Old Ford

Old Ford, Tower Hamlets

A canalside locality in north Bow, dominated by council-built flats

Lord Morpeth - Old Ford

Old Ford’s name was first record­ed in 1268, although a ‘Robert of Ale­ford’ – who was men­tioned in 1244 – may have come from here. The ford crossed the Riv­er Lea rough­ly where the ‘Old Ford’ local­i­ty name appears on the map below.

In the ear­ly Mid­dle Ages this was an impor­tant cross­ing point on the main road from Lon­don into Essex – and there is archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence of active com­mer­cial traf­fic from the mid­dle of the first cen­tu­ry into the fourth cen­tu­ry. How­ev­er, the con­struc­tion of a bridge at Bow sup­plant­ed the less reli­able route through Old Ford. This was in part a con­se­quence of the meadowland’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to flood­ing, a prob­lem exac­er­bat­ed by the preva­lence of water­mills along the Riv­er Lea, con­strict­ing its flow.

The Hert­ford Union canal was con­struct­ed on the north­ern edge of the local­i­ty in the late 1820s, link­ing the Regen­t’s Canal with the Lee Nav­i­ga­tion. It was for some years known as Duck­et­t’s cut, after Sir George Duck­ett, who financed its con­struc­tion. The canal’s bank was soon lined with wharves, ware­hous­es and sawmills.

Vic­to­ria Park opened to the north of the canal in 1845 and the Lon­don and Sub­ur­ban Free­hold Land and Build­ing Soci­ety laid out the Vic­to­ria Park estate between Roman Road and the canal in the late 1850s. The streets south of Roman Road were built up with com­pact ter­raced hous­ing from the mid-1860s, fol­low­ing the open­ing of a sta­tion at Coborn Road (a thor­ough­fare ear­li­er called Cut Throat Lane).

Neg­li­gence at Old Ford’s water­works was respon­si­ble for London’s last out­break of cholera, in 1866. More than 4,000 peo­ple died in the ensu­ing epi­dem­ic. The water­works remained in oper­a­tion until 1891.

Dur­ing the First World War Sylvia Pankhurst lived in a house that stood next door to the Lord Mor­peth, a now-tren­di­fied booz­er at 402 Old Ford Road. She led the East Lon­don branch of the suf­fragette move­ment from a meet­ing hall adjoin­ing the house. In 1915 part of the hall was fit­ted up as a ‘cost-​​price restau­rant’ – the first of three afford­able din­ers to be run by the East Lon­don suf­fragettes. A hun­dred yards fur­ther east along Old Ford Road, Pankhurst opened a moth­er-​​and-​​ba­by clin­ic in a for­mer pub, the Gun­mak­ers’ Arms, which she renamed the Moth­ers’ Arms. She and her house­mate and co-activist Norah Smyth also estab­lished a toy fac­to­ry on Nor­man Road (now Nor­man Grove) to pro­vide local women with jobs that paid a decent wage.

“Deptford, though a great slum, is like an aristocratic suburb compared with the Old Ford Road, though Miss Pankhurst assured us that it was the best part of Bow, and quite country by contrast with the other parts … We noted the leaking roof which the landlord cannot be hurried to mend, a place which cannot possibly admit of any comfort … but Miss Pankhurst said ‘In Kensington or Chelsea you get bricks and mortar, but here we all know each other, and it is very friendly’.”

Miles Franklin, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May 1916, reprinted in A Gregarious Culture, Jill Roe and Margaret Bettison (eds.), University of Queensland Press, 2001

Unlike neigh­bour­ing dis­tricts, no large-scale rede­vel­op­ment took place in Old Ford dur­ing the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Coborn Road sta­tion closed in 1946 and some hous­es were demol­ished in 1959 to make way for the East Cross Route, which cut off the area known as Fish Island.

In the ear­ly 1960s the Lon­don Coun­ty Coun­cil lost patience with Poplar bor­ough council’s fail­ure to rede­vel­op the dis­trict and stepped in. The LCC and then the GLC built a series of estates – and Poplar’s suc­ces­sor Tow­er Ham­lets soon joined in too. As a result, most of Old Ford now con­sists of coun­cil hous­es and tow­er blocks in a mish-mash of designs and mate­ri­als. Built on the site of for­mer wharves, recent canal­side apart­ment com­plex­es are more aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing.

Occu­py­ing a for­mer veneer works on Chisen­hale Road, Chisen­hale Art Place is an arts edu­ca­tion char­i­ty encom­pass­ing a dance space, artists’ stu­dios and a gallery. The lat­ter is open five after­noons a week and pro­duces up to five major exhi­bi­tions a year for emerg­ing or under-rep­re­sent­ed artists.

Shown in the photo at the top of this article, the Sylvia Pankhurst mural on the wall of the Lord Morpeth is the work of the Australian-born aerosol artist Jerome Davenport.

Postal district: E3


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* The picture of the Sylvia Pankhurst mural at the Lord Morpeth public house at the top of this page is slightly modified from an original photograph, copyright Loco Steve, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.