Heroes, hamlets and housing estates: Remembering Barking and Dagenham's Somme sacrifices

PUBLISHED: 11:00 01 July 2016

One of the oldest original cottages, which was demolished when building for the Becontree Estate started     Picture: Valence House

One of the oldest original cottages, which was demolished when building for the Becontree Estate started Picture: Valence House


Look in any direction and you'll see a vast ocean of fields, the odd spire or cluster of stone breaking up the uniform horizon and indicating a small and ancient farming village.

This, for the most part, is the Barking and Dagenham of 1916, the year many of its sons fought and fell in the muddy and cratered fields around the River Somme in northern France.

Many of the boys and men from the area who died for their country in the four-and-a-half-month Battle of the Somme – and in the First World War – were farm labourers.

One of the first to die was Pte Frederick Argent, who lived at 57 Alfred Road, Barking, and fought for the 13th Battalion of the Essex Regiment.

Barking Park in 1905      Picture: Barking Past by Richard TamesBarking Park in 1905 Picture: Barking Past by Richard Tames

He was killed on July 1, the first day of the cataclysm, and never got the chance to return home to his field and family.

“You have to remember that at this point, what we now call Barking and Dagenham was very, very different,” said Bob Little, former borough councillor and author of Not Just a Name, a book about Dagenham’s First World War casualties.

“There were 11 lads from Dagenham who died in the Somme – and that’s just one battle.

The Becontree Estate not long after its construction             Picture: Valence HouseThe Becontree Estate not long after its construction Picture: Valence House

“The contribution was massive – we should be very proud of what they did.”

Bob, who now lives in Somerset after leaving the council more than a decade ago, told how Dagenham, Becontree and Barking were “completely separate entities”, but ultimately small communities.

Returning soldiers, however, would have a surprise waiting for them.

What the papers said

At a time when the British people lapped up newspapers with feverish desire, it may come as a surprise to learn that the battle barely registered in the borough.

The Barking Advertiser of July 8, 1916, published exactly a week after the fighting began, is packed with appeals for servants, tips for easing flu symptoms and job offers for cowmen – but little about the enormous battle across the Channel.

One story, headlined “Barking women among the potatoes”, documents an allegation of trespass and damage in Mill Field, Dagenham.

“Pc Lewis said he saw the defendants coming through a field of potatoes, where there was no footpath, to cut a corner off,” it reads.

“Damage was done to the potatoes.”

Andrew Summers, author of They Did Their Duty: Essex Farm Never Forgotten, explained that this absence of war news is not surprising.

“This is a time before the radio, before the kind of mass communication we have now,” he said. “It’s not like you had someone in the trenches tweeting.”

He added that the general understanding of the Battle of the Somme was limited.

“By this time, there had been a lot of battles, a lot of deaths,” he said.

“It didn’t immediately register as unique.”

But a hardened attitude to the war and poor communications were not the only reasons for the lack of reporting.

“There was a great deal of censorship from the Army,” Andrew added.

“Usually all people were told was that men had died and that was that.”

“They had a double whammy after the war,” said Bob.

“So many men had gone off and fought in battles like the Somme, and seen horrible things that traumatised them, and then they returned home to see the bulldozers coming in.

“The largest housing estate in Europe was being built by 1921 and so their whole way of life was changing.”

A story about potatoes appears in the Barking Advertiser as the Battle of the Somme rages on    Picture: Valence HouseA story about potatoes appears in the Barking Advertiser as the Battle of the Somme rages on Picture: Valence House

Edward Chaplin, a 21-year-old farm labourer from Dagenham, was killed at the Somme two days after Pte Argent.

He was raised in Becontree Heath – first Samuels Cottages, then Laburnum Villas – before leaving his nine siblings behind to fight in France.

At around 3.15am on July 3, his Essex Regiment battalion – the 9th – was ordered to assault the German line at Ovillers but became lost in smoke and difficult terrain, sustaining many casualties.

The boys from Chadwell Heath

In what is now the borough’s far north, there was another Essex hamlet – distinct from Dagenham, Barking and Becontree – which had its own Somme experience.

Chadwell Heath sent many of its young sons into the battle, and barely a home was left untouched by the war’s effects.

“Just in one small area, between two roads, you’ve got a soldier being lost every six months until the end of the war,” Nicky Scowen, author of Searching for the Lost Boys, said.

“Everybody must have known somebody either that died or that lost someone,” she added. “Imagine the ramifications of that.”

Some families even lost more than one member – like the Taylors.

The family’s second son, Arthur, was a sergeant in the 14th Battalion of the London Scottish, which was sent to France in June 1916.

A month later – a week after the Battle of the Somme began – the 24-year-old speedwalking champion was killed by a trench mortar.

His father, Henry, was also serving at the time despite, according to Nicky, being “considerably over 50” – meaning he lied about his age to recruiters.

To compound the family’s misery – he had seven children as well as a wife – he died in India from bronchitis, just before being sent home, in January 1919.

Nicky, who devoted two years of her life to researching her book, said though the Chadwell Heath of today is now “another world”, it’s important to remember the area’s fallen forebears.

“All you can do is point people to the places where history still survives,” she said. “Whalebone Lane, for example, has a lot of old houses.

“We can’t forget them.”

In death, Edward’s life was sealed forever in a chapter of Barking and Dagenham’s story which is now a distant memory – one full of slow days, narrow lanes and squawking livestock – but was all he knew.

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