The Enigma of the White House, Dagenham
It was only when I started to write ‘An Account of Dagenham Village’ that I became aware of the numerous other archaic fabrics that once existed here. These had succumbed to the village demolition principally around the late 1960s and early 1970s. During my study I became interested in a structure named the ‘White House’, which once lay on the west side of Rainham Road South. I have located its position today, which is opposite the Methodist Church and a block of flats just to the south of this. This is now the site of maisonettes, being numbers 17-52 Ibscott Close.
When it became known as the ‘White House’ I have not been able to ascertain, but it was called by the name as early as 1911. This hints that the title was in existence from the previous century; so it appears that the term was long established.
Although I was curious it was not until I began to interview a number of old residents that the subject arose again. This brought me into contact with the final occupants of the dwelling being the West Family, who had dwelt in the house for over 60 years [1909-1969]. Chiefly Mollie West (nee’ Smith: wife of the late Coppin West), and Coppin’s brother Donald, who was the last surviving of 5 brothers [see below].
The first known generation of the West family originated from London c.1773, before they later moved to Grays. Their name in Dagenham goes back to c.1835 when Edward James operated a saddler and harness makers’ trade from Church Cottages adjacent to the Cross Keys.
Through the family genealogical lines this led to Edward John West (and his partner Harry Coe) setting up business in Hornchurch as builders in 1903.
They originally constructed a number of houses, and other building or demolition projects. In 1909 the partners took over Mr George Pearcey’s building trade (who had decided to emigrate to Canada). This had operated from the White House from at least 1884.
In this process they also inherited Alfred Wellington’s coffin making business, and this led them into the undertaking trade. For a time they shared this with another Dagenham man-- Mr Howgego, while also continuing the building side.
Left:Edward John West (1879-1969)
Edward had married Rosina Wright at South Ockendon in 1905, and they had five children: Bessie Viola (1907), Coppin James (1909), Edward Jack (1910), Phillip Frank (1912) and Donald Eric (1914).
Coppin became a master plumber and a craftsman, and worked with his father in the West & Coe business, along with his brother (Edward) Jack; and Coppin married Mollie Smith in 1943. The funeral business descended through Jack, and then on to his son Jeremy— who runs the business today.
I soon realised that this was a vital part of Dagenham’s history that should be preserved. It is largely through Mollie and Donald’s efforts that I am able to recreate the following article, and I am indebted to them for this. The story is related below in more detail.
The White House undated but after 1928 (Mollie West)
Early Ownership History
Not much is known concerning the early history of the White House, and I have been able to add precious little to this. What we do know is that the house was about 350 years old. Donald West told me that this was implied on some deeds, which were written on vellum, which he remembers his father speaking about. The materials the building was manufactured from also tend to reinforce this construction date out [see p5-6].
I have also been unable to track these deeds down to verify this, as the local authority of Barking & Dagenham has no notion of their whereabouts. I have written to the Town Clerk at Barking twice but neither letter has received any reply. Their local heritage officer— Mark Watson— also pointed out that the borough still has thousands of documents, which still remain unclassified, when this was written. So we can soon see that although they may possibly exist they may well remain latent for many years to come.
Even without these deeds though, I think we can say with some degree of surety that the White House was built c.1600. Examination of the earliest plan of the village, which shows the southern section, is that of George Spurrell’s Farm from 1790. This comprised of nearly 93 acres, and the dwelling was once part of this.
This is the same property noted in the Window Tax a few years earlier in 1785/86, being that owned by Captain Spurrell, comprising of 9 windows, being valued at 10/6d. We know that the White House had five lights at the front and four at the rear.
It is highly likely that the original usage of the dwelling was a farmhouse, and the West’s confirmed this facet. By the time it was noted on the Spurrell’s Farm plan the region identified with the White House was certainly being employed as farmyard with offices and gardens, being approximately 2½ acres in total.
This revelation that the dwelling once formed part of Spurrell’s farm also exposes the fact that the land it was built on it must have originally been part of the Manor of Cockermouth, which was 220 acres in total. This Manor had been granted to Barking Abbey in 1330 as a gift. It is interesting at this juncture to briefly study this ownership further.
After the monastery’s suppression in 1539 it passed to Nicholas Howe the next year. By 1560 it had been granted to Anthony Browne. He became the first Lord of Cockermouth. After passing through a number of people’s hands from 1567 until 1639 it finally came to the Darcy family. Sir Thomas Darcy in turn sold part of the Cockermouth demesne land (67 acres), to Richard Comyns. This included the region of interest, plus the land around Dagenham Village, and this extended right through to the Chequers. It passed to his son John Comyns (d.1745), and five years later his daughters, who were coheirs, sold it to George Spurrell, and it subsequently became part of his farm.
