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Harlow's History and Geography


Malting and Brewing

While Harlow's major function over the centuries has been to provide services to the population of its surrounding agricultural hinterland, it has also provided the site for a variety of industrial functions, most of them producing for the local market. However, there were some larger-scale enterprises. Malt (i.e. malted barley) was being sent to the London market down the Stort Navigation by 1754. By the end of the 1870s there were maltings in both Churchgate and Fore Streets. They survived until the late 19th century when a new maltings was built in St. John's Walk. In 1968 this building, by then long-derelict, was converted into the principal component of Memorial University's Harlow Campus.

Chaplin's Brewery Labels.Chaplin's Brewery operated in Fore Street from 1897 until 1926. The 1851 Census shows that Thomas Chaplin was a man of some standing. He employed 12 men at the brewery, and 11 men on his 300 acres of farmland. Some of this was at Chippingfield, rented from the Rev. Joseph Arkwright. In 1933 the now-disused brewery was taken over by Windowlite Limited, makers of a novel wire-mesh reinforced plastic sheeting. It was originally intended for use in greenhouses and conservatories, but during the War it was widely used to replace windows blown out by German bombing. The brewery/factory buildings and the manager's house survived until 1969 when they were demolished to make way for the houses of the Seeley's estate.

Map of Market and High Streets in 1921 showing Chaplin's Brewery and The Maltings Brewery House, 1962

Deards' Industries

One of Harlow's best-known 19th century citizens was Sam Deards, whose accomplishments remind us that the wealth of Victorian England did not all come from the big cities. Deards was a pillar of the local community, serving as a member of the Fire Brigade for 35 years, and Captain for 30 of them. He was also a very successful inventor and entrepreneur. He was apprenticed into his father's plumbing and glazing business, but soon branched out on his own. Among his inventions was a machine to make building blocks using the clinker waste from the coal-fired power stations in the Lea Valley. Another was the first successful mechanical cricket scoreboard. After its initial trials at the Marigolds Sports Field in High Street, behind the Fire Engine House, it was widely adopted throughout the U.K. He contributed to his own wealth, and provided considerable employment in the town by developing a way of installing glass over large areas of roof. His 'Victoria Dry Glazing' method was used to roof Liverpool Street Station in London, the Colonial and Indian Exhibition Hall in South Kensington, and the Crystal Palace when it was moved from its original site in Hyde Park to Sydenham in 1852.

Sam Deard's Cricket Scoreboard Advertisement for Sam Deard's concrete block machine.  Sam is featured in the lower picture;  two of his grandsons in the upper.

A London newspaper story entitled 'An Easter Egg for Harlow', published on 1 April, 1904, reported that Deards had been awarded a £10,000 contract by HM the King's Admiralty for the roof of a new factory. He had already put a new roof on the gun mounting stores at the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth, and the Admiralty were so impressed with the 'excellence and economy' of this roof, both in manufacture and maintenance' that they awarded him this large new contract. The story enumerated the material that would be required: 10 miles of steel glazing bar, 20 miles of 12 inch wide glass sheet and 100 tons of lead to prevent rusting of the steel bars, and for flashings.

Rivers' Nursery

Many Harlow residents were employed at the River's Nursery in Sawbridgeworth. Founded by John Rivers from Berkshire in 1720, it became one of England's largest and most successful nurseries, employing more than 2,000 people at its peak in the mid 19th century. This was no ordinary nursery. It specialized in providing garden stock for large houses with estate gardens. Always a family-owned and run business, it was extremely progressive. Correspondence with nurserymen all around the world made possible a collection of foreign and domestic plant varieties unrivalled in England. Charles Darwin made use of its research collection during the writing of The Origin Of Species. When the tax on glass was removed in 1849 it became possible, for the first time, to build glasshouses on a large scale. Rivers designed glasshouses for some of the most important estates in the country, including Audley End, where the 1856 glasshouse has recently been restored, and stocked with plants supplied by the Rivers gardens. The coming of the railway made it easy to ship their fruit trees, which came planted in huge pots, all over the country.

The firm made use of the new hothouse growing environment to develop whole new ranges of fruit cultivars, including the Thomas Rivers apple which is now an extremely rare English species. The family always had a special fondness for experimentation with citrus fruits, and this was to serve the world well. In the late 19th century, American oranges were flourishing in Florida, but these varieties did not do well when transplanted to California. In 1876 the third Thomas Rivers sent a number of young plants to California and one of them, Valencia Late, proved satisfactory and laid the foundation of the citrus industry in that state.

