Cann Hall Farm

Friday 5 April 2024

Mark Gorman (@Flatshistorian) continues his series on the history of the pre-suburban farms that occupied Forest Gate and its surrounding area.

Cann Hall Farm was on the western end of Wanstead Flats, where Worsley and Ranelagh Roads join what is now Cann Hall Road (then called Cann Hall Lane). The farm remained until major housing development began in the 1870s, probably disappearing in the mid-1880s.

The farm was part of the manor of Cann Hall, which originated in Hugh de Montfort's Domesday holding of 3 hides and 30 acres in Leyton. Parts of the holding were given by de Montfort's daughter and her husband to the canons of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, and the grant was confirmed by the king in about 1121. This may be where its name derived from, initially as Canon's Hall. Holy Trinity retained Cann Hall until the priory's dissolution in 1532. In 1533 several petitions were made to the Crown for possession of the manor, though it was not valuable.

In 1533 the only buildings attached to the manor were two old barns and a little cottage. By 1746 Cann Hall included buildings on both sides of Cann Hall Lane. In 1841 the main farm buildings lay north of the lane and there was a cottage to the south of it. By the 1860s the cottage, enlarged, had become a residence with ornamental gardens called Cann Hall; the buildings north of the lane were called Cann Hall Farm.

Between the 16th and 17th centuries the manor passed through the hands of a number of landholders, before being sold in 1671 to William Colegrave for £2,750. In 1715 the assets of the manor were worth about £65 a year, and the farm about £105. The manor remained in the Colegrave family until the 19th century, usually let to tenants, and in 1799 the manor comprised 230 acres.

The farm appears on the 1777 Chapman and Andre map of Essex as "Kan Hall", with buildings either side of Cann Hall Lane, east of the road from Stratford to Leyton.

"Kan Hall" on the Chapman and Andre map of Essex 1777. Thanks to Tim Fransen for this open accessed digitised resource

During the following decades market-gardening increased, especially at Cann Hall. In 1811 there were some 200 acres growing potatoes in the parish. When Cann Hall manor farm was let on a 10-year lease in 1820 it was described as "capital arable land", suitable for cabbages, turnips and potatoes, and well suited for supplying London markets. The advertisement (below) makes clear that there were two farms, on either side of Cann Hall Lane.

Star (London) 5 October 1820

The two farms were let to separate tenants, and in 1825 the tenant of Little Cann Hall Farm (presumably the one on the south side of Cann Hall Lane) sold up. The advertisement (below) gives an insight into the type of farming carried on at Cann Hall. Potatoes were an important crop, and clover hay would have been used as part of a four-course rotation to fix soil nitrogen and increase yeilds. Two milking cows indicates that they may have been for domestic use, and the wash-waggon may have been used to wash down the farmyard after milking.

Morning Advertiser 5 December 1825

The earlier advertisement also clarified that both farms were tithe-free, and in 1829 this became the subject to a legal dispute between the new tenant of Cann Hall Farm, Richard Plaxton, and the churchwardens of West Ham, who claimed he owed £2.8sh. (about £2.40) for the poor rate on 8 acres of a field called the Great Ashfield, located on the road from Stratford to Leyton. Plaxton produced documents that showed the field was in Wanstead parish, and was, therefore, tithe-free, and the judge found in his favour.

In 1841 the parish of Wanstead contained some 290 acres arable, 610 acres meadow and pasture, 200 acres enclosed woodland, and 670 acres forest waste, including Wanstead Flats. More than half the arable land (158 acres) was at Cann Hall. The total area of Cann Hall farm was 201 acres.

Robert Colegrave had been succeeded by his sister's son John Manby who died in 1819. William Manby (d.1868), nephew and heir of John Manby, took the name of Colegrave. In 1841 his estate comprised 205 acres in Wanstead and 17 acres in West Ham. Most of the Wanstead holding was still occupied by Richard Plaxton, who was a member of a large family of local farmers.

Tithe apportionment map of Wanstead parish 1841, showing Cann Hall Farm (41) and Cann Hall (20) on either side of Cann Hall Lane. The tenant of both was Richard Plaxton

There is some evidence of the agriculture practised at Cann Hall. The press reports of the 1849 fire mention cornfields in the front of the house, and there was also a report of a theft of potatoes from the farm in 1852. Evidence from a legal case in 1853 suggested that Plaxton also turned out a small number of cows on Wanstead Flats. At mid century 3/4 of Essex farms were arable, and many kept livestock for domestic consumption and to provide manure.

When the farm's assets were put up for sale in December 1854 they included a small number of milk cows, a herd of pigs, as well as a large quantity of agricultural machinery (including a horse powered potato washing machine) and a number of carts and cart-horses, so it may have been a fairly large operation. 

Plaxton's tenure saw the beginnings of changes in the area as London grew ever larger. The area was close enough to London to begin to attract day trippers, especially after the Eastern Counties Railway opened through Forest Gate in the 1840s. In 1854 a Sunday visitor accidentally hit Plaxton in the face with shotgun pellets, causing him to rage against Cockney sportsmen who were becoming an "intolerable nuissance".

George Cruikshank's 1837 cartoon showing the Cockney sportsmen that Plaxton complained about

Communications were improving too. By the late 1840s there was a telegraph connection at Stratford station to the London Fire Brigade, which was brought into action when hay ricks at Cann Hall farm caught fire. The fire brigade arrived in time to save the house and granaries from destruction.

