Stepney to Whitechapel

Saturday, February 22nd 2014

When you go out exploring any big city, you like to be able to say with a degree of certainty where you have been and in a city this should be easy – shouldn’t it? – because maps and street plans exist for most cities. In London, though, this isn’t so easy. London is not one amorphous city but is a patchwork of quasi-independent boroughs, each subdivided into named districts which may or may not have some sort of official status. In 1965, borough boundaries were changed and, as a result, some boroughs expanded, some disappeared altogether and some new ones were created. Districts that once sat happily within a single borough might now find themselves spread over two or more. In addition to that, some districts overlap, claiming some of the same territory.


Stepney Green Station
Stepney Green Station
We started here, though we came by bus, not the tube

To give you an idea of the problem, when I first started looking at where we had been today, I saw that we had started out walking along Mile End Road – the axis of the district called Mile End. On the other hand, we had got off the bus in Stepney Green and spent much of our time in an area that definitely calls itself Stepney. Then again, when I looked up some of the interesting buildings we had encountered, it was to find that English Heritage reckons that some of them, at least, are in Poplar. Partway through the walk, the Mile End Road becomes Whitechapel Road at which point we must be entering Whitechapel, mustn’t we? Well, maybe. There seems to be something of an argument about when Stepney ends and Whitechapel begins – perhaps because Whitechapel was once a part of Stepney. A poet might say they shade gently into one another. The whole area, by the way, apart from being within the borough of Tower Hamlets, is also part of that legendary domain, the East End.

Looking along Mile End Road
Looking along Mile End Road
The Gherkin and the Heron Tower are visible even this far from the City

To make things simple, I am going to say that we divided our time (though no division or boundary was obvious) between Stepney and Whitechapel. Both of these are ancient names, entitled to the dignity vouchsafed them by history. Stepney derives its name from an Anglo-Saxon landowner, Stebba, who had a landing place and settlement hereabouts. Later, Stepney became the name of a large parish centred on the Church of St Dunstan. The parish of Stepney spread like a rash and, in medieval times became so huge that it was eventually divided into 67 daughter parishes, one of which was Whitechapel, now a separate entity. The “white chapel” that gave it is name was built in the 13th century and became the Church of St Mary Whitechapel in 1338. Today, Whitechapel hobnobs with Stepney to the east and the financial fiefdom called the City of London to the west.

Mr G's Cafe
Mr G’s Cafe
Big servings, moderate prices

We arrived by bus at East Stepney Station, on the Mile End Road. This thoroughfare leads almost as straight as a ruler to Aldgate, where once stood one of the Roman gates of London, becoming, first, Whitechapel Road and then Aldgate High Street on the way. Despite the distance, the Gherkin and the Heron Tower can be seen, acting as pins on the visual map marking the location of the City. We had put off breakfast until this point and, seeing My G’s Cafe across the road, went there for brunch.

Once St Peter's Church St Peter's Vicarage
Once St Peter’s Church and Vicarage
Now apartment blocks

Suitably fortified, we set out to explore. We started with a little foray around the back streets but thereafter kept to the main road. In Cephas Street we found what was obviously once a church, a rather plain though dignified structure, but which had now been converted into apartments. Next to it stands a boxy three-storey house that was once the vicarage. The church was designed by Edward Blore and built in 1837-8. I don’t know who designed the vicarage or exactly when it was built. English Heritage, which has given both  a Grade II listing, simply dates it to “Early C19”. Edward Blore was famous in his day and worked on some of London’s principal buildings.

Anchor Brewery Gates
Anchor Brewery Gates
The remains of two centuries of brewing

An important inhabitant of the area used to be the Anchor Brewery. Founded in 1757 it survived until 1975 when it finally closed. Little of it now remains, much of the site having been redeveloped to create a retail park. The building behind the gate is a student accommodation block.

Side gate Company badge
Brewery Gates

Back on the main road we found a few other traces of the large but now defunct brewery.

