Categories: Elm Park / West Ham United

15 February 2010


Elm Park, the BNP and me

Unlike the BNP, self-respecting political parties don’t hold their Emergency General Meetings in East London’s notorious Elm Park pub. I know. It is where I roughhoused, before I made a bid for respectability and left. My memories of the place are bitter-sweet.

I was raised in Elm Park, having been born in nearby Romford. Elm Park was and remains almost exclusively white, lower working class. It is perhaps the most chav chav-town in chavdom.

The Times gets a warm welcome at the Elm Park Pub from the BNP

Built in the late 1930s, Elm Park was designed to attract young working class families seeking to escape the worst of London’s smog. Its housing consists of well-built three-bedroomed semi-detached properties with back and front gardens. Its streets are tree-lined. There’s a healthy mixture of council houses and privately owned homes in an urban setting on the edge of London’s greenbelt, wedged between Dagenham and Hornchurch. There are parks nearby and a very good swimming pool. It has much going for it.

My parents arrived and met in Elm Park just before the Second World War. They lived next door to each other. My dad’s a Hackney boy and my mum’s from East Ham. They went to school across the road from Hornchurch airdrome, which played a major part in the Battle of Britain.

My father pays homage every year to an American airman who crash-landed his plane into the playground wall rather than risk smashing into their classroom by attempting to fly over it. The class saw the plane dip away from them and explode. They were covered in glass. The boy next to my father was injured for life. And ever since, the old boys meet annually at the pilot’s grave to say thanks to the Yank. Yes, there’s a good heart in Elm Park.

There was plenty of work in the early days. There was a massive Ford factory in Dagenham, as well as the pharmaceutical company May & Baker. There was Roneo Vickers, then Britain’s largest manufacturer of office machinery. And, not least, there were London’s East End docks working at full capacity.

My dad worked on the buses as a conductor. My mother worked at May & Baker. My grandmothers worked at Roneo Vickers. One grandfather was a leading communist shop steward at Ford’s (he left the party in 1956 in protest against the crushing of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet Union) the other was a self-employed Tory-voting builder.

But something went wrong in Elm Park. Part of the problem was the run-down of both Ford’s plant and London’s docks. But seeing as we were connected to the rest of London by the tube, I don’t buy that explanation for my town’s decline.

Elm Park began its big slide from working class respectability to chavdom in the early 1970s. Elm Park somehow came to embody all that was worst about Britain’s loss of direction at that time. The kids got out of control. We glorified in football hooliganism and ignorance. Our low-grade local schools told us we were there to be trained as manual workers. We said “stuff that”, we don’ want to be like our parents.

For many the rebellion meant giving up on education and ambition. For a few, like me, it meant going up the ladder.

Since the 1970s, the Elm Park pub has been the haunt of gangsters, druggies and football hooligans. I learned to drink and to fight there. The room in which the BNP met was where I practiced karate. Its adjacent bar was where I had many a-run-in with local toughs. As 16-year-olds we got drunk and watched the strippers there on Sunday lunch-times (imagine a mob of 150 baying adrenaline-driven yobs screaming at the girls to get their kit off). The police tried many times to have the pub shut.

Today, the town has a run-down early 1960s feel that’s more “up north” than “down south”. There’s boarded up shops, cheap clothes and food, a very bad cafe and an Indian restaurant which serves abusive racists once the pub shuts. Gangs of young kids roam the streets – it’s an intimidating place to be.

Yet, still, I remember that my gang of West Ham United thugs was a mixture of black and white. Some of us used to leave the footie on Saturdays to help the Socialist Workers’ Party beat up National Fronters, some of whom were our school mates.

I can’t put my finger on Elm Park’s decline. I also don’t want to go blind to the good that remains (hey, that’s my home and I’ve friends still there) or to sell its decent residents short. Any quick tour of my town’s back streets will reveal the pride many still take in their homes and gardens. Most people avoid the Elm Park pub. They take the train or bus to Upminster or Hornchurch instead. There’s many hard-working people living there.

