Visiting Spitalfields and its shadowy past

In Cities, Days Out, London, Mini Breaks, Our Journeys, Trip-Types, UK Travel by Janis12 Comments

The trendy East End of London is calling

Without the fear of sounding too old and honestly, I’m not, but, “wow hasn’t Spitalfields changed”.
 
Occasionally I used to head to Spitalfields after work to cheer on my work colleagues, playing on the 5-a-side football pitches. Then grab a quick drink in one of the local rustic pubs nearby.

Elder Street, in the north of the Spitalfields district.  A cobbled street of brick build Georgian terraced 3-storey houses.  A classic 1950's Bentley is parked in a prime place.

Elder Street, full of character and charm

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Not anymore, I had to seriously rack my brain to convince myself that it was the same location. Genuinely, there used to be football pitches back to back, row after row, under a cold wrought iron open-sided warehouse.
 
Now after the wand of regeneration has been waved, it was like strolling into a completely unknown area of London.

Looking up to the plaque above one of the entrances to the Spitalfields Market.  The plaque reads 'Spitalfields Market - Rebuilt by Robert Horner, during the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee 1887'

Entrance to Spitalfields Market rebuilt in 1887

Don’t get me wrong something needed to happen, as it wasn’t a district of London that you used to head to with open arms, well, not me anyway. Although I can understand, the effect that this gentrification may have had on the locals.
 
Visiting Spitalfields was now like discovering a new part of the city and boy, does it have an intriguing past.

A little bit of history

The name Spitalfields is derived from the hospital and priory of St. Mary’s Spittel that was founded in 1197. This area of London, like so many others, was once very rural. It was from a field nearby the priory that the now-famous market was formed during the thirteenth century.

Looking through a large glass panel to the ruins of a 13th-century dwelling in Spitalfields, know as Charnel House, with a couple of bronze sculptures represent the residents to provide scale.

Charnel House, discovered in 1999

Whilst excavations were being carried out in 1999 a charnel house was discovered. This historic underground building was used to store bones from famine victims dating from the 1250s.
 
During the late 1600s, this small region of London also became home to fleeing French Huguenot silk weavers. A little more of that later.

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Streets with a past

Gary and I strolled around the streets opposite Liverpool St. Station. Along Artillery Lane, where it is believed Henry VIII’s Royal Artillery Company was founded in 1537. Passing by a couple of lovely restored Georgian shop fronts.

An elegant entrance to Georgian building in Artillery Lane in Spitalfields.  The doors are flanked with columns, and the windows feature curved bay windows.

Georgian shop fronts along Artillery Lane

A traditional shop in Spitalfields, with signs for Verde & Co.  The shop is now a Montezumas chocolate shop with its bright orange sun blinds.

Verde & Co. now Montezumas chocolate shop

Then as we headed down the end of Gun Street, (there seems to be a military theme here) there’s a charming old shop named Verde & Co. I had since read that a lady bought the property which dates from 1789, in 1996ish, when it was derelict. She restored it to its former glory, using its original features where possible and opened it as a welcoming deli for the locals.
 
Although the Verde & Co. shopfront is still there, it has now changed hands and is a chocolate shop.

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Packed full of historical facts, and broken down into the different regions of London, it's a great resource to help you see what's hidden in plain sight.

Available in Kindle & Hardback editions, it's an excellent addition to anyone's collection who loves London.


A voyage of discovery

One of the reasons we wanted to visit rejuvenated Spitalfields, was to stroll its ancient streets and wander in the footsteps where so many tales could be told.
 
All along Folgate Street are beautifully restored elegant homes. It’s so reassuring that these stylish dwellings are loved once more.

The cobbled Folgate Street with its elegant Georgian buildings in the Spitalfield district.

Restored elegant buildings along Folgate Street

The elegant Elder Street in the Spitalfield district with its traditional Georgian homes, and cast-iron street lamps.

Stylish homes along Elder Street

A fascinating street architecturally was Elder Street. If there weren’t the little characteristics of modern-day life dotted around, you would really believe you’d stepped into a different era.
 
