Historian uncovers past of 19th century Barking town hall which served as court for 50 years
PUBLISHED: 07:00 15 July 2020
Of the borough’s listed buildings, the Grade II*-listed Barking Public Offices, also known as Barking Magistrates’ Court, is the only one with Victorian origins and remains one of its most imposing buildings.
The eminent borough architect Charles James Dawson submitted plans in July 1891 and Thomas W Glenny laid the foundation stone in 1893.
As well as public offices and library it also included a mortuary and a fire station.
The fire brigade decorated the route from the station with bunting and formed a guard of honour for the opening ceremony.
All this pomp promoted the start of a new era for Barking, which became an Urban District Council in 1894.
Local authority in Barking began with the Abbess from AD 666 until these powers were absorbed by the King (after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Abbey) and later the Lord of The Manor from 1628.
Queen Elizabeth I addressed her manorial responsibilities by commissioning the Leet House to the east of St Margaret’s Parish Church in Barking.
Local governance had passed almost exclusively to the vestry of St Margaret’s by the beginning of the 18th century.
Rapid urbanisation and population growth during the Victorian era, however, put enormous pressure on urban parish vestries.
Barking eventually established various boards including a Board of Health.
An outbreak of infectious diseases in 1885 led to the hasty erection of an isolation tent and eventually a hospital for those suffering from scarlet fever, typhoid fever and smallpox.
This was built on Upney Meadow in 1893. Many babies would be born there in the 20th century. It is now the site of a community hospital.
The Burial Board opened a necessary new cemetery in 1886. A School Board was established in 1889 and the first free Board School, Gascoigne, opened in 1891.
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The Town Board and other local boards combined to form the Urban District Council (UDC), whose members met for the first time, in the new Public Offices in 1895.
Susanna Mason, the first female councillor, was elected that year and her husband, Doctor Hugh Herbert Mason, became the first chairman of the UDC.
Tragically, their eldest child and only daughter, Marian, shockingly succumbed to croup at the age of seven, in 1896. The local paper described how “the parents were wonderfully fond of their child”.
Marian’s grave is next to that of CJ Dawson – the architect of the Public Offices, Rippleside Chapel, the original Gascoigne School, North Street (Northbury) School and many other significant buildings.
Dawson and his wife Hannah had 15 children, but they also experienced tragedy, losing four sons, two of whom were casualties of the First World War.
Dawson, a talented artist and skilled architect, was appointed to the Town Board in 1883 and went on to design more than 20 buildings for the borough during 54 years of service.
At his funeral, in 1933, the vicar described him as, “marked by [his] consideration for others, by sterling integrity and by incomparable devotion to duty and to work”.
He was considered “one of the greatest and most highly esteemed of Barking’s citizens”.
During the First World War, local recruits signed up at the old Town Hall, or Clockhouse –Dawson’s distinctive four-faced clock and weathervane still grace the building and it is also worth looking for the engraved dates, globe lamps and gabled windows with ogee heads, double curved stonework elements.
The building was again the centre of attention in 1931 when the town was granted a royal charter and visited by Prince George.
By this time, however, a new town hall was being planned. It was eventually completed in 1957.
Dawson’s building, after serving as a town hall for more than 60 years, gained a new role as a magistrates’ court, which lasted another 50 years.
There will be more about that in a future article.
To find out more about Barking’s built heritage and the project to improve it, supported by National Lottery Heritage Fund, visit yourcall.befirst.london/barking-heritage
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