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Category: East End and the Olympics

Three Mills and the River Lea

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.

Baron de Coubertin and the East End Olympics

A decade ago, when Greece hosted the Olympic Games, much was made of the fact that the competition was coming home. Cue images of Ancient Athenians spinning discuses and hurling javelins, before wrestling each other to the ground. This in an age when all was in the spirit of taking part rather than winning, and with no money changing hands.

When the Olympiad hits east London in two years time, things will have changed quite a bit. Many events from those early Games have dropped off the menu (anyone for the standing high jump, croquet or jeu de paume?). And the Games have become a huge industry – the earnest and bookish Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics might have been shocked that these days there is cash as well as kudos at stake.

The competitors will still be vying to be ‘higher, faster, stronger’ than the rest of course. But, contrary to myth, the Baron’s belief that ‘the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part’ was forged not in the sunshine of Greece but in the grey streets of 1880s’ Whitechapel. Coubertin found the Corinthian ideal alive and well during a series of visits to Toynbee Hall – from where he got his inspiration to launch the modern Olympics.

Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin was born in Paris in 1863 and eschewed the leisured life of a French aristo, becoming an academic. Rather than letting them eat cake, the Baron believed that the ideal nourishment for the working man was learning and exercise. His twin studies of education and history led him back to the Ancient Greeks and the numerous games between the city states of Greece during the centuries before the birth of Christ. Not just Olympic games, there were the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games too. Coubertin saw education and exercise as going together. The ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’ would keep young people focused, disciplined, away from moral temptation and perfectly prepared for life. He admired the soldier-athletes of Ancient Greece and saw the gymnasium as a perfect training ground for war.

There were recent historical reasons for his beliefs. Coubertin, like many Frenchmen, was still smarting from France’s humiliation at the hands of the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War, and believed it was in part due to an officer class gone soft and a ruling class detached from the working people. He didn’t have to look far to find a country with a stiffer backbone. Just across the Channel that de Coubertin saw his model of sporting perfection.

During the 1880s, the young Pierre paid numerous visits to England, falling under the spell of English public schools, where every hour spent studying Latin and Greek seemed to be matched by another ploughing up and down a muddy field chasing a ball. This, he felt, was an example French schools could learn from.

Coubertin’s theories were perhaps grounded in romance as much as fact. Rugby School under Thomas Arnold was his ideal, though he viewed it through the fictionalised account of headmaster and school that appeared as ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ by Thomas Hughes. Still, his tour around the rowing clubs, fives courts and lacrosse fields of Eton, Harrow, Wellington, Winchester and the rest reinforced his view that here were ideas that could stiffen morals and minds as well as sinews. But there was something missing – the working man.

The Baron believed that a healthy society was one where rich mixed with poor, duke with dustman. There was no revolutionary zeal in this, he was a firm believer in the class system and its hierarchy. His ideal was a sporting event where all classes would don singlet and shorts and compete together on equal terms – before once more going their separate ways. At Toynbee Hall, in Commercial Street, the Baron spied his ideal.

Toynbee Hall was founded in 1884, the first university settlement in a movement that would spread first around the East End, then the world. The privileged students of Oxford University would come to the East End to do ‘missionary work’ – living with local people, running classes, organising sports events. To Coubertin, coming from a France where the classes seemed to inhabit discrete worlds, it was revolutionary. Toynbee Hall also seemed an extraordinary melting pot, with people of all creeds and colours passing through. Coubertin’s vision of an Olympic Games, bringing together all the nations and classes of the world on a level playing field, was starting to form. He continued his tour of Britain, but would return to give lectures on the stage at Toynbee Hall, praising the social experiment that was playing out there.

A decade later, the Baron’s dream would come to pass, with the first modern Olympiad, in Greece in 1896.

If Coubertin was lavish in his praise of the Ancient Greeks he was a little careless about giving credit to some of the other modern founders of the Olympics. There were any number of ‘Olympic’, ‘Athenian’ and ‘Corinthian’ games happening all over Europe from the 18th century onward. One of the biggest, and some would call it the first true modern Olympic games, was the Much Wenlock Olympics, organised in Shropshire in 1866 by Dr William Penny Brookes. Courbertin it was though, who had the vision and energy to take the Games forward.

So as the Olympic flame is lit in Stratford on 27 July 2012, just a mile or so from where Baron de Coubertin spoke on the stage at Toynbee Hall, reflect on the fact that (never mind football) the Olympics is finally coming home.

