The first recorded names for Bethnal Green were Blithehale and Blythenhale. These could be translated as “happy corner”, although nobody is exactly sure where the name came from. Over time, the area became known as Blethenal Green and then Bethan Hall Green.
The current name for the area probably came from the local pronunciation of Bethan Hall Green, ultimately leading to the connecting of Bethan and Hall to Bethnal. This was a marshy forest land for many years that seemed a relatively quiet and sleepy hamlet.
Places to Visit in the East End of London – Bethnal Green
The Green has historically been the pivot of the area. The main house on the Green, known locally as Kirby’s Castle, was once visited by the famous London diarist, Samuel Pepys. In the early 1700s, the house was converted into a lunatic asylum, and it housed many inmates for the next two centuries.
The park in which the house was built, Bethnal Park, is still called “Barmy Park” by locals to this day. The original house has now been demolished, but some of its other buildings are still standing. One of the newer builds around the asylum that dates from the late 1800s is now the home to Bethnal Green library.
Bethnal Green gained some fame in Tudor times due to a popular ballad, The Beggar of Bethnal Green. This ballad told the story of a poor local beggar who somehow managed to give his daughter a handsome dowry for her wedding. Some say that the beggar was the son of Simon de Montfort, a rich Norman knight, however this is not likely to be true. Locals also say that the local Blind Beggar pub which lies close to Bethnal Green in Whitechapel was the site where the beggar asked for money and was named for him.
This pub is now better known as the place where William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, gave his first public speech in the area, or more infamously, as the location where Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell.
Boxing in Bethnal Green
During the 1700s, the area became associated with boxing. The champion of England, Daniel Mendoza, spent most of his adult life living in Bethnal Green. The area became well known for boxing gyms and for showing bouts. You can still watch boxing at the York Hall leisure centre in the area.
During the 1800s, the area became home to an influx of silk weavers who spilled over from the Spitalfields area; this led to a need for more housing. Bethnal Green expanded and local authorities built an area called Globe Town. This saw the local population treble by the 1830s and there are estimates that 20,000 weavers had looms working in their homes in the weaving heyday.
Although the silk weaving industry declined in the next few decades, Globe Town kept on growing until the 1860s. If you take a walk around this area, be sure to look for its four sculptures of globes set into its four corners.
Bethnal Green also became well-known for its market gardens, however by the end of the 19th century it was turning into a bit of a slum. It was overcrowded, had inadequate housing and suffered from a lot of poverty and crime related problems. By 1900, however, moves were made to get rid of some of the worst slum housing and local authorities built the Boundary Estate. This is held to be the first council housing development in the world.
World War 2 and Bethnal Green
In 1943, Bethnal Green saw the worst domestic disaster in the Second World War. The tube station was part of the Central Line build. The line was not running as yet, but locals used the station as a shelter during bomb raids. An accident on the stairs leading down to the station caused a pile up of people during an alert, killing over 170 and injuring nearly a hundred people. You can see a plaque commemorating the disaster outside of the station and a permanent memorial is also being built outside.
Like many areas of the East End, Bethnal Green suffered badly from German bombing raids during the war. It is thought that the area had 80 tons of bombs dropped on it and it lost thousands of homes, which were destroyed completely or badly damaged. It is still relatively common to find unexploded bombs in the area.
The biggest tourist attraction in Bethnal Green is the V&A Museum of Childhood. The museum was originally opened as a local attraction, the Bethnal Green museum, in the 1870s. It is now part of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is home to the UK’s largest collection of toys, games and childhood objects. One even dates back to 1300 BC, although there are more than enough contemporary toys and games there to remind anybody of their own childhood.