A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.
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The church of Stepney, which existed by 1154, (fn. 1) served the whole parish until the foundation of chapels of ease and private chapels from the 12th century and of independent parishes from the 14th (below). The suggestion in 1708 of an additional dedication led writers to assume the church was a Saxon foundation, rededicated to St. Dunstan after his canonization in 1029. (fn. 2) A groundless statement that Matthew Paris attributed the foundation to Dunstan (fn. 3) has often been repeated, (fn. 4) but the dedication to him may date from the Church's revived interest in him after 1093. (fn. 5)
The rectory was in the gift of the bishop of London until 1550. In 1380 the bishop was licensed by the king to appropriate the benefice with the advowsons of the vicarage and Whitechapel. (fn. 6) His successor was granted the appropriation by the pope for the bishop's term in office, and in 1391 in perpetuity on the rector's death, when a vicarage was to be endowed. (fn. 7) However, since the bishop continued to collate to the rectory, it may not in fact have been appropriated. (fn. 8)
In 1550 Nicholas Ridley relinquished the benefice with the manor to the king, who granted them to Thomas, Lord Wentworth. (fn. 9) The advowson remained with the Wentworths until 1695 but, as a result of leases of the rectory, (fn. 10) was often exercised by others in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sir Richard Williams alias Cromwell, who had inherited a grant of the next presentation made in 1538 to his uncle, Thomas Cromwell, (fn. 11) presented in 1544, Thomas Parsons and William Mongay or Mountjoy in 1558, and Thomas Preston in 1562. The bishop collated to the rectory in 1564 on the deprivation of Nicholas Aspinall. (fn. 12) The Crown presented in 1668-9, because of deprivation for simony, (fn. 13) and Philadelphia, Lady Wentworth, in 1681. (fn. 14)
In 1695 the freehold of the rectory and the advowsons of Stepney and Whitechapel were sold with the manor to trustees for William Herbert, Lord Montgomery. (fn. 15) Montgomery sold them in 1708 to Brasenose College, Oxford, (fn. 16) which also bought an outstanding grant of the next presentation to the vicarage, besides leases of the rectory and glebe. (fn. 17) The purchase was confirmed by an Act of 1710, (fn. 18) made necessary by uncertainty about Montgomery's title and the dependence of the patronage of Whitechapel on the rectory of Stepney. The Act secured payments from the benefice to support two scholars at the college, which had been the reason for the purchase, and provided for the amalgamation of the rectory and vicarage of Stepney, the vicar John Wright to become rector. It also confirmed to the college right of presentation to the chapel at Bow and to any new churches or chapels. (fn. 19) The advowson remained with Brasenose until exchanged in 1864 with the bishop of London, with whom it has remained. (fn. 20)
A vicar, Roger, was mentioned in 1233, although the first recorded institution was in 1326. (fn. 21) Presentations were made by the rector until 1534, except in 1456 and 1499 when the bishop presented, (fn. 22) and thereafter often by farmers of the rectory or grantees. They were made by the king in 1534 by grant of Sir Richard Layton and in 1540 on the vicar's attainder, by the farmer of the rectory Sir Richard Williams or his executors from 1544 to 1555, by the Crown in 1577 and 1603, by Nicholas Woodroffe and others in 1587, by the instituted rector, who presented himself, in 1593, by the farmers William Freeman (fn. 23) in 1598 and 1605 and Robert Dixon in 1634, and by D. Herbert and others in 1641. The earl of Cleveland presented in 1660 and his grantee Alexander Frazier in 1662. (fn. 24) The Crown presented in 1660 and 1661 due to lapse, and again in 1668 because of deprivation for simony. The last presentation before the amalgamation of the rectory and vicarage was by Thomas Wright in 1679.
The Act of 1710 allowed Brasenose to divide the amalgamated benefice after the death of John Wright, and present two of its Fellows as joint rectors, known as the portionist of Ratcliff Stepney and of Spitalfields Stepney respectively. They were to hold the benefice in common, officiating in alternate months. After payment of £106 a year to Brasenose, all income was shared equally, although Ratcliff paid the first fruits of the former rectory and Spitalfields those of the former vicarage. (fn. 25)
The value of the rectory was £40 in 1291, when only three other benefices in the archdeaconries of London, Middlesex, and Essex were worth more, (fn. 26) and also in 1535. (fn. 27) The bishop was said to give £40 to the parsonage in 1539, (fn. 28) but the reason is not clear. The rector received £50 a year in 1548, (fn. 29) and in the late 1640s the rectorial tithes were said to be worth £100, (fn. 30) at which sum Philadelphia, Lady Wentworth, valued the rectory in 1670. (fn. 31)
