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Local Government

Over the past five centuries, the geographical area of Tower Hamlets has been managed by successive organisations that have comprised local government now embodied in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. These bodies have generated extensive and rich resources that document the development of the borough and the people who have lived in it and shaped it. Local authority collections (classified under catalogue reference L) go well beyond documenting the evolution and practice of local government in Tower Hamlets. The records shine a light on numerous aspects of the area’s history including:

  • local political history
  • economic and social changes
  • leisure pursuits
  • demographics and public health
  • the shaping and reshaping of the built environment and open spaces
  • biographical and genealogical information

Local authority records include:

  • letters
  • reports and printed material submitted by individuals
  • businesses and organisations which were entirely separate from the Council for specific transactions. For example, evidence for grants, rating, property or disputes.

Such material may not have survived elsewhere, and in some cases may represent the only archival trace of the person, organisation or business.

The records can searched on our online catalogue.

This guide outlines how municipal government has changed over the centuries in Tower Hamlets and links each successive authority with the area’s topography. Organisation, era and place are important keys to understanding local authority records and getting the most from them. Knowing which municipal body – Parish, Hamlet, Vestry, District Board, Borough or Council – was in existence at a particular point in time and knowing the boundaries between the municipal jurisdictions will greatly assist the research process. For example, combing the records of the St Matthew (Bethnal Green) Vestry for an incident that actually occurred in Poplar in 1912 would be fruitless no matter how diligent the search. Also, some records continue under the next body. It is recommended that users to search records of the successor organisation as well as the authority active at the period in question.

The following is a brief chronological outline of the evolution of local government to the present day. More detailed descriptive accounts of individual local authority bodies can be found in the relevant Administrative History sections of the online catalogue using the reference codes provided below.

1965–present: local authority district set up under the 1963 London Government Act

  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets (ref: L/THL)

1900–1965: three Metropolitan Boroughs established under the 1899 London Government Act

  • Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green (ref: L/BGM)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Poplar (ref: L/PMB)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney (ref: L/SMB)

1855–1900: Vestries and District Boards set up under the 1855 Metropolis Management Act

  • St Matthew (Bethnal Green) Vestry (ref: L/MBG) covering an area that exactly matched the ancient parish
  • Limehouse District Board of Works (ref: L/LBW) covering the area formerly governed by four main predecessor bodies:
    • Parish of St Anne Limehouse (ref: L/SAL)
    • Hamlet of Ratcliff (ref: L/RAT)
    • Parish of St Paul Shadwell (ref: L/SPS)
    • Parish of St John Wapping (ref: L/SJW)
    • Mile End Old Town Vestry (ref: L/MEO)
  • Poplar District Board of Works (ref: L/PBW) covering the area formerly governed by three main predecessor bodies:
    • Parish of St Mary Stratford Bow (ref: L/SMS)
    • Parish of St Leonard Bromley (ref: L/BSL)
    • Parish of All Saints Poplar (ref: L/ASP)
    • St George in the East Vestry (ref: L/SGE)
  • Whitechapel District Board of Works (ref: L/WBW) comprising the area formerly governed by no less than nine predecessor bodies:
    • Hamlet of Mile End New Town
    • Parish of Holy Trinity, Minories (ref: L/HTM)
    • Liberty of Norton Folgate (ref: L/NTF)
    • Old Artillery Ground (ref: L/OAG)
    • District of Tower
    • Precinct of St Katherine
    • Parish of St Botolph without Aldgate (ref: L/SBW)
    • Parish of Christchurch Spitalfields (ref: L/CCS)
    • Parish of St Mary Whitechapel (ref: L/SMW)


Pre-1855: local government in Tower Hamlets was exercised by individual parish bodies and their officers (including the overseers of the poor, surveyors of highways and churchwardens), hamlets, liberties, turnpike trusts and other administrative organisations. See above for references to the main surviving records.

Highlights matching key research trends

The following guide matches highlights from local authority records to popular subject headings. This guide does not exhaustively list all of the records relating to a particular subject, but encourages researchers to search the catalogue and the records and make their own discoveries.

