A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.
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THE HUNDRED OF BECONTREE
The hundred of Becontree occupies the south-western corner of the county, bounded on the south by the Thames and on the west by the Lea. It is now entirely urban except on the northern fringe, which includes parts of Epping Forest and Hainault Forest. There has been much industrial development, especially on the Thames bank, where are the three 'Royal' docks, Beckton Gas Works, and the Ford Motor Works.
Domesday Book lists some 19 estates in Becontree hundred, containing 104 hides in 10 villages distinguished by separate names. (fn. 1) Most of these villages later gave their names to the parishes of the hundred, but there were some exceptions. Ham was subsequently split into the two parishes of East Ham and West Ham. Higham later became part of Walthamstow parish. One of the estates in Leyton later became Cann Hall in the neighbouring parish of Wanstead, forming the anomalous 'Wanstead slip'. Dagenham, which certainly existed in 1086, and which became a separate parish, is not named in Domesday, no doubt because it was then, as later, part of the manor of Barking. In 1086 the hundred included three estates in Loughton, a village which was then partly, and later entirely, in Ongar hundred. (fn. 2) The Domesday manor of Havering comprised the area later known as Hornchurch parish. In 1465 this became the Royal Liberty of Havering-atte-Bower, and was thus severed not only from Becontree hundred but also, for most civil purposes, from the county of Essex. (fn. 3) After 1465 Becontree was sometimes called a half-hundred. (fn. 4)
With the exceptions already mentioned the composition of the hundred seems to have varied little. In taxation rolls of the 14th century and later the villages separately assessed were identical with the parishes, except that Wanstead and (Little) Ilford were jointly assessed. (fn. 5) Three of the parishes in the west of the hundred had detached parts, the full details of which appear on 19th-century maps. (fn. 6) One such part, belonging to Wanstead, was locally situated in West Ham. One belonging to Leyton was locally in Walthamstow, while the 'Walthamstow slip' was in Leyton. Another piece of Walthamstow lay locally in Chingford, and was thus detached from the hundred as well as the parish. The southern boundary of the hundred followed the Thames except in two places, one in East Ham and one in West Ham, where there were, and still are (1963) detached parts of Woolwich, and therefore of the county of Kent (later London). (fn. 7)
The lordship of Becontree hundred was granted by Stephen to Barking Abbey, between 1140 and 1152. It was to be held in free alms, but subject to an annual rent of £3. (fn. 8) In 1198 the abbey compounded for this rent by paying Richard I 100 marks. (fn. 9) The lordship subsequently descended along with the manor of Barking. (fn. 10) The ancient meeting place of the hundred court was probably Becontree Heath, in Dagenham, which before the detachment of Havering was central in the hundred. (fn. 11)
Stephen's grant gave Barking the right to hold the hundred as freely as the abbeys of Bury St. Edmunds and Ely held their hundreds, with all pleas except pleas of the Crown. Whatever may be the exact meaning of this reference to Bury and Ely, with its ambiguous qualifying phrase, it is clear that Barking never came to enjoy the highly privileged immunities held by the other two abbeys. (fn. 12) The nuns' jurisdiction was, indeed, subsequently curtailed by franchises acquired by the various manorial lords in the hundred. In 1220 the Abbess of Barking granted to the Prior of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, lord of Cann Hall, exemption from all suits, customs and plaints belonging to the hundred, stipulating only that the serjeant of the hundred should be present at the annual view of frankpledge in the manor court. (fn. 13) In other cases the lords seem to have acquired franchises by prescription. By the end of the 13th century those holding most of the principal manors in the hundred had, or were claiming, view of frankpledge and usually also the assize of bread and ale. Gallows had been erected at Havering, Woodford, and on a manor in East and West Ham. The lord of Woodford also claimed return of writs and pleas of withernam. (fn. 14) In other ways, also, Barking Abbey's hundredal rights were being challenged or ignored. In 1227 the abbess unsuccessfully prosecuted the lord of Little Ilford for failure to pay rents alleged to be due to the abbey as lord of the hundred. (fn. 15) In 1274–5 it was stated that Richard de Montfitchet had for ten years withheld wardpenny rents in East and West Ham. (fn. 16) He was a prominent baron who had been a royal justice and sheriff of Essex. (fn. 17) He was not the only powerful lord holding land within the hundred. Among others were Waltham Abbey (at Woodford), Stratford Langthorne Abbey (at West Ham, Little Ilford, and Leyton), and the Tony family and the co-heirs to the Valognes barony (both at Walthamstow). It was not easy for Barking Abbey to maintain its hundredal rights against these men. Occasionally, also, those rights were attacked from above, by the sheriff. (fn. 18) Such aggression was most likely to occur, and most difficult to resist, when the sheriff was himself a landholder in the hundred. It is stated that Richard de Montfitchet, when he was sheriff (1242–6), set up gallows, held view of frankpledge, and enforced the assize of bread and ale in East and West Ham without the hundred bailiff. (fn. 19)
At the end of the 14th century, when the revenues of Barking had been greatly reduced by flood damage, the nuns tried to re-assert their ancient hundredal rights. In 1379 they secured a royal grant empowering them to have return of writs in all pleas arising in the hundred, to the exclusion of the sheriff, all fines, amercements and forfeitures, and the assize of bread and ale. (fn. 20) Similar grants were made in 1392, 1399, 1462, and 1464. (fn. 21) The grant of 1392 stated that the return of writs had been granted by King Stephen but 'not enjoyed as fully as the charter implied'.