Memories of Lee Chapel
Sometime in the 1920s a farmer in Lee Chapel marked out some of his fields with roads in a grid pattern and a very large number of quarter acre plots and the result was given the grand name of the Primrose Hill Estate. The plots were first used for weekends either camping or in bungalows of varying quality built by the new plot owners. Among the campers were the Townsend family who later moved to Laindon and had the greengrocers in the High Road. As time went on a number of larger bungalows were built and became permanent homes. There were about sixty properties, mainly built of timber and asbestos, except for one two storey brick built house. There were also a considerable number of vacant plots. The estate was surrounded by fields and was never connected to any other development. The area is now covered by the housing to the south of The Knares such as Gaynesford and Leysings.
To reach the estate from Laindon High Road you first followed Northumberland Avenue which was initially unmade. It was later made up by Billericay Council as a concrete strip road and adopted for maintenance at public expense (against the advice of the officers due to its poor quality). About half way along this strip road, which was about a mile long, its name changed to Elizabeth Drive. At the junction of the two was the local shop, Barker’s Stores. Crossing the road at right angles was a green lane which ran from the bottom of St Nicholas Hill, via the Primrose Hill Estate, to Dry Street. This lane changed its name during its length, starting as Markhams Chase (which was surfaced soon after the school was built), then becoming Green Lane and later The Bridleway. The lane crossed the railway at a level crossing. Green Lane between the end of Markhams Chase and the level crossing was unmade but the council maintained a wide footpath with “No Cycling” signs. As this was the route from home to Markhams Chase school many of us cycled, quickly jumping off if we saw the local constable approaching. On other occasions we would see the constable himself cycling down the path! About half way along the path a wooden bridge crossed a brook, which at wet times could become a raging torrent. The planks of the bridge were laid in line with the path and on one occasion I was riding to school on my brother’s crossbar when the front wheel went down one of the gaps between the planks and we both went over the handlebars.
The level crossing had wide gates which were kept locked and smaller, though quite substantial, gates which could be opened by pedestrians. The crossing being uncontrolled, we kids were able to get quite close to the trains as they thundered past. If the driver thought we were getting too near he would let out a cloud of steam from under the engine to make us jump back. After crossing the railway, Green Lane went up a fairly steep hill. This section was known locally as The Glade as it was bounded by many huge elm trees on both sides. After the gas came there were streetlights up The Glade and quite a few around the estate. The Glade is now part of the Marks Hill nature reserve. After the war the residents negotiated for electricity to be supplied to the estate but before work began the plans for the new town were published and the electric company cancelled the agreement. Later the council ran a water main up The Glade to a number of stand pipes which were few and far between. To use them you had to pay for a key and I never knew anyone who did so as we had all had our own water supplies for many years. This was a rather strange thing for the council to do as the development of the new town had already begun and it was known that in due course the estate would be cleared.
My mother’s parents, Tom and Ada Crowest, bought a double plot and they, together with their youngest daughter, Kit, moved into a bungalow, Fairview, they had built on it. My parents, George and Marie Pegrum, remained in the house in Seven Kings which they had all shared. They had been married at St John’s Seven Kings by the vicar Mr Telford, father of Cecil Telford who became a curate at St Nicholas and later rector of Langdon Hills. Incidentally, one of the curates at St John’s was a young Mr Reynolds who later became rector of Laindon.
My grandmother subsequently asked my parents if they would have a bungalow built and come and live near her if she bought them a plot. They agreed and she bought the plot next door but one to hers. My father bought a sectional timber bungalow in kit form made by Pelhams of Uxbridge. I don’t know how it travelled to Laindon but I do know that a horse was used to drag the sections over the field from the level crossing. They called the bungalow Avonlea. My father and his father dug a deep well and brick lined it. The rain was piped off the roof of the bungalow, through a three chambered filter and into the well. We had a hand operated pump over the kitchen sink to draw the water up from the well for use in the house. If during particularly dry summers the level in the wells fell, the fire brigade would run a hose from Northumberland Avenue, threading it under the railway lines and then on up The Glade. They would then, for a charge, top up your well. It is perhaps surprising that my parents and grandparents left a house with all services connected to live in bungalows without any (although they were later connected to mains gas). To me, it did not seem unusual having never known anything else and I think the advantage of growing up surrounded by the fields of Lee Chapel certainly outweighed the disadvantages. Perhaps this was the attraction to my parents and grandparents.
