Roman Road, London

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Roman Road is a road in East London, England, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and lies on the old Roman road in the Roman Empire called the Pye Road running from the capital of the Iceni at Venta Icenorum (near modern Norwich) to Londinium (modern London) and today hosts a market. It lies in five districts: Bow and Old Ford at its eastern end, while the area with the same name Roman Road lies to just west, to the middle is Mile End and Bethnal Green at its western end.


There is some debate about whether the Romans marched along what is now the Roman Road, which runs more or less parallel to the Roman road which connected London to Colchester. Roman remains were found in an 1845 dig on the current site of Armagh Road, and there have been further Roman finds since,[1] which seems to justify the name. Early maps show a 'Driftway', or footpath, where the Roman Road now runs[2] in an area that was rural up to the middle of the 19th century (old maps show a windmill near the present Ford Close). Old Ford is the main road and a toll road links Mile End to Hackney (Grove Road).

The Metropolitan Board of Works, set up in 1855 to provide a sewer system for London, was also responsible for improving roads and this was when the Roman Road, as it was called from the start, was built,[2] on the Driftway, extending Bethnal Green Road and Green Street eastwards. It was paid for by local residents and public and private sources. In the 1870s, there were discussions about extending the Roman Road to Stratford,[3] but this was not to be. In the 1930s, Bethnal Green's Green Street was merged into the Roman Road – and all the shop and house numbers were changed accordingly.

East London Federation of Suffragettes[edit]

The Roman Road was a centre of Suffragette activity. The headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, where Sylvia Pankhurst lived, was at 400 Old Ford Road. The Federation did much to help local people, providing food and work. There were many home grown suffragettes such as Mrs Savoy, a brushmaker, who was one of the Deputation of East End women to Downing Street in 1914. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote on Mr Savoy's death: ‘The streets of Old Ford are colder and greyer with her loss’.

The Suffragette newspaper, Women's Dreadnought was published from 321 Roman Road, printed by Arbers in the Roman Road. They held regular meetings at Bow Baths and ran a stall in the Roman Road market selling the 'Women's Dreadnought' together with the toys they made in their 'Co-operative Toy Industry' at 45 Norman Grove and second hand goods and to raise funds and promote the cause.[4]

The Roman Road saw demonstrations, sometimes violent. On 13 October 1913, Sylvia Pankhurst, banned from appearing at meetings, went in disguise to a Suffragette meeting in Bow Baths. The police were hot on her tails and 'The people held the door against the detectives but policemen sprang onto the platform from behind the curtains. To the shouts of 'Jump, Sylvia, jump!', Sylvia jumped …into the audience, to see policemen smashing chairs and striking people in the audience…Sylvia escaped using someone else's hat and coat.'[5] A few weeks later, the press reported 'The Battle of Bow' in which a police officer was charged for assaulting a labourer supporting a Suffragette demonstration.[6]

Roman Road radicalism[edit]

In 1887, social researcher and philanthropist Charles Booth toured the area with a policeman and reported 'Beale Road is a hotbed of socialists. They have a club in Ford Street (many of the windows broken) and abound round about. [George] Lansbury is their leader. Not such a bad chap. A rare talker – all these socialist fellows are!'[7] And from the number of public meetings reported in the East London Advertiser and Daily Herald, many local people attended were actively involved in political debate. In the 19th century, the Hand and Flower Inn, at the junction of Roman Road and Parnell Road, was the venue for political and civic meetings. Bow Baths later became the main place for local public meetings, but the Alpha Lecture Hall, Roman Road, and the Ethical Hall, 78 Libra Road, also hosted debates.

Local landmarks[edit]

Bow Baths[edit]

Bow Baths on Roman Road was opened in 1892[8] to bring relief to the majority of local residents who relied on the tin bath, Victoria Park lake or the Canal Water for a bath or a swim. In 1896, the baths were used 176,000 times by a grateful public, and there are reports of queues outside every Saturday in 1921.[9] It offered First or Second Class cold, warm and 'spray' baths, as well as vapour baths. It had a wash house and a swimming pool which had events such as polo tournaments. The heat generated from the baths provided heating and hot water to the Bow Library via pipes under the road.

Bow Baths provided a meeting and entertainment venue with concerts and variety shows competing, and often combining with, political rallies. Regular Sunday evening lectures had speakers including Sylvia Pankhurst, George Lansbury (who lived round the corner in St Stephens Road) and Ben Tillett on topics ranging from war and peace, the right to vote to the Welsh Miners Strike of 1914[10]

Bow Baths was badly bomb damaged during WW2 and never re-opened. In 1961, a new Bow Baths was built in Sutherland Place which included 60 slipper baths and a laundry block. This closed in 1977 as new housing and home improvements dramatically increased the number of homes with bathrooms.