Council Committee records from the latter part of the 20th century, in particular, will have information relating to issues of race and ethnicity in the Borough. But earlier records can often yield interesting information.

  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets General Purposes Committee (ref: L/THL/A/8/1):
    • minutes from 1965–1966 have been found to include reference to the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants
  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets Works Committee (ref: L/THL/A/33/2/7):
    • minutes from 1982–1983 include reference to the Young Muslim Association
  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets: Ethnic Minorities Committee unrestricted and restricted minutes 1984–1986 (ref: L/THL/A/37/1–2)
  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets Development Committee (ref: L/THL/A/30):
    • minutes from 1982–1983 include reference to Travellers
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Markets Committee (ref: L/SMB/A/15):
    • minutes from 1928, for example, have been found to include information on Jewish street traders
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Housing Committee (ref: L/SMB/A/7):
    • minutes from 1921, for example, include information on Jewish families seeking housing by the Borough
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Maternity and Child Welfare Committee (ref: L/SMB/A/14):
    • minutes from 1926, for example, include information on Jewish applicants to the Borough’s scheme for free milk

There are numerous relevant printed reports, pamphlets and other published materials originating from the municipal authorities in the Library collections mainly from the latter part of the 20th century:

  • Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Committee, ‘A Guide to Combatting Racial Harassment’ (in English and Bengali) (classmark 300.2)
  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets, ‘Review by Officers' Group of Race Relations in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ (1981) (classmark 400)
  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets, ‘1991 Census Results for Ethnic Groups in Tower Hamlets’ (1995) (classmark 310)
  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets, ‘Equality Matters: Achievements 1997/98’ (1998) (classmark 300.2)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, ‘Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health and Public Analyst, 1944’ (classmark 610.01 STE)
    • includes section on black African Caribbean and Asian communities entitled at the time ‘Coloured Persons in Stepney’
  • Tower Hamlets Director of Housing: ‘Black and Ethnic Minority Strategy’ (1995) (classmark 331.2)
  • Tower Hamlets Education Directorate: ‘Tower Hamlets Education – Getting it Right’ (1988, draft plan in Chinese) (classmark 880.2)
  • Tower Hamlets Housing Services Committee, ‘Combating Racial Harassment: A Progress Report’ (1994) (classmark 300.2)

The shifting political scene in Tower Hamlets throughout the 20th century can be partly traced by using the minutes of the Borough Councils and Tower Hamlets Council in full session. These give:

  • election results in detail (including names – and votes cast – of candidates who failed to get elected)
  • indicate the relative electoral strengths of the main parties and the role of prominent local politicians
  • the policies pursued
  • political manoeuvrings, etc.

Relevant collections include:

  • Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green 1900–1965 (ref: L/BGM/A/1/1)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Poplar 1900–1965 (ref: L/PMB/A/1/1)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney 1900–1965 (ref: L/SMB/A/1/1)
  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets 1965–2010 (ref: L/THL/A/1/1)

The first councillor to be elected to a London authority under the banner of the Labour Party was Joe Vaughan, an electrician who was elected to Bethnal Green South Ward on 25 June 1914. Details of Vaughan’s election can be found in the Borough Council minutes for that year (ref: L/BGM/A/1/1/15–16); his voting record as a councillor – and years as mayor from 1919 to 1921 – can be traced in subsequent volumes.


One particular episode of note in Poplar was the Rates Rebellion of 1921. 30 councillors were jailed for contempt of court after refusing to pay the precepts for four cross-London authorities – the London County Council, the Metropolitan Police, the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the Metropolitan Water Board. The full Council minutes of the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar covering 1921 (ref: L/PMB/A/1/21–22) document these events, while the minutes of the Finance Committee for this crucial period would also repay investigation (ref: L/PMB/A/4/13–14).


The famous Battle of Cable Street occurred in early October 1936. The relevant minutes of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney would undoubtedly document this event (ref: L/SMB/A/1/36–37) and also the Left/Right political conflict of these years in general.

