Whitechapel

Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets

A historic East End melting pot, situated east of Aldgate

Whitechapel Road, A11

The church of St Mary Matfelon was founded some time in the 13th century and it became known as alba capella or the white chapel. Around 1350 St Mary’s became a parish church – although it survived only a few decades more before being rebuilt – and Whitechapel was the name given to the parish.

The process of indus­tri­al­isation began locally in the late 15th century with the estab­lishment of construction trades – brick- and tile-making, lime-burning and woodworking – accom­panied by what John Stow later called the “building of filthy cottages.”

Sephardi Jews from Spain and Portugal settled here in the late 17th century, forming the nucleus of a community that would become known as ‘the Jewish East End’. Later, German immig­rants estab­lished a Lutheran chapel and a Roman Catholic church.

New indus­tries included clothing, sugar refining, brewing and engin­eering.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved here from Houndsditch in 1738. It was here that the hour bell of the Great Clock of Westminster (known as Big Ben) and Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell were cast – as well as the bell for the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony. Sadly, the foundry cast its final batch of tower bells on 22 March 2017 and closed soon after­wards.

Construction of the London (now Royal London) Hospital began on the site of Red Lyon Farm in the 1790s, and it later gained fame for treating the ‘elephant man’, Joseph Merrick. A modest suburb evolved in the neigh­bouring streets, but many of the houses have since been replaced by ancillary hospital buildings. There’s a museum of the hospital’s history in the former crypt of St Philip’s church.

Exterior frontage of the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, early morning
The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel

In the late 18th century Whitechapel produced one of Britain’s most illus­trious boxers, Daniel Mendoza, whose fame was so great that he became the first Jew to be permitted to address George III.

Over the course of the 19th century, Whitechapel’s indus­tries lost out to foreign compet­ition while its housing became more overcrowded, especially after an influx of Ashkenazi Jews. One street of 176 houses had 2,516 inhab­itants in 1881.

Increasing hardship bred crime and prosti­tution, and the latter brought the district its enduring notoriety with Jack the Ripper’s murders in 1888. Stories of white slavery may sound like urban myths, but there is well-documented evidence that this trade took place here around the end of the 19th century with local girls being tricked or threatened into working in the brothels of Buenos Aires, Cairo and Constantinople.

Philanthropists worked hard to alleviate condi­tions, estab­lishing every kind of life-improving insti­tution, from soup kitchens to the Whitechapel Gallery, which is still a major cultural resource for the East End.

Although it has its share of post-1960s monstros­ities, Whitechapel was spared the wholesale redevel­opment that took place further east after the Second World War, and thus retains enough dark alleys and cramped courts to attract 100,000 parti­cipants in Jack the Ripper walking tours every year.

As Whitechapel’s Jews moved to outer north and east London, their place was taken by south Asian immig­rants, especially from the 1970s, and two-fifths of the population is now of Bangladeshi origin; 15,000 worshippers attended the inaug­ur­ation of the London Muslim Centre in 2004.

With the Elizabeth line (Crossrail) arriving here in 2018, Tower Hamlets council has recently embarked on a project called Whitechapel Vision, which promises an ‘unpre­ced­ented trans­form­ation’ in the coming years.

Whitechapel has been the focus of dozens of books, mostly devoted to Jack the Ripper, but Iain Sinclair explored its dark side in a different way in White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings (1987).

Postal district: E1
Population: 14,862 (2011 census)
Station: District and Hammersmith & City lines; London Overground (East London line) (zone 2)
Further reading: Robert Bard, Whitechapel & Stepney Through Time, Amberley, 2014
and Louis Berk and Rachel Kolsky, Whitechapel in 50 Buildings, Amberley, 2016

 

* The picture of Whitechapel Road (at the junction with Davenant Street, close to the centre of the map above) at the top of this page is slightly modified from an original photograph, copyright Peter Trimming, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.