A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.
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A pre-Roman road following a route from Oxford Street and Old Street to Old Ford and Essex crossed Bethnal Green, probably in part along the line of Hackney Road and Old Ford Lane (later Road). (fn. 1) Hackney Road, part of the parish boundary, was referred to in 1587 as the highway from Shoreditch to Mare Street (fn. 2) and, as Collier's Lane, dated from 1439 or earlier. (fn. 3) An Iron-Age coin was found in Victoria Park. (fn. 4) The king's way from Bethnal Green to Old Ford, identifiable from abutments as Old Ford Lane, was mentioned c. 1549 (fn. 5) and was probably from the Middle Ages the route to Bishop's Hall. Its eastern section was straightened in 1844 when Victoria Park was created. (fn. 6)
The Romans are thought to have built a more direct road to Colchester from London Bridge via Old Ford. Remnants of a Roman road or roads have been uncovered at Old Ford and at the junction of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road, although the road at that junction may have been one running north to Clapton. (fn. 7) The name Roman Road, existing earlier in Bow, was not applied to the eastern route from Bethnal Green until modern times. If it denoted the pre-Roman route (fn. 8) or the Roman road from London bridge, it seems to have fallen out of use. (fn. 9) In 1703 the western portion was marked as 'Driftway' with a path to the east, called 'footway to Clay Hall' in 1760. (fn. 10) The road was first depicted in its entirety in the 1740s (fn. 11) and named Green Street by 1790. (fn. 12) It gained importance after the development of Globe Town and Victoria Park districts and was widened by 1887 under an Act of 1883. (fn. 13) It was widened again in the 1960s. (fn. 14)
The main north-south route from London, Ermine Street, lay slightly west of Bethnal Green parish. Another route, passing through the centre of Bethnal Green as a broad stretch of waste, was mentioned in the 1580s as the highway from Mile End to Cambridge Heath and Hackney. (fn. 15) The name was changed from Cambridge to Cambridge Heath Road in 1938. (fn. 16) The road was widened in 1862, c. 1905, and 1926. (fn. 17) Grove Street, which by the 16th century had given its name to a hamlet in Hackney, (fn. 18) extended to Old Ford Lane by 1701. (fn. 19) As New Grove Road it was extended southward to Mile End Road under an agreement of 1803. (fn. 20)
By c. 1549 Brick Lane led northward from Spitalfields to meet 'the way . . . from Bishop's Hall to Halliwell Street'. (fn. 21) The western part of that way was called Cock Lane by 1538 (fn. 22) and the rest, which probably existed in 1223 (fn. 23) and which was called Rogue Lane by 1642 (fn. 24) and Whores Lane in 1717, (fn. 25) became Old Bethnal Green Road after a more direct route of it south, Bethnal Green Road, was made by an Act of 1756 on the line of a bridleway. (fn. 26) The western section was called Church Street after the church was built in 1743 but entry to Shoreditch was only through a narrow passageway until the Act of 1756. (fn. 27) By 1872 the western approach was again inadequate, since it was the main route from the developing Victoria Park district to the City and Finsbury. Replacing the 18th-century road with a 60-ft. wide road farther south was also seen as a means of clearing slums in southwestern Bethnal Green. The M.B.W. obtained an Act in 1872 and opened the new road, called Bethnal Green Road throughout, in 1879. (fn. 28)
Lanes that became the eastern end of Old Bethnal Green Road and of Three Colts Lane, and which both led from Cambridge Road, existed in 1388 as New Lane and Water Lane respectively. (fn. 29) Globe Road, probably the 'lane from Bethnal Green to Mile End', an abutment of Eastfield in 1581, (fn. 30) was called Thieving Lane c. 1600 and in 1703. (fn. 31) Other early roads were Beny Lane (1388) (fn. 32) and Barnard's Lane (1581, probably Bernareys 1404), (fn. 33) both probably back lanes east of the green, Rush (later Russia) Lane to the east of Cambridge Heath (1550), (fn. 34) and Crabtree Lane leading from Hackney Road in the west (1582). (fn. 35)
Leases of waste along Cambridge Road in the 16th century included covenants to keep the footway well gravelled (fn. 36) and in 1654 Bethnal Green's highway surveyors were ordered to fill up a gravel pit which they had made in the green. (fn. 37) In the 18th century they took their gravel from the Sotheby estate at Cambridge Heath. (fn. 38) Bethnal Green was rated with other Stepney hamlets in 1671 to repair the highways and causeways 'in great decay'. (fn. 39) In 1696 it petitioned that Spitalfields, being small but populous, should contribute towards Bethnal Green's highways, (fn. 40) and in 1655 it sought the repair of Brick and Cock lanes. (fn. 41) By 1671 it was generally accepted that roads built up on both sides should be paved. (fn. 42) Paving with stone and gravel was the responsibility of the houses lining the roads, Thomas Street being singled out in 1734. (fn. 43) Once Bethnal Green became a separate parish, the vestry prosecuted defaulting householders. (fn. 44) In 1772 it opposed an attempt by Spitalfields to obtain an Act to pave and clean streets in its own and neighbouring parishes, including Brick Lane. (fn. 45) An Act was passed in 1793, however, for streets in the south-west, most built-up, corner of Bethnal Green (fn. 46) and was extended in 1843, when it was to be put into effect by commissioners for paving and lighting. (fn. 47) By 1848, of more than 400 roads in Bethnal Green, only 14 per cent were classed as granite roadways and 40 per cent had paved footpaths, both still concentrated in the southwest. (fn. 48) By 1905 there were 40 miles of streets in the borough. (fn. 49) Some of the narrow, cobbled streets, probably late 18th- and early 19th-century remained in 1988.