Although local authority records lack the bulk value of resources such as the census returns, birth, marriage and death records (see our family history guide), genealogical information on elected members, salaried officials and employees can be found, albeit scattered throughout the collections.

The political careers of individuals in local government can also be traced using archival material and sources such as the published annual reports of the municipal bodies. For example, by the 1890s the annual published reports of the St Matthew Vestry give an attendance record for each of the 59 vestrymen. Residents are also mentioned in files dealing with properties, businesses or other aspects of managing the area. But often can be only gleaned from indexes to minutes or from departmental files themselves and are not described in the online catalogue.

The following are examples of records which might contain useful information for users looking to trace individuals:

  • Vestry minutes for the parish of St Leonard Bromley 1722–1762 (ref: L/BSL/A/1/1)
    • this volume includes lists of people in receipt of poor relief: oftentimes, it is only the names of ratepayers which survive
  • An annual register of parish poor children 1767–1777 for the Parish of All Saints Poplar (ref: L/ASP/F/4/1)
  • Pauper examination book 1792–1826 for the Liberty of the Old Artillery Ground (ref: L/OAG/5/1)
  • Parish of St Mary Stratford, Bow, apprenticeship register 1802–1827 (ref: L/SMS/C/9/1)
  • List of voters in the Hamlet of Ratcliff circa 1850 (ref: L/RAT/4/16)
    • a useful supplement to other electoral records which cover the area
  • Jury lists and related documents for the Parish of St George-in-the-East 1838–89 (ref: L/SGE/A/7)
    • extensive source, useful for genealogists and also for an insight into the workings of the 19th century legal system in east London
  • Parish of Bromley St Leonard Vestry attendance books 1877–1885 and 1895–1897 (ref: L/BSL/A/13/1–2)


Users should note that some of the following record series may be closed under data protection legislation:

  • Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green Staff and Establishment Committee minutes and 1924–1965 reports 1916–1940 (ref: L/BGM/A/14/1–2)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green Staff Appeals Committee 1961–64 (ref: L/BGM/A/26/1)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Poplar Town Clerk’s Department Registers of Declarations of Office 1934–1955 (ref: L/PMB/B/7/1–3)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Poplar Borough Treasurer’s Department Superannuation Files 1952–1966 (ref: L/PMB/D/6/1–6)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Town Clerk’s Department Registers of Staff 1900–1965 (ref: L/SMB/B/4/1–6)


Relevant material from the Library collections includes:

  • Hamlet of Poplar and Blackwall: ‘Names of those serving officers during the years 1698–1780’ (classmark 351.3)
  • Poplar District Board of Works: ‘List of officers and workmen in the employ of the board’ 1897, 1899 (classmark 357.2 POP)
  • Poplar Borough Council: ‘List of workmen regularly employed in the Works Department of the Council’ 1903–1940 (classmark 357.2 POP)
  • Stepney Borough Council ‘List of members of the council and of the committees and officers1903–1924’ (classmark 354.1 STE)
  • Names of councillors, officers and staff can also be found in Borough yearbooks

Local authority records are a particularly rich source of information for the history of Tower Hamlets during wartime in the First World War (1914–1918) and Second World War (1939–1945). The Second World War is very well covered, as is the reconstruction in the war’s aftermath – the later 1940s through to the mid 1960s was a period which completely reshaped the physical environment of the area.


WW1

Full Borough Council minutes give a good overview of the impact and response to challenging times throughout 1914–1918. In addition of particular note is Poplar Military Service Tribunal 1916–1918 (ref: L/PMB/B/6):

  • following the 1916 Military Services Act, a local Military Service Tribunal for Poplar was established by the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar on 17 February 1916.
  • The Tribunal’s first meeting was held at Poplar Town Hall on 28 February 1916.
  • Regular meetings were held from then until the end of the war, dealing with applications for exemption from military service.

There is almost certain to be information relating to the bombing raid which took place on 13 June 1917 and led to the deaths of 18 children at Upper North Street School in Poplar.
 

