A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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RIVERS, BRIDGES, WHARFS, AND DOCKS.
Much that has been written about the river Lea in relation to Waltham Holy Cross (fn. 1) is relevant also to West Ham. The old Lea, flowing south through Stratford, branches into several channels, collectively called the Stratford Back rivers. Before modern changes the course was as follows. (fn. 2) North of Temple Mills a stream, formerly known as the Temple Mills stream or the Shire stream and later as Waterworks river, (fn. 3) branched from the east bank. Channelsea river branched south-east from Waterworks river. Waterworks river rejoined the Lea north of Carpenters Road, Stratford. Below Carpenters Road three streams, branching from the east bank of the main river, flowed south, roughly parallel. From east to west these were Waterworks river, City Mill river, and Pudding Mill river. Those three, together with the main river to the west and the Channelsea to the east, all ran down to Stratford High Street, which crossed them by a series of bridges. North of High Street Waterworks river split into two branches, which rejoined south of the street as Three Mills Wall river, passing through Three Mills to Bow Creek. City Mills river also bifurcated north of High Street. One branch, called Bow Back river, flowed west to join the Lea at Bow Bridge. The other, joining Pudding Mill river, passed under High Street as Three Mills Back river, which joined Three Mills Wall river immediately north of Three Mills. Channelsea river ran into Bow creek (see plate facing page 79) south of Three Mills. All these streams were tidal.
At Stratford, as at Waltham Abbey, this complex pattern of channels has been associated with King Alfred, (fn. 4) who in 895 obstructed the river to strand the Danish fleet, but the evidence is inconclusive. The pattern seems to go back at least to the 11th century, when there was already a remarkable group of water-mills in West Ham. (fn. 5) Then, as later, the mills were probably on the branches rather than the main channel of the Lea. The branches were, in fact, mill streams, and probably originated as such. (fn. 6)
No major changes in the course of the river or its channels, affecting West Ham, seem to have occurred before the present century, though there were minor ones. (fn. 7) Some changes were the work of millers competing for water-power. (fn. 8) Others resulted from success or failure in the constant struggle against tidal flooding. In 1326 and later there are many references to a field called the Lake, which lay on the east bank of the Channelsea river just south of Channelsea Bridge. (fn. 9) Its name and position suggest that it had once been an actual lake, possibly caused by a breach in the river wall, but had been reclaimed. Before 1344 the abbot of Stratford and others obstructed and diverted the Lea to prevent flooding. The works, however, harmed shipping and had even caused the floods they were intended to cure, and their removal was ordered. (fn. 10) Under a general Act of 1351 similar commissions relating to the Lea, among other great rivers, were frequently issued in later years. (fn. 11)
From the 16th century various alterations were made to the course of the Lea to assist navigation. Those under an Act of 1571 seem not greatly to have affected West Ham. (fn. 12) Under an Act of 1767, however, Hackney Cut (1769) by-passed the old river between Lea Bridge and Old Ford, while Limehouse Cut ran south-west from Bromley, bypassing Bow creek. (fn. 13) Neither of the new cuts passed through West Ham, but they greatly improved the navigation immediately above and below the parish.
