Spital Square, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Spitalfields is a small neighbourhood in East London with a rich history including waves of immigration which stretch back to the sixteenth century. For the last five hundred years the story of the people who lived in Spitalfields has been one of struggling to make ends meet, industry and from time to time deprivation, poverty and slums. A new era seems to be dawning on the area, as its proximity to London’s every growing financial centre, has seen chunks of it redeveloped for trading floors, officers, leisure complexes and trendy flats. Today, with it social history clearly impregnated into the surrounding buildings, communities and architecture, and with the new city developments, Spitalfields is a dynamic, fascinating part of London’s old east end that is a must for anyone seeking a deeper perspective on London.

Gun Street, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

From Roman Times Onward

Spitalfields began life as a Roman cemetery, outside the ancient walls of the City of London. In fact in 1999 a Roman burial site was found underneath Spitalfields Market. On its Southwest border, Houndsditch, which is today a busy thoroughfare, takes its name from a ditch which used to run adjacent to the ancient wall, and into which people were reputed to have dumped dead dogs, hence the name.

By the 12th century the fields were being used for archery and then shooting practice. A hospital was also established in the area, from which Spitalfields took its name. Most of Spitalfields was built up following the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Fournier Street, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

French Protestant Spitalfields: The Huguenots

In 1666 the Great Fire of London devastated the city and prompted the first development of Spitalfields. Twenty years later a wave of refugees arrived from France. In 1685, the Catholic King Louis XIV of France outlawed the practise of Protestantism. French Protestants, adherents of the Calvinist church fled from fear of persecution.

The ‘Huguenots’ as they were nicknamed by their Catholic pursuants arrived in London in large numbers, between fifty and eighty thousand, settling in Soho and Spitalfields. Their presence in Spitalfields caused consternation amongst the locals when new housing on north Spitalfields was built especially for them. In 1689 King William III actively encouraged their settlement into the UK, promising them his royal protection. The Queen was particularly interested in accommodating the Huguenots, aware that many had come from Lyon, a silk weaving centre in France. She knew their silk weaving skills would bring a welcomed improvement to the garments industry in London. Despite local protestations England’s anti-Catholicism meant that the Huguenot’s were generally well received.

The houses built for the Huguenots were tall and thin, similar although not exactly the same as the types of house you might find in Amsterdam. Each house has French shutter, and an attic with a window where the weaver would do his or her work. The weavers’ houses still stand today, and looking at a roadmap of Spitalfields it’s not hard to tell where they are located. Names like Fournier Street, Nantes Passage, Princelet Street and Fleur-de-Lys Street give the game away. The houses are located in a network of peaceful backstreets, connecting the busy Commercial Road to the vibrant Brick Lane.

According to Henry Mahew in his 1881 publication And Ye Shall Walk In Silk Attire for a considerable time the population of Spitalfields was exclusively French; with French being the lingua franca.

Dennis Severs' house on Folgate Street is a weaver’s house open to the public. However before you plan on visiting the house, beware, for it was not the intention of Severs that the house would be as a museum. Instead the visitor is asked to use his or her imagination to become a part of the world that Severs has created. Check the website for opening times and prices.

Whilst the Huguenots dominated the weaving industry for a century or two by the mid eighteenth century their industry began to fall into decline as mechanised weaving began to dominate the trade.

Sandy's Row Synagogue, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Jewish Immigration

Only one hundred and thirty years ago, whilst the Huguenots silk weaving industry was beginning to grind to a halt, in Eastern Europe a wave of hatred was about to be unleashed against Jewish people. In 1881 the first of what was a series of pogroms, which culminated with the holocaust in the mid twentieth century, took place in the Ukraine. The pogroms comprised an orchestrated series of violent acts against Jewish property and peoples. Further pogroms took place during the Bolshevik Revolution and in countries as far away as Greece, Poland and Romania.

In response to the violence millions of Jews fled Russia and Germany in the late nineteenth century arriving in London and Spitalfields. Why the Jews decided to settle in Spitalfields is not clear given that at the time Spitalfields was already suffering from overcrowding bought about by the destruction of working class homes to make way for the Liverpool Street railway line.

Could it have been that there was nowhere else to go than one of the most deprived areas of London?

