A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.
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THE GROWTH OF POPULATION AND THE BUILT-UP AREA
South-west Essex in 1850 was still an almost entirely rural area with its land divided among agriculture, marsh, and forest. It contained numerous substantial villages and four places, Barking, Epping, Stratford, and Waltham Abbey, which the census authorities chose to dignify by the name of 'towns', but only Stratford had a population of more than 10,000 in 1851. (fn. 1) Like the rest of England and Wales (fn. 2) this region had increased its population considerably in the earlier 19th century, but the rate of growth was not remarkable in comparison with that in other areas. Some districts near to London, especially West Ham, were growing rather faster than the national average; some grew a good deal less than the average. Taken as a whole, the region covered by Becontree and Waltham hundreds conformed fairly closely to the national average in the growth of its population in this period and remained quite lightly peopled, with rather less than one inhabitant to an acre in 1851. (fn. 3) The details of growth are summarized in Table 1.
These figures present a picture very different from that shown by the population statistics of London in the same period, (fn. 4) and suggest how far most of the area was from having acquired a metropolitan character. Links with London were economic rather than physical. The London market was the support of a specialized agriculture. In the 18th century the southern part of the district had become the chief potato producing area near London (fn. 5) and the growth of the market gave scope for the employment of an increased labour force. In the earlier 19th century, too, Barking was in its most prosperous period as one of London's fishing ports. (fn. 6) But by 1850 the limits to the expansion of employment which London could stimulate in this way were probably already being approached in south-west Essex. The available agricultural land was using as much labour as it could profitably absorb even though the market went on expanding, and the purely agricultural parishes were beginning to lose population. At the same time the railways exposed the fisheries to the competition of more distant ports with far better natural conditions. Further rapid increase of settlement would come only if the area began to share directly in some of London's own activities instead of merely ministering to its needs of primary produce. So far Stratford alone showed signs of becoming part of London in this way. Not only had some London manufacturing industries settled there but the maps of the eighteen-forties show for the first time an unbroken line of building from Stratford to the City along the main road through Whitechapel. (fn. 7)
The comparative isolation of south-west Essex until this late date is at first sight surprising, since the district is nearer to the original centre of London than many others which were already physically part of the Metropolis. Probably the explanation is to be found partly in geographical, partly in economic conditions. The River Lea, with its many-braided streams and adjacent marshes, was a serious obstacle both to building and to movement. No comparable barrier impeded the spread of London in other directions until the River Colne was reached at the opposite end of Middlesex. Moreover, much of the land beyond the Lea was clay which, with primitive techniques, was difficult to drain and for this reason was unpopular for building, while the betterdrained land was used fairly intensively for agriculture and was therefore unlikely to provide the cheapest building sites. Economically, too, this district differed from others near London in that the main roads across it were not the exclusive arteries of trade with London. Elsewhere settlements grew to cater for traffic on the highways out of London, but from the east coast and some of the inland woollen centres of East Anglia much of the trade with London was sea-borne, (fn. 8) and thus the Essex approaches to the City were by-passed.
As London went on increasing, however, and its needs became more numerous and insistent, these various influences were no longer sufficient to keep it from spreading into Essex. The tongue of building that linked Stratford to the City became steadily wider, though close to the Lea building went on less rapidly on the London than on the Essex side, Bromley Marsh not being covered by buildings until the eighteeneighties. (fn. 9) Beyond Stratford, development extended quickly into other parts of West Ham, both north and south, so that between 1851 and 1861 the population of the parish rather more than doubled and in the next decade, though the rate of increase declined, nearly 25,000 inhabitants were added. Some of the neighbouring parishes had quite large percentage increases in population at the same time, but the absolute increase was far too small to be very significant. After 1871, however, suburban development became much more prominent. The increase of buildings and population in West Ham was again accelerated and in the next twenty years the number of its inhabitants rose by 141,000. In the eighteen-seventies the parishes to the north, Leyton and Walthamstow, also began to grow very rapidly, sending out new streets on all sides of their old centres, and settlement here continued intensively in the eighties and nineties. The spread of building eastward beyond West Ham became prominent about ten years later than the northward development. Not until the eighteen-eighties did the rapid growth of residential building seriously change the character of East Ham, and the most startling increase came in the nineties. By this time so much of West Ham had already been built over that growth was bound to slow down. Yet between 1891 and 1901 it proved possible to accommodate an additional 62,000 people there. Very early in the 20th century the development of the suburbs nearest London — West Ham, East Ham, Leyton and all but the most northerly part of Walthamstow — was almost complete.
