Making history in the Lea Valley

A new partnership has been launched to promote the Lea Valley’s industrial heritage, writes Mike Seaborne

Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum

The Grade 2-listed former Low Hall Pumping Station is the home of the Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum. The museum is dedicated to the history of transport, industry and technological innovation in Waltham Forest and the surrounding area (credit Mike Seaborne)

Despite the London Olympic Games held in Stratford in 2012 and the subsequent creation of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the lower Lea Valley still remains a little-known backwater outside of east London.

In fact, it has a long and extraordinary history of industrial innovation and technological development that is of worldwide significance.

The Lea Valley saw the manufacture of the world’s first electric light bulb, and invention of the first diode, at the Edison and Swan factory in Ponders End, one mile west of Chingford.

The first solid-state colour television was made by Ferguson Electronics in Enfield, while in Hackney Wick the world’s first plastic was manufactured at the Parkesine Works, and petrol was first refined to power automobiles at Carless, Capel and Leonard.

Many companies which went on to become British household names originated in the Lea Valley, including aeroplane builders Avro, bus manufacturers AEC, toymakers Lesneys (of Matchbox fame), Belling heaters, Gestetner duplicators and sweet manufacturers Trebor and Maynards.

Industry in the Lea Valley goes back to medieval times. Numerous mills used waterpower
provided by the river to mill flour to meet London’s growing demand for bread and the place name ‘mill’ recurs throughout the area. In the 19th Century, the mills were replaced by factories, attracted by London’s growing demand for manufactured goods and easy access to coal and raw materials brought up the river from London Docklands. The Lea riverside from Stratford to the Thames was rapidly transformed into a dense uncontrolled industrial zone, notorious for its noise, smoke and smells.

The Coppermill, Walthamstow Wetlands

The Italianate facade of the Grade 2-listed Coppermill, built in 1864. This is one of the most significant surviving industrial heritage buildings in Waltham Forest and will become accessible to the public as part of the Walthamstow Wetlands project (credit Mike Seaborne)

Stratford became famous for the building of railway engines and thousands of wagons were constructed at Temple Mills in Leyton. Walthamstow was chosen by the Associated Engineering Company (AEC) as the location to build the first reliable mass-produced bus – the ‘B type’ – that not only dominated London’s streets before the First World War but was also used to carry troops to the trenches.

And it was in a railway arch on Walthamstow Marshes that in 1909 Sir Alliot Verdon-Roe built the first all-British powered aeroplane before going on to found the highly successful Avro Aircraft Company. He also tested the plane on the marshes.

But as well as being crucial to industry, the River Lea has supplied drinking water to London since the 18th Century and still provides some 15 percent of London’s current demand, channeled through a series of reservoirs that dominate the north-western end of Waltham Forest.

A positive outcome of the decline of the valley’s industries in recent years has been to preserve and protect the area’s special waterside ecology. Remote and peaceful nature reserves are now a valley feature and in several locations redundant industrial features have been imaginatively incorporated into the surrounding landscape, notably at the WaterWorks Centre Nature Reserve and Middlesex Filter Beds, both near Lea Bridge Road. On Walthamstow’s western border, where natural open spaces still dominate, a series of early reservoirs are being transformed this year into Walthamstow Wetlands, a striking landscape with important industrial features that is of special significance for wildlife.

Marshall ‘C-class steam engine, Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum

One of the original pair of Marshall ‘C’ Class horizontal steam engines installed in the Walthamstow Pumphouse in 1897. This engine is run on the last Sunday of the month throughout the year (credit Mike Seaborne)

The river has also played an important role in helping to manage the removal of London’s wastewater and sewage. Relics of these major water enterprises can be found throughout the valley, including the Markfield Park Beam Engine in Tottenham, a giant steam-powered pump that is still in working order, and the Abbey Mills Pumping Station near Stratford, nicknamed the ‘Cathedral of Sewage’ because of its remarkable Victorian gothic design.

Back in Walthamstow, the old Low Hall Pumping Station is now home to the Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum, where you can discover more about the local contributions to industry and technology and the vital role the area has played in the story of London’s transport.

To help manage and celebrate this extraordinary heritage, Lea Valley Heritage Alliance has been formed by a group of voluntary organisations. It has now published a free brochure, Discover the Industrial Heritage of London’s Lea Valley, in which you will find a comprehensive guide to the places to visit and how to get to them on foot, bicycle or public transport. The alliance also has a website where you can find further information, upload your own photos or apply to become a member, which is free and open to both individuals and organisations.


For more information on the Lea Valley and its heritage:

Visit leavalleyheritagealliance.org.uk

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