Henry Mahew’s book painted a sorry tale for the remaining weavers in the late nineteenth century. Mahew recorded this conversation that he had with a weaver, “Have you any children? No; I had two, but they are both dead, thanks be to God! Do you express satisfaction at the death of your children? I do! I thank God for it. I am relieved from the burden of maintaining them, and they, poor dear creatures, are relieved from the troubles of this mortal life." Another weaver said, “I can't say what my thoughts is about the young 'uns. Why, you loses yer natural affection for 'em. It's wretched in the extreme to see one's children want and not to be able to do to them as a parent ought; and I say this 'ere after all you've heard me state - that the Government of my native land ought to interpose their powerful arm to put a stop to such things. Unless they do, civil society with us is all at an end. Everybody is becoming brutal - unnatural.”

Another weaver despaired, “What's life to me ? - Labour! labour! labour! - and for what? Why, for less and less food every month. Ah, but the people can't bear it much longer! flesh and blood and bones must rise against it before long… The weavers is in general five or six, all living and working in the same room. There's four on us here in this bed - one head to foot, one at our back along the bolster, and me and my wife side by side; and there's four on 'em over there; my brother Tom makes up the other one. There's a nice state in a Christian land! How many do you think lives in this house? Why, twenty-three mortal souls! Oh! ain't it too bad? But the people is frightened to say how bad they're off, for fear of their masters, and losing their work; so they keeps it to themselves, poor creatures!”

In any case the newly arrived Jews were treated with hostility by the local people, who blamed them for taking jobs and pushing up house prices.

The Jews who arrived were poor and uneducated, and began to make their living in the textiles and furniture industries. They set up synagogues, kosher butchers and kosher restaurants. There are still two bagel shops on Brick Lane. Despite their industry many Jews remained poor, such that a soup kitchen was set up in Brune Street at the beginning of the twentieth century. The building is still their today, and whilst the façade, which has a sign saying ‘Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor’, remains faithful to its origins, the building is being used for apartments.

As the Jews became more wealthy they began to move out of East London and into northern suburbs like Golders Green, Hendon and Finchley.

Jack the Ripper

Towards the end of the nineteenth century Spitalfields had been turned into a slum. A number of factors contrived to make multi-occupancy more common. A significant number of working class homes were destroyed to make way for a railway line. Hundreds of Jewish people moved into the area fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe. By 1881 the average number of people living in one house in Spitalfields was just over 11.

The overcrowding, unemployment and associated deprivation created the milieu for a series of sordid events in which a man, who became known as Jack the Ripper, mutilated and murdered five local prostitutes.

Jack the Ripper has since become a legend, worshipped by visiting tourists who like the idea of murdering prostitutes but who have generally got too much to loose. Of even more concern are Ripperologists, a handful of forty plus men, many of whom look single, who spend hours of their lives discussing the finer techniques and patterns of the Ripper’s murders, speculating on his identity.

Pictures of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; Founding Father of the Bangladeshi State, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Bangladeshi Immigration

In the 1970s and 1980s Bangladeshi men started coming to the UK for work. Like many Asian families they settled down in Tower Hamlets. By 1971, the time of Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan, there was already a sizeable number of Bangladeshis living in Brick Lane. According to local Bengali, Tunu Mila, mini-versions of the conflict were played out in the schools and streets of Brick Lane between Bengali and Pakistani youth.

Many Bangladeshis are proud of their independence. Even now you will see photographs of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, posted up on the walls, although usually at election times because he is used as an icon by his Awami League party.

Bangladeshis now make up over 60 percent of the population of Spitalfields, an area in which there is an unemployment rate of over 30 percent.

It is often said that Spitalfields, like much of Tower Hamlets, is overcrowded, one of the reasons being the mismatch between the size of Bangladeshi families and the size of family the apartments they live in. The apartments were not designed for big families.

There are a number of mosques in Spitalfields. One of particular note is the ‘Jamme Masjid’, the history of which mirrors immigration into Spitalfields, having been previously a synagogue and originally a French Protestant chapel. The mosque is, and could be used for, a metaphor for how religious communities can get on side-by-side in a pragmatic way. The building has been a mosque for the last thirty years.

Brushfield Street, on the ground of the old Spitalfields Market, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Spitalfields Market

The first time I saw Spitalfields Market in 1995 I was enchanted by the sheer variety of activity that was going on underneath the market’s roof. The market contained pensioners protest stalls, samosa vans, an organic bread table, junk stalls and a magazine section from whose selection I read my first ever addition of Adbusters magazine. I left the market wearing a French Duke’s red velveteen overcoat, with a Rubik’s cube key ring in my top pocket, munching on a cooking apple.

