East Ham: Economic history and the marshes

Pages 14-18

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.

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


In this section


Until the 19th century East Ham's main occupation was agriculture. In 1086 the manor of Ham held by Robert Gernon, and formerly by Levred, which probably comprised most of East Ham, contained 7 hides. (fn. 1) The arable land was being cultivated by 16 plough-teams—six more than in 1066. There was woodland for 700 swine, and 50 a. of meadow. The livestock comprised 15 'beasts' (animalia), 34 swine, 200 sheep, 4 rounceys, and 3 hives of bees. The sheep, rounceys, and bees had all, apparently, been added since 1066, while the beasts and swine had increased from 8 and 20 respectively. Gernon's manor had been enlarged since the Conquest by the annexation of 3 virgates held by Edwin, a free priest. Edwin's estate had woodland for 10 swine and 9 a. meadow; there was half a plough-team there in 1086, compared with a whole team in 1066. At the Conquest Levred's manor had been worth £10. By the time that Gernon had acquired it the value had depreciated to £7, but under his control it had risen to £18 in 1086. The recorded population had also increased, from 56 (34 villeins, 3 bordars, 19 serfs), to 67 (38, 26, 3). Westminster Abbey's manor of Ham, which lay in the marshes, comprised 2 hides, with 1 plough-team and woodland for 8 swine; its value had increased, between 1066 and 1086, from £1 to £3, and its population from 3 bordars to 5. (fn. 2)

The most notable feature of East Ham's agrarian economy, as revealed by the above statistics, was the large area of woodland, reckoned to be sufficient for a total of 718 swine. This represents a ratio of 28.8 swine to each 100 a. of the parish area—one of the highest densities even in this well-wooded part of the county. (fn. 3) There is little doubt that in the 11th century the forest in East Ham extended well to the south of the main London road. (fn. 4) The Domesday figures relating to plough-teams on Gernon's manor show that there was a considerable area of arable in 1086 and that this had been greatly increased during the previous twenty years. The figures relating to livestock, population, and values provide further evidence that Gernon was farming the manor much more intensively than his Saxon predecessor. The figures relating to sheep are especially striking. In 1086, as later, these animals were probably pastured on the marshes beside the Thames and the Roding.

This intensive farming of the manor of East Ham probably continued for more than a century after 1086. This would account for the disappearance, by the later 13th century, of most of the Domesday woodland, and to references, in the 13th and 14th centuries, to 'worn out' land. (fn. 5) The small amount of documentary evidence which survives suggests that between the 14th century and the 19th the pattern of land use in East Ham remained more or less constant, with the northern half of the parish being tilled as arable, (fn. 6) and the coastal marshes used for grazing. (fn. 7) During the 14th and earlier 15th centuries there was serious flooding in the marshes, which must have greatly reduced the amount of profitable pasture, but land reclamation had started there by the earlier 16th century, and seems to have continued steadily thereafter.

It is doubtful whether open fields ever existed in the parish. A conveyance of 1244, relating to a virgate of land in East Ham (in this case 39 a.), describes it in detail as comprising 14 different portions, lying in 11 different culturae. (fn. 8) If the cultura here means a 'furlong' this would imply the existence of open fields, but it may here mean no more than 'field', since several of the culturae have names clearly suggesting inclosure: 'Heccroft', 'Littlehope', 'Morehope', and 'Newelond'. If open fields ever did exist, they were no doubt in the centre of the parish, between the forest and the marshes, and they must have been inclosed early.

