General introduction

Pages 1-13

Survey of London: Volume 27, Spitalfields and Mile End New Town. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1957.

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In this section

General Introduction

The area discussed in this volume stretches from the Norton Folgate section of Bishopsgate Street in the west to the boundary of Mile End Old Town in the east, and from Shoreditch and Bethnal Green in the north to Whitechapel in the south. It lies almost entirely within the Borough of Stepney, (fn. n1) but in its historical development the area is not wholly characteristic of East London.

There was no ancient village nucleus here and no parish church existed in the area before the reign of George I, when the hamlet of Spitalfields, previously part of St. Dunstan's, Stepney, was made a parish by an Act of 1729. (fn. 1) The western extremity of the area, bordering Bishopsgate Street, had been occupied by conventual buildings from the twelfth century and some domestic building took place in the south-western part of the area in the late sixteenth century. It was, however, the second half of the seventeenth century that saw the chief transformation of much of the area from open fields and nursery gardens into streets of houses built mainly for the accommodation of silk weavers. The development of the area west of Brick Lane was almost complete by 1740, but Mile End New Town, which had become a hamlet of Stepney parish in 1690, was not completely built-up until the mid-nineteenth century, acquiring its first parish church in 1839.

Much of the area has thus been built over for some three hundred years. Its position has subjected it to constant social and material change, making many aspects of even its recent history difficult to reconstruct. The paucity of original title-deeds and the lack of a full series of rate books have obscured the history of many buildings, while the evil reputation of the area in the nineteenth century has left much of now vanished Spitalfields unrecorded by any topographical artist.

The earliest use of the area of which there is clear evidence is as one of the Roman burial grounds along the road running north from Bishopsgate. (fn. 2) Stow records the discovery of urns, and other artefacts of glass and white and red earthenware, when the fields later forming the hamlet of Spitalfields were dug for brick-earth in the second half of the sixteenth century. Stone coffins were also found, and remains, as Stow supposed, of timber coffins. (fn. 3) Sir Christopher Wren is also said to have found Roman remains here. (fn. 4)

At the end of the twelfth century the part of the area fronting Bishopsgate Street became the site of the Augustinian Priory or Hospital of St. Mary Spital. None of its buildings above ground remain. The two Liberties of Norton Folgate (east of Bishopsgate Street) and the Old Artillery Ground, which survived until the creation of the Borough of Stepney in 1900, were, however, probably co-extensive with the priory precinct: the former was associated also with a manor probably of date anterior to the priory. After the Dissolution the priory buildings and gardens, in the Liberty of Norton Folgate, passed to Stephen Vaughan, an official of Henry VIII, and from his family to the St. Johns (Earls of Bolingbroke). The lay owners adapted the buildings for their own occupation and that of other persons of note. Proximity to the City together with immunity from parochial authority made the former precinct attractive to Roman Catholic recusants. The first drastic reshaping of the priory site did not take place until the end of the seventeenth century.

The southern part of the precinct, a 'teasel ground' cultivated by clothworkers at the time of the Dissolution, was occupied thenceforward until 1682 for archery and gunnery practice. Its use was disputed between the officers of the Tower and the (Honourable) Artillery Company, obliging the Crown to hold a delicate balance between the two parties. In the 1680's it was laid out in streets of cheap and modest houses by Nicholas Barbon and his associates.

The main axis of this estate was north-and-south, while the subsequent development of the Norton Folgate area did not facilitate east-and-west transit. The area of the former priory precinct thus tended to isolate Spitalfields from rather than join it to Bishopsgate Street.

The land east of the precinct lay open and undeveloped throughout the Middle Ages. It belonged to the Bishop of London's Manor of Stepney and the greater part, north of the later line of Fashion Street, was known as Spittlehope or Lolesworth field, and gave its later name of Spital Field to the hamlet and parish. In 1498 it was leased by the bishop to the prior for ninety-nine years. By the second half of the sixteenth century the field had been sold and was not thereafter a part of the manor. During the later sixteenth century part of the field was dug for brick-earth: as late as 1669 bricks used in the building-up of the 'Spital Field' were dug and burnt on the site.

The undeveloped character of the area in 1560–70 is clearly shown on Agas's map-view, where the only buildings are those within the priory precinct. The lines of later streets are occupied by field-hedges. Brick Lane appears, without any building along it north of Whitechapel, and a field-path leads in the direction of Stepney church on the line of the later Mile End New Town section of Hanbury Street. On the south-western boundaries Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane) and Wentworth Street are shown, also without buildings. But within a few years the area immediately east of Middlesex Street was built up, irregularly, with substantial houses divided by yards and gardens. By the 1640's there were houses along almost all the southern boundary of the area, on the north side of Wentworth Street, with tenter grounds for stretching cloth behind them. The owner of the manor sold this southern part of the area, and apparently Mile End New Town also, in the period 1640–50.

A very small part of the area appears still to have belonged to the Manor of Stepney in the eighteenth century, (fn. 5) but its building history, which is essentially of the mid-seventeenth century onwards, was not significantly influenced, as was that of some other parts of East London, by the conditions of tenure in this Manor.

In the 1650's the south side of the line of Fashion Street and White's Row was lined with small houses, and the area south of Fashion Street laid out in narrow streets by local builders. The area south of White's Row remained a tenter ground, and was the last part of Spitalfields to be laid out in streets, in the second decade of the nineteenth century. The westernmost part of this southern section had passed in the 1640's (like much of the future Mile End New Town) to the Montague family (later Earls of Halifax), but was redeveloped only gradually.

