Bethnal Green

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Bethnal Green
Bethnal Green Stairway to Heaven.jpg
Stairway to Heaven, also seen is Bethnal Green tube station and St John Church
Bethnal Green is located in Greater London
Bethnal Green
Bethnal Green
Bethnal Green shown within Greater London
Population27,849 (Bethnal Green North and Bethnal Green South wards 2011)[1]
OS grid referenceTQ345825
• Charing Cross3.3 mi (5.3 km) SW
London borough
Ceremonial countyGreater London
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Post townLONDON
Postcode districtE1 E2
Dialling code020
EU ParliamentLondon
UK Parliament
London Assembly
List of places
51°31′39″N 0°03′58″W / 51.5275°N 0.066°W / 51.5275; -0.066Coordinates: 51°31′39″N 0°03′58″W / 51.5275°N 0.066°W / 51.5275; -0.066

Bethnal Green is a district in the East End of London, England,[2][3][4] 3.3 miles (5.3 km) northeast of Charing Cross.

Bethnal Green forms the north-west part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and extends from the City fringe to Victoria Park. The area emerged from the hamlet which developed around the Green,[5] much of which survives today as Bethnal Green Gardens.

The hamlet was part of ancient parish of Stepney, Middlesex, but adopted its definition as a wider district when, following population increases caused by the expansion of London in the 18th century, it was split off from Stepney as the parish of Bethnal Green in 1743. It become part of the Metropolis in 1855 and the County of London in 1889. The parish became the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green in 1900.

The economic history of Bethnal Green is characterised by a shift away from agricultural provision for the City of London to market gardening, weaving and light industry, which has now all but disappeared. The quality of the built environment had deteriorated by the turn of the 20th century and was radically altered by aerial bombardment in the Second World War and the subsequent social housing developments. In 1943, 173 people were killed at a single incident at Bethnal Green Underground station and in 2005 the area along with neighbouring Haggerston suffered a terrorist attack on a London Buses route 26 bus in the 21 July 2005 London bombings on Hackney Road. Bethnal Green has formed part of Greater London since 1965.


The accepted Toponymy is the name Blithehale or Blythenhale, the earliest form of Bethnal Green, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon healh ("angle, nook, or corner") and blithe ("happy, blithe"), or from a personal name Blitha. Nearby Cambridge Heath (Camprichesheth), is unconnected with Cambridge and may also derive from an Anglo-Saxon personal name. The area was once marshland and forest which, as Bishopswood, lingered in the east until the 16th century.[6] Over time, the name became Bethan Hall Green, which, because of local pronunciation as Beth'n 'all Green, had by the 19th century changed to Bethnal Green.

Early history[edit]

Parish of Bethnal Green, 1848

In what would become northern Bethnal Green (known as Cambridge Heath) a stretch of common land which stretched to the east and west, belonged to the old Stepney Manor to the south, the heath was used as a pasture where people could graze their sheep during the Middle Ages in the 13th century, though 1275 records suggest at least one ancient house stood there.[7]

A Tudor ballad, the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, tells the story of an ostensibly poor man who gave a surprisingly generous dowry for his daughter's wedding. The tale furnishes the parish of Bethnal Green's coat of arms. According to one version of the legend, found in Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published in 1765, the beggar was said to be Henry, the son of Simon de Montfort, but Percy himself declared that this version was not genuine.[8] The Blind Beggar public house in Whitechapel is reputed to be the site of his begging.

The Green and Poor's Land is the area of open land now occupied by Bethnal Green Library, the V&A Museum of Childhood and St John's Church, designed by John Soane. In Stow's Survey of London (1598) the hamlet was called Blethenal Green. It was one of the hamlets included in the Manor of Stepney and Hackney. Hackney later became separated. In 1678 the owners of houses surrounding the Green purchased the land to save it from being built on and in 1690 the land was conveyed to a trust under which it was to be kept open and rent from it used for the benefit of poor people living in the vicinity. From that date, the trust has administered the land and its minute books are kept in the London Metropolitan Archives. Bethnal House, or Kirby's Castle, was the principal house on the Green. One of its owners was Sir Hugh Platt (1552–1608), author of books on gardening and practical science. Under its next owner it was visited by Samuel Pepys. In 1727 it was leased to Matthew Wright and for almost two centuries it was an asylum. Its two most distinguished inmates were Alexander Cruden, compiler of the Concordance to the Bible, and the poet Christopher Smart. Cruden recorded his experience in The London Citizen Grievously Injured (1739) and Smart's stay there is recorded by his daughter. Records of the asylum are kept in the annual reports of the Commissioner in Lunacy. Even today, the park where the library stands is known locally as "Barmy Park". The original mansion, the White House, was supplemented by other buildings. In 1891 the Trust lost the use of Poor's Land to the London County Council. The asylum reorganised its buildings, demolishing the historic White House and erecting a new block in 1896. This building became the present Bethnal Green Library. A history of Poor's Land and Bethnal House is included in The Green, written by A.J. Robinson and D.H.B. Chesshyre.

