The origins of Tilbury Town lay in the need for local accommodation for dockworkers and their families.
The docks were built on a site consisting of mostly uninhabited marshland. The only significant landmarks being Tilbury Fort and the “Worlds End” public house on the riverfront.
Up to six thousand men were employed in the construction of Tilbury Docks and workers either lived in huts provided by the dock company, or they commuted from surrounding districts. This sudden influx of people caused a housing shortage and overcrowding in the districts surrounding Tilbury.
During the dock construction accident rates were high, and many labourers were fatally injured. However Tilbury had no hospital, and those injured in the docks had to be taken by ferry to Gravesend. The first hospital was established in 1896, with fifteen beds.
Once the docks were completed some labourers stayed on to work at the docks, and permanent housing provision was needed. Limited living accommodation was provided within the docks – Tilbury Gardens consisted of two rows of houses for the superintendent and dock managers; thirty semi-detached houses were built for minor officials; and tenement blocks known as “Dwellings” were built for some of the labourers and their families.
Although building work in Tilbury Town began whilst the dock construction was in its early stages, it was many years before adequate homes existed in Tilbury. Property speculators built the first permanent houses, often without water or sewerage, and were so badly constructed that they quickly became unfit for habitation. Nevertheless the town soon developed, with shops, amenities, churches that also acted as welfare centres, and public houses.
The housing situation improved after 1912 with the formation of Tilbury District Council. The average number of Dockworkers living in Tilbury at that time was just over fifteen hundred, although up to four thousand Dockers were employed intermittently.
Dockers were employed on a casual basis, and work was often irregular and poorly paid. The work could be for a day, half a day or just an hour (this “free call” system of employment continued until 1967). Rates of pay were poor, leading to a number of disputes, strikes, and the development of a strong union.
In 1918 the government estimated that there was a shortage of up to 400,000 houses in England and Wales. In response to this government grants were made available for local authorities to build new Social Housing.
Tilbury District Council was allocated money to build houses, amenities and civic buildings; also for a programme of water drainage and flood prevention; and the construction of new roads and buildings on concrete rafts, to overcome problem of building on marshland.
Plans by the architect A. Adshead included a Council Chamber, Concert hall, Fire and Police Stations, all centred on a Civic Square. The Civic Square that was eventually built omitted the concert hall and magistrates court.
1925 saw the completion of a new hospital for Tilbury with over ninety beds. The hospital continued to expand over the next thirty years, but in 1969 it was closed. Once again Tilbury and indeed Thurrock had no Accident & Emergency facilities (a which situation still remains today).
By end of 1920’s much of the work was completed, and Tilbury had nearly doubled in size.
It had grown rapidly from a “pioneer” type settlement with mission houses, tin huts, and dirt roads, to a planned and developed new town.
Since the 1920’s the town has continued to develop and change. General demand for housing in the Southeast led to further new building in Tilbury. Post war “prefabs” and new schemes of social housing in the 1960’s and 70’s continued to develop Tilbury’s character.
Practically all the inhabitants of Tilbury Town were reliant on the Docks for their living. The conversion to Containerisation at the docks in the 1970’s reduced employment opportunities for inhabitants of Tilbury. Today Tilbury Town continues to suffer from high unemployment, failing schools, and scant amenities for the residents. It typifies a culturally and educationally impoverished small town. It is also psychologically and physically removed from its greatest asset – the Thames.