The market was built in the seventeenth century following the Great Fire of London. Montagu Williams writing in 1894 in Round London: Down East and up West said of Spitalfields Market, “Here on this Sunday morning every kind of marketing, huckstering, and bargaining was going briskly on. The pavement was crowded, and the roadway almost impassable. I saw an endless array of costers’ barrows, loaded with meat, fish, vegetables, and other articles of food. Jews and Jewesses, in charge of truck-loads of old clothes, boots, hats, and other wearing apparel, swore themselves hoarse in praise of their wares. The din was awful, and the stench sickening.”

A key figure in its development was Robert Homer, who started off life working as the market porter, and went on to buy it in 1875. On purchasing the market, Homer rebuilt it and consolidated its business by stopping all surrounding trade or making it subject to his market fees. In the 1980s the main bulk of the wholesale fruit and vegetable market was relocated away from the Centre, with the City of London eyeing the market’s site for new office blocks. Following the relocation of the wholesale market the Spitalfields market became a strange amalgam of crafts shops, bars and stalls and a sports pitch – as I have explained.

Since I last visited the market, the City of London has demolished two-thirds of the site and gotten Norman Foster to build a set of office blocks and trading floors in its place. A set of glassy towers and trendy clothes and coffee shops now stand where half the market once was. According to the BBC, market manager Eric Graham said, ‘the reduction in size has weeded out stalls which duplicated products’. What a lot of post-hoc self-justificatory nonsense. Has Graham, who sounds like a propagandist for a small control and command communist state, never heard of the quaint capitalistic notion that ‘competition is good for the consumer’?

Building work is still going on and for the few days that the market is open it is a pale reminder of its former self.

The destruction of Spitalfields Market has raised interesting questions about the balance between satisfying the rapacious demands of capitalism vis-à-vis maintaining an area’s history. The paradox is that whilst knowing so much about an area like Spitalfields causes us to resist redevelopment, it is the very fact that Spitalfields sits next to the City of London, which in turn attracts artists and writers to live in the area who create the histories and reasons for resistance. In the end capital will always win. The only thing the conservatives can do is fight to preserve the complete annihilation of history, by asking developers to preserve historic features. This has been done all over Spitalfields. The Jewish soup kitchen is one example.

Commercial Street, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Commercial Street

Sandwiched between the prestigious Bishopsgate and the more bohemian and otherworldly Brick Lane, Commercial Street is an honest working street, with little character, lots of traffic and a general rundown feeling, the kind you get when you have worked ten days in a row, and are beginning to get a cold.

Commercial Street splits Spitalfields in half from northwest to southeast. Putting its general dirtiness to the side for a minute, it does have some impressive six story buildings, which run for sixty or seventy metres. There’s plenty of shops as well, and pubs, although when you add it altogether I’m not sure it amounts to much.

Traffic and pollution kill all the fun and beauty in life.

The Crown and Shuttle pub stands on Commercial Street, derelict, summing up perfectly this street and what it might become if there is ever a downturn in the economy. One reviewer on ‘Derelict London’ reminisced on the topless barmaids that used to work in the Crown and Shuttle saying: ‘They used to come round with a pint glass, you put 50p in and they did a dance on the pool table… Had some happy times here.’

Halfway down on the eastern side is Christ Church, built in the early 18th century.

Wentworth Street, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Textiles: Petticoat Lane Market

The Sunday Petticoat Lane market has a history stretching back to the mid-eighteenth century. The Victorians, who didn’t like references to undergarments, tried to change the name of the market by renaming Petticoat Lane Middlesex Street. It didn’t work, even to this day, despite the name Middlesex Street having been in existence for over one hundred years, it’s still Petticoat Lane Market. It’s a marvellous feeling to think local people, have collectively over the years defied a bureaucratic and moralistic opposition. Even better when you consider that many of them were immigrants, for whom one name has just as little meaning as the next. On weekdays there is a watered down version of the market on Wentworth Street. During the weekdays the pace is slow, there is little custom, and the market traders look disaffected and troubled.

‘Tenter Ground’, a nondescript street near to Commercial Street, is so called because in the seventeenth century it was used as a site for ‘tenters’, frames for stretching out and drying woven cloth.

Brick Lane, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Brick Lane

Brick Lane is the jewel in the crown, well OK, the jewel in the working class squalor of the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, in the east of London. The Bangladeshi’s started to arrive to the UK in the 1970s and 80s. The Bengalis seem on the face of it to live in reasonable conditions but their environs are a bit of a shock to the system when you wander into them from the relative luxury of the surrounding financial quarter.

