Billericay scenes including the Church clock and the best remaining piece of townscape at the entrance to Chapel Street.
While I am on the general election theme I recently saw the coverage of the 1959 election on the BBC Parliament channel. This was the year that Billericay won the race to declare first, thanks to the efforts of the clerk of the council, Alma Hatt, who sadly died relatively young. I was outside the Archer Hall that night in what Raymond Baxter described as a 'relatively youthful' crowd.
I had forgotten how fast electric trains move compared with our Chiltern Line diesels, so I only caught a short glimpse of Billericay in the distance. I had been there last year when I had taken up an invitation to visit the Cater Museum and Billericay Library. I met Ted Wright, the museum's curator, a few weeks before his sudden and unexpected death. The Weekly News had a spread on my visit, noting that I 'once had a very special relationship with the town'. Maybe I'll talk about later, although at Charlton only the club photographer, Tom Morris (who went to my old primary school) knows about that and only because of his elephantine memory. And he is pledged to secrecy.
For now I will write down some impressions of Billericay as I remember it from the late 1950s. What I would like to do (and what has happened succesfully with my S.E.London site) is to get some reminiscences from people who lived in Billericay during this period, particularly anyone who moved to the town during its period of rapid expansion. Please contact me at Wyn Grant .
When we moved to Billericay in 1956 it had still not completely thrown off being a small East Anglian country town. An older resident had told me there had been a time when if you were a stranger and had gone into a shop like Howards the newsagents everyone would stop talking and stare at you. It wasn't like that in 1956. One person has suggested to me that the town really started to change with the Second World War, with people who had become familiar with the town through the forces returning there to live. The early 1950s saw the building of the Town Farm Estate (with the roads named after the 1953 Everest expedition) and the Chantry estate of the London Co-op. Nevertheless, in 1950, as Dr Rilstone recalls in Sylvia Kent's book, the town had a population of just 8,000. By the time I arrived, the development of the town was just getting under way on a larger scale. I remember seeing Knightsbridge Walk (which I have only recently learnt was named after a local family, not part of London) off Perry Street in the process of construction. The real boom came after the electrification of the railway at the end of 1956. Before then there were dirty and irregular steam trains serving the route from London.
The High Street was still a traditional townscape, with Georgian buildings predominant, although they were often brick cladding on earlier Tudor properties. Apart from a self service Woolworths, seen at the time as a major retail innovation, most of the shops were still small and family owned. A grocer in a white coat would meet your requirements by taking them down from the shelf one by one.
Recently in the National Archives I found an interesting file in the Historic Buildings Section of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government including discussions about threats to the future integrity of the townscape in the mid-1950s.
A memorandum in the file dated 8th March 1955 stated, 'As the [Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings] recognised the town’s expanding population is causing an increasing demand for shops and business uses in the High Street which is the main shopping street. With the increase in population normal changes in the High Street will be accelerated. Broadly, the first buildings to go will be those that are obsolete in the sense that their amenities, planning and construction make them less attractive than the site on which they stand, whether that site is used for shopping or any other purpose. This will be even more the case when the obsolete building is a dwelling, and the site is in a position useful for commerce. To stop the process will mean depriving the inhabitants of the convenience of High Street shops.'
Places like Billericay High Street which without containing much of outstanding merit have a very attractive atmosphere depending to a large extent on the proportions of buildings to street width and the general good manners of the 17th and 18th century building are inevitably most likely to suffer – particularly when the town expands and for other reasons, e.g., the decongestion of London. And such expansion is essential.' This last sentence is significant in my view in indicating the general policy context which overcame the local concerns.
These were expressed in a letter from the Clerk of the Council, Alma Hatt, dated 13 April 1955 in which he stated, ‘The Council are seriously perturbed about the whole question of the preservation of this street.’ This drew a note to Mr Wiltshire from Division P.4(b) Historic Buildings, 'In Billericay there seems to be a strong possibility that the village High Street character ought not to be preserved but that the aim of the planning authority ought to be to get something as good but quite different.' However, a dfferent view was expressed by T.C.Coote who stated, 'In the specific case of Billericay High Street, you may recall that both Mr. Ellicott and myself had an office in that High Street and worked there for quite a long time and so know how charming this curved street is.
These exchanges culminated in a Conference to discuss Billericay High Street, Council Chamber, held on 9th August 1955. The record of the meeting states, 'Mr Hatt informed those present that in the Council’s view the development of the township of Billericay was going ahead more rapidly than had been envisaged in the County Development Plan ... With the expansion of the town the Council feared there would be more conversions of High Street property and, while welcoming the expansion of the district, they wished to preserve the general character of the street.'
