The Stepney district in East London was heavily affected by the bombing that thundered across London during World War II. Stepney is located in an area of East London that was important to both London and Germany, in that the East end has some of the more valuable dockland in London. Because of the importance of the docks, Germany bombed Stepney and the areas around it repeatedly with fire bombs to light the docks on fire. During the Blitz on London, Stepney was bombed for 58 straight days. During World War II Stepney saw many changes in the health of its population, and these changes are reflected in the reports that were put together every year by the Medical Officers of Health who operated in the Stepney Borough.

Map of Stepney in 1952

Stepney was formed in November of 1900 in the Whitechapel area of London. With Stepney’s formation it acquired a Medical Health Officer to monitor the health of the population like other parts of London. These Medical Officers of Health wrote reports every year that were published at the beginning of the new year. The reports depict all of the medical related information such as infectious diseases, like cholera, and deaths and births of the area that the reports are over.

In 1900 the report included a letter to the Mayor, Aldermen, and Councillors of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney that remarked on the creation of the Borough of Stepney and the appointment of Joseph Loane as the Medical Officer of Health of the Borough.  The letter also described what improvements were coming with the new formation of the Borough. The report also gives the new statistics, such as births and deaths.

These reports can show much about the time when World War II began and how the people of the area dealt with the War. Starting in the year 1937, F. R. O’Shiel was the Medical Officer of Health for the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney. O’Shiel’s report, published in 1939, reports the births and deaths in the Borough of Stepney. Every death is accounted for in charts and tables. These reports change drastically after the war started. The report on 1939 published On December 31, 1939 gives an abridged version of the Medical Officer of Health’s reports that came before. The 1939 report begins as a usual report with a letter to the Mayor but the letter is significantly shorter than those before and is followed by something new added to the report.

Air Raid precautions for the Borough found their way into the report because of the imminent threat that the air raids presented to the Borough and notifications that certain buildings had been set up as Stretcher Party Depots or a location where people were designated to bear stretchers to help the injured. This information shows that the war had hit Stepney particularly hard. The report shows how the population of Stepney was affected by the war.  There were a number of deaths due to the war.  Also, because of the  evacuation of people from the area the population declined further. The 1942 report only contained 7 pages, whereas the 1938 report contained 116 pages. The 1942 report contained very little on the health of the area and contained more on the overcrowding of certain areas in the Borough during the height of the war.

Rubble of a bomb site in East London. From the Imperial War Museum. Credit: Bomb Sight

Written by Ryan Fransen


Loane, Joseph. Annual Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Whitechapel District. 1900

O’Shiel, F. R. Metropolitan Borough of Stepney. 1938.

O’Shiel, F. R. Metropolitan Borough of Stepney. 1939.

Oakley, Malcolm. World War 2 and East London East London History. October 7, 2013. Accessed April 8, 2016.