The number of large country houses with gardens began to shrink after about 1900, and the country house was in serious decline by the 1930's. This caused the nursery to cut back on the scale of its operations. Then the range of varieties had to be cut dramatically during the Second War because of regulations which severely limited the amount of heating that could be provided in the greenhouses. In the post war era competition from overseas sources made the operation increasingly unprofitable, and after 265 years of operation the nursery was closed in 1985. The land was sold to a medical group and a private hospital, the Thomas Rivers Medical Centre, was opened in 1992. The surviving gardens are being maintained by a charitable trust. The story of the nursery is told in a book published in 2010, and available at The Museum of Harlow.

SpirellaAdvertisement for the Spirella factory in a 1953 issue of Essex Life

The Spirella corporation, corset makers, is most commonly associated with Letchworth Garden City, where the headquarters and main factory was. But in the 1950s it also had a satellite operation in Harlow, just north of Harlow Mill Station.


Harlow Garden Village

Harlow Garden Village Estate Map, 1914.  Cecil Scruby, Estate Agent.The proposed Harlow Garden Village is another indication of the entrepreneurial spirit of Harlow residents - and the dreams of glory that some of them hoped to realize. Two members of the Scruby family left an interesting legacy. Basil lived in a half-timbered house in Fore Street and established a short-lived doll factory here. One of the dolls can be seen in the Museum of Harlow. In the 1920's Charles unveiled an ambitious plan to develop the Harlow Garden Village Estate on a large site bounded by what is now Station Road on the west, Priory Avenue on the north, Old Road on the east and the backs of the properties along Bury Road on the south. The use of the term 'Garden Village' is significant. The Garden City movement was an approach to urban planning that was essentially a reaction against the environmental and social problems found in large, industrialized cities. The idea was popularized in 1898 by Ebenezer Howard (who would later be knighted in recognition of his contributions to planning) with the publication of his book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path To Real Reform, which was republished in 1902 under its more familiar, but inappropriate, title Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Howard believed that the human condition would be improved by the construction of planned, self-contained communities, surrounded by greenebelts and containing a balance of residential, industrial and agricultural areas. The basic Garden City design principles required that homes be laid out a densities lower than the urban norm, so that their occupants could enjoy sunlight, fresh air and garden space - things that the residents of Victorian-era terraced houses lacked. Only two true Garden Cities were ever built: Letchworth and Welwyn, but there were many degraded copies, including Hampstead Garden Suburb in London. The Scruby proposal for Harlow was one of the many attempts to cash in on the commercial appeal of the idea, if not the reality.

The goal was to create a rural idyll which would attract city dwellers who wanted toGreat Eastern Railway Harlow Garden Village poster, ca. 1926. escape from London. Then, as now, the proximity of Harlow to London was an important part of the advertising, and the reason that the Great Eastern Railway agreed to have its name associated with the project. The Harlow Estates Company was set up to market building plots along St. John's Avenue, Manor Road and The Hill. The project was not a success, and only a few houses were built. However the Harlow Council has now recognized the uniqueness of this chapter in Harlow's development history, and in 2011 proposed that a special Conservation Area The Harlow Garden Village proposal, outlined on the 1930 O.S. designated to recognize and protect it. There are two aspects to the argument in favour of this initiative: the general characteristics of the area, and the features of the individual houses. The general character of the area is defined by some typical Garden Village features including front garden hedges and lawns, grass verges along the kerb and a significant 'group value' deriving from a high degree of architectural similarity. Some of the houses have distinctive steep pitched roofs (especially between 19 to 53 The Hill and 4 to 30 St. John's Avenue), others have distinctive sweeping gables (especially between 2 and 60 Manor Road) and some display a distinctive palette of beige, yellow, pink and light blue pastel colours , especially on Manor Road and The Hill, Many still have their original doors and canopy porches.

Hipped roofs with steep pitches on St. John's Avenue Sweeping gable fronts and front garden hedges in St. John's Avenue Manor Road:  sweeping gable fronts, pastel colours and a central landscaping feature.
Table of Contents
Harlow's History and Geography
Introduction & The Origins of Harlow The Structure of Harlow Industry

Second World War Airfields
Walks Around Harlow
Market Street & St. John's Walk Fore Street, Park Hill, London & Station Roads High Street
Churchgate Street
Harlow New Town
The Origins of the New Town Programme Important Developments in Harlow New Town
References & Acknowledgements
Photo Gallery