From Forest Gate to Irish Taoiseach, via the Easter rising

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

This is a follow-up post to last week's account of Forest Gate and Irish Independence. It weaves together much of the romance associated with Irish nationalism, through the life of local lad, Desmond FitzGerald. 


Desmond FitzGerald
He attended what is now St Bonaventure's school in Forest Gate, became a committed nationalist, was active in Dublin's iconic O'Connell Street GPO building during the Irish rising of Easter 1916, was a minister in the first Irish government, fathered Garret Fitzgerald, Irish Taoiseach, in the 1980s, and, as he retired from politics, switched to poetry, as a friend and associate of of Ezra Pound and WB Yeats.

Born in Stratford on 13 February 1888, Desmond FitzGerald was the youngest son of a family that had arrived from Ireland during the 1860s. His father was a stonemason from Tipperary, and his mother was from Kerry. Desmond was born Thomas Joseph FitzGerald, but changed his own name during his mid-teens, as a schoolboy at West Ham Grammar School (This was the name of the modern St Bonaventure's school from 1908 - 1944), to reflect his Irish heritage. 

His older brother, William Francis Fitzgerald, was also born in Stratford. It is likely that he, too, changed his given names.  William is a hated name within the Irish nationalist community, because of its association with King Billy and the Battle of the Boyne.  


FitzGerald family home, 9 Reginald
 Road, Forest Gate, 1901
"William" appears to have dropped this first name, and adopt his middle name (Francis), as his preferred chosen name, when he became involved in the nationalist movement.  For a fuller account of his own extraordinary local activities, see our earlier post, referenced above.

There was also an older sister, Katharine. 

The 1901 census shows Thomas (later Desmond) junior living with his parents, sister and brother at 9 Reginald Road E7 (see photo, above).  Thomas’ elder brother’s name is in this census is given as William F. FitzGerald, aged 16 in 1901. He is described as a “commercial clerk”. By 1911 Thomas Fitzgerald senior had died, and the family was living at 8 Upton Avenue Forest Gate (see photo, below). 


8 Upton Avenue, family home in 1911,
 clearly an upgrade in accommodation
 from 1901, for an upwardly mobile family
Francis Fitzgerald (the former "William") was described as a “commercial traveller, druggist and chemists sundriest”. Desmond was described (under his birth name of Thomas) as a merchant’s clerk. Katharine was the headmistress of a Council school in West Ham. This was clearly an aspirational family, where the children of migrant parents had received a good education and were beginning middle class careers. 

They were also politically and culturally engaged. The Forest Gate Irish community in the early 1900s was supporting a lively and well-organised branch of the Gaelic League, dedicated to promoting Irish language and culture. 

Over 100 young men and women regularly attended weekly evening classes at Earlham Hall in Earlham Grove, and it is easy to imagine the FitzGeralds joining in the League’s activities. As last week's post showed, Francis, indeed, lived opposite Earlham Hall and the paper, the Irish Exile, advertised classes there in Irish culture and celebrated a sporting achievement by one of its women's teams.

In addition to the classes there were musical events and regular summer outings to Epping Forest.

Desmond travelled to Brittany at the age of 20 and was fluent in many languages. Upon returning to Britain, he joined a group of London poets, including Ezra Pound, called the "Imagists".

He first visited Ireland in 1910 and the following year married Mabel Washington McConnell - a nationalist and republican of Ulster Protestant descent - having met at a Gaelic League Irish language class. It is reported that Mabel became a Catholic on her marriage to Desmond. 

Their son, the future Irish Taoiseach, Garret (see below), later described his political objective as the creation of a pluralist Ireland, where the northern Protestants of his mother's family tradition and the southern Catholics of his father's could feel equally at home. A pluralism fostered in the streets of Forest Gate, no doubt!


A sketch of Desmond, as he was circa 1916

Mabel was born in Belfast, the daughter of a distillery manager. She went to Queen’s University where she joined the Gaelic League, and later moved to London, where she became  involved in radical feminist politics through membership of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU - the formal name for what is commonly called the Suffragettes). 

She briefly became George Bernard Shaw’s secretary in 1909, but did not share his views about the relative importance of international socialism and Irish independence (Shaw was very dismissive of many Irish nationalist activities - including the Easter rising). Mabel was an ardent nationalist, and may have affected Desmond’s politics. 

Desmond first went to Ireland about 1910, and in 1913 became involved with the nationalist movement, joining the Irish Volunteers and becoming a local organiser. Desmond and Mabel FitzGerald moved to Irish-speaking west Kerry, where their knowledge of the Irish language was extended further. 

In January 1915, Desmond was expelled from county Kerry, having convinced the Royal Irish Constabulary that he was signalling to German submarines from his home on the western peninsula, six months after the outbreak of World War 1. 

His consequent move to Bray, county Wicklow, and the organisation of a branch of the Irish Volunteers was curtailed by his arrest and sentence to six months imprisonment for a speech discouraging recruitment to the British army.  

He and Mabel were at the GPO during the Easter 1916 Rising. Desmond was a staff captain and was in charge of the commissariat.  He features on the GPO Roll of Honour, for his involvement. He escaped the firing squad, but was court-martialled and sentenced to 20 years’ penal servitude, later commuted to 10. Desmond's son, Garret (see below), later described their role:
Both my parents were in the GPO in 1916. My mother was there for the first two days but after Patrick Pearse had sent her on a futile mission on the Tuesday to bring a flag to fly over Dublin Castle, which he wrongly thought had been captured, he told her to return home as he did not wish my elder brothers to lose both parents.

Dublin devastated by Easter rising, 1916
My father, who had just completed a 6 months sentence in Mountjoy for seditious speech, was there until the Friday, when he was ordered to bring the wounded to Jervis Street hospital, a block behind the GPO - from there, after many adventures, he got home to Bray, where he was later arrested.
Desmond was transferred to Dartmoor, then Maidstone jail, chained by the feet to Eamon de Valera, who, as an American citizen, had also been spared.

FitzGerald was released along with other 1916 prisoners in July 1917, but rearrested in 1918 and jailed for 10 months in Gloucester prison.

Clearly an intellectual at home in literary society, Fitzgerald had a play, The Saints, produced by Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre in 1919 and published books on poetry and the philosophy of politics.

At the election of December 1918, Sinn Fein swept Ireland, winning 73 out of 105 seats, with many of those elected “absent, imprisoned by foreigners”, as the roll call put it. FitzGerald was among them. After a campaign led by Mabel, he took the Dublin Pembroke constituency seat for Sinn Fein. 


University College, Dublin - location
 of the FitzGerald archives
FitzGerald’s was appointed Director of Publicity for Dail Eireann in 1919, and was also editor of the Irish Bulletin. His role was to counter British propaganda and use his contacts in London to forge channels to journalists from overseas and secure a republican narrative. 

He was again arrested, but released in time for the Truce.

He used literary contacts in London to make overtures to the foreign press, inspiring his friend Ezra Pound to write of him in Canto VII
The live man, out of lands and prisons, shakes the dry pods     Probes for old wills and friendships, and the big locust-casques. 
He was part of the negotiating team which signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Britain in December 1921 which established the Provisional Government.

FitzGerald supported the Treaty (Mabel was strongly opposed - wishing to see a full 32 county independent Ireland) and served first as Minister for Publicity and later Minister for External Affairs, at a time (August 1922) when Southern Ireland still existed as part of the UK.

He was a TD (MP) for Dublin County from 1922 to 1932 and then for Carlow County until 1937. He was a member of the Seanad (the senate) from 1938 until 1943, the year he retired from politics, aged 55.

FitzGerald drifted to the right politically, and was less active in politics after the defeat of the Cosgrave government to de Valera in 1932.  

Ed Vulliamy (see footnote, below) described him:
Even before [1932], though, the man whom Michael Collins had described as a “stiff shirt” was seen as over-intellectual by some of his cabinet colleagues. 
Throughout the 1930s, FitzGerald’s interests took him back to poetry and towards philosophy, markedly that of St Thomas Aquinas, and his views embraced a kind of mystic fascism, along with many of his kind including his friends Pound and Yeats. 

Desmond FitzGerald died on 9 April 1947, though his family continued to play a role in Irish politics. One of his sons, Garret Fitzgerald, became a prominent Irish politician between 1969 and 1987.
Garret FitzGerald - son of Forest Gate's Desmond
 and later Irish Prime Minister
Garret was elected to the Dail in 1969, and lead his party Fine Gael between 1977 and 1987 - holding the post of Taoiseach (Prime Minister) twice in the 1980s, when his principal opponent was Charlie Haughey. 

In a strange quirk of Irish politics, Garret's first post in government was as Minister of Foreign Affairs in Liam Cosgrave's government, fifty years after his own father, Desmond, became a Minister of Foreign Affairs in Cosgrave's father's Irish government!

As Taoiseach, responding to his own "mixed family" origins, he clashed with the Catholic church in Ireland, as he tried to loosen the links between church and state, with even the Pope being called to try and deflect his objective. 

Perhaps as controversially, he was very unsympathetic to the cause of the hunger strikers, at a key time of tension in Northern Ireland, but played a very key role in preparing the ground - against opposition from many sides - for what, eventually, was to become the Good Friday agreement..


On his death, in 2011, the Irish Times described him as 
An extraordinary Irishman who fashioned our future in so many ways.
And, Barrack Obama said this, of possibly Forest Gate's most famous grandson, he was:
Someone who believed in the power of education, someone who believed in the potential of youth, someone who believed in the potential of peace and who lived to see peace realised.
 Footnotes:

1. Huge thanks to Mark Gorman for great detective work in putting the bulk of this fascinating post together.

2. Thanks, also to E. Vulliamy, ‘My family’s link to the Easter Uprising’, (Observer, 27 March 2016), and University College Dublin archive: for much of the detail.

3. Other useful sources include: The papers of Desmond and Mabel Fitzgerald, University College Dublin archives, G. Bell,  Hesitant Comrades: the Irish revolution and the British Labour Movement (Pluto Press, 2016), has references to the IDSL. and  D. Fitzgerald, Rising: Memoirs of Desmond FitzGerald 1913 to Easter 1916 (London, 1968). Contains some of Desmond Fitzgerald'’s poems. The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916: A biographical dictionary, Jimmy Wren pub 2015, obituaries in Irish Independent and Irish Press, 10 April 1947












Forest Gate and Irish Independence

Thursday, 9 June 2016


From its mid nineteenth century development into a busy metropolitan suburb, Forest Gate has embraced a thriving Irish community (see here for details of early Irish settlements in the area and here for details of early Irish immigrant-inspired Catholic education in Forest Gate).

So, perhaps it comes as no surprise that there was considerable activity in the district campaigning for Irish independence before the creation and recognition of the Republic, in the 1920s.

Forest Gate featured in three fairly dramatic, and probably linked, events around the time of the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921. It is a fascinating tale, revealed here for the first time.

All we can do in this article is to set out the facts, and surmise on the connections and importance of the events.


Some background


The British general election of October 1918 gave Sinn Fein an overwhelming mandate for independence in Ireland, but the British government refused to acknowledge, or act upon this democratic expression. This was not a new turn of events for the Irish people: from 1870 - 1918 those demanding self-determination had held four-fifths of all Irish Parliamentary seats, but to no independence avail.

The Irish MPs elected in 1918 responded in January 1919 by making a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), and establishing the Dail Eireann in Dublin. London would not even negotiate with the body and 34 elected MPs were duly arrested. Finally, in September 1919, London declared the Dial "a dangerous body" and declared it outlawed.

The British government sent over 40,000 troops in to "quell" the Irish, and the Dail went underground. A bitter guerrilla war ensued.

What were the Irish, in Ireland and England to do?

This is where Forest Gate's role emerges.


1. Home of a publisher for "The Rebels"


The Dail responded by publishing an Address to Representatives of Foreign Nations in January 1921 (see photo of cover, below). It was a well produced and tightly argued 40 page foolscap publication, signed by all independence-supporting Irish MPs and was clearly aimed at winning at least a diplomatic war, in an effort to gain independence for their country.


Cover of the Address to
Representatives of Foreign Nations

And imprint, showing it to have been produced
 "On Irish Paper", at the Woodgrange Press,
 (98 Woodgrange Road) Forest Gate
Nothing unusual in this, except for the imprint, at the back of the publication - see above. It was printed by the Woodgrange Press on Woodgrange Road. Quite bizarre.


A 1920's photograph of the
 outside of the Woodgrange
 Press, 98 Woodgrange
 Road - now a mosque
Quite how extraordinary can be gauged by the fact that the owner of this press was Charles Ward, a prominent local Tory (see here for details). He was, in fact, the leading light of the Municipal Alliance, a front for the Conservative party on West Ham council. Charles can be found in the pages of the Stratford Express during the three years effectively covered by this story banging on endlessly about how the Council was wasting money on providing services for poor people - but not once did he mention Ireland in his perorations.


Charles Ward, prominent
 Forest Gate Tory, owner
of Woodgrange Press
 and publisher of
 Irish rebel literature
This was not an isolated printing job for Irish Rebels by the Woodgrange Press. Peter Berresford Ellis, a prominent Irish historian has noted in his history of the Irish Self Determination League (see below and footnote for more details):
In March 1919 the Irish Self Determination League of Great Britain (ISDL) came into being. Its Constitution and Rules were published by the Woodgrange Press, 1920, who also published at the same time a report for the First Annual Delegate Conference Agenda.

We can find no explanation for Ward's role in publishing the rebel material, other than a purely commercial one.  He was later made a freeman of the borough of West Ham.


2. A dedicated local Irish community


The ISDL, mentioned by Berresford, above, reached a maximum membership in Great Britain of almost 30,000, in 1921. While its offices in London (Shaftesbury Avenue) were the focus of police raids and general harassment, the organisation functioned with frequent public meetings.

In March 1921, its London District Committee launched a monthly journal, called the Irish Exile (not printed by the Woodgrange Press). It had a circulation of around 10,000 copies. 


Masthead of The Irish Exile
Reading it today, it bears all the hallmarks of many rather tedious and worthy political publications currently produced. But, each surviving edition (and the publication pattern was pretty sporadic) gave details of what the ISDL's 40 branches' were up to.

The Forest Gate branch's report, however, only appeared once: in the first edition (March 1921). It is reproduced below. It is a brief, but remarkable account. It was by far the most explicit of all the branch reports in terms of details of membership, activities and finances coming from any branch published in any on the nine editions of the paper.  

The branch boasted a frankly intense level of local activity and involvement, with a huge local membership of 324:


March 1921 edition of Irish Exile, with claims of a huge Forest Gate membership of ISDL
We can only surmise that the scale of activity described attracted police attention, and resulted in the branch, if not going under cover, in certainly being more publicly discrete about future events.

The branch showed its presence in the Irish Exile in much more benign ways in future editions of the paper. The December 1921 edition, for example, featured a photograph of a victorious women's sporting team! (see below).


Altogether less controversial activities reported
 from the Forest Gate branch of the ISDL, in
 the second edition of The Irish Exile
The only other specific Forest Gate mentions came in the February 1922 edition, when details were given of three Forest Gate people selling tickets for an Irish event, and two mentions of Irish Language classes being held in Earlham Grove.  These presumably took place in Earlham Hall, located opposite the home of Francis John Fitzgerald - see below.  This ties in neatly with Forest Gate's most intriguing part in Irish nationalist activity, at this time.


3. Forest Gate and gun running


Early in December 1921, Francis John Fitzgerald, a 38-year old chemist of 128 Earlham Grove, was arrested at Euston while seeing his sister off on the Irish Mail. Along with five others, he was charged with stealing and/or receiving a cache of machine guns and hand grenades, stolen from Irish Guards barracks at Chelsea and Windsor, earlier that month. 


128 Earlham Grove, home of Fitzgerald
 and location of the after gun theft "celebration"
The cache of arms was later discovered and amounted to 26 assorted guns (machine guns and rifles) and a quantity of bullets.

On his first court appearance Fitzgerald was released on bail, on sums of £500 for each of the two charges he faced.

It seems the theft was an inside job, with an Irish Guardsman also charged. Fitzgerald was said to have provided the cars (hired from Leytonstone taxi firms) in which the others went to Chelsea and Windsor and stole the guns.

After the raid at Windsor they all came back to Earlham Grove, via a West End drinking club, to celebrate.

The police found large sums of money and ISDL literature at the lodgings of one of the other accused. This was the moment when the Anglo-Irish Treaty (December 1921) was signed, ending British rule in 26 counties of Ireland. 

It seems likely that guns were being assembled in anticipation of  the outbreak of fighting between the republicans (who didn't accept the 26-county compromise adopted) and the new Irish government. 

Politics intervened, with the Home Secretary stepping in to obtain the release of two of the defendants (who proclaimed themselves political prisoners) and their return to Ireland. In early 1922 the British government released all Irish political prisoners, under agreements made within the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Fitzgerald was, however, discharged for lack of direct evidence linking him with the theft.  

His "story" was bizarre, by any standards, and is worth airing.

Fitzgerald's case was that he was drinking in the Forty-Three Club, in Star Street (just off Edgware Road) between two and three in the morning immediately after the raids on the barracks. 

At this point the men (who, unbeknown to him, apparently, were the gun thieves) came in. He ordered a taxi, from a firm in Leytonstone that he knew and took the men back to Earlham Grove "for some bottles of wine". The men left his house, suitably refreshed, at 6 a.m. later that day.

According to press reports of the trial, on 24 December 1921 (see below for reproduction from Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer):


Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer,
 24 December 1921, with Fitzgerald's "defence"
Fitzgerald went on to say in the statement that it might seem strange conduct on his part associating with and giving refreshments to people who were strangers to him, but that it was a usual thing for him when he had a few drinks.
 The Magistrate decided that the evidence was not sufficient and discharged Fitzgerald.

Interestingly, although Fitzgerald's story was widely reported in the British press at the time; almost all references giving his full address, the Stratford Express (Forest Gate's only local newspaper, at the time) chose not to cover it, at all.

So, three quite extraordinary events occurred, closely linking Forest Gate with the ISDL and the struggles for Irish independence in 1921, with no apparent connection.

Except, Francis John Fitzgerald was the brother of Sinn Fein's propaganda chief, at the time (see below and the next blog on this site for very full details). So, how about this for a link between the three events?

Fitzgerald, a keen republican, was a major force in the extremely active Forest Gate ISDL branch, and popped round to his local printer - on Woodgrange Road - to get ISDL and other similar literature printed.

His activism was such that he was in some ways behind the gun raids on the barracks and by pre-arrangement to met the raiders at a club in the West End, to get a report back on the success or otherwise of the raid. Satisfied that all had gone well, he brought the raiders back to Forest Gate to celebrate?

Not a ridiculous theory, but there is no firm evidence to link the three Forest Gate episodes.


4. Curiouser and curiouser


Although the case against Fitzgerald was discharged in December 1921, when that against the others accused came to the Old Bailey in January 1922, his "innocence" was more than called into question by them.



Roche, the Irish Guards sergeant and the inside man on the arms raid, pleaded guilty and became a prosecution witness in the case. His evidence apparently was not made available to the police court that had discharged Fitzgerald in December 1921 (Portsmouth Evening News, 21/02/1922). 



He stated that Fitzgerald had provided 'an open touring car', which picked up Roche and the other three at Marble Arch, drove them to Windsor Barracks where they stole the guns, then back to the 43 Club, then on to Fitzgerald's employer's factory in Stratford, and then to Earlham Grove (Scotsman, 18/01/1922). The prosecution stated that the presumption was that the car which took them all back to Stratford was carrying the guns from the Windsor raid. 

Fitzgerald, who had always described as "a chemist",  was presumably an industrial one, working (as employee - as suggested here - or owner - see later) in one of Stratford's many chemical works. This claimed visit to the factory makes more intriguing the evidence provided by the police that the notebook owned by Hogan - another of the accused (who proclaimed himself an IRA commandant), included notes on chemicals which could be used to make explosives (Scotsman, 18/01/1922).

Roche's evidence also stated that Fitzgerald's brother was 'the propaganda agent of Sinn Fein' - see next blog for full details (Nottingham Evening Post, 28/01/1922), which makes more interesting an exchange which took place in the House of Commons on 14 February 1922. 

Winston Churchill was then Secretary for the Colonies in the government - and so responsible for answering parliamentary questions about Ireland. There was a series of questions about the role of a "Captain Fitzgerald" in transferring guns between British soldiers and the Provisional Government of Ireland, and whether he was acting on behalf of the Irish Provisional Government or the IRA. Churchill was uncharacteristically coy, or evasive, in his answers.The last which was particularly interesting:

Lieut-Colonel Croft: Had Captain Fitzgerald any thing to do, or was he suspected of having anything to do, with the stealing of machine-guns and ammunition from the barracks of the Guards?
Mr Churchill: How can I answer a question like that? 

It is not clear whether this "Captain Fitzgerald" was, in fact, the brother of Francis Fitzgerald of Earlham Grove, but it seems very likely.

On the one hand, Fitzgerald is a fairly common Irish name, and so it could just be a co-incidence, but on the other - we know that Francis Fitzgerald's brother was "a propaganda agent of Sinn Fein" and the question and answer quoted above point in the direction of an apparent connection at least being raised.

So, were questions raised in the House about Fitzgerald's brother? We assume we will never know for sure.

What we do know, however, was that his confirmed brother was a very interesting character - see the next blog.

Francis, himself, had clearly had a narrow escape from imprisonment with his bizarre court story in December 1921, but that did not curtail his rebel ardor or actions

An article in the Scotsman of 28 August 1922, entitled 'Arms for Ireland: Scotland Yard and Stratford Raid'described a raid by Special Branch detectives on a warehouse in Union Street Stratford. Their haul was boxes full of Hotchkiss machine guns. 

A copy of the article is reproduced below, but its contents are so extraordinary, that we transcribe them below the cutting:

The Scotsman,
28 August 1922

Arms for Ireland 

Scotland Yard and Stratford raid 
The surprise police raid in Union Street, Stratford, London, when a number of boxes containing machine guns were seized, was the result, a representative of the Press Association has been informed of certain information which came into the possession of the Special Branch of Scotland Yard a few days ago.

The information disclosed the fact that something of importance would be found at a certain address. Careful watch was kept on the place for a time in the hope that the person who had deposited the stores would visit it, but, as he did not do so, the police decided to enter. For some time past a close watch has been kept by the police on all ships leaving the London docks as it was known there was an intention to ship arms to Ireland.

No arrest has yet been made in connection with the discovery of the machine guns, but the police are following up their enquiries.

 Irishman's explanation

There was much discussion in Irish circles in London on Saturday as to the raid which took place at the warehouse in Stratford. Five Hotchkiss guns were found and taken away. Mr Francis W Fitzgerald who owns the warehouse concerned and lives in Earlham Grove is a brother of Mr Desmond Fitzgerald, Minister of Publicity to the Irish provisional Government.

Speaking to the Press Association representative on Saturday, Mr Fitzgerald denied that there was anything sinister about the finding of guns on the premises. He admitted he was keenly interested in Irish affairs, but was not active in any way.
The suggestion that the guns were intended for use in this country, he asserted firmly, was a ridiculous one. "I was simply storing the guns", he continued. "I did not buy them, these Hotchkiss guns were perfectly new and in their original cases. They belong to a city merchant who bought them under licence in an open way.

The guns cost roughly £1,000. I told him that in my opinion, the guns would be bought by the Irish Free State army, and he secured them on my recommendation. Lately all members of the armaments ring have been buying in their own makes of guns and revolvers surplus to military requirements with the object of getting everything in their hands.
Armament firms are opening offices in Ireland with a view to doing business with the Free State Army. The man who bought the five Hotchkiss guns was going to negotiate with a view to a deal with the Free State Government.
"The guns were loaded to a van in Charing Cross Road on Thursday evening. On Friday I saw detectives watching. I telephoned Scotland Yard and the guns were taken away. The whole thing was just a commercial deal and quite a legitimate proceeding."
So, another bizarre story from Fitzgerald, attempting to explain away a guns cache he was storing, that does not stack up with his previous activity.  As far as we can see the story ended there, and Fitzgerald wasn't prosecuted.

Quite what happened to Fitzgerald, we do not know.  He may deserve a footnote as a brave Irish patriot, if a full story of the ISDL is ever published.

Footnotes


1. Huge thanks to Mark Gorman for pointing us in the direction of information in this post, and digging around so assiduously.

2. Much of the information on the ISDL, who provide a central and linking theme to these Forest Gate activities, comes from a brief history of the group, written by Peter Berresford Ellis and can be found here

Interestingly, he ends his article with a plea for a fuller history to be written: "The story of the ISDL is an essential history waiting to be produced." Perhaps we will have to await its publication to see whether the three bits of the Forest Gate story are linked in the way we posit, above, and Fitzgerald can claim his role as an English-based Irish freedom fighter.

The street where you live (5): Earlham Grove

Tuesday, 31 May 2016


This is the fifth in an occasional series of articles by Forest Gate resident, Peter Williams, who specialises in Newham housing, maps and local history. In each he looks, in detail, at the history of particular streets in Forest Gate.

Peter has complemented his own knowledge by accessing the increasingly digitised national newspapers' collection - which can be found here- and has added extracts from this that refer specifically to Earlham Grove.

Earlham Grove is named after Earlham Hall, near Norwich, seat of the Gurney family; now part of the University of East Anglia. 


Gurneys' ancestral home - Earlham Hall, today
The Gurney family was a major landlord in Forest Gate in mid Victorian times and with other Quaker families, like the Frys (of chocolate  and prison reform fame) and Barclays, were merchants and bankers in the City of London.

As we have shown in previous posts, Samuel Gurney, perhaps the most famous of the family, owned up to half the land that constitutes Forest Gate. He lived in what is now West Ham Park, until his death in 1865.


1863 Ordnance Survey map, showing vacant
 land behind Pawnbrokers' Almshouses on
 Woodgrange Road, up to the railway line,
 where Earlham Grove would soon be built.
 The open spaces to the right of the
 almshouses is what later was to become
 the Woodgrange estate
The Great Eastern Railway was built in the 1830s opening the Forest Gate area up to development. Work on the Woodgrange estate started in the late 1860s. 

Earlham Grove started a little later. The houses are larger than the typical terraces developed by speculative builders for the army of clerks in the City of London in the later nineteenth century. They were more like what the Victorians and Edwardians called villas – for the better off middle classes; solicitors; business people.


Same area in 1895 Ordnance Survey map - now
heavily built over.  Orange arrow points to site of
modern Community Garden (see below) on Earlham Grove
On the map, above, the Almshouses have gone, and in this 30 year period between the publication of the two maps hundreds of houses were built, including Hamfrith, Atherton, Norwich, Sprowston, and Clova Roads, and Earlham Grove, which were part of the Gurney estate (c. 1870–90), on the north side of Romford Road. These houses, many of which survive, include detached, semi-detached, and terraced types.

Earlham Grove - 1911

Buildings of interest

16 Ex Jewish refugee hostel. With the rise of Hitler to power in the 1930's, many Germany Jews sought refuge elsewhere in Europe, mainly within existing Jewish communities.  Forest Gate played its part. A hostel was opened at 51a Romford Road, which accommodated 20 people.  This later moved to 16 Earlham Grove. It was supported financially by the Earlham Grove synagogue (see below). Other families within the local community took in refuges who could not be accommodated there.


16 Earlham Grove today - a refuge
 for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930's
The article below, from 1933, suggests that Forest Gate may not have been the anti-semitic haven that those fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany many have hoped for. A magistrate, in 1933, telling a clearly Jewish immigrant from Earlham Grove that: "There's more trouble in this country through people like you than all the others put together. I wish we could throw you out neck and crop".
Chelmsford Chronicle 19 May 1933
93 - 95 Formerly West Ham Synagogue and Shul (1897 - 2004). See here for a post on the 20th century Jewish community of Forest Gate, whose focal point was this building.  It was the first synagogue in Essex and became the strongest in Newham. The foundation stone of the building in the photo was laid in 1910.


The synagogue, up for sale in 2004
The site is now a four-storey block of flats called Adler Court - named after a prominent rabbi at the former synagogue - owned by East Thames Housing Association.


Adler Court today - on the
 site of the former synagogue
128 Earlham Grove - A house, whose occupant, Francis John Fitzgerald, hosted a quite remarkable event in the struggle for Irish independence in 1921. We will outline some extraordinary Forest Gate connections with the birth of the Irish Free State in the next blog on this site. Watch this space!

128 today, Francis John
Fitzgerald's home in 1921
136 - Site of the Community Garden was occupied until a few years ago by a very large detached Victorian villa. Originally it had been a doctor’s surgery. It was converted to a hostel for homeless families, probably in the 1980s, and was known as Earlham Lodge. It was run by Newham Housing Department.


Community Garden hoarding, designed
 by local artist Jim Valentine and painted
 by upwards of 70 local volunteers
There was no resident warden, but a mobile member of staff looked after a number of Housing Department hostels. There were 9 rooms of different sizes and it was targeted at small families such as a single parent with a young baby.

Families typically stayed there for a few months before moving onto another form of homeless temporary accommodation. They were given a licence agreement, not a tenancy. Bathrooms were shared and each room had basic cooking facilities Following a review in the mid 2000's, the Housing Department decided to close its directly managed hostels.

The site is still owned by Newham Council who hope for a housing development on the site in the longer term, but meanwhile, have given the Community Garden a short-term lease, so that it can be used as a community facility rather than remain an unsightly piece of waste land. 

There continue to be a number of other large houses in the Earlham Grove that are used for some form of supported housing for vulnerable people including children’s homes, homeless hostels, cheap B&Bs and accommodation for people with learning disabilities.

175 Built as Earlham Hall in the 1870s, for full details, see here. Briefly, it was established in 1879 by John Curwen, the Congregational minister, for his Tonic-Sol-Fa College. The Metropolitan Academy of Music followed on from 1906 until World War II, and then London Co-operative offices preceded the arrival of the Cherubim and Seraphim congregation in the 1970s.


An 1890's sketch of Earlham Hall,
when it was in its prime
It is still occupied by the church. Now The Holy Order of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church has its UK headquarters there. Arriving in the 1970s it is one of the earliest African congregations to settle in Newham. As the first African instituted church, it was originally established among the Yoruba people in Western Nigeria in 1925.


African Church of Cherabim and Seraphim, today
The 'Aladura', or African indigenous tradition, combines teaching and practices learned from western missionaries with elements of traditional African traditions. In Forest Gate the church is led by Pastors and Apostles, worships in distinctive white robes and emphasises prayer-including night vigils.


The church's worshippers in full regalia
Behind the church you can see is an older building the Tonic Sol Fa college, where this system of musical notation was taught.

193 - The Jive Dive. Kenny Johnson, who went on to successfully manage the Lotus Club on Woodgrange Road for over 40 years, began life as an impresario here. In 1960 he took over what had previously been the Earlham Grove Dance Academy (next door but one to the Royal Mail sorting office) and turned it into a pop music venue. See here for further details.


193 - location of 1960's
Jive Dive, now an HMO
The Jive Dive originally opened as a coffee bar, but soon obtained an alcohol license.  The ground floor was converted into a bar, and the basement a dance hall. It was imaginatively decorated, for the time - with bamboo partitions, film and gig posters on the walls and with plants, real and artificial, adorning key areas.


Kenny Johnson, outside the Jive Dive, in the
sixties, proudly displaying his recently acquired Jag
Eddie Johnson, in his book Tales from the Two Puddings, says this of the place:
The Jive Dive seemed to fulfill a real need in young people; it was the time of the 'mod', and young East Enders were, in those days, the most fashion conscious in the world; rendezvousing in Forest Gate every weekend and going to our club, they would have a few drinks and then dance their socks off in the basement. There was no trouble and the customers were a lovely crowd.
The venue proved a great success, but the resultant crowds were understandably less popular with the residential neighbours, and so the brothers closed it as a venue and looked elsewhere for music promotional opportunities. They took on the floor space above what is now the Poundland and the Lotus Club, on Woodgrange Road was born.


Kenny (bearded) and Eddie Johnson, relaxing
 with a pint at the entrance to the Jive Dive
193 Earlham Grove is now a house in multiple occupation.

Durning Hall Christian community centre replaced an earlier Durning Hall, founded about 1885 at Limehouse (see here for fuller details). The premises in Woodgrange Road were registered for worship in 1953 (what is now the Aston Mansfield charity shop)  and in 1959 the main buildings of the centre were opened in Earlham Grove, containing a church, hall, offices, gymnasium, and chaplain's flat. A hostel, with shops below, was later completed on the Woodgrange Road frontage.

Durning Hall, which is non-denominational, is administered by the Aston Mansfield charities trust, founded in 1930 by Miss Theodora Durning-Lawrence. It caters for all age-groups. The church of the Holy Carpenter, designed by Shingler and Risden Associates, has a fine altar wall of stained glass.


Durning Hall today, featuring the stained
glass window referred to in the text

Odd ecclesiastical event 

In the 1890s there was a strange bit of church history when some people from Emmanuel parish church (corner of Romford Rd and Upton Lane) started a rival church in Earlham Grove called Christ Church, because they felt the services at Emmanuel were becoming 'too Roman'. A small (corrugated) iron building had been erected, seating about 200 and continued until at least 1903, see cutting, below.



Essex Newsman - 2 December 1893
Rivalry between the two places of worship ended up in a court case in 1903 (see cutting, below), where the parties promised to behave, or the police would be called!


The dispute between Emmanuel and
 Christ Church reaches the courts,
as this 1903 cutting shows

Significant deaths in Earlham Grove


Other press cuttings (below) show a slightly more tragic side of life for some Earlham Grove residents.

1. A suicide of an Earlham Grove resident, in 1907
Chelmsford Chronicle 22 March 1907
2. A life of a motorist fatally injured by a council tram, in 1906, just £250


Chelmsford Chronicle 29 March 1907
3. An air accident death for an Earlham Grove resident, and early member of the RAF. N.B. initials in article below: RFC = Royal Flying Corps (a fore-runner of RAF) and HAC = Honourable Artillery Company. 

Chelmsford Chronicle, 6 July 1917

4. Another suicide

Essex Newsman 21 February 1920

5. WW2 bombings

Two of the biggest bombing hits in Forest Gate during World War 2 fell on Earlham Grove.  See here for full details. Nineteen people were killed on 6 March 1945, by a Doodlebug when nos 56 - 62 were destroyed.  Ten people were killed just six months previously, when a bomb destroyed numbers 3 - 7. See link, above, for all the names of those reported killed by those bombings.

Doodlebug of the kind that inflicted
 damage on Earlham Grove during WW2