Bethnal Green is a district in East London, England, and part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Located northeast of Charing Cross, it was historically an agrarian hamlet in the ancient parish of Stepney, Middlesex.
Following population increases caused by the expansion of London during the 18th century, it was split off from Stepney as the parish of Bethnal Green in 1743, becoming part of the Metropolis in 1855 and the County of London in 1889. The parish became the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green in 1900 and the population peaked in 1901, entering a period of steady decline which lasted until 1981.
The economic history of Bethnal Green is characterised by a shift away from agricultural provision for the City of London to market gardening, weaving and light industry, which has now all but disappeared. The quality of the built environment had deteriorated by the turn of the 20th century and was radically reformed by the aerial bombardment of World War II and the subsequent social housing developments. Some 173 people were killed at a single incident at Bethnal Green tube station in 1943. Bethnal Green has formed part of Greater London since 1965.
The vestry became an electing authority to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 and in 1889 it became part of the County of London. In the 1900 reform of local government caused by the London Government Act 1899 the parish became a metropolitan borough which bordered Hackney, Poplar, Stepney and Shoreditch. In 1965 it was abolished and merged into the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
The place-name Blithehale or Blythenhale, the earliest form of Bethnal Green, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon healh ('angle, nook, or corner') and blithe ('happy, blithe'), or from a personal name Blitha. Nearby Cambridge Heath (Camprichesheth), is unconnected with Cambridge and may also derive from an Anglo-Saxon personal name. The area was once marshland and forest which, as Bishopswood, lingered in the east until the 16th century. A settlement's dependence upon water suggests that the 'happy corner' was cleared next to the natural spring, St. Winifred's Well, in Conduit Field at the northern end of the Green. Over time, the name became Bethan Hall Green, which, because of local pronunciation as Beth'n 'all Green, had by the 19th century changed to Bethnal Green.
A Tudor ballad, the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, tells the story of an ostensibly poor man who gave a surprisingly generous dowry for his daughter's wedding. The tale furnishes the parish of Bethnal Green's coat of arms. According to one version of the legend, found in Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published in 1765, the beggar was said to be Henry, the son of Simon de Montfort, but Percy himself declared that this version was not genuine. The Blind Beggar public house in Whitechapel is reputed to be the site of his begging.
Boxing has a long association with Bethnal Green. Daniel Mendoza, who was champion of England from 1792 to 1795 though born in Aldgate, lived in Paradise Row on the western side of Bethnal Green for 30 years. Since then numerous boxers have been associated with the area, and the local leisure centre, York Hall, remains notable for presentation of boxing bouts.
In 1841, the Anglo-Catholic Nathaniel Woodard, who was to become a highly influential educationalist in the later part of the 19th century, became the curate of the newly created St. Bartholomew's in Bethnal Green. He was a capable pastoral visitor and established a parochial school. In 1843, he got into trouble for preaching a sermon in St. Bartholomew's in which he argued that the Book of Common Prayer should have additional material to provide for confession and absolution and in which he criticised the 'inefficient and Godless clergy' of the Church of England. After examining the text of the sermon, the Bishop of London condemned it as containing 'erroneous and dangerous notions'. As a result, the bishop sent Woodard to be a curate in Clapton.
The Green and Poor's Land
The Green and Poor's Land is the area of open land now occupied by Bethnal Green Library, the V&A Museum of Childhood and St John's Church, designed by John Soane. In Stow's Survey of London (1598) the hamlet was called Blethenal Green, now called Bethnal Green. It was one of the hamlets included in the Manor of Stepney and Hackney. Hackney later became separated.
In 1678 the owners of houses surrounding the Green purchased the land to save it from being built on and in 1690 the land was conveyed to a trust under which it was to be kept open and rent from it used for the benefit of poor people living in the vicinity. From that date until now the trust has administered the land and its minute books are kept in the London Metropolitan Archives.
Bethnal House, or Kirby's Castle, was the principal house on the Green. One of its owners was Sir Hugh Platt (1552–1608), author of books on gardening and practical science. Under its next owner it was visited by Samuel Pepys. It became associated with the ballad of the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (see Thomas Percy).
In 1727 it was leased to Matthew Wright and for almost two centuries it was a mad house. Its two most distinguished inmates were Alexander Cruden, compiler of the Concordance to the Bible, and the poet Christopher Smart. Cruden recorded his experience in The London Citizen Grievously Injured (1739) and Smart's stay there is recorded by his daughter. Records of the asylum are kept in the annual reports of the Commissioner in Lunacy. Even today, the park where the library stands is known locally as “ Park”.
