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Mile End Old Town
Including Stepney and Mile End
Key:     Current observations and notes   Holmes (1897)     Other sources        maps


The Parish of St Dunstan's Stepney covered a huge area of  the East End. Stepney was still fairly rural at the end of the eighteenth century, but over the next fifty years building, and the population, exploded, and the area became increasingly poverty stricken. From the seventeenth century onwards many dissenting congregations sprang up here, many with their  own burial grounds. Some, such as the Stepney Meeting House ground in White Horse Road, still survive. The Beaumont ground (East London Cemetery in Shandy Street) and the Globe Fields burial ground were commercial speculations, only nominally dissenting.  They provided cheap burials in overcrowded and insanitary conditions.
    Plague struck this part of London frequently, and the extensive acreage of St Dunstan's  churchyard is a good indication of the mortality in outbreaks such as that of 1625. By the time of the Great Plague of 1665 the situation here was critical, and the parish resorted to plague pits scattered around the parish.  Daniel Defoe says that 

'Stepney parish, extending itself from the east part of London to the north, even to the very edge of Shoreditch Churchyard, had a piece of ground taken in to bury their dead close to the said churchyard, and which for that very reason was left open, and is since, I suppose, taken into the same churchyard. And they had also two other burying-places in Spitalfields, one where since a chapel or tabernacle has been built for ease to this great parish,* and another in Petticoat Lane.

     'There were no less than five other grounds made use of for the parish of Stepney at that time. One where now stands the parish church of St Paul, Shadwell, and another where now stands the parish church of St John's at Wapping, both of which had not the names of parishes at that time, but were belonging to Stepney parish.'  
* Site of Christ Church Spitalfields.

      An additional plague pit was dug at the corner of Mile End Road and Cambridge Heath Rd., later covered by a brewery and now built over. Further plague burials took place in the area to the South of the London Hospital,  including the site of St Philip's church. 
   Some relief came in the 1840s with the opening of the Tower Hamlets Cemetery, partly in Mile End and partly in Poplar; see the Poplar page for an entry on this cemetery. 

St. Dunstan’s churchyard, Stepney.
Founded 960. 
A large ground, carefully mown and kept tidy  with a few scattered monuments. The vast number of burials over the centuries (and the regular 'earthing-up' described below) is shown by the height of the ground relative to the church itself, which almost seems to be sunk into a hollow. The area of the plague pit is now dedicated to dog walking.
The churchwardens caused outrage in 1788 by removing gravestones and using them to pave the path to the church door. (The Times, July 1788) 

A V1 exploded in the churchyard in January 1945. 

About 6 acres, or rather more. At the time of the Great Plague about 150 bodies were interred here daily, and several extra grounds were provided for the parish. It was laid out as a public garden in 1887 by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. It is a most useful and shady ground, and is very neatly kept by the London County Council. (Holmes)

STEPNEY. - The burial ground adjoins the church, and is crowded to excess; footpaths cross through it in every direction. The soil, largely imbued with the products of putrefaction, is also extremely moist; many of the tomb-stones have sunk deeply in the earth. Here the peculiar putrefactive odour may be frequently distinguished, - as indeed it may in many of the burial places I have described.

The church is a very ancient one, of the gothic structure; in the centre, below the east window, is placed a marble tablet, which is known in the neighbourhood as the Fish and Ring (a fish and ring are cut on the top of the tablet.)

The following is a copy of the inscription engraved upon the tablet :.-

       “Here lieth interred the Body of Dame Rebecca Berry, the Wife of Thomas Elton, of Stratford Bow, who departed this life April 26th, 1696, aged 52

" Come, ladies, you that would appear
Like angels fair, come, dress you here;
Come, dress you at this marble stone,
And make that humble grace your own,
Which once adorn'd as fair a mind
As e'er yet lodg'd in womankind.
So she was dress'd whose humble life
Was free from pride, was free from strife;
Free from all envious brawls and jars,
Of human life the civil wars;
These ne'er disturb'd her peaceful mind,

Which still was gentle, still was kind;
Her very looks, her garb, her mien,
Disclos'd the humble soul within!
Trace her through every scene of life,
View her as widow, virgin, wife;
Still the same humble she appears,
The same in youth, the same in years;
The same in low and high estate,
Ne'er vex'd with this, near mov'd with that.
Go, ladies now, and if you'd, be

All fair, as 'great, as good as she,

Go learn of her humility."

(Walker 1839)

The St Dunstan churchwardens met in February 1625/6 to decide where sand and gravel could be dug so 'that the churchyard may be speedilie earthed over, and shall then conclude when and att what times after to meet for the forwarding and more speedie execution of the said worke. And likewise shall use the same Care and diligence for the spedie purchasing of a new place of Buriall.' The Stepney churchyard was by then more than overfull.

