A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.
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Since every business needed reasonable facilities for the movement of materials and finished goods, the nature of the existing transport system was bound to influence industrial location and therefore the chances of employment. But as long as there was a road or navigable river of some sort it was often the case that serious inefficiencies in transport were not decisively important. In such a society as came into existence in south-west Essex towards the end of the 19th century, however, the improvement of transport took on a new significance. Without the creation of a system of local transport which could move tens of thousands of passengers within an hour or two twice a day economic and social life could never have been organized as it was. Familiar problems of moving goods to domestic consumers and to industrial and commercial establishments still remained, but there was superimposed on them this novel need to sustain a vast daily ebb and flow of humanity between home and workplace.
To meet this new need the transport arrangements existing in 1850 were quite inadequate, but it was possible to move large quantities of goods with sufficient ease to permit considerable commercial and industrial growth in a few districts. The River Thames was the obvious highway for the south of the region and the place of the docks in the history of West Ham shows how greatly this district was dependent on the river. The Thames made possible the location of the docks; along the Thames by barge passed some of the cargo loaded or unloaded at the docks. Sites on the Thames frontage, with direct access to water transport, were taken up for industry, notably at Silvertown and Beckton, and the importance of waterborne coal to other factories has already been emphasized. To the type of economic development which came a little later and involved heavy local passenger traffic the Thames was far less helpful. Yet in mid-Victorian times the river was used much more for passenger transport than in the 20th century. In the eighteen-seventies there was a regular half-hourly steamboat service all the year round from Westminster to Woolwich with several intermediate calls including one at North Woolwich pier. From London Bridge to Woolwich one could travel for as little as 4d. (fn. 1) It is, however, unlikely that steamboat services were of much regular use to the people of East and West Ham. The service to North Woolwich no doubt relied mainly on summer traffic to the pleasure-gardens there. The one Thames passenger service that was of permanent local importance was the steam ferry between North Woolwich and Woolwich. Such a ferry service was operated until 1908 by the railway company in connexion with its service to North Woolwich, and in 1889 a free ferry was also established by the London County Council. (fn. 2) For many years this was the only means of crossing the river in the vicinity, until a tunnel for pedestrains was opened in 1912. (fn. 3) It undoubtedly came to contribute to the daily movement of labour and also served the needs of some of London's long-distance goods traffic, since large numbers of vehicles were ferried in addition to passengers.
The other important waterway in south-west Essex was the River Lea, with its associated sections of canal. This river had no regular passenger service and though it had a considerable and growing goods traffic this was of very restricted usefulness to the Essex suburbs. The comprehensive improvement of the waterway, which was carried out mostly in the seventeen-seventies, had involved the building of locks and the making of numerous artificial cuts, (fn. 4) so that in the main line of the navigation from Limehouse Cut to Hertford, as it existed in the late 19th century, there were 15 miles of canal in a total distance of 272/3 miles. (fn. 5) Most of the artificial cuts were made to the west of the natural river, just beyond the Essex border, and practically all the wharves were in Middlesex and Hertfordshire. Consequently it was these counties, much more than Essex, that the Lea Navigation served, and a list of barge-owners in 1910 included only one address (at Abbey Creek, West Ham) in the Essex suburbs. (fn. 6) Some factories in West Ham relied on the Lea for part of their transport, but some of the factory sites in that district were on branches of the river that were not navigable, (fn. 7) and upstream there was no manufacturing establishment in Essex that was dependent on water transport until the Royal Gunpowder Factory was reached at Waltham Abbey, beyond the suburban area.
