A merchant’s house near the River Thames

THE FIRST DENTAL practice in which I worked was in the village of Rainham in north Kent. Although I practised there from 1982 until about 1994 and knew that there is another place called Rainham in east London, I never ever visited it. It was only in August 2022 that we drove to Rainham, formerly in Essex, and now in the London Borough of Havering. Situated between Dagenham and Tilbury, the former Essex village contains a few reminders of its past: several cottages; a fine old parish church; and Rainham Hall. It was to see the latter that we travelled through the industrial areas of east London to reach Rainham.

Rainham Hall, now beautifully maintained by the National Trust (‘NT’), was built in about 1729 by John Harle (1688-1742), who was buried in the nearby parish church. Son of a successful mariner of South Shields, who had made his fortune shipping coal from South Shields to London, John became a prosperous businessman in London. Harle came to Rainham (Essex) in 1728, and built the fine brick house, which we see today. As the NT’s guidebook pointed out:

“By aristocratic standards, the Hall is a modest house … The Hall is a rare survivor and a wonderful example of early 18th-century architecture. It was designed as a home, not for the super-rich, but for the ‘middling sort’ of successful marine merchant.”

Between Harle’s death and WW2, the Hall became the property of a series of different people, and occupied by many owners and tenants. During WW2 and until 1954, the Hall was requisitioned by Essex County Council, who used it for various purposes including as a nursery for the children of working women. The Hall was offered to the NT in 1945 and the organisation adopted it 4 years later.

Until the 1990s, the Hall had a series of tenants. Each of them had interests in arts and design. First, the place was leased to the architectural historian Walter Ison (died 1997) and his wife, the artist and architect Leonora Payne. In 1962, they left, and the Hall became home to Anthony Denney (1913-1990). Denney, who trained at the Royal College of Art in London was already an established fashionable fashion photographer and collector of modern art by the time he came to live in the Hall. He helped restore the house. After Denney left the house in 1969, it became home to the architect Adrian Sansom and his wife Marilyn, a cellist. In the 1980s, the Hall’s tenants were the viola player Paul Silverthorne and his wife Mary. They encouraged local residents to use the Hall’s extensive gardens and also did restoration work. Stefan Roman, the film-set designer and his family followed the Silverthornes, and the last tenants were the painter David Atack and his family.

The visitor to Rainham Hall can wander through rooms on the ground, first, and second floors. The various inhabitants of this large but intimate family dwelling have all made modifications to the building, but mostly in keeping with the age and character of the Hall. When we went around recently, many of the rooms were being used to house exhibits relating to the life and work of Anthony Denney. We entered the garden, which was in a sad state because of the lack of rain and the heatwaves affecting most of England. The recently restored stable block will be discussed in a future essay. I am glad that we visited Rainham in Havering. Although it cannot be described as being one of England’s most picturesque places, it is certainly more pleasing to the eye, and has more redeeming features, than Rainham in Kent.

The oyster merchant’s clock tower

BURNHAM-ON-CROUCH in Essex is a picturesque port on the River Crouch. Currently, it is a leisure resort and a centre for ship maintenance and boating. It was once famed for what grew in great numbers on the muddy bed under the water of the Crouch: oysters. For several centuries before the river became polluted in the 19th century, the oyster beds in the Crouch (and a few other places in Essex) were very profitable, providing much employment.  

“On the shores of England the principal nurseries of oysters, not only for the English markets, but also for the foreign, are those on the coast of Essex and the estuaries adjoining: those taken there are called ‘ Natives/ Mr. Sweeting claims the name as peculiarly applicable to his fishery, as within his memory no strange oysters have ever been introduced…”

Men were required both to dredge the oyster beds and process the molluscs as well as to protect the precious creatures from thieves based in other places on the Essex coast.

Today (11th of July 2022), we visited the small but excellent museum in Burnham-on-Crouch. On the ground floor, we saw a retired mechanised oyster grading machine (made in France and capable of sorting 7000 oysters per hour) amongst the exhibits. On the upper floor of the museum, which is housed in a former boat repair building, we met the museum’s treasurer, who is a mine of interesting local history. He told us several things about Burnham’s oyster heydays. I hope that what I am about to tell you is a reasonably accurate summary of what he told us. If it is not totally accurate, I hope that he and you, dear reader, will forgive me.

For 10 years, I used to live in north Kent and often visited Whitstable to enjoy eating oysters for which this Kentish seaport is famous. The treasurer in Burnham told us that many of what are described as ‘Whitstable oysters’ were born in the mud beneath the river in Burnham-on-Crouch. From what I can recall, the young oysters, which grow in the mud beneath the Crouch, are dredged and then placed on boards to which they attach themselves. Keeping them submerged in seawater, the boards to which the young oysters are attached, were transported to Whitstable where they matured in its waters. The Burnham oysters were ‘native’, meaning that they began their lives there; they were not imported, as Thomas Campbell Eyton described in “A history of the oyster and the oyster fisheries” (published in 1858):

“On the shores of England the principal nurseries of oysters, not only for the English markets, but also for the foreign, are those on the coast of Essex and the estuaries adjoining: those taken there are called ‘Natives’. Mr. Sweeting claims the name as peculiarly applicable to his fishery, as within his memory no strange oysters have ever been introduced.”

