The oldest continuously occupied house in Forest Gate?

Friday 16 February 2024

Local historian and housing specialist, Peter Williams (pows.wanstead has taken a deep dive into the long and remarkable history of what is probably Forest Gate's oldest continuously occupied surviving house: 25 Capel Road.

It seems the core of the house dates from the early 18th century and over the following three hundred years has gone through many changes. There are a few tantalising clues in some early maps. The Eagle and Child pub is an important reference point on these maps to help orient ourselves:

1745 The Rocque map

Source: here
 This shows there are possibly orchards to the right of the Eagle and Child, and then to the north a large house is shown. This probably represents 25 Capel, with some neighbours? There also seems to be a pond shown here roughly where Angell pond is now though we know Angell was dug in late 19th century by West Ham council.

1777 Jackson map

Source: here

Could the above represent the house behind the Eagle and Child with two wings facing out over the forest land?

This is the 1777 Chapman and Andre map of Essex, Source: here

 1797 map

 This looks to be quite clearly 25 Capel.

(From S Lolin’s Manor Park book)

 1801 map Mudge

Source: here

 1820s Clayton Map (from Newham archives)

This recently discovered map shows the area north and west of wide Chestnut Avenue quite clearly. It has plot numbers corresponding to the land owners on a schedule. It would seem from this that the main landholder is S Spence.

Source: schedule attached to Clayton Survey of West Ham Parish. From the reference below there does seem to have been at Spence family in West Ham parish at this time.


(Jane Campbell ‘The Revival of Poetry’)

There were stories of an orchard behind 25 Capel Road – the modern OS maps shows the odd arrangement of land behind with an enclosed garden area, accessed from the end of what is now the council terrace at 30 Capel.

Maps and the “Orchard land”

Source: here

The OS map below was published 1873 but surveyed in 1863. The angle path seems to pre-date the housing development. Note the wide road in front of where 25 now stands. Forest Side exists here with a large terrace at 1-5 Capel Road.

Unfortunately this map does not show the shape of the house at that time accurately, and it is hard to see if the house has symmetrical wings. It does, however, look L shaped, as in the Rocque map above.

Source: here

1861 West Ham parish map

Source: Newham Archives

Below is of the terrace from 1880s – the outhouse of 25 is clearly shown and it has lost its wings and the Victorian terraces have been built. It still seems L shaped which is something of a mystery.

The terrace to the east of 25 was called Taniwha Terrace when it was built in the mid 1870's. It seems to have been developed by a Mr Trigg who lived in Forest Lane and had various business interests locally. He was a cow keeper and was involved in the fence breaking on the Flats in the mid 1870s in protest at illegal enclosure.

WW1 OS map shows number 25 with its two attached terraces (source: here)

WW2 OS map and still little change(source: here)

 1890 Kellys trade directory

I have been unable find a census record for this person, so he may not have been there long. And here is an advert, possibly from his daughter?

Published: Saturday 26 July 1890 Newspaper: (here)

 And another, a few years later:

Published: Saturday 03 April 1897 Newspaper: (here)

 The above advert was presumably placed by Henrietta Potter – see census below.

 1911 census records

Source: here

There is a German lodger - Gustav Wilhelm MIETHE (sp?). He is a buyer in a timber merchant’s. He was born Gorlitz. There was a huge timber yard in Stratford called Glikstens, so timber was a major industry on the River Lea with barges transporting products up from the Thames. Gustav had been in the Potter household in 1901 census too:

Source: here

Here is a transcription indicating the inhabitants.

The 1891 census indicates that the Potters lived in Bignold Road Forest Gate.  Sadly in 1891 25 Capel appears to be empty at the time of the 1891 census, suggesting that the Samuel family must have just moved on

1921 census

This has recently become available and shows that the Potter household were still in the house, though one daughter - Henrietta - had now married a Mr Ovenden. She died in Newham in 1970.

