Economic influences on growth: Employment opportunities

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

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'Economic influences on growth: Employment opportunities', A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, (London, 1966), pp. 9-21. British History Online [accessed 14 June 2024].

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. "Economic influences on growth: Employment opportunities", A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, (London, 1966). 9-21. British History Online. Web. 14 June 2024,

In this section


Employment Opportunities

People were able and eager to come and live in the Essex suburbs either because new jobs which they could do were being created there or because they could find there suitable homes from which it was made convenient to travel daily to work elsewhere. Nowadays it is taken almost for granted that the life of a suburb should involve the daily movement of a large proportion of the population between homes and workplaces, but the early stages of rapid suburban growth in Essex were not characterized by this feature. London's first large-scale spread into this region took the form not of a predominantly residential area but of a busy commercial district that had to have the services of a substantial population living close at hand. (fn. 1)

The great influence was the growth of the trade of the Port of London. In the 18th century this had caused much congestion in the river and inefficiency in the handling of cargoes, which was countered at the beginning of the 19th century by the building of numerous docks. By the eighteen-forties, however, the river near the docks was again very crowded and trade was growing rapidly towards a level which would be beyond the capacity of the existing docks to deal with unless they were drastically altered and re-equipped. Thus a need was emerging for at least one large new dock. The nearest vacant site to the existing port was in the marshes between West Ham and North Woolwich, and this site had the additional attractions that physically it was easy to excavate, that, unlike the older docks, it was already served by a railway line, and that the railway contractors (Kennard, Brassey and Peto) had acquired the adjoining land at its agricultural value and were themselves ready and fully-equipped to build a dock there. (fn. 2) In this combination of favourable circumstances the Victoria Dock Company was formed and the new dock was under construction from 1850 to 1855. (fn. 3) After it was opened it prospered sufficiently for the company in 1857 to seek and obtain powers to build an extension eastward. These further works were not made for another twenty years, however, and in the meantime, in 1864, the Victoria Dock Company had been acquired by the London and St. Katharine Docks Company. (fn. 4)

In the seventies there were ample signs of the need for further extensions to the docks: the annual average quantity of shipping using the Victoria Dock rose from 369,819 net tons in 1865–9 to 510,996 net tons in 1870–5, (fn. 5) and at the same time many more ships were being built which were too large for the older docks to accommodate conveniently. To meet these new needs the construction of the Royal Albert Dock, immediately east of the Victoria Dock, was begun in 1875. This new, deeper dock was opened in 1880, when the Victoria Dock was also given the prefix 'Royal', and the works were completed by the opening of a new entrance from Gallions Reach in 1886. (fn. 6) The two docks were connected by a canal which enabled them to a large extent to function together as one large dock, though the canal was not deep enough to allow the biggest of the ships using the Albert Dock to pass through to the Victoria Dock. (fn. 7) The building of the new dock made it possible to deal with both bigger vessels and a much greater volume of shipping. From 1874 to 1879 the Victoria Dock handled an average of 710,707 net tons of shipping a year; just twenty years later the average for the two docks together was 2,053,910 net tons, and the ships using the Royal Albert Dock then were on the average roughly twice the size of those using the Victoria Dock at the earlier period. (fn. 8)

By the beginning of the 20th century these docks were again becoming inadequate. The owners pointed out that there were only 27 ships afloat that were too big to use the Royal Albert Dock, (fn. 9) but shipowners complained that inadequate dock space was compelling them to restrict the size of their new vessels and that the Royal Docks were very short of shed and quay accommodation, and also suffered from other, less serious deficiencies. (fn. 10) To deal with this situation the Port of London Authority, which took over the docks in 1908, announced in 1911, as its first great capital undertaking, plans for two new docks capable of taking the largest ships afloat, one to the north and one to the south of the Royal Albert Dock. (fn. 11) Work on the south dock, the King George V Dock, was begun in 1912 but delayed by the First World War and was not completed until 1921. (fn. 12) The north dock was never built.

The docks had a tremendous influence on local employment and housing. Their construction kept a large number of workers occupied for several years. The numbers engaged on the building of the Royal Albert Dock, for instance, varied between 2,000 and 3,000. (fn. 13) Once the docks were in operation their steadily growing volume of traffic provided the livelihood of a correspondingly growing body of workers, mostly unskilled. Since the amount of work available was bound to fluctuate considerably from day to day it was more or less inevitable, in the absence of unthinkable state intervention, that dock labourers should have been employed on a casual basis, and it was essential for them to live close by, so that they could be at the dock gates whenever work turned up, at however odd a time. Hence the building of many of the crowded streets of cheap houses in the Canning Town, Tidal Basin, and Custom House districts of West Ham.

