Best known as the location for the 2012 London Olympics, Stratford is still proving a popular place for tourists to visit, even though the games are now over. The Olympic Park and new shopping centre may well be worth a visit in their own rights, but there is more to Stratford than this if you have time to look around.
Stratford’s early history
The first recorded mention of Stratford came in 1067. At this point in time, the area was called Straetforda – this means the ford on a Roman road. Stratford, at the time, was essentially a small village close to a crossing over the River Lea forming part of the Roman road that links London to Colchester.
Like much of the East End, Stratford was originally a farming area and remained fairly rural for many centuries. In the 1130s, Stratford Langthorne Abbey was built in the area. This was to become one of the largest monastery sites in the country, working most of the land in and around Stratford itself, until it was closed down when Henry VIII proclaimed the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s.
In its farming heyday and until the middle of the 19th century, Stratford provided London with a lot of agricultural goods, becoming best known for potato production. It started to move from farming to industrial manufacturing in the mid-1700s.
Stratford’s industrial past
One of the best known companies working in the area at this time was the Bow porcelain factory. This is considered to one of the first factories in the country to produce porcelain made from a soft-paste. By the 19th century, Stratford was becoming increasingly industrialised with a variety of manufacturers working in the area. By the 1820s, for example, it had its own dock and wharves and was a fairly significant transport hub due to its position between London and the east of the country.
In 1839, Stratford got its own railway station and, over time, a depot and works that built locomotives, coaches and goods wagons. The railway became a significant local employer – it is estimated that 2,500 people worked there in the mid 1800s. This led to a need for more housing and an improved local infrastructure and a new town was built to accommodate railway workers. Although this was originally called Hudson Town, its name eventually became Stratford New Town. By the 1860s, there were over 20,000 people living and working in the area.
The Church of St John the Evangelist
Stratford’s church has an impressive and unusual three-stage tower. It was built in the 1830s as a chapel of ease to give local residents somewhere to worship close to home. This may not be the most impressive church in the East End, but it has some interesting historical points. The naturalist and reformer, Antonio Brady is buried in the churchyard, for example.
The church’s crypt was also used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War, providing a safe haven for local people even when the church itself was damaged by bombs. If you go into the churchyard, you can see a memorial to the Stratford Martyrs, a group of Protestants who were burned at the stake by Queen Mary in the 1550s for their religious beliefs.
Things to see in Stratford
If you have a train lover with you when you visit Stratford, make sure to take them along to Meridian Square outside the station to see “Robert” the engine. This steam locomotive stands on display in the square, giving a nod to Stratford’s railway connections of the past and is an impressive example of a 1930s saddle-tank engine.
Plus, if you are a film buff, then you may also enjoy a visit to Joseph Balzalgette’s Abbey Mills Pumping Station. This was built in 1868 as part of his new sewerage system for the capital and is an impressive example of Victorian industrial architecture. It was used in the Batman Begins film in 2005 as the lunatic asylum.
Places to Visit in the East End of London – Stratford
The area has been used in many film and TV shoots over the years. Even The Beatles made it to Stratford! They filmed the promo for Penny Lane on Angel Lane. Unfortunately, you cannot really walk in John, Paul, George and Ringo’s footsteps as the location itself was demolished later in the 1960s when the council built the Stratford shopping centre.
The railway works closed down in the 1990s and, like much of the East End, Stratford suffered from high unemployment rates. The area got an immediate boost when it was announced that the 2012 London Olympics would be held at Stratford. The specially built Olympic Park, new housing and the new Westfield shopping centre did much to regenerate the area. The Westfield Centre is worth a visit if you want to shop in London. It has over 300 shops and is one of Europe’s largest shopping centres.