The vicarage was valued at £8 in 1291, (fn. 32) and £33 6s. 8d. in 1535, (fn. 33) which last amount the vicar received in 1548. (fn. 34) The vestry granted him the paschal money, 1d. a year paid by each communicant for bread and wine in addition to the offerings to the vicar, for 40s. c. 1556, increasing his payment to £4 a year in 1581 and £6 13s. 4d. in 1634, as a greater population made it more valuable. (fn. 35) Fees for marriages, churchings, and burials were agreed with the chief inhabitants c. 1613. (fn. 36) In 1650 the vicar's income came from an annual due of 3d. from each communicant, fees, and small tithes of 6d. for a cow and 1d. for a cock or hen: it was said to total only c. £75 because few paid the due and most christenings took place at home. In addition, parliament had ordered that the income from Poplar and Blackwall, amounting to £32, should be made over to support the minister at Stratford Bow chapel. (fn. 37) Before the amalgamation of the benefices, the Exchequer decreed that the vicar was entitled to 3s. 6d. for every garden, 20d. for every sow in pig, Easter dues of 3d. for every person aged over 16 except hired servants, besides a modus on vegetables, and 6d. for every cow. (fn. 38)
In 1729 Spitalfields became a separate parish under an Act which allotted annual payments from it of £50 to the portionists and £16 to the clerk of St. Dunstan's in respect of fees lost; small tithes were abolished and great tithes reserved to Brasenose. (fn. 39) Similarly, the Acts creating the parishes of St. George-in-the-East, St. Mary, Stratford Bow, and St. Anne, Limehouse, authorized payments of £50, £10, and £25 respectively to each portionist, and £13 from Wapping and £5 from Limehouse to the clerk. (fn. 40) With the creation of Bethnal Green parish in 1743 the payments came to an end: the portionist of Spitalfields became the first rector of St. Matthew, Bethnal Green, and the portionist of Ratcliff, Dr. Robert Leyborne, became sole rector of St. Dunstan's; the Bethnal Green clerk was to pay £12 a year to St. Dunstan's and the great tithes were again reserved to Brasenose. (fn. 41)
Income was greatly reduced by the creation of new parishes: the fees and Easter dues for Spitalfields, Wapping-Stepney, and Limehouse had yielded £523 c. 1698. (fn. 42) The net income of the rectory was only £150 in 1759, whereupon Brasenose reduced its reserved payment to £40, as permitted under the Act of 1710 after it had recouped the cost of purchasing the benefice. (fn. 43) The gradual impoverishment of a once rich benefice was not apparent from official valuations of £600 gross in the 1780s (fn. 44) and £1,318 in 1831: (fn. 45) the second figure included £700 in surplice fees, which fluctuated widely, and Easter dues and tithes, which were hard to collect and in decline. (fn. 46)
The rector received all the great tithes, in the form of a composition for each acre of wheat and rye (5s.), other grain (4s.), hay (2s. 6d.) and pasture (4d.), and for each milch cow (6d.). (fn. 47) Their value dwindled as pasture replaced arable and building replaced pasture, amounting in 1810 to c. £230, less £70 for expenses and the poor rate for Bow; on commutation in 1849 only 218½ a. remained tithable, producing a rent charge of £50. (fn. 48) Fixed payments, paid from 1803 to compensate for the loss of tithe caused by building roads, docks, and canals, provided a fifth of the income in 1850. (fn. 49)
In 1842 the new rector complained that Brasenose had estimated his income, excluding Easter dues, at £1,125 a year, whereas the fees amounted to only £435 a year and the income from all sources to £701. After paying nearly £70 to the college (the £40 reserved, £10 10s. rent for an addition to the glebe bought by the college in 1831, and an annual charge for the land tax redeemed on behalf of the incumbent in 1801), besides £250 to two curates, he was left with only £381. He claimed that one curate was wholly occupied in collecting trifling fees and attending to certain duties which seemed to be almost peculiar to Stepney. (fn. 50)
In 1850 the income was £963 a year, including £493 in fees, £204. in tithe compensations from docks and roads, £100 in chancel pew rents, £40 in Easter dues, and £90 in tithes. Leasing of the glebe in 1865 produced £200 a year in ground rent. In 1896 the income was only £522 (including the ground rent, £172 tithe corn-rents, £50 in lieu of pew rents, and £80 in fees); outgoings included £67 10s. to Brasenose and left only £305 net. (fn. 51) The bishop sought to augment it in 1914 from the revenues of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and in 1934, when £55 a year was added, he asked that Stepney, as the mother church of East London, should have first claim on any unexpected increase in revenue from a City church in his gift. (fn. 52) Payments to Brasenose continued after its surrender of the patronage, and puzzled and irritated every new incumbent. (fn. 53) The charge for the land tax was paid off by Queen Anne's Bounty in 1932; (fn. 54) the sums of £40 and £10 10s. were still payable in 1946, (fn. 55) although they were probably redeemed before the benefice was reorganized in 1951.
Rectory and vicarage houses.