Brewery Office Building
Brewery Office Building
Unusual chimneys

One of these is the mid-19th century building on the corner of Cephas Avenue. This yellow brick building with unusual chimneys would probably have been a suite of offices for the brewery. On a sunny day like today it stands out, adding a welcome splash of colour to its surroundings.

Brewery Houses
Brewery Houses
Homes for the managers, perhaps

Then there is this stand of terraced houses which also once belonged the the brewery complex. The design struck me as typical of the Georgian period and the English Heritage listing confirms this, assigning them to “Early C18”. Georgian terraced houses typically have the front door to one side, so how do you know which windows go with which door? If, as here, you can see the end of the terrace, the question is easily answered. If not, then you need to peer down into the basement “area”. The door leading from this is usually directly under the street-level front door and that tells you which “area” belongs with which front door and thus defines the house with respect to the position of the windows.

Brewery houses - detail Drinking fountain
Front door and nearby drinking fountain
“Blessed are the pure in heart”

Is it just my imagination or is there something deliciously ironic about the proximity of the drinking fountain to a brewery? The design of the fountain looks modern, though the inscription, one of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”, should give us pause for thought as as religious texts on public works are typical of the Victorian era to which the fountain actually belongs. I don’t know who made or installed it as there is no dedication. It looks like the sort of fountain the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was installing in the late 19th century but there’s no way of knowing (the Association does not answer any of my emails to them – I am obviously unworthy of their attention despite being a fan of their work).

Wickham's Wickham's
Wickham’s Department Store
Built around a stubborn neighbour

One of the curiosities of the area is Wickham’s Department Store, a building which looks as though it has been cut into two and the pieces pulled apart. The story is a real-life version of the fictional battle recounted in Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, between small traders forced out of their premises by the ever-expanding department store. In this case, however, the small trader won.

The story begins in the middle of the Victorian era with the Wickham family trading as drapers at numbers 69-73 Mile End Road, and a Mr Spiegelhalter, a clock-maker and jeweller who who had earlier emigrated from Germany, in business at number 75. The Wickhams developed plans to built a large department store which would be considered “the Harrod’s of the East End”. In 1892 or so, the Wickhams reached an agreement with the Spiegelhalters who accordingly moved to number 81, allowing the first phase of the building of the store to take place. That is the part that includes the clock tower.

Wickham’s must have thrived because in the 1920s they began to plan further expansion eastwards along Mile End Road. Unfortunately for them, however, the latest generation of Spiegelhalters resolutely refused to move as requested. Faced with this dilemma, the Wickhams decided to build on the rest of the block nonetheless, and in 1927 the continuation of the store was erected, leaving a gap filled by the Spiegelhalters’ shop. The Wickhams obviously hoped that one day the Spiegelhalters would move out and the two parts of the department store could finally be joined. It was never to be. Wickham’s eventually closed in the 1960s while the stubborn Spiegelhalters continued for another two decades before they too finally threw in the towel.

Depending on your particular outlook, you may either celebrate the stand taken by the Spiegelhalters as  a victory for the small trader over the capitalist bully or regret that the grand design of Wickham’s store was forever frustrated and that the “Harrods of the East” never achieved its full glory. Either way, the history of the neighbourhood has been left with an intriguing footnote.

Bust of Edward VII Bust of Edward VII
Bust of Edward VII
“Erected by a few Freemasons”

There are four memorials along this stretch of road celebrating two men, with two memorials apiece. Those commemorated are King Edward VII and William Booth, respectively. The first that we encountered was this one, a bronze bust, thought important enough by English Heritage to merit listed building status. The name of the sculptor is unknown but the bust was unveiled in 1911. King Edward was Grand Master of the English Freemasons, a fact that explains the slightly curious dedication text:




“A few Freemasons”? Not all of them , then? Maybe it was something he said (or failed to say). Either way, the bust has been in place for around 103 years so far and shows little sign of wear, other than the inevitable avian anointment.

