Spitalfields' historic association with the silk industry was established by French Protestant (Huguenots) refugees who settled in this area after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. By settling here, outside the bounds of the City of London, they hoped to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City Guilds. The Huguenots brought with them little, apart from their skills, and an Order in Council of 16 April 1687 raised £200,000 for the relief of their poverty. In December 1687, the first report of the committee set up to administer the funds reported that 13,050 French refugees were settled in London, primarily around Spitalfields, but also in the nearby settlements of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Mile End New Town.
The late 17th and 18th centuries saw an estate of well-appointed terraced houses, built to accommodate the master weavers controlling the silk industry, and grand urban mansions built around the newly created Spital Square. Christ Church, Spitalfields on Fournier Street, designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, was built during the reign of Queen Anne to demonstrate the power of the established church to the dissenting Huguenots, who had built ten of their own chapels in the area. More humble weavers dwellings were congregated in the Tenterground.
There has been a market on the site since 1638 when Charles I gave a licence for flesh, fowl and roots to be sold in what was then known as Spittle Fields.The Market currently receives around 25,000 visitors every week.
Main article: Old Spitalfields Market
From the 1730s Irish weavers came here, after a decline in the Irish linen industry to take up work in the silk trade. The 18th century saw periodic crises in the silk industry, bought on by imports of French silk – in a lull between the wars between the two rivals; and imports of printed calicos. The depression in the trade, and thence the prices paid to weavers, led to protests. In 1769, the Spitalfield Riots occurred, where attempts were made to break up meetings of weavers, called to discuss the threat to wages, caused by another downturn in the market for silk. This ended with an Irish and a Huguenot weaver being hanged in front of the Salmon and Ball public house at Bethnal Green.
Price controls on amounts master weavers could pay journeymen for each piece were established. This removed all incentive to pay higher wages during good times. During bad time workers had no work. As the price was per piece, there was incentive for using machinery, as master would have to pay for the machine and still pay the same price per piece to journeymen. By 1822 labour rates were so above market labour rates, that much of the employment in silk manufacture had moved to the country. Remaining manufacture tended to focus on expensive fashion items, which required proximity to court and had higher margins.
By the Victorian era, the silk industry had entered a long decline and the old merchant dwellings had degenerated into multi-occupied slums. Spitalfields became a by-word for urban deprivation, and, by 1832, concern at a London cholera epidemic led The Poor Man's Guardian (18 February 1832) to write of Spitalfields:
The low houses are all huddled together in close and dark lanes and alleys, presenting at first sight an appearance of non-habitation, so dilapidated are the doors and windows:- in every room of the houses, whole families, parents, children and aged grandfathers swarm together.
In 1860, a treaty was established with France, allowing the import of cheaper French silks. This left the many weavers in Spitalfields, and neighbouring Bethnal Green and Shoreditch indigent. New trades such as furniture and boot making came to the area; and the large windowed Huguenot houses were found suitable for tailoring, attracting a new population of Jewish refugees drawn to live and work in the textile industry.
By the later 19th century inner Spitalfields had eclipsed rival claimants to the dubious distinction of being the worst criminal rookery of London with common lodging-houses in the Flower and Dean Street area being a focus for the activities of robbers and prostitutes. The latter street was dubbed in 1881 as being "perhaps the foulest and most dangerous street in the metropolis". Another claimant to the distinction of being "the worst street in London" was nearby Dorset Street, which was highlighted by the brutal killing and mutilation of a young woman named Mary Kelly in her lodgings here by the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888. This was the climax of a whole series of slayings of local prostitutes that became known as the Whitechapel Murders. The sanguinary activities of "Jack" was one of the factors which prompted the demolition of some of the worst streets in the area 1891-94 Deprivation, however, continued and was brought to notice by social commentators such as Jack London in his The People of the Abyss (1903). He highlighted 'Itchy Park', next to Christ Church, Spitalfields, as a notorious rendezvous for homeless vagrants.
In the late 20th century the Jewish presence diminished, to be replaced by an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants, who also worked in the local textile industry and made Brick Lane the curry capital of London.
Another development, from the 1960s onwards, has been a campaign to save the housing stock of old merchant terraces to the west of Brick Lane from demolition. Many have been conserved by exponents of a 'New Georgian' ethos, such as the architectural historian and TV pundit Dan Cruickshank. Such gentrification has, however, caused massive inflation in house prices and the removal of the last of the vagrants from this area.