The original building remained semi-derelict. In the 1970s there was pressure for it to become a community centre and a lease was granted in 1981 to the Bow Baths Community Centre. Now the building is no more.

Bow Library (Idea Store)[edit]

The first stone for the Passmore Edwards library in the Roman Road was laid on 19 October 1900. This followed a vote by parishioners four years earlier 'most emphatically in favour of' adopting the Free Libraries Act.[11] The stone was laid by John Passmore Edwards, a journalist, newspaper owner and philanthropist, who gave £4000 to build the library. The basement of the building could take 10,000 books. The ground floor has a newsroom with space for 33 readers and the lending library had 12,000 books. On the first floor was a magazine and reference reading room with space for 56 readers. The library opened in 1911. The original red brick and stone building is Grade II listed, including the 'Macullum Clock', so named after an eastend philanthropist and member of the Bow and Bromley Liberal and Radical Association.

The library soon proved too small and an extension was planned from 1926 in on a small site in Vernon Road. Eventually, work started in 1939, but the war intervened and the proposed site was used as a public air raid shelter. The extension was finally completed and opened in 1950. But this too was too limited and a new extension was built in Stafford Road in 1962. The new arrangement still didn't meet modern needs an so a brand new library was built on an old Council Estate car park in William Place opening in 1998. This building is in Bow and incorporated community facilities, notably a GP surgery and is now St Stephen's Health Centre. A new philosophy about libraries led to the Roman Road having a new library again, when the first Ideas Store in the country opened in May 2002 in Gladstone Place.

St Paul's Church[edit]

St Paul's Church, on the north-eastern corner of Roman Road and St Stephen's Road in Old Ford, dates from 1878 and is Listed Ecclesiastical Grade C. It is next to the former site of St Stephens Church, built in 1858 and destroyed by enemy action in WW2. St Paul's received a £3million Lottery grant for renovation work to include a café, community gym, exhibition and meeting space, completed in 2003.

The St. Paul's Church refurbishment by Shoreditch architects Matthew Lloyd was shortlisted for the biennial award for Religious Architecture in 2008 run jointly by ACE and RIBA. The Commendation recognised the spectacular design of a four-storey steel framed structure, dubbed 'the ark' inserted within the west end of the church. Clad in tulipwood, the ark allows the chancel to be retained at its original scale.

St Barnabas Church[edit]

St Barnabas, on the corner of Roman Road and Grove Road at the very eastern end of Bethnal Green, was built by the Baptists as a chapel in 1865, but they decided it was too grand, and built Victoria Park Baptist Church a stone's throw behind in Grove Road. St Barnabas was sold to the Church of England. WW2 bomb damage resulted in the removal of its spire, leaving the capped and stunted steeple seen today. Much of the church was rebuilt in the mid 1950s.[12] The sculptor Don Potter added a frieze of The Four Evangelists. The Church also has a memorial by the entrance to local men who lost their lives in WW1.

Public houses[edit]

At one time, you could hardly go 50 yards along the Roman Road and surrounding streets without finding a pub. Many of the buildings are still there, but only a few still sell beer. Local social group The Bow Geezers are currently mapping local pubs and we will update this section in due course. One of the most noteworthy pubs and landmarks was The Earl of Aberdeen, situated at the junction of Roman Road and Grove Road, now remembered as a bus stop since it was demolished in 1977.

Cinemas and music halls[edit]

Many pubs incorporated music hall and theatre. The Royal Victor Music Hall across the Canal from Bow Wharf served the area but there were many more across the East End. With the advent of cinema, specific buildings were needed. The Roman Road was served by four cinemas, all built between 1910–1912 and all closed after the war:

  • Geisha Cinema, 71–73 Parnell Road.
  • Old Ford Picturehouse, 55 St Stephens Road
  • Victoria Picturehouse, 184-6 Grove Road. The only building still remaining and now a church.
  • Empire Picture Drome, 62–66 Green Street.

Roman Road housing[edit]

The Roman Road was lined with streets of Victorian housing of mixed size and quality. A few had servants and their own stables, while others had multiple occupants and very poor conditions such as Victoria Cottages – two roomed back-to-back houses just off the Roman Road. The area was typical of the east end with a mix of the very poor and well to do living only a street apart. Due to the Luftwaffe (first flying bomb in London fell 200 yards from the Roman Road in Grove Road in June 1944) and posy-war slum clearance, a large slice of the Victorian housing disappeared, to be replaced by housing estates, both local and London Council.

