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Stepney (St. Dunstan and All Saints)

STEPNEY (St. Dunstan and All Saints), a parish, and the head of a union, in the Tower division of the hundred of Ossulstone, county of Middlesex, 2½ miles (E.) from St. Paul's; containing 63,723 inhabitants, of whom 8325 are in the hamlet of Mile-End New Town, 45,308 in Mile-End Old Town, and 10,090 in Ratcliffe. This parish, called in various old records Stebunhithe and Stebenhythe occurs in Domesday book under the name of Stibenhede, from which its present appellation is obviously deduced. It anciently included a widely-extended district, comprising, in addition to its present parochial limits, the hamlets of Stratford-le-Bow, Limehouse, Poplar and Blackwall, Shadwell, St. George's-in-the-East, Wapping, Spitalfields, Whitechapel, and Bethnal-Green, These, from their increased importance, have been successively separated from it, and at present constitute some of the most populous districts in the metropolis. According to Stowe, Edward I. held a parliament at Stepney, in the mansion of Henry Walleis, mayor of London, when he conferred several valuable privileges on the citizens. The manor was in 1380 annexed to the see of London, and the bishops had a palace called Bishop Hall, now included in the parish of Bethnal-Green, in which they continued to reside till 1550, when it was alienated from the see by Bishop Ridley, who gave it to Edward VI. In the rebellion under Jack Cade, in the reign of Henry VI., the insurgents who attacked the metropolis encamped for some time at the hamlet of Mile-End; and in 1642, at the commencement of the parliamentary war, fortifications were constructed in the parish for the defence of the city.

From the then pleasantness of its situation, and the beauty of its scenery, which are noticed in a letter from Sir Thomas More to Dean Colet, Stepney was formerly the favourite residence of many persons of distinction. Isabel, Countess of Rutland, had a seat here in the latter part of the sixteenth century, and Sir Thomas Lake, secretary of state in the reign of James I., was also a resident; but there are no vestiges of the houses which they occupied. Henry, the first Marquess of Worcester, had a mansion near the parsonage-house; its gateway, handsomely built of brick, with a turret at one of the angles, is still remaining, and forms part of a house in which Dr. Richard Mead was born, and resided for many years. Sir Henry Colet, father of the dean who founded St. Paul's school, lived in a spacious residence to the west of the church, styled the Great Place, whose site is now partly occupied by a place of public entertainment, called Spring Gardens.

During part of the seventeenth century, Stepney suffered severely from the ravages of the plague, of which 2978 persons died in the year 1625; and in 1665, not less than 6583. In the course of the latter year, 116 sextons and grave-diggers belonging to the parish died of the plague; and so greatly was the place, then principally inhabited by seafaring men, depopulated, that it is recorded in the Life of Lord Clarendon, that "there seemed an impossibility to procure seamen to fit out the fleet." In July 1794, a calamitous fire, occasioned by the boiling over of a pitch-kettle in a barge-builder's yard, destroyed more than half the hamlet of Ratcliffe, communicated to the shipping in the river, and burnt several ranges of warehouses, among which was one belonging to the East India Company, containing more than 200 tons of saltpetre. Of 1200 houses in the hamlet, only 570 escaped the conflagration; and 36 warehouses, chiefly stored with articles of combustion, were totally consumed. By this dreadful calamity several hundred families were reduced to the utmost distress, deprived of shelter, and made dependent for subsistence on the public benevolence; a subscription was therefore opened at Lloyd's Coffee-house, by which, together with the contributions of thousands who came to visit the extensive ruins, more than £16,000 were collected for the relief of the sufferers.

