Ghost building

St Mary Matfelon

St Mary Matfelon

{Information board in the park:}

Around 70:
The first ‘high street’ is built by the Romans to link London with the provincial capital of Colchester.

By the 5th century the Roman empire is in decline and during the next century this area becomes part of the Kingdom of Essex.   In 604 the Bishop Mellitus arrives in this Kingdom from Italy as the first Bishop of London and builds and dedicates a cathedral to St Paul on the site where St Paul’s stands today.

The first church is built on this site as a chapel of ease in the parish of Stepney.  The ‘White Chapel’ is constructed from Kentish chalk rubble and the distinctive appearance gives its name to the area.

Metal working foundries are in operation close to the site, casting bells, cauldrons and other objects.  Today the practice of bell making is still undertaken in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry further east along Whitechapel Road.  This foundry is the oldest manufacturing company in the UK.

The original chapel is rebuilt as St Mary Matfelon.

Animal product industries such as horse skinning, tanning and horn working, are operating in the area.

King Charles I is executed and the only period of English republicanism lasts until 1660.  The King’s alleged executioner, Richard Brandon is buried in these grounds.

St Mary’s church is rebuilt in red brick in a neo-classical ‘Roman’ style.

Huguenot refugees arrive in the east end driven out of France for their Protestant faith.

Sir John Cass, East End educational philanthropist died and is buried in this grave yard.  One of the educational trusts he established is today the Building Crafts College, whose students in 2011 carved the white stone plinths in this park.

The London Burial Act is passed to set aside land for cemeteries in the outskirts of London as existing burial grounds, including this one, are overflowing.  The Gentlemen’s Magazine in December 1850 observes “St Mary is setting an excellent example to the Metropolitan parishes whose churchyards will soon be closed under the new Interments Act, the churchyard is now planted with evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees.  As it is a well ascertained fact that trees absorb and convert the noxious gases given off by the process of decomposition of the body, we hope this laudable example will be universally followed.”

St Mary’s Church is rebuilt in the 13th century Gothic style.

Jewish immigration to the East End, which began in the 17th century continues and by the 1880 Russian and German political radicals also arrive here, escaping persecution in eastern Europe.  In 1886 the Freedom Press was founded in Whitechapel as an outlet and meeting place for the radical and anarchist thinkers of the day and has operated, with short breaks, ever since.  The Freedom bookshop is still located in Angel Alley just across the road next to the Whitechapel Gallery.

The recently rebuilt St Mary’s church is damaged by fire and is demolished and construction starts again from scratch.

Toynebee Hall is founded by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett in Commercial Street at the end of Whitechapel High Street.  It was the first university settlement house of the reformist social movement.  It strove to get the rich and poor to live more closely together as a means to eradicate poverty and promote social inclusion.  It remains active today.

The philanthropist John Passmore Edwards founds the Whitechapel Library and in 1901 the Whitechapel Gallery.  Both institutions are designed to give the East End working class communities access to culture.  The gallery is still in operation today.

By the beginning of the 20th century a small community of Bengali lascars, or seamen, are living in the East End.  The tradition of lascars serving on European ships, notably those of the East Indian Company, dates from the 17th century and during the First World War many of these men are recruited into the British Navy.

A Second World War incendiary bomb damages St Mary’s Church.  It stands derelict and is used as an unofficial playground and home for vagrants.

The East London Mosque is inaugurated in three houses in Commercial Road.

1950s – 1960s:
Settlement of Bengalis in the East End increases as servicemen stay on after the Second World War and more arrive as economic migrants.

Bengali language martyrs are killed during protests in what was formerly East Pakistan.

The derelict St Mary’s Church Tower is struck by lightning and the building is demolished.

The former St Mary’s churchyard is opened as a municipal garden.

1970s – 1980s:
The East End Bengali community grows as wives and children arrive to join their menfolk already working here, their culture transforms the area, most notably Brick Lane.

The Brick Lane Mosque opens in what was originally a Huguenot church built in 1743 and which became a Jewish Synagogue in 1898.

Murder of the Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali and the foundation of the anti-racist youth movement.  The park becomes a rallying point for demonstrations.

The East London Mosque moves to a purpose built building on Whitechapel Road.

The park is dedicated to the memory of Altab Ali.

The Shaheed Minar Monument to commemorate the Bengali Language Martyrs, is built in the park in the same year UNESCO recognizes International Mother Language Day, which is observed annually on 21st February.

Altab Ali park is renovated as part of the High Street 2012 initiative to improve and celebrate one of London’s great high streets for the enjoyment of local people and visitors during the 2012 Olympic Games and beyond.  As part of the design process an archaeological dig is undertaken by the Museum of London.  The dig involves over 900 people and unearths some of the artefacts displayed in these plinths alongside the structural remains of the churches dating from 1673 and 1875.

The design of the park you see today is based on the findings of the dig.  The footprint of the last church to stand on the site is traced by the raised walkway and the walls of earlier churches and chapels are marked by the carved stone fragments which also incorporate sections of original masonry unearthed during the works on site.

The dig transforms the park into an open air museum and local people also donate their personal artefacts which are displayed alongside the archaeological finds, some of which are pictured below.

Bengali artists transform Altab Ali park with traditional Alpana painting for Martyrs Day.

London hosts the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Our picture comes from Google satellite view and shows, better than can be seen at ground level, the (partial) outlines of the two churches: 1673 and 1877, which are also shown in our picture for the church - taken from the information board. 

Site: St Mary Matfelon footprint (1 memorial)

E1, Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel Road

At the nearby bus-stop on the high street there is a long information board giving the history of the area and this park in particular. It's very informative and, for want of anywhere more appropriate, we've included the text here:

In 1994 this park was dedicated to the memory of Altab Ali, the 25-year-old Bengali murdered in Adler Street on 4th May 1978 in a racist attack by three teenage boys.  Altab Ali was on his way home to Wapping from a small factory just off Brick Lane where he worked as a clothing machinist.

