Stepney: Charities for the Poor

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

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'Stepney: Charities for the Poor', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green, (London, 1998) pp. 83-86. British History Online [accessed 1 March 2024]

In this section


The Charity Commissioners in the 1890s apportioned all the charities which had been established before partition of the ancient parish among its relevant subdivisions. Neither Whitechapel (including St. John's, Wapping), whose separation predated the charities, nor Stratford Bow, for practical purposes autonomous since 1497, was entitled to a share; (fn. 1) before Shadwell's separation only Gibson's almshouses and schools and Fuller's almshouses had been established. By the 20th century all the charities managed by the parish had been divided among the benefiting hamlets or parishes, most or which drew up schemes to administer several charities together.

The following account gives the early history of each charity founded for the ancient parish and indicates how the charity was later divided amongst the hamlets; details of its later application and the collective schemes are reserved for the accounts of those hamlets.

Almshouse charities.

The Ratcliff charity originated in almshouses and a school built in 1531 by Nicholas Gibson (d. 1540), citizen and sheriff of London, on part of his copyhold land on the north side of Broad Street and the east side of the later Schoolhouse Lane. (fn. 2) In 1552 his widow Avice, then widow of Sir Anthony Knyvett, settled Gibson's copyhold estate on the Coopers' Company of London in trust to maintain the school and almshouses. The profits were to support seven poor people from Stepney and seven members of the Coopers' Company or their widows in the almshouses, each inmate to receive £1 6s. 8d. a year. (fn. 3) Avice also granted London property for the same uses to John Chorley, who left it to the company in 1553. (fn. 4) The copyhold in Ratcliff was enfranchised in 1774. (fn. 5) Property in London was also given by Henry Cloker in 1573, to provide is. a year to each inmate and money for the school, and by Peter Thelloe in 1599, to maintain the school and almshouses. Richard Young left £50 for coals in 1665, and Henry Strode left £500 in 1703 to increase the pensions. (fn. 6) Six more almshouses, for coopers, were built beside the existing ones in 1613 with money left by Tobias Wood, and thereafter the original almshouses were used only for women. (fn. 7) Stepney parish vestry brought a suit against the Coopers' Company regarding their administration of the almshouses and school in 1684. (fn. 8) New almshouses were built by the company in 1694 (below). (fn. 9)

In 1818 the whole income of the charity was £595 and most of the expenditure of £562 was on the almshouses, where c. 1830 the schoolmaster seems to have acted as unofficial warden for the company. (fn. 10) An additional house was built in 1826, allowing the number of Stepney widows to be increased to eight. The payment to each almswoman was raised from £8 to £10 in 1814 and to £15 in 1826. Income was £1,057 and expenditure £663 in 1837. Allowances were again raised in 1846, 1860, and 1876. (fn. 11)

The Ratcliff charity was combined with Prisca Coborn's school charity under a Scheme of 1891. The almshouse branch received £1,400 a year instead of sums from Cloker's and Thelloe's gifts; with property in the City and in Woolwich, and £1,027 in stock, its total income was £1,822 a year. In 1894 the almswomen, eight from Stepney and eight coopers' widows, each received £26 a year besides coal, 10s. at Christmas, and medical attendance; six former coopers were supported by Wood's gift. Out-pensions were paid from 1854; in 1894 ten pensioners received £20 a year, ten received £15, and ten received £10, half of each group being resident in Stepney. (fn. 12)

The almshouses were closed and the inmates given pensions in 1894, when the whole site was cleared and let by the Coopers' Company. In 1936 c. 60 people received pensions. (fn. 13) In 1964-5 the income of £2,518 relieved 9 poor of the company (£1,007) and 19 poor of Stepney (£739). In 1972-3 the income was £3,853 and the payments were £1,570. A Scheme of 1976 for what had been renamed the Ratcliff Pension charity allotted 29/52nds of the income to relieve members of the Coopers' Company and the remainder to residents of Stepney parish as it had existed in 1897. The assets of the charity consisted of 46 per cent of the net sale or rents of property in Schoolhouse Lane, Ratcliff, belonging to the Coopers and Coborn Educational Fund, the right to £1,400 a year from that fund, and £21,987 stock. (fn. 14)