Source: Find My Past,

There is no sign of Gustav remaining as a lodger. The Ovendens had moved to 29 Capel Rd by 1939 and he was a “manager corporate publicity/propaganda”! 

Source, here

25 Capel in 1939 register

The house now appears to be multi occupied by a number of households after the Potters left. There is a

·         Mr xx Leslie

·         Percy Stevens a retired licensed victualler (publican)

·         Monica Stevens his daughter a showcard mounter (this is advertising)

·         Evan Thomas born 1902 a dock lock master? Probably in Royal Docks.

Source: Ancestry, here

More recent era

25 Capel Road later became the home of Mark Stephens CBE, the celebrity lawyer, until he moved to Wanstead. He famously displayed a piece of modern art in the first floor window, an upside down life-size naked figure. Mark was chair of Governors at University of East London and has held many public offices.

25 Capel is higher than its neighbours. It originally had wings but these were removed and Victorian terraces built either side. The eastern one was demolished in the 1980s.

I spoke with Mark two years ago, and this is what he had to say about the house. He and Donna Stephens bought the house in the early 1980s for £25,000. It was in very poor condition. From the records they saw the house was built about 1730 for a City of London merchant with offices in Backchurch Lane. (This may have been a Spence but there is no evidence).  The normal pattern in those days was that there was an apartment above the city office and then the merchant had a substantial country house.

The house was arranged over three floors and originally had wings to each side that were removed at some point unknown. When Mark hacked plaster off the flank walls he saw old door openings that would have gone into the wings from the first floor. He assumed these may have been bedrooms. He thinks after the wings were removed that the terraces were built, probably in the 1870s.

Mark and Donna had problems with cracking, and their builder discovered that the main brick walls were built on foundations made of rough hewn oak tree trunks. He had concrete poured into the floors to create stability. The oak timbers remain in place under the main walls.

When they bought the house the eastern terrace to the left was already totally empty. He was approached by Newham Council as they wanted a party wall agreement with them prior to building the new council houses after demolition. This was negotiated and agreed. It had to be modified as the surveyor had not been told that Mark had an original 1730 window facing east at third floor level. The apex of the roofs was lowered, and the whole terrace shifted slightly forward in the plans.

25 Capel had originally had a very large garden. When the new houses were built their gardens were modified slightly from the terrace that had gone before but the end house was left with the very large section to the rear. The occupiers did not really want to use this and it was left uncultivated.

When Mark moved in the main first floor living room was divided into three rooms with plywood partitions. The house had been owned by an older Jamaican woman who let to single Caribbean men. There was no bathroom or kitchen to speak of. They did not cook. The toilet was outside. There was a workroom (scullery?) out back and Mark converted this into a conservatory using the original 1730s wall to number 24.

The house may have been used for ska parties as Mark found flyers for these in the house when clearing. The old lady died and her son sold the house to Mark and Donna.

(Mark acquired an indenture, or deed, explaining the link to the 1730 merchant who owned the house. He left the documents in the house, for the new owners, when he moved out. Sadly, the owners do not have it).

The new council homes at 26-30 Capel

I was employed from 1978 as a graduate housing management trainee in Newham council housing dept. One project I was involved in was the so called Small Sites programme. Newham council had a large number of small empty housing sites scattered across the borough. Some had been occupied by post war prefabs, some by garages, some were like Capel Rd, where a small group of houses had been demolished. The idea was to consolidate them into larger building contracts for new council homes. The council homes were designed by the in-house architects’ team and completed in the mid 1980s.

The tinted picture postcard is dated 1906. The pond was dug under the direction of Lewis Angell (not Angel) West Ham Council borough engineer to improve the drainage of the Flats and provide recreation.

 Rear view of 25 Capel taken mid 2017. It is not clear if the paler brickwork strip that is visible here is anything to do with the lost wings or a maybe a chimney? (Photo the author)


The Bandstand Pond about 1920, looking east from Woodford Rd. Note the rowing boats, and the West Ham council bandstand in the background. This would have been the view from 25 Capel Road for many years.


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