WW2

Local authority records document events in Tower Hamlets in the period 1939–1945 from numerous angles. The following are a small selection:

  • Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green Civil Defence Committee 1939–1940 and reports 1939–46 (L/BGM/A/18/1–2)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green Air Raid Damage Files 1940–1945 (ref: L/BGM/B/11/1–85)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green wartime notes (ref: L/BGM/B/13/1)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Poplar Civil Defence (Emergency) Committee 1936–1945 (ref: L/PMB/A/14/1–9)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Poplar Town Clerk’s Department Incident Files (including street index) 1940–1945 (ref: L/PMB/B/4/1–127)

Post-war reconstruction work is extensively documented in the records of the Boroughs’ Public Health, Housing and Works Committees.

The public health of an increasing dense population has been an issue in Tower Hamlets for centuries. The collections offer numerous possibilities for research:

  • Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green Public Health Department subject files (ref: L/BGM/E/1) cover a wide range of health-related subjects including:
    • ‘Criminal Abortion’
    • ‘Immunisation’
    • ‘Plague’
    • ‘Disinfection’
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Health Department medical officer’s journal 1910–1911 (ref: L/SMB/F/1/1)

The annual reports published by the 19th century Vestries and Boards of Works include detailed updates and statistics on health matters submitted by the respective Medical Officers of Health which may not be easily found elsewhere. For example, the 1857 report from the St Matthew Vestry Medical Officer of Health Samuel Pearce includes detailed tables which give a breakdown of deaths in Bethnal Green by occupation and deaths as correlated with weather conditions (classmark 351.4 SAI).

Recreation in its many forms in Tower Hamlets is amply documented, for example:

  • Parish of St Mary Whitechapel Stock Book for the Whitechapel Commissioners of Public Libraries 1892–1902 (L/SMW/E/2/4)
    • sheds light on the reading habits of the people of Whitechapel at the end of the nineteenth century
  • Metropolitan Borough of Poplar Allotments Sub-Committee minutes 1947–1965 (ref: L/PMB/A/16)
    • an interest in ‘growing your own’ is not a recent development
  • Metropolitan Borough of Poplar Entertainments Committee minutes 1948–1954 (ref: L/PMB/A/18)
    • documents the contribution of the Borough to post-war social life
  • Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Physical Training and Recreation Committee minutes 1956–1965 (ref: L/SMB/A/26)
    • highlights the importance of sport to the people of Stepney
  • LBTH Recreation and Entertainments Committee 1964–1971 (ref: L/THL/A/15/1/1–6)
    • includes reference to many local sports clubs, theatre groups and wider arts.
  • LBTH Amenities Committee (ref: L/THL/A//29)
    • the minutes from 1981 include reference to expenditure on the arts
  • LBTH Finance Committee (ref: L/THL/A/7)
    • the minutes from 1979 include reference to the funding of community groups, many oriented towards leisure activities

Further information on sources on the social life of the people of Tower Hamlets can be found here.

19th century Vestry and District Boards of Works Committees are known to include information on building projects of various kinds:

  • Mile End Old Town Vestry: Improvement Scheme for White Horse Lane 1863–1890 (ref: L/MEO/4/1)
  • Limehouse DBW Works and Survey Committee 1893–1896 (ref: L/LBW/A/2/2)
  • Poplar DBW Works Committee 1883–1900 (ref: L/PBW/A/5/1–2)
  • St Matthew Vestry Works Committee 1883–1900 (ref: L/MBG/B/8/1–6)
  • Whitechapel DBW Committee of Works 1856–1901 (ref: L/WBW/4/1–15)

Much of the work of the Committees were briefly summarised in the reports provided by the Surveyors to the Vestry/District Board. These were published in the annual reports – Surveyors’ reports can be used to orientate further research based on the Committee minutes that are available.

