Lea Valley – Britain’s best kept secret

Heritage museum for London’s Lea Valley. By Lindsay Collier MA.
For a number of years now the Lea Valley Corridor has been known as a small area of Britain with a huge industrial past, it is a place here over one hundred industrial firsts have taken place, with
half of these being in transportation.

This achievement alone is a world record. For the last fourteen years the concept for a museum to celebrate this unique heritage called the Lea Valley Experience has been slowly simmering away in Walthamstow. With the coming of the Olympic Games to the valley in 2012, presented a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase Britain’s largest and forgotten industrial past that has most certainly changed the world as we know it today.

Journey down the River Lea.
Our journey down the River Lea starts to the north of London in Luton, well known today for its
football club, Luton Town. It is also the home of the Vauxhall Car Company and London Luton international airport; these two companies currently provide the majority of employment for the local community. However, before this Luton’s main employment came from the many hat manufacturers that once graced the town. The memory of this still lives on today through Luton Town’s Football Club, nicknamed the hatters. We now turn our attention to a small area of Luton called Leagrave which is the home of another world famous company, Electrolux, who over the years have produced a variety of electrical household appliances. Part of the Electrolux site was once occupied by Hewlett and Brondeau Ltd who built aircraft. The company was founded in 1914 and was managed by Hilda Hewlett, the first British woman to receive a pilot’s licence. The company employed over 700 people and produced 800 aircraft during its six years of operation, the majority of them being AVRO 504s. In 1937 the Percival Aircraft Company moved from Gravesend to Luton adding to the many aviation connections that the Lea Valley Corridor has. Leagrave Marshes, which is the source of the River Lea, is also of great historical significance. The river then slowly twists its way past Hatfield, once home of the world famous de Havilland Aviation company, and the world’s first passenger jet airliner, the Comet. We now move down river to Chadwell and Amwell and its springs. These are the two main sources of the man made New River that was constructed to carry water directly to the thirsty residents of the City of London.

Our next stop is Ware, once a Roman inland port and the home of Wickhams, makers of plant and railway vehicles, and Warerite, makers of laminated plastic railway carriage interiors. We must not also forget Ware’s many past malt houses and the local McMullen’s brewery that is still operating there today. Colliers End close to Ware is where the first British balloon flight finally came to rest in September 1784, the pilot being one Vincenzo Lunardi of Lucca, Tuscany.

The changing river. It is hard to believe that the River Lea was once over a mile wide in some places. Drainage of the river and the installation of navigational canals over the years changed all that. With the availability of so much water in the valley it was also a great place to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables, all in huge quantities.During the 1930s the Lea Valley had the world’s largest concentration of greenhouses. At one time the valley was also producing two thirds of Britain’s total horticultural output.

I now move on to one of the many unique industrial achievements that the valley has, the world’s first passenger carrying monorail. This was constructed in 1825 at Cheshunt to the design of Henry Robinson Palmer who also invented corrugated iron sheets. Today in Cheshunt, the Tesco head office is one of the largest employers in the region. Before moving away to Hethel in Norfolk, Colin Chapman’s Lotus car company also once provided the local community with many jobs and the daily sight and noise of his cars being road tested around the local streets.

Besides the river navigation and the Roman roads, the coming of the railways to the valley in the 1800s saw the valley become a more accessible and inviting prospect for new companies to set up home there.

We now move down river to Waltham Abbey and the Royal Gun Powder Mills which is today Britain’s best kept secret. The mills opened in 1787 and produced a wide range of explosives and chemical propellants right up until 1991. The RDX explosive used in the famous Barnes Wallace bouncing bomb was developed there. These are just a few of the many hidden stories that the mills have to offer.

Lighting up Enfield Enfield is our next stop. Most people believe that Edison invented the light bulb, however, it was demonstrated some twenty years beforehand by Sir Joseph Swan, then together with Edison they started the Ediswan Company in Ponders End. In 1904 the diode was invented at the company’s works by Ambrose Fleming; without the invention of this device this article certainly would not have been written in this way. Another invention that we have all used at some point in our lives is the thermos flask, this was also developed at the work’s laboratories by Sir James Dewar in the 1870s. Belling, MK and Thorn all set up companies in Enfield that also have many unique stories to tell. Before we leave Enfield we must not also forget the famous Lee Enfield Rifle invented there by James Paris Lee.

Home of the motorcycle. We now move on to Edmonton which was once the home of Straker Squires who produced cars, lorries, buses and steam vehicles. British Oxygen also had a large factory there. Just down the road in Tottenham the JAP Company was also at that time producing speedway bikes and motorcycle engines. Many today would claim that Tottenham is therefore the home of the British motorcycle industry. Gestetner who made duplicating equipment and the Lebus Furniture Company both also had large factories in Tottenham. Lotus Cars was also founded there.

Walthamstow is our next stop, which is the home of the first British built car. It is also regarded as the home of London Transport as many of the first buses that London Transport used in service were built there by the Associated Equipment Company. In 1909 Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe became the first Briton to fly an all British built plane on Walthamstow Marshes, a centenary celebration of this is planned for 2009. We must not also forget Bovince Ltd whose company invented the first method of screen printing some fifty years ago. Many toy and sweet companies also set up home in the valley: Matchbox, Britain’s, Brimtoys, Lines Bros, Trebor, Maynard’s and Bonds being just a few of them. Today EFE are the only company that makes model toys in the region.

We are now entering the final stages of our trip down the River Lea and a brief visit to Hackney, the home of petrol, as it was here that the company Carless Capel & Leonard invented the mixture and patented the name.

Preparing for 2012. Now moving on to Stratford, once the home of the largest railway works in the country, the works even today still hold a number of world records. The London Cooperative was also founded there by its workers. Today the site is being prepared for the London2012 Olympic Games. Bypassing Bow, famous for the matchbox girls strike, rockets, railway works, and the first improved horse omnibus we finally end our journey at Bow Creek, once the home of the Thames Iron Works that constructed Britain’sfirst ironclad warship, the Warrior, along with numerous other vessels, different types of plant equipment, cars, lorries, buses, and even railway engines. West Ham United Football Club was also founded there by the company’s work force. Arnold Hills the managing director of the company is also said to have founded the Vegetarian Society. In this brief trip down the RiverLea I have only touched on some of its many interesting stories. I have tried to give you a taste of why the industrial heritage of the Lea Valley is so important. I hope by reading this it will inspire you to learn more about it and support the development of the Lea Valley Experience museum to celebrate the regions unique past.

For more information visit: www.leavalleyexperience.co.uk

Woodford Festival thanks Lindsay Collier MA for this article