At the heart of any English village you will usually find the Anglican parish church. When I visited Dagenham at the weekend, I did not expect to find much evidence of the past. Yet there is evidence of history around, if you know where to find it. Growing up in Wimbledon, this part of London was a place I only knew as the other end of the District Line close to Upminster. Having set off from Dagenham East underground station I consulted a map and discovered that nestled among the busy main roads, there is a green area marked Dagenham Village, dominated by St Peter and St Paul’s Church.
The parish church is of medieval origins, first mentioned in 1205 and rebuilt in 1800. The building and surrounding churchyard has associations with local families and various famous people. Another building preserved is the former Vicarage, dating from the 17th Century and remodelled in the 19th Century. Close by is the Cross Keys Inn public house, a 15th Century timber-framed hall house which was once a tannery. A former bank and an old national school are among the other buildings which survived redevelopment.
The area was once largely rural, a village in Essex first mentioned in a charter of 687. But in 1919 London County Council started planning an expansion of housing and in the next 19 years over 25,000 houses were provided for working class families on the Becontree estate.
In 1972 there was a large-scale demolition of properties in the village as part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan. This led to the development of the Ibscott Close housing estate, bordering the heart of the old village. The development included the creation of a more open space aspect to the church, two new shopping parades, three car parking areas, and new housing. This effectively destroyed the historic integrity and structure of the village, reducing it to a few key components. Dagenham Village Conservation Area Appraisal, September 2009, London Borough of Barking & Dagenham.
Walking through the graveyard you will find the last resting places of some interesting people, inclding the parents of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, who opened the redesigned green around the second world war memorial to mark the millenium in 2000. As part of the lottery-funded scheme, a flagpole was erected and the union flag is flown. I also spotted the grave of a World War 1 serviceman and also one of a local man who died in an accident as he crossed the newly-opened London to Southend railway line.
When Dagenham expanded, it was also necessary to create employment for the workers. The first big factory was opened by the Ford Motor Company in 1931 when an AA light truck rolled off the assembly line. It produced nearly 11 million cars until vehicle production ceased in 2002. At one stage 40,000 people worked there but now the total is one-tenth of that figure and the plant specialises in making diesel engines. It was announced last year that 1,000 jobs were to go at the stamping plant in Dagenham, according to the GMB union.
There was further evidence of changing times when I passed the entrance to the huge Sanofi plant close to Dagenham & Redbridge FC. It was announced in November 2009 that the facility would close some time this year with the loss of 450 jobs because a continued strong decline in demand for its drugs was making the site “economically unsustainable”. Sanofi is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. It hopes to invest in a major regeneration project, with the potential of creating 2500 jobs. Planning permission for the overhaul of the site includes building a new supermarket, hotel and manufacturing operations while using existing buildings for a health and dental care centre and retaining existing laboratories and scientific manufacturing facilities, with the intention of attracting other technology companies to take them over (The Manufacturer).
An interesting sidebar: The film “Made in Dagenham” which deals with the Ford motor company female sewing machinists’ strike in 1968 over equal pay is being shown on BBC2 on Saturday 9th March at 9:00pm. For the first time for a BBC film, there will be a live tweet-a-long commentary from director Nigel Cole and composer David Arnold, who will give audiences a unique insight into the production process. If you wish to join the conversation on the night, follow the hashtag #bbc2mid.