Romford is a large suburban town in northeast London, England and the administrative headquarters of the London Borough of Havering. It is located northeast of Charing Cross and is one of the major metropolitan centres identified in the London Plan. It was historically a market town in the county of Essex and formed the administrative centre of the liberty of Havering, until it was dissolved in 1892. Good road links and the opening of the railway station in 1839 were key to the development of the town and the economic history of Romford is underpinned by a shift from agriculture to light industry and more recently to retail and commerce. As part of the suburban growth of London in the 20th century, Romford significantly expanded and increased in population, becoming a municipal borough in 1937 and has formed part of Greater London since 1965. It now forms one of the largest commercial, retail, entertainment and leisure districts outside central London and has a developed night time economy.
Romford is first recorded in 1177 as Romfort, which is formed from Old English 'rūm' and 'ford' and means "the wide or spacious ford". The naming of the River Rom is a local 'back-formation' from the name of the town; and the river is elsewhere known as the Beam. The ford most likely existed on the main London to Colchester road where it crossed that river.
The town developed in the Middle Ages on the main road to London and the regionally significant Romford Market was established in 1247. The early history of Romford and the immediate area is agricultural and it is recorded as being the location of a number of mills used to grind corn. The area was a focus of the leather industry from the 15th to the early 19th centuries and there is record of a wide range of industries such as cloth making, weaving, charcoal burning, metal working and brewing. Communications played an important part in its development; the main road to London was maintained by the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Trust from 1721 and Romford became a coaching town in the 18th century. Several failed attempts were made in the early 19th century to connect the town to the Thames via a Romford Canal. Initially intended to transport agricultural products to London and later intended to serve growing industrial sites in Romford, only two miles of canal were constructed and the canal company were unable to reach the town.
The development of the town was accelerated by the opening of the railway station in 1839 which stimulated the local economy and was key to the development of the Star Brewery. Initially Eastern Counties Railway services operated between Mile End and Romford, with extensions to Brentwood and to Shoreditch in 1840. A second station was opened on South Street in 1892 by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway on the line to Upminster and Grays, giving Romford a rail connection to Tilbury Docks. The two stations were combined into one in 1934. Light industry slowly developed, reaching a peak in the 1970s with a number of factories on the edge of town, such as the Roneo Vickers office machinery company, Colvern manufacturers of wireless components, May's Sheet Metal Works and brush manufacturers Betterware. Suburban expansion increased the population and reinforced Romford's position as a significant regional town centre. The Liberty Shopping Centre was constructed in the 1960s and has been recently modernised and supplemented with further shopping centres throughout the town, including The Mall, opened in 2006; and The Brewery, opened in 2000 on the site of the old Star Brewery.
Romford formed a chapelry in the large ancient parish of Hornchurch in the Becontree hundred of Essex; as well as the town it included the wards of Collier Row, Harold Wood, and Noak Hill. Through ancient custom the area enjoyed special status and a charter in 1465 removed the parish from the Becontree hundred and the county of Essex and it instead formed the independent liberty of Havering. Over time the vestry of Romford chapelry absorbed the local powers that would usually be held by the parish authorities and in 1849 Romford became a separate parish within the liberty. Improvement commissioners were set up in 1819 for paving, lighting, watching, and cleansing of the marketplace and main streets. As the town grew this arrangement became ineffective at controlling sanitation and in 1851 a local board of health was set up for the parish; although its area was reduced in 1855 to cover only the town ward. The remainder of the parish became part of the Romford rural sanitary district in 1875. These changes and the introduction of the Romford Poor Law Union in 1836 eroded the powers of the liberty and it was finally abolished in 1892 and reincorporated into Essex.
The Local Government Act 1894 reformed local government and created the Romford Urban District and Romford Rural District to replace the local board and sanitary district; and the Romford parish was split into Romford Urban and Romford Rural along the lines of the urban district. In 1900 the parish was recombined and the urban district expanded to cover all of the former area of the historic chapelry, except for Noak Hill which remained in the rural district and had become a parish in its own right in 1895. The enlarged urban district formed part of the London Traffic Area from 1924 and the London Passenger Transport Area from 1933. The suburban expansion of London caused an increase in population during the 1930s and the urban district was expanded further in 1934, taking in the parishes of Havering-atte-Bower and Noak Hill. It was incorporated as the Municipal Borough of Romford in 1937. In 1965 the municipal borough was abolished and its former area was combined with that of Hornchurch Urban District; it was again removed from Essex and since then has formed the northern part of the London Borough of Havering in Greater London.
There was early expansion in the 1840s in the area currently occupied by the Waterloo estate, and then known as New Romford, where 200 cottages were built. To the east of the market place from 1850 middle class suburban housing was constructed with a much larger area of built-over to the south of the railway from 1851. Through a gradual process of selling off former manors, houses were built radiating from the town in all directions for about a mile. More significant growth occurred between 1910 and 1911 with the construction of Gidea Park Garden Suburb, which included Raphael Park and Gidea Park railway station. Large sections of land to the north of the town at Collier Row were developed in the interwar period and after World War II, the London County Council built the Harold Hill estate to the north east from 1948 to 1958.
The right to supply electricity to the town was secured by the County of London Electricity Supply Company in 1913. Initially power was generated within the Star Brewery site, with the supply switching to Barking Power Station in 1925. Gas supply began in 1825 with gas works of constructed by 1938. Following the Telegraph Act 1899 Romford became part of the Post Office London telephone area and the Romford exchange was recorded as having 240 subscribers in 1916. The town water supply initially came from the Havering Well, and 1859 a new public well and pump was built at the east end of the market. The South Essex Waterworks Company started installing mains water supply in 1863 and had offices in South Street. By 1905 its supply was serving Ilford, Collier Row, Ardleigh Green, Brentwood, and Hornchurch. Sewage works were installed by the local board at Oldchurch in 1862, with further works built in Hornchurch in 1869.