Hackney is famous for its carriages, but no-one seems to know how it came by its name.

Mare Street at Graham Road (left) in 1840,
looking north towards St Augustine’s Tower.
The King's Head (right) was at no.324.

The first bit of the name could be a person, maybe a Viking Dane called Haakon or Haca. The “-ney” bit may mean an island of land, possibly the V-shaped area between Hackney Brook and Pigwell Brook. You won’t see either of those old rivers today as they both now run underground, but Hackney Brook used to flow along the west side of Hackney Downs, and then down Amhurst Road to Mare Street. Pigwell Brook came along what’s now Graham Road from Dalston, and they met by Hackney Central station, where there was a ford. Having joined forces, the two brooks then headed east to flow into the River Lea at Hackney Wick.

A Hasidic Jewish resident in Stamford Hill
wearing traditional Sabbath clothes

Running up the west side of Hackney, Kingsland Road, now the A10, was originally built by the Romans as part of Ermine Street (the Old North Road), which went all the way to Lincoln and York. Stamford Hill, still a hill, once had a sandy ford at the bottom of it, where Ermine Street crossed Hackney Brook. It was therefore known as “Sandy Ford Hill”, which gradually turned into Stamford Hill. Today, the neighbourhood is known for its Hasidic Jewish community, whose men wear distinctive clothes that originate from the time when their movement was founded in eighteenth-century eastern Europe.

A Hackney carriage

Taxis, despite being Hackney carriages, were not actually invented in Hackney. But back in the twelfth century, the vicinity of Hackney was a place where horses were put out to pasture, maybe on London Fields, where livestock once grazed on their way into town, before being taken to Smithfield market to be butchered. Hackney horses are now a specific breed, but once upon a time the term just meant the middling, local kind of animal – not a shire horse or a workhorse, but an ambling sort of horse that was perfect for riding about on. And so the residents of Hackney used to hire them out. And being hired out, they were heavily used. They became hackneyed, and eventually hacked off like an old hack, and that’s where all those terms come from. As for a Hackney carriage, coach or cab, that was originally a carriage, coach or cab which was hired out like – and indeed with – the horse.

Mary Wollestonecraft

Mare Street, on the other hand, has no horsey connections at all. Originally it was Mere Street, from mere, meaning a bog, which is apparently what the area round the old ford was like. Residents included the great eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived at number 373. Known in her day as a prominent political radical (along with her husband, William Godwin), she’s nowadays best known because her daughter wrote Frankenstein, but she more recently hit the news after a controversial monument to her (not meant to be a statue of her) was unveiled on Newington Green.

Hackney Downs in the nineteen-Os

In 1855, having long been a church parish (a community served by a single Anglican church, in this case St John's), Hackney became a civil parish (a unit of local government), and from 1900 it was one of London’s original metropolitan boroughs. It’s always included Dalston, Clapton, Homerton and Stamford Hill, but in 1965, Stoke Newington and Shoreditch were chucked into the mix, to form the Borough of Hackney that we know today.