Plaxton left Cann Hall Farm in 1855, possibly as a result of a legal dispute with Wanstead parish over his poor rate contribution, which he lost. He moved to Stratford Green, where (perhaps in a sign of the changing times) he became a brick manufacturer.

In 1861 the tenant was Chamberlayne Hickman Lake, who described himself in the census as a farmer of 300 acres, employing 30 men. This implies that he farmed elsewhere as Cann Hall farm seems only ever to have been about 200 acres in size. This would fit with the history of the Lake family, who were substantial farmers in Essex for over 200 years. Chamberlayne Lake was the son of Isaac Lake of Aldersbrook Farm, and his  two brothers also farmed in the area.

A comparison of the 1841 tithe map and the OS map of 1863 shows that in the intervening two decades substantial changes had been made to the farm. By 1863 the scattering of farm buildings shown on the tithe map had been entirely remodelled in a classic “model farm” layout. At this time in many parts of Essex and elsewhere traditional farm layouts, with timber-framed barns and buildings, were being replaced with ‘model farms’, built of brick and the latest manufactured materials. These farms were planned to increase the efficiency of the buildings, which were clean and functional, introducing the idea of production-lines to farming.

All of these innovations were aimed at maximising profit. The farm may have been rebuilt as Lake became the tenant, in which case Cann Hall became a model farm at the same time as the new Aldersbrook Farm was built along the same lines on Wanstead Flats. The tenant there was Chamberlayne Lake’s father Isaac.

Cann Hall Farm in Cann Hall Lane in the 1863 six-inch Ordnance Survey map. The farm now rebuilt as a model farm, had a substantial range of buildings on the north side of Cann Hall Lane. The cottage on the south side of the lane, once another farm had, by the 1860's, been enlarged, and became a residence.
The 1863 map showing the surrounding area, with no building development along Cann Hall Lane.

Lake seems to have continued Plaxton’s policy of mixed arable farming and market gardening for the London vegetable market, growing onions and potatoes in extensive fields which stretched as far as the river Lea in Stratford. Lake was also an innovator. In 1869 Fowler’s steam plough machinery was being demonstrated at Cann Hall Farm. 

Fowler's steam-powered ploughing machinery

In 1886 Cann Hall was still being described as a “model farm”, but the days of Wanstead and West Ham as agricultural districts were clearly numbered. For two decades from the 1850s the price of grain remained high, partly due to overseas conflicts such as the Crimean War and the American Civil War. But from the 1870s cheap grain imports combined with poor harvests to create a severe agricultural depression in Britain.

Even as these developments were happening rapid change was overtaking the area. In 1863 the Conservative Land Company announced the laying out of plots in the newly created Woodhouse Road, which joined Harrow Road and Cann Hall Lane.

Newspaper advertisements for house sales were multiplying. In 1873 the country view from one house could still be described as “magnificent” but perhaps more significant for the future of the area was the additional comment that trams passed the door every few minutes. The 1881 census showed that Cann Hall Lane was becoming more urbanised, with cottages and villas along its length. Chamberlayne Lake’s immediate neighbour was a builder’s estate office occupied by the builder’s timekeeper and cashier and their families. 

Over the next decade most of the estate was developed for building, but the Colegraves retained part of it until 1900. Among local street names commemorating them and their connections are Colegrave, Downsell, Ellingham and Worsley Roads. All trace of the farm and its buildings had been swept away.

By the 1890s Cann Hall Road was completely built up and the farm (corner of modern-day Blenheim Road - see above) had disappeared. Ordnance Survey 25-inch map 1897

However, one final reminder of the last tenant of Cann Hall Farm does remain in Cann Hall Road. Chamberlayne Lake was a devout nonconformist Christian, and from 1875 he made his barn available as a makeshift chapel. His original idea had been to encourage his farm workers to come to services, but that proved a failure. 

A large proportion of the congregation were from the Gipsy community who camped on the edge of Wanstead Flats. Mrs Lake provided tea in the farmhouse for the women and children, who then attended the Tuesday evening services “after a good wash at the pump”. The barn was whitewashed and provided with a harmonium, and despite the otherwise basic conditions (seating was planks across barrels of potatoes and onions), services there developed into a flourishing community. 

By the late 1870s the barn had become an informal church with three services on Sunday (Leytonstone Express and Indpendent 2 November 1878)

The barn also became famous because of preaching by the Smith brothers, a family of Gipsies who lived locally (and were to eventually build houses for themselves in Cobbold Road, a turning off Cann Hall Lane near Wanstead Flats). Services were held every Tuesday evening (to allow farm workers to attend), and for harvest festivals the barn was decorated with wheat, flowers, candles and lamps, “which gave the place a very pretty and cheerful appearance”.

Cann Hall Road Baptist Church, built on a site opposite the location of Cann Hall Farm

By 1886 the community, with Chamberlayne Lake's help, had acquired land and built a permanent church, which remains today on the corner of Cann Hall Road and Blenheim Road. Lake was by then retired, but seems to have continued his church work, since in the 1891 census he and his wife were at the "Aldersbrook Mission Room" on Wanstead Flats, where they were still living a decade later. Chamberlayne Lake died in 1905.

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