The almshouses of 1694 stood slightly north of the older buildings, forming with the school three sides of a narrow courtyard off Schoolhouse Lane; to the north were garden plots for the alms women. After a fire at Ratcliff the almshouses were rebuilt in 1795-6, a little farther north and on a similar plan. The central block had a chapel, served from St. James's, Ratcliff, and attended by the almswomen twice a week. The chapel was flanked by two-storeyed houses, including lodgings for the schoolmaster and schoolmistress; the wings, after the addition of 1826, each contained four houses. The main part of the school, vacated under the reorganization of 1891, was behind the north wing. (fn. 15)

John Fuller by will proved 1592 directed his wife to build almshouses in Stepney for 12 single men aged 50 years or more and in Shoreditch for 12 widows. The almshouses were to be managed by the Mercers' Company and each set was to be supported by a rent charge of £50 a year from lands in Lincolnshire. (fn. 16) The almshouses had been built by 1623, when Fuller's widow and her husband Sir Thomas Mansell settled the lands on her for life, the rent charge to be paid by her husband's two sons. (fn. 17) Stepney vestry apparently managed the almshouses by 1641, having asked the company in 1639 to accept responsibility or relinquish it to the parish. Receipts in 1641 were £88 and disbursements £44 to the churchwardens of Shoreditch for the women's almhouses, £37 13s. to the almsmen, and £4 18s. for a lawsuit. (fn. 18) Since no residential qualifications had been laid down, in 1662 the six westernmost rooms were reserved for men from Ratcliff, Shadwell, and Poplar, and the other six for Limehouse, Mile End, Bethnal Green, and Spitalfields. (fn. 19) The rent charge was finally settled on the almshouses in 1687 by George Kemeys, the landowner, after a Chancery suit. (fn. 20)

In 1837 inmates were chosen by the churchwardens but no longer came from Shadwell. Ratcliff, Poplar, Limehouse, and Spitalfields each appointed two inmates; Mile End Old Town, Mile End New Town, St. George-inthe-East, and Bethnal Green each appointed one. Married men were admitted and their widows allowed to stay. Each hamlet paid for the repairs of its room. The churchwarden of Christ Church (Spitalfields) received £50 a year from the managing solicitors, from which he paid £4 to each inmate, keeping £2 for himself. Despite a Chancery Order, the charity had not apparently been incorporated. In 1864 the property and rent charge were vested in the Official Trustee, and the several churchwardens were appointed trustees. The almshouses were sold in 1865, after new ones had been built at Harrow Green, Leyton (Essex). There was no fund for repairs in 1894, when the rent charge provided £3 15s. 3d. for each inmate. (fn. 21) Pensions were paid from the charity between 1922 and 1950.

Fuller's (men's) almshouses, presumably those built by 1623, stood in 1652 on former waste given to the parish by the earl of Cleveland on the north side of Mile End Road, east of Cambridge Heath Road and bounded south and west by Mile End green. They consisted of 12 brick dwellings, with a wall in front and small gardens behind, (fn. 22) and probably formed the building shown in 1703. (fn. 23) The same buildings may have survived in 1837 in Eagle Street, called Spread Eagle Place in 1864. (fn. 24)

Capt. James Cook and his widow Dame Alice Row left money for four almshouses, providing eight rooms for seamen of Stepney and their widows, which were built on land leased to the churchwardens by Thomas Grimley in 1673; this may be the waste that Grimley was asked by the vestry to procure from the lady of the manor in 1671. (fn. 25) The hamlet of Mile End Old Town repaired the decayed buildings c. 1815 and put one person into each room, normally a seaman's widow who lived rent free. Although given for the benefit of Stepney as a whole, in 1837 the charity was in practice confined to Mile End Old Town. Coals at Christmas were provided under the will of Thomas Daplyn, proved 1845, from the interest on £50 stock after repair of his tomb. In 1871 the charity also received £20, invested in stock, for a neighbour's use of the almshouse wall as a party wall.

