Above: Map showing the boundary of the parish of St Mary, Whitechapel, in the 1790s. (Click to enlarge the map).
If you look at any modern street map of London, you will find ‘Whitechapel High Street’ and ‘Whitechapel Road’ so where is ‘Whitechapel’? Is it a place? Is it an area? Is it a village? Finally, how did the name arise?
To answer all these questions we need, as usual, a clear map. You will also need a map of much of north and east London in order to fully comprehend what is going on. We start with Bishopsgate which is a City street that continues north under several names in almost a straight line for several miles. It was once a Roman road running north out of Londinium and is today known by a number – the A10. Bishopsgate’s line continues north through Dalston and Stoke Newington to a road called Stamford Hill. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086) all the land to the east of that Roman Road was all part of the Manor of Stepney – a very large piece of land, the largest manor in the London area. The whole manor was also a parish with its church called St Dunstan. The church, which is still there today, just north of the Thames, served the religious needs of vast piece of land. Its eastern boundary was around the River Lea. In today’s terms that piece of land is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and the London Borough of Hackney.
As time went by, new parishes were created from parts of the original parish of St Dunstan. It is a story which is far to complex to explain here. So, in simple terms, in Norman times there were parishes within the boundary of the City of London and everything to the east was the parish of St Dunstan. Being ‘east of the City’ earned the land the name ‘the East End’ – a term which is still in use today.
Unfortunately, there are no early maps showing the parish boundaries of the later parishes (later than Norman times, that is). Good parish maps do not really appear until the 17th century and the best ones are from the 18th century – when the art of engraving was reaching its peak. The map shown above is a reduced part of Horwood’s splendid map from the 1790s.
Our deliberations are to clarify the name of Whitechapel and this map will be useful in doing that. Running at a diagonal across the above map is the line of a Roman road that ran east through a gate in the Roman Wall later called Adgate. Its line is now the A11, following today’s Aldgate High Street, Whitechapel High Street, Whitechapel Road, Mile End Road and Bow Road – leading to Stratford and eventually to Colchester where the Romans had an important township. Throughout Norman, Medieval and Tudor times it was a busy road and therefore many people lived beside it. Villages sprung up along the route and eventually parish churches were built, along with their parishes.
As has already been explained, St Dunstan was a very large parish. This meant that people living far away from the church found it very difficult to attend Sunday services, often walking several miles across the fields. To facilitate the remote parishioners, a ‘chapel of ease’ was often established near where the people lived and a priest would go to the chapel to hold a local service. A ‘chapel of ease’ was basically for a Sunday service to be held. To arrange a funeral and burial or a wedding service it was still necessary to have those services at the actual parish church.
What we now call Whitechapel Road was some considerable distance from St Dunstan and so in 1282 a chapel of ease was set up beside the road. The small building’s exterior was white-washed and so it quickly became known as the ‘White Chapel. It was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and quickly earned a nick-name of ‘St Mary Matfellon’. Matfellon is a French word for a kind of thistle or teasel. The latter appears on the coat of arms of the Fullers’ Company who had a trade colony nearby so it is probably how the name came to be associated with the chapel. It was eventually ‘upgraded’ in status to a church in 1362 and so a parish was created by being taken out of part of the enormous parish of St Dunstan. This therefore became the parish of St Mary Matfellon or St Mary Whitechapel – taking its name from the original white-washed chapel.
The irregular outline of the boundary of the parish is shown on Richard Horwood’s map and has been shaded to make it easier to see. The shape is essentially a letter ‘L’ with one part extending to the east and the other part extending southwards. On Horwood’s map the entire length of the wide roadway within the parish boundary is named ‘Whitechapel’. Today we know it as two parts – Whitechapel High Street and Whitechapel Road.
The boundary of the parish is so irregular that few comments about its shape make much sense. However, it should be noted that the western boundary of St Mary is adjacent to the City boundary where there were several small parishes. The eastern boundary meets the land known as Mile End – so-called because it was one mile from the City of London’s boundary at Aldgate. To the north is the adjacent parish was Spitalfields, formed in 1728. To the south is the adjacent parish of St George in the East, a parish that was also created in 1728. As time went by, many parishes were formed from parts of St Dunstan and today St Dunstan’s parish is confined to land in the immediate vicinity of the church.
Above: Aerial view from Bing maps of the churchyard of St Mary Matfellon. The outline of the walls of the church can easily be seen in the grass-covered park.
So, what happened to the church of St Mary Matfellon? It was last rebuilt in 1882 and stood on its original site, on the south side of Whitechapel Road. Sadly the church was totally destroyed by a bomb that fell on it in 1940. The church was not rebuilt after the Second World War but the churchyard has been laid out as gardens. The outline of the walls of the last church can easily be seen on aerial maps.
Few people remember the church and those who sit or play in the original churchyard just think it is a London park, not giving a thought to its origins. There are a few gravestones and large tombs to jog their memories. The area is very busy – with the large street market held nearby on most days of the week; the enormous London Hospital is not far away; and there are additional street markets held in the adjacent Brick Lane.
Behind the buzz, the area has never fully recovered from the sensational news reports in Victorian times of the ‘Whitechapel Murders’, allegedly carried out by ‘Jack the Ripper’. An average of three books are published each year with theories put forward by new authors relating to a subject that refuses to go away. They all took place towards the end of 1888 and some of those serial murders were committed within the boundary of the parish of Whitechapel. The fifth one took place within the City of London. The sixth and last murder took place in Dorset Street, it was Mary Jane Kelly, aged 24, who was last seen alive in Spitalfields when she walked out of the Ten Bells pub in Commercial Street – the only remaining building to be connected with the crimes today. All the other premises and even the streets have been long swept away and redeveloped.
The exact definition of Whitechapel is technically the land bounded by the parish but the term ‘Whitechapel’ has been used to drum up a little sensationalism when stories in the press lack any really juicy details. This is a shame because it takes away from the locality its other attributes and means that mentioning ‘Whitechapel’ will for ever conjour up the grim side of Victorian London.
Above: Looking towards the City in the churchyard today, among a few remaining tombs.
Few people, even those living near Whitechapel Road, usually think about the origin of the place name. Many people just associate it with Jack the Ripper. Just a few locals probably associate the name with the long street market while, for others, their association is with the name of Whitechapel Station which interchanges with the District Line and the Overground. In 2018 it will also interchange with London’s newest railway line – the long awaited Crossrail.