As I sit in my villa by Zurich’s lakeside, I’m still inspired by the best things in the Elm Park I knew. I’ll be forever grateful to many of its old folk (including my parents and a couple of cops who once roughed me up and then lectured me) who set me straight and told me to get a life, get organised, clean up my act, get educated, and get out of town, when I was kid. But part of me regrets ever leaving its streets. Yesterday I wish I’d been there to tell the BNP to f-off.

9 responses to “Elm Park, the BNP and me”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    Have you read Billy Bragg’s “The Progressive Patriot”?

    For me part of the problem with this area of East London is that when people earned a bit of decent money (at Ford and elsewhere), they moved out rather than helping it move up. Ford still employs a good number of people, but in the last couple of decades, few lived close to the plant – most were migrants commuting in from the Essex and Kent surburbia.

    But as you indicate, it was pretty much a purposefully developed area of London – and like Harlow, it never seemed to deliver on the promise of moving out of the East End slums. It’s been a stepping stone for many rather than a real destination. Maybe these two factors are the reason why it has been too easy for the BNP (and other low life) to abuse the people of the area.

    I’m always reminded of Dickens’ Great Expectations when I think of the river and marshes in that part of London. Mind you, at that time, where Pip grew up was seen as a long way out of the city itself.

  2. Stephen Davies says:

    Your 1970s version of Elm Park seems like my present day version of the ex mining village I grew up in County Durham. Every time I go back it reminds me why I worked so hard at a later age in life to get out of the place. At the same time though I still feel so bloody proud of my roots.

    And while I don’t own a villa in Switzerland I still sometimes ask myself who the hell am I as I’m sipping on a mojito in a swanky London bar when eight years ago I was supping on pints (and yes getting in to fights) with my (still) lower working class and often unemployed mates.

    Needless to say, the BNP is popular in my almost entirely white home town.

  3. Dan Bryant says:

    I have to applaud your reasoned and careful explanation of Elm Park. I myself am from a part of Rainham exactly equidistant from Dagenham East tube station and Elm Park tube station. My feeling of Havering is that those from Romford, Upminster and bits of north Havering seem to generally regard themselves as “from Essex”, possibly because their family roots are in Essex and they had to move to Havering as a result of falling on slightly harder times. Elm Park, South Hornchurch and the south-west of Havering seem to have a greater sense of being “from Greater London” (if talking to people from central London that is – if “up North” they are just Londoners). Perhaps its the proximity to Dagenham – seen as “proper London” or maybe it is just that their family roots lie in the East End. Being from an unfashionable, mostly ignored borough from Outer London does leave you a little lost in terms of identity.

    For me I am part of the latter group, the former-cockneys. I don’t think that in any way Havering is the chavviest place around, it is nowhere near as tough as some areas. And compared with other boroughs in East London the schools are pretty good – better even than those in Essex. You are correct that work is limited – most of my parent’s friends either work for the council or in another borough. Part-time work is pretty hard to get hold of and housing isn’t the cheapest.

    I think Havering is typical of many Greater London boroughs in that it has many “if onlys”. If only they would clean up the riverside to give locals a proper attraction – rather than industrial estates and discarded rubbish. If only they would try to better exploit our available land for creating jobs in the area rather than just using it for landfill sites. If only they would use our access to the Thames to benefit people and companies equally. If only they could investing in arts, music and culture in the area – people from Greater London could come to see good entertainment at a fraction of the cost of Central London. The list goes on.

    I am not totally sure that my home town is in decline, it has stagnated definitely but who will invest in a borough nobody has heard of and nobody cares about? Most of Havering seems to be landfill sites and industrial estates, the residential areas are packed together and will only get more congested as our council tries to cram in as many people as possible.

    In these conditions housing is a massive issue and the gripe that “they only give council houses to asylum seekers” holds huge weight. It isn’t true of course, but anecdotes and distrust are more persuasive than sterile facts. I believe that the BNP does not have a stranglehold on Havering yet – there are enough middle-class aspiring, working-class Tories in the better parts of Havering and just enough reasonable left-leaners in the not-so-nice parts of Havering to keep them out. Having said that a major aspiration of people in Havering is to move to Essex, it is part of our upbringing to believe that Essex is a civilised, safe and more middle-class place to live. If enough people move away Havering will be left with the embittered masses – who could make quite silly decisions come election day.

