Basildon Borough History
Basildon Borough History
Basildon, Essex, England
In The Beginning
The low price of imported goods and a steady migration of Londoners into what we now know as Laindon, Essex are not two instances that are instantly easy to connect. Though if you join the dots, all becomes clear...
In the 1920's grain became very cheap to import into the UK from America. Coupled with bouts of savage weather conditions, this rendered some farmland areas of rural Essex all but redundant. With plenty of land but nothing worth growing on it, farmers had to think fast to stay afloat in this economic downturn and began selling off their land.
Cue the entrepreneur. Property developers snatched up large areas and sold it off in plots of varying sizes and by the mid-1920's there were over 150 plots sold at Dunton. With a newly built train station at Laindon on the London-Midland-Scotland company's line running between London and Shoeburyness, developers lured those from the smog of London with promises of clean, country air and the idea of having an idyllic countryside retreat.
Land Sales - Fact & Fiction
And so began the sale of plots of land in the Dunton area and the origins of what is now modern Laindon. These plots were sold off for the modern equivalent of around £5-£6 each (twice the weekly income of the period for the average East End worker) with developers offering prospective buyers free train tickets and even champagne en-route, all the while exaggerating the amenities in place.
What many plotlanders found on arrival was a far cry from what they had been promised by some sellers of the land. While developers counted their money, the new owners of this land were counting the time it took to get from the station to their plot via the unmade country tracks. No roads existed past Lower Dunton Road and even if the weather was fine, many still had to cart their belongings along uneven, unlit paths until they reached their plot - a good three quarters of an hour walk from Laindon station.
Planning & Building
Buying the plot was just the start of the venture - then the building had to commence. Materials were transported from London - often in the baggage compartment of the Friday evening train or motor car of those wealthy enough to own one - as well as purchased from local merchants in the area, such as building suppliers Donald, Leslie & Co Ltd or Johnson & Co the timber merchants, both situated on the High Road at Laindon. Paying a little extra would get your goods delivered, though probably only as far as Lower Dunton Road due to the often impassable roads. These unmade tracks were referred to by one tenant as being unbreakable "by a Sherman tank" in the summer but conditions were such in the winter that "people and horses" would sink in them.
Owners would camp out in tents or tow caravans to their plot until their weekend retreat was complete. Indeed, on one plot we believe to be the site of former home 'The Hut' on Central Avenue, two of these caravans are still visible amongst the overgrown shrubs and remnants of a former dwelling.
Amenities & Supplies
Running water, plumbed in gas and electricity were amenities that were simply not available and the only way of obtaining such things was by way of a generator, portable gas bottles and a well or standpipe at the end of the lanes. Still, the escape to the country was what the building of these properties was all about, so having limited light after dark and cooking by gas on a portable grill would often make the retreat to Dunton an adventure all the more.
Plotlands At War
With London - particularly the east end - under bombardment from enemy shelling during the second world war, the dwellings at Dunton provided a welcome getaway from the hazards of London living. What had started out as holiday retreats were now havens, a safe place to live whilst the bombs dropped.
That's not to say that they were completely devoid of danger. Having spoken to a Laindon resident in the summer of 2015 who was volunteering at The Haven museum on the site and who had lived in Laindon all of his 80-something years, he told stories of watching dog fights over the county, British and foreign fighters "spiralling through the skies" and listening out for "the hum of their engines".
Indeed, an entire corner of a Laindon street just a few miles from the Dunton plotlands area was demolished by an enemy shell. He told of the families' worry that the fighters may drop their payload away from their intended London targets - a worry not unrealistic with the capital only being a few minutes away by plane.
Plotlanders were prepared for such an attack, shown in the building of Andersen shelters on several plots including two on Third Avenue.
Although having an escape from war, residents were not entirely away from it. Walking to Hillcrest Avenue provides a spectacular view of London - The Shard, Canary Wharf, the Gherkin to name a few modern landmarks visible on a clear day. But imagine that same view in the 1940's, when the River Thames was host to vibrant, bustling docks that were industrial targets for German fighters. The calm, hazy view of today was once that of flame, smoke and carnage on any given night during the Blitz. The worry of plotland residents not knowing what they would see upon their return home we just cannot imagine.
