RepositoryArchives
Ref NoL/MBG
LevelFonds
TitleRecords of the Parish of St. Matthew Bethnal Green
Date1722-1919
DescriptionCivil parish local authority records relating to the maintenance of the parish and its people.

The records include vestry minutes, rate books, poor relief. These are key resources for tracing individuals in the parish. Also held are records of the Pavement Commissioners and of local parochial charities.
Extent192 items
AdminHistoryThe St Matthew Vestry formed the main unit of local government for Bethnal Green from 1855 until the creation of the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green in 1900. The Vestry evolved into the civil body that managed local affairs in Bethnal Green in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially the public health and sanitary conditions required by the area's ever increasing population.

The Vestry derived its name from the church and parish of St Matthew Bethnal Green. Prior to 1855 the Vestry had developed from the 'ancient parish' of St Matthew, which formed part of the system of ecclesiastical parishes which had for centuries played a role in both civil and religious administration. However, as it existed from 1855 to 1900, the Vestry had solely civil functions - it had no oversight over religious concerns, which remained under the control of the Church of England and were administered through the church of St Matthew, Bethnal Green. Rather, the Vestry was the civil body elected by the inhabitants of the parish to run matters of public interest.

Until 1743, the spiritual and secular needs of the people of Bethnal Green had been served by St Dunstan's Church in Stepney. A petition presented to the Commissioners of the Act for Building Fifty New Churches, 1711, had asked for Bethnal Green to be made a separate parish with its own church, and the Commissioners duly agreed to the request. Various schemes were proposed but all came to nothing until 1743 when an Act was passed making Bethnal Green a separate rectory. The church itself, designed by George Dance the Elder, was begun in 1743 and completed three years later. Fire destroyed the interior in 1859, and the church was not reopened until 1861. St Matthew's remained the only place of worship until 1814, when the Episcopal Jew's Chapel opened. This was followed by several other churches intended to serve the area's burgeoning population.

By the 1820s, seven defined and named geographical districts had come to comprise Bethnal Green:
- The Green: Bethnal Green village
- Dog Row
- The West: Shoreditch side, Spitalfields and the Nichol
- Cambridge Heath
- The North-West: Hackney Road
- The Centre: Bethnal Green Road
- The East: Old Ford Lane, Green Lane and Globe Town

Origins and purpose
For hundreds of years prior to 1855, parish vestries met to discharge the business of both ecclesiastical and secular local government. The vestries were essentially committees of prominent householders and church officials, and were so-called because meetings took place in the church vestry or sacristy (the room where the priest prepares for a service and where vestments and articles of worship are stored). This early form of local government in London and across the country was a fusion of ecclesiastical and civil functions which had evolved as the most practical means to meet the needs of the inhabitants as they arose. Administration of assistance to the poor was a central function of the parish; this took the form of management of the Poor Laws and also parochial charities, of which there were a number in Bethnal Green (for further information on the administrative history of these aspects of parish governance see ref: L/MBG/D and ref: L/MBG/F)

A generalised system of local government, separate to ecclesiastical concerns, slowly took shape during the course of the nineteenth century. The first concerted attempt to rationalise administration came in the form of the 1855 Metropolis Management Act. This created 22 vestries (and 12 district boards) in inner London endowed with municipal powers. Under the terms of the Act, the ancient parish of St Matthew was designated as a Schedule A vestry (on account of its dense population), and provision made for elections thereto. The Vestry was divided into four wards - North, South, East and West, initially electing 9, 15, 9 and 15 vestrymen respectively.

Until the 1894 Local Government Act, vestry elections were haphazard affairs: election notifications were often not circulated; voting procedures were unsatisfactory; and the qualifications for candidates - based on a minimum financial rating of £40 p/a for the relief of the poor - limited the number of candidates. Under the 1894 Act all resident citizens - men and women - were made eligible for election, the voting list was to include all names on the parliamentary and LCC registers with the addition of married women householders, and elections were to be duly publicised and held in accordance with the Ballot Act and the Corrupt Practices Acts. The 1894 Local Government Act (and a number of other so-called 'Adoptive Acts', i.e. the Baths and Washhouses Acts, Burial Acts and Public Libraries Acts) also enabled vestries to apply to the Local Government Board to take over the appointment, duties and liabilities of the overseers, and the powers of the Baths and Wash-houses Commissioners, Public Library Commissioners, Burial Boards and other local bodies. The St Matthew Vestry opted to acquire some, but not all, of these powers.

In its early years, the Vestry's chief officials were the:
- Medical Officer of Health
- Surveyor
- Assistant Surveyor
- Foreman of the Roads
- Inspector of Nuisances

Two Vestry clerks carried out the necessary administrative duties. The departmental officers holding appointments under the Vestry grew markedly over time, and by 1900 the staff included a Public Analyst (who was actually based in Paddington in west London), five Collectors of Rates and a Rate Clerk, a Chief Sanitary Inspector and General Assistant Inspector together with eight staff and a Sanitary Clerk.

