagenham, were purchased, and a further 14 acres were received as a gift. The chief contributions came from the London County Council and the Essex County Council, and under an Act of 1903 the management of Hainault Forest was put in the hands of the former of these bodies. (fn. 23)
Epping and Hainault Forests were assets to all the suburban region of Essex and to all East London as well, but, of course, it was those districts nearest to them which received the greatest addition to the amenity of their ordinary daily life. The southern, almost treeless end of Epping Forest, known as Wanstead Flats, was close enough to serve as a regular place of recreation for some crowded areas such as Cann Hall and parts of northern West Ham, and there were closely-built districts in Leyton and Walthamstow that were near to other parts of the forest. But the places to which Epping Forest was the greatest ever-present adornment and benefit were mostly those which were more spacious and comfortable even without it: Wanstead, Woodford, Chingford and more rural places further out; and Hainault Forest also was most accessible to better-class suburbs such as Ilford and the adjoining districts of Chadwell Heath and Goodmayes. For some of the most congested districts, such as the south of East and West Ham, as well as London's East End, the forests were too far away to be more than a place of resort on an occasional Sunday or general holiday, as Epping Forest had been at least since the late 18th century. (fn. 24) In the late 19th century perhaps the greatest bank-holiday attraction was the fair on forest land at Chingford, to which people flocked by tens of thousands. (fn. 25)
The provision of public open spaces did only a little to mitigate the tremendous contrast in the physical environment of different parts of the Essex suburban area. It remained true on the whole that overfull and sometimes badly built houses went with an unrelieved area of closely-built streets, and that where ample house room was the rule so also was there plentiful space for breeze and sun and relaxation. The former conditions, too, were often accompanied by poverty in the inhabitants and the latter, not by great wealth but by freedom from immediate financial anxiety.
The presumption of poverty in part of the area was implicit in the account of its major occupations. The importance of casual labour, particularly at the docks, and of home-work made it certain that there would be appreciable areas of poverty and there is empirical evidence to confirm the a priori assumption of a direct connexion between casual work and congested living conditions. Of the 5,581 dock labourers in West Ham in 1901 1,654 lived in Tidal Basin ward, 1,170 in Custom House and Silvertown ward, 737 in Canning Town ward, 717 in Hudson's ward and 591 in Plaistow ward; that is, most of them lived in the most congested parts of this, the most congested suburb, and the dock labourers were among those living in the worst conditions. Of the members of dock labourers' families 34.4 per cent. lived at a density of two or more to a room, including 7.5 per cent. at a density of three or more to a room, (fn. 26) proportions which were much higher than those for the population of West Ham as a whole. The extent of pauperism in West Ham is also in part an indication of the poverty of the district, though to a certain extent it was due to comparatively lax administration by the local Board of Guardians. At the end of the 19th century West Ham had a higher proportion of pauperism than such a notoriously depressed East End union as Whitechapel. In the years 1898–1907 the average of the annual figures of pauperism in the West Ham union was 21.2 per 1,000 of the population, with a peak of 29.7 per 1,000 in 1905, whereas in the Whitechapel union the average over the same period was 17.8 per 1,000. (fn. 27) The regrets expressed by people in other parishes of the union at being tied to West Ham parish make clear which area was responsible for the heavy expenditure on poor relief.
Of the opposite characteristic, comfortable financial circumstances in other districts, the evidence that can be adduced is only indirect but none the less weighty. Probably in the conditions that lasted down to the First World War the employment of domestic servants is one of the most reliable indicators of differences in income and social class. In 1911 the number of female domestic indoor servants (other than those in hotels and catering establishments), expressed as a proportion of the number of separate families, was 43.7 per cent. in Wanstead, 32.9 per cent. in Woodford, 25.4 per cent. in Chingford, 15.9 per cent. in Ilford, 10.6 per cent. in Leyton, 7.8 per cent. in Barking Town, 7.2 per cent. in Walthamstow, 7.0 per cent. in West Ham, and 6.9 per cent. in East Ham. Here there is a fairly close, though not exact, correspondence with variations in housing conditions. Another useful, though less reliable, indication of class and income differences is the proportion of married women seeking paid employment. This was lower (at 4.1 per cent.) in Wanstead than in any other suburb and highest (at 7.6 per cent.) in West Ham. (fn. 28)
What kinds of social life predominated in such widely different economic and physical conditions cannot be much more than suggested in a very brief account. It is, of course, clear from an examination of their economic activity that many of the more prosperous suburban districts did not need to be socially self-sufficient, as large numbers of their breadwinners spent much of their waking lives elsewhere. But that was far from the case in the dock areas or the manufacturing districts in West Ham or Barking. Nearly everywhere, too, the social contacts, interests and opportunities of all children and most women depended almost entirely on what was happening locally.
