HAROLD POLLINS investigates an old headline and discovers a forgotten project to give East Enders the opportunity of less crowded living in a new development.
“A Jewish colony in Essex”. That headline caught my eye in the August 20 1897 issue of The Jewish Chronicle. What could it be about? An agricultural settlement? If so, it was something worthy of note, for farming has never been more than a minor occupation for Jews in Britain.
Was it some otherwise unknown activity of the Jewish Colonisation Association which had certainly established Jewish farming communities in various countries during the late 19th century when large numbers of Jews were emigrating from eastern Europe.
Could it have been to do with the Jewish Dispersion Committee, which tried to encourage such immigrants Jews to move out of the congested East End of London at the turn of the century?
And there was another, more personal, interest. I was born and brought up in Leytonstone, and, although considering ourselves Londoners (we had a London postal address), we were actually in the county of Essex. Our family, in any case, looked east towards the shire county. Day trips to Southend. School evacuation to Brentwood.
For a time, during the blitz, we stayed at a farm cottage near Ongar. It belonged to a farmer, a customer of my parents whose shop lay on the route taken daily by his milk-churn-laden lorry on its way between farm and milk depot. When I read that the proposed ‘colony’ was to be near Southend my interest was fully engaged.
And then, coincidentally, there occurred two chance events. In January 1989 I watched a BBC TV programme, Countryfile, which described Plotlands in Basildon, an estate of the 1920s occupied by Londoners. It was in the same general area as the events I was reading
about and was about Londoners buying land, the same topic.
This led me to obtain a copy of A Plotland Album: the Story of the Dunton Hills Community, published by the Basildon Development Corporation. The introduction stated: “Before Basildon New Town was built, this area realised many an East-Ender's dream of owning a small plot of land to call their own.”
Then a few months later came Arnold Wesker's play Beorhtel’s Hill, celebrating Basildon's 40 years' existence. It too referred to Plotlands. What I was interested in was obviously not an unknown subject.
In a few succinct sentences, A Plotland Album described the late 19th century background. First was the ready availability of land in the district, a consequence of the severe and long-lasting agricultural depression of the period.
A major cause was the import of cheap American wheat. Domestic wheat-growing districts suffered greatly. The value of land fell dramatically, and much was sold to developers who bought it up with the intention of changing its use from agriculture to housing.
Second, it was now possible for prospective purchasers in London to get to the area easily. In the 1880s the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway improved its existing routes by completing its direct line from Fenchurch Street. In the 1890s the railway company and developers in London as well as in the south Essex area advertised, in newspapers and on London stations, auctions of land that had been broken up into small plots.
Thus there is no mystery in the statement, in the first report in The Jewish Chronicle of August 20 1897, that at the sale of land that week almost 200 East End Jews had been present, including women and children and synagogue officials.
Their visit had clearly been organised, for the food that was provided at the auction was suitable. It contained no meat – the religious requirement for kosher meat could presumably not be met. They were buying land on the Thundersley Park Estate, and Thundersley House, recently bought by the vendor, R.A. (Robert) Varty, from Rev. Bosanquet, was to be converted into a synagogue.
Robert Varty, a key player in the sale of Benfleet plotlands. Picture from the Benfleet Community Archive
The whole was to be the equivalent of a New Town, with local employment provided by small farms and factories. Thus the newspaper could report that “The nucleus of a colony of Jews in South Benfleet, Essex, has just been established.”
Later auctions were held at Pitsea. There were frequent reports in the newspaper, almost weekly until the end of the next January when they finished (apart from one more in the following September). They appear to have been written by people who observed the land auctions and probably also travelled on the special trains from Fenchurch Street station.
There is a reproduction in A Plotland Album of a railway ticket from Fenchurch Street to Laindon for the “SPECIAL AUCTION LAND SALE” at Laindon Hills (now usually called Langdon Hills) on Monday October 18 1897. There were two trains, at 11 am and 12.15 pm.
Thus the reporter could claim that 90 per cent of the 500 passengers on the 11 am train on September 1 were Jews. Even if that percentage really means “a lot” or “most”, we can assume as true his statement that in a window of a house in Benfleet there was a notice in Yiddish recommending an East End builder.
This must have been the first time that language was seen in that part of the country.
More speculative was the statement that a new synagogue was to be built on a piece of land next to the Southend Waterworks, the Thundersley House site being, presumably, no longer suitable or available. Or perhaps it was one of the many unchecked rumours that were sprinkled among the various newspaper articles.
The purchase of land was within the ability of East Enders for a number of reasons: it was sold in small lots; the deposit was low; payments were to be in instalments over five years; there were to be no conveyancing costs.
Despite some supporting articles in such national publications as The Daily Chronicle and The Spectator – where it was argued that such a dispersion of people would help reduce the urgent problem of congestion in the East End – there were soon warning voices. The purchasers were paying too much; they had not consulted solicitors or surveyors; they would have to pay tithes and pay for the building of roads and the provision of water.
By the end of November 1897 the excitement was over; the reports in The Jewish Chronicle no longer appeared each week. Those reports that did appear noted that only a handful of visitors went to the weekly sales at Pitsea. The train from Fenchurch Street was almost empty and the reporter counted only 32 people sitting at the dining table reserved for Jews in the tent at Pitsea, not all of them Jews.
Although it seems that the sales declined or even halted, the buyers did not give up. In the East End of London they formed an association with “influential Jews and Gentiles”, which proposed to secure legal advice and to have arrangements made for construction work to begin at Benfleet.
At one meeting the vendor's representative offered to lend money at zero interest and, indeed, to provide 75 per cent of the cost. He said that five factories would be built.
The last report of any substance in The Jewish Chronicle appeared at the end of January 1898, reporting a meeting of the plot-owners. The vendor, Robert Varty, was present.
He denied there was any promise to find three-quarters of the cost, and the meeting instructed its own committee to get something in writing from him. Solicitors were to examine the title-deeds. And then nothing. Or rather there was an isolated item in The Jewish Chronicle in September 1898. Land sales at Benfleet had resumed. Cottages were actually being built.
But the absence of references after this meant that a Jewish interest in the area languished. It was not really until the 1920s and later that people built their own, often holiday, homes in south and east Essex (one place being the popular Jaywick Sands).
This article was originally published in Oxford Menorah issue no. 124 in June 1992 and updated in September 2015. It is published by kind permission of the author.