In the meantime the larger area of Lolesworth field had come into the possession of the Wheler family of Datchet, Buckinghamshire. In 1649 it was divided, the northern part passing to William (later Sir William) Wheler of Westbury, Wiltshire, and Cannon Row, Westminster, and the southern part, between the line of Lamb Street and Hanbury Street and the line of White's Row and Fashion Street, to trustees for seven daughters of William Wheler of Datchet. In the 1650's and 1660's the northern part was laid out in streets by lessees of Sir William Wheler, a successful politician. In the late 1660's and early 1670's the daughters' trustees developed the more southerly part of the Wheler estate. New streets were built to south and west of the future market site, and Red Lion Street, where Nicholas Culpeper is reputed to have lived in the 1640's, (fn. 6) was probably completed at this time.

By 1662 Spitalfields had been sufficiently developed to acquire a churchwarden of its own in the parish of Stepney. (fn. 7)

The hearth tax returns of 1674–5 include 1,336 houses in Spitalfields parish: of these 140, probably newly built, then stood empty. Forty of the houses had eight or more hearths, but most of the building was clearly for humble occupants. (fn. 8)

The laying-out of the Old Artillery Ground in the 1680's brought the chief seventeenth-century estate developments west of Brick Lane to an end.

All of these enterprises were carried on by numerous builders, mainly local men of limited resources, who took leases of small sites on which they built houses often of poor construction. The streets of Spitalfields formed a humdrum network designed to give the maximum frontage, with little regard to access from adjoining areas.

By the early 1680's Spitalfields was sufficiently populous to make the establishment of a market profitable. The Crown contemplated granting a market-franchise in the Old Artillery Ground: this project fell through but a market-right was granted to the lessee of the adjacent Spital Field, a silk throwster from Somerset, and a market-house and market-place were built in the mid-1680's. Despite its position between Bishopsgate and White-chapel access to the market was extremely inadequate until the making of Union Street in the 1780's and remained insufficient throughout the nineteenth century.

These developments proceeded despite the continued apprehensions of the government at the eastward expansion of London, occasioned partly by the political and religious disaffection existing in such outskirts of the capital as Spitalfields. The 'liberty' immediately east of Bishopsgate Street was a refuge for dissidents and Spitalfields as a whole was a stronghold of Nonconformity: Baptists had early settled here, (fn. 9) and an important Quaker meeting was established during the Commonwealth. In 1684 the officers of the hamlet were imprisoned and put in the pillory for refusal to take the required oaths. (fn. 10) The State Papers of that period contain frequent references to dangerous opponents of the government in Spitalfields, some thought to be involved in the Rye House plot, particularly in and about Brick Lane. The remote and inaccessible character of that area in the 1670's appears in Wren's report on the impassable state of Brick Lane. By that time, with so much of Spitalfields built up since the Commonwealth, the completion of the development, providing drainage and made-up roadways, was evidently thought desirable.

The first building in Mile End New Town was probably a little later than in Spitalfields, but by 1690 the nucleus of recently built houses was sufficiently extensive for this new settlement, largely of ’handicraft tradesmen … labourers and artificers’, (fn. 11) to be made a separate hamlet of Stepney parish. Despite its name it was organically an extension of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, not of Mile End. The area of the future hamlet had evidently been sold by the lord of Stepney Manor in the mid-seventeenth century, when it had been unbuilt and partly used to dig brick-earth. (fn. 12)

The area discussed in this volume, so closely associated with the history of the Huguenot silk weavers, was thus already very largely built-up by the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Aliens were present in Spitalfields before the middle of the century, (fn. 13) and two years before the Revocation French weavers were sufficiently numerous in Spitalfields to attract the hostility of the English apprentices. (fn. 14)

The years immediately following the Revocation were not in fact a period of great domestic building activity. They saw, however, the establishment of a number of French churches, of which seven existed in the area by 1700. (fn. n2) The 1713 and 1716 rate books of the Commissioners of Sewers record a high proportion of French names. In 1718 and again in 1753–4 the hamlet and parish scavengers could speak no English. (fn. 15) At a higher economic level, some 95 of the 134 Spitalfields manufacturers who declared their loyalty to the throne in 1745 had names of French origin and professed themselves able to raise over 2,000 workmen and dependants against the Young Pretender. (fn. 16) By 1780 the separate identity of the French community was rapidly disappearing and the decay of their congregations was lamented by a Spitalfields pastor. (fn. 17) Mile End New Town, though of similar social composition to much of Spitalfields, was occupied in the eighteenth century by a more English population of weavers. (fn. n3)

By the beginning of the eighteenth century houses of rather better quality were being erected by the Earl of Bolingbroke in Norton Folgate and by Joseph Truman west of Brick Lane. At about this time, in 1703, the hamlet took measures for the better lighting of the area. (fn. 19)

The increase of population caused two Anglican chapels of ease or ’tabernacles’ to be erected at about this time, the Petticoat Lane tabernacle and Sir George Wheler's tabernacle just east of the Norton Folgate boundary. The early history of the latter, opened in 1693, shows an attempt by an East London landlord to establish a chapel over which he hoped to exercise a control similar to that enjoyed by country gentlemen over their private chapels. The population of Spitalfields proved recalcitrant and the first years of the chapel saw disputes between the landlord, inhabitants and minister.

