The River Lea, along with the River Fleet, is second only to the Thames, as the oldest of London’s waterways. The Danes sailed up the River Lea in the late C9th to sack Hereford, and since the early C13th the River has been used regularly for the transportation of goods into and out of the capital. Navigation along the River Lea has been continually improved throughout its history; many of the improvements being sanctioned by Acts of Parliament and funded through tolls. Improvements to the River took the form of dredging, removing obstacles from the waterway, and cutting new channels and locks. Flood relief channels were also constructed. Warehouses and wharfs were built on the banks of the River, although in many areas it retained its open rural character. Improvements continued until as recently as the 1930s, and even as recently as the 1960s the River was used regularly for the transportation of goods, such as timber and coal. There are few remaining timber-yards on the banks of the River, and any that remain are now supplied by road transport.
The River Lea has also been used as a source of power by a number of mills along its banks. In certain areas this led to a reduction in the navigable width of the River, causing friction between the millers and the bargemen. Industries and communities along the River also used it as a source of water, again leading to friction with the bargemen as water levels were often reduced.
Along with wharfs and waterworks a number of service industries, such as boatyards, sprang up along the banks of the River Lea. The River was also used for recreational purposes, with rowing and boating clubs being based along its length. Regattas were organised during the summer months, and the riverside became a popular location for public houses and inns: serving both those who worked on the River and those using it for leisure pursuits. Housing was also built, for those working on and alongside the River, although until recently much of it was subject to flooding when the River Lea burst its banks.