Top from left: St. Dunstan's Church; Stepney Green tube station. Middle from left: Genesis cinema; Half Moon pub. Bottom from left: Stepney Green; route 135 at Arbour Square.
|Population||16,238 (2011 census. St Dunstan's and Stepney Green Ward)|
|OS grid reference|
|• Charing Cross||3.6 mi (5.8 km) WSW|
|Ceremonial county||Greater London|
|Sovereign state||United Kingdom|
|Postcode district||E1, E14|
Stepney is a district in the East End of London in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The district is no longer officially defined, and is usually used to refer to a relatively small area. However, for much of its history the place name applied to a much larger manor and parish. Stepney Green is a remnant of a larger area of Common Land formerly known as Mile End Green.
The area was built up rapidly in the 19th century, mainly to accommodate immigrant workers and displaced London poor, and developed a reputation for poverty, overcrowding, violence and political dissent. It was severely damaged during the Blitz, with over a third of housing totally destroyed; and then, in the 1960s, slum clearance and development replaced most residential streets with tower blocks and modern housing estates. Some Georgian architecture and Victorian era terraced housing survive in patches: for example Arbour Square, the eastern side of Stepney Green, and the streets around Matlock Street.
The first surviving record of the place name is from around 1000 AD as Stybbanhyð, "Stybba's hyð"; hyð developed into hithe (meaning landing-place) in modern English, so "Stybba's landing-place". The parish of Stebbing in Essex also appears to have taken its name from an individual called Stybba. The hithe itself is thought to have been at Ratcliff, just under half a mile south of St Dunstans Church.
Historically, Stepney was a very large manor and Ancient Parish which covered most of what would become the East End. From 1900 to 1965 the place-name was applied to the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, which in 1965 became the south-west part of the new London Borough of Tower Hamlets which currently administers the area. There is currently a Stepney episcopal area in the Anglican Diocese of London, which covers the London boroughs of Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets, and has its own suffragan bishop.
The area of Stepney has had no local government definition since 1965, but is used to refer to the whole former parish and also to a relatively small area within it.
Manor and Ancient Parish
For hundreds of years the term Stepney referred to the Manor and Ancient Parish of Stepney, with the first contemporary record of the Manor around the year 1000. The Manor covered an area stretching from the eastern edge of the City of London to the Lea and from Stamford Hill down to the Thames; in this way covering an area equivalent to the modern borough of Tower Hamlets, as well as the district of Hackney (in the wider modern borough of the same name).
The origins of the Manor are not known, but its large size, relatively rich soils and position so close to the walls of London have led to suggestions that the manor was the foundation grant of land made to the Bishop of London to support the creation of the new diocese of London (the East Saxon see) at the time of the establishment of St Paul's Cathedral in 604 AD.
St Dunstan's church is recorded as being founded (or more likely rebuilt) by Dunstan himself in 952, and as the first church in the manor, will have served the whole of that landholding. The proto-parish of Stepney will therefore have covered the same area as the manor.
Hackney appears to have been an early daughter parish of Stepney; a church at Hackney is first mentioned in 1275 but is likely to have been in place before then. From the 1100s, the development and improvement in enforcement of Canon law made it difficult to form new parishes, so Hackney seems likely to have formed an independent parish in the 12th century, with the district remaining a sub-manor of Stepney.
It was usual for one or more manors to form a parish, but the manor of Stepney's great size meant that this was reversed with two parishes (Stepney and Hackney) serving the single manor of Stepney. For local government purposes, the parish sub-divided into Hamlets.
The Domesday Book survey of 1086 gives the name as Stibanhede and says that the land was held by the Bishop of London and was 32 hides large, mainly used for ploughing, meadows, woodland for 500 pigs, and 4 mills. The survey recorded 183 households; 74 of villeins who ploughed the land, 57 of cottars who assisted the villeins in return for a hut or cottage and 52 of bordars. This is estimated to have given the manor a total population of around a thousand people.
