Tottenham Marshes are on a flood plain of the River Lea and over a thousand years ago – when in its early untamed state – the land either side was true marshland, before giving way to dense forest. The forest itself was cut through by several streams coming from the west and south west and joining with the Lea, adding their additional water-loads to the regular flooding. Eventually, human settlements started shoring up the banks and cutting channels to control the flooding and the marshland was largely confined to the edges of the river. The forests were also cut back and the land became productive meadow and arable, although still vulnerable to occasional flooding.
Early settlement on this land is hard is identify. We can conjecture that the Neolithic people of Britain would have been attracted by the rivers and streams providing water, transport and fishing, as well as the woods for hunting, building and fire. However, their presence, overlaid by the greater numbers of later arrivals with their undoubtedly heavier footprint, has been obscured. Most will have been transitory, and we find no evidence of settlements. A Neolithic flint dagger from around 1900-1500 BC has been discovered in the Tottenham area, but with the absence of any pottery remains from this period we must conclude that this was more likely to have been left by people passing through rather than settlers.
The Romans also passed through Tottenham, building a road – later named by the Saxons as Ermine Street – that went from the City of London to Lincoln and the northern kingdoms. It cut through Tottenham to the west of the Lea and today we know it as the High Road. The Romans may also have farmed here, producing corn and hay, but any likely settlement would have been on the higher ground much further to the west. The Saxons were probably the first permanent settlers here, and it is generally agreed that Tottenham was named after a Saxon chief, Tota, with ham referring to a settlement.
We first find a reference to the River Lea in the 9th century Anglo Saxon Chronicle. This chronicle was started in the 9th century on the orders of King Alfred and continued until the middle of the 12th century. The 9th century was one of continuous battles between the Saxon Kings, most notably Alfred, King of Wessex, and the Viking Danes who invaded and pillaged – and eventually settled – the east coast from Northumberland to Kent. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 894 the Danes rowed up the river Lea from the Thames and built a fort on the river at either Ware or Hertford. Alfred then blocked their way out by making the river Lea impassable, whether by erecting fortifications further down or blocking the river is not clear, and the Danes were forced to abandon their fortification and their boats. In , the skeleton of an ancient boat was unearthed near the River Lea when the reservoirs were being dug leading to some conjecture that this might have been the remains of a Viking ship, although this is now thought to be unlikely. More interestingly, the 18th century Tottenham historian, William Robinson, asserted that the ‘works’ carried out by Alfred on the Lea to block the Dane’s escape led to the early draining of the marshes at Tottenham.
During these wars, Tottenham found itself on the frontier between Alfred’s Saxon Wessex and Danish Essex when the River Lea was established as part of the border between the Saxons the Danes. The border was possibly not as impervious as it sounds, for in 1066 we find both Tottenham and Walthamstow held by the Danish Earl Waltheof of Huntingdon. Waltheof was the son of the Earl of Northumberland, Siward. By this time, Tottenham had become a medieval manor, moving away from a small settlement under a Saxon chief and becoming part of a larger administrative and social structure with links to other parts of the country. By 1085, when the Domesday survey was compiled, Tottenham is recorded as being held by Countess Judith (widow of Waltheof and niece of William the Conqueror) and valued at £25.15s and three ounces of gold.
Medieval Tottenham made good use of the river Lea and the marshes. Fisheries were established by building weirs, there was of course the flour mill, and the marshes themselves would have produced reeds for thatching and the meadowland nearby for hay. Hay was a vital animal feeding crop in the winter, and was particularly in demand from the increasing numbers of citizens of London. By the early 15th century, industrial production also emerged with a fulling mill for making cloth. The lord of the manor at the time, John Gedeney, had been a successful London draper, an alderman of the City and twice the Lord Mayor. He made particularly good use of his newly acquired manor by increasing the amount of pasture for sheep, developing the fulling mill and also establishing a brickworks on the higher ground to the west of the High Road.
As well as meadowland, there were many good arable fields alongside the marshes, profiting from the alluvial soil of the flood plain overlaying the less tractable London clay. Crofts and small settlements grew up around the Lea fields, as we can guess from the names of some of the peasants mentioned in the manor rolls of the 13th and 14th centuries. Surnames were only just coming into common use, deriving either from a person’s occupation, such as Baker. Clerk or Woodward, or where they lived. The name ‘atte Marshes’ (or other variations on the spelling) are mentioned frequently, as is ‘in the Hale’, atte Hale or del Hale. The Hale became the site of a small hamlet early on because of its importance to the village with its closeness to the mill and also the crossing over the river Lea from Walthamstow. At first this was by ferry, although a bridge seems to have been built by the 17th century linking the Hale eastwards to Walthamstow and west to the hamlet of High Cross.