Stepney Overview

Above: If all you know of Stepney is Whitechapel Road and Mile End Road then there are plenty of splendid houses to be found. Some of the most interesting houses stand beside a road called Stepney Green.

The Metropolitan Borough of Stepney shared part of its boundary with the City of London – Middlesex Street, to be exact, a street that is also called Petticoat Lane. The western side is within the City of London and the eastern side was, until 1965, Stepney which is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The riverside boundary of Stepney extended east as far as Limehouse. The northern boundary was the old Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green.

Stepney was not only named after the parish by this name but also the original village of Stepney, which was once around the parish church of St Dunstan. Sadly, the village has virtually disappeared. There is still a thoroughfare called Stepney High Street but it is just a street and not a high street filled with shops. This is mainly due to the heavy bombing of the area during the Second World War but, after the War, it was the developers who tore down even more houses than were lost by bombing. All the developers managed to do was to create a ‘wasteland’ of badly laid out modern housing with most of the original residents moved out of the area to other parts of London or to new satellite towns around London. The community that was here in the 1930s was fragmented with only a few people in the area remaining from this pre-War days. To find a typical picture to represent the area is almost impossible. Even the picture at the top of this article was taken at nearby Stepney Green and not in a street near the parish church.

The large parish of Stepney, called St Dunstan, which extended to include Hackney all the way to the Thames at Limehouse and Wapping in the days of the Domesday Book (1086), was broken up in the 17th and 18th centuries into smaller parishes. The old church of St Dunstan remains and it is one of the finest features in the locality.

In spite of what many people will tell you, the Tower of London was within the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney – which is now land that is within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The Tower of London is not inside the boundary of the City of London.

By 1600 the sparsely inhabited parish was made up from many hamlets. Over the 1600s and 1700s, most of those hamlets became parishes, taken out of the mother Stepney, as new parish churches were built for the increasing population. Much of the growing population was a result of workers moving into the area to build the St Katharine Docks, the London Docks and the Regent’s Canal Dock. Many people also moved into the area to work in those docks until they all closed down in the 1970s.

Above: The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is shown in RED. It was created from the three Metropolitan Boroughs of Stepney, Bethnal Green and Poplar. A few important place names in Stepney and shown on the map.

In 1900 the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney was created, becoming one of the 28 Metropolitan Boroughs to be formed in the newly created Metropolitan London. The Metropolitan Borough ended in 1965 when it was combined with those of Bethnal Green and Poplar to form the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Running through the eastern side of Stepney is the Regent’s Canal. After its construction, right through to the 1950s, the canal was one of the main transport arteries through London – with narrow boats carrying coal and timber. All that came to an abrupt halt in the 1960s and 1970s. Nearly all the canal-side companies operating in large yards and warehouses beside the canal went out of business from the 1960s onwards. The land was ‘snapped up’ by eager developers who have built large overbearing gated estates for the rich and the areas in which they stand have gradually become ‘gentrified’. The working canal is now used as a recreational facility by walkers, cyclists and by those who like to sit beside it and enjoy some fishing.

The SE ‘corner’ of Stepney is Limehouse. Due to its proximity to the Canary Wharf Estate (which is on land that was once part of the adjacent Metropolitan Borough of Poplar) land prices are very high. This is due to many people wanting to live there – to be near their place of work. The southern part of Stepney was part of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) zone which was greatly improved during the 1980s and 1990s. This included the construction of the first phase of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) which was subsequently expanded.

What with the old and the new there is plenty of history – ancient and modern – in the old Metropolitan Borough. Along with Stepney village, we also need to take a look at the original hamlets of Whitechapel, Mile End, Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse. In case you are a little hazy about where these place names are to be found, they are all shown on the sketch map.


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