History of Religion in Tower Hamlets

Religious and cultural diversity have long been part of the character of Tower Hamlets. The Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity in the 6th and 7th centuries and England's 16th century Reformation made Protestantism dominant. But there were different versions of reformed worship and East London became a stronghold of nonconformity (divergence from the established Anglican Church). England's first Baptist Chapel was founded in Spitalfields in 1612. Christ Church, Spitalfields (1714-29) was one of three great government-funded churches designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and built in Tower Hamlets to combat nonconformity and to cater for a rapidly growing population that included 'foreigners in large numbers', with significant percentages of French and Irish weavers. From the 1680s persecution of Protestants in France led Huguenot refugees, many skilled in silk weaving, to come to England in large numbers. In London their history is still visible in the architecture of Spitalfields.

Proximity to the Port of London, on the River Thames meant that the riverside areas of the borough were the first landfall for many an overseas traveller, whether mariner or displaced person, such as the Asian seamen known as ‘lascars'. Calcutta became the Indian terminus of the P&O line in 1842 and Bengali Lascars started arriving in London on the P&O mail and passenger ships. There is evidence of a Muslim Bengali community in the East End before 1850. This consisted mainly of seamen who had either been abandoned in the port or had voluntarily left their ships. London's first Chinatown was established in Limehouse in the 1890s when Chinese sailors were marooned by the Blue Funnel Line, who offered them no return passage to the East. They settled around Limehouse Causeway, hence the names Canton Street and Pekin Street. In Britain, the name lascar was widely used to refer to seamen from any country east of the Cape of Good Hope and at the turn of the 20th century in the region of 40,000 foreign seamen were sailing with British merchant and war ships annually with many spending at least some time in British port areas.

Jewish people had been expelled from England in 1290, but in 1656 Oliver Cromwell allowed them to resettle and many Sephardic Jews expelled from their homes in Spain and Portugal came to East London. The first Jewish burial ground, the Old Velho Sephardi Cemetery was established on the north side of Mile End Road in 1657 and two other Jewish burial grounds opened in the area within the next hundred years. In the 1880s a series of violent attacks on Jewish people in the Russian Empire, known as pogroms, resulted in an exodus of Jewish refugees, mostly German and Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. Arriving in London in great numbers, many settled in Tower Hamlets. Records show that the Jewish population of London's East End rose from 4000 in 1881 to over 50,000 in 1901. About 150 synagogues were built in this time and the idea of the ‘Jewish East End' became embedded in our national culture.

Historically, many of these immigrants worked in the clothing industry. Abundant semi- and unskilled labour had long meant low wages and poor living conditions throughout the East End. This had drawn the attention of social reformers during the middle decades of the 19th century (the first Peabody Buildings to provide improved model housing were erected on Commercial Street in 1848). Poverty also led to the formation of unions and workers' associations by the end of the century.

Great destruction was wrought by bombing all over Tower Hamlets during the Second World War. The borough suffered more than any other part of London – 24,000 homes, many places of worship and much of its industry were destroyed. The post war period brought further difficulties as traditional dock industries fell into rapid decline, leaving substantial areas of land and buildings vacant and derelict. But as throughout its history, Tower Hamlets has continued its tradition of welcoming people of different faiths and cultures. Newcomers from Bangladesh settled in Spitalfields and the surrounding areas, along with Somali and Vietnamese refugees fleeing war and persecution. With its culture and cuisine, the predominantly Bangladeshi community gives such distinctive life and vitality to the area around Brick Lane that it has become known as Banglatown.

Over half of Tower Hamlets' current population is from non-White British ethnic groups. A third is of Bangladeshi origin, of whom half are under 20 years old, and can look directly to the Bengali lascars as their community's antecedents in the area. Sixty per cent of the White British population is over 30. Fewer than 2000 Jewish residents were recorded in the borough in the 2001 census, and with the closure of the Fieldgate Synagogue in October 2007, there are currently only five synagogues still in operation across the borough, an indication of the great reduction in the number of Jewish residents. In contrast we have recorded twenty-seven Mosques in the borough at this time. There are also many new Pentecostalist places of worship many with almost exclusive afro-carribean congregations, alongside long-established Christian churches and chapels.