In 1711 Spitalfields was chosen for the site of one or more churches to be erected by the ’Fifty Churches’ Commissioners. The one church finally built between 1714 and 1729 to Nicholas Hawksmoor's design contributes strongly by its size, strangeness and nobility to the character of Spitalfields, although its history is to be seen in a metropolitan rather than a local context.

It was at this time that the development of the two estates which contained the best of Spitalfields domestic building was commenced. Between 1718 and 1728 Charles Wood and Simon Michell, two lawyers of Somersetshire extraction who had acquired part of the southern section of the Wheler estate, laid out a residential area between Hanbury Street and a new street, now Fournier Street, on the north side of Christ Church. In 1716 Isaac (later Sir Isaac) Tillard, of whom little is known beyond his descent from a Huguenot family of Totnes, Devon, had acquired the St. Johns' Norton Folgate estate and shortly afterwards began to lay out or rebuild the area between Blossom Terrace in the north and Spital Square in the south. Most of this work, including rebuilding in Norton Folgate High Street, was completed in the 1720's but the fine houses on the eastern arm of Spital Square were not built until the 1730's.

Some dozen builders were lessees of sites on these two estates, the most prominent being local carpenters, although one of the most active, Samuel Worrall of Princelet Street, may have had west-country connexions. The responsibility of individual builders for the design of houses cannot be established. It is clear that they co-operated in building their houses. The lessees on the two estates form, in the main, distinct groups, but a few occur in some capacity on both estates.

This period of building activity reflects the prosperity of the Huguenot silk merchants, who provided many of the first occupants of the better houses on the two estates. The quality of building varied a good deal, but the street façades were generally imposing even where the interiors were unpretentious. Later rebuilding and neglect have obscured the original character of these estates, but much of Fournier Street survives and something of the old atmosphere can still be felt in Elder Street.

Spital Square retained its air of domestic seclusion even after it was given over to miscellaneous commercial uses in the late nineteenth century, as through-traffic was hindered by bars across the roadway. The 1909 photographs reproduced on Plates 56, 58 suggest the appearance of decaying dignity which it then still possessed.

There was no particularly French influence in eighteenth-century Spitalfields building. If any indirect regional influence existed it may have derived from the west-country connexions possessed by some owners and lessees. The only known builder of French extraction is James Laverdure ’otherwise Green’ who was at work in 1763.

Rocque's map of 1746 shows the greater part of the area west of Brick Lane to be closely built; but behind the houses gardens still occupied the ground later covered with workshops and a squalid slumland of tiny courts.

The mid-eighteenth century saw chiefly the rebuilding of seventeenth-century buildings. The landlords under whom this was carried out included men of some note: Viscount Folkestone, first President of the Royal Society of Arts; George Keate, poet and man of letters; and the Rev. Granville Wheler, an early experimenter with electricity. But much of this rebuilding, of which hardly anything remains, was probably little better than the seventeenth-century work it replaced. The rebuilding of this period has, however, left us the finest Georgian shop-front in London, at No. 56 Artillery Lane, first occupied by a Huguenot silk retailer. The designer remains unknown.

In the third quarter of the century the line of Wood Street on the Wood-Michell estate was continued northward by Nathaniel Wilkes of Wendon Lofts, Essex, a cousin of John Wilkes, and his sons. The new line of street was designed for a poorer class of working weavers than the earlier estate.

In 1738 an Act for the lighting of ’the great and populous parish of Christ Church’ had been obtained, (fn. 20) and by 1745–6 the parish was lit by 235 lamps in the winter. (fn. 21) The first general Act for paving, cleansing, lighting and watching the parish was obtained in 1772: this, however, authorized commissioners to pave only certain streets, mainly those around the market and on the Wood-Michell estate, with additional power to pave other streets if desired to do so by two-thirds of the owners ’in Number and Value’. (fn. 22) Their powers were extended by a more comprehensive Act of 1788. (fn. 23)

Norton Folgate obtained its first Local Act in 1759, for lighting, cleansing and watching the liberty, followed by a paving Act in 1776. (fn. 24)

The Old Artillery Ground, still partly surrounded by its ’Town Wall’, obtained a comprehensive Local Act in 1774, regularizing the establishment of a workhouse and making provision for watching, paving, cleansing and lighting. (fn. 25)

