Registers, vestry records and church fittings

Pages 48-56

Survey of London Monograph 6, St Dunstan's Church, Stepney. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1905.

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The Registers & other Parish Records

The Registers—of baptisms, marriages, and burials—begin in Sept.-Oct., 1568, and form an unbroken series to the present time. Except in a few cases, where the volumes need re-binding, they are all in an excellent state of preservation. They are carefully kept in a large fire-proof safe in the vestry, & to this care owe their preservation from destruction during the fire of October 1901.

The list given in the Terrier of 1889-1890 is as follows:

Baptisms 1568 to 1837 24 volumes.
" 1837 to 1889 14 "
Burials 1568 to 1839 31 "
" 1839 to 1889 7 "
Marriages 1568 to 1836 39 "
" 1836 to 1889 44 "
Total number of volumes 159

By what is evidently a clerical error the Terrier states the number of marriage registers from 1836 to 1889 (Nos. 115 – 159) as 45, which would bring up the total to 160; it may be that the duplicate of register in use at the time was included.

The Terrier also gives the following list of books and documents belonging to the church and parish, and now kept in the vestry:

Vestry minutes, 1579-1777, 3 volumes, then a gap and a fourth volume from 1821 to date.

Banns books, from about 1750 to date, 24 volumes.

Day Books, of Burials 25 volumes (oldest 1736).
" " Christenings 7 " about same date.
" "Marriages 2 " 1727-1750.
Easter Dues 11 "
Fee Books 4 " 1821-1882.
Tithe Books 12 " ranging from 1770-1780.
Parish Account Books 4 " 1737-1787.

Some of these volumes have been reprinted during the last few years.

Mr. G. W. Hill and the Rev. W. H. Frere have edited the more interesting of the Vestry minutes and records; and printed verbatim those ranging from 1579 to 1662. (fn. 1) Mr. T. Colyer-Ferguson, in 1898-1901, issued three volumes of reprints of the Marriage Registers covering the years 1568-1719. (fn. 2)

The Registers. Plague entries, &c.

Stepney was greatly harassed by the plague during the first 65 years of the 17th century. The first entry "plague" in the Burial Register occurring early in January 1602, and the last on Oct. 7, 1666. In those 65 years there was only one interval of 13 years, 1612-25, which shows no plague entry, and two other intervals of four years 1626-30, 1631-35. There were few other years which do not show some entries. Four visitations were very severe, those of 1602-3 and 1640-8 being bad, and the great plagues of 1625-6 and 1665-6 being historical.

The months of August & September appear, at each visitation, to have been the most fatal; thus in 1625-6 the entries, beginning April 18, 1625, and ending Oct. 3, 1626, show the following:

Aug. 2 51 Aug. 13 54
Aug. 12 50 Aug. 14 52
From June 30 1665 to Dec. 8 1666:
Sept. 11 125 Sept. 16 107
Sept. 14 120

From the end of August to end of September 1666, the plague entries frequently amount to 100 daily.

During the last three years that the churchyard was used for burials (1854-6), the figures are respectively, 2633, 2021, and 2904, making a total of 7558 burials.

From June 25 to July 2, 1837, 520 Christenings took place—on June 25, 100, and on June 30, 167. The cause of this was the passing of the "Birth Registration Act," and the parishioners hastening to avail themselves of the ecclesiastical registration before the new form became compulsory.

Constitution of the Vestry

In 1735 a Committee was appointed by the Vestry to draw up a full report of its varied Constitution from the earliest date, which is so interesting that it is given, as follows:

"4 July 1735. The Day & year above written the Vestry mett and the Report made by the Comittee appd. the 8 April last was read approved of & is as followeth.

The Comittee haveing examined the Ancient Constitution of the Vestry & doe find that from the year 1597 to 1589—wh. is 10 years—the Vestry was open. & in the year 1589 the Inhabitants of the Parish mett & did then choose a select Vestry consisting of 32 Men. 8 to Each hamlet— viz. Ratclif. Poplar. Limehouse & Mile End, and the sd. Inhabitants oblidg'd themselves to abide by what the sd. Vestry did. 12 of them with 2 of the Ch. Wardens to make a Vestry.