After the almshouses' site had been leased for building (below), a Scheme in 1885 for the Cook, Row, and Daplyn charities furnished pensions to up to eight seamen or their widows, resident in Stepney for at least 5 years and not receiving poor relief. The income was £90 a year from the builder, besides £1 19s. 4d. interest on stock. In 1894 eight women received 4s. a week with extra during winter, and the charity was regarded as exclusively for Mile End Old Town. (fn. 26) In 1976 the charity received rents of £3,000 a year and held c. £16,000 in stock and c. £20,000 on deposit. From 1977 the income was administered under Mile End Old Town's Scheme for Stepney Relief in Need Charity. (fn. 27)

The almshouses in 1845 stood on the north side of Mile End Road opposite York Place, in 1871 called no. 391 Mile End Road. They were dilapidated in 1880 and taken on a 70-year building lease by Abraham Barnett, who built six houses (nos. 1-6 Barnett Market or nos. 391A-F Mile End Road) on the site. (fn. 28)

John Pemel by will dated 1681 left £1,200 to the Drapers' Company to buy land, using the rents to pay for a single-storeyed almshouse in Mile End and £4 a year to each of the eight almspeople, besides coals and gowns with the company's badge; the residue was for repairs and sick relief. Four rooms were for widows of freemen of the company and four for widows of Stepney seamen. Land was bought in Southwark and the City in 1694 and the almshouses were completed in 1698, situated near Stonebridge (Mile End Gate), the four easternmost rooms being used for widows nominated by the eight Stepney hamlets in turn. Rents produced £52 12s. a year in 1861. Money from the sale of the almshouses in 1863 provided new ones in Bromley (Mdx.) and then in Tottenham (below). Additional land in Tottenham produced a rental income of £130 16s. in 1892, when four of the almshouses were still appropriated to Stepney, although the rotation of nominations had been abandoned in 1884. In 1894 each of the four widows received £25 4s. and 2 tons of coal a year, with medical care. (fn. 29)

Pemel's almshouses were called the Drapers' Almshouses in 1813, lying on the north side of Whitechapel Road in the parish of Bethnal Green. (fn. 30) They were sold in 1863 for £5,133 in money and stock, spent partly on those built in Bromley on land held by the Drapers' Company for Sir John Jolles's and Edmanson's almshouse charities, which were compensated. The Bromley site was taken for the N.L.R. in 1867 and Elmslea in Bruce Grove, Tottenham, was bought with 50 a., where new buildings for Pemel's, Jolles's, and Edmanson's charities were later known as the Sailmakers' almshouses. (fn. 31)

Mary Bowry, by will proved 1728, left the residue of her property to buy land between Stepney church and Bow and to build as many almshouses as possible for mariners or their widows, to be nominated by the minister and churchwardens after the death of her trustees. Under a Chancery order of 1740 land was bought in 1742 (fn. 32) and eight almshouses were built in 1744 (fn. 33) for which each parish or hamlet nominated an inmate. Stock purchased for a maintenance fund was valued at £2,555 in 1810. The inmates received £5 a month between them until 1836, later increased by 12s. a month to each. Repairs to each house were defrayed by its respective hamlet. By 1894 the almshouses had been sold and the whole income was distributed as pensions of £21 12s. with £2 for coal to each of the eight widows. (fn. 34) In 1939 the charity was divided and each hamlet or parish received c. £763 in stock, the income to be paid as before in pensions to poor seamen or their widows. (fn. 35) Bowry's almshouses stood in the parish of Bromley on the south side of Bow Road, next to the Drapers' Company's almshouses (Jolles and Edmanson charities). (fn. 36)

Apprenticing charities.

William Curtis by will proved 1670 left a rent charge of £60 from which £24 was to apprentice eight boys and eight girls in alternate years, two to come from Poplar, one from Mile End, two from Limehouse, and three from Ratcliff and Shadwell; the remainder was to be distributed among the poor (below). (fn. 37) In the ten years to 1894 no suitable apprentices were found in Mile End and only four in Ratcliff, all apprenticed to watermen. Between 1891 and 1893 the whole income was distributed among the poor. (fn. 38) The later history of this charity is uncertain.

Samuel Butler by will proved 1837 created an accumulating fund for charity schools of 23 parishes, including St. Dunstan's, Stepney. Chancery in 1844 declared the gift legal, but the sinking fund was found impractical in 1852 and Schemes of 1853 and 1875 provided scholarships and apprenticeships for boys and girls. In the five years to 1894 seven scholarships worth £8 each were awarded to pupils at Stepney Parochial and Ratcliff Charity schools. Thereafter the scholarships were held at a secondary or technical school. (fn. 39)

Penelope Vicars by will dated 1732 left £200 for placing out children and other poor in Stepney. It was mentioned with her similar gift to the poor of Davenham (Ches.) in 1837 but the Stepney charity apparently had lapsed by 1894. (fn. 40)

Distributive charities.

