Tower Hamlets (Hamlets)

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.


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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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St Matthew, St Matthew’s Row, Bethnal Green

Above: The church of St Matthew, standing in its extensive churchyard.

Before starting on the history of this church, it might be advisable to describe its position. If you are familiar with Bethnal Green, you may know it because you have visited the Museum of Childhood which is situated a short distance north of Bethnal Green Underground Station. The station entrances are beside a crossroads formed by Cambridge Heath Road which is joined by Bethnal Green Road and Roman Road. At that crossroads stands a church but that is St John, Bethnal Green. The older church of St Matthew is further west and stands beside a turning called St Matthew’s Row which runs south off Bethnal Green Road.

In 1725 the Commissioners for the Fifty New Churches Act bought 2.5 acres of land for building a new church but no action was taken to build it. In 1742 a petition was presented to the Commons for building the church and forming a new parish. The church was eventually built 1743-46, designed by George Dance the Elder. The parish of St Matthew was separated from the original parish of St Dunstan, Stepney, in 1743.

St Matthew’s church is not far from the London Hospital. In the early 19th century, churchyards were in danger of being ‘robbed’ of the bodies being buried there. Body Snatchers, as they were called, would dig up a recently buried coffin in the middle of the night and remove the body. Hospitals were keen to carry out research on corpses and offered a shilling (the equivalent of 5p) for a body, with no questions asked. Graveyards near hospitals were at greater risk of the unsavoury practice than other burial grounds.

In 1826 a watch-house was erected – built to provide quarters for a guard to watch over the graves at night to prevent any bodies from being stolen. The building is on the south side of the large churchyard, its front door opening onto Wood Close. There are only a very few of these buildings to be seen today because most of them were later demolished.

In 1859 the church was gutted by fire. It was reopened in 1861 after restoration and remodelling by Knightley. Sadly, in 1940, the church was destroyed once more, this time by incendiary bombs during the Second World War. The church was rebuilt in 1961 and it remains in use today.

The area of Bethnal Green was well-known for the operations of the Kray brothers, along with their reign of terror in the 1960s. They were the most infamous modern parishioners at St Matthew. The twins, Ronnie and Reggie, gathered around them other gangsters and their eventual convictions for murder have been the subject of various TV programmes. The funerals of Ronnie, Charlie and Reggie Kray, as well as Tony Lambrianou, were all held in the church.


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Blind Beggar and His Dog (Statue)

Elizabeth Frink’s bronze statue of the Blind Beggar and His Dog was unveiled in 1957. The statue stands in gardens at Bethnal Green’s Cranbrook Estate, which was Berthold Lubetkin’s last major project before his retirement. The estate has undergone refurbishment within the last few years and has been changed in its look, although not its original layout. The estate is situated on the north side of Roman Road, to the east of Bonner Street.

The statue of the ‘Blind Beggar’ is in the middle of the residents’ gated garden but it can easily be seen from the pavement of Roman Road. It has been set high up on additional masonry within the garden beside a small ornamental water-fountain. The angle at which the two figures have been set could have been better chosen because they are not seen to full advantage from the pavement. While residents can walk around the statue, the general public can only see it from one angle.

Dame Elizabeth Frink (1930-93) was born in Suffolk. She studied art at the Guildford School of Art and the Chelsea School of Art. There is another work in London by Frink for which she is probably better known. It is the bronze and fibre-glass ‘Shepherd and Sheep’, unveiled in 1975, in Paternoster Square. It was commissioned for the original 1970s Paternoster Square complex and retained and repositioned in the redeveloped square in 2000. Another work by Frink to be seen in London is ‘Horse and Rider’, commissioned by the developers called Trafalgar House in 1974. It was for their site on Dover Street at the junction with Piccadilly. To say Elizabeth Frink is an important 20th-century sculptor is an understatement. Some of her other works can be seen in the Tate Gallery.

Details of the story of the Blind Beggar can be found here . . .

Blind Beggar Pub, Whitechapel Road


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Blind Beggar Pub, Whitechapel Road

Above: The pub with its beer-garden seen behind some of the market stalls.