    I think I have meandered around a bit, but I would like to say it is nice to see someone actually discussing Havering – we get ignored so often my family cheers any time we are on TV, whether it is good coverage or bad.

  4. David Donohue says:

    As is the case with many socially engineered towns (including Canberra here in Australia) they never quite gel – there is a framework of social good, many genuinely good people, and all the right amenities – but like an artifiical leg they don’t feel quite real (consider “The Truman Show”) and seem to breed significant social problems.

    In Elm Park’s case it’s chavs and the BNP – in the case of Canberra it’s politicians and bureaucrats.


  5. Malcom says:

    In comparison with nearby Dagenham Elm Park is very much a ‘white’ area. Barking is even more ethnicaly diverse than Dagenham and Elm Park is more ethnically diverse than Hornchurch. But there is a bigger difference between Dagenham and Elm Park than Elm Park and Hornchurch. This is probably why the B N P chose this particular pub in this particular part of East London. Elm Park is also well known for its racism. More so than other local places. This is another reason why they chose this place. You only have to type it up on the internet and all the reviews on the place give it a mention. Hornchurch is near to Elm Park and is on its way to being the same. Although Elm Park is known for being worse than Hornchurch to the extent that it has got a name for being racist.

  6. Colin says:

    We have lived in Elm Park for the past 16 years. I would strongly disagree that Elm Park has a name for being racist, I have only come across 1 idiot in Elm Park who holds racist views.
    The reason for the divide is the price of houses. Dagenham has the lowest priced homes in London and when other inner london boroughs gave cash insentives to their tennants to move out, they bought in Barking and Dagenham.

  7. Paul Seaman says:

    Colin, I accept your point. While the Elm Park Pub has known links with racists, including the BNP, Elm Park is not defined by the pub, which attracts yobs from far and wide. That said, Elm Park in general has some serious social and cultural issues, particularly among young unemployed people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

    Moreover: in the 1970s, Elm Park did have more than its fair share of racist thugs and they were the ones who colonised its pub. They have held court there ever since. My intention was very much to speak up for the decent side of Elm Park. I have to add that I now regret using the word Chav – which for me summed up rough Essex culture – because the term is used by others to insult ordinary people.

  8. Jonathan says:

    After looking at a few of the last comments on this page i decided to google it. ‘Elm Park racist’. Comes up with a few nasties! Reviews over the internet saying how bad it is. One particular on ChavTowns for Elm Park East London saying about the racist gangs that lurk around in Elm Park’s streets after dark. Quite a long story! I have also seen some comments saying that it isn’t and that it’s like any other town. I suppose you have to weigh it up and decide if it’s a safe place for yourself. To me, I think it sounds rough! Lucky for me I live nowhere near Elm Park in East London. East Midlands all the way!!!

  9. Paul Seaman says:

    So, finally, the Elm Park pub is to shut. I won’t mourn its decline but….

    It’s being turned into a Sainsbury’s, which used to be the middle class alternative to Tesco’s. That’s the good news for what could now become an upwardly mobile town. The problem remains, however, that Elm Park does indeed deserve/require a pub or a bar for the locals to meet chat, drink and relax. Hence, I’ve some sympathy for those in my old town who are upset that they’re now being deprived of the one place they had. However, that said, there’s no shortage of shop premises in Elm Park that could easily be transformed into a wine bar or modern local bar-cum-pub. If there’s the demand – then somebody should and will fill it.

    If anybody from Sainsbury’s is reading this; why don’t you help solve Elm Park’s problem? A good PR move would be to help get a local bar going to replace the awful one you are closing. And my message to local campaigners is: knock on Sainsbury’s door and invite them to join you and partner with you to turn your desire to make a decent local bar into a reality.

    Perhaps the notorious pub’s closure marks a positive new departure: a chance to create a new image for Elm Park? Bring it on, is my view.

    Here’s how the Romford Recorder reported the Elm Park Hotel’s demise:

    ‘Time called on Elm Park’s oldest pub as it looks set to become a Sainsbury’s’