John Matthew, citizen and merchant tailor, by will proved 1569 left 40s. a year to the poor of Stepney, with 3s. 4d. to the churchwardens for distributing it. Payment was received in 1586 but had lapsed by 1786. (fn. 41)

William Curtis by will proved 1670 left £24 of the residue of his rent charge after apprenticing (above), in the first year to relieve debtors in prison and thereafter for annual distribution among 48 poor: 12 in Poplar, 6 in Mile End, 12 in Limehouse, and 18 in Ratcliff and Shadwell. A further £8 was to be distributed in bread to the aged poor of Poplar. £1 to be used for a sermon, and £3 for a dinner for the trustees. By 1894 the capital produced £55 a year and the apprenticing share was spent on the poor, distributed in gifts of 10s. to women in Mile End Old Town, Mile End New Town, Ratcliff, Shadwell, Limehouse, and Poplar, in addition to prison charities. (fn. 42)

Richard Underhill by will dated 1671 left £60 to buy land, the income to pay for bread and an annual sermon. His gift was mentioned in 1786- 8 but nothing was known of it in 1837. (fn. 43)

Prisca Coborn by will dated 1701 left a manor and 250 a. in White Roding (Essex) in trust to relieve seamen's widows in Stepney. From 1733 half the income went to St. Dunstan's and the other half was divided among the new parishes of St. George-in-the-East (5s. 6d. in the £), Spitalfields (2s. 6d.), and Limehouse (1s.). After the creation of more new parishes, Stepney's half was divided in 1737-6 between Ratcliff (8s. in the £), Poplar (5s. 6d.), Mile End Old Town (3s.), Mile End New Town (1s. 6d.), and Bethnal Green (2s.). In 1894 the average net income of £110 was divided among the eight parishes or hamlets in the same proportions. (fn. 44)

Dame Sarah Pritchard by will dated 1707 left the income of £32 from £800 held by the Orphans' Fund of the City of London, for several parishes including Stepney, where £2 10s. was to be paid at Christmas to ten single women. Stock was bought in 1812 and Stepney received c. £2 17s. 8d. a year, (fn. 45) paid from 1824 to 1837 to the churchwarden of Ratcliff and distributed usually within the three remaining hamlets of St. Dunstan's: in Mile End New Town it was distributed in sums of 2s. to poor widows not receiving parochial relief, in Ratcliff among the most needy aged persons, and in Mile End Old Town it was put into the hamlet's common fund. In 1871, however, the parish was ordered to appoint trustees to receive the sum, then £3, and in 1894 all eight hamlets of Stepney (excluding Shadwell) received 6s. 3d. each. (fn. 46)

Robert Radford (fn. 47) by will dated 1750 left the interest on £100 to provide bread for the poor of Stepney. In 1837 Ratcliff, Mile End Old Town, Mile End New Town, and Poplar each received 15s. and distributed it independently. In 1894 £110 stock yielded £2 15s., divided evenly between the four hamlets. Each hamlet received £2.76p in 1976-7.

Susanna Wilson by will dated 1784 left the income from £50 for repair of her tomb, the residue for bread to be distributed by the churchwardens of Stepney. In 1837 £67 stock yielded £20 8d., divided equally between Mile End Old Town, Mile End New Town, and Ratcliff. The income was £1 17s. 4d. in 1894 and £1.68p for each hamlet in 1976-7.

Elizabeth Gordon by will dated 1790 left the interest on £100 stock for bread every Sunday. Until 1833 the money went into the church rate account but was spent fully on bread in the four hamlets. In 1837 Mile End Old Town's share was put into its common fund. In 1894 £110 stock yielded £2 15s., divided unequally according to the number of loaves previously distributed; the Charity Commissioners requested an equal distribution or one according to population. In 1976-7 each hamlet received £2.76p.

Dorothy Smith by will dated 1792 left the interest on £250 stock, from which £5 was to provide flannel petticoats for ten industrious women in Stepney and £2 10s. was for roasting beef for 20 women. The income was divided between Mile End Old Town, New Town, Ratciff, and Poplar, which distributed it independently. In 1837 Poplar had not received a share for four years but was to do so in future. In 1894 £275 stock yielded £6 17s. 4d. divided between the four hamlets. Each received £6.88p in 1976-7.