In full flow William Booth
In full flow
William Booth

A little further along is the first of the monument to William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. A plate on the pedestal informs us that

ON 10th APRIL 1979. IN WHICH

This statue is in fact a replica of an original, by George Edward Wade, that stands in front of the William Booth Memorial Training College in Champion Park, South London. The hand with the pointing figure has had to be replaced having proved too attractive to vandals.

Trinity Almshouses Trinity Almshouses
Trinity Almshouses
For “decay’d” sailors

While drinking fountains were a good way for philanthropists to establish their credentials in the 19th century, almshouses had long been a good work of choice for those with solid means. Not that I at all criticize such endeavours which must have been welcome those who through poverty and other adverse circumstances found themselves obliged to seek charitable support. It is testimony to the determination and good management of their founders that so many of these establishments still exist, even though their roles may now not be quite the same as when they were set up.

One of four ships Dedication plaque
Ship and dedication plaque
Trinity House and Captain Henry Mudd

The Trinity Almshouses were built in 1695 by Trinity House on land donated for the purpose by Captain Henry Mudd. The widow of an elder brother also contributed, though it does not say by how much. The establishment follows a common pattern, consisting of two rows of terraced dwellings separated by a garden with a chapel at the closed end. The 28 dwellings were intended to be inhabited by “decay’d” captains or commanders of ships or their widows. At the street end of both rows we have virtually identical plaques, each with a pair of three-masted sailing ships on the gables. They have worn well for their 300-odd years of existence. The dwellings have of course been refurbished and upgraded during that time.

Brewery Engineer's House
Brewery Engineer’s House
Albion Brewery

Just when we might have forgotten about breweries, we were reminded of them by the sight of the slightly strange, though I think handsome, house. Built in 1905 and designed by an architect whose name is uncertain, it was the house of the brewery engineer of the nearby Albion Brewery. The ground floor is off-set from the upper floors which gives the building a curiously twisted look and there have been some modern alterations. The English Heritage listing texts seems to approve of these but I regret them as they mar the consistency of the Edwardian styling.

The Albion Brewery St George abusing a dragon
The Albion Brewery
Amd St George abusing a dragon

The Albion Brewery was founded in the early 1800s and came into the hands of partners Mann, Crossman and Paulin in the 1840s, but this, the Whitechapel (yes, we are now in Whitchapel!) building, dates from the 1880s. The picture of St George abusing a dragon was their, perhaps unfortunate, logo. Bought out by Grand Metropolitan, the brewery was closed in 1979 and has been converted into flats.

Bust of William Booth Bust of William Booth
Bust of William Booth
Commemorating the start of his campaign

Now we encounter our second memorial to William Booth. Unveiled in 1927, this bust is also by sculptor George Edward Wade. Why is William Booth so popular in this area? The inscription on the pedestal gives us the necessary clue. It reads “WILLIAM BOOTH FOUNDER AND FIRST GENERAL OF THE SALVATION ARMY. COMMENCED THE WORK OF THE SALVATION ARMY ON MILE END WASTE 1865.” So that’s it: Booth began his campaign with a meeting on Mile End Waste – then an open space often used for meetings and gatherings – in 1865. Here, then, is where it all started.

Is it a library?
Is it a library?
No! It’s an Ideas Store

As a one-time library worker, I am also attracted to public libraries, whether an old-styles Edwards Passmore or Carnegie library or one of the modern steel and glass variety. So, of course, we had to take a look at this one. The outside is a typical blank-and-bland modern creation lacking aesthetic imagination but what about the inside?

