A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.
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SINCE 1919 (fn. 1)
THE SPREAD OF THE SUBURBAN AREA
The falling off in the growth of suburbs in Essex, which became evident fairly early in the 20th century, proved to be only temporary and a new wave of expansion occupied most of the period between the two world wars. The older, inner suburbs were practically full and, except for a little extension of the built-up area in Walthamstow, and for the replacement of existing buildings, not much development was possible. Parts of them, indeed, were uncomfortably full and not only did they fail to accommodate their own natural increase of population but in West Ham, East Ham and Leyton the loss of inhabitants by migration began to exceed the natural increase. This new tendency was very slight in the nineteen-twenties but in the next decade it became pronounced. On the other hand the outer suburbs, which had shown fairly high rates of population growth down to the First World War, maintained comparable rates afterwards, with the result that the absolute increase in the numbers of their inhabitants was very much greater than before. Ilford, Barking, Wanstead and Woodford grew steadily through the twenties and thirties. Chingford became joined by continuous building to the rest of Greater London and, though not complete by the outbreak of the Second World War, had become a substantial residential district. Dagenham, which, except for small areas in the northern part of the parish, had previously been little affected by suburban development, was built up at a phenomenal rate in the twenties and continued a more gradual expansion in the thirties. Even this was not the whole of the change, for in addition there were tens of thousands of people who settled further from London, especially near to the two main railway lines to Southend, most stations on which became in the twenties the centres of dormitory towns for London workers. (fn. 2) Between 1921 and 1938 Hornchurch increased its population by 58,511, Romford by 33,862, Billericay by 22,299 and Thurrock by 18,938. But places further north, though at no greater distance from London, were still not much affected. In the same period Waltham Holy Cross added only 341 to its population, and Epping U.D. only 1,504. (fn. 3)
The statistics for the suburban areas in Becontree and Waltham Hundreds are given in Table 10.
One striking contrast with most of the earlier suburban growth was that building densities were much lower. Gardens were commoner and often larger than before the First World War and more land was kept free from building. So equivalent increases in population were spread over much larger areas than before. Thus Dagenham's growth showed every sign of ceasing when it approached the population of Leyton, although its area was roughly two and a half times that of Leyton; and Ilford, which covered not much less than twice the area of West Ham, never approached West Ham's maximum population, although far less of its land was occupied by industrial and commercial buildings. The difference is clearly shown in the figures of population density. In 1921, when they were near their maximum size, East Ham had 43.1 persons to the gross acre, West Ham 64.2, Leyton 49.5 and Walthamstow 29.8. (fn. 4) In the middle of 1939, at the end of the expansion between the world wars, the figures for the newer suburbs were Barking 20.0, Dagenham 16.7, Ilford 20.2, and Wanstead and Woodford 14.5. (fn. 5)
Fairly spacious residential development had, of course, characterized most of the prosperous outer fringes of the suburban area before the First World War, but only a small proportion of the total of suburban building had taken place in such districts. Characteristics which had then marked only a small minority became universal in new building after 1919. This does not mean, however, that the suburban development between the wars was the result of influences and activities such as before 1914 had created a Wanstead or a Woodford rather than a Leyton or an East Ham; the modesty of most of the new houses indicates that this was not so. The fact was that building was carried out in changed economic conditions and very often under new direction. In the nineteen-twenties people who could not otherwise have moved to a new suburban residence were able to do so as a result of various forms of financial assistance. There was a succession of schemes for the payment of government subsidies towards the cost of building houses and there was a great increase in the number of houses built by local authorities and let at less than the economic rent. The extent and character of new building therefore depended to a considerable degree on the decisions of local authorities, which were strongly influenced by the recommendations of the war-time report of the Tudor Walters Committee, especially its emphasis on the provision of three-bedroom houses arranged on low-density estates. (fn. 6) In the nineteenthirties a lower price-level for new houses, at a time when the general level of real incomes was rising fairly quickly, attracted many more people to new suburbs and made it possible for private builders to resume the major role in further development.