West Ham was one of the most attractive districts to dockers because the Victoria and Albert Docks were less affected than the others by seasonal variations in trade and because they had a bigger proportion of the cargoes whose handling was paid for at the highest rates. In the year from 1 April 1891 to 31 March 1892 the number of dock labourers employed daily at these docks varied between 1,220 and 3,150, with an average of about 2,200, and Charles Booth estimated that at this time there were about 3,500 who sought their normal employment there. (fn. 14) The amount of work offered increased rapidly in the next few years but so, too, did the number of men seeking it. From 1896 to 1906 inclusive the average daily employment at the Victoria and Albert Docks was 3,102 dockers and 736 stevedores, the best year for dockers being 1901 when an average daily number of 3,616 was employed. (fn. 15) But in that year there were resident in West Ham 5,581 dock labourers who, with their families, totalled 19,037 persons. (fn. 16) By 1911 the number of dock labourers there had risen to 7,006 and a further 1,558 lived in East Ham. (fn. 17)

The influence of the port on employment was not limited to the dock and wharf workers. There were many others who found jobs in the traffic of the river: the number of those classed by the census as 'engaged on seas, rivers and canals' amounted in 1901 to 1,111 in East Ham and 3,672 in West Ham; (fn. 18) in 1911 the figure had risen to 1,370 for East Ham but had fallen to 3,147 for West Ham. (fn. 19) Then, too, there was the direct stimulus which the presence of a large volume of shipping gave to certain ancillary industries, to ship repairing and various engineering activities, for example. And in a more general way the development of the port, with the building of wharves and the opening of new riverside sites, increased the convenience of the neighbourhood for manufacturing industries of various types. A striking example of this kind of influence came when the firm of William Cory & Son began to unload sea-borne coal mechanically at the Victoria Dock soon after its opening. The innovation made it possible to supply coal locally at nearly 40 per cent. below the price for rail-borne coal which had previously ruled there and so enabled Silvertown to compete with factory areas in other parts of the country. (fn. 20)

At one time there was a prospect that the influence of the port would become still more widespread, for a large scheme to turn Dagenham Breach into a dock was contemplated and begun. (fn. 21) During the 1860's preliminary works, including the building of a pier, were carried out there, but the scheme was abandoned in 1870, and the next extension of the Port of London downstream took place further away at Tilbury. But in 1887 the site of the proposed Dagenham Dock was bought by Samuel Williams who carried out a much smaller scheme, building jetties and installing handling plant on the riverside. These facilities helped to stimulate a little industrial development nearby before the First World War, but the settlement remained small and isolated.

Though the growth of the Port of London was the greatest single factor in the 19thcentury development of West Ham, there were other striking ways in which the impact of London's growing commerce made itself felt in the district. It was not only seaborne trade that was increasing. Internal trade was being multiplied and was both served and stimulated by the coming of the railway. The large share which London had in the railway traffic of the whole nation, its position as the terminus of most of the main routes, and the necessity for engine-sheds, sidings, and marshalling yards near to the termini, yet not so near as to complicate unduly the working of trains to and from them, were bound to lead to the creation of large-scale employment opportunities on the railways in a number of places very close to London. Stratford was one place which benefited in this way. It was the nearest junction to London on the Eastern Counties main line and it had abundant vacant land close to the railway. The influence of the railway was all the greater because the Eastern Counties Company chose to locate here its works for the building and repair of its rolling stock, and when this company in 1862 took over others to form the Great Eastern Railway, Stratford Works became the chief maintenance and construction centre of the entire system. For a short time in the eighteen-forties it had been subordinate to an establishment at Romford, but in 1847 the locomotive works at Romford was transferred to Stratford and the latter works then began to grow rapidly, as is shown by the following figures of the approximate numbers employed at different dates: 1845 72, 1850 1,500, 1855 2,000, 1872 3,000, 1885 3,800, 1890 5,070, 1892 5,260, 1895 4,970, 1900 6,800, 1906 6,450. (fn. 22) A further small contribution to employment on railway equipment in the district came after the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway took over in 1875 the operation of its own line, which had previously been leased out. (fn. 23) The maintenance works of this company were established at Plaistow but were small in comparison with those at Stratford, since they served a much smaller undertaking, which, moreover, built none of its own locomotives. (fn. 24)

The actual operation of the railways was also a plentiful and expanding source of employment, and since railway work involved somewhat more predictable hours than those of dock labourers it was practicable for the homes of the workers to be situated in some cases at rather greater distance from their depots. In 1891 2,033 railwaymen lived in West Ham and 869 in Leyton; (fn. 25) by 1901 the number had gone up to 3,674 in West Ham and 2,117 in Leyton, (fn. 26) and in 1911 to 3,743 in West Ham and 2,497 in Leyton. There were then also 1,297 in Walthamstow, (fn. 27) which had a small engine depot of its own.

Besides finding so much employment in London's commerce and traffic, parts of south-west Essex, particularly in West Ham, developed into important manufacturing centres, and much of the growth of manufacturing was directly connected with the inability of London to contain it. Many of the firms that established factories in West Ham had migrated from London. (fn. 28) Others were new but were engaged in activities which, though necessary and valuable, were increasingly unwelcome in London. West Ham, in fact, became the principal home of London's offensive trades. A large proportion of its factories were of a kind that produced dirt, fumes, and obnoxious waste and were exceptionally destructive of the amenity of their surroundings. A description of the eighteen-seventies testified to a great change in the character of the district: the factories of Stratford were in general characterized as 'of an equally unfragrant character', (fn. 29) and of the manufacturing districts of West Ham as a whole it was said that 'the buildings and their surroundings … are pleasing to none of the senses. Chemical works, varnish manufactories, match mills, candle factories, manure works, cocoa-nut fibre and leather-cloth factories, and distilleries, are on a large scale'. (fn. 30) In the next quarter of a century developments of this kind were carried a good deal further.