What is wonderful around this district of London is that it’s not just all about the quaint and graceful. There are some beautiful large imposing buildings too.

The central entrance to the Arto Deco building that was once the Godfrey Philips cigarette factory.

Art Deco lines, Spitalfields

A brick triangular 5-storey building in Spitalfields resembling New York's Flat Iron Building.

Spitalfields own little Flat Iron building

Spitalfields Market

Old Spitalfields Market is stylish, quirky and has such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, I loved it.
 
There is a market here seven days a week offering that little something different. Either in retail therapy or if you fancy sampling some food that mirrors the diversity of London, this is where to head.

A stall within the Spitalfields market on selling all manner of Bric-a-brac.

From globes to mallets

The fruit and veg market that once stood here has moved out further east to Leyton. However, traders have been operating here since 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London.
 
We stepped into the covered market, and I couldn’t wait to go and explore, so much so that I lost Gary on several occasions.

A hat stall on Spitalfields market, selling a wide range of second-hand headwear.

You can never have too many hats

A stall selling all sorts of unique items, some in glass display cases, within the Spitalfields market.

Finding that unusual gift

Whether it’s because of its location in the East End of London, but it certainly attracted people from all walks of life. From the very young to very old, from bohemians to the older EastEnders. Some of which appeared to be unsure of what to make of it.
 
Although what’s lovely is that everyone is welcome.

One of the wide entrances into Old Spitalfields Market, leading towards its fook court centre but surrounded by unique shops on either side.

Walking into Spitalfields

It had such an eclectic assortment of stalls, from vintage clothing, antiques, bric-a-brac, old satirical prints, millinery stalls. Also a chance to grab that old LP you’d been hunting down for years.
 
If secondhand isn’t your thing, then step out to the surrounding trendy boutiques and you are spoilt for choice.

When and where to go

For more information on Spitalfields and it markets check out the local Spitalfields website

Is that a brewery?

Perhaps a little refreshment is now needed, along the lines of the beer variety.

In and around Brick Lane and Spitalfields is where it all started for Truman’s Brewery.

The brewery was established in 1666 and for a short time in the 1800s was the biggest brewery in the world. You used to see Truman’s pubs throughout London, then in 1989 it, unfortunately, it closed its doors.
 
But hey, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, in 2010 Truman’s was re-established and Black Eagle Brewery took the reins. They are now brewing again from Hackney Wick.

The brick building, and huge chimney stack, of the Truman's Brewery with its eagle statue.   The Chimney has the name of the brewery painted in large white letters down the tower.

Old Truman Brewery along Brick Lane

If you fancy stepping into a pub with history, head to the Ten Bells on Commercial Street. It is believed that Jack the Rippers final victim Mary Kelly, was drinking here the night before her mutilated body was found in Dorset Street.
 
If that wasn’t enough the Ten Bells is also said to be haunted.

The Ten Bells pub on Comercial street, just opposite Spitalfields Market looking just a little gentrified.

The Ten Bells, Spitalfields

A helpful guide

If you've yet to discover London and its ancient history, then let's start planning. I find these DK Eyewitness Travel Guides invaluable. They're extremely informative, easy to follow, and the pictures and maps tempt you into discovering more of those fascinating sites.
 
You can now grab a recently revised copy of this guidebook, so you won't miss a thing.


Second Chance

Just opposite the Ten Bells is Christ Church, this striking building was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and was consecrated in 1729.

Although Christ Church looks wonderful throughout today, it was almost derelict in 1960 and declared unsafe to enter.
 
The complete restoration took place, and its doors reopened in 2004. In 2014 the organ was fully restored followed by the crypt in 2015.

The impressive entrance and spire to Christ Church, Spitalfields.  A tall cream stone church, with 4 huge columns at the entrance leading up to a pointed bell-tower.

Christ Church, Spitalfields

Elegant Georgian Streets

The few streets between Commercial Street and Brick Land are incredibly fascinating. They really give you a feel of being lost in a moment in time.
 
