Spitalfields, Tower Hamlets

A historically multicultural district, successively known as Petty France, Little Jerusalem and Banglatown, centred on Commercial Street and Brick Lane

Hidden London: Christ Church Spitalfields by Julian Osley

Wal­ter and Rose Brown found­ed the hos­pi­tal and pri­o­ry known as St Mary Spi­tal in 1197. The hos­pi­tal was closed in 1538 and its build­ings were adapt­ed as homes and work­shops in the first of a series of changes of use that came to char­ac­terise the dis­trict.

Sub­ur­ban expan­sion began after the Great Fire of Lon­don in 1666 and Spi­tal­fields mar­ket was estab­lished in the 1680s. Over the fol­low­ing decades refugees from French reli­gious per­se­cu­tion set­tled in Spi­tal­fields in their thou­sands.

These Huguenot exiles were attract­ed by an exist­ing silk-weav­ing indus­try, which they expand­ed great­ly. They built numer­ous chapels, and fine hous­es that served as both homes and work­shops, with large attic win­dows pro­vid­ing good light for weavers to work by. Fournier Street, shown in the pho­to­graph below, is an espe­cial­ly impres­sive sur­vivor from this peri­od.

Hidden London: Former weavers' houses on Fournier Street

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church was con­se­crat­ed in 1729 and its 225-foot spire (shown in the pho­to at the top of the page) remains the area’s land­mark.

By the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry the silk-weav­ing indus­try was declin­ing in the face of cheap for­eign imports and the increas­ing­ly angli­cised Huguenots dis­persed around Lon­don. They were replaced by poor Jews from Ams­ter­dam, whose spe­cial­ist trade was the man­u­fac­ture of cig­ars and cig­a­rettes.

After 1845 Spi­tal­fields’ cheap accom­mo­da­tion attract­ed Irish immi­grants flee­ing their country’s pota­to famine, many of whom helped to build London’s docks. Phil­an­thropic organ­i­sa­tions began to replace slum hous­ing with mod­el dwellings from the 1860s.

Jew­ish refugees from the pogroms in Rus­sia formed the next wave of new­com­ers after the 1880s, bring­ing skills in tai­lor­ing and cab­i­net-mak­ing, and strength­en­ing Spi­tal­fields’ role as a trad­ing dis­trict.

New build­ings for the fruit, veg­etable and flower mar­ket were erect­ed in 1893 and extend­ed in 1928.

By the mid-20th cen­tu­ry Spi­tal­fields’ Jews were mov­ing away to sub­urbs in north and east Lon­don. A Ben­gali com­mu­ni­ty estab­lished itself in the 1960s – although Mus­lims from the Syl­het dis­trict of Assam had been set­tling here since the late 19th cen­tu­ry. The area around Brick Lane has accord­ing­ly been dubbed Banglatown.

Spi­tal­fields whole­sale mar­ket moved to a pur­pose-built site in Ley­ton in 1991 and its old build­ings became home to a Sun­day mar­ket that began to rival Cam­den Town for its youth appeal. The City of Lon­don (which owns the place) sub­se­quent­ly remod­elled the west­ern part of the mar­ket, which is now a mixed use devel­op­ment with (most­ly pri­cy) retail­ers and eater­ies at street lev­el.

The mar­ket’s Vic­to­ri­an sec­tion, fac­ing Com­mer­cial Street, has been restored and is now open sev­en days a week with dif­fer­ent­ly themed stalls each day. There are bou­tiques and var­ied ser­vice providers all around the mar­ket’s perime­ter.

Christ Church was restored and ful­ly reopened in 2004 after almost 50 years of clo­sure, and now dou­bles as an event venue. In recent years sur­viv­ing weavers’ hous­es have been ren­o­vat­ed and ware­hous­es have been con­vert­ed to apart­ment blocks with gal­leries and cafés at street lev­el, but behind these con­spic­u­ous devel­op­ments this is still a dis­trict of run-down ten­e­ments, where over­crowd­ing is high and incomes are low.

The music hall performer Bud Flanagan was born in Hanbury Street in 1896, as Chaim Reuven Weintrop.

The artists Gilbert and George moved to Spitalfields so long ago that at first they heard only Yiddish accents here.

Postal district: E1
Population: 10,286 (Spitalfields and Banglatown ward, 2011 census)
Further reading: The Gentle Author, Spitalfields Life, Saltyard, 2012
and Dan Cruickshank, Spitalfields: The History of a Nation in a Handful of Streets, Random House, 2016
Websites: The Spitalfields Society and Huguenots of Spitalfields
Blog: Spitalfields Life (highly recommended)
See also: Norton Folgate
* The picture of Christ Church Spitalfields on this page is modified from an original photograph, copyright Julian Osley, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.