The Spitalfields area in the mid-eighteenth century had acquired a degree of homogeneity arising from widespread dependence on the silk-weaving industry, which had already in the first half of the seventeenth century existed in Spitalfields, (fn. 26) where it enjoyed proximity to the greatest centre of consumption and to the landing-places for imported material. The trade was predominantly capitalistic, and although the fabric of the area still recalls the prosperity of some merchants, master weavers, dyers and retailers, much of vanished Spitalfields was always the home of poorer working weavers. Such artisans were subject to the hazards of a trade in which changes of fashion and interruption of the supply of raw material by war were liable to cause great fluctuations in business and whose economic organization made it possible for work to be stopped by the master weaver at short notice. The history of Spitalfields was thus marked from an early period by industrial distress which was sometimes expressed in violent rioting. Outbursts occurred in 1675–6 (fn. 27) and 1683. (fn. 28) In 1693 and 1696 the great distress of Spitalfields weavers was publicized. (fn. 29) A spokesman for the parishioners in the 1720's when the provision for the rector was under consideration called them ’but a middling sort of industrious People [who] find the Parish Books come often enough to their Doors already’. (fn. 30) In 1729 the parish was ’Burdened with a Numerous poor’, (fn. 31) and this period, despite the development of the two chief residential estates, was thought by the ’Fifty Churches’ Commissioners to have seen ’great decay of trade and fall of rents’. (fn. 32) The 1730's were marked by repeated riots by weavers against their masters, requiring troops to be sent from the Tower, (fn. 33) and similar violence marked the 1760's and early 1770's. (fn. 34) In 1773 the first ’Spitalfields Act’ (fn. 35) inaugurated a period of internal price regulation (perhaps systematizing existing practices) and external tariff protection that lasted until 1824. (fn. 36) Some measure of industrial peace was secured, perhaps at the expense of economic and technical adaptability. But interruption of trade by war, as in 1792, still brought great distress. (fn. 37)

The Spitalfields area was thus one of both prosperity and poverty, but on the whole the parish of Spitalfields was a poor working area. By 1749 enough houses were being divided into lodgings for their rating to become a problem. (fn. 38) In 1754 the old workhouse was replaced by larger premises in Mile End New Town, which had to be extended in 1776. By 1791 the part of the churchyard reserved for the poor had to be extended also.

The poor of the Old Artillery Ground were said to be ’lately much increased’ in 1774.

The setting of this industrial poverty was of course very different from that of nineteenth-century factory industrialism. In the 1760's artisans seeking employment gathered within the railings before the church on Monday and Tuesday mornings to be hired, (fn. 39) and in the 1780's the steeple keeper begged Christmas bounty of the parishioners in verse which had something of a country air about it. (fn. 40) Gardens still lay at the backs of houses and the weavers were noted for their fondness for flowers and caged birds and for intellectual interests which found expression in the Spitalfields Mathematical Society and other shorter-lived societies. (fn. 41)

In Mile End New Town development in the eighteenth century had gone on in piecemeal fashion. The northern part had come into the possession of the Tylney family (later Earls of Castlemaine) in 1719 and some building was then carried forward. Much of this estate remained unbuilt, however, until after its sale in the early nineteenth century to pay off mortgages on other property of the family. In the more southerly part of the hamlet owned by the Earls of Halifax there was some building in the 1740's but more expansion came from the 1760's onwards when the area south of Hanbury Street and east of Greatorex Street was developed in unpretentious form. In mid-century a building probably identifiable as a farm-house still stood in the field north of Hanbury Street with trees and a stream about it. By the 1770's the site was covered by Truman's storehouses. At this period the development of the hamlet was sufficient for the establishment of a short-lived Anglican chapel of ease, which subsequently became a Nonconformist chapel. Throughout most of the eighteenth century the hamlet had evidently been without any place of worship. The first Local Act was obtained in 1780, for paving, watching, lighting and relief of the poor. (fn. 42) Three years later trustees acquired workhouse premises for the hamlet's numerous poor.

Horwood's map of 1799, compared with Rocque's of 1746, shows little change in Spitalfields and the liberties except on the Wilkes estate and the new street called Union Street (now part of Brushfield Street). This had been built in the 1780's to remedy the lack of through-routes in Spitalfields. The City of London, partly in order to improve communication between Finsbury and Whitechapel, assisted this project, which was quickly carried through. The new street soon became congested, however, by the traffic drawn to Spitalfields Market.

By 1801 Spitalfields parish was already thickly populated, with 15,091 inhabitants; (fn. 43) by 1901, after a large influx of Eastern European Jews, the population had risen to 24,346, (fn. 44) a smaller proportionate rise than in most other parts of Stepney. In Mile End New Town the increase was greater, from 5,253 (fn. 43) to 13,157. (fn. 44)

The early nineteenth century saw the building throughout the area of small cheap houses and courts, some of which survive and include most of the few examples of houses designed for the accommodation of working weavers as distinct from the Georgian homes of silk merchants with weaving lofts in the roof.

In March 1807 the Spitalfields Vestry spoke of ’the very peculiar Circumstances’ of Spitalfields and Mile End New Town ’which are inhabited almost entirely by poor Persons’ (fn. 45) and where, in 1814, some £11,000 was spent on poor relief. (fn. 46) The Spitalfields workhouse was becoming more crowded and the streets were being taken over by common lodging houses offering wretched accommodation to an impoverished and partly criminal population. When Commercial Street was projected in the 1830's the sickly, pauperized and vicious character of much of the area was acknowledged. The laying-out of the lines both of the new street and of the railway to the Shoreditch terminus was retarded by the congested and insanitary character of the property through which they passed.

The making of Commercial Street in mid-century, while serving a general metropolitan purpose in linking North London with the Docks, gave Spitalfields its first wide thoroughfare, and was beneficial to health and order. (fn. 47) But the courts and streets bordering it remained infamous. In 1858 robberies in the street caused alarm and in the following year the ’fearful state’ of Fashion Street was deplored by the Vestry. (fn. 48) The lamentable condition of the common lodging houses continued and in 1861 the Vestry attempted to reduce their numbers. (fn. 49) In 1848 the ’model lodgings’ of the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes had been built to attract men from the common lodging houses but this aspect of the Association's work was not successful and after 1869 it concentrated on the provision of family dwellings. The first Peabody Buildings, opened in 1864 in Commercial Street, were also mainly for family occupation.