The vestry in the same month put the situation even more plainly. 'the old Churchyard will affoord no more convenient place of Buriall without danger of Infection by reason of the noisomenes of the ground there so opened by reason of so many bodies formerlie enterred there.'

In April the vestry, still concerned by the number of burials taking place near the church, decided to restrict the sexton. Recent burials had been 'to the great annoyance of the parish and danger of future infection, and that there is space enough in other places with lesse inconvenience where fewer bodies have bene buried.' Graves were to be dug at the north side of the church beginning at the elms and 'so range along westward by the pales and as neere as convenientlie may be not presuming to come or digge within seaventeene yards of the church wall.' When those places were filled the graves were to be dug on the south side beginning on the east part to range along westward by the mud wall on the south part of the church keeping the same distance from the wall. The sexton was to be fined if he dug graves anywhere else.
(Details from Memorials of Stepney by Hill & Frere.)


In 1736 it was discovered that Thomas Jenkins, a grave digger of St Dunstan, Stepney, had sold bodies to a private surgeon, Cesar Hawkins, surgeon at Pall Mall Court, and he was sentenced to be publicly whipped. A mob of sailors and chimney sweeps met in Stepney Churchyard and he was tied to a cart. The cart horses were walked slowly so that he received many hundreds of lashes from the hangman, John Hooper, encouraged by the mob who shouted that he was not to spare him. (Albion's Fatal Tree)



Early 19th century view

Stepney Meeting House Burial-ground, White Horse Road
The Almshouses dates from 1644, though the burial ground was first used in 1779. Not obsessively tidy (good!) but well preserved, with a number of monuments. The almshouses themselves were lost in the war. It is pleasing that historical information is posted up at the site. 
Some exhumations took place here post war. 
   Originally White Horse Street - many East End  streets have become roads, or 'ways', or even avenues in a doomed attempt at gentrification. 

Also called the Almshouse ground and Ratcliff Workhouse ground). - There are many tombstones and the ground is fairly tidy. The gate is generally open, as the entrance to the almshouses is through it. Size ½ acre.

Holy Trinity Churchyard, Tredegar Square.
Church built 1836-1839 so ground probably in use for less than 20 years. 
 The churchyard has a few scattered monuments. All very tidy (someone was busy with a mower when I visited) which is more than can be said for the church, which was closed and dilapidated looking. According to Holmes it was once full of monuments, most of which have gone to allow for mowing. This is regrettable, but understandable - keeping the undergrowth down around crowded tombstones  is expensive and time consuming. 
The vaults were cleared post war. 

¾ acre. Laid out by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in 1887, and maintained by the London County Council. The gravestones have not been moved, and some of the graves are still occasionally used, though no new ones are dug. 

Wycliffe Chapel Burial-ground, Philpott Street, Stepney.
Records of burials from 1734 - 1840, which contradicts Holmes below.  Now a recreational area behind a block of flats called John Harrison House.

¾ acre. This dates from 1831, and is behind the chapel and the Scotch church. It is full of tombstones, closed and untidy. Chadwick divides it into a part belonging to the chapel and a larger part belonging to the Scotch church, but it appears to be all one now, and is in the hands of the elders of Wycliffe Chapel. (Holmes)

Globe Road Chapel Burial-ground,  
At some point a Weslyan Methodist chapel. Burial ground in use 1820 -1857. Also known as Globe Fields burying ground. Now called 'Globe Memorial Gardens', though it is not clear who or what is being commemorated. Not much of a memorial - the whole place is pretty down at heel and scruffy. 
The ground originally stretched further to the south, under the railway viaduct, and probably to the south of that, into an area now covered by some run down garages.
There is a building on the site of the chapel but it's not clear what happened to the vaults.

Also called Mile End Cemetery. The chapel is now Gordon Hall, and belongs to Dr Stephenson of the Children's Homes. The burial-ground is in private hands. The ground was very much overcrowded, and there were vaults under the chapel, the schools and the sexton’s house, but all the part south of the chapel was taken by the Great Eastern Railway Company. The existing piece is about 670 square yards in extent, is closed and most untidy, quantities of rubbish lying about amongst the tombstones. (Holmes)

Visible at the top of this extract from Greenwood (1827)

View from the Street
(by kind permission of Mr Ken Russell See links for details of Ken's website)

Evidence of tidying up, June 2005

Scruffy yard south of the railway - the original ground almost certainly extended to here.

East London Cemetery, Shandy Street, 
A private speculation, opened c. 1830s, so in use for only twenty years or so.
Laid out as a pleasant if rather bland park, but with no indication of its history. A few decaying tombstones lean up against the north wall.  A church, St. Faith, was built just to the north of the ground in 1891 but it was bombed in the war - traces of it are still visible. 

