Our Sister City
Tower Hamlets, located on the East Side of London, is the largest of London’s Boroughs. It takes its name from the Tower of London, which was originally in Stepney Parish. There are seventeen Hamlets/Wards in the East Side, which were incorporated to create The Tower Hamlets. One of which today is St. Dunstan’s Stepney Green.
The past ten years has seen the population of Tower Hamlets grow from around 161,000 to over 200,000. The Banking industry has discovered this sleepy area and is moving into the area with fervor, building modern skyscrapers for their headquarters. The Tower Hamlets is next to the “City”, (London’s Wall Street District), and has excellent access via bus, train and the London City Airport to support the expansion. Today many of the centuries old riverside pubs and new luxury flats have been created from the Dock Warehouses, inviting new money into the area. The Tower Hamlets area was once populated by colorful characters from Dick Turpin to Captain Cook and the part of London where Roman legions marched, Jack the Ripper stalked and which Queen Victoria lived.
A Trip Through Stepney Green
The first stop was in a residential area of row homes in Stepney, typical of the housing in the area. Then on to the Parish Church of St. Dunstan, Stepney (Church of England). Located on the east end of the Stepney Green on seven acres, stands the oldest church in London and the known as home Parish to millions of people across the world.
Over a thousand years ago a small wooden church stood on this site. About the year 952 Dunstan, Bishop of London and hence Lord of the Manor of Stepney, replaced it with a stone church and dedicated it to “All the Saints”. It has been the parish church of Stepney ever since.
Until the early 1300’s it served the whole of Middlesex east of the City, a very large area. The present building made of Kentish Rag Stone is the third built on the site and was built in the 15th century, although the Chancel is from an earlier building from the 13th century. The church took its present shape just before Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas. It is the mother church of the East End and with the ancient port of London nearby became known as the Church of the “High Seas”.
St. Dunstan’s Stepney was once the church for the whole of what is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets plus part of Hackney. The enormous far-flung and heavily populated parish was said to be the “most ample” perhaps in Europe, covering, at its greatest, seven square miles. In the early Middle Ages, people from all the villages and hamlets east of the Tower of London came along the lanes to worship and seal their rites of passage at Stepney church.
The church tower has ten bells, made locally at the world famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The oldest one having been recast in 1385. They are commemorated in the rhyme, “Oranges and Lemons” … “When will that be, say the bells of Stepney”.
During the Blitz of the Second World War, the St. Dunstan’s church was spared but the stained glass windows were blown out. The new window behind the chancel depicts the Risen Christ as shown above the ruins of Stepney after the Blitz and stands as a reminder that for over 1,000 years, St. Dunstan’s has stood as a witness of the power of the Resurrection of Christ in the lives of the people of Stepney.
St. Dunstan, Founder and Patron Saint of Stepney
Dunstan was perhaps the most important churchman in England before the Norman Conquest, becoming virtually “Prime Minister” of the country. Born in 909, he was schooled at Glastonbury Abbey where he later became a monk. Soon he was made Abbott and from then on was always a powerful figure in Church and State. He was made Bishop, first of Worcester and later of London and in 961 became Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan did much to revive the monasteries and introduced much needed reforms in the church life.
Dunstan was also a musician, metalworker and bell founder, and much loved teacher. He died in 988 and was canonized in 1029. His feast day is May 19th.
Legends of Dunstan
One legend about St. Dunstan is that while he was doing some metalwork, the Devil came to the forge and began to tempt him to evil pleasures. With his red-hot tongs Dunstan tweaked the Devil’s nose and “saw him off”. The tongs became his symbol and you can see them on the original Stepney Crest and over the main door of the church and today in the Crest of Tower Hamlets.
Another legend is that the Devil asked Dunstan to shoe his horse, but the saint nailed a shoe to the Devil’s hoof instead and would only let him go when he promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe was over the door. This was the origin of the legend of the lucky horseshoe.
Stepney Green, London, England
The Stepney Green was the next stop. It consists of 14 acres surrounded by attached residents (row homes) and is located in the geographic center of all the Ward’s of the Tower Hamlets. The Green is used as a gathering place for the community’s inhabitants for festivals and picnics. It is a wonderfully open grassed area suitable for youth sports.
The Stepney Crest
This is the earliest known crest of Stepney, London, England. It was obviously created during or shortly following the life of Stepney’s patron saint, St. Dunstan.
