As a preamble to this article, I am going to put on virtual reality specs, in my capacity as ‘past whisperer’, and take you with me, as I walk from Manor House Way, (or Manor Road as it is now known), to Overton Road, one hundred years ago.
The land of the local Manor, and several adjoining farms and houses of the gentry, had been sold for building plots as the twentieth century dawned. Following the late nineteenth century corn prices crash, agricultural land was no longer profitable. It was sold to land speculators, such as Robert Varty, and carved into building plots to be sold at auction. The year of 1923, saw an influx of Londoners buying these plots – returners from the Great War – who saw their Shangri-La in the country air of Benfleet.
As I leave my roughcast bungalow I step on to an unmade road, deeply rutted after the winter’s rain. There are horse fields opposite, and just a few other tiny bungalows, and a few larger villas in the road. Two of these villas – ‘Kildare’ and ‘Mostyn’, I pass on my right. On the far right, the neglected-looking Tudor Manor House sits back, behind the coalyard. I pass ‘The Retreat’ on my left, a small yellow brick-built cottage . At the crossroads, dead ahead are stables, and the distant fields of ‘Forty Acres’, which stretch ahead to what will become the new arterial road (A127). This road is a hive of activity with Irish navvies. It will open in a couple of years time.
In Manor House Way live German engineers, building the plant in the Pump House for the new water system. Quite a people who work in heavy engineering – boiler makers etc. live round here. I turn left into the Pitsea Road (now Church Road) past the laundry into scrubland with the occasional shack – some not much better than sheds – and turn sharp right after fifty yards, into Overton Road. Again, it is unmade, and rutted. The dwellings are few, under a dozen, each named fancifully by their proud owners – ‘Arcadia’, ‘Windy Ridge’, ‘Homelands’. It is an area of orchards, smallholdings with poultry, with generous amounts of land around each dwelling. There is a piggery on the corner of Roseberry Avenue. Most people buy about four plots when they come here – and a single plot averages 20′ frontage x about 120′. You are not supposed to build across individual plot lines – but people do!
Returning to 2023, I looked at the 1939 Register, taken on the eve of the second world war. There were just eight households in Overton Road, two of which – ‘Overton House’ and ‘The Nursery’ will feature in this article. ‘The Nursery’ was in existence, and in the possession of the Harwood family, in 1928, – as a newscutting, found by my colleague Eileen Gamble, shows Charles Harwood living there.
Overton Road was made up, and the land heavily developed in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Before that there had been just the smattering of roughcast bungalows, ‘Dardan’ and ‘Arcadia’ among them, and a couple of substantial houses, ‘The Nursery’ and ‘Overton House’. The Harwood family owned both properties. It was Ann Harwood, daughter of Sydney and Beatrice Harwood, who was to become Reg’s bride. Reg was born in Homer Road, Hackney, in 1934. His parents moved to a house on the corner of Lee Road and Highlands Road, off Pound Lane, Bowers Gifford, when Reg was a toddler. Here, he had an idyllic childhood running free in the fields, and describes swimming in the 5′ deep world war two water filled tank traps near Sadlers Farm with his friends. They laid their clothes on top of a nearby concrete block house, and ran around to get dry after their swim before they put their clothes on. He describes world war two decoy defences on Pitsea marshes, which were often bombed as enemy planes followed the ribbon of the Thames. This left craters, and he swam in these too. Reg used to take a steam train from Pitsea to Benfleet (having bought a platform ticket!) and swim in Benfleet Creek.
Daytrip Charabancs full of Londoners on the return trip from Southend, who were often quite the worse for drink, would stop in Bowers Gifford at The Gun public house, and also at The Bull, where local children would congregate and cadge halfpennies and candy. Pound Lane had a dairy where the pet shop now stands, and you could get a pat of butter in greaseproof paper. The 3′ drainage ditches in Pound Lane flooded regularly, and Reg remembers seeing an enterprising soul rowing a boat in one. It was probably better than trying to walk up a muddy, rutted track.
Reg attended the Church of England School in Bowers Gifford, nearly opposite the blacksmith’s forge, where Reg and his friends would liberate stray nails for use making holes in conkers. He was a choir boy and bellringer at St. Margaret’s Church, Bowers Gifford, and remembers Frank King the Churchwarden, who was also the local butcher in Rectory Road, Pitsea. Reg attended Craylands Senior School in Nevendon. In those days, a bicycle was a must-have, and Reg cycled everywhere. He also remembers playing on the railway track at Bowers Gifford and placing halfpennies on the track ‘to become pennies'(!) His parents would probably have had something to say if they had known.
Reg’s first job was at Stonecraft in Wickford, and then Mowlem Construction where he was the tea boy. In the early 1960s, Reg worked for Essex Carriers driving a seven ton Falcon lorry, and later a Bedford. His rudimentary test was to drive the lorry up Bread & Cheese Hill and back down Church Hill, and the verdict was, ‘Yes, you’ll be OK, boy!’ He walked to work at Essex Carriers through scrubland from Overton Road, past Mr. Lee’s Grocery Shop in Church Road. Mr. Lee would make up a shopping order, to be collected on the way home.
Reg Pusey and Ann Harwood met in Max’s Cafe (where Tesco Express now stands) at Great Tarpots in the early 1950s and married at St. Margaret’s Church Bowers Gifford in 1956. Reg remembers the shops of the time at Tarpots, – Aldersons Clothes Shop where the KFC now stands, Clifty’s Garage opposite, Glanfields on the opposite corner of Lambeth Road.
The couple moved into ‘Overton House’ which was next door to ‘The Nursery’. Their two sons, Vincent and Douglas, were born there. Both ‘Overton House’ and ‘The Nursery’ were demolished in the 1960s, and Reg had a new house built on the site in 1970.