Also called the Beaumont Burial-ground.- 2¼ acres. This was much crowded. It was laid out as a playground by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in 1885, and is maintained by the London County Council. (Holmes)

Lower two views by kind permission of Mr Ken Russell. See links for details of Ken's website)

Burial-ground of the Bancroft Almshouses, Mile End Road 
Now Queen Mary's College covers most of the ground.
The burial ground is partly preserved in the grassed space between college buildings and the Jewish Cemetery wall.  At its northern tip, the stones remain, including one to  “the second master of Bancroft’s School”
The People's Palace is on the site of  the almshouses, and part of the burial-ground has been merged into the roadway on the east side of the palace. St. Benet's Church, Hall and Vicarage were built in this ground, the church being consecrated in 1872. Three pieces still exist, in all less than ½ acre; one is the vicarage garden, another is open to the road, and the northern point is closed and roofed over, forming a little yard where flag-staffs, &c., are stored. The open part is also a store-yard, having heaps of stones in it besides much rubbish. There are gravestones against the wall. (Holmes)

Photo courtesy of Robert Bard

Jewish Burial-ground, 70, Bancroft Road.
Opened 1810 so not shown on Horwood. Damaged by bombing during WW2. Recent reports speak of neglect, vandalism, abandoned supermarket trolleys, etc. 
About 1,650 square yards. This ground belongs to the Maiden Lane Synagogue,
and is crowded with upright gravestones. The grass is neglected. Burials still take place. It is in a densely populated district. (Holmes)

All photos by kind permission of Mr Ken Russell.

Jewish Burial-ground, Alderney Road.
The oldest Ashkenazi cemetery in the UK. Acquired 1696. 
1 acre. Formed in 1700, enlarged in 1733. Belongs to the United Synagogue. The tombstones are upright, and they are not so thick as in most of the Jewish grounds, while the grass is kept more neatly. (Holmes)

Old Velho Sephardi Cemetery, Mile End Road.
Behind Queen Mary's College. The oldest known Jewish cemetery in the UK, open 1657 - 1742. 
This ground is nearly ¾ acre in extent, and is at the back of the Beth Holim Hospital. It belongs to the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, the tombstones are flat, there are several trees, and the ground is very neatly kept. Part of the graveyard (where it is said that there have been no interments) has some seats in it, and is used by the patients of the hospital as a garden. (Holmes)

Jewish Cemetery, Mile End Road.
Novo Beth Chaim Cemetery. 
Replaced Old Velho cemetery in 1725. Much of the cemetery was lost in 1970. In the grounds of St Mary's College. 
At one time, a target for bodysnatchers.  The Times of April 24th 1786 reports that ' 'carrion hunters' dressed up the corpse as a man, then two of them taking it between them, conducted it to the house of the purchasing surgeon,  as if intoxicated'

4¾ acres. This belongs to the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, and is still in use. The gravestones are flat ones and low altar tombs, and the ground is neatly kept, although very bare. (Holmes)

Novo Beth Chaim Cemetery today

Horwoood's Map showing location of Jewish Cemeteries. 1 - Alderney Rd., 2 Old Velho Ground, 3 Novo Beth Chaim. Bancroft Almshouses ground shown in green. O.S. of 1873 shows Alderney Rd Ground extended eastward to connect with ground 2.  

Information on, and photographs of, the three Jewish Cemeteries above from Phillip Lachman, to whom many thanks. To visit Phillip's site on Jewish history in the East end go to the links page.

Lost grounds 
Stepney Pest-field. 
Large area to the south of the London Hospital, now mostly built over by hospital buildings. St Philip's was built 1818-19, rebuilt 1888-92: it still stands, a great, gaunt brick building, now a medical library. The Brewer's Garden (to the east of the church) is now built on, as is most of the small open area immediately to the south of the hospital north of Stepney Way.  
Many acres to the south of the London Hospital were used for interments at the time of the plague, and the Brewers' Garden and the space by St. Philip's Church are, according to some authorities, part of the site originally called Stepney Mount. At the Home Office it is believed that there have been no burials in the ground round St. Philip's, nor have there since it was St. Philip's churchyard; but I think there were long before the first St. Philip's Church or the Brewers' Almshouses existed. The Brewers' Garden is open to the public at a charge of 1d. (Holmes)

St Philip's Church today

Site of the Garden at the rear of the London Hospital

Rose Lane Chapel Ground  
Burials recorded 1786-1833. Shown on Horwood (Below). Stepney Station is now Limehouse Station, Docklands Light Railway. 

Built over by  East London Railway, public house and shops close to Stepney Station. (Holmes)

The view today - the pub mentioned by Holmes is still there. 

Possible vaults or church burials:

St Peter's Cephas St
Built  1837-8. this large and imposing church still stands, but has been converted into flats. 

Click here for a note on church and vault burials.