A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.
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SETTLEMENT AND BUILDING
SETTLEMENT AND BUILDING TO 1836.
Early archaeological finds are scanty and may not denote settlement: an Iron-Age coin near a possible road through Victoria Park (fn. 1) and a Roman coffin from New Corfield Street (formerly Camden Gardens), probably part of a cemetery at Spitalfields. (fn. 2) Saxon beads from Brick Lane may have been associated with a settlement in Whitechapel. (fn. 3) The place-name Blithehale or Blythenhale, the earliest form of Bethnal Green, is from the Anglo-Saxon healh, 'angle, nook, or corner' and blithe, 'happy, blithe', or a personal name Blitha. Cambridge Heath (Camprichesheth), unconnected with Cambridge, likewise may derive from an AngloSaxon personal name. (fn. 4) The area was once marshland and forest which, as Bishopswood, lingered in the east until the 16th century. (fn. 5) Settlement's dependence upon water suggests that the 'happy corner' was cleared next to the natural spring, St. Winifred's well, in Conduit field at the northern end of the green. (fn. 6)
A settlement at Bethnal Green was recorded in the 12th and 13th centuries. (fn. 7) The green was the village common (fn. 8) and the medieval houses, mostly cottages which gave rise to copyhold tenements, clustered around it, chiefly on the north and east. The excellence of the soil when cleared of trees may explain why much of the demesne of Stepney manor lay in Bethnal Green. (fn. 9) Apart from Bishop's Hall, perhaps built as a hunting lodge, (fn. 10) there is no evidence of medieval settlement outside the green.
Although peasant holdings predominated, there were freehold estates, including parts of holdings which extended beyond Bethnal Green, (fn. 11) and a few residents of higher status from the 12th century. (fn. 12) Sir Thomas Cobham was a landowner in 1388, as was John Potter (d. 1388), (fn. 13) who lived in a 'mansion' (fn. 14) and whose family remained until 1520 or later. (fn. 15) By the 16th century Bethnal Green provided country retreats for London merchants, lawyers, and courtiers. They were especially associated with two houses on the east side of the green: the Corner House (Pyott's) and Kirby's Castle. (fn. 16) Among other inhabitants were Edward Grey, Lord Powis (1533-1544/9), (fn. 17) the lord mayor Sir Richard Gresham (d. 1549) and his widow Isabel (d. 1565), (fn. 18) Sir John Gates (d. 1553), chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, (fn. 19) Alice (d. 1554), widow of Peter Sterkye, draper, (fn. 20) William Dawkes (d. 1555), mercer, (fn. 21) William Palmer (d. 1627), haberdasher, (fn. 22) Thomas Parmiter, merchant tailor (c. 1650), (fn. 23) and John Harwood, merchant (1666). (fn. 24) Robert Catesby (d. 1605), the Gunpowder conspirator, was associated with a house owned by Lady Gray 'in an out-place' in Bethnal Green. (fn. 25) The vegetarian religious eccentric Roger Crab (d. 1680) spent his last years in Bethnal Green as a hermit. (fn. 26) Those holding property included John Pyke, goldsmith (1526), (fn. 27) Sir William Cordell, master of the Rolls (1564), (fn. 28) William Baynes (d. 1595), mercer, (fn. 29) William Rider, haberdasher (1581), (fn. 30) George Barrows, merchant tailor (c. 1615), (fn. 31) Richard Hunt, mercer (1652), (fn. 32) and Samuel Bartlett, assay master to the Mint and churchwarden for Bethnal Green (1670). (fn. 33) Early 17th-century Bethnal Green had a proportionally larger middle class than any of the Stepney hamlets except Mile End. (fn. 34)
Bethnal Green emerged from obscurity as the setting for a ballad which was dramatized in 1600 and later embellished. The story of a blinded soldier named Montford, rescued by a woman with whom he lived as a beggar on the green, may relate to a man who lived in the 15th century, although an 18th-century editor identified him with Simon de Montfort's son Henry, reputedly slain at the battle of Evesham in 1265. (fn. 35) The play of 1600 displays a knowledge of local topography (fn. 36) and by the 17th century the legend was well established with an inn, the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (1654), (fn. 37) the identification of a fine house within a stone wall (presumably Kirby's Castle) with the beggar's dwelling, (fn. 38) and the figure of the beggar on a medallion attached to the beadle's staff (1690). (fn. 39)
New settlements grew up from the 16th century, usually as encroachments from neighbouring districts: at Collier's Row next to Shoreditch, at Dog Row, next to Mile End, and in the south-west adjoining Spitalfields. The process started on roadside waste and from the mid 17th century continued on both freeholds and copyholds, although the ability to grant long leases made it easier to build on freehold. In the 1650s sales of the demesne created several freehold estates. Only the smallest parcels were bought by local men, most purchasers being London merchants who leased out the land for farming or gardening until the time was ripe to let or, more rarely, sell to builders. (fn. 40) The timing was usually determined by proximity to existing settlement and to main roads, whose frontages were built up before new roads were constructed behind. Most