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In Search Of The Boss Of Bethnal Green

October 9, 2016
by the gentle author

Julian Woodford, author of THE BOSS OF BETHNAL GREEN sent me in search of Joseph Merceron, the Huguenot, gangster & corrupt magistrate, to take photographs of the locations of his story today as illustrations for the forthcoming biography published by Spitalfields Life Books in November – and I present a selection of these pictures here captioned with quotes from Julian’s text.

Julian Woodford will be giving a lecture about Joseph Merceron at WATERSTONES PICCADILLY, W1J 9HD on Tuesday 8th November at 7pm. (Tickets are free but email to reserve a place)

There are only a few tickets remaining now for the launch party on Thursday 3rd November at 7pm in the Hanbury Hall, Hanbury St (Click here to reserve a place)

Birthplace of Joseph Merceron “On Sunday 29th January 1764, Joseph Merceron was born on Brick Lane, which formed the boundary between the parishes of Spitalfields and its eastward neighbour Bethnal Green. His parents were James Merceron, a Huguenot pawnbroker and former silk weaver, and his second wife Ann. The Mercerons had three other children: Annie, Joseph’s two-year-old sister, John, almost thirteen, and Catherine, eight, the latter two being the surviving offspring from James’s first marriage.”

“Joseph was christened at the local Huguenot church known as La Patente, in Brown’s Lane (the building and lane are now known as Hanbury Hall and Hanbury Street) just a short walk from his parents’ house. The Mercerons, like other Huguenot families in the area, clung tightly to their nationality. Joseph’s details in the register of baptisms – the first recorded at La Patente for 1764 – were entered in French, which many families still insisted on speaking out of respect for their ancestors.”

“On the corner of Fournier Street stands the Jamme Masjid, since 1976 one of London’s largest mosques. For much of the twentieth century it was a synagogue, and before that it spent a decade as a Methodist chapel. Originally, before a brief occupation by the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, it was a Huguenot church. High on a wall is the date of its completion, 1743, and a sundial with its motto: Umbra Sumus (‘we are shadows’).”

“The Merceron pawnshop at 77 Brick Lane was at the epicentre of this district, among a row of ramshackle buildings directly opposite Sir Benjamin Truman’s imposing and famous Black Eagle brewery. The Black Eagle was one of the largest breweries in the world. To those living opposite, the mingled odours of yeast, malt and spilt beer – not to mention the steaming output of the many dray horses – must have been overpowering, even by the pungent standards of the times. The noise, too, was tremendous, as the shouts of draymen punctuated the rumble of horse-drawn carriages and carts up and down the lane.”

“David, or ‘Davy’, Wilmot, was an ambitious builder who started out as a bricklayer but soon set up in business with his brother John, an architect and surveyor, as successful developers of cheap tenement housing. The Wilmots were quick to realize the area’s potential for development. From 1761 they began to lease large plots of land along the Bethnal Green Road and over the next few years erected dozens of houses. In a relentless but unimaginative drive for self-publicity, the brothers soon created Wilmot Grove and Wilmot Square (both owned by John) and Wilmot Street (owned by David).”

“The judge had ordered the execution to take place several miles away at Tyburn, the usual site of such events in London, but the master weavers – keen to dispose of Valline and Doyle in front of their own community to discourage further loom cutting – lobbied successfully to change the location to ‘the most convenient place near Bethnal Green church’. Several thousand people assembled outside The Salmon & Ball to see Valline and Doyle hang. Bricks and stones were thrown during the assembly of the gallows. They protested their innocence to the end, but to no effect. Doyle’s last words were enough to ignite an already explosive situation. As soon as the hanging was over, the crowd tore down the gallows and surged back to Spitalfields…”

“On 26th October 1795, Joseph Merceron donned his magistrate’s wig and robes and climbed the steps of the imposing Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green for his first Middlesex Sessions meeting. This was a world away from Brick Lane. The Sessions House, built in the aftermath of the Gordon Riots, was awe-inspiring and was said to rival any courthouse in England.”

“St John on Bethnal Green was built by the eminent architect Sir John Soane but budgetary constraints led to his grand design for a steeple being aborted, replaced with a stunted tower of particularly phallic design that rapidly became a source of bawdy amusement throughout the neighbourhood. Merceron was outraged. Announcing that the design had ‘mortified and disappointed the expectations of almost every individual’, he ordered Brutton to write to complain. The task put Brutton in an acutely awkward position: how to explain the exact nature of the problem? The vestry clerk’s literary skills were tested to the limit as he described the tower’s ‘abrupt termination in point of altitude’ that made it ‘an object of low wit and vulgar abuse’.”

