Metropolitan Essex since 1919: The Second World War and after

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.

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'Metropolitan Essex since 1919: The Second World War and after', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, (London, 1966) pp. 90-92. British History Online [accessed 18 April 2024]


The Second World War was bound to have great effects on the Essex suburbs because they stood on the east of the largest and most vulnerable target for bombing. The first great upheaval came at the outbreak of war, when thousands of children were evacuated, for the whole of the suburbs were classed as an evacuation area, although until the summer of 1939 the government had not considered it would be necessary to move people from the outermost boroughs. Physical damage began in September 1940 when heavy and repeated night attacks on London were first launched. The autumn and winter of 1940–1 was the most distressing and damaging time of all. No district escaped attack and damage, but undoubtedly the greatest hardship was felt in West Ham, especially the dock areas. There was a combination of reasons for this: the weight of the attack; the high building density; the weak construction of many houses; and the ineffectiveness of local administration, (fn. 1) which was so serious that a Cabinet committee twice discussed whether West Ham Corporation should be deprived of its emergency powers in civil defence, and which underwent little improvement until the early summer of 1941. (fn. 2)

Things were never so bad again and there was a period of relative quiet in the middle of the war, but in the flying-bomb attacks which began in June 1944 and the long-range rocket attacks which followed them the suburbs were once more seriously involved. Ilford, indeed, received more rockets than any other local authority area in the London Civil Defence Region. (fn. 3) The launching of these new forms of attack led to a fresh large-scale evacuation of women and children, for thousands of the original evacuees had meanwhile returned home. In the summer of 1944 as many people were evacuated from Dagenham as at the beginning of the war, (fn. 4) and from Wanstead and Woodford the 1944 evacuation was the larger of the two. (fn. 5) The attacks also inflicted a good deal of additional damage to property. There were few houses in the Essex suburbs that went through the whole of the war completely undamaged and, though most of them were only slightly affected, every district had hundreds destroyed or made uninhabitable. The restoration of badly-damaged houses and the provision of new accommodation was therefore the most urgent task of all as soon as the war was over.

But the population movements and the destruction during the war had important permanent as well as temporary effects. Many parts of the older suburbs had been built too closely and too many people had been crowded into them. A few districts had been built too squalidly as well. In the nineteen-thirties some spontaneous removal of population and some deliberate pieces of slum clearance were relieving these conditions a little. But the war ensured that the change would go further and faster. Most of those who were evacuated, or called up for service in the forces, or directed to industrial work away from home, eventually returned to their families, but some of them settled down in fresh homes and jobs elsewhere. Some who might have returned could not do so because their homes had been destroyed. Part of the war-time loss of residents was permanent, as is shown by the following estimated figures for the civilian population of the combined area of East Ham, West Ham, Leyton and Walthamstow, which had been 698,000 at the 1931 census. At mid-year it was 624,000 in 1939, 514,000 in 1940, 368,000 in 1941, 392,000 in 1942, 406,000 in 1943, 406,000 in 1944, 421,000 in 1945, 495,000 in 1946, 513,000 in 1947; at the 1951 census the resident population was 516,000. (fn. 6) In West Ham the Luftwaffe made a drastic beginning of additional slum clearance schemes which might otherwise have been delayed for years. Reconstruction was inevitable and war-time changes made it administratively easier. Tenants who might have been hard to displace had gone away, much property was so badly damaged that landlords had no incentive to try to retain possession of it. (fn. 7) The opportunity was there to re-do much that had been done badly in the later 19th century, and to ensure that never again should West Ham try to cater for a population so out of scale with its area as it had housed since 1890. Difficult as the financial problems might be for a local authority which sustained a large loss of population, the West Ham Corporation decided in its plans for reconstruction to provide for an optimum population of 165,000. (fn. 8) The Second World War marked the beginning of the end of the over-dense residential conditions in suburbs which were established in the late 19th century, when tens of thousands of artisans, labourers, and clerical workers were first able to escape from much worse congestion in inner London.

Further out the population never fell so much, and not only recovered to its pre-war level but continued to grow. In an outer suburban area made up of Barking, Chigwell, Chingford, Dagenham, Hornchurch, Ilford, Romford, Waltham Holy Cross, and Wanstead and Woodford the population had risen from 441,000 in 1931 to 623,000 in 1939. The subsequent mid-year estimates of the civilian residents were 564,000 in 1940, 541,000 in 1941, 567,000 in 1942, 569,000 in 1943, 559,000 in 1944, 572,000 in 1945, 650,000 in 1946, 676,000 in 1947; at the 1951 census the resident population was 737,000. (fn. 9)

Thus the war and its aftermath saw a great and permanent shift in the distribution of population in suburban Essex, a renewed outward movement not only from the centre but from what half a century earlier had been the outer edge of the metropolis. But there was another change to be observed. The figures for the growth of the outer suburbs relate to an area considerably wider than that treated in the present study and it might have been more realistic if it had been wider still. The fringe areas of the period between the wars, Chingford, Dagenham, Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford, participated in the residential expansion after 1945, but they absorbed only a minority of the additional population. For them, too, the middle of the 20th century was the end of one phase of their existence. They were complete, settled communities, whose problems were no longer primarily those of growth. For about a century the area of the old Becontree and Waltham hundreds had been the scene of one of the most remarkable examples of the sustained inflow and settlement of urban population ever witnessed. By 1950 that development was virtually over there. The same movement was still proceeding, but it had passed on to fresh locations. The further history of metropolitan growth in Essex, and of the attempts to avoid the bleaker experiences of the suburbs here discussed, will no longer be found in this area but in the new residential estates and the new towns more distant from London.


  • 1. Idle, War over West Ham, 59–68.
  • 2. R. M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (Hist. Second World War: U.K. Civil Series), 258–9, 269–70.
  • 3. O'Leary, Danger over Dagenham 1939–45, 20.
  • 4. Ibid. 42, 47.
  • 5. S. Tiquet, It happened here: the story of civil defence in Wanstead and Woodford 1939–45, 21.
  • 6. Census, Eng. and Wales, 1951, Co. Rep.: Essex, p. xiv.
  • 7. Idle, War over West Ham, 129.
  • 8. Abercrombie, Greater London Plan, 173.
  • 9. Census, Eng. and Wales, 1951, Co. Rep.: Essex, p. xiv.