The present parish of Whitechapel was constituted for civil purposes in 1895 by an Order, confirmed by the Local Government Board, whereby it was provided, among other adjustments of boundaries, that the parish of Holy Trinity, Minories, should be united to it. Otherwise the parish represents what was once known as the Upper Hamlet of Whitechapel, the Lower Hamlet having been included in the parish of St. John Wapping when it was created by an Act of Parliament in 1694.
The parish of St. Mary of Matfellon was formed out of the large ecclesiastical district of Stepney in the beginning of the fourteenth century. The name, which has baffled so many attempts to arrive at a satisfactory explanation of its meaning and derivation, was that of the little chapel whose white exterior made it a land mark on the way out of the City beyond the parish of St. Botolph Without Aldgate, which extended to Hog Lane, afterwards called Petticoat Lane, and now renamed Middlesex Street. Here, too, is the boundary of the City of London, one furlong east of Aldgate - the situation of the gate itself. Two furlongs further eastwards stood the little edifice that subsequently gave to the locality, at least from 1840, its name of Whitechapel. The creation of the parish could not have been on account of the needs of a numerous population, for in so early a period few persons, if any, would have chosen to live outside the protection of the City, and as feudal conditions still prevailed those who were obliged to do so were bound by service to the manor. The arrangement made between the Rector of Stepney and the Bishop of London, who was also Lord of the Manor, could only have been for the allocation of the tithes of a defined district, especially one, too, which comprised corn-yielding land. In a document drawn up in 1323 reference is made to twelve acres of arable land in the parish of St. Mary Matfallon.
There is some reason to suppose that the original parish did not extend eastwards of the church, and that more than two centuries had passed before it brought within it the ribbon strips on both sides of the highway so far as Mile End. Until wheeled transport made some sort of a road necessary, the way out of London was nothing but a rough track. Perhaps Nicholas Dereman had bad recollections concerning it when in 1335 he bequeathed "to mend the way where most needful from the Church of St. Mary de Matfolone toward Myle End 100 shillings and his olden white horse on which he was wont to ride."
The rural features of Whitechapel underwent little change until Elizabethan times. For the first time, then, the citizens began to extend the bounds of their habitations, to build and live outside the city. Among the several mansions that were built there was one on the west side of Petticoat Lane (as it had become to be called) in which Count Gondomar, the Spanish Ambassador, afterwards lived in the reign of James I. On the south side of "the great street" butchers had already established themselves, but opposite were houses with orchards and gardens. "Over towards Shoreditch open country with rows of elm trees, and easy stiles to pass over the pleasant fields, for citizens therein to walk, shoot and otherwise recreate and refresh their dull spirits in the sweet and wholesome air" (Strype).
When he lodged at St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, Shakespeare may have walked across these fields from the Curtain Theatre to the Tower, to linger there as a country-bred man would, or to the busy quay at St. Katherine's, there to observe the little trading vessels and note the manners of the sailors. Ben Jonson was certainly well acquainted with the neighbourhood. He says:-
"We will survey the suburbs, and make forth sallies
Down Petticoat Lane and up the Smock-Alleys
To Shoreditch, Whitechapel, and so to St. Katherine's
To drink with the Dutch there."
At the close of the century a great change began to take place. John Stow, the tailor's son who devoted his life to enrich our knowledge and was reduced to begging as a reward, tells us that "...without the bars (the City boundary) both sides of the street be pestered with cottages and alleys even up to Whitechapel Church and almost half a mile beyond it, into the common field (Mile End Green); all of which ought to be open and free to all men. But this common field, I say, being sometime the beauty of this city on that part, is so encroached upon by building of filthy cottages that in some places it scarce remaineth a sufficient highway for the meeting of carriages and droves of cattle. Much less is there any fair, pleasant, or wholesome way for people to walk on foot, which is no small blemish to so famous a city to have so unsavoury and unseemly an entrance to it."
