West Ham: Markets and fairs, marshes and forest

Pages 93-96

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

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In 1253 the king granted Richard de Montfitchet a Tuesday market at West Ham and an annual fair there on 19–22 July. (fn. 1) These had been discontinued by 1796, probably long before. (fn. 2) About 1806–9 there was a popular attempt to establish a pleasure fair at Plaistow. (fn. 3) This was held on Whit Monday opposite the Greengate Inn, and attracted large crowds from outside the parish. In 1809 Robert Marten, one of the founders of the North Street Congregational church, took the lead in suppressing it. He and his associates posted bills declaring the fair illegal and called in constables to stop it. There was some disorder, which led to charges of conspiracy and riot. The defendants were acquitted, but this seems to have been the end of the fair.

The present retail markets in West Ham all originated spontaneously in the 19th century. (fn. 4) From 1858 or earlier hucksters were congregating in Stratford Broadway and High Street. (fn. 5) In 1879 the local board and the police removed all the stalls from those streets, but the traders later returned there. About that time there was also a cattle market on the south side of the Broadway, and an annual pleasure fair is said to have been held in the same place. (fn. 6) By the 1880s street trading was becoming established at Canning Town, in Victoria Dock Road and North Woolwich Road, which until 1886 were privately owned. (fn. 7) The borough council, when it took over those roads, wished to get rid of the market stalls, but the police would not agree to wholesale eviction, there or elsewhere, and the council therefore began to evolve a policy of containment. In 1891 it published regulations for street trading, and these were amended in 1895 to harmonize with those of the police in relation to obstruction. This policy rested partly on bluff, as the town clerk virtually admitted in 1910, when he commented that the matter 'bristles with (legal) difficulties'. But it seems to have been generally accepted, although it was not until 1925 that the council obtained statutory powers to license street traders. (fn. 8)

The increase of traffic during the early 20th century strengthened the council's hand in imposing regulations. When the borough's tramways were being extended and electrified, the council succeeded in moving the street traders out of the roads where they were likely to cause dangerous obstructions. This was the origin of the Queen's Road market, set up by traders who had migrated from Green Street shortly before 1904. About the same time some of those from Victoria Dock Road moved to the quieter Rathbone Street. (fn. 9) By 1911 the Queen's Road and Rathbone Street markets were well-established, and they seem to have grown in importance in the following years. The Victoria Dock Road market was closed in 1920. (fn. 10) In 1963, during the council's redevelopment of the area, the Rathbone market, retaining that name, was transferred to a specially designed pedestrian precinct for 60 shops and 160 stalls, on the south side of Barking Road. (fn. 11) The redevelopment of the Queen's Road market, on a similar scale, was undertaken by the council in association with Samuel Properties Ltd. This was still in progress in 1969. (fn. 12) In providing premises for these two markets the council has put into effect a plan that was mooted as early as 1911. (fn. 13)

At Stratford street trading seems to have continued throughout the present century in the Broadway, High Street, and Angel Lane. In 1969 Angel Lane was awaiting redevelopment, which had caused the market there to decline. (fn. 14)

Stratford market, Burford Road, is a wholesale fruit and vegetable market established in 1879 by the Great Eastern Railway Co. (fn. 15) In its early years it was the subject of a legal battle between the railway company and the lessee of Spitalfields market, who claimed that his vested interest, under royal charter, had been infringed. (fn. 16) In 1955 the redevelopment of the market was announced, but the plan was later dropped, partly because of road access difficulties. (fn. 17) In 1968 British Railways was offering to sell the market to its tenants there. (fn. 18)


The West Ham 'level', as defined in 1563, comprised an area of 1,747 a. (fn. 19) At the Dissolution more than half the land in that level had belonged to Stratford Abbey, which thus had the main responsibility for land drainage and sea defences. (fn. 20) In the 14th and 15th centuries West Ham occasionally suffered from floods, though these were probably less severe than at East Ham. (fn. 21) Flood prevention was sometimes hampered by the complexities of feudal tenure, which could make it difficult to assign responsibility to small landowners. This is shown by a case of 1336–9 concerning the maintenance of a river wall called 'Prioress wall', formerly 'Covelee's wall' which probably lay near the confluence of the Thames and the Lea. (fn. 22) In 1563 West Ham was under the jurisdiction of a court of sewers whose area extended from Mucking to Bow Bridge. (fn. 23) West Ham level was then divided into six marshes. Trinity marsh (348 a.) adjoined East Ham. West of it was New marsh (523 a.), then Middle marsh (293 a.). Hendon Hope and Laywick comprised 40 a. near the mouth of the Lea. North of it lay West marsh (381 a.) beyond which were Stratford Meads (112 a.), running up to Bow Bridge. There was also a 'new inned' marsh called Blackwall and Basing, comprising 50 a. This must have been in effect an addition to Trinity marsh, where Blackwall and Basing sluice is shown on later maps. The total length of river wall protecting West Ham in 1563 was about 5½ miles. Before the Dissolution Stratford Abbey had owned 885 a. in that level. There were no outstanding lay owners.

