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A Haven for Londoners

My family were originally from the East End of London but moved to Dagenham and then to Essex when I was a little girl. I now live in Langdon Hills which I am happy to say is home to the Essex Wildlife Trust's largest inland nature reserve, it has an abundance of wildlife, woodlands, flowers and trees and covers 460 acres.

At the turn of the century Londoners who were looking for a haven in the countryside came to live in the area. There had been a decline in agriculture due to a series of poor harvests and cheap grain imports from America. Land agents purchased fields and then auctioned them off in small plots. In Dunton during the 1920s and 1930s the grand occasions of selling plots of land were referred to as 'Champagne Sales'. A typical plot was 20 feet wide by 160-180 feet long.

The initial dwellings were sheds or tents which were used as weekend retreats or holiday homes, however they became more permanent when people moved out of London during World War Two. Dunton soon became a busy estate of approximately 200 homes and was locally referred to as "Gumboot Hill" or "Dodge City". A map of the area is below.

The estate was built quickly which resulted in poor services and unmade roads. During winter the wet weather often made the pathways impassable so the Plotlanders built a path along the front of their houses, contributing time and materials where the path crossed unoccupied plots. They transported shopping from Laindon in trolleys built from old prams called 'basses' (from bassinets) which were an exact fit for the path. In later years the area needed upgrading but

Billericay Urban City council deemed it too expensive and the plots were sold or compulsorily purchased. The last residents left the area in the 1980s.

The Essex Wildlife Trust bought the reserve in 1989 and is committed to maintaining the area's social history and wildlife. Most of the homes have been demolished or destroyed, but one remains and it is called "The Haven". Frederick Mills was a carpenter from Romford and he built the house for him and his wife in 1933 and they lived in a shed whilst it was being built. The Mills bought three adjacent plots for £20 with a £45 mortgage to buy building materials. They were self sufficient and owned a vegetable patch, chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, bees and a pony which pulled their cart - they also had geese who acted as guard dogs!

The house originally consisted of two rooms, but when Mr & Mrs Mills had children they built two more rooms. The family lived there for approximately 40 years and the son lived there until 1975 when he donated the house to the Essex Wildlife Trust and moved to Clacton. Pictures of the front and back of the house are below, together with photos of the Mills family.

The Mills family children
The Mills family children
Mrs Mills
The Mills family son

The Haven is now a living museum and upon entering visitors are transported to what it would have been like to live there during the WW II time period. When I visited it was manned by volunteers Fred and Roy who were fantastic hosts and had lots of interesting stories to tell. Fred grew up in Tottenham, London and moved to Langdon Hills in 1963 when he was about 30 years old. Roy's family are originally from Bow in the East End of London but they moved to Langdon Hills and he grew up in a house across the road from The Haven. A picture of jovial volunteers Roy (left) and Fred (right) is below.

Roy and Fred in the living room at The Haven

Fred and Roy told me that when the house was occupied it had no running water or electric. Water was fetched in a bucket from the pump at the end of the street and there was also a well in the area. The occupants could play records on the wind up record player and listen to the radio using an accumulation battery which was filled with acid. They told me that people would have two batteries, one of which would be in use whilst the other was in the shop being re-filled with acid.

Fred, Roy and I sat in the living room which had a roaring fire, perched on top of which were 1930s photograph frames, a clock, a perpetual calendar and three ducks on the wall. The pink tiled fireplace reminded me of visiting my Nan and Grandad in Dagenham when I was little and I felt very cosy and at home there. Fred turned the radio on which played a recording of "This was it Mum!", Roy beamed as he said "I always remember this one, that's all my life was, I used to love the radio and the old boy who lived next door to me, Mr Harding, was a radio ham fanatic. Our road was called Florence Road and it was just across the road from here, it used to run parallel with Bristow Road near the clinic. I used to come to the fields to play when I was a boy." Roy's favourite show as a youngster was Dick Barton, he said "the narrator would ask, does Snowy get out of the burning building?!", he liked it so much he saved all of his pocket money to become a member of the fan club! Fred said his favourite used to be "the cowboy films, Roy Rogers was brilliant!".

The living room at the Haven

I said how wonderful I think the house and the surrounding area is and Roy said, "my Dad was born here, across the road in the farm and it's still there, in Summerfield chase, it was a pigs farm then. I've got memories as a boy, around that area, sitting on a tractor with my Dad whilst he is ploughing the fields". Below is a photograph of Roy's Dad working.

