Historical notes on church and parish

Pages 7-11

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

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The name of the Parish

The ancient name of Stepney appears under several forms, the principal being: Stibenhede (in Domesday, 1080); Stebenheth (in Taxatio Ecclesiastica, 1291, and Valor Ecclesiastic, 1534); the rendering of which has been given as Stephen's hede or hyth—Stephen's landing place; and steb (Saxon, stump) hyth—or timber landing place. The latter appears the more probable solution.

Building of St. Mary's Chapel at Stratford Bow; Whitechapel

The parish lies east of London, in the hundred of Ossulton, & formerly was of immense extent, including all London east of the City, south of Hackney, north of the Thames and west of the River Lea, except the district belonging to the Nunnery of St. Leonard's, Bromley. In 1311 Bishop Baldock granted a Chapel to the inhabitants of Bow (fn. 1) by reason of their distance from the parish Church, and the frequent floods in winter. In 1338 the district of Whitechapel, which had for some time possessed a Chapel-of-Ease—was also separated from the parish Church under a Rector appointed by the Rector of Stepney, and with the title of "St. Mary Matfelon."

Chapel in the "Isle of Dogs"

Stepney Marsh, now the "Isle of Dogs," also had a chapel dedicated to St. Mary. Strype's "Stow" quotes an allusion to it in the Bishop of London's Registry, date 15th century—

"Capella beatæ Mariæ in Marischo de Stepney."

Lysons (Vol. III., p. 468) states that a Gothic window in the ruins of this Chapel was only removed about 1792. Other portions of the building remained within the memory of persons still living, but have now disappeared.

Dedication of Stepney Church

The present Church is dedicated to St. Dunstan, who was Bishop of London 959-961, and then Archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 988. It would appear that, in its earlier days the dedication was different, as the following extracts show:

"Matthew Paris says that Stepney Church was rebuilt by St. Dunstan in the year 952; that the old church which Dunstan replaced was dedicated to All Saints; and that the new church erected by him was, after his death and canonisation, re-dedicated to him." (fn. 2)

Newcourt (fn. 3) states: "This church of Stepney is dedicated to St. Dunstan, and (if I forget not) to All-Saints also, having somewhere read it, Ecclesia Omnium Sanctorum Stepney."

The Bishops of London were firmly established here as Lords of the Manor at the date of Domesday, 1080—

"In Ossulston Hundred the Bishop of London William (1051-75) holds Stibenhede for 32 hides . . . with all its profits. It is worth 48 pounds, and the same, when received in the time of King Edward 50 pounds. This Manor was, and is, belonging to the Bishopric." (fn. 4)

Bishop's Palace in Stepney

The Bishops possessed, & resided in, a palace in the parish, with a chapel attached, at Bethnal Green. They deserted this palace as a residence early in the 15th century, & the chapel, with messuage, was rented by Bishop Bonner in 1547 to Sir Ralph Warren for a term of 99 years at 4d. per annum (Newcourt, Rep.) The remains of this palace only disappeared in 1844 during the formation of Victoria Park. "Bonner's" & "Bishop's" roads in that district recall the site.

An inventory of ecclesiastical ornaments, bequeathed by Bishop Baldock to St. Paul's Cathedral, was taken at his Palace at "Stibbenheth" in 1313, and in 1382 there appears in the Account book of Bishop Braybrook's Clerk of the Household:—

"Datum cuidam ludenti super le chekkar apud "Stebbenhith" de precepto domini IIIs. (M.S. St. Paul's Library, Max. Lyte's Catalogue, pp. 58-119.)


In 1391 King Richard III. assigned Stepney as the London residence of his Chancellor the Archbishop of York. (Rymer's Fædera, II. 522.) St. Dunstan's does not appear to have been richly endowed with Chantries, etc., the only entry in the Chantry Inventories (Record Office) being:

Stebunheth—Thomas Brett gave unto the said Churche to the intente to be prayd for for ever one tenement in perpetuity situate in Limehouse nowe in the tenure of John Phillips, who payeth for the same xxxiii s. 4d. (fn. 5)

The Inventory of Church Vestments belonging to St. Dunstan's, taken in 1550, is not to be found. That of the Chapel-of-Ease at Stratford at Bow is forthcoming, (fn. 6) & is so rich that it enables one to conjecture what the mother church must have possessed.

