Hackney Marsh is one of the largest remaining areas of common land in London.
The Marsh was saved from development by a combination of factors including: its status as common land with ancient grazing rights; the continuing effects of flooding; campaigns to protect the Marsh for open space and recreation; and finally the intervention of the London County Council.
The City of London holds a copyrighted plan of the layout of lammas grazing plots on the Marsh in 1745, which can be viewed here (opens a new page).
The marsh in 1745 comprised 283 strips of very variable size with 35 owners, the chief being Stamp Brooksbank with 74 acres in 17 strips and F. J. Tyssen with 72 acres in 61 strips. Only six other holdings exceeded 10 acres and most were less than 5acres; Brooksbank's was exceptional in including a large block, around 46 acres astride the later cut between Homerton bridge and Cow bridge.
The Marsh was a focus for sporting activities from at lead the 18th century. Sports included horse racing on the marsh in 1733, with an ox-roasting, in 1735. Less usual events included a swimming race between two horses in 1737 and women running for a linen shift from Tyler's ferry to Temple Mills in 1749. Bird-shooting on the marsh was mentioned in 1754, a nearly lethal private boxing match in 1790, and bullbaiting, interspersed with prize fighting, before 3,000 people in 1791. Sunday shooting was banned in 1809. John Baum, landlord of the White Lion at Hackney Wick by 1825, provided a ring for more orderly boxing in the 1860s but as late as 1875 a prize fighter was killed on Hackney marsh.
Development encroached upon the Marsh during the nineteenth century.
The Commons Preservation society (founded in 1865) launched a petition in 1872 to protect Common Land and open it to public use. Conflicts grew up between landowners and those who wanted to use the Marsh for recreation, including boys' clubs, such as the Eton Manor Mission, that grew in popularity at this time.
The Metropolitan Commons Supplemental Act of 1872 approved a scheme to protect the 'Hackney Commons' under the control of the Metropolitan Board of Works: But not Hackney Marsh, apparently due to the complexity of purchasing/extinguishing the grazing rights. The London County Council subsequently purchased the rights and interests in the Marsh in 1890.
A part of the Marsh was requisitioned in 1915 to build the 'National Projectile Factory'. The factory is commemorated in a painting by Anna Airy, held by the Imperial War Museum.
Football on the marshes- haydays
The Marsh was covered with rubble of bombed buildings during the World War II, raising the overall level of the Marsh.
Unexploded bombs dropped on London were defused, transported to Hackney Marsh and detonated. Here is news footage of two bomb disposal experts digging a trench to remove an unexploded bomb buried in the street just outside St. Paul's Cathedral. The view then turns to the 100 foot wide crater on Hackney Marshes made by the bomb.
The Marsh suffered periodic flooding.
'The banks of the River Lea were submerged yesterday for many miles, and hundreds of acres were under water, immense damage to the seed crops and other produce being thereby caused. The Hackney marshes were like a vast lake, dotted here and there by a tree or a house access to which was only possible by boats'
(Daily Telegraph April 12, 1878)
Gypsies made their encampments on the outer edges of cities. In north east London, the chief gypsy settlement was at Hackney Wick, 'where the marsh meadows of the River Lea, unsuitable foe building land, seems to forbid the extension of town streets and blocks of brick and stuccoed terraces'.
Over 100 Sunday Football League amateur matches are played on the 88 full size football pitches on the Marsh each week.
Footage of Sunday football on Hackney Marshes in 1953. More
Comers and goers, Ch 5 Raphael Samuel in The Victorian City: Images and Realities, Volume 1. edited by H. Harold James Dyos, Michael Wolf
There is a lovely map of the Hackney Marshes and its flora and fauna produced by Hackney Environment.
Leaflet on the Wildlife of Hackney Marshes.
Hackney Council's Hackney Marshes site.