The earliest record of the Bishop's Manor house is for Bishopswood (later known as Bonner Hall) in 1207, this was sited in the Bethnal Green area. Edward VI passed Stepney to the Wentworth family, and thence to their descendant, the Earl of Cleveland. The Manors of Stepney and Hackney were linked, until they passed into separate ownership in the 1660s.
The system of copyhold, whereby land was leased to tenants for terms as short as seven years, prevailed throughout the manor. This severely limited scope for improvement of the land and new building until the estate was broken up in the 19th century.
Church and Parish
St Dunstan's Church was founded (or rebuilt) around 952, by St Dunstan himself when he was Bishop of London, and therefore also Lord of the Manor of Stepney. Many bishops lived in the manor and Dunstan may have done the same. The church was dedicated to Dunstan after he was canonised in 1029, making him the patron saint of Stepney. The bells of the church, cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, appear in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons
" 'When will that be'? say the bells of Stepney"
The church is known as "The Mother Church of the East End" as the very large parish covered most of what would become inner East London, before population growth led to the creation of a large number of daughter parishes. It is also known as "The Church of the High Seas" due to its traditional maritime connections. In 1720 the historian John Strype wrote that Stepney (together with its daughter parishes) should be esteemed a province rather than a parish, due to its large population, area and the diversity of urban, rural and maritime industries.
Stepney formed a large Ancient Parish in the Tower division of the Ossulstone hundred of Middlesex. The parish included the hamlets of Mile End Old Town, Mile End New Town, Ratcliff, Whitechapel, Wapping, Bow, Shadwell, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green, Limehouse and Poplar. The Hamlets were territorial sub-divisions (as opposed to small villages), which ultimately became independent daughter parishes.
Ties with Shoreditch
The origin of the neighbouring parish of Shoreditch is obscure, but it primarily served the manors of Hoxton and Haggerston, both manors recorded at Domesday in 1086, together with a part of the Manor of Stepney.
The manor of Hoxton, or a manor called Hoxton, was in Shoreditch, yet in 1352 is recorded as part of the parish of Hackney. It is not clear if or how these links led to the inclusion of the parish of Shoreditch in the Tower Division.
Customs and obligations
The Manor of Stepney was held by the Bishop of London, but the Constable of the Tower of London had important rights and responsibilities in the area. The Constable had responsibilities for the Thames below the Tower and for the care of parts of the Lea. In return the people of the area helped garrison the Tower. The early origin of these arrangements is obscure and the first surviving record of the military obligation dates from 1554, but is though to be much older, with varying estimates in the post-Norman medieval period. These arrangements evolved into the creation of the Tower Division, also known as the Tower Hamlets.
St Dunstan's has a long association with the sea, with the parish of Stepney being responsible for registration of British maritime births, marriages and deaths until the 19th century. From the Tudor era onwards, the parish-level was responsible for mitigating the poverty of people born in the area. Stepney's additional responsibility for those born at sea was something of a burden.
This maritime association is remembered in the old rhyme:
"He who sails on the wide sea, is a parishioner of Stepney"
Break-up of the Ancient Parish
The rapid growth in population meant that over time the parish was broken up. Hackney is thought to have become independent in the 12th century, Whitechapel in the 14th and Bromley. Some sub-divisions for instance those that form Bethnal Green, Bow and Poplar are known to have been based on pre-existing Hamlets forming new daughter parishes. This left a residual parish of 830 acres (340 ha) comprising Mile End Old Town, Mile End New Town and Ratcliff.
Such parish divisions were unusual and required acts of Parliament.
As with most of the East End of London, the contracted area now known as Stepney was sparsely populated until the 19th century, with a population focussed on scattered farms and small hamlets. The urbanisation of the area was driven by the maritime trades along the river, as well as ribbon development along the Mile End Road. Other factors included the development of London's docks and railways, combined with slum clearance, which pushed the displaced poor and various immigrants looking for work into cheap housing being built in the area.