Since the 18th century the Lea, in West Ham, has also been directly affected by its use as one of the main sources of east London's water supply. The West Ham Waterworks Co., founded about 1745, established works at Saynes Mill, Stratford, on the stream which became known as Waterworks river. (fn. 14) The company later took over also St. Thomas's (or Pudding) Mill, on Pudding Mill river, and by 1849 its successor, the East London Waterworks Co., had a chain of reservoirs along the Lea on West Ham's north-western boundary. (fn. 15)
The greatest alteration to the channels of the Lea at Stratford was carried out in 1931–5 to improve drainage and navigation. Drainage was by then especially important. The Stratford Back rivers, linked with a network of open ditches, had for centuries drained the area north of High Street. In the later 19th century they had been polluted by domestic sewage from Leyton as well as West Ham itself. (fn. 16) By 1931 all the foul sewers of the two boroughs were linked with the northern outfall sewer, but the Back rivers were still vital to storm drainage and they had become derelict and choked with rubbish. By an Act of 1930 the Lee conservancy board and West Ham borough council were empowered jointly to carry out a large-scale improvement scheme, involving the widening, dredging, and diversion of some streams, the filling-in of others, and the construction of new locks and bridges. (fn. 17) City Mill river was converted into a navigable stream 50 ft. wide. Waterworks river and Three Mills Wall river became a drainage stream 100 ft. wide, and the Prescott channel was constructed as a flood by-pass from Three Mills Wall river to Channelsea river. Three Mills Back river was occluded. There was another and minor alteration to the Stratford waterways in 1957–8, when Channelsea river was culverted between High Street and Lett Road. (fn. 18)
The course of the Thames, forming West Ham's southern boundary, appears to have changed little. East of Bow creek the only natural anchorage was Ham creek on the boundary with East Ham. In the later 17th century that was used as a naval dockyard, subsidiary to Woolwich. It was occluded in the later 19th century. (fn. 19)
Before recent changes the main road from London crossed the Lea and its branches at Stratford by five bridges, all of ancient origin. The main river was spanned by Bow Bridge and Channelsea river by Channelsea Bridge. Between them were three smaller bridges: St. Michael's (or Harrow) Bridge and Pegshole Bridge spanning, respectively, the eastern and western arms of Waterworks river, and St. Thomas of Acre's Bridge, spanning Three Mills Back river. During the 19th century, as the result of confusion over the ownership of Pegshole and St. Thomas's bridges, the names of those two bridges were transposed. In 1933 St. Michael's, Pegshole, and St. Thomas's bridges were all replaced by the larger Groves Bridge, built in connexion with the flood relief scheme.
The original Bow and Channelsea bridges were built between 1100 and 1118 by Maud, Queen of Henry I. (fn. 20) Before her time the main road from London into Essex crossed the Lea by a dangerous ford at Old Ford, about ½ m. north of Stratford. Having built the bridges Maud bought the Abbey Mill and land in West Ham and gave them to Barking Abbey in trust for the maintenance of the bridges. (fn. 21) The bridges and their endowment were later taken over by Stratford Abbey (founded 1135). Stratford contracted for the repair of the bridges with a bridgemaster, who sought alms from travellers. William Prat (later Bridgewright), who succeeded his father as bridgemaster in the early 13th century, began levying tolls, but his toll-bar on Bow Bridge (fn. 22) was eventually broken down by Philip Basset (fn. 23) and the abbot of Waltham, and he then abandoned the bridges, probably about 1240. From then onwards responsibility for the two bridges was the subject of recurrent inquiry (fn. 24) until 1315, when Stratford Abbey formally accepted responsibility for them in return for £200 paid by Barking Abbey. (fn. 25) By 1366, however, Bow Bridge was again dilapidated and the government levied a pontage for its repair. (fn. 26) In 1465–6, after further litigation, Stratford Abbey's responsibility was confirmed. (fn. 27)
After the Dissolution there was again a long period of uncertainty concerning the repair of the two bridges, arising from the fragmentation of Stratford Abbey's lands. (fn. 28) In 1691 it was at last agreed that the bridges and the approaches to them were the responsibility of the landowners in West Ham whose lands were known to have belonged to Stratford Abbey. (fn. 29) Thenceforth the Abbey Landowners, organizing themselves as a corporation, levied rates on each member to maintain the bridges and the approaches to them. (fn. 30) When the Middlesex and Essex turnpike trust took over the main road through Stratford the Abbey Landowners made annual payments to the trust in respect of the road, but remained directly responsible for the bridges.
Bow and Channelsea bridges were widened in 1741. (fn. 31) By the early 19th century, however, they had become inadequate for the greatly increasing traffic, and in 1827 the Abbey Landowners secured an Act regulating their own functions and empowering them further to widen or to rebuild their bridges, in association with the local authorities and others. (fn. 32) That was followed by years of argument and litigation between the interested parties, terminated by agreement in 1834, when an Act provided that the Middlesex and Essex turnpike trust should manage all the five bridges, as well as the road, at Stratford. (fn. 33) The trust was to receive annual payments from the Abbey Landowners, and the owners of the three small bridges, towards the repair of the road. Bow Bridge was to be demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale. The Abbey Landowners would pay half the cost of its maintenance, and the other half would be shared equally by the counties of Essex and Middlesex. The cost of maintaining the other bridges would continue to be met by their owners, but the turnpike trust was empowered to widen or improve any bridge, and in that case the owner would be liable to repair only the parts of the bridge existing at the time of the Act, not the new ones.
