Historic Shoreditch in East London

Historians believe that Shoreditch got its name from water that ran across the area’s marshland. It was originally known as Soersditch, or Sewer’s Ditch. A more romantic, though untrue, meaning connects Shoreditch with royalty. Some people like to believe that the area was named after Jane Shore, who was a mistress of Edward IV.

She was allegedly buried in a ditch in the area. This version of events does not really work as the area’s original name pre-dates Jane Shore and her affair with the king.

Places to Visit in the East End of London – Shoreditch

Although part of the East End, Shoreditch was originally officially part of Middlesex, even though it was considered to be an outer suburb of London. It only officially became part of the County of London in the late 1800s. It is thought that parts of the area’s roads date back to Roman times, and this was a popular part of southern coaching routes for many centuries.

The focal point of Shoreditch for many centuries was its church. This is relatively famous, especially with children, as it appears in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. The area was also home to an Augustinian Priory that was built in the 12th century. This dominated the area and the local population until the 1500s and Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Nothing remains of the priory today, but its site was put to good use in Tudor times. In 1576, James Burbage built a theatre on this spot. This is considered to be the first playhouse in England, quaintly called The Theatre. It is thought that some of Shakespeare’s plays were performed here and his company also made their home in a second theatre just up the road, known as the Curtain Theatre, before moving to The Globe. The Globe was actually built from The Theatre in Shoreditch – Burbage dismantled it from its original site and erected it again in Southwark.

The Curtain Theatre was named after the road on which it stood. This was the place where Shakespeare first performed Romeo and Juliet and Henry V, and it was the original “Wooden O” stage referred to in some of his plays. The theatre was taken apart in the 17th century; however, archaeologists from the Museum of London found its remains during a dig in 2012. The current owners of the site plan to incorporate the remains of the theatre into a new development as a public open space so that people can get some idea how it might have looked at the time.

Entertainment in Shoreditch

Shoreditch’s position just outside of the city of London made it a popular venue for entertainment. The people who regulated the city did not much like having theatre districts, as they tended to be rowdy and bawdy. They attracted people, pubs and bad behaviour. Putting on shows outside of the city walls kept everyone happy, although it did gain Shoreditch a reputation as being a little disorderly! Shoreditch remained an entertainment hub into the early 20th century. It contained some of the largest theatres in all of London, put on shows that rivalled the West End, and even saw early performances from Charlie Chaplin before he emigrated to America.

By the 17th century, Shoreditch saw an influx of new residents as Huguenot weavers who were working in Spitalfields moved into the area. Over the next century or so, the area also became well known for furniture manufacturing and craftsmanship. You can see some examples of local work in the Geffrye Museum on Kingsland Road.

The Geffrye is an interesting museum to visit – it focuses on the history of English homes with an emphasis on interiors and furniture. It displays a range of period rooms that are all furnished to a specific time from the 1600s to the present day. Its building is also historically interesting, as the museum is located in alms houses that were built by the Ironmongers’ Company in the early 1700s. If you are visiting London at Christmas, the museum is particularly worth a visit, as it decorates each room exactly as it would have been decorated in its period. So, you can track how Christmas decorations have changed over the years.

Shoreditch Regeneration

By the 19th century, however, Shoreditch was very typical of much of the East End. It was overcrowded and rife with poverty and crime. Much of the area was bombed in the Second World War, leading to major renovations in the 1950s. Today’s Shoreditch is once again a creative and buzzy place. It has become one of the more popular areas in the East End for creative people to live and work in, although its house prices are no longer bargain basement levels. The Old Street roundabout has even been nicknamed the Silicon Roundabout to reflect the number of technology start-ups who have moved into the area.

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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One comment on “Historic Shoreditch in East London
  1. Bob Gray says:

    Is anything known on the history of the Eastern Alhambra Music Hall (211 Shoreditch High Street) 1864-70. Prior to this known as the Eastern Temperance Hall?
    I can find no reference online and wondered if it was recorded anywhere.
    I am researching East London photographers and have both these as licensees –

    Charles William Henry Taylor – Licensee 1858 – 1861
    Photographer living at 54 Sturgeon Road, Newington, Southwark in 1881.

    William Winningale – Licensee 1861 – 1870
    Recorded as a photographer at 246 Whitechapel Road, in 1869 (between Vine Court and Fieldgate Street).

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