In any case over the last twenty years the Bengali community have worked damned hard to convert Brick Lane, which runs through the heart of Spitalfields, from just another slummy street into a fantastically vibrant place. Its ‘Hollywood status’ has led to calls from some to rename it ‘Banglaland’. I remember walking down it for the first time on a hot summer’s day in 1995 looking in wonderment at the weird Arabic and Asian writings on the shop signs, the Sari shops and the pungent Bangladeshi sweet shops, thinking ‘where the fuck am I?’ Coming from the north I spent many years afterwards wondering if I had dreamt that place up.

Brick Lane means one thing to many people, curry. Brick Lane is thick with curry houses and during the evenings, those not doing do well in business will send out hustlers, who nag you sometimes in incomprehensible English, to come in and get a free ‘watered-down’ beer, with thirty per cent off your curry. In many curry houses they cramp you into uncomfortable furniture. I remember on one occasion some friends and I were whisked away into a small pokey downstairs room with no windows. Just before we got to the bottom of the stairs we could see a waiter loosing himself in a fog of air freshener to mask the fact that the toilets were going to be just a couple of metres from where we were eating. They then either because they forgot about us, or because they knew we were captive customers, didn’t come back to take our order for another ten minutes! Fantastic!

My advice on the curry front is either go for something very upmarket, where the restaurant is not relying on a hustler to get you in, or go for a very cheap looking café style place, where the locals eat out.

Brick Lane, being close to the financial district, is also home to many corporate trendies, and there are countless bars, galleries and shops interspersed amongst the Bengali businesses. There are also still a large number of Cockney street traders selling furniture and stolen bicycles.

In the really olden days Brick Lane was the route along which carts carried bricks from the brick kilns in Spitalfields to Whitechapel and beyond. The quality of the earth for brick-making had been recognised since Roman times.

Bangla City Supermarket can be seen from the bottom of Fournier Street, and in some ways, is the quintessential statement of the presence ot the Bengali community in Brick Lane. Enter and be amazed at the huge backs of rice and spices they have, tonnes of it. The kinds of things that you struggle to find in your local convenience shop, Bangla City sells in containers. Staff are curteous if not friendly, and many cannot speak a great deal of English, but still business is business, and you shouldn't find any problems getting cheap meat and vegetables. Definitely worth a visit.

Snicket off Brick Lane, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Street Art in Spitalfields

Together with the rest of East London Spitalfields has become part of what one might call the ‘the square mile of art’; a de facto open air art gallery; with graffiti, posters and paste-ups being displayed on the main streets, down the side roads and in all the nooks and crannies of this post-industrial environ.

The artwork is often the product of local artists but is also the product of a global jet set elite who spend their time invading the major cities of the world, displaying their art on walls and local galleries and then leaving for their next destination.

The artwork varies enormously, from paintings, to huge single letters painted on shop shutters, to stencils the like of which Banksy has become famous for, to the haunting propaganda rip-off posters of Obey, to Cartrain’s political black and white pop-art; to name but a few.

Being on the streets, the work can be destroyed, taken or painted over at any minute. It is fragile and transient. Furthermore the juxtaposition of different pieces of art is random and unpredictable both in content and its location, which means that each day throws up a new and unique configuration of work within the streets, which you can only experience by travelling through the city.

A lot of the work is being displayed on and off Brick Lane. This adds to the trendy bohemian, ‘rich people mixing with the poor immigrants’ type feel that your arty middle class people can’t get enough of. I don’t know what the Bengalis think of it all.

Gambling on Whitechapel Road, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Whitechapel Road

Today Whitechapel Road, which sits at the southeast border of Spitalfields, is a busy thoroughfare. One side of Whitechapel Road is a characterless mix of newsagents, gadget shops, tube station entrances and one art gallery. On the other side are a number of tall office blocks and complexes. Whitechapel Road’s wide berth was used as a passageway for cattle in past times.

Artillery Lane

Artillery Lane, Spitalfields, East London harks back to a time when part of Spitalfields was known as ‘The Old Artillery Ground’ and designated by Henry VIII for the use of ‘The Fraternity of Saint George’ who together with the ‘Gunners of the Tower’ used it for weaponry practice. In 1658 artillery practice was carried out at another site in the locality, and twenty-five years later the area was sold of for development. The builders erected housing, using street names like Gun Street, Artillery Passage and Artillery Lane to commemorate the land’s former usage.

