Life on the Old Ford Road in the 1880s

My great great grandfather, Ambrose Ferry, lived in and around Bethnal Green throughout his life. In 1881 he and his family were living at 18 Old Ford Road.  Ambrose’s brother, Thomas Ferry, a butcher, lived further down Old Ford Road, at number 250. Old Ford Road is very long, stretching   from Bethnal Green in the west to Bow in the east.   It is thought to be an ancient pre-Roman route along the line of the present Oxford Street, Old Street, and then through Bethnal Green to Old Ford which was the ancient most downstream crossing point of the River Lea.

Charles Booth’s survey includes some wonderful descriptions of the Old Ford area which bring the family’s living conditions to life with a powerful sense of the bustling, slightly down-at – heel streets. Old Ford Road is described as “better at the west end than the east”. It was a mix of shops and dwellings, with some factories and a starch works.  Although the street numbering appears to have changed over the years, I believe number 18 was at the western end of the road; it appears to have been replaced in the early 20th century by a block of flats built by the East End Dwellings Company.

From Booth’s survey, we learn that in the Old Ford district there were “many insurance agents about” wearing suits and bowler hats. Women were to be found at their doors, often working on “juvenile suits”. Presumably they were out-workers paid by the piece for the suits they made.

I love the way that Booth includes the smallest details about the area , as here: “The cat’s meat man was going his rounds, and the cats who followed him looked rather lean but not so lean as those in The Barracks or the Devas Road districts.”   Either the rodent population was greater in  Old Ford, or the residents could afford to spend a little more money to feeds their cats  Judging the area by the condition of the cats is a good example of the evocative nature of the work of Charles Booth and his team; they really seem to have engaged with the people and the areas they visited.

Not everyone in Old Ford was as purposefully employed as the insurance agents and the cat’s meat man. Also in the area we find receivers of stolen goods, or “fences” as the police called them. In addition the Old Ford Road was an habitual haunt of the local prostitutes who satisfied “the local demand” as “sailors did not venture so far north”. Having found a (presumably willing) “victim” the prostitutes would take him off to one of the brothels to the west of the area.

My ancestor, Ambrose Ferry, was a cabinet maker. The house, number 18 Old Ford Road, was shared between 3 families housing a total of 15 people.   His immediate neighbours, living in numbers 2-20 Old Ford Road, (possibly the slightly more “respectable” end) were a varied bunch.  According to the 1881 census they included

  • a proprietor of dining rooms
  • a tobacconist
  • 2 school teachers
  • a fish porter
  • an oil man
  • a painter
  • a garment milliner
  • a book folder
  • a tin smith
  • 2 boot machinists and a boot fitter
  • 2 police officers
  • an unemployed “tally clerk at the docks”
  • a “hand mould coverer for girdles”
  • several wood workers
  • a manager, a bailiff and a job master
  • a “steam chaff cutter” who employed 8 men – I wonder what  the chaff was used for in Bethnal Green?
  • one person living off a dividend, and one whose occupation appears to read “houses” – perhaps she owned a number of properties?

As I have no photographs of the Ferry family it is small details such as descriptions of the area in which they lived, and the occupations of their neighbours, that bring them to life for me.  From studying the census entries and reading Booth’s accounts of the area I can begin to forge connections with these somewhat shadowy ancestors.


About familyhistoryfootsteps

I'm enjoying early retirement! I have been researching my ancestry for several years and am interested in all aspects of family history especially local and social history.
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