The three smaller, intermediate bridges, which the Act of 1834 brought under the same management as Bow and Channelsea bridges, were already in existence in 1303, when it was stated that they had been built by the owners of the neighbouring mills, to span the gaps made when the millstreams were cut through Maud's causeway. (fn. 34) That account of their origin may not have been entirely correct, since, as suggested above, the mills were probably older than the causeway, but from the 14th century onwards the mill owners appear to have accepted responsibility for the bridges. (fn. 35) St. Thomas's Bridge was repaired by the owner of St. Thomas's Mill. (fn. 36) Pegshole and St. Michael's bridges both belonged to the City of London, as owners of Spileman's and Saynes mills. (fn. 37) Shortly before 1814 the London bridge house committee, on a tour of inspection, placed the City mark on St. Thomas's Bridge in mistake for Pegshole Bridge. (fn. 38) Since Pegshole Bridge was the smaller, and therefore cheaper to maintain, the owners of St. Thomas's Mill were content to accept it as their own. The error was never corrected, and was eventually rationalized: the old Pegshole Bridge became known as St. Thomas's Bridge and vice versa. (fn. 39)
Under the management of the Middlesex and Essex turnpike trust the new Bow Bridge was built in 1835–9. (fn. 40) The turnpike trust was dissolved in 1866, and in the following year the management of all five bridges and the approaches was vested in West Ham local board. (fn. 41) Under an Act of 1876 the Abbey Landowners discharged their liability for their two bridges and the approaches. (fn. 42) The annual composition payments by the owners of the three other bridges were not affected by the Act. As a result of the Local Government Act, 1888, the county borough of West Ham took over the northeastern quarter of Bow Bridge in addition to the southern half, while the north-western quarter passed to London county council. In 1901–6 the bridge was again rebuilt, by the L.C.C. with financial contributions from West Ham C.B.C. and the Lee conservancy board.
The changes made in 1933 have already been mentioned. Groves Bridge, opened in that year, was named after Thomas Groves, mayor of West Ham and M.P. for the Stratford division of the borough. It was built on the site of St. Thomas's (old Pegshole) Bridge and also replaced St. Michael's and Pegshole (old St. Thomas's) bridges, the fabric of which was incorporated in the raised approaches to the new bridge.
By the 1930s the third Bow Bridge had already become inadequate. A new one was discussed, but not built. (fn. 43) In 1967, however, the Greater London council built a flyover to carry east-west traffic above the bridge. (fn. 44)
Queen Maud's Bow Bridge was one of the earliest medieval stone bridges in England and its name referred to its arched construction, then unusual. (fn. 45) Part of the original structure may still have survived down to 1835, but the bridge had been much restored. (fn. 46) Three arches were then visible, but a description published in 1814 states that about 30 years earlier, when an old public house on the Essex side of the bridge was demolished to widen the road, two other arches, filled up with brick, had been found in the cellar. (fn. 47) From this it was inferred that there were corresponding arches on the Middlesex side, so that the bridge had seven arches in all. Of the visible arches the two outermost, which were pointed, may have dated from the 15th century. (fn. 48) The centre arch, formerly pointed, had at some time been altered to a rounder profile giving greater clearance for barges. In 1741–3 the bridge was widened on both sides by the addition of angular pieces supported on the cutwaters of the piers. The arches of the additions were higher than the old arches and were circular.
The medieval Bow Bridge had upon it a chapel dedicated to St. Katherine and occupied by a hermit. (fn. 49) There are no references to the chapel after the 15th century, and nothing is known of its appearance or its exact location.
The second Bow Bridge, completed in 1839 to the design of James Walker and Alfred Burges, was a single-span structure with external stonework in granite. (fn. 50) It was replaced in 1906 by an iron bridge. (fn. 51)
Channelsea Bridge, alone of the five bridges in Stratford High Street, retains some ancient structure. It is a small single-span bridge of stone. A photograph of 1933, looking under the bridge from the north side, shows an outer arch, probably dating from the widening of 1741, and behind that an older, lower arch, thought to be medieval. (fn. 52) A similar widening was said in 1933 to be visible on the south side. Since 1957–8, when the Channelsea river was culverted between High Street and Lett Road, (fn. 53) the bridge has been visible only from the south, in Cam Road, and on that side the arch has been largely blocked with masonry.
