The role of East London in the Industrial Revolution

How East London Shaped and Was Shaped by the Industrial Revolution.

If you’ve ever visited East London, you might have noticed its distinctive character and charm. From its vibrant street art and multicultural cuisine to its historic landmarks and diverse communities, East London has a lot to offer. But did you know that East London also played a crucial role in one of the most critical events in history?

East London Heritage
East London Heritage

The Industrial Revolution was a rapid change that transformed Britain and the world from the 18th to the 19th century. It introduced new machines, industries, technologies and ideas that revolutionised production, trade, transport and society. And East London was at the heart of it all.

In this blog post, I’ll share some of the fascinating aspects that made East London a vital part of the Industrial Revolution. You’ll learn about its factories and industries, its innovators and social reformers, and how it influenced and was influenced by the changes that shaped Britain and the world.

Factories and Industries

One of the main features of the Industrial Revolution was the emergence of new machines and methods that increased production and efficiency. Many of these innovations were applied to the textile industry, one of Britain’s largest and most profitable sectors.

East London was home to many textile factories, especially along the River Lea, providing water power and transport access. Some famous names associated with East London’s textile industry include Samuel Courtauld, who established a silk mill in Bocking in 1799; John Lombe, who built a silk-throwing mill in Derby in 1718; and William Morris, who founded a decorative arts company in Walthamstow in 1861.

I’m sure you’ve heard of William Morris before. He was a textile designer, poet, artist, and socialist. He is known for his beautiful patterns inspired by nature and his vision of a utopian society based on craftsmanship and harmony. His former home in Walthamstow is now a museum where you can see his works and learn more about his life.

Millennium Mills Derelict East London.
Millennium Mills Derelict East London.

Other industries that flourished in East London during the Industrial Revolution were shipbuilding, engineering, brewing, sugar refining, chemical manufacturing and printing. These industries employed thousands of workers, many living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in slums near their workplaces.

You might have seen some of these slums depicted in novels by Charles Dickens or movies like Oliver Twist. They were dark, dirty and dangerous places with rampant disease, crime and poverty. Life expectancy was low, and child mortality was high. Many people tried to escape their misery by drinking gin or opium.

Innovation and Migration

East London was not only a place of production but also a place of creativity and discovery. Many inventors and entrepreneurs chose to set up their businesses or conduct their experiments in East London, taking advantage of its cheap land, abundant resources and diverse population.

Some examples of East London’s innovators include:

  • James Watt improved the steam engine and moved his factory to Soho Foundry on Birmingham Road (now Old Street) in 1775. His invention made steam power more efficient and reliable, paving the way for developing railways, factories and machines. He also coined the term “horsepower” to measure the output of his engines. How cool is that?
  • Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive and demonstrated it at Euston Square (now Euston Road) in 1808. His locomotive was called “Catch Me Who Can”, and he charged people a shilling to ride it on a circular track. Unfortunately, his venture was unsuccessful, and he soon ran out of money. But he still deserves credit for being a pioneer of rail transport.
  • Michael Faraday conducted ground-breaking research on electricity and magnetism at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street (now Mayfair) from 1813 to 1862. He discovered electromagnetic induction, the principle behind electric generators and transformers. He also invented the electric motor, the dynamo and the Faraday cage. He was a genius and a humble man who refused to patent his inventions or accept any titles or honours.
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed and built many bridges, tunnels, railways and ships, including the Thames Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping (1825-1843), the Great Eastern steamship (1854-1859) and Paddington Station (1854). He was a visionary engineer who pushed the boundaries of technology and engineering. He also had a great sense of humour and once participated in a contest to see who could smoke the most cigars in an hour. He won by smoking 40 cigars but ended up with severe nicotine poisoning.
  • Joseph Bazalgette engineered the Northern and Southern drainage systems that solved London’s sewage problem after the Great Stink of 1858. The Great Stink was a horrible event when the River Thames became so polluted with human waste that it smelled so bad that it affected the work of Parliament. Bazalgette’s sewer network was a masterpiece of civil engineering that improved public health and sanitation in London. It also created iconic landmarks like the Embankment and Tower Bridge.

East London was also a destination for many migrants who came to Britain seeking work or refuge during the Industrial Revolution. Some of these groups included:

  • Huguenots were French Protestants who fled religious persecution after revoking the Edict of Nantes in 1685. They settled mainly in Spitalfields and became skilled silk weavers. They also brought their culture and cuisine, such as French breads, cheeses and wines.
  • Irish, who escaped famine and poverty after the failure of the potato crop in 1845-1849. They settled mainly in Whitechapel and worked as labourers or domestic servants.
  • Jews, who escaped pogroms and discrimination in Eastern Europe from the late 19th century onwards. They settled mainly in Stepney and became involved in tailoring, cabinet-making or trading.
  • Asians came from various parts of India or China as sailors or merchants from the early 19th century onwards. They settled mainly in Limehouse or Poplar and established restaurants or shops.

Social Reform

East London was not only a place of hardship but also a place of hope and activism. Many social reformers dedicated their lives to improving the living conditions, education and rights of East London’s poor and oppressed.

Some examples of East London’s social reformers include:

  • Elizabeth Fry campaigned for prison reform after visiting Newgate Prison (now Old Bailey) in 1813. She founded the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting Reformation among Female Prisoners (1816) and established schools for prisoners’ children.
  • Thomas Barnardo founded homes for destitute children after witnessing their plight during a cholera epidemic in Stepney (1866). He opened his first home at Hope Place (now Stepney Causeway) in 1870.
  • Annie Besant campaigned for women’s rights, birth control, education and workers’ welfare. She was involved in the famous match girls’ strike at the Bryant and May factory in Bow in 1888, which improved the working conditions of the female workers who suffered from exposure to phosphorus. She also became a prominent member of the Theosophical Society and a supporter of Indian nationalism.
  • Sylvia Pankhurst, a leading suffragette, fought for women’s right to vote. She founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914, campaigning for social justice and equality for working-class women. She also opposed World War I and supported anti-fascist and anti-colonial movements.
  • Mahatma Gandhi visited East London several times between 1906 and 1931. He met with various political and religious leaders, including Annie Besant, George Lansbury and Romain Rolland. He also spoke at public meetings and inspired many East Londoners with his message of non-violence and civil disobedience.


East London was a vital part of the Industrial Revolution, as it witnessed and contributed to many changes that shaped Britain and the world. East London was where new industries and technologies emerged, people from different backgrounds and cultures met and mingled, and social movements and reforms challenged the status quo. East London’s history is rich and diverse, and its legacy can still be seen today in its architecture, culture and people.

1 thought on “The role of East London in the Industrial Revolution”

  1. My 18th century Burford ancestors owned a calico printing works in Stratford inherited from its founder and their uncle Stephen Williams. Although it is long gone its location is remembered in Burford Road.


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