development took place in isolation, producing a street pattern explicable only by the boundaries of individual estates. Building was small-scale, especially at first, and often by men described as bricklayers, plasterers and, probably most numerous, carpenters. Many old houses were said to be weatherboarded and half timbered, (fn. 41) although brick was the main material. The bricks were usually made locally, creating a pitted landscape, and builders often lived where they were working. A few, like James Waddilove and William Causdell (fn. 42) and John May Evans and William Timmins, (fn. 43) built on a larger scale on several estates. In parish politics Timmins supported Joseph Merceron, who was notorious for corruption. (fn. 44) Another successful builder was David Wilmot, who started as a labourer, (fn. 45) took long leases from 1761, (fn. 46) and entered local politics in 1764, (fn. 47) resigning most of his building interests to John Wilmot, presumably his son, from the 1770s. (fn. 48) Wilmot became an enemy of Merceron and may have set him an example; he was accused in 1788 of issuing summonses for non-payment of rack rents while paying only half rent on his own houses. (fn. 49)
Most of the new houses, with frontages of only 13-19 ft., were built for the predominantly weaving population which spread from Spitalfields. Some weavers were masters and reasonably well-off, like Thomas Norton (d. 1683), whose house had five rooms, (fn. 50) James Church (d. 1686), (fn. 51) and Thomas Jones, with property around the green 1688-1720. (fn. 52) William Lee (d. 1720), a dyer, had a house with eleven rooms (fn. 53) and Thomas Price (d. 1745) had a leasehold house in Virginia Row, two houses in Edmonton, and money lent out as mortgage. (fn. 54) Cottages with broad first-floor windows, for poorer weavers, survived on the Red Cow and Willetts estates until the 1950s. (fn. 55)
The poor were seen to be displacing the 'better sort of people' in 1743. (fn. 56) Kirby's Castle had probably ceased to house people of substance by 1700 and had become a lunatic asylum by 1726, while the Corner House, although rebuilt after its occupation by a rich merchant at the end of the 17th century, had less important residents than before. (fn. 57) Benjamin Godfrey (d. 1758), a Quaker medical doctor who leased the Austen estate, lived in Castle Street. (fn. 58) William Caslon, the type-founder, died at his home in Bethnal Green in 1766. (fn. 59) Gentry and a few rich Jews still lived around the green in the 18th and early 19th century, when a great imbalance in wealth caused acute problems in local government. (fn. 60)
Huguenot immigration was a striking feature of the late 17th and 18th century. An alien, Hans Spyer, had been listed under Bethnal Green in 1455 (fn. 61) and another, Peter or Petrus Flower (Flowerkin) who lived there in the 1580s and 1590s, (fn. 62) apparently left a family, associated with Anchor Street in 1694, which remained until the 1720s or later. (fn. 63) Two 'picture drawers' from Antwerp and a Walloon weaver lived in Bethnal Green in 1635. (fn. 64) Five names of possible Huguenot origin were among the 215 assessed for hearth tax in 1664. (fn. 65) The main influx, however, came after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685: in 1694 some 100 out of 520 people assessed for Bethnal Green were apparently Huguenot, most of them in the south-west, where they had spread from Spitalfields. (fn. 66) The Huguenots, who were mainly silkworkers, weavers, throwsters, and dyers from Normandy and Picardy, had their own church, St. Jean or St. John in St. John Street, and their own charities, friendly societies, and clubs. (fn. 67) They were gradually assimilated, 14 out of 103 petitioners for an Anglican church in Bethnal Green in 1727 being recognizably Huguenot and another two Sephardi Jews. (fn. 68) Anglicization, such as that from 1813 to 1819 of a surname from Lhereux to Happy, (fn. 69) sometimes disguised French ancestry. Descendants of Huguenots nonetheless were long associated with silkweaving in Bethnal Green; George Doree (d. 1916), a velvet weaver, was one of the last. (fn. 70) Although numerous and economically important, and including names like Renvoize and Merceron prominent in local affairs, Huguenots left little trace on the topography. They were rarely landlords and virtually never builders who might have been commemorated in street names. Depression in the silk trade could provoke widespread unrest. The area had a tradition of political and religious disaffection, (fn. 71) with a strong anti-papist sentiment which attracted the Huguenots. In 1642 the mob attacked the house of the courtier Sir Balthazar Gerbier (d. 1667), himself the son of Huguenot refugees who had settled in Holland, because it was thought to harbour priests. (fn. 72) A search in 1678 for an unlicensed printing press discovered only a silkweaver's loom (fn. 73) but in 1683 a local group, led by Maj. Chamberlain and Edward Proby, former overseer and lessee of the Corner House, was found to be arming against papists. (fn. 74) Sporadic disturbances arising from the vicissitudes of the silk industry continued until conditions improved after the passing of the first Spitalfields Act in 1773. (fn. 75) Latent unrest persisted, to be exploited by Joseph Merceron, until weaving was again depressed by the repeal of the Acts in 1824, stimulating religious and political radicalism and crime. (fn. 76)
