An ancient settlement, once famous for its Abbey and its fishing fleet, Barking has produced codbangers, singers, footballers and even a few actual saints in its time.
Barking sits on the River Roding, whose tidal reach is Barking Creek, now defined as being the part downstream from the Barking Barrage, a weir and gate built in 1998. Being semi-saline, the Creek is a perfect hangout for eels, stewed and jellied alike, not to mention the odd sea bass. Where it meets the Thames, at Creekmouth, the 40m-high guillotine-like Barking Barrier, built in 1983, can bring down its iron gate to prevent flooding if water levels get too high (don’t worry, it takes 45min to come down, so you won’t lose your head). The reason why it needs a barrier is highlighted by the fate of the village of Creekmouth which once stood here – in 1953, a North Sea storm tide swept it away, and all that stands in its place now, apart from the barrier, is an industrial estate. Even the estate has its sights, however: just up River Road by Blumsom’s timber yard, for example, you’ll find an old Finnish steam locomotive, for no particular reason.
Settlements on the Roding and the Creek pre-date the Romans, going back into the Bronze Age and maybe earlier. There was an Iron Age hill fort at Uphall Camp, and the Romans also appear to have had a settlement here, although Barking’s name is Anglo-Saxon, probably meaning “settlement of the clan of Bereca”, with Bereca presumably being a Saxon chieftain. It appears in the Domesday Book as Berchingae, but an even earlier, eighth-century source (Bede, in fact) calls it Berecingum.
Barking Abbey was founded in the beastly year of 666 by Saint Earconwald, one of London’s patron saints, who became the Bishop of London soon afterwards. It had a monastery for monks and a convent for nuns, and by way of a bit of saintly nepotism, its first abbess was Earconwald’s sister Saint Ethelburga of Barking. She was succeeded by Saint Hildelith of Barking, but Ethelburga and Hildelith were not its only saintly abbesses, as they were joined a couple of centuries later by Saint Wulfhilda of Barking. The trio made the abbey something of a pilgrimage centre in its day, and indeed in modern times too. William the Conqueror stayed at the abbey while waiting for the Tower of London to be built, and it gradually became one of the richest religious institutions in England, until Henry VIII took away its loot when he dissolved the monasteries in 1539. He also had the whole thing razed, barring just St Margaret’s Church (as it was the local parish church), and one gateway, known as the Curfew Tower because it once rang out the signal to extinguish fires for the night (which is what “curfew” originally meant). The abbey’s ruins are preserved at Abbey Green to this day.
From the fourteenth century, Barking was an important fishing port, with one of Britain’s biggest fleet of “smacks”, as traditional fishing boats were called. The port was by the Town Quay at Barking Pool, now known as Mill Pool, and the smacks roamed the Thames Estuary and indeed the whole North Sea, hauling in herring, eels and cod for Billingsgate Market. By the mid-nineteenth century, a lot of the boats were “well smacks”, with a well of seawater in the middle to keep alive cod that had been hauled in by long line. The unfortunate fish were pulled out of the well one by one when they reached port, and bashed smartly on the head with a club to kill them, giving the fishermen who specialized in this trade the nickname “codbangers”. Barking even had an icehouse, where ice made in winter was kept cold during the summer and used to keep the fish fresh. All that remains of it today is an "Ice House Quarter" of art studios.
Local heroes include World War Two forces’ sweetheart Vera Lynn, famous for her morale-boosting wartime anthems. For all her fame, she spent the war living in her mum’s house at 24 Upney Lane. Other musicians from round here include leftie songster Billy Bragg, U2 guitarist the Edge, and singer and reality TV star Megan McKenna. Welsh band Underworld named one of their albums after Barking, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and a track called Barking was a hit single in 2018 for rapper Ramz. Barking also scores big in football, being the birthplace and childhoood home of West Ham and England captain Bobby Moore, who skippered the national team to World Cup victory at Wembley in 1966. Former Chelsea captain John Terry is likewise a local boy.
Originally the parish of Barking included Ilford, but that was detached from it in 1888. Six years later, the parish became an urban district in the county of Essex, and in 1931 was upgraded to the status of municipal borough, straddling the River Roding to include part of Beckton on the other side. In 1965, the borough was merged with neighbouring Dagenham, and brought into Greater London to form today’s London Borough of Barking, but the west bank of the Roding (East Beckton) was taken away and given to Newham. Meanwhile, although Ilford is no longer part of Barking, Barking is now in a way part of Ilford, as it bears an Ilford postcode: IG11.