The Second World War and Post War Essex
Though the issue of’ the Essex Chronicle for 1st September 1939 was still talking of ‘The Hope of Peace’, the very next issue carried the banner headline ‘UPHOLD YOUR KING AND COUNTRY’ with the announcement that Britain had been at war with Germany since 11 am on Sunday 3rd September. Newsprint quickly ran short. On 29th December the Chronicle was reduced to four pages.
Harwich was involved in the war from the start, in an incident which could be said to have affected the course of the war. It was clear that Germany was developing the war at sea along two lines of attack, by submarines and by mines, but the Admiralty could not discover what weapon was used to blow four British ships out of’ the water. They tried a new tactic. When German planes came flying in low across Dovercourt Bay, the anti-aircraft guns were ordered to stop firing. Without the smoke and clutter caused by bursting ack-ack shells clouding the twilight of a November evening, observers spotted that from one plane an object was dropped into the sea. The area was calculated roughly and three destroyers were ordered to search it in daylight. One of them, HMS Gipsy, most tragically found that object. It was the Germans’ new weapon, the magnetic mine. It was attracted to the metal of the destroyer, the charge was activated and the ship was sunk in a colossal explosion. Many of the crew were killed and injured. The wreck was raised and inspected with the greatest care. Thus the secret of the magnetic mine was discovered, and minesweepers were adapted to deal with them. The men of the Gipsy did not die in vain.
The first civilian casualties were in Clacton. A Heinkel had been laying mines off the coast to the north at midnight on 30th April 1940, when it met with a blanket of fog. It dived low to escape it and was spotted by an anti-aircraft gun battery which opened fire with such accuracy that it damaged the plane’s rudder. It crashed against the side of a house, after knocking a number of chimney pots flying. Startled householders, peering out into the darkness of’ the black-out, had seen flames streaming from the hapless plane as it fell, but they were not prepared for the terrific explosion which rocked the whole town within a few seconds of the crash. One hundred and sixty people were injured. The four airmen were buried with full military honours in the cemetery, and children threw flowers on their coffins. One of the many wreaths was simply inscribed. ‘With heartfelt sympathy from a Mother.’
In the same year, when Britain stood alone, the famous ‘Few’ operating from Hornchurch aerodrome wrote a chapter in the history of our county and our country which will never be forgotten. Where happy families now live in comfortable homes, the incredibly young fighter pilots sprawled on the grass waiting for the call to ‘Scramble’ against an enemy far superior in numbers. For a month from 12th August 1940, the Hornchurch fighter squadrons were on continuous alert. The destroyed 164 enemy aircraft, but many of those brave young men were also lost. The aerodrome itself was attacked no less than 23 times during the war. It was not until 1962 that this famous aerodrome was closed and developed as a housing estate. The old station badge is kept safely by Havering council – a small symbol of a great fight for freedom.
On 23rd August. 1940. John Ockelford Thompson. Mayor of Chelmsford and one of the owners of the Essex Chronicle, wrote a letter to the editor for insertion in his own paper. It said: ‘May I draw attention to the Flight of Fighters Fund? No words can describe the gallant and noble hearts of our airmen. Their work is an epic in history …’ He chaired a meeting to start this fund, aiming to raise £15,000 to purchase a flight of fighters for the RAF. This was his seventh year as Mayor of the County Town, having first taken on the task in 1916. He was liked by everybody in the many spheres in which he moved.
From the date of that letter in August we move on to the night of 13th October 1940. The obligations of the clay were over. Alderman Thompson and his wife were in bed after a pleasant evening with their Son Lt. Col. T U Thompson and his two children, who had called to stay the night on route to their own home. That night a German bomber dropped its load of bombs indiscriminately over Chelmsford. One high explosive bomb hit the house, and the Thompson family was wiped out. It was like slamming a book closed when it was only half read. The wartime generation of Chelmsfordians never got over it. Let this one tragedy stand for all the deaths by bombing which Essex people suffered throughout the war, from incendiaries which caused terrible fires along the Thames and up the coast, to the deadly rockets which fell silently from the sky to cause appalling damage and casualties.
One relic of that time has been restored. At Blake Hall, Bobbingworth, the 25 acres of gardens are a big attraction for summer visitors; but for those whose memory stretches back to that war there is a special spot, just one room in the graceful Queen Anne house. This room rises from the ground floor right up to the roof. It was specially converted at the beginning of the war to serve as the operations room for No. 11 Group Fighter Station, based at North Weald aerodrome.
