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Where The White Chapel Once Stood

May 27, 2022
by the gentle author

Bookings for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOURS are now open for June & July

Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel

Novelist & Historian Gillian Tindall, author of A Tunnel Through Time, A New Route for an Old London Journey, introduces the Elizabeth line.

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clements,
You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St Martins.
When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch…”

These verses may have been first written down in the eighteenth century, but it has been suggested that their origins lie in the tit-for-tat executions which accompanied the Reformation in the sixteenth century:

“Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head…”

Like church bells calling from one parish to the next, the Elizabeth line travels eastwards from Liverpool St Station to Whitechapel:

“Sticks and an apple, say the bells of Whitechapel…”

May I suggest that if Whitechapel could only suggest sticks and an apple, it was not a very salubrious neighbourhood even then?

From Aldgate, the eastern gate of the City, Whitechapel High St runs for a mile to the point where Mile End Rd starts and was long known as ‘the back door to London.’ In the fifteenth century, when a group of young noblemen on a night out in Whitechapel got into an argument with local lads which became a mass brawl, three commoners ended up dead. At that time, gentlemen usually carried daggers and no nobleman got punished.

A century later, in the Elizabethan era, there were taverns all along Whitechapel High St and in Aldgate stood the Red Lion playhouse where Shakespeare appeared early in his career. The London commentator, John Stow, complained that the street was ‘pestered with cottages and alleys’ and the fields where he had played as a child were being built over.

Three hundred years more and these dense, squalid side streets became notorious as locations of the Whitechapel Murders. In the mid-twentieth century, Whitechapel acquired new notoriety in the form of the nefarious activities of the Kray twins at The Blind Beggar, even though neither of these sensation narratives, endlessly milked today for tourists, have much to do with the reality of life in the East End.

Whitechapel has a history of mixed fortunes. Its location near both the City and the Docks, ensured that, thanks to expanding trade, many people were making a good living there in the eighteenth century. In the Georgian era, sugar refiners, rope and sail-makers, timber merchants, gun-makers, bell-founders and skilled engineers lived and worked in Whitechapel, and they were well-to-do people. Among them were Fellows of the Royal Society and authors of books on navigation for the expanding world. Captain Cook and his family had a house just beyond Mile End in the seventy-seventies, disgracefully demolished by the local authority in 1958.

Where, you may ask, did these respectable folk attend church, as they surely must have done? For centuries, the church for the huge parish of the’Tower Hamlets,’ when it contained little more than small farming settlements and a few isolated grand houses, was St Dunstan’s at Stepney. Yet already, in the Middle Ages, there were a significant number of people living just outside the City gate who did not want to trek through the mud to Stepney in winter. It was to accommodate them that a small chapel of ease was built of stone-rubble near Aldgate in the thirteenth century, rebuilt a hundred years later, given a coat of white limewash and dedicated to ‘St Mary Matfelon.’ This was the long-enduring White Chapel, which, standing out from afar, was to give its unofficial description to the place.

By the late seventeenth century, with Charles II on the throne and the old City recently burnt out in the Great Fire, it was obvious that the population of the Tower Hamlets was growing fast and one church was not enough. The parish of St Dunstan’s was divided into nine, with new churches built and St Mary’s rebuilt again, in red brick this time, to provide space for the by-now very substantial population of Whitechapel. The land round the chapel, which had unofficially received hundreds of bodies already – including probably that of Charles I’s executioner, Richard Brandon – now became a prestigious local graveyard. Sir John Cass, founder of the Stepney school that still bears his name was buried there, and so were members of the Cooke family, a distinguished clan with governmental connections and a coat of arms.

The Maddocks, another armigerous local family who were prosperous timber merchants just off Cable St, also paid for an elegant tomb of their own. Into it, between 1774 and 1810, went Nathan Maddock and his wife Elizabeth, both only in middle life, a daughter of thirteen, a sister-in-law of twenty-five, and her son when he was seventeen. It is a relief to find that Richard Maddock (who did not actually live in Whitechapel any longer but grandly in St James) was seventy when he died, and his sister seventy-nine. A James Maddock died aged nineteen, but that same year another James in the same family was negotiating the deeds of land in the area on which he intended to build and he appears to have lived so long that the tomb was full before it could accommodate him.

How do I know all this? Because the tomb, complete with a worn crest of stone feathers and a ‘demi lion rampant,’ is to be found on the site of the old churchyard to this day. It is one of only two sarcophagus tombs that have survived the clearances which took place when the ground was shut for burials in the eighteen-fifties, when the church was rebuilt for the third time in 1877, redone again after a fire in 1880, and when bombs destroyed it in 1940. With its button-lidded top, the tomb looks exactly like an enormous soup-tureen for a family of giants with a rather pretentious taste in crockery.

On seats nearby, on a grassy bank that conceals a mountain of blitz rubble, and vestigial stone walls marking the outlines of two by-gone churches, City workers eat takeaway lunches, young men smoke and look bored, while heavily-shrouded young women confer over pushchairs. Whether they admire the tomb, realise what it is or simply ignore it, I cannot say.

The seventeenth century incarnation of the St Mary Matfelon, the White Chapel

White Chapel seen from Aldgate in the early twentieth century

St Mary Matfelon, the White Chapel, seen from Green Dragon Yard in the nineteenth century.

White Chapel seen from the east in the early twentieth century

The site of the White Chapel in Altab Ali Park

In Altab Ali Park

Tureen Tomb for the Maddock family in Altab Ali Park

Whitechapel Art Gallery

Whitechapel Bell Foundry

East London Mosque

Whitechapel Market

You may also like to read about

Phil Maxwell at the Royal London Hospital

Phil Maxwell’s Whitechapel Market

Sir George’s Home for Respectable Girls

The Painted Vans of Whitechapel

At the Blind Beggar

At the Pavilion Theatre

The Romance of Old Whitechapel

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    May 27, 2022

    This is an incredible article. The photos mske me realise so much.
    I wanted to say I was told Pastor Niemoller came tobwork in a Lutheran church near Altab Ali Park.

    Pastor Niemoller is famous.

  2. Lesley permalink
    May 27, 2022

    My 5x great grandfather, John Rayden was convicted of stealing (“but not sacriligiously”) the lead from the roof of St Mary Whitechapel on December 4th 1805. All his children had been baptised there. He was transported for seven years but actually spent all that time in the hulks at Portsmouth.

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 27, 2022

    Thank you Gillian Tindall, these pieces about London history are fascinating especially to someone like me who has a branch of her family who owned so much property there that she can still claim a pension from a bequest to ‘his poor relatives’ by John West, city scrivener and friend to Samuel Pepys. The income from the property still brings in a fantastic amount of money which is administered by Christ’s Hospital in Horsham but none of it was in Whitechapel so far as I am aware, I think it was all in the City.

  4. Sonia Murray permalink
    May 27, 2022

    Thank you for another wonderful article, G.A.! I want to come to see the Georgian Soup Tureen tomb, and the area near the docks where my ancestors lived. It’s remarkable that the tomb survived when so much around it has been thoughtlessly destroyed.

  5. May 30, 2022

    Thank you for an enjoyable article, one correction though regarding your statement “Sir John Cass, founder of the Stepney school that still bears his name” is no longer true.

    I believe you’re referring to the Sir John Cass Redcoat School. If so, after public recognition of Cass’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, the school was renamed Stepney All Saints School in 2020.

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