This walking project focuses on the area of London today known as E1, between Whitechapel and Mile End tube stations. John Rocque’s survey of London and outskirts, published in 1746, shows the main road into London through Middlesex, surrounded by open fields, market gardens, small hamlets and country mansions, a far cry from the post-Victorian grim view of an overcrowded, criminal, poverty-stricken East End. Using Rocque’s map, the walk follows the route that walkers will have taken into town from Stepney over 270 years.
Whitechapel is the very edge of London city at this time, marked by a toll booth at its junction with the Mile End Road, the name marking its distance from the city proper. Evidently the landscape has changed enormously, and the digitised, comparable maps of Rocque, 1869-80 London OS map and modern Google maps provide aid in remapping Rocque’s survey onto modern roads. Delightfully, the main roads on Rocque’s map still exist, albeit under different names, and the walk aims to explore what else remains from mid-Georgian roots, as well as its maritime connections, trade and hints of multi-culturalism.
Beginning at the ominously marked World’s End on Rocque’s map, now less dramatically named Ben Jonson Road, the street today meets the Regent’s canal and continues into an area of regenerated parkland which feels appropriate to the woods and fields occupying the end of the road in Rocque’s time. The docks are visible from this point, punctuated by the buildings of Canary Wharf, rather than ships masts however. The road runs to the north of the medieval church of St Dunstan which reflects local maritime and global history in its building. The west door features a ship carving and the south door is commemorates Captain John Flower (1595-1657) a ‘lifelong communicant’ and Virginian plantation settler. Many more mariners and merchants are buried in the grounds. On Rocque’s map the area around the church is fields and orchards, today it consists of modern flats and community buildings. Referencing maps and census records, Stepney appears to have become heavily built-up between 1830 and the 1880s, so there is a sense that at some point history rebooted here. The Victorian dwellings were pulled down or bombed, returning the area to a blank canvas on which to build again.
Opposite the west front of the church, a tangible connection to the fields and market gardens of the Georgian era exists in the form of Stepney City Farm, a functional, bijou farm with weekly farmer’s market. Next to the farm is the site for Crossrail which sponsored a Museum of London Archaeology led community project on the works site and farm and is well documented in Crossrail’s site appraisal. The excavations uncovered a moated manor house and remains of a Tudor extension by the Marquis of Worcester, other inhabitants being rich merchants linked to the Hudson Bay Company (Morris, 2007, p.54). Among the artefacts of interest to global trade history was a Venetian blue glass goblet and indicators of early leisure include a Tudor bowling jack, Gascoyne and Rocque’s map show several bowling greens.
Continuing along Stepney Green Way into Rocque’s Mile End Old Town (MEOT), there are still plenty of green, open spaces among the buildings. Outside Stepney Green Park a triangular area and narrow strip of park (Stepney Green Gardens) make up the remains of Rocque’s Mile End Green. It would look quite open if it were not for the parked cars, aged trees and high fences around the Gardens. These are locked in the evening, hinting at a darker side to the streets which would have been familiar to Georgian town dwellers but perhaps less so to those is this semi-rural idyll. MEOT is a chance to step back into history. Screened by trees and a low wall, inset with bell bollards, the road is private, cobbled and the houses look almost untouched. No. 37 catches the eye, set further back and more squat. It is a gated, 4 storey mansion with garden, the oldest in Stepney and built for merchant Dormer Sheppard in 1694. (Although his house boasts five dormer windows, they are not named for the merchant!). In 1714 it was purchased by Lady Mary Grayer, the widow of an EIC governor of Bombay and whose monogram still adorns the front gate. Like many of its neighbours, No. 37 remained the dwelling of EIC officials and shareholders until 1764, when it passed to a Huguenot descendent, and then to Nicholas Charrington of the family behind the local Anchor Brewery. It later became a Jewish home for the elderly, showing the depth of global history here in just one building (Ridge, 1998).
