The lost farm of Lea Bridge

An extract from Tim Fransen’s 2018 digitised version of the 1777 ‘County of Essex’ map originally produced by John Chapman and Peter André

Claire Weiss on the remarkable discoveries she made while researching her local neighbourhood

An industrial estate that once stood at 97 Lea Bridge Road in Leyton was demolished in 2016 and has now been replaced by three gleaming white tower blocks dubbed ‘Motion E10’. But what did the area look like in centuries past?

Five years ago an archaeological investigation revealed some of the area’s fascinating past. It reported: “There was considerable occupation throughout the post-mediaeval period, with a farm visible on a 1777 map, along with possible land management in the form of drained marshland.”

As a local resident this conclusion really motivated me to delve into the history of this part of Leyton. I was amazed to discovered that until 1904 the site had been a centuries-old farm called “Leabridge Farm”. This spot, although now within a built-up area, was originally in the middle of Leyton Marsh. It was, and remains, about half-a-mile east of the River Lea and a slightly shorter distance west of the Dagenham Brook. The wiggly lines of both waterways are drawn on the map.

Support from the Borough of Culture 2019 celebrations helped me produce a history of Leabridge Farm, now accessible online. Over the course of my research for this project, there were more surprises to be found!

Looking at an 1839 ‘tithe’ map and documents in the local archives at Vestry House Museum I learned that Leabridge Farm had originally been called ‘Black Marsh Farm’. I worked out that the 1757 arrival of the Lea Bridge turnpike road across Leyton Marsh – and its four-mile marker opposite the farm gateway – had prompted the name change.

From 1759 until 1879 the Wragg’s of Walthamstow company stagecoaches rumbled past Leabridge Farm, carrying City merchants to and from their rural villas, the gravelled road stretching from Shoreditch Church to The Eagle at Snaresbrook – still partly recognisable as the N55 bus route to Woodford Wells!

What was it like on Leyton Marsh before the intrusion of the Lea Bridge turnpike? An archaeological report of adjacent land identifies “very dark grey sandy clay”. Matching this with references to the nearby Black Marsh stream and meadows I suspect that the Lea floodplain must have been fertile, but difficult to traverse. A well-trodden route was the ancient Black Path. Another track from Marsh Lane saw commoners sending cattle to the Lammas lands of the marshes for summer grazing.

A third track, the forerunner of the turnpike, used a multi-arched causeway that reached Black Bridge over Dagenham Brook, near to today’s Hare and Hounds Pub. I found records of these Black Marsh lands being bought and sold from 1608 onwards. One Robert Ozler left £300 in his will in 1697 for building a school in Leyton, with an annual rent to be charged from his land on the Black Marshes. This school later occupied a building in Leyton High Road that was demolished in the early 2000s.

Leabridge Farm’s crops included hay, potatoes, and osiers for basketmaking; its wider landholdings also included plant nurseries. An amazing find was that, from the mid-19th Century, the farm’s economy included the dyeing of silk yarn by former East End silk workers.

Almost 90 years after the turnpike firmly set the southern boundary of the farm, two other major infrastructures were installed to its west. In 1840 the Liverpool Street to Cambridge railway opened, with its station at Lea Bridge. In 1853 the East London Waterworks built an aqueduct (now filled in and used as a cycle and footpath) to convey extracted water from the Lea at Coppermill down to the Essex Filter Beds. Just south of Lea Bridge Road, these have now been reclaimed as the treasured Waterworks Nature Reserve.

Railways and waterworks were soon joined by gas works, and from the 1890s residential and industrial developments to the east and north of Lea Bridge Farm sealed its fate as one of the last areas of agriculture in Leyton.

The most recent occupier of the Black Marsh footprint, the modern ‘Motion’ estate, has been tempting new residents with the following words: “Situated between the vibrancy of Leyton and Clapton, residents of Lea Bridge have an abundance of green open spaces for peace and tranquillity, with the River Lea running through Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes just a stone’s throw from your doorstep.”

Waltham Forest Council has named the newly-built estate’s centre ‘Beck Square’, after Harry Beck, designer of the London Underground map. I’ve suggested that a mosaic recording Black Marsh Farm’s history might add to the residents’ sense of place, as the heavy traffic of Lea Bridge Road thunders past.

Read more about Claire’s discoveries online:
Visit walthamforesthistoryandheritage.net/news