Malplaquet House is named after the Battle of Malplaquet, one of the main battles of the War of the Spanish Succession, which took place in France in 1709. However, it is not known whether this naming came from the Jewish widow of the London merchant, who made his living selling war salvage, or from a later resident, the military surgeon Edward Lee. It was home to a variety of small businesses including a bookmaker and a printer, before being occupied in 1910 by the Union of Stepney Ratepayers.
The Leonard Montefiore memorial fountain on Stepney Green is named for a young writer and philanthropist, Leonard Montefiore, who at the time of his death in 1879 was known for his philanthropic work in the East End of London. Montefiore attended Balliol College, Oxford, where his posthumous memoir reports that he was a devotee of John Ruskin. Whilst at Balliol he became a friend of Oscar Wilde, who after Montefiore's death allegedly proposed to his sister Charlotte. He was also influenced by Arnold Toynbee and Benjamin Jowett. Montefiore was chief assistant to Samuel Barnett in his work regarding the extension of Oxford University to London, and was secretary of the Tower Hamlets branch of the Society for the Extension of University Teaching. The Jewish Encyclopedia says "Montefiore was associated with many philanthropic movements, especially with the movement for women's emancipation." Montefiore died at Newport, Rhode Island, aged 27. According to the Women's rights activist Emily Faithfull in her book "Three Visits to America" published in 1884 Montefiore died "While he was visiting the United States, in order to see for himself what could be learned from the political and social condition of the people, must ever be deplored. The world can ill afford to lose men of such deep thought and energetic action." The memorial fountain has the following poem engraved on its side:
"Clear brain and sympathetic heart, A spirit on flame with love for man, Hands quick to labour, slow to part, If any good since time began, A soul can fashion such souls can."
In 1883, Jacob P. Adler arrived in London with a troupe of refugee professional actors. He enlisted the help of local amateurs, and the Russian Jewish Operatic Company made their debut at the Beaumont Hall, close to Stepney Green tube station. Within two years they were able to establish their own theatre in Brick Lane.
The Metropolitan Borough of Stepney was formed in 1900. In 1965, it was abolished and a newly created London Borough of Tower Hamlets was created, which covered much of the same administrative area.
Stepney Green railway station was opened in 1902 by the Whitechapel and Bow Railway, a joint venture between the District Railway and the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway. The station passed to London Underground in 1950.
On 31 July 1987 the Docklands Light Railway, which operated over the old LBR line, commenced operations, with new platforms (platforms 3 and 4) built on the site of the old LBR platforms; at East Stepney which had been renamed Limehouse on 11 May that year.
The Lord-Lieutenant Ken Olisa is Her Majesty's representative for Greater London, including Stepney. He has no political role and holds no office in any political party. The Lord Lieutenancy is purely an honorary titular position.
Tower Hamlets London Borough Council is the local authority and also has a directly elected executive mayor, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs. Stepney has local councillors from three wards, St Dunstan's, Bethnal Green and Stepney Green.
The Stepney Green Conservation Area was designated in January 1973, covering the area previously known as Mile End Old Town. It is a large Conservation Area with an irregular shape that encloses buildings around Mile End Road, Assembly Passage, Louisa Street and Stepney Green itself. It is an area of exceptional architectural and historic interest, with a character and appearance worthy of protection and enhancement. It is situated just north of the medieval village of Stepney, which was clustered around St. Dunstan's Church.
Stepney Green developed as a street of residential housing off the Mile End Road in the 15th century, and now refers to the area in north Stepney. A brewery was founded in 1738 that developed into Charrington and Co. in 1897. The brewery building, the Anchor Brewery, was on the north side of Mile End Road, opposite Stepney Green; and is now the site of the Anchor Retail Unit, owned by Henderson Global Investors, though the Brewery Offices still remain on the corner of Mile End Road and Cephas Avenue.
