The Origins of the Tower Hamlets Militia

The earliest surviving reference to the inhabitants of the Tower Hamlets having a duty to provide a guard for the Tower of London dates from 1554, during the reign of Mary I. Sir Richard Southwell and Sir Arthur Darcye were ordered by the Privy Council in that year to muster the men of the Hamlets

whiche owe their service to the Towre, and to give commaundement that they may be in aredynes for the defence of the same.

As the Hamlets are described as owing service, this must have been a customary duty even before this date and remained so until the New Model Army took over garrisoning the Tower in September 1647 following the military coup that swept the Presbyterian-dominated Parliament from power. The right of the citizens themselves to provide a guard was briefly restored in July 1648 when the Army regiments were mobilised to take part in the Second Civil War, but throughout the 1650s an Army regiment once again took over the duty. This remained the position until the Restoration, following which the Tower Hamlets, by then required to provide two regiments of foot numbering 3,000 men in all, were returned to their former charge.

Interestingly, the 1554 reference also provides the first mention of the name Tower Hamlets to describe the settlements situated to the east of, and belonging to, the Tower, although it was probably already in common usage before this date. Until the final quarter of the 17th century, there were seventeen individual Hamlets, contained for the most part within the five parishes of St Dunstan Stepney, St Mary Whitechapel, St John Hackney, St Leonard Shoreditch, and St Leonard Bromley. The exceptions were the liberties of East Smithfield, which formed the lower end of St Botolph without Aldgate, and St Katharine by the Tower, which had grown around the precinct of the Hospital.

The Authority of the Lieutenant of the Tower

Under the Act for the Taking of Musters (4 and 5 Philip and Mary, C.3), the responsibility for mustering men throughout the county of Middlesex fell to a commission composed of the Lord Lieutenant, the Lieutenant of the Tower, and a number of Justices of the Peace. During the reign of Elizabeth, however, successive Lieutenants of the Tower attempted to assert their authority to muster the Hamlets men separately for service in the Tower. At a general muster in 1559 of all eligible men in the county, Sir Edward Warner ordered the Hamlets contingent to return to their homes, claiming that, as Lieutenant of the Tower, responsibility for summoning them fell to him. This was refuted by the Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex, Sir Roger Cholmeley, as being without warrant or lawfull auctoryty but the men went home all the same. Similar attempts were made in 1569 by Sir Francis Jobson and in 1580 by Sir Owen Hopton. Jobson pursued his claim no further when challenged, but Hopton took his case before the Privy Council, who failed to reach a decision and referred the matter to the Middlesex commissioners. Not surprisingly, having a vested interest in the outcome, they rejected the claim out of hand.

Photo: John Beardsworth

It was not until 1605 that the Privy Council finally relented and authorised the Lieutenant of the Tower

to take the view of those able men, their armor and weapons that are inrolled and reduced into the inrolled Bandes within the forsayd hamlets … in such sort as the other Comisyoners are authorised to doe for the rest of the County.

One reason for this change of heart may have been a decline in the number of Hamlets men appearing at Middlesex county musters – in 1587, for example, the inhabitants of the Hamlets parishes raised a petition to request their county muster quota be reduced from 57 to 20 men because they were also providing men for the Tower.

After 1605, the right of the Lieutenant of the Tower to muster the Hamlets men was never again questioned, although the office remained subordinate to that of the Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex. In May 1642, having noted that the Hamleteers could not be drawn out beyond the boundaries of their liberties unless ordered to do so by the Lieutenant of the Tower, the House of Lords directed the Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex, the Earl of Holland, to order the Lieutenant of the Tower

to cause the Trained Band of the Hamlets to be mustered on Thursday next, with the Trained Bands of Middlesex.

Similarly, when the Tower Hamlets Trained Bands achieved regimental status in January 1643, the captains were sent their commissions by the Earl of Holland – even though they were to serve under the command of the Lieutenant of the Tower – and it was to the Earl of Holland that the Hamleteers addressed their original petition in October 1642 to be enlarged into a regiment.

The Size of the Tower Garrison

The Tower Hamlets militia and, after 1573, trained bands, did not provide a permanent garrison of the Tower, but were called upon to supply a guard at times of national emergency or civil unrest. The size of the guard seems to have varied depending on the perceived seriousness of the threat and the availability of men to serve. In 1610, for example, the Hamlets were ordered to provide a night guard of just ten men, while in September 1640 their total complement numbered 200, probably divided into separate shifts. The usual requirement seems to have been for around 40 or 50 men per shift, by day or night.