Marshland commons, which are known to have existed in the neighbouring parish of Barking, and in Dagenham, (fn. 9) have not been found in East Ham, and it is quite certain that, from the 16th century if not earlier, all the marshlands there were owned in severalty. The absence of common rights probably facilitated the development of grazing for the London meat market. Butchers occur as tenants of land in East Ham level in various deeds of the 17th and 18th centuries. (fn. 10) John Combes, a grazier who reared cattle on the marshes there, was mentioned in 1648, when he suffered forfeiture as a royalist. He was also said to have sheep on the Woolwich marshes, and property in Westminster. (fn. 11) In addition to meat, the marshes furnished reeds and osiers, which were being cultivated at least as early as 1545 and as late as 1852. (fn. 12)

In the 18th century the farmers of East Ham began to grow potatoes and other garden produce on a commercial scale. By 1756 the potato and turnip crops were sufficiently important to be the subject of a special tithe agreement between the vestry and the vicar. (fn. 13) In 1794–5 about 450 a. were said to have been cropped with potatoes, and a further 120 a. with cabbages and other vegetables, representing in all over half the arable area of the parish. (fn. 14) Associated with the cultivation of potatoes was the immigration of Irish labourers, which was affecting East Ham by about 1800, if not earlier. It was reported in 1790 that a large body of men, who said they were Irish, had committed armed assaults in the parish. (fn. 15) They may have come from elsewhere, but there was certainly an Irish colony at East Ham in 1811, living in Irish Row on the main Stratford-Ilford road. (fn. 16) Near Irish Row was a farm previously called Plashet Hall, which during the earlier 19th century became known as Potato Hall. (fn. 17) An influx of Irish took place in 1816, and another in 1831. (fn. 18) In 1839 13 per cent of the occupiers of property in the parish had recognizably Irish names. (fn. 19) From 1845 to 1848 most of the East Ham potato crops were destroyed by disease, (fn. 20) but by that time the parish was becoming noted for its cabbages, which were taken up to the London markets in large quantities. (fn. 21) Onions also were an important local crop, (fn. 22) and were evidently grown for pickling, since Crosse & Blackwell had onion-sheds in Jews Farm Lane (now East Avenue) in 1880. (fn. 23) Watercress was still being grown in Little Ilford in 1894. (fn. 24)

In 1839 there were some 16 farms of more than 50 a. of which 5 were over 100 a. (fn. 25) Directories of 1848 and 1863 list under East Ham 18 and 16 farmers respectively; in each case 7 are stated to be also market-gardeners. (fn. 26) As late as 1886 there were still at least 9 farmers in the parish. (fn. 27) Most of these disappeared during the next decade as the land was cut up for building, though one or two small farms survived longer. (fn. 28) By 1905 there were only 122 a. arable and 93½ a. permanent grass in East Ham. (fn. 29)

There was a windmill on the manor of East Ham in 1268 and later. (fn. 30) It may have been on the site, about a mile north of East Ham creek, occupied in 1741 by a post mill. (fn. 31) That mill apparently survived until about 1870. (fn. 32)

Apart from agriculture, and the small crafts and trades common to all villages, few occupations have been noted in the parish before 1850. There is little evidence of maritime trades at East Ham itself, but some men from the parish are known to have practised such trades in neighbouring parishes. Between 1797 and 1827, for example, most of the East Ham parish apprentices were bound to Barking fishermen. (fn. 33) A ropemaker of Wall End, listed in 1848, no doubt did most of his business with the fishermen. (fn. 34) Gravel digging is occasionally mentioned in and after the 17th century. (fn. 35) A starchmaker occurs in 1604. (fn. 36) There was a silk-weaver at Wall End in 1826. (fn. 37) A pewterer (1616) (fn. 38) and a moneyer (1707), (fn. 39) both described as of East Ham, probably worked in London. Nine alehouses are listed in a return of 1670, (fn. 40) while a directory of 1848 mentions 6 inns and 4 beerhouses. (fn. 41)

The modern industrial development of East Ham started in the 1870s with the opening of Beckton gas works of the Gas Light & Coke Co., and its ancillary works making chemical by-products. (fn. 42) Beckton, enlarged several times, became one of the largest employers in south-west Essex, drawing thousands of workers from the whole surrounding district. East Ham was naturally affected by these developments. Part of the works lay in the parish, and so did the workers' houses built by the company, but the early influence of the works on the growth of East Ham was limited by poor communications between Beckton and the other parts of the parish. For many years after the opening of Beckton the only public transport serving the works was the railway which connected at Canning Town with the North Woolwich line. (fn. 43) This made it much easier to travel from Canning Town, Plaistow, or Stratford, than from the central and northern districts of East Ham. Frequent workmen's trains also ensured that Beckton would be able to draw labour from those populous districts of West Ham. The National Union of Gas Workers, founded in 1889, set up its headquarters not in East Ham but in Canning Town. (fn. 44)