Incidentally, after my parents left Seven Kings my grandfather’s sister (my Great Auntie Polly), her husband (my Great Uncle Nicholas) and their son moved into the house. At the beginning of the war Uncle Nicholas was interned as he was German. He was later released and worked in a munitions factory. Later in the war, by which time Auntie Polly had died, the house and about a dozen others were flattened by a doodle bug. Fortunately Uncle Nicholas was on night work and his son was away in the army. When the house was rebuilt my grandfather sold it as by that time Uncle Nicholas and his son had settled in a new home in Southend.
Later, my mother’s younger sister and her husband, Kit and Cliff Cordery, moved into the bungalow next door to us, Heywick Lodge, where my two cousins, Keith and Valerie, were born. When Valerie was born we were in the Anderson shelter during an air raid. My grandfather arrived wearing a tin chamber pot on his head and said, “It’s a girl!”. One evening my aunt left my cousins in bed and came in to see my mother. My brother Alan, who was playing in our front garden, came running in to tell us that flames were coming out of a window in my aunt’s house. My cousin Keith had been sitting in bed making paper darts, lighting them and throwing them out of the window. The inevitable had happened and one of them had caught the curtains.
Between Fairview and Avonlea was a badly built two room weekend bungalow, Primrose Cottage. At one time a rambler rose came up through a hole in the floor and disappeared through a hole in the ceiling. During the war it became the home of a family of four, Alf and Emmy Hall and their daughters Joyce and June. At the time they moved in I was in St Andrew’s Hospital, Billericay as I had a TB gland in my neck, a common ailment in children then, and to have my tonsils removed. As there was chicken pox in the children’s ward I was put in a women’s ward. I can remember that in the mornings there would be screens round certain beds and then two men with a trolley with a brown cover over it would come in and go behind the screens. I don’t know if, as a five year old, I realised what was happening, but when they left and the screens were removed the bed would be empty. Instead of removing the TB gland they were trying a new treatment of continually draining it. My parents used to bring in presents from “Auntie” Emmy who, of course, I had never met but when I returned home she and I became great friends. I had been there for some time when there was an outbreak of diphtheria in the ward, which I caught. I can remember my parents visiting on a Sunday afternoon but only looking at me through the window as the ward was in quarantine. I was then moved to the isolation hospital (which later became Mayflower Hospital). I can’t remember much about this hospital except that for “afters” we had rice pudding every day but Sundays when it was always spotted dick. Whilst I was in there I made yards of “dolly down the well” and on leaving I wrapped it round my teddy bear before he was taken away to be sterilised by baking so that I could take it home with me. For my sixth birthday, which I had in the hospital, I was given a book of pop out parts to make model aeroplanes which I made up. These could not be baked and had to be left behind. I had been very ill and my parents later told me how distraught they were, having already lost their first child, a girl called Pam, when she was eighteen months old. When I recovered from the diphtheria I went home before returning to St Andrew’s to have the gland and tonsils removed. In total I was away from school for a year.
We were luckier than many residents on unmade roads as the residents of the Estate had built a concrete path all the way up The Glade and along the first road, Heywick Drive, where we lived. When anybody died the undertakers would bring a trolley with the coffin on it to take them away. It must have been a very bumpy final ride going down The Glade as the wheelbase of the trolley was wider than the concrete path. In recent years I have tried to locate the concrete path, but have been unable to find it.
A lot of the ladies had shopping “barrows” as the High Road was a mile away. Mum had a very smart one, with two lifting lids, which Dad had built onto the chassis of our pram once it was no longer needed by us.