Boxing has a long association with Bethnal Green. Daniel Mendoza, who was champion of England from 1792 to 1795 though born in Aldgate, lived in Paradise Row on the western side of Bethnal Green for 30 years. Since then numerous boxers have been associated with the area, and the local leisure centre, York Hall, remains notable for presentation of boxing bouts.

The north end of the Green is associated with the Natt family. During the 18th century they owned many of its houses. Netteswell House is the residence of the curator of the Bethnal Green Museum. It is almost certainly named after the village of Netteswell, near Harlow, whose rector was the Rev. Anthony Natt. A few of its houses have become University settlements. In Victoria Park Square, on the east side of the Green, No. 18 has a Tudor well in its cellar.[9]

The silk-weaving trade spread eastwards from Spitalfields throughout the 18th century. This attracted many Huguenot and Irish weavers to the district. Large estates of small two story cottages were developed in the west of the area to house them. A downturn in the trade in 1769 led to the Spitalfield Riots, and on 6 December 1769, two weavers accused of "cutting" were hanged in front of the Salmon and Ball public house.

Modern history[edit]

Slum children in bed, Bethnal Green, 1900-1910
Slum street in Bethnal Green, circa 1900

In the 19th century, Bethnal Green remained characterised by its market gardens and by weaving. Having been an area of large houses and gardens as late as the 18th century, by about 1860 Bethnal Green was mainly full of tumbledown old buildings with many families living in each house. By the end of the century, Bethnal Green was one of the poorest slums in London. Jack the Ripper operated at the western end of Bethnal Green and in neighbouring Whitechapel. In 1900, the Old Nichol Street rookery was demolished, and the Boundary Estate opened on the site near the boundary with Shoreditch. This was the world's first council housing, and brothers Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont were brought up here.[10] In 1909, the Bethnal Green Estate was built with money left by the philanthropist William Richard Sutton which he left for "modern dwellings and houses for occupation by the poor of London and other towns and populous places in England".[11][12]

The London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews built Palestine Place as Cambridge Heath began to be fully developed during the first half of the 19th century, although a windmill survived until at least 1836. However most of the local residents were poor, especially in the streets around the railway line and the Regents Canal, as well as on Russia Lane. It was during this time the Peabody Trust built the Bethnal Green Estate in 1910.[13]

In 1841, the Anglo-Catholic Nathaniel Woodard, who was to become a highly influential educationalist in the later part of the 19th century, became the curate of the newly created St. Bartholomew's in Bethnal Green. He was a capable pastoral visitor and established a parochial school. In 1843, he got into trouble for preaching a sermon in which he argued that The Book of Common Prayer should have additional material to provide for confession and absolution and in which he criticised the "inefficient and Godless clergy" of the Church of England. After examining the text of the sermon, the Bishop of London condemned it as containing "erroneous and dangerous notions". As a result, the bishop sent Woodard to be a curate in Clapton.

Brick arch and globe sculpture on Roman Road, Bethnal Green, Globe Town is directly to the right of photo.

