Hackney a Brief History

Although Hackney sits in the very heart of the busy East End, we should not forget that this area was once a small rural series of hamlets. It became popular with medieval royals as an area close to London where they could relax and enjoy the outdoor life and over the years Hackney developed into one of the most cosmopolitan parts of London. Rich in history, there are also plenty of things to see and do if you come to E8 for a visit.



The history of Hackney

For many centuries, Hackney was a rural area close to, but not part of, central London life. The area was rich in woodland and marshes and the few people who lived here probably worked the land to provide food for Roman London. It is thought that the area’s name came from a Saxon settlement dating back to the 5th or 6th centuries. At this point in time, Hackney was known as Haca’sey, a name that means high ground in marshland owned by Haca who was a local Dane landowner. The first records of the area calling it Hackney came about in 1198.

Places to Visit in the East End of London – Hackney

For many years, Hackney itself was considered to be part of Stepney and it was too small to be really significant in its own right, however the town started to really develop in Tudor times. Courtiers and rich Londoners tended to move outside of the city during this period into East End areas such as Hackney where they could get more space. Henry VIII even built a palace nearby. Before this time, much of the land in the area had belonged to religious orders. Henry VIII’S Dissolution of the Monasteries freed up this land which, handily, often fell into the hands of his courtiers and favoured nobles.

Many of these nobles settled here on either a permanent or a temporary basis, building impressive homes. One of these homes, Sutton House, is still standing and is open to visitors. This home was built by Sir Ralph Sadleir, a senior advisor to Henry VIII who also worked with Thomas Cromwell. You can also see a fine example of church architecture from this period in St Augustine’s Tower.

Hackney continued to expand slowly over the next few years but remained fairly quiet with much of the local industry still focused on market gardening. By the late 1700s, however, its population had increased so much that it outgrew its local parish church, resulting in the need to build a new one. By the 20th century, Hackney, like much of the East End was more urban, industrial and commercial and it started a slow decline into relative poverty.

Victorian officials demolished much of the original buildings in the area to build streets of terraced houses to home local workers. By the time the railways arrived in Hackney in the 1850s, the area had lost its rural charm and was becoming much more urban. By the late 1890s, the area was split into boroughs, creating the metropolitan borough of Hackney. The area suffered badly in the Second World War and after the war local businesses started to relocate, causing major problems with unemployment. Regeneration initiatives over the years have improved the local area and its facilities greatly.

Things to do and see in Hackney

Hackney Museum is a good place for a visit if you want to learn more about the area and its culturally diverse population over the years. The museum is also home to one of the coins found in the Hackney Hoard.

Sir Ralph Sadleir’s home, Sutton House, is still standing. It is now owned by the National Trust and gives an unusual snapshot view of what it must have been like to live in the area in Tudor times. The house retains some fantastic Tudor and Georgian architecture, features and internal fittings. St Augustine’s Tower is another fine example of medieval architecture. You can go up the tower on certain days and get a fantastic view over Hackney and the East End.

You can also see one of London’s most famous theatres in the area – the Hackney Empire. This was one of the major music halls in the East End for many years, playing host to a number of famous Brits who went on to global superstar status, including Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and WC Fields.

Parts of Hackney Marshes, a large open area best known for its sports facilities, were incorporated into the Olympic Park that was built in the East End for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Olympic Park is now open to the public and is well worth a visit. Kids may also enjoy a visit to Hackney City Farm and shoppers should make sure to visit the area’s famous Broadway Market.

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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4 comments on “Hackney a Brief History
  1. Could you please explain why on an article about Hackney, you show a train clearly marked “Stepney”?
    Stepney is not a part of Hackney.

  2. Georgiaday Hall says:

    Hi I am beginning to research this area as my grandmother was from this area. We remember her stories of working in a factory. I wish I had asked her the name of the factory. She was terrified when she had to cross a bridge in the fog.

    I think the bridge is still there but much has changed since WWII and the Olympics.

    I am also wondering if she ever went to school. Something we take “for granted now.”

    Best wishes, Georgiaday

    • Hello, my family are also from that part of London. The Olympics changed the area beyond recognition in many parts. I remember the old railway freight depot that became the Olympic Park. My grandfather used to drive around the back, one of his many routes to get from Ilford to Kings Cross, where his mother lived for years.

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