The name Acton means Oak Town and is an Anglo-Saxon name, suggesting that there was a settlement at Acton in Saxon times. The first recorded mention of Acton was in 1181. Most of the settlement in the Middle Ages lay along the Uxbridge Road and close to the parish church of St. Mary's. There were several inns here by the late fourteenth century.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Acton was popular with the gentry and minor courtiers as a summer residence. Acton Wells was reputed to possess health giving mineral water. Philip Skippon, a Parliamentary general, and Richard Baxter, a religious dissident, lived in Acton in the seventeenth century. Berrymead Priory, to the south of the Uxbridge Road, was the home of the Marquis of Halifax, a Tory statesman.
The first known stagecoach to make journeys from Acton to London was The Acton Machine, in 1764. Later, more stagecoaches were in service, resulting in a more regular service. In the 1870s and 1880s, there were horse trams, and between 1901-1936, electric trams ran the length of the Uxbridge Road. Motorbuses were first seen in Acton in 1910.
Acton's first railway station was Acton Central, opening in 1853. This was on the North and South Western Junction line. Although the Great Western Railway ran through Acton from 1838, Acton main line station did not open until 1868. At this time, 38 trains travelled each way through Acton per day. There was also the Birmingham branch line of the GWR, which stopped at Old Oak Common Halt, North Acton and Park Royal.
Several underground lines operated in Acton. There are three Acton stations on the Central Line, which was extended through the locality in 1908. There were also the District and Piccadilly lines, which stopped at Acton Town station (also known as South Acton station).
Growth in Acton was slow. In 1801, there were only 241 inhabited houses, mostly around the High Street, but also in East Acton and around Acton Green. During the nineteenth century, building took place to the north and to the south of the Uxbridge Road. In the 1870s, building began in southeast Acton, at Bedford Park, England's first garden suburb. This suburb was aimed at the upper middle class and had a reputation for being a home to artists and literary men. Elsewhere, though, such as in the Steyne, there were slum dwellings. Housing estates were built by the Goldsmith's Company and by the GWR, as well as by the council. After World War Two, south Acton was redeveloped and blocks of flats were built there.
In the late nineteenth century Acton became well known for the large number of small laundries operating here. Many laundries drew attention to the specialist nature of their service. The Cumberland Laundry claimed to only use soft water and pure soap. Acton was known as "Soapsuds Island" because of the large number of laundries in one place.
Acton became heavily industrialised by the 1920s. The motorcar industry was particularly well represented. The most famous name was Napier's, which built cars. Wilkinson's were another Acton firm, producing swords, bayonets and razor blades. There were also food manufacturers, such as Wall's Ice Cream and Nevill's bakeries. The main concentrations of industry centred around Acton Vale and the Park Royal industrial estate.
After 1945 there was much immigration into Acton chiefly from Ireland, the Caribbean and Poland.