On the eastern side of Bethnal Green lies Globe Town, established from 1800 to provide for the expanding population of weavers around Bethnal Green attracted by improving prospects in silk weaving. The population of Bethnal Green trebled between 1801 and 1831, operating 20,000 looms in their own homes. By 1824, with restrictions on importation of French silks relaxed, up to half these looms became idle and prices were driven down. With many importing warehouses already established in the district, the abundance of cheap labour was turned to boot, furniture and clothing manufacture. Globe Town continued its expansion into the 1860s, long after the decline of the silk industry.[14]

World War Two began in 1939 between the Allies and Axis, and the Germen Luftwaffe began an air campaign called The Blitz on 7 September 1940 over the United Kingdom including Bethnal Green that was termed "Target Area A" along with the rest of the East End of London by the Nazis.[15]

Bethnal Green Library was bombed on the very first night of the Blitz. This forced the temporary relocation of the library into the unopened Bethnal Green Underground Station in order to provide a continuous of lending services. The library was rebuilt and opened a few months later for the public.[16] Oxford House also had major role, with some local residents would fleeing into the house off Bethnal Green Road seeking shelter, this location was more attractive than the stables under the nearby Great Eastern Main Line arches. The Chief Shelter Welfare Officer at the time, Jane Leverson said "people came to Oxford House not because it was an air raid shelter but because there they found happiness and a true spirit of fellowship".[17]

On 3 March 1943 at 8:27PM the unopened Bethnal Green Underground station was the site of a wartime disaster. Families had crowded into the underground station due to an air raid siren at 8:17, one of ten that day. There was a panic at 8:27 coinciding with the sound of an anti-aircraft battery (possibly the recently installed Z battery) being fired at nearby Victoria Park. In the wet, dark conditions the crowd was surging forward towards the shelter when a woman tripped on the stairs, causing many others to fall. Within a few seconds 300 people were crushed into the tiny stairwell, resulting in 173 deaths. Although a report was filed by Eric Linden with the Daily Mail, who witnessed it, it never ran. The story which was reported instead was that there had been a direct hit by a German bomb. The results of the official investigation were not released until 1946.[18] A plaque at the entrance to the tube station commemorates it as the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War; and a larger memorial stands in nearby Bethnal Park. The memorial was unveiled in December 2017 at a ceremony attended by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Bethnal Green and Bow MP Rushanara Ali.[19]

It is estimated that during the Second World War, 80 tons of bombs fell on the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green, affecting 21,700 houses, destroying 2,233 and making a further 893 uninhabitable. There were a total of 555 people killed and 400 seriously injured.[20] Many unexploded bombs remain in the area, and on 14 May 2007, builders discovered a Second World War 1 m long 500 lb (230 kg) bomb.[21]

The book Family and Kinship in East London (1957) shows an improvement in working class life. Husbands in the sample population no longer went out to drink but spent time with the family. As a result, both birth rate and infant death rate fell drastically and local prosperity increased. It is true that the infamous gangsters, the Kray twins lived in Bethnal Green in the 1960s. However, by the beginning of the 21st century, Bethnal Green and much of the old East End began to undergo a process of gentrification.

The former Bethnal Green Infirmary, later the London County Council Bethnal Green Hospital, stood opposite Cambridge Heath railway station. The hospital closed as a public hospital in the 1970s and was a geriatric hospital under the NHS until the 1980s. Much of the site was developed for housing in the 1990s but the hospital entrance and administration block remains as a listed building. The Albion Rooms are located in Bethnal Green where Pete Doherty and Carl Barât of the Libertines used to live when the band was together. It became part of music history as the band would hold Guerilla Gigs in the flat that would be packed with people.

The London Chest Hospital, founded in 1848 by Thomas Bevill Peacock, was located in Approach Road and first opened in 1855. It closed on 17 April 2015 and its functions transferred to other sites of the Barts Health NHS Trust.[22][23]


A map showing the civil parish boundaries in 1870.
A map showing the wards of Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough as they appeared in 1916.

Bethnal Green is centred around the Central line tube station at the junction of Bethnal Green Road, Roman Road and Cambridge Heath Road.

The district is associated with the E2 postcode district, but this also covers parts of Shoreditch, Haggerston and Cambridge Heath. Between 1986 and 1992, the name Bethnal Green was applied to one of seven neighbourhoods to which power was devolved from the council. This resulted in replacement of much of the street signage in the area that remains in place.[24] This included parts of both Cambridge Heath and Whitechapel (north of the Whitechapel Road) being more associated with the post code and administrative simplicity than the historic districts.