One outstanding influence both on the convenience of domestic life and on opportunities for meeting and talking with neighbours was the supply and location of shops. The rapidity with which some of the suburbs grew and the incentive which speculative builders had to concentrate on providing homes for the inflowing thousands might perhaps have been expected to cause some neglect in the provision of shops and there were indeed periods when probably shopping was particularly awkward and tiring for the people of some districts. But such conditions did not usually last long. The Essex suburbs seem to have been provided with an adequate though not remarkably large number of shops as they grew up and the shops were fairly well dispersed. With small exceptions the supply and distribution of shops does not appear to have varied much with the economic character of the different districts, though this was doubtless reflected in the quality of goods stocked. It is impossible to be very precise on this subject as the directories which are a principal source of information certainly have many omissions and it is often not clear whether a particular entry refers to a retailer or a producer or one who combined both functions. But, supplemented by other evidence, the directories give a useful general impression of what was happening. In any of the suburbs as long as the growth of population was only a thousand or two each year the supply of shops could be proportionately maintained or improved, but in the great waves of immigration such as affected West Ham in the seventies, Leyton and Walthamstow in the eighties and East Ham in the nineties, the supply of shops fell behind and then improved again as the growth of population slackened. Thus the ratio of shops to people increased slightly in West Ham between 1848 and 1863, but was more than halved by 1882 and rose somewhat in the next twenty years; in Walthamstow and Leyton the ratio was substantially higher in 1882 than 1863 but then it fell again; in East Ham and Little Ilford, too, there was a fall from 1882 to 1902, though not such a large one. Elsewhere population grew more slowly and there was no serious deterioration in the supply of shops; in fact, in Ilford and Barking the position appears to have improved. (fn. 29) Before the First World War the growth of population considerably slackened and by this time all the Essex suburbs, except Ilford and Wanstead, were provided with a supply of shops reasonably matched to their populations, though the number of shops was everywhere rather below the national average. In England and Wales in 1911 there were 607,300 shops, a proportion of 16.8 to every thousand people. (fn. 30) The corresponding ratio in the various Essex suburbs (apart from the two just noted) ranged from 14.7 in Barking to 12.6 in Leyton. (fn. 31) The main deficiency was the rarity of small lock-up shops which had recently been becoming more and more popular in the country generally: 28 per cent. of all shops were of this kind, (fn. 32) but in the Essex suburbs as a whole the proportion was only 12 per cent.— the district still clung firmly to the traditional house and shop combined, and even in Woodford, where lock-up shops were commonest, they were only 20 per cent. of the total.
The proportion of shops in Ilford (10.2 per 1,000 inhabitants in 1911) was low probably because people had recently been moving in there in large numbers when there was no comparable inflow elsewhere in the area. But the position in Wanstead (which had only 7.1 shops per 1,000 inhabitants in 1911) (fn. 33) was exceptional and not the result of recent changes. Even thirty years earlier Wanstead had been remarkable for the fewness and unusual character of its retail businesses. Of the 54 shops recorded in the local directory for 1882 as many as six were occupied by coal dealers and eight were off-licences. (fn. 34) From the entries in the 1902 directory it appears that the basic foodstuffs were exceptionally prominent in local trade. Grocers, greengrocers and butchers together formed a higher proportion of the total number of shopkeepers than in the other suburbs, but clothing shops, common elsewhere, were scarce — only one ladies' outfitter and three drapers were recorded. (fn. 35) It seems a reasonable inference that the people of Wanstead were in the habit of going further afield than their neighbours for purchases beyond the usual day-to-day necessities, doubtless in many cases to the West End of London, where at this time the great department stores were establishing themselves and appealing particularly to the women of just such communities as Wanstead, where plentiful domestic service was both a symptom of comfortable financial circumstances and a means of increasing leisure. Here, it seems, even at the end of the 19th century, was a sign that a suburb could depend on the metropolis for much more than just the means of employment. But for most of the Essex suburbs that position had not yet been reached.