At ground level a vast plotting table filled the room. From galleries rising round the walls a team of controllers’ watched all aircraft passing into and out of the area by looking down at the table where women of the WAAF used long pointers to move arrows representing the planes. From this room the call went out to North Weald to scramble our fighters to take on the might of the German air force. It is kept as it was as a memorial to those brave young airmen.
As well as being bombed, civilians suffered great restrictions on their travel. Not only did everybody have to carry an identity card with them at all times, but also, for the three rears from 1941 to 1943, no unauthorised person could approach within ten miles of any part of the Essex coast. This wartime bureaucracy gave rise to some strange situations. For example. Colchester was included in this ban, but people from Navland were allowed to go into Colchester to do their shopping. When one lady rang the police to ask if she could go to Colchester to visit the library they acted strictly according to the book. ‘No’, they said. “you can go round the shops, but you can’t go in the library” That was a minor problem compared with the bombing, the rationing, the disruption of travel, the blackout and so many more annoyances and discomforts suffered by Essex people right until the day the final wartime restriction was removed on 3rd July 1954.
The entry into the war of the United States made a huge impact on the Essex landscape. The first airfield built by the Americans in this country was Andrews Airfield at Great Saling. The arms’ engineers came in July 1942 and finished the job in a back-breaking, record-making year. They named it after one of their famous air force generals. The hardcore came from the ruins of the London blitz and the speed of construction was achieved by two shifts of men working day and night.
There are at least 15 memorials erected in Essex to the memory of people killed in air accidents or in the course of enemy air attacks. At Boreham, where the Ford Company now runs its rally centre, there is a simple brick pillar with a plaque remembering that this was once US Army Air Force Station 161. At Bradwell-on-Sea a memorial, built in 1987, shows a twelve-feet long, cast iron model of’ a Mosquito plane nose-diving into the earth, with an inscription remembering the 121 men from the allied air forces who ‘left this airfield to fly into the blue forever.’ Very few people realise that the south porch of the Cathedral at Chelmsford was rebuilt as a memorial to the American forces who served in Britain for three year’s from 1942. In Colchester a seat has been placed in Trinity Square as a memorial to the airmen who occupied several bases around the town.
There were many unsung Essex heroes and heroines. In July 1942 bombs were dropped on Witham station. The newspapers were not allowed to print a report until six months later, when they told of the complete destruction of the main line and severe damage to the station and its sidings by bombs which left craters 25 ft wide and almost as deep, yet such was the spirit of the people that it was repaired and ready to receive trains just four hours and twelve minutes later. Then there was that terrible blow just before Christmas 1944 when a V2 rocket fell beside the Hoffmann ballbearing works in Chelmsford. Forty workers, mostly girls, were killed just 15 minutes after they had been singing carols with the Salvation Army Band.
The war in Europe ended on 8th May 1945. The General Election of the following July was a landslide victory for Labour, but a lot of servicemen and women were still thousands of miles away from their Essex homes, fighting the Japanese until the atomic bombs brought their capitulation on 18th August. From 1947 onwards the coal industry, the railway network, electricity and gas supply were nationalised. In that same year the floods in England on March 15th were the worst ever recorded. As far as Essex people were concerned those floods were nothing as compared with the flood damage caused by the abnormally high tide which by 2 am on 1st February, 1953 had overwhelmed more than half of the 308 miles of embankments and sea walls which protected Canvey Island in particular and the permanent homes, caravans and chalets in general which had sheltered so confidently behind what was thought were impregnable defences. One hundred and nineteen people died in those cold, February waters which covered some 50,000 acres and flooded more than 12,000 homes. Countless farm animals were cut off and drowned in that relentless rising of the tide. The whole story has been told magnificently and in detail by Hilda Grieve in The Great Tide published in 1959 by Essex County Council.
Canvey Island was one of the hardest hit areas. From 1.30 am three times the sea swept clear across the island. By nightfall the gallant rescuers had evacuated 10,000 people and every house had been checked and its inhabitants taken to safety. Families living in wartime Nissen huts at Great Wakering saw the flood creep up to roof level as the rescue services struggled to extricate 110 people from their perilous predicament. The most touching story of these Essex floods came from Canvey Island. Baby Linda Foster, just eight weeks old, was found floating on the flood in her carry-cot. She had been wrapped up carefully by her mother, but when Mr and Mrs Foster got to the front door of their bungalow they found the flood already too deep. Mr Foster held his wife above his head until he drowned and was washed away. Mrs Foster held the baby’s carry-cot above the water as long as she could, then she sank exhausted. Baby Linda survived, to be brought up by her grandparents.
