"The most interesting personality in the borough of West Ham" (1896)

Monday 10 April 2017

This was Forest Gate Weekly News' description of Gustav Pagenstecher. It was almost certainly true then, and the fact that the reader of this article has probably never heard of him is part of his fascinating story.

Gustav Pagenstecher in 1896
He was key to establishing West Ham Park, and wrote its first history; edited the first history of West and East Ham; and was: a leading figure in the development of the then West Ham hospital, a committee member of Essex County Cricket club for over 20 years, instrumental in ensuring cricket was (and still is) played in West Ham Park, secretary and tutor to the Gurney/Buxton families of Upton, a prominent member of Forest Gate civic society, an active local Liberal, somewhat implausibly a committee member for the Essex County Agricultural show; and, for good measure, a leading light in the Peabody Trust's housing management development.

Pagenstecher was born in Westphalia to a wealthy German father and Franco/Caribbean mother in 1829. His father died when he was five; the boy was subsequently privately educated - mostly at home.  

He was cousin to a famous eye surgeon who seemed to spend most of his working life attending to Queen Victoria's children and her relatives on the other thrones of Europe.

Gustav studied at the universities of Berlin, Bonn and Halle, reading classics, history and modern languages. In 1852 he was awarded a PhD for a Latin dissertation on Socrates.

He came to England immediately afterwards and acted as tutor to a family in Norfolk. He then performed a similar role for the MP Sir Edward Buxton, also of Norfolk.

Buxton came to stay with his relatives, the Gurneys, in Ham House (in what is now West Ham Park) in 1860, and Pagenstecher joined him there. Gustav was active as Buxton's secretary in Parliament, and spoke of having seen the likes of "Palmerstone, Russell, Disraeli, Gladstone and Bright" at work on the floor of the House. He also tutored the families' young and did the adults' bidding - even in their ancestral home of Norfolk, where he was to be found organising benefit concerts on their behalf, for almost a decade.

Ham House, in its grounds
- now the site of West Ham Park
He left the family's employment in 1869 until 1874, during which time he was secretary to a wealthy banker, William Gibbs. But Forest Gate still had a pull on his attention and commitments.

The Gurney family encountered financial difficulties in the 1870's (which will be referred to in a subsequent post) and Samuel Gurney's grandson, John, wished to dispose of their family seat, Ham House and the 72 acres attached to it, to ease these problems. He turned to Pagenstecher to assist with the sale.
The grounds of Ham House,
before turned into West Ham Park
Gurney's preference was that the grounds should become a public park, but he did not wish to bequeath the grounds gratis to the area.

The land was valued at about £25,000. Gurney was willing to offer a £10,000 price cut if the grounds were to become a public park and he used Pagenstecher to fix the deal. Gustav approached the then West Ham local government body to finance it, but they had neither the money nor the powers to do so.

West Ham Park, 1904
He was able to persuade friends of the Gurneys to contribute £5,000 to the reduced asking price and  then cajoled the Corporation of London to fund the remaining £10,000 and take responsibility for its on-going upkeep. It was opened to the public, under their aegis, in 1874.

That is why a little bit of the Corporation remit nestles in a  small corner of Forest Gate today. (Wanstead Flats - well, that's a different story, emanating from a similar period - see here!).

West Ham Park c 1905
Having engineered the transformation of grand residence and grounds into public park, Gustav Pagenstecher was to remain as deputy chairman of the Park's Committee until his death in 1916. He wrote the first definitive history of the Park in 1908, and was awarded a gold watch for his 40 years of service, by the Park Committee on 27 June 1914.

A plaque, commemorating his dedication to the Park was erected within it for some years. It is now long gone, and events towards the very end of his life may provide the explanation for the disappearance.

After his success in establishing the Park, Pagenstecher  became secretary of the Peabody Trustees - responsible for large estates of charitable housing for the poor, until 1888.

He cemented his relationship with Forest Gate when he moved into his own property, Cedar Cottage, 206 The Portway, in 1886. This had previously been the house of the Gurney family's bailiff. It is long gone and is now replaced by 1930's housing, and was adjacent to what is now East St, facing the park.

Cedar Cottage, Pagenstecher's
 house on The Portway
In 1889 he popped up in press reports, somewhat bizarrely, as Deputy Returning Officer for elections in Ilford.

The following year, he became the first, and very successful, secretary of West Ham Hospital - then located behind Stratford Town hall. These were, of course, pre-NHS days, and so the institution was almost entirely dependent on charity donations for its development and upkeep.

"Ladies" ward, West Ham hospital, 1900
 - shortly after Gustav's period as secretary there.
Press reports show him to have organised a Masonic Ball at the Town Hall in 1893, to raise money for the hospital.  The extract from the Chelmsford Chronicle, below, is an unintentionally funny description of the event.

Four months later, the philanthropist Passmore Edwards laid the foundation stone of a new wing at the hospital that was to bear his name. Pagenstecher had, no doubt, been instrumental in arranging this. Edwards contributed £2,000 of the £2,8000 required to build the eponymously named ward.

