Stepney: Protestant Nonconformity to 1689

Pages 81-83

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

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Some separatist congregations of the early 17th century (fn. 1) registered their meetings after 1660, including the Particular Baptists, founded in 1633 in Wapping-Stepney, where in 1669 their meeting house in Meeting House Alley, restored 'as in Cromwell's time', was shared with Independents and was attended by 300, (fn. 2) and the Independents' Stepney Meeting, founded in 1644 at Mile End, which registered William Greenhill's house near the parish church in 1669. (fn. 3)

Craftsmen and mariners from Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, and Spitalfields attended meetings in 1661 at John Adams's house in Spittle Yard and other sites. (fn. 4) Quakers were meeting in the parish by 1664 (fn. 5) and possibly in 1662-3 when conventicles of c. 50 or 100 were broken up; (fn. 6) in 1669 it was reported that while the Five Mile Act was being enforced only Quaker meetings were much in evidence. (fn. 7) Quakers met in 1664 at the houses of William Beane in Stepney, of Capt. James Brock, of Peter Burdett in Westbury Street, Spitalfields, and of Sibyl Heaman in Limehouse, and at another building. From the numbers arrested, the Quaker meetings at Beane's and Burdett's houses, both of which led to permanent meeting houses, were of similar size and exceeded only by the City meeting at Bull and Mouth Yard. (fn. 8)

In 1669 Stepney was reported to have several buildings fitted up as meeting houses, besides conventicles in private houses. (fn. 9) Presbyterians had fitted up a warehouse near Ratcliff Cross, where 200 were said to meet, and a purpose-built house in Spitalfields, where 800 met under Dr. Samuel Annesley; they also had a chapel in Broad Street, Wapping-Stepney, from 1668. (fn. 10) Quakers had a purpose-built brick house in Schoolhouse Lane, Ratcliff (Brook Street), for 500, and a meeting place for 500 in Westbury Street. Baptists met at the houses of Thomas Launder, a rich butcher, in Limehouse, where the congregation was 100, and of Mr. Cherry in Poplar, where Launder was the preacher; in Wapping they had a purpose-built house in Artichoke Lane, with a congregation of 200, as well as the old meeting house in Meeting House Alley. In addition to the congregation who shared the Meeting House Alley building with the Baptists and the Stepney Meeting at Greenhill's house, Independents also met in Rose Lane, Spitalfields, at a house fitted up at Bethnal Green, and at a new brick house in Red Maid Lane, Wapping, with a congregation of 300. The Baptists and Independents were said to assemble daily at one or other of their meeting houses, and to baptize many of the children of the parish.

In addition to the fixed meetings there were itinerant groups meeting in private houses, individuals who moved between sects, and Sunday walkers drawn by curiosity. The women and persons of low rank who in 1669 were reported to make up most meetings presumably included the many prosperous trades- and craftsmen who were summonsed. It was said that meetings had increased greatly since the Five Mile Act was no longer enforced but that greater resolution would soon reconcile most dissenters, especially Independents and Presbyterians, to the Anglican church, whose services they had attended until recently. Since the death of Sir William Ryder and Major Manly, 'who kept this parish in good order', there had been no resident justice. (fn. 11)

In 1666 the Secretary of State was informed about six Stepney meeting houses, including those at Spitalfields and Wapping, (fn. 12) and in 1670, perhaps as a result of the report on conventicles of 1669, the lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets, Sir John Robinson, was ordered to keep watch on sectarians. Robinson, who thought that dissenters were losing heart, wanted to compel owners of meeting houses to put them to other uses. (fn. 13) Despite the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, many meetings were refused licences, and many others may have chosen to avoid drawing attention to themselves by applying. Licences were issued for the houses of Samuel Annesley and T. Danson in Spitalfields (both Presbyterian), of Richard Loton (Congregationalist) and Mr. Gould (Presbyterian) in Spittle Yard, of Richard Ward (Congregationalist) in Bethnal Green, of Joseph Farnworth in Buky Street and another in Globe Alley, both Wapping (Presbyterian), for a house by the Hermitage, near Wapping (Congregationalist); and the house of W. Polter in Bell Lane, Stepney (Baptist). (fn. 14)

