Stratford's early significance was due to a Roman road running from Aldgate in the City, to Romford, Chelmsford and Colchester, crossed the River Lea.
At that time the various branches of the river were tidal and unchannelised, while the marshes surrounding them had yet to be drained. The Lea valley formed a natural boundary between Essex on the eastern bank and Middlesex on the west, and was a formidable obstacle to overland trade and travel.
Original ford and place name origin
The name is first recorded in 1067 as Strætforda and means 'ford on a Roman road'. It is formed from Old English 'stræt' (in modern English ‘street’) and 'ford'. The former river crossing lay at an uncertain location north of Stratford High Street.
The district of Old Ford in northern Bow – west of the Lea and now in Tower Hamlets – is named after the former crossing, while Bow itself was also initially named Stratford, after the same ford, and a variety of suffixes were used to distinguish the two distinct settlements.
The settlement to the east of the Lea was also known as Estratford referring to the location east of the other StratfordStratford Langthorne Abbey. and Stretford Langthorne after a distinctive thorn tree (probably a pollarded Hawthorn) which was mentioned in a charter of 958 AD.
, Statford Hamme alluding to the location within the parish of West Ham, Abbei Stratford, referring to the presence of
In 1110 Matilda, wife of Henry I, ordered a distinctively bow-shaped (arched) bridge to be built over the River Lea, together with a causeway across the marshes along the line now occupied by Stratford High Street. Reports state she (or her retinue) encountered problems crossing the river to get to Barking Abbey.
The western Stratford then become suffixed by “-atte-Bow” (at the Bow), eventually becoming known simply as Bow, while over time the eastern Stratford lost its “Langthorne” suffix.
Bow Bridge depicted in 1851
The bridge was repaired and upgraded many times over the centuries until eventually demolished and replaced in the 19th century.
Stratford Langthorne Abbey
In 1135 the Cistercian Order founded Stratford Langthorne Abbey, also known as West Ham Abbey. This became one of the largest and most wealthy monasteries in England, owning 1,500 acres (610 hectares) in the immediate area and 20 manors throughout Essex.
The Abbey lay between the Channelsea River and Marsh Lane (Manor Road). Nothing visible remains on the site, as after it dissolution by Henry VIII in 1538, local landowners took away much of the stone for their own buildings and the land was subsequently urbanised.
A stone window and a carving featuring skulls – thought to have been over the door to the charnel house – remain in All Saints Church, West Ham (dating from about 1180). The Great Gate of the abbey survived in Baker's Row until 1825.
The doorway to the Old Court House, in Tramway Avenue (Stratford), displays the Abbey's coat of arms. The chevrons from this device, originally from the arms of the Mountfitchet family, together with an abbot's crozier were incorporated into the arms of the former County Borough of West Ham in 1887. The new London Borough of Newham adopted the same arms in 1965.
The industrialisation of Stratford started slowly and accelerated rapidly in the early Victorian era.
London 2012 Opening Ceremony – Industrial Revolution
The Stratford and national experience of the Industrial Revolution inspired scenes in the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony covering the traumatic transition from a ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ to the ‘Pandemonium’ of the revolution and the huge social and economic changes it brought.
Stratford was originally an agricultural community, whose proximity to London provided a ready market for its produce. By the 18th century, the area around Stratford was noted for potato growing, a business that continued into the mid-1800s. Stratford also became a desirable country retreat for wealthy merchants and financiers, within an easy ride of the City. When Daniel Defoe visited Stratford in 1722, he reported it had "...increased in buildings to a strange degree, within the compass of about 20 or 30 years past at the most". He continues that "...this increase is, generally speaking, of hansom large houses... being chiefly for the habitations of the richest citizens, such as either are able to keep two houses, one in the country, and one in the city; or for such citizens as being rich, and having left off trade, live altogether in these neighbouring villages, for the pleasure and health of the latter part of their days".
An early industrial undertaking at Stratford was the Bow porcelain factory, which despite the name, was on the Essex side of the River Lea. Using a process that was patented in 1744, Edward Heylin and Thomas Frye operated a factory near Bow Bridge called "New Canton" to produce some of the first soft-paste porcelain to be made in the country. The site of the factory was to the north of Stratford High Street near the modern Bow Flyover; it was the subject of archaeological excavations in 1921 and 1969.
The Victorian era saw growth hugely accelerated by three major factors; the Metropolitan Building Act, the arrival of the railway and the creation of the nearby Royal Docks.
Rapid growth followed the Metropolitan Building Act in 1844. The Act restricted dangerous and noxious industries from operating in the metropolitan area, the eastern boundary of which was the River Lea. Consequently, many of these activities were relocated to the banks of the river. As a result, West Ham became one of Victorian Britain's major manufacturing centres for pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and processed foods. This rapid growth earned it the name "London over the border". The growth of the town was summarised by The Times in 1886:
"Factory after factory was erected on the marshy wastes of Stratford and Plaistow, and it only required the construction at Canning Town of the Victoria and Albert Docks to make the once desolate parish of West Ham a manufacturing and commercial centre of the first importance and to bring upon it a teeming and an industrious population."
By the early 19th century, Stratford was an important transport hub, with omnibuses and coaches running into London four times every hour and coaches from East Anglia passing through hourly. The route into London was plied by Walter Hancock's steam coaches for a period during the 1830s. A small dock and a number of wharves were operating on the River Lea at Stratford by the 1820s, serving the needs of local industries. However, the opening of the nearby Royal Victoria Dock in 1855 and the subsequent construction of the Royal Group of Docks (at one time the largest area of impounded water in the world), increased Stratford's importance as a transport and manufacturing centre. Rising population levels led to two major new Anglican churches in the area, St John's Church in 1834 and Christ Church in 1851.
Engine repair shop of the Stratford Railway Works, 1921
Stratford station was opened on 20 June 1839 by the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR). The Northern and Eastern Railway opened a section of its authorised line from Broxbourne to join the ECR at Stratford on 15 September 1840. A railway works and depot for engines and rolling stock was established by Great Eastern in 1847 to the north of Stratford. At its peak, the works employed over 2,500 many of whom had homes, along with other rail workers, in the town that developed nearby. It was originally called Hudson Town, after George Hudson, the "Railway King;", but after his involvement in bribery and fraud was revealed in 1849, the settlement quickly became better known as Stratford New Town, which by 1862 had a population of 20,000. During the lifetime of the Stratford works, 1,682 locomotives, 5,500 passenger coaches and 33,000 goods wagons were built.
The last part of the works closed in March 1991.
Stratford, like many areas of London, particularly in the East End, suffered significant de-industrialisation in the 20th century. This was compounded by the closing of the London Docks in the 1960s. Around this time, the Stratford Shopping Centre was built, beginning efforts to guide the area through the process of transformation from a working-class industrial and transport hub to a retail and leisure destination for the contemporary age. These efforts continued with the Olympic bid for Stratford, and the ongoing urban regeneration work going on there.