The worst slum areas in Spitalfields were those of early development: Bell Lane, Calvin Street, Duval Street and particularly the Flower and Dean Street area. The last acquired additional notoriety in the 1880's from its association with the victims of ’Jack the Ripper’. The rebuilding of this area as large blocks of ’dwellings’, under the Artisans Dwellings Act of 1875, was thus hastened.

The abandonment of the ’Spitalfields Acts’ in 1824 and the reduction of tariff protection, completed in 1860, had increased the hardships of the Spitalfields silk weavers and the nineteenth-century history of their trade was one of virtually unbroken decline. By then, however, weaving was far from being the only occupation in the area. In the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Truman's Brewery, founded in the late seventeenth century, had acquired an important position in the local economy, while many inhabitants of Spitalfields in the nineteenth century obtained casual employment in the City and on the riverside. By 1840 it was estimated that there were only 669 looms employed in Spitalfields and 704 in Mile End New Town compared with 7,847 in the parish of Bethnal Green. (fn. 50) In the later nineteenth century only a few of the most skilled weavers and some firms organizing their work in factories survived. The trade in Spitalfields is now extinct.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century the character of the area was rapidly modified by the great augmentation of its existing Jewish population, when refugees from the pogroms in Eastern Europe reintroduced an extensive alien element. By 1891 some 18,000 of the inhabitants of the Whitechapel and Spitalfields district were of foreign birth. (fn. 51) The Jews' Free School, founded in 1817, had its numbers increased to 3,500, and became one of the most important single elements in the assimilation of the immigrants. By 1898 much of Mile End New Town, which in the eighteenth century had had a more English character than Spitalfields, was predominantly Jewish. (fn. 52) Small furriers, and clothiers' workshops, often of Jewish character, have now supplanted the weaving trade.

The Jewish influx, as well as displacing English Nonconformity, has made superfluous four of the Anglican churches in the area—All Saints', Mile End New Town, consecrated in 1839; St. Mary Spital Square, which was the former chapel of Sir George Wheler converted to serve an Ecclesiastical District in 1842; St. Stephen's, Commercial Street, consecrated in 1861; and St. Olave's, Mile End New Town, consecrated in 1875—all of which were closed between 1911 and 1950. Although short-lived these nineteenth-century foundations were not excessive in relation to the total population of the area—if Spitalfields parish had not been embroiled in a dispute over church rates in 1824 a new parish church might have been erected at that earlier period—but the social and racial composition of the Spitalfields area made it very difficult to attract Anglican congregations.

There was extensive development in Mile End New Town from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Between 1846 and 1855 the vacant land in the north of the hamlet near the newly built church of All Saints was laid out with streets of unassuming but decent terrace-houses, the ’model lodgings’ and family dwellings of the Metropolitan Association, and the church and presbytery of the Marist Fathers. Their church of St. Anne's (1855), one of those built following the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, was intended largely to provide for the Irish immigrants whose influx had been noted by the Spitalfields Vestry in 1847. (fn. 53) This late-built part of Mile End New Town had probably less of the character of an over-populated slum than elsewhere, and a Roman Catholic grammar school existed here in the 1870's and 1880's. By the period of the 1873–5 Ordnance Survey the southern part of Mile End New Town had become quite extensively industrialized.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century in Spitalfields was marked by the increasing business of the market, associated with the completion of Commercial Street and the transformation of the Great Eastern terminus into a goods station. The monopoly rights of the market freeholder and franchise owner were strikingly vindicated against public authorities and the Great Eastern Railway Company's rival market. Rebuilding of the old seventeenth-century market area in the 1880's and extension in the 1920's has destroyed much of the domestic character of Spitalfields, Spital Square and the Old Artillery Ground, and has helped to give the area an aspect noticeably different from that which it possessed in the mid-nineteenth century. The congestion of domestic buildings has also been greatly reduced by war damage and reconstruction. In Mile End New Town many of the small houses that formerly lay within the shadow of Spitalfields workhouse have been destroyed. In Spitalfields a little of the old atmosphere of crowded and narrow streets still survives in Artillery Passage but the large scale of Bishopsgate Goods Station, the market premises, blocks of ’artisans dwellings’, Truman's Brewery, and Messrs. Godfrey Phillips' tobacco factory has, together with the heavy through-traffic of Commercial Street, overlaid the sordid but distinctive qualities of the area with the random and miscellaneous adjuncts of commerce and industry.

The Fabric

The fabric of Spitalfields may be likened to a patchwork. The two predominant materials lie side by side in complete contrast—the early Georgian, fine textured and elegant in design, but now threadbare and ever decreasing, and the Victorian, coarse and strong, but more often than not hideous. There are, as well, some rather shoddy patches dating from around 1800, but scarcely a fragment survives of the original seventeenth-century fabric, which was extensive but generally of very poor quality.

It is worth noting here that the Spitalfields builders were inclined to be conservative, if not old-fashioned, in matters of style, and there are several buildings in the area which could be assigned, on stylistic grounds alone, to much earlier dates than those to which it has been proved, by documentary evidence, they belong. The following examples may be cited—Nos. 24–26 Hanbury Street (Plate 70c), Nos. 59–85 (odd) Wilkes Street (Plate 71c), North Place, Buxton Street (Plate 75d) and No. 30 Rowland Street (Plate 49c).