In Essex in the nineteen-twenties the greatest single influence on the renewed spread of suburban building was the incursion of the London County Council which in 1919 bought a large estate at Becontree, mainly within the parish of Dagenham but extending also into Barking and Ilford. The intention was to build a satellite town for about 120,000 people from the County of London. (fn. 7) This scheme, though in practice it took the form of a large garden suburb rather than a genuine town, was begun in 1921 and proceeded at very varying rates, but on the whole, fairly swiftly. The fluctuations in activity were determined chiefly by changes in the amount of government subsidy available and in the pressure of demand for houses by Londoners, since most of the tenants at Becontree were voluntary applicants for accommodation there, though a few were people who had to be re-housed because of demolition schemes. (fn. 8) The period of most rapid building was from March 1926 to March 1929 when the number of dwellings rose from 6,142 to 16,515, and by March 1932, when 22,117 dwellings were in existence and accommodation had been provided for 103,328 new residents, the estate was almost complete. (fn. 9) In 1938 it had 25,736 dwellings with a population of 115,652, (fn. 10) and sufficient land remained unused for a little further expansion to be undertaken after the war: by March 1954 the number of dwellings was 26,399, but the population was estimated to have fallen to 112,807. (fn. 11)
The activities of the London County Council in Essex were confined to Becontree until in 1938 it began to build at Chingford as well. The Chingford estate was completed after the Second World War and contained 1,585 dwellings; in 1954 its estimated population was 6,720. After the Second World War several other large estates were built in Essex by the London County Council. The only one within the area covered by the present volume was the Hainault Estate in Chigwell, Dagenham, and Ilford. This was begun in 1947 and at 31 March 1954, when it was still unfinished, it contained 2,759 dwellings, housing a population estimated at 11,486. (fn. 12)
In the period between the wars there was a small incursion to Essex by another London authority, the City Corporation, which built 220 dwellings at Ilford. (fn. 13) The Essex local authorities, which previously had taken little part in the provision of houses, were also more active. At the end of 1918 the council of Barking Town owned 313 dwellings, that of West Ham 206, that of East Ham 106; there were no other council houses in the suburbs. (fn. 14) Between the wars every local authority in the area undertook some new building to provide additional accommodation. The numbers of dwellings built by each for this purpose by 31 March 1938 were as follows: Barking M.B. 992, Chingford M.B. 200, Dagenham M.B. 991, East Ham C.B. 396, Ilford M.B. 772, Leyton M.B. 339, Walthamstow M.B. 1,451, Wanstead and Woodford M.B. 218, and West Ham C.B. 604. In addition, under slum clearance schemes, Barking M.B. built 522, Dagenham M.B. 68, East Ham C.B. 105, Leyton M.B. 19, Walthamstow M.B. 176, and West Ham C.B. 958; and in the exercise of powers to abate overcrowding East Ham C.B. built another 32 dwellings. (fn. 15) These figures indicate that such improvement as there was in housing conditions in the older suburbs owed a good deal to building by local authorities, but that only in part of the new suburban area did growth depend on public enterprise. In Dagenham and (though not quite so completely) in Barking new suburban districts arose because public authority willed that they should, and a population settled there, many of whom would otherwise never have come to the suburbs. But in Chingford, Wanstead, Woodford and most of Ilford, local authority building was of minor importance. These districts were developed by private builders in response to a spontaneous economic demand, but subject to the control of the local authorities over the layout of their estates.
After the Second World War the conditions of building development changed again. A six-year interruption of residential building, the destruction and damage of houses by bombing in some districts, and changes in the age structure of the population, led by 1945 to a nearly universal shortage of accommodation, and the task of remedying it was left, as a matter of government policy, almost entirely to the local authorities. Until the nineteen-fifties private builders were practically restricted to the rebuilding of war-damaged dwellings. In order to bring the quickest relief of the immediate postwar shortage all the suburban authorities, except Wanstead and Woodford, put up temporary prefabricated houses before embarking on large schemes of permanent building. The numbers of temporary houses erected by each local authority were: East Ham C.B. 934, West Ham C.B. 550, Barking M.B. 285, Chingford M.B. 120, Dagenham M.B. 200, Ilford M.B. 299, Leyton M.B. 418, and Walthamstow M.B. 535. At the same time war-damaged houses were being made habitable again, and this work continued after the building of temporary houses had ceased. The permanent building programme, however, was gradually able to absorb a bigger share of the available resources and the output of new houses quickened as a result. Even when restrictions on private building were greatly reduced in the nineteen-fifties the local authorities remained for some years predominantly responsible for residential building, but in some districts which between the wars had been built up almost exclusively by private enterprise, notably in Wanstead and Woodford, private builders resumed a substantial share in further development.
