Barking lies within the orbit of London, about eight miles east of the city, on a level site close to the east bank of the River Roding, near the point where it enters the Thames; the Roding was one of the few navigable rivers running off the Thames, which made fishing one of the local industries from before the time of Domesday and gave Barking some viability as a port for much of its history. Its parish was the largest in Essex. It was ignored by the Essex Extensive Urban Survey, for it had, in 1965, been transferred from Essex to the county of Greater London. It is unclear whether, in the Middle Ages, Barking might be considered as urban. A conservation area appraisal produced for the modern borough in 2009 does not concern itself with such academic matters. In her Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs, Samantha Letters states that "Although not formally identified as urban, Barking appears to have been a thriving craft and commercial settlement from the eighth century onwards", an over-generalization but with some merit. The author of the VCH Essex [vol.5, p.184] seems of the opinion that it could be considered a town in the Middle Ages. It is therefore worth considering that question here. London and Westminster aside, there were no other towns on that side of the Thames within a ten-mile radius the closest being Horndon, some twelve miles distant which would have provided some competitive space for a market town at Barking; yet London, of course, cast a sizable shadow.
Barking's entry in Domesday Book shows a very large population (by Domesday standards) on the manor, much of which must have been concentrated within a number of settlements notably Barking and Ilford since a good part of the manor was marshy or forested. However, the large number of plough-teams recorded in Domesday indicates there was also much arable land, while over a hundred sheep are mentioned, probably pastured along the riverside, and the woodlands were reported as sufficient to support a thousand pigs, though there seem to have been far fewer in actuality. The butcheries of London were likely the market for many of the animals raised in Barking parish. A road between London and Colchester (via Chelmsford), probably of Roman origin, ran through Ilford, which is not known to have had a market. A branch off it ran from Ilford into Barking (as North Street), from where it veered east to skirt marshland, via what was in the fifteenth century known as Ripple Street (now Ripple Road); but this was not an important route until later times, when the fishing industry at Barking had grown. Medieval Barking had no route heading more directly west, towards London, suitable for vehicular traffic.
The place-name of Barking, being Anglo-Saxon in origin and hinting at a settlement of a group of Germanic immigrants, is first encountered in a document of 735. A Benedictine nunnery and monastery had been founded there in the 660s by Erkenwald, who later became Bishop of London, and attracted donations from the ruling classes of Essex, Wessex, and Mercia; it was rebuilt in 970 (just as a nunnery) after being destroyed by the Danes a century earlier, and perhaps rebuilt again, on a grander scale, in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. It was doubtless the rivers and the presence of good arable land that attracted a religious community, which is likely to have had a wharf on the Roding from early in its existence. The convenience and adequacy of the abbey facilities is suggested by the fact that, following his coronation, William I stayed there for some days while the earliest version of the Tower was put up for him in London; the proximity of Barking to the capital would also prompt Henry IV to make provision (in 1399, reiterated 1404) for the royal chamberlain and his staff to lodge there whenever the king was himself resident at Westminster. Although the greater part of its early estates were around Barking, the abbey acquired, even prior to the Conquest, a number of properties in the city along with a church, known as All Hallows Berkingchurch, which was probably intended to serve the abbey's London tenants. The parish church of Barking, dedicated to St. Margaret, was first built as a chapel, in or a little before the thirteenth century, but promoted to parochial status around 1300. An earlier abbess had built a leper hospital at Ilford in the early twelfth century, with a chapel added not long after.
The abbey held the manor of Barking, part of Becontree Hundred, and at some point in the 1140s King Stephen granted the entire hundred to the abbey, so that the abbess held the abbey estates directly of the king, by barony; but the abbey was unable to maintain its monopoly on related jurisdictional rights, such as the assize of bread and ale, in the face of ambitions of some of its principal tenants. A further, eventually more devastating, problem in terms of decline of abbey revenues was that the hundred, bounded by the River Lea to the west and Thames to the south, was vulnerable to flooding, and this was also true of the meandering Roding, which was tidal up to some distance north of the Thames, and similarly flanked by marshland. Floods damaged revenue-generating assets notably crops being grown on land in process of being reclaimed from the marshes and rendered pastures unusable; they were cited as a reason for the abbey, in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, requesting financial relief and obtaining tax exemptions and other concessions, as well as re-grants of privileges it had in the past been unable to uphold. It is not known if flooding directly affected the vill of Barking, but certainly it would have had an impact on local produce available for commerce, and on the purchasing power of the monastic community of some three dozen nuns, though the abbey was still very wealthy at the time of the Dissolution.
