Transcript: Maria Williams

Banjo Estate | Photo: Valence House Museum

Interview with: Maria Williams

Date: 25th July 2019

Interviewer: Nikki Shaill

Q: Nikki Shaill

A: Maria Williams

Q: This is an oral history interview with Maria Williams, conducted by Nikki Shaill, taken on 25th July 2019, at the Archive and Local Studies Centre, Valance House, in Barking. This interview is being conducted as part of The Barking Stink project, run by Thames Festival Trust. Also present we have Avril Glyn-Miller, Mike Meads, Felicity Hawksley, and Katy Hodges.

Q: What's your full name?

A: Maria Williams.

Q: And what's your date of birth?

A: 2nd of August, 1952.

Q: And where were you born, Maria?

A: I was born at Creekmouth Cottages.

Q: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

A: I have two sisters, and an adopted sister.

Q: And can you tell us their names?

A: Avril. My eldest sister is Dilys, who’s sadly passed on. And I have a younger adopted sister, Cecilia.

Q: So, you were born at Creekmouth?

A: I was.

Q: At Creekmouth Village. And how long did you live there for?

A: I was four, around four when we moved away.

Q: Do you have any memories before that time of being in Creekmouth?

A: I do, I do have memories of being down there, very limited. I can remember the river, I can remember being taken up to the waterman’s steps and sitting there and watching the boats going up and down, and the sailors coming ashore in rowing boats to go to the pub and to buy supplies at the village shop. I have very clear memories of that. And I also have a memory that's stayed with me always of when my mum used to go round to the shop to get whatever shopping she needed I would sit on the floor behind the counter scooping up the sugar spilt from the sugar sacks. And I'd scoop it up in a bit of cardboard or something and put it all back in the sack, [laughs]. So goodness knows what else went in it as well. But I just have clear memory of doing it.

Q: And do you remember anything about your home as well?

A: No, not really. Only I can remember vaguely our kitchen, but I can't remember any of the other rooms or upstairs, only what Avril tells me, the layout and what, you know what they looked like and what we had.

Q: So where did you move, after that when did you move?

A: We moved in 1956 to Thames View.

Q: And why did you move home then?

A: We moved there, the flood of ’53 ruined the cottages, the water was so deep. They were also, at that time, building Thames View Estate, and because the houses were really uninhabitable after, although people did carry on living there, as Avril had said, the walls never dried out, they were constantly damp. Although there were always rats in the area, when the bank burst it brought a whole flood of rats and, you know more than what we’d ever had. And at the same time they were building more factories in the area, a lot more factories, and it was deemed to be not conducive with healthy living, so the council were keen to move everybody out.

Q: So, have you been back to Creekmouth since?

A: Yes, we go back to visit the open space. Although the Environment Agency own it, because it's the site of the village, we, sort of we have this agreement with them, we actually maintain it, empty the bins, and then they come every now and again and they will mow the grass after all the meadow flowers have died down, and so on. So we sort of look after it together.

Q: So you only lived in Creekmouth until you were four years old.

A: Yes.

Q: But you've got quite an active role now don’t you in the preservation society?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about what Creekmouth means to you?

A: Erm, it's part of my history. And it has a lot of history going back over the years. I've probably gone back to about the 1700s researching what was there, and at that time in the village, well it wasn’t a village at that time, all that was there was a gunpowder magazine, and the Crooked Billet Inn, which was a white weatherboard building on the opposite side of the road to where it is now. And then coming forward to the very first census, 1841, there were only six cottages there, and they housed, erm, two agricultural labourers who would have worked on the farms roundabout, two policemen and their families, and two fisherman’s families. And then ten years later there were a few more cottages built, and there were more people living there. And over the years because the cottages all have a different style, the first six were a specific style, the next, erm, about 20, erm, were, they had a flat façade, just doors looking straight out onto the green and the riverbank. And then the next 25 or so were all like little Victorian houses. And going by the census records you can tell that they were built different eras. And I just, the history of the families, you know where they started off, where they went to from Creekmouth, erm, and descendants that are still around today that we’re in contact with, it just makes fascinating history. Plus all the famous things, the Princess Alice disaster, Frederick Handley Page and his biplanes, and the building of the power station in 1925. There's just such a lot of history there.