The Church of Stepney was appropriated to the See of London in the year 1380. Till the year 1544, the Bishops of London collated to the Rectory, which was a sinecure, & the Rectors were patrons of the Vicarage. From that time till the beginning of the present century the great tithes were impropriated, and the impropriators presented to both. Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, was lessee of the great tithes under the Rector, paying a reserved rent of £20 per annum. He had a grant also of the advowson for the next turn from Bishop Stokesly; his interest in both was granted upon his attainder to Sir Richard Williams, alias Cromwell, gentlemen of the Privy Chamber (an ancestor of Oliver Cromwell).

The Rectory and advowson having been given to Edward VI. with the manor by Bishop Ridley, were granted to Lord Wentworth, and continued in his family (except during the sequestration of the Earl of Cleveland's estates, when they appear to have been in the possession of Dame Frances Weld) till the year 1705: they were then alienated by the representatives of Philadelphia Lady Wentworth, to William Lord Montgomery, son of the Marquis of Powis, of whom they were purchased in 1708 by the principal and scholars of Brazen-nose College, in Oxford. The purchase was confirmed by Act of Parliament; and the great tithes having been annexed to the Vicarage (subject to an annual payment (fn. 7) to the College). (fn. 8) The benefices were united in 1710, & John Wright, the then Vicar, became sole Rector. The same Act appointed that after the death of the said John Wright the said Rectory was to be considered under the terms of two moieties, or Portions, of the said Rectory; in other words, that there should be two Rectors or "Portionists" of Stepney, to be entitled "Portionist of Ratcliff Stepney," and " Portionist of Spittlefields Stepney," respectively. They were to serve the Parish alternately—i.e., one to perform the duties of the parish during the space of one month, and the other Portionist the succeeding month, & so on, in continual succession. This double arrangement went on until 1740, when the "Portionist of Ratcliff" was made first Rector of St. Matthew's, Bethnal Green; the other "Portionist" becoming the sole Rector of Stepney.

Division of Stepney into other parishes

Growth of population made necessary the establishment of nine separate parishes out of the original Stepney. The following list gives their dates of separation:

St. Paul's, Shadwell 1669
St. Mary's, Whitechapel 1673
St. John's, Wapping 1694
Christ Church, Spitalfields 1729
St. George's in the East 1729
St. Mary's, Bow 1730
St. Anne's, Limehouse 1730
St. Matthew's, Bethnal Green 1740
All Saints', Poplar 1820

(Newcourt's "Repertorium," Frere's "Memorials," Lewis' "Topographical Dictionary.")

In 1650 the following scheme for the sub-division of the Parish of Stepney was drawn up by the Parliamentary Commissioners (Parly. Survey, Lambeth) but was never carried out:

"That the parish Church of Stepney is of so vaste extent and so populous that the fourth part of the parishioners cannot come to their parish Church to heere. Which parish if conveniently divided would make four parishes set apart as followeth, viz.:—

The hamlett of Poplar and Blackwall to be one parish, there being a foundation already laid. The hamlett of Lymehouse to be another.

The third to be the whole hamlett of Ratcliffe, Shadwell, Wapping Wall, and to extend to Old Gravel Lane, taking in from thence all Ratcliffe highway towards Stepney, together with Myle End and Bednall Green, to belong to the mother church of Stepney. And a fourth to contayne Wentworth St. to Rose Lane, part of Petticoat Lane as formerly, with divers Allys there adjoining, belonging to Stepnye parish, and also Artillery Lane and all Spittlefields, Cock Lane, and Stepnye Rents by Shoreditch. All which wee have taken into serious consideration, and doe confidently believe, iff soe performed, yt may add much to the honour of God, the ffurther propagation of his worship and service, the generall benefitt of the parishioners, and the more effectuall provyding for the many poore thereof, according to the intent of the said Act of Parliament."