Susan Lawrence House opened with 9 flats in Zealand Road in 1954. Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin designed Lakeview Estate where Grove and Old Ford Roads meet in 1958.[13] The Metropolitan Borough's most ambitious project came in 1959 with another Lubetkin designed estate between Old Ford and Roman roads: the Cranbrook Estate was built on a site that was previously terraced houses, workshops, and one large factory. Cranbrook officially opened in 1964 with 530 dwellings contained in blocks named after towns twinned with Bethnal Green and after demolished streets. It won an award from the Civic Trust.[13]

In 1966, Keats House in Roman Road was built. In 1969, twelve blocks of 4-storeyed flats were built on a 7½ acre site around Lanfranc Road, between Roman, Arbery, Grove, and Medway roads, and completed in 1971–76, giving 269 dwellings, grouped amid landscaping and named after naval destroyers.[13] This is the Lanfranc Estate which runs along the Roman Road.

The Victorian houses which survived continued to provide private rented and owner occupied housing, but much was in poor repair. In 1975, the area around Chisenhale Road became the Driffield General Improvement Areas where all property was to be modernised. The council's greatest challenge by the 1970s came from its own estates – 'cramped, unlovely and unloved'. Not only did the older ones need refurbishment but the newer were plagued by vandalism in tower blocks, or by defects which were present in 69 per cent of flats on Lanfranc estate, for example, in 1978.[13]

Huge redevelopment has taken place on many of the estates, notably Lefevre, named from Lefevre Street, in turn named after a Huguenot family who made their wealth as distillers, millers and dyers. John Lefevre owned much land and property around Bow and Old Ford.[14] Housing associations assumed an increasing importance from the 1980s. Old Ford Housing Association (now part of Circle Housing) took over from the Council as landlord to most of the housing estates bordering the Roman Road.

Roman Road (area)[edit]

Roman Road, London
Metal archway spanning Roman Road for Roman Road Market
Western entrance to Roman Road Market
Roman Road is a designated Town Centre in East London, UK.
Roman Road is a designated Town Centre in East London, UK.
Roman Road, London
Roman Road, London shown within Greater London
OS grid referenceTQ 36586 83333
Metropolitan borough
Metropolitan county
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Post townLONDON
Postcode districtE2 E3
EU ParliamentLondon
UK Parliament
List of places
51°31′55″N 0°01′55″W / 51.532°N 0.032°W / 51.532; -0.032Coordinates: 51°31′55″N 0°01′55″W / 51.532°N 0.032°W / 51.532; -0.032

Roman Road is a historical, mainly small shopping and leisure sub-area in Old Ford of East London, England, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and take it namesake from the wider road between Bethnal Green and Old Ford located at the road eastern end which surrounds the whole Roman Road Market today and locally the area in the East End of London is referred to as Roman or The Roman which is next to Bow and these terms can also apply to the surrounding streets. Both the area and the road was famously taken by Boudicea from Camulodunum (modern Colchester) on her way to burn the Roman Empire in Londinium (modern City of London) and is one of the oldest known trade route in Britain while there has been a market for at least over 150 years.

Historic shops[edit]

There are many shop names that people remember with affection from the Roman Road: Woolworths, Prestos, and smaller shops such as Sid Short’s Oil and Paint Shop, Millett [15] and Cohen the tailors. There are many stallholders who made their mark such as the Banana Man. Here is a selection of those shops still in business.

G. Kelly’s[edit]

Number 526 Roman Road has been a Pie and Mash shop since the 1920s. The shop was taken on in 1939 by George Kelly, from the Kelly Pie and Mash dynasty which had shops throughout London. In the mid 1950s the shop was bought by Bill Kingdon, George’s brother in law. The Kelly extended family also had a pie and mash shop at 310 Roman Road (now renumbered to 600). Today, the shop at 526 is run by Sue, Bill’s daughter, and her son, Neil.[16]


Since opening in 1912, this ice cream parlour and café on the corner of the Roman and Grove Roads served the community for almost 100 years before moving the café into the market at 154 Roman Road.


This hardware shop at 442–444 Roman Road has served the local community since the 1930s.


This family business at 470–480 Roman Road has been selling flooring to both locals and across London since 1882.


This Roman Road family business has been providing flowers to the matched, dispatched and everyone in between since the middle of the last century.

