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A brief history of the borough of
Bethnal Green

Bethnal Green - A village outside the City of London walls

There is little doubt that there was a small settlement on the site of the original green as far back as the Roman occupation. Green Street (renamed Roman Road in the 1950’s) showed buried artefacts from the period, when the Central Line was being excavated in the late thirties. As time passed by a few wealthy citizens built their large mansions around the original green and over the centuries it went from pleasant countryside to the filthy overcrowded slums of the Victorian era, full of poverty and disease. It has since then improved and today it is attracting many City people and “'trendys”, as they are sometimes referred to. Property prices in the area are soaring.
Even eyesores like the moderately famous Keeling House were bringing upwards of £250,000 and more for an apartment in 2002. Not bad when you consider it was a council block condemned for being unsafe and left empty for years, before being sold for a pittance to developers. I dread to think how much the properties are worth now, at the time of this update in 2018!

Origins of the name

Kirby’s Castle

The original village green occupied the area that Victoria Park Square now occupies including Bethnal Green Gardens and possibly Barmy Park, With the Green Street leading up to it from the direction of Mile End village. A large house was built near the green, known as Blithe Hall. The earliest record of this is in an eighth century document. Before this there are no written references to be found, so Blithe Hall Green is for now the starting point.
With different accents, and bad handwriting taking their toll over the years, by the fourteenth century it was referred to by John Stow in his survey as Bethen Hall Green. Another hundred years and Pepys recorded his journey to Bednall Green, and on it went until it came to be known by it’s present name. On the other hand, according to a Mr. Lysons, it derives its name from the old family name, Bathons, who had possessions in Stepney in the reign of Edward I.

The housing estate on the old Roman Road just behind the library was built on part of the original green and on this site was once a large mansion called Bednall House. It was built by a rich merchant named John Kirby, and eventually became known as Kirby’s Castle by the rest of the villagers.
In 1727 the mansion was turned into a private asylum for what were then classed as mental patients or ‘lunatics’. The original building stood until 1843 when it was demolished. The new asylum that was opened in it’s place went on until 1920 before being closed to make way for the housing estate mentioned earlier. The inmates were transferred to Salisbury. Even today, the park where the library stands is known locally as “Barmy Park”.

The arrival of the weavers

Continuing immigration

The start of the eighteenth century was also the start of major expansion for the small settlement of Bednall Green. Where once there were a few dwellings and large houses built by the wealthy around the green, now there now began the building of many smaller houses that would become home to the vast influx of weavers that arrived from outside and would eventually dominate the area.
Silk workers from France had arrived in England 200 years previous, and had managed to establish what was by now a flourishing industry. Originally opening their looms in Spitalfields, they then went on to establish Mile End New Town, and the overspill from these areas headed for Bethnal Green. In time, the greatest number of weavers were based here. Who would believe that a hundred years later the area was to become full of poverty and overcrowded slums.

The whole of the East End, including Bethnal Green has always had vast numbers of immigrants who seemed to move on after a many years to be replaced by another type. Among them we have had the Huguenots, Jews, Chinese, West Indians and Turks among others. In the last thirty or forty years it has been the Bangladesh community and other Muslim countries that have become the major part of the population and it looks like they will remain.
As well as the Asians, many other young people from all over the world have turned it into a very cosmopolitan borough. Go anywhere around the area in 2018 and you will see and hear Spanish, French, Italian,Portuguese and a host of others.
There are also a great deal of “middle class” youngsters and families moving into the area. Seems that this is the “In” place to be at the moment.