As lord of Barking, both before and after the Conquest, the abbey established a market there, again quite conceivably before the Conquest; archaeological evidence suggests Barking may have had some early significance as a trade and production site, presumably related to the presence of a monastic community wealthy enough to consume goods imported to the London region via long-distance trade. The author of the Victoria County History believed that this market was referenced in a charter of the 1170s (known from a confirmation of 1232) whereby Henry II confirmed the abbey's possession of its lands and liberties. But its clause concerning liberties "in the city and outside, in the borough and outside, and in the market and outside" [Calendar of Charter Rolls, vol.1 (1226-1257), p.149] uses these three terms in a generic sense, not specifically in regard to a market at Barking; though it would have covered any market at Barking, it cannot be taken as evidence a market actually existed there. The Close Rolls record a provisional grant in 1226 of a Monday market at Barking to Geoffrey de Burgh, Bishop of Ely and brother to Hubert de Burgh, who held the reins of government at that time, and it was renewed after Henry III reached the age of majority (1227), though Geoffrey died the following year; however, this was a Barking in Suffolk.
More pertinent here, a rent due from property in the Barking marketplace is mentioned in 1219, in the context of a land transaction which also references other rents, some of them suggestive of burgage rents (although the information is too vague to be certain). There is no need to doubt a market was in existence well before 1219. Had it not been, the abbess would likely have acquired a licence for it, as was done in the case of the abbey's manor at Salcott (northern Essex) in 1221. Salcott's Monday market was in 1317 alleged to be damaging to that at Colchester, some eight miles away; since this complaint did not arise until a century after Salcott's market came into existence, it would be hard to take it seriously, except that it is part of a longer list of simmering grievances that were together being aired, possibly as a lead-up to an effort to have Edward II renew the borough's first charter (1189), which contained a clause prohibiting any unauthorized market that became an impediment to Colchester's. The target of that clause is likely to have been unofficial markets arising within Colchester and its immediate surrounds; although Salcott today is within the extended boundary of the borough of Colchester, there was no such association in the Middle Ages, though Salcott was part of the inner catchment region for Colchester immigrants. The abbey is not known to have held licensed markets on any other of its manors than Barking and Salcott.
Barking's was one of three villata markets in Essex and Hertfordshire from which fines were owed to the king in 1255. It is not clear why these fines had been imposed; what leaps to mind is a possible conviction in the hundredal enquiries for having been unlicensed; yet one of the three (Cheshunt) had in fact been licensed in 1245, though no record of a licence for the other two is extant. The abbess had also been fined for unspecified market irregularities ca.1245, though this cannot be the same fine referred to ten years later, as the abbess was recorded in 1246 as paying that fine; the nature of the transgressions may be related to the fact the fine was paid to the keeper of the king's wardrobe (although that may have had something to do with the fact that the king's half-sister, Maud was a nun at Barking, rising to serve as abbess 1247-52). We hear once more of the market in a manorial rental of 1456. We do not know on what day it was held, though in the post-medieval period this was Saturday. An October fair is also mentioned, perhaps originally associated with the festival of St. Ethelburga, sister of Erkenwald and first abbess at Barking, which may suggest some antiquity to the event; although by the time that we next hear of the fair, in 1792, its date had shifted slightly away from that festival. In 1308 the Bishop of London issued an order to his Essex officials to suppress tumultuous assemblies that were held on the festivals of St. Ethelburga and St. Margaret (to whom the conventual and parish churches were dedicated, respectively); they were probably held on the abbey green, in which the parish church was situated, for the assemblies were said to defile the churches. We might speculate whether the religious services on those festivals were being supplemented by less solemn, more raucous activities, such as could be associated with fairs.