My father, who had been on active service with the Royal Marines in the First War and was therefore too old to be called up in the Second, continued to travel up to his job in the Post Office at Whitechapel. He would often travel home after a late shift during an air raid when the trains would stop with the bombs falling around, so that they could cover the fire in the engine to stop the glow being seen from above. On one occasion he was coming up The Glade in the dark, due to the blackout, which could be quite eerie, when he heard footsteps on the concrete path behind him. He stopped and called out, “Who is it?”, but getting no answer started to walk again and the footsteps resumed. He stopped and called out again but still got no answer. He continued to walk and then felt the wet nose of a cow nuzzling the back of his neck.
The residents of the Estate were quite a close community and hired St Michael’s hall for various gatherings and celebrations. I can just remember going to the party to commemorate the coronation of King George VI. I still have one of the printed programs with a blue ribbon attached listing the various activities during the day. My father’s name appears as a member of the organising committee. St Michael’s was looked after by Mrs Hopper, who lived on the Estate and whose husband was a licensed Lay Reader and superintendent of the Sunday School. One of her less enviable jobs was to dig a hole and empty the bucket toilets, particularly when there had been a social or wedding reception the night before and the buckets could be overflowing. Mrs Francis who lived on the estate would arrange days out by coach and an annual weekend trip to Blackpool Lights. My brother and I were also fortunate that our parents regularly took us to London museums and theatres. I went to my first West End theatre at the age of four. I was told that I slept through the second half! We also went on visits to places such as Hampton Court and Kew Gardens and boat trips on the Thames. At other times we would catch the Eastern National bus to Tilbury Ferry and crossed the Thames to visit places like Maidstone, Canterbury and Herne Bay. On occasions when we got back to Laindon we would take the taxi to Barkers. The car was very high so that it was easy to get into. It was the only taxi in Laindon and was run by Mr Hillman who was always dressed in chauffeurs uniform with peak cap and gaiters.
My brother and I attended Sunday School at St Michael’s Lee Chapel which, together with St Peter’s Laindon, were two daughter churches of St Nicholas. St Michael’s was in Green Lane and was situated between where Laindon link crossed Green Lane and the railway.
Father Vaughan-Jones was a curate of the Parish of Laindon cum Basildon with special responsibility for St Michael’s. (During the tenure of Mr Reynolds as Rector the curates were known as Father if a priest and Brother if a Deacon). I well remember Father Vaughan-Jones (who had been a Chaplain with, I believe, the Commandos during the war) shinning up the drain pipe, in his cassock, to release the bell which had become stuck.
At one time we had solemn Evensong once a month and the roof being somewhat low, the smoke from the incense burning did not dissipate in the way that it did in the loftier heights of St Nicholas. On one occasion I remember Kathleen Radford (the daughter of the Headmaster of the High Road School) playing the harmonium and gradually disappearing in the fog.
Whilst we were still at school, Alan and I painted the windows and doors of St Michael’s. There was a cross on the front on the apex of the roof. We could not get a ladder up to it as there was a porch below so Alan climbed onto the vestry roof at the back and inched along the ridge of the main roof to get to the cross, paint pot and brush in hand.
When St Michael’s closed Pitsea asked if they could have the bell for St Gabriel’s. The Church Council was advised that they were not empowered to give it away and so agreed to put it on permanent loan to Pitsea. I don’t know if they still have it. The Rector said the St Michael’s banner was no longer of any use and that I could have it if I wanted it. Although now showing its age, it is at present hanging on my wall. This was the second St Michael’s, the first having been in Salisbury Avenue. I understand that, although the railway has for many years been regarded as the boundary between the parishes of Laindon and Langdon Hills, the ancient boundary is somewhere in the region of Vowler Road which would account for St Nicholas having a building south of the railway. Between the wars it was envisaged that London would continue to expand and in preparation for this the railway acquired land to extend the District Line to Pitsea which included the original St Michael’s. The plans never materialised and the building remained until demolished by the Development Corporation. It was used for many years as the headquarters of the Berry Boys Boxing Club.