They always say ‘The Blind Beggar Pub, Bethnal Green’ – which is true – giving the impression that the pub is at the ‘centre’ of Bethnal Green – which would probably be defined as where the ‘green’ of Bethnal Green is to be found today. In fact, the pub is within the old boundary of Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green – but only just. It stands at the southernmost part of the Metropolitan Borough, facing onto Whitechapel Road, at No 337, of the west corner where it joins onto Cambridge Heath Road.

It would probably be true to say that the Blind Beggar is the most famous (or infamous) pub in the East End and certainly one of the most famous pub names in the whole of London. The name is known to those who have never even visited the East End of London.

A Few Dates

According to documentary evidence, the name first appeared about 1570 as ‘Blind Beggar of Bednall-greene’. It was also referred to as the ‘Old Blind Beggar’ [Lillywhite; n3522 p57, n10895 p385]. There was a ‘Blind Beggar’ pub (or ‘Old Blind Beggar’) in Roman Road from at least the 17th century. There have also been several pubs by the same name in the area of Roman Road over the centuries.

There has been a pub on the site of today’s pub, in Whitechapel Road, since 1673. In 1866 the Blind Beggar was purchased by Mann, Crossman & Paulin, at the Albion Brewery adjoining the pub. The present pub was rebuilt in 1894 to designs by Robert Spence, who was the brewery’s engineer and architect. The interior of the pub was decorated with polished pink granite pilasters and a central column support for a double arch below the eccentrically trimmed red-brick upper storeys. Inside, the blood-red ceilinged interior has been much remodelled.

The Story Behind the Name

The name is said to refer to the de Montford family. Simon de Montfort died in 1265 at the Battle of Evesham. It is said that his son Henry, who was fighting alongside his father, also fell at the battle, being wounded and blinded. Legend says that he was found by a baron’s daughter who took care of him, nursed him back to health, they fell in love and were married. In later years their daughter Bessie used to accompany her father around the streets of Bethnal Green.

It is said that Bessie grew up to be beautiful but she could not find a husband – the problem being her father. Bessie was courted by four suitors – a rich gentleman, a knight, a London merchant and the son of an innkeeper. Most of them withdrew from being suitors when they met Montford to ask for the old soldier’s consent to the marriage. In a predictably medieval twist, the courtly knight was the only man who could see past the seeming lack of a dowry to the woman he loved.

By 1690, the Beadle of Bethnal Green carried the badge of the Blind Beggar on his ceremonial staff. And in the 18th century, every pub in the area bore the image of the beggar on their signs. Even Kirby’s Castle, a lunatic asylum, was dubbed the Blind Beggar’s House in 1727.

Sinister Events in the 1960s

There are also other more recent names associated with the pub – those of the Kray twins and of the events that took place there. The Krays were notorious local gangsters who ruled over most of the East End in the 1950s and 1960s. The pub was a regular haunt for both the twins, their gang members and other local criminals.

On the 9 March 1966, Ronnie Kray entered the pub and shot dead George Cornell in the saloon bar. Cornell was a member of a rival group of gangsters and he had spent some time winding Ronnie up by calling him ‘a big fat poof’. This may have been the reason Ronnie shot him, although some sources think that he did it to send a message to Cornell’s bosses – the Richardson Brothers, – who were in dispute with the Krays.

In either case, Cornell could not control himself and started mocking the mentally unstable Ronnie when he came into the pub. Ronnie calmly took out a gun and shot him in the head. He died later that night in hospital. The Kray’s companion shot his gun at the ceiling a few times to distract the people sitting in the pub and probably to give them the message that they should not talk to the police about the shooting. Although there were a few witnesses at the scene who told police that Ronnie Kray had definitely been the shooter, all of them were too scared to testify. It took the police until 1969 before they could charge Ronnie with George Cornell’s murder.

The Pub Today

The pub is still open, standing on the north side of Whitechapel Road. The brewery building still stands on its west side of the pub but the rest of the site – to the north – has been demolished and used for other developments. The brewery’s use for its original purpose ceased in 1979. The pavement outside is in use most days of the week by Whitechapel Market, a street market whose eastern extent is just outside the pub.