Much of the settlement of industry was more or less spontaneous; an abundance of flat, vacant land, ill-suited to non-industrial use, was quite likely to appeal to firms which in London could find but cramped quarters. There were, however, more deliberate influences tending to promote certain occupations in West Ham and to keep them out of London. There was the eagerness of landowners to make suitable sites available. In the eighteen-sixties, for instance, the landowners in Plaistow Marsh and the adjoining marsh-land were jointly seeking professional advice on how their property might be drained sufficiently to permit building on it, since they thought it suitable for working-class dwellings and the establishment of obnoxious trades which it was desired to expel from London. (fn. 31) Still more important was the state of the law and its enforcement. The London Building Act of 1844 (fn. 32) contained provisions to regulate the siting of offensive trades, and from 1876 many such trades were also controlled by by-laws made under the Slaughter House Act of 1874; slaughter-houses themselves had been subject to licence in London since 1851. But in West Ham there were no by-laws relating to offensive trades until 1885, there was less risk of an action for nuisance at common law, and when additional powers of control were acquired the local authority used them far less stringently than was the case in London. For instance, in one year, 1906, the West Ham Corporation received 1,660 complaints of breach of the smoke abatement laws but it did not undertake a single prosecution, and the thirty firms which were given warning notices were able to ignore them with impunity. (fn. 33) Some nuisances were too bad to be unregulated, and in the eighteen-seventies the West Ham Local Board went so far as to close down, under general sanitary powers, two establishments making manure from blood and fish; (fn. 34) and the County Borough Council followed the policy of approving the building plans of firms in obnoxious trades only if their factories were to be situated in one of the three main industrial areas, where similar activities were already established. (fn. 35) But, in general, offensive industries had ample scope.

In these circumstances the chemical trades (in a broad sense) became very important in West Ham. One chemical works existed in Plaistow at the beginning of the 19th century (fn. 36) but, apart from this, the growth of the industries took place at first almost exclusively in Stratford, where the first chemical works came in 1805. (fn. 37) In the middle of the century the Abbey Mills district began to be developed industrially and so, too, did the Thames frontage between North Woolwich and Bow Creek. The chemical industries grew in both these areas, especially the latter, where the first two industrial establishments were those of S. W. Silver & Co., the rubber manufacturers, from whom Silvertown derived its name, and Odam's chemical manure works. Both these firms took up their sites in 1852, though the works of the latter were not opened until 1855. (fn. 38) In this same year, 1852, there were about a dozen chemical firms in West Ham, and in the next quarter of a century there was a rapid increase. The information provided by directories (possibly incomplete) shows that there were 44 firms in West and East Ham (mainly the former) in 1863 and 70 in 1876, (fn. 39) the increase in the early seventies being particularly striking in the firms making manure from animal refuse. (fn. 40) Subsequently the growth in the number of firms was more gradual until a peak of over 80 was reached in 1896. (fn. 41) Expansion then was coming mainly from the increased size of individual factories, for the foundation of new businesses was nearly offset by the extinction of old ones. Altogether 193 different firms are known to have existed in the chemical trades in West and East Ham between 1840 and 1900, (fn. 42) but many had only a short life. The range of products was very wide. Of the firms existing in 1863 nine were described as manufacturing chemists, five made printing ink, and four others made blacking of various kinds, five were engaged in making creosote, tar or benzole, and four made paint or varnish. (fn. 43) Later developments brought an increase in the proportion of factories making soap and those making artificial manures, but this was perhaps less influential than the continued growth of the rubber industry, in which the local factories remained few in number, but became larger in size than those in most other branches of the chemical trades. Another change of some note was the spread of similar industries eastwards, chiefly in Barking. This was not a prominent feature, however, until early in the 20th century, though one chemical works was established in Barking as early as 1857. (fn. 44)

The great example of economic expansion in the late 19th century in this rather more easterly district was the gas industry, which was, of course, closely related to the chemical trades and was located with many of the same considerations in mind. Gasworks could be and often were sited in residential areas but they were never among the attractions of a neighbourhood and some degree of isolation for them was welcome. In any case some London gasworks had no space on which to expand as gas consumption increased. The Essex marshlands just outside London provided obvious advantages and it is hardly surprising that when the City of London decided in 1865 to build a civic gasworks it should have chosen West Ham as its location, or that the Imperial Company should also have done so two years later when planning new works. (fn. 45) Both these proposed schemes were rejected by Parliament, and were in fact only moves in a long series of quarrels and negotiations with the Gas Light and Coke Company, which, in order to meet demand, was facing the necessity of establishing new works and new mains. The company wanted enough space for a works where it could centralize a large part of its activity and still have room to expand and it also wanted a riverside position so that colliers could come alongside the works to unload. After considering various sites it purchased in 1868 about 500 acres of East Ham Marsh, alongside the Thames, partly in Barking, partly in East Ham, and partly in North Woolwich, and began to make gas there in 1870. (fn. 46) The site was given the name Beckton in honour of the company's governor, Simon Adams Beck, and on it were built a pier for colliers, a works with an internal railway system connected to the Great Eastern line, and cottages for some of the workmen. (fn. 47) The works were quickly expanded and by 1882, with twelve retort-houses, were already three times as large as had originally been planned. (fn. 48) In addition, in 1877 the company obtained statutory powers to make chemical by-products, principally tar and ammonia, and works for this purpose came into full operation at Beckton in 1879. (fn. 49) These works also were extended early in the 20th century (fn. 50) and during the First World War began to widen the scope of their activities by turning the coal-tar by-products into more highly processed chemicals. (fn. 51) These developments had the effect of making Beckton one of the chief sources of employment for the whole surrounding district, including West Ham, though there was the disadvantage of seasonal variations in the demand for labour. By the end of the 19th century approximately 10,000 men were normally employed at Beckton in winter. (fn. 52)

