Derivation of the Name—Noble Families in Stepney—An Attack of the Plague—The Parish Church—Monuments—"The Cruel Knight"—Sir John Leake—Celebrated Incumbents—Colet—Pace—Roger Crab, "The English Hermit"—Dissenting Congregation at Stepney—Greenhill—Mead—Shadwell—Stepney "Parishioners."
At Stepney, two and a half miles east of St. Paul's
Cathedral, we reach the eastern boundary of the
radius we have defined for our work. This parish
was anciently called Stibenhede, Stebenhythe, or
Stebunhethe. In 1299, probably because it was
an out-of-the-way nook, between marshes and the
river, it was the seat of a parliament summoned by
Edward I. to meet at the mansion house of Henry
Walleis, then Mayor of London. At an early date
the manor was held by the Bishops of London,
who had a palace, called Bishop's Hall, now in the
parish of Bethnal Green. In the fourteenth century John de Pulteney, who was four times Mayor
of London, owned property in this parish. From
the reign of Edward I. various injunctions were
made at Stepney to prevent the frequent floods
from the Thames, to inquire into the state of the
banks and ditches, and to prevent all negligent
tenants and delinquents.
Alienated by Bishop Ridley, the manor of Stepney was given by Edward VI. to the Wentworths.
From Lord Wentworth it descended to Thomas,
Earl of Cleveland, whose estates were confiscated
in 1652, when Sir William Ellis, Cromwell's solicitor,
was made steward of the manor, a place then
valued at £200 per annum. After the Restoration
the Earl of Cleveland recovered his manor, which
continued in his family till the year 1720, when
it was sold by the representatives of Philadelphia,
Lady Wentworth, to John Wicker, Esq., whose
son alienated it to his brother-in-law Sir George
Colebrooke in the year 1754. In 1664, Charles II.,
at the Earl of Cleveland's request, instituted a
weekly court of record at Stepney, and a weekly
market at Ratcliffe Cross (afterwards transferred
to Whitechapel), and an annual Michaelmas fair at
Mile End Green (afterwards transferred to Bow). In
the first year of Charles I., Stepney was ravaged by
the plague, which had broken out from time to time
in London since Elizabeth's reign. This terrible
disease carried off here 2,978 persons. At the commencement of the Civil War, Stepney, then a mere
flat, extending to Blackwall, was strongly fortified
for the defence of the City. In 1665 the plague
again broke out in Stepney, and with such terrible
inveteracy that it swept off 6,583 persons in one
year, besides 116 sextons and gravediggers. In
1794 a fire consumed more than half the hamlet of
Ratcliffe, and spread to the shipping in the river.
Stepney had a traditional reputation for healthiness
till the cholera of 1849 and 1866, when many cases
occurred in the neighbourhood. The Stratford
College, founded in 1826, was built on the site
of the Marquis of Worcester's house, where the
famous Dr. Meade was born in 1673.
OLD GATEWAY AT STEPNEY. (From a View published by N. Smith, 1791.)
The parish church, dedicated to St. Dunstan
and All Saints, was built in the fourteenth century.
It has a low broad tower, strengthened with buttresses, and surmounted by a turret and dome.
In it was buried the illustrious Sir Thomas Spert,
Comptroller of the Navy in the time of Henry
VIII., commander of the Harry Grace de Dieu,
and the founder of the Trinity House. Here also
a writer to the Spectator discovered that remarkably absurd epitaph—
"Here Thomas Saffin lies interred—ah, why?
Born in New England did in London die,
Was the third son of eight, begot upon
His mother Martha by his father John.
Much favoured by his prince he 'gan to be,
But nipt by death at th' age of twenty-three.
Fatal to him was that we small-pox name,
By which his mother and two brethren came
Also to breathe their last, nine years before,
And now have left their father to deplore
The loss of all his children, with his wife,
Who was the joy and comfort of his life.
Deceased, June 18, 1687."