Stepney Green Way joins the Roman road to Colchester known as the Mile End Road. Directly opposite is the Anchor Retail Park on the site of the brewery from which it takes its name, another maritime allusion (an older brewery features on Rocque’s map). A 1717 terrace, Ireland Row, built by Anthony Ireland, stands to the west and were more modest homes for sea captains of slightly lower means than those of Stepney Green (Ridge, 1998). The terraces’ neighbour on the other side is another form of retail giant, Wickhams Department Store (1927). An ostentatious affair of a classical façade bedecked with fluted ionic columns, it looks incongruous among the genuine, modest, Georgian classical buildings. The marvel is not the building of Wickhams however, but the plain runt of a building trapped in the middle, Spiegelhalters, a jewellery store owned by a settled German family who refused to sell out to capitalism and commercial bullying. Wickham had no choice but to build around the little shop and in an unusual twist, the family business outlasted the department store. In 2015, a local campaign was launched to once again save Spiegelhalters from rampant demolishers.
Further along Mile End Road, on the south side is perhaps the most famous naval link, the final home of Captain James Cook from whence he left for his fatal voyage in 1776. His wife, Elizabeth, remained in the house until her death in 1835. Cook’s home post-dates Rocque’s map, and what were a few detached buildings then, today is a hodgepodge terrace of buildings from 1760s onwards, all of which sport nineteenth century shop fronts demonstrating the ever-creeping expansion outwards of Victorian London. Cook’s house was demolished in 1958, although by then its ground floor had also been converted to a shop and it fronted a gin distillery (Ridge, 1998). Cook’s colleague and Botany Bay founder, Joseph Banks planted seedlings from Mile End nurseries in Tahiti on their first voyage and brought exotic plants from the New World to Mile End (Morris, 2007, pp.36-44).
The rather flamboyant building to the right is now a Chinese restaurant, reminiscent of Chinese immigration into the area. The Chinese instigated local opium dens, the other local sin besides gin, and inspiration for the intoxicated ramblings (both perambulatory and literary) of Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821). De Quincy alludes to a maritime theme himself, writing “in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, […] instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands […] I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, [and] streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle […] and confound the intellects” (De Qunicey, 1971, p.81). Considering the relatively simple street layout of Rocques map remained at least until 1830, it is unlikely De Quincey was in Mile End though he could have been in the warrens of adjoining Whitechapel, Shadwell or Wapping.
At the site of the obsolete toll booth, the road becomes Whitechapel High Street. On the north side stand the Trinity Almshouses, built 1695, for ‘decay’d Masters and Comanders of Ships or y Widows’ as the date stone grandly proclaims, a retirement village of sorts. To further the connection, four beautiful sculptures of Men-of-War adorn the corners of the two rows of houses, nestled about a genteel, gated green. Trinity House founder, Sir Thomas Spert is buried in St Dunstan’s church yard (Ridge, 1998).
Passing through Whitechapel Street Market, dating back 200 years and today boasting Asian spices, cuisine and clothing, the walk concludes at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The foundry forged not only the local bells, including St. Dunstan’s and possibly the numerous local bell bollards, but also Big Ben and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a connection between England and its lost empire. Cracking on its arrival from England, the damaged bell is symbolic of Britain’s relations with America in the late eighteenth century (Glinert, 2003, p.307)
Choosing to return to Mile End Station cross-country, I headed through the Field Gate opposite the foundry on Rocque’s map, along the country road, dirt tracks and across the fields. Of course today, there are no fields or dirt track. Instead the gate is metaphorical, numerous roads are lined with 250 years-worth of building including the crumbing derriere of The Royal London Hospital (1750). In Victorian London, Rocque’s countryside was built over, then Germans bombed much of it away, yet defiantly so much remains. Juxtapositions of asynchronous, often bizarre, buildings add as much to the diversity of E1 as its multi-cultural mixture of people and history.
Joel Gascoyne, Hamlet of Mile End Old Town, 1703
John Rocque, Survey of London, Westminster and Southwark, 1746
Robert Creighton, Tower Hamlets, 1830
London OS Map, 1869-1880
Digitalised maps of London can be found here.
Derek Morris, Mile End Old Town 1740-1780, The East London History Society,  2007
Tom Ridge, Tom, Central Stepney History Walk, Central Stepney Regeneration Board, 1998
Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, ed. Alethea Hayter, Penguin Books, 1971
Ed Glinert, London Compendium: A Street-by-street Exploration of the Hidden Metropolis, Penguin Books, 2003
Humphreys, Rob, The Rough Guide to London, Rough Guides, 2001.
Marriott, John, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London, Yale UP, 2011
Morris, Derek, Whitechapel, 1600-1800, The East London History Society, 2011
Palmer, Alan, The East End: Four Centuries of London Life, John Murray  2000
All photographs are taken by the author except where stated. Further photographs can be found here.