A tribute to East Ham

In 1965, East Ham became part of a London Borough with the invented name of Newham. It is generally overshadowed by its better-known neighbour and partner, West Ham. This light-hearted invocation of its history and identity was written for the Newham Recorder during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.

Councillor Alfred Stokes recalled the precise moment, over 100 years ago, when he was overwhelmed by pride in East Ham's achievements. On a tour of the local sewage works, he was amazed to learn that eighteen million gallons of purified liquid, "clear and inodorous", were discharged into the Roding at Barking Creek every day. He decided, there and then, to write the history of East Ham and, bless him, he did.

We first hear of East and West Ham in 958 AD, when an Anglo-Saxon charter described their boundaries. The two communities were united as "Hamme", which means "grazing land". But by the time of Domesday Book in 1086, they'd been split into two estates, running south to north. This gave both a slice of marshland, farmland and forest. East Ham High Street still represents that north-south axis. The area was a scattered series of small communities, with names like Northend and Southend. In 1670, there were only 79 houses in the whole of East Ham. Other Essex parishes were similarly divided. At Prittlewell, on the Thames estuary, the local Southend grew into a seaside town.

Let's face it, East Ham was always the poor relation. Its loud neighbour had Keir Hardie, the famous football team, the Stratford railway yards – even the Olympic Games. There was always a touch of needle between the two. My father worked for West Ham Council in the 1930s. He cherished the legend that highwayman Dick Turpin had been a law-abiding citizen until he married an East Ham girl. Discrimination went back much further. A medieval manor called Burnells straddled the boundary between the two. By tradition, when the tenants met for manorial business, the East Ham peasants had to be entertain their neighbours with food and drink. Legend said a lord of the manor had once been captured in battle, and the East Ham yokels miserably refused to fork out for his ransom. As a punishment, they were condemned to pick up the tab ever after for the privileged fatcats of West Ham.

The Normans had done East Ham few favours. To the north, they chopped off Little Ilford (still remembered by Little Ilford Lane). It eventually rejoined East Ham in 1886, and became Manor Park. To the south, the Normans transferred a strip alongside the Thames to Kent. "North Woolwich" – what an absurd name! Can you imagine "South Silvertown" stubbing its toes into Greenwich? East Ham's natural river frontage remained largely cut off until Newham was formed in 1965.

But the Normans did give East Ham one gem, its twelfth-century medieval church, one of the finest around London. It even has a rare feature, an apse. (That's a rounded extension at the east end, not a poisonous snake.) Located at the far south of the High Street, its location was an incredibly lonely spot overlooking the marshes. Illegal prize fights were organised nearby, until the Met Police was formed in 1840 and stamped them out. A worse horror was body-snatching. Gangs from nearby nasty Barking would target the graves of the recently deceased, stealing their corpses and selling them to London hospitals for anatomy teaching. On one occasion, locals ambushed and tied up a gang of grave-robbers, before dragging them repeatedly through a horse pond. Only the intervention of a couple of local worthies prevented a lynching. Nowadays the huge burial ground, almost ten acres, doubles as a wildlife refuge.

In the nineteenth century, urban population poured into West Ham. It became a borough in 1886, and was promoted to county borough – unitary authority status – three years later. But East Ham was slow to catch up. Alfred Stokes remembered it from the 1870s. It was still a landscape of narrow, tree-shaded lanes, of meadows covered with buttercups and hedgerows peppered with wildflowers. Small boys collected lizards on the dusty roadways, and tried to whack bats out of the air as they swarmed on summer nights. Few trains called at East Ham's "quaint little wooden station", giving the stationmaster time to father eight children, as well as creating a beautiful garden on the banks sloping down to the platform. Occasionally, a horse-drawn cab would arrive all the way from London, delivering some important person and creating local excitement. Street lighting arrived about 1878. It was just one gas lamp. The first night it was lighted, everybody turned out to watch.

East Ham was a Tory stronghold in those days. At election times, farm wagons were decorated with blue ribbons, and ploughmen showed their commitment to the Conservative cause by letting off blue smoke bombs and getting drunk. East Ham was also a superstitious place. Everybody believed that Morley's Corner, where Green Street meets Barking Road, was haunted. If you approached it at night, you hung back until somebody else showed up, and then nipped past the spooks together. Nowadays, it has ghosts of a friendlier kind – the statue of Bobby Moore and his teammates from England's winning World Cup team of 1966.

From the 1880s, bricks and mortar engulfed the old rural East Ham. In 1904, with almost 100,000 people, it became a borough, rising in 1915 to county borough status. It wasn't just the sewage works that were an expression of local pride. In 1901, the foundation stone was set for a new Town Hall. Dominated by a 150-foot high tower, it took two years to build. In 1965, its Town Hall gave East Ham the last word in the rivalry with its western neighbour, becoming the headquarters for the new borough of Newham.

When Stephen Timms was first elected to parliament in 1994, he represented the mechanically named constituency of Newham North-East. Boundary changes led to the seat being renamed East Ham. I hope that historic name will never disappear from the map. Newham is rightly proud of the buzz that is Stratford. The exciting developments down in the former docks are important for all Londoners. But Plaistow and Forest Gate, Plashet and Beckton are parts of the Borough too. And, of all Newham's neighbourhoods, there is one that can call upon a thousand years of history and local pride.

Let's hear it for East Ham!