Bethnal Green had a total population of 27,849 at the 2011 census, based on the north and south wards of Bethnal Green.[25] The largest single ethnic group is people of Bangladeshi descent, which constitute 38 percent of the area's population. Every year since 1999 the Baishakhi Mela is celebrated in Weaver's Field, Bethnal Green which celebrates the Bengali New Year.".[26] The second largest are the White British, constituting 30 percent of the area's population. Other ethnic groups include Black Africans and Black Caribbeans.[27]


Bethnal Green is the vibrant heart of the East End of London[28], has long been a destination for people from across Tower Hamlets and beyond.[29] is along with the communities of Poplar, Mile End and Bow are known for its shared vibrancy and cultural activity, its history and people. Together they form a wider association of communities that make up the heart of London’s East End with a rich and deep history and proud political heritage[30][31][32][33],

Oxford House is an proactive community center that has it roots in helping the local community, foundered in 1884, it has helped alleviate or remove the impact of poverty and today still remains a focus point by providing a programme of community classes, events and weekly activities.[34]

The Cranbrook Community Food Garden was built in 2009[35], by the local residents of the Cranbrook Estate housing estate in Globe Town and others from the local area who designed and support the community garden that used to be a children’s playground that was in disrepair.[36][37]

In recent times, Bethnal Green has become known for it being a friendly animal and human community such as in 2018, when the Camel Pub was voted the best pet friendly pub in the world according to a media source, due to it for allowing dogs and cats to come in and have a bowl of water, as well as for the two pub cats.[38]The area has also hosted the first catfest in Cambridge Heath Oval Space in 2018, with guests having the chance to take photos with felines as well as street food and meeting shelter kittens.[39][40]


The two main faiths of the people are Islam and Christianity, with 50 percent Muslim and 34 percent Christians.[41]

Church of St John on Bethnal Green from Roman Road.

There are many historical churches in Bethnal Green. Notable churches include St John on Bethnal Green,[42] located near Bethnal Green Underground station, on Bethnal Green Road and Roman Road. The church was built from 1826 to 1828 by the architect John Soane. Other notable churches include St Matthew - built by George Dance the Elder in 1746. St Matthew is the mother church of Bethnal Green; the church's opening coincided with a vast population increase in the former village of Stepney, resulting in the need to separate the area around Bethnal Green from the mother Parish of St Dunstan's, Stepney. All but the bell tower, still standing today, was destroyed by fire and the church again suffered devastating damage during the bombing campaigns of the Second World War, resulting in the installation of a temporary church within the bombed-out building. St. Matthew's remains a major beacon of the local East End community and is frequented on Sundays and other religious occasions by a mixture of established locals and more recent migrants to the area.[43]

Other churches include St Peter's (1841) and St James-the-Less (1842), both by Lewis Vulliamy, St James the Great by Edward Blore (1843) and St Bartholomew by William Railton (1844). The church attendance in Bethnal Green was 1 in 8 people since 1900, and is estimated around 100 people attend church today (only 10% attend regularly in the UK). Baptisms, marriages and burials have been deposited nearly at all churches in Bethnal Green.[clarification needed][44][45]

There are two Roman Catholic churches, St Casimir's and the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption,[46] in Bethnal Green. St Casimir serves London's Lithuanian community and masses are held in both Lithuanian and English.[47] The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption hosts the London Chinese Catholic Centre and Chinese mass is held weekly.[48]

Other Christian churches include The Good Shepherd Mission,[49] The Bethnal Green Medical Mission,[50] The Bethnal Green Methodist Church.[51]

The Quakers hold regular meetings in Old Ford Road.[52]

There are at least eight Islamic mosques or places of worship in Bethnal Green for the Muslim community.[53] These include the Baitul Aman Mosque and Cultural Centre,[54] Darul Hadis Latifiah,[55] the Senegambian Islamic Cultural Centre and the Globe Town Mosque and Cultural Centre.

The London Buddhist Centre, at 51 Roman Road, is one of the largest urban Buddhist centres in the West, and is the focus of a large Buddhist residential and business community in the area.

Amenities and landmarks
Weavers Fields, from Vallance Road.