'The Chairman [of the UDC, Cllr. Edwards] thought the High Street was a good example of minor building from the 16th or 17th century to the present day; it was an oasis in the desert around London; and the Council did not wish it to become just another multiple shopping site. Woolworth’s had arrived and brought with them a very great problem ... Barclay’s Bank, which was being replaced by a new building, was a good example of a completely modern building in keeping with the older surrounding development.' Unfortunately, much of the development that subsequently took place was mediocre in character.
Much of the town outside the central area had a predominantly rural or at least 'exurban' character. Many side roads were unmade and were almost impassable in the winter as the Essex clay was hardly permeable. Street lighting was poor or even non-existent. The electricity supply was unreliable: I remember it going off once while Christmas dinner was being cooked. In the agricultural depression of the 19th and early 20th century, portions of land had been sold off as 'plotland'. A classic example was Queen's Park which was near us in Perry Street which has now been built over by modern housing but the Buckwyns area survives in its traditional form as what I have heard called 'hillbilly country'.
Some people were allegedly so drunk when they bought the plots that they forgot they had them. Others built summer homes on them, but they later became abandoned. In both cases, the plots became overgrown with scrub. You could even find locations where people had started work on quite substantial houses but then, for some reason, never got beyond a height of a few bricks. Down Woodside Road near us, you could still see the crater from a stray second world war bomb and the scythe its blast had cut through the woodland. Some people had built some quite substantial houses in this area, but they were presumably demolished when the area was redeveloped.
Attending the book launch for Sylvia Kent's Billericay Voices (see below) caused me to reflect on what is special about Billericay. After all, I have lived in Warwickshire for some thirty years but I still feel a pull which leads me to return to the town. The short answer is, of course, nothing. It's a pleasant place to live with convenient access to London. Nevertheless, it does have some distinctive features:
If you have any thoughts on this theme, let me know.
I have received a very interesting E mail from a reader of this page which is full of vivid memories. It is reproduced below. The Chantry Estate was built by the London Co-operative Housing Society, as I recall, and was one of the first large-scale developments in post-war Billericay.
'I lived in Billericay for four, very happy years in the 1950s. We moved there from West London when I was four years old and settled in Ganley Close on the Chantry Estate. Although only there for four years, I have vivid memories of the town and Chantry. What I recognised, even as a small child, was a strong sense of community. Most of us were London overspill families, but we quickly moulded into a new united community. Our parents, having been through a terrible war, had a clear desire for a better world for their children. And as far as we children were concerned, we were Billericay kids.
I remember particularly communal sports days on the Chantry Estate, involving children's and adults' races, and firework nights with a huge bonfire at the foot of the estate, free cocoa and piping hot potatoes in jackets handed out by smiling adults. I recall also, all round, building work. Sand, areas of wet cement, ladders on roofless new houses. Yet, at the foot of the road next to our cul-de-sac was a quiet wooded area where we children played, and a lane, with a grass bank crawling with lizards, leading to two nearby shops one, if I remember rightly, called Sunnyside Stores.
It all sounds very idyllic, but that is how it was. There was a very real sense of rural life, a small East Anglian country town, as you state on the site. I went back there twenty years ago. The country area from estate to shops was unrecognisable as it was covered in new homes. I went in the shop and found myself saying, 'I remember when this was all fields.'
At the top of Chantry Estate there was a stretch of open country and a path through some woods. It came out in the High Street close to the pub (the Chequers) and the war memorial and church. I was christened in St.Mary Magdalene Church at the age of five. Along the back road running parallel to the High Street [Chapel Street] was the pub cellar doors. As children we would love to watch the beer delivery man rolling barrels into the cellar. Further along was a cinema - the Ritz - and a community hall of some sort [the Mayflower Hall attached to the Congregational, later United Reform, Church], I recall children's parties in there.
On the Chantry Estate, milk was delivered by a man named, ironically, Norman Butcher, in a horse-drawn open-backed cart lined with crates. Mr Butcher would let us children ride the cart with him from the bottom of the hill to the top and we would deliver the bottles along the way.
I was a member of the 4th Billericay Wolf Cubs. We met each Tuesday in a hut somewhere at the top end of town. I recall Remembrance Day parade, and the great rivalry between our pack and that of my older brother's, the 2nd Billericay. (If any one has any memories of the 2nd Billericay Scout Group, particularly its leaders, could they contact Richard Clark, the Group Scout leader at: Scouts ) I went to Great Burstead Primary School - later renamed Quilters, I understand, though I cannot for the life of me think why.