"On the outside of Stepney Church," says Lysons,
"over the south porch, is a representation of the
Crucifixion, rudely carved; and on the west wall,
an imperfect basso relievo (not better executed) of
a figure adoring the Virgin Mary and the infant
Jesus. Within the west porch is a stone, on which
are these lines:—
"'Of Carthage wall I was a stone,
O mortals read with pity!
Time consumes all, it spareth none,
Man, mountain, town, nor city.
Therefore, O mortals! now bethink
You whereunto you must,
Since now such stately buildings
Lie buried in the dust.
Thomas Hughes, 1663.'
"On the east wall of the chancel (on the outside)," says the same author, "is the monument of
Dame Rebecca Berry, wife of Thomas Elton, of
Stratford Bow, and relict of Sir John Berry, 1696.
The arms on this monument are—Paly of six, on a
bend three mullets (Elton) impaling, a fish, and in
the dexter chief point an annulet between two
bends wavy. This coat of arms has given rise to
a tradition that Lady Berry was the heroine of a
popular ballad called 'The Cruel Knight; or, Fortunate Farmer's Daughter;' the story of which is
briefly this:—A knight, passing by a cottage, hears
the cries of 2 woman in labour; his knowledge in
the occult sciences informs him that the child then
born was destined to be his wife. He endeavours
to elude the decrees of fate, and avoid so ignoble
an alliance, by various attempts to destroy the child,
which are defeated. At length, when grown to
woman's state, he takes her to the sea-side, intending to drown her, but relents; at the same time
throwing a ring into the sea, he commands her
never to see his face again, on pain of instant
death, unless she can produce that ring. She
afterwards becomes a cook, and finds the ring in
a cod-fish, as she is dressing it for dinner. The
marriage takes place, of course. The ballad, it
must be observed, lays the scene of this story in
Yorkshire. The incident of the fish and ring
occurs in other stories, and may be found in the
'Arabian Nights' Entertainments.'"
Amongst the epitaphs in Stepney Church is that
to Sir John Leake, 1720:—
"To the memory of the Honourable Sir John Leake, Knt.,
Rear-Admiral of Great Britain, Admiral and Commander-inChief of Her late Majesty Queen Anne's fleet, and one of the
Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Departed this life
the 21st of August, 1720, ætat 64 years, 1 month, 17 days;
who, anno 1689, in the Dartmouth, by engaging Kilmore
Castle, relieved the city of Londonderry, in Ireland; also,
anno 1702, with a squadron at Newfoundland, he took and
destroyed fifty-one sail of French, together with all their
settlements. Anno 1704 he forced the van of the French
fleet at the Malaga engagement; relieved Gibraltar twice,
burning and taking thirteen sail of French men-of-war. Likewise, anno 1706, relieved Barcelona, the present Emperor of
Germany besieged therein by Philip of Spain, and took
ninety sail of corn-ships; the same year taking the cities of
Carthagena and Alicant, with the islands of Ivica, Majorca,
Sardinia, and Minorca."
This celebrated officer was son of Captain
Richard Leake, Master Gunner of England; he
was born at Rotherhithe, in the year 1656. Whilst
a captain he distinguished himself in several engagements. In Queen Anne's reign he was five
times Admiral of the Fleet, and commanded with
such undeviating success, that he acquired the
appellation of "the brave and fortunate." On the
accession of George I. he was dismissed from all
employ, and retired into private life. The veteran
died in 1720, and was buried in a family vault in
Stepney Church. His son, Captain Richard Leake,
who died a few months before him, seems to have
been a worthless profligate, who married disgracefully, ran through his money, and then lived on his
father. His nativity had, it is said, been cast by
his grandfather, who pronounced that he would be
very vicious, very fortunate, so far as prize-money
was concerned, and very unhappy.
The living of Stepney was held by Archbishop
Segrave and Bishop Fox (the founder of Corpus
Christi College, Oxford). Of the Stepney district
churches St. Philip's is said to have been the first
district Gothic church built in the east of London.
