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Searching for the Mercer Maidens of Stepney

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Mercer Maiden in St Dunstan’s Church, Stepney

When I was asked by local writer Alfred Gardner if I would like to search for maidens in Stepney, I was not sure it was the type of thing I should get involved with.

However after some explanation  it seemed like a good idea, for we would be looking for Mercer Maidens and unearthing some of the connections between an ancient City of London Company, an ancient Church, a Convent and a local pub.

The Mercers’ Company origins go back to the 14th century when it was a trade guild for those who bought and sold textiles and fabrics. Many in the guild were wealthy merchants who were granted a royal charter in 1394.

One of the most famous early members of the Mercers’ was Richard Whittington who made a vast fortune from the trade. He was also one of the early benefactors using his money to provide schools and hospitals.

Other famous Mercers include William Caxton, Thomas More, Sir Thomas Gresham and John Dee.

In the 16th and 17th century the company became less involved in the buying and selling of textiles , but began to use its vast wealth for other business enterprises including funding expeditions all over the world. It also began to accumulate property in the City of London and a large area of Covent Garden was left to the company in the 16th Century by Lady Joan Bradbury.

It was with the accumulation of property that the Mercer Maiden became familiar in London streets. Although no one know the origin of the Mercer Maiden, it featured on the company seal from as early as 1425 and the company made the decision that the maid’s head would be displayed on its properties from the 15th century. Although featured on official documents, property and letterheads over the centuries, it was not until 1911 it would be featured as an actual coat of arms. Because of this the Maiden is often dressed in the fashion of the times she is created rather than one standard look.

The Mercers’ presence in Stepney goes back to the 16th century when it was quite a wealthy area and Jon Colet a Mercer inherited a substantial estate from his father and founded St Paul’s School. Other charitable concerns in the area were the Lady Mico’s Almshouses.

In the 19th century, the Mercers’ surveyor George Smith built a number of properties in Stepney that were let to ‘respectable tenants’ and gained a reputation of keeping the properties well maintained.

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Former Lady Micos Almhouses ,also known as Mercer Cottages

And it is at Lady Micos  Almhouses our search begins:

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Lady Mico was the widow of Sir Samuel Mico, a wealthy mercer, she left £1500 in her will to found an almshouse in Stepney. The Almhouses were built in 1691 and have been managed by the Mercer’s ever since. In 1976 it was decided that new accommodation was needed so a modern Lady Mico’s Almshouses was rebuilt on the corner of Alyward Street and West Arbour street.

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New Lady Mico Almhouses on Alyward Street

Over the road from the old Almhouses is St Dunstan’s Church, one of the oldest in East London dating from 952 AD, it is within the church that we find the stain glass window with a strangely modern looking Mercer Maiden, looking a bit like a Hollywood film star. The windows were designed and fitted in the 1950s.

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St Dunstan’s Church

Alfred Gardner was bought up in Stepney and entertained me with many stories of 1950s and 1960s life in the area, as we travelled around the streets of Stepney.

Adelinagrove

Adelina Grove

lindley st

Lindley Street

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Johnson Street

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Sisters of Mercy Convent in Hardinge Street,

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Five Maidens  all in a row – One on the Convent and four on Coburg Dwellings, in Hardinge Street,

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485 Commercial Road,

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577 Commercial Road

76 and 78

76 and 78 White Horse Lane

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Former Mercers’ Arms public house in Jubilee Street,

This Maiden was the source of some confusion, there are two former Mercer Arms, this one that closed as a pub in 1915 and the other one in Belgrave Street that closed in 2006.

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Sutton Street depot, Sutton Street,

Hopefully we managed to track down all the Mercer Maidens in Stepney, but there are many other all over London especially in Covent Garden and the City. There is also one much further afield as I discovered in the summer when I visited Swanage Town Hall whose frontage had previously been part of the façade of the Mercers’ Hall in Cheapside.

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Town Hall Swanage (Mercer Maiden just above the door)

Alfred Gardner’s  book East End Story has just been republished, you can find further details here

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