Further evidence of commerce at Barking comes in 1205 in the form of a final concord that deals with seven shops in the town of Barking; at that date 'town' in the original is doubtless the ambiguous villa or villata. These shops had all been held by a single individual and so suggest the presence at Barking of a much larger number of such structures. When a market house was erected within Barking's marketplace, in 1568, sixteen shops were built in association with it, and by 1662 these seem to have increased in number to twenty-four. In 1451, and again in1586, there are references [the former in the Sixth Report of the Commissioners on Historical Manuscripts (1877), pt.1, p.572] to a street named Shop Row in Barking. Whether these shops were much more than stalls, we cannot be sure, but a fine of 1392 shows a Barking shop as incorporated in a house, with solar and bedchamber on the upper floor. Structures of such permanence are also suggested in 1375, when the king made a life grant of two shops, valued at 10s. annually (suggesting they were more than mere stalls), which had been seized because, as an inquisition of 1372 had determined, built encroaching into that part of the highway serving as marketplace. The builder, Thomas Sampkyn, was one of the more prominent members of the Becontree community, important enough that he was among a small group of its residents who, after serious flooding in 1375, were commissioned by the king to assist the abbess by engaging and supervising workmen to repair the dykes, and who, three years later, acquired from the king a life exemption from having to serve on juries or assizes and from being appointed to various royal or urban offices against his will though this did not prevent him being made a Barking commissioner of walls and ditches again in 1385, nor from appointment as sheriff of Essex in 1394. He not only held of the abbey two manors in Becontree Hundred one of which was partly within the vill of Barking (the manor-house being in North Street) and the other in Ilford but in 1374 was in the process of acquiring a manor at Dunton (some miles east of Barking), and he acted as trustee for fellow residents in property transactions. He had likely built the confiscated shops with a view to rental income. In the thirteenth and early fourteenth century records of fines, Barking is the most common Essex location where shops are documented as among properties transferred; the only other places where we hear, in that source, of shops are the towns of Chelmsford, Maldon, Rayleigh, and Waltham. While shops appear more widely in Essex in the remainder of the fourteenth century, they are still almost entirely confined to towns such as those already mentioned, along with Thaxted, Great Dunmow, Coggeshall, and Colchester.
A fine of 1208 mentions a Gerard Mercator who appears to have been a resident of Barking, or at least held property there; Le Marchaunt had been established as a surname at Barking by the 1260s, and Nicholas Marchant of Barking is seen in1389-90 operating through the port of Sandwich: importing goods from Zeeland, and buying up there, for redistribution within England, sub-standard wool that other English merchants saw no point in exporting. Barking's cloth trade is reflected in 1235 by Gerald le Draper disposing of a shop at Barking, in passing references to a tailor (1451) and dyer (1456), and in 1555 in names of two pieces of open ground there which indicate their use for stretching cloth on tenters. In the first three decades of the fourteenth century Barking residents or property-holders included one explicitly identified as a butcher and men with the surnames of Chapman, Cheesemonger, Baker, Brewer, Dyer, Draper, Glover, Hosier (both as such and in the form Chaucer), and Smith. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fishermen are not evident in this type of source; but in 1320 Barking men were included among a larger group accused before the mayor and aldermen of London of using, in the Thames, kiddles nets prohibited because their fine mesh caught fish too small. In 1371 tanner Henry Noble of Barking owed 10 marks to a London cordwainer, although this does not necessarily relate to a business transaction, while in 1387 London's customs officers were instructed to allow John Sebroke of Barking to ship eighty hides custom-free to Barking for purposes of tanning; the guarantors that Sebroke would not take them elsewhere being three London cordwainers, who perhaps had arranged to purchase some of the tanned leather. The further we move into the fourteenth century the less reliable surnames become as an indicator of occupation; thus, for example, the Barking men Peter le Tannere and Thomas Smith mentioned in 1339 and 1349, respectively, are both described as being clerks.
Taken together, all these pieces of information suggest Barking's economy was based on the range of occupational activities typically found in small market towns. That Barking could produce men of some wealth is exemplified not only by Thomas Sampkyn, as indicated above, but also by John Revekyn who, in 1350, is found settling on William Revekyn and his wife a number of Barking properties: 3 messuages, 2 cottages, 4 shops, over 30 acres of arable and pasture land, and rents worth 17s.7d. On the other hand, Barking's role in the commercial network seems not to have been sufficiently significant to attract settlement of foreign traders or artisans; an extensive list entered into the Patent Roll in 1436, of men born in the Low Countries but now resident in England and having taken an oath of loyalty to the king, included only one Barking resident (a Zeelander). Most such immigrants had opted to settle in towns, but Barking is unlikely to have been conspicuous as such. That Barking's market continued in operation into the post-medieval period is indicated by a suit brought against the manorial bailiff there ca. 1591 for dereliction of certain duties, including the obligation to make public announcements on market days of stray livestock that he had impounded.
