Stepney, or Stepney St Dunstan, is one of the ancient parishes of Middlesex. Historically it covered most of the area between the City of London and the River Lea to the east, being broadly similar in extent to the modern London Borough of Tower Hamlets. As London grew outside its city walls eastwards, Stepney was gradually absorbed into the urban area of London. Its various hamlets broke away to become parishes in their own right. In 1889 it was transferred from Middlesex to the newly-created County of London and in 1900 became part of Stepney Metropolitan Borough. Stepney Metropolitan Borough was abolished in 1965, becoming part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets - effectively re-uniting the ancient parish (along with a couple of other areas).
Stepney is a district of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in London's East End that grew out of a medieval village around St Dunstan's church and the 15th century ribbon development of Mile End Road. The area built up rapidly in the 19th century, mainly to accommodate immigrant workers and displaced London poor, and developed a reputation for poverty, overcrowding, violence and political dissent. It was severely damaged during the Blitz, with over a third of housing totally destroyed; and then, in the 1960s, slum clearance and development replaced most residential streets with tower blocks and modern housing estates. Some Georgian architecture and Victorian era terraced housing survive in patches: for example Arbour Square, the eastern side of Stepney Green, and the streets around Matlock Street.
The area has not yet experienced the levels of gentrification seen in nearby Bow, Wapping and Limehouse but some redevelopment has taken place. The former Arbour Square Police Station and the East End Mission building are also being redeveloped.
Stepney is roughly bounded by Commercial Road, part of the A13, in the south, Mile End Road, part of the A11, in the north and the Regent's Canal in the east. The Western Boundary with Whitechapel is rather ambiguous. It is administered by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
As with most of the East End of London, Stepney was sparsely populated marshland until the 19th century, when the development of London's docks and railways, combined with slum clearance, pushed the displaced poor and various immigrants looking for work into cheap housing being built in the area.
The first community developed around the church of St Dunstan's, which was founded in 923. Its name was recorded around 1000AD as Stybbanhyð, "Stybba's landing-place". The Domesday Book survey of 1086 gives the name as Stibanhede and says that the land was held by the Bishop of London and was 32 hides large, mainly used for ploughing, meadows, woodland for 500 pigs, and 4 mills. There were over 100 serfs, split between villeins who ploughed the land, and cottars who assisted the villeins in return for a hut or cottage.
Bishop William held this land in demesne, in the manor of Stepney, on the day on which King Edward was alive and dead. In the same vill Ranulph Flambard holds 3½ hides of the bishop.
The Manor of Stepney was held by the Bishop of London in compensation for his duties in maintaining and garrisoning the Tower of London. Further ecclesiastic holdings came about from the need to enclose the marshes and create flood defences along the Thames. Edward VI passed the land to the Wentworth family, and thence to their descendants, the Earls of Cleveland. The ecclesiastic system of copyhold, whereby land was leased to tenants for terms as short as seven years, prevailed throughout the manor. This severely limited scope for improvement of the land and new building until the estate was broken up in the 19th century.
The Siege of Sidney Street took place in Stepney in 1911.