The streets laid out before 1680 formed an irregular pattern, and they were lined with houses of widely varying character and size. Some were built of brick but many were of wood, with juttied and gabled fronts of medieval appearance. These timber-framed houses, though archaic, were probably far stronger than many of those built of brick, for the ’searches’ made in the late seventeenth century by the officers of the Tylers' and Bricklayers' Company record numerous cases of bad building, particularly in Mile End New Town and in the small estates north of Wentworth Street. In fact, many of the present buildings are the third or fourth to be erected on sites first developed during the late seventeenth century. The drawing by T. H. Shepherd, reproduced on Plate 55a, gives an excellent idea of these rickety-looking but highly picturesque houses, a surviving example of which can be seen in the Hoop and Grapes in Aldgate High Street, just outside the area described in this volume.

A more regular mode of building was generally observed during the 1680's, when the Old Artillery Ground was laid out in closely built streets by builders associated with the ubiquitous Nicholas Barbon. Some much altered houses on the north-east side of Artillery Lane, and others with rebuilt fronts in Fort Street, serve to remind us of the original character of this development.

The Wood-Michell and Tillard estates were developed during the early Georgian period, when the Spitalfields weavers were rising in prosperity. The houses were handsome enough and fairly regular in design, but the landlords and builders were not concerned with fine planning effects. Each estate was parcelled out with the maximum number of building plots, and one looks in vain at Rocque's map of 1746 for evidence of any reflection, however faint, of the spacious streets and noble squares already developing in the western suburbs of London, or to take examples nearer at hand, in the wide streets of Goodman's Fields and the two squares—Wellclose and Prince's (Swedenborg)—off Cable Street. No squares were planned for Spitalfields—Spital Square is a misnomer—and the only open rectangular space that could be likened to a square was the market. There are no calculated vistas and even so important a building as Christ Church was most unworthily set, for when the surroundings were redeveloped the church was merely aligned with the south side of Fournier Street, and a small open place, set slightly askew, was formed around the west front. The Tillard estate was deliberately planned as an enclave, chief accessible from the main highway, here named Norton Folgate, by way of Folgate Street, off which lay Spital Square and Elder Street.

It has been suggested that the early Georgian houses of Spitalfields have a foreign look, but this impression is largely due to the unusual design of the roofs, generally mansards with casements almost filling the vertical lower face (Plate 72a). Apart from these ’weavers’ garrets, and after making due allowance for the tastes of individual builders, there is nothing about these houses which cannot be matched in most of the houses built in other parts of London during the same period. These Spitalfields house-fronts are generally built of plum-coloured or brown stock bricks, and have three storeys of regularly spaced windows, with flush-framed sashes set in segmental-arched openings dressed with red brick. The wooden doorcases are often of a stock pattern, three designs being commonly used in the area, but there are exceptions such as the really splendid example at No. 14 Fournier Street, which is one of the best surviving houses in the area (Plates 68, 82 and 94c). Other fine houses of this period are Nos. 2, 4/6 and 27 Fournier Street (Plates 65b, 66, 67, 78c, 78d, and 94a, 94b), and No. 20 Spital Square (Plates 59a, 83, 89b and 103b), the first-built and only surviving house of a handsome series erected in the Square between 1732 and 1739.

The principal monument of the area, Christ Church, dates from this period. Begun in 1714 and, after many delays, consecrated in 1729, its apparent unity belies a long and complicated building history. It is the largest of Nicholas Hawksmoor's three Stepney churches, a noble design which fully embodies the majesty of Church and State in the eighteenth century (Plates 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39).

Sectarianism flourished in Spitalfields and several chapels or meeting-houses were built there during the first half of the eighteenth century. The largest and finest of these is the former French Church, now the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, in Fournier Street, an austere Classical building of brick with a galleried interior of oblong plan (Plates 40, 41). The Sandys Row Synagogue, a smaller building with a similar interior, was also built for a French Protestant congregation.

Rocque shows that Spitalfields was almost completely built up by 1746, and there are few surviving buildings wholly of mid-eighteenth-century date. Sometimes, however, an affluent occupier would bring an older house up to date, and of these the most remarkable examples are Nos. 56 and 58 Artillery Lane. The rich Doric shop-front of No. 56 is, of course, well known as the finest example of its period that survives in London, but the sober brick front which the two houses share gives little indication of the finely decorated rooms to be found within (Plates 84, 85, 86, 88a, 90, 91, 92a, 96b, 99b, 99c, 102a, and 108b). Another outstanding example of partial remodelling is at No. 20 Spital Square, where the upper storeys show their origin in the 1730's, and the ground-storey front, with its Coade stone doorway, and the elaborately modelled entrance-hall reflect the elegance of Leverton's late eighteenth-century houses in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury.

The area contains little enough of domestic building dating from around 1800. There are some typical late Georgian terrace-houses at each end of Folgate Street (Plate 60a), and some weavers' houses in Fleur-de-lis Street and Calvin Street (Plate 73b, 73c). The curious and squalid cottages of Loom Court, behind Blossom Street, are a sorry relic of this time (Plate 74c).