Activities
The St Matthew Vestry was in essence a sanitary authority, charged with the multi-faceted task of keeping the parish as healthy as possible. The Vestry had control and management of streets, roads and footpaths, and had to ensure that they were paved, cleansed, watered and lighted; the emptying of dustbins, removal of all refuse and the prevention of 'nuisances' also fell within the Vestry's remit. Over time, other responsibilities came to include dealing with 'unhealthy' dwellings, monitoring food standards (which included food analysis) and managing noxious trades in an attempt to minimise the inconvenience they caused. By the time of its abolition in 1900, the duties, powers and functions of St Matthew Vestry had been considerably extended and refined; they may be summarised as follows:
- Baths and washhouses - in July 1895, the relevant powers of finance and management were sought and acquired
by the Vestry under the terms of the 1894 Local Government Act
- Buildings - powers under the London Building Acts were almost entirely under the control of the LCC (created in
1888); however, the Vestry had power to initiate proceedings where buildings had been erected beyond the
general line of frontage without the LCC's consent
- Drainage - St Matthew Vestry had virtually complete power with regard to the construction and maintenance of
local sewers and drains
- Electric Lighting - under the Electric Lighting Acts, the Vestry successfully applied to the Board of Trade for a
Provisional Order to supply electricity to the parish in 1899
- Housing - Part II of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act conferred upon the Vestry right of building
inspection, and the power to take proceedings before a magistrate seeking the closure and demolition of houses
deemed unfit for human habitation; the 1890 Act also enabled the Vestry to purchase and demolish buildings
which were an obstruction to the improvement of other adjacent buildings
- Open spaces - under various Metropolitan Open Spaces Acts, the Vestry could acquire land by agreement, gift
or purchase and preserve it as open space for public use and benefit
- Public health - the Vestry possessed almost all powers delineated under the 1891 Public Health (London) Act,
among which may be mentioned:
o The appointment of one or more medical officers of health and an adequate number of sanitary
inspectors
o The monitoring and enforcement of bye-laws relating to nuisances (defined as including 'offensive'
ditches, cesspools, overflowing drains, the inappropriate keeping of animals, ill-maintained factories,
workshops and slaughterhouses and polluting chimneys)
o The building of hospitals and provision of related medical services
o The cleansing and maintenance of factories and premises of employment so as the ensure the health of
employees
o Inspection of slaughterhouses, shops and premises found selling unsound or adulterated food, milk,
drugs and other substances
o Proceedings in cases of buildings and premises deemed 'unfit for human habitation'
o Removal of refuse, cleansing of dustbins and streets, and the appointment of 'scavengers' (waste
pickers) for the purpose
o Provision of mortuaries for the reception of dead bodies before interment
- Streets - the Vestry possessed all powers with regard to making, maintaining, lighting, watering, cleansing and
regulating the streets of Bethnal Green. However, the Vestry required the sanction of the LCC for the temporary
closing of streets for repairs, and for their naming. The LCC renamed and ordered the numbering of streets, the
Vestry then carrying out their instructions in this regard
- Rates and borrowing - until 1894, the expenses of the St Matthew Vestry were met entirely by levying local rates
on residents. The 1894 Equalisation of Rates Act was passed with the intention of standardising the rates for
sanitary and other purposes throughout London; the rate was limited to 6d in the £, with the result of extreme
inequalities between rich and poor districts

By 1900, eight Vestry committees discharged these responsibilities: the Survey Committee (actually the whole Vestry summoned once each quarter to consider the assessment of hereditaments); the Finance Committee; the Works Committee; the Sanitary Committee; the Parliamentary Committee; the Baths and Washhouses Committee; the Electricity Committee; and the Assessment Committee.

