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. a) 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 3)
Sir Christopher Wren is also said to have found Roman remains here. (ref. 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
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
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, (ref. 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, (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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, (ref. 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. (ref. 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’, (ref. 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. (ref. 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, (ref. 13)
and two years before the Revocation French weavers were sufficiently numerous
in Spitalfields to attract the hostility of the English apprentices. (ref. 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. b) 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. c)
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. (ref. 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, (ref. 20) and by 1745–6 the parish was lit by 235 lamps in the winter. (ref. 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’. (ref. 22) Their
powers were extended by a more comprehensive Act of 1788. (ref. 23)
Norton Folgate obtained its first Local Act in 1759, for lighting, cleansing and watching
the liberty, followed by a paving Act in 1776. (ref. 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. (ref. 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, (ref. 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 (ref. 27) and 1683. (ref. 28) In 1693 and 1696 the great distress of Spitalfields weavers was
publicized. (ref. 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’. (ref. 30) In 1729 the
parish was ’Burdened with a Numerous poor’, (ref. 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’. (ref. 32) The 1730's were marked by
repeated riots by weavers against their masters, requiring troops to be sent from the
Tower, (ref. 33) and similar violence marked the 1760's and early 1770's. (ref. 34) In 1773 the first
’Spitalfields Act’ (ref. 35) inaugurated a period of internal price regulation (perhaps systematizing
existing practices) and external tariff protection that lasted until 1824. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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, (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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; (ref. 43)
by 1901, after a large influx of Eastern European Jews, the population had risen to
24,346, (ref. 44) a smaller proportionate rise than in most other parts of Stepney. In Mile End
New Town the increase was greater, from 5,253 (ref. 43) to 13,157. (ref. 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’ (ref. 45) and where, in 1814, some £11,000 was spent on poor relief. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 48) The lamentable
condition of the common lodging houses continued and in 1861 the Vestry attempted to
reduce their numbers. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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. (ref. 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
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 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.