I recall the High Street shops, the friendliness of shopkeepers. I remember the Mayflower tea rooms opposute the church and some legend that the Pilgrim Fathers had met there before embarking for the New World. Decades later, while in Plymouth, I noticed with interest that a plaque listing the Pilgrim Fathers, and their places of origin, including many from Great and Little Burstead.
I remember my brother and I yelling protests as we watched some men on a balcony above Barclays Bank in the High Street dislodge a swallows' nest from the eaves of the building, what looked like the bank manager - in three-piece suit like Capt. Mainwaring - directing the operation. I swore then that when I grew up I would never bank with Barclays! I remember, at the lower end of the High Street, the library in what seemed to be a large, rambling house.
I remember also the railway station and the line to London or to Southend. My Godfather, whose back garden backed on to ours, was a keen supporter of the Shrimpers [Southend United] and would travel to home matches by train. Down by the station was a bridge over the railway line. We would run from one side to the other as a steam train chugged through. An early memory of train travel on that line is of my father telling me not to lean out of the window as I would get my face covered in soot. My father worked in London as a tailor's presser, travelling in each day by train.
My mother died suddenly in October 1958. She was 29. On Christmas Eve 1958 we left Billericay for good, moving to a huge council estate near Watford to be near relatives who helped my father to care for my brothers and myself. We all hated Watford, feeling we had been deprived of what was a wonderful place in which to grow up. Many years later, aged 23, I moved to the West Country and settled in a small town, Launceston, not unlike Billericay in its size and sense of community. In many ways, it felt like coming home - even the parish church was called St Mary Magdalene.'
I have been sent some very interesting memories of the Buckwyns area by Averill Baker (nee Hunt). She writes: 'I moved to Oak Lodge (a three and a half acre smallholding), Buckwyns when I was about 10 in 1952, with my parents. We moved from Surrey because my parents wanted to live in the countryside and try to be self-sufficient.' Although we were there for only 4/5 years, it was a magical time for me, full of adventure and playing in the open countryside.
Buttsbury Primary School, Perry Street - travelled there in school taxi (beige van) from pick-up point on Mountnessing Road. My class had three age groups in one room with one teacher, heated by black heater in corner with guard rail around it. Outside loos - no flush toilets.
Buckwyns had no electricity in 1952. We used calor gas for cooking and parafin lamps or candles for lighting. But while we were there my Dad helped to organise a group of families who went to visit the 'Electricity Company' and they agreed to install electricity to all the smallholdings. We had a pylon put in the corner of our field and I remember my young brother lending the workmen his collection of Eagle comics to read in their break time when wiring our house. Also, the old wooden bridge over the brook on the lane leading out to Mountnessing Road, was rebuilt in concrete by the locals in a joint effort within a few days.
We had water from a well plus rainwater collected in rain butts. One dry summer a tanker had to bring us some water because we'd run out. The lanes were always muddy. At 11 I started at Chelmsford High School for Girls, having to walk or cycle into Billericay to catch a bus. Once I fell in the mud so came home again. Classmates in Chelmsford were sometimes surprised to see all the mud on my shoes when I arrived at school.'
Averil recalls, as I do, the two shops in Perry Street, Queens Park Stores and Shuttleworths. 'As children we always went to in the former which was friendly and welcoming and we could buy sweets and ice lollies. Previously ordered Sunday papers were collected from a box outside the shop. I remember the road [through Queens Park] as being wide and made of a sort of black cinder with puddles in places. At the end you continued into Buckwyns on what we called the 'goat path', a narrow rough path made of stones (not muddy) maybe a metre wide.
I liked Lake Meadows, passing it on my way to and from Billericay. My father took us rowing on the lake once. Cycling was the easiest way to explore as a child and our dog, Rinty, always came as well, but not when friends and I cycled to Southend-on-Sea and back for the day in the summer. Another day we got as far as the outskirts of Epping Forest but this was a one-off - usually we only went a few miles.
Next door to our smallholding was a mirror image one called The Anchorage where the Garlike family lived. To the back of us was another smallholding where the King family bred goats. Up the lane was Miss Harrison who bred pigs and down the lane were the Carter family and further on the Bell family. Because these are childhood memories, all the people are vividly etched in my mind.
I loved it at Buckwyns, mainly because of the freedom and space. However, my parents couldn't make a living so their dream ended and we moved to Southend-on-Sea when I was 14.'
Some pictures of life in Buckwyns provided by Averill Baker.
When I lived in Billericay, Billericay Town Football Club played at a junior level of the non-league system next to the Archer Hall. Another team that played in a local league was Norsey Rangers who used a pitch next to Lake Meadows. Subsequently, Billericay Town won the Olympian League twice before moving up for four championships in the Essex Senior League. They were coming into form at the right time for the new FA Vase which had been set up as a successor to the old FA Amateur Cup.