There were several other industries that grew to a substantial size in south-west Essex in the late 19th century, the most important being shipbuilding, engineering, building, sugar-refining, and confectionery. The development of shipbuilding is to be associated with the spread of a very old London industry rather than with any stimulus given by the Victoria and Albert Docks, for it was in 1846 that C. J. Mare, who was already established at Blackwall, took land for a shipyard on the Essex side of Bow Creek. (fn. 53) What is remarkable is the persistence of shipbuilding in West Ham into the 20th century, when the industry had practically died out elsewhere in London. Even in West Ham, however, it underwent a long period of decline. The great days were in the eighteen-fifties and sixties. By 1848 Mare's yard at Canning Town was already employing an average of 1,200 men and at times as many as 2,000, and though Mare's company became insolvent in 1856, the yard was immediately taken over by the Thames Ironworks, Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, (fn. 54) which made itself one of the best-equipped firms in the country. In the eighteen-sixties another shipyard, that of Campbell, Johnstone & Co., was opened at Silvertown, but in 1877 its site was acquired for a sugar refinery. (fn. 55) From the late sixties shipbuilding became steadily less important. Employment at the Thames Ironworks, which had reached a peak of 6,000 men, fell below 2,000 in 1867 and never again approached its old level; it was 1,529 in 1887, 2,151 in 1892, 2,804 in 1897, 3,178 in 1902 and 1,022 in the first six months of 1907. In shipbuilding it became more and more difficult to compete with firms located nearer to coal and iron, and the Thames Ironworks after 1866 had to rely on orders for warships and on general engineering work. As the figures of employment show there was some expansion at the end of the century, but it could not be maintained and when in 1912 the firm had launched its largest vessel, the 22,500-ton battleship Thunderer, shipbuilding came to an end in West Ham, (fn. 56) though ship repairing establishments continued to be active at the docks.

The other major industries were more permanent. Any up-to-date, large industrial district, particularly one with very dense traffic, was likely to provide scope for general engineering works of many kinds, and the rapid spread of houses over a large part of south-west Essex was bound to call large numbers of building firms into existence. The prominence of the manufactured food industries was less easy to foresee. In some cases the availability of waterside sites where the necessary raw materials were imported was a strong influence. The development of flour mills at the Victoria Dock was an obvious example of this. In others there was a continuation of a long-standing East London industrial tradition. Sugar refining had long been established there but was beginning to decline at the time when, in 1878 and 1881, refineries were opened at Silvertown. (fn. 57) In others there was some clustering of factories in related trades. It scarcely seems surprising, for example, to find confectionery and sugar works in the same district. But doubtless there were no special positive locational advantages for some of the factories. There were simply sites available without any very serious drawbacks.

It is clear that in West Ham, the greatest of the 19th-century Essex suburbs, local industry was both extensive and moderately varied. A survey of employment in factories, workshops, and laundries there, made in 1904 when it was nearing the end of its growth, may be used to give a rough indication of the relative magnitude of the various local industries. (fn. 58) The total number of the workers was 27,146, and the industrial groups employing the largest numbers were: locomotive and auto-motors 2,916; chemicals (excluding alkali, paints, soap and candles) 2,000; miscellaneous foods (excluding biscuits, bread, confectionery, corn, flour, cocoa, chocolate, and preserves) 1,768; coaches, carriages, etc., 1,672; textiles 1,609; (fn. 59) other machines, engines and engineering 1,545; india rubber, gutta percha, etc., 1,349; gas 1,177. A list of the principal factories in 1907 (Table 7) shows the number of establishments, irrespective of size, in each industry.

More accurate information about the extent of industry becomes available for 1921 when the numbers employed in each industry in each local government area were recorded in the census. The manufacturing industries located in West Ham which employed the most workers were: engineering (not marine or electrical) (6,545), food manufacture (including sugar refining but excluding sugar confectionery) (4,816), manufacture of chemicals (2,879), ship repairing and marine engineering (2,865), manufacture of electrical cables, wire and flex (2,470), manufacture of sugar confectionery (2,279), manufacture of soap, candles, and glycerine (2,155), manufacture of cardboard boxes, paper bags, and stationery (1,499), and manufacture of rubber and rubber goods (1,477). The local builders and contractors also employed 2,597. (fn. 60)

