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Melanie Backe-Hansen

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Monks, rivers and industry and the London 2012 Olympic Park: the history of Stratford


In the last few days we have seen the opening of ‘the greatest show on earth’ and what many say is a ‘once in a lifetime experience’. The focus of the world was brought to Stratford through the extraordinary opening ceremony created by Danny Boyle, where quintessential British culture was on show through James Bond, Mr Bean, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Paul McCartney.

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Much has also been said about the venues of London 2012 and the billions of pounds spent on creating a new Stratford. But, do you know what was there before? There have been hints at the desolate waste land and the former industrial area, but what is the history of Stratford?

Monks, mills and Bow china
The history of Stratford has been very much directed by the river Lea, which has been used as a form of transport from the Thames, as well as for mills, fishing and of course water supplies. In the 12th century, the banks of the river were chosen for a settlement of Cistercian monks and an Abbey remained here until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. The monks also built mills by the river, which continued after they had left, through to the 19th century. Other early industries included the manufacture of gun powder, timber milling and the creation of Bow porcelain. For almost 25 years Stratford was the first location for the manufacture of bone china, produced in the famous blue and white, which became known as Bow China. The dominance of the river meant that the area was first seen for its uses to transport and industry, and over time the river was divided into navigable waterways, and it is these that still run through the heart of the Olympic Park today.

The railway moves to Stratford
Up until the early 1800s the area was still very much open land, with Hackney Marsh to the north, West Ham to the east, and Bow to the west. It was through the early period of the 19th century that things began to change. The spread of London engulfed Bow and Hackney into the ‘East End’, but the most dramatic event was the introduction of the railways. The Eastern Counties Railway first came to Stratford in 1839 and by 1847 had taken over further land and tracks. The railways also brought about new building and Stratford New Town was built for railway workers and was first known as ‘Hudson Town’ after railway entrepreneur George Hudson, chairman of the Eastern Counties Railway. Throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries the railways were a large part of the area and by the outbreak of the First World War Stratford had the ‘biggest concentration of locomotives in Western Europe’.

Nuisance trades and foul industries
The 19th century also brought further industry and commerce to Stratford. Several parliamentary acts, including the Metropolitan Buildings Act in 1844 and the Smoke Nuisance Act in 1853 meant that ‘offensive trades’ and ‘foul industries’ were no longer permitted within the boundaries of London, so Stratford (just beyond this boundary), with its access to the river, the docks to the south, and its open spaces to build factories and warehouses, was ideal. In the 1850s much of Stratford was still fields, but as the 19th century progressed the area became covered with new industrial buildings. There were chemical works, soap manufacturers, leather factories, distilleries, candle factories, glue and rubber production, and match makers. Nearby, the Bryant and May match factory was the location for the famous ‘Match Girls Strike’ in 1888, which was a significant event in the history of trade unionism and the rights of female workers. Today, the old factory has been converted into apartments called ‘Bow Quarter’.

Decline and transformation
By the early 20th century Stratford was still dominated by industry and commerce. During the Second World War gun placements were built to the north of today’s Olympic Park. However, after the war there was a decline in the area of Stratford, with developments in manufacturing, and shipping to the docks and the use of the railways. This meant manufacturers either closed down or moved elsewhere. By the 1980s and 1990s much of this former industrial heartland had been reduced and large areas abandoned.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
It was the announcement of the Olympics coming to London in 2012 that Stratford was to see another transformation in its history: from the site of an abbey, through to a hive of industry, now to one of the most spectacular sporting facilities. Much like the Olympic opening ceremony so impressively illustrated, the open fields of Stratford had been transformed as industry and smoke stacks took over the landscape. This was then taken over by elite athletes from across the world and Stratford was changed forever. After the celebrations are over and the highs and lows of the Olympic competition have come to an end, Stratford will have permanently been transformed and the former industrial wasteland will have become the ‘Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’.


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The 19th century also brought further industry and commerce to Stratford. Several parliamentary acts, including the Metropolitan Buildings Act in 1844 and the Smoke Nuisance Act in 1853 meant that ‘offensive trades’ and ‘foul industries’ were no longer permitted within the boundaries of London,

These attempts largely failed. But that surely makes clear that in order to succeed the government will need to do and spend more, not less.

The name Northcote is believed to originate from politician Stafford Northcote, first Earl of Iddesleigh, who began his career as private secretary to William Gladstone, and later rose to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1874.

I have different sources tell me yes and no. I know a lot of new bylaws have
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The olympics was something indeed; but it really affected the proficiency of a lot of businesses around the area...

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