18 August 2021

Remembering Romford market in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s

In 1964, when I was two years old, we moved from Dad's family home in Becontree, into a house in Albert Road, Romford, Essex, 17 miles east of central London, in the London Borough Havering. 
During my school years this was a part of Outer London Education Authority (OLEA). Today I notice that Romford is classed as London. It seems that these days anywhere within Transport for London's travel zones is considered to be part of London. But when I was at school, we never thought of Romford as was London. We lived in Essex. We went to London. Catching a train to go into the big city was something you did occasionally for a special day out with the family or friends.
Elderly members of Mum's family talked when they were children in the 1900s and the town was little more than a cattle market town surrounded by fields. There had been a fair bit of expansion and new build in the 1930s but that was just a few shops here an there, a couple of cinemas, a shopping arcade etc. The pic below is from a book that used to be my granddad's, but it's not dated or credited. I think it could be late 1930s as it does show some buildings of that era. 

 
It shows north street and South Street cutting a diagonal from top left to bottom right, with St Edward's church on the north side of the market, just above centre. The triangle to the right was all demolished, indeed, an area twice what's shown here, was to be flattened and replaced in the 1960s. A few decades later, the buildings to the left side would also be demolished, including those that made up the Ind Coope brewery.  
As a young child in the late 1960s, I recall mum being really disappointed about the ring road that was built to be around the central shopping zone. Many buildings were subsequently demolished in the name of progress. Mum, then approaching 30 years old, had lived in the area since a child herself and was saddened at the scale of the redevelopment. It was out with the old and in with the new; a bulldozer approach. She often commented that Romford had lost almost all its history with no attractive memorial, markers or statues. And, for some inexplicable reason, despite being a well-known stop on a Roman Road, a busy market town, the town wasn't even listed in the Domesday Book.  
This 13-minute [silent] video from The London Film Archives clearly shows the extent of the changes that were made at that time.
The major problem was traffic flow. By the 1960s the town had expanded from a rural cattle market to a major shopping town and the narrow streets could no longer cope with the congestion, especially at the junction of North St, South St and the High Street when buses could barely turn the corner, as this film shows. Traffic could no longer drive straight through the market to continue through into Main Road and this caused a bottleneck at the centre.
As a schoolchild, I actually remember the new shopping precinct being constructed, especially at the side and rear of M&S. A carousel was installed, probably to keep the punters distracted and happy during the mess.
The new ringroad effectively took the soul and vibrancy out of the town, making the area within a kind of dead zone after the shops closed in the evening. Only a handful of old pubs, St Edwards church and the cobbled market area remained to hint at its bygone bustling and vibrant past. This fate was to befall many of London's satellite towns during the 1960s.
The new shopping centre called The Liberty, recalling a large house that it replaced, was a success and Romford continued be the best shopping destination in Essex with the added bonus of the huge market on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, offering superb diversity and quality of produce – a real go-to place. 
A strange modern fountain was installed in at the centre, a tall structure in shades of blue above three octagonal pools, that I later used as unconscious inspiration for an art project. In later years, the structure was painted brown – they said to be reminiscent of old market crates (eh?!) but it always looked to me like a defunct outdoor swimming pool that had been transformed in a hurry. 
I must admit that, as a teenager, I used to think the naming of High Street was odd. I thought it was an odd road to nowhere with strange shops at the far end near the roundabout on the ringroad – it just didn't' occur to me that it had previously been the main thoroughfare in the past. To my mind, the main road was South Street because that's where the big shops and the station was sited. Hindsight eh?! 
By October 1980 I had a job in Covent Garden and was travelling back and forth into London five days a week. I loved working in central London; the history, the bustle, the shops, the mix of everything, the opportunities. In 1985 I was earning enough to buy myself a little starter home near Harold Wood Station, two stops further out from Romford, and I only went into Romford town centre on occasional Saturdays or before or after visiting Mum and my sister. 
Then, in 1988, I moved to Holloway, north London, to be even closer to work and my social life, returning to Romford only to visit Mum until she died in the late 1990s. I have kept in touch with a few school friends, but Romford has rarely been the place to meet.
