A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.
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SETTLEMENT AND BUILDING TO c. 1700
In the 8th century b.c. there were huts and pits in Mile End Old Town, west of the site of the parish church. (fn. 1) Burials took place in the 1st and 2nd centuries a.d. in Spitalfields and between the Minories and Back Church Lane, Whitechapel, (fn. 2) and in the 3rd century farther from London in Shadwell north of Ratcliff Highway and west of Love Lane. (fn. 3) A Roman signal station at the junction of Ratcliff Highway and Wapping Lane may have had a small garrison in the late 3rd century, but the site was not occupied again until the 17th. (fn. 4) At Old Ford, between Old Ford Road and the railway at Morville Road, a settlement apparently occupied by the later 3rd century included burials, and along the south side of the Roman road, between the modern Lefevre and Armagh roads, pebbled yards and possibly a tile-kiln were part of an area used for commerce and the slaughter of cattle. (fn. 5) The settlement was abandoned, as was the road, in the first decade of the 5th century, and the site was not settled again until the 19th. (fn. 6)
The inclusion in the Domesday vill of Stepney of a wide area north and east of London prevents any estimate of the population of the parish from the numbers of husbandmen. Saxon and early medieval archaeological levels were largely destroyed by medieval gravelquarrying. No post-Roman occupation has been shown on surviving levels near the City before the late 11th or 12th centuries, (fn. 7) nor by the few excavations farther east until c. 1300. (fn. 8)
Evidence for Saxon settlement is etymological. The first reference to Stepney is to men of the bishop of London's estate (vill) of Stybbanhythe c. 1000, (fn. 9) recording a hithe or landing-place either on the Thames or the Lea. Since the place-names Old Ford and Stratford are associated with the Lea, while the name Stepney has always been linked with the southwest quarter of the parish, the hithe was probably on the gravel at Ratcliff Cross, one of the few sites below London Bridge suitable for landing before the marshes were embanked and wharfed. (fn. 10) The landing-place was most likely the site of the earliest settlement, and probably the most noteworthy feature in the area, since by 1086 its name was given to the bishop's extensive vill and manor, which probably predated the parishes. (fn. 11) By the 13th century the name was usually a variation of Stubanee or Stibanhe; later Stubbanheth became usual, gradually giving way to Stepney in the 16th and 17th centuries. (fn. 12) The manor was formally known as Stebunheath alias Stepney from the 18th century, and Stebunheath was the placename included in a barony created in 1906. (fn. 13)
Bethnal Green may also suggest AngloSaxon settlement. (fn. 14) Wapping was formerly thought to record a settlement linked to a personal name Waeppa; (fn. 15) more recently, however, it has been thought to derive from wapol, a marsh, as the area was almost entirely marshland, where early settlement was unlikely, and no such personal name has been found. (fn. 16)
Early evidence for Stepney's scattered settlements is thin. Freehold land transactions, recorded in the 12th century and numerous in the 13th, rarely included buildings until the 14th century, suggesting that settlement before 1300 was light; (fn. 17) records of customary land transactions, however, have not survived. The vigorous land market indicates economic importance but, as many of the parties were Londoners, may not necessarily indicate a rising local population. Landholders included Salomon of Stepney from the 1140s, and Bernard of Stepney in 1178. Between 1163 and 1187 Ralph the clerk, of Stepney, was granted a house in Stepney which had assarted land to the west and south, with land his father Elfsus had held there. (fn. 18) By the mid 13th century several Londoners had Stebbenheth as a cognomen, including the prominent citizen and fishmonger John de Stebbenheth (d. 1281). (fn. 19)
