Above: Cary’s map of 1786 with the approximate position of the Tower Hamlets added to it. Notice how open much of the land was at that time.
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets was so-named when it was formed in 1965 because the land that it enclosed had once been a large collection of small communities – known as Tower Hamlets. The subject of the Tower Hamlets is unique in London. No other London Borough ever had such an organisation associated with it. When the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was formed, in 1965, it took the old name of these hamlets which had been united into a ‘federation’ around the 12th century.
The Tower of London was started by William the Conqueror. The first part to be completed was the White Tower, now at the centre of the buildings on the site. It celebrated its 900 years of existence in 1978 when it was visited by Elizabeth II.
About 1100, the care of the Thames below the Tower, along with the River Lea, became the charge of the Constable of the Tower. He had certain authority over the Manor of Stepney which meant that the various parts of the land became known as Tower Hamlets. The old Manor of Stepney remained an administrative unit until the 19th century. It included what is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and most of the London Borough of Hackney. Until the 19th century, the Constable of the Tower raised militia from the Hamlets ‘for the service and preservation of Her/His Majesties Royal Fort’.
In 1900, this piece of land became part of Metropolitan London and the hamlets were administered by the Metropolitan Boroughs of Stepney, Bethnal Green, Poplar, Hackney and Shoreditch. In 1965 Greater London was created and exists to this day. The original hamlets located in the Metropolitan Boroughs of Stepney, Bethnal Green and Poplar were combined into the new London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Similarly, the hamlets that lay within the Metropolitan Boroughs of Hackney and Shoreditch were combined into the newly formed London Borough of Hackney. The subject of the Tower Hamlets today, therefore relates to most of the London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney in which they are still to be found.
We will now consider how Many Hamlets there were. The hamlets were described in 1720 by Strype, a famous historian, who listed a total of 21. Around that time, many of the hamlets were acquiring a parish church which caused them to become villages. The area of land, east of the Tower of London, was rapidly filling with people. Many of them worked on the river or worked in boat-building. A century later, in the 1800s, more people arrived, first to build the docks and then to work in them. What had once been open land with tiny hamlets of people scattered across the marshes – from the City of London to the boundary of the River Lea – began to fill up, as more houses were added to the tiny communities which often acquired a parish church. The development of the land in the 1800s was just as dramatic to those who lived then as the relentless development of London is to us today.
The list of Hamlets is taken from Strype’s text and are laid out along with a few explanatory notes. Only Hackney and Shoreditch are now in the London Borough of Hackney. All the other names are now in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The notes below will act as an introduction to the subject of the hamlets listed by Strype. Much more information could be added but that will be reserved for more detailed blogs about individual hamlets.
Bethnal Green – This is far inland from the Thames. The hamlet became a village when St Matthew was created as a new parish in 1743. St John, Cambridge Heath Road became the second parish church in 1826.
Blackwall – A riverside hamlet which never became a parish. Most of the land today is taken up with the Blackwall Tunnel and its approach roads.
Bow – It is far inland from the Thames, on the main road out of the City of London leading to Colchester. It was also called ‘Stratford le Bow. Bow became the parish of ‘St Mary, Stratford le Bow’ in 1311. The place-name Bow should not be confused with Stratford itself (now in the London Borough of Newham) which became a parish in 1719.
Bromley by Bow – This was once a hamlet that was very close to Bow. It had a religious house called the Convent of St Leonard. That convent was closed and Bromley by Bow became a parish called ‘St Mary the Virgin, Bromley St Leonard’ in 1536.
East Smithfield – The land was called East Smithfield so that it was not confused with West Smithfield, which is what has become known today as just ‘Smithfield’ – on the west side of the City of London. The hamlet of East Smithfield was a short distance from the Thames and is now remembered by a road of the same name, just east of the Tower of London. The land of the hamlet was on the north side of Hospital of St Katharine (see St Katharine). East Smithfield never became a parish.
Hackney – This hamlet was furthest from the Thames. In 1292 it became the parish of St Augustine. From 1630 the parish was called St John.
Limehouse – A riverside hamlet and probably one of the most well-known of all the hamlets. It became the parish of St Anne in 1730.
Mile End – It grew up on the Mile End Road, being so-called because its position was one mile from Aldgate (the eastern boundary of the City of London). The hamlet included what is now known as ‘Old Town’ and ‘New Town’. It never developed into a parish.
Norton Folgate – It is remembered today by a short street at the north end of Bishopsgate. Although the name appears in Strype’s list, Norton Folgate was a Liberty and never became a parish.
Old Ford – A small community where the original road crossed the River Lea – hence the ‘old ford’. The site was on the River Lea (just east of the eastern end of Old Ford Road before it bends towards the south). Old Ford never became a parish.
Poplar – A riverside hamlet which extended inland and became the parish of St Matthias in 1817. The better-known parish church is All Saints, also built in 1817.
Ratcliffe – A riverside community that developed into a parish in 1840 – called St James, built in 1838 but severely damaged during the Second World War. Few people today would say that they lived at Ratcliffe. Instead, they would either say that they lived at Wapping or in Limehouse. Spelt variously as ‘Ratcliffe’ and ‘Ratcliff’ there is a Ratcliff Cross Stairs leading to the shore from the western end of Narrow Street which is where the hamlet was once to be found. Ratcliffe Lane and Ratcliffe Cross Street are to be found on a modern street map but they are not on old street alignments.
St Katharine – A riverside community. The old precinct of the ‘Hospital of St Katharine’, founded in 1275, stood on much of the land. The hospital was swept away in 1825 when the St Katharine Docks were built.
Shadwell – A riverside hamlet which became the parish of St Paul in 1669.
Shoreditch – Although this community, which is quite a long way inland from the Thames, was known as one of the ’Tower Hamlets’, Shoreditch was a parish of St Leonard from 1160.
Spitalfields – The name originally referred to the community living around the Hospital of St Mary Spital which was towards the northern side of Bishopsgate. There were extensive open fields – the Spital Fields – which gave their name to the land now known as Spitalfields. It became a parish of Christ Church in 1729.
Tower Extra – It was also known as ’Tower Liberty Without’ – land that was north and NE of the Tower of London, including Tower Hill. It never became a parish.
Tower Intra – It was also known as ’Tower Liberty Within’ – land that was within the Inner and Outer walls of the Tower of London. It became the parish of St Peter ad Vincula in 1150.
Trinity Minories – This land had a community living around the Abbey of St Clare, founded in 1293. After the Abbey was surrendered the parish of Holy Trinty, Minories, was created in 1657.
Wapping – A riverside hamlet which became a parish of St John in 1694.
Whitechapel – A community based around Whitechapel High Street and Whitechapel Road. It became a parish of St Mary, Matfellon in 1329.
If you wondered about the heading ‘Tower Hamlets (Hamlets)’ having the repeated word in brackets, it distinguishes the subject from ‘Tower Hamlets’ which is generally taken to mean the London Borough by the same name.