Some acquaintance with the early history of this neighbourhood, which is not particularly attractive in these days to the chance visitor, will, it is hoped, at least remove the impression which may exist in his mind that its past is interesting only on account of part of the notorious thoroughfare, Ratcliff Highway, now St. George’s Street, which passes through it. The unsavoury reputation arose in the middle of the nineteenth century, when foreign sailors from every country, Greeks, Malays, Lascars, Dutch, Scandinavians, Portuguese, Spanish and French could be met everywhere, and many taverns, dancing saloons and so-called boarding-houses harboured the lowest types of humanity of almost every nation. Of the tales that have been told of the life of those times, some are undoubtedly true and some are exaggerated, if not altogether fictitious, but by their repetition they have been multiplied many times. Thus, the name of Ratcliff Highway became a byword not only for poverty and misery, but for the coarse, the brutal, and the vicious. It is not surprising, when the state of the Metropolis at that time is considered, that the respectable inhabitants, the business men and the workpeople accepted the social conditions as being incidental and commonplace occurrences. But there was another phase of life to be found there. The Rev. Harry Jones, who had been rector of St. George’s since 1873, writing an introduction to a small volume published in 1880, said that he could "but heartily hope that this little book will join yet closer together with the tie of honest home and municipal interests those of whose life and surroundings it speaks, and will tend to deepen an impression that the East of London is not a region so barren of righteous influences and healthy life as some have occasionally fancied it to be."
Speaking of misrepresentations, the compiler of An East-end Chronicle says: "But we East-enders owe many a grudge to the journalists and novelists and conversationalists who have written and talked about us without really knowing us. However, things are mending... and in years to come, when many illusions have been dispelled, those who know us now only by hearsay, or as the result of some hasty visit, will admit that we are not many of us thieves or most of us heathens, but after all, men and women very like the men and women elsewhere, good, bad and indifferent, a few of us heroes and a few of us villains, and nearly all of us toilers and moilers, doing our work and taking our play, trying to do our duty, and hoping to get our reward."
On 14 May 1729, in the second year of the reign of George II, the Royal Assent was given to "An Act for making the Hamlet of Wapping Stepney in the Parish of St. Dunstan Stebonheath, a Distinct Parish, and for providing a Maintenance for the Minister of the New Church there."
The church was dedicated to St. George as a delicate compliment to the King, and the new parish thereby became designated that of St. George, Middlesex. To distinguish it from other places of the same name in the Metropolis, it was soon called St. George’s-in-the-East. The boundaries of the contiguous parishes of Whitechapel, Wapping, and Shadwell and the hamlets of Ratcliff and Mile End Old Town having been already established, the area consisting of about 224 acres surrounded by those districts was included in St. George’s parish.
The hamlet, properly speaking, of Wapping Stepney was originally close to the river, and after the formation of the parishes of Wapping and Shadwell it became possessed of a frontage to the Thames of some fifty-three feet, represented to-day by Foundry Wharf, which forms part of the Commercial Gas Company’s Works at Wapping. This frontage was occasioned by the outflow there of an ancient watercourse, the responsibility for which, with the upkeep of its banks, either of the two neighbouring parishes were wary to avoid. On the other hand, the manor of Stepney was perhaps desirous to preserve in its keeping the means of draining the marsh that lay inland almost as far as the Highway.
At the time of its formation, the parish was largely unbuilt upon, especially on the north, where fields lay stretched away to the winding White Horse Lane, which nearly a century later formed approximately the line of Commercial Road. This explains the apparently irregular boundary on this side, where it borders that of the hamlet of Mile End Old Town. It crosses the Commercial Road, includes the George Tavern, and then abruptly recrosses, and, after passing through the church of SS. Mary and Michael, continues south of the Road until it comes into contact, in Harding Street, with the hamlet of Ratcliff.
The conduct of parochial affairs was by the Act of Parliament entrusted to a Vestry consisting of such parishioners as paid two shillings a month or upwards to the poor, and it may be found interesting, perhaps amusing, to refer to a few of the duties which were first performed. Mr. Crowcher and Mr. Tatlocks having been elected churchwardens, a committee was formed to allot the seats in the church. Accommodation was assigned to 144 heads of families, eleven of these being captains of merchant vessels, and subsequently a further 151 families were seated. For the office of Parish Clerk the number of applicants was reduced to three: a schoolmaster, a barber and periwig maker, and a tobacco-cutter. After the question had been put whether it was the pleasure of the Vestry that the successful candidate should be obliged to abandon his normal occupation, room for the factotum was made by the decision that the barber and periwig maker, one Sam Bright, should be Parish Clerk and nothing else.
To Mr. Sam Bright we are indebted for the information relative to the parish contained in a book published soon after his entry into office. In furnishing particulars relative to the parish he mentions, among others:
"Remarkable Places and Things are half of Wellclose-square, and one moiety of the Danish Church therein: Princes Square and therein the Swedes Church, an Anabaptist Meeting the Corner of Penitent Street in Virginia Street and another in Meeting-house-yard, in Broad Street near Old Gravel Lane."