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Bexley, London Borough of

Above: An outline map of Greater London showing the position of the London Borough of Bexley. The City of London (RED) is surrounded by the 12 Inner London Boroughs (GREEN). Around them are the 20 Outer London Boroughs, making 32 London Boroughs in total. The City of London is a separate administration.

There are 12 London Boroughs surrounding the City of London. They are often referred to as the Inner London Boroughs. It is land covered by the City and the Inner London Boroughs that are the subject of the ‘Know Your London’ blogs. However, there are a few places of interest that relate to the history of Inner London to be found in some of the 20 Outer London Boroughs. Greater London was created in 1965 when additional land was added around Inner London, creating the 32 London Boroughs (12 Inner London plus 20 Outer London) that we have today.

The London Borough of Bexley came into being in 1965. It shares a boundary with the London Borough of Greenwich – which is an Inner London Borough. To the south is the London Borough of Bromley. Bexley has a long riverside boundary which includes Thamesmead and Erith. To the south of the Borough is Sidcup. Bexley is the name of an ancient village within the Borough as well as being the name of the Borough itself. The borough has the line of the A2 – known as the Old Dover Road – running through it which started its existence as a Roman Road from Southwark to Canterbury and then further east to Dover. The road was part of what the Saxons called ‘Watling Street’.

Places of interest covered in the blogs . . .

Abbey Wood Station

Abbey Wood Station Poster

Lesnes Woods


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Abbey Wood Station Poster

Above: A new poster on Abbey Wood Station to advertise the new Crossrail services.

If you can remember back to the days when most people in England took their holidays at the seaside, you may remember the posters that appeared on railway stations and also as smaller versions in railway carriages of well-known holiday destinations. Most of the posters included a painting of the location, usually created by a well-known artist or graphic designer. Because of the high quality of the artwork, the posters have remained in many people’s memory over the years and the posters are highly collectable to this day.

The year 2018 sees the introduction of the new Crossrail line which will soon become operational. It has been added to London’s Underground Map in the form of a purple route that will be called the Elizabeth Line. The western terminus will be at Reading, with a spur running south to London Heathrow Airport. The line runs east-west, passing under Central London in tunnels – with stations like Paddington, Bond Street, Liverpool Street and Whitechapel along its route. The line continues east to two final destinations – Shenfield Station and Abbey Wood Station. Both of them are stations on lines already conveying passengers further east so they will become busy interchanges.

Until a few years ago, Abbey Wood was just a two-platform station on the line from Central London to destinations like Gillingham. The rather run-down station received an impressive make-over and opened to the public in October 2017. The station site is just a short walk from Abbey Wood – so-named because a large religious house called Lesnes Abbey was built there in Norman times. The Abbey was surrendered in the 16th century, at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and only the base of the stone walls can be seen on the site today.

Above: Two posters of Canterbury, in Kent (left), showing the famous cathedral; and Cromer, in Norfolk, with the lofty tower on the parish church, its long pier and extensive sandy beaches.

Because Crossrail wanted to bring the new railway, with its new interchange at Abbey Wood Station, to the notice of the general public, a new poster has been erected on the station concourse. It’s a grand idea that will make everybody aware of what is going on. To drive home the point about the religious house that was once surrounded by woodland, the picture shows a huge building standing tall, above the trees on one side of the poster. In the centre are shown two trains – representing the local line and the new Crossrail line. Finally, on the right, is the new station concourse with its curved roof – made of huge timbers to further remind everyone that the name reflects the wood in which the religious house was built.

What is slightly curious is the drawing of the gigantic abbey structure towering above the tall trees in the wood. It is drawn on the scale of Canterbury Cathedral or even Westminster Abbey when compared to the size of the trees. If anybody is sufficiently awake as they walk through the station, it will certainly make them think. For anyone who does not know the area, they will be disappointed when they reach the site of Lesnes Abbey only to find that the remaining walls are barely higher than the surrounding grass.

The poster certainly makes the point about the original name of the area. It is rather more of a diagram than a picture of Abbey Wood because it is not possible to see all the features shown on the poster from one viewpoint – even if you ignore the fact that Lesnes Abbey no longer exists. The pictorial representation does hark back to the way that the older posters were drawn. However, unlike the older posters, which are completely accurate in almost every detail, this poster has taken considerable liberties in portraying the area’s historic features.


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