Some inter-dependence existed, however, within the suburban area. Important shopping areas grew up in the late 19th century along some of the main roads, e.g. in Leytonstone and, rather earlier, in Stratford. The very high proportion of shops to population in Little Ilford in 1882, (fn. 36) when it was not much more than a village, suggests that this district must already have been developing into what it undoubtedly was in the 20th century, a shopping centre for people from the nearby parts of East Ham and Forest Gate. Nevertheless in most districts the shops scattered among predominantly residential streets were quite important. Most people had a shop of some kind within a few minutes' walk of home, and in the older districts in particular, such as West Ham, the small neighbourhood shop persisted decade after decade to a far later date as an integral and welcome part of familiar social life. (fn. 37)
Adults could move about between different districts and if they had time and money enough could go up to town to exert or amuse themselves. Children were less mobile; their well-being, training and activities depended mostly on what was going on within and close by their homes. Whether they survived to need any social life depended very much on where they lived. The rates of infant mortality on the eve of the First World War were twice as high in Barking and West Ham as in Wanstead and the rates in other areas came in between in a way clearly related to housing conditions and incomes. The average rates for the four years 1911–14 were 117 per 1,000 live births in Barking Town, 114 in West Ham, 89 in Leyton, 85 in Walthamstow, 83 in Chingford, 82 in East Ham, 77 in Woodford, 69 in Ilford, and 59 in Wanstead. (fn. 38)
The chances that children would receive a tolerable elementary education were always good in the Essex suburbs, for except in West Ham there was no great influx of population until after the Education Act of 1870, and the foundation that had been laid earlier was probably at least up to the standard generally prevailing in the country. In the West Ham Registration District (West Ham, East Ham, Little Ilford, Leyton, Wanstead, Walthamstow and Woodford parishes) in 1851 4,950 children were on the books of schools in the area. (fn. 39) At that time there were in the population 4,195 children aged 5–9 and 3,551 aged 10–14; (fn. 40) and since few children over 12 would stay at school it appears that the overwhelming majority already received some schooling. Most schools in the district were very small, private establishments (54 of these with only 1,149 pupils were enumerated in the census) but most children went to larger, publicly-assisted schools, usually run by one of the churches. The Church of England was the body most concerned, with twenty schools and 1,983 pupils. (fn. 41) By the eighteen-seventies the child population of the district was expanding at such a rate that the churches could not cater for more than a very small part of the increase and the main responsibility for providing enough elementary schools passed to the school boards. In some districts where the most rapid growth was delayed, voluntary effort continued to monopolize education — Barking had no school board until 1889 and Ilford none until 1893 — but it appears to have been at the cost of some inadequacy in the provision. (fn. 42) In terms of quantity, at any rate, the school boards from the outset coped most zealously, if not altogether successfully, with their tasks. These were truly formidable, for scarcely anywhere else was the child population increasing so fast in the late 19th century as in the Essex suburbs. Initial arrears were quickly overtaken in some districts: the Leyton School Board, for instance, found on its formation in 1874 that there was a shortage of 1,128 school places in the parish but had provided an additional 1,623 places in new schools within three years. (fn. 43) Arrears, however, were apt to recur very quickly, especially after the abolition of fees, which was followed by a marked improvement in attendance. New schools were built with admirable speed, but some of them were seriously overcrowded for several years, and a satisfactory balance between the supply of accommodation and the number of pupils was not generally achieved until the growth of child population slackened appreciably. (fn. 44) In West Ham the difficulties were greatest of all, because of the high fertility as well as great growth of the population. Even at the beginning of this century, when the proportion of children was going down slightly, children under fifteen were a bigger percentage of the total population than in any other English county borough, except St. Helens. (fn. 45) But the difficulties were ultimately overcome; when the West Ham School Board handed over its responsibilities to the corporation in 1903 it was operating 47 schools with places for 58,599 children. (fn. 46) So ample, indeed, was the provision made at this time and in the next few years, that, when the total number of children began to fall a little, West Ham was able to take some of them into school at an earlier age than elsewhere in the neighbourhood. In the other suburbs in 1921 the number of children under five who were attending school was negligible, but in West Ham about 2,600 out of roughly 32,000 in this age group were at school, i.e., probably about two-fifths of the four-year-olds. (fn. 47)
The chances of getting any better education than was given in the elementary schools were very poor until some years had elapsed in the 20th century. Once the board schools had been opened, it was only a tiny minority who were able and willing to pay for their children to go somewhere else, and naturally it was in the more prosperous, middle-class districts that private schools were most numerous. By 1902, for instance, Wanstead and Woodford between them had 21, whereas West Ham, with more than eleven times as many inhabitants, had only 20. The directory for 1902 mentions no private schools in Barking and only two in East Ham, but a demand arose wherever there was a rapid growth of middle class population, as is illustrated by the increase in the number recorded in Ilford from seven in 1882 to 22 in 1902. (fn. 48) Most of the private schools were for girls (or rather, in the 19th-century vocabulary of the trade, for 'ladies'), but quite a number took small boys. Bigger boys presumably had to chance the rough and tumble of the elementary schools unless their parents could afford to send them away to school.