As well as dedicated Housing Committees, the Boroughs’ Public Health Committees also include information on housing:

  • Borough of Bethnal Green Public Health Committee 1901–1965 (ref: L/BGM/A/7/1/1–41)
  • Borough of Poplar Public Health Committee 1901–1965 (ref: L/PMB/A/8/1–37)
  • Borough of Stepney Public Health Committee 1901–1965 (ref: L/SMB/A/8/1–57)

Much of the work of LBTH since 1965 has touched in various ways on the built environment:

  • Cleansing Committee (ref: L/THL/A/5):
    • a relatively minor Committee which considered all aspects of keeping the borough clean
    • the minutes of the Committee contain information on individual streets and roads, fly-tipping, wharves, depots, etc.
  • Highways and Works Committee (L/THL/A/10)
    • includes information on vacant sites in the Borough.
  • Housing (Building and Development Committee) (L/THL/A/20)
    • useful source for information on individual streets, sites, properties,
    • social infrastructural developments (e.g. libraries, housing estate communal halls and social clubs)
    • the history of housing in Tower Hamlets generally.
  • Development Committee (L/THL/A/30)
    • this important committee was basically concerned with all aspects of land use in the borough – its purchase, management, improvement and disposal.
    • These records are potentially of value for land and street history.
    • There are reports on individual properties, buildings (e.g. Christchurch Spitalfields, Wilton’s Music Hall), listed buildings and conservation areas, planning applications, compulsory purchase orders, etc.
  • Finance Committee (L/THL/A/7)
    • authorised and signed off on spending for many infrastructural developments
  • Works Committee (L/THL/A/33)
    • an important committee which dealt with building maintenance, land use/changes, car usage, environmental improvements etc.

The LBTH Building Control files (ref: L/THL/D/2) are a vitally important collection that can be used to understand much of the built environment of Tower Hamlets. The files – some of which contain documents spanning 100 years – provide information about the development of:

  • new buildings
  • housing schemes
  • places of worship
  • public buildings such as schools and health centres
  • commercial or industrial premise
  • dead and temporary buildings

For further details and other sources on the built environment can be found here.


The local authority records are particularly comprehensive from the mid-19th century onwards. Some series are much earlier:

  • Minutes from meetings of the inhabitants of the Hamlet of Poplar and Blackwall, beginning 1593 (ref: L/ASP/A/1/1)
    • the oldest set of local authority minutes in the collections. At the time that these meetings were taking place Shakespeare had not yet written Hamlet or King Lear
  • The first extant minute book of the inhabitants of the Hamlet of Spitalfields (ref: L/CCS/1/1) covers the years 1627–73, a period taking in:
    • Charles I’s reign
    • the English Civil Wars
    • the Commonwealth and the Restoration
    • the Great Plague
    • the Great Fire of London
  • Minute book of the inhabitants of the Hamlet of Mile End Old Town 1697–1766 (ref: L/MEO/1/1)
    • a period which saw the end of the Stuart dynasty and the beginning of the Hanoverians
  • Financial records of the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Road Trust 1840–62 (ref: L/MET/A/1–2)
    • these records document the dying days of the turnpike road system in east London, which required transport to pay a fee for passing along the main road out of London.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is the second tier of local government in London. Between 1888 and 1986 the London County Council (LCC) and its successor the Greater London Council (GLC) formed the first tier. The GLC was abolished under the 1985 Local Government Act, and many of its powers passed to the local Boroughs. A pan-London local government body, the Greater London Authority, was reinstated under national legislation passed in 1999.

The LCC and GLC had considerable powers over industrial activity in Tower Hamlets, and also had a major say in the compulsory purchase and demolition of buildings. In addition, the GLC managed major housing estates before these were handed over to the Borough’s control in 1985. It was also a major grant-awarding body up to 1986, for example for ethnic minority groups, women’s groups and the arts. The School Board for London, LCC and Inner London Education Authority also had management of schools until 1990 when they were handed to the Boroughs. LCC and GLC managed open spaces, although the responsibility gradually passed to the Boroughs throughout the 1970s.

London Metropolitan Archives holds extensive archives of:

  • Middlesex County Council
  • LCC
  • GLC
  • Inner London Education Authority
  • other pan-London-wide local authorities.

Some departmental files from these bodies were passed on to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets with transfers of responsibility and can be found in the LBTH archive.

Additional sources covering London and its government including files that specifically relate to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets can be found at The National Archives.