A Short History of Newham

The London Borough of Newham sits five miles east of the City of London and is bounded by Tower Hamlets and Hackney to the west, Waltham Forest to the North, and Redbridge and Barking & Dagenham to the East. Until the mid-19th Century, this was a rural area where farming dominated, but this all changed in the 1850s with the building of the Royal Docks - at the time the largest docks in the world. Other industries soon followed, and with the jobs created came a wave of immigration into the area (the population of West Ham in 1851 was 18,817; by 1901 it was 267,903.1) A diverse community emerged, with people from India, China, Africa and Europe mixing with Londoners, and the growth of the working class population saw this become a centre of the early union movement; Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP, was elected here in 1892.

By the start of the 20th Century unemployment set in as increasing use of machinery meant fewer workers were needed, and many people left the area (some bound for Australia and Canada.) Times were so tough that the 1904 Daily Telegraph Christmas appeal collected money for the poor of West Ham.

The borough was heavily bombed during the Second World War, particularly around the docks in the south, and lost about a quarter of its homes. The population declined, as many who had been bombed out or evacuated didn’t return. After the war, rebuilding began on a large scale, including a large amount of council housing (by the 1980s, Newham had one of the highest concentrations of tower blocks in Britain.) The construction jobs this created brought in new populations from Asia and the Caribbean, but the overall picture was of a decline in jobs, particularly with the final closure of the Docks in 1975. In the 1980s unemployment reached 20%.

The last 20 years has seen a series of schemes aiming to regenerate Newham and provide jobs to replace those lost with the closure of the docks. These have resulted in new housing and schemes like the ExCel Exhibition Centre and London City Airport in the former docks. New rail links were created with the Docklands Light Railway and Jubilee Line extension, and 2012 sees Newham become a focus of worldwide attention as it hosts the London Olympics at Stratford.

Newham Today

Newham’s fascinating history of social and industrial change is reflected in the diversity of the borough today. Newham has now seen 10 years of steady population growth and its current population is estimated to be around 250,000.2 It is thought to be the second most diverse borough in the UK (65% non-white), and it is expected that the borough will become more diverse over the next 25 years.

Alongside this diversity sit serious social and economic challenges. Newham is one of the most deprived areas in the country; according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation 2007, the borough ranked 6th out of 354 local authorities in England (with 1 being the most deprived); and it is the third most deprived Borough in London, behind Hackney and Tower Hamlets. The borough faces a severe child poverty problem, ranked third nationally in 2007 for deprivation affecting children.

As it was historically, so unemployment remains a significant issue for Newham. In 2008/9 it had the lowest employment rate of any London borough (56.2%), significantly below the London average of 62.7%. Unemployment stands at 14.2%, compared to 8.6% across London.3 Newham also has the second lowest job density in London (that is, the number of jobs divided by working-age residents), and improving this figure will be key to overcoming social and economic challenges in the borough.4 As the Mayor of Newham, Robin Wales, has said, ‘Increasing employment in Newham is the key to making residents wealthier, more independent and healthier and getting to grips with the child poverty that blights our borough.’5

The Council forecast Newham’s population to increase substantially, with a 46.6% increase between 2006 and 2031, and reaching 375,500 in 2031. Add to this the large number of young people in the borough: 30% of the borough’s population are aged under 20. The potential of Newham’s young people is enormous: Despite the high levels of deprivation in Newham, GCSE results have improved significantly recently and, as London Poverty Profile notes, ‘very few 16 year olds leave school in Newham with no qualifications.’6 GCSE results in the borough improved for the eighth consecutive year in 2011, with 58% of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades or equivalents including English and Maths – above the national average (53.4%).7

Newham also has a very transient population. One report estimates that, although 12,000 people arrive into Newham from outside the UK every year, only 40% remain in Newham until the following year.8 Alongside employment opportunities, the other priority for the borough will be in retaining the population and creating the kind of environment and communities that people want to not only move to, but also to settle and build their lives in.

Newham Council cannot count on any budget increases to aid it in dealing with these multiple serious challenges; instead, in 2011/2012 it faces the joint highest budget cut in the country at 8.9%, alongside Tower Hamlets and Hackney in the capital; contrast this with Richmond, Havering or Harrow’s cuts of less than 2%.9


Newham faces huge challenges, but as a borough it has huge potential; the youth of the population and their achievements, coupled with the diversity and energy of the borough, stand as testament to that. The challenge for the next 25 years will be in ensuring that local development provides suitable jobs for the growing population, and creates urban communities that make Newham an attractive place to live and settle in long-term.


1 All the information on this page is taken from The Newham Story, Newham Council: http://www.newham.gov.uk/nr/rdonlyres/52364e5a-4560-4650-86ad-da699bf7224e/0/newhamstory.pdf

2 London’s Poverty Profile: http://www.londonspovertyprofile.org.uk/

4 Aston Mansfield Report on Newham Key Statistics (Jan 2011)


5 Newham Economic Development Strategy 2010 to 2027 (Newham Council)

8 The London Borough of Newham: Counting the Confirmed and Unconfirmed Population by Dr Les Mayhew, January 2009

9 London’s Poverty Profile