As our Law Firm is based in Ealing, we wanted to provide an article that explored the history of our local area and to highlight some of the interesting facts that Ealing has to offer.
Ealing is known as the Queen of the Suburbs and its history has been shaped by its close connections with the capital. The road that leads between Oxford and London passes right through Ealing and it has brought many changes to the area. What began as a tiny rural community developed over time into a growing suburb, a busy town, and eventually into a thriving community within Greater London.
The Early History of Ealing
People have been living in Ealing for many thousands of years. The earliest archaeological finds in the area date back to the Iron Age, about 7000 years ago. However, there were far fewer people then and the landscape was very different. Ealing was part of a vast forest that stretched across the countryside outside London and there were probably no permanent settlements in the area until at least the 6th century. By the time of the Domesday book, in 1086, there were two manors in the area, Greenford and Hanwell. Each of these would have been home to a lord, his family, and various labourers and tenant farmers. The forest was still there in the 12th century, by which time Ealing had become a small village. The Church of St Mary’s was built at around this time.
Village life centred around the church over the following centuries. By the time of the first census of Ealing village, in 1599, there were 85 families living around St Mary’s. Some scattered houses and smaller settlements such as Perivale, Greenford and Northolt could be found in the surrounding countryside, but most people lived in the area known as St Mary’s Road. The Ealing area was still very rural at this time, although there was more farmland and fewer trees than in previous centuries.
It was in the 18th century that Ealing began to develop closer connections with London. People had travelled through Ealing on their way to the capital for centuries, but with poor roads it was a long and difficult journey. The first tolls were collected along the Oxford Road in Brentford in 1717, with additional toll gates or turnpikes being set up in Ealing during the following decades. The funds were used to improve the road, creating a gravelled highway that made travelling much easier.
The Oxford Road, which is now known as the Uxbridge Road, became a very busy route. The highway leads from Shepherd’s Bush out through Ealing to Oxford, making it an important route for farmers, traders, and all kinds of travellers. Food and raw materials were being carried in to supply the capital, while goods produced in or imported through London were transported back out to be sold around the country. Since road transport at this time depended on horses, many inns were established along the highway to provide resting places for both human and equine travellers. Ealing had its fair share of these inns, which included the Bell, the Feathers, the Green Man and two inns called the Old Hat. However, it wasn’t just innkeepers who were drawn to Ealing by all this movement along the Uxbridge Road. Highwaymen were also known to prey on travellers in the area.
Despite the risks and difficulty of travel at this time, the highway also provided a route for wealthy Londoners to escape from the city into what was then still the open countryside. Ealing was already becoming a suburb with close connections to London, although it was still characterised by open fields and farmland. Among the many famous residents at the beginning of the 19th century were the architect Sir John Soane, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, and Prince Edward, whose daughter was to become Queen Victoria.
As the 19th century progressed, newer transport links helped to strengthen Ealing’s connections with London. Ealing got its own railway station in 1838 and the Great Western Railway and Grand Union Canal made it easier for both goods and people to move in and out of the city.
The people of Ealing profited from these connections by becoming market gardeners. People were no longer growing food only for their own families, but rather to supply the growing needs of the city. Crops could be harvested in Ealing and sold in London within hours, enabling people in the capital to enjoy the freshest produce.
People could reach London quickly too, so Ealing became a home not just for the rich, but also for commuters who could live in the cleaner suburb while working in the busy capital. Ealing became known as the Queen of the Suburbs, a title by which it is still sometimes called to this day.
Many new houses were built in the area, mostly semi-detached properties designed to appeal to the growing middle class. Gas and electricity supplies soon followed, ensuring that the new residents had access to the most up to date amenities as well as the frequent trains and horse buses into London. Acton and Southall attracted large-scale industry, providing work locally, while the area around Broadway became a busy centre of commerce. The Town Hall was built during this period and a lot of work was done on the local infrastructure. The roads were improved, drainage and sewage systems were put in place, and a number of schools were established, along with libraries and various social and cultural organisations. The community even paid for drinking fountains to be erected to ensure that everyone could enjoy clean water. By the 1880s, Ealing actually needed its own water source to supply its needs, so Fox Reservoir was constructed.
Ealing was growing rapidly, but as the countryside was swallowed up efforts were made to ensure that some green patches were preserved for the local people. Lammas Park, Ealing Common, and Walpole Park were all set aside as green spaces towards the end of the Victorian era. However, by the turn of the century, Ealing was no longer a rural village. It had become a town.
Ealing in the 20th Century
In 1901, Ealing was incorporated as the first municipal borough in Middlesex. Electric trams began running between Ealing and London in the same year, providing yet another means of transport for the commuters living in this popular suburb. The same electricity that drove the trams was used to provide street lighting along the Uxbridge Road. The borough was ready for the modern age.
Ealing began to expand again after the First World War, and this time the growth touched some of the rural communities that had remained unchanged through the Victorian period. The changes were particularly dramatic in the small villages of Perivale and Greenford, which grew and attracted various industries in the 1920s and 30s. Acton and Southall also became more industrialised as companies invested in Ealing and its ready workforce.
The area escaped the worst of the bombing during the Second World War, which allowed Ealing to retain much of its original character, notably the grand old homes around Mount Park Road. However, the borough did have to make some sacrifices for the war effort. One of the most dramatic changes during this period was the draining of Fox Reservoir, which was done to prevent enemy bombers from using it as a landmark during their attacks on London. The area is now a nature reserve known as Fox Wood. The reserve includes some of the original ancient woodland that once covered the whole of Ealing, remnants of which had been preserved around the edges of the reservoir.
Ealing continued to grow and change in the latter half of the 20th century. The last of the countryside was built over with council housing and people began to come to the area from far and wide. Ealing attracted immigrants from all corners of the world, particularly India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, and Poland.
The Ealing area played an important part in British culture during this period. Ealing Studios was established in 1902 and continues to produce films to this day, making it the longest running studio in the world. Many classic films, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Ladykillers, were made at the studios between the 1930s and the 1950s. The area even gave its name to them as they became known as the Ealing Comedies. In 1955, the studio began producing programmes for the BBC, including such classics as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who. Several episodes of Doctor Who actually feature monsters chasing people through the streets of Ealing.
Ealing also played an important role in musical history. The Ealing Jazz Club, later known simply as the Ealing Club, was the first venue in London to provide a regular stage for R&B music. It was also the place where Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards first met bandmate Brian Jones. The Who, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and many other famous names all played at the Ealing Club.
All of this growth and change had a big impact on the local area as well as on the wider culture. In 1965, Ealing and its neighbouring municipal boroughs joined to become the London Borough of Ealing. The town had merged into Greater London and become one with the city that had shaped its growth for many centuries.