Outside West Ham no great manufacturing areas developed in the Essex suburbs before the First World War, and when in the 1921 census details of the address of every person's workplace were collected for the first time West Ham was shown to be the only local government area in the region where more of the population was employed locally than travelled to work elsewhere. (fn. 61) Some types of job, of course, were available locally in large numbers throughout the suburban area: the building industry was widespread; there had to be shops and some service industries, such as catering and laundering; local government was calling for steadily increasing staffs. But such occupations were very far from sufficient to employ most of the people who went to the suburbs. One or two other ways of absorbing some of the local labour have already been mentioned: East Ham, for instance, had a share in the docks and the great gasworks. But manufacturing districts, even on a much smaller scale than those of West Ham, were otherwise not very important save in Walthamstow and Barking. Even there, manufactures down to the end of the 19th century were mostly small handicrafts. In Walthamstow, for instance, the most numerous class of establishments was in boot and shoemaking, of which the directory for 1902 lists 137, whereas twenty years earlier only 18 were recorded. But there were some signs of the arrival of new industries: in 1902 there were 16 cycle manufacturers (fn. 62) and in the early 20th century several new factory industries were established, including some with a specially high demand for female labour. By 1921 the types of manufacturing industry employing the largest number of workers were the manufacture of self-propelled vehicles and cycles (2,549), the manufacture of scientific and photographic instruments and apparatus (1,233), and the manufacture of celluloid and casein compositions (1,258). At the same time the largest industries in Barking were the manufacture of ink, gum, matches, etc. (530 workers), the manufacture of rubber and rubber goods (510 workers) and the manufacture of chemicals (454 workers). One industrial group, the manufacture of electrical cables, wire, and flex, was substantially represented in Leyton with 1,306 workers. Elsewhere manufacturing industries were very small in proportion to the populations amid which they were situated, the chief being the manufacture of chemicals and electrical manufactures in Ilford, with 488 and 448 employees respectively. (fn. 63)

Table 7
Principal Factories in West Ham, 1907 a
Chemical trades:
Alkali works 2
Chemical factories 12
Chemical manure works 4
Ink factories 8
India rubber factories 3
Oil factories 5
Soap works 10
Varnish and paint works 10
Building trades:
Asbestos works 1
Asphalte works 1
Building contractors' works 6
Sawmills and timber yards 11
Stone works 1
Engineering trades:
Engineering works 14
Gas stove works 1
Food trades:
Breweries 3
Confectionery factories 10
Flour mills 4
Horse slaughter house 1
Malt works 1
Sugar refineries 2
Clothing trades:
Fur factory 1
Mat factory 1
Sack factories 3
Whole clothing factories 4
Miscellaneous trades:
Bottle factory 1
Boxmakers' factory 1
Coopers' works 1
Electrical works 2
Gas works 2
Iron foundry 1
Printing works 3
a W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 149.

Since there were so many suburban districts where, from the late 19th century, population was settling much more rapidly than industry, it is necessary to consider the extent to which residents were able to obtain or continue employment in businesses established elsewhere. Two types of arrangement were involved: first, some kind of 'putting-out' system under which a person worked at home for an employer with a warehouse or factory somewhere else; secondly, daily travel between homes and workplaces. On neither arrangement is information as reliable and abundant as one would wish, but it is at any rate clear that the second was of far more general significance than the first.

Home-work was one of the notorious, deep-rooted features of London's East End, and might be expected to spread to those neighbouring areas whose economic characteristics most resembled those of the East End. It was most obviously suited to unmechanized industries and could most easily attract workers in districts where there were large numbers of low-paid, irregularly employed men, whose womenfolk must earn something to supplement the family income, and where alternative employment for women was scarce. West Ham was the Essex district where such conditions were commonest, though they were not entirely confined to West Ham. The conditions in which home-work was carried on were often so obscure that no quantitative assessment of its extent can be reliable. For instance, in West Ham in 1906, 1,190 addresses of home-workers were recorded, most of them being those of clothing-workers whose addresses had to be notified to the local authority under the Factory Acts; but personal investigation of every address produced definite information about home-work in only 520 cases. (fn. 64) It is clear, however, what kinds of occupations were involved and where the work came from. Practically all types of clothing were put out to home-workers, and other articles dealt with in the same way included match-boxes, sacks, brushes, paper bags, curtain loops and umbrella-tassels. Some of the workers did not have to take or send their finished articles very far: the great majority of the employers of tailoresses and shirt-makers were in West Ham itself. But most of the firms supplying other types of work were in the City of London, with smaller numbers in the East End boroughs and West Ham. On the whole it was in the more skilled and better-paid work, such as the making of women's costumes, that the biggest proportion of employers came from as far away as the City, and this was work that was often undertaken without any severe economic pressure. Much of it was done in the more prosperous districts of Upton and Forest Gate by young women seeking extra pocket money. (fn. 65) But most of the home trades were carried on in the poorer areas by people in difficult circumstances. Married women were a majority of those engaged and 53 per cent. of them were the wives of general or dock labourers or building workers in irregular employment; the husbands of some others were unemployed artisans. (fn. 66)

