Getting About

Travelling by Road

Looking down towards the Lea Valley
Looking down towards the Lea Valley

Hackney, Shoreditch and Stoke Newington are all linked by Ermine Street, or the Old North Road - the present A10 - which has been an important road since Roman times. The road, now known as Old Street, provided a link westwards to Aldersgate Street, leading north from the City of London. Other roads and lanes were largely local.

There were no road bridges over the River Lea in Hackney, other than at Temple Mills or the Marsh Street bridge. This was ruinous in 1512 and was the responsibility of the county of Middlesex to repair by the 1630s. North of Temple Mills there were fords and there are likely to have been ferries - the Anglo Saxon log boat found near High Hill suggests that this may have been an ancient crossing point of the river and the marshes.

Road traffic would have been on foot, on horseback, or in carts or wagons. Roads and lanes were dry and dusty in summer, and muddy morasses in the worst of the wet winter weather. Ermine Street was one of the routes along which grain from Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire reached the City of London - bought up in the counties by ‘badgers’ or grain dealers, who then transported it south by cart and packhorse. Hackney produce also went to London - the herbalist John Gerard (d.1612) praised the quality of the small turnips grown for sale in the City. Local traffic would have consisted of hay and dung carts - hay would also have been sold for use in the City.

There had been bequests in the past to help with the upkeep of roads. In the 14th century Adam Fraunceys left money in his will for the upkeep of highways and conduits, and in his life time oversaw the work of a Pavage Commission intended to repair the road between Edmonton and Hackney “because that way is so deep, muddy and perilous that men, horses and carts can scarcely pass by it”. Both Margaret Audley (in 1616) and David Doulben (in 1633) left money in their wills for the upkeep of what is now known as the Market Porters Route between Clapton and the City of London.

The statute of 1555 made local road maintenance the responsibility of the parish. The churchwardens in each parish were to appoint a local man to serve as surveyor of the highways for the following year. The surveyor in turn had to ensure that parishioners undertook four days of labour on the roads, making any necessary repairs. In 1563 this period of labour was raised to six days.

Hackney’s first recorded surveyors were chosen in 1554. By the end of the 16th century, the appointment of two surveyors was made in March or April for the ensuing year by the churchwardens, the parish constables and other inhabitants, presumably meeting as the vestry, or governing body of the parish. Among those active at such meetings from 1599 was Raphe or Ralph Bell, who administered the seizure of Hackney rectory from the Daniells in 1601 and who served as a surveyor with Myles Preswicke in 1599. Bell, a prosperous yeoman who had been a Church Street resident in 1594, when he paid 6d towards an assessment to meet the costs of “setting out three souldiers” and also served as constable in 1604. Unlike his fellow surveyor, Bell signed his own name.

The response of local people to serving as a surveyor, or working on the roads, was likely to have been much the same as elsewhere in the country. The surveyor’s position was unpaid, and those who refused to serve could be fined. There was almost no incentive to serve for any longer than a year, and so there was no accumulation of any expertise in road repair. The work of the parish was likely to be limited to the extraction of gravel from local fields and tipping it into the worst of the holes and ruts.

Rough and ready repairs of this nature did not last long. Traffic had increased at the end of the 17th century, when Ralph Thoresby recorded the effect of showers on the Old North Road “which raised the washes from the road to that height that passengers swam and a poor higgler drowned” and country people north of Hoxton guided him and his companions over the meadows to miss the deepest parts of the flooded road. The solution - tolls on travellers collected by road or turnpike trusts, who were responsible for the repairs - was first instituted for part of the Old North Road in Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdon in 1663, but it was not until the 18th century that turnpikes began to blossom. The Hackney and Shoreditch parts of the Old North Road became a turnpike road in 1713.

Using the River Lea

The River Lea should have provided an easier alternative route for the transport of produce, notably grain from Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. But the river also powered water mills, and there were weirs for mills and fisheries across some channels.

There were periodic attempts to assess the state of the river in the 16th century. In 1559, the Corporation of London’s Court of Aldermen appointed a commission to

“viewe the Ryver of Laye as far as ware and upward to the hed of the same Ryv. And to consyder whither yt maye be so clensyd that Barges and other vesselles may pass therupon unto this Cytie with fuell corne hay and other necessaryes out of those p[ar]tes or not”.

In 1566 a Commission of Sewers for the Lea was appointed, but no records of its proceedings or achievements survive. The Corporation of London proposed an ambitious scheme for a canal in 1571, which, had it ever been constructed, would have run from a point on the river at Clapton through Shoreditch. The City got an Act of Parliament in that year, but there was considerable opposition from millers, grain dealers and those who owned land adjoining the river. The grain dealers feared that barges would be cheaper than their pack horses and carts.

The City modified the proposed route, but in the end it was the projected cost, which could not be offset by any income from tolls, that caused the scheme to be abandoned. After 1575 more modest measures were implemented by a new Commission of Sewers, which included dredging, removal of fishing and mill weirs, blocking up of smaller streams - which drained off water into the surrounding marshes and meadows, and the construction of raised river banks where needed.

Towing bridges were built over mill-streams so that horses pulling barges could pass unimpeded. Footbridges were either removed or raised and a range of road bridges, including those at Higham Hill in Walthamstow and at Hackney, were raised to give a clearance of at least four feet. At Waltham the traditional river channel was closed down and a new one built from just above the head stream of the Abbey Corn Mill to rejoin the river below the mill. There were alterations at Enfield Mill, which included a new lock, and which the influential Wroth family, who owned the mill, felt were damaging to the value of their property. The Wroths were later to take an active part in the opposition to the work of the Commissioners.

As a result, barges capable of carrying three to five tons were navigating the Lea by 1588. These boats were single masted and had a towline attached at the mast. They had a crew of three or four, one steerer and three haulers. Sails and oars would have been used on the tidal section of the river south of Hackney. It took twelve hours to travel from Bow Bridge to Ware. Besides grain, barges carried beer, coal and salt.

However opposition from the road carriers persisted. Navigation works at Waltham, where a new channel had been undertaken by the Commissioners, were destroyed in 1592. It had rested on the presumed authority of the 1571 Act, which was later deemed to be insufficient. The authority of the Commissioners of Sewers expired in 1585 and was not renewed. These factors combined, after the destruction of 1592, to the abandonment of the new channel at Waltham, but barge traffic did not stop. Instead, the barges used the traditional system which used the pens and flashes from locks, fishing weirs and mills along the river. But major navigational improvement of the Lea was not attempted again until the 18th century.


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This site, developed with funding from the New Opportunities Fund as one of the projects within Sense of Place, London, forms part of the National Archive's Education site. It was developed as a partnership between Hackney Archives Department, Immediate Theatre and the National Archive's Education Team