Of real secondary education there was little in the 19th century. This does not mean that the district was a specially black educational patch of the country. It does mean that it was not among the minority of fortunate areas. The Essex suburbs were poor in endowed educational charities, though the 16th-century Sir George Monoux Grammar School still survived in a moribund condition at Walthamstow and underwent some revival near the end of the century, in spite of inadequate funds. (fn. 49) The availability of pleasant sites not too far from London brought a few more schools during the century. Some of these, such as the Forest School, near Snaresbrook, a private foundation of 1834 (fn. 50) and Bancroft's School which moved to Woodford Wells in, 1889, (fn. 51) having been previously at Mile End, increased the opportunities for local boys from families in easy circumstances to obtain a grammar school education, though these were not schools of only local significance. Such additional day schools as were opened for secondary education were, surprisingly perhaps, mostly for girls, though a Roman Catholic Grammar School for Boys was founded in West Ham in 1877. (fn. 52) In 1873 the Bonnell's School in West Ham (which had been of an elementary character) was reorganized by the Endowed Schools Commission as a High School for Girls, (fn. 53) and in the late 19th century high schools for girls were established in Leytonstone and Walthamstow. (fn. 54) In 1863 the Ursulines also set up a school at Forest Gate in West Ham. (fn. 55) Another Ursuline High School was opened at Ilford in 1903. (fn. 56) To some extent these schools served more than their own immediate neighbourhood: in 1905, for instance, the two girls' high schools in West Ham were educating 181 children who lived outside the borough. (fn. 57) In some other districts, notably Wanstead and Woodford, a few of the private schools gave to some of their pupils what could be regarded as a genuine secondary education. (fn. 58)
About 1900 the local authorities began to take rather more interest in secondary education. The needs of their elementary schools prompted them to try to stimulate the supply of teachers, and Pupil Teacher Centres were set up at East Ham in 1898, Walthamstow in 1899, Leyton in 1900 and Ilford in 1904. (fn. 59) Schools above the elementary level and with a less limited object were also begun. Leyton Urban District Council started in 1898 a co-educational School of Science which became a county secondary school under the Education Act of 1902. (fn. 60) Walthamstow had founded a Technical Institute one year earlier and ran a day secondary school there for boys and girls. (fn. 61) At Ilford a higher elementary school, opened by the school board in 1901, was turned into a county secondary school in 1904, (fn. 62) and at East Ham the county authority opened in 1905 a Technical College which was used in the day-time as a secondary school. (fn. 63) Both of these were dual schools for boys and girls. West Ham opened its first municipal secondary school in 1906. (fn. 64) The most remarkable innovation of all was the West Ham Municipal Institute, opened in 1898, which soon began to provide courses in preparation for London degree examinations, as well as steadily widening its technical and commercial teaching at a lower level. (fn. 65)
These new developments were important in making some secondary education available to a few children of a class that hitherto had had little chance of it. The new county secondary schools recruited their pupils mainly from the public elementary schools, those at Ilford and Walthamstow almost entirely so from the beginning. (fn. 66) The improvement was very gradual. The educational standards of the county schools at first were not high, for these schools were really a compromise between higher elementary and true secondary schools, (fn. 67) and only a very small proportion of children reached them — some would-be pupils had to be turned away for lack of accommodation. But the early years of the 20th century did see the beginnings of an important change. The standards of the county secondary schools were gradually raised and the number of their pupils increased, while additional grants of public money improved the service rendered by some of the older schools and helped to integrate them into the public system. Voluntary effort still had an appreciable share in the provision of secondary education and access to such education still usually depended on the ability to spare something from the family income, but the Essex suburbs kept pace with general national changes in education, and by the end of the First World War, secondary education, though still available for only a small minority, was no longer quite such a matter of social privilege.
