Its a little known fact, and not a lot of people know it, that from 1896 to 1898, while he was writing “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad lived in Stanford Le Hope in Thurrock; initially in a house he described as “a damned Jerry-built rabbit hutch”.
Thurrock has a habit of playing down its historically illustrious residents. At the back of Grays Hall was an arboretum attached to the house that Alfred Russel Wallace built near a worked out chalk pit; after working out the theory of evolution around the same time as Charles Darwin. The story goes that Darwin, having agonised about his hypothesis and hesitating to publish it for about twenty years was bounced into doing it when he heard that Russel Wallace was about to do so himself, securing himself the popular historical status and making Russel Wallace a more obscure figure that only people interested in Natural History will have heard of.
Russel Wallace lived at The Dell for four years from 1872 to 1876, describing the arboretum below it as “a bit of a wilderness that can be made into a splendid imitation of a Welsh valley“. The house was made of concrete, as a tribute to the burgeoning local cement works, flourishing at the time and scouring out bigger, deeper pits progressively to the West; with factories getting ever larger all the way up to the huge excavation that now houses the Lakeside Shopping Centre, filling the air with dust and giving the town a definite sense of nominative determinism.
However, once he left, the arboretum fell into gloomy disuse, becoming an adventure playground, known as “the big woods” to generations of kids plucky enough to scale the 6 foot high walls (which got easier as time went on, as footholds became more secure from repeated use and the bits of broken glass set on the tops, which cut my Dad’s bottom as he tried to get across on one occasion in the mid 1930s, wore away) or brave the tunnel that was like a portal through from the playing fields of Treetops School – running through the gloom listening for the voice of outraged authority heat seeking our trespasses – which we were sure would not be forgiven.
None of us living near Russel Road, or Wallace Road on the estate alongside had a clue who Russel or Wallace were, let alone that they were the same person. And there has, possibly thankfully, been no movement of Social Russel Wallaceists.
The White Hart, shortly before it closed.
This is the pub that gave the town a bad name. A selection of Gollie dolls hanging behind the bar, like as the landlord put it “they used to hang them in Mississippi years ago“. After the notoriety gained from a Police raid that confiscated the dolls last month, they tried to carry on, replacing them with new ones, claiming that the police were over reacting, that there was nothing racist about it, that the landlord being seen wearing a Britain First T shirt was the kind of thing anyone might do – as the landlady said in an odd echo of Prince Andrew logic, “I don’t think Chris is a supporter of Britain First, he was just wearing that shirt because it was convenient at the time” – because, who wouldn’t wear one of those if it just happened to be lying around, and, indeed, who wouldn’t have one just conveniently lying around?
When I took this photo about a month ago, the pub looked stone dead already. No one was going in or out. A contrast with the Theobald’s Arms just over the road, that had a set of lively customers spilling into the road. A disgruntled looking middle aged man with a sour expression, and a face that seemed to be made of red brick dust, was staring balefully out of a first floor window like Mr Rottcod at the beginning of Gormenghast.
They shut two weeks later after two of their beer suppliers – Heineken and Carlsberg – and the company that cleaned their barrels and lines decided they didn’t want their products associated with this and boycotted them.
Probably the best boycott in the world.
Riverside Ward, where The White Hart is, a densely populated area of former council flats built in the seventies and the sort of recent flats shown in the photo above and cookie cutter housing stretching down towards the Wharf. It is the seventh most deprived of the 20 wards in Thurrock. It is 75% White, 13% Black, 8% Asian and 4% other ethnicity, with fewer pensioners and more young people than most. It has a higher incidence of smoking and binge drinking, adult and child obesity and hypertension than national averages; and life expectancy a year lower for women and three years lower for men. It has a much higher crime rate than Thurrock averages, but well below national. Only 43% feel safe going out after dark, but 49% are generally happy with the area. (1)
It returned a Labour Councillor with 1,191 votes to her Conservative opponent’s 386 in the local elections on May 4th this year. Riverside has been consistently represented by Labour, even though at the high water mark of Brexit mobilisation, the combined Conservative/UKIP vote was some way ahead. In 2016, the successful Labour candidate polled 857 votes, just ahead of UKIP on 748, with the Conservatives at 379. The turnout then was 27%. This May it was down to 19%, so nothing to be complacent about. The Conservatives have stood Black evangelicals as their candidates for several elections in a row, which might be suppressing their vote among the white racist component of their supporters.