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London’s boroughs celebrate their 50th anniversary this year; of these, Tower Hamlets has had a more colourful history than most.  Now the borough has a directly elected executive mayor and local governance might – on the face of it – seem relatively simple. You probably know better than that but this post looks to the past – at the complexity of some of the borough’s earlier forms of local government and, specifically, those in Stepney, one of the three metropolitan boroughs which combined to form Tower Hamlets in 1965.

London’s first city-wide administration was created in 1855 in the Metropolitan Board of Works.  This was initially a body of 45 members, elected indirectly by 43 London districts: the Vestry in 29 of the larger parishes and 12 District Boards of Works in which smaller parishes were combined (plus special bodies in the City and Woolwich if you’re counting).

Pre-1900 map

Local administration before 1900: the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney was formed from the Whitechapel and Limehouse Districts and the vestries of St George-in-the-East and Mile End Old Town.

In what became the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, formed in 1900, there were two Vestries governing in their own right and two District Boards, the latter comprising a total of 13 parishes.  Keeping up?  I haven’t even mentioned the local Boards of Guardians which had administered the Poor Law since 1835.

These local bodies were generally notable, according to critics, for their ‘apathy, indifference or jobbery’.(1) All male householders (and unmarried female ratepayers from 1869) could vote but only those who paid £25 in rates could stand – a recipe for an unrepresentative body of middle-class members whose main concern was to keep down their local taxes.

An 1868 map marking the offices of the Whitechapel District Board of Works

An 1868 map marking the offices of the Whitechapel District Board of Works

The Whitechapel District Board confronted, to be fair, huge problems with few resources. Faced by criticism from the Sanitary Committee of the Jewish Board of Guardians in 1884, the Board complained that its difficulties in enforcing sanitary regulations were ‘greatly intensified by the arrival in the district of a vast number of foreign Jews’ and its inspectors fully occupied in trying to remedy ‘the filthy conditions of the rooms, yards and water closets occupied…by these people’.

Ten years later, an investigation by the recently-formed London County Council upheld the Jewish Board of Guardians’ complaints but the Whitechapel District maintained its mix of defensiveness and offensiveness by suggesting that ‘influential members of the Jewish community’ might educate their poorer compatriots to ‘use, instead of abuse, the Sanitary Conveniences provided for them, and to which they have not hitherto been accustomed’. (2)

Snip lampostThere’s no remnant of the Whitechapel Board’s former offices in Alie Street, Aldgate, but it has left at least one physical reminder of its more progressive ambitions – an electric lamp-post standing outside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry on Whitechapel Road which proudly bears the Board’s arms.

The Limehouse District Board of Works building, White Horse Road, Ratcliff

The Limehouse District Board of Works building, White Horse Road, Ratcliff

Elsewhere, Stepney’s early local government bodies have left a more impressive residue, notably in the case of the Limehouse District Board of Works which built headquarters on White Horse Road in Ratcliff.  The building, erected between 1862 and 1864, was designed by the Board’s surveyor, CR Dunch – a ‘liberal interpretation of Italian Renaissance’ according to Pevsner. (3)

Limehouse District Board of Works cholera poster 2

Snip Limehouse District Board of Works tablet

Limehouse District Board of Works arms above main entrance

Within four years the Board was grappling with one of the latest and largest of the cholera outbreaks to afflict London in this period – its sound advice to locals to avoid drinking potentially unsafe water availing little against the terrible sanitary conditions of the area (which couldn’t be blamed on immigrants this time).

Appropriately, after 1900 the building would house the Borough of Stepney’s Public Health Department.  In 1994, it became the home of the Half Moon Theatre, committed to giving ‘young people an opportunity to experience the best in young people’s theatre’.