The Hamlets were not always in a position to provide the required number. In August 1641, when directed to provide 50 men by day and 50 by night, with another 40 or 50 men in reserve, they initially demurred as

it was Harvest-time, a Difficulty to get them; besides the Sickness [plague] is much where they inhabit.

Parliament therefore ordered that the Constable of the Tower, the Earl of Newport, should chuse Forty such men as he should think fit, and might confide in. In the end, the Hamlets were able to provide a total of 552 men, around 50 short of the total at full strength. On 19 August, a Captain Hudson compiled a list of the available men in each Hamlet or group of Hamlets to serve in the Tower over a period of nine nights. The largest single contingent was 86, provided by the combined Hamlets of Hackney (62), Bow (13), Bromley (6), and Old Ford (5); Whitechapel divided its contingent of 90 men into two shifts of 45 each, which was the smallest number attending on any one night.

Charles I Attempts Establishment of Permanent Garrison

In order to safeguard the Tower during his absence in Scotland in September 1640, Charles I ordered a Constable should be appointed to command a permanent garrison of 200 men from the Hamlets. However, this initiative provoked such an outcry from the City of London that Charles was forced to revoke the order. On 9 November 1640, he informed the House of Lords that because

some Jealousies have grown from His making a Constable of the Tower, and putting in a Garrison there, which His Majesty did in Favour of the City, and to prevent the Insolencies of base and loose People; His Majesty hath resolved that it shall be forthwith left without Constable or Garrison, as formerly hath been.

The Earl of Newport did become Constable in 1641 and the Hamlets men continued to provide a guard for the Tower whenever they were ordered to do so. Charles also attempted to have a hand-picked force of 100 men placed in the Tower during the Earl of Strafford’s incarceration there in 1641 – in a bid to help him escape – but, again, backed down and removed them when rumours of the plot leaked out.

Photo: Ashmore Visuals

Until reconstituted as a regment in 1643, the Tower Hamlets Trained Bands numbered around 600 men. A schedule of inhabitants of the Hamlets who refused to pay coat and conduct money contributions for the Second Bishops’ War in July 1640 refers to the trained bands as a whole, but only lists men from four specific bands – Whitechapel, St Katharine’s, Ratcliffe, and Limehouse. It is not clear whether these were separate companies or simply four of the 17 individual Hamlets bands. All 17 Hamlets were listed in August 1641 as providing men for nine nights of watch in the Tower; some of them were able to provide a complete watch on their own while others needed to be grouped together to supply sufficient men for the task:

  • Night 1: St Katharine’s 30, East Smithfield 46 (76)
  • Night 2: Half Whitechapel 45
  • Night 3: Half Whitechapel 45
  • Night 4: Wapping 65
  • Night 5: Ratcliffe 59
  • Night 6: Limehouse 30, Blackwall 16 (46)
  • Night 7: Hollowell Street 44, Spitalfields 18 (62)
  • Night 8: Hoxton 26, Norton Folgate 16, Mile End 16, Bethnal Green 10 (68)
  • Night 9: Hackney 62, Bow 13, Bromley 6, Old Ford 5 (86)

This suggests, prior to the regiment being formed, there were no rigid company structures, but, instead, contingents from different Hamlets were grouped together as required to produce an acceptable number of men to carry out their duties. It is notable, for example, that in 1641 the bands of Mile End and Bethnal Green were grouped with those of Hoxton and Norton Folgate, two of the Hamlets of St Leonard Shoreditch, while in 1643 they were incorporated into the Hackney Company.

Photo: Ashmore Visuals

Regimental Pay

The records show the Hamlets men were paid for their service in the Tower. In 1610, they received an allowance of 6d per day, the standard rate for foot soldiers at that time. On 24 October 1640, the 200-man garrison was ordered to be paid one month’s wages being pay-day here; they were paid for a second month’s service at the end of November, at which time they were discharged. That these men were the Tower Hamlets Trained Bands – not a specially-raised garrison unit – is confirmed in a 17 August 1641 order of the House of Commons summoning them to serve in the Tower again. The order noted:

it being affirmed, that Hamlet Men ever had an Allowance unto them, when they attended there in the King’s absence in Scotland.

The House of Lords ordered they should be paid at the same rate as the Yeomen Warders, 14d per day, significantly more than the 8d per day received by common foot soldiers during this period. However, payment was heavily in arrears and had still not been paid by the following April, when the Commons asked three of its Members to consider the accounts and monies due to the Hamlets men and whether they had attended to their duties as required.

