Preserving Newham’s forgotten stories

The Royal Docks in about 1935.

The Royal Docks in about 1935. - Credit: Archant

The pace and scale of change in the borough keeps increasing with developments in Canning Town, Stratford and the Royal Docks transforming the skyline on an almost daily basis.

Christmas at West Ham Children's Home.

Christmas at West Ham Children's Home. - Credit: Archant

But in spite of the many changes, people from across Newham’s communities are doing all they can to share and preserve memories of the past.

Since retiring, former editor of the Recorder Colin Grainger has been busy listening to stories from our rich heritage. He recently turned his attention to the Christmas traditions of the “island” communities around the Royal Docks.

Born and bred in Newham, Colin invited members of the public to join him down the pub to share their stories of childhood Christmases in an area that once thronged with ships and dockers.

Over their drinks, Colin listened to stories of parties put on for children by, among others, Tate & Lyle, Ranks and Standard Telephones and Cables in an effort to help struggling families.

Lorraine Stevens, who lived in Silvertown, reminisced with him about Tate & Lyle’s parties when she would queue up for a present in the section for older kids.

“If you pretended you were a year older you got a better gift,” she said.

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Others remembered ships coming in with Christmas trees on their masts. Some recalled them tooting their horns as a sign of hope at New Year.

Colin’s collecting of Christmas memories, and more besides, started two years ago when the Royal Docks Management Authority invited him to take part in Forgotten Stories, an attempt to preserve the port’s long history.

“It’s great developers want to protect our heritage. It shows the passion for the area,” Colin said.

One of the most amazing stories he has heard as part of the project was about an undertaker’s in Canning Town, one of the few buildings left standing in the area after bombing in the Second World War devastated the area

Arriving at work one morning, the undertaker, Tom Cribb, was shocked to see soldiers surrounding his premises, T. Cribb & Sons. To his surprise, and that of his nephew Stan, now 88, who told the story to Colin, the army had moved in and were setting up an encampment with Tom’s business on the wrong side of the wire.

One day the men were firing machine guns in the area around the stables, almost killing Jack Stubbs, the horses’ groom, who leapt under a table to escape certain death.

Apologising, the soldier explained how they all thought there were no people in the bombed out area.

For several weeks, British, Czech and Polish soldiers stayed in the borough, training in the day and drinking in Canning Town pubs at night. Not one soldier explaining what they were training for.

Until one day, to everyone’s surprise, the men vanished.

But on June 6 1944 the reason for the departure became clear. The soldiers had sailed from the Royal Docks to the beaches of Normandy to take part in the D-Day landings.

“It’s an amazing story,” Colin said.

For more Forgotten Stories like these visit To support plans for a museum in the borough, visit the Museum for Newham Facebook page or email

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