Bethnal green was known as the scene of the legend of the Blind Beggar and
later as the archetypal East End slum, the green lying c. 2½ miles (4 km.) north-east
of St. Paul's cathedral. (fn. 1) A hamlet of Stepney until 1743, when it became a separate
parish, it contained 755 a. (fn. 2) and was bounded by Shoreditch on the west and north,
Hackney on the north, Stratford-at-Bow on the east, and Mile End and Spitalfields
on the south. Hackney Road, possibly ancient, formed part of the northern
boundary and the common sewer part of the southern. (fn. 3) Perambulations of the
parish boundaries were supposed to be triennial (fn. 4) but in practice they were much
less frequent (fn. 5) and disputes occurred as building encroached: with Christ Church,
Spitalfields, over Wheeler Street in 1769 (fn. 6) and with Hackney over Cambridge Heath
in 1732, 1779, 1788, and 1826. (fn. 7) Tower Hamlets sewer commissioners defined the
northern boundary in 1854. (fn. 8) Adjustments to all the borders when Bethnal Green
became a metropolitan borough in 1900 left an overall acreage of c. 760 (307.5 ha.).
The main effect was to make Cambridge Road the eastern boundary from Mile
End Road to the railway line and to make the railway the southern boundary from
Globe to Grove roads. (fn. 9) The metropolitan borough became part of the London
Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1965. (fn. 10)
Bethnal Green is covered by River Terrace gravels on London Clay. North-west
of a wavy line from Bishopsgate station to the Hackney border at Grove Street lies
Taplow Gravel; south-east lies Higher Flood Plain gravel. The 15m. contour runs
through the Taplow Gravel. Most of the parish is flat, with a slight incline to the
south. (fn. 11)
The common sewer, which marked Bethnal Green's southern boundary from
Brick Lane to Mile End Gate, (fn. 12) may have originated as a natural stream. The flat
ground, in spite of its underlying gravel, was frequently marshy. Haresmarsh (fn. 13)
and Foulmere (fn. 14) covered much of the south and there was a causeway probably on
the site of Dog Row. (fn. 15) Rushes feature in place-names on both sides of Cambridge
Heath. (fn. 16) A field in the north-west in 1652 was 'usually drowned with water'. (fn. 17) It
was then being worked for bricks and the extraction of brickearth and gravel left
the landscape pitted with holes, adding by 1848 'filthy, pestilential lakes' (fn. 18) to the
natural ponds, like that on the green by St. George's chapel. (fn. 19)
||J. Dugdale, New Brit. Traveller (1819), iii. 473.
||Gascoyne, Map; Lysons, Environs, ii. 27. For Hackney
Rd., below, communications.
||Vestry mins. 1782-1813, p. 31.
||Ibid. 1820-3, P. 157. The perambulation in 1821 was
the first since 1814.
||Vestry mins. 1747-81, p. 277.
||Ibid. 1823-8, 29 Mar., 7 Sept. 1826; The Times, 16
June 1788, 3a; 12 Sept. 1788, 2d; V.C.H. Mdx. x. 3.
||Ibid. CL/LOC/2/10; Census (1901).
||Below, local govt. (local govt. after 1965).
||Geol. Surv. Map 6", drift, Lond. sheet V. NE. (1920
edn.); ibid. 1/50,000, sheet 256 (1994 edn.); V.C.H. Mdx. i,
map facing p. 2; T.H.L.H.L., Map no. 1885.
||P.R.O., SC 6/1139/18 (1362-4).
||Guildhall MS. 25121/1710 (1388).
||B.L. Eg. Ch. 2081.
||Rush croft or land and Rush (Russia) Lane to E.:
Guildhall MS. 25422 (1404); B.L. Eg. MS. 3006, f.1
(1546); survey of 1550 in W. Robinson, Hist. Hackney,
i (1842), 325; Rush mead and meadow to W.: Lambeth
Pal. Libr., MS. 2731/2 (1640); G.L.R.O., M93/158, f.8
||G.L.R.O., M93/158, f.9.
||Gavin, San. Rumblings, 87.
||Gascoyne, Map; Survey of Bethnal Green (1706)
(T.H.L.H.L., Map no. 301).