Roy remembers the land where Basildon is now being completely flat and full of tress, apart from the odd bungalow here and there. His Grandad survived the first world war, but his Uncle (his Dad's brother) was killed on 6th August 1915, his name was Lance Corporal Ernest John Hollowbread of the 1st bn. Essex Regiment (see his photo below). Roy confided, "I've got his death penny and his picture, he was only 24 when he was killed". I mentioned how young a lot of the soldiers were who went to war and asked how he thought youngsters today would cope, he said, "I think every generation of teenagers are the same, when I was a teenager we were all motorbike lads around here, we were crazy! I think we thought we were spitfire pilots! When I think back I cringe, but for the grace of God I'm still here! My first bike was a 1936 New Imperial, I wish I still had it! It went like the clappers... I busted my jaw on that!". Fred remembered, "you could go and buy a car for a tenner!". They reminisced, with Fred saying "we used to get away with murder really", and Roy replied, "yes, it was a different era and I think they knew what we'd all gone through (during the war), well Fred more than me, because I'm only 35!", Fred shot back, "yes, but you've had a hard life haven't you!". Roy showed me a photo of himself when he was younger, "wasn't I gorgeous!" he said, "I thought the girls were taking the mickey out of me, but now I know they wanted to kiss me!" he joked.

Roy's grandad's brother, Ernest John Hollowbread

Roy holding a photo of his younger self below.

Roy with a picture of his younger self

Fred showed me an original WWII Anderson Shelter in the garden. There is also a simulator that demonstrates what it would have been like when the bombs were dropping during WW II, which I sat in. Fred flicked a switch and the air raid siren screamed into action, shortly after I could hear the sound of bombs dropping and the haystack I was sitting on jumped. Luckily the sound of the Spitfires or Hurricanes flying to the rescue was heard shortly after. It was very realistic and I cannot begin to imagine how frightened people must have been during these horrific incidents. A picture of the shelter is below together with two photographs Fred showed me - one demonstrates a shelter being tested and the other was a table that was used to shelter people from bombs.

Original air raid shelter at the Haven
Testing the strength of an air raid shelter
A table used as a shelter from bombs

Roy showed me an Incendiary bomb that he found with friends when he was young. These sort of bombs were designed to start fires and used materials such as napalm, thermite, magnesium powder or white phosphorous. Roy said, "I was about 7 or 8 and was sitting around a camp fire with my mates, Jeff Wilson, Kenny Wilson, Billy Bonnyface and Georgie Garraty, they found it and pretended to throw it on the fire and we all ran away! When they passed I inherited it. We found it around here, it is dated 1937 and has the German eagle on it. There are not many left as they were usually sent for scrap. Some of them didn't explode, but the phosphorous would come out and some melted, fell in the water or the mud. A lot of people say it should have a nose on it, but it was flat so that when it hit the ground a spark would go off, the phosphorous would come out and it would set on fire. When I was a boy I remember all the houses around here having buckets of sand to put them out, and it also conserved water." See pictures of the bomb below.

Fred showed me the bedrooms and kitchen, he said "the house originally consisted of two rooms and the extension, the kitchen and second room, were put on when the couple had a family". The house is on one level and has a small kitchen, a living room and two bedrooms. The kitchen is stocked with original tins and bottles from the WW II era and the main bedroom has a gorgeous dressing table adorned with treasures from the same time period.... perfume bottles, hair pins, curling irons, gloves (together with a glove stretcher), a tie press, a darning mushroom for socks and many more interesting items. There are clothes from the period including a wedding dress that Fred thinks may have been made from a wynciette sheet and when I felt the skirt I agreed. Once the war was over, returning to normal life was not an easy task. Rationing was still in place for many years after the war and people had to exist on very tight budgets. Fabric was expensive and a lot of women could not afford it so they had to improvise and a lot of gowns were made out of parachute silk. The main bedroom is below, including the wedding dress hung on the wall, which has been painted using sponge or rag to make the pattern.

The main bedroom

A ration book donated to the museum is above.

Gloves together with a glove stretcher (below). Fred told me that when the gloves were washed the stretcher would be used to ensure the glove dried in a nice shape.

A hair pin pot is on the dressing table (below).

The perfume bottles and vanity tray on the dressing table (below).

A sewing box is in the bedroom (below).

A picture of King George VI and the Queen Mother is on the bedroom wall.

The dressing table, a Singer sewing machine and paraffin heater above.

A Woman's Weekly dated 9th August 1930 is below.

The poem below was in one of the magazines and really made me smile!

The Daily Express dated 2nd June 1945.

The advert below has a picture of two ladies gossiping, with one of them asking, "did she really say that?" - it really made me laugh!

I found an interesting guide to London (see below).

Items from the kitchen (below).

The kitchen (below).

Posters from the second world war era.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Haven, it was an interesting place to visit and Fred and Roy were fantastic hosts - thank you!

The Haven Museum is open at weekends and Bank Holiday Mondays, Easter to September between 1pm - 4pm and October - Easter 1pm - 3pm. Private viewings and group visits can be arranged outside these hours by arrangement (tel. 01268 419103).

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