black and white historic image of a steam train on the tracks


Stratford’s core businesses have evolved through the centuries. Long before the area became famous for its manufacturing, it was primarily a hub of industry. The River Lea had powered the mills lining its banks since around 1066, and it was a natural provider of the easy navigation and transport required for industry to flourish. The next few centuries brought a variety of industries to the area, including paper making, distilling, calico printing and even gunpowder manufacture. 


In the Middle Ages, the mills on the River Lea produced flour to be sold to the local bakers who traded their produce with London. In fact, the bakers of Stratford were so well known in their day that they’re often mentioned in documents written during the 14th century.

Other mills in the locality were used for fulling cloth which came in from London. Fulling is a process carried out on wool to clean it of impurities and dirt, which ends up with the cloth looking fuller and thicker. 


Between 1860 and 1919 many manufacturing firms grew in the area. These included food, chemicals, engineering, textiles and clothing, leather, timber, and tobacco. Scottish migrants played an important part in several manufacturing industries, particularly sugar refining (link to sugar refining para) and jute-spinning.


Trades such as dyeing and silk weaving began to develop in the 16th century, with the area becoming very famous for silk weaving. The widespread silk weaver riots in 1675 over the introduction of the Dutch engine loom seem to have heralded the end of silk weaving for the area.

The area is also known for jute-spinning which was developed with the help of Scottish migrants. 

Calico printing

The first calico printer in England is said to be William Sherwin of West Ham who kicked off the industry in Stratford. “Calico grounds” formed on the marshes between Stratford and the Abbey Mill. By 1811, 360 people were employed in the industry. 


One of the earliest tanneries was recorded at Stratford Abbey in the early 16th century. The trades of fellmonger, leather-dresser, saddler, bridle-maker, cordwainer, collar-maker, and whip seller all appeared in the next century, with leather trades well represented in the local area until the middle of the 1800s.


Manufacture appears to have started in West Ham during the Spanish wars of Elizabeth I’s reign, but it was a short-lived industry for the east end. In more modern times, explosives and matches were produced in Stratford, with several match manufacturers operating in the east end during the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries.


The Bow works, established in 1744, was one of the first in England. By 1749, it had moved across the River Lea to Stratford’s High Street, and eventually closed in 1776.

Distilling and brewing

Spirit distilling at the Three Mills began around 1730 with the only J. & W. Nicholson having longevity in the area. Distilling continued at the Three Mills until 1941, and part of the premises was still occupied as a warehouse in 1969. The Stratford brewery of Savill Bros., Maryland Road, existed from around 1862 to roughly 1926, although there were several other short lived brewers in the area over the years.


Howards & Sons chemical works were in Stratford for over a century with Germans majorly influencing the development of the industry in West Ham between 1870 and 1914.


From steam carriages being made in Stratford in the early 1800s to the creation of the carriage works and the railway itself, Stratford’s ability to trade was greatly enhanced by the new transport routes this opened up.


Most sugar refinery workers lived and worked on the premises. The refinery was situated west of the Three Mills river, and eventually gave its name to Sugar House Lane before the sugar refineries moved to Silvertown. Interestingly, both Henry Tate & Sons and Abram Lyle & Sons opened there before finally coming together in 1921 to form Tate & Lyle.


Paint and varnish has been produced by many firms in Stratford over the years. The growth of printing itself meant that the industry flourished and many of the printing ink firms were based in Stratford, especially in Sugar House Lane.