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Dagenham Brook is probably a man-made channel, first dug to drain the Lea marshes for grazing and agriculture. It may follow the approximate alignment of an earlier natural watercourse and a minor tributary of the Lea, although the straight sections of the Brook visible today indicate that the alignment may only be approximate.
The alignment also corresponds with an earlier course of the River Lea known as the 'Taplow Terrace' from the Wolstonian Glacial Period (128 to 280,000 BP).
In John Roque's map of 1746, the channel comprised a large ditch in use as a common sewer stretching from Walthamstow to Temple Mills. It was sometimes known as the Mill River, probably because the course led to Temple Mills. The land on the east bank rose up above the flood plain where grand houses with ornamental gardens and ponds backed onto the Brook. One of the mansions still exists: Etloe House, originally built around 1760-70. The front of the house was remodelled early in the 19th century, but the rear facade, facing the Brook, retains its 18th century character. Other great houses included Leyton House and Mark House.
The history of Leyton House and the Walthamstow Slip is recorded in an article by David Ian Chapman for the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society. The main house and garden was to the east of the Brook. The gardens extended further to the west, probably across an ornamental bridge. Of particular interest here is a curve in the line of the Brook shown on the Ordnance Survey Plan of 1861, apparently a man made feature created when the grounds were landscaped. The curve is still visible today.
By tradition, the channel marked the eastern limits of the Leyton Marshes, known as the 'The Leyton Level'. The channel was controlled and managed by the Dagenham Commissioners of Sewers (Commissioners for Sewers of Havering, Dagenham, Ripple, Barking, East Ham, West Ham, Leyton, Walthamstow, Bromley and East Marsh) and it therefore came to be known in the late 19th century as the Dagenham Brook. The Level (and various extensions of the boundary of dubious legality) marked the area across which the Commissioners could levy taxes in order to maintain the channel.
Romford 5th July 1841
In reply to an Order of the House of Lords for a Return of the Amount of Rental assessed to the Sewers Rate under each of the several Commissions of Sewers respectively whether under Local Acts of Parliament or issued by the Crown for the Conduct and Control of the Sewerage of the Metropolis and such Parts of the Counties of Middlesex Surrey Kent and Essex including the Cities of London and Westminster and of the Boroughs of Finsbury Tower Hamlets and Southwark as drain by Sewers or otherwise into the River Thames and the annual or other Rate in the Pound at which the Property therein distinguishing each Subdivision District or Level thereof as the Case may be is assessed I beg to inform you that so far as regards the Levels of Havering Dagenham Ripple Barking Eastham Westham Leyton Walthamstow Bromley and Eastmarsh which are situate lying running and being in the respective Counties of Essex Middlesex and Kent I addressed a Letter to you on the 14th June last and have again to repeat that the Lands within such Levels are not assessed according to the Rental but according to the Acreage no annual Rate in the Pound is made but the Commissioners for these Levels make and levy Rates as Occasion may require in the Manner above mentioned.
JW Birch Esq
I have &c Wasey Sterry Clerk
(Sessional Papers of the House of Lords Session 4 & 5 1841 Vol. XVIII)
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Commissioners raised relatively meagre amounts of tax from a vaguely defined area and consequently left the walls and banks poorly maintained. The channel was often blocked, but the work of the Commissioners focused only upon remedial measures, such as dredging the channel and repairing the bridges. The millers at Temple Mills, downstream, were also notorious for penning up the water in times of flood and inundating the marshes (rather than opening their flood gates).
From the 1860s, drainage from the expanding suburbs of Leyton and Walthamstow caused the channel to become increasingly foul. The Commissioners' efforts to clean the channel were supplemented, in 1868, by the founding of the Lee Conservancy Board which had statutory powers to prevent sewage draining into the Lea or its tributaries. From the 1870s, it pressured the Leyton and Walthamstow vestries to bring forward sewage disposal schemes under threat of legal proceedings.
The problem of sewage contamination was not confined to the main brook. To the west of Wood Street, flowing south to Leyton, the Phillebrook became known as the Shernhall ('filth stream') and gave its name to Shernhall Street, which it used to flood near Tinker's bridge (Raglan Corner).
In 1883, the Commissioners authorized connection of the Leyton Board's new works to the Dagenham Brook for discharge to the Waterworks River. Walthamstow developed treatment works at Low Hall in the 1880s, but complaints that untreated sewage was entering the Brook from Walthamstow persisted until 1895.
The northern end of the Brook was truncated by the Flood Relief Channel, constructed in phases from the 1950s. The Brook is now fed from the Flood Relief Channel.
The southern end, which once flowed into the Waterworks River (now occluded), was later diverted westward to the Old River Lea. The Brook was then culverted on the construction of the railway line, with a pumping station close to New Spitalfields Market.
The Brook has been designated a site of Local Nature Conservation Importance.
The Phillebrook was sometimes known as Fillebrook or Philleybrook. In 1537, it was known as 'Phepes Broke'. 'Phillebrook' was the more usual form until the late 19th century. The form 'Fillebrook' was adopted by the Wallwood Farm estate development of that name in the 1870s and perpetuated in 'Fillebrook Road'.
The stream marked the boundary between the Manor of Leyton from that of Mark Hall (or Ruckholt? - accounts differ). The course travelled from east to west joining the Dagenham Sewer west of Ruckholts Manor. The Brook is now culverted.
In 1868, it was still open, but by 1904 it was piped from James Lane to the sewage works in Auckland Road. The last open stretch from West End Avenue to James Lane was closed soon after.
Between 1721 and 1728, Benjamin Collyer altered the grounds of Ruckholt Manor to the south, converting the Phillebrook to the north into a canal shaped like a keyhole, with an ornamental island at the west end. This can be seen on John Roque's map of 1745.
The other side of the church opposite, now Greek Orthodox, is the site of Ruckholt Manor House, visited by Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II, John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. Ruckholt Manor was acquired by Robert Knight, Chief Cashier of the South Sea Company, infamous for having shares that rose and rose in price, only to fall suddenly to almost nothing in 1720.
A map of the Manor of Ruckhold is reproduced in an article by Frederick Temple for the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society on The Royal Lodge, Leytonstone.
A series of leaflets on 'Waltham Forest Walks' includes 'Following the Fillebrook' (opens a PDF).
Higham Hill sewer flowed from Chapel End across Blackhorse Lane to Dagenham Brook. The course was truncated by the construction of the Flood Relief Channel.
The Moor ditch flowed from Markhouse common to Dagenham Brook. Most of Moor ditch was culverted in the 1880s.
Journals of the House of Lords, Volume 73 (http://books.google.co.uk/booksid=vhpDAAAAcAAJ&dq=dagenham%20sewer%20leyton&pg=PA243#v=onepage&q dagenham%20sewer%20leyton&f=false)