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Mile End
From: "The Copartnership Herald", Vol. III, no. 33 (November 1933)

According to the direction in which one might be going, the first milestone eastwards out of London or the last before arriving there, stood until recent times a little to the west of the Black Boy Inn. It reminded passers-by, of the turnpike road, the rattling four-horse coach, the chaise with its postillion, the steady moving team with lumbering wain, and all those things which made up the variety of road transport in the early nineteenth century. Here travellers 'on the outset of their journey or in coming near to their destination saw Mile End, and thereabouts the houses of the well-to-do, which for the greater part were to the south of the highway towards Stepney Church.

The mile was measured from Whitechapel. In an earlier - much earlier - period, however, another had been taken, that from Aldgate, the gate itself, which terminated where Cambridge Road now is and where many years afterwards the toll-house was erected. A writer in the time of Queen Elizabeth thought that Mile-end Green was so-named because of it being of that extent, but Mile End considered as a place-name appears to have come into existence independently of that fact, and had been given to a locality beyond the stated distance from the city, and without it being precisely applied to a defined spot. When, in the course of time, the adjoining hamlet of Ratcliff made its boundary and certain parishes were separated from the mother church, a large area, most of which consisted of fields, was left over, and recognised as being in the care and keeping of the hamlet of Mile End Old Town. It was distinct from the New Town which arose and became attached to Whitechapel and Spitalfields. [The] remarkable outline of the hamlet, that in its greatest length measures a mile and three-quarters, should not be passed unnoticed as the little-known fact will be made clear that Mile End Old Town penetrates close up to Whitechapel Church in the form of a wedge, representing the old common land known as Mile End Green

Writing in 1578, the chronicler Holinshed said: "This common land was sometimes, yea, in the memorie of men yet living, a large mile long (from Whitechappell to Stepenheth church) and therefore called Mile-end green; but now at the present, by greedie (and seemeth to me, unlawful) enclosures, and the building of houses, nowwithstanding hir maiesties proclamation to the contrarie, it remaineth scarse a halfe a mile in length."

Perhaps once upon a time many an ancient man in his latter years recalled, like Mr. Justice Shallow, the days of his youth, when archers held their meetings on the Green. King Henry the Eighth, who encouraged this noble exercise, gave his patronage to a company of bowmen who practised here. Coming one day to see their performance, he was so pleased with the display of skill that he instituted the " Famous Order of Knights of Prince Arthur's Round Table or Society." Every good marksman who was admitted a member became identified with the name of one of the legendary knights. In the spring-time pageants known as Arthur's Show took place in which appeared competitors from Shoreditch, Shacklewell and Finsbury. The scene was gay with pavilions and tents adorned with banners and pennons, and the spectacle attracted many onlookers from far and near. The entertainment concluded with a feast for which a buck of the season had been presented to him who was Prince Arthur to regale him and his companions after their exertions of the day. Shakespeare refers to this on the occasion of Falstaff's visit to old Justice Shallow [1], when the latter prated of the wildness of his youth when he was a student in the Inns of Court. "I remember at Mile-end Green, when I lay at Clement's-Inn, - I was then Sir Dagonet in Arthur's show...." It was not the recollection of his having acted the part of a fool in a play but of his pride in having been one of a merry company, and according to his own account a mad fellow in those times.

When England was threatened by Spain in 1588, it was on this Green that the men of the City assembled to exercise themselves in martial array. Allusions to these musters were made by Elizabethan writers often in a jocular manner. The following quotation [2] from a delightful old play refers to a sham fight:-

MICHAEL: Is not all the world Mile End, mother?

MISTRESS MERRYTHOUGHT: No, Michael, not all the world, boy; but I can assure thee, Michael, Mile End is a goodly matter; there has been a pitch-field, my child, between the naughty Spaniels and the Englishmen; and the Spaniels ran away, Michael, and the Englishmen followed: my neighbour Coxstone was there, boy, and killed them all with a birding piece.

Two hundred years before, in 1381, Mile-end Green had been the place of riot and tumult, for on it gathered the men of Kent and Essex who had taken part in what is called Wat Tyler's rebellion. On the 14th June the insurgents from the two counties joined forces there. The young King, Richard II, who was only sixteen years of age, rode out of the Tower and listened to their tale of grievances (which were, indeed, bitter wrongs), and promised all they asked. The promises, however, were never realised. The following day they assembled in Smithfield, and the death of Wat Tyler there by the dagger of Sir William Walworth, and the action of the King who placed himself at the head of the insurgents, brought to a sudden and dramatic close the only spontaneous popular rising on a grand scale presented in our history. Among those who took part in the final scene was Sir John Philpot, an eminent citizen of London, a man who did great service to the realm in its defence against foreign enemies. He is referred to on account of his possessing then an estate at Mile-end which was called "Hull Amilesend," a curious designation in which the name of the locality is to be observed.

All that is left of the old Common is the small remnant that survives as Stepney Green. It would be wrong to suppose that this spot should be identified with the exact position of the occurrence of events belonging to a period before the eighteenth century. As an instance, the house of Henry le Waleys or Le Galeys is described as being on Stepney Green, which may be taken to mean anywhere in its modern vicinity. At this house Edward I, in 1292, held a Council, often improperly referred to as a Parliament, to deal with the dispute between the citizens of London and the merchants of Gascony concerning the importation of wine.

That portion of the hamlet lying near to St. Dunstan's Church, as it was in the similar case of Ratcliff, was, and is still, apart from any allusion to the borough itself [i.e. the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney], referred to as Stepney. Indeed, here was the old village whose description and precise situation is not understood by those unacquainted with the boundaries of the two hamlets at this place.

Those who lived in houses in this neighbourhood were considered as residents of Stepney, although for the purpose and conduct of local affairs by the vestry, they may have been of either hamlet. Some of these men were notable in their day, and should provide sufficient interest to our readers for an account to be given of them on a future occasion.

A curious gate at Stepney, 1790The illustration [left] is taken from Lyson's Environs of London, published in 1791, in which it is described as "A Curious Gate at Stepney," and this "house by Tradition is called King John's Gate from what authority is not known, but will serve as a specimen of Variegated Brick work. It is reputed to be the oldest house in Stepney." The gateway stood on the modern Stepney Green, nearly opposite the Rectory, on the site of King John Street, and formed part of a large mansion belonging to the first Marquis of Worcester who in 1597 resided there. In 1663 it was occupied by the Rev. Matthew Mead, an eminent dissenting divine. Here his son Richard, the celebrated physician, was born; and here, as it is recorded in his life, he first commenced the practice of his profession.

It was not until the nineteenth century had well advanced that the neighbourhood was developed for building upon, at first but very slowly. From the earlier of the two maps, that showing the hamlet two hundred years ago, some idea can be obtained why so large an extent of territory should have become a unit for local administration. It was in consequence of the population being confined to a very small part of the entire area. It will be observed that at that time the name of the Old Town was given to that part of the main road into Essex immediately east of Dog Row, now known as Cambridge Road. Here was a favourite place for the erection of almshouses known as hospitals for poor and decayed folk. There were those of the Skinners and the Vintners Companies, Trinity House, and Judge Fuller. Along the north side of the road were large houses as far as where the People's Palace now stands, after which the thoroughfare became the road to Bow. The Globe Road of to-day then bore the ominous name of Theeving Lane, and Coborn Road is designated Bare Binder Lane.

by Sydney Maddocks

[1] Quotation is from The Second Part of King Henry IV, Act III, sc. 2.
[2] Beaumont and Fletcher: The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Act II, sc. 2.

Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.

Related pages:
  Mile End
       Victorian London: Memories of Mile End