Laindon Station and Me (Part 1)
Despite living a mere seven minutes’ walk from Laindon station, and despite the fact that train noise could regularly be heard at my home, railway trips before WW2 were a rare event. On a very few occasions, and still so rare it may have been no more than twice, I travelled, accompanied, to visit my paternal grandparents at Leighton Buzzard where Harry Bathurst, my grandfather in retirement, ran “The White Horse Inn”, a pub that is still shown on the Canal List as being a water side pub on the Grand Union at Linslade.
The alternative train trip from Laindon station was invariably to Southend-on-Sea, most usually in the company of my maternal grandparents (the Vickerys) who, although they had initially discovered the sea-side at Margate, found Southend a satisfactory substitute and far easier to reach. Before they retired to their country dwelling in Basil Drive, Laindon, at the outbreak of WW2, they had lived in East Ham, in the same family home they had obtained shortly after marriage in the last years of Victoria’s reign.
Like many other east Londoners had come to realize, Southend had become a favourite seaside destination because of its close proximity to their part of London. Within a radius of forty miles or less from their home ground, at a period when travel was a matter of both time and cost, Southend offered a good bargain for those of limited means.
As a seaside resort, the south end of Prittlewell had developed in the 18th century at a period when the wealthy of the land had espoused the idea that breathing in the special aromas of the seaside was “good for you” in health terms, the prevailing belief being at the time that disease and infection were transmitted by “bad air”. This was not such a new idea as is often thought, nor the concept of enjoying the delights of being close to the sea. The elite of Roman society had their sea-side resorts and, possibly, the oldest of such in England may, coincidently, have been in Essex; at Mersea Island where evidence has been found that links it with Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town.
The emergence of Southend-on-Sea as a popular resort for the masses of East London depended upon the development of the railways, as did so much in the 19th century. Initially, the specially created London Tilbury and Southend Railway (LTSR) was designed to link London with three resorts, namely Gravesend, by ferry from Tilbury, Margate by ferry from Thames Haven, (which route was claimed to be speedier than the rail service offered by the rival London, Chatham and Dover Railway) and, of course, Southend. The LTSR, after first linking to the services provided by the Great Eastern Railway at Forest Gate, rapidly provided links to other undertakings, most notably the North London Railway by creating a link between Victoria Park and Barking via Bromley-by-Bow, thus opening up the whole swath of residential estates that were rapidly swamping South West Essex and beyond. Thus with Barking station becoming an important railway hub, the embrace of London upon South Essex was becoming ever tighter.
In the latter years of the 18th century this embrace became even tighter still. In the face of competition from the Great Eastern Railway, who were seeking to open up their own link with Southend, the LTSR introduced the short cut link between Barking and Pitsea which was the birth pangs of the “Plotlands” we know and, I hope, love. Not only did this speedier route enhance Southend’s reputation as both a sea-side resort and a commuter town, it created Laindon/Langdon Hills as a potential commuter conurbation, a country resort and, also, a tourist attraction.
As the principle means of travel in the late Victorian period, the Railways were on a winning streak. The LTSR, in particular, became such an economic attraction that they were bought out by the wealthier Midland Railway, thus opening Southend up as the destination of choice from an ever increasing number of starting points. At the same time, Laindon began to experience the arrival of “specials”, not only under the guise of outings for potential purchasers of country residences but of “Sunday School Outing” specials. There was in East London a tradition of some standing, certainly amongst the Non-Conformist Evangelical churches, to arrange outings for the children of their congregations to various beauty spots. Before the railways developed, these would have been by horse-drawn dray to places like Victoria Park, Wanstead Park or those various other remnants of Epping Forest that were managing to survive the onslaught of London’s rapid expansion.