The parish is situated on the northern bank of the Thames, and chiefly inhabited by persons connected with shipping. It extends for a considerable distance from the river to the principal road leading into Essex, and comprises many handsome ranges of building. The Commercial-road, from Whitechapel to the East and West India docks, passes through it; and the basin, or dock, at the junction of the Regent's canal with the Thames, capable of containing 100 ships, occupies a portion of the east side of the hamlet of Ratcliffe. The parish is paved, lighted with gas, and supplied with water by the East London Company from their works at Old Ford, the reservoir of which, excavated in 1827, and covering ten acres of ground, is situated north of the high road. On the banks of the Regent's canal, which runs under the Mile-End road, are several coal and timber wharfs; and in the hamlets of Mile-End Old and New Towns are some extensive breweries, a large distillery, a floor-cloth manufactory, a factory for tobacco-pipes, and a very spacious nursery-ground. In Ratcliffe are important manufactories for sail-cloth, sails, chain-cables and mooring-chains, steam-engines, and machinery connected with the docks and shipping; also large establishments belonging to coopers for the West India trade, timber and hoop merchants, ship-chandlers, sugar-bakers, rope-makers, and various other trades, for which its situation renders it peculiarly favourable. An act was passed in 1845, enabling the Blackwall Railway Company to make a branch from their line, at Stepney, to Stratford, two miles in length. The market, granted to the inhabitants by Charles II., in 1664, is now held at Whitechapel; the fair bestowed at the same time, originally held on Mile-End green, was removed to Stratford-le-Bow, and subsequently suppressed. Stepney is within the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, who sit at the police-office in Lambeth-street, Whitechapel, for the despatch of business relating to Mile-End; and at the Thames-office, Arbour-square, for the hamlet of Ratcliffe. It is under the control of the metropolitan police establishment.

The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £73. 6. 8.; net income, £1190; patrons, the Principal and Fellows of Brasenose College, Oxford. The church is a spacious structure of flint and stone, principally in the later English style, with a low broad tower, strengthened by buttresses, and surmounted by a turret crowned with a small dome. Near the western entrance is a bas-relief, indifferently executed and much decayed, representing the Virgin and Child, with a female figure in the attitude of supplication; and over the south door is a rude sculpture of the Crucifixion, in tolerable preservation. There are many monuments in the building: on the north side of the chancel is the altar-tomb of Sir Henry Colet, under an arched canopy finely groined; and near it a memorial to Benjamin Kenton, Esq., who died in 1800, at the age of 83, bequeathing to different charitable institutions the sum of £63,550. On the east wall is a monument to Lady Dethic; and on the south a tablet to Sir Thomas Spert, Knt., founder and first master of the corporation of the Trinity. The edifice was repaired and beautified in 1828. The churchyard is spacious, and has monuments to numerous distinguished persons, including the Rev. Matthew Mead, who was ejected from the living of Shadwell for nonconformity, and Admiral Sir John Leake, Knt., a brave officer in the reign of Queen Anne. St. Thomas's district church, in Arbour-square, a neat edifice of Suffolk brick, in the early English style, with two octangular turrets, was erected in 1837 by a grant from the Metropolis Church-Buildine Fund, and contains 1100 sittings, of which 500 are free: the living is in the gift of Brasenose College. Other churches are noticed under the heads of Mile-End and Ratcliffe. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, the Connexion of the Countess of Huntingdon, Calvinistic Methodists, and Roman Catholics, and three meeting-houses for Independents, of one of which, near the church, founded by the lecturer, the Rev. William Greenhill, in 1674, the Rev. M. Mead became the first minister.

Stepney College, in Mile-End Old Town, was established in 1810, for the education of ministers of the Baptist denomination. The premises, which have been greatly enlarged, include part of an ancient building called King John's Tower, and contain private studies and sleeping-rooms for twenty-four students, with apartments for the masters, and a chapel. In School-house lane, Ratcliffe, are some almshouses of the Coopers' Company, founded in 1538 by Toby Wood, Esq., and Mr. Cloker, members of that society, for fourteen aged persons of both sexes. Adjoining them is a free grammar school, largely endowed by Nicholas Gibson, master of the company, and sheriff of London, in the reign of Henry VIII., for the instruction of 35 boys; in this school Bishop Andrews, and several other distinguished persons, received the rudiments of their education. The almshouses, more liberally endowed by the company, now afford an asylum to six men and eighteen women. The premises were destroyed by the fire of 1794, and were rebuilt in 1796; they occupy three sides of a quadrangle, with a chapel in the central range. Near the churchyard are the Mercers' almshouses, established in 1691 by Jane Mico, relict of Sir Samuel Mico, and endowed for ten aged widows, who receive each £30 per annum. Mrs. Bowry, in 1715, bequeathed a leasehold estate, and a sum of money in the South Sea annuities, for the erection and endowment of eight almshouses between Mile-End and Stratford-le-Bow, for decayed seamen and their widows. There are other almshouses in the parish, noticed in the article on Mile-End. The poor-law union of Stepney comprises Limehouse, Shadwell, Mile-End Old Town, Ratcliffe, and Wapping; and contains a popu lation of 90,657.


Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.