Until the middle of the 19th century most of the purely local traffic had to be carried by road, and the building of new main roads and improvement of existing ones in the early 19th century made possible a larger volume and rather quicker flow of traffic. But around 1850 public passenger services on the roads were making only a small contribution to daily movement between the outer suburbs and the capital. The most important service was probably that provided by the horse-buses between Aldgate and Stratford, which are known to have been operating every 15 minutes in 1849. (fn. 8) Otherwise only a few infrequent and specialized services appear to have existed. In 1856 Woodford was the terminus of one of the two 'four-horse mails' operated by the London General Omnibus Co., then in the first year of its existence, but this route was not worked for very long thereafter. (fn. 9) An example of a road service that catered for a small exclusive suburban public at this time was Francis Wragg's coach which carried City business men each weekday between Snaresbrook and the Royal Exchange. (fn. 10)
Subsequently the roads diminished in relative importance because of the spread of the railways, though the absolute volume of road traffic must have greatly increased. Hundreds of miles of new streets were built in suburban Essex, many of them capable of carrying considerable traffic, but there was scarcely anything until the 20th century that could be regarded as a new main road. Bus services, as far as travel to London was concerned, came to be no more than feeders of the railways.
The railway first came to suburban Essex in 1839 when the Eastern Counties Railway opened the first section of its main line from London to Romford, with stopping places at Stratford and Ilford. In 1840 the Northern and Eastern Railway opened another line from a junction at Stratford to Broxbourne (Herts.). This line, which had a station at Lea Bridge, was leased to the Eastern Counties Company in 1844. (fn. 11) Stratford had seven trains to Shoreditch (which in 1840 became the London terminus of the Eastern Counties line) on weekdays and five on Sundays, and in 1847 travel was put within the reach of a larger public when fourth-class carriages (open trucks with transverse forms) were brought into use for a time at fares of ½d. a mile. In the same year a branch line was opened from Stratford to North Woolwich, with an intermediate station opposite Blackwall and a ferry to take passengers on to Woolwich. On this line there was an hourly service from Shoreditch. (fn. 12) The second main line through the district, the London, Tilbury and Southend, was opened as far as Tilbury in 1854 and in 1856 to Southend. At that time it diverged from the Eastern Counties line near Forest Gate, the first station being at Barking. London trains were run in two sections, one over the Eastern Counties line from Shoreditch and one over the London and Blackwall line from Fenchurch Street, and the two sections were coupled at Stratford. (fn. 13) But in 1858 a more direct line was opened from Gas Factory Junction on the London and Blackwall Extension, across the marshes through Bromley, Plaistow and East Ham to Barking, with a loop at Abbey Mills to the North Woolwich line. The Tilbury trains henceforward used only this route, but the Eastern Counties Railway introduced its own local service from Shoreditch over the old line as far as Barking. (fn. 14) Meanwhile in 1856 the Eastern Counties had opened another branch from Stratford to Woodford and Loughton, over which trains operated mainly from Fenchurch Street. (fn. 15) In the sixties not much new railway building was completed in the district, but in 1865 the Loughton branch was extended to Epping and to Ongar; (fn. 16) and in 1869 the opening of a short line from Bow to Bromley enabled the North London Railway to begin a shuttle service between Bow and Plaistow. In the next decade there were important extensions. In 1870 the Great Eastern Railway (in which the former Eastern Counties Co. was the principal element) opened a short branch from Lea Bridge to Shern Hall Street (afterwards Wood Street) station at Walthamstow, with about twenty trains a day in each direction. Much larger schemes were already under construction, including the extension of the main line to a new City terminus at Liverpool Street and the building of a short cut for the Cambridge line between Bethnal Green and Tottenham with a spur to the new Walthamstow branch. The lines from Bethnal Green to Tottenham and to Walthamstow were opened in 1872 and the extension to Liverpool Street in 1874. The Walthamstow branch was extended to Chingford in 1873. In 1878 the branch from Seven Sisters to Palace Gates in Middlesex was completed and a regular service began between Palace Gates and North Woolwich. (fn. 17) The building of Beckton gasworks had also necessitated the construction of a short line (opened in 1874) to connect it to the North Woolwich branch.