The arrival of “specials” at Laindon Station after its opening in 1888 created such problems that additional siding accommodation was found to be neccessary. Both “Laindon” (which was not in the parish of Laindon but straddled Little Burstead and Lee Chapel) and “East Horndon” (actually in the parish of West Horndon) were of similar design and layout. When first built, it would have been difficult to detect the differences between them. ”East Horndon”, so named to distinguish it from “Horndon”, the initial name given to the earlier LTSR station at Stanford-le-Hope, had been built on land designated by Lord Petre of Thorndon Hall and Ingatestone. It had an almost similar layout except that, in recognition of the Thorndon Hall link, a special waiting room for his lordship was included in East Horndon’s design. A provision was also made for the attaching of Horse Boxes by providing a special siding on the “up” (London bound) side. The London Bound platform had only an open shelter for the benefits of waiting passengers, all the business side of the station being on the “down” side, booking hall and office as well as the Station Master’s House, adjacent to which were the sidings that dealt with freight traffic.
By contrast, “Laindon” station lacked a special waiting room, but, perhaps due to some premonition on what its construction would lead to, its Goods Yard had an enclosed Goods Shed with a tiny office attached in which the clerical staff responsible for recording freight working in and out of the yard carried out their duties. By way of contrast, the Goods Clerk at East Horndon had to share the booking office with his Passenger Clerk colleague, the area around the station considered too rural to generate much traffic.
Because Laindon station became a terminal point every so often for excursion trains, it became increasingly necessary for the railway company to provide accommodation for empty train carriages. As the goods yard was increasing in its use as freight such as ballast, sand and general building materials and items such as coke and coal etc. built up, room became more and more limited. Extra sidings were laid down as well as the means of physically reversing trains and engines, which action required a considerable change in the layout of the track, also resulting. At one time, London bound trains could be started from the “down” platform immediately adjacent to the Booking Hall.
On one such outing to Laindon devised by the churches of East and West Ham (or it may have been the Town Hall in East Ham), the Vickery children, or four of them, paid their first visit to Laindon. Lilian, my mother, recalls the white palisade fencing that graced the exit from the station (it was circa 1910) as a crocodile of children were escorted up the hill and to the woods across the road from the “Crown” Hotel. Picking wild flowers were the order of the day, in the absence of such strictures as now exist. But it was probably the fact that it was necessary to walk up a long country hill as compared to the flat streets of East Ham to do so that left the most lasting impression on the children.
The hills of Laindon presented some degree of a problem for the railway. From East (now West) Horndon the flat lands of the Thames valley marshes become the Dunton Bank, a five mile stretch of rising gradient when travelling eastwards which always represented something of a struggle for the steam engines of the past. Because steam traction required water, and water in the Laindon area was something of a perennial problem, engines could not be retained long at Laindon station if trains were terminated there. The nearest water cranes, as they were known and where an engine’s supply could be replenished, were at either Pitsea or Upminster. An engine running “light” (that is with no attached train) requires time to reach a destination and even if attached to another train for the purpose of disposal, the actual attaching process requires time, time that can be the source of delay to other trains.
There was already an in-built element of delay created by the distances involved between Upminster and East/West Horndon, East/West Horndon and Laindon and between Laindon and Pitsea. The rules of safety were such that no second train (or engine), travelling in the same direction, between any of these pairs of stations can leave the safety of the first station until such time as the preceding train has left the second station of the pair. This rule of “only one train in a section” of track at a time was controlled by having signal boxes at each of the stations involved, the Signalbox manned by a person fully trained in the rules and usually spoken of as the “bobby”, an illusion to the fact that the signalman’s function was once the province of the Railway Police Force. The whole business of control was indicated to the drivers of trains by arrays of semaphore signals, the meaning of, and location of which, had to be learned by heart by every driver using the line. The only exception to the “one train” rule arose when the first train had broken down, when, in such circumstance, movement was allowed into the section “ahead” and then only under even more and stricter rules.