And in the year 1598 it appears the Vestry consisted of 40 men, wherein Bethnal Green is mentioned wth Mile End hamlet, which Vestry continued 49 years unto 1647 & from that year to the year 1654 the Justices. Parish Officers & some few of the Parishioners mett at the Vestry House & transacted the Parish Affairs, which interruption of the ancient Constitution of Select Vestry we aprehend was occasioned by the disorder & confusion of the times—but in the year 1654 the Parishioners mett in Vestry and to prevent tumultuous Meetings of the Parish did then agree & choose 50 Vestrymen—viz. 20 for Ratcliff, 10 for Poplar & Blackwall, 10 for Limehouse, & 10 for Mile End, which Select Vestry was to transact the business of the Parish so far as Vestrys have power.

In 1659 Shadwell is first mentioned as a hamlet & allowed 10 Vestrymen out of the 20 in Ratclif, & the other hamlets their Number as before mentioned. In May 1661 the Vestry consisted also of 50, & in January following the same number, and continued to the year 1662—when the Bishop's Faculty was obtained which settled the number of 44—which continued till the hamlets of Spittlefields & Wapin Stepney were made parishes in the year 1729, as alsoe the hamlet of Limehouse in the year 1730, which reduced the present number of Vestry men to 24.

It is the opinion of this Comittee that the present number of Vestrymen be encreased to 32, 40, or 50 which have been the ancient numbers chosen & allowed from time to time by the inhabitants to be a Select Vestry as appears by the report.

Wee have alsoe perused the Lease of the Vestry house & do find by the sd. Lease that the Lesees are to keep the same in Tenantable repair & pay the Rent of £26 per ann. free of all taxes.

But how far the 5 hamlets now the Parish of Stepney are bound by these covenants (the parish of Ch. Ch. Spitalfield—St Georges in the East & St. Ann Limehouse) being at the time the Lease was granted hamlets & Members of the Parish and consenting to the sd. Lease as appears by their Trustees signing the same all which was submitt to the Vestry.

At the abovesd. time a debate arising whether the number of Vestrymen shd. be increased to the number of 32 or 40, it was carry'd for the number of 32—nine votes agt. eight.

The Question being put what number of Vestrymen each hamlet shd. have it was carry'd as followeth—

Ratclif 7
Poplar & Blackwall 7
Mile End Old Town 7
——New— 7
Bethnal Green 7


There is a peal of 10 bells, hung in the Belfry, inscribed as follows: (fn. 3)


The late tenor, wt. 49 cwts, was given to the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Dukes Place, Aldgate, by Nicholas Chadworth, and renewed by Thomas Marson 1386, was sold with three others by Sir Thomas Audley to the Parish of St. Dunstan's, Stepney, about the year 1540—recast 1602, 1764, & 1799. The late peal of 8 bells were recast into 10, by Thos. Mears & Son 1806, in the presence of George Harper, D.D., Rector; Revd. Thos. Thirlwell, Lecturer; Mr. Mattw. Easum, Robt. Turner, Wm. Wade, Wm. Thompson, Geo. Everitt, Church Wardens; Jno. Curtis, Esq.; Jno. Edwards, Esq.; Jeremh. Snow, Esq.; Ths. Paulin, Esq.; Mr. Jas. Barnfield; Wm. Simons; Mattw. Warton, Surveyor; Jno. Salter, Vestry Clerk.


To the honour of Sir. Chas. Wager Knt., First Lord of the Admiralty 1729, Patron of the Stepney or Cockney's Feast, instituted at Ratcliff in the year 1674, and discontinued 1784. John Matthews, Esq., Treasurer, T. Mears & Sons fecit. 1806.


To the honour of the Volunteers of the Parish of St. Dunstan, Stepney—The Ratcliff Corps commanded by John Boulcott, Esq., Major. The M. E. O. T. by Wm. Thompson, Esq., Lt. Col., Poplar & Blackwall by John Walls, Esq., Lt. Col., 1806.


The following inscription was upon the 6th Bell of the late Peal: Virginis Egregiar Vocor Campana Mariæ 1603 T. Mears & Son fecit, 1806


To the pious memory of Mrs. Prisca Coborn, a liberal benefactress to the Seamen's widows of this Parish. T. Mears & Son fecit, 1806.

