Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'Stepney', Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878), pp. 137-142. British History Online [accessed 18 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "Stepney", in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) 137-142. British History Online, accessed June 18, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "Stepney", Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878). 137-142. British History Online. Web. 18 June 2024,

In this section



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 young persons.

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 page 138.

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.