By 1957 all the sea defences had been repaired and rebuilt to a higher level, to ensure that such a horrendous calamity would not occur again. The defences on Canvey Island have been raised again in recent years to compensate for the installation and the raising of the London Flood Barrier if ever the need should arise.
In 1953, on June 2nd, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in a grand ceremony, seen for the first time on television. Her father George VI had died on 6th February 1952. The Essex Chronicle ran to 32 pages on 12th June as a Coronation and Essex Show Souvenir, announcing proudly, ‘As the premier county newspaper which is today reporting its seventh coronation and has faithfully served a wide readership in nine reigns, we have the great honour and privilege to acclaim Queen Elizabeth II’.
The happy relationship between Essex people and their American allies lasted long after the end of the war. In June 1957, for example, a crowd of no less than 46,000 attended the open day at Wethersfield air base. At the same time a new age was dawning – an age of the peaceful use of atomic energy – and after four and a half years of building work it was announced in June 1961 that Bradwell Power Station had reached the anal testing stage. It was designed by Maurice Bibb and was fully commissioned in 1962. Thousands of local people and tourists have visited the Station.
At the same time as the nuclear power station came on stream. Essex County Council was looking for suitable premises for the newly formed Essex University. Hylands House at Widford, near Chelmsford was passed over in favour of Wivenhoe Park. The original Georgian house, seen in a painting by Constable, was incorporated in a large mansion designed by Thomas Hopper for the Rebow family in 1846. Today the feature which greets the visitor on his approach is the group of severe yet lofty residential blocks.
When the war ended a renewed interest was taken in the housing of the expanding number of people working in London who wished to live on its Essex edge. As the County Handbook says: ‘As the accessibility of Essex has improved, more and more people have moved into the county, both from London and other parts of Britain. Managing this population influx has been a major concern for many years. The task of the county planners was eased when, in 1946, legislation made it possible to house people and industry in purpose-built, self-contained communities, or New Towns.
A hundred years ago Basildon was not even a parish, just a collection of houses in the area called Laindon-cum-Basildon. The New Town of Basildon saw its first new house completed in 1951. In 40 years well over 30,000 such houses have been built in an enlarged area which embraces the old towns of Billericay and Wickford. Local employment has been encouraged, with around 600 industrial units totalling in excess of ten million square feet. The shopping centre draws custom from far beyond its boundary. Yet in the country park of Langdon Hills, in Norsey Wood. Billericay, or in the Wat Tyler Country Park adjoining the creeks of the Thames estuary, one could be a million miles from the throbbing life Of the New Town. This has not happened overnight. Norsey Wood was not acquired by the authority until 1976. Now it is a nature reserve maintained by volunteers under the aegis of the Council.
Harlow’s development starts with its designation as a New Town on 25th March 1947, covering just over 6.000 acres and a population of 4,500. By 1951 twelve industrial firms were in business there and the late Hugh Dalton. Minister of Town and Country Planning, had opened the first residential tower block. In the next five years 7,000 dwellings and 70 factories were built and the town had its own newspaper, the Harlow Citizen. In another five years all the public services and utilities were fully in place in new premises. The best sports and recreational facilities in the county were available by the time that First Night’ was celebrated at The Playhouse Theatre in 1971. The New Town came of age in its 30th year when government approval was given for the transfer from the Development Corporation to the locally elected Harlow Council of the last of the houses built under its jurisdiction.
The Harlow District Council had been in operation from 1974 when, under local government reorganisation, it took over from the Harlow Urban District Council set up in 1955. The assumption of control from the Development Corporation was slow and smooth.
Whilst Essex countryside was being developed … primarily to help in dispersing the people and industries of London and other congested cities’, a Royal Commission set up in 1957 was considering the problems of administration caused by the ever-increasing urbanisation of London’s environs. Its deliberations resulted in the Local Government Act of 1963 and the setting up of the Greater London Council from 1965, when those pain of Essex contiguous to London were absorbed into five Greater London Boroughs. They represented six per cent of the land of the county, but more than 30 per cent of the population.
Dagenham and Barking were united as Barking, with a population of about 180,000. It is now totally developed and urbanised, but is still looking for a corporate identity. Havering combined the borough of Romford and the urban district of Hornchurch. The new name was the ancient name for a royal manor in this area, with special rights and privileges still observed until 1892. Unlike Barking, Havering has been fortunate in that many parks and open spaces have been preserved and the new Borough still includes a good deal of real countryside. Its character is as much residential as commercial and industrial.