George's Plaice[edit]

A traditional east end shellfish shop at 486 Roman Road with an open shop front the way many used to be.

Arber's Printers[edit]

Last but not least, this family printer business served the local community from their shop at Roman Road until 2014. Their historic printing presses had run through decades of change, and contributed in no small part to bringing this about as their print runs included many voices of dissent.

Roman Road Market[edit]

Roman Road Market
LocationRoman Road, Tower Hamlets, Greater London
Opening date1843
ManagementTower Hamlets London Borough Council
OwnerTower Hamlets London Borough Council
Goods soldGeneral goods
Days normally openTuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays

Roman Road Market is a London street market centred on Roman Road next to Bow and Old Ford, Tower Hamlets in the East End.

As roads were built, housing, trades and manufacturing, most famously the Bryant and May Match Factory, developed quickly. With housing and Industry came the need for the essentials of life, and costermongers started selling their wares, people used their front rooms to sell goods and shops lined the Roman Road. A main shopping street evolved and the Roman Road Market which grew probably as early as 1843,[4] when it was illegal 'but withstood several attempts to close it down'.[1] It was certainly recorded as a fully fledged market in 1887 by Booth, who toured the area with the local policeman and reported that 'Roman one of the great market streets in London. Things to be bought of every sort, even patent leather shoes. Some demand for good quality as well as for cheapness'.[7] The market is the heart of Bow, and 'going down the Roman' has been a tradition for generations.

The market was open long hours: there are oral accounts of trading going on until 10 pm well into the 20th century. Market days are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but shops open all week. Old Ford and Bow Traders and Shopkeepers Union was inaugurated in 1910 to promote the welfare of costermongers and traders as well as those they lived alongside,[17] and there have been traders groups since then.

The growth of traffic led to the council in 1959 trying to divert street trading to a new market off Roman Road. It met the same kind of resistance as the earlier attempt to promote Columbia Market.[18]

The Roman Road Market was designated a Conservation Area in 1989, and extended in 2008 in recognition of its historic significance and special character as a traditional East End market.


London Underground and Docklands Light Railway[edit]

There is no London Underground stations in Roman Road however Bow Road station for District and Hammersmith & City lines in neighbourIng Bow is within walking distance, as is the Docklands Light Railway Stratford branch at Bow Church DLR station.

London Buses[edit]

No London Buses routes serve the Roman Road market due to the narrowness of this section of Roman Road and the market itself but do run just beyond in neighbouring Bow and Old Ford with the routes – 8, 276, 399, 488 and night route N8 all within walking distance.


Roman Road is linked to the national road network by the B119 that runs the whole way along the area and is a one way street that is on the wider Roman Road and connects it to Bethnal Green.


  1. ^ a b Bow Neighbourhood (1990). "Bow Heritage Trail".
  2. ^ a b London Borough of Tower Hamlets (2009). "Tower Hamlets Conservation Area Report". Missing or empty |url= (help)
  3. ^ East London Observer. 20 August 1870. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ a b Haines, G (2008). Bow and Bromley-by-Bow. The History Press. p. 50.
  5. ^ Ramsey, W.G (1997). The East End Then and Now. After the Battle. p. 285. ISBN 0900913991.
  6. ^ The Daily Herald. 9 January 1914. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ a b Booth, Charles (1887). "Charles Booth Online Archives". Police Records. Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
  8. ^ "Opening Ceremony leaflet". Tower Hamlets Archives. 1892.
  9. ^ . London Borough of Tower Hamlets Local History and Archive Library: East London Advertisor. 15 May 1921. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. ^ The Herald. London Borough of Tower Hamlets Local History and Archive Library. 16 January 1915. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ The Standard. 20 October 1900. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ Haines, Gary (2008). Bow and Bromley-by-Bow. The History Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-0750947916.
  13. ^ a b c d Baker, T.F.T (1998). "Bethnal Green: Building and Social Conditions after 1945 Social and Cultural Activities". A History of the County of Middlesex. Victoria County History. Stepney, Bethnal Green: 135–147.
  14. ^ Cox, Jane (2013). Old East Enders. The History Press. p. 379. ISBN 978-0750952910.
  15. ^ Cox, Jane. (1994) London’s East End Life and Traditions. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London p.180
  16. ^ Vening, Neil. "Our History".
  17. ^ East London Observer. 2 May 1914. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  18. ^ The Times. 13 January 1958. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Cox, Jane (2014). Old East Enders: A History of Tower Hamlets. The History Press. ASIN B00FVECDD2.

External links[edit]