But the settlement of new suburbs was very far indeed from being ended. While such phenomenal building development had been in progress in the districts nearer to London, there had been more gradual and more sporadic expansion in places a little further away: Wanstead, (fn. 10) Woodford, Ilford, and Barking. As the nearer sites became more and more completely occupied, suburban building began to concentrate increasingly on these other areas, especially on Ilford. In the course of the eighteen-nineties Barking and Ilford became joined to East Ham by an area of unbroken building (fn. 11) and in the early years of this century Ilford was extending its streets in all directions. But, in spite of this expansion, Ilford at the time of the First World War still had a great deal of land unoccupied by buildings, and there was also plenty of room for further building in Barking, Wanstead, and Woodford. Chingford had begun to grow as a residential centre but was still small and physically quite separate from the continuous suburban area of Essex. (fn. 12)
More precise details of the increase of population and houses are presented in Tables 2 and 3. (fn. 13)
The rates of increase in south-west Essex in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were exceptional even at a time when suburban expansion was becoming one of the major new themes of English social history. West Ham, a largely rural area throughout the earlier 19th century, had become by 1891 the tenth largest town in England and Wales; (fn. 14) in 1901 it was ninth (fn. 15) and in 1911 eighth in order of magnitude. (fn. 16) The area occupied in 1891 by the urban sanitary district of Leyton had increased its population by 133.3 per cent. since 1881, a bigger proportionate increase than that of any other English town with over 50,000 inhabitants. (fn. 17) In the next ten years the largest rates of increase among English towns of this size were those of East Ham and Walthamstow, with 193.5 per cent. and 105.3 per cent. respectively. (fn. 18) After 1901 south-west Essex did not experience quite such disproportionate growth and its population was no longer increasing so fast as that of some other parts of Greater London. Nevertheless between 1901 and 1911 Ilford's rate of growth was exceeded only by that of Southend among the English towns of more than 50,000 inhabitants. (fn. 19) The comparative position of the Essex suburbs is illustrated by Table 4.
Such phenomenal rates of increase were, of course, the result of large numbers of new residents arriving from elsewhere rather than of the natural increase of the local population. Even before south-west Essex became suburbanized it seems likely that the prosperous vegetable-growing districts attracted a fair proportion of immigrants, though precise evidence is lacking. In 1824 the Roman Catholic church in Stratford claimed to muster an entirely Irish congregation of more than 2,000 persons, (fn. 20) but in 1851 the entire West Ham Poor Law Union contained only 665 adults who had been born in Ireland. This was, however, about 3½ per cent. of the total adult population and was a larger number than was contributed by the natives of any English county other than Essex, Middlesex, and Surrey. (fn. 21) But it is clear that Irish immigration was unimportant in the rapid settlement of the area in the late 19th century. Most of the new arrivals came from other parts of Essex and from London, with much smaller, though appreciable, numbers from Kent, Norfolk, and Suffolk. Thus in 1891, of the total population of West Ham County Borough 40.3 per cent. had been born in Essex, 30.9 per cent. in London, 2.4 per cent. in Kent, 2.0 per cent. in Suffolk, 2.0 per cent. in Scotland, and 1.9 per cent. in Norfolk. At the same time Leyton Urban Sanitary District included in its population 40.0 per cent. who were natives of London, 34.0 per cent. born in Essex, 1.9 per cent. born in Suffolk, 1.9 per cent. born in Kent, 1.8 per cent. born in Middlesex, and 1.6 per cent. born in Norfolk. (fn. 22)
Consideration of the birthplaces of the population resident in a rather larger area in 1911, when the growth of several of the Essex suburbs was nearly complete, indicates the continuance of a high level of immigration and confirms the importance of London as a source of population. All the large Essex suburbs had an unusually low proportion of native-born in their populations and, as might be expected, the more recent the period of rapid growth the smaller the proportion of natives. Only two of the English towns of over 50,000 inhabitants had among their population a smaller proportion of their own natives than Ilford. (fn. 23) The percentage of natives in each of the chief Essex suburbs was: West Ham 42.6, East Ham 20.2, Ilford 18.6, Leyton 22.3, Walthamstow 27.3. If the birthplaces are grouped by counties (including their associated county boroughs) then the chief sources of population of the various local government areas, expressed in percentages, were as follows:
West Ham: Essex 49.5, London 31.6, Kent 1.8.
