Changing London

Hackney Wick’s transformation from industrial heart to production of art

To understand the changing face of Hackney Wick, you need only need to take a short walk from the Overground station to a derelict site surrounded by graffiti-covered hoardings. Running along the top of boards is a phrase that not only sums up the area’s past, but also predicts where this district – in the shadow of the former Olympic stadium in Stratford – is heading:

“The Lea Tavern stood here in times gone past, when Wick’s machinery beat it’s industrial heart, now it’s primary production is art.”

Getting off the train at Hackney Wick, the first impression is that of an industrial suburb that is somewhat past its sell by date. Some the 19th century brick factory buildings, wonderful as they are, seem a bit shabby and in need of some love and care. They are surrounded by more recently-built, unsightly industrial shacks that house everything from refrigeration businesses to garages.

Some see more value in the land itself, with the likes of BT Openreach and minibus hire companies boasting open air compounds here for storing their fleet of vehicles.

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But first impressions are not always what they seem because, in amongst the remnants of industry, there are some 600 artists’ studios and studios. Creative sorts are uprooting from other parts of London and Hackney Wick is fast becoming a trendy suburb.

Sandwiched by ghastly post-war dual carriages and canals, new homes are being built (some in converted sturdy 19th century industrial buildings) in their drives and busy cafes are emerging by the water’s edge. The Apple brigade are out in force in these establishments, tapping away on their laptops while outside cyclists wizz past on the towpaths.

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Trendy cafes by the waterin Hackney Wick

Hackney Wick began to industrialise in the late 18th century thanks to its prime location next to the Lea Navigation canal, which provided it with an excellent means of transporting raw materials and finished goods (before then it had been little more than a quiet hamlet). And it changed rapidly from the 1860s when the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company bought 30 acres of land, intending to construct a large new gas works.

Although it ended up building the plant in Bromley by Bow instead, the area was still developed into a town with houses and multi-storey factories in a grid like pattern. Residents lived cheek-by-jowl in cramped housing very close to dirty and noxious businesses and by 1879 the population of Hackney Wick was about 6,000.

The area made an enormous contribution to our industrial society, with the world’s first true synthetic plastic – parkesine – invented here by Alexander Parkes (manufactured from 1866 to 1868) and Carless, Capel and Leonard first used the name ‘petrol’ for a liquid they produced at their refining business. In addition, entre­preneur Achilles Serre, introduced dry cleaning to England and in 1880 toilet paper was made for the first time.

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Splendid 19th century factories remain

But the rapid growth of the area forced many to live in unsanitary conditions. Charles Booth, who conducted a London-wide study into poverty in 1898 and 1899, described some residents as the “Lowest class. Viscious, semi-criminal”. The deteriorating living conditions prompted Eton College to establish an outreach mission for the poor in 1880. Today, the church of St Mary of Eton continues its work with the community by hosting a regeneration project called The Mission.

Hackney Wick suffered serious damage from the Blitz, with bombs wiping out large areas of housing and factories. Following the end of the conflict, much of the industry was lost and instead replaced by warehousing and other businesses. To replace the lost housing, the Greater London Council built the Trowbridge Estate (completed in 1970), consisting of bungalow homes and seven 21-storey tower blocks. While the low rise homes still exist the latter were pulled from 1985 as they had became little more than slums.

Revival for Hackney Wick started in the 1980s with the arrival of artists and other micro businesses, but it was the Olympic Games that really Hackney Wick on the map. The transition of the area from industry to art was well underway. Warehouses are now being given planning permission, so that they can host events, be artists’ studios or used for cafes.

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For some the gentrification is getting too much. “I’m being driven out of Hackney by arty types,” shouted a recent headline in the Evening Standard. The article was centred around an interview with the owner of a garage repair firm who said a rise rent (“I felt like they had just shot me”) is forcing him out of the area.

Michael Vallance’s unit is being taken over by the Crate Brewery which will join fellow brewer Truman’s (a business that can trace its roots back to 1666 and having been re-founded in Hackney Wick in 2010). Other businesses I spotted on my Good Friday walk around the area included a German food firm, a book retailer and numerous fishmongers.

It’s popular for some businesses here to have both their distribution warehouses and opportunities for the public to sample their wares together on the same site. Forman & Son, the smoked salmon producer, has an upmarket restaurant by the water’s edge for example.

Artists studios that seem to dominate. At my first stop at, Stour Space, which has a gallery upstairs, the queue for coffees was nearly going out the door. Even though it was fairly chilly, the outdoor terrace overlooking the former Olympic Stadium was still bustling with activity.

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Queing for lattes at Stour Space

Walking through the area, I spotted numerous signs offering studios to let. One of the bigger complexes I saw was Fish Island Labs, a Barbican Centre-backed venue in a converted sofa factory offering low cost space for artists to rent. Luckily the cafe here was a little quieter here than Stour Space so I stopped for a tea (served in a half pint mug with handle).

Walking past Old Ford Lock (where the Big Breakfast was filmed for many years at Lock Keeper’s Cottages) and across the wonderful Queen Elizabeth Park, I looked back on a district of contrasts. It’s a place where shiny new apartment blocks are emerging from the ground, but at same time you can see the stone-built chimneys towering in to the sky that serve as reminders of our industrial past.

The Evening Standard recently ran a feature in its property supplement outlining the array of new homes that are being built in the area. In amongst the piece focusing on Fish Island,  there was a case study of a 30 something marketing director who has, over the years, moved from Hoxton to Dalston to London Fields and finally to Hackney Wick.

“I suppose I’ve followed the wave of gentrification as it has spread out from Shoreditch,” she said. “Often areas become victims of their own success. I like the rawness of Hackney Wick, but it has a special quality and I hope this is not lost with the planned regeneration.”

While many of Hackney Wick’s former glorious industrial buildings remain, the area as a whole is changing. Whether it is for the better remains to be seen.

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