Way back when powdered wigs and snuff were de rigeur amongst London high society, country retreats for London’s wealthy became increasingly popular. Leyton was amongst the desirable Essex rural idylls which caught the eye of merchants, bankers and professionals as a 'pretty retiring place from London'.

Large mansions were constructed in extensive grounds, most in the centre and north of the parish, especially around the village of Low Leyton; to the north-east the forest was also attractive. Some of the houses were the centre of large estates, including the manorial estate of Leyton Grange which had impressive expansive formal gardens. Other fine houses included Etloe House and Leyton House, both in Church Lane, Suffolk House in Capworth Street, and Forest Edge to the north-east.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Leyton Grange by Jacobus Schijnvoet c1710-20. Picture: Government Art Collection

The area’s pleasant rural character was enhanced by acres of farmland and ordered market gardens, but this abruptly changed forever from the mid-19th century with the advent of the railway. Stations at Lea Bridge (1840), Low Leyton (later Leyton) and Leytonstone (1856) heralded the age of the commuter.

The age of the speculative builder was also at hand, and as the wealthy classes moved away, the former grand estates were appropriated by Land Societies and individual builders and divided into building plots.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Edwin Gunn, conjectural view of the house as in 1720, in Survey of London Monograph 4, the Great House, Leyton, London, 1903

Development began in and around Lea Bridge station, and the ensuing 50 years, especially accelerating after 1870, saw rapid urban expansion, with streets and streets of terraced housing encroaching on former open spaces. By the 1890s most remaining estates were sold and the land built upon. The last developments were in the early 1900s including the Warner estate west of Markhouse Road.

In the 1880s a small antidote to the march of speculative development had sprung up at Lea Bridge Gardens, west of Lea Bridge Station; a bungalow town of 69 shacks housed families who reared ducks and grew vegetables. But this was the exception and although the district council attempted to redress the balance between 1909 and 1911 by using the unemployed to plant thousands of trees in the new streets, ‘leafy Leyton’ was now unrecognisable. Other than protected forest land in the extreme north east, by 1912 only 250 acres of undeveloped building land remained, at the Barclay Park estate and Lea Bridge nursery ground, but these too were built over in the 1920s. The only open areas were council playing fields and one at the Drapers Company school.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Ordnance Survey Map, revised 1893, published 1897

Twentieth century municipal redevelopment on vacant and cleared sites in the post-war years culminated in the tower blocks at Leyton Grange Estate in the 1960s.

Although the rural idyll has vanished and the grand houses obliterated, a glimpse of this bygone era can be seen in the 18th century survivor, Etloe House, although this has subsequently been much altered. Looking at historic maps and engravings may therefore be the only way to appreciate Leyton’s rural past…but it’s a very nice way to spend an afternoon.

Karen Averby is a seaside-loving historian and research consultant specialising in researching histories and stories of buildings, people and places. She researches house histories for private clients and collaborates in community heritage projects (karenaverby.co.uk). She is also director of Archangel Heritage Ltd, an historical research consultancy providing research services for the commercial heritage sector (archangelheritage.co.uk). Also found on Twitter @karenaverby and @archaheritage