As I send my New Year greetings to friends and family so quickly and easily via e-mail, my mind wanders back in time to think about how things have changed since Mr Helmore planned his Manor House Estate in Laindon just over a century ago. I remember stories my parents and grandparents told me and wish, oh how I wish, I had asked so much more when they were still around.
In particular, I think about our neighbours, the Cooper family, who lived in the bungalow ‘The Retreat’, not that I ever met them, but I often heard about them. When I was a child, I sometimes wandered through their derelict bungalow with its ornate fireplace and harpsichord in the living room and cooker with its curved legs in the kitchen, probably the latest model of its day. The kitchen faced north with a large elder tree just outside the door and a well just a couple of feet away. The ground sloped down slightly to the south where the once carefully tended front garden was quickly becoming overgrown.
In recent years, my research has shown that Frederick Cooper married Emma Helen Seal at Orsett in 1899. Their only daughter Irene Hildred was born at West Ham in 1901. Some time during the next few years, they moved to ‘The Retreat’ the most northern property on the Manor House Estate in Laindon. The 1911 Census shows their household consisting of Emma, her daughter Irene aged 9 and Emma’s father aged 73 with the splendid name of John Bingham Heppell Seal who had been born in Kent. His late wife Annie had been born in Scotland. They’d had six children, Emma being the oldest. Frederick was listed as ‘working away’. I traced him on the same Census to East London, working as a painter. So the family settled in Laindon and Irene attended school, I assume in Lower Dunton Road.
Without a time machine, I try to imagine how life would have been for a young girl in the plotlands around 1920. An only child living in a remote bungalow surrounded by fields, with water supplied from a well, very few neighbours, no electricity or telephone and the village shops about half a mile of unmade roads away. Television was an unheard of futuristic luxury that didn’t arrive for another 30 years and computers and e-mail about 70. I assume a member of the family was able to play the harpsichord and so provided some musical entertainment. Maybe they were lucky enough to have a crystal set to listen to, but not much more.
My conclusion is that life was lonely, which made me think of the story my dad often told us of how Irene had returned one day from walking across the fields, and excitedly told her parents that an aeroplane had landed, the pilot got out, immediately fell in love with her and proposed. Irene accepted and he took off promising to return to her. Apparently, her parents believed her story and a wedding dress was bought in preparation. Needless to say, he didn’t return, Irene’s ‘fiancé’ being just the hopes and dreams of a lonely girl’s imagination. Irene died in 1932 aged 30 having developed appendicitis. Such a sad story. Her family had all died by the mid forties. The bungalow stood empty and the extremely large L shaped plot of land was left unattended but for my dad. He maintained it for 20 years. He kept the beautiful large meadow in wonderful condition and cut the grass for hay each August. He trimmed the hedges and prevented the whole area from returning to scrub. According to the law, he should have been granted his claim to the land, but due to the close proximity of the New Town, was unable to find any insurance company willing to insure the land, which was the first requirement needed in order to proceed further with such a claim.
When the compulsory purchase took place in the early seventies, no descendants of the Cooper family could be traced and so the land went to the ‘Crown’ and was claimed by BDC. As Emma Cooper had been the oldest of six children, I wonder just how thorough the search for an heir had been.
Of the many stories my dad told, I recall one about a man he referred to as ‘The Lord of the Manor’ who liked to ride his horse around the fields of Dunton. Later in life, he developed arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair. However, he still liked to go riding, so his staff would winch him up into the saddle and fit his feet into the stirrups. He would then go riding and galloping around the fields for an hour or so and upon return, would have to be lifted off the horse and carefully placed back into his wheelchair. That conjures up such a wonderful image.
Life in Laindon had progressed by the time of my childhood in the fifties. We still had our unmade road to contend with but at least King Edward Road had been made up. We were connected to the electricity supply in 1957 and the water mains a few years later. We eventually had the luxury of a telephone and television. Communications are now unsurpassed. We can ‘speak’ to our family and friends on the other side of the world within seconds. What would young Irene Cooper have thought about that I wonder? As I press ‘send’ I think of her and the unused wedding dress hanging in the wardrobe and whisper a quiet, “Rest in Peace, I will make sure your story is never forgotten”.