It was erected in 1829, at a cost of £7,000. There
is also a synagogue and Jews' burial-ground at
Stepney, and numerous almshouses and hospitals,
such as Deacon's City Paupers' House, the German
and Portuguese Jews' Hospitals, Drapers' Hospital,
Trinity Almshouses, Gibson's, or Cooper's Almshouses.
In 1372 the rectory of Stepney was valued at
sixty marks a year, and the vicarage at twelve.
In the Parliamentary survey, taken in 1650, the
vicarage is set down at the value of £70 per
annum. The ancient rectory stood near the east
end of the church; and in Lysons' time the brick
wall which enclosed the site still remained.
Colet, the founder of St. Paul's School, and the
sworn friend of Erasmus, was vicar here, and still
resided in Stepney after being made Dean of St.
Paul's. Sir Thomas More, writing to him, then
abroad, says, "If the discommodities of the City
offend you, yet may the country about your parish
of Stepney afford you the like delights to those
which that affords you wherein you now keepe."
The dean's house was at the north end of White
Horse Street, Ratcliffe. Upon his founding St.
Paul's School he gave it to the head-master as a
country residence; but Stepney having in a great
measure lost its rural delights, the masters have
not resided there for many years. The site (now
two messuages called Colet Place) was, in Lysons'
time, still let for their advantage. In the front was
a bust of the dean.
Richard Pace, who was presented to the vicarage
in 1519, had been in the service of Cardinal Bainbridge, who having recommended him at Court,
the king had made him Secretary of State, and
employed him in matters of the highest importance.
He was afterwards made Dean of St. Paul's, but
kept the vicarage till 1527, when he was sent as
ambassador to Venice. Whilst there he either
thwarted some plan of Wolsey's, or did not lend
himself enough to the ambitious schemes of that
proud cardinal, for he fell into disgrace, and at his
return was thrown into the Tower for two years.
These misfortunes affected his brain, and he suffered from mental disease, from which he never
wholly recovered. After his release he retired to
Stepney, where he died in 1532, and was buried in
the church, near the great altar. Erasmus, who
was a friend of Pace's, speaks highly of his amiable
character, his pleasant manner, and his integrity.
He wrote a book on the unlawfulness of King
Henry's marriage with the widow of his brother
Arthur, a Preface to Ecclesiastes, and some Latin
epistles and sermons. William Jerome, presented
to the vicarage of Stepney in 1537, was executed
in 1540 on a charge of heresy.
Roger Crab, gent., one of the old celebrities of
Bethnal Green, and who was buried at Stepney, September 14, 1680, was one of the eccentric characters
of the seventeenth century. The most we know
of him is from a pamphlet, now very rare, written
principally by himself, and entitled, "The English
Hermit; or, the Wonder of the Age." It appears
from this publication that he had served seven
years in the Parliamentary army, and had his skull
cloven to the brain in their service; for which he
was so ill requited that he was once sentenced
to death by the Lord Protector, and afterwards
suffered two years' imprisonment. When he had
obtained his release he set up a shop at Chesham
as a haberdasher of hats. He had not been
long settled there before he began to imbibe a
strange notion, that it was a sin against his body
and soul to eat any sort of flesh, fish, or living
creature, or to drink wine, ale, or beer. Thinking
himself at the same time obliged to follow literally
the injunction to the young man in the Gospel,
he quitted business, and disposing of his property,
gave it to the poor, reserving to himself only a
small cottage at Ickenham, where he resided, and
a rood of land for a garden, on the produce of
which he subsisted at the expense of three farthings
a week, his food being bran, herbs, roots, dockleaves, mallows, and grass; his drink, water. How
such an extraordinary change of diet agreed with his
constitution the following passage from his pamphlet
will show, and give, at the same time, a specimen of
the work:—" Instead of strong drinks and wines, I
give the old man a cup of water; and instead of rost
mutton and rabbets, and other dainty dishes, I give
him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made
with bran and turnip-leaves chopt together, and
grass; at which the old man (meaning my body),
being moved, would know what he had done, that I
used him so hardly; then I show'd him his transgression: so the warres began; the law of the old
man in my fleshly members rebelled against the
law of my mind, and had a shrewd skirmish; but
the mind, being well enlightened, held it so that
the old man grew sick and weak with the flux, like
to fall to the dust; but the wonderful love of God,
well pleased with the battle, raised him up again,
and filled him full of love, peace, and content of
mind, and he is now become more humble; for now
he will eat dock-leaves, mallows, or grass." The
pamphlet was published in 1655. Prefixed to it is
a portrait of the author, cut in wood, which, from
its rarity, bears a very high price. Over the print
are these lines—
"Roger Crab that feeds on herbs and roots is here;
Blut believe Diogenes had better cheer.
