Markhouse Road was notorious long before it was officially a road. When Walthamstow was a tangle of villages it had its share of grand houses. The Mark House, on the site of the parish boundary, stood until the 1890s. And the Low Hall, one of the mediaeval manor houses, in its final days presiding over the local sewage works, was close by. But by the early days of the nineteenth century the southern section of Markhouse Lane was lined with an assortment of the poorest sort of cottage, lived infor the most part by paupers, day labourers and street vendors.
Further to the east, Markhouse Common was an area of open land, providing, as it had for many centuries, a space for local people to graze their animals. But as the years went by, the railway got closer, London grew and fewer people kept cows or pigs, the area began to change.
The 1840s was the decade of Chartism. A few miles away, Hackney had become famous for its radical politics in the form of clubs, reading groups, meetings and publications. Walthamstow and Wanstead were smaller, quieter, and perhaps less organised, but there were open air meetings in Whipp’s Cross, Epping Forest and, reputedly, on Markhouse Common to take forward their demand for the vote for everyone – all men, anyway. There had been an early ambition to gain the vote for women too, but this was abandoned as an impossibility. At this time no reputable pub landlord would allow Chartists to meet on his premises for fear of the damage to his reputation.
And, for the moment, it all came to nothing. But in the aftermath of disappointment and recrimination, some of the Chartists’ ideas bore other kinds of fruit. One of those ideas was the Freehold Land Societies, forerunners of the building societies, but set up with wider aims. The plan was simple: a group of people would set up a society, with each member paying a fixed subscription so that, over a period of years, each participant would be able to build a house. And with the ownership of a freehold house came the right to vote. Very straightforward, totally non violent – and very subversive, as streets of new voters could, and did, change the political character of a town.
In Walthamstow, a section of land to the west end of Markhouse Road was sold to the National Freehold Land Society, laid out as Union and Prospect Roads and then developed. The houses were small, neat, flat fronted, each with its own garden. And very soon each became a home. The new residents were mostly skilled tradesmen: printers, lithographers, school masters, a surveyor – not of the status, or income, who would usually expect to own a home – renting was to be usual for most people for many more years. And each new freeholder became a voter. A mile or so away, off Hoe street, the Tower Hamlets Land Society bought and named a road after itself – bewildering passers by in every future generation.
All over England and in Walthamstow, too, other streets came into being in the same way, and the areas changed accordingly, both socially and politically, all perfectly within the rules and without waiting for the next Reform Act. Today few suspect the radical ancestry of the respectably mainstream building society. Around Markhouse Road, much has changed – the Mark House and the paupers’ cottages have all gone; Low Hall Farm was destroyed by a flying bomb in the Second World War, although some of the labourers’ cottages remain. The houses of Union and Prospect Roads appear to have been well built, but were flattened in the post war years to make way for a tower block, now demolished in its turn.