Lovely Laindon (Part 2)

"Water and drainage" (Continuing the theme of "how is it you became a Laindoner?")

The land agents that had the task of disposing of the plots into which the redundant fields of the Laindon farms had been divided employed many devices to persuade potential purchasers to take up their offers. They had something of an up-hill task. One of the special attributes that the Laindon area was said to offer was both fresh air and good health, although the latter attribute may, as it turned out, have been a rather contentious subject?

If good health relied on a supply of fresh and clean water, given the perennial problem that this represented, (a problem that persisted for many right up to the advent of the Basildon New Town era in the 1960s), then an element of deceit might be detected in such a claim. The difficulties associated with the supply of water, and the even more persistent problem of the lack of main drainage for so many properties throughout the district was a constant source of concern to the general and public health authorities alike.  As early as 1899 we know that much concern was being expressed that many residents and visitors to the district were relying on water taken from the ponds originally used by cattle and among the local commercial interests there was much discussion regarding the possibilities of establishing a local utility undertaking able to supply both water and the town gas necessary for heating and lighting.  This seems to have got little further than the talking stage, although land on the south edge of Laindon parish was set aside for a water purification plant and further land west of Laindon station belonging to the LMS Railway Company was long regarded as the site of a future “Gas Works”.

Although many property owners, particularly those taking up residence on a more permanent basis, had wells constructed on their land, the problem of the supply of water was eventually solved on something of a piece meal basis. Where properties had been constructed along long established roads the supply of water from the mains represented little problem. It was the numerous “un-adopted” (and un-made up) roads that represented the biggest and most persistent problem. Piped water was made directly available to householders on their own property if the water company decided that the density of development warranted the installation of a mains supply for the purpose. Where that criterion could not be met a standpipe system was often introduced at what was considered a not unreasonable distance for water to be carried. This latter system was open to considerable abuse.

At a standpipe, the tap or faucet was protected in a brick and concrete locker access to which was gained by a stoutly constructed wooden door with a Yale lock, the idea being that a suitable key would only be made available to those property owners who had paid the water company the appropriate rate. This had a tendency to work only in theory for there was general feeling abroad that water, as a staple of life, should be freely available to all, a concept much reinforced by the fact that, in many of the city parks of London, water was constantly on offer from drinking fountains without payment. In consequence of this, locker door keys were frequently copied and passed around without authority, locker door were left open or taps left running (the spigot being external) or, in the extreme, doors were broken into. Such abuses regularly kept the bailiffs of the Water Company busy in and around the area.

It must be recognisable that it was the persistent problem with an adequate supply of water that was the greatest inhibitor to the desired development of the area. Certainly it was obvious to the owners and agents seeking to dispose of their “building plots” if they were to rid themselves of land to customers desirous of building anything more substantial than the flimsy huts and shacks that littered the area. A considerable amount of water is involved in the building of a substantial bungalow or house and while many of the speculative builders of the various “ estates” being offered for sale as a complete unit had obviously solved this problem, there remained considerable undeveloped tracts between that required infilling to make the area a viable township and few potential customers seeking to self build could countenance the cost of having a water supply installed in advance of purchasing a plot of land.

In recognition of this fact, land agents often took it upon themselves to act as guarantors to enable the water company to justify extending the availability of their facility. Thus, in 1941 when, during the period of the heaviest air assault by Germany on Britain and the London area in particular (the “Blitz”), Langdon Hills estate agent H.E.Bebington in his capacity of a member of the Billericay Urban District Council is reported in the September meeting of the Council as attempting to persuade the Urban District to back his guarantee in order that the Water Supply Company can extend their pipes from Basildon Drive, Laindon into the adjacent Church Hill Estate in order to supply both residents and potential residents with clean water.

There is an irony attached to Bebington’s efforts in that the both the UDC and its predecessor, the Billericay Rural District Council had long employed the excuse of the sparsely developed nature of  much of Laindon, Langdon Hills, Dunton and Lee Chapel as being the reason why so many roads should be left “unadopted” but the War had introduced a sense of considerable urgency to the problem, a problem that was now forced to remain low on the list of priorities for expenditure due to the need to direct funds elsewhere in response to the National emergency situation. The irony lay in the fact that the War and the Blitz in particular had led to a rapid increase in the Urban District’s population as many Londoners fled the Capital as refugees so much so that the local authority had been unable to assess what impact this particular aspect of the emergency was having on their district. Although the movement of the civilian population was intended to be a matter of considerable control and regulation, this lost sight of the fact that a complete blackout had been imposed on any news that might give the Germans the slightest clue to the “success” or otherwise of their endeavours as a consequence of which it was not until the taking of the 1951 census, 20 years after that of 1931, that the correct size of the resident population in the area was known. This somewhat farcical situation led to considerable discord between representatives at Council meetings held during the general emergency situation of 1941. For example, considerable alarm was aroused in the department responsible for public Health that there was a great danger of the spread of disease among so many persons living in sub-standard accommodation without access to an adequate water supply.

Arising directly from this particular concern the Billericay Urban District Council opened and operated a temporary bathhouse that was constructed on an empty site in High Road, Langdon Hills at its corner with Osborne Road to provide full bathing facilities for those many persons of the district for whom only the so called zinc “bungalow bath” existed or nothing at all. The other health concern, that of the absence of main drainage for so many households of the area, received far less attention throughout the so-called “Plotlands” period. This was chiefly because it was only along the established roads of the area a sewer system of sorts existed for many who wished to connect up. Elsewhere, a variety of primitive methods prevailed with the chemical closet system probably dominating. Advertisements like that for “The Star” Sanitary Closet offered by AA Cullis & Co of Billericay for 37 shillings and sixpence offered a free can of the “Elsan” fluid that, with the well creosoted walls of the housing in which it was concealed, tended to suppress the uncleanness of those necessary visits that nobody, but nobody, has yet found a way of avoiding. Disposal of the content of what the Australians, in their forthright manner, call the “dunny bucket” was regarded by so many enthusiastic gardeners as useful, since, with a reasonably sizeable plot of land at their disposal, its aid to propagation was well recognised.

In 1938, a main trunk sewer was laid from the St. Nicholas Lane area via Leinster Road and across the open fields of Blue House Farm to continue eastwards towards what is now Basildon Town Centre.  Because of the intervening World War II, few were available to avail themselves of being connected to this, chiefly because of the initial cost and the distance that subsidiary conduits would have had to be laid. In any case, the war itself brought into existence so many restrictions on the use of both material and manpower for what was considered not to be essential to “war work” that it is doubtful if few thought it even worth the attempt.

(To be continued)

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  • In the penultimate paragraph of his article, John Bathurst refers to a temporary bathhouse opened and operated by the Billericay Urban District Council, in 1941, on the corner of Langdon Hills High Road and Osborne Road. I remember being sent to the bathhouse by my mother and, somewhere in these archives, one or two other contributors have written that they also used this facility. Memory says that this bathhouse was only open for a relatively short period of time. Why was that? If the BUDC opened the facility to help meet the needs of “so many people living in sub-standard accommodation” why did it have a short life? Certainly the same “sub-standard” accommodation” continued to exist for many years. I wonder why private money did not see what was probably a good niche business opportunity and take advantage of the situation? Certainly a lot better than competing with eight or ten butchers or half a dozen newsagents or even several building suppliers. Most within a stones throw of each other.

    By Alan Davies (16/03/2013)

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