In 1750, Barking was a relatively small village but by the mid-nineteenth century it had become the largest fishing port serving London. At this time, prior to the advent of the railways to transport the fish from north sea ports such as Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, almost everyone in Barking was involved in the fishing industry, as fishermen, shipwrights, rope makers, sail makers, porters or as other service providers. In the winter, as many as three thousand local farmers and others would collect ice from flooded fields – and no doubt from Fresh Wharf also – and bring this winter crop into Barking to be stored in the large ice houses along the river.
The fishing industry was focused on the east bank of the River Roding, along Town Quay and Fisher Street (now Abbey Road). On Fresh Wharf, activity grew in parallel with the fishing industry. The initial development of Fresh Wharf was mainly connected with boat building. A slipway was constructed adjacent to the Six Gates Sluice in the north of Fresh Wharf where boats were repaired and cleaned. Adjacent land was used for storage and shipbuilding. However much of the rest of the area remained as tidal marsh land until towards the end of the nineteenth century.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the land was gradually raised, mainly using construction and municipal waste. In parallel the wharf walls were constructed and roads and services installed. With its key position adjacent to the river, the area was mainly used for wharfage – for timber and other bulky goods – and for petroleum storage. Up until the 1950s, Fresh Wharf was also used for loading municipal waste into barges for disposal at sea – the accepted disposal route of the time. However from the 1930s the construction of the bridge over the River Roding downstream of Fresh Wharf for the A13 had prevented use of the site by larger ships and so limited its viability as a wharf.
By the mid 1950s, raising of the land was complete and most of the land let for a range of employment uses. However, much of the area was blighted from the 1930s by planning restrictions imposed for a new trunk road. This road, the A406, was eventually constructed in the 1980s and provided the impetus for buying back and restructuring leases on Fresh Wharf to facilitate its redevelopment. The completion of the Barking Barrage in 1998 provided further incentive for this process.
Fresh Wharf has been in the ownership of the Hewett family probably from early in the nineteenth century. It has been owned by Fresh Wharf Estates Ltd, whose shareholders are all Hewett family members, since the company was formed in 1928.