Yes, it's a library
Yes, it’s a library
It has shelves of books, after all

The inside isn’t bad but I found it slightly claustrophobic, perhaps because of the low-slung concrete ceilings. This is a straightforward public library with all the facilities that you would expect to find in a public library. I repeat the phrase “public library” because some lame brain has decided that “ideas store” is a better name for it. Calling a public library an “ideas store” is a piece of silliness of the sort that is only too common today when people who haven’t the first clue about things are given planning responsibility and think that daft names make familiar and trusted institutions sound “modern” and “relevant”. It does no such thing, of course, and merely reveals a trivial mindset.

Working Lads' Institute Working Lads' Institute
Working Lads’ Institute
Helping the young stay out of mischief

I had heard of adult working men’s clubs and educational and political associations but not of this, the Working Lads’ Institute. It was founded by Henry Hill in 1878, moving to this location in 1885. It catered for boys in employment who might otherwise spend their free time in less salubrious places such as pubs. It had a library (not an “ideas store”), a gymnasium with an instructor, and swimming baths. It also provided a programme of educational classes. Originally intended for employed boys, it later sought to find work for those without jobs and even provided some accommodation for homeless boys. In the 1940s it moved out to Tulse Hill, then back to Whitechapel, though not to this address, in 1971. Always having difficulty with funding, the foundation finally closed in 1973. This building, which still proudly bears the name “Working Lads’ Institute” across the façade, is now an apartment block with a shop on the ground floor.

Edward VII Jewish Memorial Fountain
Edward VII Jewish Memorial Fountain
Sculptor: W.S. Frith

Here we came upon our second monument to Edward VII. Unfortunately, there was a street market in progress and, while I have nothing against street markets, quite the contrary, the stalls and the rubbish bin did block our view and cramp our style somewhat as we tried to examine it. The dedication reads “In grateful and loyal memory of Edward VII, Rex et Imperator, erected from subscriptions raised by Jewish inhabitants of East London 1911”. It is by the sculptor W.S. Frith and its inspiration, I think, is more Victorian – perhaps with a touch of William Morris et al – than Edwardian or modern. Two female mythical figures represent Justice and Liberty, respectively, while an angel stands atop the whole. The water spouts are cherub faces, while Justice and Liberty are each accompanied by a pair of putti holding toys such as a ship or a motor car.

I have combined multiple views of the fountain into a slideshow. Click the above image to view the slideshow.

The Royal Oak
The Royal Oak
“Ebulliently Victorian”

Looking across the road, what caught my eye but this Victorian pub. English Heritage aptly describes it as “ebulliently Victorian”. Built in the second half of the 19th century, it was obviously designed to impress. The carriage entrance leads though to an open area today called Vine Court. Was this once where there were stables and where coach horses could be changed? The days when weary travellers might cheer themselves with food and drink are long gone, however, as the one-time pub is now an apartment block.

East London Mosque East London Mosque
East London Mosque
Symbol of the cosmopolitan neighbourhood

Though I have concentrated on the (British) historic aspects of the area, one should not overlook its cosmopolitan character. There are many Asian shops and businesses, such as cafes and restaurants and shops. This aspect alone would make an interesting study. For now I will let the pictures of the East London Mosque speak for it.

I was perhaps a little surprised at how many historic traces are to be found here, so many that I have only shown a small selection. Perhaps this has something to do with its position to the east of the City that has made it relatively unattractive to developers so that old buildings have been adapted to new uses rather than demolished. The preservation and re-use of old buildings is a subject that attracts controversy, some critics opining that when a building is “repurposed” you have neither a good new building or a properly preserved old one. In view of the horrors foisted on us by modern architects (I nearly put that word in inverted commas), I am in favour of keeping a beautiful old one when it can be put to new use, allowing us to go on enjoying it and its effect on the environment of which it is part.

Copyright © 2014 SilverTiger,, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
This entry was posted in Out and About and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Stepney to Whitechapel

  1. WOL says:

    What a lovely sunny day you had for your expotition. I agree with you. Better a repurposed old building than something glaringly modern and incompatible with the buildings around it.

Genuine comments are welcome. Spam and comments with commercial URLs will be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s