People often argue about where the East End of London stops and east London starts. But to most East Enders the division is clear. The River Lee forms the eastern boundary of Bow, and Tower Hamlets too. To the west lies Stratford and Newham.
But long before London boroughs were thought of – in fact long before Bow and Stratford were even part of London – the Lee formed a natural break, and thus plays a vital role in the history of London.
There are arguments about the name too: is it Lee, Lea or even Ley? Until the middle ages, the spelling ‘Ley’ appeared, though since 1570 all acts of parliament say ‘Lee’. Today, the river sections are usually called Lea and the canalised parts Lee, while the general area is also known as Lee.
Early London history
Centuries ago it formed the boundary between Essex to the east and Middlesex to the west. But settlement goes much further back still.
The Lee runs from Luton right down to the Thames and its link into the centre of the country gave it enormous importance for transport, trade, and as a strategic boundary.
Evidence of Bronze and Iron Age settlements have been found along the Lee, and the Romans used it too, building Ermine Street parallel to the waterway.
In 527AD, the Saxon kingdoms of Essex and Middlesex were established, themselves becoming part of the kingdom or Mercia in the 8th century. And during the 9th century, the Lee was the boundary between Alfred the Great’s Saxon England to the west and the invading Vikings, who had worked there way from the east coast and through East Anglia.
Danes invade London
Supposedly, the Danes sailed up the Lee in 895AD, only to be stranded by Alfred building a weir and embankment by the Thames and draining the river, stranding the invaders.
By medieval times, England was at peace, Middlesex and Essex were counties rather than kingdoms, and the Lee was more important for its mills. England’s first paper mill was set up on its banks in 1494, and there were flour and gunpowder mills too.
In 1424, an act of parliament had instructed work to improve the Lee’s navigation. Gunpowder, flour, coal and malt could now be moved in quantity to London.
New canalisation technology boosted the Lee further in the 18th century, as new cuts were driven and locks built, allowing larger barges to move goods upriver from the Thames, and through into Hertfordshire.
Many of London’s ‘stink industries’ were now on the banks of the Lee. Slaugherhouses not only provided meat for Londoners but the raw material for the famous Bow bone china. Later on, gasworks and powerstations were to make the Lee one of the most productive, if not the most picturesque, parts of London.
Lee Valley, Royal Enfield and Lesney
Into the 20th century, and the Lee became home to firms making the world’s first radio valves and vacuum flasks; to the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield; and the Lesney company, makers of Matchbox cars.
The arrival of the railways killed the canals of course. By the end of the 19th century bulk cargoes were being moved by train and then by road. And with the decline in Britain’s industries in the latter half of the 20th century, much of the Lee’s banks became shabby and derelict.
In 1967, the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority was set up to develop the banks of the river. Much of the derelict industrial land now came into recreational use, and wildlife and waterbirds began to thrive again.
Memories of the Lee’s industrial past remain with the striking Three Mills at Bromley-by-Bow. But much more lies, barren and derelict.
Could it rise again? If plans come to fruition, of course, this could be the site for the Olympic Games of 2012. And with an Olympic stadium and a cross-Channel rail terminus, the Lee Valley could be back at the heart of things.