The area was developed as a large council estate of 27,000 homes between 1921 and 1932 by the London County Council intended as "homes for heroes" after World War I. With a population of over 100,000 it remains the largest public housing development in the world. It is named after the ancient Becontree hundred which historically covered the area. When built the development occupied parts of the parishes of Ilford, Dagenham and Barking with administration split between the three respective urban district councils.
The very first house completed in Chittys Lane is recognisable by a blue council plate embedded in the wall. Parallel to Chittys Lane runs Valence Avenue which is wider than the rest of the streets in the district. This is because a temporary railway ran down the centre of the avenue during the construction of the estate. The estate was built by London County Council to rehouse people from London's East End, due to slum clearance. At its completion in the mid 1930s it was the largest council house scheme in Europe.
At the time everyone marvelled at having indoor toilets and a private garden although the sash windows were extremely draughty, there was no insulation in the attics, and during the winter months very few people could afford enough coal to heat the bedrooms. The toilet, bath tap and a tap in the kitchen over a copper boiler which was used for both washing clothes and heating bath water were all fed from a reservoir tank in the attic which invariably froze on winter mornings leaving the toilets unusable. One curious clause in the contract of tenancy stipulated that children born to parents living in Dagenham could not be housed on the estate themselves when the time came for them to establish their own homes.
Over the 15 year period of the building of the estate, the school-aged population rose rapidly to 25,000 while there were only 4 secondary schools nearby: 3 in Chadwell Heath and 1 at Becontree Heath, which meant that many children could not attend school. The first secondary school to be built was "Green Lane" in 1923, but it later became a primary school. It was renamed "Henry Green" in 1953, after the first headmaster who took up his post when the secondary school opened in 1925.
One of the main social improvements in the construction of the new estate was to have large public houses few and far between compared with smaller ones almost every hundred yards in the poorer quarters of London. There is no "town centre" as is generally understood in a typical UK community.
Privet hedges (referred to as "evers") were planted along the pavements at the end of every front garden and during the spring and summer months a squad of gardeners were employed to keep them in regulation height. Although the estate regulations stipulated that the gardens must be maintained in order, more than a few degenerated into virtual jungles. However, to encourage the application of this rule, prizes were awarded for the best kept gardens. Initial candidates were selected by the rent collectors during their weekly rounds and a committee decided on the final prizes which ranged from ten shillings consolation prizes up to £20 (an average week's rent in 1953 was about £1 18/- (£1.90)) for the first prize in each ward, plus a notice placed in the centre of the lawn for the benefit of passers-by. Today, nearly all the front gardens have been cemented over to make extra parking space.
The houses were gas lit until after the war and the old applications remained in place after they were replaced by electricity; that is why the lights in the rooms were always "off-centre" except in the kitchen where the lamp was on the wall near the copper boiler. Gas street lighting was only replaced by standard lamps in 1957/58. The old gas fixtures even remained under pressure until the installation of North Sea gas in the early 70's. Initially the LCC was reluctant to agree to the provision of subscriber telephone lines to the estate as it was considered incongruous for a residents of a subsidised housing scheme to be able to afford such a luxury.
Another improvement was after the 1957 smog when the estate was declared to be a smokeless zone. The houses had their old fireplaces converted for use with smokeless fuel which included fixed gas pokers in the hearths. The elderly man and his wife who lived in Mill Lane Chadwell Heath and who toured the estate on Saturday mornings selling logs and firewood (which was mostly tarred wood taken from the East End roads when they were replaced by tarmac) in a horse drawn cart saw their business collapse overnight.