The 'new inned' marsh already mentioned, with other evidence, (fn. 24) shows that by the early 16th century considerable progress was being made in reclaiming the marshes. This seems to have continued at least up to the 19th century. The process was sometimes reversed, as in 1612–13, when floods caused a serious breach in West marsh. (fn. 25) But in the long run the area of marshland within West Ham level increased considerably, to 2,249 a. in the 1740s (fn. 26) and to at least 2,369 a. in 1850. (fn. 27) Only part of this increase, however, can be attributed to reclamation. Much of it undoubtedly represented former 'upland' brought under the jurisdiction of the commissioners of sewers in order to improve drainage. The largest such area was High Meads, which lay beside the Lea north of Bow Bridge, and was brought under the court of sewers by 1601. (fn. 28) In 1747 this comprised 382 a. (fn. 29)

In the middle of the 19th century the commissioners of sewers were suddenly faced by new problems arising from the building of the Victoria Dock, and industrial and housing development at Stratford, Canning Town, and Hallsville. The open drainage ditches, which had served agricultural needs well enough, were now flooded and polluted with domestic sewage, and their ancient outfalls were partly destroyed by the dock. In 1854 the commissioners obtained statutory powers to carry out a new main drainage scheme, but this was badly drafted, and was abandoned in 1856 when the West Ham local board was formed. (fn. 30) The commissioners of sewers were, however, empowered to appoint three members of the local board. In 1863 the local board tried to end that power, and also to secure the revocation of the commissioners' Act of 1854, but without success, (fn. 31) and the commissioners retained their jurisdiction in West Ham until 1890, when it was transferred to the borough council. (fn. 32)

In relation to drainage the commissioners' responsibilities in West Ham had been declining for many years before 1890. The local board steadily extended its main sewers and in the 1880s also laid a number of storm sewers to relieve surface flooding. The commissioners' open ditches were gradually filled in or piped, though a few still survived into the 1890s, flowing foul through the slums of Silvertown and Canning Town. (fn. 33)

In the maintenance of flood defences, however, the commissioners' responsibilities had been greatly increased by the urban development of West Ham. More than half the borough lay below the level of ordinary spring tides, and three-fifths of it below the level reached by exceptionally high ones. (fn. 34) The lowest parts of the town were also the most densely populated. Silvertown, lying in a hollow between the Thames and the docks, was especially vulnerable. If the worst combination of tide and weather occurred there was danger of a terrible disaster, as the local board's surveyor pointed out in 1875, urging that the river walls should be strengthened. (fn. 35)

By 1928 there were some 20 miles of river embankments protecting the borough. (fn. 36) The council remained the sole catchment authority within its own area until 1930, when land drainage throughout the country was reorganized on a broader basis. (fn. 37) After 1930 the borough council continued to be the catchment authority for the area between the Thames and the north side of the docks, but the rest of the borough was divided between the Lee conservancy board (which took most of it) and the river Roding catchment board. (fn. 38) In 1952 the latter board was merged in the Essex river board. (fn. 39)

The fears of disaster expressed by the surveyor in 1875 have not been fulfilled, but West Ham suffered in the floods of 1897, and in those of 1928, when about 2,700 houses were affected at Stratford, Canning Town, and Silvertown. (fn. 40) The 1953 floods affected about 1,130 houses in Canning Town and Silvertown, including the new Keir Hardie estate. (fn. 41)

FOREST. (fn. 42)

The southern boundary of the Forest of Essex, as defined by the perambulation of 1225, was the main road from Bow Bridge by Stratford to Romford, so that those parts of East and West Ham parishes to the north of the road lay within the forest. (fn. 43) In 1228 Henry III withdrew his agreement to the boundaries of 1225, (fn. 44) and a mid-13th-century document shows that the forest then included the whole of both parishes. (fn. 45) Edward I, after a perambulation of 1301, restored the 1225 boundaries, and from that time onward the main Romford Road continued to be the forest boundary. (fn. 46) Both parishes were in the forest bailiwick of Becontree during the Middle Ages, and were subsequently in Leyton 'walk'. (fn. 47)