The application of these rules meant that from time to time, delay was inevitable. To obviate this fact, the railway company introduced a system of safety zones or blocks between the stations by introducing “section signal boxes”. The railway personnel who were used to man these intermediate boxes were invariably of a lower grade than was used in the signal boxes at stations, firstly because the station signal box required to be manned for longer and, frequently, continuous periods, whereas the section boxes could be left unmanned with their signals in the “off” position when train movement was light or sparse. The lower grade signalman was often a person who as well as acting the role of a signalman, sometimes shared his duty hours performing what were considered to be less skilled work such as that of a station “porter” or attendant upon passenger trains and the like.
The section boxes that surrounded Laindon were, to the west or London direction, Dunton East and Dunton West. To the east between Laindon and Pitsea, the section boxes were known as Basildon West and Basildon East, even though that at Basildon West was actually in Lee Chapel with Fobbing parish intermediate before Basildon parish was reached. For the railwaymen who staffed these four boxes when necessary to deal with the volume of traffic, the comparative remoteness of the boxes with only the passage of trains to be of any note made it a lonely task. The Dunton West box was the most remote of them all and took the most physical effort to reach because the Lower Dunton Road or the Tilbury Road were the nearest road accesses if the signalman was on foot or on a bicycle and it was still a way to walk alongside the railway track to actually get to the box. To make the signalman’s lonely stint in the box even more “exciting”, the box, constructed of timber as it was, was perched close to the track on the “up” side, on a particularly unstable section of the Dunton Bank. The adjacent track had, initially, been laid upon a bed of spent ash obtained from a combination of either the Gas Works of East London or the locomotive sheds of the railway itself where ash was collected for disposed after the burning of the steam generating coal in its engines. As, at the point where Dunton West box stood, the neighbourhood consisted, to the south, of an open field usually kept ploughed, and to the north, the elevated bank upon which the track itself stood, the foundations of the box were unstable, made so by the ash base constantly being washed away by water from the adjacent field. While steam hauled trains travelling eastwards towards Laindon tended to pass the box reasonably slowly because of the rising gradient they were negotiating, on the other hand, trains leaving Laindon for London, having breasted the highest point, were taking full advantage of the falling gradient and were close enough to achieving their top speed and, rushing past the box, caused such a vibration that the inhabitant was in constant fear that the whole structure was on the point of being swept away. Only the metal frame on which the levers that operated the signals were mounted managed to keep the box anchored in place so it seemed.
As time went by not only the community of Laindon began to become more extensive but also the whole of the region that the LTSR existed to serve, grew also. While in many parts of the UK the developing railways had overreached themselves and were beginning to become uneconomic, South Essex served by the LTSR was proving to be a virtual money-spinner. Further improvements became necessary and were undertaken by the railway in the shape of the LMSR (London, Midland and Scottish Railway) which company, after “grouping” following WW1, had absorbed the LTSR. This, incidentally, annoyed the old Great Eastern Railway who considered the whole of East Anglia to be “their” province having become “grouped” as the LNER. Never the less, the old Midland remained in charge of the LTS until sometime after Railway Nationalisation, continuing to administer it from St Pancras Chambers in London.
The changes deemed necessary by the LTS to lead to more efficient train working generally as far as Laindon was concerned was an improvement in the station’s layout. The rudimentary shelter on the “up” side was demolished and replaced with a suite of heated waiting rooms, (“General” and “Ladies”), toilets for waiting passengers and two retail kiosks. The platform was renumbered No 3. The “up” rail track was diverted to run behind this new construct thus making the platform an island and what had been the “up” line became the “down”(retained as platform 2) but pronounced to be “the through road”, thus making it possible to allow non-stopping trains to by-pass another that had terminated or was reversing in platform number 1.
The new passenger accommodation created in this new layout was, in design, characteristic of the period in which it was constructed and, therefore, visually architecturally attractive. It mirrored similar work done creating a new station between Westcliff-on-Sea and Leigh-on-Sea and calling it “Chalkwell” as well as repositioning Leigh station further to the west and completely redesigning that station. This is why it was a pity that the demolition of most of what was on platforms 2 and 3 at Laindon of recent times destroyed yet another small piece of Laindon’s heritage.
