2021 marks the centenary of the Becontree Estate. It is of great significance to the residents of Barking and Dagenham – once the world’s largest housing estate, and to this day remains the largest in Europe. Construction first began by the London County Council in 1921, following the Housing and Town Planning (Addison) Act of 1919. Why? To provide ‘healthier homes’ for the working-class communities of the East End, specifically those returning home from the First World War.
300 acres of land were acquired by the London County Council, previously fields for market gardens, few country lanes, groups of cottages or the occasional farmhouse. Until 1965, the estate was divided within three local government areas – Barking, Dagenham, and Ilford. Following a reorganisation of London Local Governments, Barking and Dagenham combined to form the London Borough of Barking, which in 1981 became the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham as we know it today. Although today many may only call the area around the station ‘Becontree’, the estate does expand from the likes of Heathway and just beyond, to Mayesbrook Park, from Ripple Road, up to Chadwell Heath.
The Building Becontree project is funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project involves unlocking the potential of the archives relating to the Becontree Estate over the last 100 years, hoping to understand the impact and success both of the estate, and for those living on it. For example, architectural and building plans can help us to recognise the streets, schools, pubs, shops, and other areas we know today. Did you know that there were 91 different house types! We can use Registers of Tuberculosis and Infectious Diseases, along with Medical Officer of Health Reports, to compare the type and spread of diseases with ways of living. Publications such as tenants’ handbooks, gazettes and the Dagenham Digest give us an insight into life on the Becontree Estate, such as the rules tenants were required to follow, barriers to some of the poorest working class East Enders, and the social and public health impact of large-scale housing. Rent books can also give us details on the cost of housing throughout the Estate’s history, matching it up to the architectural housing plans. Can you guess how much you would be paying for your house 100 years ago?
Over the next year or so, we will be sharing more discoveries to celebrate the Becontree Estate. You will have a chance to explore parts of the collection, both physically and online, as well as sharing your memories and/or learning more about the area you know and live in. The Becontree Estate has played an important role in the history of Barking and Dagenham, creating employment, housing, and a hub for its community, beginning in 1921, developing over time, and continuing today.