West Ham: Agriculture

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

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'West Ham: Agriculture', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6, ed. W R Powell( London, 1973), British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol6/pp74-76 [accessed 14 July 2024].

'West Ham: Agriculture', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6. Edited by W R Powell( London, 1973), British History Online, accessed July 14, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol6/pp74-76.

"West Ham: Agriculture". A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6. Ed. W R Powell(London, 1973), , British History Online. Web. 14 July 2024. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol6/pp74-76.


In 1086 the manor of Ham, held jointly by Robert Gernon and Ranulph Peverel and formerly by Alestan, contained 8 hides and 30 a. (fn. 1) It probably comprised most of West Ham. The arable land was being cultivated by 16 ploughs (4 on the demesne and 12 belonging to the tenants), compared with 13 in 1066 (5 demesne and 8 tenants'). There were 60 a. meadow, woodland for 100 swine, and 8 mills. Gernon's livestock comprised a rouncey, 9 beasts, 12 sheep, and 11 swine; when he received the manor there had been only a rouncey, a cow, 6 sheep, and 5 swine. Peverel's livestock had also increased during his tenure, from a rouncey, a cow, and 3 swine, to 2 rounceys, 2 colts, 2 cows with calves, 20 swine, and 60 sheep. The value of the manor, which had been £16 in 1066 and only £12 when Gernon and Peverel received it, had risen to £24 by 1086. The recorded population had increased from 51 in 1066 (32 villeins, 16 bordars, 3 serfs) to 130 in 1086 (48, 79, 3).

The most striking of the above figures are those relating to the mills, the value of the manor, and the population. West Ham had more mills in 1086 than any other place in Essex. In the Middle Ages these supplied a large local baking industry, and they remained an important feature of West Ham's economy down to the 19th century. (fn. 2) The increase in the value of the manor reflects the restocking that had taken place since the coming of Gernon and Peverel. The growth of population, however, was proportionately much larger than that of values, or ploughs, or stock. The arrival of 79 new families (63 bordars and 16 villeins) in a small community within 20 years was one of the 'obscure little revolutions in the Essex villages' noticed by Maitland. (fn. 3) The villeins had increased in the same proportion as the number of tenants' ploughs, and there may have been a connexion there, but the much greater increase in the number of bordars must have been related to a new economic activity not fully reflected in the other Domesday figures. The newcomers were probably engaged in some pioneering enterprise and it seems most likely that this was forest clearance. In the manor of (East) Ham, also held by Robert Gernon, there was a large woodland area in 1086, but most of it was cleared away during the next two centuries. (fn. 4) At (West) Ham there was comparatively little woodland left by 1086. How much there had been in 1066 is not stated, but forest clearance was no doubt part of the intensive farming practised by Gernon. (fn. 5) This may well have included the carving out of Woodgrange farm, which in the 12th century was given by his successors to Stratford Abbey. (fn. 6)

After the 11th century woodland did not figure largely in the economy of West Ham. (fn. 7) The northern fringe of the parish lay within the legal boundaries of the Forest of Essex, but as early as 1189 this comprised heath rather than woodland: in that year Richard I granted to Stratford Abbey protection against interference by foresters or others with the pasture in the heath extending between the Frith (Hamfrith) and Walthamstow, in which heath he granted the abbey extensive sheep pastures. (fn. 8)

Much that is said about the medieval agriculture of East Ham applies to West Ham, since the manorial boundaries in several cases cut across those of the parishes. (fn. 9) Fourteenth-century references to 'worn out' land, relating to both parishes, (fn. 10) suggest that the intensive farming introduced by the Domesday lords had continued. West Ham, like East Ham, also suffered from flooding in the 14th and 15th centuries, but by the 16th century reclamation of the marshland was well under way. (fn. 11)