Around the same period that these changes were taking place at the eastern end of the line, to the west improvements were also taking place between Barking and Upminster, changes that, although they did not directly affect Laindon, nevertheless had an effect upon the commuters, in particular, those who had by the time of change or improvement, taken up residence in the area. It has to be remembered that very little commercial or manufacturing industry followed the new residents into the Laindon area, and for most of those who considered Laindon and district as their home, had to continue to earn their bread outside the district. Thus new development elsewhere, particularly if it spelled “employment”, was always of interest. In particular, the construction, by the LCC (London County Council) of the largest Council housing estate in Western Europe at Becontree and Dagenham (east of Barking) meant work for many. There was even more interest when it became common knowledge that the Ford of America Foundation intended to create a new production line for the manufacture of its motor vehicles at Dagenham Dock to provide jobs for the Dagenham district. Until that period, a considerable amount of commuter traffic to and from Laindon had tended to be concentrated on the Barking and East Ham areas, the former for its fairly variant manufacturing activity, and the latter because of the “Royal” complex of docks. It was in the docks that my Grandfather Vickery had found his lifelong employment as a Boiler Maker, ending his employment at Harland and Wolf in the KG5 complex. The only difference between him and other Laindon dock workers was that it was only after retirement that he took up permanent residence, so, in the strictest sense of the word, he was never a commuter.
From the perspective of the railway, the changes and improvements to the west of Laindon meant the extension of the District Railway (built parallel to the LTS track because of the Midland’s financial involvement)from East Ham, were it had been terminated earlier, as far as Upminster. This led to either new additional stations being constructed or original stations being extended. The new stations were at Upney, Dagenham Heathway, Elm Park and Upminster Bridge, whereas the extended stations were those at Gale Street, previously only an “unmanned halt”, the rebuild being renamed as “Becontree”, at Dagenham (which became Dagenham East) and at Hornchurch. In the case of the old stations being extended, all the old booking offices were also replaced and rebuilt on a conveniently positioned roadway bridge across the now multiple tracks, an arrangement that was applied at Barking also where the booking office, previously situated in a pokey side street, was rebuilt on the new Longbridge Road bridge which had been constructed to replace the level crossing that previously had graced the east-end of the station’s platforms.
In Laindon and its environs, the extension of the electrically powered District Line was regarded as a great advance, opening up several new possible venues for commuters and, above all, holding out the hopes that one day The District would be extended as far as both Laindon and Southend. This latter hope was sustained right through until just before the outbreak of WW2 shattered the dream, seemingly, for ever. The unrealised dream was not universally held, however, by all in Laindon simply because there were those in the district who foresaw the possibilities that had been created earlier by the construction, in the early twenties, of the Southend Arterial Road and its later turning into a dual, high speed roadway. There was an irony in this. Most of the material for its original construction was conveyed into the area by rail, freighted to yards like that at Laindon. Sidney Cordery, who was resident in Tyler’s Avenue, Laindon, when I first knew him, had joined the LTS railway in its Midland Railway’s days as a Goods Clerk on leaving school in 1912. He it was who spent a lot of his working hours in and around the small Goods office attached to Laindon station’s Goods shed, where a constant record had to be kept of the various freight carrying vehicles, including those, as he informed us, loaded with road building material that arrived or departed almost every day. Because of the complicated manner in which the various different railway undertakings were organised this was a painstaking business, usually undertaken and involving practically everything being recorded in, not just duplicate or triplicate, but invariably as many as five times!