Daily travel to and from work outside their own residential localities concerned a far more numerous and more prosperous set of people, but information about them, too, is very imprecise until the census of 1921. It is evident, however, when one considers the nature and extent of the businesses in many districts that the large numbers of residents in certain specified occupations could for the most part find their employment only in London. Clerical and professional occupations are the clearest examples, and the strikingly high proportions of clerical workers in the population of East Ham, Ilford and Leyton, and of professional men in Ilford, as soon as these places had experienced substantial residential development, suggest how dependent they were on employment in London. But daily movement was not confined to persons in such occupations; considerable, though unknown, numbers of artisans, labourers and small traders must have been involved too. The growth of Walthamstow, for instance, where clerks were not so big a proportion of the population, was closely related to the provision of workmen's trains to London, (fn. 67) and it is well known that in the late 19th century many workmen walked appreciable distances each day. A census of pedestrains in West Ham on 25 April 1907 illustrated movement of this kind: between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. 7,572 persons left the borough on foot and 7,501 entered it. (fn. 68) The large scale of the daily movement to and from work called forth numerous contemporary descriptions. Leyton, at the beginning of the 20th century, was described by the chairman of its urban district council as 'practically a huge dormitory', with its people working mainly in the City but to some extent in Hackney and Whitechapel. (fn. 69) On a few elements in the daily movement more exact evidence is occasionally available: in the early years of this century about 7,100 people used to travel daily by train from Walthamstow to Liverpool Street between 7.30 a.m. and 8 a.m.; (fn. 70) the workmen's trains which ran on this line between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. carried about 7,400 passengers. (fn. 71)

The inquiry of 1921 made plain how general the separation of homes and workplaces had then become. The numbers living in each of the Essex suburbs and working elsewhere were: West Ham 50,212, East Ham 41,524, Leyton 38,201, Walthamstow 33,679, Ilford 21,749, Barking Town 8,592, Woodford 4,935, Wanstead 4,474, Chingford 2,410; a total of 205,775, i.e. 54.4 per cent. of the occupied population of 378,470. (fn. 72) Of the total number of daily travellers 151,433 (73.6 per cent.) worked in London, including 59,934 (29.1 per cent.) in the City. (fn. 73) Apart from London, West Ham was the chief workplace for the people of the other Essex suburbs. As the one great industrial and commercial district of the suburbs it needed a large daily influx of labour to offset the daily outflow; altogether 35,100 people worked in West Ham and lived outside it, 21,918 in other parts of Essex (chiefly Leyton and East Ham), but 10,081 in London, over half of these coming from the nearby boroughs of Poplar, Woolwich, and Stepney. (fn. 74)

Various relationships may be used to illustrate the extent to which the different suburbs were dependent for their existence on the employment of their residents elsewhere. One index is obtained by expressing the net daily movement (i.e., the excess of the number of persons living in the area and working outside it over the number living outside it and working within it) as a percentage of the total resident population. This index shows a sharp distinction between West Ham and all the other suburbs, among which the differences are not great. The figures are: Leyton 25.3, Wanstead 24.4, East Ham 23.7, Walthamstow 21.9, Chingford 19.6, Barking Town 18.5, Woodford 17.2, Ilford 17.1, West Ham 5.0. (fn. 75) This index, however, may be distorted by differences in the proportion of married women in paid employment, in the proportion of children, and in the proportion of retired persons. In some ways the relation of the gross daily outflow of workers to the total occupied population is a more significant index. For the Essex suburbs as a whole this, as has been seen, was 54.4 per cent.; the percentages for each area were: Leyton 66.5, Wanstead 66.4, East Ham 65.3, Ilford 58.8, Walthamstow 58.1, Chingford 57.8, Barking Town 56.8, Woodford 54.0, and West Ham 38.8. (fn. 76) The percentages of the total occupied population of each area who worked in London were: Walthamstow 47.4, Ilford 46.9, Wanstead 44.4, Leyton 44.3 East Ham 43.2, Woodford 36.1, Chingford 34.8, West Ham 32.6, and Barking Town 25.1. (fn. 77) The contrast between these figures and the two preceding sets is in some respects very striking. They suggest, for instance, great differences, which the previous figures entirely conceal, in the economic character of the two adjoining areas, Ilford and Barking Town; the former very heavily dependent on work which only London could provide, the latter not a self-supporting town but particularly concerned with the trade, manufactures and constructional activity of its immediate neighbourhood. (fn. 78) They suggest also that by this time some parts of West Ham must have had economic characteristics very similar to those of much of the rest of the suburban area.

The general economic character of the suburbs, which shows itself in their occupational structure, depended indeed both on the industrial and commercial development within them and on the increase in London of jobs of a kind that it was practicable to combine with residence at a distance. If, when London first began to spread into Essex, the former influence was paramount, it seems clear that by the end of the 19th century the latter had come to outweigh it. Consequently those London occupations with regular employment, predictable hours, and moderate wages or salaries came to be heavily represented in the population.

West Ham in 1891 after twenty years of phenomenal growth may be taken as representative of the earlier phase of suburban development. In that year 12.9 per cent. of its occupied males were described as general labourers, 8.9 per cent. were in the building trades, 5.6 per cent. were machine-makers, 5.4 per cent. were dock and wharf labourers, and 5.4 per cent. were commercial clerks. By contrast, in the Urban Sanitary District of Leyton, which had begun to develop rather later, commercial clerks at that time were 11.9 per cent. of the occupied males, whereas general labourers were only 4.6 per cent.; workers in the building trades formed 10.6 per cent. of the total. For the minority of women who sought paid employment the only important outlets were indoor domestic service and the clothing trades. The former accounted for 31.7 per cent. of the occupied females in West Ham and 37.6 per cent. in Leyton, the latter for 19.5 per cent. in West Ham and 20.2 per cent. in Leyton. (fn. 79) Twenty years later the newer suburbs were showing a distribution of occupations strikingly different from that which had arisen in West Ham, as can be seen in Table 8.