Open fields and meadows undoubtedly existed at some time in West Ham. The rental of Sudbury manor (1527) shows that most of the land there lay in small parcels, usually between ½ a. and 2 a., which are otherwise difficult to explain. (fn. 12) Among the field names are the Hide, Half Hide, Hole (or Hoole) Hide, Bradymead, and Woodfields. Woodfields, which lay near Woodgrange, (fn. 13) was evidently a demesne field, for no fewer than 40 of the tenements of Sùdbury were charged with rent in lieu of the service of reaping rye there. The rental also contains a number of references to 'dayworks', by then measures of land but originally measures of labour. Several of these were in Woodfields. Others were in the Hide, Ashen field, Downings field (near Green Street), Newerk Pightle, and the Hoopes in Newerk Knok. The rental also proves the earlier existence of 'leazes' or common pastures. One freeholder of the manor was charged with several separate rents for the right to pasture cows in Tunmanleys, Goodwyns (probably in West marsh), (fn. 14) and Sewalls. Several of the fields mentioned in the rental appear in earlier documents. Half Hide occurs in 1409–35. (fn. 15) Bradymead can be traced from 1202 when William of Stratford acknowledged the right of William Wrench to ½ virgate of land in West Ham, from which Wrench granted to Stratford 6 a. (2 a. in Brademade, 3 a. in Sagodesmade, and 1 a. in Monemade). (fn. 16) In 1527 one free tenement in Wrenchefield comprised 6 a., while another of 2½ a., in the same field, was said to have belonged at one time to Richard Sagore. John James's 18th-century survey of Plaistow shows that Bradymead was in New marsh. (fn. 17) By then it had been cut up into a number of parcels, held in severalty, but showing in their shapes obvious traces of strips arranged in an open meadow. These field shapes were still preserved in 1867, immediately to the north of the Victoria Dock, between the present Prince Regent Lane and Freemasons Road. (fn. 18) James's survey provides further evidence of common pasture. South of Tunmarsh Lane, in Trinity marsh, was a 33-acre field called Cow leaze, (fn. 19) while another of the same size, called Horse leaze, lay east of Prince Regent Lane opposite Bradymead. (fn. 20) All the above 'leazes' were at Plaistow, but there was at least one such field at Stratford: Oxleas in High mead (12 a.). (fn. 21)

Corn-growing must have been important in West Ham during the Middle Ages, to supply London and the retinues of visiting royalty and dignitaries. (fn. 22) In 1403 the king granted the bishop of Lincoln lodging for his household at Stratford during his visits to London. (fn. 23) Similar grants were made in 1408 to Sir Thomas Beaufort and in 1414 to the earl of Dorset, (fn. 24) while in 1414 also the bishop of Norwich was granted lodging for his horses at Plaistow and West Ham. (fn. 25) The few figures available (fn. 26) suggest that in and after the 13th century arable land predominated, at least in the upland areas of the parish. It is probable that until the floods of the late 14th century substantial parts of the marshes were under the plough. This may be inferred from a reference of 1421 to '101 a. arable land, parcel of 145 a. marsh submerged under water', belonging to Burnells manor, (fn. 27) from the field names Wheatfield (or Whitfield) and Wheatcrofte, both in Trinity marsh, (fn. 28) and from the ancient pattern of settlement at Plaistow. (fn. 29)

In the later Middle Ages cattle grazing and slaughtering, on a commercial scale, began to develop. The local meat trade, mainly with London, was established by the 14th century. In 1331 some London butchers complained to the City corporation that many butchers who had bought their freedom and were sworn of the franchise were renting houses at and near Stratford and were not taking their proper part in City affairs. (fn. 30) Later in the 14th century the Stratford trade was stimulated by royal ordinances that livestock destined for London butchers should not be brought into the City but should be slaughtered either at Stratford on one side or Knightsbridge (Mdx.) on the other, and no nearer. (fn. 31) Whether Stratford here means Stratford Langthorne or the adjoining Stratford Bow (Mdx.) is uncertain, but the purpose of the edicts, the banishment of an obnoxious London trade to the suburbs, is clear. By the 16th century there were many butchers with London connexions. (fn. 32) There was a slaughterhouse at Stratford Abbey just before the Dissolution. (fn. 33) It was stated in 1597 that much land in the parish was occupied by 'foreign' butchers and graziers. (fn. 34) Some of the then butchers were also cattle thieves. (fn. 35) Grazing continued to be important until the early 19th century. (fn. 36) It was said in 1734 that the largest ox ever bred in England had been fattened on Old Tunmarsh. (fn. 37) Henry, duke of Cumberland (1745–90), brother of George III, kept a racing stud at Cumberland House, Plaistow. (fn. 38) The prince of Wales, later George IV, is also said to have grazed his horses on Plaistow marshes. (fn. 39)

In 1796 West Ham was estimated to contain about 2,000 a. of arable and 2,500 a. of meadow and marshland. (fn. 40) Some 500 a. of arable were then being cropped with potatoes and 200 a. with turnips. According to the crop returns of 1801, thought 'tolerably accurate' by the vicar, only 1,026 a. were under cultivation, including 575 a. of potatoes, 272 a. of wheat, 87 a. of turnips, 67 a. of oats, and 25 a. of rye. (fn. 41) Potatoes had been grown commercially since the 1730s. (fn. 42) The labour for this was provided mainly by immigrant Irish, of whom there were about 50 in West Ham by 1767. (fn. 43) In the north, west, and central areas of the parish in 1800 the arable lay mainly north of Romford Road and to the east and west of Plaistow village. Most of the meadows adjoined the coastal marshes, but there were small patches at Plaistow and elsewhere. The market gardens, paddocks, and parks were mainly at Upton. There were also small patches of osiers beside the Channelsea river and the other branches of the Lea above the Three Mills. (fn. 44) Osiers had been cultivated in West Ham at least as early as 1539. (fn. 45)