Returning to the White House we find that nothing more is known about this until the Tithe Map of c.1841-44, where it noted as parcel 1492. This is owned by John Kittle and in the occupancy of Sarah Brown. Spurrell’s Farm by this time had become fragmented into smaller land parcels with different owners, and that of the house was merely 2 perches or 60½ square yards.
The West’s tell me that the house was at one time a Lodging House, and would have been a fairly rough one judging by the poor amenities. Mollie remembers being told that a line of flagstones once existed outside the dwelling in the front garden and that before the inmates could gain entrance for board and lodging, they would have to walk these stones to prove their sobriety. It is likely that this was around 1850 to 1883, as we know the house was in the hands of the Pearcy family by 1884.
Donald West recalled that his father Edward John; and mother Rose, originally leased the White House in 1909 from a Mrs ‘Spurrier’ from Aveley, who owned the house. When she died c.1924 the house was put up for auction (when the vellum deeds were noted), and there were a number of other business people keen to buy it. The price due to this rocketed to over £1,000 for its purchase. His father was rather vexed about having to pay this for a place he already lived in. Whether or not he was recalling the name of the former owner— Mr Spurrell, from these deeds I did not have the opportunity to ascertain, but it appears highly likely.
Some confusion also arrives with the ownership of the dwelling, between the time of the Tithe Map and that of 1909. The plan shows it owned by John Kittle and not the Spurrell’s, although in 1909 they still seemingly possessed it, although the name may have slightly changed. Perhaps they were both joint owners’.
It was not until 1966 the White House came under threat from a Compulsory Purchase Order, in pursuance of the redevelopment of Dagenham Village by the newly formed London Borough of Barking (April 1965). A Romford solicitor’s named Mullis & Peake acted on behalf of the West’s and was involved in this sale to the local authority.
On the 22/11/1966 Edward and Rosina West (and West & Coe) accepted an offer of £33,000 from the District Valuer for the sale of the White House to the London Borough of Barking. This comprised of numbers: 729, and 735-739 Rainham Road South, along with the chapel of rest and embalming stores. The Council were to bear the costs of Mullis & Peake, plus the legal fees. The sale of the above premises was to be finalised by the 1st March the following year.
Acting as surveyors, and in the valuation of the property on behalf of the West’s was Glenny of Barking, being chartered surveyors and property consultants. It was here that I drew another blank, as they do not retain records more than 13 years old.
It was not the family’s intentions to sell the White House, as they anticipated that it would remain their head office. They had also purchased land next to this with the aim of making a funeral home here at some point in the future. In consequence of the Compulsory Purchase the funeral business was relocated to the other side of the road at No 630 Rainham Road South.
Donald West reflected that it was possibly the changes, which caused the White House to be eventually demolished, “It was always intended as a working house and was not purchased by our family purely for its historical value.” A number of major changes had been made [see page 7], “The house in many people’s opinions had been ruined. When it came to be Compulsory Purchased there was no real opposition.”
Demolition of the White House (David C. West)
Side view of the White House, during demolition (David C. West)
Front of West & Coe, during the demolition (David C. West)
View from dining-room bay window (David C. West)
There is no known account of the layout or building materials employed in the White House’s construction and the following description is that related to me by Donald West.
The White House was a timber frame edifice made from pitch pine with strong corner posts and studding. It was of lathe and plaster construction. This feature is born out by the photographs from its demolition.
The lathes of the building were hand made, being sliced on site, and then rendered with lime and horsehair plaster, before being whitewashed. There was one thick brick wall across the middle of the house, which incorporated two large chimneys.
It was a ‘foursquare’ house, comprising of a ground and first floor. Here were located two large rooms at the front being originally a Kitchen and a Parlour: and the scullery at the rear, which run its full length.
The White House, undated
The entrance had a large front door, and in the middle was a knocker that Don recalled shook the whole house when somebody called. Upstairs were five bedrooms. The windows were sash cords with lead weights in the frames.
You entered the dwelling via the hall; and doors to the Kitchen and Parlour were found almost immediately. The ceilings on the ground floor level were very low. This hallway originally led right through to stairs and scullery, but later a door was fashioned here, to segregate this.
The kitchen had a wide fireplace, and was surrounded by a cooking range made by W & C Tipple of Canning Town, probably built c.1810 (with a wooden shelf above it). This had a water tank to the left with a circular lid at its top for water filling and a brass tap at the front for drawing off the water: while to the right was an oven with a cast iron door. The fire heated both of these when lit.