The Crest: On a silver and blue wreath are the battlements of a tower with two gold anchors positioned crosswise. The tower represents Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, to which Stepney was formerly appurtenant for military purposes. The anchors stand for the great Port of London of which the Stepney docks, wharves and warehouses were part of the early development, of which the maritime folk of Stepney had no small share.
The banner on the bottom of the crest displays, “A MAGNIS AD MAIORA”, translated into today’s English is “FROM GREAT THINGS TO GREATER”. This motto was adopted and incorporated into our Stepney, Connecticut Crest.
The Shield: Is located in the lower portion of the crest and in it is a Silver and black lymphad or ancient single-masted ship with the sail furled, on sea waves. It is the base-symbol of the seafaring associations of Stepney. On a blue chief, or upper part of the shield, are two silver fire tongs standing erect, and between them is a red cross having an anchor in the first quadrant. The fire tongs are emblems of St. Dunstan, (as noted in the Legends of Dunstan above), who is the patron saint of Stepney and also the patron saint of metalworkers. The cross is similar to the St. George’s cross of the City of London, but in the first quadrant is an anchor instead of the usual sword of St. Paul.
Background of Stepney, England
The ancient name of Stepney takes its shape and appears in history in the eleventh century around 1080. The name appears under the form Stebenheth, given as Stephen’s hede (Stehpen’s landing place). Steb being Saxon and Hede or hyth being stump or timber landing. At that time the shores of the Thames River were covered with rich timber forests. The Stepney area was formerly of immense extent, including all London east of the City, south of Hackney, north of the Thames and west of the River Lea, except the parish of Bow. Stepney Marsh now the Isle of Dogs was also apart of this Stepney Parish. People lived in the heart of Stepney village since about a thousand years before the birth of Christ. It was a good place to settle, ideal for cultivation standing on fertile flood plain gravel high enough above the river to be safe. Stepney’s history properly began with the Saxons who settled near the river and gave the village its name.
For many hundreds of years Stepney stood among walled orchards and cornfields flanked by fine houses.
In the 16th century, its riverside hamlets became “sailor town”, crowed with ship’s workshops and lodging housed for the navy. As London swelled it spilled out into the East End, which brought dockworkers, factory workers and warehousemen who took their place over the local gentry.
It was this growth of population that made necessary the establishment of nine separate parishes to serve the area’s inhabitants. These would to be split off from the original Stepney parish. The following is the beginning of these establishments:
- Shadwell — 1669
- Wapping — 1694
- Whitechapel — 1673
- Spitalfields — 1729
- The East — 1729
- Bethnal Green — 1740
- Bow — 1730
- Limehouse — 1730
- Poplar — 1820
Stepney witnessed a unique pattern of exodus and exiles involving Huguenot, Irish, Chinese, Jewish, Bangladeshi and Somali communities. It also witnessed the departure of many thousands who went out from Stepney to the four corners of the world, many having been baptized with water from the font which stands with its ancient Norman bowl near the west entrance of the Stepney church. Thousands of American and Australian families can recall their heritage to this Stepney Church, their anchor, the place where their ancestors were baptized married, died and were buried.
It was from the Stepney parish that the Elizabethan adventurers set off for India and the New World. In the 17th and 18th centuries Seafaring men came and went within Stepney many of them buried in the churchyard. St. Dunstans had such a strong association with the sea that many captains of British merchant ships sent certificates to the rector to register baptisms which had taken place on board. The phrase “born in Stepney” became interchangeable with “born at sea”.
The beginning of the change that altered the character of the whole district occurred in the second half of the 16th century, in the days of Queen Elizabeth, when England awakened by the spirit of adventure, took to the sea and laid the foundations of it’s maritime power, the Indian Empire and the oversea Dominions. Stepney played a great role is this movement. Many of the ships were built here with the timbers from its forests. In fact, England’s armada of Naval ships was build in this area and the Stepney port played a major role in England’s establishment of naval power. In the words of John Strype: “It is further to be remarked that the Parish of Stepney, on the Southern Parts of it especially, that it is one of the greatest Nurseries of Navigation and Breeders of Seamen in England, the most serviceable Men in the Nation; without which England could not be England for they are its Strength and Wealth.’
Stepney has had its share of ups and downs over the centuries. It has seen royalty, it has seen scoundrels, aristocrats and shore men. During the sixteen hundreds the Plague was very predominate in England and also in Stepney. During this time the Stepney Church churchyard had to be enlarged to make room for the victims of the Plague, of which no less than 6,583 died in the parish in eighteen months, 154 being buried in one dreadful day in September 1665.