Once known for its oak trees, Acton was two villages, and a staging post and a spa resort, before becoming the west London neighbourhood we know and love today.

Acton in 1882, by Edward Hargitt

Acton is from the Anglo-Saxon meaning either “Oak Town” or, probably before that, just an enclosure surrounded by oaks. Either way, until the seventeenth century, it largely consisted of woodland dominated by oak and elm trees, some of which survived into the nineteen hundreds. Old Oak Common, now a railway depot, really was once a common full of old oaks.

St Mary’s Church

By the Middle Ages, Acton was two separate villages: Church Acton, where the parish church of St Mary's was located, and East Acton, centred around its village green. So East Acton is not just the eastern end of the neighbourhood of Acton, but was once a village in its own right, although it didn’t have its own church until the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century was also when the gaps between Church Acton and East Acton, and northwards up to Old Oak Common, were built up and gradually filled with residential streets.

The George & Dragon
(by MattB-503,
CC BY-SA 4.0)

As the first important settlement on the road to Oxford, Acton became a staging post, with inns and taverns springing up along its high street from at least the fourteenth century to cater for the growing number of passengers passing through (not to mention their horses). Although not entirely clear, it seems that the George and Dragon, the King’s Head and the White Lion were all once coaching inns, whose earlier incarnations dated back to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

Acton Town station (photo by HTUK)

Because of its geological location, where London clay meets Thames gravel, Acton was a source of natural springs and in the seventeenth century it became something of a spa resort, called Acton Wells. It went out of fashion in the eighteenth century as trendier places like Tunbridge Wells lured the punters away, and it eventually closed, so you can no longer take the waters at Acton today. Wells House Road in North Acton, formerly Wells House Farm, is just across the tracks from the site of the original spa. The rail junction and signal box here still bear the name of Acton Wells.

The South Acton spur
on a 1949 tube map

Talking of rail, Acton has given its name to no less than seven different tube or train stations (North Acton, South Acton, East Acton, West Acton, Acton Central, Acton Town and Acton Main Line), which is more than anywhere else in Britain (we’re not including “London”, which some bureaucrat added willy-nilly to the official names of all its terminals – we count none except London Bridge and London Fields). South Acton was once on its own little spur of the District Line. Opened in 1899, originally for goods services, it had passenger trains to Hounslow West from 1905 until 1914, replaced in 1918 by a shuttle service to Acton Town. At first its train had two cars, but it was eventually reduced to a specially adapted one-car train, known to its passengers as “the Ginny”. The service ended in 1959.

The original branch of Waitrose

The supermarket chain Waitrose started life at 263 Acton High Street in 1904 when friends Wallace Waite, Arthur Rose and David Taylor opened a grocery store called Waite, Rose & Taylor. David left two years later, and his partners renamed it Waitrose in 1908, opening new branches to form a little local chain before spreading further afield. The original branch closed in 1925, and Waite sold the chain to John Lewis in 1937. Now, along with the rest of the John Lewis Partnership, it is owned by its employees. A plaque in the pavement marks the location of the original branch.

The Who in 1965

Acton’s local heroes include rock band The Who, who once hoped they’d die before they got old, although only Keith Moon actually (and sadly) did. Acton doesn’t feature in any of their albums or rock operas, but one of Pete Townshend's solo tracks is called “Stardom in Acton". SInger Adam Faith, whose last words were an unflattering comment about Channel Five, was also from Acton (he was born at 4 East Churchfield Road), as is actor Kit Harington, who played Jon Snow in HBO’s massively popular TV series Game of Thrones.

Acton High St in the early twentieth century
(there are more Edwardian Acton photos here)

In 1894, Acton became an urban district of the county of Middlesex, and was promoted in 1921 to the rank of municipal borough. In 1965, along with Southall and Ealing, it was amalgamated into an enlarged Borough of Ealing, where it remains to this day. There’s another Acton inside another Middlesex in Massachusetts, and in fact, if you want an Acton, New England has one to spare, as there’s one more in the State of Maine, and yet another one not so far away in Ontario. Indeed, Ontario’s Acton even borrowed our Acton’s coat of arms, but sweetened it up a bit by swapping the oak leaves for maple.