The East End has a collection of place names which evoke a rural past, long buried beneath concrete and tarmac: Fairfield Road, the Old Ford and Spitalfields among them. But what and where was Cambridge Heath?
Now an unflinchingly urban area between Bethnal Green and Hackney, this stretch of the East End was once a desolate stretch of common ground, with marshland stretching to the east and west. The high, dry expanse of heath belonged to the old Stepney Manor to the south and, during the 13th century, records have the heath as being used as common pasture. Long before the mass enclosures of common land during the Middle Ages, any man or woman could come here to graze their sheep.
It must have been a bleak spot to live, though 1275 records have at least one ‘ancient’ house standing there. In 1587, John Slater, ‘a merchant tailor of London’ took out a 99-year lease on a piece of wasteland measuring 24 rods by 11 rods* on the western edge of the heath. But the wild expanses of the heath remained unpopular, and the lease had lapsed by 1652.
By the early 18th century, pressure on land increased as London’s population grew. Building spilled beyond the walls of the City and out of Spitalfields. The blasted heath would have been cheap and available real estate, and in 1722, the trustees of Parmiter’s Charity bought 4½ acres of wasteland on the west side of the Cambridge Road, and on either side of Hackney Road.
The charity had its beginnings in the will of Thomas Parmiter, a silk merchant, who was also to endow ‘six almshouses and one free school house or room’ in Bethnal Green. This was to grow into Parmiter’s Grammar School, in Approach Road (and latterly in Watford). Parmiter’s leased out parcels of land to East Enders. The early inhabitants of Cambridge Heath were artisans, skilled men like Thomas Thorne, a Bethnal Green carpenter who built a house ‘adjoining the sewer’ in 1724; and Thomas King, a glazier and plumber of Hackney, who built cottages ‘on the sweep following the road’ in 1729.
Development started in earnest in 1786, and it’s here we see the real transition of rural into urban, when the Middlesex countryside was buried beneath the East End we know today. Parmiter’s leased its entire estate to Wilmot, who built six houses on the site, before selling his plot on to William Lovell, who built another five. By 1800, Cambridge Place formed the north-western boundary of the new estate, with Howard’s Place and Heath Place, and the Hare public house fronting the Hackney and Cambridge Roads.
This was the era of the small entrepreneurial builder. Andrew Pritchard a ‘tilemaker of Hackney Road’ contracted Woolwich bricklayer William Olley to build a terrace of houses in Hackney Road, butting up against a factory. John Scott, an Islington brickmaker, took the central part of the estate, building Prospect Place in Russia Lane, and Potter’s Row. To the east of Cambridge Road, a five-acre site belonging to Bishop’s Hall was leased to the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, who built Palestine Place. Patriot Square was developed in the 1790s.
By the early 1800s, the Old Bethnal Green Road had an almost continuous frontage of buildings along it, although there were still acres of wasteland within the old heath. It was now apportioned between eight estates: Sebright, Bullock, Parmiter, Rush Mead, Cambridge Heath, Chambers, Pyott and Bishop’s Hall. The gaps quickly disappeared as the estates squeezed as many new streets and buildings as they could onto the fast disappearing land.
The last open patches of the old heath were in the north-western stretch, owned by the Sebright estate. Shrewdly aware of its ‘increasing and improving neighbourhood’ (and of the money to be made), the trustees won the right in 1813 to grant long building leases. The trust then leased the land to Joseph Teale of Shoreditch, and within a few years there were 250 houses on the estate. The last vestiges of Cambridge Heath had disappeared.
For more, see A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume XI, published 1998 by Victoria County History. With thanks to British History Online at www.british-history.ac.uk.
* If you’re unfamiliar with medieval measurements, a rod equalled 5½ yards and was also called a perch or a pole: it was the standard length of the ox goad used by a medieval English ploughman. The measurement survives to this day in sport: the length of a cricket pitch is a chain (four rods); the furlongs of a horse race are 10 chains each.