Features Leyton

Over half a century fighting for Leyton’s biggest estate

The Echo spoke to Margaret Wilks, who has lived in Beaumont Estate for almost 60 years

By Victoria Munro

Margaret Wilks in her flat on the estate (credit: Tamsin Cogan)

In 1965, Margaret Wilks, then 27 and a new mother, was among the first to move into the recently completed second tower of Leyton’s Beaumont Estate.

Almost 60 years later and at the age of 85, she has seen her home undergo many changes, including the rise of the infamous Beaumont Crew gang, also known as LGR or Let’s Get Rich.

Margaret remembers tension bubbling in the early 1990s and erupting dramatically in 2002, when conflict between Beaumont Crew and a nearby gang claimed a number of lives.

In response, Margaret and her husband Brian, who died last year, helped organise four events bringing hundreds of young people together in the hopes of easing the conflict.

Speaking to the Echo, Margaret recalled: “When we first moved into the estate, it was still a massive building site. It was a very close community then, a lot of the people that moved in were people I had gone to school with.

“Brain and I joined the residents’ association in 1972 when it had just started up. The estate had become a bit unruly and there were other people moving in that we didn’t know so we wanted to see if we could get something going to include them.

“It did seem to work for quite a few years, we organised a lot of things for the children. During the summer, we’d get four or five coaches and take them all to Southend [in Essex]. It was small things but it brought people together.

“The council were quite good with us and did help us out with quite a bit of money at the time, unfortunately there’s not enough money around to do that now.”

By the time the estate was transferred from Waltham Forest Council to housing association L&Q in 2002, things had been “a bit hectic” for almost a decade.

Margaret said: “I’d say it was around 1993 when it started to get a bit iffy with the gangs. There was a lot of tension between Leyton and Hackney, although it was not as violent as it is now.

“You would suddenly realise when you were walking around the estate that young people were not going around in ones or twos but groups of six or eight.

“You had the Beaumont gang and then one in the Oliver Close estate, which was run by a different housing association. It was all to do with this idea of staying out of each other’s ‘patch’.”

Her recollection is supported by the findings of a 2007 report entitled “Reluctant Gangsters: Youth Gangs in Waltham Forest”, written by Professor John Pitts from the University of Bedfordshire.

Professor Pitts interviewed a number of anonymous informants from the borough and found that, by the late 1990s, four families “dominated organised crime in Waltham Forest”, including four brothers who lived on the estate.

The brothers “having previously specialised in armed robbery” moved into the “highly lucrative” drugs trade. By 2001, the Beaumont gang was “the major supplier of narcotics” in Waltham Forest.

Professor Pitts wrote: “In 2002, a core member of the Beaumont gang was robbed by someone from the Oliver Close gang (OC), who was, in turn, ‘bottled’ by the brother of the victim. It is likely that the original robbery was related to a dispute over a drugs deal.

“In the ensuing conflict, the Oliver Close gang affiliated with ‘Chingford Hall’ and later the ‘Boundary Boys’ and the Cathall gang, all of whom had ‘beefs’, smouldering resentments, with the Beaumont gang about, amongst other things, the way they had muscled in on the drugs business a few years earlier.”

While admitting she remembers the ensuing spree of violence “only vaguely”, Margaret and Brian were quick to act, getting involved with the council’s “Defending the Hood” events.

She said: “We brought 400 youngsters to Walthamstow Assembly Hall and laid on a dinner for them to see whether we could break up the gangs a bit.

“The first time we did it, we laid all the tables out and, when it was over, all the knives and forks were gone. We made sure we used plastic ones the next time.

“I think it did help gradually bring them together for a little while but eventually those who were involved grew up, married and moved away.”

In a bid to get the estate’s young people off the streets, Margaret also helped launch a number of activities in the community centre on the estate, known as the Seddon Centre.

With Brian, she also assisted in police sweeps for weapons, argued for the installation of CCTV cameras and successfully campaigned for three dilapidated 20-storey towers to be knocked down and replaced with houses and smaller blocks.

Fellow estate resident Cyril Smith, who lived near Margaret and Brian for more than 50 years, said: “Between them, they were always organising things for us. Their door was known for being open to neighbours in need[…] nothing was too much trouble for them.

“Brian and Margaret had a clear sense of right and wrong and a lovely way of keeping people united – no matter their tenure, politics or background. To be able to factor in everyone’s needs and come up with a practical and fair solution for all takes great patience and understanding.

“As a husband-and-wife team, we knew them for putting others first, sometimes at the expense of their own needs. And even if this meant their own home was last on their list of concerns.”

Since her husband’s death, Margaret has so far resisted attempts by her granddaughter to persuade her to leave the estate she has called home for so many years.

She said: “She always asks why I don’t move in with her in Suffolk; it’s very nice out there but I’m a Londoner. I do like London still, although I wish it hadn’t altered as much as it has. Leyton is not the area I grew up in, it has become quite dowdy.

“The estate has changed a lot, people are more nervous[…] it’s just not the same atmosphere around here. There’s people living here now where, no matter how much you try, they just don’t want to know. If you say ‘good morning’, they won’t answer you and that took some getting used to.

“People used to take pride in where they live but now they don’t bother because they feel nobody else does. It could be a nice area to live in but the money just isn’t there for it now.”

However, she added: “As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t noticed much tension on the estate recently. It definitely never worries me to walk around anywhere here, it never has. Maybe that’s just my attitude to things, Brian used to say he worried about me at times.

“We are planning to get the residents’ association going again next year, as we haven’t been able to do anything since Covid-19. If word can get around, it might kick off and start something else up.”