One of the exhibits in the museum is a large model of the octagonal Victorian clock tower that dominates Burnham-on-Crouch’s High Street. The tower stands next to the building that used to house the former St Mary’s School. It was erected in 1877 to honour the local philanthropist Laban Sweeting (1793-1876). So, what, you might ask, and what has he got to with what I have been writing about?

Laban Sweeting, mentioned in the quoted from Eyton’s book, was a philanthropist; a member of The Burnham River Company; and he was one of the town’s oyster merchants. The museum has amongst its exhibits a small barrow, which used to be wheeled around Burnham by a member of the Sweeting family. It would have carried baskets of oysters ready for sale to the town’s populace.

We had visited Burnham once before, and although I was impressed by the clock tower, I knew nothing of its history. Neither did I know about the town’s association with oysters, which were poor people’s food in the 19th century, when chicken was a luxury. How times have changed.

The road to Hogsback

In August 2003, the middle of winter in South Africa, we made a long tour around the Cape Province, visiting small places that figured in the history of my family’s sojourn (beginning 1849) in South Africa. Here is an account of our journey to Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. The writer JRR Tolkien is supposed to have been inspired by the landscape near Hogsback, but not all are agreed on this. The author was born in South Africa (in Bloemfontein), but left the country aged less than three years.

HOG 0

Between Barkly East and Dordrecht

We sped on from Barkly East to Dordrecht. It was at Dordrecht in 1884 that my great grand uncle Sigmund Seligmann with his partner, another Jewish gentleman, Moss Vallentine opened their first business, a retail store. Later, he opened a general store in Barkly East, where his nephew, my mother’s father, became the town’s only Jewish Mayor.

HOG 1

Dordrecht Museum

Dordrecht, a smallish place, still has several nineteenth century buildings including one with an elegant arcade supported by cast-iron pillars that serves as a museum. Andre Coetzee, the museum’s curator, pointed out an old shop opposite the museum that he believed had originally been Seligmann’s.  He seemed very certain that this was the building, but he could not show me any evidence to confirm this.

The rain and snow continued to shoot past us, propelled by a fierce wind. Between Dordrecht and Queenstown, we crossed a plain that was quite different to anywhere we had been so far. The plain was quite literally dotted with thousands of ‘black’ peoples’ dwellings, some with rondavels as out-houses. There were few fences. People and animals wandered across the road. The countryside was much less manicured than any other inhabited places we had so far visited in the Cape. Derelict cars were frequently seen. We were in Chris Hani District that includes the town of Queenstown and was under the Apartheid regime part of one of the so-called ‘Homelands’. 

Queenstown is not an attractive town but has a lively buzz and good shops. A sign in the town centre advised motorists to pay for parking at a “mobile parking meter”. This meter turned out to be a person who hangs around the parking area carrying a machine on which he or she records your arrival and departure times and based on these determines how large a parking fee needed to be collected. We found a wonderful spice shop run by a Pakistani man. He had a special table on which he can make spice mixtures to order and, also, had ready-made mixtures including one, very strong in flavour apparently, called “Mother-in-law Masala”. We visited a large branch of Woolworths as many people had commended this chain store to us. We were disappointed: it was like Marks and Spencer’s used to be in the UK many years ago.

We drove via Whittlesea to the tiny village of Seymour. A road marked incorrectly on our map as “narrow but with tarmac, not for four-wheel drive vehicles alone”, led from Seymour up the side of a mountain to Hogsback. This road proved to be the worst surface that I have ever driven on. Compared to it, Joubert’s Pass (near Lady Grey), was a motorway. It got progressively worse as we painfully slowly approached Hogsback.

The road had everything against it and us. There were potholes, and deep furrows where streams of water had eroded the gravel. Bare rock showed through the road and made steps that had to be carefully negotiated. Worst of all were large rounded boulders, which were difficult to drive around as the narrow road was bounded either by ditches or by walls of rock. We were lucky that we neither capsized the car nor grounded it, nor damaged the sump or some other vulnerable part of its under surface. Navigating around or across some of these dangerous obstacles reminded me of performing a particularly difficult surgical dental extraction. Just as I had to take care not to damage a hidden nerve or blood vessel during an extraction, I had to drive to avoid injuring some important part beneath the car. Had we broken down on this deserted, barely frequented road, we would have been in big trouble. There was no mobile ‘phone coverage in the area. Hair raising to say the least: I still shudder when I remember this journey. Later, a cousin in Cape Town told me that when he had used this road, he had grounded his vehicle and thereby damaged its fuel line. Things improved at the end of the road. We were amused to see a road sign at the Hogsback end of this road that advised “Road not recommended for caravans.”

HOG 2

A view from Hogsback

We found our accommodation: a collection of cottages called The Edge. The name refers to the position of the cottages which is at the very edge of the summit of the Hogsback ridge over which can be seen a view of the coastal plain over a thousand feet below. Our cottage was large but unheated except for a small, inadequate fireplace poorly located in one corner of the cottage remote from the bedrooms. We ate an excellent curry made by Dion and Shane who own a restaurant near our cottage. All night the snow fell, and the wind howled.

HOG 3

A church in Hogsback