All along Fournier Street, are stunning examples of Georgian homes, these were built during the early 1700s. Due to their high quality and location, many were purchased or rented by the French Huguenot silk weavers, that had fled France.

14 Fournier Street, leading away from Spitalfields is a 3 storey brick-built terraced building with a grand entrance lit by a hanging Georgian lantern.

14 Fournier Street

Looking along Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, a row of terraced 3 storey brick-built houses with their uniform black shuttered windows, and the pavement lined with cast iron bollards.

Wilkes Street

The silk that was produced by the Huguenots was of the highest quality, and it was at no. 14 that the silk was woven for Queen Victoria's Coronation gown.

A view of the elegant Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, with its terraced 3 storey brick-built houses with shuttered windows, and cast iron bollards & lamp posts in a scene that hasn't changed since Dickensian times.

Elegant Georgian homes along Wilkes Street

Take a stroll all along Wilkes Street, this road is full of beautiful homes, old-style streetlamps, Georgian sash windows and heavy wooden shutters keeping out London life beyond.
 
Although these streets and homes have now been gentrified and the residents have certainly changed. You can just imagine the murky London mist falling upon the dark Georgian streets where Jack the Ripper once frequented.

A view down Fournier Street, towards Spitalfields with its terraced buildings dwarfed by Christ Church, Spitalfields at the end.

Fournier Street, a beautiful Georgian street

A beautiful brick building in Princelet Street, Spitalfields, that is now home to the Modern Saree Centre.

Modern Saree Centre in Princelet Street

Take a wander through Puma Court where you’ll see old Almshouses and then head down Princelet Street. This is another Georgian road that would have been home to silk weavers and overflowing with style.
 
I loved it around here.

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Brick Lane

All around this district of London it is fascinating, from the end of Fournier St. and Princelet St. you’re in the heart of Brick Lane (aka ‘Curry Mile), and the vibe changes again.

The street sign for Brick Lane as seen from Princelet Street.  The old traditional cast-iron street sign is mirrored by one below with the name in Bengali.

Brick Lane

A view along Brick Lane, from outside the Balti house, to many other Indian restaurants that line this street in London.

Brick Lane and its many curry houses

The hustle and bustle of daily life ensues, and you know you’ve stepped into London’s thriving Bangladeshi community.

Outside the art studio of Adrian Boswell in Brick Lane, a renown collage artist.

Diverse life of Brick Lane

The entrance to Brick Lane Vintage Market, and an indoor market in an old Trueman's Brewery building that specialises in vintage clothes, vinyl records and exciting accessories.

Brick Lane Vintage Market

Not only is Brick Lane known for its curry houses, but you’ll also find an eclectic mix of shops, underground vintage clothing market and some lively bars and coffee shops.

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Whitechapel

If you continue south down Brick Lane, you will then stumble into Whitechapel. Lacking the regeneration that Spitalfields has seen; however, I bet it won’t too long before Whitechapel moves in the same direction.

This area of London has certainly had its fair share of dubious goings-on.

What with it being the location of Jack the Rippers ‘Whitechapel Murders’ and also home to the Blind Beggar pub where the infamous Kray Twins frequented.

However, on a lighter note, it was at 32 Whitechapel Road that Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and London’s Big Ben were made.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was established in 1570, unfortunately, in 2017, it closed its doors for the final time.

 

The yellow frontage to the Church Bell Foundry, also know as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the shutters are up as the business has moved out.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry Est. 1570

A sign for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry yard on the yard wall in Whitechapel.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry yard

Although the bell foundry has shut down the old yard and shop front are still there. I’m not too sure how long for as the site has now been bought by developers.

Strolling back west, and as Whitechapel Road turns into Whitechapel High Street, you’ll see Whitechapel Art Gallery.

The gallery opened in 1901 and has held some very notable exhibitions over the decades.


It has displayed work by David Hockney, Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock to name but a few.

