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Spitalfields II

July 21, 2017

So, back to Spitalfields. As I completely failed to inform you last time, Spitalfields and Shoreditich are in the East End of London. This is a contentious area, everyone seems to have varying ideas on where exactly the East End begins. However, no-one seems to be in any doubt that Spitalfields (and Shoreditch) are part of the East End so without further ado let’s say – I was in the East End of London. It’s not an area where I’ve spent much time, my sister lived in East Ham for a while but that’s not always counted as the East End (see previous link), so my knowledge of Cockney London is limited. I know it by reputation (more on this below), by my student addiction to EastEnders, and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. With the authority of someone who spent whole hours there, I would say the area around the market is far more Monica Ali than soap opera-ish or East End wide boys/gangsters, and now with added hipsterism. But, I hear you ask, what did you actually do in Spitalfields apart from make infantile comments in a church and eat Greek food in Spitalfields Market? What is the purpose of this post? Lets look first at what we did, not because I’m hoping I come up with an objective before the end of this post, dear me, no. There is always a plan. Always.

Aside from looking around Hawksmoor’s Church we walked down Fournier Street. As I mentioned, this street was built in the 1720s and originally known as Church Street before being named after a Huguenot – George Fournier. Although the houses are the original ones built as part of the Wood-Michell Estate


Figure 40: The Wood-Michell estate, lay-out plan. Based on the Ordnance Survey 1873–5 A. Sold to ‘Fifty Churches’ Commissioner, 1713 B. Sold to Anne Fowle by 1714/15 C. Acquirtd by Simon Michell. 1728

And in many ways look as they did 300 years ago


‘Street elevations: Fournier Street and Christ Church’, in Survey of London: Volume 27, Spitalfields and Mile End New Town, ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1957), British History Online [accessed 10 July 2017].


By Russianhouse – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

There have, unsurprisingly, been many changes over those centuries – Spitalfields has gone up and down-market several times, the dominant religion of the area has changed from the Calvinism of the Huguenot weavers fleeing France* and their persecution under Louis XIV, to Catholicism with the influx of Irish weavers drawn by the prospect of well-paid work (and during the famine any work or pay), then Judaism as Eastern European Jews fled the Pogroms** and settled in the East End of London, before becoming Muslim with the arrival of the Bengali community. The 1922 map at the top of the page shows a synagogue at the end of Fournier Street, originally this was a Huguenot Chapel, then a Methodist Church, it was the Maz’ik Adath Synagogue and since 1976 it’s been a mosque – The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid. There are lots of maps of the area here showing the changes from rural Spitalfields to inner city East End.

But it’s not just the religion that has changed. The character of Fournier Street has changed dramatically over the centuries too, reflecting the more general changes within much of the East End. When the houses were built they were seen as comfortable, elegant homes for the wealthy Huguenot weavers and merchants – although they must always have been within earshot of the old Spitalfields Market and while this wouldn’t have been as unpleasant as the meat market at Smithfield or the fish market at Billingsgate it wouldn’t have been peaceful or fragrant. Although intended for domestic use, the Huguenot inhabitants set up looms within the buildings, there’s the explanation for those windowed top floors, and the ground floors were used as show rooms.  With the influx of Irish workers in the mid nineteenth century tensions between the two groups occasionally erupted but they also joined together to form early trade unions.

As the silk industry declined the houses became more densely populated and were increasingly sub-divided into ‘multiple dwelling occupancies’ – or slums if you want to be honest. The East End was where many immigrants ended up, particularly the poor and needy, those with nowhere else to go, which is why the area became populated by the Ashkenazi Jews. Much has been written about the poverty, the over crowding, the epidemics, violence and misery of the East End, from Jack the Ripper to the Krays, from Dickens and Mayhew to the urban regeneration policies of the 1980s – do a quick search on Google and you will get any number of ‘poor but honest, you could leave your door open, salt of the earth’ or ‘always good to his Mum even if he did kill people’ memoirs and books with the titles in big gold letters, as well as a fair amount of anthropology and political history. What is less discussed is how the connection with the clothing industry has continued, but over the years it became a much more down-market version, with cheap semi-skilled and unskilled labour, sweatshops, and small tailoring shops predominating.

The sweated labour conditions were so appalling that in 1912 many of the workers went on strike, largely due to agitation by Rudolf Rocker, all their demands were met but even after they returned to work socialism continued to flourish (yay!) and the Jewish East Enders assisted the dockers who struck later that year.

This joining together of Irish and Jewish culminated in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and of course Cable Street is only a kilometre, at the most, from Fournier Street, it’s extremely likely that some of Fournier Street’s inhabitants were involved in the anti-Fascist march


By Richard Allen – User created, Public Domain,

In the Second World War the East End was targeted by bombers  the docks and warehouses were the centre for imports as well as the storage of materials for the war effort, and it was felt by the German military command that targeting working class areas would undermine morale and support for the war. According to WikipediaIt is estimated that by the end of the war, 80 tons of bombs had fallen on the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green alone, affecting 21,700 houses, destroying 2,233 and making a further 893 uninhabitable. . . For the whole of Tower Hamlets, a total of 2,221 civilians were killed, and 7,472 were injured, with 46,482 houses destroyed and 47,574 damaged‘. Although Fournier Street wasn’t itself hit, the inhabitants suffered from the chaos as services were disrupted, local businesses were destroyed and many friends and relatives will have been killed.