East Ham's other great modern industry is the docks, and here the links with West Ham are even more obvious, since the whole of the Royal Victoria Dock, opened in 1855, was in that parish. The Royal Albert Dock (1880) and the King George V Dock (1921) were mainly in East Ham, but, like Beckton, have always been more easily accessible from West Ham. (fn. 45)

The fact that both Beckton and the docks were able to draw much of their labour from West Ham is one reason why there was relatively little residential building at Beckton and North Woolwich. Another reason is that both those industries needed a great and increasing amount of land. Their demands not only reduced the areas of vacant land available for housing but sometimes, as in the case of the King George V Dock, necessitated the actual demolition of dwellings. At Beckton, no doubt, residential building was also discouraged by atmospheric pollution.

The extreme south of East Ham thus became, during the later 19th century, an industrial zone to which most of the workers travelled from elsewhere. Later developments have carried the process farther in the same direction. Other industries have been set up, including several closely associated with Beckton or the docks, for example G. J. Palmer & Sons, in East Ham Manor Way, who process clinker and coke, and R. H. Green & Silley Weir, ship repairers and marine engineers, of the Royal Albert Dock, (fn. 46) while bombing, during the Second World War, destroyed some of the dwellings, especially at North Woolwich.

Elsewhere modern industry has been on a much smaller scale. While East Ham was still a village, with plenty of space and few sanitary restrictions, it began to attract obnoxious trades. A factory in Romford Road making animal charcoal existed in 1861–3. (fn. 47) In 1879–81 there were several complaints concerning the nuisance caused by Charles Hart's horse slaughterer's (or horse-boiling) factory at the top of Red Post Lane. (fn. 48) This still existed in 1882 but was gone by 1886. (fn. 49) Its disappearance was evidently hastened by pressure from the newlyformed local board, which in 1883 also took action against an unlicensed slaughterhouse in Whitta Road, Manor Park. (fn. 50) In 1884 there were complaints about a fish-skin drying business at Plashet, (fn. 51) but there are no later references to factories of this kind: (fn. 52) no doubt they were driven away by the residential development of the district, which was, in fact, so rapid and complete that it left little room for factories of any kind. In the decade after 1900, when there was a good deal of local unemployment, the absence of industry came to be seen as a disadvantage, and in 1908 the influential East Ham ratepayers' association urged the borough council to advertise the borough as a suitable place for factories. (fn. 53) Since then the numbers of those employed within East Ham has increased considerably. (fn. 54) This has, of course, been partly due to the expansion of Beckton and the docks, but there has also been some industrial growth elsewhere in the town.

Shortage of space, as well as the need to preserve residential amenities, has meant that most of the factories outside the southern industrial region of East Ham have been relatively small. Products fall into five main groups: chemicals; engineering; timber; food and drink; clothing and footwear. Among the earliest chemical factories was that of Brisker & Co., who in 1878–82 were making matches, blacking, and blacklead at Upton Park. (fn. 55) This may have continued under different ownership, since there are various references to a match factory at Florence Road, Upton Park, between 1887 and 1906. (fn. 56) At Manor Park the manufacture of 'Gloy' and other adhesive pastes has been carried on since 1907 at the Eighth Avenue works by Associated Adhesives (formerly A. Wilme Collier & Co.). (fn. 57) Engineering, including metal work of various kinds, has been a local industry from about 1885. Many of the firms engaged in it have been short-lived, or are of recent foundation, but they include one, D. B. Foulger & Son, of Upton Park, which traces its origin to a blacksmith's shop opened about 1860. (fn. 58) There were several saw-mills in the parish between 1886 and the First World War. (fn. 59)

