History of Wanstead – a rich and magisterial past

Wanstead is a borough with a colourful and interesting history, the name having first been recorded in Britain’s historic annals almost a thousand years ago.

Beginnings in Antiquity

Although limited evidence for stone and bronze age settlement exist, the Wanstead area’s first large scale occupancy was a sizable settlement in Roman Britain. It is thought the close proximity to Epping Forest, and the plentiful wood it held, attracted the fort building Romans to the area. After the Romans departed the UK, it is assumed that the settlement dwindled, as the next definitive human presence is traced to the early Middle Ages.

A slow build

In the Medieval era Wanstead housed a mere few families, albeit in reasonably large homes. Growth was slow, with new houses being added at a rate of no more than a few per century until the 16th century when activity among the upper classes grew Wanstead House into a sizable manor, with an eventual renovation in the 18th century cementing its commanding presence over the nascent population.

A mercantilist enclave

The establishment of this Palladian styled structure influenced the locality; it became a hotspot for local merchants and the growing professional classes seeking close proximity to London. The improvement of transport links allowing for transportation by road meant an easy commute to central London of natural appeal to the business class.

Wanstead’s Explosion in Popularity

With financiers, lawyers, doctors and mercantilists constructing large homes for themselves, and smaller homes appearing for the less well off, by the end of the 19th century the Wanstead borough had some 27,000 people. The industrial revolution and the increased food farming propelled the population to new heights of growth, while improved wealth and medical care meant London and its surrounds enjoyed expansions of its working and middle classes. Wanstead numbered among many districts thought to embody local affluence.

Social upheaval

Demolitions would occur, with Wanstead House taken apart to make way for more modern dwellings – when numerous smaller, cottage homes were constructed, a fear among the middle and upper middle class incumbents arose about poor people flocking to the attractive area! These fears were however unfounded, with the area’s overall vibrancy continuing to flourish amid its residents being drawn from across the social strata.

Victorian leisure

Wanstead retains much of its gentile roots, with a literary society, Quaker meeting house and golf club expanding the culture and activities available before the 20th century had even begun. Professionally, the town’s mercantilist roots were expressed in the Merchant Navy school established there in the 1860s.

Early modern infrastructure

It took until the interwar era for its status as a town to be cemented with the construction of Harmon Hill hospital (which later closed in 1991) with the post-war Wanstead Comprehensive School further establishing Wanstead’s status as a modern town. Massive housing projects forever changed the face of Wanstead, with huge homebuilding efforts taking place in the 1920s, 30s and 60s bringing the area into true modernity.

Wanstead today

Today, Wanstead’s affluent roots and modern expansions both remain in ample evidence, with the town now part of northeast London proper. The fact a public house has stood at a site in central Wanstead for over three centuries, with a plaque dating from 1762 mounted on the present structure, encapsulates the area’s long significance as a stopover point and place of residence near the British capital. With London’s success as a world financial centre clear, Wanstead’s future looks bright.