The gate of the rectory lay opposite Churchfield on the east side of the church c. 1380, as in the 17th century. (fn. 56) A lease of the rectory for 80 years made to Thomas Cromwell was inherited by his nephew Sir Richard Williams, (fn. 57) one of whose executors, the rector Gabriel Donne, was allowed by his fellow executors to occupy the parsonage house in 1545 as long as he kept it repaired and performed Sir Richard's will. (fn. 58) The house had an orchard, garden, and yard enclosed by a mud wall in 1610, (fn. 59) and was shown in 1615 as a substantial building east of the church, with a large barn to the south. (fn. 60) It was farmed with the rest of the rectory in the early 17th century, and later leased to Lord Cleveland; (fn. 61) the conveyance of the house by Cleveland's creditors in 1660 probably concerned his leasehold interest. (fn. 62) It was again leased with the glebe by the rector to Edward Northey and Samuel Knowles in 1691. (fn. 63) The house, an adjoining dwelling, and pasture, was then sublet to the vicar and other trustees for 99 years or the three lives in the head lease, its use to be decided by the vestry. A brick wall on the north side of the parsonage, dividing it from the former house of Lady Wentworth, was to be rebuilt. (fn. 64)
A vicarage house in 1610 had a garden, orchard and c. 3 a. adjoining; (fn. 65) in 1650 only the house and orchard were mentioned. (fn. 66) It lay on the west side of White Horse Lane near the later Stepney Green in 1703, (fn. 67) and was occupied by the vicar John Wright, who continued there when he also became rector in 1710. Under the Act of 1710, after Wright's death the portionist of Spitalfields was to have the vicarage until the parishioners could buy another house for him, while the portionist of Ratcliff would occupy the parsonage house after the end of the 1691 lease. (fn. 68)
After 1743 two houses were no longer necessary. In 1763 Brasenose petitioned to demolish the rectory house, described as three or four cottages and other mean buildings, all ruinous, and spend the money from their materials on the vicarage house. (fn. 69) In 1795 only the brick wall around the old rectory house survived (fn. 70) and in 1854 its site of c. ¾ a. became part of the churchyard. (fn. 71) The rector, Dr. Ralph Cawley, built a new house in 1763-4 largely at his own expense, at the corner of White Horse Lane facing the road leading to the church, the old vicarage also being demolished and its site thrown into the grounds. (fn. 72) In 1843 a new rectory was built in White Horse Lane behind the old one, which had become dilapidated, darkened by trees, and a hindrance to building on the glebe. (fn. 73) The rectory house in the late 19th century contained parish and club rooms, which were converted into a flat for curates in 1923 with grants from the City Parochial Charities Fund. (fn. 74) Sold to the London Diocesan Fund in 1987, (fn. 75) the building was converted in 1989 into nine leasehold flats called the Rosery. (fn. 76)
Medieval church life.
Henry, canon of St. Paul's, held the living 1163 × c. 1179, although an earlier rector may have been John of Canterbury, who disputed Stepney and other benefices with the bishop in 1154. In the Middle Ages the rectory, a valuable sinecure after the vicarage was established, was held by prominent churchmen. (fn. 77) John of Silverstone, canon of St. Paul's, rector 1294-9, bequeathed a rent charge for a chantry in St. Dunstan's. (fn. 78) Stephen of Gravesend (d. 1338), nephew of Richard of Gravesend, bishop of London, and a prebendary of St. Paul's, was rector in 1303, in 1306 when given leave of absence for study, and in 1311; he himself became bishop of London in 1318. (fn. 79) Stephen Segrave (d. 1333), rector from 1315 and later archbishop of Armagh, was succeeded by Richard of Baldock, who was rector in 1324 (fn. 80) and 1326. (fn. 81) In 1325, however, the pope provided the Frenchman Gaucelin Jean Deuza, cardinal and later bishop of Alba, to the rectory, and he held it until his death in 1348. (fn. 82) Richard of Saham, ambassador, petitioned the pope for the rectory in 1348, and received dispensation to hold it with another benefice. (fn. 83) His successor Robert Crull, rector 1368-1406, went to Ireland on royal service in 1391 and 1393. (fn. 84) Both John of Silverstone and Richard of Saham sometimes resided in Stepney, (fn. 85) and the bishops' possession of a residence led to use of the church for such functions as ordinations, including one by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1303. (fn. 86)
Vicars included John atte Lee, who in 1352 was also parson of St. Margaret, Friday Street (Lond.), (fn. 87) and John Frere, who was also rector of St. Swithun's (Lond.) at his death c. 1408. (fn. 88) John Colet, vicar from 1499 or later until 1505, became dean of St. Paul's and founded St. Paul's school. (fn. 89)
Chaplains assisted or substituted for the incumbents. William, chaplain of Stepney, witnessed charters 1189 × 1199, (fn. 90) and other parish chaplains, usually named, were mentioned from 1374. (fn. 91) In addition to the rector and vicar, a celebrant and a clerk paid the poll tax in 1381. (fn. 92) Wills indicated more than one chaplain in 1377 and generally at least two clerks. (fn. 93)
A chapel was built in the later 12th century by William of Pontefract during the absence of the rector, who claimed loss of income. William appealed to the pope, with whom the archbishop of Canterbury discussed the case 1163 × c. 1179. (fn. 94) The advowson of the chapel of Pountfreyt was part of the perquisites of the estate formerly belonging to the Pontefract family when it was sold in 1302. (fn. 95) It is therefore likely that the chapel of St. Mary in the marsh, first mentioned in 1380, (fn. 96) was the Pontefracts' chapel. It has been identified with remains visible near the southern end of the Isle of Dogs in 1857, (fn. 97) probably also the site of the manor house of Pomfret which was in ruins in 1362. (fn. 98) Several testators between 1380 and 1447, many living 'in the marsh', mentioned the chapel, with its high altar, east window, and image of St. Mary, and also the chaplains and clerks. (fn. 99) The chapel was probably abandoned during the flood of 1448 which destroyed the settlement in the Isle of Dogs: (fn. 100) the last reference was in an undated will proved in 1447, at about the time of the first bequests to the fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the parish church (below), which may therefore have taken the chapel's place in local devotion. (fn. 101)
