Post Memories: The changing landscape of Barking and Dagenham over the centuries

Dagenham Breach in the late Victorian period

Dagenham Breach in the late Victorian period - Credit: Archant

With a vast forest populated with deer only the king was allowed to hunt and a lake so deep Henry VIII was able to sail his whole navy on it, the borough’s landscape some 500 years ago would be unrecognisable to the modern eye.

Manor House at Marks Gate, just off Whalebone Lane North. Demolished in the early 1800s

Manor House at Marks Gate, just off Whalebone Lane North. Demolished in the early 1800s - Credit: Archant

The area has seen huge changes over the centuries, thanks to varying climates, social influences and a rather neglectful old lady (more on her later).

A map showing the Great Danger lake in Barking

A map showing the Great Danger lake in Barking - Credit: Archant

For many years the very north of what is now Barking and Dagenham formed part of a big forest, which contained deer for the king to hunt.

Henry VIII's ship Harry Grace of God, which travelled across the Great Danger lake

Henry VIII's ship Harry Grace of God, which travelled across the Great Danger lake - Credit: Archant

“No-one else was allowed to kill these deer,” explains archivist Mark Watson from Valence House in Dagenham. “He might let some of his family and friends join him on hunts, but that was it. If you were caught killing the deer you could be executed. It was a serious matter.”

Samuel Williams' men filliing in Dagenham Breach

Samuel Williams' men filliing in Dagenham Breach - Credit: Archant

Those living near the forest were banned from keeping any large dogs that might harm the animals. “There was a rule that you could only have a dog in the area if it could fit through a stirrup,” says Mark.

Although deer were off limits to the residents of the area, they could still use the forests to home their cattle and pigs and were given permission to use any wood found lying on the ground.

Surrounding the forest were various gates built to stop farm animals all rushing in or out at the same time. One was Marks Gate, now the name of the Chadwell Heath housing estate.

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From the 1600s deer became less important, with kings no longer asserting all their rights over the forest. After Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth trees for ship building become the major concern, says Mark and added: “Chopping down the trees was met with a harsher punishment than killing deer.”

Deer continued roaming until the mid 1800s when workers building a railway line killed them off one by one.

“As there were no deer left and Queen Victoria wasn’t interested in hunting them anyway, she allowed the whole forest to be cut down,” says Mark. “The wood was sold and the land turned into farms which the crown rented out. It would have been a very profitable move for the Queen.”

While the north of Barking and Dagenham was covered in forest, the south was for many years marsh land.

“For a long time it was thought that no one lived on these marshes,” explains Mark. “But archeologists have found evidence of many settlements between around 600AD and 1300AD. Far from being deserted it was like spaghetti junction there.

“The land was broken up into islands which people lived on. Between each island were dry tracks that inhabitants formed to get from one to the other.

“Over the years the climate got dryer and warmer and the wet parts dried up. People then started growing crops like barley oats and grazed animals on the land, which was very fertile.”

Slowly, temperatures began to drop, rain became frequent and crops and animals began to die.

During 1376 there was a terrible flood and the banks of River Roding broke, leaving a large chunk of Barking under water.

“The flood basically formed a huge, deep, dark lake,” says Mark. “It became known as the Great Danger and because of its depth was used to build ships on.”

In 1520 Henry VIII and his navy sailed over the lake on their way to the famous Fields of the Cloth of Gold meeting in France with the French king. They would have sailed out of the Great Danger into the lower reaches of the Roding and straight into the Thames.

They also stopped off at Barking Abbey and bought leather in Barking’s Tanner Street for tents.

Eventually the lake became known as the Rant. It was probably drained by farmers over the centuries. It still reached up towards Eastbury Manor House in the 1650s but had gone 100 years later.

Another flood hit Dagenham in 1707, but human error was to blame for this one.

An elderly lady called Suzanna Uphill, who lived by the Thames, failed to repair her deteriorating bank and one day the water burst through it.

“It flowed from where Ford is now all the way up to the corner of Oval Road and Eastbrookend Country Park,” explains Mark.

“It might have been a disaster at the time, but a man called John Perry put up a dam and created a lake, called Dagenham Breach, which became a fashionable place for rich people to holiday, among them prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.”

After some years the lake fell out of favour with the wealthy and a large part was filled up by a man called Samuel Williams, who needed somewhere to dump gravel his company had dredged up from the Thames. A small part of the lake however remains on Ford’s factory site.