Key activities and events
Between 1855 and 1900, the St Matthew Vestry of Bethnal Green saw a number important developments and events. Among some of the key personalities and major events to have occurred were:
- 1850s-70s: radical political meetings held in Bonner's Fields attract large crowds - Charles Bradlaugh, a co-founder of the National Secular Society (1866), becomes influential in Bethnal
Green politics, especially through the New Commonwealth Club in Bethnal Green Road
- 1863-65: opening of working men's clubs in Peel Grove, St Matthias's Schoolroom and New Nichol Street - other clubs follow in the 1870s and 1880s
- 1 July 1864: removal of Cambridge Heath Toll Gate
- 1872: opening of Bethnal Green Museum - now the Museum of Childhood - partly the work of the architect James William Wild
- 1873-78: the well-known Christian socialist Stewart Headlam is curate of St Matthew's; he is removed from the curacy after giving a controversial lecture entitled 'Theatres and Music Halls'
given at the New Commonwealth Club on Bethnal Green Road on 7 October 1877
- 1876: closure of the notoriously ill-run Victoria Park Cemetery, first opened in 1845 - following closure of the Cemetery the area subsequently became even more infamous as a haven for
crime and gambling
- 1885-1900g: Edward Hare Pickersgill sits as Liberal MP for the constituency of Bethnal Green South-West; on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, Pickersgill campaigned for criminal law
reform, seeking to end imprisonment for non-payment of debt, the ending of flogging and abolition of the death penalty
- October 1889: establishment of Bethnal Green Ladies' Committee, which later became St Margaret's House settlement
- 1890-1900: construction and opening of the Boundary Estate by the LCC, one of the earliest social housing schemes built by a local authority
- 20 July 1894: opening of Meath Gardens - formerly Victoria Park Cemetery - by the Duke of York
- 1895: 'Bethnal Green Water Famine', a prolonged period of extreme water shortages caused by freezing winter weather, summer drought and the inability of the East London Water Works
Company to meet demand - mortality rates rose as a result
- 1895: Jane Loughlin (West Ward) and Jane Sumpter (South Ward) elected members of the Board of Guardians - probably the first women to sit on the Board, following changes to the
elective procedures introduced in 1894. Both were related to Vestrymen Felix Loughlin and Thomas Sumpter
- 1895-1900: Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree sits as Conservative MP for the constituency of Bethnal Green North-East, the second British MP of Indian heritage
- 1896: publication of Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago - a bestselling novel set in the Nichol area before it was transformed into the Boundary Estate

Addresses
Bethnal Green 'town hall' was opened in Church Row (later renamed Bethnal Green Road) in 1851, designed by Mr Simmonds in the style of the Tudor Revival. The building was only designed to meet the needs of the parochial vestry and the Board of Guardians, and it must have long been inadequate for the requirements of effective municipal government as new premises were designed in 1887; this initiative was defeated in 1889, however, and it was not until 1909-10, a full decade after the abolition of the St Matthew Vestry, that a new building was created for the Metropolitan Borough.

Sources
-CBy the middle of the 17th century, effective maintenance of heavily used roads - supposedly the responsibility of the vestries of the parishes through which they passed - had become so problematic that Parliament was invited to step in to try and solve the problem. The first such Act, which authorised Justices of the Peace on the Hertfordshire-Cambridgeshire-Huntingdonshire Circuit to establish and administer toll gates between Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, Caxton in Cambridgeshire and Stilton in Huntingdonshire, was passed in 1656. The gate at Stilton was never constructed because of local opposition and the Caxton gate proved to be ineffective.
Similar legislation eventually followed for other parts of the country in the 1690s, but the first Acts of Parliament which created statutory bodies comprising people who were not necessarily JPs date from 1706-10. Numerous Acts followed that created turnpike trusts with almost identical constitutions and functions. The legislation empowered trustees to appoint surveyors, erect gates and charge tolls for the upkeep of and improvement of stretches of road. The trustees were also allowed to mortgage the tolls and elect new trustees. Powers were usually granted for 21 years, after which a renewal Act was required. The system gathered pace in the 18th and 19th centuries and peaked in the 1830s with some 1,100 trusts responsible for the upkeep of about 30,000 miles of road in England and Wales.
The quality of the roads maintained by the turnpike trusts varied, but the trusts themselves were highly successful in the sense that they were a lucrative source of income and became highly prized; as businesses, turnpike trusts were auctioned and bidding was often fierce.
The first Act of Parliament covering maintenance and repair of the main roads from Whitechapel Church out into Essex was passed in 1722, and the Act was updated and renewed in 1743, 1764 and 1785. Imprudent borrowing by the trustees on the credit of the tolls seems to have occurred in the late 18th century, causing considerable problems and prompting further legislation in 1803. What was possibly the final Act governing the operation of the Middlesex and Turnpike Roads was passed in 1823.
The decline of the turnpike system set in with the coming of the railways, but the Mile End Turnpike remained one of the busiest in London. Indeed it was the last of the main thoroughfare turnpikes to come down in November 1866 following recommendations made in the 1850s by a Toll Reform Committee that all turnpikes should be removed when their leases expired (a number of smaller turnpikes remained in place).
Sources
- T. F. T. Baker (ed.), The Victoria History of the Counties of England: A History of the County of Middlesex: Vol. XI Early Stepney with Bethnal Green (Oxford: published for the Institute of Historical Research by Oxford University Press, 1998)
- William A. Robson, The Government and Misgovernment of London (London: Allen & and Unwin, 1939)
- Stanley Snaith, Bethnal Green 1851-1951 (London: Bethnal Green Public Libraries, 1951)
- Frederick Whelen, London Government (London: Grant Richards, 1898)
Related MaterialThe parochial place of worship parish records including parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials are held by London Metropolitan Archives (collection reference: P72/MTW).

Digital copies of the parish registers are available to search on Ancestry.co.uk, the online database of family history records.

Most printed material, together with maps and plans are in the Local History Library. For maps and plans of the parish boundaries in the Local History Library search reference code 'LCM' [add * - i.e. LCM* - to search across these formats].
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