Throughout the 1970s racist attacks on the Bengali community were widespread.  Bricks were thrown at windows, excrement smeared over doors and much of Tower Hamlets was a ‘no go area’ for Bengalis.  The murder took place on the night of the 1978 local elections where the far right National Front party was standing for election in 43 seats, far more than they ever had previously.  Even though they polled poorly, their involvement provoked a highly charged atmosphere.

Altab Ali’s murder highlighted the general level of racist violence at that time endemic across the borough of Tower Hamlets and beyond.  His death marked a turning point.  Ten days later, on 14th May, about 7,000 people marched from the site of his death to Hyde Park, to mourn him in a spirit of resistance and to demand police protection.  Within the year, after a campaign of sit-down protests locally, the National Front, whose headquarters were not far from Brick Lane, was forced out of the area.  The Bengali youth movement who led the ‘Battle for Brick Lane’, the Anti-Nazi League and the Rock against Racism groups were born out of the events of 1978, and far right extremists suffered a huge setback.

At the entrance to the park is a wrought-iron arch created by David Peterson, as a memorial to Altab Ali and other victims of racist attacks.  It was installed in 1989 and symbolically combines motifs of Bangladeshi and English perpendicular architecture.

The Shaheed Minar Martyrs Monument in Altab Ali Park is a replica of the original monument constructed in Dhaka, Bangladesh to commemorate those killed during the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations in 1952.  At this time Bangladesh was part of Eastern Pakistan and the rulers of Pakistan were seeking to impose Urdu on the Bengalis as the sole official language of the country.  On 21st February 1952, at the University of Dhaka, the Pakistani police force opened fire and killed dozens of Bengali students and political activists including Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, Jabbar and Shofiur, who were protesting for state recognition of the mother tongue, Bangla, also known as Bengali.  Afterwards, a makeshift memorial was erected at the site of the massacre, near Dhaka Medical College and Ramna Park, but this was soon removed by the Pakistani police force.

The Bengali Language Movement grew in strength and in 1956, after a prolonged struggle, Bangla was given the same status as Urdu.  In 1957 work began on a new Shaheed Minar designed by Hamidur Rahman.  Progress was delayed by the introduction of martial law and subsequently the memorial was demolished, this time by the Pakistani army.

Following the independence of Bangladesh, the monument was rebuilt and the Language Movement Martyrs are remembered at the Shaheed Minar every year.

The replica here in Altab Ali Park was inaugurated in February 1999, following more than a decade of campaigning by local residents and financial contributions from 54 community organisations.  In November 1999 UNESCO declared 21st February to be International Mother Language Day.  Every year on this day, members of the local community come here to mark ‘Ekushey’.  They lay wreaths in memory of the Language Martyrs.  The monument represents a weeping mother and four children, grouped in front of a large blood-red circular panel.  To pay homage to the language martyrs, Abdul Gaffa Chowdhury, an eminent Bengali journalist, composed the famous song ‘Amaar Bhayer Rokte Rangano Ekushey February, Aami Ki Bhulitey Parri’ (I cannot forget the 21st February that has been marked with the blood of my brother).

Bengalis are the only race in the world known to have given blood and fought a liberation war which originated from a struggle to preserve their language and culture.

The original White Chapel that gave its name to the area stood on this site between 1250 and 1286.  This simple, lime washed, stone rubble chapel was rebuilt as St Mary Matfelon in 1329 and over the next 500 years the church was enlarged to encompass different styles and completely rebuilt at least three more times.  During that time several thousand people were buried in the churchyard including Richard Brandon, the alleged executioner of Charles I.

In 1857 the burial ground was full and burials ceased.  The grounds re-opened in 1880s as a Metropolitan Public Garden.  The church itself was hit by incendiary bombs during the blitz in 1940 and stood derelict until lightning split the tower and the building was finally demolished in 1952.  The churchyard was renovated as St Marys Gardens in 1966 and was renamed in 1994 to commemorate Altab Ali.

In 2010 an archaeological dig in the park unearthed the remains of the 17th and 19th century churches and many artefacts, including fragments of pots and plates, clay pipes, buttons, and burial items.  The oldest find was a Roman sand-tempered ware lid that may be part of an urn for holding cremation ashes which dates from the period when Romans occupied London and built the road from London to Colchester, which ran alongside the park where the High Street stands today.

Beliefs remain constant but building fashions change.  The archaeological excavations revealed the early church from 1673 built over by a later church building rom 1864.  The church from the 1673 is shown in drawings as a neo classical ‘Roman’ style but by the 1800s this would have been considered too pagan and the church was rebuilt in the gothic style.

This last church became famous for the off centre clock leaning over the High Street and the open-air pulpit that enabled the vicar to preach to a larger congregation than could fit inside the church. The cedar of Lebanon tree now marks the approximate location of that pulpit and the raised walkway traces the edge of the 19th century church while the stone plinths mark the walls of the earlier churches.

This section lists the subjects commemorated on the memorial on this page:
St Mary Matfelon

Subjects commemorated i

St Mary Matfelon Whitechapel

1250-1286: The first church was built on this site as a chapel of ease (meani...

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World War 2

Sorry, we've done no research on WW2, it's just too big a subject. But do vis...

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Freedom Press

Anarchist publishing house in Whitechapel. Co-founded by Peter Kropotkin as a...

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The Huguenots

French Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. The name emerged in 1560 b...

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Dame Henrietta Barnett, D.B.E.

Founder of Henrietta Barnett School for Girls and Hampstead Garden Suburb. Th...

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Show all 13

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