The Becontree Estate remains the largest public housing development in the world.
The Becontree Estate was developed between 1921 and 1932 by the London County Council as a large council estate of 27,000 homes, intended as ’homes for heroes’ after World War I. It has a current population of over 100,000 and is named after the ancient Becontree hundred, which historically covered the area.
The very first house completed, in Chittys Lane, is recognisable by a blue council plate embedded in the wall. Parallel to Chittys Lane runs Valence Avenue, which is wider than the rest of the streets in the district because a temporary railway ran down the centre of the avenue during the construction of the estate - it was built especially for the building work, connecting railway sidings at Goodmayes and a wharf on the river Thames with the worksites.
At the time people marvelled at having indoor toilets and a private garden, although the sash windows were extremely draughty, there was no insulation in the attics, and during the winter months very few people could afford enough coal to heat the bedrooms. The toilet, bath tap and a tap in the kitchen over a copper boiler which was used for both washing clothes and heating bath water were all fed from a reservoir tank in the attic which invariably froze on winter mornings leaving the toilets unusable. One curious clause in the contract of tenancy stipulated that children born to parents living in Dagenham could not be housed on the estate themselves when the time came for them to establish their own homes.
Over the 15-year period of the building of the estate, the school-aged population rose rapidly to 25,000 while there were only 4 secondary schools nearby: three in Chadwell Heath and one at Becontree Heath, which meant that many children could not attend school. The first secondary school to be built was Green Lane in 1923, but it later became a primary school.
There was no town centre as is generally understood in a typical UK community. The new estate was to have large public houses few and far between, rather than smaller ones close together as in London.
Privet hedges (referred to as evers) were planted along the pavements at the end of every front garden and during the spring and summer months a squad of gardeners were employed to keep them in regulation height. Although the estate regulations stipulated that the gardens must be maintained in order, more than a few degenerated into virtual jungles. However, to encourage the application of this rule, prizes were awarded for the best kept gardens.
The houses were gas lit until after the Second World War and the old appliances remained in place after the electric fittings were installed; that is why the lights in the rooms were always ’off-centre’ except in the kitchen where the lamp was on the wall near the copper boiler. Gas street lighting was only replaced by electric lamps in 1957/58.
Becontree station was originally opened as Gale Street
Halt in 1926 by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway on the existing route from Fenchurch Street to Southend. The station was renamed and completely rebuilt in 1932 with an additional pair of platforms to serve the electric District Railway local service.