Return to Fordland

Cars People Culture

Ford and the Estuarine English

Like the novelist once said: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”

An overused line, perhaps, but it couldn’t be truer for the history of the corner of Essex that became Fordland.

When Henry T. bought the vast smouldering chunk of Thameside marsh that was Greater London’s dustbin he turned it into a foreign country; it became a corner of the ‘US of A’ on British soil.

And when Detroit came to Dagenham, man, things sure were done differently there.

What really set the new factory apart from the rest of the British car industry at that time was scale. By the mid fifties, with production at its height, the site occupied four million square feet – bigger than the City of London- and employed 40,000 workers.

What all those bodies and square feet translated into was a sea change in British motor manufacturing. From its very beginning the Ford presence in Dagenham drove innovation across the industry in a way that was unmatched until the 1980s when the ‘New Competition’ arrived from the Empire of the Sun.

But If Ford had a major impact on British business it was exceeded by its role in shaping the car culture of the nation. The seismic changes being hammered out on the Essex marshes were to sweep across Britain in the decades after the war and remain with us still.

Ask anyone born in the 1970s to plumb their automotive memories from those scorching summers and discontented winters and five’ll get you ten they start to wax lyrical about Cortina’s, mark I Escorts and of course the Capri.

Naturally where these shockwaves were felt first and hardest was closest to the epicentre, in the borough of Barking and Dagenham.

It’s said that if you were born in Dagenham in the ‘60s then you were conceived in the back of a Ford Cortina. Apocryphal hyperbole clearly; but the sentiment underlines the central importance played by Ford in the social history of the area.

At its zenith virtually every worker in the borough was either employed by Ford or working in a local business reliant on them. Workers got generous discounts on cars so the local roads were awash with Fords.

It wasn’t just automotive bounty coming through that dockside American portal. Even in the 1950s when most of the country was making do with the bread and dripping of post war austerity Dagenham town centre had American fast food joints. Local kids had American comics and baseball caps bought back by their engineer Dad’s who’d been across the pond on sabbaticals to Dearborn.

This wave of Americana craving eventually found itself writ large in steel and flung out from Essex to an awestruck nation in the form of the Capri; Britain’s own Mustang.

Back in Essex Fordland gave Dagenham a different geography to the other towns that surrounded London, who survived and thrived through their commutability into The Capital.

The area had instead developed in an insular way. By looking inward, to its great industrial belly rather than outward to the Metropolis at its feet, it had the kind of tight knit community feel that was more likely to be found-in those days at least- in a Northern pit town.

In psychogeographical terms the factory at its centre also created an unusual abundance of liminal, borderland spaces. Those hinterlands fondly remembered by Billy Bragg- where the suburban meets the industrial- replete with abandoned cars and porno mag stashes.