Table 8
Numbers of Males in Certain Groups of Occupations as Percentages of All Occupied Males, 1911 a
Area Cent. or loc. govt. Professions Merchants, agents, accountants, banking and insurance Commercial or business clerks Railways
West Ham C. B. 2.41 2.18 2.05 5.56 4.22
East Ham M.B. 3.89 3.50 3.90 9.99 2.77
Ilford U.D. 7.44 6.17 10.76 16.20 4.92
Leyton U.D. 4.01 4.34 6.04 11.13 6.64
Walthamstow U.D. 3.78 3.37 3.50 7.42 3.50
Area Roads Dock labourers, coal heavers, etc. Building and construction Chemicals General engineering and machine making
West Ham C.B. 5.40 7.91 8.20 5.12 6.98
East Ham M.B. 3.59 3.88 10.43 2.79 4.64
Ilford U.D. 2.53 0.38 6.86 1.86 2.04
Leyton U.D. 4.68 0.91 10.10 1.45 4.44
Walthamstow U.D. 4.97 0.82 13.22 1.38 2.81
a Census, 1911, vol. x, pt. i. 496–7. The figures have been reworked so as to express percentages of all occupied males, instead of percentages of all males aged ten and over, as printed.

The differences in the first four columns of figures are particularly noteworthy, with West Ham showing very low proportions, Ilford very high ones, and East Ham, Leyton and Walthamstow coming in between with roughly similar figures. A somewhat similar impression is given by the distribution of certain occupations for women, who by this time were extensively employed in clerical work. The percentage of occupied females who were classed as commercial, law, bank and insurance clerks in 1911 was 11.65 in Ilford, 8.43 in Leyton, 8.19 in East Ham, 5.88 in Walthamstow, and 4.86 in West Ham. The percentage who were teachers was also unusually high in Ilford (7.33) and Leyton (5. 18). (fn. 80) The smaller new suburbs that had increased their speed of growth since 1901 also contained an exceptionally high proportion of clerical and professional workers. In 1911 the percentage of commercial or business clerks among the occupied males was 16.33 in Wanstead and 11.84 in Woodford. Merchants, agents, accountants and those in banking or insurance were 15.31 per cent. of the total in Wanstead and 10.67 per cent. in Woodford. The figure for the professions was 10.38 in Wanstead and 5.78 in Woodford. (fn. 81) Of the occupied females living in Wanstead 9.44 per cent. were teachers. (fn. 82)

The interpretation to be put on these figures appears to be that the persisting differences in the character of different parts of the suburban area depend largely on the date of their growth. The great industrial and commercial establishments of suburban Essex in the 19th century were built up mostly from the fifties to the eighties, and the districts that grew up with them, West Ham and some areas very close to its border, such as Cann Hall, were indelibly marked by the conditions of that time. What was created there was a great seaport and manufacturing town rather than what people now think of when they hear the word 'suburb'. In the eighteen-eighties and nineties, when Leyton, Walthamstow and East Ham grew from very little practically to completion, conditions were different. Increasing administrative and clerical employment (particularly in London), falling prices with little or no reduction in the wages of many workers, rather shorter working hours in many trades, better transport —all these helped to make it possible for large numbers of people, wherever they worked to take a new house in the suburbs. It was not merely the wealthier professional men and others of the higher reaches of the middle class who could do this; the lower-paid among the clerks could also do it and so could skilled artisans. But from the end of the 19th century until the First World War prices were rising and the wages of most manual workers were hardly keeping pace with them. There were no longer such great increases in the number of those who found themselves with a little more money to spend and a little more time to spare, both of which could be devoted to establishing a family more comfortably in a suburb that could not offer much local employment. In the absence of subsidies it was only the business and professional men, the civil servants, and the better-paid and more secure (which, in most cases probably means some of the middle-aged) among the clerks who could afford to move in appreciable numbers to new suburbs, and it was principally to serve them that building went on in the suburbs, mainly in Ilford, in this period.