The highlight of our summer school holiday was the two weeks in which the coal came. The local merchants (Halls, Turner, Gibson and the Co-op) would agree the two weeks in which they would deliver on the estate and arrange with the railway for the larger gate to be opened. The railway would provide a man with the keys and red and green flags to usher the lorries over the crossing. The lorries, some of which were quite ancient, would then grind their way up The Glade and onto the estate. Our great joy was that once up The Glade some of the drivers would let us ride around amongst the sacks of coal. This was the only time each year when coal was delivered so everybody had to order enough to last until the next August.
The farmer who had sold the plots was Mr Chattaway who lived in a house built to look like a castle on the next rise of the hill above the estate. This house was called Castle Mayne, a name perpetuated by the public house in the Knares. From a distance it looked impressive but when you got up to it you found it was built of breeze blocks. I can remember Mrs Chattaway delivering milk, straight from the cows, in a metal churn with a pint measure. My mother would take her jug to the door to be filled. Later, Markhams who had the dairy in the High Road delivered bottled milk. My brother remembers that initially it was delivered by a young man on a bicycle. He used to come out from Markham’s Dairy with two crates on the front and two on the back. He unloaded the top two and left them – he believes at Barker’s – and returned to collect them when he had delivered the others. My brother used to help him at weekends for which he gave him 6d a time. When the young man was called up for military service, a lovely lady named Beatie (who later worked in the Laindon Co-op grocery store) took over using a cart which was narrow enough to get through the small gate of the level crossing. The cart was drawn by a beautiful little horse called Kitty. She must have had quite a struggle getting up the steep Glade as over the years the ruts which had formed got so deep that the bottom of the cart dragged along the ground. After harvest Beatie would take Kitty into the field at the bottom of The Glade and out at the top which was much easier, but once the field was ploughed it was back to the ruts. On Saturdays I would help Beatie with her deliveries for which my “pay” was half a pint of milk. My mother would cook a rice pudding in a small brown earthenware dish in the oven of our coal fired range. I would have this with my half pint of milk for my supper.
The field behind us had been meadow grazed by cows but at the beginning of the war it was ploughed to grow crops. The scrub round the edge and around the pond was removed to maximise the growing area. The work of harvesting the crops was largely carried out by Land Girls. My brother, who is a year and ten months older than me, was allowed to drive the tractor but I was considered too young. After cutting, the crops were put into stooks to dry and then made into a rick until the arrival of the threshing machine which was a large contraption powered by a traction engine. The ricks became infested with rats which poked their heads out at various heights as we watched. When the thresher arrived a wire net fence was put around the rick and ferrets put inside it to catch the rats as the rick was dismantled. After threshing the straw was built into a rick until it was needed. On one occasion the rick was so badly built that it collapsed. Keith and his best friend, David Cordell, who sadly was killed in a motorbike accident whilst he was still a teenager, decided to have a camp in the middle of the straw. They lit a camp fire, not realising that once the straw was alight they would not be able to control it.
After the war Emmy and her family returned to civilisation, somewhere, I think, in the Dagenham area but before long they were back on the estate in another bungalow, possibly the only one with running water. This was achieved by pumping water from the well into a tank in the roof. Emmy later worked for Markhams delivering milk on the made-up roads in Laindon and Langdon Hills using a horse and big cart. To drive it she sat on a seat high up like a stage coach driver. Later Alf and Emmy lived in a bungalow next to Langdon Hills school. There was at least one other couple who left and came back, such was the lure of the estate.
Eventually the Development Corporation started buying and clearing the bungalows and the estate became a ghost town. My grandmother, her husband already having died, moved with my aunt and family from next door to Westley Road, Langdon Hills and a little later we moved to Berry Lane. As the bungalows became empty the vandals moved in and after my aunt moved we would hear, after dark, the windows of her bungalow being broken. A few days before we moved my mother went shopping and returned to find our back door split from top to bottom. This occurrence, together with the prospect of living in a house with electricity, running water and main drainage, made the wrench of leaving where I had been born much easier.