The Twilight Years
In the years following the war, many plotland homes were moved into full time. Post war, some plots as early as the 1950's were occupied permanently and a community was formed.
Unfortunately for those living at Dunton and in plotland homes across Basildon including Pitsea, Vange and Laindon, the beginning of the building of Basildon New Town spelt the end. Plotland homes here and across Basildon were swallowed up by the Basildon Development Corporation in order to make way for the development of the modern town. Originally advised that this development wouldn't incur Dunton's open spaces, the residents were finally forced to leave after varying offers for their land - some fair, some not so - leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of those who had to give up their country homes for a fraction of its worth.
In the case of Dunton, the BDC made full use of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1981 to acquire land there as 'designated open space'. A number of orders were issued in the early 80's in accordance with this act forcing tenants to give up their countryside homes. There are still a small number of homes across the borough that escaped the modern development and a few such examples can be seen along Lower Dunton Road.
Realistically, some of these plotland dwellings had become dilapidated by modern housing standards, never having the luxury of running water, electricity or even inside toilets and residents were offered cash sums and re-housed in new homes across Basildon. In some cases this was a positive thing, others not so. Every resident I'm sure has their own story to tell and we've added a link on here to a plotland website that has some personal stories from former residents about their memories of the creation and demise of the plotlands.
What's There Today?
One of the most prominent ruins of the many properties that once occupied this beautiful open country is 'Hawthorn' on Hillcrest Avenue. Built in the 1930's, it was originally occupied by the Burke family. Its last tenant was the park keeper of the area when the Burke family left the area in 1983, until it was finally deemed unsafe for inhabiting.
As previously mentioned, we believe 'The Hut' is another property still highly visible with not only remains of buildings but also caravans and other personal items littering the plot. We have two photos that were found here and subsequently handed in to 'The Haven' museum on the site - one of a young soldier in what appears to be WW1 army uniform and another of the city walls and memorial in York. The N E R Memorial was built by Sir Edwin Lutyens who had built London's Cenotaph in Whitehall. Commissioned by the North Eastern Railway, it stands to commemorate the 2,236 York men who died during the First World War. Perhaps this grinning young man is honoured on the memorial, along with his other fallen comrades?
If anyone is able to shed any light on the uniform, the soldier or any other info about the photos found we'd love to hear from you.
I've always found that a great way of exploring the area is to walk off the beaten track and head off into the woods. Step into the bushes off Third Avenue for example and you'll very soon come across remains of buildings and other signs of the past - pipework, fence posts marking out forgotten gardens, roof tiles and bottles, buckets and plant pots, helping to build a picture of what these places were like. Upon one of my first explorations of the area, I came across a rusted, metal, stand alone bathtub in a clearing midway up Third Avenue, although this has long since been removed.
Its not only the rubble and personal items that give clues to the areas' past. Throughout the woods and paths you will find various plants that give an insight into what was here before. Flowers and other garden plants that wouldn't ordinarily grow wild, as well as the apple, pear and plum trees dotted about are great indications of where plotland gardens used to be.
The Haven, formerly a plotland home, is now a museum and stands to give an insight into plotland life. Filled with genuine artifacts from the war years and beyond it's well worth a visit, with volunteers on hand to discuss it's history, some who had been residents in the area. There is also a bomb shelter in the garden complete with mock air raid sirens and sound effects, and a work shop full of tools and other items from the era.
This is such a lovely place to stroll around and explore, stop for a picnic, walk the dogs or let the children run free. There are picnic tables and a new climbing frame area has recently been constructed all from natural sources. It's a peaceful escape and after taking a walk through the country paths, you'll quickly see what drew those plucky east enders to build their serene country retreats here.
There is also a visitors' centre on site that gives information on the areas wildlife and the various flora and fauna that inhabit the countryside there.