Metropolitan Essex since 1850: Population growth and the built-up area

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

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'Metropolitan Essex since 1850: Population growth and the built-up area', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, (London, 1966) pp. 2-9. British History Online [accessed 24 April 2024]

In this section



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.

Table 1
Population and Houses in Becontree and Waltham Hundreds, 1801–51 a
Parish Ward or Township 1801 1841 1851
Inhabitants Inhabited houses Inhabitants Inhabited houses Inhabitants
West Ham Stratford 3,910 b 1,372 7,690 1,817 10,586
West Ham Plaistow and Church Street 2,575 919 5,048 1,489 8,231
East Ham 1,165 265 1,461 276 1,550
Little Ilford 85 23 189 25 187
Wanstead 918 300 1,608 319 2,207
Low Leyton 2,519 606 3,274 664 3,901
Walthamstow 3,006 797 4,873 902 4,959
Woodford 1,745 477 2,777 511 2,774
Chingford 612 202 971 203 963
Epping Epping 1,473 361 1,943 352 1,821
Epping Epping Upland 339 91 481 91 434
Nazeing. 658 157 824 162 757
Roydon (part) c 244 58 313 71 371
Dagenham 1,057 472 2,294 490 2,494
Barking Chadwell 317 141 758 156 778
Barking Great Ilford 1,724 721 3,742 742 3,745
Barking Barking Town 1,585 759 3,751 968 4,930
Barking Ripple 280 88 467 83 435
Waltham Holy Cross Waltham Abbey 1,837 410 2,041 461 2,329
Waltham Holy Cross Holyfield Hamlet 206 66 382 69 369
Waltham Holy Cross Sewardstone Hamlet 495 144 901 144 760
Waltham Holy Cross Upshire Hamlet 502 164 853 168 845
a Census of G.B. 1851, vol. i, div. iii, pp. 14–15, and div. iv, pp. 12–15.
b Estimated figures. The populations of the three wards of West Ham were not recorded separately in 1801.
c Most of Roydon parish was in the hundred of Harlow.

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)

Table 2
Population and Houses in Suburban Districts, 1861–91
Parish or Registration sub-district 1861 1871 1881 1891
Inhabited houses Population Inhabited houses Population Inhabited houses Population Inhabited houses Population
West Ham 6,191 38,331 10,199 62,919 19,167 128,953 32,066 204,903
East Ham 333 2,264 612 6,904 1,472 9,713 4,694 28,744
Little Ilford 124 594 142 675 197 993 799 3,969
Wanstead 346 2,742 769 5,119 1,474 9,414 4,478 26,282
Low Leyton 762 4,794 1,768 10,394 3,752 23,016 7,459 43,906
Walthamstow 1,423 7,137 2,079 11,092 3,870 21,715 7,970 46,346
Woodford 631 3,457 828 4,609 1,279 7,154 1,981 10,984
Ilford (sub-district) a 1,084 5,405 1,202 5,947 1,385 7,645 1,959 10,913
Barking Town (sub-district)b 1,162 5,591 1,281 6,576 1,606 9,203 2,561 14,301
a Ilford sub-district consisted of the Chadwell and Great Ilford wards of Barking parish. It became a separate civil parish in 1888.
b Barking Town sub-district consisted of the Barking Town and Ripple wards of Barking parish.
Table 3
Population and Houses in Suburban Districts, 1891–1921
Local govt. area 1891 1901 1911 1921
Inhabited houses Population Inhabited houses Population Inhabited houses Population Inhabited houses Population
West Ham C.B. 32,066 204,903 41,368 267,358 44,336 289,030 48,091 300,860
East Ham U.D. a 5,493 32,713 16,713 96,018 24,263 133,487 27,070 143,246
Wanstead U.D. 1,116 7,092 1,666 9,179 2,843 13,830 3,440 15,298
Leyton U.D. 10,812 63,056 17,091 98,912 22,101 124,735 24,633 128,430
Walthamstow U.D. 7,970 46,346 16,083 95,131 20,683 124,580 24,641 129,395
Woodford U.D. 1,990 11,024 2,614 13,798 3,816 18,496 4,336 21,236
Ilford U.D. 1,959 10,913 7,649 41,234 15,832 78,188 17,811 85,194
Barking Town U.D. 2,561 14,301 3,843 21,547 5,714 31,294 6,770 35,523
Chingford U.D. b 534 2,737 830 4,373 1,628 8,184 1,980 9,482
a East Ham became a municipal borough in 1904 and a county borough in 1915.
b Chingford was made an urban district in 1894.

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.

Table 4
Inter-censal Rates of Population Increase, 1891–1911a
Area Percentage increase 1891–1901 Percentage increase 1901–11
England and Wales 12.2 10.1
County of London 7.3 —0.3
Met. Police Area outside County of London 45.5 33.5
Essex within Met. Police Area 62.5 26.4
Barking Town U.D. 50.7 45.2
Chingford U.D. 59.8 87.1
East Ham M.B. 193.5 39.0
Ilford U.D. 277.6 89.6
Leyton U.D. 56.7 26.1
Walthamstow U.D. 105.3 31.0
Wanstead U.D. 30.3 50.7
West Ham C.B. 30.5 8.1
Woodford U.D. 25.2 34.0
a Census, Eng. and Wales, 1911, vol. i. 646, 648.