The details of residential building are summarized in Table 11.
THE ECONOMIC CHARACTER OF THE NEW SUBURBS
New settlement in suburban Essex between the wars, like that of the preceding thirty years, was mainly residential, and was affected only a little by new industrial development. The lack of a census in 1941 and the fact that the industry tables of the 1931 census were compiled in such a way as to render impossible a comparison with 1921 make it difficult to express quantitatively the extent to which additional industrial employment was available locally, but it is possible to see at a glance where new land was taken up for industrial use. Until the late nineteen-twenties there was little development of this kind and from then on it was important in only one area, along the Thames bank and the lower Roding, i.e., in Barking and Dagenham, where there was unused, low-lying land, unattractive for housing, but worth the attention of industrialists as soon as workers became more plentiful in the vicinity. Along the river, indeed, a narrow industrial belt, with considerable but gradually decreasing gaps, began to stretch much further down river than Dagenham, through Grays, West Thurrock and Tilbury as far as Thames Haven. (fn. 16) The possibility thus arose of some of the inhabitants of suburban districts travelling away from London for daily employment, instead of towards it. Within the suburban area important developments included the laying out of an industrial estate at Barking, with frontage to the Thames, (fn. 17) and the acquisition of a riverside estate at Dagenham by the Ford Motor Company. In 192931 this firm built there a huge factory with jetties for loading and unloading ships, and other factories connected with the motor industry were also built on the estate. (fn. 18) During the nineteen-thirties Barking and Dagenham thus gained appreciable additions of fairly heavy industry: engineering, chemicals, paint, concrete products, as well as various branches of the timber trades. (fn. 19) Away from the river there were a few small areas of new industrial development. In Dagenham a light industrial belt arose at Chadwell Heath, (fn. 20) and another near the Four Wantz. There was a little additional industry in the Roding valley at Ilford as well as Barking. Walthamstow's factory area grew appreciably and such products as mica and celluloid goods, xylonite, scientific and photographic instruments, clothing, and brushes were turned out there. (fn. 21) A small new group of factories was also built at South Chingford. (fn. 22) The growth of manufacture just over the Middlesex border in Edmonton was also significant for neighbouring Chingford and Walthamstow. But away from the river the settlement of new industry was insufficient to absorb the additional suburban residents, even when allowance is made for the consequential employment to which it gave rise in shops, service occupations and local administration.
Nevertheless, these new developments modified the pattern of movement between home and workplace, especially after 1930, when the resident population of the older suburbs began to decline while the number of jobs available in them was better maintained. In 1951 the proportion of suburban residents working outside their own local government area was even higher than in 1921. It varied from 76.5 per cent. for Chingford to 43.9 per cent. for West Ham. But much of the increase gave rise to crossmovements within the suburban area. If Barking, Chingford, Dagenham, East Ham, Ilford, Leyton, Walthamstow, Wanstead and Woodford, and West Ham are taken together, the number of people working outside their own area was 86,000 more in 1951 than in 1921. But the number going to the City or the County of London had risen by only 14,000. (fn. 23)
It is impossible to compare very precisely the way in which the suburban population was employed before and after the First World War, because in 1921 the census classification of occupations was drastically altered. But approximate comparisons of certain groups of occupations are possible, and it does not appear that the broad occupational character of the older suburbs was greatly modified, though there were important incidental changes. For instance, in East and West Ham a fall in the proportion of men finding employment at the docks and on the river was offset by a rise in the proportion with jobs in road transport. More useful comparisons may perhaps be made between those suburbs which grew rapidly between the wars and those which had been practically completed by 1914.