St. Michael's Bridge was rebuilt in 1790, with a single stone arch. (fn. 54) Pegshole (old St. Thomas's) Bridge was a stone bridge, with two arches. (fn. 55) St. Thomas's (old Pegshole) Bridge was of brick. (fn. 56)
Abbey Road Bridge over the Channelsea river occurs, as High Bridge, in the early 16th century. (fn. 57) Beside it was the Abbey Mill, and immediately east the gate of the abbey. It was rebuilt in 1967. (fn. 58) Thorn Bridge, also mentioned in the 16th century, was apparently identical with Three Mills Bridge over the Lea. (fn. 59)
The Iron Bridge, spanning the Lea at Barking Road, Canning Town, was built in 1810 by the Commercial Road turnpike trust, to the design of James Walker. (fn. 60) When that trust expired in 1871 the bridge became the joint responsibility of the counties of Essex and Middlesex. (fn. 61) It was described in 1872 as supported by five cast iron arches, three large and two small, with brick abutments. (fn. 62) The road platform comprised cast iron plates in an oak framework, over which was concrete and road metalling. It was unsafe for heavy industrial traffic. (fn. 63) In 1889 it was taken over by the London county council and the corporation of West Ham, which together built a new steel bridge, opened in 1896. (fn. 64) Under a scheme of 1935 this second bridge was replaced by a much larger one of steel a little farther north. (fn. 65)
Wharfs and Docks.
West Ham's position at the mouth of the Lea, near London, favoured the growth of a small river port at Stratford. A wharf at West Ham, mentioned in the 15th century, (fn. 66) was probably one of a number serving the abbey and the mills at Stratford, and there is similar evidence in later centuries. (fn. 67) By 1821 there were specialized wharfs at Stratford for timber, chalk, stone, coal, and wheat, as well as some for general cargoes. They were situated on the Channelsea and the other branches of the Lea as well as on the main stream. The local mills and factories usually had their own wharfs. (fn. 68) By 1821 there also existed, at Stratford, West Ham's earliest proper dock, which appears to have been built a few years earlier. (fn. 69) It was then called Stratford Dock and later Meggs Dock. (fn. 70) It was about 80 yd. long and 50 yd. wide, lying south of High Street near Bow Bridge and approached from the Lea by a short channel. The dock may have been built by the Middlesex and Essex turnpike trust, which owned and occupied it in 1843 and 1854. (fn. 71) Its ownership subsequently passed to George W. Norman, a neighbouring landowner. (fn. 72) The later name of the dock may have been connected with John Meggs, who in 1866 was a ladder-maker in that area. (fn. 73) By 1896 the eastern half of the dock had been filled in and built over. (fn. 74) The western half, and the channel approach, still existed then, but those also had been filled in by 1920, when the whole site was occupied by factories. (fn. 75)
As long as West Ham remained largely rural the port of Stratford was adequate for its needs, and there is little early evidence of wharfs or docks in the south of the parish. Ham creek, mentioned above, was a small natural harbour, but does not appear to have been used as such after the 17th century. (fn. 76) The development of Canning Town and Silvertown, from the 1840s, transformed the situation. The new industries at Bow creek and Thames side came there primarily to take advantage of waterborne transport, based on their own wharfs. The shipyard of C. J. Mare & Co. (later the Thames Ironworks) had by 1848 been equipped with a quay 1,050 ft. long. (fn. 77) After the closure of the Thames Ironworks the site was bought by the Great Eastern railway, and in 1927 the London and North Eastern railway redeveloped it to receive cargo vessels. (fn. 78) Immediately south of Mare's works, in 1848, was a pier recently built by the Eastern Counties railway to import coal. (fn. 79) On Thames side the earliest wharfs were built to serve the factories at east and west Silvertown. (fn. 80)
The history of the royal group of docks has been treated elsewhere. (fn. 81) The Royal Victoria Dock, opened in 1855, was wholly in West Ham. (fn. 82) The Royal Albert Dock (1880) and the King George V Dock (1921) were built farther east, partly in West Ham, but mainly in East Ham. The royal docks are said to form the largest area of impounded water in the world. Their total area is over 1,000 a., including 230 a. water. There are 11 miles of quays, with berths for over 50 ocean-going vessels, and 140 miles of standard-gauge railway lines. (fn. 83)