The white chapel stood by 1282 outside the bars at Aldgate (fn. 102) and by 1320 served the new parish of St. Mary Matfelon, Whitechapel, whose vicarage was in the gift of the rector of Stepney. (fn. 103) In 1311 the inhabitants of Stratford Bow and Old Ford received permission to build a chapel in the highway near Stratford bridge (Bow bridge) because of difficulties in reaching Stepney church. (fn. 104) Inhabitants could be buried at Stratford Bow and by 1497 were withholding contributions to the parish church. Having been cited by the other hamlets before the bishop's commissary court, they were ordered to attend Stepney church twice a year and pay 24s. a year towards repairs and other dues, but were excused from serving as officers. (fn. 105) Thereafter Stratford Bow, whose annual payment never increased, was usually treated as a separate parish. There was also a chapel of St. Katharine on Bow bridge itself in 1344. (fn. 106)
Permission to have a portable altar was granted in 1435 to the vicar Nicholas Norton and in 1451 to a local landowner, William Chedworth. (fn. 107) Among other indications of increased religious activity from the mid 15th century were bequests to the fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary from 1446, (fn. 108) extensive rebuilding in the church including a new south aisle with a chapel to St. Mary in the 1460s, and bequests for the statues and altars of five other saints. (fn. 109) The fraternity continued in the 16th century, and bequests to the fraternity of Our Lady and St. Anne were especially common in the 1520s. (fn. 110) St. George's chapel, which stood on the waste at Bethnal green and received 20s. from the king in 1512, may have been a hermitage. (fn. 111)
Amy or Anne Stephyn (possibly Stepkyn) left a house in Blackwall in 1460 to provide a chantry. (fn. 112) Richard Etgoos of Limehouse in 1503 required his executors to continue payments of 20s. a year for 10 years for a priest in St. Dunstan's if three neighbours continued likewise; alternatively, a chantry priest was to be paid 9 marks a year for two years. Thomas Taylor, priest, received a bequest from Richard's widow Alice in 1504. (fn. 113) The sole obit recorded in 1548 was supported by a tenement in Forby Street, Limehouse. (fn. 114)
Church life in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Prominent 16th-century vicars included Richard Pace (d. 1536), 1519-27, dean of St. Paul's and frequently an envoy overseas, who was buried in Stepney church. (fn. 115) His successor Richard Sampson (d. 1554), a member of Cardinal Wolsey's household who held other preferments, resigned in 1534 on receiving the rectory of Hackney, and became successively bishop of Chichester and of Coventry and Lichfield. (fn. 116) Miles Willan, canon of Windsor, was presented by the king in 1534 but was deprived that year, probably for not reporting treasonable words. (fn. 117) Simon Heynes (d. 1552), vicar 1535-7, rector of Fulham and canon of Windsor, went on an embassy and was later dean of Exeter. (fn. 118) William Jerome, vicar 1537-40, preached at court but was executed as a Lutheran in 1540 at the time of Thomas Cromwell's fall. (fn. 119) Anthony Anderson (d. 1593), vicar 1587-93, the theological writer and preacher, held other livings, (fn. 120) and George Goldman, vicar 1605-34, became archdeacon of Essex. (fn. 121)
Several leading residents clashed with Henry More, vicar 1545-54 and formerly the last abbot of St. Mary Graces, when he tried to prevent protestant preaching, and More was taken up before Archbishop Cranmer by Edward Underhill (d. 1562), the 'hot gospeller' who had come to live in Limehouse. Underhill was imprisoned under Mary, as was a protestant neighbour Thomas Ivey, the high constable, and moved away from Stepney to avoid More and others, including one whom he called the spy for Stepney parish. (fn. 122) Marian protestants met in Stepney, as elsewhere around London, in a group numbering from 20 to 200 and including Frenchmen and Dutchmen; locations included Church's house by the river in Wapping (Whitechapel), the King's Head, Ratcliff, and the Swan, Limehouse. (fn. 123)
Separatist meetings continued in the parish and included both mariners exposed to new ideas abroad and religious refugees; some congregations formed nonconformist churches in the late 17th century. (fn. 124) Brownists or Barrowists led by Francis Johnson in the 1580s and 1590s used many of the same meeting places as the Marian protestants; members included three shipwrights from Wapping, and the house of one Lewes in Stepney was also used for meetings. (fn. 125) John Penry (d. 1593), printer of the Martin Marprelate tracts, joined the congregation in 1592 when it was meeting near Stepney; his recognition by the vicar led to his arrest at Ratcliff and execution. (fn. 126) Richard Lacy, tailor, buried in Stepney churchyard in 1608, was described on his grave as a 'stubborn Brownist'; although he was not otherwise recorded among the separatists, his surname occurred among them in the 1560s and 1580s. (fn. 127) The first Arminian or General Baptist church in England was formed in 1612 in Spitalfields, where Thomas Helwys settled on his return from Amsterdam. (fn. 128) It continued under John Murton and may have been the group meeting in 1626. (fn. 129)
The former playwright Stephen Gosson (d. 1624) was appointed lecturer in 1585, preaching every Wednesday and catechizing on Sunday, and was paid £20 a year from a special rate and £10 by the rector; he became rector of Great Wigborough (Essex) in 1591. (fn. 130) Subsequent lecturers also acted as curates. (fn. 131) Other signs of the inhabitants' desire to control religious matters were the keeping of a permanent record of vestry orders from 1580, the setting and granting of the paschal money to each vicar, and readiness to proceed against a vicar who did not pay the set fee for it. (fn. 132)
