Stratford is a town and district in East London, England, in the London Borough of Newham. It is located east northeast of Charing Cross and is one of the major centres identified in the London Plan. It was historically an agrarian settlement in the ancient parish of West Ham in the county of Essex, which transformed into an industrial suburb following the introduction of the railway in 1839. As part of the growth of London in the late 19th century, Stratford significantly expanded and increased in population, becoming the centre of administration of the Borough of West Ham in 1886 and it has formed part of Greater London since 1965. The more recent economic history is underpinned by a move away from railway works and heavy industry towards becoming a significant commercial and cultural centre. Stratford is the location of the London Olympic Park and is currently experiencing regeneration and expansion linked to the 2012 Summer Olympics.
The name is first recorded in 1067 as Strætforda and means 'ford on a Roman road'. It is formed from Old English 'stræt' and 'ford'. The crossing is that of the London to Colchester road over one of the many branches of the River Lea to the west of the settlement. The nearby settlement of Bow — over the River Lea and now in Tower Hamlets — was also known as Stratford and a variety of suffixes were used to distinguish the two. The settlement to the east of the Lea was also known as Estratford referring to the location east of the other Stratford, Statford Hamme alluding to the location within the parish of West Ham, Abbei Stratford, referring to the presence of Stratford Langthorne Abbey and Stretford Langthorne.
Stratford was originally an agricultural community, whose proximity to London provided a ready market for its produce. By the 18th century, the area around Stratford was noted for potato growing, a business that continued into the mid-1800s. Stratford also became a desirable country retreat for wealthy merchants and financiers, within an easy ride of the City. When Daniel Defoe visited Stratford in 1722, he reported that it had "...increased in buildings to a strange degree, within the compass of about 20 or 30 years past at the most". He continues that "...this increase is, generally speaking, of hansom large houses... being chiefly for the habitations of the richest citizens, such as either are able to keep two houses, one in the country, and one in the city; or for such citizens as being rich, and having left off trade, live altogether in these neighbouring villages, for the pleasure and health of the latter part of their days".
An early industrial undertaking at Stratford was the Bow porcelain factory, which despite the name, was on the Essex side of the River Lea. Using a process that was patented in 1744, Edward Heylin and Thomas Frye operated a factory near Bow Bridge called "New Canton" to produce some of the first soft-paste porcelain to be made in the country. The site of the factory was to the north of Stratford High Street near the modern Bow Flyover; it was the subject of archaeological excavations in 1921 and 1969.
By the early 19th century, Stratford was an important transport hub, with omnibuses and coaches running into London four times every hour and coaches from East Anglia passing through hourly. The route into London was plied by Walter Hancock's steam coaches for a period during the 1830s.
A small dock and a number of wharves were operating on the River Lea at Stratford by the 1820s, serving the needs of local industries. However, the opening of the nearby Royal Victoria Dock in 1855 and the subsequent construction of the Royal Group of Docks (at one time the largest area of impounded water in the world), increased Stratford's importance as a transport and manufacturing centre.
In 1839, the Great Eastern Railway built a railway station at Stratford, which was the point at which their two main routes diverged; one going from London to Cambridge and the other to Colchester. A railway works and depot for engines and rolling stock was established by Great Eastern in 1847 to the north of Stratford. At its peak, the works employed over 2,500 many of whom had homes, along with other rail workers, in the town that developed nearby. It was originally called Hudson Town, after George Hudson, the "Railway King;", but after his involvement in bribery and fraud was revealed in 1849, the settlement quickly became better known as Stratford New Town, which by 1862 had a population of 20,000. During the lifetime of the Stratford works, 1,682 locomotives, 5,500 passenger coaches and 33,000 goods wagons were built. The last part of the works closed in March 1991.
Stratford was one of three ancient wards in the large parish of West Ham, in the Becontree hundred of Essex. It came within the Metropolitan Police District in 1840. Despite forming part of the built up area of London the parish remained outside the statutory metropolitan area established in 1855 and the County of London established in 1889. Instead, administrative reform was undertaken in the area in much the same way as a large provincial town. A local board was formed in 1856 under the Public Health Act 1848 and subsequently the parish was incorporated as a municipal borough in 1886. In 1889 the borough was large enough in terms of population to become a county borough and was outside the area of responsibility of Essex County Council. Stratford formed the centre of administration of the county borough and was the location of the town hall.