At much earlier date there was some foreign settlement, by Romans, on or near the site of Barking, as attested by archaeological finds, which also include medieval coins another indicator of commercial activity. The early nunnery may have become a focus for Saxon settlement, though this is less well-evidence in the arcaheological record. The abbey became one of the wealthiest Benedictine nunneries in England, able to attract into its community members of Saxon and Norman-Angevin royal families, such as illegitimate daughters of Henry II and John; the king had nomination to the abbacy and, even after conceding the abbey free election (1214), continued to influence some of the choices of abbesses, several of whom were quite high-status. It was built close to the east bank of the river, near the head of the creek through which the Roding connected with the Thames, and the settlement of Barking grew up south and east of it, on the original demesne land of the abbey. The marketplace was immediately east of the site of the abbey and the parish church, the latter being within the abbey precinct, just south of the abbey church; it took the form of a funnel-shaped widening of what looks like a through-road, named North Street and South Street at the opposite ends of the marketplace. This wide area was later (and is still) known as Broadway. Along the west side of Broadway, separating it from the abbey precinct, was Back Lane; perhaps this was the rear of Shop Row? East Street terminated at about the mid-point of Broadway, opposite a gateway into the abbey precinct; its development into something of a high street was a post-medieval process. Off the southwest corner of Broadway, Hithe Street ran a short distance to the quayside, which sat at what was the furthest point to which the Roding was navigable, until dredging and widening took place in the eighteenth century.
Barking's quayside, owned and maintained by the abbey, lay at the head of Barking Creek. By the Late Middle Ages there were three separate wharves there: one for use of the abbess, one for an Ilford hospital, and one for the residents of Barking. At that period the wharves were being used: by local fishermen who were settled along Fisher Street (later part of Abbey Road) which paralleled the route of the riverbank; for shipping local produce to Woolwich and London; for carrying grain to nearby watermills (probably those mentioned in Domesday); for bringing provisions to the abbey and shipping abbey wool out; for the abbess' river travel into London; and for bringing in large quantities of hides from London, to be tanned and then returned to be manufactured into leather goods. The example of John Sebroke's tanning business has been mentioned above, and in 1371 a Barking tanner and his wife were being sued by a London cordwainer for failing to deliver goods possibly hides they had been commissioned to tan. The importance of the tanning industry at Barking is is also suggested in the only surviving medieval manorial court roll (for 1440/41), which deals with cases of persons selling badly tanned hides, while the later Tanners Street suggests that the industry may have been concentrated along a stretch of the Roding north of the quayside; however, apart from Odo le Tannur in 1233, specific practitioners are not much in evidence as property-holders.
In 1203 two ships bound for Normandy loaded part of their cargo at Barking; there is insufficient evidence to show whether this was exceptional or whether smaller sea-going vessels often made use of the port there. The 1440 court roll throws little other light on local commerce beyond the usual fines for infringements of the assize of bread and ale. The grinding of grain provided sufficient business for members of the Dun family the same that acquired a rent in the marketplace in 1219 to build, ca.1243, a windmill in the vill, about which the abbess complained that it was detrimental to the profitability of her own mills; an agreement was reached whereby the Duns' mill was tolerated on condition they not build any more.
Lack of navigability of the Roding beyond Barking was apparently due, at least in part, to the construction of a causeway across the river, towards the northern end of the quayside. While the name given this suggests its function was as a river crossing, it may also have been intended as a dam to preserve harbourage in what became known as the Mill Pool, while a leat or perhaps a sluice (as existed later) must have been incorporated beneath it to channel water to power the abbey's mill just beyond the causeway; part of the causeway may have been bridged, allowing the river to course through, as it certainly was in later times. This barrier would have reduced the commercial prospects of Ilford, further north along the Roding, a good-sized village that shows no indications of having a market, let alone acquiring urban status, until later than Barking; since the abbey was its lord, there would have been no seigneurial motivation to develop Ilford as a market centre. But perhaps there was no prospect of medieval Ilford residents taking advantage of the river; Ilford's name derives from an earlier name for the river, the Hyle, thought to mean a trickling stream which may suggest that the wide area of Barking's Mill Pool could have been created not only by draining adjacent marshes into the creek but also by damming. The pool was considered suitable, in the sixteenth and seventh centuries, for repairing large ships, and in these and later times was home to a moderately large fleet of fishing smacks.