The entrance to the Whitechapel Art Gallery at dusk.  The white-glazed terracotta tiles of the upper section is decorated with some foliage-carvings in gold.

Whitechapel Art Gallery

Have you seen?

If you enjoy finding out a little more about London districts, take a look at the articles we created for Smithfield, Clerkenwell, St James’s and Greenwich.

Quirky findings

As always when we’re visiting London, we love to seek out an interesting blue plaque or two. We came across four in around Spitalfields and Brick Lane, although there may have been more.
 
The Blue Plaques that we stumbled upon were for Mark Gertler, Painter (1891-1939) along Elder Street. One for Bud Flanagan, Comedian and Leader of the ‘Crazy Gang’ (1896-1968) at 12 Hanbury Street. Anna Maria Garthwaite a designer of Spitalfields Silks (1690-1763) in Princelet St and along Brick Lane we spotted one for Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Anti-Slavery campaigner (1786-1845).

A blue plaque to Mark Gertler, a 20th-century painter along Elder St, Spitalfields

Mark Gertler, Painter along Elder St

A Blue plaque to Bud Flanagan, Comedian and Leader of the ‘Crazy Gang’ at 12 Hanbury St.

Bud Flanagan, Comedian

An English Heritage Blue plaque to Anna Maria Garthwaite, designer of Spitalfields Silks in Princelet Street in the 18th century.

Anna Maria Garthwaite plaque

A blue plaque, issued by English heritage, to Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Anti-Slavery campaigner along Brick Lane.

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton plaque

Ohh and who doesn’t love an interesting piece of street art.

The entrance to 33a Fournier St in East London un the signage for S.Schwartz.  The wide gateway used to be a diary but has now become a street art installation featuring posters of work commentating on social issues.

Street Art at 33a Fournier St, Spitalfields

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About the Author

Janis

Janis, the co-founder of Our World for You, was born in London and raised in Kent and the Isle of Wight. Along with Gary her partner, they have been travelling part time since 1995. In 2016, they decided that enough was enough with the 9 to 5, so armed with the knowledge and experience that they had gained on their adventures, that they wanted to inspire others to travel the world near and far.

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Comments

  1. Ohhhhh one of my most favourite parts of London. I admit to being biased as I I hail from the East End, but I just love it here. It just feels like Old London still, even though it has all the new shiny bits! We went into the Dennis Weaver house in Folgate Street not long ago. Its quirky and still set up as it would have been from the 1700’s onwards. Fab little attraction. I so enjoyed this walk around my part of London with you, lovely post #FarawayFiles

    1. Author

      There’s nothing wrong with being biased about London, I love it too. You must know it pretty well around Spitalfields, it had been a while since I’d visited, so it had certainly changed. However, like you said it does have its shiny new bits, but wandering around some of the old Georgian streets you wouldn’t realise it.

  2. I went to Brick Lane for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was blown away by the number and scale of the markets. There was so much to see, I didn’t manage to get to Spitalfields but it is firmly on my list for my next visit. Can’t wait! #Farawayfiles

    1. Author

      Yes, it’s amazing around there and such a friendly vibe. Ohh you must definitely head to Spitalfields and take a stroll around Fournier, Wilkes and Princelet Streets. It like stepping into another era.

    1. Author

      Excellent, it is incredible just within a few streets how much history there is, so often we walk by places just not realising its past.

    1. Author

      Spitalfields is a fascinating little district and the market was great fun, I could have spent hours there.

      There are so many curry houses to choose from down Brick Lane and the smell was incredible.

  3. The eclectic Spitalfields has a special place in my heart. I loved the part where you said everyone is welcome. That s so true from food lovers , to second hand lovers to quirky items. It has been a while since I have been to Spitalfields. Your post comes as a lovely reminder . Thanks for the nudge. loved reading the post.

    1. Author

      Thank you very much, we loved strolling around Sptalfields, not only the market but the surrounding streets too, it was fascinating. It’s great heading back there after not visiting for so long.

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