|AdminHistory||Origins and extent|
Bromley St Leonard is one of the 'ancient' parishes in Tower Hamlets.
Saint Mary's originated as the Lady Chapel of the Benedictine convent of St Leonard, which had been established by the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). The convent was disbanded in 1541 but the chapel remained in use, becoming a parish church.
The parish was originally responsible for:
- the physical care and maintenance of the parish and its people. This former local government function is a predecessor of the current London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
- religious care and related ecclesiastical concerns of the Church of England. Parish clergy carried out religious functions alongside secular matters including ceremonies for baptisms, marriages
and burials. The earliest clergyman recorded is Owen Richards; he was buried in Bromley churchyard on 5 December 1578. The earliest surviving parish register dates from 1622, at London
Metropolitan Archives. The church building in Bromley High Street was reconstructed during the nineteenth century but was later damaged during the Second World War. The ruins were demolished to make way for the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. The Church of England parish was united in 1964 with St Mary, Stratford Bow which continues today.
Originally consisting of around 600 acres of land, Bromley St Leonard was rural until the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1790s the land was mainly arable and pasture, with 60 acres of market gardens and nurseries; industry was limited to calico printing (textile printing), a tambour (sliding flexible shutter or door on a piece of furniture) factory and a distillery. The parish was so rural that it was almost overlooked in 1832 during planning for a new 'Borough of the Tower Hamlets' in line with the Great Reform Act. The inhabitants had to petition Earl Grey for Bromley St Leonard to be added.
The parish boundaries were:
- Bow Road on the north
- River Lea and Bow Creek on the East
- East India Import Dock on the south (built 1803-1806, closed and filled in between the late 1960s and mid 1980s)
- Tower Hamlets Cemetery to the East India Dock to the west. This western boundary ran south-east and the parish included most of the Cemetery.
Before 1855 the parish vestry met to discharge the business of both ecclesiastical and secular local government. The vestries were committees of prominent householders and church officials. The name came from the way meetings took place in the church vestry or sacristy; this is the room where the priest prepares for a service and where vestments and articles of worship are stored.
This early form of local government across the country was a fusion of ecclesiastical and civil functions. It evolved to meet the needs of the inhabitants as they arose. A generalised system of local government, separate to ecclesiastical concerns, slowly took shape. It was the 1855 Metropolis Management Act which saw a major break from the old tradition of local administration. The parish of Bromley St Leonard joined with the adjacent parishes of St Mary Stratford Bow and All Saints Poplar to become became part of the newly created Poplar District Board of Works. The Board was a separate unit of local government which oversaw public health and sanitary conditions (see ref: L/PBW). Some residual responsibilities remained with the parish after 1855.
The two main secular functions of the parish of Bromley St Leonard were:
(i) the care of the poor and the administration of parochial charities (see ref: L/BSL/F/3).
(ii) the maintenance of roads and bridges.
There was also some management of petty law and order. Vestries also acquired additional powers in the later nineteenth century.
Key officials in Bromley St Leonard responsible for 'local authority' parish functions were:
1. Overseer of the Poor: an unpaid office created in 1572. Officials were initially responsible for supervising endowments and charitable funds. Following the 1601 Poor Law Act, the churchwardens of the parish together with two or more substantial local landowners were to act as Overseers. Their role was to collect the poor rate and supervise the relief of the poor, including managing workhouses and arranging the apprenticeship of poor orphans. The 1662 Law of Settlement Act empowered Overseers to remove 'strangers' from the parish. Sometimes referred to as 'aliens' these were people who did not have rights to settle, because, for example, they were born outside the parish. Overseers were chosen at Vestry meetings to administer the Poor Law for the ensuing year. Under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, Boards of Guardians replaced the Overseers and administration of poor relief left the parish's powers.
2. Surveyor of the Highways: an unpaid position created in 1555. The parish Surveyor's role was to inspect roads and bridges three times a year and to organise repairs. The Surveyor could also raise rates.
- The Surveyors and Overseers kept accounts and were answerable to the Justices of the Peace. A new system was introduced in 1835, whereby
JPs appointed paid surveyors to groups of parishes.
3. Constable: although the office was manorial in origin, vestries gradually acquired responsibilities for appointing constables. The position was filled by rotation and was unpaid. Constables' roles included dealing with petty issues of law and order, the collection of rates and taxes, maintenance of the forms of punishment (stocks and pillories - a wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, in which offenders were formerly imprisoned and exposed to public abuse), inspection of taverns, supervision of jury service, apprehending escaped prisoners and convening parish meetings.
National legislation passed in the mid nineteenth century led to new powers:
- the Public Baths and Wash-Houses Acts of 1846 and 1847 enabled parishes to construct public facilities, the expense being met out of the Poor Rate.
- an Act passed in 1850 authorised local authorities to provide public lending and reference libraries.
However, many authorities did not take up these powers until the 1890s. For instance, the records suggest that the Bromley St Leonard Bath and Wash-Houses Committee did not meet until 1895, and the powers of the Commissioners of Public Libraries were only transferred to Bromley St Leonard Vestry in 1896.
As the parish became urbanised and industry spread, the population grew. Census returns and other sources show the population increased as follows:
This urbanisation was driven by significant economic and commercial developments, including:
1770: opening of the Limehouse Cut, dividing the parish in two
1802-1806: construction of the Commercial Road, the eastern end of which served the East India Docks
1803-1806: construction of the East India Docks, the Import Dock marking the southern boundary of Bromley St Leonard
4 September 1841: Tower Hamlets Cemetery, part of which falls in Bromley St Leonard, consecrated by the Bishop of London
1850: opening of the Dalston-Poplar section of the North London Railway
- James Dunstan, History of the Parish of Bromley St Leonard (London: Hunt & Son, 1862)
- Steven Friar, The Local History Companion (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2001)
- David Hey (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History (Oxford: OUP, 2010)
- Daniel Lysons, The Environs of London, Vol. 2 (London, 1795)