Reference NumberL/MEO
TitleRecords of the Hamlet of Mile End Old Town
Extent49 items
AdminHistoryOrigins and extent
Mile End Old Town was one of the four hamlets - the others being Ratcliff, Poplar and Blackwall until 1820, and Mile End New Town - which formed part of the large ancient mother parish of Stepney, some six square miles in extent. The distinguishing feature of any hamlet was, strictly speaking, the lack of a church in which parishioners could worship.

The process of dividing the parish of Stepney, largely in response to relentless population growth, had begun in the early eighteenth century, but Mile End Old Town remained part of the parish until midway through the nineteenth century, when continued development here and elsewhere in London forced a change in the organisation of local government.

The Hamlet of Mile End Old Town - which covered an area of about 681 acres - was situated further east than the Hamlet of Mile End New Town. In the nineteenth century, its population grew as follows:
- 1801: 9848
- 1841: 45,308
- 1851: 56,602
- 1861: 73.064

Before 1855 the parish vestry had met to discharge the business of both ecclesiastical and secular local government. Parish 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.

Being a part of the parish of Stepney, the Hamlet of Mile End Old Town was governed by the Stepney Vestry, although because the administrative arrangements had some elective and representative elements of government, of the 50 vestrymen elected in the mid-1650s, for example, ten were from Mile End. However, the administrative structure of the Stepney Vestry was far from stable; it changed a number of times during the seventeenth century because of political events, and Vestry meetings at this time were also irregular. It is also apparent that 'official' meetings of the inhabitants of the Hamlet of Mile End Old Town continued to take place, presumably because of the large size of the mother parish - these meetings perhaps served as a forum for dealing with matters of local rather than parish-wide relevance.

The two main secular functions of the parish of Stepney were:
(i) the care of the poor and the administration of parochial charities.
(ii) the maintenance of roads and bridges.
There was also some management of petty law and order.

Of the 54 parochial officers recorded for the parish of Stepney in the middle of the eighteenth century, a total of 14 served the Hamlet of Mile End Old Town:
- Churchwardens: 1
- Overseers of the Poor: 1
- Constables/Headboroughs: 6
- Surveyors: 2
- Beadles: 1
- Watchmen: 3

Most of these officers ultimately derived their historical origins and authority from a variety of sources: the Churchwardens had always been elected by the parishioners; the Overseers were appointed by the County Justices of the Peace; the Constables and Headboroughs were originally manorial officers appointed by the Court Leet; the Surveyors were appointed by the JPs from a list submitted by the parish. The Parish Clerk, the Beadle and probably the Watchmen were the only officials who derived their authority solely from the vestry. As time went on these arcane distinctions of origin, jurisdiction and responsibility became increasingly blurred.

At this time, the three key officials in Mile End Old Town responsible for 'local authority' 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.

The early form of local government outlined above was a fusion of ecclesiastical and civil functions which evolved to meet the needs of the inhabitants as they arose. 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 in London 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 Hamlet of Mile End Old Town - by now a hamlet in name only - was designated as a 'Schedule A' vestry (on account of its dense population), and provision made for elections thereto. See under L/MEO/2 for further details of these new administrative arrangements.

Key developments and dates
1778-1809: rapid population growth in Mile End Old Town, as shown by increases in rateable values:
- 1778: £11,477
- 1789: £15,670
- 1798: £19,754
- 1809: £30,914

1836: Mile End Old Town becomes part of the Stepney Poor Law Union

1854-1855: bread riots in Mile End Old Town

- 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)
- Albert Bassett Hopkins, The Boroughs of the Metropolis (London: Bemrose and Sons Ltd, 1900)
- Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, The History of East London (London: Macmillan, 1939)
- Daniel Lysons, The Environs of London, Vol. 3 (London, 1795)
- Frederick Whelen, London Government (London: Grant Richards, 1898)
RelatedMaterialPrinted material such as parish histories, reports, 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 * to search across these formats].
SubjectMile End Old Town
Access StatusOpen
RequestNO - This does not represent a physical document. Please click on the reference number and view list of records to find material available to order at file or item level.
NA574/Hamlet of Mile End Old Town/Middlesex/England
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