Reference NumberL/SMW
TitleRecords of the Parish of St Mary Whitechapel
DescriptionCivil parish local authority records relating to the maintenance of the parish and its people.

The records include minutes of the vestry and trustees and two rate books (1800-1806) which are key resources for tracing individuals in the parish. The collection also includes extensive records of the commissioners of paving, public baths and wash houses and public libraries. Also a fees/dues book for church ceremonies (1787-1795).
AdminHistoryOrigins and extent
By the thirteenth century the ancient parish church of St Dunstan's Stepney was too small for the population of the area, and a new church, St Mary Matfelon, was built as a chapel of ease. There is disagreement over the name Matfelon, but it may be of French origin. It seems certain that the church existed by 1280 and it had achieved parish status by 1320. The original church was covered in limewash, hence the name 'Whitechapel', which gave its name to the district. It was rebuilt in 1362 and an entirely new building constructed in 1673. This remained in place for some 200 years, when careful inspection revealed that the building was unsafe. A new church costing in the region of £30,000 was opened in early 1877, but a major fire in 1880 destroyed all but the tower. The rebuilt church was opened in late 1882.

The church was badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War and eventually pulled down. The site is now a public garden called Altab Ali Park, named in 1998 in honour of a young Bangladeshi man murdered by racists in 1978.

This parish comprised some 170 acres, a significant portion of which was occupied by Goodmans Fields. To the north, St Mary Whitechapel was bounded by Wentworth Street and Montague Street, while its western boundary with Trinity Minories, Aldgate and St Katherine's originally ran north-south all the way to the Thames until the creation of the parish of St John's Stepney in 1694. After that date the short southern boundary of the parish ran along East Smithfield into Wellclose Square, turning north up to the church itself; the eastern arm of the parish reached some way along Whitechapel Street to Mile End Old Town, encompassing areas to the north and south.

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 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 Mary Whitechapel joined with the following to become part of the newly created Whitechapel District Board of Works:
- Parish of Christ Church
- Parish of St Botolph Without Aldgate
- Parish of Holy Trinity, Minories
- The Precinct of St Katherine
- The Hamlet of Mile End New Town
- The Liberty of Norton Folgate
- The Old Artillery Ground
- The District of Tower

The Whitechapel District Board of Works was a separate unit of local government which oversaw public health and sanitary conditions (see ref: L/WBW). Some residual responsibilities remained with the parish after 1855.

The two main secular functions of the parish of St Mary 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 St Mary Whitechapel - did not make use of them until the 1880s and 1890s.

Key officials in St Mary Whitechapel 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 parochial officers for St Mary Whitechapel, as follows:
- Churchwardens: 3
- Overseers: 6
- Constables: 1
- Headboroughs: 16
- Scavengers: 10
- Surveyors: 2
- Beadles: 3
- Watchmen: 22

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
1673: parish of Stepney divided into nine separate parishes, one of them being St Mary Whitechapel

1685: Huguenot refugees from France begin arriving in Whitechapel and Spitalfields

1694: St John Wapping separates from St Mary Whitechapel

1729: Thomas Odell's theatre opens in Leman Street

1733: Henry Giffard's theatre opens in Ayliffe Street (Goodman's Fields); David Garrick made his debut as Richard III in 1741

1752: construction of London Hospital - first patients admitted on 20 September 1757

1818: the fort at White Chapel Mount Field pulled down

2 February 1877: new church building consecrated

26 August 1880: fire destroys most of the church

1 December 1882: rebuilt church reopens

1892: Whitechapel Free Library opens; the Museum section was based on the collections of the Reverend Dan Greatorex

- G. Reginald Balleine, The Story of St Mary Matfelon (London: Free School-Press, 1898)
- 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)
RelatedMaterialThe parochial place of worship parish records including parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials are held by London Metropolitan Archives (collection reference: P93/MRY1). Digital copies of the parish registers are available to search on, the online database of family history records.

Printed 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].

The body which inherited many of the functions (often modified) of St Mary Whitechapel Vestry was the Whitechapel District Board of Works; the Board's records are held at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives under the reference L/WBW.
Access StatusOpen
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