This does not appear to be very exciting, but it affords a glimpse of there being a number of Danish and Swedish, people who had settled in the neighbourhood. These were principally engaged in the timber trade, but another thriving business was that of the importation of hemp and tar - the crude distillation of pine-wood - shipped from ports of Northern Europe for the manufacture of rope. This industry became the principal one in St. George’s in the second half of the eighteenth century, but rope walks were common throughout all the riverside districts.
Ten years before the parish came into being, Mr. Henry Raine,brewer, built at his expense in the old hamlet a charity school for fifty boys and fifty girls, and gave forty guineas a year towards the support of it. The children were clothed and the boys were taught to read, write and cast accounts; the girls were taught to read, sew and mark. From 1719 to 1736 Mr. Raine, who had personally superintended the school, by his will made in the latter year, endowed it. In the same year he erected another school, called the Asylum - a name which did not then have unpleasant associations. In this building provision was made for forty girls, "chosing out of the most deserving of those brought up in the old school, and who have continued therein two years." They were to be maintained, clothed and educated. After four years’ training, the girls were to go into domestic service, and at the age of twenty-two were to be entitled, subject to certain qualifications, to become candidates for the marriage portion of £100, for which six of them might draw lots on every 1st May and 28th December, The unsuccessful candidates, if they continued unmarried, might draw again from time to time, till they obtained a prize.
Mr. Raine left most of his property to his two nephews, exhorting them to purchase £4,000 Stock to make a permanent provision for these marriage portions. "I doubt not," he says, "but my nephews will cheerfully purchase the stock if they had seen, as I have, six poor innocent maidens come trembling to draw the prize, and for the fortunate maid that got it burst into tears with excess of joy." It has been pointed out that one’s feelings and sympathies may be quite as deeply stirred by the sight of the five "poor innocent maidens" who are unfortunate enough to draw blanks. To which remark may be added the observation that instances of envy, hatred and malice are more likely to arise from gifts bestowed by capricious fortune than from those that are the reward of merit.
By an Act of Parliament in 1780 the trustees of the endowments were incorporated by the name of "The Governors and Trustees of the Raine’s Charities." Forty years previously the Court of Chancery decreed that the money for the provision of marriage portions should be set apart, but in course of years it came to be disregarded and no particular fund was kept for this purpose. The management of this branch of the Charity does not appear to have been successful. Marriage portions continued to be given, but the number applying for them was not large, and instead of six candidates at each half-yearly drawing of the lots, only on one occasion in the twenty-three years prior to 1875 had there been more than three candidates and frequently, if not generally, only one. All the endowments of the benevolent founder are now applied to the fine school built in Arbour Square which bears the name of the Henry Raine Foundation.
Mr. Raine lived, and carried on business in premises afterwards known as the Star Brewery, which were acquired nearly a century ago by the East London Gas Company and afterwards transferred to the Ratcliff Company. They were the nucleus of the Wapping Gas Works.
Our friend the Parish Clerk computed the number of houses in the newly formed parish "as upwards of 2,000," but probably his pride of place led him to err, for twenty-three years later, in 1756, there appear to have been only 1,946 houses, but in a few years the marshland south of Pennington Street was wholly built over.
A contemporary writer, referring to the houses that were here erected, said, "Those and others are almost without exception mere hovels, when compared to the habitations within the city of London," but he admitted that "exceedingly useful, opulent and worthy members of society are scattered through the streets and lanes" of the parish.
In 1800 the work of constructing the London Dock was begun. In Wapping eleven acres of land were taken and 120 houses pulled down, and in St. George’s the whole, or part of twenty-four streets, thirty-three courts, yards, alleys and lanes were demolished. Most of these houses were of a mean and wretched description, and the loss of them was a distinct gain to the neighbourhood.
North of the Highway the development of the land for building purposes more than made good the number of houses demolished. Huge sugar refineries arose of which the parish ultimately contained more than any other in the Tower Hamlets until the collapse of the industry in 1880.
About the year 1820 St. George’s-in-the-East was at the height of its prosperity, and wealthy merchants and traders resided in the parish. On Sunday mornings a line of carriages was drawn up outside the church gates waiting to take the owners home. Wellclose Square was the most fashionable quarter, and there the Danish Ambassador resided. The annual church rate would yield over £700, and funds were so plentiful that the Vestry could spend £4,400 improving and extending the churchyard and beautifying the church and repairing the organ. The times were changing. The prospect of work at the London Docks caused a large influx of unskilled labour, and the intermittent employment of the dock labourer and the low rate of pay - 5d. per hour - brought poverty. The population grew dense and misery spread with the outbreaks of cholera in 1849, 1855, and in 1866. On the latter occasion this parish suffered more than any other part of the East of London.
In the meantime, the prosperous merchants and tradesmen, who had formerly been compelled through the lack of travelling facilities to reside on or near their business premises, had with the coining of railways moved into the suburbs and attended daily, and the houses that they once occupied were let out in tenements.
Over the parish in our days hangs an atmosphere of depression that things should be as they are, which is broken only for some rare moments, such as when the mean streets have a certain wistfulness in the softening grey haze of a late autumnal afternoon. Then the lofty tower of St. George’s Church, which has seen two centuries of life’s vicissitudes, hushes red in the kindly glow of the sun in the west, telling worker and the workless of the departure of another day.
by Sydney Maddocks