Homes and shops and schools made up much of the physical equipment of social life. But there remain many questions to be asked about the way people passed their time outside the common daily round. Some of these questions may never be answered, and most of the others can be answered only in general terms. There is a good deal of truth in the familiar view that many of the urban areas that grew up earlier in the 19th century gave at first little chance of much variety in life to their inhabitants: churches and chapels for the respectable, public-houses and the streets for the others. It may well be asked whether it was like this in these new suburbs of the late 19th century.
As one would expect, it was in the oldest and poorest of the suburbs, West Ham, that the public house was most important. When West Ham began growing as a dock area in the fifties and sixties it was legal to retail beer and cider without a justices' licence, and in these conditions (which lasted until 1869) small beer-houses multiplied in most urban areas. West Ham was no exception: the directories list 27 in 1848 and 91 in 1863, at which date 64 inns were also noted. (fn. 68) But the main growth of West Ham did not come until the licensing laws had changed, and these conditions left little permanent mark. Licensed premises were provided on only quite a small scale in proportion to the population; in 1911 there were 223 hotels, inns and public houses in West Ham, (fn. 69) i.e. one to every 1,296 persons. By contrast, the county of London had roughly twice as many, and Liverpool three times as many public houses in proportion to population. Only in some of the more crowded districts do public houses appear to have been of general social importance: in 1906 half of the large public houses (assessed at £400 a year or more) were in the three southern wards nearest the docks, and the total number in proportion to population was highest in Stratford. (fn. 70) In the other suburbs which grew rapidly, though there had been plenty of public-houses while they were still villages, very few more were provided for the new population. In 1911 East Ham had only one to every 3,926 people, Leyton one to 3,564, Walthamstow one to 3,114, and Ilford one to 2,443. (fn. 71) It is clear that only a small minority in these areas can have entered a public-house with any frequency. Otherwise the accommodation must have been quite inadequate.
Most of the suburban population apparently felt no need of the public-house as a social centre. In the dock areas things might be rather different, especially at the weekend and on public holidays. There the public-houses were well-filled; when they emptied there was sometimes brawling in the streets; and thieves and prostitutes would await their chance to take advantage of the sailors leaving their ships. (fn. 72) But dockland was not at all typical of the ordinary social life and appearance of suburban Essex. In general the area was sober, quiet, restrained in outward appearance; in a word, respectable.