In Dagenham the chief groups of occupations for males in 1931 were: commerce, finance and insurance (not clerks) 8.5 per cent. of the occupied males aged 14 and over; road transport 8.1 per cent.; clerks, draughtsmen and typists 7.7 per cent.; builders, bricklayers, etc., 7.1 per cent.; general labourers 6.8 per cent.; metal workers 5.4 per cent.; workers in wood and furniture 5.1 per cent. For Barking Town the biggest proportions were: general labourers 11.0 per cent.; commerce, finance and insurance (not clerks) 9.5 per cent.; clerks, draughtsmen, typists 8.1 per cent.; metal workers 8.0 per cent.; builders, bricklayers, etc., 6.9 per cent.; 'other unskilled workers' 6.1 per cent.; road transport 5.1 per cent. Clearly, these were areas where the population had a markedly industrial character, in some ways roughly comparable to that of West Ham both then and earlier. In West Ham in 1931 the chief occupations of males were: commerce, finance and insurance (not clerks) 9.9 per cent.; general labourers 9.3 per cent.; metal workers 9.2 per cent.; water transport 8.7 per cent.; clerks, draughtsmen, typists 6.9 per cent.; 'other unskilled workers' 6.6 per cent.; road transport 6.2 per cent. (fn. 24)
Even before the First World War Barking had had a more industrial population than the other suburbs, apart from West Ham, but it is striking that it retained this character in the post-war expansion, while the occupational structure of Dagenham was even more significant. Since the great inflow to West Ham between 1870 and 1890 the Essex suburbs had seen no new community of this kind, but whereas the character of West Ham was largely determined by the docks, factories and workshops that were built there, this was not so at Dagenham. Dagenham's occupational structure was determined much more by the employment of its residents before they moved there. The circumstances in which most of its houses were built and financed made it fairly certain that they would be occupied almost entirely by the working class. Until 1931 Dagenham had an industrial population with few local industries, and a survey of the Becontree estate in that year showed that only one-third of its occupied residents found their employment within five miles, while another third worked ten or more miles away. (fn. 25) The subsequent changes in Dagenham reversed the 19th-century procedure, for they showed the nature of local industry being partly determined by a supply of labour which had already settled there without regard to the chances of local employment.
The other growing suburbs present a different picture. Their populations were much more dependent on the non-industrial employments which had characterized them when they were smaller. The chief occupations of males in 1931 were as follows:
Ilford: clerks, draughtsmen, typists 23.1 per cent.; commerce, finance and insurance (not clerks) 18.7
per cent.; metal workers 5.5 per cent.; road
transport 5.0 per cent.
Chingford: clerks, draughtsmen, typists 17.6 per cent.; commercial and financial 16.0 per cent.; metal workers 7.0 per cent.; workers in wood and furniture 6.7 per cent.
Wanstead: clerks, draughtsmen, typists 25.6 per cent.; commercial and financial 25.5 per cent.; professional occupations 9.1 per cent.
Woodford: commercial and financial 18.8 per cent.; clerks, draughtsmen, typists 18.7 per cent.; professional occupations 6.8 per cent.; metal workers 6.4 per cent.; builders, bricklayers, etc. 5.7 per cent. (fn. 26)
If there was any significant change from the pre-war position it was, as far as can be perceived among the altered categories, a relatively greater preponderance of clerical occupations and a diminished representation of the professions and, inevitably as the built-up area spread, the ousting of agriculture, which in 1911 had employed nearly one-tenth of the occupied males of Chingford. (fn. 27)
The occupations of females in 1931 also reveal a marked contrast between Barking and Dagenham on the one hand and the remaining areas of expansion on the other. The importance of clerical employment was much the same for the women and girls of the latter as for those of the late-19th-century dormitory suburbs, whereas Barking and Dagenham were more like West Ham in this respect. But the other new suburbs housed more people in occupations of a higher social standing than the large pre-1914 suburbs had done. In none of the older suburbs were as many as 5 per cent. of the occupied women engaged in the professions, except in Leyton where the proportion was 6.4 per cent., and Barking resembled them in this respect. In the newer suburbs the proportions were 15.6 per cent. in Wanstead, 12.4 per cent. in Woodford, 11.5 per cent. in Ilford, 9.7 per cent. in Chingford, and 5.0 per cent. in Dagenham. That Dagenham appears at all in this list is merely a reflexion of the fact that before much industry was established there the proportion of women who were in any kind of employment was exceptionally low, but plenty of women teachers were needed and some of them lived locally. The percentages of the occupied females living in each local government area who were engaged in clerical occupations were as follows: Ilford 32.1; Wanstead 26.5; Leyton 25.7; East Ham 24.8; Chingford 24.4; Woodford 22.9; Walthamstow 21.5; Barking 18.0; West Ham 13.8; Dagenham 12.6. (fn. 28)