One could look up the chimney at this point and see iron bars, which were for hanging hams in order for them to be smoked. A number of ceiling beams crossed the roof, and there were large iron staples in one of these beams, also for suspending hams.
Just to the right of the oven was a larder, which was approximately 3ft wide with shelves. I commented to Don that this seemed a strange place to position this given the fact that the fireplace and cooking range was to its left and the baker’s oven directly behind it. He remarked that he had never really thought about this aspect. In the northeast corner of the kitchen was an old corner cupboard.
The scullery was originally across the back of the whole house and had a stone flagged floor. It could be reached from the kitchen via a small passageway about 2ft wide. A Butler sink was located here affixed to the southern wall: in addition there was a mangle.
Corner cupboard in Kitchen area,
c.1970, during the demolition
(photo: courtesy of David C. West).
This room also had a large cooking range that was heated by the fire in the middle. On its right was a brick built copper in a quadrant arrangement: while on its left was a baker’s oven, being a ‘brick built masterpiece’, which was probably as old as the house itself. The top of the oven was about 3ft wide and 4ft deep, with an iron door. A brick arch was found underneath the oven being 4ft deep from front to back.
At the end of the scullery was a large coal-flap and door to the cellar. This was very dark with an iron grill to the air and to give a little daylight, but Don pointed out it was… “Not so good when you went down with a candle to get coal and the draught blew it out.”
There was a step-up here that led into a room, which later became the old office, when the scullery was set apart. This gave a lower ceiling at this point, but more headroom in the cellar, which was directly underneath this.
The cellar was about 12 ft square, being about 8 ft high, and was very dark, with only the metal grill for air and light. Originally food was stashed at this point, due to it being reasonable cool in the warm months.
The Parlour had few features of repute. A large fireplace was located here, which was had an oval-shaped top. On each side was located a sideboard.
The upstairs also had little that Don remembered, apart from the five bedrooms. There was also a loft and the roof struts could be viewed from here, being unsawn tree trunks. He notes, “It was obvious that the whole house had been formed on site, even the internal doors were handmade, the bedroom floors were 10 inch wide planks.”
The front of dwelling was connected via a carriageway from Bull Street, and was surrounded by gardens. A veranda was fitted outside the main entrance. At the rear was the backyard, which backed onto the orchard next to the churchyard. There was no backdoor here and access would have to be gained from the southern side. Here also was an outside privy that had fallen out of use by the 1920s, when a new brick water closet was built on the house’s southern wall.
In 1909 (when the West family moved in), a number of alterations to the White House took place. They were a very hard working family and it was their intension to use it as a ‘working house’. So the adaptations came as no real surprise.
A number of major internal modifications included the division of the scullery from the old Kitchen and Parlour, by passing a partition from one side of the house to the other. The Kitchen at the front became the Dining Room, and the Scullery the Kitchen.
The flagstones were removed from the Scullery and were substituted by quarry stones, which were much easier to keep clean. In addition to this the archaic baker’s oven was removed. Part of the Scullery became the West’s office. The modern bay window (we note on the pictures) was fitted c.1928 by Coppin West.
New doors were placed inside at various points. A door was positioned at the western end of the small passageway from the kitchen to the scullery: while at the eastern end an arch was fashioned. In addition a door was placed at the end of the main passage to divide the hall from the scullery.
A few of the memories of the West’s are included here, which record the life and times of their day while in the White House.
The oven would take a weeks baking. You would fill the oven with firewood, the oven lining was firebrick, very thick, and would retain the heat for hours, the ashes would be shovelled out, and thrown under the arch (underneath the oven), the oven was then swept before the bread went in.
In those days everyone was far too busy to tidy up. Our old shoes were kept in the brick oven, dozens of them all mixed up, but they came in handy when we kitted out some of the local kids, who hadn’t any.
In one of the back bedrooms there was an iron bath. Dad would carry upstairs pails of boiling water from the copper. Also in the cold winter we would put house bricks in the oven, and take them to bed (out with a crash when they became cold).
No central heating, no hot water at the sink, and a lot more things our generation done without, but we had some good fun.
The flag stoned floor of the scullery would be scrubbed and washed out with water in order to clean it.
When I went to the house I was often frightened to go on the upstairs landing in the dark as I felt some form of presence their.
A big thank you must go to the West family, chiefly: -.
To Mollie West for some useful details, and loaning me some items to be copied.
To Donald West for the information on the White House, and assistance with the plan.
Also my appreciation to David C. West for the photographs of the White House demolition.