Some of the Stepney residents prosecuted for absence from the parish church, attending conventicles in private houses, and being rebaptized (fn. 133) may have been members of the first Calvinistic or Particular Baptist church in England, formed in Wapping in 1633 by seceders from John Lathrop's Independent church which met in and around the City. In 1638 they were meeting in a building between Old Gravel Lane and Broad Street in Wapping-Stepney, probably the Meeting House Alley where they were still worshipping in 1669. (fn. 134)
A second lectureship was established after a petition in 1641, when the House of Commons ordered that the parishioners could pay for Sunday morning and afternoon lectures and that the weekday lecture, then held on Thursday, be continued. Stepney's petition also resulted in an order that parishioners elsewhere, who lacked such provision, could set up lectures and maintain a preacher. (fn. 135) The morning and afternoon preachers were respectively Jeremy Burroughs (d. 1646) and William Greenhill (d. 1671), noted Independents to whom the Commons gave the permanent management of preaching on the fast-days. (fn. 136)
The petition for the second lectureship was lodged a month after the arrival of a new vicar, William Stampe. Both he and his curate, Edward Edgworth, provoked ill feeling in 1642 by opposing the Long Parliament: a parishioner from Limehouse said she would rather hear a cart-wheel creak or a dog bark than hear the curate preach, while one from Stepney made wild speeches against both men and the Book of Common Prayer. (fn. 137) Divine service, taken by the curate, was interrupted on the day that 'tumults' took place in the churchyard, when four men enlisting volunteers to serve parliament were dragged off to a justice, apparently Timothy Stampe, by the constable and the vicar. They, another constable, and Timothy Stampe, were summoned before the Commons as delinquents, and an impeachment was drawn up against both Stampes, who escaped to Oxford. (fn. 138) William Stampe was replaced as vicar by Joshua Hoyle (d. 1654). (fn. 139)
An Independent church, formed in Mile End in 1644 under William Greenhill, maintained a separate organization while Greenhill was vicar, 1654-60. Many parishioners joined and moved between sects both inside and outside the parish, and remained dissenters after 1662. (fn. 140) The vestry failed to buy the advowson of the vicarage from the mortgagees in 1660, (fn. 141) and that year Greenhill was replaced by Dr. Emanuel Utye, chaplain to Charles I and II. (fn. 142) Utye, however, agreed that the vestry might appoint an orthodox lecturer for Sundays and Thursdays at a fee of £100 raised by the parish. (fn. 143)
New chapels and reduction of the parish.
Although proposals in 1641-2 and 1650 to divide Stepney into four parishes were not carried out, (fn. 144) chapels were founded to serve populous outlying areas. At Poplar, after a petition in 1642, the East India Co. gave a site and later £200 towards the building of a chapel, completed in 1654; the first chaplain was appointed by William Greenhill. (fn. 145) Shadwell chapel was built in 1656 by Mr. Neale, lessee of the dean and chapter's estate; its first minister was Matthew Mead, nominated by Greenhill, ejected at the Restoration, and later Greenhill's successor as minister of the Independents' Stepney meeting. (fn. 146) An Act in 1669 made the chapel the parish church of St. Paul, Shadwell. (fn. 147) St. George's chapel on Bethnal green was perhaps not in public use in 1547 when the bishop granted it with its adjoining house and garden to Sir Ralph Warren and his wife Joan for 99 years, (fn. 148) but it was used by inhabitants of the hamlet in 1652, who heard three sermons a week there and, having repaired it, wanted to acquire it in trust for their permanent use. (fn. 149) By 1716, however, it had fallen into decay. (fn. 150) A proprietary chapel for Spitalfields was opened in 1692 by Sir George Wheler on his estate, south of White Lion Street fronting the later Church Passage. (fn. 151)
The report which preceded the Act of 1711 for Building Fifty New Churches stated that the population of Stepney (by then excluding Shadwell) had increased to 86,000, served only by St. Dunstan's, the chapels at Bow and Poplar, and Wheler's chapel. The commissioners empowered under the Act spent nearly £107,000 on the parish. (fn. 152) Their new churches were St. Anne's, Limehouse, built 1712-24, St. George-in-the-East, 1715-23, and Christ Church, Spitalfields, 1723-9, serving the three parishes created from the hamlets of Limehouse, Wapping-Stepney, and Spitalfields respectively. At Stratford Bow a parish was delineated and in 1719 the chapel was consecrated by the bishop, but separation from St. Dunstan's was delayed until an Act of 1730 provided an endowment from public funds. (fn. 153)
Bethnal Green in 1716 petitioned for a church, which might also serve Mile End New Town. A site was bought in 1725, but it was not until 1743 that an Act made the hamlet of Bethnal Green a separate parish, for which St. Matthew's church was built in 1743-6. (fn. 154) Mile End New Town, except for a small portion given to Spitalfields, (fn. 155) was left with Mile End Old Town, Ratcliff, and Poplar, in the truncated parish of St. Dunstan's, Stepney. Poplar became a separate ecclesiastical and civil parish in 1817 with a new church, All Saints. (fn. 156)
Church life in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the 18th century incumbents, assisted by one or two curates, were mainly fellows of Brasenose; Ralph Cawley, 1759-71, later became its principal. Two services were held on Sunday and communion once a month and on the great festivals; the children were catechized in Lent. (fn. 157) At the general catechizing in 1805 children of all backgrounds, notably those from the workhouse, showed good understanding; catechizing continued once a month and sermons were adapted to the needs of the young. (fn. 158) Margaretta Brown by will proved 1830 left £1,400 stock, from which the rector was to have £20 a year for monthly prayers and lessons on a weekday, followed by a catechism; the clerk and sexton received small sums and the rest was to buy bibles and prayerbooks. In 1894 services every Thursday were attended by c. 600 children from Stepney Parochial, Red Coat, and Infant schools. The charity was still operating in 1986. (fn. 159)
