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In Search Of Joseph Merceron

April 21, 2023
by the gentle author

Biographer Julian Woodford, author of The Boss of Bethnal Green, will be telling the breathtakingly appalling story of Joseph Merceron on Tuesday 2nd May 6pm at the Hanbury Hall in Hanbury St where Merceron was baptised in 1764.




Joseph Merceron was the East End’s first corrupt politician and also the East End’s first gangster, ruling Spitalfields and Bethnal Green for fifty years through the end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century. Yet he was also an exploitative developer who built swathes of substandard housing, which ultimately led to cholera outbreaks and contributed to the human catastrophe of poverty and overcrowding in the nineteenth century East End.

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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Milo permalink
    April 21, 2023

    Shoot me down in flames if you must but i’m thinking Mark Strong for Joseph. I mean in the play or film that’s aching to be written. I’ll do it myself if no one else steps up…

  2. April 21, 2023

    Plus ça change……the local politics of the East End through history is fascinating. None of my ancestors were wealthy as far as I have ascertained, but there were some who did good with what little they had. Others, not so much. I can think of several modern day politicians who remind me of Joseph Mercer on but to name them would get me in rather a lot of trouble!

  3. April 22, 2023

    The book is a fascinating read, I would love to be able to hear the author.

  4. Nancy Clark permalink
    August 26, 2023

    Hi, I went on one of the first walks my Julian, having read the book the boss of bethnal green. We were on the walk when he spotted the curry shop in brick lane where Mercer was born, and shot off to talk to the current owner. Proved to me that history is constantly revealing itself, and to always look up! Wouldn’t have thought those buildings were 17th century.

  5. Nancy Clark permalink
    August 26, 2023

    I think Tom Hardy should play Merceron, and would make a brilliant tv drama. Come on BBC, give it a shot!

  6. jen permalink
    October 7, 2023

    Please contact me I am a direct descendant of Joseph merceron and have some interesting information

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