The first known reference to the processing of food or drink is the approval, in 1893, of building plans for a ginger-beer factory in Katherine Road. (fn. 60) The production of Mellin's Food for Infants was carried on for some years, about 1900–10, in a large factory in Redclyffe Road. (fn. 61) Robertson & Woodcock, makers of 'Trebor' sweets, opened a factory in Shaftesbury Road in 1907; their present building was erected in 1937. (fn. 62) The manufacture of clothing, especially shirts, blouses, and corsets, has been carried on at East Ham at least since 1906, in a number of establishments. (fn. 63)

One other trade demands attention: that of monumental mason. East Ham has no fewer than five cemeteries, and the demand for masons' work had by 1886 led to the opening of six such firms at Manor Park. Those of Benjamin Clarke, Druitt, and Cosburn continued in business for at least 30 years. (fn. 64)


The East Ham 'levels', as defined in and after the 16th century for the purposes of marshland drainage and flood control, comprised an area of over 1,500 acres. The greater part of this, about 1,000 a., lay in East Ham parish, between the church and the Thames, and along Back river. (fn. 65) A further 100 a. were in Little Ilford parish, beside the Roding. The remainder included the West marsh of Barking, which lay to the west of Barking creek, and the detached part of Woolwich to the north of the Thames.

Much of what has already been written concerning the marshes of Barking and of Dagenham, especially in relation to floods and their prevention, is applicable to East Ham. (fn. 66) During the Middle Ages nearly half the land in East Ham levels, and therefore the main responsibility for flood control, lay with the abbeys of Stratford and Barking. There, as in the Barking levels, flooding seems to have been especially severe in the 14th century. In 1309, when the monks of Stratford sought licence to appropriate the rectory of East Ham, they pleaded poverty resulting from flood-damage. (fn. 67) The floods of 1377, which devastated much of the east coast, probably affected East Ham as badly as they did Barking. (fn. 68) A record of 1386 mentions a 'breach towards Barking' in the marshes belonging to the abbot of Stratford and the abbess of Barking, who were accused of organizing illegal fishing within the breach. (fn. 69) Since Stratford Abbey had hardly any land in the Barking levels, the reference almost certainly relates to the East Ham levels. In 1421 Hugh, Lord Burnell (d.1420) was said to have held 101 a. land in East and West Ham 'parcel of 145 a. marsh submerged under water'. (fn. 70) In 1500 'drowned marshes in the West marsh of Barking' were mentioned. (fn. 71) All these references, along with certain other features of the topography of the West marsh, (fn. 72) suggest that during the 14th and 15th centuries the East Ham levels, and especially the south-eastern parts, were affected by serious and prolonged flooding.

A survey of 1563 shows East Ham under the jurisdiction of the commissioners of a court of sewers whose area extended from West Ham to Mucking. (fn. 73) The East Ham levels then comprised 1,579 a. Of this Ilford mead (122 a.) was in Little Ilford parish, adjoining the Roding. Farther south, beside Back river, were Sibley meads (17 a.), Dunns mead (6. a.), Butells marsh (13 a.), and Parley marsh (86½ a.). Adjoining Barking creek were Whitings marsh (191½ a.), Whitings marsh new grounds (20 a.), and Longs marsh (100 a.). Farther west, along the Thames, were Greens and Galleons marshes (180 a.), Woolwich marsh (180 a.), Wickland marsh (132 a.), New marsh (430 a.), Tonne marsh (28 a.), Old Tonne marsh (16 a.), and New Inned grounds (57 a.). Before the Dissolution Stratford Abbey had owned 399½ a. in those levels, Barking Abbey 352½ a., and the abbeys of St. Mary Graces (Lond.) and Westminster 100 a. and 40 a. respectively. The largest lay owner was the lord of the manor of East and West Ham Burnells, with 329 a.