Q: And do you, and you still live in Barking now?

A: No, I live in Billericay.

Q: Do you think that people who are in Barking, do you think that most people know about Creekmouth and have heard of it?

A: When we started off 14 or so years ago we would be at exhibitions here, and we would be at village fetes, town fetes and things around the borough, and we were constantly asked, well what on earth is Creekmouth, where is it, never heard of it. Always. But over the years we have bought more awareness to where it is, especially into the schools and the local community around here, and they have more of an idea of the village and it's history, which was our purpose in highlighting it in the first place.

Q: And will you personally, do you think there's still work to be done, will you keep going or working with Creekmouth history?

A: I think, yes, I think you just have to keep making sure that history is out there. And it's, you know the generations of the future know that such a thriving village community existed. You see a lot in the archives, erm, in local press and so on about Dagenham Village, and everybody knows where Dagenham Village is, but because the actual houses at Creekmouth have now gone, there's just the pub there, it's easily forgotten. So, I mean the fact that we've got the plaques up there as well, which was a huge achievement, and the mosaic on the wall, which is absolutely brilliant.

Q: The mosaic is beautiful.

A: Yeah, it is.

Q: I've seen it. Were you involved in creating that?

A: Absolutely.

Q: And there's lots of words within the mosaic--,

A: Yes.

Q: Lots of stories.

A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about, were any of those stories yours or people you know?

A: No, usually the older people. I have a book of Creekmouth memories here that various older residents have said about it. One of them, who was, erm, he was one of our founder members, Les Stone, and he famously said that he never wanted to leave the village, but the world was changing and they had to go. And it's, you know it's true. And some of the older people say they'd like to live back down there, Joyce in particular, but it's not conducive to healthy living, you know it's in the middle of an industrial estate.

Q: Mm. It sounds like it was a very unique place to be--,

A: Absolutely.

Q: And to be from though.

A: Yeah.

Q: Do you feel a sense of pride that you were Creekmouth?

A: Yes, I think so.

Q: Do you call yourself, is it a Creekmouther or is there a name?

A: Creeker.

Q: A Creeker?

A: Yes.

Q: A Creeker.

A: Yes. But life wasn’t easy down there, especially going back to the early 1900s because there was no road, there was only like a mud path or the towpath to get into Barking. The only way. And if it was winter and raining that's the way the children had to go to school. But in between the period where they closed the schoolrooms in the mission church and then they reopened a new school in 1902, a small village school, but in between that time, and then after when they shut the school in 1929, the children had to walk to school. And in those earlier days a frozen towpath, and it was so dangerous, there's no lights, they would come home in the dark. But the schools would ha--, and the local church community would have, once a year, a charabanc outing for the children of Creekmouth, to either take them to Hainault Forest or take them to Southend, so that in their words, they could breath some fresh air. So although, you know the older people of Creekmouth will say, oh it was a wonderful place and it was healthy, and so on, and so on, it wasn’t, it really wasn’t. The pollution was horrendous from the factories, from the river, from the Beckton Sewage Works. It was absolutely horrendous, and the smells were absolutely awful.

Q: So you lived in Barking, when did you leave Barking?

A: I left Barking when I got married in ’72. But then we came back to Barking for another 20 plus years before moving out.

Q: And, yeah, can you tell us any of the smells that you remember in that time of living there?