Mile End Old Town Vestry Hall, now the Local History Library and Archives, Bancroft Road: the 1937 extension showing to the left

Mile End Old Town Vestry Hall, now the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, Bancroft Road: the 1937 extension showing to the right

To the north, the Mile End Old Town parish (not to be confused with Mile End New Town which formed a subordinate part of the Whitechapel District) was an independent vestry and it marked its status by the erection of a vestry hall on Bancroft Road in 1862 for a comparatively modest £3700. To the right of the large entrance hall, and at the heart of the vestry’s functions, lay the offices of the surveyor, medical officer and inspector of nuisances.  On the left was a committee room and – showing the peculiar mix of roles which remained – a churchwarden’s room.

All were, according to the contemporary newspaper report, ‘lofty and well lighted’ but the showpiece of the building lay, up a Portland stone staircase, on the first floor – the vestry hall itself, 56ft wide, 36ft long and 22ft high with a striking elliptical ceiling and cornice decorated with the arms and seals of the Vestry and the local Board of Guardians.  Two sun-lights in the ceiling, each containing 72 gas lights, provided light and an early form of ventilation.

Snip Mile End Old Town Vestry Hall 3

Decoration of former main hall

The building, its vestry functions superseded in 1900, was converted two years later – with the aid of Carnegie funds – to a library: the lending library situated in the former vestry hall and a reference library in an extension to the rear built in 1905 designed by MW Jameson, the Borough Engineer.  The latter is praised by Pevsner who describes it as an ‘unexpectedly lavish…large room with Composite pillars and lush Renaissance style ceiling’.  A children’s library was added in 1937 in a six-bay extension to the left of the main façade designed by a later Borough Engineer, BJ Belsher.

1905 Reference Library extension

Ceiling of 1905 Reference Library extension

The building now houses the excellent Local History Library and Archives – always worth a visit and, if you get there before 6 August 2015, you’ll be able to see a fascinating exhibition on the history of Tower Hamlets.

Limehouse Town Hall, Commercial Road

Limehouse Town Hall, Commercial Road

You might expect Limehouse Town Hall, standing on Commercial Road, to have been the main centre of local government in earlier days but it was in its inception merely the home of the Limehouse Vestry. It was designed, also ‘in Italian style’, by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston.

At a cost of £10,000, the new hall was not universally welcomed but to its supporters it was a clear expression of local civic pride.  One of local vestrymen Thomas Carter Potto was clear that the town hall: (4)

in an important parish like Limehouse should be not merely a place where the Vestrymen were to meet and discuss parochial matters, but a fine commodious building where the parishioners could meet and discuss imperial and local politics.  While in the provinces, he had noticed some imposing buildings of the kind erected, especially in the northern counties, where he was happy to say the parishioners did not mind contributing in the shape of the rates in order that they might get a place where they might state their grievances or get educational enjoyment after their labours.

It’s a reminder of a time when the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was less a political tactic than a reality on the ground – one, in fact, which could make London appear a little ‘provincial’.

A tinted photograph of the town hall in its early heyday

A tinted photograph of the town hall in its early heyday

In the end, the building probably entered local affections more through its grand main hall’s role as a venue for dances, entertainments and some very lively political meetings.

Limehouse Town Hall would enjoy a long afterlife after 1900 – housing Stepney Borough Council’s committee rooms, then an infant welfare centre…and much more besides.  It currently houses the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust, working hard to create an arts and community centre for the district. I’ve written more on its colourful history in this post.

St George's-in-the-East Vestry Hall/Stepney Town Hall, Cable  Street: the three bays to the left form the 1899 extension

St George’s-in-the-East Vestry Hall/Stepney Town Hall, Cable Street:

Finally, there’s the St George-in-the-East Vestry Hall in Cable Street opened in 1860.  Its cost – a little under £4700 – had aroused, according to a contemporary press report, ‘a strong display of party opposition’ at the laying of its foundation stone.  For all that, it was, in the first place, a fairly modest edifice:  a five-bay building designed by Andrew Wilson whose ‘general feeling’ was described, yet again, as Italian – ‘this style being followed throughout the building, in the internal as well as the external decorations’.

