The early history of East London

St. Dunstan and All Saints, the parish church of Stepney, dates back to Saxon times and is dedicated to Dunstan, Lord of the Manor of Stepney, who was canonised in the 11th century. It was rebuilt in the 14th century but the present building is largely from the 15th century.

Possibly during the reign of King Cnut in the early 11th century, and certainly by the time of the Norman period, a settlement began to grow in the northern part of Stepney Manor. It lay on an island formed by the River Lea and was known as Hacon’s-eyot (Haycot’s island), a name that later evolved into Hackney. In time it became a separate manor, with its own manorial officers, but also held by the Bishops of London. In the 13th century a church was established at Hackney village and in the following century it was dedicated to St. Augustine. The 16th century bell tower is all that now remains of the building, situated close by Hackney Central station.

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 the Bishop of London was Bishop William. He was a Norman so, unlike elsewhere in England, there was continuity of manorial holding for Stepney. The creation of the Tower of London by William the Conqueror brought about an important change to East London. Thereafter the men of the villages and countryside immediately east of the City were organised into a militia under the command of the Constable of the Tower, the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets. The trained bands of the Tower Hamlets remained separate from the militia in the rest of the County of Middlesex.

At the time of the Domesday Book, the ‘Great Survey’ of England ordered by King William and completed in 1086, the population of Stepney is estimated to have been at least 700 men, women and children and possibly more. It can be assumed that it was organised in typical Norman style. There were probably one or more groups of three arable fields, each divided into strips that were farmed by peasants. One field was for wheat or rye, a second for oats or barley, and a third left arable. Each trio of fields was rotated every year. In addition, there would have been meadows for hay, and pasturage in woods and waste grounds. The Isle of Dogs was marshy and left as meadow.

The part of the manor now covered by Victoria Park and extending northwards was forested and known as the Bishop’s Woods. Citizens of London came there to hunt hares, foxes and other animals, hold tournaments and revels, and have picnics. At the end of the 13th century Bishop Richard de Gravesend attempted to have the Bishop’s Woods enclosed and stocked with deer and other animals. On behalf of the people of London, the City authorities successfully opposed the move.

In the early 11th century Matilda, wife of Henry I, had a stone bridge built across the River Lea at the old ford to carry the Chichester road from Stepney to Stratford. It consisted of round arches and was therefore known as ‘Bow Bridge’. (For the same reason, St. Mary-le-Bow church at Cheapside in the City of London, which was built at around the same time, gained its name, due to the round arches of its undercroft). The surrounding area thus became known as Stratford-atte-Bow, or simply Bow. Over the following 200 years the bridge fell into ruin until repaired by Edward I’s wife Eleanor.

Mills were in operation by the 13th century at Shadwell, Old Ford and Wapping, as well as the tidal Cressemills (crash mills) between Whitechapel and Aldgate. During the course of the Middle Ages the Norman style of farming around the outskirts of the City changed. With its close proximity to London and its lucrative markets, payment in kind by Stepney’s peasant-farmers was replaced by cash. This evolution occurred earlier than other parts of the country, or even other parts of Middlesex, and was complete by the mid-14th century.

At the end of the 13th century the City’s Chepe market was filled with stalls of butchers, bakers, greengrocers and other “persons of the City, of Stebney, of Stratford, and of Hakenaye”. Stratford, in particular, was famous in the City for its bread until the mid-16th century. With abundant free water-power from the River Lea and raw materials accessible at low prices they were able to under-cut the metropolitan bakers. An ordinance of 1371 banned the slaughter of large animals within the City, which instead should be carried out in Stratford and Knightsbridge. During the 15th century the Bishops of London began leasing pieces of land to butchers for animal grazing.

Many of the craftsmen who lived outside of the city walls did so because they were not, for one reason or another, members of a City guild. Some were foreigners or migrants from other parts of the British Isles. Others had been disgraced in London or had simply not completed an apprenticeship. Outside of the City, and free of the regulations of the Livery Companies, they were able to manufacture products to a lower standard and price.

Until the 20th century an industry associated with East London was brewing. It had its origins in the public brew-house that existed on the riverside at St. Katharine’s. It was a public establishment, where Londoners could brew their malt into ale on payment of a fee to the government. In 1492 John Merchaut was licenced by Henry VII to export beer from there. The site was later occupied by the Red Lion brewery, which stood on the same site until the 1930s.

East London has occasionally been the stage for events of national significance:-

  • In March 1299 King Edward I called a session of Parliament, referred to as the ‘Stepney Parliament’. It was held at the home of his friend Henry le Waleys, Mayor of London, most likely because a fire had damaged the Palace of Westminster. It was at this session that the barons forced Edward to confirm the principle of no taxation without representation.
  • During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 some of the men of Essex camped at Mile End, and others near St. Katharine’s. Entering London through Aldgate and the postern gate by the Tower, they rendezvoused with Wat Tyler and the men of Kent on 13th June and much damage was done to the City. The fourteen-year old King Richard II watched the mob from the safety of the Tower. On the following day, the historic meeting took place at Mile End Green between the King and the rebels, at which Richard bought his safety by making promises that were outside his power to keep.
  • Almost seventy years later, during the reign of Henry VI, the Essex contingent of Jack Cade’s rebellion against what they believed to be a corrupt government, also camped out at Mile End.
  • A bloody battle took place across Mile End, Poplar and Stratford in May 1471 when Thomas ‘Bastard’ Fauconbridge, a supporter of the imprisoned King Henry VI, led 5,000 men to assault Aldgate and Bishopsgate in an unsuccessful attempt to enter the City.

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