A: Once we were on Thames View I can remember the smell from the sewerage works, and also from the refuse, erm, and as is now recycling centre, which was along the A13 as well. But mostly my sense of awful smells from the pickle factory, the Epicure Pickle Factory, oh it was awful, make you gag. But even so, down at Creekmouth the smell, apart from the sewage outlets, the smells from the river actually were, erm, and it's the same smells now, you just go to the riverbank and you can smell that saltiness, and the breeze, and if you close your eyes you could be on a river somewhere wonderful. So it does have lovely smells coming from the river. But I do remember once we’d moved away from the village I'd gone back down with my dad just to watch the boats go by, and I have a very vivid memory of the Lawes chimneys belching out what was like a yellowy colour smoke, like a sulphur, and the smell, it hit your throat and your tongue, and it was absolutely awful. I mean I had no idea what it was at that time, it was this sulphuric acid smell and taste in the mouth. But it was quite horrendous really, made your throat raw and very sore.

Q: Can you compare the smell of that sulphuric, can you compare it to anything that someone today might recognise? Or have you smelt anything since that's similar?

A: It's the similar smell to rotten eggs, isn't it, like, you know, sulphur anywhere. But it was the way, it was almost as if it had, erm, you weren’t just breathing in the smoke, it was like you were breathing in particles of something that were hitting the back of your throat.

Q: Do you know people who have struggled with the pollution, and it has an impact on people’s health that you know?

A: I think a lot of people from down there have chest problems, and it's not surprising, you know. I mean as Avril was saying, our dad he had problems, but then it was the asbestos. But he struggled for years with breathing problems and so on. Yeah, it just wasn’t, you know just wasn’t a healthy place to be living. And the fact that they moved everybody out was very necessary. I mean earlier, erm, again, the end of the 1800s and early 1900s they had the Wambach Sausage Factory, which very often in the council minutes there were complaints about it, and officers being sent down to check on the smells and so on. There was the, erm, hoof, bone, and blood factory, which was called the blood factory locally, and apparently the smells from there were just completely noxious, really awful. The water quality as well, in the early days they had to water pi--, no, the very early days they had a well, and then they had two water pipes in the middle of all the cottages. And then there was the road in, obviously, at the back leading into the Thames, and there are several reports in the council minutes of officers coming down and testing the quality of the water that the people were actually using to drink and cook, and wash in. And it was at levels that were toxic. And it took many years to actually change it, it was going back to whatever the water authority was at the time, and they would come down and they would do their own monitoring, and they would go back and write reports, and it was many, many years before the water was brought into the cottages and the pipework was brought up to date, and they were actually drinking and cooking with water that was not, was no longer sort of poisonous, basically.

Q: Wow.

A: [Laughs].

Q: A lot of, yeah, like you say, a lot of changes and progress--,

A: Absolutely.

Q: And differences. I think that's all the questions--,

A: Good.

Q: Unless there's anything else you'd like to tell me? The only other thing, I guess is just to say, yeah, you mentioned there were some nice smells as well some not so nice smells.

A: Yes, I think so, yes.

Q: Can you think, are there any other just favourite smells you have personally, or smells that give you kind of good memories in general?

A: I like smells of the, the sort of the meadow of flowers and the shrubs, and the grass, and the trees. And at the open space we have all of that now, we’re very lucky to have that now, thanks to the Environment Agency. And so it's like a small oasis in the middle of this whole industrial area. And as I said, standing by the river, down on the waterman’s steps as far as you can go down now, erm, the smell from the river can be quite lovely.

Q: Mm.

A: I think, at times. But I do wonder if, erm, if the whole open space is in danger for the future, as the Barking Riverside Development seems to be expanding and moving up, certainly to where the metal recycling place is, so we do have great concerns about that. If it moves around that bend it will take over the open space. But I have spoken to somebody in the Environment Agency and he said as far as they are aware, at this moment in time, there are no plans to take that piece of land away. But who knows.

Q: Mm. It's on the record, and it sounds like you, yeah, you do quite a lot of campaigning and--,

A: Yes.

Q: Protecting, don’t you?

A: Yes, absolutely.

Q: You're preserving, but you're also protecting that history.

A: Absolutely. It's so important.

Q: Katie, Felicity, do you have any questions to add? Okay, then we’ll finish this interview. Thank you so much for your time Maria.

A: That's fine. Thank you.

[END OF RECORDING - 0:20:09]