I live in Billericay now, but I’m a Barking girl through and through
Posted: Feb 10, 2015
The year is 1966, and just-wed couple Sylvia and Peter Kent stand in front of the ancient Barking Abbey ruins for their wedding photo.
Sylvia was a Barking girl from tip to toe, raised, schooled and wooed in the town. It meant a lot to her that Barking itself figured in the picture, in the form of its most famous historic building.
Sylvia and Peter have lived in Billericay for the past 17 years, but her roots remain on Thameside. When it came to telling the story of Barking and Dagenham, Sylvia – a well-known local journalist with numerous previous books on Essex history to her name – was the only possible choice.
Sylvia, now 72, approached the task of research with zest.
She herself was already a walking library of her home town (she is also a former Barking College student). She added to this database by the simple approach of tackling complete strangers in the streets and on buses, and getting them to share their memories.
"There is a huge amount of knowledge out there, and people are delighted to get the chance to share it," she says.
Her charm and enthusiasm opened doors everywhere.
Among those she interviewed was the then mayor, Hardial Singh Rai.
"I was allowed to try on the mayor’s chain," she says, with glee.
Slyvia drew on other useful contacts as well.
"My daughter is a civil engineer, and I talked to her about the huge task of putting piles into the marshes when they built the Ford factory," she says.
Sylvia’s sense of zest beams out of every page, while her wide-ranging research make the book a mine of information. It should also help to melt a few prejudices.
Many outsiders only know Barking and Dagenham as a mass of suburbia and industrialised development alongside the A13. The book demonstrates otherwise.
The area has a rich history.
In the early middle ages, its abbey was a great centre of learning and civilised values, with a high reputation all over Europe. It was only an accident of history that Westminster rather than Barking became the seat of English government.
Sylvia has dug up many other intriguing historic facts. For instance, right into the 19th century, Barking was home to the largest inshore fishing fleet in the world. And it was not just the Kents who married at Barking.
Captain Cook, explorer and discoverer of Australia, also found and wed a bride in the town.
It is the people of Barking and Dagenham, captured by the camera across 150 years, who lie at the heart of this book. Here, for instance, is Jack West, a remarkably jolly undertaker and Sylvia’s predecessor as a chronicler of the area. Jack wrote an early memoir of Dagenham, based at least in part on the people he had buried.
Then there is another wedding picture, showing a bespectacled youngster proudly clutching the arm of his bride. This is George Carey, who decades later became Archbishop of Canterbury.
In fact, Barking and Dagenham have been home to more than their fair share of celebrities, ranging from the singers Vera Lynn and Max Bygraves to Dudley Moore, Billy Bragg and the Queen’s dressmaker Hardy Amies.
Barking & Dagenham is a rich browse and you don’t need to have roots in Barking and Dagenham, or to have been married there, to enjoy it. Readers, though, may wonder about the bits that got left out.
"I had 96 pages," says Sylvia. "I could easily have filled 300."
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