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Historic Spitalfields in London’s East End

Spitalfields is one of the more curious areas of the East End of London. Close to Liverpool Street, it is the home to many financial industry workers by day, but it retains many of its traditional East End roots.

Places to Visit in the East End of London – Spitalfields

Like much of the East End, it has a fascinating history and plenty of things to see and do.

The history of Spitalfields

One of the first references to Spitalfields occurred in the late 1300s – it was then known as “Spittellond”. Over the years, the name of the area changed a few times, moving from “The Spitel Fyeld” in the 16th century to “Spyttlefeildes” and then “Spittle Fields”. The name is probably derived from a priory and hospital in the area, St Mary Spital.

Like many areas of urban London, Spitalfields was originally relatively rural, although it has been inhabited since Roman times. The area was home to a significant Roman burial ground, which was excavated in the 1990s when Spitalfields market was redeveloped.

This site was used as the location for St Mary Spital, which was built in the 1190s. This was one of the most significant hospitals in the country at the time until it was taken apart on the orders of Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries. At this point, more people started to set up home in the area and, in the 17th century, Huguenot weavers moved into Spitalfields to set up business and escape from persecution in France. It is thought that the first streets in the area were built in the 17th century.

Spitalfields was an ideal location for the Huguenots who needed to work outside the restrictions of the city’s guilds. At this point in time, Spitalfields was outside this jurisdiction. As the Huguenots built Spitalfields into a centre of silk weaving excellence, the area became more developed and more housing was constructed.

The 17th century also saw the first market set up in the area. This dealt in “flesh, fowl and roots” and, like any market of the time, could only be established once the local traders received permission from the King.

Spitalfields could be a turbulent place by the 18th century. Irish weavers had joined the Huguenots, but both groups were finding it hard to compete with cheap French imports. In 1769, unrest boiled over, leading to a period of disorder known as the Spitalfields Riots. By the 19th century, most of the area’s traditional industries, including silk weaving, had moved elsewhere, although the area still produced some textiles.

This decline of local industry just about did for Spitalfields. It became a poverty-stricken, over populated area with little work. The grand houses that the Huguenots had built were turned into slums and the area became downright dangerous. By the late 19th century, many people considered the area to be the most criminal area in all of London.

During this period, the serial killer, Jack the Ripper, imposed a reign of terror over the East End and Spitalfields did not escape. His last victim, Mary Kelly, lived in Spitalfields and is thought to have drunk in a local pub on the night she was murdered.

By the 20th century, Spitalfields became the home of many immigrants from Bangladesh, many of whom ultimately made their homes in and around the nearby Brick Lane. The area is now partly dominated by office blocks, due to its proximity to Liverpool Street. Like many areas of London, it is hard for locals to settle here, as housing prices are so expensive.

Things to do in Spitalfields

Spitalfields Market is still there, although it has been redeveloped. This is worth a visit, especially at weekends when it attracts most stallholders. It no longer specialises in flesh, fowl and roots, although some of the local stalls and shops still sell food!

You can also take a quick walk down to Petticoat Lane, which is also one of London’s oldest and most established markets. Brick Lane is worth a visit just to sample its Indian food, but there is also a market there at weekends.

If you want to see how a Huguenot silk weaver would have lived, then try a visit to the Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate Street. Dennis Severs lived in the house from the 1970s to 1990s and, over time, recreated each room to closely resemble how they would have looked when silk weavers lived there. This is also a fine example of Georgian architecture.

Finally, try having a drink in the Ten Bells pub on Commercial Street / Fournier Street. This is the pub that Mary Kelly allegedly drank in on her last night. It was certainly one of her favourite pubs. Who knows, you may be treading in the steps of Jack the Ripper himself!

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3 thoughts on “Historic Spitalfields in London’s East End”

  1. I am doing research on my great, great, great Grandfather, James McFarlan, who owned a Silk Manufacturing business as a cottage industry on 19 Steward Street, Spitalfields that closed it’s doors in the 1830’s. Do you have any information on his business or pictures of the old buildings that would have been there then?

  2. I am currently working on a dissertation on the textile industry in the UK at the University of Cambridge. As part of my research I am looking for historical documents for Huguenot silk weavers houses in Spitalfields, in particular documents on the houses on Fournier Street around 1850s (but not only). I was wondering if in your own research or any of your website visitors you have came across any such information?

  3. I am a Spanish writer who has written …AND SHAKESPEARE READ DON QUIXOTE both in English and Spanish. It deals with Shakespeare’s lost play (The history of Cardenio, based on CARDENIO one of Don Quixote’s characters. In my novel I fantasize about a posible meeting between Shakespeare and Cervantes to rewrite together “The hisory of Cardenio” after its partial loss during the fire of the Globe theatre on the 29th.June 1613.

    …AND SHAKESPEARE READ DON QUIXOTE describes different interesting places which still survive like THE GEORGE, THE RED LION INN, and many others and I would appreciate getting as muh information as posible about Shakespeare’s places and locals that are nowadays open.

    Thank you very much. JOSÉ ENRIQUE GIIL-DELGADO


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