1975-6 was Billericay Town's centenary year, the team by now playing at New Lodge. In the Vase they conceded just three goals in the nine games before the final. Up against Stamford Town, a goal by striker Geoff Aslett in extra time gave them the trophy. In 1976-77 six home ties attracted 11,261 at an average of 1,877 per match while more than 500 regularly travelled away. The final against Sheffield ended in a draw and Billericay won the trophy in a replay at Nottingham Forest.
Could they manage the treble in the following year? 1977-78 saw them in the Athenian League, one of the top 'amateur' leagues and, enjoying new floodlights they had won in a competition, they won the championship by three points from Leyton-Wingate. However, they went down 3-2 in the fifth round of the Vase to Bedfordshire team Barton Rovers. However, 1978-9 saw them return to Wembley to win the Vase for a third time by beating Almondbury Greenaway 4-1.
Today Billericay have lost out on promotion from the Ryman Premier by a narrow margin in three successive seasons. They enjoy a reputation as a family orientated club and have the second best away attendance in the league after AFC Wimbledon.
I have had an E mail from a resident of Australia who lived in Billericay in the late 1950s and remembers the great storm of 5/6 September 1958. (Another correspondent has questioned whether the date is correct. However, Sylvia Kent is now doing research into this topic and confirms the year). This was one of those 'once in a century' freak weather events. I don't know how much rain fell, but my correspondent notes that he discovered next morning 'that our road had been gouged up by the rain water and there were people talking about how the lake [in Lake Meadows Park] had overflowed threatening to flood us.' Some years later protective works were undertaken on the lake embankment which overshadowed parts of the road called Lakeside. I also recall that there was quite serious flooding of bungalows in a dip in Perry Street near Wick Glen. Does anyone else remember this storm?
Our 'Chantry Estate' contributor does. 'When I read that, I recalled my brothers and I standing outside our house one night - it was warm and dry. In the far distance the sky was lit up with a spectacular display of lightning. Forty-four years on, I have never seen a storm as dramatic as that. It must have been the harbinger of the storm. I was thinking about that when suddenly a memory resurfaced and I realised it must be that of the Great Storm. I recall lying in bed and being woken by commotion, voices and activity. Our house was on the high, ridged side of a cul-de-sac. In the morning we discovered that the houses on the lower side of the close had been flooded. In one house, a young girl had opened the front door and a wave of water swept into the hallway. I recall seeing furniture and rugs, outside on the grass, drying the following morning.
By the way, the correspondent who wrote about the storm recently revisited the area three years ago not having been there since 1958. 'My visit was not without disappointment at the change that had taken place but rediscovering old haunts such as a walk to Buckwyns and the local park was an exciting experience. My memories are quite vivid still and I feel sure that the place was a lot nicer in those days as it had a feeling of quaintness, quiteness and more isolation than today'.
Billerica, Massachusetts is named after the way Billericay was spelt when the town was incorporated in 1655. No one has ever really worked out why Billericay has such an unusual, almost Celtic name (although incorporating the words 'Bill' and 'Eric'). My hunch was always that it might be a corruption of 'Ville de Crey' as shown on one old map. Other places in the district were named after this old family, e.g., Ramsden Crays. But this is just speculation.
What is remarkable about both Billericays is their location in relation to the metropolitan city where many of their residents work. Billericay is approximately twenty-five miles from London and just over half an hour by the fastest trains. Billerica is twenty-four miles from Boston with trains taking a little over half an hour. Although I have been to Boston many times, I have never been to Billerica. It's always been a little odd to see buses and vans at Logan Airport for Billerica and Chelmsford.
Billerica today has a population of 38,000, quite similar to that of Billericay. Chelmsford is the nearest town to the north. There were once industrial mills in the town, but from the 1950s there was a growth of residential development, stimulated by generous zoning regulations and its location on transport routes. Today a number of high technology firms which are offshoots of companies on the famous Route 128 (Interstate 95) are located in the town. Much of the area has been developed, but there is an attempt to maintain its rural character and a considerable amount of money has been spent on acquiring tracts of open land for preservation purposes.
Does anyone know the context of this early picture of the writer of this page? More about this is now available at Billericay Observer . You can also go to the ITN Archive , complete the simple registration procedure, click on the British Pathe button and type 'Wynford Grant' in the search box, you can see a film shot in Billericay in 1961.
Sylvia Kent's excellent oral history book which brings together the recollections of many people associated with Billericay is now available - see the picture of the cover below. She has also now written a book on Billericay School - see cover below.
The number of visitors interested in Billericay is: