Forest Gate - the chic and the shabby

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Thriving centre of Forest Gate - 1914 and 2014
Few can doubt that the last year or so has witnessed an acceleration in the transformation of the fortunes - in all senses of the word - of Forest Gate, mainly focused around the Woodgrange Road Market Place.

So, two new, very different and successful, coffee shops have popped up, joining the weekly market and a trendy brik-a-brak shop at Number 8
A new social centre has emerged at the recently opened Forest Tavern, offering good drink, food, music, comedy and conviviality.  The Women's Institute, community gardening in Earlham Grove and Lindy Hopping at BBs on Hampton Road have all emerged, to offer very different recreation options to the traditional local mix.

Property prices have reflected this social regeneration, and our once unfashionable post code is now being "discovered" by the broad sheet property pages, aimed at the young upwardly mobile, displaced elsewhere in London by house price inflation.
So, The Guardian was able to wax lyrically last week (

... here in the 'real' East End. Forest Gate, it turns out, is quite Hollywood. ... Ooh, and have I mentioned ... the schools? Or the property prices? ... The Woodgrange Estate conservation area is the first stop ... its stately streets of double-fronted late Victorian houses around the station are rather a plum find!
The near certainty of Crossrail in four years adds greatly to the appeal and pull of Forest Gate, just as the original railways did, a century and a half ago.

Number 8 Forest Gate -
part of the area's transformation
The property boom and house price inflation that all of this is fuelling is, of course, a mixed blessing.  Wilkinson's, undoubtedly the most community-minded, Forest Gate-focused of all local agents, just last week put a four bedroom house in Osborne Road on the market at £700,000.

Glee for existing house owners, who have seen their homes turn into "assets". But bad news for their children who, in a depressing feature that has destroyed communities across the country - from rural idylls to working class inner city areas -cannot afford to live as adults in the areas in which they were brought up as children.

This community dislocation has been, and increasingly will become, a feature that wrecks traditional social networks and diminishes local loyalties. Unfortunately, little can be done to prevent it in a largely market driven housing economy.

There is, however, another sense in which community destruction is at work within Forest Gate and the resources and ability to fix it are much more readily at hand.

Our neighbourhood has a fine heritage, as we've tried to show on this site over recent months.  But much of it is being allowed to rot before our very eyes, and precious little is being done to prevent what, bluntly, is local cultural vandalism.  We bring you a sorry update and recent photos of three of our most significant local landmarks

Forest Gate will be diminished and our history defiled, unless  action is taken to halt the damage to, and wanton destruction of them,  in the near future.

The Old Spotted Dog - Upton Lane

Old Spotted Dog
This 500 year old, former Tudor hunting lodge, was a working pub until 2004.  It became a nationally listed building of historic interest in 1950. But it has been allowed to rot and has regularly been subject to vandalism for a decade.  For details of the pub's history, see here. There is a local campaign (see here) aimed at  rescuing Newham's oldest surviving secular building.  Please support it.

Wag Bennett's Gym - Romford Road
This local landmark was a working gym, known as Muscle Mansion, until 2008 and the death of its founder, Wag Bennett. It was a training centre for a number of international body-building champions over its near 50 year working history, most famously Arnold Schwarzenegger in the mid 1960's.  Arnie lived with the Bennetts for a couple of years, during which time he was crowned Mr Universe, an achievement that set him on the course to Hollywood fame and fortune.

Wag Bennett's former gym, Romford Road
The gym caught fire last April, having been squatted for some time. The building has been allowed to rot and currently has no roof.  It is still squatted. Doubtless it will soon be declared too derelict to restore - and another local landmark will bite the dust. See here for our article on this landmark.

Odeon Cinema, Romford Road
This is Forest Gate's last surviving cinema building, which was built in 1937 with a seating capacity for over 1,800 film goers. It was rescued from enemy bombing in 1941, and closed as a picture palace in 1975. It has been stripped of character and allowed to become shabby and an eyesore since it became a mosque in 2001. For details of the cinema's history and that of others in Forest Gate, see here

Former Odeon Cinema - Romford Road

There are, of course, other local scruffy, unattractive, local buildings in states of disrepair - not the least of which is the dreadful garage opposite the former Odeon Cinema, and the former Freemason's Arms/ Simpson's, currently bedecked in scaffolding a little further down Romford Road.

