Post memories: Book about 1890s Dagenham reprinted by Valence House

PUBLISHED: 16:00 02 January 2017

Volunteer Derek Alexander and Local Studies Librarian Linda Rhodes

Volunteer Derek Alexander and Local Studies Librarian Linda Rhodes


Post memories normally recalls history within living memory, but thanks to hardworking staff and volunteers at Valence House Publications, this week we have a glimpse of the turn of the 19th century.

Shawcross's A History of Dagenham - Shawcross with his sonShawcross's A History of Dagenham - Shawcross with his son

It centres around the reprinting of a book about Dagenham which has brought together two history buffs who span the decades.

The first, J.P. Shawcross, was reverend of Chadwell Heath in 1893 and lived at the junction of Farrance Road and High Road.

His claim to fame is A History of Dagenham, the fascinating in-depth look at the area that he wrote in the 1890s.

The second, NHS information manager Derek Alexander, was born in Barking and still lives in Woodbridge Road today.

Illustration from Shawcross's A History of Dagenham, Valence HouseIllustration from Shawcross's A History of Dagenham, Valence House

It may seem that the pair have little in common, but Derek, a volunteer at the Local Studies Archives at Valence House since 2011, has been using his technical skills to resurrect the 1908 edition of Shawcross’s book for the Dagenham museum’s new publishing arm.

“We created Sebastopol to Dagenham in July and then we wanted to do something for Christmas,” Derek explained.

“We have hundreds of books in the archives but we immediately thought this one would be popular.”

While Sebastopol to Dagenham required volunteers to painstakingly copy out handwritten Victorian letters, Derek, 49, had a secret weapon to resurrect A History of Dagenham: a book scanner.

He initially hoped this would make light work of the project – but then he took a proper look at the hefty tome.

“It’s 363 pages,” Derek recalled. “I thought ‘this looks quite a challenge’!”

Shawcross started work on the book in the late 1890s but it wasn’t published until 1904. Luckily for Derek, copying it was a much smoother process.

“We decided to do it mid-August and were all done and dusted by mid-November,” Derek noted, before admitting that yes, the book had found its way into a fair few Christmas stockings.

The months of hard work haven’t dampened his enthusiasm.

“When I started scanning it, I got lost in it – it’s so interesting,” he said. “J.P. Shawcross produced this history because he could see on the horizon that it was going to change very quickly.”

Dagenham was in the grip of change when Shawcross arrived, as the railway station had only opened eight years earlier.

With great foresight, the countryside vicar wrote: “In a few years Dagenham will lose its rural individuality, and be drawn into the relentless vortex of Greater London, and the fields, lanes, woodlands and green swards will disappear never to return”.

Derek noted: “Within 10 to 15 years he was proven right when the Becontree Estate was built.”

Since the book was written some of Shawcross’s assumptions about Dagenham’s past have been proved to be incorrect – such as where the Chadwell Heath name came from.

He wrote: “In regard to its derivation, Chadwell Heath means the heath adjoining St Chad’s Well”, but now it’s now believed that the name comes from Chaudewell, which means “cold spring”.

The Becontree Avenue team didn’t correct the mistakes, preserving it as a piece of history instead.

The book, complete with a foreword by Archives and Local Studies librarian Linda Rhodes, costs £9.99 and is available from Valence House and on Amazon.

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