Mills, of great economic significance to Stepney and the only buildings noted in 1066, were tidal and, until the 16th or 17th centuries, isolated among the riverside marshes. The bishop and his tenants had seven mills in the vill in 1086, including some of those standing later on the Lea and the Thames. (fn. 20) Sathewell or Shadwell mill existed before 1198, with a messuage by 1223; its holder Brice of Stepney (d. c. 1216) was also 'of Shadwell', where he may have lived. (fn. 21) Wapping mill was named in 1218, (fn. 22) Old Ford mill in 1230, (fn. 23) and the Cressemills or Crash mills on the Thames on the boundary between Whitechapel and St. Botolph Aldgate in 1233. (fn. 24)
In addition to mills in Old Ford and Stratford Bow, an early building near the Lea was the convent of St. Leonard's, founded between 1086 and 1122, which stood slightly south of the main road and Bow bridge in what became the parish of Bromley. (fn. 25)
The location and size of early medieval settlements have largely to be inferred. A survey of c. 1400 distinguished customary tenements owing smokepennies, helpennies, and suit of court, from other messuages and cottages, especially those lining the Colchester road at Whitechapel and Stratford, which owed only a small moneyrent and which were therefore probably more recent. (fn. 26) Receipts by the bishop of 34s. 2d. for aid and wardpenny from Stepney in 1228, and 100s. 9d. for helpenny and wardpenny at Stepney in 1243, (fn. 27) make it likely that tenements owing such dues existed by the early 13th century. No tenements held for smokepennies are listed along the highway at Algatestreet (Whitechapel), which was probably open waste until the 13th century, and much of the free land nearby belonged to messuages in St. Botolph Aldgate in the 12th century and later. (fn. 28) A free messuage formerly belonging to Emma de la Milaunde may indicate some settlement at Mile End by the mid 13th century; (fn. 29) evidence for customary tenements there is lacking.
The bishop's manor house of Stepney and Hackney existed by 1207, (fn. 30) apparently isolated in his woods near the Hackney boundary. Not far away, however, beside the highway from Mile End to Hackney lay Bethnal green, where settlement is suggested by mention of a Reimund of Blithenhal before 1216 and of a house at 'Blithehale' in the mid 13th century. (fn. 31)
Stepney church stood roughly midway between the Thames and the Colchester road by 1180, (fn. 32) and may imply a parsonage and possibly other residents nearby. Excavations in Stepney High Street opposite the church showed no trace of habitation between 700 B.C. and c. 1300, (fn. 33) but two customary cottages owing smokepennies lay on the west side of the churchyard, in Churchstreet, possibly a sign of building on land that was later part of the cemetery. Dues were also owed by a tenement in Spilmanstreet and by at least 6 tenements in Clevestreet running south from the church, but by none in Ratcliff ('Redecleve'). (fn. 34) A limited excavation near Ratcliff Cross revealed no settlement before the 15th century. (fn. 35)
There were 3 tenements owing smokepennies at Forbystreet, east of Ratcliff; by 1335 the 'limehostes' or kilns stood nearby, later giving the name Limehouse to the whole area. (fn. 36) A little to the east, however, Poplar had many more early tenements: c. 30 along the high street and to the north of it (Northstreet), 9 at Westwall or nearby, and 11 at Newbiggin. (fn. 37) In 1200 it included the estate that became the manor of Poplar, with a capital messuage, 6 free tenants, and 5 customary tenants. (fn. 38) William of Pontefract had a house in Stepney, presumably the later manor house of Pomfret at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs, where he built a chapel between 1163 and 1180. Complaints about diminished dues at the parish church suggest that the chapel was used by local residents, possibly Pomfret's customary tenants. (fn. 39) There were also three early customary tenements of Stepney manor in the marsh. (fn. 40)
