Tower Hamlets is the name applied to an area of East London whose governance was historically associated with the Tower of London. It has been in turn the name of an administrative division of Middlesex, a parliamentary constituency and a London borough.
The County of Middlesex, which adjoined the City of London was, like other counties, divided into "hundreds", groupings of parishes for the administration of justice and some local government functions. Ossulstone hundred contained the rapidly growing suburbs of London, and by the seventeenth century proved ineffective in administering a large urban population.
By 1634 the hundred had been divided into four "divisions": Finsbury, Holborn, Kensington and the Tower Division, commonly called the Tower Hamlets. The divisions effectively replaced the hundred. The Tower Division was unique in that the Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex had no jurisdiction, with the Constable of the Tower of London having lieutenancy powers, and being referred to as the "Lord Lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets".
For military purposes the Tower Division was regarded as a distinct county, with its own militia and volunteer units, with commissions granted by the Constable of the Tower.
The division retained its special status until 1889, when the Local Government Act 1888 included the area in the new County of London. The constable's lieutenancy functions ended with the appointment of a Lord Lieutenant of the County of London.
In 1829 the Tower Division contained the following "parishes, townships, precincts and places":
- The parish of St Mary, Whitechapel
- The parish of Christchurch, Spitalfields
- The parish of St Leonard, Shoreditch
- The liberty of Norton Folgate
- The parish of St John, Hackney
- The parish of St Matthew, Bethnal Green
- The hamlet of Mile End Old Town
- The hamlet of Mile End New Town
- The parish of St Mary, Stratford Bow
- The parish of Bromley St Leonard
- The parish of All Saints, Poplar
- The parish of St Anne, Limehouse
- The hamlet of Ratcliff
- The parish of St Paul, Shadwell
- The parish of St John, Wapping
- The liberty of East Smithfield
- The precinct of St Catherine
- The liberty of His Majesty's Tower of London consisting of:
Following the Great Reform Act of 1832, a number of new constituencies were formed in the built-up "metropolitan" area of London, which had previously only been represented by county members of parliament. Commissioners were appointed to set the names and boundaries of the new constituencies.
The commissioners created a new parliamentary borough of Tower Hamlets, electing two MPs, comprising "the Liberty of the Tower and Part of the Tower Division of Ossulton Hundred containing the north eastern part of the suburbs of the Metropolis".
The commissioners recommended the exclusion of three largely rural parishes in the Tower Division: St John Hackney, St Mary Stratford-le-Bow and St Leonard's Bromley as they could not "..be justly be considered part of the Mercantile or Manufacturing interests of London". In the event they were included.
At the next redistribution of seats in 1885, the representation of Tower Hamlets was increased from two to seven members of parliament. The parliamentary borough was divided into seven single-member divisions, effectively separate constituencies:
The parliamentary borough of Tower Hamlets ceased to exist at the next constituency reorganisation in 1918, with new seats based on the metropolitan boroughs of Poplar and Stepney which had been created in 1900.
In 1965 local government in Greater London was completely reorganised, with the creation of thirty-two London boroughs. One of the new boroughs was formed by the amalgamation of the metropolitan boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney. The three merging councils unanimously agreed that the new borough be called London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
- Commissioners on Proposed Division of Counties and Boundaries of Boroughs. Parliamentary Representation: Tower Hamlets Borough.
- Representation of the People Act 1867, Schedule C: New Boroughs formed by Division of the Borough of the Tower Hamlets.
- "Names for Nine New Boroughs of London". The Times. 14 September 1963.
Various record can be found at