Two years later, the 67-year old Dr Pagenstecher was interviewed by the Forest Gate Weekly News. The paper raised the subject of his employment with the hospital, but found a reluctant interviewee: "The Doctor seemed disinclined to discuss the point further and we broached other topics"!
Children's ward, West Ham hospital, 1900
 - shortly after Gustav's period as secretary there.

Among those were his Forest Gate-related past times.

Katherine Fry, prison reformer, Elizabeth's daughter, of Cedar House, had, during her lifetime collected a large and jumbled collection of documents relating to the history of East and West Ham.  According to the Weekly News, Pagenstecher "rescued the valuable manuscripts from the gloomy side of oblivion" and spent two years knocking them into shape. They were published in 1888 (see press advert, below).

Pagenstecher was more than a little aggrieved that in the reviews of the book Fry was given all the plaudits for its excellence and he all the blame for its perceived faults!

Gustav was a pianist of some distinction and:
... a member of the Shakespearean Society, which holds its meetings in Forest Gate. I am also a member of the Upton Literary Society, which holds its meetings in Norwich Hall.
I am a Liberal; always was; but not a radical". He regularly represented Stratford at regional Liberal meetings and bodies.
I've always been an enthusiast for cricket. On the Park Management Committee, I used every endeavour to ensure that portions of the Park should be laid out as cricket pitches. I was secretary of the Upton Park Cricket Club, which dates as far back as 1854.
Dr Paggy, they always called me - that was my cricket name. They gave me a silver cup when I stood down.

Pagenstecher was a member of the Essex County Cricket Club committee from 1886 - when it moved its headquarters from Brentwood to Leyton - until 1910 (and was for a short period its secretary).

He was, additionally, an active supporter and promoter of the Stratford |Music Festival, whose origins can be traced to the Earlham Grove  Academy (see here), and a chess player of some repute.

Surviving evidence suggests that Pagenstecher was, by modern standards,  somewhat pompous; but was quite capable of a degree of self deprecation.

So - he caught the cycling bug, that was so popular in the area in the 1890's (see here), and in a passage that may have come straight from a modern day Alan Bennett diary, he told the Forest Gate Weekly News in a letter in 1896:

You must sit perfectly upright', said my kind instructor, 'lay hold of the handle, keep your balance and treadle quite slowly with your feet' This seemed all very plausible in theory, but I found it jolly hard, in practice.

The letter continued:


Pagenstecher was a "confirmed bachelor". Whether that term was used as euphemistically at the end of the nineteenth century as it was a hundred years later is not clear. He was, however, quite self mocking about his status in his last known published work - a letter to the Chelmsford Chronicle on 8 May 1914, as the extract below indicates:

Chelmsford Chronicle 8 May 1914
Pagenstecker felt very much at ease in his adopted home of Forest Gate, telling the local Weekly News in 1896:
One's tastes and habits are formed along English lines ... I have lived in a good society, and thoroughly enjoyed the good things in life, including the true friendship of several good and true English gentlemen.
In his later years, Gustav would spend the three summer months in his ancestral home of Germany. He was appalled when war broke out in the summer of 1914 and rushed back from his vacation to his adopted home of Forest Gate, dying soon after.

Pagenstecher in his later years,
 from Stratford Express obituary
 of him, February 1916
Pagenstecher's legacy

For: -
  • ·         establishing West Ham Park and writing its first history;
  • ·         editing the first history of East and West Ham;
  • ·         being a successful fundraising secretary for the old West ham hospital;
  • ·         being an active member of Forest Gate civic society;
  • ·         serving for 20 years as a member of the Essex County Cricket Club;
  • ·         being described in 1896 as "the most interesting personality in the whole borough of West Ham";
  • ·         being an active member of the Liberal party at local and regional level;
  • ·         working as a senior housing association manager
  • ·         becoming "an English gentleman".

what was Pagenstecher's reward?:

  • ·         a knighthood?
  • ·         Freedom of the City of London, or West Ham?
  • ·         a building, street or facility named in his honour?
  • ·         a blue, or indeed any colour, plaque?

No. He was rounded up as an 85 year old alien on his return from Germany in 1914 and was required to report to West Ham police station daily.

it is said to have broken his heart. He died 18 months later, on 11 February 1916 and the memory of his local contribution has been allowed to fade away. So much so, that today Gustav Pagenstecher remains largely unremembered and completely unrecognised in Forest Gate.


  1. How very sad for such a remarkable Man,who did so much for forest gate, he did deserve a wife, very very sad that he never found one x

  2. I have just chanced upon this man when reading Fifty Years a Borough - The Story of West Ham. Curious I googled the name and read this enlightening article. I wonder if he has a memorial in the East London Cemetery?


We welcome comments to all the items featured on this site. However, we reserve the right to omit offensive comments, and edit the length of comments, for reasons of space.