In 1888 Essex farmers were experiencing great hardship. Despite the opening of the railway in Wickford, which should have made it easier to transport their produce, they could not compete with the cheaper grains from Canada and America. In 1891 the London Land Company came up with the unique idea of buying up farmland from land strapped farmers and selling them off in plots. Notices went up in London advertising the land. They arranged for special excursion trains to places like Wickford, Laindon and Pitsea. To the Londoners it was a chance to escape the slums for a day and many thought of it as a business venture. The trains were met at the stations by open horse and carts, and the customers were driven out to the farms where marquees were set up. After the potential buyers had been plied with beer and food at a reasonable prices the sale began. The plots were sold off for as little as £10 each and those nearest the stations were the most popular and went first.
The owners of the plots would come down by train on a Friday night with tools and timber, and tents to stay the weekends. Some would hoist the Union Jack to announce they were there. Soon they were building shacks and installing such things as buses, caravans and in one case I know a ship’s cabin. They started to cultivate their plots and the train back to London on a Sunday night was crammed with people taking back the fruits of their labours. Some people stayed down for their annual holidays, and mothers and children spent the school holidays, with their husbands joining them at the weekends.
At first they had no clean drinking water, gas or electricity. They used to filter the rain water off the roofs, until the Water Company installed standpipes, to which the plotlanders had keys. For lighting they used paraffin or candles and for cooking they used open fires or paraffin. Gradually a real community grew up and they worked together and built narrow concrete pathways, wide enough for a pram. They shared the cost of these ventures by each paying an amount a week . Some people started to live on their plots and would cycle down to Wickford Station and leave their bikes unlocked all day, travelling up to London. Those without bikes would walk down to the station in their wellingtons, shake them off and leave them there all day. At night, lighted oil lamps were left in the windows until the last commuter had passed on his or her way home.
The war brought one of the biggest changes, when Londoners fled the Blitz, my family amongst them. Wickford did not escape the bombing entirely, as the German bombers dropped any they had left on the countryside before heading home. Unfortunately the Pratt family were killed by a landmine in Swan Lane. I remember well an ack-ack gun pulling up outside our bungalow and frightening the life out of us young children as they fired at the enemy above. Next morning we were very disappointed not to find any empty shell cases.
Although Wickford has changed over the years, today it is a vibrant, thriving town.