Capt. Timothy Mangles by will proved 1800 gave £100 in stock to Trinity House Corporation, the interest for the poor of Stepney. Stock bought with arrears of interest in 1825 increased the endowment to £257, yielding £7 1s. 4d. Bakers were invited to tender for bread distributed once a year at Trinity almshouses. In 1893 the 377 recipients were seamen or their widows and daughters residing in Stepney and recommended by local clergy; Poplar received no benefit.

Nicholas Undeutsch by will dated 1812 left £33 year for the poor not receiving alms, which was secured by the purchase of £100 stock. The gift was added to Gordon's charity until 1834, but thereafter the income was divided between Mile End Old Town, New Town, and Ratcliff. In 1894 £100 stock yielded £2 15s. In 1976-7 each hamlet received £2.76p.


  • 1. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 600.
  • 2. Lond. Topog. Rec. xvii. 5. For the sch.: V.C.H. Mdx. i. 291-4.
  • 3. P.R.O., PROB 11/28 (P.C.C. 12 Alenger), f. 93v.; Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 559, 584.
  • 4. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 603; Cal. of Wills in Ct. of Husting, 2 (ii), 654.
  • 5. W. Foster, The Ratcliffe Charity 1536-1936 (1936),8.
  • 6. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 584-5.
  • 7. Foster, Ratcliffe Char. 12.
  • 8. G.L.R.O., P93/DUN/328, pp. 132, 137.
  • 9. V.C.H. Mdx. i. 291.
  • 10. Ibid. 292.
  • 11. Foster, Ratcliffe Char. 23-4, 31; Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 587.
  • 12. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 610, 619.
  • 13. Foster, Ratcliffe Char. 32.
  • 14. Char. Com. file 234613.
  • 15. Foster, Ratcliffe Char. 17; Rocque, Map of Lond. (1741-5), sheet 6; Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 610, 619. Below, plate 12.
  • 16. P.R.O., PROB 11/79 (P.C.C. 46 Harington), f. 355.
  • 17. 32nd Rep. Com. Char. II, H.C. 140, pp. 503-5 (1837- 8), xxvi; W. K. Jordan, Chars. of Lond. 1480-1660 (1960), 145.
  • 18. Mems. Stepney Par. 168, 175.
  • 19. Ibid. 241.
  • 20. 32nd Rep. Com. Char. II, H.C. 140, pp. 503-5 (1837- 8), xxvi.
  • 21. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 587-8, 628-30.
  • 22. G.L.R.O., M93/439, f. 5.
  • 23. Gascoyne, Map of Mile End Old Town (1703). Below, plate 14.
  • 24. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 587.
  • 25. G.L.R.O., P93/DUN/328, p. 52.
  • 26. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 593, 638-40.
  • 27. Char. Com. files 250130, 250131.
  • 28. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 593, 638-40.
  • 29. Ibid. 582-3, 595, 625-8.
  • 30. Horwood, Plan (1813 edn. in Regency A to Z (1985)). Below, plate 15.
  • 31. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 583, 595, 625-8; V.C.H. Mdx. v. 320.
  • 32. G.L.R.O., P93/DUN/341.
  • 33. On datestone: Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 271.
  • 34. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 270-2, 632.
  • 35. Char. Com. files 250132; below, Bethnal Green, charities.
  • 36. G.L.R.O., P93/DUN/341; Horwood, Plan (1813 edn. in A to Z of Regency Lond.). Below, plate 13.
  • 37. B.L. Add. Ch. 13730; below, distributive charities.
  • 38. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 273, 632.
  • 39. Ibid. 33, 643-4.
  • 40. Ibid. 704.
  • 41. Ibid. 592; Mems. Stepney Par. 14-15, 249-50.
  • 42. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 273, 632.
  • 43. Ibid. 592.
  • 44. Ibid. 588-9, 633-4.
  • 45. 14th Rep. Com. Char. H.C. 382, p. 256 (1826), xii.
  • 46. Endowed Chars. Lond. (1897), 589-90, 636.
  • 47. Rest of section based on ibid. 590-1, 636-7, 641, 702; Char. Com. files.