Is There A White Chapel In Whitechapel?

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 12 months ago
Is There A White Chapel In Whitechapel?

Whitechapel: is it really named after a white chapel? And if so, is it still there?

The church as it was before it was rebuilt in the 1870s (from the British Newspaper Archives)

The answer is yes; and no.

The chapel is question was St Mary Matfelon, which used to sit on the site that's now home to Altab Ali Park — next to White Church Lane.

The footprint of the old church can still be seen in Altab Ali Park:

Photo: ceridwen

If it doesn't look all that white to you, there's a reason for this, which we'll explore in a moment.

While St Mary is not a surprising name for a church, Matfelon certainly is. According to The Illustrated London News of July 24 1875:

It is, we believe, identical with a Hebrew word that signifies a woman who has become the mother of a son.

It's not clear who this particular woman was in this case. Another theory is that the church was named after Richard Matefelun, a wine merchant living in the area in the 1230s, who may have made a donation to the church.

A timeline of St Mary Matfelon

As you can see, the church has been through a number of incarnations, the last of which was badly damaged during the Blitz, and removed altogether in 1952.

The site was known as St Mary's Gardens until 1998, when it was renamed Altab Ali Park, in commemoration of a local textile worker who was murdered in a racist attack in 1978.

Was the church white?

No; and yes.

According to the London Illustrated News, the incarnation which opened in 1877 was:

of the thirteenth-century Gothic style, built of red brick, with stone dressings

But the original, medieval building was indeed made of white chalk rubble, and known to locals as 'the white chapel' — a name which stuck and quickly the whole area became known as Whitechapel, a name used at least as early as 1344.

An image of the old church was shown in the London Illustrated News in 1875 (see top image), along with an illustration of what the new church was expected to look like at this time:

How the new church, which opened in 1877, was expected to look. Picture from the British Newspaper Archives.

Among those buried in the grounds of the church are Richard Brandon, believed to be the executioner of King Charles I; and the merchant, politician and philanthropist John Cass.

In 2010 the Museum of London undertook an archaeological dig on the site of the churches. No chalk rubble was excavated, but red — and yellow — bricks were.

Feature image: Louis Berk.

Last Updated 14 April 2023