St Georges in the East 1871 List

The Vestry report from 1871 gives a good insight of its work:  turncocks responsible for opening the street pumps which supplied water for many local people and an inspector of pavements whose subsidiary and ceremonial role as beadle reminds us of the sometime self-regard of these early officials, so mercilessly satirised by Dickens.

Just to the west of the vestry hall in the former churchyard of St George-in-the-East, you’ll find a derelict brick building, constructed by the vestry in 1876 as the local mortuary. This has its own rich history, explored elsewhere. (5)

An 1899 extension to the vestry hall costing almost £8000 significantly enlarged the building though, as it simply lengthened the existing façade, almost indistinguishably in terms of architectural style.  It added a coroner’s court and a new main hall accommodating 550.

This, as it turned out, was just in time for the building to be taken over by the new Stepney Borough Council and it became known as Stepney Town Hall. In fact, borough administration was more complex than that– the council chamber itself was located in the town hall but the chief offices of the council were located in ‘a former private building in Great Alie Street’, rate-collectors elsewhere and, as we’ve seen, committee rooms and the public health department in  Limehouse and Ratcliff respectively. Unsurprisingly, there was talk of the need for a new and larger town hall to centralise all these functions. (4)

Stepney Town Hall proposal 1919

1919 Proposal for Civic Centre with Campanile, Stepney, London: http://archiseek.com/2013/1919-proposal-for-civic-centre-with-campanile-stepney-london/

In Stepney (unlike the neighbouring boroughs of Bethnal Green and Poplar), this was never brought to fruition. There were great plans, notably in 1919 for a grand Beaux Arts scheme designed by TH Mawson which proposed to transform Cable Street into a stately boulevard, renamed fancifully ‘Stepney Greeting’ and intended to open up the Borough to its more affluent western neighbours. (7) The formality of the scheme and its overpowering campanile perhaps make us grateful it wasn’t fulfilled.

The scheme was revived more modestly and more functionally in plans for a seven-storey building (which included space for the Borough’s Electricity Department) in 1937. It received planning approval from the London County Council but the war intervened and Stepney muddled on until swallowed up by the new Tower Hamlets authority in 1965.

Battle of Cable Street mural, St George's-in-the-East Town Hall

Battle of Cable Street mural, St George’s-in-the-East Town Hall

Stepney Town Hall also enjoyed a long afterlife – home to a boxing club where the likes of John H Strachey and Terry Marsh trained, neighbourhood housing offices for the new Tower Hamlets council, facilities for the local Somali community, a law centre, and since 2013 the Unite union’s first community centre.  Non-locals are likely to visit it for the striking mural commemorating the 1936 Battle of Cable Street unveiled in 1983.

Attlee's 1923 general election leaflet

Attlee’s 1923 general election leaflet

If all this seems parochial (and, literally, it is in some respects), don’t neglect the vital role and incipient revolution marked by these early manifestations of local government and don’t disdain the civic pride signalled by its early structures.  And if it was good enough for the greatest of our prime ministers, Clement Attlee – a one-time Stepney councillor and mayor – it should be good enough for us.


This post is partly based on a talk I gave for Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives in June 2014.

(1)  WA Robson, Government and Misgovernment of London (1939)

(2) Quoted in Geoffrey Alderman, London Jewry and London Politics, 1889-1986 (1989)

(3) Bridget Cherry, Charles O’Brien, Nikolaus Pevsner, London 5: East (2005)

(4) Reported in ‘A New Town Hall for Limehouse Indignation Meeting’, Tower Hamlets Independent, 11 December 1875

(5) The website of the St-George-in-the-East parish contains some wonderfully rich local history and numerous images.  The detail on the mortuary comes from a fine post on the always readable Flickering Lamps blog, The Little Mortuary at St George in the East and Its Reincarnation as a Museum

(6) ‘Stepney and a New Town Hall: Revival of an Old Question’, East London Observer, 17 February 1912