Current 'urban regeneration' has also seen the erection of large modern office blocks, between Bishopsgate and Spitalfields Market. These represent, in effect, an expansion of the City of London, northwards, beyond its traditional bounds, into this area. However, a rear-guard action by conservationists has resulted in the preservation of Old Spitalfields Market and the provision of shopping, leisure amenities and a new plaza behind the city blocks.
The area within Tower Hamlets now forms part of the council ward of Spitalfields and Banglatown. Its name represents the modern association of the Bangladeshi community with this area and neighbouring Brick Lane.
The area is well known for its arts scene. Dennis Severs forswore modern comforts at 18 Folgate Street, living a unique life. The house, a time capsule of the 18th century, is now open to the public. In 2009, Raven Row, a non-profit contemporary art centre, opened to the public at 56 Artillery Lane. Constructed within a pair of 18th century silk merchants' houses, onto which London practice 6a Architects added two contemporary galleries, it stands on the part of the street know until 1895 as Raven Row. Whitechapel Art Gallery is located at the bottom of Brick Lane.
Amongst the many well known artists living in Spitalfields are Gilbert and George, Tracey Emin and Stuart Brisley. TV presenter, architecture expert and Georgian fanatic Dan Cruickshank was an active campaigner for Spitalfields, and continues to live in the area. Writer Jeanette Winterson turned a derelict Georgian house into an organic food shop, Verde's, as part of the Slow Food movement.
Dennis Sever's House door
Dennis Severs' House is a time capsule attraction in which visitors are immersed in a unique form of theatre. The ten rooms of this original Hugeuenot house have been decked out to recreate snapshots of life in Spitalfields between 1724 and 1914. An escorted tour through the compelling 'still-life drama', as American creator Dennis Severs put it, takes you through the cellar, kitchen, dining room, smoking room and upstairs to the bedrooms. With hearth and candles burning, smells lingering and objects scattered apparently haphazardly, it feels as though the inhabitants had deserted the rooms only moments before. The Dennis Severs House tour is unsuitable for children as tours are conducted in silence.
Historian Dan Cruickshank's Door
A place to visit, relax and where you may have coffee in the kitchen
Welcome to Town House, which started life in a shop in Columbia Road in 1997 selling painted furniture and decorative objects. I moved a few years later to an early eighteenth century building in Spitalfields, opposite the wonderful local landmark of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church. Weavers lived in the building until about 1820, before two doctors, father and son, moved in; they lived here for fifty years until the 1870’s and built what is now the rear gallery as their surgery. A succession of people and businesses followed: a Russian translator, a furrier, coffee rooms and storage for the vegetable market, until at the end of the Second World War it became the Market Cafe, which remained here until 2000 and the arrival of Town House.
My parents were also dealers who loved everything Georgian, so inspired by the 1720 panelled interior, I began by concentrating on mid eighteenth century English furniture and objects. However, tastes have altered in the intervening ten years and interesting things are harder to find, so Town House has recently changed again to reflect today’s more eclectic tastes and my desire to make the shop a more personal and creative space.
When you visit there are three distinct areas to have a look around: the main room where you will find antique furniture and upholstery alongside a mix of things that just catch my eye. Downstairs is a kitchen area selling old china, glasses and serving dishes and colourful modern pottery. Eventually, if all goes to plan, I’d like to develop the idea of a still room here – keep an eye on the blog to follow progress. Finally, there is a gallery to the rear of the main building, the doctors’ surgery, showing my stock of 20th century British art when there is not an exhibition on – to see what is coming next in the gallery have a look on the exhibitions tab.
I trust you enjoy your visit…
© John Jackson 2011. Townhouse, 5 Fournier Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6QE.
A few years ago when I went to an interesting auction of things that had been in the same family for over two hundred and fifty years, I came across and bought four volumes of handwritten recipes and household tips, which had been compiled in the house between 1890 and the end of the First World War. I was amazed at the range of information they contained: how to clean everything from marble tops and gilded picture frames to Kashmir shawls and it gave me the idea of using the kitchen area of the shop to use some of these recipes, starting slowly with cakes. You can read an article about these recipe books in the May 2012 edition of World of Interiors and they will be on show in the shop until the end of May.
So you can now buy a cup of really good coffee or tea in the kitchen – the coffee will be made using a Kees van der Westen machine (a work of art in itself) and Italian Hausbrand coffee beans – and cakes made on the premises, some of them from old recipes and some timeless favourites: coffee and walnut cake, brownies and cupcakes, it will change daily and there will be more at weekends. I also want to try some of the other old recipes for pickles and chutneys and maybe some of the household tips too.
© John Jackson 2011. Townhouse, 5 Fournier Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6QE.
Or even a place to stay
5 Fournier Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6QE.