Public monuments in Forest Gate

Friday 6 May 2016

This is the first of two articles looking at monuments and public art in Forest Gate. There is an unexpected, unifying, theme running through almost all of them.

This article examines the chronologically earlier pieces, which are mainly the monuments, constructed from stone, of one variety or another. The next instalment will look at other public art forms, which have a much more temporary feel about them, as they have been created from less durable materials.

Below we provide a round-up of what is known of Forest Gate's monuments - sadly, in some cases, not much!

The Gurney obelisk and water trough on The Broadway,  Stratford

Although this is clearly not in Forest Gate, in a strange way it provides the link, which connects almost all the other monuments and art works covered in this and the following post.

Samuel Gurney (1786 - 1856) has probably been Forest Gate's most significant resident, and will be the subject of a future post on this site. He was one of Britain's most important 19th century bankers and lived in what is now West Ham Park.

He was brother to prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, a prominent Quaker and played a leading part in anti-slavery work (including helping to fund the establishment of the African state of Liberia). Samuel was a significant figure in the story of education - both locally and nationally - and was a fierce public campaigner against capital punishment - an unpopular position to take at the time.

An 1861 drawing of the Gurney memorial,
 Stratford, soon after its erection in 1861
He was also a major local land-owner and towards the end of his life owned almost half of what currently constitutes Forest Gate.  Following his death in 1856, his grandson, who effectively inherited his estate, gradually sold much of it off.

From those sales came the establishment of a number of local cemeteries, the old industrial school, now residential accommodation on Forest Lane, the Woodgrange estate,  the "Forest Gate village" area, much of the housing to the west of Woodgrange Road, south of the railway, up to Atherton Road, as well as West Ham Park, itself.

The obelisk and water trough, outside St John's church in Stratford is 40 feet high and made of granite.  It was unveiled in 1861, having been designed by Gurney's fellow Norfolk-man, John Bell, whose other work can be seen decorating Kensington's Albert Memorial and the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.

The inscription on it reads: "In remembrance of Samuel Gurney, who died on 5th June 1856. Erected by his fellow parishioners and Friends (members of the Quaker faith) 1861. 'When the ear heard him, then it blessed him'".

It has been a key landmark in the area for over a century and a half.

The cairn and water fountain West Ham Park

This monument, near the main entrance to West Ham Park on Upton Lane, is all that remains of Ham House - Gurney's former residence.  The cairn and fountain are constructed from rubble and remnants from the house, and located immediately in front of where it stood.

The cairn in West Ham Park, marking
 location of Ham House, on whose grounds
 the park was established
The house, itself,  was knocked down in 1872, prior to the sale of the grounds surrounding it, by Samuel's grandson, John, to the Corporation of the City of London, for the establishment of West Ham Park.

The Park , which was opened two years later by the Lord Mayor of London in a ceremony full of pomp, is probably Gurney's most obvious lasting legacy to Forest Gate.

Joseph Fry Drinking Fountain, Wanstead Flats

Another Gurney connection. Joseph Fry (1809 - 1896) was Samuel Gurney's nephew, being the sixth of  Elizabeth Fry's children. He was brought up next door to the Gurneys, in The Cedars, on Portway - which later became the local Territorial Army headquarters (an ironic use for the former house of a Quaker family).

The fountain at the southern end of Wanstead Flats was erected in memory of Joseph, for his commitment to the Metropolitan Drinking and Cattle Trough Association. This body raised donations and for the construction of many drinking fountains, for people and horses in and around London, in the second half of the nineteenth century.

 In undertaking this work, Joseph was continuing the work of his uncle, Samuel Gurney, who took time off from his many other commitments to  be instrumental in establishing the Association in the 1850s!

Joseph Fry water fountain, Wanstead Flats
The Association was originally started by Gurney and a colleague as a way of providing clean water for London's poor, and an alternative to beer, following a severe cholera epidemic in the early 1850s. As such, many of the original fountains were sited opposite pubs. The animal connection and troughs only came a decade later, and were developed under Fry's watch.

The Flats' memorial to Fry was built from the proceeds of funds collected from an appeal  launched as  a tribute to recognise Joseph's work, after his death, in 1897.

It has recently been cleaned, but the descriptive panels that were attached to it have been removed, over the years (any information on their fate?).  Little else is known about this strangely located obelisk.

This memorial brings us, conveniently, to our next local landmark ...

Forest Gate Clock Tower and drinking fountain

Perhaps the district's best known and widely shared image. It was erected by the Metropolitan Drinking and Cattle Trough Association (see above, and the Gurney connection), following a donation by A Corbett around the turn of the 19th/20th century.

The Gurneys had already sold the land on what is now the Woodgrange estate to Thomas Corbett in 1877 for £44,000. On Thomas' death in 1880, his son Archibald took over the development of the estate, until he left to pursue a career as a Liberal politician in Glasgow, around the turn of the century.

1908 postcard, showing original location
 of the Forest Gate Clock Tower and drinking fountain
The clock/trough/fountain is the only public reference to the Corbett family left within the area: the name "A Corbett" can be seen engraved on the base of the structure.

It has been moved at least once in its 120 year existence, as can be seen from its positioning in the 1908 photograph above.

West Ham synagogue memorial, Earlham Grove

Firstly, the road on which it is located.  It was named after Earlham Hall, the Norfolk country house in which, yup, Samuel Gurney, was born. The road was built on former Gurney land.

We have covered the history of the local Jewish community, which was concentrated in and around Earlham Grove,  in some detail here.

There was a synagogue at 91 - 95 Earlham Grove throughout the entire twentieth century.  Attendances, however, dropped considerably after the movement of much of the local Jewish community into Essex, following the extension of the Central Line after World War 11. 

West Ham synagogue memorial,
 Adler House, Earlham Grove
The house of worship, almost inevitably, closed as the active congregation dropped to barely a couple of dozen, in 2004.

Following its closure, some remnants were salvaged from the building and turned into a small memorial in the courtyard of Adler Court, the social housing project that was built, to replace the synagogue. 

The housing development was named after a prominent local rabbi and the memorial incorporates the star of David that was prominent on the frontage of the building's Communal Hall, as well as plaques commemorating the opening and extension of the synagogue.

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