The Borough most crushed in the capital’s suffocating embrace must be Newham, lying on the bank of the Thames with the Roding separating it from Barking on the east and the Lea dividing it from Tower Hamlets on the west. There is no country air to be breathed in the old urban areas of East Ham. West Ham, Little Ilford and a small part of Barking and North Woolwich. It has long been an area of heavy industrial production of gas, chemicals, sugar and, later, electrical components.
Redbridge meets the county border to the west above Newham and Barking. It reaches far into the old Essex countryside to include Ilford, Wanstead, and Woodford. Its name recalls an old bridge, replaced many times, which carries Eastern Avenue across the Roding as it bisects the Borough.
Waltham Forest, home to around a quarter of a million people has been described as rising ‘… in distinct tiers from the winding banks of the Lea to the tree-clad horizons of the Epping Forest ridge.’ Much of it has been developed to accommodate industrial sites and housing estates. Towards Chingford there is still some evidence of the big houses which once looked over farmland clotted with hamlets. It was the coming of the railway that made Leyton, Chingford and Walthamstow so convenient for work and business in the capital.
Despite the wholesale transfer of such a large proportion of its population. Essex was still under pressure to provide more and more housing in keeping with modern standards and expectations. Essex County Council answered the challenge. It decided that an area of the parish of Woodham Ferrers, called for convenience South Woodham Ferrers, ‘… constituted an area where housing could be provided Without materially restricting the availability of open space for amenity and recreation’ – to quote the 1976 edition of the County Handbook. County officers established the title to the land; organised additional access to the site with bridges over the railway, and planned the service requirements in advance of’ building on a green held site as large as any undertaken at that time. 1,300 acres would be covered with houses, shops and public amenities, to serve a population planned to rise from a nucleus of 4,000 to an ultimate 18,000. The 4,000th new house was occupied in March 1988.
The 1990 County Handbook stated ‘Today the building continues. The Chafford Hundred development at Grays Thurrock, begun in 1988, is the biggest housing project of its kind currently under way in Britain. About 5,000 houses are planned, as well as new shops, schools and a railway station. Nearby, the Thurrock Lakeside Regional Shopping Centre, also begun in 1988, is a multi-million pound development which will provide an American style shopping mall and leisure complex, the largest in Britain.’
County administrators also had to handle the reorganisation from 1st April 1974 of local government. Overnight all the existing boundaries as well as the more recent county borough, urban district and rural district divisions were replaced by a new County Council and 14 District Councils. With the population now standing at more than one and a half million, that is a heavy responsibility.
One of the main reasons for the continuing growth in population, and thereby industrial and topographical development, is the vast improvement in the road system during the post-war years which has put Essex not just on the doorstep of London but practically into the hallway. The most important element in the road system was the completion of the M25. In an interview in Max’ 1985, the County Treasurer declared. ‘It has changed the nature of the County, opening south Essex up for business and industry.’ It was the M25 which made the development of the old quarry area around Thurrock, some 2,000 acres, a viable proposition.
That ancient highway, the A12, driving north east from London right through the county was looking like a wriggling worm even on maps, because, by the end of 1934, bypasses had been proposed or completed around Barking. Chelmsford (replaced by a much wider loop in November 1986). Colchester and several towns and villages in between. It has lost its premier status in the county to the M 11, the first section of which was opened in June 1973 and the second, southwards to London in 1977. In 1980 a northern section towards Stumps Cross was completed, thus giving a quick passage through Essex to Cambridgeshire. In the other direction this motorway, like the A12, joins the M25, completed in sections from south to west from 1982 to 1984, to take the Essex motorist round London to every point of the compass. On southwards, the M25 leads to the tunnel under the ‘l’hames from Purfleet to Dartford, known as the Dartford Tunnel.
The value of such a tunnel had been seen as early as 1935, when Essex and Kent County Councils had agreed to a joint venture, but the Minister of Transport vetoed the plan, ‘on grounds of national economy.’ Postwar increase in road traffic made the tunnel a priority. It was opened on 18th November 1963 and attracted so much traffic that a twin tunnel had to be constructed alongside it and opened on 16th May 1980. The pressures of rapidly increasing population and individual car ownership, together with the transfer of goods from rail to road haulage in juggernauts meant that Dartford Tunnel was soon notorious for traffic tailbacks. So a new toll bridge across the Thames was built on a line similar to that of the tunnels by a private company. It was opened on 30th October 1991 by Her Majesty the Queen at a special ceremony. It was then the longest cable-stayed bridge in Europe, rising to a height of 70 yards above the Thames. Its four lanes all lead south, allowing the two tunnels to provide four lanes for traffic heading north.