East Ham: Essex 39.4, London 38.3, Kent 2.3, Middlesex 1.8.
Ilford: Essex 37.5, London 33.9, Middlesex 2.7, Kent 2.1, Scotland 1.6, Suffolk 1.6.
Leyton: Essex 40.7, London 37.3, Middlesex 2.4, Kent 1.6, Suffolk 1.5.
Walthamstow: London 43.6, Essex 34.6, Middlesex 3.7. (fn. 24)
Although there was a preponderance of persons born outside the area, the character of the immigration was such as to make possible also a fairly rapid natural increase in the population. In every district it seems certain that there was a large proportion of young adults among the immigrants and in such a population birth rates were likely to be high and death rates low. The point may best be illustrated by comparing the age structure of the local population, during or very shortly after the period of heavy immigration, with that of the population of England and Wales as a whole. A great many comparisons of this kind were specially made for the report on the 1911 census, and for three of the four large Essex suburbs that had recently had large inflows of new residents, they showed highly significant abnormalities of age distribution. East Ham, Leyton, and Walthamstow all had more than the average proportion of children and of adults in their thirties and early forties, as is shown by Table 5.
Such a distribution of age-groups was found only in places which were growing suburbs, and the census report attributed the age-structure simply to the effects of immigration:
'Apparently there is a tendency for couples who marry in London to move into these outer suburbs as their families begin to increase, in quest no doubt of increased houseroom, and of purer air and more open space for their children. If this is so, the proportion of children would naturally be high, their presence being the reason for the move. The population of these districts is, in fact, a selectedly fertile one.' (fn. 25)
Immigration into these districts had, however, been considerably less between 1901 and 1911 than it had been earlier, and for this reason the report went on to remark:
'Presumably the peculiarities of [their] age-distribution were much more marked at earlier censuses. Comparison in the case of a single typical area, East Ham, shows that this is the case. Moreover, in 1901, after the phenomenally rapid immigration into this town of the preceding decade, the age of maximum excess was earlier both for parents and for children than at present.' (fn. 26)
West Ham by 1911 had an appreciably different age-structure, but twenty or thirty years earlier, when immigration was at its height, a similar pattern of age-distribution, in a rather more extreme form, could be found there also, presumably for similar reasons. The relevant figures are given in Table 6.
The high birth-rates and very much lower death-rates which would be expected in populations with the age-structure found in the Essex suburbs did in fact occur, though the rates gradually fell, as they did in the country as a whole. In the entire West Ham registration district, which covered West Ham, East Ham (including Little Ilford), Leyton, Wanstead, Walthamstow, and Woodford, the birth-rate was 40.5 per 1000 in 1881, 37.2 in 1891, and 34.0 in 1901; the death-rates for the same years were 18.5, 16.8, and 15.5 respectively. (fn. 27) Not only were the reproductive age-groups overrepresented in the population, but, in West Ham County Borough at least, the people in these groups appear to have had more than the average number of children. When the county borough was almost full and immigration ceased, the excess of young adults very quickly turned into a deficiency which was not made good by the growing up of the children whose numbers had been disproportionately high. Quite clearly, many of the adults and of the children, as they grew up, left the town. But though the proportion of people in the reproductive age-groups thus remained below average, the excess in the proportion of children (even the very youngest) underwent hardly any consequential reduction. (fn. 28) West Ham by the early years of this century had acquired a population so fertile that it could maintain and gradually augment its own numbers despite a constant drain of young adults, some of whom went to form part of the growing population of suburbs a little further out, such as Ilford. (fn. 29) Ilford, however, the most recent area of heavy immigration, appears to have received a rather different type of population from that which had gone to the older suburbs. In 1911, despite the large numbers of recent arrivals, there was no excess in the proportion of children, though the proportion of girls in their teens was well above average. The age groups most strongly over-represented were those from 35 to 50. (fn. 30) It appears that, in comparison with the other large suburbs, Ilford was receiving more people in prosperous middle-age, able to keep a servant-girl, and often having already had a suburban residence nearer to London.
Ilford, however, was not fully representative of the Essex suburbs at this time. It may well be that the character of the movement to the suburbs was changing early in this century. But the evidence seems clear that the older Essex suburbs were largely the creation of youngish adults who moved out from London and took with them a fair number of small children and who also produced large numbers of additional children in their new homes. These characteristics of the immigrant population were of considerable significance for the social life of the suburbs.