This 1563 survey mentions specifically, as newly 'inned' (i.e. reclaimed), a total of 77 a. There is other evidence, also, that considerable progress was then being made in reclaiming the marshes. The 'New Inned marsh alias Green marsh' occurs in 1540: (fn. 74) this may have been one of the marshes in East and West Ham which had been reclaimed by William Hyccheman (or Hicheman), abbot of Stratford (c. 1499–1516) and Richard Gouge. (fn. 75) Even after the 16th century the process of reclamation was sometimes reversed, as in 1612–13, when 'divers dangerous breaches were made' in the East Ham and neighbouring levels, (fn. 76) but in the long run the area of marshland within the sea walls gradually increased. In 1741 the East Ham levels comprised 1,666 a., (fn. 77) and by 1850 the area was 1,742 a. (fn. 78) Part of the increase may represent former 'upland' brought under the jurisdiction of the commissioners of sewers in order to promote better drainage, but part of it must have been reclaimed land.

In 1931 the East Ham levels, like those of Barking, came under the control of the Essex Rivers catchment board, which in 1952 was merged in the Essex river board. During the great flood of 1953 East Ham suffered hardly any damage. (fn. 79)


The history of the forest is treated under West Ham. (fn. 80)


  • 1. V.C.H. Essex, i. 515. Some of the figures relating to this manor are ambiguous. It has been assumed that the 'hundred' for sheep was the 'long hundred', or six score: cf. ibid. 369.
  • 2. Ibid. 444.
  • 3. Ibid. 375.
  • 4. For the forest see p. 95.
  • 5. Cal. Inq. p.m. ii. 508; ibid. v. 390–1.
  • 6. The later medieval evidence relating to arable land comes mainly from inquisitions post mortem, references to which are given under the manors of East Ham and East and West Ham Burnells.
  • 7. For the marshes see p. 17.
  • 8. Feet of F. Essex, i. 148.
  • 9. V.C.H. Essex, v. 215, 282.
  • 10. E.R.O., D/DB 400–32; ibid. D/DEl T367.
  • 11. E.R. xxi. 28.
  • 12. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xx(1), p. 672; B.M. Add. MS. 32450 B; cf. also Feet of F. Essex, iv. 291; Cal. Pat. 1554–5, 61; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1670, 128; E.R.O., D/CT 159.
  • 13. E.R.O., D/P 156/8/1 (20 Apr. 1756).
  • 14. Lysons, London, iv. 138: comparisons with later figures suggest that Lysons's estimates were far from precise.
  • 15. E.R.O., Q/SBb 338.
  • 16. K. Fry and R. E. Cresswell, Memoir of Elizabeth Fry, i. 167–9.
  • 17. Eastern Counties Rly. Map, 1853.
  • 18. E.R.O., D/P 156/8/3; ibid. Sage Coll. No. 860.
  • 19. E.R.O., D/CT 159.
  • 20. Stokes, E. Ham, 143.
  • 21. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 476; cf. K. Fry, E. and W. Ham, 16.
  • 22. Cf. W. C. Streatfeild's verses, c. 1850: Stokes, E. Ham, 166.
  • 23. E.H.L., E. Ham Loc. Bd. Mins. Mar. 1880; cf. Oct. 1886, where the sheds are again mentioned, but without the company's name. For a photograph of them see E.H.L., Photos. (Streets).
  • 24. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1894, p. 219.
  • 25. E.R.O., D/CT 159.
  • 26. White's Dir. Essex, 1848 and 1863.
  • 27. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1886.