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)

Table 5
Proportions of Male and Female Population in Each Age-Group in 1911 as Percentages of the Corresponding Proportions in England and Wales a
Age East Ham M.B. Leyton U.D. Walthamstow U.D.
Males Females Males Females Males Females
Under 5 115 113 106 104 117 115
5 and under 10 119 117 107 105 123 122
10 and under 15 120 112 103 102 120 117
15 and under 20 99 98 91 98 103 103
20 and under 25 89 90 87 98 87 89
25 and under 30 92 95 97 103 90 91
30 and under 35 100 102 103 107 99 98
35 and under 40 106 104 103 103 104 103
40 and under 45 106 102 100 102 105 101
45 and under 50 100 95 97 97 98 92
50 and under 55 90 87 100 95 89 83
55 and under 60 86 78 92 92 79 76
60 and under 65 72 74 95 95 68 68
65 and under 70 65 69 96 95 63 71
70 and under 75 60 70 92 93 61 68
75 and under 80 61 66 95 94 54 64
80 and under 85 53 60 95 106 44 56
85 and under 90 43 75 116 104 39 57
90 and over 75 64 108 80 92 68
a Census, Eng. and Wales, 1911, vol. vii, Ages and Condition as to Marriage, 416. The high proportion of old people in Leyton is probably because this district contained the workhouse serving the entire West Ham Poor Law Union.

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.

Table 6
Proportions of Male and Female Population in Each Age-Group in West Ham Urban Sanitary District in 1881 and 1891 as Percentages of the Corresponding Proportions in England and Wales a
Age 1881 1891
Males Females Males Females
Under 5 117 125 115 124
5 and under 10 110 118 112 118
10 and under 15 97 106 101 110
15 and under 20 88 86 93 93
20 and under 25 98 87 98 89
25 and under 30 109 105 101 98
30 and under 35 118 113 106 104
35 and under 40 115 107 105 107
40 and under 45 109 102 106 100
45 and under 50 93 87 100 94
50 and under 55 89 82 90 83
55 and under 60 77 72 80 72
60 and under 65 63 72 72 68
65 and under 70 50 60 61 62
70 and under 75 38 57 64 62
75 and under 80 29 50 43 56
80 and over 32 44 30 47
a Calculated from tables of ages in Census, Eng. and Wales, 1881, vol. iii, pp. v and 135, and ibid. 1891, vol. iii, pp. v and 143.

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.


  • 1. Census of G.B. 1851, Pop. Tables: I. Numbers of Inhabitants, vol. i, pp. cciv, ccvii.
  • 2. Between 1801 and 1851 the population of England and Wales approximately doubled.
  • 3. Census of G.B. 1851, Pop. Tables: I. Numbers of Inhabitants, vol. i, p. clxxvii.
  • 4. The population of London rose from 864,845 in 1801 to 2,362,236 in 1851, when the density was over 20,000 persons per sq. mile.
  • 5. D. Lysons, Environs of London, iv (1796 edn.), 575.
  • 6. See below, p. 240.
  • 7. H. Rees, 'The north-eastern expansion of London since 1770'. (Lond. Univ. M.Sc.(Econ.) thesis, 1944), p. 104.
  • 8. Cf. Act 13 Anne c. 20, which in its final clause makes special provision for 'the two Colchester packet boats going weekly from Wivenhoe to London with bays, says, and perpetuanas, and from London to Wivenhoe with wool to be manufactured at Colchester'. Cf. also D. Defoe, Tour through England and Wales (Everyman's Libr.), i. 14, on the carriage of corn by water. Road traffic was sufficient to be the mainstay of some small towns farther from London, as noted by Defoe, ibid. 37.
  • 9. H. Rees, 'North-eastern expansion of London since 1770', 114.
  • 10. The western part of Wanstead parish was intensively developed earlier, but this district was formed into a new civil parish of Cann Hall in 1894, and was already included in Leyton Urban District.
  • 11. H. Rees, 'North-eastern expansion of London', 116.
  • 12. For an analysis of the growth of the built-up area, based on a comparison of contemporary maps, see H. Rees, op. cit. 104–24. Mr. Rees published a condensed account of this in his article 'A growth map for north-east London during the railway age', Geog. Rev. xxxv. 458–65.
  • 13. The tables are based on the census returns for each stated year. A comparison of the figures in each table for 1891 will make clear that in some cases considerable differences in area are involved. Within each table taken separately, however, the changes in area between one census and another are too slight to invalidate comparisons.
  • 14. Census, Eng. and Wales, 1891, vol. iv, Gen. Rep. 12–13.
  • 15. Ibid. 1901, Gen. Rep. 27–28.
  • 16. Ibid. 1911, vol. i, Admin. Areas, p. xx.
  • 17. Ibid. 1891, vol. iv. 12–13.
  • 18. Ibid. 1901, Gen. Rep. 27–28.
  • 19. Ibid. 1911, vol. i, p. xxii.
  • 20. W. Ham Cent. Libr., P. Thompson, 'West Ham gleanings' (MS coll.), sheaf 2, f. 172.
  • 21. Census, G.B. 1851, Pop. Tables, II, Ages etc. vol. i. 315.
  • 22. Census, Eng. and Wales, 1891, vol. iii, Ages etc. 165.
  • 23. Ibid. 1911, vol. ix, Birthplaces, p. ix.
  • 24. Ibid. 18–23.
  • 25. Census, Eng. and Wales, 1911, vol. vii, p. xix.
  • 26. Ibid. p. xxvii.
  • 27. Calculated from Ann. Reps. Registrar-Gen., Eng. and Wales for years stated.
  • 28. Census, Eng. and Wales, 1911, vol. vii. 416.
  • 29. In 1911 5.8 per cent. of the population of Ilford were natives of West Ham: ibid. 1911, vol. ix. 21–23.
  • 30. Ibid. 1911, vol. vii. 416.