Dickens and London
     East End History:  Bethnal Green Churches

In 1839 the Bishop of London, James Blomfield, decided to build ten new churches in Bethnal Green ‘one of the most desolate parishes’ in his diocese. At the time the area had a population of around seventy thousand people and two Anglican churches, dedicated to the apostles St Matthew and St John. Blomfield set up a fund, and the new churches were completed by 1850 and dedicated to the remaining ten apostles (St Matthias replacing Judas Iscariot as the twelfth apostle). This was the start of a long tradition of philanthropists from the West End, Oxford and the churches coming into the East End and trying to improve its moral and social condition.

Map of Bethnal Green showing the twelve Anglican Churches in 1850

1    St Matthew
5    St James the Less
9    St Peter
2    St John
6    St James the Great
10  St Philip 
3    St Andrew
7    St Jude
11  St Simon Zelotes 
4    St Bartholomew
8    St Matthias
12  St Thomas

As the map shows, the twelve churches were sometimes less than a quarter of a mile apart and they competed for congregations and for funds. Most of the ten built in the mid nineteenth century have not survived. The two pre-1839 churches are still open for worship today.  The eighteenth century parish church St Matthew’s was restored after war damage and is still surrounded by its churchyard. St John’s, one of a number of ‘Waterloo’ churches built in turbulent urban areas by the government after the Napoleonic wars, has recently been renovated.

St Matthew by George Dance Sen. (1746)

St John by Sir John Soane (1828

Blomfield found it difficult to find good vicars to live and work in Bethnal Green. He had ensured that each new church was endowed with £200 a year, but the scope for raising further income proved limited and the vicars found themselves poor. They were also isolated from middle class society and many of them reacted badly. For example, the first vicar of St Phillips annoyed everyone by cornering the market for weddings by charging couples only a total of 2s 6d (13p today). His fellow at St James the Great left his wife and children in the country and ‘went to bed with his servant maid’. At St Simon Zelotes the second vicar was ‘only a slug in the Lord’s vineyard’ with virtually no congregation and his schools languishing.

Later Anglican interventions in the East End ensured that vicars were supported by small communities of curates and lay helpers. But it proved easier to find both philanthropists to build churches and vicars of zeal and commitment to work in them than to persuade East Enders to go to church. In 1851, in the East End as a whole, an estimated one in five people attended church (including synagogue) on Sundays, one in ten of them going to an Anglican church. Fifty years later church attendance in Bethnal Green was one in seven or eight, with one in twenty people worshiping in Anglican churches.

St Peter by Lewis Vulliamy (1841)

St James the Less by Lewis Vulliamy (1842)

But although East Enders did not want religion they did want education for their children. St Peter and St James the Less both developed good schools, and both are still open for worship. There is no trace of St Andrew, St Matthias, St Philip, St Jude and St Thomas today. The vicarage of St Simon Zelotes survives, although the church does not. However St James the Great and St Bartholomew have been converted to housing and add architectural interest to their surroundings.


St James the Great by Edward Blore (1843)

St Bartholomew by William Railton (1844)


Susan Gane
First published London Society Journal No 453, Summer 2007