Eventually, Sydney got tired of Goods work and transferred to the Booking Office where he had more contact with the general public. An amiable chap, “Sid” as he was known, rapidly gained the reputation of as being what many thought of as, a “human” booking clerk. It was a well-known fact that the considerable number of the types of people who were trapped behind those little windows and employed as booking clerks, issuing tickets, dating them and collecting money and passing out change, were not the very best sort of persons to indulge with in conversation, particularly when there might be a long line of other passengers behind the intended conversationalist waiting their turn to be served. It was an even better known fact, that if you really wished to upset a busy booking clerk, particularly at a station like that at Laindon, you should make of him the enquiry as to how much it was to buy a ticket to some remote station in the far reaches of the British Isles’ railway network of which destination the chances were, most likely, he had never heard. The even better method of raising ire, of course, was, after obtaining a ticket, if the passenger then enquired when the next train was due and having been given the information, went on to ask “isn’t there one before that?”. “Isn’t there one before that?” was always guaranteed to get up every railwayman’s back, not just that of a booking clerk.
Notwithstanding the irritations that so riled the majority of booking clerks, Sid Cordery remained in that particular job right through to the end of WW2 with the result that he became known to many of the residents who travelled through Laindon station and, because of his nature, he became just as well known to the staff, train crews, drivers, firemen and guards, of the LTS who did not reside in Laindon. I was always pleased to see it was Sid on duty when just before the beginning of WW2 I got a little regular job from another neighbour. This consisted of collecting each night, except Sundays’, a “workman’s return” to Barking, made available after 8pm for the following day. The fare, at reduced rate, providing the ticket holder reached their destination before 8am, was one shilling and eleven pence and a ha’penny and, since I could keep the change, I made 3pence a week pocket money from the job. Unlike other Booking Clerks, Sid, who knew me, always treated me like an adult he knew, whereas usually “kids” at the window tended to get short shrift.
During the war, Sid served as, initially, an ARP Warden a-la-Hodges style but without the agro, and later, additionally, as a Special Police Officer, both of which two additional jobs greatly increased the awareness of his character in the district. I shall give more on Sid in a later part of this particular essay. On the neighbour for whom I collected his train tickets to Barking every evening there is just a short follow up; at the end of the war, I was part of a study course upon, among other things, the subject of Metallurgy. Part of this study involved a visit to Ford’s Plant at Dagenham and, while looking around at various aspects of the production of motor vehicle manufacture, which at the time was chiefly Fordson Agricultural Tractors for export, I turned a corner on the production line and came face to face with my neighbour. I do not know who was the most embarrassed by the encounter, him or me. This man, who I had seen time and time again walking past my home on his way to and from the station and who always presented the appearance, with his brief-case, umbrella and bowler hat, as being something in the city or thereabouts, was on the assembly line, at the particular moment of our meeting placing gears in the correct order into crank cases and passing them on to a colleague to be tightened. I came to understand the man’s reticence at not wishing it be known in Laindon of the sole-destroying manner in which he earned his crust, which is why he shall remain nameless now.
The realisation that there was an indication in the fact that the tickets I bought for him were always cheap rate was understandable in itself. Always short on cash ourselves for outings, London was rarely visited and taking a train direct to Fenchurch Street was a no-no, simply because the last few miles beyond Bromley were expensive since they belonged to the Great Eastern in the shape of the LNER. Thus it was cheaper to change at Barking and travel forward by other means; the cheapest of all being the trams from Barking Broadway which got the traveller as far as Aldgate Pump, the closest they were ever allowed to the city.
The best outing, in any case, was to Southend; the early sense that the sea was getting closer as the train went past the house-boats just east of Benfleet, the real sea smell and very brief glimpse of the real thing at Leigh by the Cockle sheds, were exiting enough when one was young. We usually followed my Grandparents routine, the walk from the Central Station to take tea in vast breakfast size cups that could hardly be lifted (cost 1d) from Going’s under the pier before walking the front with all its entertainments, the most lasting of which in my memory is those large shining brass weighing machines where if the operator didn’t guess one’s weight correctly there was no charge for finding the right answer. Why do such memories last a lifetime? What about the toast rack trains on the pier with just a chain to stop a small child falling into the waves below. Is that a false memory? And Southend had its own Municipal Tram service and the bobbies all had white helmets and………
(To be continued)