In the early 19th century the work of the Church was hampered by Stepney's worsening social conditions and the rectors' financial problems. (fn. 160) Richard Sandbach, 1785-9, left many debts, the settlement of which depended on a suit for the recovery of tithes, and Thomas Barneby, 1815-42, let much of the income dwindle for want of collecting small dues. (fn. 161) Not only financial problems but possibly religious differences as well led Daniel Vawdrey, 1842-7, to describe his incumbency as a time of constant warfare; thankful to leave, he waited until 'proper wardens' were in place, in order to spare his successor the usual 'odious struggle'. (fn. 162) Richard Lee, 1847-69, found the afternoon lectureship in abeyance, until in 1851 the vestry chose a lecturer. The bishop refused to license him, and a public meeting asserted the rights of protestants against Tractarianism. The lecturer's first sermon was disrupted, and the rector was said to have opposed the parish's right of appointment. (fn. 163) Several writs for debt were issued against Lee, including one by Brasenose College, besides a writ for damages probably for cancelling a building contract for the glebe. As a result he lived abroad from 1853 until 1858 or later, (fn. 164) and the living was sequestered from 1853 to 1868, to the detriment of local religious life. Lee also sold off gravestones, and the stock held in his name for Hester Welch's charity for bread for the poor in Mile End Old Town. (fn. 165)
After Poplar became a separate parish, Stepney's three remaining hamlets had a population of 35,000 but Anglican church provision for only 1,500. Subscriptions were raised for a chapel of ease to seat 1,340, two-thirds free; it was begun in 1818 and, with aid from the church building commissioners, consecrated in 1823. It later became the district church of St. Philip the Apostle, Newark Street, Mile End Old Town. (fn. 166) The average attendance at St. Dunstan's in 1851 was 1,500 in the morning, 130 in the afternoon, and 1,200 in the evening; (fn. 167) in 1886 it was 847 in the morning, and 1,466 in the evening, (fn. 168) and in 1902 it was 416 in the morning and 462 in the evening. (fn. 169)
Despite efforts by all denominations, including mission services in the street, in 1870 Mile End Road and all its alleys revealed Sabbath desecration: food shops were full, photographers were at work, and most goods could readily be bought. (fn. 170) Few inhabitants were attracted by ordinary Anglican services, while the large congregations at High Church services came mainly from outside the area, later declining as such services were provided elsewhere. (fn. 171)
Many attempts to improve morality in the East End in the late 19th century took the form of social welfare and did not increase church attendance. The Alfred Head Curacy fund, founded by Head's family in 1881, provided the interest on £4,000 for a curate in Mile End Old Town or Ratcliff, the trustees to decide on the church and the duration of the support and the incumbent to nominate the curate. Head's widow Ellen bequeathed an additional £1,000 in 1888, and in 1895 the fund paid £150 a year to a curate at St. Dunstan's. (fn. 172) The bishop of London's concern for the East End resulted in north and east London coming under a suffragan from 1879, entitled bishop of Stepney from 1895, who exercised the bishop of London's rights of patronage. (fn. 173)
Missionary interest from the 1880s coincided with Jewish immigration from eastern Europe, which prompted Christian families to move away. By 1900 some parishes were entirely Jewish, while in others the population was reduced by slum clearance. (fn. 174) Anglican church attendances started to fall in the 1880s (Table), as did those of nonconformists. Increases were shown by Roman Catholics, with high Irish immigration centred on Wapping, and by Jews, whose attendance figures for 1902 probably excluded large numbers in small and unrecorded chevra. (fn. 175)
Note: Figures for missions, foreign churches, and undenominational services are excluded
Sources. Attendance figures and number of congregations 1851 from P.R.O., HO 129/22 and 24; 1886 from Brit. Weekly, 12 Nov. 1886, p. 4; 1902 from Mudie-Smith, Rel. Life, 49, 55; population figures from Census.
The religious census of 1902 showed the Church of England, supposedly strongest in poor districts because of its High Church clergy, to be weaker than expected. Since attendance apparently conferred less status in East London than in West London, (fn. 176) all churches tried to attract people through more informal missions. St. Dunstan's in 1906 ran St. Faith's mission church, a mission house at no. 54 Beaumont Square, and missions and bible classes in halls or rooms in Old Church Road, Grosvenor Street, Dongola Street, Clive Street, the parish room, St. Faith's hall, and Red Coat school hall. (fn. 177)
The closure of churches began in 1911 in the Spitalfields and Whitechapel area, but despite the destruction of many churches in the Second World War, population changes left a surplus of church buildings, (fn. 178) and most of those that remained, including the parish church, were reorganized in 1951 under a measure of 1944 with bombed and surplus churches being demolished. (fn. 179) A survey in 1975 showed falling attendances by all denominations in the East End. Most churches were barely half full and lack of funds was forcing many to close or hold their services in small side rooms. (fn. 180) A report in 1974 identified the main problems as the lack of local church leaders, most being middle-class outsiders, and the old, expensive buildings or 'plant'; it examined the possible establishment of a Mission Area, where special ecclesiastical laws would assist progress, and recommended the appointment of a mission worker and courses for the clergy. (fn. 181)
The deanery of Tower Hamlets, with 22 parishes, was part of the bishopric of Stepney, considered in 1985 the poorest in London and among the Urban Priority Areas identified in the report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's commission on the role of the Church in inner-city areas. (fn. 182) Although the report recognized that the old buildings gave the Church a visual presence and were often the only fixed landmarks amidst rapid changes, preservation was difficult as churches continued to close. (fn. 183) Of the 16 churches which had served the hamlets of Mile End Old Town, Mile End New Town, and Ratcliff, only the parish church of St. Dunstan and a rebuilt district church were still open as parish churches in 1994.
