Fifty years ago Barking and Dagenham became one of the 32 Greater London Boroughs. Before 1965, there had been two separate boroughs, both within the county of Essex. Becoming a London borough was important as it put control of health, education, and social welfare into local hands. It also brought the Becontree Estate, once the largest public housing development in the world, under the control of a single council.
Since its formation, the people of Barking and Dagenham have been passionately engaged with the issues that affect their borough. This exhibition tells the story of some of the campaigns, controversies, and celebrations that have mattered to the people and have shaped the borough. It showcases items in the Valence House collections dating from the last fifty years. There are some weird and wonderful things – just what you’d expect to find rummaging through the borough’s attic.
London Over The Border
In 1800 much of Barking and Dagenham was farmland with villages at Chadwell Heath and Becontree Heath, and smaller hamlets at Marks Gate and Upney. Barking was a busy town but small compared to London.
As London grew, it spilled into Essex. Barking and Dagenham swelled with people and industry and a new village was even built for factory workers at Creekmouth. In 1857 Charles Dickens described these swollen populations as ‘London over the border’.
For hundreds of years, the parish councils of St Margaret’s in Barking and St Peter & St Paul in Dagenham had been responsible for social welfare, proving poor relief and running the schools.
In 1801, the local population was less than 2,000 but by 1901 it was more than 25,000 and the increased demands were too much for the parish councils. Urban District Councils (UDCs) were introduced in 1894 to manage sanitation, roads, and housing. Barking became a UDC in 1894, Dagenham UDC in 1926.
A Tale of Two Boroughs
In the 20th century Barking and Dagenham boomed. The Becontree Estate stretched from Chadwell Heath to Barking and was the world’s largest public housing estate by the 1930s. There were 26,000 new homes for 100,000 people. More housing was built between the wars, turning Upney and Marks Gate into suburbs.
Local people needed increasingly complex services. To deliver these, Barking became Municipal Borough in 1931 and Dagenham in 1938.
The merger of the two was agreed under the 1963 Local Government Act, which reorganised London into 32 Boroughs. Although the new borough did not come into being until 1965, it was described locally as a ‘shotgun wedding’. Fears that resources would be unequally shared were worsened when the new name was revealed; the London Borough of Barking.
The campaign began for a name reflecting the heritage of both old boroughs. It gained strength in 1979, when plans were put forward to rename the Dagenham and Barking parliamentary constituencies as Barking North and Barking South. The following year, the borough officially became the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.
1960s: Ford Women Workers’ Strike
Local workers were willing to fight for their rights and their most famous campaign was led by the Dagenham Ford factory women workers in 1968.
187 machinists, including 3 men, wanted 5p more an hour to bring their wages into line with others in the factory. Ford justified the reduced rate by claiming the machinists’ works wasn’t skilled. The machinists argued the reduced rate was because they were women and decided to strike.
The strike started on 5 June and within weeks some 4,000 men were laid off due to stopped production. Not everyone supported the strike.
Others, including influential people outside the borough, thought it was an important fight in the bigger campaign for equal rights for women. The strike influenced the passing of the 1970 Equal Pay Act.
It ended at a cost of £8 million, on 2 July with an almost victory; the women’s wages were to be raised to 92% that of men workers. The women had to wait until 1985 to be recognised as skilled workers and receive comparable pay.
1970s: Demolition of Dagenham Village
In 1968 there were 3,406 families on the waiting list for a home. The Greater London Council, then the landlord for the Becontree Estate, gave priority to new tenants from inner London over the children of existing tenants.
The housing shortage increased in the 1970s as new families moved to the borough from all over the world.
Many of the 18th and 19th century houses in the area were described as slums and extensive demolition cleared the way for new buildings. By 1971, the council boasted of “Barking’s happy housing story”, having built 3362 new homes, with 2000 more under construction.
In historic Dagenham village the extensive clearance left only the church, vicarage, and Cross Keys Inn standing by the early 1970s. The council had ignored local protests, believing homes were more important than heritage. In a move to quell growing dissent, at the loss of the old community in 1972 residents were invited to help develop the new village plan, including a traditional-style village green, but this meant demolishing traditional shops on Church Street.
The GLC refused to sell the shops and eventually the village green plan was dropped. The public campaign to preserve what was left of the village’s heritage resulted in the centre being declared a historic Conservation Area in 1995.