Fifth. Fourth. Third. Second. (Same inscription on each bell)
Geo. Harper, D. D., Rector. Matt. Eason, Robt. Turner, Wm.
Wade, Wm. Thompson, Geo. Everitt, Ch. Wardens. T. Mears & Son, Whitechapel fecit, 1806

Treble.Geo. Harper, D.D., Rector. Matt. Eason, Robt. Turner, Wm. Wade, Wm. Thompson, Geo. Everitt, Ch Wardens. T. Mears & Son, of London, fecit—1806

Particulars of the Bells from the old books at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, from Messrs. Mears & Sons' old records:—

Diameter. Weight.
Ft. in. Cwt. qr. lbs.
Tenor 4 85/8 31 1 7
9th 4 25/8 23 2 16
8th 3 10½ 17 0 16
7th 3 13 3 27
6th 3 11 2 6
5th 3 1 9 0 26
4th 2 11 8 1 14
3rd 2 7 2 12
2nd 2 7 1 7
Treble 2 7 7 0 20
Total Cwt. 137 1 11

The Font

The Font, which is generally regarded as the original one, though much restored, consists of a square bowl, the E. & W. sides of which are ornamented with arcading. The south side contains a series of maltese crosses, each in the centre of an annulet, and the north side bears intersected triangles, filled with foliage at the extremities. It is supported by a central shaft, and at the four corners by pillars of Purbeck marble, with floriated capitals. At the base is a cruciform step which is raised upon a large circular slab of black marble. This slab bears upon it the following inscription: Presented by William Henry Hawkins, Esq., 1848.

Lysons refers to the font as "ancient, stands on a circular pillar, surrounded by four others of a smaller size"; it would appear, therefore, that if the present font is the original one, it has been re-chiselled and polished to such a degree in one or other of the frequent "restorations" of the Church as to effectually destroy all traces of its antiquity.

The Lectern

The brass eagle lectern is modern, and has upon its base inscriptions recording the restorations of the Church in 1871-3, and 1880-1, together with the names of the respective Rectors and Churchwardens during those periods.

Seating of Church

The seating in the nave and aisles is of plain oak, the sides and backs converted from the former high-backed pews. The choir stalls are also of oak.

The Organ

In 1585 the Church possessed an organ given sixty years before by the bounty of John Forster (Frere's Memorials, XIV.) but by a resolution of the Vestry 22nd May 1585, it was ordered to be sold. "For's much as dyuers good causes & consyderac'ons are made knowen, shewed and declared, concerning a sale to be made of the organs now standing in the Church; wee the pishoners hereunder named, are very well contented, and doe fully agree, conclude, & determyne, that the same organes now w'thout vse, shalbee soulde by the Church Wardens now being to the vse of the parrish for as much mony as any man will geve for them."

For nearly 100 years the Church remained without an organ, but at a meeting of the Vestry September 18th, 1679, it was ordered "That from this day one shilling be taken for every one who shall dye wthin this Parish or be buried in ye Churchyard over and above the Two shillings w'ch are now pay'd. And that the said one shilling shall be for the paying of an organist, A Blower of ye Bellows, And for repairing and beautifying the Church and organ."

And at a meeting held on March 23rd, 1680 "It was ordered that according to a Letter bearing date Aug. 21 1680 sent by the Rt. Rev. Father in God Henry Ld. Bishop of London to Mr. John Wright, Vicar of Stepney. The sexton's place being sequestered to pay the remainder of the money due to Mr. Rene Harris for the Organ. The accounts of the Profitts having been perused by Order of the Vestry There did appear upon the 2nd. Feby. last the summe of £30 12. 9. arising from the Profitts. Likewise it did appear that the sd. Mr. Harris hath received towards the summe of £350, which he was to have for the Organ the summe of £200, soe that there is yet due to Mr. Harris the summe of £150. It is ordered that the £30 received for the sd. Profitts be payd towards the sd. £150. And for the £120 which will be then due It is ordered that the Profitts of the Sextons place shall be a security for any person who will lay down the sd. summe of £120 to be repay'd with Interest."

In 1751-3 the sum of £200 was spent upon this organ in additions by John Byfield.

The case of this organ was very finely carved, supposed to be the work of Grinling Gibbons, and in a niche in the centre was placed a figure of St. Dunstan, or, as some say, St. David. This latter was taken down, and is said to have been given to a parishioner, about the year 1870.

