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, shown in the pho­to below) 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 A mod­est sub­urb evolved in the neigh­bour­ing streets, but many of the hous­es have since been replaced by ancil­lary hos­pi­tal build­ings.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.

Hidden London: Exterior frontage of the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, early morning

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 2019 (or per­haps 2020 or even 2021), Tow­er Ham­lets coun­cil embarked on a project called Whitechapel Vision, which promised an ‘unprece­dent­ed trans­for­ma­tion’, though this may have been an exag­ger­a­tion.

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.