The Rectory of Stepney was valued at £40 in the "Taxatio Ecclesa." of Pope Nicholas IV. 1291 (Brit. Mus.), and at 60 marks in 1372 (Harl. MS. 60).

In the Valor Eccles. 26 Hen. VIII. 1534 appears— £ s. d.
Stebenheth ciiij xiij
Marisc' de—— xxj vij iij

In the Chantry Roll 1 Edw. VI. 1547 (Record Office—Cert 34. No. 169) the Rectory etc. is valued as follows—

"There is of people now in the said pyshe the nomber of 13,000. Sir Gabriel Donne is p'sone of the seid Churche, and his p'sonage is worthe by yere £50—And that Sir Henry Moore is Vicar, and his Vicarage is worthe by yere to him £33. 6. 8."

In the Lambeth Library MS. is an interesting notice of the value of Stepney taken at the time of the Commonwealth (1650)—

"We present that to the parish of Stepney aforesaid there is a Vicarage presentative, with cure of souls annexed. The parsonage is an impropriation. That the incumbent to the said Vicarage is Dr. Joshua Hoyle, who is come in by sequestration; the former incumbent was Mr. William Stampe. The parsonage impropriate was formerly the Earl of Cleveland's, and now belongeth to Dame Frances Weld. That the Vicarage of Stepney, now to be let, we believe would not yield above seventy-five pounds per annum without fine or incumber, the principal profits thereof arising from communicants who are customarily to pay threepence a head per annum for so many in every family as were conceived to be of full years to receive communion, whereof now there is but little paid. To the Vicarage there belongeth a house and orchard, but no other messuages, lands, or tenements; the tithes belonging thereunto are but small, being raised by sixpence a cow, and by cocks and hens a penny each, and such uncertain profits, as also by christenings, most of which are privately and at home by strangers, and the benefits lost, and likewise by burials, whereof a small share accrueth to the Vicar. The Vicar himself receiveth the profits to his own use, saving such profits which arise out of the hamlets of Poplar and Blackwall within the said parish, which, by order of this present Parliament, is given to the minister that officiates the cure at Stratford Bow, which profits amount to the value of thirty-two pounds per annum, Bow being a chapel of ease to the parish church of Stepney. That the Earl of Cleveland had formerly the presentation of the Vicarage, and now the Lady Weld, as is aforesaid. That there belongeth to the parish Church of Stepney one chapel of ease, situate at Bow aforesaid, and is a mile distant from the parish Church, and is supplied by Mr. Cann; the profits of that Chapel, as we conceive, ariseth out of six pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence, which was formerly paid out of the Exchequer, the duties aforementioned set apart out of Poplar and Blackwall by order of Parliament, and the rest benevolentiary by the inhabitants. We further conceive this Chapel fit to continue as it is, if it be not made a parish. That the parish Church of Stepney hath a very able, godly minister, Dr Joshua Hoyle."

The patronage of the Benefice was, by an order in Council dated 9th July 1864, transferred from Brasenose College, Oxford, to the Bishop of London.

Gross. Net.
The present valuation of the living is £532 £360

The parish now consists of the 3 Hamlets—Ratcliffe, Mile End Old Town, and Mile End New Town—divided into several Church districts, the first of which was granted in 1837.


  • 1. Afterwards the parish Church of St. Mary, Stratford Bow. See the monograph on this building issued by the Survey Committee in 1900.
  • 2. "Guide to the Churches of London," by the Rev. C. Mackeson.
  • 3. Repertorium, Vol. I. p. 737.
  • 4. Domesday, ed. Sir H. James, London, 1862.
  • 5. 1 Edw. VI., Midd. Cert. 34, No. 169.
  • 6. Augm: Off: Miscell: Bk. 498, p. 34. Printed at length in Rev. W. H. Frere's " Two Centuries of Stepney History," 1892, pp. 23-25.
  • 7. Not more than £120, nor less than £20. The sum now paid is £40. (Lysons.) The 1889-90 Terrier, however, states the amount of the annual rent to the College to be £67.
  • 8. Lysons.