Between 1661 and 1689 more conventiclers were summonsed from Stepney than anywhere else in Middlesex. Arrests reflected not only the strength of Dissent but also the availability of troops under the lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets and his troops, whereas elsewhere in Middlesex, except in Westminster, justices had to rely on the local constables. (fn. 15) The lieutenancy also reported meetings and destroyed meeting houses: in 1670 soldiers took away furniture from the Ratcliff Quaker meeting, and soon after demolished the house, removing 12 loads of materials. (fn. 16) In 1682 the lieutenant, Sir William Smyth, used troops to smash the fittings in the Independents' Stepney meeting house. (fn. 17) While many conventiclers arrested in Stepney were not residents, parishioners were themselves arrested farther afield. Only after the Toleration Act of 1689 did residents make up the majority of members of dissenting churches within the parish. (fn. 18)

Quaker meetings at Beane's house were broken up on 20 successive Sundays in 1664-5, when attendances ranged from 14 to 134 and the numbers convicted from 4 to 34. From 1664 inhabitants convicted for a third time were transported, their goods being seized by the constables and headboroughs to pay for conveying them to the ships. In Middlesex only St. Sepulchre's parish had more transportees than Stepney in 1665. (fn. 19)

Sympathy, if not support, for dissenters, was shown in 1665 by a Stepney yeoman and five craftsmen of Limehouse, one of them a Baptist, who were fined for refusing to help the constable take conventiclers from Sibyl Heaman's house to Newgate. In 1683 a headborough of Stepney and the surveyor of the poor of Limehouse neglected to distrain conventiclers' goods, (fn. 20) and in 1685 another headborough was fined for warning a Quaker about a warrant. (fn. 21)

In 1682, when persecution resumed, Matthew Mead, minister of Stepney Meeting, William (probably the same as Hercules) Collins, of Old Gravel Lane, Wapping-Stepney, and Samuel Annesley, were each convicted several times of teaching at conventicles in their homes and at meeting houses. Also convicted in 1682 were preachers in Wapping-Stepney (Independent and Baptist), Limehouse (Quaker), Ratcliff (Quaker). While Hercules Collins was imprisoned his Baptists met in private houses from 1683 to 1688. (fn. 22) Convictions in 1683 for meetings in Stepney, Spitalfields, and Bethnal Green, (fn. 23) were followed by others until 1686 for conventicles in private houses, mainly in the Spitalfields area. (fn. 24) In 1686 20 out of 70 such convictions at quarter sessions were of people who lived in Stepney. (fn. 25)


  • 1. Above, churches.
  • 2. Burrage, Early Eng. Dissenters, i. 326; Orig. Rec. of Early Nonconf. ed. G. L. Turner, i. 89.
  • 3. Early Nonconf. ed. Turner, i (1911), 89.
  • 4. Mdx. County Rec. iii. 311-13.
  • 5. J. Besse, Collection of Sufferings of People called Quakers, i (1753), 361-478.
  • 6. Mdx. County Rec. iii. 321-2, 325, 330, 332.
  • 7. Early Nonconf. ed. Turner, i. 90.
  • 8. Besse, Sufferings, i, passim.
  • 9. Two paras. based on Early Nonconf. ed. Turner, i. 88-90.
  • 10. T.H.L.H.L., pamphlets 222.5, John Knox Church, Stepney Way.
  • 11. Early Nonconf. ed. Turner, i. 88-90.
  • 12. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1665-6, 412.
  • 13. Ibid. 1670, 237, 267-8, 310.
  • 14. F. Bate, Declaration of Indulgence, App. xxxvii, xxxviii, xxxix.
  • 15. Lond. Jnl. xiii. 108; below.
  • 16. Besse, Sufferings, i. 416, 428.
  • 17. Hist. MSS. Com. 2, 3rd Rep., Legh, p. 269.
  • 18. Mdx. County Rec. iii, passim.
  • 19. Ibid.; Besse, Sufferings, i, passim.
  • 20. Mdx. County Rec. iii. 370; iv. 201-2.
  • 21. Besse, Sufferings, i. 478.
  • 22. Mdx. County Rec. iv. 182-6; Kevan, Lond.'s Oldest Bapt. Ch. 44-5, 66.
  • 23. Mdx. County Rec. iv. 201-2, 230.
  • 24. Ibid. iv. 235, 238, 242, 247, 249, 252-6, 258-9, 262, 288-9.
  • 25. Ibid. iv. 301-2. Later hist, of individual chs. reserved for treatment under hamlets.