In 2005, after visiting a friend in Gidea Park, I went for a nose about around the shops for old times' sake. Oh dear. I walked about with my mouth open, aghast at how so much further change had taken place. Mum would have been even more disgusted. I walked through to where the brewery used to be, shops arranged around a huge car park – the likes of Next, Boots and TKMaxx. It looked more like an out-of-town industrial park. My facial expression obviously gave me away because three different ladies stopped to ask if I was OK/lost!!
That wasn't a market day, and I made a mental note to return to see if the once jam-packed bustling market that I remember from my schooldays was still anywhere near as vibrant. For inspiration, I hunted online and found there's lots of pictoral and video reference to be found including these short films about the market on YouTube. This inspired me to recall the stalls I remember in the years up to about 1985. 
Starting from the High Street end and making our way to to the ring road at the junction with the library at town hall:
There was a brilliant record stall on the right, just before the Quadrant Arcade, cheaper than the aforementioned Downtown Records, WHSmiths, or Woolworths. My handsome friend Vince used to work there. Opposite, on the left side, two rows of stalls included an excellent stall for knitters offering all sorts of well-priced yarns (I was prolific and knitted back and forth to work on the train, making mohair and aran-style jumpers for friends!), a housewares stall (one of mum's favourites, tho I think she fancied one of the fellas there), a brilliant stall with knock-off 'branded' logo sweatshirts and T-shirts, etc. I particularly recall my JPS one which I said was Jane Parker Special, and the black one with a Guinness roundel.This was before I'd ever had a sip of the marvellous black stuff – I wore that sweatshirt to take my driving test, which I passed first time.
Just past St Edward's church and Wykeham Hall (marvellous jumble sales) there was a men's clothing stall aimed at the belcher chain wearing 'casuals' and I recall hearing a young geezer, in a pale blue jumper and beige slacks, ask the stall holder if he had "any of those Perry Car Din jumpers". In this zone and all the way up to the Rumford Shopping Hall on the left there were three lanes of stalls piled high with fruit and veg, and many more on the opposite side outside Littlewoods, Coles and Habitat. It was so colourful. The calls from the traders was marvellous. Free furra pahnd etc. Think of that "Morny Stannit" sketch by the Two Ronnies (which doesn't seem to be available online or I'd include it here).
Outside Debenhams, which I recall as a small child being Stones, there was a broken biscuit stall and one of the best material/fabric stalls in the market stocking fab end-of-line cut-price suitings and linens. I made lots of my own clothes back then, including lined jackets and trousers – why oh why did I not take photos of my creations and what did I do with those pieces? Then, continuing along the Debenhams side, all the way up to almost the end of the market by the Rossi's ice cream van (yummy!) there was an excellent selection of shoe stalls. 
Oh, and I now remember Kiddie City the toy shop at the end of the entrance to the precinct – much earlier, when I was about five years old this was a cycle shop and Dad took me here to buy my first bike, a big blue tricycle with an open compartment at the rear. I cycled it all the way home, partly along Mercury Gardens which was then just a country lane/track. Today, that lane is a dual carriageway forming part of the ring road. And I have vague memories of walking past old houses at the top end of the market that then linked to little paths at the side of the Town Hall enabling us to cut through to the streets that led to grandma and granddad's house in Dorset Ave
Back to the market area. The Rumford Shopping Hall behind the fruit stalls contained many more good haberdashers and material stalls plus second hand and antique stalls. And then, within the widest section at the far end on the left adjacent to the bus stops, there were four rows of stalls offering a wide variety of things. When I was a small child, I remember seeing animals/pets for sale here; puppies, rabbits, birds, small reptiles, etc, but by the 80s these were long gone. The end of the market today looks like this but this pastiche construction was not there when I lived in the area. I recall large wooden construction with ads pasted onto it. I am sure it was a sort of muddy green/khaki colour framed in white – it doubled up as sheds for the traders' stall frames.

Well, it's taken about 17 years to get around to another visit, specifically on a market day. This was brought about by one of my online talks via Zoom which is about street markets in central London and how they have diminished, adapted, or disappeared completely as our shopping habits have changed. Conversations after that talk have provoked discussions about markets on the periphery of London and how Romford was one of the best. On Saturday 14th August I made the pilgrimage. I met up with a couple of ladies who have attended my talks (nice to finally meet them in the flesh!) and we were joined by one of my schoolfriends who lives in Rush Green.
Here goes... Actually, no... I've changed my mind... I keep remembering more things... this is already too long and I have lots of pics to sort out that I took on the day. I do the 2021 update in a separate post.
 

1 comment:

  1. A great blog of your memories, Jane. It's so interesting to see the changes Romford has gone through. That fountain sculpture is amazingly ... well ... odd, to say the least, but you're looking pretty on your little red trike. I'm looking forward to your next post with the new pics you've taken.

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Thanks, Jane