The East End has a reputation for violence and crime. There is a, possibly apocryphal, tale that British Museum workers visiting the stores in Hoxton had to be provided with a shuttle service to keep them safe. Anecdotes aside, there is plenty of evidence of organised (and disorganised) crime in the East End, mix together poverty, deprivation, drugs and alcohol and it’s not going to end well. Again, Googling crime and the East End is going to get you a lot of sites many about the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, the London Burkers, Jack the Ripper and the Krays. David Hunt’s activities suggest that for all the gentrification taking place, for all the East End’s new hip and happening reputation, it’s still a place where violence incubates even if that violence takes place elsewhere.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that people move on when they can. As time passed many of the Jewish inhabitants made enough money to move out to Golders Green, Hendon and Essex, especially Southend and Westcliff on Sea (there’s an 1897 article about the Essex migration here, but it is horribly and casually anti-Semitic). Inexorably Fournier Street became less and less Jewish and increasingly Bangladeshi.

Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, with an upsurge in the 1970s when British immigration laws changed, many Bangladeshis came to Britain and, regardless of their education and skills, ended up working in factories and particularly the textile industry. Again these migrants faced racial hatred as well as impoverished and cramped living and working conditions. Things, I’m glad to say, have improved since then (even if in my darkest moments I feel Britain is going backwards)

Spitalfields is still Banglatown but these days you’re as likely to find hipsters shopping for vintage clothing as Bangladeshis shopping for saris or salwar kameez. Because Spitalfields, and especially Fournier Street, is on its way back up the social desirability ladder. While the Whitechapel Gallery has been an important exhibition space for local artists since 1901, it’s taken longer for the rest of the art world to catch up. Gilbert & George moved to Fournier Street in 1968 and have been there ever since, the second incarnation of White Cube was in Hoxton and some of the Young British Artists who exhibited there moved into the area. Tracey Emin also lives on Fournier Street, leading a shift in perception of the East End from dangerous and dodgy to grunge and ‘authentic’.


Gilbert & George on Fournier Street. Copyright Jooney Woodward

Keira Knightly, briefly, lived on Fournier Street, others like Gilbert & George have been there for decades. The Town House, formerly the Market Cafe, is now according to The Women’s Room blog: part museum, part gallery, part guesthouse and part shop, selling antique furniture and upholstery alongside a mix of local sourced artifacts and objects. In the basement there’s a kitchen area selling old china, glasses, serving dishes, colourful modern pottery and coffee and cake. The owner is a long term resident of the area. Similarly, Jeanette Winterson*** has lived in Fournier Street since 1990. Her house, like Gilbert & George’s, was derelict when she bought it. The building had originally been a shop and in keeping with this tradition she opened Verde & Co in 2005 and despite threatening to close it with the recent rise in business rates it was still there a month ago. Dan Cruikshank lives nearby, if not actually on Fournier Street, in an eighteenth century town house which he strives to keep as close to the original as possible, unsurprisingly he’s a founding member of the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust.

Spitalfields is part of the East End regeneration, and in many ways Fournier Street now is how it was when it was originally built – the inhabitants are monied, cultured, caring or even curating their homes. There is a deep awareness of the past, not just inside these private homes or The Town House, but more generally – in the window of a house we passed someone had displayed a tableau of how the room would once have looked:


Excuse the shocking photo – I haven’t been able to find something better from the internet.

and some photographs


The blue plaque commemorating Miriam Moses


All of which give an idea of Fournier Street how it once was, but it’s not a museum piece, it’s a living thriving street, nor – as can be seen by the window display and plaque – is it only one period in time that’s being held on to. All of the past is there, good and bad, and this is really what this (over long) post is about. If I was feeling clever enough I’d link it in with Daniel Miller‘s or Victor Buchli’s work although my main debt is to Tim Ingold’s  ideas about the temporality of landscape – because it’s all here in Fournier Street. Past, present, future intertwined. A street about which I knew nothing before this trip to London, yet this street encapsulates all the histories of the East End and that history has left traces everywhere you look from the eighteenth century architecture to the changing denomination of the religious buildings to the the ebb and flow of money in this area. Fournier Street may seem cut off from the violence and crime of the East End, but the Ten Bells pub on the corner is associated with 2 of Jack the Ripper’s victims and so it goes on.

As indeed have I, so I’ll stop here having had a great time putting together this post, if anyone’s still reading I hope you enjoyed it too. There probably won’t be a post next week, the ‘holidays’ start today and we’re off to London next week – I should warn you I’m planning on taking the 11 year old to the Crossrail exhibition at the Museum of London and before I go I’ll be watching The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway so expect a lengthy post all about that.

Until then have fun, go and look at maps of the East End or read about the archaeology or crime or silk weavers – whatever takes your fancy!


I really do have to work out how to do footnotes.

*I studied the Huguenots as part of my A level history course, something I’d forgotten until I looked up the Edict of Fontainebleu – good to know it’s finally come in useful. No knowledge is wasted!

**This is when my great-grandfather left Lithuania and settled in London – South not East – before becoming a gardener in Kent.

***Coincidentally I’d finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal the evening before. Excellent memoir, I highly recommend it despite this damning review – got to think there’s personal scores being settled there.




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