Quaker Street, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Quaker Street

Quaker Street is a side street which connects two main arteries in Spitalfields Commercial Street and Brick Lane. It has quite a lot of street art pasted up near its Brick Lane end, and gets more residential as you head towards the scummy Commercial Road.

In the old days Quaker Street used to be known as Wheeler Street, and in the seventeenth century was the home of what became one of the first Quaker Meeting Houses. The house collapsed in the eighteenth century.

All the street names in and around Brick Lane are translated into Bengali. I was interested to see Quaker Street had a translation. How does ‘quaker’ translate into Bengali?

Sclater Street, Spitalfields, 2008, Ravish London.

Sclater Street

Sclater Street sits at the north of Spitalfields, near to Bethnal Green. It is in the main a long dusty road, lined with warehouses and the odd shop. It also sports a lot of graffiti and street art.

A hundred years ago Sclater Street was home to a ‘bird market’.

A brief look at the 1891 Census shows a remarkable number of people living on Sclater Street dealing in birds as a profession. Sclater Street was famous for having a bird market every Sunday. Sunday markets were and still are common in this part of London, with the Flower market in nearby Colombia Street, the fruit and vegetable market in Spitalfields, and the rag trade down in Petticoat Lane.

George R. Sims, writing in the early twentieth century commented, “This little Street in Shoreditch forms the common meeting-ground for buyer and seller, chopper and changer, and I can safely say that nowhere in London is there to be seen so interesting a concourse of people. They are all absorbed in birds and bird-life. If you stand at one end of the narrow street and cast your eyes towards the other extremity, the scene presented is one long line of commotion and bustle. You hear remarks such as these: “Don’t desert the old firm, guvnor;” “Come, now, that’s a deal ;“ and “Wet the bargain, Bill.”

He goes, “on Sunday nothing but bird-cages are to be seen from roofs to pavement in almost every house. At first you see nothing but the avenue of bird-cages. The crowd in the narrow street is so dense that you can gather no idea of what is in the shop-windows or what the mob of men crowding together in black patches of humanity are dealing in.”

Sims goes on, “The fanciers, who bring their own birds to the fair and compare notes with acquaintances, do not say very much and are not very demonstrative. There is a reserved, almost melancholy, look on their faces. They suggest the patient listeners rather than the eager talkers. Most of them spend their leisure listening to their own birds or other people's.”

He also mentions, “Close by is a famous bird shop, the proprietor of which has also, though not on view, a wonderful assortment of wild beasts always "on sale." On the little desk in his back room are invoices of lions coming from Africa, and elephants on the way from India, a telegram announcing the arrival at Liverpool of a consignment of apes, and letters from clients inquiring the lowest price of various Noah's Ark specialities, from a boa-constrictor to a giraffe, from a zebra to a Polar bear. It is Sunday, and the proprietor is in the thick of the bird trade, and busy, but we shall come again another day and wander about the yard and the stables at the back of the premises, and see a small Zoo in the heart of Bethnal Green.”

If anyone has some old images of the bird market I would be delighted to hear from them.

Sims also talks about a guy who sells wild animals. He states: "We enter cautiously what is apparently an ordinary yard with sheds and stables. The reason for our caution is that a local friend who accompanies us tells us that one day he went in casually, and was alarmed to find that a small leopard had got loose and was gambolling in the sunshine. The leopard made friendly advances by putting his paws on the visitor's chest. The leopard is not loose to-day, but we find one in a cage in a stable, and close at hand a young lion fast asleep. In the same stable are a number of monkeys, and the proprietor of the wild beast depôt obligingly catches one of them in a net to show us how they are "handled" when a customer comes in and wants one. These monkeys are "guaranteed" as pets for a lady, and the price is about three pounds apiece."

High Rise Blocks on Sclater Street

Two high rise blocks are being planned for Sclater Street. The Open ShoreditchM blog says: “The proposed development will tower over the local conservation areas and the local community. A 70 metre long wall of 12 to 20 storey towers coming right up to the edge of the pavement will permanently cast deep shadows over the narrow Bethnal Green Road and beyond. Hundreds of local residents and businesses, the long-established local artistic community and English Heritage strongly objected to the proposal. Developers will claim the approval as a precedent paving the way for further soulless development. It jeopardises meaningful input from the community into plans for the future of this historic area.”