From its beginnings as Roman farmlands supplying the city of ‘Londinium’ with food through to being a global destination for 21st century arts, culture and nightlife, Hackney has an amazing history and Hackney Archives is one of the best places in the borough to find out all about it.
The first real records of settlement in Hackney date back to Saxon times. Before this most of the borough was farmland, providing food for the Roman city of Londinium, whose defensive walls rose up just south of Shoreditch. Two major Roman roads ran through Hackney.
What is now the A10 was once the Roman trunk road to Lincoln and onto York. A second major road ran along Old Street and then through Bethnal Green and eventually to Colchester.
Stoke Newington was first mentioned as ‘Neutone’ in 1086 AD, although the parish of Stoke Newington was not founded until 1314 with the appointment of its first rector.
The origin of the parish of Shoreditch however is more difficult to trace. Originally part of Stepney, it was not described separately in the Domesday Book. The earliest known reference to ‘Soerditch’ is around 1148 AD but this does not mean that it was a parish at that time.
The actual name ‘Hackney’ was first recorded in 1198 AD and is probably derived from an island or a raised place in a marsh (an ‘ey’) in the vicinity of the River Lea, together with the name of a Dane called Haca or Hacon, who owned it.
Each of the separate parishes was centred upon a local church: Old St. Mary’s in Stoke Newington, St. Augustine’s in central Hackney, and St. Leonard’s in Shoreditch. Old St. Mary’s is one of the few new churches built in the reign of Elizabeth I and it survived the building of a new parish church in 1855-58.
The 14th century tower on the Narroway, Mare Street, is now all that remains of Hackney parish’s medieval church which was replaced by the present St. John at Hackney church in 1797.
The parish records of St. John at Hackney contain the earliest known occurrence of a black person living in Hackney (one Anthony, who was buried on 18 May 1630, supposedly aged 105).
Baptism and burial records for Hackney’s churches provide evidence of other incomers, including Huguenots and their descendents, originally refugees from France in the late 17th century.
There is also a recorded Jewish presence in the borough going back to 1674 when the jeweller, Isaac Alvares, bought a house in Homerton.
Church administration was gradually replaced by the development of civic institutions during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The three metropolitan boroughs of Stoke Newington, Shoreditch and Hackney were created when the London Government Act was passed in 1899.
It was only with the reorganisation of local government in 1965 that the three metropolitan boroughs were amalgamated to form the current London Borough of Hackney.
Like most areas, Hackney had initially been a rural community; its population during the medieval period was small and scattered amongst several hamlets. Even as late as the 18th century Hackney was still mostly pasture, with market gardens being a distinct feature of the landscape.
Early industrialisation came in the shape of water-powered mills along the River Lea. North and South Millfields (recreation grounds on either side of Lea Bridge Road) got their names from mills which were documented in 1381.
There was also a mill located at Lea Bridge between 1707 and 1829 which had many different uses including pumping water to a reservoir, boring holes in tree trunks to make water pipes and grinding corn.
Industrial development in Hackney really began to take off in the late 18th century. Lewis Berger, the pioneer paint manufacturer, moved his factory to Homerton in 1780. Later, Xylonite, an early plastic, was invented in Hackney, while the firm that claims to have coined the term ‘petrol’, Carless, Capel & Leonard, was based in Hackney Wick.
The furniture trade moved into Shoreditch in the early 19th century. The west bank of the River Lea was then lined with timber yards providing wood for this burgeoning industry.
The industrial revolution in Britain can, at least in part, be connected to the economic benefits to the country of the transatlantic slave trade and the period of British colonialism which followed it.
With its large houses and proximity to the city, Hackney was the perfect place for bankers and merchants to set up home and it is no surprise to find that some of these men and women were actively engaged in the business of slavery or other trades connected to the colonies.
During the second half of the 19th century Hackney’s population grew rapidly as estates and farmland were built over. The rapid changes which occurred during the Victorian era have largely created the urban landscape we see today.
