Leytonstone High Road has been a dominant thoroughfare for centuries, part of the main highway from Epping to London, leading from the Green Man’s Inn to Stratford. Not only was the high road used to transport goods to London markets, it was also on the main toll road to Norwich via Woodford. As a result, the route had some of the oldest inns along its route, providing beds and stables dating back to at least the 17th century, among them the Green Man, The Harrow and Robin Hood, which became the Red Lion.
Until the middle of the 19th century, Leytonstone was a small hamlet on the high road, with houses stretching south from Green Man. Several grand grand residences were built along the route in the 18th century, including Leytonstone House near Green Man, which now stands in Hanbury Drive and was converted for use as a hospital. Most have however been demolished, including Park House near Granleigh Road in 1968 after being used as a library, and Sycamore House, demolished in 1958 to make way for the Welsh Church.
Leytonstone High Road
The character of the wider area changed enormously after the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century, and Leytonstone was transformed from a rural settlement into an urban area, with residential streets springing up all around the high road. Shops to supply the newly expanding population were built along its length, and with the installation of streetcar lines in the 1870s its appearance was forever transformed.
Service businesses including tailors, garages and a bicycle repair shop were established, and every shopping need was seemingly met, with quality clothing and furniture stores as well as an array of independent shops, including fishmongers, butchers, greengrocers and bakers.
Postcard from the Haute Route
Bucks Bakery at No. 568 is particularly noteworthy, famous for its spectacular building and fairytale-themed Christmas cakes.
Department stores such as Woolworths and British Home Stores had premises there, and the famous independent department store at Bearmans was hugely popular, its enchanting Christmas displays in particular fondly remembered.
The main road was not only used by locals; good transport links to Stratford and Epping boosted the number of people who shopped here. Amenities such as tea rooms, pubs and several cinemas were extremely popular, including The Rex, The Palace, The Rialto and The State.
The Rex cinema c1959
Leytonstone High Road’s fortunes as a shopping center may have reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, when the street was packed with shoppers, particularly on Saturdays. Over time, however, the high road was unable to compete with the large shopping malls that were built in the late 20th century and a general decline in shoppers led to the closure of many shops and long-established companies.
Some establishments have survived, however, including the Red Lion, and several independent restaurants have opened in recent times, with cafes, patisseries and eateries offering a variety of cuisines.
Karen Averby is a waterfront-loving historian and research consultant specializing in researching stories and histories of buildings, people and places. She researches house stories for private clients and works on community heritage projects (karenaverby.co.uk). She is also a director of Archangel Heritage Ltd, a historical research consultancy providing research services for the commercial heritage sector (archangelheritage.co.uk). Also found on Twitter @karenaverby and @archaheritage