At the restoration in 1872 it was resolved to sell this organ, which was bought by Drury Lane Theatre, and a new one, by Messrs. Bryceson of Islington, was put into the old case. This organ was improved by valuable additions during the restoration of 1899 at a cost of £700.

The great fire of October 1901 demolished this organ, with almost all its beautiful old case, and a new instrument by Messrs. Norman & Beard takes its place.

Pulpit; Stained Glass

The earliest mention of the pulpit in the Vestry minutes is of one that was made by Robert Lenton, Joyner, in 1622 (Memorials, pp. 99–102). Probably this survived until the restoration of 1848, when a new one, of oak, with a reading desk, was erected near the east end of the chancel; this in its turn was succeeded by the present pulpit at the 1886 restoration (see p. 17), which was placed on the south side of the chancel, but removed to its present position on the north side at the 1899 restoration. Many of the windows in the church have been filled with stained glass during the last half-century, & therefore require no special notice here. There are no remains of earlier glass now left in the building.

Communion Plate

The communion plate is of great interest, & has been fully described by Mr. Edwin Freshfield (Communion Plate of the Parish Churches in the County of London, 1895); and the following summary is compiled, by his kind permission, partly from this book, as well as from the 1889-90 Terrier:—2 chalices, silver gilt, bearing the date marks for 1559 and 1631 respectively; 2 patens, silver gilt, bearing date marks for 1631 and 1713 respectively; a large silver alms bason or paten and foot with date mark 1686; 2 flagons of silver dated 1676 and 1687 respectively; an alms bason or dish, silver plated, with date mark for 1686; a modern brass alms dish; a communion spoon, silver gilt, dated 1693; & a silver trowel, with ivory handle, dated 1818. There are also 4 beadle's staves, 3 being of silver, inscribed and dated 1718/9, 1752, and 1784 respectively, the fourth being of plated metal and dated 1784.


The benefactions to the parish of Stepney (with the exception of that given on the Elder monument (see p. 37) are recorded on 2 boards now fixed on the vestry walls. The inscriptions are given in full by Mr. J. T. Page in his articles on the church in the East End News, 1896. Several of these charities are, however, returned as "not known" in the Return made by the Endowed Charities' Commission, 1895.

Royal Arms; Bishops of Stepney

There is a carving of the Royal Arms fixed on the nave wall above the towerarch; it bears no date. In form it is an oval shield surrounded by the motto of the Garter, and with the usual quarterings. Shield surmounted by a knight's helmet; supporters, crowned lion, and unicorn; motto, "Dieu et mon droit." The whole surmounted by royal crown and lion. Stepney has since 1895 given the title to a Suffragan Bishopric for the Diocese of London. The following have held the office:—

George Forrest Browne, D.D. 1895 (fn. 4)
Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram, D.D. 1897 (fn. 5)
Cosmo Gordon Lang, D.D. 1901

Rectors and Vicars of Stepney

In Hill and Frere's Memorials, pp. 252-256, a list of the Rectors and Vicars is given, beginning with William, who held the rectory in 1233, and ending with the Rev. E. Hoskyns, appointed in 1886. The latter resigned the living in 1896, being succeeded by the Rev. A. E. Dalton, M.A., the present Rector. In addition to the above lists, Colonel W. F. Prideaux has very kindly supplied the following notes concerning the early incumbents of Stepney:—

"According to Newcourt (Repertorium), Hennessy (Novum Rep.), and Hill and Frere, the earliest Rector of Stepney was William of Berkhampstead, who is called 'Master William' in a document preserved in the archives of St. Paul's, dated 1233 (Hist. MSS. Comm., Ninth Report, Appendix, p. 49, col. a). But in another document in the same collection (ibid. p. 15, col. b). 'William, Chaplain of Stebheie' (one of the old forms of Stebenhith) is mentioned as a witness, the principal witness being Ralph de Diceto, Dean of St. Paul's between 1181 & 1203. This William therefore was performing clerical duties at Stepney at least 30 years before the date given by the authorities I have cited. He may of course be the same William as the Rector of 1233, and have had a long incumbency, but the chief point is that a chaplain implies a church or chapel, and this brings the foundation of the church at any rate into the twelfth century.

