Mile End

Mile End, Tower Hamlets

A contrasting district of 18th-century terraces and postwar tower blocks, situated west of Bow

Queen Mary University of London

Mile End’s name derives from a ham­let – first record­ed in 1288 – that grew up one mile from Aldgate. Mile End Road once formed the most impos­ing approach to Lon­don and Wat Tyler assem­bled his fol­low­ers here dur­ing the Peas­ants’ Revolt of 1381.

The first Jew­ish bur­ial ground on Mile End Road was estab­lished in 1657 by per­mis­sion of Oliv­er Cromwell and has been called one of the most hal­lowed spots for British Jew­ry.

Dur­ing the late 17th cen­tu­ry Step­ney expand­ed towards the south­ern side of Mile End Road, while the part of Spi­tal­fields that lay east of Brick Lane evolved into a dis­trict known as Mile End New Town. Small groups of hous­es lat­er appeared along Mile End Road itself, form­ing a ham­let called Mile End Old Town, although the name pro­vid­ed a more geo­graph­i­cal than chrono­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tion.

Over the course of the 18th cen­tu­ry the road was lined with a con­trast­ing mix­ture of mer­chants’ hous­es and indus­tri­al build­ings, includ­ing a brew­ery and a dis­tillery. A blue plaque at 88 Mile End Road marks the site of the house where Cap­tain James Cook once lived.

Mile End Road’s hin­ter­land remained pri­mar­i­ly agri­cul­tur­al until the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, when two-storey ter­raced hous­ing spread here from Whitechapel and Com­mer­cial Road.

Fol­low­ing an exo­dus of the mer­can­tile pop­u­la­tion, the most­ly poor Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty swelled. A large open space known as the Mile End Waste was used for polit­i­cal and reli­gious meet­ings.

In anoth­er of Mile End’s con­trasts, Dr Barnar­do con­vert­ed ware­hous­es along­side the Regent’s Canal into Cop­per­field Road ragged school (now a muse­um) in 1876, while col­leges were estab­lished on Mile End Road in the 1880s that became part of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don in 1915. The pho­to­graph at the top of this arti­cle shows the Queen’s Build­ing and clock tow­er at Queen Mary Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don.*

Con­di­tions in the dis­trict dete­ri­o­rat­ed dur­ing the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry and after the Sec­ond World War the Lon­don Coun­ty Coun­cil and Step­ney bor­ough coun­cil cleared bomb sites and slums (includ­ing Cap­tain Cook’s house) and rebuilt inten­sive­ly. Blocks of flats rose ever high­er up until the late 1970s but hous­ing asso­ci­a­tions have built less obtru­sive­ly in the last three decades. The road retains a selec­tion of Geor­gian gems but these are over­shad­owed by the low-rent shops and take­aways that have replaced the grand empo­ria of a cen­tu­ry ago.

Featured below, Pulp’s song ‘Mile End’ (1996) bewails life in a tower block squat off Burdett Road: ‘The fifth floor landing smells of fish – not just on Friday, every single other day’.


Postal districts: E1 and E3
Population: 28,544 (Mile End East and Mile End and Globe Town wards, 2011 census)
Station: Central, District and Hammersmith & City lines (zone 2)
Further reading: John Gross, A Double Thread: A Childhood Memoir in Mile End – And Beyond, Chatto & Windus, 2001
* The picture of Queen Mary University of London at the top of this page is modified from an original photograph, copyright Matt Brown, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.