Stepney

In Tudor times, many rich and aristocratic Londoners lived in this village.

“set among orchards, and the summer seems to linger in the garrets where the fruit is stored”. Hilary Mantel

Courtiers’ and citizens’ residences multiplied in the 15th and early 16th centuries. At the east end of Stepney Way, south-west of the church of St Dunstan, the copyhold cottage which became the Mercers’ Great Place was built in the mid 15th century by a London citizen and improved by Sir Henry Colet (twice Lord Mayor of London) and afterwards by Thomas Cromwell, who took a lease in 1524 from the Mercers’ Company.

By the late 16th century many copyholders were knights and gentry. John Harington leased a house at Stepney between 1550 and 1571.

It was less the influx of wealthy outsiders than the growth of shipbuilding and the victualling trades that led to a more general rise in wealth and in population. The parish of Stepney had 1,720 communicants in 1548, most of whom probably inhabited the riverside areas of Poplar and Ratcliff. (Stepney: Settlement and Building to c.1700)

Stepney1550
Stepney: Settlement and Building about 1550

The ancient Borough of Stepney consisted of the large area between the walls of the city of London and the river Lea. The name is thought to date from Saxon times when it was called Stybbanhythe or Stebunhithe probably meaning either Stebba’s landing or Stebun heath.

On the 30th April 1536, Mark Smeaton was taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Stepney and interrogated. Within 24 hours he had confessed to making love to the Queen, Anne Boleyn, three times.

Thomas Cromwell and his family worshipped at the parish church of St Dunstan’s, which dates from before the Norman conquest. The present building dates principally from the 15th century. In 1540 a sermon by the Vicar of Stepney, William Jerome included ‘opprobrious words against the burgesses of the Parliament as calling them butterflies, dissemblers and knaves

“The Mother Church of the East End” and “The Church of the High Seas”, there were 6583 plague deaths in the parish in 1665, more than in any other in London.

St Dunstan’s has a long association with the sea, being responsible for registration of British maritime births, marriages and deaths until the 19th century.

Parish Registers were first ordered to be kept by Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General of King Henry VIII in 1538.

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