Open space, Moss Close

former workhouse burial ground (1813 to 1853) then school playground (1862 to 1965), laid out as a grass mound in 1983-5 | Part of Whitechapel workhouse and burial ground

Parish burial ground, almshouses and workhouse
Contributed by Survey of London on Aug. 24, 2017

Richard Gardiner was Whitechapel’s Rector in 1614 when parish churchwardens oversaw the acquisition of a rectangular plot of about an acre and a half of manorial common land encompassing the roadside frontage now represented by 151–179 Whitechapel Road. Six almshouses were built on the western part of this then remote site and in 1615 the rest, enclosed by a brick perimeter wall, was consecrated for use by the parish of Whitechapel as an overflow burial ground. By 1654 this was referred to as ‘the poors land’. A passage on the site of Davenant (formerly St Mary) Street, present by the 1660s for access to the walled garden behind, came to be called Burying-ground Court.1 A charity school was built on the east end of the burial ground in the 1680s (see 179 Whitechapel Road), yet this was still thought to be at the ‘Townsend’ in the 1730s.2

In 1765–8 the almshouses were replaced by a parish workhouse, Whitechapel’s first and smaller workhouse of 1722–4 having been on Alie Street. The 1760s workhouse, described as ‘a plain, modern, extensive, and commodious erection’,3 was in line with the school building that survives at No. 179 along almost the whole of the burial-ground frontage. It housed 600, making it among the country’s largest workhouses – on a par with those of St Marylebone and Liverpool; only the West End parishes of St James, with 650, and St George Hanover Square and St Martin in the Fields, each with 700, had more inmates in the 1770s.4 The adjacent school had been given leave in 1767 to take further eastern perimeter parts of the burial ground. Thus the last open ground to Whitechapel Road this far west was built over. In 1795–6, the rest of the burial ground having become the workhouse yard, the parish took a larger rectangle of what had been orchard ground immediately to the north to be a new burial ground for the poor and enclosed it with a brick wall. The workhouse was enlarged in 1812 and the western part of the new burial ground given up in 1813–15 for another school. A ‘deadhouse’ (mortuary) at the west end of the workhouse was removed to improve access to this school on what was now St Mary Street, leaving the master’s house as the corner building. The eastern part of the burial ground, extended to the rear of No. 179 in 1813, was divided off with iron railings and used for parish burials up to 1853.5

The workhouse beadle was censured in 1833 for supplying bodies for anatomical purposes, cholera having meant that 196 fatalities had been interred in the ‘workhouse garden’ adjoining to the east (behind Nos 181–185), which later became the workhouse’s stone yard. In 1838 Dr Thomas Southwood Smith’s report to the Poor Law Commissioners more generally deprecated conditions, finding that 104 girls slept in a dormitory 88ft by 16.5ft, four or five to a bed; even in the fever wards beds were shared. The Poor Law of 1834 had united the parish of Whitechapel with other districts to form the Whitechapel Union. In 1855–60 what had been Spitalfields’s workhouse, just outside Whitechapel parish to the north of Thomas Street and the Quakers’ Burial Ground on what is now the east side of Vallance Road, was rebuilt to unify and consolidate the Whitechapel Union’s workhouses. The redundant Whitechapel Road workhouse was demolished and the property sold off.6


  1. London Metropolitan Archives (hereafter LMA), A/DAV/01/013, No.32: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (hereafer THLHLA), P/RIV/1/15/1/1–2: Roland Reynolds, The History of the Davenant Foundation Grammar School, 1966, pp.11–12 

  2. LMA, P93/MRY1/090 

  3. Wilkinson, _loc. cit._ 

  4. Parliamentary Papers, Abstracts of the Returns made by the Overseers of the Poor, 1777, pp.85,100–1,105: Kathryn Morrison, The Workhouse, 1999, p.30 

  5. John Rocque's map, 1746: Richard Horwood's map, 1813: LMA, P93/MRY1/090: THLHLA, P/RIV/1/15/3/2: Wilkinson, loc. cit.: Mrs Basil (Isabella M.) Holmes, The London Burial Grounds, 1896, p.296 

  6. LMA, P93/MRY1/090; A/DAV/01/018; E/BN/130; SC/PM/ST/01/002: Parliamentary Papers, 1837–8 (447), XXVIII, 145, Fourth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, Appx C, pp.87–8: Holmes, loc. cit.: ed. F. H. W. Sheppard, Survey of London, vol. 27: Spitalfields, 1957, pp.285–7 

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