Respectability did not always show itself in a high level of religious observance. The churches certainly, particularly the Church of England, were energetic and prompt in providing buildings and clergy in the newly settled districts, but in general it appears to have been no more than a substantial minority of people who regularly resorted to them. There were individual clergymen and particular congregations who were tremendously active in the life of their own neighbourhoods, but the activity of church and chapel was far less integral to society in these new suburbs than in so many of the busy urban areas that arose elsewhere earlier in the century. The careful census of church attendance which Mudie-Smith made in 1902–3, though not sufficient by itself to indicate the extent or limitations of religious influence, throws some light on the situation. In the more prosperous districts church attendance was fairly good. Among the fifty-two local government areas of Outer London where a count was taken only two had a higher ratio of church attendance to population than Woodford, where one person in every four was at a place of worship on Sunday morning and the same proportion in the evening. Ilford and Wanstead were also high on the list. On the other hand, attendance was poor in Walthamstow, Leyton, East Ham and West Ham. In West Ham, indeed, it was lower in proportion to population than in all but two of the fifty-two suburban districts surveyed and was no more than one in ten of the population on Sunday morning and one in eight in the evening. In East Ham the level in the morning (one in twelve) was even lower, though rather better in the evening, a difference attributable to the much larger number of Roman Catholics worshipping in West Ham than in East Ham. (fn. 73) Everywhere the Anglicans were the largest individual body, but, except in Wanstead, were outnumbered by the Nonconformists taken collectively: the proportion of Anglicans among total church attendances was 65 per cent. in Wanstead, 43 per cent. in Leyton, 40 per cent. in Walthamstow, 38 per cent. in Woodford, 34 per cent. in Ilford, 33 per cent. in East Ham and 32 per cent. in West Ham. (fn. 74) All the main Nonconformist bodies were represented throughout the Essex suburbs but the main strength was in the older dissenting sects, which had local roots going far back into the past. The unestablished churches accounting for more than 10 per cent. of the attendances in the various suburbs were Baptist and Roman Catholic in West Ham; Wesleyan and Baptist in East Ham; Congregational, Wesleyan and Baptist in Ilford; Congregational in Wanstead; Baptist, Congregational and Wesleyan in Leyton; Congregational and United Methodist Free in Walthamstow; and Congregational in Woodford. The Roman Catholics were well scattered through the area, though they had no church in Wanstead, but only in West Ham were they a very numerous community. (fn. 75) The Jews were still very few in number, for the outward dispersal of London's East End Jewry was a development only of the end of the 19th century. (fn. 76) But they were quick to organize for worship and for associated educational and social activities: the East Ham, Manor Park and Ilford Synagogue was founded in 1900, the Canning Town in 1901 and the Leyton and Walthamstow in 1902, (fn. 77) while the West Ham community, though it did not erect its own synagogue buildings until 1911, had been meeting regularly since 1896. (fn. 78)
Such promptitude and the zeal which inspired it were by no means confined to the Jews, and were symptomatic of the powerful hold that religion had on many people. The determination with which many small congregations of different views (some of them decidedly eccentric in the eyes of the multitude) equipped themselves with organization and buildings, and the tenacity with which they kept them going are important factors to set against the impression created by the large numbers who took no part in worship — for instance the Plymouth Brethren had 22 places of worship in the Essex suburbs in 1903, though their combined congregations were not greatly in excess of the numbers attending a couple of large churches of some other denominations. (fn. 79) Account must also be taken of the widespread influence of some of the social and charitable work of the churches, which affected many who took no part in church life. Mention has already been made of the contribution to education, which was valuable, though quantitatively small in comparison with that of the secular authorities. Other useful contributions came from work in connexion with hospitals and the social activities of various missions. It is, for instance, impossible to ignore the importance of such an achievement as that of the Rev. T. Given-Wilson, Vicar of St. Mary's, Plaistow, who at a time of serious hospital shortage founded in 1894 St. Mary's Hospital for Women and Children, which took patients from most of the Essex suburbs and parts of the East End of London. (fn. 80) Nor can the religious element in some of the settlement work undertaken by outside bodies in the poorer districts be overlooked: one of the earliest settlements, Mansfield House, established in Canning Town in 1890, had an explicitly religious basis and a Congregational minister as its warden, and a similar settlement for women was founded two years later. (fn. 81) But when allowance has been made for all these various religious influences it still seems impossible to attribute to religion a dominant role in the moulding of social life. The society of the suburbs was by no means completely secularized, but the churches were not the centres of so general an interest nor the sources of so influential a leadership as in the provincial towns that grew up one or more generations earlier.
This was not altogether the result of distraction by organized secular activities, for these certainly appear no more numerous and vigorous than in places where organized religion was stronger, rather perhaps the reverse. Spare-time pursuits concerned with the advancement of economic and political interests attracted only a few at first, but slowly became more prominent in social life. Friendly societies were unimportant. West Ham in 1906 had 94 branches of Friendly Societies but the returns of two-thirds of them showed a membership of only 13,880, (fn. 82) a very low figure for a town of well over a quarter of a million inhabitants. Doubtless, too many of the population belonged either to a class too poor to provide against the contingencies of life or to a non-industrial class accustomed to rely on other methods of private saving for such provision.