The railway system of suburban Essex was thus nearly complete by the middle eighteen-seventies, that is, before the suburban building had spread very far. The lines that were still to come were on the whole not very important for local passenger traffic. The Royal Albert Dock required its own line to Gallions from the existing North Woolwich branch. The first section of this line was opened in 1880 and the rest in 1881. (fn. 18) In the eighties a short cut eastwards from Barking to Pitsea was opened in stages. (fn. 19) In 1894 the Tottenham and Forest Gate Railway, together with a short spur between Woodgrange Park and East Ham, provided a new but circuitous route from Barking and East Ham to St. Pancras and so to the City at Moorgate. (fn. 20) And the Great Eastern in 1903 opened a short line between Woodford and Ilford. (fn. 21) Provided that trains could be run cheaply and frequently, there was a transport system ready and waiting to meet the needs of the immense numbers anxious to settle in the suburbs while keeping their jobs in London.
In their earlier years the railway services were neither very frequent nor very cheap, though in the fifties there were some offers of great fare reductions for long-term season ticket holders. From a list of places which included North Woolwich and Ilford season tickets to London for periods from seven to twenty-one years were offered at reductions of 23 per cent. or more on the annual rate. But such concessions could have little general appeal and created anomalies. On the whole it was more expensive for daily travellers to live on the Eastern Counties line than on most others near London. (fn. 22)
By the eighteen-seventies, however, most of the Essex suburban lines were giving the sort of service that daily travellers needed at a price which they could afford, though they often carried them in considerable discomfort. In 1878 the most frequent of the regular suburban services throughout the day was between Liverpool Street and Forest Gate, where there was a train every 20 minutes. North Woolwich had a half-hourly service over the North London line to Chalk Farm and an hourly service to Liverpool Street or Fenchurch Street. Trains ran approximately every hour between Liverpool Street and Broxbourne via Lea Bridge, Liverpool Street and Loughton via Leyton and Woodford, and Liverpool Street and Romford via Ilford. There were also four trains a day from Liverpool Street to Barking. All these routes served Stratford. In addition there was approximately an hourly service between Liverpool Street and Chingford via Walthamstow and between Fenchurch Street and Barking. Typical third-class ordinary fares included 4d. single and 5d. return from Stratford or Stratford Bridge to Liverpool Street or Fenchurch Street, 7d. single and 9d. return from Hoe Street or St. James' Street at Walthamstow to Liverpool Street, 5d. single and 7d. return from Leyton or Lea Bridge to Liverpool Street, and 9d. single and 1s. 2d. return from Barking to Fenchurch Street. (fn. 23) As population increased, more frequent services were run and new facilities offered, and the area served by the densest traffic was extended. For instance, the main local service from Liverpool Street was extended to Ilford instead of terminating at Forest Gate. A new station was opened at Ilford in 1894 to deal with the increased traffic, and it was necessary to extend it in 1898. During the last quarter of the 19th century the number of trains serving or passing through Ilford station increased fivefold. (fn. 24) From Walthamstow, to meet the needs of night-workers, a half-hourly all-night service to Liverpool Street was introduced in 1897. (fn. 25) By 1903 there were 175 trains a day from Walthamstow to Liverpool Street, and from Woodford there were 70 to Liverpool Street and 36 to Fenchurch Street. (fn. 26)
At the peak hours the density of traffic was greatly increased and a large proportion of the passengers had the benefit of travelling at reduced fares. The north-eastern suburbs were indeed better served than any other quarter of London in the matter of workmen's trains. Three private Acts (fn. 27) had imposed on the Great Eastern Railway the obligation to provide at least one workmen's train up before 7 a.m. and one down after 6 p.m. at fares not exceeding one penny for each journey between Edmonton and Liverpool Street, Walthamstow and Liverpool Street, Canning Town and Beckton, and Canning Town and Gallions. In fact, although the company complained that these compulsory services were not profitable, it ran many more than the statutory