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Stratford Langthorne Abbey

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Stratford Langthorne - Charnel stone

There are few traces of Stratford Langthorne Abbey. Shown is the keystone from the charnel house door, now in the parish church of West Ham.

Stratford Langthorne Abbey, or the Abbey of St Mary's, Stratford Langthorne was a Cistercian monastery founded in 1135 at Stratford Langthorne — then Essex but now Stratford in the London Borough of Newham. The Abbey, also known as West Ham Abbey as it lay in that parish, was one of the largest Cistercian abbeys in England, possessing 1,500 acres (6.07 km2) of local land, controlling over 20 manors throughout Essex.[1] The Abbey was self sufficient for its needs and wealthy besides; some of this wealth came from the ecclesiastic mills grinding wheat for local bakers to supply bread to the City of London. This later led to competition with the Guild of Bakers, who sought powers to levy a toll on loaves entering the City at Whitechapel.



In a charter dated 25 July 1135, William de Montfichet granted the monks all his lordship of (West) Ham, 11 acres (44,515 m2) of meadow, two mills by the causeway of Stratford, his wood of Buckhurst and the tithe of his pannage. The abbey was dedicated in honour of St Mary. The Abbey was a daughter house of Savigny Abbey, and in 1218 the General Chapter ruled that visiting members of the order could only spend three days at the Abbey's hospitality. The following year, the rule was relaxed and monks and lay brothers could remain longer, as long as they provided their own ale and wine; and oats and hay for their horses.[2]

House Mill at Three Mills

The House Mill (1776) and Miller's House at Three Mills. Shown at low tide.

The Abbey church expanded from a simple cruciform building, to one with an aisled presbytery, ambulatory and side chapels by the 13th century. The religious house was surrounded by buildings for lay brothers and hospitality. There were also workshops for brewing, shearing, weaving and tannery with farm buildings to service the extensive holdings and mills on the Bow Back Rivers. Some of these were tidal mills, like those at Three Mills. These were owned by the Abbey, but the surviving mill was built much later.

In 1267, for a time, the Abbey became the court of Henry III for the visitation of the Papal legates, and it was here that he made peace with the barons under the terms of the Dictum of Kenilworth. Subsequent monarchs visited, and the Abbey came to be both a popular retreat for the nobility and their final resting place.[3] In 1381, the Abbey was invaded by the Peasant's Revolt and its goods removed. It also suffered flooding at the end of the 14th century, after which the Abbey was restored by Richard II.[2] King Edward IV was entertained in 1467, and began an annual endowment of two casks of wine for the celebration of masses, in his honour.[3]

A small river port developed at Stratford, mentioned in the 15th century, to serve the needs of West Ham Abbey and the mills at Stratford. There is similar evidence in later centuries with specialist wharves for brick and timber, but by 1920 the dock was filled in and factories built on the site. From 1613, extraction of water for canals and the artificial New River, supplying fresh water to the city from Hertfordshire, had caused water levels to fall in the non-navigable channels, and traditional water milling to cease.[4]


The Abbey existed until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1538.[5] It was the fifth largest in England – as important as its sister Abbeys at Jervaulx, Rievaulx and Fountains. At the dissolution the land was granted to Sir Peter Meautas and Johanna his wife "for their true and faithful service" and the monks retired to their former property in Plaistow.[3]

In 1177, a bridge was built at Bow, to replace a ford at Old Ford. Initially, local land and Abbey Mill were given to Barking Abbey for the maintenance of the bridge, but these properties and the responsibility eventually passed to this Abbey. The Abbess of Barking and Abbot of West Ham argued about the obligation, a dispute that was settled in 1315. West Ham was to maintain the bridge and highway, but the Abbess would pay £200 annually in recompense. The Abbey's subsequent dissolution caused further lengthy litigation over maintenance of the bridge at Bow – with the successor landowners found responsible in 1691.[6] The matter was not finally resolved until 1834, with the formation of a Turnpike Trust.[4] The Abbey was also responsible for maintenance of the sea wall around West Ham marsh; this led to further disputes with the nearby Priory of St Leonards at Bow, when, in 1339 the Abbot attempted to put the expense on the Abbess.[6]

Modern history

The Abbey lay between the Channelsea River and Marsh Lane (Manor Road). Nothing visible remains on the site, as local landowners took away much of the stone for their own buildings, and by 1840, the North Woolwich railway was built through the site, and factories were established on the remaining land. Today, the site is occupied by the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. A stone window and a carving featuring skulls – thought to have been over the door to the charnel house – remain in All Saints, West Ham, the former parish church (dating from about 1180).

File:West Ham arms.png

None of the abbey's buildings remain, but archaeological investigations were carried out between 1973–94 on land cleared for the Jubilee Line extension, which terminates at Stratford and has train sheds in the area. 674 burials were excavated from the Cistercian cemetery and reburied at Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire. Excavation continues on the site as the remaining former factories are redeveloped. The latest, at Bakers Row, was in early 2008 and identified the former gatehouse of the Abbey - to the north east of the Abbey Church and defining the eastern edge of the precinct. This area, where former council stables were situated, is now protected from further development by Scheduled Ancient Monument status and a major community garden designed by artists Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope of Somewhere (artist collective) has been created on the site by the "Friends of Abbey Gardens".[7]

The crest of the Abbey can be seen over the doorway to the Old Court House, in Tramway Avenue (Stratford). The chevrons from this device were incorporated into the arms of the County Borough of West Ham upon its incorporation. The Abbey is commemorated by two roads in the district, Abbey Lane and Abbey Road. It is also commemorated in the name of Langthorne Park, in Leytonstone in the neighbouring London Borough of Waltham Forest, opened in 2000 on land formerly owned by the Abbey, which had subsequently been the site of the West Ham Union Workhouse and then of Langthorne Hospital.[8]


  1. West Ham: Stratford Abbey, A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6 (1973), pp. 112-14 Date accessed: 28 April 2008
  2. 2.0 2.1 Cistercian Abbeys: Stratford Langthorne The Cistercians in Yorkshire (Sheffield University) accessed 20 April 2008
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Stratford Langthorne Abbey John Laight (1999) accessed 30 April 2008
  4. 4.0 4.1 West Ham: Rivers, bridges, wharfs and docks, A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6 (1973), pp. 57-61 accessed: 30 April 2006.
  5. The deed of surrender was signed on 18 March 1538, by the last Abbott, William Huddleston, the Chanter and Sacrist (principal officials of the Abbey) and eleven monks. Laight (1999).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Houses of Cistercian monks: Abbey of Stratford Langthorne, A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2 (1907), pp. 129-133 accessed: 30 April 2008.
  7. Friends of Abbey Gardens accessed 8 May 2008
  8. "Langthorne History". Retrieved 2008-05-12. 

Further reading

  • Bruno Barber, Steve Chew, Tony Dyson, Bill White The Cistercian Abbey of St Mary Stratford Langthorne (2005) ISBN 1901992381

Coordinates: 51°32′00″N 00°00′00″W / 51.5333333°N 0°E / 51.5333333; 0

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