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Stepney’s Lost Mansions

May 28, 2022
by the gentle author

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

Now the Elizabeth line station is open in Whitechapel, you may feel that it is drawing the East End into Central London. Yet beyond Farringdon, after stops at Liverpool St and Whitechapel, the new sleek trains will accelerate and pass the rest of the East End by. From Whitechapel, the Elizabeth line splits with one branch running without pause all the way to Stratford and the other to Canary Wharf.

The dividing of the ways is at Stepney Green – not the tube station on the Mile End Rd but the old roadway running down to Stepney Green Park and the Stepney City Farm. The line actually divides just before it reaches St Dunstan’s, Stepney’s ancient parish church, with the up and the down lines for the Stratford branch passing neatly on either side of its walls. Fear not – the Elizabeth line runs thirty metres deep and it will not disturb the church, nor its graveyard where thousands of dead Londoners, including victims of the Great Plague, lie packed beneath its verdant turf.

Only a mile from Aldgate, Stepney was still green fields three hundred years ago, with just a frill of ribbon-development along the main road and around St Dunstan’s. Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, though terraces of neat Regency houses were spreading fast, there was pasture land beyond. The Stepney of Cockney tradition only arrived with the expansion of the docks, the laying of railway lines to service them, and the rapid in-filling of the fields with rows and rows of small houses for the population that provided the work force.

But what was Stepney like before – much longer ago – when London was still contained within its medieval walls whose gates shut at night? By one of those flukes of time and chance, it is the construction of the Elizabeth line which has helped literally to bring to light what Stepney once was. Near the church, where the line divides in two, a big access and ventilation shaft is in course of construction, and this happens to be the site of one of the area’s oldest recorded buildings. From early Victorian times until the Second World War, streets covered this acre of land and there was no possibility of recovering the lost big house that only existed as a vague folk memory. Yet bombs and planners between them have so devastated this area that archaeological excavation has now become possible. By this means, the foundations of long ago, cess-pits, animal bones, shards of pottery and glass and even the seeds of plants that once grew round a moat, have again been revealed.

The archaeologists of the Museum of London, who have undertaken the excavation, knew from local lore and earlier, partial digs that something important had stood there. Maps as late as the nineteenth century record ‘King John’s Palace’  – or, at least, the towered gateway to it. In fact, there is no evidence that King John (reigning from 1199 to 1216) had a house in Stepney. It has been said that whenever the origins of a venerable   building passed from the memory of man, it is ascribed to the wicked King John because there was only one, making him easier to distinguish from the bevy of royal Henries, Edwards and Richards.

The gateway, which survived till 1858 when it was witlessly demolished by the non-conformist institution occupying the site, appears to have belonged to a Tudor edifice dating from after 1450, well over two hundred years later than John’s reign, though it may have been constructed upon the foundations of an earlier building. It is this Tudor house, complete with a moat, that the archaeologists have been excavating – thought to be the ‘Great Place’ belonging to a John Fenne, that was rented to a Lord Darcy when Henry VIII was a young and popular monarch, and the divorces, the beheadings and the Reformation lay in the future.

This was not the only grand house set in these fields at that time. Stepney, an easy walk or ride from London proper, was becoming popular as a dormitory suburb for prominent courtiers and men of the City. There were several big houses not far from St Dunstan’s church, including one where the City Farm is now that was owned by Henry Colet, a leading member of the Mercers Company. This appears to have been a traditional timbered courtyard house, not quite as grand as Lord Darcy’s home even if the Colets turned it into a meeting place for the great and good of their day.

Only one of the twenty-two children that Dame Colet bore survived, a tragic record even for those times of high infant mortality, but John Colet, the sole survivor, was to become famous. As Dean of St Paul’s, he founded the school that still bears that name in west London today. Upon his father’s death he acquired his acquired a large, timbered house for himself near by, set among orchards at the corner of today’s Salmon Lane. Here he entertained the leading European thinkers of his generation, including the reformist scholar Erasmus.

Dean Colet died of ‘the sweating sickness’ in 1519 which may have been just as well, for if he had lived fifteen years longer he – with his radical views on religion – might well have lost his head to Henry VIII, like his younger friend and protegé, Thomas More. During the chaos of the Reformation, it was probably at the former Colet house that Thomas Cromwell, the King’s right-hand man, lived in state. He sent his neighbour Darcy to the gallows for opposing the King – with Darcy angrily prophesying that one day Cromwell’s head would be cut off too. And so it was.

Two generations later, after Elizabeth I had been Queen for many years, life was more settled and new money flowed from overseas. The moated Place with a gatehouse in Stepney was acquired by Henry Somerset, later Marquis of Worcester. He undertook works to smarten and modernise the property, and his name became permanently attached to it. Somerset came near to losing his own head in the next round of mayhem – the Civil War and the execution of Charles I – and, after him, the supposed ‘King John’s Palace’ became used by as series of non-conformist religious groups. A Meeting House, assorted chapels and then terraced houses were built on the gardens.

A new gentry replaced the old in Stepney. These were men who made fortunes in foreign trade and Stepney, near to where their ships were berthed, was well-recognised as ‘a convenient spot for the habitation of mariners.’ Some lived in the old, courtyard houses of earlier generations, while others built themselves modern gentlemen’s residences in classical brick. In the late eighteenth century, the old Colet house became the ‘Spring Gardens Coffee House.’ Then, in the nineteenth century it, like Dean Colet’s house, Worcester House was destroyed when these ancient mansions were pulled down to be replaced by narrow streets, as Stepney was swallowed up by London.

Now those streets are gone, the greater part of them needlessly demolished not by World War II bombs but by post-war planners dreaming of ‘green spaces’ and ‘radiant towers.’ Yet incendiary bombs did fall close to St Dunstan’s church onto the site of Worcester House. They destroyed a Baptist chapel which, when it was built in the eighteen forties, had been only a few yards along the road from the then-just-surviving gate-house to ‘King John’s Palace’. The chapel’s mock-Tudor doorway alone still stands (carefully preserved on the edge of the Elizabeth line excavation area). I suspect that increasing numbers of people may think this nineteenth century remnant is a legacy from medieval times – King John lives!

A similar illusion is also available in the heart of the City Farm just down the road, on what was once the south side of Worcester House’s grounds, near the Colets’ home. Here, in the eighteen sixties, a grand, Congregationalist church was built in the fashionable Gothic style. It too fell to firebombs early in the War. Today, sacks and seed boxes are piled up and free-range chickens peck round the stone wall and arched doorway that is all that remains. So battered have these not-very-ancient structures been, by misfortune, abandonment  and the weather, that it is quite possible to believe that you are gazing at something far older – and the long-ago grand people of Stepney do not seem so far away.

Old stone wall at Stepney City Farm

Reconstruction of the Stepney Moated Manor by Faith Vardy (Copyright © MOLA from “Stepney Green: Moated Manor House to City Farm” published by TfL)

Dean Colet by Hans Holbein the younger

Dean Colet’s house, c.1790

The Baptist College, 1840

Gloomy Sunday by John Claridge (Stepney in the sixties)

St Dunstan’s church

You may also like to read about

Vera Hullyer, Parishioner of St Dunstan’s

Fred Iles, Meter Fixer

Marie Iles, Machinist

Ian Lowe, Blacksmith

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Herry Lawford permalink
    May 28, 2022

    Great sleuthing! Fascinatiing

  2. May 28, 2022

    Absolutely fascinating, informative. and intriguing.
    Thank you.

  3. May 30, 2022

    This is so interesting! I appreciate all the work that has gone into researching the background to this area of London.

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