How the further growth of the suburbs in the nineteen-thirties affected their occupational character cannot be precisely stated as there was no comprehensive investigation until 1951, when war had brought some new developments. In very broad terms, however, it appears that the newer suburbs retained their character but that when the older ones began to decline in size it was mostly the people in the higher grades of occupation who left them, so that by 1951 the economic and social contrasts within suburban Essex had been sharpened. In 1951 an attempt was made to group the occupations of all males aged 15 and over in five large classes according to social standing, and this illustrates the contrast very clearly. In England and Wales as a whole the proportion in the two highest classes professional occupations and intermediate occupations was 18.3 per cent. In the various Essex suburbs it was 36.5 per cent. for Wanstead and Woodford, 25.4 per cent. for Ilford, 24.6 per cent. for Chingford, 14.6 per cent. for Walthamstow, 13.5 per cent. for Leyton, 11.6 per cent. for East Ham, 10.3 per cent. for Barking, 8.7 per cent. for West Ham, and 7.7 per cent. for Dagenham. The proportion in the two lowest classes partly skilled and unskilled occupations was 29.0 per cent. for England and Wales. The proportions for the Essex suburbs were: West Ham 41.8 per cent., Dagenham 36.5 per cent., Barking 35.4 per cent., East Ham 30.8 per cent., Leyton 24.0 per cent., Walthamstow 23.1 per cent., Ilford 17.4 per cent., Chingford 15.5 per cent., and Wanstead and Woodford 13.1 per cent. (fn. 29)
The growth of population, the nature of the commonest occupations in the expanding districts, and the slowness of new industry to settle in them make plain the continued great dependence of suburban economic life on passenger transport. The extent of daily movement between home and work just after the First World War has already been described and, though no equally comprehensive survey was made again until 1951, all the indications are that in the twenties and thirties daily travel was increasing. The Royal Commission on Transport in 1930, dividing Greater London into four segments centred on the City, was told that the daily ebb and flow from the north-eastern quarter was nearly half a million persons. (fn. 30)
The main task of transporting this multitude had still to fall on the railways, but, although these were already over-burdened at the beginning of the century, very few new railway works were completed until after the Second World War. Suburban life was possible as long as some sort of not too dilatory transport was available, however overcrowded, and the result of the outward spread of the suburbs was that more people made rather longer journeys in rather greater discomfort. The First World War, with its soaring prices, caused the railway companies to dismiss any ideas of further electrification. In 1919 the Great Eastern, as a very partial substitute for electrification, spent 80,000 on new works in connexion with its suburban services from Liverpool Street to Enfield, Palace Gates, and Chingford, as a result of which it was able in 1920 to introduce, over the tracks common to these three services, the most frequent steam-operated service in the world, with an increase of about 50 per cent. in the number of trains. In the peak periods there were in every 20 minutes four trains to Walthamstow, of which two went on to Chingford. (fn. 31) But even this was not sufficient and there were no comparable improvements on the other lines. The building of Becontree made conditions specially bad on the lines in the south of the area. On the Ilford service of the London and North Eastern Railway (of which the Great Eastern formed part) the peak hour trains were overcrowded for the entire length of the journey, yet many people for whom this line was most conveniently situated used instead the District trains from Barking, because they offered cheaper workmen's fares. The Fenchurch Street trains of the London Midland and Scottish Railway (which had absorbed the Midland Company) passed across the Becontree estate but were of very limited use because they were filled by Southend passengers. (fn. 32) The London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee, which inquired into travelling conditions in the area in 1926, concluded that no great improvement was possible without electrification, that the Ilford line of the L.N.E.R. should have priority in any scheme of electrification, but that the L.M.S.R. should also consider electrifying its line from Barking to Upminster, as the District Railway was willing to provide a service if this were done. (fn. 33) The last suggestion was the first to be carried out and the District trains began to run to Upminster in 1932. (fn. 34) A great improvement was thus made in the travelling facilities to and from the Becontree estate, for which additional stations were built, but Becontree had grown so much since 1926, when the new service was already needed, that the trains were bound to be seriously overcrowded at the peak hours. The only other significant improvement in service before the Second World War was that in 1936 the Hammersmith trains of the Metropolitan Railway began to run through from Aldgate East to Barking at peak periods, and at these times gave Plaistow, East Ham and Barking an extra eight trains an hour. (fn. 35)