THE PARISH CHURCH.
The church had been dedicated to ST. DUNSTAN by 1302 (fn. 184) and was rededicated to ST. DUNSTAN and ALL SAINTS in 1952, (fn. 185) in recognition of a suggestion made in 1708, but never substantiated, that the church might also have been dedicated to All Saints. (fn. 186) The existing church, mostly 15th-century but much restored, was refaced with Kentish rag and knapped flint with stone dressings in the Perpendicular style by Newman & Billing in 1872. (fn. 187) It has a chancel without aisles, a twostoreyed north vestry with a hexagonal annexe, an aisled and clerestoried nave, north and south porches, and a west tower opening into the nave at its lowest stage.
Before major rebuilding in the 15th century, the church had a chancel in the same position as the later one. The elliptical-headed doorway in its north wall, which led to the vestry, and the heavily restored 13th-century sedilia in the south wall are probably the oldest parts to survive. The shafts of the east window are from a 14th-century window which was rebuilt in the 15th century, as was the south window of the chancel. (fn. 188) A nave of unknown length had a north aisle probably by the early 14th century, the date of the second window from its east end. A squint, preserved in 1994, looked through to the high altar and the aisle may have had a chapel for the altar to St. Katharine, which existed by 1395. (fn. 189) The nave may have had a clerestory on the north side, as the windows are smaller than those usual in the 15th century, but the absence of a clerestory in the arcade east of the 15th-century choir screen suggests either that the screen was already there or that the whole clerestory dated from the rebuilding of the nave; traces of a string course east of the screen well below the roof level of 1905 probably mark that of the earlier church. (fn. 190)
The building or rebuilding of the nave, aisles, and tower has been dated to the early 15th century, (fn. 191) although wills from the 1370s point to work spread over much of the 15th century. Bequests towards construction (fabricium), as opposed to repair, were made in 1374-83, 1393- 4, 1415, 1429-39, and 1449. (fn. 192) Construction of a new bell-tower, contemplated in 1419, was under way in 1425-6 and 1433, (fn. 193) and work on the nave in 1451 and 1455. (fn. 194) A south aisle, contemplated in 1461 and 1462, (fn. 195) had been built by 1467 when work was under way on the new chapel of St. Mary at its east end, where the height of walls east of the rood-loft stairs was raised and the two windows were enlarged. (fn. 196) Unspecified new work was mentioned in 1469. (fn. 197)
The rood loft was under construction in 1474, but a parishioner left 2d. a week for nearly three years towards the work in 1481, and another made his loan into a gift in 1483. (fn. 198) Presumably it was at this time that an external stair turret to the loft, still visible in 1994, was built against the south aisle.
In 1615 the nave had a high pitched roof, and the chancel a flat roof, but by 1795 the chancel had been given a pitched roof, perhaps during repairs in 1656. Both aisle walls seem to have been heightened, partly in brick, between 1615, when the clerestory windows were apparently visible well above the roof of the south aisle, and 1795, when they were hidden by the south aisle. (fn. 199) An embattled parapet along the nave was removed in the early 19th century. (fn. 200)
The vestry was repaired in 1449, (fn. 201) and was probably single-storeyed, because in 1619 the vestry roof was to be altered to allow two windows to be unblocked to improve lighting in the church. (fn. 202) The door to the vestry from the chancel was blocked at an unknown date, and a new entrance made from the north aisle. An organ loft was built over the vestry in 1872, when the hexagonal parish vestry was added. (fn. 203)
A clock was installed in the tower in 1583, (fn. 204) presumably depicted c. 1658. (fn. 205) By 1703 the spire had apparently been replaced with the octagonal cupola above an open arcaded stage on a louvred base that was illustrated in 1795 and 1809. (fn. 206)
Requests for burial before the west door in 1477 and in the churchyard before the south door in 1540 may suggest that those doors were then unporched. (fn. 207) By 1582 a west porch sheltered the recently laid gravestone of Thomas Pickering and his wife. (fn. 208) In 1610 a west porch in 'Tuscan style' against the tower was paid for and in 1619 repairs were made to timbered and glazed north and south porches. Two porches were rebuilt in 1684. The north and south and probably the west porch were removed in 1806-8. A south porch with a parish room over it was built in 1847, although the west door remained the main entrance. New north and south porches were built in 1872. (fn. 209)
A fire in 1901 damaged the vestries and some of the roofs, the church was restored by J.E.K. and J.P. Cutts and rededicated in 1902. War damage, notably in 1945, led to restoration by A. Wontner Smith 1946-52, when the upper stage of the tower was rebuilt, the side aisles were reroofed, and the west door was widened. (fn. 210)
Lights for St. Mary were mentioned in 1374 and 1428, (fn. 211) but after the chapel of St. Mary was built, the altar, statue, and lights of St. Mary were mentioned very frequently. Besides the altar to St. Katharine, recorded in 1395, 1487, and 1518, (fn. 212) the image of St. Anne was mentioned from 1449 and an altar of St. Anne in 1488. (fn. 213) Bequests were made for gilding the tabernacle of St. Nicholas in 1500 and for the 'painting of St. Nicholas' in 1501. (fn. 214) 'The making of St. George' was considered in 1500, money was bequeathed for an image of the saint in 1518 and 1525, and St. George's chapel in the parish church was mentioned in 1520 and 1540. (fn. 215) There were also images of St. Margaret in 1518 and of St. John the Baptist in 1524, besides a Trinity chapel in 1524. (fn. 216) Lights were provided by each hamlet, bequests being made in 1520 to the ward light of Bethnal Green (fn. 217) and in 1532 to those provided by Poplar, Limehouse, Ratcliff, and Mile End and Bethnal Green. (fn. 218) In 1522 torches from a funeral were left to Mile End ward. (fn. 219)