There is little that local people or politicians can do about the social re-engineering Forest Gate is experiencing as a result of the house price boom featured in the first part of this article.  There is plenty that can be done, however, about intervening in the cultural destruction of our heritage.

Not much point in living in a million dollar mansion, if it is in the midst of a heritage-free culturally slummy desert, is there? Part of the "charm" of Forest Gate will go, and possibly even some of its "place-to-be" appeal.

Is it too much to hope that politicians, seeking our votes in three months time, may respond to this local cultural vandalism and neglect?


  1. Thanks for your interesting articles, I do read them even though I may not post comments. I agree that it is important to keep the local heritage, but the change in demographic due to housing changes may help. For the Spotted Dog to work as a pub it needs more people to drink in it than were when it was last open. I did use to go there back in the day. It would be great to have the cinema back as a cinema but any private investor with a plan to do it all up would need to know there was enough demand (and disposable income) in the area, with Westfield and Stratford Picture House just down the road..

  2. I think heritage is important but it is also important to note that many of the notable people of Forest Gate left pretty quickly after their careers took off. Many other residents started to leave in the 1970s because most parts of Newham started to resemble slums. The area and its local economy was devastated by WWII. Local jobs started disappearing in the 1970s as factories started to close, and by the 1980s the area was very decrepit and poverty was rife. The better off people started selling up their houses to new arrivals from abroad. The reason they left was because most of the things you romanticise about here were already in terminal decline, and that is why people sold their homes to immigrant families from Asia and Africa because they didn't want to live in a place that had no real opportunities left.

    Buildings become derelict when people or busineses vacate. If people cared about them, no one was stopping them from purchasing and preserving them. You mention the Odeon cinema becoming an eyesore but regardless of what you think of the mosque, the cinema had been in disuse for years and years before that, so if people cared about it so much, why wasn't it preserved? Why didn't anyone buy it and turn it into a cinema again? The entire borough of Newham lacked a functioning cinema from the mid-80s onwards (as far as I am aware), and it wasn't until the Picture House opened in the late 1990s that the borough had a proper cinema again. If people leave the area, abandon their buildings, the spaces will find other uses. No one is going to sit around and say "let's keep this because it meant so much to people who don't live here anymore". No point in moaning about cultural heritage if it meant so little to people in the local area that they left. I also think many people who have lived here for the last few decades may not have the same memories as people talking about the distant past, you completely disregard the histories of the immigrant families as if it doesn't matter. It is still part of the history. It does matter because Forest Gate continued to exist through the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The changes that took place deserve a far more respectful and intelligent analysis so people could understand the complete history of the place and the reasons and processes that effected the transformation. As many people who were born and raised here in recent years read this to find out more about the area they call their home now, it is unfortunate that this website has taken the tone that the area went into decline because of the large Asian demographic of the area, which is certainly implied here, as your comment about the Odeon mosque seems to suggest. If the former residents thought Forest Gate was so special they could have stayed. The truth is in the 1970s and 1980s the area was very run down, unemployment was high and richer people were never going to move in. Poor immigrant families form India and Pakistan were unable to afford properties in the affluent areas of the city so they chose to move here, and former residents saw their opportunities to sell up and move to slightly better areas. That was their choice. Nostalgia is all fine and dandy, but you miss the bit between the halcyon days and the present. What happened in between was a mass exodus of families who used to live in the area, and with them went what they now claim to have valued about the area. If they valued it so much, they wouldn't have left. People should take off their rose tinted glasses.

  3. Hi, I was wondering if there is any information available on a bookshop in Forest Gate that was owned by William Barton around the late 1800’s early 1900’s. If anyone has an idea where I could find such knowledge that would be great, thanks!


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