The Domesday figures suggest that there was much woodland in East Ham and relatively little in West Ham, (fn. 48) but the manors to which those figures relate probably cut across the parish boundaries, as later defined, so that an exact comparison between the parishes is impossible. What seems likely, however, is that in East Ham the woodland extended south at least as far as Plashet (a Norman-French name denoting a type of forest inclosure), (fn. 49) while in West Ham it lay mainly to the north of the Romford Road. Most of the woodland, in both parishes, disappeared during the Middle Ages. As early as 1189 Stratford Abbey had a grange (Woodgrange) north of the main road, and extensive sheep pastures on the heath between the Frith (Hamfrith) and Walthamstow, (fn. 50) which indicates forest clearance in that area. Between the 12th century and the 16th there are occasional references to woodland in the two parishes, but none of these relates to large areas. In 1302 the only woodland mentioned on the manor of Plaiz was 6 a., wholly assarted. (fn. 51) When that manor was conveyed to Stratford Abbey in 1353 it included 10 a. wood and 12 a. heath in West Hamfrith and East Ham. (fn. 52) In 1315 the manor of Burnells contained 40 a. wood. (fn. 53)

By the 16th century the only substantial area of woodland in the two parishes was Hamfrith Wood, which straddled East Ham's north-west boundary with West Ham. That survived until about 1700 when it was cleared away to make a farm. (fn. 54) At the end of the 18th century the only uninclosed land within the forest in the two parishes was a few pieces on the southern fringes of Wanstead Flats. (fn. 55) They all lay within the manor of West Ham and were affected by the disafforestation and inclosure of most of that manor between 1805, when the Crown sold the manorial rights, and about 1856. One of the first of them to be inclosed was the only piece of forest remaining in East Ham. This was the tongue of Wanstead Flats extending down to the Romford Road, which became the Manor House estate. (fn. 56) About 1856 three pieces totalling 13 a., on the West Ham side of Wanstead Flats, were inclosed, leaving only 4 a. of open forest in West Ham. (fn. 57) Under the Epping Forest Act of 1878, however, those 13 a. were again thrown open, so that a total of 17 a. in the borough were preserved as part of the forest. (fn. 58) At the time of the Act none of the uninclosed or recently inclosed forest lay in East Ham, but a boundary alteration in 1901 brought 96 a. of Wanstead Flats into that district. (fn. 59)

Because of the relatively early inclosure of so much of the forest in East and West Ham there is little evidence concerning the customary forest rights of the inhabitants of those parishes. One unusual and important privilege, granted by Richard I to Stratford Abbey in 1189, was that of pasture for 960 sheep. This continued to be claimed by the monks throughout the Middle Ages, and subsequently, down to the 17th century, by their successors as lords of the manor of Woodgrange. (fn. 60) In 1253 the abbot of Stratford was granted free warren in his demesne lands in West Ham, within the forest, (fn. 61) and in 1489 it was stated that he was entitled to fee deer. (fn. 62) In the 16th and 17th centuries there were occasional disputes as to whether the inhabitants of East and West Ham were entitled to pasture within their own manors only, or whether they might exercise this common right on the forest wastes of other manors, in particular those of Ruckholt (in Leyton) and Wanstead. (fn. 63) This was a complex question of crucial importance in relation to the whole forest. According to one view forest right of common was by nature manorial; according to another it was rooted in forest law, and might be exercised throughout the forest irrespective of manorial boundaries. The sale of the Crown's forestal rights in the manor of West Ham, and the subsequent judgement relating to that manor (fn. 64) seemed to settle the matter in favour of the manorial view. It followed from that judgement that since forest common right was manorial it could be taken away under custom of the manor by inclosures. These events in West Ham undoubtedly accelerated inclosures throughout the forest during the next 60 years, and it was not until 1871 that the process was halted simultaneously by the legal action of the City of London and by that of the government in setting up the Epping Forest Commission.

