Metropolitan Essex since 1850: Introduction

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


'Metropolitan Essex since 1850: Introduction', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, ed. W R Powell( London, 1966), British History Online [accessed 22 July 2024].

'Metropolitan Essex since 1850: Introduction', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Edited by W R Powell( London, 1966), British History Online, accessed July 22, 2024,

"Metropolitan Essex since 1850: Introduction". A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Ed. W R Powell(London, 1966), , British History Online. Web. 22 July 2024.


1850–1919: The Growth of Population and the Built-up Area, p. 2. Economic Influences on Growth, p. 9. Local Administration and Public Services, p. 32. Some Features of Social Conditions and Activity, p. 47.

Since 1919: The Spread of the Suburban Area, p. 63. The Economic Character of the New Suburbs, p. 67. Problems of Local Administration, p. 74. Some Aspects of Social Conditions, p. 81. The Second World War and After, p. 90.

`Metropolitan Essex' is not a term with a precise and generally-accepted meaning. The nearest approach to customary usage would probably be to apply it to that part of Essex which is included in Greater London as defined by the Registrar-General for England and Wales. This Greater London, which in fact consists of the City and the Metropolitan Police Area, embraces in Essex the entire hundred of Becontree, together with the present borough of Chingford and the urban districts of Chigwell and Waltham Holy Cross.


An area of Essex thus delimited would be a very useful unit, though probably not quite the best possible, for an investigation of the character of the suburban part of the county at the present day. For historical purposes, however, it appears less satisfactory. Much of the area has been in most respects quite distinct from London until very recent times (though the proximity of London has for long influenced its economic activity) and it would hardly be justifiable to call it metropolitan. One of the major themes of the history of London has been the continual expansion of its activity, population and built-up area, which has meant the absorption of one rural area after another and the complete transformation of their physical appearance and social life. To examine this transformation, as it occurred in Essex under the impact of the needs and opportunities created by London, is the purpose of the present study. But since the pressure of London's needs was not felt everywhere at once and the change took place gradually and unevenly, a historical account of an area that was rigidly defined and remained unchanged in size would not be appropriate. Instead it is proposed to deal with the area which at any particular time may reasonably be considered suburban, an area which was constantly expanding.

The clearest indications of the suburban character of any district are probably its inclusion within the continuously built-up area of London and the employment in inner London of many of its resident population. Information on the latter subject is scanty before 1921, but the extension of built-up London, even taken by itself, is a fairly reliable guide to the growth of suburbs. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the streets of London began noticeably to creep over the border into Essex, and this provides an obvious starting-point. At first West Ham was the only parish that was much affected, but by the early years of this century all the parishes in the Becontree hundred (except Dagenham) had become in some degree suburbanized, though building development was still very patchy in several of them. In the course of this century Chingford and Dagenham were added to the suburban area, and even more distant places, though not coming within the district given detailed study, developed connexions with London that merit passing notice.

It will be seen that for recent years the area to be studied becomes very similar to that which would be derived from the Registrar-General's definition of Greater London, though it does not coincide with it. For a complete study of the history of suburban growth in Essex it would probably be desirable to go a little further than can be done in a volume whose territorial limits are set by the ancient hundreds of Becontree and Waltham. Most of the suburban districts of Essex do in fact lie within these limits, but since the First World War considerable parts of the local government areas of Chigwell, Romford, and Hornchurch, which lie outside them, have taken on similar characteristics. Their omission from the present study is, however, not a sufficiently large one to be a likely cause of much distortion. (fn. 1)


  • 1. There are also important suburban characteristics in a number of places still more distant from the area now to be studied; places, that is, which never have been physically contiguous to London, but which send many of their inhabitants to work in London every day, e.g. Southend.