"In the archives of St. Paul's Cathedral is an award in a controversy between the Prior and Convent of Holy Trinity, London, and Master William, the Rector of Stepney, concerning the tithes of the mill of Crassenielane, situated on the borders of the parishes of St. Botolph Aldgate, and Stepney (Hist. MSS. Commission, Ninth Report, Part I. Appendix, p. 49a).

"In 19 Henry III. (1234) there is recorded a fine between Richard de Hecham and Roger, vicar of Stebbeye (Stepney) regarding land in Stebbeye. This Roger is not included in the ordinary lists of incumbents (Hardy and Page, 'Calendar of Middlesex Feet of Fines,' i. 21).

"The archives of St. Paul's also contain an ordinance for the services to be said for the soul of Master John de Selvestone deceased in the Church of St. Dunstan, Stepney (Stilbenethe). Dated Wednesday before the feast of St. Lucy, 1302. (Hist. MSS. Comm., Ninth Report, Part I. App. p. 56a). John de Shelveston was appointed Rector Oct. 18, 1294 (Pat. 22 Edw. 1. m. 6, quoted by Hennessy, 'Novum Repertorium,' p. 409), but his death is not elsewhere recorded.

"In 38 Edward III. (1365) there is recorded a fine between Master Richard de Saham, parson of the Church of Stebbenheth, and Adam de Sancto Ivone, citizen of London, and Richard de Dokeseye and Sabrina his wife, regarding premises in Brambeleye (Bromley), Stebbenheth, & Stratford (Hardy and Page, 'Calendar of Middlesex Feet of Fines,' i. 142).

"Richard de Saham was appointed Vicar of Stepney Feb. 25, 1350-1, and died in or about 1368. His executor was Elias de Thorp (Hist. MSS. Comm., Ninth Report, Part I. App. p. 4 a)."

The Rectory

The Rectory originally stood near the east end of the Church, but was pulled down in 1763 (Memorials, p. xvii), and re-erected during the incumbency of Ralph Cawley (1759-71), near the site of the old Vicarage. The present building is probably entirely of 1846 date, the initials of the then Rector, Daniel Vawdrey, being on the dining-room fireplace. The glebe land adjoining it, of an extent of about 3 acres, was leased in 1865 for building, and 69 houses now stand on it.

The Lectureship

In the year 1584 a "Lecturer" was established, elected by the parishioners and paid by them. The Vestry minutes of that date give the particulars of the election of Stephen Gosson, the first holder of the office. (Memorials, pp. 9-10). The Lectureship continued until 1891, the last holder being the Rev. Neville Dundas, who was elected in March 1887, and resigned Sept. 1891.

The emolument was partly by subscription, & partly from the Curates' Fund.

In conclusion, the thanks of the authors are due to those who, by reason of their knowledge of the subject so willingly offered, have materially helped in the work of compilation. To the Rector of Stepney, the Rev. Prebendary Dalton, and Colonel W. F. Prideaux, for assistance in correcting and adding to the proofs; to the Rev. W. H. Frere, Mr. W. J. Hardy, F.S.A., and others who have helped with information otherwise difficult of access; to Mr. Edwin Gunn for the plan and descriptive architectural notes of the church embodied in Chapter II., Mr. W. H. Godfrey for descriptions and drawings of the heraldry, Messrs. F. W. Reader and A. P. Wire for photographs and other help, Mrs. Ernest Godman for the etched frontispiece; and Mr. Sydney Newcombe and other members, whose names appear against their work, for drawings. The Committee's thanks are also offered to the proprietors of the London Argus, by whom the interesting block on plate 5 was very kindly lent for reproduction in this Monograph.


  • 1. Memorials of Stepney Parish, edited by Hill and Frere, 4to. Guildford, 1890-91.
  • 2. The Marriage Registers of St. Dunstan's, Stepney, Middlesex, edited by Thomas Colyer-Ferguson. Vol. I., 1568-1639. Vol. II., 1640-1696. Vol. III., 1697-1719. 4to.
  • 3. From the Stepney Parish Magazine.
  • 4. Translated to the Bishopric of Bristol, 1897.
  • 5. Translated to the Bishopric of London, 1901.