Post Memories: A history of conflict in Barking and Dagenham

Essex at War by Michael Foley

Essex at War by Michael Foley - Credit: Archant

Conflict defines our collective histories, whether we are embroiled in battle as comrades in arms or as sworn enemies, and the county of Essex has seen more than its fair share of fighting.

A pillbox at the rear of Western Avenue, Dagenham

A pillbox at the rear of Western Avenue, Dagenham - Credit: Archant

The effects of conflict on the county, which historically included Barking and Dagenham before the expansion of London in the 1960s, is documented in new book Essex at War.

The tank defences close to the pllbox run up to Dagenham East Station

The tank defences close to the pllbox run up to Dagenham East Station - Credit: Archant

Author Michael Foley looks at the role the county played in battles both fought and threatened and how much of this history can still be seen around us today.

Weapon

While Colchester may have played host to a crucial clash between the British natives at the time and the invading Roman forces, Barking and Dagenham began to play its part towards the end of the 19th century.


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“Dagenham in the early 19th century was a very rural place with just a small village,” said Michael, from Romford.

In 1870 it became home to a factory producing what were known as Congreve Rockets, a British military weapon used during the Napoleonic War and invented by Sir William Congreve.

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In many ways this was a sign of the role to be undertaken by Barking and Dagenham during the Second World War – producing the goods and, of course, providing the men needed by the military to fight.

In a prime location close to the Thames, Dagenham was home to a number of industry giants such as the Ford Motor Company and pharmaceuticals manufacturer May and Baker (later Sanofi-Aventis).

“Ford produced military vehicles and engines while May and Baker produced items such as medical supplies,” explained Michael.

He added the companies used whatever manpower they had available, including using German and Italian workers from a nearby prisoner of war camp.

As the Nazis began bombarding London and the threat of invasion became real, anti-tank defences and pillboxes were placed along the rear of Western Avenue and ran along to Dagenham East Station.

Some of them can still be seen today, serving as a permanent reminder of the borough’s wartime role, but more vivid memorials are found in the true-life experiences of those alive during the war.

Michael speaks of Dagenham man Jimmy Underwood who worked in a Broad Street greengrocer’s before joining the Royal Navy.

“Jimmy came home on leave in 1944 and had no idea of what had gone on in his home town since his departure,” said Michael.

“He saw a doodlebug and thought it was an aircraft on fire. The explosion from the bomb blew him through a shop window.”

A bomb landing on a tailor opposite the Church Elm pub in Heathway, Dagenham, also knocked poor Jimmy off his feet and sent him flying back through the pub’s doors, Michael added.

Some of the locals were reported to have made the most of the situation and helped themselves to some clothes from the shop as the windows were blown out.

Passion

Michael’s passion for history — this is his 18th book — is shown in this last point. He is eager to paint a picture of the past which doesn’t leave out any of the more unsavoury details.

“It’s important to get the truth across,” he said. “It is important for people who weren’t around to read about what happened.

“There is this idea where everything was great and everyone pulled together and it isn’t entirely true.”

• Essex at War is published by Amberley Publishing, priced at £12.99. To order your copy and receive a 10 per cent discount, visit www.amberleybooks.com.

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