The route from Essex to Smithfield market passed from Mile End along Cambridge Road to Cambridge Heath and thence along Hackney Road to Shoreditch, bringing 'vast numbers of cattle and many heavy carriages' which left the roads beyond the ability of Bethnal Green to keep in repair. (fn. 50) In 1738 an Act included the route among those administered by the new Hackney turnpike trustees. (fn. 51) To the existing turnpike gate in Mile End, at the junction with Dog Row, they added one at Cambridge Heath, at the junction with Hackney Road. (fn. 52) There was another at the western end of Hackney Road by 1822. (fn. 53) The trust's term and powers were extended in 1753, 1756, 1782, 1802, when tolls were adjusted to cope with the increasing traffic of carts loaded with bricks, and 1821. (fn. 54) In 1788, however, the Cambridge Road was still dangerous, with the pathways broken and 'heaps of filth . . . every 10 or 20 yards'. (fn. 55) A second turnpike trust was set up by Act in 1756 for the new west-east route along Church Street and Bethnal Green Road. (fn. 56) The trustees had erected a gate in the middle of the road by 1760. (fn. 57) Acts in 1767 and 1805 extended their powers and increased tolls on brick-carrying waggons. (fn. 58) In 1826 an Act replaced the trusts with the metropolitan turnpike roads commissioners, whose responsibilities from the start included Hackney and Cambridge roads. (fn. 59) Control of Bethnal Green Road lay with the parish, which removed the tollgate in 1827, until 1833 when it was assumed by the commissioners. (fn. 60) Other tollgates were closed when the commissioners were abolished in 1863 (fn. 61) and responsibility for all roads passed to the local authorities and M.B.W.
The only bridges were those made after the Regent's canal, opened in 1820, had been constructed through the eastern part of the parish, where it was crossed by Old Ford Road, Green Street (Old Ford Footpath bridge), and Bonner's Hall footpath. (fn. 62) A cast iron bridge was built in Green Street in 1866. (fn. 63) As Twig Folly bridge, it was widened a century later. (fn. 64)
Two coachmen petitioned, apparently unsuccessfully, in 1688 for permission to run a service from London to Bethnal Green. (fn. 65) In 1838 the nearest omnibus service ran from Mile End gate. (fn. 66) In 1856 18 omnibuses ran between Chelsea and Bethnal Green. (fn. 67) There were 274 buses a day along Bethnal Green Road by 1870 and 48 a day along Green Street by 1882. (fn. 68)
The North Metropolitan Tramways Co. opened a route along Grove Road to Old Ford Road in 1872 but closed it in 1873 when it opened routes along the old turnpike roads from Mile End along Cambridge Road to Stamford Hill, and along Hackney Road. (fn. 69) In 1879 it opened lines from Bethnal Green across Victoria Park to Hackney. (fn. 70) In 1893 the Cambridge Road route was called the Museum line, along which red trams ran from Aldgate. (fn. 71) Attempts in the 1870s and 1880s by the North Metropolitan and East London Tramways cos. to open a route along Bethnal Green Road (fn. 72) were apparently unsuccessful but the Victoria Park line, with yellow trams running between South Hackney and the docks, was opened along Grove Road in 1879. (fn. 73) The L.C.C. ran electric trams over the existing routes, along Hackney Road from 1907, Cambridge Road from 1910, and Grove Road from 1921. (fn. 74)
The London General Omnibus Co. ran a motorbus from Victoria station to Old Ford along Bethnal Green Road and Green Street in 1911 (fn. 75) and by 1930 buses ran on the same routes as trams. (fn. 76) The Empress Omnibus garage was built at Cambridge Heath in 1925 and a coach station in Knottisford Street in 1936. (fn. 77) In 1939 the London Passenger Transport Board introduced trolleybuses along Cambridge, Hackney, and Grove roads. (fn. 78) Although less frequent, motorbuses ran along the same routes in 1958 as in 1938. (fn. 79) Services had been reduced by 1987, when 6,070 people travelled to work from Globe Town neighbourhood and 10,230 from Bethnal Green neighbourhood; they used ten bus services within the former borough, along Hackney, Cambridge Heath, Bethnal Green, and Roman roads. (fn. 80)