The reeve of each forest parish customarily branded with the parish mark all the cattle belonging to those entitled to forest pasture. The original mark for West Ham is not known. (fn. 65) East Ham is not known to have had its own mark, or to have been separately represented at the forest courts. (fn. 66) No doubt it shared West Ham's mark, as Little Ilford shared that of Wanstead. From about 1808 West Ham ceased to send representatives to the forest court, and the lord of the manor appointed his own reeve, with power to mark, with the letters 'MWH', the cattle of persons having common right there. (fn. 67) Cattle pastured on Wanstead Flats were prevented from straying upon the main road by the Forest Gate from which the district has taken its name. This gate is mentioned, as Woodgrange Gate, in 1639. (fn. 68) It stood on the corner of Forest Street and Woodgrange Road, until its removal in 1883. Beside it was a hut occupied by the gatekeeper. (fn. 69) It is sometimes described as a toll-gate, but that is probably incorrect.

In the 14th century, and again in the 17th, forest courts were sometimes held at Stratford. (fn. 70) In 1617 the king granted to the lord warden of the forest the right to build and maintain a gaol at Stratford. (fn. 71) The gaol was in use in 1621, 1665, and 1682–8. (fn. 72) How long it continued to serve its original purpose is not known. In 1709 the buildings were granted with the wardenship of the forest to Sir Richard Child, and they subsequently descended as part of the Wanstead House estate. (fn. 73) In 1815 they were being used as shops, houses, and a chapel. (fn. 74) A survey of 1825 shows that they were on the island site at Stratford Green. (fn. 75) They were still standing in 1827 (fn. 76) and presumably survived until 1834, when St. John's church was built on that site.

The erection of the forest prison was probably an expression of the lord warden's determination to assert the ancient prerogatives of his office. Among these was cheminage. (fn. 77) In 1630 the jury at the court of justice seat (the highest forest court) challenged the legality of the toll, then, they alleged, being levied at Stratford by the forest officers. (fn. 78) Cheminage was among the rights claimed by the lord warden in 1634. (fn. 79) Stratford, where the Epping and Romford roads to London converged, was the obvious place to levy toll, and the new prison, at that road junction, may well have incorporated a toll-house.