But in West Ham there was at least a substantial minority of industrial workers with fairly steady employment, and it is this which explains why the co-operative movement, which notoriously found the London area very bleak territory in the 19th century, succeeded in striking firm roots in the Essex suburbs, though down to the First World War it remained on a small scale. After the failure of a small earlier venture, a handful of men at the Great Eastern Railway Works established in 1861 the Stratford Cooperative and Industrial Society, (fn. 83) from which the present London Co-operative Society has grown. Subsequently several other small societies were founded in the area, usually by industrial wage-earners. Thus workmen at the Thames Ironworks set up a co-operative society at Canning Town in 1882, and another society grew up at Beckton. Other co-operative ventures took place at Plaistow, Barking, Leyton and Walthamstow, but the fate of all of them was either to collapse or be taken over by the Stratford Society, which began to grow quickly towards the end of the 19th century. It absorbed the Canning Town Society in 1886 and the Barking, Beckton, and Walthamstow Societies in 1898. (fn. 84) But despite the rapid progress of the next few years, the membership of the society after 50 years' existence was only 22,980. (fn. 85) This brand of self-help, too, absorbed the energies and influenced the habits of only a small proportion of the population.
Trade unionism also, particularly in the earlier years of suburban development, was very much a minority interest: most of the inhabitants were in occupations too 'respectable' for them to think of organizing, or marked by too much irregularity of employment for them to be readily capable of it. But though the number of persons involved at any one time was usually small, the area was caught up in some of the most remarkable trade union developments of the late 19th century, and they left a permanent mark on the political life of some districts. The gas industry and the docks, two of the principal sources of employment in the south of the area, were afflicted by much hardship and discontent, and various efforts were made to secure improvements through united action. There had been strikes by stokers at Beckton gas-works in 1872, (fn. 86) but there was no permanent organization to make them effective. In the eighties there were two unsuccessful attempts to form a union, the pressure coming in part from members of the Social Democratic Federation, which formed a branch in Canning Town in 1883 and which made a practice of conducting open-air meetings. (fn. 87) Finally in 1889 the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain was set up at Canning Town, where it established its headquarters. This body, which won with surprising ease its first contest with employers, also succeeded in enrolling some of the riverside workers and Silvertown factory operatives. (fn. 88) Equally notable was the sudden burst of trade union activity in the late summer of the same year when thousands joined the new Tea Workers and General Labourers Union and the great, successful strike for the 'docker's tanner' spread from the West India Docks throughout the port. (fn. 89)
Many workers who joined trade unions at this time soon fell away, and even in the most industrial districts only a small minority remained permanently within the movement. In 1906 twenty-seven trade unions were represented on the West Ham and District Trades and Labour Council, but their total membership (which was declining) was only 4,069. (fn. 90) The influence of trade unionism, however, was probably rather greater than this low figure suggests, for the activity of the late eighties left behind a permanent legacy in the form of more vigorous political interests. Even before then the Radical Association in south West Ham had been an influential body and secured the election to Parliament of a trade union secretary, Joseph Leicester, in 1885. He held the seat only for a year, but the industrial ferment of the next few years turned ideas further to the left, and the same body invited Keir Hardie to stand in 1893. South West Ham returned him as the first socialist M.P., and as a result of this connexion the new I.L.P. established a branch in the district and became active in local as well as national politics. Its first representative on the county borough council was elected in 1898, seven years after the first success of the S.D.F. at the local government elections. Hardie lost his Parliamentary seat in 1895 but in the next few years political organization and interest were so well established that from 1906 when Will Thorne, the original secretary of the Gas Workers' Union, recovered the constituency for Labour, it remained a safe seat for the party. (fn. 91)
That trade unionism did not always stimulate political activity in the area is suggested by the familiar case of the Walthamstow branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, which in 1908, through its secretary, W. V. Osborne, obtained an injunction to restrain the society from making a compulsory levy for Labour Party purposes — and, for its pains, was closed down by headquarters. (fn. 92) Nor was the growing labour movement by any means the sole element of political vitality. The local organizations of the two major parties, though they gained the active participation of only a few, had to keep themselves in vigorous trim, since neither party had an assured predominance. Nevertheless it is probably true that the labour movement was the most important new influence, spreading some degree of political awareness among thousands who would otherwise have had little of it.