Railways, on the other hand, have been very much slimmed down. Numerous lines have been closed. The Kelvedon, Tiptree and Tollesbury – the old ‘Crab and Winkle’ line opened so hopefully in 1904, closed to passengers in May 1951 and to goods in October 1962. The Maldon, Witham and Braintree Railway opened late in 1848 and extended from Braintree to Dunmow and Bishops Stortord in 1864. The Braintree-Witham section escaped the Beeching ‘axe’, but the line in the other direction was closed in stages, until the final shut-down on 17th February 1972. The Elsenham and Thaxted Light Railway, opened in 1913, closed in 1953: there is now hardly a trace of its existence. The Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea branch line did not reach its century; it opened in April 1866 and closed in June 1964 – doomed by car ownership. In 1865 the Saffron Walden Railway only went from Audley End, on the main line. It was extended to Bartlow a year later. Not a great success, its busiest years were during the last war, servicing the great Walden petrol store. After the war, business fell away drastically and it was closed at the end of December 1964.
The Colchester. Stour Valley, Sudbury and Halstead line struck off’ from the main line at Marks Tey and ran twelve miles to Sudbury in 1849: in 1865 it was further extended into Suffolk. The great feature of this branch was, and still is, the 355 yards long Chappel viaduct. The line closed on 1st January 1962. The Colne Valley Railway began operations in 1860 with more declines than inclines on its chart of fortune. The Second World War provided the high point on that chart – in the summer of 1944 some 7,000 wagonloads of bombs were carried to the American-built airfields either side of the line. Then carrie the slow decline to closure in April 1965. Yet the old locomotives can still be seen there, under steam, because volunteers have reconstructed a mile-long section of the line out of Castle Hedingham station, where engines and rolling stock are on display. At Chappel and Wakes Colne station, the other end of the line, there is another railway museum’ offering ‘steam-up’ days. The Tendring Hundred Railway lines flourished under nationalisation, but the Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea branch line, opened in 1866, was not successful. Yet, despite being badly damaged by the great flood of 1953 it was fully restored, to be patronised by less than 600 daily users until it was closed on 13th June 1964.
The full story of the development of railways throughout the county has been told by D I Gordon, in The Eastern Counties, volume five in the Regional History of time Railways of Great Britain.
One of those early airfields, built in 1942 for American B46 bombers, continued after the war, slowly building up business as a civil airport. On 24th March 1964 it was chosen provisionally as the site for London’s third airport. Despite the strongest local protest, and after an enquiry into the feasibility of ‘a scheme to develop a huge airport on the Maplin Sands off Foulness, Stansted remained the firm favourite. In March 1991 the Queen opened an ultra-modern complex worlds removed from the ex-army hut which served as the first terminal of Stansted Airport.
From the air Essex is still very much an agricultural county, though the outlook for farmers as they come increasingly under directives from European bureaucracy is rather bleak. Fields lying fallow by financial arrangement between government and farmers remind one of the earlier periods of agricultural depression when tenant farmers were bankrupted, crops were not worth growing, and fields became wildernesses where rabbits proliferated.
Some of the set-aside fields are being developed as leisure parks and golf courses, and there is growing awareness of the county as a tourist centre. The County Council is actively promoting Essex through the British Tourist Authority, under the Development of Tourism Act 1969.
Although as late as 29 .July 1988 the Queen opened the new Count Hall in Chelmsford, there is in the area of government planning, a definite whisper of a new attitude to local government: a situation in which the county council would be abolished and the 14 districts would he entirely responsible to, and depend upon, the grants and approval of’ central government. The Chief Executive of Essex County Council said in Essex in Action in October 1991, ‘This is a time of great change, with a proposed review of Local Government. We face any review with confidence in the knowledge that the more people who know about what we do, the better able they are to take part in the debate on the future of government in Essex.’
In 1992, a thousand years after those Norsemen came ashore and did battle with the Saxons at Maldon, another invasion took place – a friendly, festive occasion when Americans returned to the scene of their service in Essex in the Second World War 30 years before. They found their way through town and countryside now almost unrecognizable, to stand in a field, by a house, even in a factory, on the exact spot where the’ had come back ‘home’ to Essex after missions against the Nazi war machine. The saw more clearly than the inhabitants the amazing changes made in Essex in 30 years.
In looking back at the story of our county through 10,000 years we gain the inspiration to make our contribution to the life of the county, defending its environment and its way of life until another generation takes up the challenge.