History and heritage of Hackney

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.

Early residents

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┬áMay 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

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, whilst 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.

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 railways arrive

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. When the wholesale restructuring of the London economy occurred in the 1970s and 1980s it wiped out most of the remaining larger firms. Much of what was left were the low intensity enterprises at the bottom end of the market: car breakers, scrap dealers and cheap warehousing. But this is now beginning to change with new growth industries starting up, attracted by the position the borough occupies between Stratford, Canary Wharf and the thriving financial hub of London, the City.


  • there are 1,300 listed buildings in Hackney, from the iconic Hackney Empire to the grade 1 listed Old Tower of the former Church of Saint Augustine
  • Hackney has 29 conservation areas including the historic core of Hackney, centred on Clapton Square, and historic urban open-spaces including Clapton Common and Clissold Park
  • conservation areas also protect large areas of Georgian and Victorian housing, and areas of industrial heritage
Page updated on: 4 June 2019

Hackney Archives


Dalston CLR James Library
Dalston Square
E8 3BQ


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