What's The Oldest Building In Tower Hamlets?

By M@ Last edited 60 months ago
What's The Oldest Building In Tower Hamlets?

Series exploring the most venerable buildings in each London borough.

See also: Camden, Islington, Lambeth, Southwark.

If you saw the headline and thought 'Easy. It's the Tower of London'... then read on. A specific structure within the Tower complex does have the best claim to the title of oldest building in the borough, but intriguing rival answers exist.

The White Tower

The White Tower at night.

At the centre of the Tower of London stands a pocket fortress known as the White Tower. It is no longer white, and would scarcely count as a tower against today's comparators. Back in its day, though, this ancient keep was the tallest structure in London.

Construction of the White Tower began in the 1070s, not long after the Norman Conquest. It was complete by 1100. That makes it not only the oldest building in modern Tower Hamlets, but arguably the oldest in central London.

The Tower of London

The White Tower and the wider fortress guarded the entrance to London by river. It would have dominated the skyline in its earliest years, before construction of medieval church steeples and the spire of Old St Paul's. Today, many of us live in flats that are loftier.

As most readers will have visited the Tower at some point, we won't belabour the description — see here if you want more details. Suffice it to say that the White Tower is a building of unmatched antiquity and splendour, and the centrepiece of a World Heritage Site. It is not, however, the oldest structure in Tower Hamlets.

The Roman wall

Just north of the fortress, beside Tower Hill Underground station, stands one of the largest remaining fragments of London's defensive wall.

Red tiles in the old London wall.

Most of the masonry is medieval or later, but look to the lower levels and you can see tell-tale red brick courses that indicate the handiwork of Romans.

These stones have remained in place since the late 2nd or early 3rd century. They were stacked together almost 900 years before William the Conqueror got here. He must have gazed upon the wall. The structure he beheld was as ancient to him as the Tower of London is to the modern eye. That's one to mull over.

This section of wall falls just within the borough of Tower Hamlets — indeed, as befits a wall, it forms part of the boundary with the City of London. It is without question the oldest structure in the borough, although it would be a push t0 describe it as a building.

Other ancient structures

Most of the borough's oldest buildings can be found within the Tower precincts. The Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains), for example, is one of central London's oldest churches, dating from 1519. Much of the Tower wall masonry is of still more venerable date.

Outside of the Tower, two churches claim great antiquity. Bow Church (otherwise known as St Mary's but not to be confused with St Mary-le-Bow, which it often is), can be traced back to the 14th century. Some of the stonework is original, but heavy damage during the Blitz and subsequent restoration makes it a temporal mongrel.

St Dunstan's Stepney.
St Dunstan's Stepney.

St Dunstan's in Stepney might have a claim to pre-date even the White Tower. Its foundations are thought to be of 9th century Anglo-Saxon vintage. Above ground, the church walls are largely from either the 13th or 15th century, although much was reworked following a fire in 1901.

Among St Dunstan's treasures is an Anglo-Saxon cross, a stained-glass window featuring a gasholder, and this 18th century mace depicting the White Tower — a fitting union of two of the oldest buildings in Tower Hamlets.

A mace at St Dunstan's Stepney, depicting the White Tower.

Last Updated 12 November 2018

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