minimum. In 1890 there were six workmen's trains from Walthamstow to Liverpool Street, two from Stratford Market and three from Stratford Central to Liverpool Street, two from Stratford Market to North Woolwich, four from Stratford Market to Beckton, and four from Stratford Market (and one other from Canning Town) to Gallions. (fn. 28) By 1903 the number of workmen's trains from Walthamstow had risen to ten and the fare was still 2d. for the return journey. Between 7.0 a.m. and 7.30 a.m. the company had to run trains at a return fare of 3d., and from 7.30 a.m. to 8 a.m. there were 'halffare trains' at 4d. More passengers travelled by the half-fare than by the workmen's trains. (fn. 29) Besides putting on more trains the railways also tried to provide more seats to a train and the Great Eastern Railway began in 1899 to re-equip its suburban services with wider carriages for this purpose. (fn. 30)
But in spite of all these efforts and partly, no doubt, because of the many low fares, the peak hour services became more and more overcrowded and there were growing complaints of inadequate passenger transport facilities. Some of the critics admitted that good services were run on the existing lines and that as things were it seemed to be impossible to provide enough accommodation. (fn. 31) The main remedies proposed were the building of new lines which would go underground in inner London and the electrification of existing lines. The first scheme for a partly underground line was put forward in 1892, and in 1894 it received Parliamentary sanction under the name of the London, Walthamstow and Epping Forest Railway. This would have provided a new through route from a point near Finsbury Circus to Waltham Abbey, but the local people who promoted the scheme were unable to raise enough capital and they handed over their powers to Arnold Hills, the chairman of the Thames Ironworks. He obtained some preliminary financial support from outside and drew up in 1901 an improved scheme for a North East London Railway which, with subsequent modifications, would have provided a through line from Hammersmith by way of Piccadilly and the City to Tottenham, with a branch from Clapton to Walthamstow and, if need be, to Waltham Abbey on the route already approved. But financial difficulties continued to prevent a start being made on construction and in 1910 Parliament refused any further extension of time for the work, so the scheme was dropped. (fn. 32)
The one project which did bear fruit was a much smaller one for the extension of the existing District Railway from Whitechapel to join the London, Tilbury and Southend line near Bromley. This extension was built by the Whitechapel and Bow Railway, an undertaking controlled jointly by the District Railway and the London, Tilbury and Southend, and was opened for traffic in 1902. District trains from the underground section then began to work through to East Ham and, for a short period, to Upminster in a few cases. (fn. 33) At this time the District Railway was already engaged in the electrification of its lines and it was this company that provided Essex with its first electric trains. Electric working was introduced over the District line as far as East Ham in 1905. Electrification of the line between East Ham and Barking was completed in 1908. (fn. 34) The change made possible very striking improvements in service. In 1904 there were 57 steam trains daily in each direction between East Ham and Bow Road, and the journey between East Ham and the City took 35 minutes. In 1910 the number of electric trains daily was 161 and the time for the journey to the City varied between 23 and 27 minutes. The most striking improvement was in the peak hour service, which provided 19 trains an hour instead of four. (fn. 35)
These obvious benefits of electrification were extended no further for many years. The Great Eastern discussed the electrification of its suburban lines but made no start on it. In 1912 the Midland Railway bought the London, Tilbury and Southend line and accepted a statutory obligation to electrify it but the First World War prevented the execution of this scheme. (fn. 36) In these circumstances only minor improvements in railway services took place, and these hardly affected rush hour traffic. The main changes were increases in the frequency of trains throughout the day and reductions in fares and season ticket rates on most of the Great Eastern Railway's suburban lines from 1909 onwards. (fn. 37) The impulse to these changes came from the growth of appreciable competition from road transport in the district.
