Norton Folgate

Norton Folgate, Tower Hamlets/​City/​Hackney

Now just a short section of the A10 linking Bishopsgate with Shoreditch High Street, Norton Folgate was formerly a well-known mercantile neighbourhood

Dennis Severs's book on his house in Folgate Street
Dennis Severs’ book on his house in Folgate Street

Norton Folgate was once so familiar to most Londoners that Mr Burgess could say, in GB Shaw’s play Candida, “I never met a man as didn’t know Nortn Folgit before.”

Until its merger with the parish of Spitalfields in 1911, Norton Folgate was an extra-parochial liberty, which meant that it was outside the influence of the church.

The playwright Christopher Marlowe was living here in 1589. A century later Spital Square and its surrounding streets began to fill with fine homes for silk merchants and master weavers, while artisans and journeymen occupied the diverging alleys and courts.

The City of London theatre, which specialised in ‘domestic and temperance melodrama’, opened on Norton Folgate in 1837 and closed in 1868. Puma Court, east of Spitalfields market, has almshouses ‘for the poor inhab­itants of the Liberty of Norton Folgate,’ built in 1860 to replace those of 1728.

Norton Folgate’s resid­ential population declined during the course of the 19th century as premises were converted to warehouses and businesses.

When London’s admin­is­trative bound­aries were redrawn in 1900 a small part of Norton Folgate was included in the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch but the majority went to Stepney.

Most of Norton Folgate is now occupied by modern offices and more are likely to appear in the near future as the City spreads north­wards into Shoreditch. In particular, British Land has proposed to build what opponents have called a “hideous corporate plaza” in the quarter known as the Shoreditch estate. Tower Hamlets council rejected the developer’s initial proposals in July 2015, expressing concerns about the impact that the scheme would have on historic buildings and the conser­vation area. However, in January 2016 Mayor of London Boris Johnson bypassed the council and used his powers to intervene, announcing he intended to grant both planning permission for the devel­opment and listed building consent. Johnson’s decision was upheld in the High Court in May 2016.

Dennis Severs’ house at 18 Folgate Street is an enchanting recre­ation of a Huguenot silk weaver’s family home. Its restricted public opening allows visitors to exper­ience the sights, sounds and smells of domestic life in the 18th century (or there­abouts) in a way that no mass access museum can achieve.

Postal district: E1
Recommended listening: Madness, The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, Lucky 7 Records, 2009