The Stepney Community Trust, a community-led charity with a long history of local action, was set up in 1982 as the St Mary's Centre to respond to the severe housing and social deprivation in the area. The name was later changed to Stepney Community Trust.
Stepney City Farm is a city farm which provides a number of community services, such as guided tours, workshops and other activities., was founded in 1979 by Lynne Bennett; at that time it was called Stepping Stones. Local residents, schools, churches and community groups were consulted and wasteland left after a World War II bomb destroyed the Stepney Congregational Church in 1941 was secured for the farm's use.
The Stepney Historical Trust was set up in 1989 to advance the public's education on the history of Stepney and the surrounding areas. It is based in the London Dockers Athletic and Social Club and has installed a series of plaques on sites of historic interest.
Jewish Care was created in 1990 by the merger of two previous charities to care for the community needs cost-effectively. It is based at the Brenner Centre in Raine House.
The City Gateway Women Programmes were established to provide opportunities for local women in Stepney to gain independence, grow in confidence and access employment and develop skills in a supportive community environment.
Due to the availability of cheap housing, the East End of London and London Borough of Stepney has been home to various immigrants who have contributed to the culture and history of the area, such as the French Huguenots in the 17th century, the Irish in the 18th century, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe towards the end of the 19th century, and the Bangladeshi community settling in the East End from the 1960s onwards. The area still contains a range of immigrants, particularly young Asian families, as well as elderly East Enders, some students, and the beginnings of a young middle class. The 2011 UK Census revealed that 47% of the population was Bengali; the highest percentage of Bengalis in Southern England. White British people comprise just over a quarter of the ward of St. Dunstan's and Stepney Green.
Stepney All Saints School is a Church of England voluntary aided school that was opened in 1710 by Sir John Cass as the Sir John Cass School. It merged with the Redcoat Secondary School in 1966 and took the name of Sir John Cass's Foundation and Red Coat School that year. It took its current name in 2020.
Stepney Green Maths, Computing and Science College is a community school for boys, the curriculum is broad, there is a wide range of extra-curricular activities offered before, during and after school.
The area overall is covered by London Buses services, mostly west–east by the 25, 205, N25, N205 on Mile End Road and 15, 115, 135 and N550 on Commercial Road, the 309 and 339 via Ben Johnson Road.
An automatic air monitoring site in nearby Mile End recorded a 2017 annual average of 48 μg/m3. Alternative monitoring sites on Mile End Road also failed to meet air quality objectives with a site at the junction with Globe Road recorded 52 μg/m3 as a 2017 average.
Others born in Stepney are entertainer Des O'Connor, actor Steven Berkoff, playwright Arnold Wesker, gardener Rachel De Thame, television executive Alan Yentob, artist Frank Paton, drummer Kenney Jones, musician and writer Jah Wobble, singer Kenny Lynch and his sister Maxine Daniels, singer Charles Coborn, footballers Ledley King, Ashley Cole, Mark Lazarus and Darren Purse, Heavyweight boxer "Bombardier" Billy Wells, former armed robber and businessman Roy Shaw, former British featherweight boxing champion Sammy McCarthy, and sportswriter Norman Giller.
Actors Bernard Bresslaw, Terence Stamp, Craig Fairbrass, Jeff Shankley, John Lyons, Ben Onwukwe, Victor McLaglen, Roy Marsden EastEnders actress Anita Dobson. Danny Shea, (the first footballer to be transferred for £2,000), was born in Wapping in 1887.
Musicians Monty Norman (composer of the James Bond theme) and Lionel Bart (known for creating the book, music and lyrics to the production Oliver!), were also born in Stepney, as was musician Wiley, widely considered to be the founding father of grime music.
In popular culture
In her 2002 memoir Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth writes a graphic account of 1950s Stepney at the height of its urban decay describing bombsites, condemned buildings, filth, and rampant prostitution.
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