The rapid increase in public passenger services on the roads was, indeed, probably the greatest contribution to the relief of suburban transport difficulties at this time, but it was not a complete novelty, for a less spectacular growth had been in progress since the eighteen-seventies. Except for small local services, such as those which in the fifties and sixties operated from Walthamstow to Lea Bridge and Stratford stations (fn. 38) and from Woodford to Lea Bridge in connexion with some of the trains, (fn. 39) the horsebuses which were so numerous in inner London remained unimportant further out. In the eighteen-seventies there were no bus routes connecting Essex with London, though if the people of Stratford cared to cross the river to Bow they found a bus service every eight or ten minutes to Oxford Circus, and other routes which came close to the Essex boundary were those from Old Ford to the Royal Exchange, Old Ford to Chelsea via Strand and Piccadilly, and Lea Bridge Road (Clapton) to Oxford Circus. None of these routes was less frequent than half-hourly. (fn. 40)
The introduction of tramways brought much improvement. Two companies, the North Metropolitan Tramways Co. (incorporated in 1869) and the Lea Bridge, Leyton and Walthamstow Tramways Co. (incorporated in 1881) (fn. 41) were responsible for the developments in suburban Essex. The former, the largest horse tramway undertaking in the London area, went ahead very quickly and its first line, from Whitechapel to Bow Church, was opened in 1870 (fn. 42) and was extended at both ends so as to provide a through service between Stratford and Aldgate in 1871. (fn. 43) Most of this company's lines, of which only a small proportion were in Essex, were built in the early seventies and by 1876 it was operating just over 30 miles of route. (fn. 44) One of the extensions was from Stratford to Leytonstone, where a car works and depot were established. (fn. 45) In 1878 trams were running every five minutes between Aldgate and Stratford and every quarter-hour between Stratford and Leytonstone. The fares from Stratford were 3d. to Aldgate and 1d. to Leytonstone. (fn. 46) Twenty-five years later, when the fare from Stratford to Aldgate was down to 2d., there were 456 workmen's and 481 ordinary cars on this route each day, with accommodation for 22,126 passengers. The time for the full journey was 38 minutes. (fn. 47) In the meantime the company had established lines through West and East Ham to Manor Park and along Barking Road in West Ham. (fn. 48)
The Lea Bridge, Leyton and Walthamstow company was a much smaller concern which in its early years after laying down part of its track, encountered severe financial difficulties. These caused it to undergo winding up and subsequent reconstruction, and it was unable to complete its works until the early nineties. (fn. 49) The entire system when complete extended to 4¾ miles of route, of which the main line, from Clapton via Lea Bridge Road to 'The Rising Sun' public-house in Epping Forest near the Walthamstow-Woodford boundary, accounted for 3¼ miles and came into full operation in 1891. The journey from 'The Rising Sun' to the end of Lea Bridge Road cost 3d. and took 35 minutes, and at Clapton the passenger could board another tram which would take him to Bloomsbury. Another line, opened in 1889, ran within Leyton from the 'Bakers Arms' to the Great Eastern station and the company also operated several short horse-bus services. In the year ended 31 October 1899 the Lea Bridge, Leyton and Walthamstow system, now firmly established, carried 8,393,308 passengers. (fn. 50)
At the beginning of the 20th century the tramways were undergoing two important changes: the companies were being bought out by the local authorities, which hastened to build additional lines, and horses were being superseded by electric traction. In 1898 West Ham Corporation obtained power to purchase and electrify the lines of the North Metropolitan Company within the borough and this power was exercised in 1903, (fn. 51) the first electric line coming into operation in 1904. The lines of the two companies in Leyton (together with the section from the Walthamstow boundary to 'The Rising Sun') were taken over by the Urban District Council, those of the Lea Bridge Company in 1905 and those of the North Metropolitan Company in 1906, and a system of electric traction was inaugurated in December 1906. The local authorities of Barking, East Ham, Ilford, and Walthamstow had opened new electric tramways of their own in 1903, 1901, 1903, and 1905 respectively. (fn. 52) For a short time the North Metropolitan Company maintained a sort of life-in-death by continuing to run a short stretch of horse-tramway along Romford Road between the termini of the electric systems of West and East Ham at Green Street and Manor Park Broadway; but in 1908 the East Ham Corporation decided to buy this obstructive anachronism, (fn. 53) and the day of the tramway companies was over. Once the local authority tramway systems were well-established they succeeded, despite initial friction and jealousies, in working out co-operative arrangements that provided easier communication with London and a closer linking of different suburban districts than before. In 1910 the London County