Organized activities of a more purely recreational kind are so miscellaneous that they do not lend themselves easily to summary, and many, of course, are associated with bodies of the kind already discussed, especially the churches. It does appear, however, that in the earlier years of suburban growth organized facilities for the enjoyment of leisure were not very prominent in south-west Essex, but that at the very end of the 19th century a considerable improvement began. This change was brought about partly by the greater zeal shown by local authorities in such matters as the laying out of playing fields in the limited open space at their disposal, the building of swimming baths, the provision of public libraries. Even the oldest suburb, West Ham, had no public library until 1892 (fn. 93) and the first municipal baths there were not opened until 1901, though two privately owned baths existed in the late 19th century. (fn. 94) The newer, more prosperous area of Ilford was quicker in this matter and its local authority opened a swimming bath in 1895. (fn. 95) In the crowded parts of West Ham the growth of settlement work also contributed to the change at this time, and everywhere the experience of living among the same neighbours for several years eventually led to the formation of numerous small societies for the pursuit of common interests. Sooner or later, the gardeners, the anglers, the chess players, the naturalists, and games players of various kinds got together and organized themselves in friendly rivalry. In the older suburbs many clubs of this kind which became permanent date their foundation from a few years on either side of 1900. A few were older — West Ham had two cricket clubs by the eighteen-seventies (fn. 96) — but until the nineties recreation depended more on what individuals or informal groups of friends could do for themselves. The empty spaces in which they could move rapidly shrank, but not all the opportunities for individual relaxation disappeared as public services and clubs increased. It was still possible to wander at random in Epping Forest, and the River Lea was a useful place of recreation for some who could easily reach it; the various streams were much used for boating, fishing, and bathing, (fn. 97) though the lower stretches were far too dirty to be ideal for this. For anglers it was a specially popular resort as fishing was free in the navigation cuts and also in a section of the natural river at Chingford. (fn. 98) Boating was confined mainly to the stretch between Lea Bridge and Walthamstow and was probably on the whole a more select activity. Here several rowing clubs were already located before 1880. Those who took less strenuous exercise on the water did so in their own boats, but it was also possible to hire boats. (fn. 99)
If people sought to be amused by professionals rather than to amuse themselves their opportunities were only moderate, though they improved towards 1900. Out of doors the enthusiasts of East and West Ham could on winter Saturdays watch their own football team, West Ham United, which was established in 1900 and settled at Upton Park, East Ham, in 1904. (fn. 100) In summer, those with a little more leisure could, from 1895 when the Essex club was admitted to the county championship, see first class cricket at Leyton. (fn. 101) Indoors there were the theatres and music halls which gradually increased in numbers from the eighteen-eighties onward, especially in the early years of the 20th century. It was, in fact, suggested that local music hall fare was so ample in quantity and quality that suburban dwellers were losing the inclination to visit the West End for entertainment. (fn. 102) But in 1911 there were only 45 buildings (including theatres) devoted to public entertainment in the Essex suburbs, (fn. 103) not a particularly large provision for a population of over 820,000.
Whatever aspect of social provision is considered, the impression is usually much the same: there was variety but not abundance, and even the variety did not come until several years after the rapid growth of population had begun. Home was probably the great centre of social life for most people, the more so, perhaps, as so many family breadwinners had perforce to spend a large part of their working time miles away. If there was anything of special interest to them locally they could read about it at home, for the suburbs were never without a local press from 1858, when the Stratford Times was established. This paper, after some years' separate existence, was incorporated in the Stratford Express, founded in 1866, (fn. 104) which spread its circulation over the southern part of the suburban area and still survives. The oldest of the papers serving the northern suburbs, the Walthamstow Chronicle, appeared as early as 1870 and was absorbed in 1876 by the Walthamstow and Leyton Guardian, which, under the name of The Guardian, still flourishes. (fn. 105) The suburban families could thus keep themselves comfortably abreast of what was going on around them, and now and then sally forth to take part in it. But it seems probable that this was mostly something for special occasions. The more corporate activities appear to have been less prominent than in most urban areas of 19th-century England. There were, of course, some contrasts in this respect between different parts of the suburban area, but they were hardly sufficient to serve as fundamental indications of social character. It is impossible to know what were regarded by most people as the most important and influential elements in their way of life; but the evidence certainly suggests that the quality of suburban life was affected much less by any voluntary organized social activities, and much more by the kind of occupations which were followed by residents in different districts and the quality of the houses and shops that were available to them.