In 1839 the Eastern Counties (later the Great Eastern) Railway, created to build a line from London to Norwich, (fn. 81) opened the first section from Romford to a station (Devonshire Street) south of Victoria cemetery, just outside the Bethnal Green boundary. (fn. 82) In 1840 the line was extended through south-western Bethnal Green to a station on the border called Shoreditch, in 1846 renamed Bishopsgate (high level). Brick Lane goods station opened south of St. John Street, (fn. 83) was enlarged under an Act of 1854, and expanded and moved eastward until by c. 1865 it occupied a large site west of Carlisle Street. (fn. 84) In 1843 Devonshire Street was replaced by a passenger station to the west, next to Cambridge Road but called Mile End. (fn. 85) In 1872 that was replaced by a passenger station to the west called Bethnal Green or Bethnal Green Junction, from which the G.E.R. opened a northward branch parallel with Cambridge Road through Cambridge Heath station to Hackney Downs, where it divided. At the western end Bishopsgate (low level) station opened in 1872 and the line was extended to a new terminus in Liverpool Street in 1874. Bishopsgate (high level) station was closed to passengers in 1875. Another passenger station on the main G.E.R. line opened at Globe Road in 1884. (fn. 86)
The East London Railway, having opened a line to Wapping from New Cross in 1869, extended it northward to Liverpool Street in 1876 through Whitechapel and Shoreditch station (which was within Bethnal Green approximately on the site of the first Brick Lane goods station, which had shifted to the east and was called Spitalfields Goods station). There was a passenger service from Brighton to Liverpool Street until 1885 when Shoreditch became the London terminus. The G.E.R. ran a service on the line from Liverpool Street to New Cross until 1914, when passenger services passed to the Metropolitan. A partly built freight link between the Great Eastern and East London lines between Whitechapel and Bethnal Green was abandoned for lack of money, a hoist at Spitalfields goods station being used to bridge the difference in level between the two lines. (fn. 87)
Bishopsgate (low level), Globe Road, and Cambridge Heath stations closed in 1916, although the last reopened in 1919 (fn. 88) The East London line was electrified in 1913, (fn. 89) whereas on the G.E.R. lines the 'most intensive steam-operated suburban service in the world' was inaugurated in 1920, with 24 trains an hour between Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green. (fn. 90) Some platforms at Bethnal Green station were closed in 1946 (fn. 91) and as freight traffic declined the Spitalfields hoist ceased to be used after 1955, (fn. 92) Bishopsgate (high level) station for goods was replaced by Liverpool Street after a fire in 1964, and Spitalfields goods station closed in 1967. (fn. 93)
The Underground railway was late in coming to Bethnal Green. Under an Act of 1936 (fn. 94) the London Passenger Transport Board acquired a site on the green for a station on the planned eastward extension of the Central line but its opening was delayed by the war. The station was being used as an air-raid shelter in 1943 when 173 people died in a disastrous accident. It opened as Bethnal Green station in 1946 on the line from Liverpool Street to Stratford. (fn. 95)
There were plans in 1989 for an East-West Crossrail to link British Rail at the City and West End. The eastern end was planned to run in a tunnel from Liverpool Street under Spitalfields and the southern part of Bethnal Green and then alongside the existing G.E.R. line to Stratford. (fn. 96) A final decision to build had still not been made in 1991.