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The parish of St Anne Limehouse, an area geographically comprising the hamlet of Limehouse and a part of the hamlet of Ratcliffe, was detached from the large mother-parish of Stepney in 1730 by an Act of Parliament.
Prior to this, the 'Act for the building of Fifty New Churches in the Cities of London and Westminster or the Suburbs thereof' had been passed in 1711, to be paid for by a tax levied on coal entering the City of London. Only 12 of these churches were built, one of which was St Anne's Limehouse, designed by the famous architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The church was constructed between 1712 and 1724, but only consecrated six years later in 1730. Prior to this the inhabitants of Limehouse attended church at St Dunstan's in Stepney.
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, including ceremonies for baptisms, marriages and burials,
alongside dealing with secular matters.
At the time of its creation in the early part of the eighteenth century Limehouse parish was considered to be the most easterly part of London. By the 1790s there was a long-established maritime-based commercial and industrial community along the north bank of the Thames; away from this built-up area were some 150 acres of land that was largely given over to pasture, with about ten market gardens.
The parish was bounded by:
- the River Thames to the south
- Butcher Row and Ratcliff Cross in the Hamlet of Ratcliff in the west
- the Hamlet of Mile End Old Town to the north
- the Hamlet of Poplar to the east
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. Limehouse Vestry was 'open' to all parishioners who paid 48 shillings a year for the relief of the poor.
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 planned 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. Under the terms of the 1855 Act, the parish vestry of St Anne Limehouse joined with the adjacent parishes of St Paul Shadwell and St John Wapping, and the Hamlet of Ratcliff to become part of the newly created Limehouse District Board of Works. The Board was a separate unit of local government which oversaw public health and sanitary conditions (see ref: L/LBW). Some residual responsibilities remained with the parish after 1855.
The two main secular functions of the parish of St Anne Limehouse 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.
In addition to these original functions, vestries also acquired some additional powers under national legislation passed in the mid nineteenth century:
- 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, for a long time these powers were more theoretical than real, and many of the relevant authorities - including Limehouse - did not make use of them until the 1890s.
Key officials in St Anne Limehouse 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.
In the middle of the eighteenth century there was, in addition to the Parish Clerk, a total of 15 parochial officers for St Anne Limehouse, as follows:
- Churchwardens: 2
- Overseers of the Poor: 2
- Constables/Headboroughs: 5
- Scavengers: 2
- Surveyors: 2
- Beadles: 1
- Watchmen: 1
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, Headboroughs and Scavengers were all 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.
Key developments and dates
1712-1724: construction of the church of St Anne at Limehouse
1730: the new parish of St Anne Limehouse formed from the mother-parish of Stepney
1730: Robert Leybourne becomes rector of Limehouse
1765: fire destroys a considerable part of Narrow Street and adjoining areas
1770: opening of the Limehouse Cut, a connecting link between the Thames and the River Lea
1802-1806: construction of the Commercial Road
1820: opening of the Regent's Canal and the Regent's Canal Dock (now called Limehouse Basin), the latter consisting of 10 acres of water
and four acres of quays and wharfs
1849: major outbreak of cholera in Limehouse
1850: St Anne Limehouse Church gutted by fire; restoration takes place between 1851 and 1854
- J. G. Birch, Limehouse Through Five Centuries (London: Sheldon Press, 1930)
- 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)
- Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, The History of East London (London: Macmillan, 1939)
- Daniel Lysons, The Environs of London, Vol. 3 (London, 1795)