Harold Wood lay on the Great Eastern main line and in 1866, 300 acres of Gubbins farm was purchased by a group of developers, The Harold Wood Estate Co. who planned a new town there and contracted with the Great Eastern Railway for the building of a station in Gubbins Lane. Objections to the railway eased when owners realised the compensation they could expect. Lord Petre, a major landowner, got a total of £120,000 (£6m today) By February 1868, when the station was opened, the King Harold public house had been built, new roads laid out between the station and Colchester Road and the London Eastern District Land Co. had bought 40 acres of the estate, under covenant to build large villas worth not less than £1,000 each (£100,000 today) Initially, travellers wishing to stop at Harold Wood Halt had to request from Romford or Brentwood, giving two days notice, or if they were on the train, jump off at Romford and inform the guard to stop at the Halt! There was little local employment. Prosperous commuters, whom the developers had hoped initially to attract, could find similar suburbs nearer London like Wanstead or Woodford, while poor clerks could choose between the thousands of terrace houses of Stratford, Leyton, or Manor Park. The original development soon petered out.
In 1877 the estate was bought by John Compton, who built the Grange (now part of the hospital development) as his own residence, and played the part of the local squire, while promoting further building, mainly to the south of the railway.
Among his tenants was one of the original developers, W. R. Preston, who in 1868 had built the mansion of Harold Court, on the Upminster side of the parish boundary, and later had become the sewage farmer of Brentwood town. The last enterprise ended in Preston’s bankruptcy and flight in 1881. Local farmers objected to the polluting of the Ingrebourne by the sewage farm.
Harold Wood grew much more slowly than intended, however, and until the First World War remained hardly more than a village.