The most notable contribution of the early nineteenth century is the fine series of industrial buildings erected on each side of Brick Lane and in Wilkes Street for Truman's Brewery. The first was the Vat House of about 1805, with a charming front more suggestive of a meeting-house than a brewery (Plate 53b). The long, arcaded front of the former stables dates from the 1830's, and the latest and most impressive of all these buildings is the Wilkes Street range of about 1857 (Plate 53d). This great front, with its parade of bays recessed between giant pilasters, and the much simpler front of a small warehouse in Rowland Street, Mile End New Town (Plate 49c), show how the Classical tradition in industrial architecture continued to flourish alongside so much that was fussy and eclectic in Victorian building. The heterogeneous character of Commercial Street illustrates these contrasts in taste. Take, for example, the group on the south-west side, north of Wentworth Street (fig. 66). First comes a warehouse designed in a tortured form of Gohic, the windows set in bays between wide piers that support corbelled straight-sided arches. Next follows the former Jews' Infants' School, with a front of Italianate Classical design, slightly debased in its details. Then come the former Jewish and East London Model Dwellings, again Gothic but with upper windows of fantastic form. Lastly, a block of dwellings with a front of the most forbidding, utilitarian character, almost like a prison house. Yet all of these buildings were erected around 1860.

The north-west route taken by Commercial Street was finally settled by the construction, at its northern end, of the Great Eastern Railway Station. The first station (Plate 50a) (1839–43) was a pleasant Italianate Classical building in stone, but it was short-lived. In 1875 the terminus was moved to Liverpool Street and the Shoreditch station was replaced by the present Bishopsgate Goods Station, an engineer's building in sombre red brick, immense in scale and repetitive in design (Plate 50b).

The following churches were erected in the area during the nineteenth century, to serve the needs of an ever-increasing population: All Saints', Buxton Street (1839, T. L. Walker, Plate 43a), St. Stephen's, Commercial Street (1861, Ewan Christian, Plate 43c), and St. Olave's, Kingward Street (1875, A. W. Blomfield, Plate 43d) were all built for the Church of England but, becoming redundant, have been demolished. The first of these churches was Romanesque, whereas the others were Gothic in style, and all appear to have been equally grim in expression. In contrast, St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church, Underwood Road (1855, G. R. Blount, Plates 44, 45), survives as a fine Puginesque Gothic building, giving considerable distinction to an otherwise dull neighbourhood.

Industrial dwellings and Board Schools are recurrent features in the late Victorian townscape. Some pioneer blocks of dwellings were built in Spitalfields, such as William Beck's belatedly Classical group in Deal Street (1848–50, Plate 76a) and H. A. Darbishire's neo-Jacobean Peabody Buildings in Commercial Street (1863, Plate 77a), the first venture of that newly formed trust. The formation of Commercial Street not only cleared away some deplorable slums, but opened up such festering sores as the hitherto hidden Keate Court. The warrens there and in the adjacent streets soon gave place to tall blocks of dwellings, some harshly utilitarian by later standards, but all of them important efforts in properly rehousing the poor. The school buildings in the area are not remarkable except for the Jews' Free School (1883–1904), a vast accretive building with three fronts of widely differing character.

A return to a more amiable style of building is to be seen in the uniform ranges surrounding Spitalfields Market (1886–93), designed by George Sherrin in a pleasant semi-domestic style that derives from Norman Shaw's work at Bedford Park (Plate 51b). Sherrin's building is preferable to the large additions made to the market in 1926–8, in which an attempt is made to clothe the shed-like structure with the dress of early Georgian houses. Neo-Georgian feeling of a better kind pervades the blocks of flats on the large Holland Estate, built on the Tenter Ground site for the London County Council between 1927 and 1936. The only other twentieth-century building that need be mentioned here, principally on account of its great size, is the faience-fronted factory of Messrs. Godfrey Phillips in Commercial Street, built in the 1930's.


