What war? Author traces how WWI passed by ‘rural’ Barking and Dagenham

Barking Broadway during WWI

Barking Broadway during WWI - Credit: Archant

A century ago, Barking and Dagenham hardly knew there was a war on.

Women factory workers would go on to form the borough's first women's football teams

Women factory workers would go on to form the borough's first women's football teams - Credit: Archant

That’s the belief of Rush Green writer Michael Foley, 58, who has published 20 books on military history, including Frontline Essex and Barking and Dagenham Through Time.

The Chequers Inn during WWI

The Chequers Inn during WWI - Credit: Archant

Mr Foley started writing after he read a book about the Crimean War (1853-56) and Lord Cardigan, and found that a cavalry brigade had been based in Essex since the wars against Napoleon.

Local writer Michael Foley

Local writer Michael Foley - Credit: Archant

Now he is preparing for the publication of a book on the use of tanks during the First World War.

“Barking was a very poor area in the war period,” he said. “Infant mortality was twice that of nearby Ilford.”

He said he was surprised to find how “backward” the area was then, with people living without electricity.

“It was very rural. People in local villages hardly knew there was a war on,” he said.

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“There were very few newspapers. There were some posters with information, but nobody really knew what was going on.”

However, ignorance didn’t spare the borough its share of wartime drama. In June 1915 a factory at Barking Creek that made cork lifebelts burned down, causing £12,000 worth of damage.

Thirteen people died in August 1917 in an explosion at Ajax Chemical Works in Howard Road that made shells for the war.

Luckily, it happened as the shifts were changing. A little earlier or later and the blast could have killed 150 women who worked in the factory.

Mr Foley said: “The parents of one of the victims, Mr and Mrs Rainbow of Hardwicke Street, Barking, later received £100 in damages for the death of their daughter.”

Tight security meant a tense atmosphere. One man was arrested at Barking station for taking photos of Purfleet camp as he passed it on a train.

A blackout was enforced when bombing began from German Zeppelins – the first of which was shot down by a pilot from Hornchurch.

One night in 1916 a man named James Bones of Westbury Road was hit by a bus in the dark.

Mr Foley said people became more aware as the war went on and as people had soldiers billeted on them.

Most of the soldiers from the borough who went off to fight in the war – first as volunteers and later as conscripts – will not have returned to their families.

“There are a number of memorials in St Margaret’s Church for men who served in the war,” said Mr Foley, “like Sgt Kenneth Harvey-George, who was gassed and wounded in 1915, wounded again in May 1917 and died a month later.”

The industrial changes and mobilisation of people needed to conduct the war changed the borough forever and laid the brickwork for today’s Barking and Dagenham.

“By the end of the war Barking was more of a town than it had been,” said Mr Foley.

In Dagenham, factories mainly run by women gave birth to women’s football teams, including one at Sterlings factory in Rainham Road South that made radios.

Mr Foley said: “They had a thriving ladies team that played on the company sports ground, which I believe is where Dagenham and Redbridge now play.

“After the war, military equipment from France was brought back to Dagenham Dock. There was only a small track leading to the dock, and this was upgraded to become Chequers Lane.”

Mr Foley’s forthcoming book on tanks will be published later this year by Pen and Sword.

n For more information visit michael-foley-history-writer.co.uk.