Whitechapel High Street

Whitechapel High Street - its early history
Contributed by Survey of London on June 11, 2019

Evidence for development before 1500 that can be pinned directly to Whitechapel High Street is scant, but as its hinterlands were largely undeveloped until the mid-sixteenth century, it may be inferred that most early references to Whitechapel refer to the High Street or the west end of Whitechapel Road. Speculation around the route of the Roman road to Colchester has ranged widely: it may have followed a line close to the High Street and Whitechapel Road, or may have followed Hackney Road.1 The discovery of Roman metalling in Aldgate High Street supports ancient use of the route, as does the discovery, about 2m below the level of the High Street, of Roman funerary urns in 1836.2 Whitechapel High Street’s early name was Algatestreet, presumably a reflection of its status as an extension of Aldgate High Street beyond Aldgate Bars, the gates, latterly vestigial, across the west end of Whitechapel High Street that marked the eastern boundary of the City. The land either side of this route was waste of the Manor of Stepney and probably remained unbuilt on until the thirteenth century when the building and siting of the ‘white chapel’ might suggest the High Street to the west was already built up. Taxation evidence indicates that what development there was had then recent origins.3

Algatesetrete is recorded as one of the settlement areas of the Manor of Stepney in 1348-9.4 Some indication of the character of landowners and uses in the High Street is given by property transactions of this universally transformative period, the time of the Black Death. Predictably, perhaps, property holders tended to be wealthy merchants, already possessed of substantial property and influence within the City, and sometimes with connections to the Court. In 1350 John de Gosebourn, who was an auditor of the Exchequer by 1370, was involved in a transfer of unspecified premises in ‘Whitechapel in Algatestrete’, part of a large landholding in Stepney which by 1400 included eighty-six acres, though only a few houses in Whitechapel High Street.5 Sir John de Stodeye (otherwise John Stodie), a vintner and alderman, a Member of Parliament in 1354–7, and Mayor of London in 1357–8, acquired premises in 1358 ‘in the parish of the Blessed Mary “de Whitchapelle” without Aldgate, London, and in Stebenheth’, followed in 1361 by a tenement of Gosebourn’s, ‘by le Whitechappel’.6 Then, in 1365, Stodeye acquired ‘24 shops and two gardens in the parish of St. Mary “Matefeloum”, without Algate’, from John Chaucer, another vintner, and his wife Alice – the parents of the poet. This may have included property that had been left to Alice Chaucer by her uncle Hamo de Copton in 1349, and so many shops strongly suggests a location in the High Street. The same is true of a similar transfer of 1375–6 by John de Cantebrigia and Thomas Broun of ‘3 shops with gardens adjoining’ in ‘St Mary’s parish in Algatestret’.7

In 1430 property on the north side of Algatestrete in the parish of St Mary Matfelon was transferred from John Roppele to Margaret Wyngerworth, a widow who had already held it with her husband from Edmund Bys, a stockfishmonger, Ellis Clidermore, a citizen mercer and Roppele. The location is given as between the tenements of John Stamp on the west, the lands of the heirs of John May on the east, and property of William Haunsard on the north. Haunsard owned large tracts in Stepney and Whitechapel including a messuage north of Algatestreet near the City boundary.8

Firmer indications of activity on the north side of the High Street date from the 1460s when a brewhouse called ‘The Hertyshorne’ or ‘Herteshorne’ is named in two court cases. This brewery might have been near what became the east corner with Goulston Street, as a house built there in the 1590s by William Megges bore the name the Harte’s Horn. One case concerns the property immediately to the east. This was then in the occupation of John Morth, a bladesmith, and Simon Hollerville, a barber, for a term of eight years from Christmas 1462, and was held by them from William Couper, a butcher. The ‘Hertyshorne’ itself was held by William Wolston and Walter Bodenham (or Bodman), who is described variously as a citizen ‘Brasyer’ (brewer) and as a bellfounder, but there is no evidence nor is it probable that the brewhouse was used as a bellfoundry. The other case concerned the brewery’s owners, the Walssh family, who had acquired it and three shops around 1440 from John Bythewode, a timbermonger. This appears to have been a reversion. In 1394–5 Nicholas Walssh, a citizen clothworker, had granted a messuage and shops in Whitechapel to Christina Bithewode, the widow of a timbermonger, with a remainder to the Abbey of the Minoresses of St Clare without Aldgate. At the end of all this, in 1468 Nicholas Walshe granted the ‘Herteshorn’ to the Minoresses.9