1980s: Sale of Council Houses
The 1980 Housing Act protected council tenants’ right to buy the homes they rented. The right had already existed but was now promoted as part of Conservative policy, which became known derisively as ‘homes for votes’.
Locally, people were divided about the sale of the council houses. Within months of the announcement, more than 3,000 people had registered to buy their home. But there were also immediate fears over the loss of social housing stock, which was already limited, and another 3,000 people were on the housing list.
Local MP, Jo Richardson, called for a boycott of the sale. The fight got bitter, with reports of one prominent anti-sale campaigner receiving threats, while would-be buyers were labelled ‘spivs’ – popular WWII slang for a profiteer. Eventually, an ultimatum was received from Westminster: sell or face a government takeover.
Before the sales, the council owned close to 38,000 houses in the borough. After there were 12,000 left.
In 2015 there are nearly 10,000 people on the borough’s waiting list for social housing.
1990s: Fight Against BNP
Migration over the past decades have changed Barking and Dagenham, with new communities of Asians and Africans, West Indians and East Europeans now part of the borough.
The early 1990s were a difficult time for the whole of the UK. Following a global depression and housing market crash, there weren’t enough jobs, not enough money, and not enough houses.
In Barking and Dagenham this was exploited by extremist parties. They blamed new people coming into the area for the shortage of jobs and houses.
In 1994, the MP for Barking died and a by-election was needed to replace her. At the same time the MP for Dagenham resigned and the two elections were held in June. The National Front put forward a candidate in Barking and the British National Party (BNP) put forward a candidate in Dagenham.
The BNP were not seriously considered as a contender and the election press focused on Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
There were campaigns against these parties by anti-racist groups and other political parties and the Labour party held both seats. However, John Tyndall who was party leader of the BNP, succeeded in retaining his deposit. This was the first time the BNP had taken enough votes to retain a deposit.
The BNP put forward candidates in both Barking and Dagenham in the 1997 general election, losing their deposit on both.
The other Dagenham candidates walked off the stage as Tyndall made the traditional speech of a defeated candidate
2000s: Redevelopment of Barking Town Square
The decline of traditional manufacturing industries led to underinvestment in the borough. At the start of the 21st century, there has been new focus on regeneration.
Key to this in Barking was the town centre, which had declined following the demolition of several buildings and failure to agree on what should replace them.
Completed in 2007 after many rejected plans, the new heart of Barking combines a library and gallery, a learning centre, new homes, and even a medieval-style folly.
Although opinions were divided and the new learning centre attracted many complaints in this area, with some local people calling it an eyesore, the design has won several awards including the European Prize for Urban Public Space.
Concerns over how affordable the new flats would be led to a promise that the prices of most would be capped. However when the first phase was sold to a private developer, prices were increased by £20,000. The council has promised to prevent this in future phases to ensure available homes for local families.
The nearby Broadway Theatre was modernised at the same time and is a well-loved cultural venue. When the council made the decision to withdraw funding in 2011, public outcry and support led to increased funding from Arts Council England and charitable donations.
2010s: End of the Town Show
For hundreds of years, the annual fair was a social highlight in towns and villages across the UK. In Barking and Dagenham, the tradition continued with the Barking Carnival and the Dagenham Town Show.
The Barking Pageant of 1931 celebrated Barking becoming a Municipal Borough. The parade of floats and performers became an annual carnival through the streets of Barking.
In Dagenham in 1951, the Three Town Show organised with Romford, and Hornchurch had been a great success. The following year Dagenham decided to go it alone. Every year from 1952 people from all over the borough came to celebrate, take part, and enjoy the Dagenham Town Show.
From 1954, the show joined with the Dagenham Carnival procession. After the merger in 1965, the Barking and Dagenham events grew closer, and there was even a joint Barking & Dagenham Carnival Queen until 1994.
The Dagenham Show cost £100,000 to put on in 1993 and in 1994 entrance charges were scrapped, making it the largest free event in East London.
But following the economic crash in the mid 2000s and cuts to local council budgets, the decision was taken to put the show on hold – indefinitely.
In 2012, the Olympic year, the borough celebrated the last Town Show. Perhaps until there is a new campaign to bring it back…