  • 1. Cal. Chart. R. 1226–57, 433.
  • 2. Lysons, London, iv. 246; cf. Ogborne, Essex, 15.
  • 3. Proceedings … against John Cochran … and others for a conspiracy and riot (1810), summarized by J. S. Curwen, Old Plaistow, 38–42.
  • 4. For a useful summary see W.H.L., W. Ham C.B.C. Mins. 1910, pp. 974–9, 'Rep. by Town Clerk on Obstructions on Highways'.
  • 5. W.H.L., W. Ham L.B. Mins. 23 Feb., 21 Dec. 1858, 11 Jan. 1859, 11 Oct. 1864, 14 Dec. 1869, 10 July and 13 Nov. 1877.
  • 6. Stratford Express, W. Ham Jubilee Suppl. 4 July 1936, p. 8, cf. illus. p. 4.
  • 7. Ibid. 22 June, 1 Aug. 1886; B.C. Mins. 21 Dec. 1886.
  • 8. W. Ham Corp. Act, 1925, 15 & 16 Geo. V, c. 120 (local act).
  • 9. W. Ham C.B.C. Mins. 1904, pp. 1406, 1804.
  • 10. Ibid. 1919–20, p. 447; 1920, pp. 1014, 1051, 1161, 1229F.
  • 11. Municipal Jnl. 9 Aug. 1963.
  • 12. Stratford Express, 25 July 1969.
  • 13. W. Ham C.B.C. Mins. 1909, p. 1905; 1910, pp. 970–9, 1107, 1267; 1911, pp. 2087, 2098.
  • 14. Personal observation; cf. Stratford Express, 22 Nov. 1963.
  • 15. 'The new … market at Stratford', Builder, xxxvii (1879), 1032; Kelly's Dir. Essex (1882); G.E.R. Mag. i (1911), 239; W.H.L., Illus. Coll. (Stratford Market); W. J. Passingham, London's Markets, 121 sqq.
  • 16. Stratford Express, 19 Nov. 1887 (Letter by 'W.W.').
  • 17. Ibid. 25 Nov. 1955, 28 Sept. 1956.
  • 18. Ibid. 16 and 23 Aug. 1968.
  • 19. E.R.O., D/SH 7.
  • 20. Ibid. For medieval flood-control cf. V.C.H. Essex v. 238, 235.
  • 21. See p. 17. For a possible earlier breach at Stratford, see p. 57.
  • 22. Cal. Pat. 1338–40, 261–3, See also Public Works in Medieval Law, ed. C. T. Flower, i. 58–60.
  • 23. E.R.O., D/SH 7, cf. D/SH 29 (map).
  • 24. See p. 18.
  • 25. Acts of P.C. 1613–14, 13–14, 26.
  • 26. W.H.L., Maps of Marshes in W. Ham Level, 1742–7.
  • 27. E.R.O., D/SH 3A: this survey is not quite complete for High Meads and Mill Meads. See also: W.H.L., Maps of Marshes in W. Ham Level, 1843–55.
  • 28. E.R.O., D/SH 26, f. 39.
  • 29. W.H.L., Maps of Marshes in W. Ham Level, 1742–7.
  • 30. See p. 100.
  • 31. Loc. Govt. Suppl. Act, 1863 (No. 2), 26 & 27 Vict. c. 64.
  • 32. W. Ham Corporation (Improvements) Act, 1888, 51 & 52 Vict. c. 179 (local act).
  • 33. W.H.L. Illus. Coll. (Sewers); W. Ham L.B. Mins. passim; W. Ham C.B.C. Mins. 1891–94 passim.
  • 34. W. L. Jenkins, 'Sewerage of W. Ham', Proc. Inst. Municipal and County Engineers, liv (1928), 994–7.
  • 35. L.B. Mins. 23 Nov. 1875.
  • 36. W. L. Jenkins, op. cit. 994.
  • 37. H. Grieve, The Great Tide, 53–5.
  • 38. D. McDougall, Fifty Years a Borough, 17.
  • 39. Grieve, Great Tide, 64.
  • 40. Ibid. 45, 53.
  • 41. Ibid. 171–2, 441–6, 448, 585, 721, 732, 744, 746.
  • 42. This section also covers East Ham.
  • 43. W. R. Fisher, Forest of Essex, 21 f.
  • 44. Ibid. 25–6.
  • 45. E.R. xlvi. 115–16.
  • 46. Fisher, Forest, 394–5, cf. 401–3.
  • 47. Ibid. 137; E.R. xiv, map f. p. 193.
  • 48. V.C.H. Essex, i. 515.
  • 49. P.N. Essex, 95.
  • 50. Cal. Chart. R. 1257–1300, 311–13.
  • 51. Cal. Inq. p.m. iv, pp. 79–80.
  • 52. Cal. Pat. 1350–4, 476.
  • 53. Cal. Inq. p.m. v, pp. 390–1.
  • 54. E.R.O., D/DQs 13: it was described as a wood in 1694, but in 1720 as a farm. A licence to fell the wood had been granted in 1680: E.R.O., D/DCv 1, f. 16v.
  • 55. Chapman and André, Map of Essex, 1777, sheet xxi.
  • 56. See p. 69.
  • 57. Final Rep. Epping For. Com. H.C. 187, p. 113 (1877) xxvi; Sewers v. Glasse and others (1871), Bill of Complaint, 18; those 13 a. were still uninclosed in 1853: E.R.O., D/DCw P26.
  • 58. Epping Forest Arbitration Map, 1882.
  • 59. See p. 1.
  • 60. Fisher, Forest, 291.
  • 61. Cal. Chart. 1226–57, 433.
  • 62. Fisher, Forest, 200.
  • 63. Ibid. 287, 290.
  • 64. Ibid. 334, 337. The judgement was given in the case of Boulcott v. Winmill (1807).
  • 65. Fisher, Forest, 299. It may have contained the letter 'S', since the previous letters of the alphabet are known to have been allotted to other parishes.
  • 66. Ibid. 177–9.
  • 67. Ibid. 179. From the 16th century E. Ham's small forest area was part of the manor of W. Ham.
  • 68. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1639, 498.
  • 69. Fry, E. and W. Ham, 228; E.R. xxx. 227, cf. xxxi. 51–2; W. Ham L.B. Mins. 26 Feb. 1867, 13 Sept., 13 Dec. 1881, 8 Aug. 1882, 27 Feb. 1883.
  • 70. Fisher, Forest, 35–7, 81–94; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1623–5, 591.
  • 71. E.R.O., D/DCw T1 (cf. Z2).
  • 72. Acts of P.C. 1621–3, 48; E 32/323; E.R.O., D/DCu 1.
  • 73. E.R.O., D/DCw T1 and 2.
  • 74. E.R.O., D/DCy P2B.
  • 75. E.R.O., D/P 256/28/1 (survey, 1825) and T/M 92 (map, 1821).
  • 76. E.R.O., D/DU 503/4.
  • 77. Fisher, Forest, 139.
  • 78. Ibid. 140 n.
  • 79. Ibid. 128.