Council, East Ham and West Ham Corporations and Leyton Urban District Council made arrangements which permitted through tram services from Aldgate to Ilford Broadway via Bow Bridge and from Aldgate to Leyton via Bow Bridge, Leytonstone and Whipps Cross. In 1910 the London County Council and Leyton Urban District Council introduced a joint service that ran through from Epping Forest to London via Lea Bridge Road and Hackney. (fn. 54) Later agreements among the authorities of London, West Ham, East Ham and Barking led to the introduction of through services from Bloomsbury to Canning Town and from Aldgate to the Barking-Ilford boundary in 1912, and from Aldgate to East Ham Town Hall in 1913. (fn. 55) Through running for local services between Barking and Ilford had been in force since 1905. (fn. 56)
Early in the 20th century another innovation, the motor-bus, was also contributing to the improvement in local communications. In 1903 there were only three horse-bus routes connecting Essex with London and all were quite short. They ran between East Ham and Poplar, East Ham and Blackwall, and Canning Town and Poplar. (fn. 57) Five years later there was a decisive change. The appearance of experimental motor-bus services through West Ham in February 1908 was hailed as an interesting novelty, (fn. 58) but by the end of the year nine motor-bus routes had been established between the Essex suburbs and various parts of London. They ran from Charing Cross to Upton Park, Oxford Circus to Leyton ('Baker's Arms'), Turnham Green to Ilford Broadway, Hammersmith to Leyton ('Baker's Arms'), Ealing to Plaistow, Shepherds Bush to East Ham via Commercial Road, Shepherds Bush to Seven Kings via Mile End Road, West Kilburn to Ilford Broadway, and Putney to Stratford Broadway. These were much longer routes than had ever been available for suburban traffic before and they provided fairly cheap travel. It was possible, for example, to go right across London from Plaistow to Ealing for 7d. or from Seven Kings to Shepherds Bush for 8d. (fn. 59) By 1911 most of these routes had been abandoned or modified, but five motor-bus services were running: Shepherds Bush to East Ham (fare 6d.), Willesden to Seven Kings (fare 6d.), Walthamstow to Elephant and Castle (fare 4d.), Wanstead to Elephant and Castle (fare 4½d.), and Putney Common to Plaistow (fare 6d.) (fn. 60) The first and last of these were withdrawn during the next twelve months but new routes were introduced from Victoria to Leyton Green, Putney Common to East Ham, and Acton Vale to Barking, and by the end of 1912 daily services had been extended as far out as South Chingford. (fn. 61) In 1914 daily services were introduced to Woodford Bridge and to Epping. (fn. 62) All these services were operated by the London General Omnibus Company.
These new bus and tram routes did much to meet the need for local travel, but they were also one element in the general rapid growth of road transport, which showed itself in increasing congestion of traffic. Though there had been many piecemeal improvements by widening and re-surfacing, the main road system had not been appreciably changed for more than half a century and was proving inadequate at various points. Censuses of traffic repeatedly showed Canning Town Bridge to be the most congested point on the main roads in the north-east of Greater London and the number of horse and motor vehicles using it was rising rapidly: on the day of the 1911 census it was 5,501; three years later it was 7,625. (fn. 63) Bow Bridge also was a point of considerable congestion. Much of the traffic over Canning Town Bridge went to or from the Royal Docks, access to which was notoriously bad, since the road from Canning Town was narrow and was impeded by both a level-crossing and a swingbridge. With a third dock under construction the prospects of future traffic delays were appalling to contemplate and in 1914, after the Road Board had refused to contribute to a scheme for an improved road, public meetings were called by the West Ham Council to protest against the decision and to demand the inclusion of road improvement in the dock extension project. But road improvement plans are notoriously slow to mature—better road access to the Royal Docks had been discussed since 1886 with no result except the construction of a foot-bridge in 1894. (fn. 64) From 1909 onwards numerous plans for new roads in Essex and other parts of Greater London were considered, first by the London Traffic Branch of the Board of Trade and later by a series of conferences convened by the Local Government Board. Eventually in 1915 a set of agreed recommendations emerged. The schemes which concerned suburban Essex were those for a new approach road to the Royal Docks, a by-pass for East Ham and Barking, a North Circular Road round London, a new road from South Woodford to Ilford, and an Eastern Avenue leading out of London from Leyton. (fn. 65) There was, however, no immediate prospect of executing these proposals. For the time being congestion was bound to increase, despite limited improvements such as the widening of High Street, Stratford, but at least it had not become bad enough to offset the recent gains brought to local road transport by electricity and the internal combustion engine.