Essay / In Flux

Tackling the Wreckage of War

An archaeologist traces how rubble from World War II bombings helped turn London marshlands into a footballing utopia.
A zoomed-out photograph shows a large green, grassy field with several football pitches in front of a line of trees. The trees separate the field from a large cityscape in the background.

In London, football pitches built on marshes have turned a landscape of destruction into a site for recreation, sport, and community building.

Alan Denney, CC BY-NC-ND/Flickr

This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons.

DURING WORLD WAR II, German forces dropped 28,000 bombs and almost 3,000 V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets on London. Nearly 30,000 people were killed. The damage to the built environment was extensive.

Within the London County Council area (roughly covering today’s inner London), more than 73,000 structures were destroyed. Local surveyors, construction workers, architects, and engineers documented the destruction as it happened on hand-colored maps, which are now held at the London Metropolitan Archives. Some 43,400 structures recorded on these maps were categorized as “damaged beyond repair.”

City authorities were faced with the gargantuan task of figuring out where to put the millions of metric tons of rubble. My recent study looks at the largest of these rubble dumps—at Hackney and Leyton marshes in East London—and the remarkable afterlife it has had as the wellspring of English grassroots football.


Between December 1940 and 1946, 2.2 million cubic meters of concrete, brick, and stone rubble were dumped on Hackney Marsh, and 270,000 cubic meters were dumped on Leyton Marsh; this raised the ground level by three meters. If piled together, the volume would have exceeded the Great Pyramid.

Two large stones sit on a ground of dirt and much smaller pebbles. A checkered black-and-white ruler lies next to them.

A 10-centimeter scale sits next to a few bomb rubble fragments of stock bricks and granite setts that eroded from pathways on London’s Leyton Marsh.

Jonathan Gardner, CC BY-NC-SA

In 2021 and 2022, I conducted an archaeological walkover and photographic survey of the marshes. I struggled to find obvious evidence of the conflict. The rubble lies hidden under plants and soil, with only occasional surface fragments of concrete and the odd brick hinting at the site’s wartime origins.

A modern color photograph shows a paved gap between two two-story buildings. A streetlamp is in the foreground, and a red bus is in the background.

In Leyton, gaps in Victorian terraces show the extent of the bombing during World War II.

Jonathan Gardner, CC BY-NC-ND

Comparing images from surveys by lidar (a laser-light technology used for 3D mapping) with historic maps shows how both sites are now marshes in name only. The elevation created by the rubble is visible in sharp breaks of slope on the maps and, on the ground, in the unexpectedly steep staircases you have to climb in order to reach the football pitches from the bank of the River Lea.

Venture to neighboring Leyton and Clapton, and the origin of the rubble becomes far more visible. Street after street show gaps where houses are missing in otherwise neat terraces. Modernist blocks abut awkwardly against Victorian townhouses.

The first weeks of the Blitz, in September 1940, saw London’s 29 borough councils increasingly unable to cope with a backlog of 2.7 million metric tons of rubble. It effectively choked the city, blocking miles of roads and rendering vital services inoperable.

By the end of September, the citywide War Debris Survey and Disposal Service was established. Early dump locations included disused gravel pits on Hampstead Heath and the site of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, which had been quarried for sand to fill sandbags in the first years of the war.

As the bombing intensified, larger spaces were soon needed. The service turned its sights eastward, to the open marshland of East London.

The infilling was primarily undertaken to clear London’s bombed streets. It also had a more constructive purpose. A 1942 memo written by the Ministry of Home Security (now held in the London Metropolitan Archives) notes: “Sites for tips should be studied and selected. The opportunity may be taken to make up to new levels land which is subject to flooding or to improve other waste and uneven sites.”


At the East London site, 250,000 cubic meters of soil from upriver reservoir construction were added to the rubble. This was then seeded to create 135 football pitches as well as numerous cricket pitches and changing rooms.

This transformation represented a remarkable turnaround for the jumbled debris of a violent conflict and was noted as such during the war itself. In 1942, the leader of the London County Council, Lord Latham, remarked that “the battle of London has helped to win a new playing field for future generations of Londoners.”

A black-and-white photograph shows a large bus leaning on its side against a four-story brick building. Several people in suits are standing around in a pile of rubble surrounding the wreck.

Taken in 1940, this photograph shows some of the massive damage to London during a German bombing raid referred to as the Blitz.

H.F. Davis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons

Though unmarked by commemorative plaques, the pitches have become a vast footballing heritage site: the “utopia,” as founder of Hackney Wick Football Club Bobby Kasanga has put it, “of grassroots football.”

In 1953, seven years after the pitches opened, a British Pathé newsreel reported a six to ten month wait for a booking: “A team lucky enough to get a dressing room shares it with their opponents—typical, this, of the sporting spirit of these Londoners.”

The popularity of the site stemmed not only from it being the largest agglomeration of football pitches in the world but also from its accessibility. It was a place where locals and recent immigrants to London could share their love for the beautiful game. 

The Hackney and Leyton Football League, founded when the pitches opened in 1946, remains London’s largest and oldest league. It has cemented the reputation of the site, with legendary England players, including Bobby Moore and David Beckham, having trained there.

In 1997, Ian Wright featured alongside Eric Cantona, Robbie Fowler, and David Seaman in a Nike ad shot on the marshes and soundtracked by Blur’s smash hit “Parklife.” Adidas, meanwhile, flew Lionel Messi onto the pitches by helicopter for a promo match in 2010, only to drive him away by van when he was mobbed by fans.

As more rugby and cricket pitches have been added, the number of pitches has reduced from the original 135 to 70. Hundreds of players from diverse working-class communities across London still flock there each weekend, though.

British photographer Simon Di Principe went to the marshes as a kid with his mother to watch his father play. His 2016 book, Grass Roots, documents a full season of these amateur Sunday league games in what Di Principe has said is “a contemporary testament and celebration of what makes London a multicultural city.”

The marshes endure as a subtle reminder of the losses the people of London incurred during World War II.

The successive grassroots campaigns that have thwarted a variety of proposed developments in recent years are a testament to the value the site continues to hold for those future generations of postwar Londoners that Latham foresaw.

A person with long brown, straight hair and a mustache and beard wearing a brown plaid collared shirt smiles in front of a gray blank background.

Jonathan Gardner is an archaeologist and heritage researcher who studies the material traces of the contemporary world. He joined Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) in October 2020 as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow to undertake a four-year research project studying the creation and use of waste-modified landscapes. His research examines different types of land reclamation, artificial hill building, dumping, and land art across the United Kingdom and how these are used and valued as creative spaces. Prior to joining ECA, Gardner was a teaching fellow in heritage and museum studies between 2017 and 2019 at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (UCL). He has worked extensively as a commercial archaeologist excavating on construction sites throughout London and southeast England since 2007. His first monograph, developed out of his Ph.D. research, is titled A Contemporary Archaeology of London’s Mega Events: From the Great Exhibition to London 2012.


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