As construction works begins in earnest around Forest Gate station now, and next year on the Goblin line, to facilitate the next stage in the area’s transport story, and future development, it seems worth a pause to look at how early road and railway construction helped make Forest Gate what it is today.
London’s rapid population growth in the eighteenth century put a strain on the roads bringing foodstuffs and raw materials to the capital. One such road was the old Roman road from London to Colchester, which was, by this time, known as Essex (now Romford) Road. It passed on its way through West Ham on its way to London, from the Eastern Counties
The road was described by Daniel Defoe in his 1720’s publication A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain as:
That great road from London thro’ this whole county towards Ipswich and Harwich which is most worn with wagons, carts and carriages and with infinite droves of black cattle, hogs and sheep of any road in England.
It was the need to improve the road that lead the section between Whitechapel and Shenfield being created a Turnpike Trust (toll road) in 1722 – essentially what is now Romford Road. Defoe commented that:
All those villages are increased in buildings in a strange degree … and the towns of West Ham, Plaistow, Upton etc. (so insignificant was Forest Gate in its own right at this time that it was bundled up in Defoe’s etc!) in all which places above a thousand new foundations have been erected … this increase is of handsome large houses … being chiefly for the habitation of the richest citizens (see future articles in this blog featuring the development of Upton, and Upton Lane, in particular) … there are no less than 200 coaches kept.
A survey of road traffic entering London from the East in 1830 showed that 494 wagons passed along the road each week, along with a thousand head of cattle, 8,000 sheep, 400 pigs and 150 calves.
In addition, private carriages had driven over 350,000 miles along the road and people on horseback rode over 700,000 miles along it during that year.
The road was struggling to cope, and ambitious plans for developing a steam locomotive along the route were drawn up. According to plans in the Essex Record Office, an 1803 proposal envisaged horse drawn locomotives being transported over railway lines, to their destination on the Essex coast.
In the event, the scheme, which would have seen an early “railway” rattle through Forest Gate, came to nothing.
It was over thirty years, 1836, before two railway schemes, each playing a major role in the development of Forest Gate, received the Royal Assent.
The first came from the Commercial Railway Company, built to improve the haulage of both goods and passengers between Brunswick Wharf, at Blackwall and the City. The second was the Eastern Counties Railway, promoted to transport coal from Great Yarmouth (a considerably more important port then, than today) to London.
The original proposed route for the Eastern Counties line was to start at Shoreditch High Street and head eastwards, via Bethnal Green to Mile End.
Here the railway was to veer south, to Old Ford and cross the marshes to Stratford (see engraving, below). The preferred route from Strafford through Forest Gate was for a straight line running in parallel, north of the Turnpike.
On the plans submitted to Parliament, an alternative route, passing north of Forest Gate’s Eagle and Child pub was shown. In the event, this was not adopted, and the original proposal was used for the route.
The surveyors recorded the following properties along the route as being in Forest Gate. From West to East: Prospect Place, containing 12 cottages and a small chapel, Chapel Place with six cottages with gardens, Pleasant Place, with 8 cottages with gardens and Whitehall Place, with 8 cottages. All these places were owned by John Pickering Peacock.
Then came the Eagle and Child and two cottages, owned by the brewers Combe Dalafield and Company. Next was a series of properties including the houses and gardens of John Brown and William Leverton, buildings and yards owned by Joshua Pedley and the cottage owned by Richard Curtis (no, not that one!) Finally came a place called Hoppett by the Lane, a meadow with a cottage and garden and the Mansion House buildings and yard, all these being owned by John Greenhill.
John Braithwaite was appointed engineer of the Eastern Counties Railway and the Railway Magazine was quick to point out his inexperience, and woeful track record, to date. It, with a note of irony, predicted that it would take him until 1836 (i.e. a hundred years) to complete the construction to Great Yarmouth.
The first twelve miles of the line were, in fact, opened in June 1839 – from Shoreditch to Romford. Two days later, the line experienced its first accident, when both the driver and his stoker were killed, when the locomotive “leapt off the track”. The driver, John Meadows had been dismissed previously by another railway company for “furious driving”.
The first Forest Gate station was opened in 1841. It originally consisted of a small wooden structure, with an entrance on Forest Lane (see location, on Forest Lane, in the extract from the 1867 OS map, above). It was only, originally, served by two trains a day and so poor were the passenger numbers that it was closed, because of lack of trade, between 1844 and 1846.
In 1845 the shareholders of the Eastern Counties railway invited George Hudson (“The Railway King”) to help bail them out. Hudson was a crook, but was the inspiration behind building the railway works and sidings in Stratford.
In gratitude, part of West Ham was named after him.
The railway workers in Stratford needed homes, and soon housing was constructed by building societies in parts of Forest Gate, to accommodate them.
Although, under Hudson, trains began to service Forest Gate once more, the service was pretty poor. As late as 1863, John Spencer Curwen, who was behind the Earlham Grove Musical academy (see here), wrote:
The trains were few and uncertain … Ten or twenty minutes belatement we thought nothing of. Sometimes trains did not come at all … I do not think there were more than seven or eight trains each way per day. On an average, about six people entered or left at Forest Gate.
“Railway Mania” was an appropriate term to describe the chaos created by rival companies, essentially serving the same area and competing furiously, and often unscrupulously for passengers and freight.
Early “tourism”, rail day excursions and publications like Bradshaws were produced to cater for the rapid development of railways not just for business, but for leisure too. Bradshaws became almost a bible for travellers, providing early versions of what we, today, would call travel guides, offering lengthy descriptions of the key points of interest in and around railway towns and stations.
It’s contributors were clearly not too impressed with what Forest Gate had to offer in 1863. The extract, below is the totality of their description:
And so yet another railway came to service the area, this time in the 1890’s, and actually featured Forest Gate in its title. This was called the Tottenham and Forest Gate Railway (the core of what is now better known as the Gospel Oak to Barking – Goblin, or Chimney Pot – Line).
It was to link the Midland railway, at Tottenham, with the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway at their junction with the Great Eastern (formerly Eastern Counties Railway). (Confused? You aren’t alone). See map, below, for clearer portrayal.
The Tottenham and Forest Gate railway met much popular opposition, as over a hundred recently constructed houses in Forest Gate had to be demolished to make way for the viaducts that carried the railway through the district.
The railway opened in 1894 and was soon running, in conjunction with other companies, trains between St Pancras and Tilbury, via the newly opened stations of Woodgrange Park and Wanstead Park.
The company soon needed more rolling stock to cater for its expanding numbers of passengers, so in 1897-8 it commissioned the construction of 12 engines to service the line. Each was named after an Essex town, or place on its route, one of which was called the Forest Gate – see photo. This, like the other in the series (LTSR 37-48), was in almost continuous commission until it was scrapped, in 1951.
Forest Gate was now well served, and heavily dependent on railways, as a form of transport. The six or eight passengers a day of 1841, rose to over 10,000 immediately prior to World War One.
Yet another form of local public transport was being developed to help with the commuting needs of the Forest Gate and area’s population from the 1870’s: trams. See our earlier post (here) on their history in the district.