South of the highway is a district which for many years retained its old name of Goodman's Fields. Before the dissolution of the monasteries it adjoined the property belonging to the nuns of the Order of St. Clare who were called Minoresses, a name which is perpetuated in the street Minories. Stow, who was born in 1525 in the parish of St. Michael's, Cornhill, and writing in 1599, gives the following pleasing pastoral and economic reference.
"Near adjoining to this abbey, on the south side thereof, was sometime a farm belonging to the said nunnery; at the which farm I myself in my youth have fetched many a halfpenny worth of milk, and never had less than three ale pints for a halfpenny in the summer, nor less than one ale quart for a halfpenny in the winter, always hot from the kine, as the same was milked and strained. One Trolop, and afterwards Goodman, were farmers there, and had thirty or forty kine to the pail. Goodman's son being heir to his father's purchase, let out the ground first for the grazing of horses, and then for garden-plots, and lived like a gentleman thereby."
The introduction of coaches and the general hire of them by the public had its effect in the seventeenth century in the inns of Whitechapel and on the highway itself. Rich visitors who came to London employed them, and owing to the rough-paved and narrow streets left them in the yards outside Aldgate. The luxury of coach riding appealed to the pride of all classes - much in the same way as motor cars do to-day. Taylor, the Water Poet, in his World Runs on Wheels tells of "two leash of oyster-wives" who "hired a coach to carry them to the green-goose fair at Stratford-the-Bow; and as they hurried betwixt Aldgate and Mile-end, they were so be-madam'd and be-mistress'd and ladyfied by the beggars that the foolish women began to swell with a proud supposition of imaginary greatness, and gave all their money to the mendicanting canters." With the drovers of cattle, market folk, and the populace generally coaches were "hell-carts." It is affirmed that in 1636 the coaches "in London, the suburbs, and within four miles compass without are reckoned to the number of six thousand odd."
When the Civil war broke out, among the City fortifications raised by Common Council and Parliament was one that was erected in 1642 - near the windmill that stood in Whitechapel. This mill was a short distance eastwards of the church close to the beginning of the fieldpath then leading to Stepney church that is now Fieldgate Street.
In 1673 the old church which had been built since 1362, after a former one had been destroyed by a tempest, was pulled down excepting for the tower on account of it being in a dilapidated state. A new edifice was erected through the generosity of William Meggs, who also built and endowed almshouses at the "Town's End" for twelve poor inhabitants of the Upper Hamlet. The almshouses were situated on the south side of Whitechapel Road, and subsequently enlarged. The site and buildings thereon were purchased in 1883 by the East London Railway Company, and where they stood may be indicated by the position of St. Mary's Railway Station. The rector was the Rev. Ralph Davenant, who died in 1680 and bequeathed a legacy for the education of forty boys and thirty girls of the parish in "reading, writing and the casting of accounts," which has grown into the present Davenant Schools.
It was probably at this period that the parish boundaries were revised and were extended along the Essex highway nearly as far as Mile-end. A few yards short of that spot a stone bridge crossed a sewer which went from Spitalfields and entered the Thames at Penny Fields in Poplar, and marked the actual "Town's End." North of the road was Whitechapel Green, with a ducking-pond - a watering-place for the cure of scolds, shrewish wives, drunkards, and other obnoxious persons.
For many years there was in this vicinity a rectangular piece of ground which, although territorially appearing to be in Whitechapel, is shown on certain maps as being in Stepney, but detached therefrom. It marks the place where once stood a Court of Record to which was attached a prison for debtors in respect of sums of £5 and under in the manor of Stepney. A melancholy tale of this prison could be told, of how often paltry debts would by costs become so magnified that the debtors could only secure their release by the intervention of some unprincipled persons who would go bail for them, thus securing a hold over them. These extortioners would then employ their victims in the skilled trades to which they belonged at a barest subsistence wage, under the threat of withdrawing their protection. To swear a debt against a person and so get him or her into the place was almost a substitute for murder. In 1630 there were eighteen debtors' gaols in or within a mile of London. A poet, speaking of two of these says:-
"Lord Wentworths Jayle within White Chapell stands,
And Finsbury: God bless me from their hands."
The Praise and Virtue of a Jayle and Jaylers, 1630
by Sydney Maddocks