Bromley by Bow or Tescotown

The news that Tesco is to build a new ‘supermarket suburb’ at the Bromley-by-Bow corner of the Olympic site, with 460 homes, a school, a park, hotel, library and high street with shops has excited a mixture of delight and horror. A brownfield site gets what appears to be a balanced development and Tesco can certainly make things happen. On the other hand, do you want to wake up in a Tesco house, send your kids to a Tesco school and buy your groceries from a Tesco store. And how will those 18 other high street shops compete with the company’s own hypermarket – small local shops are hardly fans of the supermarkets.

But with IKEA also planning to build a mini-town on the giant Olympic site (cue jokes about flat-pack homes) it begins to look as if something rather strange and different is happening in urban development. In truth though, it’s a modern take on a very old idea – the company town – one company providing work and leisure activities, a roof over your head and a school for the kids. The most famous early example was industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen. In the late 1700s, at New Lanark near Glasgow, he realised his dream that the lot of the workers needn’t simply mean drudgery, poverty and an early death. In the latter half of the 19th century, mill-owner Titus Salt followed with Saltaire in Yorkshire, chocolatiers the Cadbury brothers at Bournville in Birmingham, and soap magnates Lever Brothers at Port Sunlight near Liverpool.

The idea was given new momentum by social reformer Ebenezer Howard, who in 1898 wrote a book called ‘To-morrow: a peaceful path to real reform’, swiftly republished under the more browser friendly title ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’ (notice Victorians wordsmiths still manfully resisting the idea of ‘tomorrow’ as a single word).

Howard’s ideas were derided as bonkers – yet today seem brilliant. The press scratched its head, wondering why builders needed to provide trees and grass spaces between the houses. To explain, Ebenezer whipped out his diagram of ‘The Three Magnets’, which showed a pull between Town, Country and Town-Country (which would later be called ‘sub-urbia’). ‘The People’ would be held in the centre in a state of glorious magnetic balance, from which they could walk back from work, grow vegetables in ‘green belt’ areas which would girdle the development, watch their children play on the green, and buy their groceries from local shops.

The Victorians were big believers in the magical power of magnets and in any case Howard’s ideas were being picked up by radical thinkers among the Quakers and the Arts and Crafts Movement. CR Ashbee, a leader in Arts and Crafts, had set up the Guild and School of Handicraft in Mile End a decade before – a radical experiment in co-operative working which, alas, would soon foresake the city for the greener fields of the Cotswolds.

Ebenezer would build his first garden city at Letchworth in Hertfordshire in the early 1900s and would follow up with Welwyn a few years later. They continued the Victorian industrialists’ policy of no booze on site: Letchworth even had a dry pub which sold Cydrax, Bournville’s drinking chocolate and sarsparilla. It wasn’t a policy pursued when the New Towns sprang up half a century later – though you might think twice about drinking in some of the pubs in Basildon or Harlow.

The New Towns were conceived as offering that precious balance of work and life, town and country, industry and leisure, but in those post-War days it was accepted that the only way to offer East Enders that was to move them out to the countryside. And though they were anchored by a clutch of big employers (Ford, Yardleys and Carreras in the case of Basildon) they weren’t one-company towns.

Now, with its plans for a ‘Tesco town’ at Bromley-by-Bow, Britain’s biggest supermarket will nod back to Salt, Owen and the Cadburys. Those enlightened capitalists built towns that still delight and astonish today for their architecture and balance. Some are UNESCO World Heritage sites, some simply posh suburbs appropriated by the middle classes. The new Bromley does have the advantage (post Olympics) of having the world’s swankiest new leisure centre on its doorstep. Will Tesco do as good a job as its Victorian forebears? Maybe we’ll be able to judge in the year 2110.


Founded 1853 by Sir Titus Salt, a leading industrialist in the Yorkshire woollen industry. Salt moved his five mills from Bradford to near Shipley to site his large textile mill by a canal and a railway, while providing better homes for his workers.

New Lanark
On the River Clyde, founded in 1786 by David Dale, who built cotton mills and housing for the mill workers. Under Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, a Welsh philanthropist and social reformer, it became both successful business and model utopian socialism. The mills shut in 1968 and were due for demolition. Now restored, New Lanark has become a major tourist attraction and is one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland

Built by the Cadbury family to house workers when they moved their factory to a greenfield site from the centre of Birmingham in the 1860s. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has claimed that it is “one of the nicest places to live in Britain”.

Port Sunlight
Set on the Wirral in Merseyside, the town was built by William Hesketh Lever in 1888 for the employees of Lever Brothers soap factory (now part of Unilever). Name derived from Lever’s most popular soap, Sunlight. Plans afoot to have it given World Heritage Site status.

Crespi d’Adda, Italy
In northern Italy. Built by Cristoforo Crespi around his cotton mills on the banks of the River Adda. Still intact and partly used for industry, although fighting for economic survival. Since 1995 it has been on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.