Considerable changes were projected, however, after the establishment in 1933 of the London Passenger Transport Board, which was given a virtual monopoly of passenger services other than those of the four main railway companies. In 1935 the Board and two of the main line railway companies brought out a large scheme of new works, which had the backing of the Treasury. The projects which concerned the Essex suburbs were the electrification of the L.N.E.R. main line from Liverpool Street through Ilford as far as Shenfield; the electrification by the L.N.E.R. of its Epping suburban line from Leyton and of the Grange Hill branch from Woodford; and the construction of a new tube extension of the Central Line of the London Underground from Liverpool Street to Stratford, where the line would come to the surface in the L.N.E.R. station, and then onwards in tube to Leyton where it would join the Epping branch on the surface; from the Leytonstone station on this line another new tube would be built eastwards to a point near Newbury Park where it would come to the surface and join the Grange Hill line. (fn. 36) These schemes, though far advanced, were not complete when the Second World War broke out and caused work on them to be suspended. After the war their completion was, at the government's request, given priority over all other railway improvements in the London area. (fn. 37) It had been intended to open all the extensions to the Central Line at the same time but so great had the need become for additional transport services, especially in north Ilford, that short sections were brought into use successively as they were completed. (fn. 38) The extension was opened from Liverpool Street to Stratford on 3 December 1946, (fn. 39) Stratford to Leytonstone on 5 May 1947, Leytonstone to Newbury Park and Leytonstone to Woodford on 14 December 1947, (fn. 40) Newbury Park to Hainault on 31 May 1948, (fn. 41) Woodford to Loughton and Woodford to Hainault via Grange Hill on 21 November 1948, and the last section, Loughton to Epping on 25 September 1949. On 26 September 1949 an electric service between Liverpool Street and Shenfield was inaugurated. (fn. 42) These developments meant a drastic reorganization of suburban services. The trains run by the former L.N.E.R. from Epping, Woodford and Leyton to Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street, and between Woodford and Ilford, were withdrawn and these suburbs were provided instead with frequent services from the London Underground lines. The new services were a great improvement on the old and from the outset were very heavily used. (fn. 43)
There still was great congestion at peak periods and no imminent prospect of any further amelioration. But some ultimate improvement was envisaged when in 1955 plans were announced for the electrification of most of the suburban steam lines, and the British Transport Commission (which became responsible for the nation's transport in 1948) took powers to build a new tube line from Walthamstow to Victoria, thus returning (with variations) to a plan first propounded more than sixty years before. The first fruits of these new projects came in 1960 when electrification of the north-east suburban lines from Liverpool Street was completed. Electric trains began running between Chingford and Liverpool Street on 14 November 1960, though the formal inauguration of the new service, with quicker and more frequent trains, was not until 21 November. (fn. 44) The start of electric services on the old London, Tilbury and Southend line was planned for the end of 1961, and some electric trains were introduced then, but the inauguration of a full service was delayed. Building of the new tube railway was not begun until 1963.
If the needs of suburban life put increasing demands on the railways, to which they adjusted themselves belatedly and imperfectly, it might have been hoped that some relief would come from road transport. After the First World War there were notable changes both in the roads and in the public services that ran on them, but it is doubtful whether they eased the daily movement of suburban workers very much, though they did have other important social effects. Before 1914 the trams had been the main supplement of the trains and their services continued with little significant change, except in administration. (fn. 45) The Leyton Council ceased to run trams in 1921 when its services were taken over by the London County Council, and Barking Town Council also gave up tramway operation in 1929 and leased its tramways to the neighbouring local authorities of East Ham and Ilford. (fn. 46) In 1933 the remaining local authority tramways were compulsorily taken over by the London Passenger Transport Board, and this led to many changes. In 1935 the Board took powers to substitute trolley buses for trams on all the local routes in the Essex suburbs and also to establish short sections of new trolley-bus route in Woodford, Leyton and Higham Hill (Walthamstow) and from Walthamstow to Tottenham and from Canning Town to North Woolwich. (fn. 47) By 1938 all the local routes had been converted to trolley-bus operation, (fn. 48) and though there were still tramway services from London in Leyton, Ilford, Barking and East and West Ham, preparations for the conversion of these had gone so far by the summer of 1939 that the work was completed in 1939 and 1940 despite the outbreak of war. (fn. 49)
More important was the extension of motor-bus services, which had become significant only just before the First World War. The main routes of the London General Omnibus Company which linked the Essex suburbs with inner London continued in operation (with modifications) and were supplemented by a rapidly increasing number of other routes connecting different parts of the suburban area. The nineteen-twenties were the outstanding period of development when not only were many new routes introduced but the design and carrying capacity of vehicles were improved almost every year. (fn. 50) Consequently, if the facilities for public road transport in 1930 are compared with those existing twenty years earlier the contrast appears revolutionary. After 1930 the new level of service was maintained and in some matters of detail improved, but change was much more gradual.
