History: How two merry spots on the map of Dagenham got their names

The site of the Old Merry Fiddlers pub is now a petrol station. Picture: Google

The site of the Old Merry Fiddlers pub is now a petrol station. Picture: Google - Credit: Archant

Historian Prof Ged Martin takes a light-hearted look at two Dagenham place names

Merrielands Crescent is now a retail park. Picture; Google

Merrielands Crescent is now a retail park. Picture; Google - Credit: Archant

There’s not much to be cheerful about right now while we’re all locked down to fight the virus. But maybe it’s a good moment to cheer ourselves up by taking a look at two merry spots on the map of Dagenham.

The Merry Fiddlers originated as a beerhouse at Becontree Heath. In the hospitality trade, hotels were Premier League, inns were Championship, pubs were League One and beerhouses just about made League Two.

Generally, they weren’t even allowed to have a fancy sign.

Miller Christy, an Essex anorak, was rare in mentioning the Becontree Heath beerhouse by name in his book on county pub signs in 1887. It had probably been going since about 1850.

The sign may owe its origins to a nursery rhyme about Old King Cole, who was a merry old soul, and employed fiddlers three.

When the Becontree estate was built in the 1920s, there was an urgent need for big, bold boozers.

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The Merry Fiddlers was rebuilt on its site near the corner of Wood Lane.

It was a popular, no-nonsense pub, with discos and even cabarets. At busy times it employed doormen – that’s the professional term for bouncers.

Alas, the Merry Fiddlers fell foul of changing times. In 1992, it was replaced by a supermarket and petrol station.

But the memory hung on. Traffic emerged from Whalebone Lane via a roundabout, and roundabouts need names. Before long, the roundabout too was swept away, replaced by traffic lights.

A makeover highways project in 2013 called it the Merry Fiddlers junction, but I expect the name will gradually be forgotten.

Across Dagenham, off the A1306 Ripple Road, is Merrielands Retail Park. It’s a curious name, with an ever stranger story.

In the Middle Ages, a manor house called Cockermouth stood nearby. It’s thought to have taken its name from John of Cockermouth, a medieval landowner who must have come from Cockermouth in Cumberland.

A tax return from 1321 shows that he was by far the richest man in Dagenham.

In the 1820s, the farm became the property of a loadsamoney banker called Rowland Stephenson, who owned a mansion at Romford where he lived a flamboyant lifestyle. (He may have been the area’s first commuter, since he is said to have ridden his horse to London every day.)

Stephenson’s glitzy lifestyle was too good to be true. In 1828, his business collapsed like a popped bubble, and he controversially decamped to the United States, using clever lawyers to avoid being dragged back to face prosecution in Britain.

A lot of traders around Dagenham and Romford lost a lot of money in that disaster, for Stephenson didn’t bother to pay his bills before he hopped it.

As a sour joke, Cockermouth was renamed America Farm, although this may also have been a sarcastic allusion to its remoteness, in those days on the edge of the Thames marshes.

In due course, it was purchased by local industrialist W. Varco Williams, who had developed Dagenham Dock on the Thames.

Sometime between 1887 and 1896, he “gave it the more jocund designation, ‘Merrielands’.” It’s a strange name for a retail park.

The Merry Fiddlers will never open its doors again, but let’s hope that the units of Merrielands, and all the shops and pubs of Dagenham and Barking, will get back to normal when we’ve beaten this menace.