The presence of the bishops and embarkations to the continent brought important visitors. Edward I often stayed in Stepney, (fn. 41) and held a parliament there in 1299. (fn. 42) To Stow's statement that it met at the house of Henry le Waleys (d. 1301), (fn. 43) mayor of London and a prominent royal servant, (fn. 44) later writers have added that the house was on Stepney Green (a 19th-century name) and that Edward paid other visits there. (fn. 45) No contemporary records associated Henry le Waleys with Stepney, although his son Augustine of Uxbridge had property in the parish in 1315. (fn. 46)
Henry's house has been identified with several buildings, such as Colet's Great Place and King John's Palace, which were substantially 15thcentury or later. More likely is the 17th-century Red Bull opposite the west end of the church and perhaps medieval: fine pottery dated c. 1270 to 1350 from south-west France, with which le Waleys had close links, was excavated beside the inn's likely site. (fn. 47) Edward I also visited Shadwell in 1291, and Pomfret in 1302, about the time a royal servant, John Abel, acquired it. (fn. 48)
The extensive waste known as Mile End green along the Colchester road also acquired prominence, chiefly as an assembly place of Londoners. In 1299 a London carpenter was accused of holding a 'parliament' of carpenters there to oppose a City ordinance. (fn. 49) Insurgents camped at Mile End during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, when Richard II rode out to hear their grievances, (fn. 50) and during Jack Cade's rebellion in 1450. (fn. 51) In the 16th century it was used for training the City militia, (fn. 52) and in the 1640s a fort was built on the Whitechapel boundary. (fn. 53) The green was gradually reduced, particularly from the late 16th century, by grants of small parcels for building. (fn. 54)
Residents' names in the late 13th century included Ateclive, possibly connected with Ratcliff, and Atewell, (fn. 55) but it is not known where they lived. From c. 1300 messuages without land, and 'shops' (workshops), were conveyed, (fn. 56) and from the mid 14th century not only freehold but customary lands changed hands frequently. Almost all the freeholders also held customary land. Prominent citizens and courtiers acquired substantial estates, with residences dateable only from the 14th century but perhaps older. (fn. 57) The lay subsidy of 1334 indicates either a large or a wealthy population: Stepney's payment, specifically including Stratford and probably also Whitechapel which is not mentioned elsewhere, was the highest in Middlesex and nearly twice Westminster's, although the rate and distribution of the taxation are not known and Westminster's figure may have excluded payments for its extensive ecclesiastical lands. (fn. 58) A population of 1,005 aged over 16 is indicated by the poll-tax return of 1377 for Stepney, Stratford, Haliwellstreet (Shoreditch High Street), and Whitechapel. (fn. 59) Such figures suggest that most people lived near the City (Haliwellstreet, Whitechapel), or near the Thames (Stepney) and the Lea (Stratford). By 1320 records for Stepney no longer included Whitechapel, which had become a parish, (fn. 60) although it still appeared in Stepney's manorial records.
When, by 1282, the white chapel by Aldgate was built on the roadside waste between Aldgate bars and Mile End, (fn. 61) the road west of it was presumably already lined on both sides with the dwellings which were there in 1400, owing money rents to Stepney manor. No dwellings are indicated, however, in the southern part of Whitechapel parish. (fn. 62) Similarly Wapping and Shadwell, apart from their mills and associated buildings, were still fields.