The bus services on the whole were a supplement rather than an alternative to the railways. They helped to make it possible for suburban houses and factories to be built farther from the railways and tramways than had been convenient before, and thus they greatly enlarged the area that was suitable for building development just at the time when suburban expansion might otherwise have been hampered by the insistence on lower building densities. The growth of bus services was thus partly responsible for more people settling in the outer suburbs than would otherwise have done so. But the buses did not in most cases carry the extra residents to their place of daily employment. They took them instead to some convenient railway station, there to add to the congestion on the railways. Such new factories as were built in the suburbs, however, were often dependent on bus services for the daily transport of their workers; and where workers came from residential areas to the docks and factories of East and West Ham, some of them began to find it more convenient to travel by bus or trolley bus than by train, so that by the nineteen-thirties the passenger train service in the dock area could be greatly reduced. The branch line to Gallions ceased to be used for passenger traffic after it was bombed in 1940. It was formally abandoned in 1950. (fn. 51)
The growth of private motoring reinforced the effect of bus services in spreading the suburban area, and the two together made greater demands than ever on a road system that had long been severely strained. In the nineteen-twenties, however, much was done to adapt the road system to contemporary needs. In 1919 the Ministry of Transport began to provide financial assistance for the execution of the Greater London arterial roads programme drawn up at the war-time conferences. (fn. 52) Two additions to this programme affected suburban Essex: a new road from London to Southend and a road, partly improved and partly new, from London to Purfleet. (fn. 53) The Essex roads in this extended programme were completed and opened during the nineteen-twenties, with one notable exception. (fn. 54) The recommendation of 1915 that a new road should be built to give access to the Royal Docks was not acted on and the appalling congestion in this district continued. The Ministry of Transport produced a scheme of improvement but did not offer to finance it; the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory declared in 1925 that this scheme was more urgently needed than any other in the London Traffic Area; (fn. 55) in 1926 a Royal Commission recorded emphatic approval of the scheme and described the existing traffic conditions as 'a public scandal'; (fn. 56) in 1928 agreement was reached on an apportionment of the cost; (fn. 57) and in 1929 Parliamentary approval was obtained. (fn. 58) After this long delay a comprehensive improvement was carried out. It included a new bridge over the Lea between Poplar and Canning Town, a new road from Canning Town to the North Woolwich Road with bridges over the railway and the Tidal Basin entrance, and a new bridge and short by-pass to avoid the level crossing at Silvertown station. The whole scheme was not completed until 1935. (fn. 59) Thus after nearly half a century of discussion one of the major inefficiencies in the operation of the Port of London was removed.
In other respects, however, the road system in the nineteen-thirties and afterwards was becoming increasingly inadequate for the traffic which used it. Communications from north to south were particularly unsatisfactory, and even the new roads of the nineteen-twenties lost some of their value because of the inadequate streets into which their traffic debouched. (fn. 60) But though proposals were made for new roads and improvements of existing ones, nothing of any magnitude was done. South-west Essex, like the rest of Outer London, had developed an economic and social life that depended on a heavy volume of rapid traffic to a greater degree than any previous communities anywhere. It is for this reason that the long delays and partial nature of transport improvements were such serious matters. It may well be that a transport system capable of making the suburban way of life economically efficient and physically comfortable was at this period a technical impossibility. It seems certain that, although transport facilities were intermittently improved, the enormous continual strain upon them was the greatest weakness in that way of life.