The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1868

Description and History from 1868 Gazetteer
STEPNEY, a parish and populous district of the metropolis, in the Tower division of Ossulstone hundred, and borough of the Tower Hamlets, county Middlesex, 2½ miles E. of St. Paul's Cathedral. It is a junction station on the North London, the Blackwall, and Great Eastern railways; it lies chiefly between the Commercial-road and the Great Eastern railway, and includes the populous districts of Mile-End, New and Old Town, and part of Ratcliffe. The population of the parish in 1861 was 98,836, and of the ecclesiastical districts of the Holy Trinity and St. Philip respectively 10,478 and 14,805. Previously to 1669 it was much more extensive than at present, comprising, in addition to its present parochial limits, the hamlets Of Stratford-le-Bow, Limehouse, Shadwell, St. George's-in-the-East, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green, Wapping, Whitechapel, Poplar, and Blackwall, which from their increased importance have been successively separated from it, and formed into distinct parishes.

In Domesday Book it is written Stebenhede, and in later documents Stebenhythe and Stebonheath. In 1299 it was the seat of a;parliament summoned by Edward I. to meet at the mansion house of Henry Walleis, then lord mayor of London. In the 14th century the manor was held by the bishops of London, who had a palace called Bishop's Hall at Bethnal-Green, then a rural district, as described by Sir Thomas More in a letter to Dean Colet. It was subsequently alienated by Bishop Ridley to the crown, and given by Edward VI. to the Wentworths, from whom it came to the Manners and Colebrooke families. In the first year of Charles I.'s reign it was ravaged by the plague, which carried off 2,978 persons; and at the commencement of the parliamentary war was strongly fortified for the defence of the city. At this period the parish was a wide flat extending to Blackwall, as seen in the print of Hogarth's "Idle Apprentice." In 1665 the plague again broke out, and with such violence that it swept off 6,583 persons in one year, besides 116 sextons and gravediggers, belonging to the parish. In 1794 more than half the hamlet of Ratcliffe was consumed by a fire, which spread to the shipping in the river. The parish, situated on the northern bank of the Thames, is chiefly inhabited by persons connected with shipping, and contains extensive warehouses, especially in the Commercial-road, leading from Whitechapel to the East and West India Docks. It is well paved, lighted with gas, and supplied with water from the reservoir at Old Ford. On the banks of the Regent's canal, which traverses the parish, are numerous coal and timber wharves, and at its junction with the Thames is a dock capable of containing 100 vessels. The surface is almost level, rising gently from the river. It is generally considered healthy, resting on a gravel soil, but many cases of cholera occurred in 1849, and again in 1866. The greater part is now built over, but there are still some open spaces in the vicinity of Bow Common. The three hamlets are governed by different bodies:-Ratcliffe by trustees; Mile-End, Old and New Town, by a vestry constituted under Sir Benjamin Hall's Act, the rector and churchwardens being ex-officio members. The custom of gavelkind prevails in the manor. There are several breweries, a large distillery, and numerous foundries and factories, chiefly in connection with the shipping interest. Here are Situated the Whitechapel Union poor-house, the Commercial gas works, the East London cemetery, and the Baptist College, founded in 1810 on the site of the Marquis of Worcester's house, where Dr. Mead was born in 1673. In the Whitechapel-road are two theatres, the Effingham and Pavilion, the latter, built in 1858 from designs by Simmonds, is a spacious structure, with an entrance constructed of Portland stone, and containing the largest pit in London, capable of holding 2,000 persons. The living was once held by Archbishop Seagrave, Bishop Fox (the founder of Corpus Christi College, Oxford), Pace, and Dean Colet. It is a rectory* in the diocese of London, value £850, in the patronage of the Bishop of London. The parish church, dedicated to St. Dunstan, was built in the 14th century. It has a low broad tower, strengthened with buttresses and surmounted by a turret and dome. In the porch is a Stone from "Carthage wall," and in the interior are many ancient monuments and tombs of eminent men, with several epitaphs, noticed in No. 518 of the Spectator. In addition to the parish church are the follow district churches, viz: Holy Trinity, St. Thomas, St. Philip, All Saints', St. Peter's, and St. Paul's, Bow Common, the livings of which are all perpetual curacies, varying in value from £350 to £250. A new church is also about being built, the cost of which will be defrayed out of the proceeds of the sale of St. Benet's, Gracechurch-street, which is doomed to be demolished. Of the district churches the most noteworthy are St. Philip's, the first district Gothic church built in the E. of London, erected in 1829 at a cost of £7,000; and St. Paul's, Bow Common, built and endowed in 1858, at the expense of Mr. Cotton, of the Bank of England, from the designs of Mr. R. Hawkins. It is Decorated Gothic, with a spire of Bath stone and a painted E. window. There are 12 chapels belonging to the several dissenting denominations, also a synagogue and Jews' burial-ground. There are 40 National and other day schools, several of them endowed, as Bancroft's school in Mile End, Old Town, founded in 1729 for the education of 100 boys, who since 1803 have been boarded as well as clothed and instructed, with a library attached to the school; the Mile End, Old Town, and Ratcliffe charity schools, each with an income from endowment of £190; Stepney Meeting school; Wycliffe's chapel school, partially endowed. The charities altogether produce about £1,000 a year, including Coborn's bequest for seamen's widows; Curtis's for behoof of small debtors in prison, &c., besides numerous hospitals, or almshouses, as Deacon's City paupers' house, the German and Portuguese Jews' hospital, Drapers' hospital, Trinity almshouses, Gibson's or Coopers' almshouses, Drapers' almshouses; also, in Bow, almshouses belonging to the Skinners' and Vintners' companies. The London Hospital, situated in Whitechapel, and founded in 1740, is one of the most useful and extensive charities of the kind in the metropolis; the building was erected in 1752, from the designs of Mr. B. Mainwaring, and contains 35 wards with 439 beds. The amount of fixed income is £12,000, derived from funded property, voluntary donations, legacies, &c., and in 1861 the number of in and out patients relieved was 32,080. The Stepney Poor-law Union comprises the parishes of Limehouse, Ratcliffe, Shadwell, and Wapping, Mile-End Old Town having its own establishment. All children born at sea are supposed to belong to Stepney, according to the old rhyme

  "He who sails on the wide sea,   Is a parishioner of Stepney."  
In consequence pauper's born at sea have been sent here from all parts of the country, but the recent decisions of the superior courts refuse to establish this traditional law. See also articles London, and the parishes enumerated above as once included in Stepney.

[Description(s) from "The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland" (1868)
Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]
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