In August 1641, they were also ordered

to take the same Oath as the Wardours do: and that the Protestation shall be tendered to all the Wardours, and the Inhabitants of the Tower; and a Note of their Names returned to this House that shall refuse it: And that none of these Forty Men shall be admitted to ward there, till they have taken this Protestation.

With the English army of the Second Bishops’ War not yet disbanded and relations with the King worsening, Parliament was clearly taking no chances over the men’s loyalty. On 12 July 1642, the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Conyers, asked the House of Lords to arrange payment for the 50 men of the Hamlets he appointed to watch and ward in the Tower that month. The Lords convened a meeting with the Commons and probably decided their pay should be at the same rate as for the guard in August 1641. However, Parliament had more pressing matters to occupy its time that day – most notably the raising of an army under the command of the Earl of Essex – and there is no record of how this was resolved.


Although the Hamlets men provided the guard for the Tower, they were not housed there in the manner of a permanent garrison. A Privy Council order of October 1640 shows the only accommodation they were provided was a number of huts constructed within the Tower walls, much the same as soldiers on campaign. As these temporary structures did not provide the men with much protection against inclement weather, the Privy Council requested the Navy Board supply a number of old and cast sails to cover them and make them resistant to rain and wind. It is possible these poor quality quarters were provided as there was a lack of suitable accommodation in the Tower to house elements of the new contingent of 200 soldiers in addition to the Yeomen Warders, gunners, and the staff of the Constable, Lieutenant, Armoury, and Ordnance Office. It may be more likely that because they worked in shifts, by day or night, permanent quarters were not considered necessary – unless there was a genuine emergency, at the end of each shift the men would have returned to their own homes in the Hamlets.

Arms and Armour

It was a requirement of membership of the trained bands that at least some of the men would have privately purchased their own arms and armour. On 30 April 1635, for example, the Privy Council ordered the Lord Mayor of London

to increase the Trained Bands, and see them completely furnished and exercised, and require the best sort of men to provide themselves with arms for their own use.

The Tower Hamlets Trained Bands must have complied with the order since, during the battle of Cropredy Bridge, Richard Coe noted some of the musketeers were armed with firelocks, expensive weapons which were not standard issue to regiments of foot and must, presumably, have belonged to the men themselves.

In keeping with the established pattern of the trained bands elsewhere in the country, other arms, equipment, and powder were probably kept securely at key sites around the Hamlets, possibly churches, for security and easy access. However, a proportion (perhaps the majority) were kept in the Tower Armoury, itself, to be collected by the men when they turned up for duty. Notably, on 23 September 1640, a warrant was issued to Sir John Heydon to supply the 200 Tower Hamlets men appointed for the garrison, with 64 pikes and corselets, 136 muskets, rests, and bandoliers, 200 ammunition swords and belts, four halberds, four drums, one partizan, and one Colour from the stores. They also drew ammunition from the Ordnance Office of the Tower, which was remarked upon in August 1642 as being the usual arrangement.

The danger presented by having to collect arms, equipment, and ammunition on arrival was realised in early January 1642 when the men assigned for guard duty were locked out of the Tower by Sir John Byron, who attempted to secure it for the King. It was noted by horrified observers that

the hamlet men who were to be the ordinary warders there had no arms given them and were thus made useless

The Hamlets inhabitants petitioned the House of Commons to request the authority to defend themselves, choose officers, and provide arms to counter this threat. The Hamlets men seem to have been swiftly reinstated, however, as one of their sergeants was on duty at the Iron Gate three weeks later to deny entry to Sergeant-Major-General Philip Skippon, who with 500 men was attempting to seize the Tower for Parliament. Byron himself was less fortunate – he was replaced as Lieutenant by Sir John Conyers in early February after much forceful petitioning from the City of London.

  • Calendar of State Papers, Domestic
  • SP28/121A, Tower Hamlets Muster Rolls, April 1644
  • PC2/52, Privy Council Registers
  • Journals of the House of Lords
  • Journals of the House of Commons
  • City of London Remembrancia, 1579-1664
  • Coe, Richard, An Exact Dyarie, or a briefe Relation of the progresse of Sir William Wallers Army … July 19 1644
  • Power, M.J., The Origin and Early Use of the Name Tower Hamlets, East London Papers, Vol 8, 1965