Rara avis in terris."
A passage in this man's epitaph seems to intimate
that he never resumed the use of animal food. It
is not one of the least extraordinary parts of his
history that he should so long have subsisted on a
diet which, by his own account, had reduced him
almost to a skeleton in 1655. It appears that he
resided at Bethnal Green at the time of his decease.
A very handsome tomb was erected to his memory
in the churchyard at this place, which being decayed, the ledger-stone was placed in the pathway
leading across the churchyard to White Horse
Street. Strype says of the man, "This Crab, they
say, was a Philadelphian, a sweet singer."
A congregation of Protestant Dissenters was
established in Stepney in the year 1644 by William
Greenhill, who was afterwards vicar of Stepney.
He was ejected soon after the Restoration, and
was succeeded by Matthew Mead. This eminent
Puritan divine was appointed to the cure of the
new chapel at Shadwell by Cromwell, but in 1662,
being ejected for nonconformity, succeeded Greenhill as pastor of the Dissenting congregation at
Stepney. In 1683, being accused of being privy
to the Rye House Plot, he fled to Holland till the
danger was over. He was author of the "Young
Man's Remembrancer," "The Almost Christian
Tried and Cast," "The Good of Early Obedience,"
"A Sermon on Ezekiel's Wheels," and several other
single sermons. His son Richard, the celebrated
physician, who for nearly half a century was at the
head of his profession, author of several valuable
medical treatises, and possessor of one of the
most valuable collection of books, MSS., antiques,
paintings, &c., that ever centered in a private individual, was born at Stepney, in the apartments
over the ancient brick gateway opposite the rectory, August 11th, 1673. He first began practice
in 1696, at his native place, in the very house
where he was born, and met with that success
which was a prognostic of his future eminence. Dr.
Mead died in the year 1754, and was buried in the
Temple Church. The meeting-house was erected
in 1674 for Mr. Mead, who, in the ensuing year,
instituted the May-day sermons, for the benefit of
Shadwell was separated from the parish of
Stepney in the year 1669; St. George's-in-the-East,
in the year 1727; Spitalfields, in 1729; Limehouse, in 1730; Stratford-Bow, the same year;
and Bethnal Green, in 1743.
Sir Thomas Lake, who was afterwards Secretary
of State to James I., resided at Stepney in 1595;
Isabel, Countess of Rutland, had a seat there in
1596; Nathaniel Bailey, author of the useful and
well-known English Dictionary, "An Account of
London," and other works, lived at Stepney; Capt.
Griffiths, an ancient Briton, who, by the gallant and
extraordinary recovery of his fishing-boat from a
French frigate, attracted the notice of King William
IV., and became afterwards captain of a man-of-war,
was an inhabitant of Stepney, and was buried there.
He was known by the name of "Honour and Glory
Griffiths," from the circumstance, it is said, of his
addressing his letters to "their Honours and Glories
at the Admiralty." There was also at Stepney, in
Lysons' time, an old gateway of a large mansion
that once belonged to Henry, the first Marquis of
Worcester. An engraving of this very interesting
specimen of old brickwork will be found on
It is an old tradition of the East End of London
that all children born at sea belong to Stepney
parish. The old rhyme runs—
"He who sails on the wide sea
Is a parishioner of Stepney."
This rather wide claim on the parochial funds has
often been made by paupers who have been born
at sea, and who used to be gravely sent to Stepney
from all parts of the country; but various decisions
of the superior courts have at different times decided against the traditional law.