A gallery was built in 1580 on the south side of the nave, seven alterations increased the seating between 1601 and 1636, and a gallery was paid for by the Coopers' Company in 1656 for its school. (fn. 220) The church was described as a very old, dark, and too small in 1714. (fn. 221) It was reseated in 1806, (fn. 222) and again in 1847 to a design of Benjamin Ferrey, when short rows of free seats were inserted in the central aisle and, with a gallery on three sides, the church seated 1,600 with 330 free. (fn. 223) In 1851, however, the accommodation was recorded as 1,800, of which 400 were free. (fn. 224) New fittings were provided in 1885 by Basil Champneys, who shortened the north and south galleries and lowered the ground around the church. (fn. 225) The galleries were taken down and the church reseated in 1899 (fn. 226) by J. E. K. and J. P. Cutts, who removed plaster from the walls, and repositioned some monuments. (fn. 227) A new east window by Hugh Easton was dedicated in 1949 and one in the north aisle in 1951. Alterations in 1967-8 included the formation of a priest's vestry in the organ loft of 1872, a parish room in the hexagonal vestry, and of a baptistery by moving the font from the west end of the nave to the north aisle. (fn. 228)
An organ was presented in 1525 but removed in 1585. A new organ, by Renatus Harris the elder, was being paid for in 1679. The organ loft was over the west entrance in 1847. The organ was sold in 1872 to Drury Lane theatre and a new organ by Bryceson was installed in the case of 1679 over the vestry, but was burnt in 1901. (fn. 229)
Money was left to repair the bells in 1474. (fn. 230) The tenor bell was bought in 1540 from the former Holy Trinity priory, Aldgate, where it had been renewed in 1386. In 1600 the peal numbered five; the fifth or great bell, needing repair in 1570, was recast in 1599 by Lawrence Wright of Houndsditch, and again in 1619; the fourth bell was recast in 1600. (fn. 231) There were six bells in 1708, eight during the 18th century, and ten from 1806 when the peal was recast by Thomas Mears. When retuned in 1952, the peal was considered among the best in London. (fn. 232)
A rood of Barnack stone (fn. 233) with the cross and figures in low relief, which was outside over the south door by 1795, is behind the high altar and has been attributed both to the late 12th century (fn. 234) and to the early 11th. (fn. 235) Shafts on the font are thought to be Norman (fn. 236) and a panel of the Annunciation in the chancel wall is 14th-century. (fn. 237)
A silver chalice was bought in 1433, (fn. 238) perhaps stolen with other plate in 1530. (fn. 239) In 1656 the parish owned two silver and gilt bowls with covers, two pewter flagons, a pewter basin, and a brass basin. (fn. 240) In 1895 plate included a silver flagon of 1675 given by Mary Masters and another bought in 1687, two cups of 1559 and 1631 and two patens of 1631 and 1713, all silver gilt, a large silver paten and foot of 1686 bought in 1687, and a fine silver gilt spoon of 1692. A beadle's silver headed staff was inscribed '1784' and another was inscribed 'Hamlet of Ratcliff 1752'. (fn. 241) The registers begin in 1568. (fn. 242)
Many monuments existing in 1714 were removed during 19th-century restorations. (fn. 243) In 1994 survivors included the table tomb of Sir Henry Colet (d. 1505) and the painted marble memorial to Robert Clarke (d. 1610), both on the north side of the chancel, and on the south the memorial to Sir Thomas Spert (d. 1541), erected in 1723 by Trinity House which he founded, and a marble monument to Benjamin Kenton (d. 1800), by Richard Westmacott the younger. (fn. 244)
The churchyard was enlarged to cope with plague burials in 1626: the vestry used burial fees to take a lease of c. 1 a. of waste on the south side of the churchyard from the lord of the manor; a pond was filled in, a wall built, (fn. 245) and in 1655 the freehold was bought from the parliamentary trustees. (fn. 246) During the plague of 1665, however, the manor court authorized the enclosure of c. 1¼ a. of waste on the north side of Whitechapel Road near Stonebridge as a additional burial ground. (fn. 247) In 1671 the vestry raised funds to take into the churchyard waste on the south side; in the 1680s the churchyard was enlarged with a plot of land acquired from Mrs. Bissaker, probably north or west of the church, and in 1696 with the site of the demolished vestry house on the west side of the church. (fn. 248) Grave-diggers were ordered to collect old bones and deposit them in a chamel house in 1685. (fn. 249) In 1683 tavern doors opening into the churchyard were to be blocked off because of tippling and bottles being thrown. (fn. 250) Drinking, prostitutes, and graverobbers who sold bones to local butchers, led the parish in 1845 to seek closure of some paths crossing the churchyard. The rector agreed in 1845 to add the site of the old parsonage to the churchyard; (fn. 251) burials in the main part ceased in 1854, and the additional piece was consecrated in 1855 and used until 1856. (fn. 252) Earth excavated for building the underground railway was also added. The churchyard became a public garden in 1886 and was managed by the L.C.C. from 1937. Covering c. 7 a. in 1935, it was thought to be the largest in London. Graves include those of naval and merchant marine officers, many of distinction, and Matthew Mead (d. 1699), the nonconformist divine, is commemorated. (fn. 253)