Whitechapel's boundary seems to have been drawn up to exclude all the buildings then at Mile End, where the green was so wide that buildings stood well back from the road. On the south side of the highway immediately east of the Whitechapel boundary stood Hulls manor house by the mid 14th century; Ashwyes manor house, recorded in 1324, stood close by. On the north side east of Cambridge Heath Road and opposite the road to Stepney church stood Mewes, possibly by 1330. (fn. 63) Two or three tenements, including that of Sir John Cobham, who held the manor of Cobhams (in existence in 1368), stood on the south side of Mile End green north-west of the church, (fn. 64) and others may have stood on the east side of the road leading to the church. Another group of messuages and gardens lay on the south side of Mile End Road east of White Horse Lane by 1325 and included workshops by 1364. (fn. 65)
Both free and copyhold messuages also stood on the north side of Stepney churchyard, some inhabited by prominent landowners. (fn. 66) The rectory house stood at the east end of the church by c. 1390. (fn. 67) In addition to the early customary tenements, there were 13 tenements and cottages in Clevestreet and cottages covering 1 a. at Ratcliff by c. 1400. (fn. 68) A road laid at the junction of Cable Street and Butcher Row in the 14th or 15th centuries was metalled and so perhaps was connected with shipbuilding at Ratcliff, (fn. 69) where by the 1350s timber was brought for vessels for the king; a ship was built at Limehouse for the duke of Bedford in 1421. (fn. 70)
Settlements in 1348-9 were Mile End, Stratford, Old Ford, Algatestreet (the early name for Whitechapel High Street), Marsh (in the Isle of Dogs, probably at Pomfret and the chapel at the southern end), and Poplar. (fn. 71) Forbylane and Lymestreet (Forbystreet, the nucleus of settlement in Limehouse), Clevestreet (the nucleus of Ratcliff), and Blethenale (later Bethnal green) were mentioned in 1405. (fn. 72) Transactions apparently concerning existing or former dwellings specified only Stepney, Algatestreet, Stratford, and Haliwellstreet in 1348-9, but specified Limehouse (Lymhostes), Old Ford, Ratcliff (Redeclyve), and Mile End in 1383. (fn. 73)
Although the dean and chapter's manor of Shadwell had several tenants owing quitrents, the land around the mill, which later formed the parish of Shadwell, was held in demesne, and the mill and messuage were the only buildings there c. 1400. The house, where Edward I stayed in 1291, (fn. 74) had a hall, chamber, solar, offices and outbuildings in 1334. (fn. 75)
At the southern end of Forbystreet lay the dock, the limekilns in use by 1335, and a mill for grinding the chalk. (fn. 76) By 1400 in addition to the 3 early customary tenements there stood another tenement, 6 cottages, and 5 limekilns held for money rent. (fn. 77)
Poplar street and some adjoining lanes were lined with at least 50 tenements and cottages by 1400. Such dense settlement was perhaps due to the anchorage at Blackwall, used by travellers and for military embarkations. (fn. 78) Poplar manor house on the north side of Poplar High Street, probably the capital messuage of 1200, was a residence of Sir John Pulteney, who was lord by 1339; the Black Prince used it as a residence during the 1350s and Sir Nicholas Lovayne in the 1360s. (fn. 79) The customary tenements at Westwall and Newbiggin, beside a few other unlocated tenements, also lay in Poplar and the Isle of Dogs. At the south end of the isle 12 customary tenants of Pomfret in 1322 probably lived near the manor house, where a settlement existed until it was flooded in the mid 15th century. Stepney manor had a newly built hamstall there with its earlier customary tenements. (fn. 80)
In 1443 the pledges in Stepney manor came from Marsh, Poplar, Clevestreet and Brookstreet, Lymestreet and Forbylane, Mile End, Brochenale (Bethnal green), Stratford, Old Ford, Algatestreet, and Haliwellstreet, in each of which the assize of bread or of ale had been broken. (fn. 81) Up to that time Stepney, after the exclusion of Whitechapel, seems to have had a small population for its size, despite interest in acquiring land there. In particular, the long and piecemeal rebuilding of the church does not suggest a rich community. (fn. 82)
