Our London Docklands, and Thames Riverside Ancestors

Our London Docklands ancestors like many others had close links to the Thames. Living in the tower hamlets of Stepney, Whitechapel Poplar and Bromley their occupations included watermen, lockkeepers and carmen.

POPLAR was a hamlet of Stepney until it became a separate parish in 1817. Most of the area of the original parish is in the Isle of Dogs, once known as Stepney Marsh. Poplar takes its name from the poplar trees which were planted to provide a windbreak and were particularly suitable trees for growing in the rich, damp soil. A few fishermen lived here in medieval times; but the village, centred on the High Street, grew from the 16th century onwards because of its nearness to London by road and its ability to cater for ocean-going vessels at Blackwall. The East India Company had many of its ships built in the Blackwall Yard and erected almshouses and a chapel. The Chapel was built as a chapelry of Stepney, but in 1823 Poplar became a parish and a new church [All Saints] was built. The registers of Poplar Chapel were transferred to the new church, the old building was then renamed St. Matthias and a new set of registers started.

By 1801, the population was only 4,500, but within ten years the opening of the East and West India Docks linked to London by the new East India Dock Road and Commercial Road provided the opportunity for rapid expansion. The population reached about 55,000 by 1881 and the last portion of open space was built over soon afterwards. Poplar became a metropolitan borough in 1900 including Bow and Bromley.

STEPNEY is described in the Domesday Book of 1086 as an arable area with meadows, pastures and woodland with a population of 900 which included Hackney. In medieval times the parish of Stepney extended east from the City as far as the River Lea and north from the River Thames as far as Hackney.

At the end of the 16th century there was a period of rapid growth in population with the development of the riverside and eastern suburbs of the City. For civil purposes Stepney had been divided up into four hamlets - Ratcliffe, Limehouse, Poplar and Mile End, but because of the increase in buildings and inhabitants new hamlets were created. Bethnal Green (in 1597), Shadwell (in 1645), Spitalfields (in 1662), St. George in the East (in 1670), Mile End New Town (in 1691) and Bow (in 1719). Whitechapel and Bromley St. Leonard were already separate parishes.

The name Stepney now meant little more than a geographical area around St. Dunstan's church but revived in the 19th century as the name of a registration district. In 1900 the Borough of Stepney was formed and comprised of various civil vestries, parishes and liberties bounded by the City, Bethnal Green and Poplar. This industrial suburb had a population of about 300,000, many living in poverty and overcrowded conditions. The main industries were dock labour and the manufacture of clothing with many employed in warehouses and shops.

During World War Two more than a third of the houses were made uninhabitable and most of the others damaged by bombing, as were the docks, warehouses and business premises. Stepney became part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1965.

Parish Register-Docklands Ancestors