Sclater Street, Spitlafields, 2008, Ravish London

Sclater Street, Spitalfields

Sclater Street sits at the north of Spitalfields East London, close to Bethnal Green. It is a fantastic old dirty, graffiti strewn street, which gets trendier and trendier as it edges eastwards towards Brick Lane

Sclater Street Birds

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 dep™t 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."


Spitalfields is a small neighbourhood in the east end of London with a rich historical part including waves of immigration which stretch back to the sixteenth century. For the last five hundred years the story of the people who lived there 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 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.

From Roman Times Onward

Spitalfields began life as a Roman cemetery, outside the ancient walls of the City of London. 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 as well as old bric-a-brac.

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

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 began to arrive 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. 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 traditional anti-Catholicism meant that the Huguenot's were generally well received into the country.

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, and was usually the place a weaver would have his loom. The idea was that the attic room was ideally located to let in as much light as possible. 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.

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 creates for you. 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.

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 leading to 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?

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. The building is still their today, and whilst the faŤade which has a sign saying 'Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor' remains faithful to its origins, the building itself has been converted into luxury apartments.

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

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 changing the name Petticoat Lane to Middlesex Street. It didn't work, even to this day, no-one ever talks about Middlesex Street market. 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

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 in and around live in reasonable conditions but they 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 cafŽ 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.

There are a number of mosques in Spitalfields. One of a particular note is the 'Jamme Masjid', the history of which mirrors immigration into Spitalfields perfectly, having been previously a synagogue and originally a French Protestant chapel. It 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.

Together Spitalfields and Shoreditch in the eastern quarter of the City of London have become, what one might call 'the square mile of art'; a de factor 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.

One of my favourite photographs is that of Quaker Street, a side street of Brick Lane, which says it all. As well as having a piece of street art featuring two famous actors or popstars also has the Bengali translation of Quaker Street up above it. So prominent has the Bangladeshi community become they have street names in their own writing now. The thing that puzzled me is how does 'quaker' translate into Bengali?

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 it 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.

Date Article Written: 2008

Contact Details and References

Sclater Street, London, E1 6HR



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  • The 1891 London Census Transcription, Sclater Street, Bethnal Green.
  • In Bethnal Green; Chapter VIII of "Off the track in London" by George R. Sims, published by Jarrold & Sons, 1911.
  • Labour's block vote for The Block, Open Shoreditch, 18th March 2008.
  • Stop the Block and Save the Light!