Whilst doing a bit of Christmas family history research I continued digging further into the Moors of Essex. Three generations of this family lived in Essex and East London throughout the 19th Century, moving – it seems – wherever they could find work. For example, Elijah Moor (1819-1909), was a sailmaker who moved between East London and Essex port towns such as Harwich to find employment. I continued tracing the family as they moved back into East London, specifically West Ham, in the mid-1850s. I was interested to find out what life was like in the parish during the period, and whilst reading up on the history of the area I came across a few revelations.
The biggest of these was the state of West Ham itself. I had simply assumed the metropolis of London had covered many districts and parishes for centuries. However, this wasn’t the case with the likes of West Ham. At the end of the 18th Century it was deemed a ‘village’, with a mere 169 baptisms a year (as cited in Lysons, 1796); which gives an indication of the size of the parish. By 1831 the parish had grown, but it still contained under 10,000 inhabitants. The biggest period of growth came in the Victorian period when tens of thousands flocked to the area: by 1881 it was over 100,000, and this then doubled again by 1891. I came across the 1844 Metropolitan Building Act which apparently had a massive knock-on effect to West Ham: the act restricted dangerous industries from operation inside the London city area, leading to many of these simply relocating just outside the city limits in the neighbourhood of West Ham. This created a massive manufacturing hub for chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and proceed foods; in many ways, this created the positives of jobs for thousands.
In 1886 The Times outlined the situation in West Ham:
Factory after factory was erected on the marshy wastes of Stratford and Plaistow and it only required the construction at Canning Town of the Victoria and Albert Docks to make the once desolate parish of West Ham a manufacturing and commercial centre of the first importance and to bring upon it a teeming and an industrious population.
In many ways, such a burst of growth echoes the boom towns in the western United States during the same period. And, as with those ‘Wild West’ towns, came the inevitable problems of living. Those who flocked to West Ham for work lived in slum conditions, with resultant spread of diseases and widespread poverty. In 1857 Henry Morley published a description of the area in Charles Dickens’ Household Words, entitled ‘Londoners over the Border’, writing:
…by the law there is one surburb on the border of the Essex marches which is quite cut off from the comforts of the Metropolitian Buildings Act; – in fact, it lies just without its boundaries, and therefore is chosen as a place of refuge for offensive trade establishments turned out of the town, – those of oil boilers, gut spinners, varnish makers, printers ink makers and the likes. Being cut off from the support of the Metropolitian Local Managing Act, this outskirt is free to possess new streets of houses without drains, roads, gas, or pavement.
He continued writing about the impact of slum housing on the health of local residents:
Rows of small houses, which may have cost for their construction eighty pounds a piece, are built designedly and systematically with their backs to the marsh ditches; …to or three yards of clay pipe “drain” each house into the open cess pool under its back windows, when it does not happen that the house is built as to overhang it… In winter time every block becomes now and then an island, and you may hear a sick man, in an upper room, complain of water trickling down over his bed. Then the flood cleans the ditches, lifting all their filth into itself, and spreading it over the land. No wonder that the stench of the marsh in Hallsville and Canning Town of nights, is horrible. A fetid mist covers the ground… the parish surgeon… was himself for a time invalided by fever, upon which ague followed. Ague, of course, is one of the most prevalent diseases of the district; fever abounds. When an epidemic comes into the place, it becomes serious in its form, and stays for months. Disease comes upon human bodies saturated with the influences of such air as is breathed day and night, as a spark upon touchwood. A case or two of small pox caused, in spite of vaccination, an epidemic of confluent small pox, which remained three or four months upon the spot.
West Ham itself would be incorporated into Greater London, but only in the second half of the 20th Century. Gradually improvements were made, in the form of new health acts and the raising of public awareness. However, it is clear that life during these times was tough; but the residents of West Ham – including those who I am currently researching (Elijah Moor and his wife Elizabeth) – had little choice but to seek this employment and put up with these conditions in order to put food on the table for their family. The reading-up on the history of West Ham has allowed me to understand more of the context of their lives and these times; I hope to incorporate much of this into the wider history of this family.