Courtiers' and citizens' residences multiplied in the 15th and early 16th centuries. South-west of the church the copyhold cottage which became the Mercers' Great Place was built in the mid 15th century by a London citizen and improved by Sir Henry Colet (d. 1505) and afterwards by Thomas Cromwell. (fn. 83) King John's Palace (Worcester House) had a imposing gateway of the early 16th century and this, or another house to the north-west, may have been Fenne's great place, let to Lord Darcy in the 1520s. (fn. 84) Three messuages and gardens on the south side of Mile End Road were bought for Henry VIII and granted to Sir John Neville, being rebuilt as his residence. (fn. 85)
By the late 16th century many copyholders were knights and gentry. (fn. 86) It was less the influx of wealthy outsiders, however, than the growth of shipbuilding and the victualling trades that led to a more general rise in wealth and in population. The parish of Stepney had 1,720 communicants in 1548, (fn. 87) most of whom probably inhabited the riverside areas of Poplar and Ratcliff: in the 1650s, after considerable growth in Ratcliff and Shadwell, c. 40 per cent of the incumbent's income from Easter dues and small tithes still came from Poplar and Blackwall. (fn. 88) Estimated numbers in 1670s were c. 260 for Mile End, c. 550 for Spitalfields, 500 for Poplar, 2,000 for Ratcliff, and 2,000 for Wapping. No figures were given for Limehouse (possibly included with Ratcliff), Bethnal Green (possibly with Mile End), or Stratford Bow, but the rest form some guide to the distribution of settlement. (fn. 89) The parish church was often short of space from the late 16th century. (fn. 90)
Increasing population was associated with silkweaving in Spitalfields, mainly by immigrants from the late 16th century, and with maritime industries. (fn. 91) The latter had the strongest influence on the character of Stepney; Stow remarked on the growth of riverside building during his lifetime. (fn. 92) Although large ships were built at Limehouse and in the 17th century at the East India Co.'s dock at Blackwall, Stepney's ship builders worked mainly on small vessels and refits. Both royal and merchant ships were fitted out and victualled at Ratcliff in the 16th century, and later at Blackwall, involving a wide range of trades from butchery to rope-making, besides such specialized crafts as instrument-making. (fn. 93)
Several merchant seamen were among the parish vestrymen by the late 16th century. (fn. 94) Mariners such as William Borough (d. 1599) and John Vassall (d. 1625) were responsible for voyages of discovery, (fn. 95) while local seamen had travelled to the Far East by the early 17th century, (fn. 96) presumably contributing to the social unrest and religious nonconformity that became widespread in the parish. (fn. 97)
Disturbances and seditious rumours were often reported, perhaps because loose talk encouraged informers or because the government was worried by lack of control in a crowded maritime area. Examples of sedition confirmed official fears during most national crises, at the succession of Mary I, during the Protectorate, soon after the Restoration, and in the 1680s. (fn. 98) Many 'plots' in the late 17th century were connected with or blamed on nonconformist meetings; the extent of nonconformity after 1660 led to repression in Stepney more severe than anywhere else around London. (fn. 99)
Both masters and mariners in Stepney petitioned for exemption from taxation and musters, because they bore more of the cost of providing ships than other Londoners. (fn. 100) Fitting out royal ships led to impressment within the riverside hamlets in 1630, 1634-5, 1653, and 1672, and met resistance by masters of merchant ships. In 1634 owners and masters were ordered to deliver names, and from East Smithfield to Blackwall constables were to collect the names of all seamen, for delivery to Trinity House. (fn. 101) Unpaid seamen discharged from the navy rioted in 1626. (fn. 102) They were to be billetted in 1628 in the riverside hamlets until money could be found, but guards were needed to prevent disorder. (fn. 103) Seamen from Ratcliff, Limehouse, and Blackwall took part in disturbances in Southwark in 1640, in a mutiny downriver in 1648, and in a riot in Wapping and Tower Hill in 1653. (fn. 104) Apprentices also rioted, demolishing four houses at Wapping in 1617. (fn. 105)
Maritime importance brought peculiar problems. There was a high risk of plague off ships, as in 1602, and Stepney suffered particularly severely in 1624-6 and 1665. (fn. 106) Throughout the 17th century mariners were captured by Algerian pirates: 140 men from Stepney were taken from 22 merchant ships in 1670. (fn. 107) Kidnapping in the riverside hamlets was particularly prevalent 1657-63 and 1675-84, when men, women, or children were lured on board ships and sold in Barbados or Virginia. (fn. 108)