The original mansion, the White House, was supplemented by other buildings. In 1891 the Trust lost the use of Poor's Land to the London County Council. The asylum reorganised its buildings, demolishing the historic White House and erecting a new block in 1896. This building became the present Bethnal Green Library. A history of Poor's Land and Bethnal House is included in The Green (A.J. Robinson and D.H.B. Chesshyre).
Other houses on the Green
The north end of the Green is associated with the Natt family. During the 18th century they owned many of its houses. Netteswell House is the residence of the curator of the Bethnal Green Museum. It is almost certainly named after the village of Netteswell, near Harlow, whose rector was the Rev. Anthony Natt. A few of its houses have become University settlements. In Victoria Park Square, on the east side of the Green, No.18 has a Tudor well in its cellar.
To the east of Bethnal Green lies Globe Town, established from 1800 to provide for the expanding population of weavers around Bethnal Green attracted by improving prospects in silk weaving. The population of Bethnal Green trebled between 1801 and 1831, operating 20,000 looms in their own homes. By 1824, with restrictions on importation of French silks relaxed, up to half these looms became idle and prices were driven down. With many importing warehouses already established in the district, the abundance of cheap labour was turned to boot, furniture and clothing manufacture. Globe Town continued its expansion into the 1860s, long after the decline of the silk industry. Today Globe Town is presented with four globe sculptures situated in four different corners of the town and is home to a large Bangladeshi community.
The silk-weaving trade spread eastwards from Spitalfields throughout the 18th century. This attracted many Huguenot and Irish weavers to the district. Large estates of small two story cottages were developed in the west of the area to house them. A downturn in the trade in 1769 led to the Spitalfield Riots, and on 6 December 1769, two weavers accused of 'cutting' were hanged in front of the Salmon and Ball public house.
In the 19th century, Bethnal Green remained characterised by its market gardens and by weaving. Having been an area of large houses and gardens as late as the 18th century, by about 1860 Bethnal Green was mainly full of tumbledown old buildings with many families living in each house. By the end of the century, Bethnal Green was one of the poorest slums in London. Jack the Ripper operated at the western end of Bethnal Green and in neighbouring Whitechapel. In 1900, the Old Nichol Street Rookery was demolished, and the Boundary Estate opened on the site near the boundary with Shoreditch. This was the world's first council housing, and brothers Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont were brought up here. In 1909, the Bethnal Green Estate was built with money left by the philanthropist William Richard Sutton which he left for 'modern dwellings and houses for occupation by the poor of London and other towns and populous places in England'.
On 3 March 1943 at 8:27PM the unopened Bethnal Green tube station was the site of a wartime disaster. Families had crowded into the underground station due to an air raid siren at 8:17, one of 10 that day. There was a panic at 8:27 coinciding with the sound of an anti-aircraft battery (possibly the recently installed Z battery) being fired at nearby Victoria Park. In the wet, dark conditions the crowd was surging forward towards the shelter when a woman tripped on the stairs, causing many others to fall. Within a few seconds 300 people were crushed into the tiny stairwell, resulting in 173 deaths. Although a report was filed by Eric Linden with the Daily Mail, who witnessed it, it never ran. The story which was reported instead was that there had been a direct hit by a German bomb. The results of the official investigation were not released until 1946. There is now a plaque at the entrance to the tube station which commemorates it as the worst civilian disaster of World War II, and funds are being raised for a memorial. It is estimated that during WWII, 80 tons of bombs fell on the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green, affecting 21,700 houses, destroying 2,233 and making a further 893 uninhabitable. There were a total of 555 people killed and 400 seriously injured. Many unexploded bombs remain in the area, and on Monday 14 May 2007, builders discovered a World War II 1 m long bomb.
The book Family and Kinship in East London, based on materials gathered in the 1950s, shows an improvement in working-class life. Husbands in the sample population no longer went out to drink but spent time with the family. As a result, both birth rate and infant death rate fell drastically and local prosperity increased. It is true that the infamous gangsters the Kray twins lived in Bethnal Green in the 1960s. However, by the beginning of the 21st century, Bethnal Green and much of the old East End began to undergo a process of gentrification.
The former Bethnal Green , later the London County Council Bethnal Green Hospital, stood opposite Cambridge Heath railway station. The hospital closed as a public hospital in the 1970s and was a geriatric hospital under the NHS until the 1980s. Much of the site was developed for housing in the 1990s but the hospital entrance and administration block remains as a listed building. Marcus Garvey was at one time buried here, before his body was returned to Jamaica. The Albion Rooms are located in Bethnal Green where Pete Doherty and Carl Barat of the Libertines used to live when the band was together. It became part of music history as the band would hold Guerilla Gigs in the flat that would be packed with people.