In 1853 the parish contained some 1,100 a. of arable (including market-gardens), 2,600 a. of meadow and pasture, 8 a. of woodland, 62 a. of domestic gardens and orchards, and 82 a. of osiers and reeds. (fn. 46) By 1905 there remained only 127 a. of arable and 51 a. of permanent grass. (fn. 47) Most of that farm-land lay in the south of the borough, adjoining Prince Regent Lane. (fn. 48) The last market-garden at Plaistow is said to have closed in 1905, (fn. 49) and in the same year the closure of some watercress beds near Temple Mills, suspected of spreading cholera, was recommended. (fn. 50)


  • 1. V.C.H. Essex, i. 515, 527.
  • 2. See pp. 76, 89.
  • 3. Domesday Bk. and Beyond, 363.
  • 4. See p. 95.
  • 5. Cf. p. 15.
  • 6. See p. 73.
  • 7. For the Forest see p. 95.
  • 8. Cal. Chart. 1257–1300, 311–13. For this heath see also p. 199 below.
  • 9. See p. 14.
  • 10. Cal. Inq. p.m., ii. 508; ibid. v. 390–1.
  • 11. For the Marshes and Sea Defences see p. 94.
  • 12. S.C. 12/15/20; cf. S.C. 6/962 (Stratford Abbey rental 1538).
  • 13. Cf. Cal. Pat. 1555–7, 443–4.
  • 14. Cf. Godynggs or Goodyngs Field, mentioned in the same rental and in S.C. 6/962.
  • 15. E.R.O., T/A 317.
  • 16. Feet of F. Essex, i. 27, cf. Cur. Reg. R. ii. 5.
  • 17. E.R.O., D/DPe M55 (items 104, 105, 107, 109).
  • 18. O.S. Map, 25", London, XXXIX (surv. 1867).
  • 19. E.R.O., D/DPe M55 (items 202–5).
  • 20. Ibid. (item 62).
  • 21. W. Ham Char. Rep. (1899), 14.
  • 22. For royal visits see p. 44.
  • 23. Cal. Pat. 1401–5, 254.
  • 24. Ibid. 1405–8, 393; ibid. 1413–16, 231.
  • 25. Ibid. 1413–16, 244.
  • 26. e.g. in documents relating to Burnells and Bretts manors.
  • 27. Cal. Pat. 1416–22, 374.
  • 28. S.C. 12/15/20 m. 3 and 6d.; cf. E.R.O., D/DPe M55 (items 120–2, 160–1).
  • 29. See p. 44.
  • 30. H. T. Riley, Memorials of London, 1276–1419, 179–80.
  • 31. Cal. Close 1360–4, 248; ibid. 1377–81, 363–4; Cal. Letter Bks. Lond. (H.), 301.
  • 32. e.g. Assizes 35/2/3; Hist. MSS. Com. 10th Rep., pt. iv. 472; G.L.C., DL/C/211; E.R. lxvi. 72.
  • 33. S.C. 6/962.
  • 34. E.R.O., Q/SR 138/43.
  • 35. Assizes 35/53/H; ibid. 53A/T; cf. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1634–5, 422–3.
  • 36. Cf. E.R. xxxvi. 186–90; R. Allison, 'The Changing Landscape of South-west Essex, 1600–1850' (London Ph.D. 1966), 305–9.
  • 37. Curwen, Old Plaistow, 69.
  • 38. Fry, E. and W. Ham, 252; E.R.O., D/DPe M55, Houses (first alphabet), C.
  • 39. Fry, ibid.
  • 40. Lysons, London, iv. 245.
  • 41. H.O. 67/16.
  • 42. E.R.O., T/A 114/1; E.R. xxxvi. 186–7; Curwen, Old Plaistow, 69.
  • 43. Essex Recusant, i. 35–6.
  • 44. T. Milne, Plan of London and Westminster (1800).
  • 45. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), p. 162; cf. Cal. Pat. 1553–4, 122, 125, 127; E.R.O., Q/RUm 1/22.
  • 46. E.R.O., D/CT 160.
  • 47. Bd. of Agric., Rtns. of Acreages, 1905.
  • 48. E. G. Howarth and M. Wilson, West Ham, 51–2 and map f. p. 32.
  • 49. Curwen, Old Plaistow, 74.
  • 50. W. Ham C.B.C. Mins. 18 Oct. 1905.