The 1440 court roll sheds no light on whether there was an urban component to Barking at that time, although it does show that the manor was large enough to be divided, for administrative purposes, into wards, or constabularies; two districts were identified in the rental of 1456, but in the court roll we hear of three, which seem not to include what was later Barking town, suggesting that it was by that time, if not urban, at least perceived as a distinctive administrative unit. Once parish records appear, in the late seventeenth century, the Town is clearly visible as a fourth ward. The market house of 1568 incorporated a court house. Further indication of the emergence of the town before mid-fifteenth century comes from a dispute between the abbess and one of her tenants concerning the gateway giving residents access, from Back Lane, into the precinct so that they could use the parish church; the gateway, which doubled as bell-tower for the church, was at that time (1450) called Town Gate, to distinguish it from the abbey's other gateway, which probably lay close to the quayside. A sense of community, independent of abbey overlordship, is suggested in 1395 when abbess and parishioners were in conflict, apparently over the amalgamation of the posts of two local vicars, whose duties had previously been divided, one serving the parish church, the other the abbey church. The vicar of the parish church was now required to take on both roles, something the incumbents resisted for several decades. That considerable alterations were being planned for the parish church in the fifteenth century, including the construction of its own belfry, although many were not completed until the following century, could be interpreted as reflecting growing prosperity and confidence of the lay community.
The simple layout of the medieval settlement of Barking is suggested from a manorial map prepared in 1653 for the Fanshawe family, which had acquired the manor after the Dissolution. It shows the abbey site and adjacent marketplace in whose central area there are indications of encroachment as the nucleus of the settlement, with North, South, and East Streets converging on the marketplace, Ripple Street heading south off of East Street, and a connecting street (now Axe Street) between the southern end of the marketplace and Ripple Street. Houses are shown lining, in particular, both sides of North and South Streets, the marketplace itself, and Hithe Street; East Street is built up only in the stretch nearest the marketplace, and likewise Axe Street, although less intensively so. Only the plots on the built-up part of East Street and, to lesser extent, on Hithe Street have the long, narrow look of burgage tenements; but there is no documentary evidence indicative of burgage tenure at Barking in the Middle Ages. Plots on the north side of Hithe Street consume part of what was the abbey precinct and so may not have been created until after the Dissolution, although the less intensive occupation along the south side could be medieval. In a fine of 1240 we hear of a property in the "new street" of Barking; whether this was Axe Street is unknown, but it suggests at the least some medieval expansion of the settlement from its original size. The residential properties along these streets were hemmed in by fields and pastures, particularly on the east, where lay the abbey demesne lands of Westbury and Eastbury.
We can hardly have difficulty classifying medieval Barking as proto-urban. Whether or not a town before the close of the fourteenth century is a more difficult judgement call, in the absence of references to burgesses or burgages. We see in 1338 that Barking is being taxed at the rural, rather than the urban rate; yet the perception of the royal bureaucracy, as to which places were urban and which not, is not always reliable, for at the same date Dunstable and Abingdon (Beds.), Ware (Hertfordshire), and Newport (Essex) were in the same tax bracket, despite each having been a borough for more than a century previous. Barking's seeming commercial-centricity the focus of layout and habitation on the twin features of marketplace and port along with the economic diversification evidenced, suggest that it was a town, in effect, if not yet formally. The Extensive Urban Survey has recognized several settlements as urban on more slender evidence than we have for Barking. Lack of acknowledgement of it as a borough may be attributed to the conservatism characteristic of monastic overlords. Yet its commerce was sufficient to generate some wealth for its more successful residents. Those who felt constrained by lack of burgess privileges could relocate to nearby London, and certainly we find men of the surname de Berkyng among London's artisanal class, including higher-ranked occupations such as goldsmith and draper, as well as possessors who were merchants and fishermen. In the post-medieval period recognition of urban status continued to elude Barking, despite its continued role as a minor port and as an increasingly important base for fishing (to help supply London needs). Further agrarian development, and subsequent emergence of market gardening as a major economic activity there, combined with the decline of Barking's market, overshadowed its urban characteristics. Only in the twentieth century did it obtain formal borough status, in the context of the growth of what is now Greater London.