Bethnal Green Gardens is located in the heart of Bethnal Green, which holds a war memorial, known as the Stairway To Heaven,[56] and Weavers Fields, a 15.6 acres park and is the 6th largest open space in Tower Hamlets that lies south of Bethnal Green Road.[57]

The internationally renowned York Hall is a leisure centre but is far better known as one of Britain's best and important venues and a world centre in boxing venue, situated on Old Ford Road. It opened in 1929 with a capacity of 1,200,[58] Across the road, a branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum (the "V&A") called the V&A Museum of Childhood that was founded in 1872 as the Bethnal Green Museum, has the largest collection of childhood objects in the United Kingdom,[59] and is a Grade II listed building.[60]

The Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium was the first cat café in London, which was opened in 2013.[61][62]

The Hare is one of the last two public houses in Cambridge Heath that has been opened since before 1900. An ex-Truman establishment, it is now a free house. [63][64]


The area has been host to a number of supposed paranormal experiences, some which have been shared publicly. One such location is Bethnal Green tube station, where passengers and workers have claimed to have heard children sobbing, women screaming, and the general sound of panic.[65] In 2018, some newspapers reported on a photo that was taken on a smartphone which claims to show two female ghosts and in another image a purple orb in the shape of a skull at the V&A Museum.[66][67]


Bethnal Green has numerous primary schools serving children aged three to 11. St. Matthias School on Bacon Street,[68] off Brick Lane, is over a century old and uses the Seal of the old Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green as its badge and emblem.[citation needed] The school is over a century old but underwent extensive remodelling in 1994 and added a new sports hall on its Granby Street former playground site in 2006.[citation needed] The school is linked with the nearby 18th-century St. Matthew's Church on St. Matthew's Row.[citation needed] The Bangabandhu Primary School, named after the father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib, a non-selective state community school,[69] was opened in January 1989, moved to a new building in November 1991, and has over 450 pupils. 70% of the school's pupils speak English as a second language, with a majority speaking Sylheti, a dialect of Bengali, at home.[citation needed] One of several independent schools in the area, Gatehouse School, near Victoria Park, was established in 1948, and follows a Montessori-style curriculum for younger pupils.

Bethnal Green's oldest secondary school is Raine's Foundation School, with sites on Old Bethnal Green and Approach roads, a voluntary aided Anglican school founded in 1719.[70] The school relocated several times, amalgamating with St. Jude's School [71] to become coeducational in 1977. Bethnal Green Academy, is one of the top schools and sixth form colleges in London, Other schools in the area include Oaklands School, and Morpeth School.

The V&A Museum of Childhood on Cambridge Heath Road houses the child related objects of the Victoria and Albert Museum.[72]

The Bethnal Park and Bethnal Green Library provide leisure facilities and information.


Bethnal Green tube station is part of the Night Tube service since 2016.[73]

Plaque to the 1943 disaster

The Regent's Canal opened in 1820, for horse drawn canal barges to carry cargo from the River Thames to the Grand Union Canal to which supplied local coal merchants and several gas houses built along its banks including Bethnal Green with the buildings around Vyner Street retaining their industrial character.[75]

Bethnal Green Junction, now just Bethnal Green from 1946 (not to be confused with the much later London Underground station of the same name) and Cambridge Heath railway stations was opened by the Great Eastern Railway (GER) on the Lea Valley Lines in 1872 as part of a more direct route to Enfield Town. The GER opened two additional tracks now known as the Fast Lines that allow longer distance trains to bypass the stations,[76][77][78]it was also formerly served by trains on the Great Eastern Main Line (GEML) via Stratford and has had two derailments in the later 20th century due to it role as a junction.[79][80]

While Bethnal Green tube station itself opened on 4 December 1946 on the Central Line however construction of the Central line's eastern extension into Essex was started in the 1930s, and the tunnels were largely complete at the outbreak of the Second World War although rails were not laid and was a site of a major wartime disaster during the war due to a air-raid Civil Defence siren sounded in error, caused by the discharge of anti-aircraft rockets during test firing[81] and is the largest loss of life in a single incident on the London Underground network.[82]

The 26 bus route, introduced in 1992 to replace the withdrawn section of route 6 between Hackney Wick and Aldwych,[83] was targeted during the 21 July 2005 London bombings by would-be bomber Muktar Said Ibrahim who attempted to explode a device while the bus was on Hackney Road which caused a small explosion but not as intended and there was no significant damage or lose to life.[84]

Sport and leisure[edit]

Non-League football club Bethnal Green United F.C. plays at Mile End Stadium. Now known as Tower Hamlets FC (since 2014-15 season), it plays in the Essex Senior League. Another locally based team also based at Mile End Stadium are Sporting Bengal FC. The boxer Joe Anderson, 'All England' champion of 1897, was from Bethnal Green.[85] Bethnal Green is also home to London's only full-time self-defence school Apolaki Krav Maga & Dirty Boxing[86]


See also[edit]


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External links[edit]