Essex Journey

THE ROAD TO ESSEX. An extract from Daniel Defoe's "Tour of the Eastern Counties" 1724.

"Passing Bow-Bridge, where the county of Essex begins, the first observation I made was that all the villages that may be called the neighbourhood of the City of London on this, as well as on the other side thereof, which I shall speak to in their order; I say, all these villages are increased in buildings to a strange degree, within the compass of about twenty to thirty years past at the most.

The village of Stratford, the first in this county from London, is not only increased but, I believe, more than doubled in that time, every vacancy filled up with new houses, and two little towns or hamlets, as they may be called, on the forest side of the town, entirely new, namely Mary-land-Point¹, and the Gravel Pits², one facing the road to Woodford and Epping, and the other facing the road to Ilford; and as for the hither part, it is almost joined to Bow, in spite of rivers, canals, marshy ground, etc. Nor is this increase of buildings the case only, in this and all the other villages around London, but the increase of the value and rent of the houses formerly standing has, in that compass of years above mentioned, advanced to a very great degree, and I may venture to say at least a fifth part, some think a third part, above what they were before.

This is indeed most visible, speaking of Stratford in Essex, but it is the same thing in proportion in other villages adjacent, especially on the forest side, as at Low-Layton, Laytonstone [sic], Walthamstow, Woodford, Wansted [sic] and the towns of West Ham, Plaistow, Upton, etc., in all which places, or near them (as the inhabitants say) above a thousand new foundations have been erected, besides old houses repaired, all since the Revolution; and this is not to be forgotten, too, that this increase is, generally speaking, of handsome large houses from £20 a year to £60 - very few under £20 a year - being chiefly for the habitation of the richest citizens, such as either are able to keep two houses, one in the country and one in the City, or for such citizens as being rich and having left off trade, live altogether in these neighbouring villages for the pleasure and health of the latter part of their days.

The truth of this may at least appear, in that they tell me there are no less than two hundred coaches kept by the inhabitants within the circumference of these few villages named above, besides such as are kept by accidental lodgers.

This increase of the inhabitants and the cause of it, I shall enlarge upon when I come to speak of the like in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, etc. where it is the same, only in a much greater degree, but this I must take notice of here, that this increase causes those villages to be much pleasanter and more sociable than formerly, for now people go to them, not for retirement into the country, but for good company; of which, that I may speak to the ladies as well as other authors do, there are in these villages, nay in all, three or four excepted, excellent conversation and a great deal of it, and that without mixture of assemblies, gaming houses and public foundations of vice and debauchery; and particularly I find none of those incentives kept up on this side of the country.

Mr. Camden, and his learned continuator, Bishop Gibson, have ransacked this county for its antiquities and have left little unsearched, as, as it is not my present design to say much of what has been said already, I shall touch very lightly where two such excellent antiquaries have gone before me, except it be to ad what may have been since discovered, which as to these parts is only this; that there seems to be lately found out, in the bottom of the marshes (generally called Hackney-marsh) and beginning near about the place now called the Wyck between Old Ford and the said Wyck, the remains of a great stone causeway, which, as it is supposed, was the highway or great road from London to Essex, and the same, which goes now over the great bridge between Bow and Stratford.

That the great road lay this way and that the great causeway landed again just over the river, where now the Temple-mills stand, and passed by Sir Tho. Hick's house at Ruckolls [Ruckholts], all this is not doubted; and that it was one of those famous highways made by the Romans, there is undoubted proof, by the several marks of Roman work and by Roman coins, and other antiquities found there, none of which are said to be deposited in the hands of the Revd. Mr. Strype, Vicar of the parish of Low-Layton.

From thence the great road passed up to Layton-stone, a place by some known now as much by the sign of the Green Man, formerly a lodge on the edge of the forest, and crossing by Wansted House, formerly the dwelling of Sir Josiah Child, now of his son, the Lord Castlemain (of which hereafter) went over the same river which we now pass at Ilford [the Roding] and passing that part of the great forest which we now call Hainault Forest, came into that which is now the great road, a little on this side the Whalebone, a place on the road so called because a rib bone of a great whale, which was taken in the river of Thames the same year that Oliver Cromwell died, 1658, was fixed there for a monument of that monstrous creature, it being at first about eight-and-twenty foot long.

According to my first intention of effectually viewing the sea coats of these three counties, I went from Stratford to Barking, a large market town, but chiefly inhabited by fishermen whose smacks ride in the Thames at the mouth of their river, from thence their fish is sent up to London to the market at Billingsgate by small boats, of which I shall speak by itself in my description of London".

(Originally published by Newham Library Service as Local Studies Note No. 25)


  1. Maryland Point was a relatively new hamlet on the Woodford Road, appearing on a map of 1696. The first house there is said to have been built by a rich merchant, the most likely candidate being Richard Lee (d. 1664), who emigrated to Virginia about 1640. Among his estates was land on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, near a place known in 1676 as Maryland Point. He returned to England in 1658 and in that year and the next bought property at Stratford Langthorne. Whatever its origin, Maryland Point became a permanent place-name in West Ham.

  2. Gravel Pits, the other new hamlet mentioned by Defoe, is not named on any map. It was probably a settlement north of Stratford Common (or Green), shown on later maps. However, there were a number of gravel pits along the Ilford (Romford) road.

(A full list of references to these footnotes is contained in West Ham 1886-1986 published by the London Borough of Newham, 1986, at p. 172)