Bethnal Green: Introduction

Page 87

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.

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Bethnal green was known as the scene of the legend of the Blind Beggar and later as the archetypal East End slum, the green lying c. 2½ miles (4 km.) north-east of St. Paul's cathedral. (fn. 1) A hamlet of Stepney until 1743, when it became a separate parish, it contained 755 a. (fn. 2) and was bounded by Shoreditch on the west and north, Hackney on the north, Stratford-at-Bow on the east, and Mile End and Spitalfields on the south. Hackney Road, possibly ancient, formed part of the northern boundary and the common sewer part of the southern. (fn. 3) Perambulations of the parish boundaries were supposed to be triennial (fn. 4) but in practice they were much less frequent (fn. 5) and disputes occurred as building encroached: with Christ Church, Spitalfields, over Wheeler Street in 1769 (fn. 6) and with Hackney over Cambridge Heath in 1732, 1779, 1788, and 1826. (fn. 7) Tower Hamlets sewer commissioners defined the northern boundary in 1854. (fn. 8) Adjustments to all the borders when Bethnal Green became a metropolitan borough in 1900 left an overall acreage of c. 760 (307.5 ha.). The main effect was to make Cambridge Road the eastern boundary from Mile End Road to the railway line and to make the railway the southern boundary from Globe to Grove roads. (fn. 9) The metropolitan borough became part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1965. (fn. 10)

Bethnal Green is covered by River Terrace gravels on London Clay. North-west of a wavy line from Bishopsgate station to the Hackney border at Grove Street lies Taplow Gravel; south-east lies Higher Flood Plain gravel. The 15m. contour runs through the Taplow Gravel. Most of the parish is flat, with a slight incline to the south. (fn. 11)

The common sewer, which marked Bethnal Green's southern boundary from Brick Lane to Mile End Gate, (fn. 12) may have originated as a natural stream. The flat ground, in spite of its underlying gravel, was frequently marshy. Haresmarsh (fn. 13) and Foulmere (fn. 14) covered much of the south and there was a causeway probably on the site of Dog Row. (fn. 15) Rushes feature in place-names on both sides of Cambridge Heath. (fn. 16) A field in the north-west in 1652 was 'usually drowned with water'. (fn. 17) It was then being worked for bricks and the extraction of brickearth and gravel left the landscape pitted with holes, adding by 1848 'filthy, pestilential lakes' (fn. 18) to the natural ponds, like that on the green by St. George's chapel. (fn. 19)


  • 1. J. Dugdale, New Brit. Traveller (1819), iii. 473.
  • 2. Census (1831).
  • 3. Gascoyne, Map; Lysons, Environs, ii. 27. For Hackney Rd., below, communications.
  • 4. Vestry mins. 1782-1813, p. 31.
  • 5. Ibid. 1820-3, P. 157. The perambulation in 1821 was the first since 1814.
  • 6. Vestry mins. 1747-81, p. 277.
  • 7. Ibid. 1823-8, 29 Mar., 7 Sept. 1826; The Times, 16 June 1788, 3a; 12 Sept. 1788, 2d; V.C.H. Mdx. x. 3.
  • 8. G.L.R.O., MCS/498/719.
  • 9. Ibid. CL/LOC/2/10; Census (1901).
  • 10. Below, local govt. (local govt. after 1965).
  • 11. Geol. Surv. Map 6", drift, Lond. sheet V. NE. (1920 edn.); ibid. 1/50,000, sheet 256 (1994 edn.); V.C.H. Mdx. i, map facing p. 2; T.H.L.H.L., Map no. 1885.
  • 12. Gascoyne, Map.
  • 13. P.R.O., SC 6/1139/18 (1362-4).
  • 14. Guildhall MS. 25121/1710 (1388).
  • 15. B.L. Eg. Ch. 2081.
  • 16. Rush croft or land and Rush (Russia) Lane to E.: Guildhall MS. 25422 (1404); B.L. Eg. MS. 3006, f.1 (1546); survey of 1550 in W. Robinson, Hist. Hackney, i (1842), 325; Rush mead and meadow to W.: Lambeth Pal. Libr., MS. 2731/2 (1640); G.L.R.O., M93/158, f.8 (1652).
  • 17. G.L.R.O., M93/158, f.9.
  • 18. Gavin, San. Rumblings, 87.
  • 19. Gascoyne, Map; Survey of Bethnal Green (1706) (T.H.L.H.L., Map no. 301).