  • 28. Ibid. 1908 lists, e.g. John Ivory, Wilson farm, Plashet Grove. Beddall's farm, Manor Way, still existed in 1964.
  • 29. Bd. of Agric., Rtns. of Acreages, 1905.
  • 30. Cal. Inq. p.m. i, p. 217–18; ibid. ii, p. 86; ibid. iii, p. 106; Reg. Baldock, 1304–13, 98–100.
  • 31. E.R.O., D/SH 8.
  • 32. Stokes, E. Ham, 122.
  • 33. E.R.O., D/P 156/14.
  • 34. White's Dir. Essex, 1848.
  • 35. Assizes 35/115/4 (1 Mar. 1675) and 35/117/2 (Winter 1676); E.R.O., Sage Coll. No. 860 (Irish gravel diggers in 1831).
  • 36. E.R.O., Q/SR 170/57.
  • 37. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 463.
  • 38. Cal. Middlesex Q.S. Recs. 1615–16, 213.
  • 39. Wills at Chelmsford, 1620–1720, 254.
  • 40. Assizes 35/111/3.
  • 41. White's Dir. Essex, 1848.
  • 42. V.C.H. Essex, v. 15.
  • 43. Ibid. 24, 25.
  • 44. Ibid. 61.
  • 45. For the docks see also p. 61.
  • 46. E. Ham Guide, 1964, pp. 57, 51.
  • 47. E.R.O., D/P 156/8/4; White's Dir. Essex, 1863, p. 640.
  • 48. E.H.L., E. Ham Loc. Bd. Mins. 10 June 1879, 9 Mar., 9 Nov., 1880, 8 Feb. 1881.
  • 49. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1882, p. 146; cf. ibid. 1886.
  • 50. E. Ham Loc. Bd. Mins. Aug. 1883.
  • 51. Ibid. May 1884.
  • 52. As distinct from retail businesses such as fried-fish shops, which often caused complaints.
  • 53. E.H.L., E. Ham B.C. Mins. 26 May 1908.
  • 54. W. Ashworth, 'Types of social and Economic Development in Suburban Essex', London Aspects of Change, 84.
  • 55. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1878 and 1882.
  • 56. E. Ham Loc. Bd. Mins. Nov. 1887; U.D.C. Mins. 18 June 1895, 5 Nov. 1902; Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1906, p. 552; E. Ham U.D.C. Map 1901.
  • 57. E. Ham B.C. Mins. 10 June 1913, 13 Jan. 1914; Kelly's Dir. Essex 1922, p. 411 and 1926, p. 420; A. Wilme Collier, Jubilee Jnl. 1 Dec. 1948.
  • 58. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1890, p. 378–9 and later dirs.; E. Ham Guide, 1964, pp. 51–2.
  • 59. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1886, p. 157 and later dirs.
  • 60. E. Ham Loc. Bd. Mins., Dec. 1893.
  • 61. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1906, p. 549; ibid. 1908, p. 555; E. Ham U.D.C. Map, 1901.
  • 62. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1908, p. 788; E. Ham Official Guide, 1964, pp. 54–5; Robertson & Woodcock, Trebor Golden Jubilee, 1957.
  • 63. Kelly's Dir. Essex, 1906, pp. 252, 371, 379, 550–1 and later dirs.
  • 64. Ibid. 1886, pp. 158, 185 and later dirs.
  • 65. E.R.O., D/CT 159; D/SH 7, cf. D/SH 29.
  • 66. V.C.H. Essex, v. 238, 285.
  • 67. Reg. Baldock &c. (Cant. and York Soc.), 98–100.
  • 68. H. Grieve, Great Tide, 12, cf. V.C.H. Essex, v. 238.
  • 69. Cal. Plea and Memoranda Rolls of City of London 1381–1412, 116–17.
  • 70. Cal. Pat. 1416–22, 374.
  • 71. Cat. Anct. D. vi, C 5221.
  • 72. Cf. V.C.H. Essex, v. 184.
  • 73. E.R.O., D/SH 7, cf. D/SH 29 (map of 1818).
  • 74. S.C. 6/964.
  • 75. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xix(1), pp. 373–4, 645.
  • 76. Acts of P.C. 1613–14, 13–14, 26.
  • 77. E.R.O., D/SH 8.
  • 78. Ibid. D/SH 3A.
  • 79. H. Grieve, Great Tide, 171, 255, 446.
  • 80. See p. 95.