The fortunes of the silk industry influenced the pace and type of building. The population grew from c. 8,496 in 1711 (fn. 77) to c. 15,000 in 1743 (fn. 78) but many families, of which there were 1,416 in 1711, (fn. 79) had no home of their own. An exaggerated statement in 1738 that there were 800 houses with 7-10 families each (fn. 80) probably showed that many buildings had been subdivided. The decision to make Bethnal Green a separate parish in 1743 was opposed by builders who had lately taken long leases of 'a great number of houses' and spent large sums converting them to tenements. Most houses let at less than £10 a year consisted of two or three tenements (fn. 81) and the builders, like the plasterer and haberdasher who took a lease of 62 houses on the Byde estate in 1745 (fn. 82) or lessees on the Carter estate in Hare Marsh in the mid 18th century, (fn. 83) crammed courtyard dwellings on existing gardens. Throughout the 1750s and 1760s the vestry tried, generally unsuccessfully, to prise more rates out of the tenemented houses (fn. 84) and it was said in 1763 that a third of all houses were leased to a few people who let them to journeymen weavers and the like, either in separate apartments or furnished lodgings. (fn. 85) In 1743 with 1,800 houses there was an average of 8.3 persons to a house. (fn. 86) Improving conditions during the period of the Spitalfields Acts (1773-1824) were shown by averages of 1.5 family or 6.2 persons to a house in 1801 and of 1.3 family and 5.8, 5.6, and 5.7 persons respectively in 1811, 1821, and 1831. (fn. 87)
Until the late 17th century Bethnal Green was the smallest and least significant of Stepney's hamlets, often coupled with, and inferior to, Mile End. (fn. 88) In 1663 and 1664 Bethnal Green was assessed at £37 and £15 and Mile End at £67 and £26 (fn. 89) In 1664 there were 215 houses listed for hearth tax under the single heading Bethnal Green. Nearly 60 per cent of them were small, assessed for one or two hearths, while there were only four large houses, assessed for 11, 12, 14, and 16 hearths respectively; the largest was Kirby's Castle, Bishop's Hall apparently being omitted. (fn. 90) By 1674 there were 280 houses, listed under Bethnal Green, Back Lane, Shoreditch Side, and Collier Row. Eight had more than 11 hearths and one house, presumably Bishop's Hall, had 30. Houses of 3 to 10 hearths had increased to form nearly 60 per cent of the whole. (fn. 91) By 1685 Bethnal Green was assessed at £1 14s. 6d. and Mile End at only £1 9s. 3d. (fn. 92) In 1694 assessments were listed under Bethnal Green, Bishop's Hall and Grove Street, Dog Row, Brick Lane, St. John Street, Carter's Rents, George Street, Ass Park, Anchor Street, York Street, Cock Lane, Club Row, Castle Street, and Virginia Row. (fn. 93)
In 1703 buildings covered some 210 a. out of a total of 760 a. (fn. 94) Settlement clustered around the green and reached south along Cambridge Road towards separate ribbon development in Dog Row. In the west it had spread from Shoreditch to Virginia Row and in the southwest from Spitalfields to Cock Lane and Nichol Street and on the east side of Brick Lane to Hare Street. (fn. 95) The demographic balance had probably already shifted from the green towards the west, which offered the most suitable site for a church in 1724, when c. 200 houses had been built in the last five years. (fn. 96) In 1732 there were 71 streets and courts, of which five were around the green, two at Dog Row, and the rest in the west and south-west. (fn. 97) By 1734 Bethnal Green was the largest of all the hamlets with a quota of £369 of the land tax, compared with £356 for Mile End, Old and New Towns. (fn. 98) When the church came to be built in 1743 it was sited at the eastern end of the most built up area. (fn. 99) Building then reached north to New Nichol Street, with only a garden separating it from development on the Austen estate and in Virginia Row. (fn. 100) The estimated number of houses rose from 1,800 in 1743 (fn. 101) to 2,000 in 1774 (fn. 102) and 2,400 in 1778. (fn. 103)
Probably aided by the Spitalfields Acts, the pace of building quickened and more estates were developed. By 1795 c. 3,500 houses, many built within the last three years, covered 250 a. (fn. 104) Building had spread eastward on both sides of Church Street and Bethnal Green Road and on several estates on either side. It included new settlements in Hackney Road and Cambridge Heath and in the hitherto empty area east of the green, especially along Green Street. (fn. 105) There were 3,586 inhabited houses in 1801, 5,715 in 1811, when the increase was 'especially in the part of the parish adjoining Hackney', 8,095 in 1821, and 10,877 in 1831. (fn. 106) By 1812 ribbon development was complete along the Cambridge Road and Bethnal Green Road and virtually complete along Hackney Road and Green Street as far as the canal. (fn. 107) By 1826 there was little open space between the settlements except in the north-east, the heart of Bishops' Hall estate, and in the east, at Broomfields. (fn. 108)