  • 1. There had been earlier some settlement of small numbers of prosperous people whose interests were in the capital. The large early-19th-century houses of the Park and Upton wards of West Ham (West Ham: a study in social and industrial problems, ed. E. G. Howarth and M. Wilson, 42–43) were doubtless associated with settlement of this kind. For comparable small developments in the villages of the district a century earlier see Defoe, Tour through England and Wales, i. 6.
  • 2. A. P. Crouch, Silvertown and neighbourhood: a retrospect, 59.
  • 3. R. Com. on Port of London, Mins. of Evid. [Cd. 1152], q. 818, H.C. (1902), xliii.
  • 4. J. G. Broodbank, Hist. Port of London, i. 196.
  • 5. R. Com. on Port of London, Apps. [Cd. 1153], pp. 42–43, H.C. (1902) xliv.
  • 6. Ibid. Mins. of Evid. q. 818.
  • 7. Ibid, Report [Cd. 1151], p. 66, H.C. (1902), xliii.
  • 8. Ibid, Apps. pp. 42–43.
  • 9. Ibid. Report, p. 66.
  • 10. Ibid. Mins. of Evid. q. 8332.
  • 11. Stratford Express, 18 Feb. 1911.
  • 12. Port of London Authority Monthly, June 1927.
  • 13. J. G. Broodbank, Hist. Port of London, i. 230.
  • 14. R. Com. on Labour [C. 6894–VIII], p. 556 and chart iii, H.C. (1893–4), xxxiii.
  • 15. West Ham, ed. E. G. Howarth and M. Wilson, 228.
  • 16. Ibid. 254.
  • 17. Census, 1911, vol. x, Occupations and Industries, pt. i. 394–5.
  • 18. Ibid. 1901, Essex, 69, 74.
  • 19. Ibid. 1911, vol. x, pt. i. 394–5.
  • 20. A. P. Crouch, Silvertown and neighbourhood, 64.
  • 21. For Dagenham Dock see below p. 284.
  • 22. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 161; A. P. Parker, 'Great Eastern Railway works at Stratford', in Various Authors, Round the works of our great railways, 148.
  • 23. H. D. Welch, London, Tilbury and Southend Railway, 3, 10.
  • 24. Ibid. 35–37 (complete list of locomotives and their makers).
  • 25. Census, 1891, vol. iii. 156–7.
  • 26. Ibid. 1901, Essex, 70, 74.
  • 27. Ibid. 1911, vol. x, pt. i. 394–5.
  • 28. Numerous examples are given by W. A. Parks, 'The development of the heavy chemical industry of West Ham and district'. (Lond. Univ. M.Sc. thesis, 1950), passim. Firms came from many different parts of London.
  • 29. J. Thorne, Handbk. to Environs of London, 598.
  • 30. Ibid. 683. 'Large scale' presumably refers to the number of establishments rather than their size.
  • 31. R. Com. on Pollution of Rivers, 2nd Rep. (River Lee), vol. ii [3835–1], qq. 5598–602, H.C. (1867), xxxiii.
  • 32. 7 & 8 Vict. c. 84.
  • 33. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 145–8.
  • 34. W. A. Parks, 'Heavy chemical industry of W. Ham'. (Lond. Univ. M.Sc. thesis), 137.
  • 35. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 145.
  • 36. Ibid. 139.
  • 37. G. L. M. Strauss, C. W. Quin, and others, England's Workshops, 142.
  • 38. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 140–1.
  • 39. W. A. Parks, 'Heavy chemical industry of W. Ham.'. (M.Sc. thesis), 28–29, 32.
  • 40. Ibid. 137.
  • 41. Ibid. 32.
  • 42. Ibid. 34–40.
  • 43. Ibid. 28–29.
  • 44. See below, p. 242.
  • 45. S. Everard, Hist. Gas Light and Coke Co. 226; Rep. Sel. Ctee. on Metropolis Gas Bill, H.C. 520, p. xv (1867), xii.
  • 46. A. Stokes, East Ham from village to county borough (3rd edn.), 265.
  • 47. Everard, op. cit. 234–5.
  • 48. Ibid. 253.
  • 49. Ibid. 263–4.
  • 50. Ibid. 303.
  • 51. Ibid. 314.
  • 52. Rep. Sel. Ctee. on Metropol. Gas Companies, H.C. 294, q. 2490 (1899), x.
  • 53. M. Christy, 'Hist. ship-building in Essex', E.R. xvi. 28.
  • 54. Ibid. 29.
  • 55. Crouch, Silvertown, 84.
  • 56. S. Pollard, 'Decline of ship-building on the Thames', Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. iii. 85–88; W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 161.
  • 57. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 142.
  • 58. Ibid. inset f. p. 176. The difficulty in reconciling the figures for different industries with those given, elsewhere in the same work, for the number of employees at one or two individual establishments, makes one doubt whether the figures for industries as a whole are as comprehensive as they purport to be; but no better figures exist for any date before 1921.
  • 59. The largest source of textile employment was a jute factory, which closed down a few months after these figures were returned.
  • 60. Census, 1921, Industry Tables, 338–82.
  • 61. Ibid. Workplaces, 6.
  • 62. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1882 and Kelly's Lond. Suburban Dir. 1902. These figures, and information on a number of other points, were extracted for the writer by Dr. Nelly J. M. Kerling.
  • 63. Census, 1921, Industry Tables, 338–82.
  • 64. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 256–7.
  • 65. Ibid. 271–97.
  • 66. Ibid. 268.
  • 67. Rep. R. Com. on London Traffic, vol. i [Cd. 2597], p. 14, H.C. (1905), xxx.
  • 68. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 153.
  • 69. Rep. R. Com. on London Traffic, vol. ii [Cd. 2751], q. 15,218, H.C. (1906), xl.
  • 70. Ibid. q. 18,560.
  • 71. Ibid. q. 19,117.
  • 72. Census, 1921, Workplaces, 6.
  • 73. Ibid. 52–55.
  • 74. Ibid. 53.
  • 75. Ibid. 6.
  • 76. Calculated from the figures in ibid. 6.
  • 77. Calculated from the figures in ibid. 6, 52–55.
  • 78. Beckton gasworks was apparently treated as an East Ham address, though the site is partly in Barking, and this increased the figure for those living in Barking and working elsewhere.
  • 79. Calculated from the figures in Census, 1891, Ages etc. vol. iii. 156–63.
  • 80. Calculated from Census, 1911, vol. x, pt. i, 432–3.
  • 81. Calculated from ibid. 394–5.
  • 82. Calculated from ibid. 432–3.