The main catalyst of this was the advent of the railways. Hackney’s first station was the Bishopsgate terminus (partially in Shoreditch) which opened in 1840. The North London Railway opened in 1850, the City link to Broad Street opened in 1865 and the GER line to Liverpool Street opened in 1872.
Trams operated in the borough from 1871 onwards and were just as important as railways in assisting development.
By the 1930s much of the housing of industrial workers was recognised as unsatisfactory and a programme of slum clearance was implemented by the London County Council, Shoreditch and Hackney metropolitan boroughs. A number of projects to re-house people were put into practice, leading to the creation of improved amenities for local people.
Industry began relocating from Hackney and Shoreditch from directly after the Second World War. This was also a time when migrants from what was then the British Empire began to settle in Dalston, Stoke Newington, Clapton and Homerton in large numbers.
The first and second world wars had a massive impact on Hackney for many reasons. Alkham Road in Stoke Newington was the first place in London to suffer an aerial bomb attack in 1915 during WW1.
Not long after the end of the First World War, the 1920s saw the settlement of the Charedi Orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill – a community which grew significantly during WW2 as new arrivals fled the Jewish holocaust.
The huge death toll of the Second World War and its drain on the economic infrastructure of the country gave rise to another wave of migration to a then severely bomb damaged Hackney.
Invited to the ‘mother country’ as British citizens in order to address post-war labour shortages, the ‘Windrush Generation’ has become shorthand for migrants to the UK from the commonwealth, particularly, but not exclusively from the Caribbean, between 1948 and 1971.
Attracted to the affordable housing and opportunities for employment on offer in a still largely industrial Hackney, hundreds of people made the borough their home in an effort to improve economic and educational opportunities for their families.
While opportunities did exist, life was not always easy for these migrants. During the transatlantic slave trade and the period of British colonisation of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, negative ideas about people from their countries of origin had been spread widely to justify the often exploitative British foreign policies of the time.
These ideas proved difficult to change and led to challenges for many arrivals from the commonwealth and their descendants.
In spite of this, these communities contributed much to the social, economic and cultural life of Hackney – helping make it the diverse and vibrant place it is today.
Moving beyond Windrush, although the Turkish speaking community have been present in Hackney since at least the 1930s, Turks from mainland Turkey came to live in London for both political and economic reasons during the 1970s and 1980s; and the Kurdish community who fled persecution in Turkey, Iraq and Iran in in the late 1980s and early 1990s settled in Hackney in large numbers.
Hackney’s Vietnamese population arrived in the mid to late 1970s as a result of the UK government’s resettlement scheme for refugees of the Vietnam War. The scheme accepted quotas of refugees from camps in Hong Kong during the years following 1975.
The Vietnamese community in Hackney went on to play an important role in the economic development of the borough, setting up businesses which continue to play a part in Hackney’s retail and cultural offer today.
When the wholesale restructuring of the London economy occurred in the 1970s and 1980s it wiped out most of the remaining larger firms in Hackney. Much of what was left were the low intensity enterprises at the bottom end of the market: car breakers, scrap dealers and cheap warehousing.
The abundance of former industrial spaces in the borough, combined with the still relatively low rents and availability of housing, made Hackney, a borough that for some time had been associated with dissent and ‘DIY cultures’, an attractive settling place for a new generation of artists, musicians and nightlife promoters during the 1990s.
From Shoreditch theatres in the 1500s through to African caribbean clubs like Phebes, All Nations and the Four Aces during the 70s and 80s, there has always been a lot to do at night in Hackney.
However, the popularity of dance music in the early 1990s and the successive development of the night-time bar economy combined with the growing population of artists, designers and creative producers calling Hackney home transformed the borough into an internationally renowned destination.
This, along with the rapid development of an ecosystem of tech startups and branding agencies, particularly in the Shoreditch area, has made Hackney a desirable place to live – a fact reflected in the property prices and development opportunities we now see in the area.
These fairly recent changes mean that Hackney is now more than ever a place where people from a range of backgrounds, cultures and income brackets coexist – making for a varied and interesting borough with a fascinating and diverse heritage.