Spitalfields is full of contrasts – quirky, historic, trend-settingly modern, tatty and smart. It’s the kind of place where it pays to look beyond the obvious. Many of Spitalfields’ attractions are the less obvious, smaller kind, but nonetheless worth visiting.
Did You Know?
Spitalfields takes its name from a hospital and priory known as St. Mary’s Spital founded in 1197. Most of the area was built after the Great Fire of London and Spitalfield’s market was first established in the 1680’s. Most of the beautiful houses in and around Fournier, Princelet and Wilkes Street date from around 1685 when the Huguenots fled France, bringing their silk weaving skills.
Many of Spitalfields’ buildings have had a variety of uses. The building on Brick Lane now used as a Mosque was originally built as a Huguenot chapel, and later used as a Methodist chapel and Synagogue. In 1976 it took on its present life as a Mosque. The old Truman Black Eagle Brewery has since been converted into offices, bars shops and artists’ studios. 19 Princelet Street was originally built as a home by Samuel Worrall, a prominent builder and was later adapted and extended as a synagogue. Now work is underway to save the building and eventually to open it to the public as a museum.
Industry and “dirty trades” developed in Spitalfields and the area beyond Aldgate outside the City boundaries – these included the leather industry and brewing. You can still buy great value leather goods in the local markets and the chimney of the Old Truman Brewery is a local landmark, although it now houses bars, shops and artists’ studios.
You can see some of the many finds from the excavation at Spitalfields Market in the nearby Museum of London.
The prudish Victorian’s renamed Petticoat Lane as Middlesex Street in the 1830s to avoid referring to underwear, but the name has stuck and still refers to the market which now spreads into Wentworth Street and the neighbouring area.
The expression “Hand me downs” also came from this area. In Petticoat Lane, second-hand clothes were hug up on hooks above the market stalls, and had to be “handed down” to be sold.
The United States’ Liberty Bell was originally cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in Whitechapel Road. The pavement here is extra wide – this was the main way via Aldgate for cattle and sheep to be driven into London, together with carts laden with hops for brewing and hay for cattle.
Aldgate is now a major intersection for both drivers and pedestrians. Known as Ealdgate in Saxon times (meaning “old gate” as it referred to a Roman gate dating back to 200 AD!), the gate was demolished and rebuilt several times, and has long been a major entry point for travellers into and out of the City of London.
“Tenter Ground” off White’s Row was so called because this was the place in the 17th century where woven cloth was washed and then stretched on frames called tenters to dry. This is also the origin of the expression, “to be on tenter hooks”.
Houndsitch takes its name from the large ditch running just outside the Roman wall marking the City boundary into which rubbish was thrown, including dead dogs.
Artillery Passage – used to be the area used for archery and shooting practice by Henry VIII’s Honourary Artilley Company.
Gun Street takes its name from the Gunmakers’ Company Proof House on nearby Commercial Road – it moved out to the east when the risk of accidental explosion was considered too high for a heavily populated area.
Brick Lane was the route along which carts carried bricks from the brick kilns in Spitalfields to Whitechapel and beyond.
Liverpool St. Station was originally a Roman burial ground, and later a hospital “treating” the insane. When people describe the busy station as “Bedlam” without perhaps realising it, they are using the popular name used in the 16th century as a corruption of Bethlehem/Bethlam which was the name of this hospital!