Earliest representations of the High Street, such as Anton van den Wyngaerde’s panorama of around 1543, are somewhat schematic but conform in depicting a continuous frontage of mostly gable-fronted houses of two or three storeys. The only development behind the High Street on the ‘Agas’ map is around what became Goulston Square, and perhaps represents the ‘Herteshorn’ brewery. Beyond walled gardens or yards were the ‘pleasant fields’ whose loss by the end of the century was bemoaned by John Stow.10 East of the ‘Herteshorn’ site a wall on the ‘Agas’ map conforms with a property line that ran roughly parallel to the High Street into the nineteenth century. Seventeenth-century and later maps suggest that this section of the High Street frontage had evolved, presumably in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, as many long narrow ‘burgage’ plots, but, developing slowly and piecemeal, was haphazardly laid out and broken by numerous alleys and yards.

Evidence also supports Stow’s assertion that the whole High Street on both sides was by 1600 ‘pestered with cottages and alleys’.11 In March 1616 William Hearne of Whitechapel was charged with having ‘presumptuously endevoured’ to make and erect ‘divers tenements {in} an auntyent stable in a common Inn called the Redd Lyon in Whitechapel Street contrary to his Majesty’s proclamacion, and to the great annoyance of parishioners by bringing poore people there to inhabit, who dying leave their children to be mayntayned by the parish’. He was ordered to pull down the new chimneys and to restore the tenements to use as a stable.12  Others adopted a more positive tone when describing how, by the 1650s, ‘without Aldgate, there is a spacious huge Suburb, about a mile long, as far as White Chappell and further’.13

Topography of the High Street after 1600

By the 1670s, the High Street’s alleys numbered around twenty. Some, such as the Nag’s Head Inn yard (on the site of the Relay Building, previously No. 115) and the Swan brewhouse yard (on the site of the Whitechapel Gallery at Nos 81–82 and returning to Osborn Street) were substantial, while many others had been or remained unnamed, probably private closes leading to a single house and its dependent stables, workshops and outhouses. Some such yards had been lined with small houses and workshops – Bull Alley (on the site of No. 75), Grid Iron Alley (approximately on the site of No. 122), and Harte’s Horne Court (on the site of Nos 133–137). Typical of these was Three Bowl Alley, roughly on the site of Tyne Street. By 1623 it was a short alley containing six small houses.14 They had been built after 1589 when Thomas Golding sold two messuages called the Crowne and Hammer (later the Three Pidgeons) and the Three Bowls, which passed by inheritance to a whitebaker named Ralph Thickness. In leases of 1697 and 1700 from Thickness’s great-grandson the site is described as the two houses (the Three Pidgeons and another now known as the Patten, the Three Bowls having ‘fallen down’), and an entryway between them leading to stables, workshops, garden ground and an old house that Thickness had occupied; this had a 12ft by 8ft jettied window at one end.15 Three Bowl Alley and Grid Iron Alley, immediately to its west, were eradicated in the creation of New Castle Street (later Tyne Street) in the early 1730s.16

Other such closes developed into proper alleys leading northwards into Wentworth Street – George Yard (now Gunthorpe Street), Angel Alley (now truncated), Moses and Aaron Alley and Castle Alley (now Old Castle Street) and Catherine Wheel Alley (obliterated by Commercial Street).

  1. ed. T. F. T. Baker, A History of the County of Middlesex: _vol. 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green_, 1998, pp. 5–6 

  2. Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 159, April 1836, pp. 371–2 

  3. ed. T. F. T. Baker, A History of the County of Middlesex: _vol. 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green_, 1998, pp. 13–19: Hubert Llewellyn Smith, The History of East London, 1939, pp. 88–9 

  4. The National Archives (TNA), SC2/191/60 

  5. ed. W. J. Hardy and W. Page, A Calendar to the Feet of Fines for London and Middlesex: vol. 1, Richard I – Richard III, 1892, p. 139 

  6. Ibid, p. 136: TNA, C148/48 

  7. ed. W. J. Hardy and W. Page, A Calendar to the Feet of Fines for London and Middlesex: vol. 1, Richard I – Richard III, 1892, p. 143: Alfred Allan Kern_, The Ancestry of Chaucer_, 1906, pp. 95–7, 135–6: ed. R. E. G. Kirk, _Life Records of Chaucer IV: Enrolments and Documents from the Public Record Office,_1900, pp. 136–7: TNA, E40/1507 