  • n1. Part of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton and Company's Brewery lies in the Borough of Bethnal Green and part of Bishopsgate Goods Station in that borough and in Shoreditch.
  • n2. None of the dozen or so Spitalfields congregations, unlike those in more westerly parts of London, originally adopted the Anglican form of service and only two are known to have conformed later, thus obtaining an annual grant from the Crown. In Spitalfields the majority remained Calvinist.
  • n3. John Milton's daughter, Deborah Clarke, the wife of a weaver, lived in Spitalfields in the late seventeenth century and her daughter Elizabeth Foster occupied a chandler's shop in Woodseer Street in Spitalfields or Mile End New Town in 1738.
  • 1. 2 Geo. II, c. 10, public.
  • 2. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, Roman London, 1928, p. 159; and see also ’A Letter to the Publisher, written by the ingenious Mr. John Bagford’, Feb. 1714/15, prefixed to Johannis Lelandi Antiquarii De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea Ex Autographis Descripsit ediditque Tho. Hearnius, 1715, vol. i, pp. lxi–lxii.
  • 3. Stow, vol. i, pp. 168–70.
  • 4. The Wren Society, vol. xviii, p. 195; and see John Stow, A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, enlarged by John Strype, 1720, Book IV, p. 49.
  • 5. L.C.C.R.O., Ace. 55.28, abstract of title of Sir T. E. Colebrooke, 1755–1835; see also S.C.L.L.C., Vestry Minutes, 20 April 1762, 19 April 1774, 8 April 1776.
  • 6. D.N.B.; and The Mirror, 23 May 1829.
  • 7. G. W. Hill and W. H. Frere, Memorials of Stepney, 1890–1, p. xi.
  • 8. P.R.O., E179/143/370.
  • 9. See D.N.B. sub Edward Barber; Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, vol. 4, No. 1, p. 51; also see Chapter III for Hanserd Knollys and William Kiffin.
  • 10. Cal. S.P. Dom., May 1684–Feb. 1685, pp. 108, 140; and Middlesex County Records, ed. J. C. Jeaffreson, vol. 4, 1892, p. 240.
  • 11. P.R.O., C78/1640.
  • 12. B.M., Egerton MS. 3006 ff. 228–30; ibid., Add. MS. 22253 ff. 4–6; L.C.C.R.O., Harben Bequest Deed C 139; ibid., Acc. 55.28, Survey of Manor of Stepney, 1652, hamlet of Mile End.
  • 13. John Stow, A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, enlarged by John Strype, 1754, vol. i, p. 367; and Procs. Hug. Soc, vol. xvi, p. 35.
  • 14. Cal. S.P. Dom., July-Sep. 1683, p. 330.
  • 15. S.C.L.L.C, Hamlet of Spitalfields Minute Book, 19 July 1718, and Vestry Minutes, 31 July 1753, 30 July 1754.
  • 16. Procs. Hug. Soc, vol. ii, p. 455, and The London Gazette, 5 Oct. 1745.
  • 17. J. S. Burn, The History of the French … Protestant Refugees Settled in England …, 1846, pp. 162–4.
  • 18. David Masson, The Life of John Milton, vol. vi (1880), pp. 741, 751–9.
  • 19. S.C.L.L.C, Hamlet of Spitalfields Minute Book, 29 and 30 March 1703.
  • 20. 11 Geo. II, c. 35, public.
  • 21. S.C.L.L.C, Vestry Minutes, 9 July 1746.
  • 22. 12 Geo. III, c. 38, public.
  • 23. 28 Geo. III, c. 60, public.
  • 24. 32 Geo. II, c. 49, public, and 16 Geo. III, c. 60, public.
  • 25. 14 Geo. III, c. 30, public.
  • 26. A. K. Sabin, The Silk Weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, 1931, p. 8; and Procs. Hug. Soc, vol. xvi, p. 35.
  • 27. H.M.C., 7th Report, Appendix, MSS. of Sir H. Verney, p. 464, and 12th Report, Appendix, Part VII, MSS. of S. H. Le Fleming, Esq., p. 124.
  • 28. Cal. S.P. Dom., July-Sept. 1683, p. 330.
  • 29. S.C.L.L.C, Hamlet of Spitalfields Minute Book, 17 Oct. 1693; and Cal. S.P. Dom., 1696, p. 438.
  • 30. The Case of the Inhabitants of the two New Parishes of Spittlefields and Wapping Stepney (B.M., 816, m. 9, 102).
  • 31. L.P.L., Papers, box II, 4 July 1729.
  • 32. Ibid., Minute Book II, p. 405.
  • 33. Cal. Treasury Books and Papers, 1735–8, p. 185; L.C.C.R.O., BRA666/1/31; and Shoreditch Library, press-cutting 5 Nov. 1739 in extra illustrated edition of Ellis, vol. iii, between pp. 326 and 327.
  • 34. S.C.L.L.C., Vestry Minutes, 31 Aug. 1763, 10 Sept. 1771; The London Chronicle, 4, 7, 13 Oct., 7 Dec. 1769.
  • 35. 13 Geo. III, c. 68, public.
  • 36. See J. H. Clapham, 'The Spitalfields Acts 1773–1824', The Economic Journal, vol. 26 (1916), pp. 459–71.
  • 37. Distresses of the Spital Fields Weavers, N.D. (B.M., 1851, c. 10(79)).
  • 38. S.C.L.L.C., Vestry Minutes, 15 Feb. 1749.
  • 39. S.C.L.L.C., Vestry Minutes, 27 July 1762.
  • 40. See examples in Bishopsgate Institute, 'Pelham House, Spitalfields, etc' (L.26.24), p. 29.
  • 41. See Commission on Handloom Weavers 1840, Assistant Commissioners' Reports, Part II, pp. 216–17 (evidence of Mr. Edward Church, a solicitor of Spital Square) for extinct Hugue not Societies for historical, floricultural, entomological, literary, musical and colum barian interests.
  • 42. 20 Geo. Ill, c. 66, public.
  • 43. Census of Great Britain 1801, vol. i, pp. 209–10.
  • 44. Census of England and Wales, 1901, London, pp. 8 and 10.
  • 45. S.C.L.L.C., Vestry Minutes, 5 March 1807.
  • 46. Report of Dr. J. P. Kay, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner relative to the Distress Prevalent among the Spitalfields Weavers, to the Poor Law Commissioners, 27 April 1837.
  • 47. Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, 3rd series, part 2, 1902, p. 59.
  • 48. S.C.L.L.C., Vestry Minutes, 29 Sept. 1858, 17 June 1859.
  • 49. Ibid., 10 July 1861.
  • 50. Commission on Handloom Weavers 1840, Assistant Commissioners' Reports, Part II, pp. 64–5.
  • 51. Annual Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Whitechapel District for 1893 by Joseph Loane M.O.H.
  • 52. Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, 3rd series, part 2, 1902, p. 16.
  • 53. S.C.L.L.C., Vestry Minutes, 18 March 1847.