“All the great and good of London’s East End were there. Twenty thousand people, packed six deep in places along the Bethnal Green Road, had turned out to see the cortège on its way to St Matthew’s church. Just before one o’clock the procession arrived, at a sedate walking pace. The jet-black horses, with their sable plumes, were blinkered to prevent anything from distracting the stately progress of the hearse. Merceron was the original ‘Boss’ of Bethnal Green, the Godfather of Regency London, controlling its East End underworld long before celebrity mobsters such as the infamous Kray twins made it their territory. His funeral at the church of St Matthew, Bethnal Green – the very same church where the Krays’ funerals would be held more than 150 years later – reflected his importance: it was by far the biggest event to take place at the church since it was established in the 1740s.”

Tomb of Peter Renvoize “His closest ally and childhood friend, Peter Renvoize, was repeatedly elected as churchwarden for much of this period, from which position he helped Merceron pull off his most audacious financial coup yet. Bethnal Green’s share of the government relief grant was £12,200, equivalent to almost three times the annual poor’s rates raised by the parish. Having obtained the money, Merceron appointed himself chairman of a committee, with four of his closest associates, including Renvoize, to manage its distribution. What happened next is difficult to determine. But it is clear that, five months after the government had advanced the funds, there were several thousand pounds sitting in Merceron’s own account.”

“As for Joseph Merceron, lying buried in the shadow of the vestry room he dominated for half a century, there is one last strange episode to recount. In the afternoon sunshine of Saturday 7th September, 1940, as millions of Londoners sat down to their tea, the ‘Blitz’ began. Bethnal Green suffered terribly, and in the carnage St Matthew’s church took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb. Next morning it was a roofless, burnt out shell, but two gravestones survived the bombing intact. The first, outside the main entrance to the church, is that of Merceron’s old friend Peter Renvoize. About twenty paces away, a large pink granite slab, surrounded by a low iron rail in the shelter of the south wall of the church, is the grave of Joseph Merceron and his family. He spent a lifetime cheating the law, somehow it is fitting that he should have cheated the Luftwaffe too.”

“Merceron Houses, erected in 1901 by the East End Dwellings Company on land formerly part of Joseph Merceron’s garden in Bethnal Green.”


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The Boss of Bethnal Green

5 Responses leave one →
  1. October 9, 2016

    What a tempting taster for this interesting biography.

    It reminded me of the Tony Hancock sketch “Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards,” where the last page of an exciting story is missing.

    Good luck with the book.

  2. Martin Palmer permalink
    October 9, 2016

    One of the founders of Parmiter’s Grammar School, my old school, was a Peter Renvoize, and Renvoize was, and is, the name of one of the school’s houses. In the school’s website it says “Under the terms of his Will, Peter Renvoize bequeathed a substantial sum to the Foundation on his death in 1842 and hoped “that the trustees and their successors will not object to keep my family vault in Bethnal Green church yard and the tomb thereof always in good repair and condition”.
    So was this Peter Renvoize a descendent of Joseph Merceron’s associate?

  3. the gentle author permalink*
    October 9, 2016

    This was the one and same Peter Renvoize

  4. Tony Morey permalink
    September 13, 2022

    My mother was an ancestor of Joseph Merceron via his great nephew Frederick who died just before the legacies were distributed. The superb book does refer to him but does not explain precisely who were his mother and father.

    It is a pity that there was no Family Tree. Can anyone help me please?

  5. Lin Renvoize permalink
    May 6, 2024

    Ah what a couple of lads those two were!
    Proud to count, Peter Renvoize as my ancestor. Fortunately the verbal family history of how, where and when we came over from France has been passed down the generations. Tony Morey we do indeed have a family tree and it is documented.
    Just a few years ago the old boys from the old Grammer school site
    at Bethnal Green invited me and my now husband Nick to Parmiter’s schools
    annual ceremony and at this time it’s restoration of the family headstone.
    We joined the old boys and school up the road at the museum. Stories
    were swapped of what the chaps had got up to back in the day.
    And it was wonderful to spend our time with them. They all seemed so
    happy to meet us. Before we left they vied to give
    me an old version of their Renvoize house school tie.
    On returning home I passed this on to my father. Whom proudly wears it on many a special occasions to this day.

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