Hanwell's name is thought to have come from the words hana, meaning a cock, and weille, meaning a stream. Hanwell was an ancient village, dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries.
Hanwell is mentioned in the Domesday Book. This said that part of the land was farmed and part of it was meadowland. Pigs roamed there. There was also a mill at Hanwell. Most of the villagers were peasants or villains, working on the land, but there were three craftsmen and two slaves as well. The total number of people was about 100.
The parish church, St. Mary's was a small brick building, but was rebuilt twice and the present church dates from 1842. The first known rector was Henry of Bayeux, in 1187. Among those buried in the churchyard is Jonas Hanway, who died in 1786. He was a well-known traveller, writer and helped found various charities, but is best known for promoting the use of the umbrella. John Diamond, a blind scholar, was buried here in 1806.
In 1484, William Hobbayne gave lands in Hanwell, worth £6 per year, which was used to help the local poor. In 1781, a charity school was established, and children were taught "reading, writing, plain work, and the principles of the Christian religion". Other early schools were the Hanwell Academy, a private boarding school, founded in 1832, and the Central London District School (also known as the Cuckoo School) for poor children from central London. It was founded in 1856. Its most famous pupil was Charlie Chaplin.
Part of the Great Western Railway ran through Hanwell. Work began in 1836 and on 4 June 1838 it was open to traffic. Trains ran eastwards to Paddington and westwards to Slough and Maidenhead. Four trains went in each direction every day. The Wharncliffe Viaduct, built by Brunel, to carry the railway over the Brent Valley, is one of the best-known landmarks of Hanwell.
Another form of nineteenth century transport was the omnibus, a horse drawn bus, which picked up passengers at The Duke of York Pub three times a day. By about 1900, about thirty-six horse buses travelled through Hanwell, but with the coming of the trams, they ceased to operate.
Plans for a tramway to run through Hanwell were first discussed in 1870, but nothing happened. It was not until 1901 that trams ran from London to Southall, via Hanwell. They helped create a demand for housing for the working and lower middle classes, so boosting the population.
There were several forms of public recreation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sporting clubs included the Brent Valley Golf Club, and the Hanwell Quoit Club. Football, cricket and bowls were regularly played in the parks. There were two local bands, the Hanwell Town Prize Silver Band and the Salvation Army Band. The local cinema was The Grand Theatre (later the Curzon) and was located in Cherington Road. There was also the Park Theatre for plays, in Greenford Avenue.
Population growth, until the end of the nineteenth century, was slow. In 1801, there were 817 residents. By 1921, there were 20,485 residents, and most of this increase happened between 1891 and 1921. The number of houses was 130 in 1801 and by 1896 it was 1,228. There was a further increase in the 1930s as a result of the housing estate built on the grounds of the Cuckoo school. Hanwell was no longer a village, but more a dormitory town, and was soon incorporated into its larger eastern neighbour, Ealing, in 1926.