Changing times of Dagenham during reign of Queen Victoria

So, you’re a wealthy middle class gentleman or lady in 1837, looking for the perfect, relaxing holiday retreat. Where do you choose?

A cosy little cottage by a lake in Dagenham of course. For when Queen Victoria stepped on the throne 175 years ago, Dagenham was a holiday hotspot for the rich.

The lake still exists today on the Ford plant and is now called Dagenham Breach, but in the 1830s it was much larger and stretched all the way to the Thames.

“Surrounding this lake were holiday cottages used by wealthy people who wanted to get away from London and enjoy the simple life for a while,” says Valence House historian, Mark Watson.

“Here they could relax, fish and hunt. One regular was Elizabeth Fry, the well known prison reformer.”

For many, explains Mark, the draw of Dagenham was its non-pungent air.

“People in those days associated disease with smells and as Dagenham is low lying it was scoured by winds which expelled the smells.

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“Therefore people thought it was a healthy place to be.”

The area may have attracted those looking for a healthy, rural idyll but it was also home to a vast amount of poverty and crime.

“When Victoria became Queen, the country, including Dagenham, was in a devastating depression,” says Mark. “People were out of work and many starving as a result. As they became desperate they began to steal.

“Records show people in Dagenham stole, among other things, potatoes, which were full of nutrients and easy to cook. The law was very harsh on these thefts.

“We know that a man called Edward Westwood was deported to Australia after stealing potatoes in 1837.

He left a big family in Dagenham and ended up being murdered by a psychopath after getting drunk and being put in a cell with him.”

Records also show a number of people set fire to hay stacks during this period of extreme poverty.

“There was a lot of incendiarism at the time. People were protesting against the farmers, who they believed were exploiting the poor and not offering work.”

During the course of Queen Victoria’s 63-year reign, Dagenham – like the rest of Great Britain – saw a huge amount of change. One that would have a big impact on the area was the emergence of the railway.

“The first railway station to come close to Dagenham was the one in Chadwell Heath, which was built in 1860,” explains Mark.

“It resulted in a number of middle class people, like clerks for instance, moving to Chadwell Heath and commuting to London. The next station was Dagenham East in 1864, connecting Dagenham Village with London.”

By the time Queen Victoria died in 1901 education was compulsory and Dagenham had its own state schools.

Although poverty still existed, unemployment had fallen and destitution was less common.

Despite this, not everything had improved in Dagenham, says Mark.

“The area did have its own little workhouse that allowed struggling people to live at home, but this closed and another bigger one opened in Old Church Road, Romford where you had to live and the conditions were bad.

“A lot of people from Dagenham were forced to go there.”

And what happened to the haven by the lake?

“A man called Samuel Williams needed somewhere to dump all the gravel his company dredged up from the Thames, so he made the area into an industrial site and put the gravel in the lake.

“It was actually him that built Dagenham Dock.”

Mark presented a talk about Dagenham during the Victorian era at Valence House Museum last Thursday as part of a summer talks programme.

At 2pm on Friday Tahlia Coombs will talk about Paralympic legends of the borough. Entry costs �2.

Call 020 8227 2034 to book or pay on the door.