  8. ed. A. E. Stamp, Calendar of Close Rolls, Henry VI: vol. 2, 1429–1435, 1933, pp. 63–5 

  9. TNA, CP40/810, rot. 469; C1/29/115; C143/425/3: John Strype, A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, vol. 1/2, 1720, p. 14 

  10. John Stow, A Survey of London, 1598 (1994 edn) 

  11. Ibid, p. 384 

  12. ed. E. G. Atkinson, Acts of the Privy Council of England, vol. 34, 1615–16, 1925, p. 460 

  13. James Howel, Londonopolis; an Historicall Discourse or Perlustration of the City of London, 1657, p. 341 

  14. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), E/PH1/001: Hearth Tax returns 1666, 1674–5 

  15. LMA, EH1/002–3 

  16. West Sussex Record Office, HARRIS/266 

Whitechapel High Street in 1861
Contributed by amymilnesmith on July 17, 2016

John Hollingshead, Ragged London in 1861, London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1861.

"There are many different degrees of social degradation and unavoidable poverty, even in the east. Whitechapel, properly so called, may not be the worst of the many districts in this quarter; but it is undoubtedly bad enough. Taking the broad road from Aldgate Church to old Whitechapel Church, a thoroughfare, in some parts, like the high street of an old-fashioned country town, you may pass on either side about twenty narrow avenues, leading to thousands of closely-packed nests, full to overflowing with dirt, and misery, and rags. Many living signs of the inner life behind the busy shops are always oozing out on to the pavements and into the gutters; for all children in low neighbourhoods that are not taken in by the ragged and other charity schools are always living in the streets: they eat in the streets what little they get to eat, they play in the streets in all weathers, and sometimes they have to sleep in the streets. Their fathers and mothers mope in cellars or garrets; their grandfathers or grandmothers huddle and die in the same miserable dustbins (for families, even unto the third and fourth generation, have often to keep together in these places), but the children dart about the roads with naked, muddy feet; slink into corners to play with oyster-shells and pieces of broken china, or are found tossing halfpennies under the arches of a railway. The local clergy, those who really throw themselves heart and soul into the labour of educating these outcasts, are daily pained by seeing one or more drop through into the great pit of crime; and by feeling that ragged schools are often of little good unless they can give food as well as instruction, and offer the children some kind of rude probationary home."

Whitechapel Gallery and adjoining shops, looking north, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Whitechapel High Street and Aldgate Place, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

83 to 87 Whitechapel High Street, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Whitechapel High Street and the hay market, c. 1895
Contributed by Aileen Reid

Small-scale survivals in Whitechapel High Street
Contributed by Derek Kendall

90 to 137 Whitechapel High Street from the south east, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Brief glimpse of Gardiner's Corner and Whitechapel High Street in 1924

This silent film about the Regent's Canal includes a brief panning shot (at 2.11 to 2.24 on the YouTube timer) of the south side of Whitechapel High Street, from Gardiner's Corner (on the Aldgate Place site) to the parish church of St Mary Matfelon (now Altab Ali Park).

Contributed by Aileen Reid on Sept. 12, 2016

Newsreel offcuts showing 117 to 137 Whitechapel High Street in 1958

This collection of unused (silent) newsreel footage of London includes, at 6.03 to 6.51 on the YouTube timer, an atmospheric view, taken from Gardiner's Corner at the junction of Whitechapel High Street, Leman Street (on the left, with the Old Red Lion public house at No 29 just visible, where the south entrance to Aldgate East tube station can be seen) and Commercial Street (just out of shot to the right). The text accompanying the footage gives a date of 1963 but it must be late 1958 or early 1959. Trolley buses ceased running in London in May 1962 but the most telling evidence is 117 and 118 High Street, the two houses in the middle of the shot sporting a SOLD sign. They were shortly to be demolished for a new Woolworth's store that was under contruction in 1959 and opened in March 1960. It was, in turn, demolished c. 2003 along with 119 and 120 Whitechapel High Street (the next two houses to the west) and the Seven Stars public house for the Relay House development on the whole site.

Contributed by Aileen Reid on Sept. 9, 2016