Spitalfields is an area slightly to the east of the City of London, near Bishopsgate (one of the original gates in London’s Wall).
These days it’s an up and coming financial area with glossy office blocks, delicatessens restaurants and bars.
The area is also home to the artists Tracy Emin and ‘Gilbert and George’ who can often be seen walking the streets.
But the area wasn’t always so glossy; until the nineteen seventies the area was a bustling wholesale market for fruit and vegetables and it’s perhaps difficult to imagine now, but in the time of Henry the Eighth the fields in this area were sufficiently remote from the Tower of London (at least a mile away) that they were used for artillery practice. Several streets and pubs in the area bear names that reflect that history – such as ‘Gun Street’ and ‘Artillery Passage’.
The ‘Spital’ or hospital that gives the area its name was ‘The Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital’ founded in 1197 and one of medieval Britain’s largest hospitals until it was dissolved in the 16th Century by Henry the Eight as part of the dissolution of the monasteries following his falling out with the church of Rome.
The Spitalfields area stretches for nearly a mile east from Bishopsgate, across Commercial Street until it reaches Whitechapel at Brick Lane, and over the years it has hosted many waves of immigration. The Hugenot silk workers fled to England from France in 1685 and settled in the area, outside the City of London and the influence of the City’s restrictive Guilds – the silk influence is still reflected in places like ‘Fashion Street’ and, of course, ‘Petticoat Lane’ – a popular street market held in the area every Sunday morning.
After the Hugenots, the area was settled by Irish linen workers and then in the 19th Century by a large Jewish population. Changes to silk tariffs caused a collapse in the London silk industry and hence tremendous poverty in the area. In Victorian times it was considered a ‘rookery’ (slum) and Dorset Street was known as ‘the worst street in London’ as it was host to a large number of Boarding or ‘doss’ houses that often housed several dozen people per room. We’re east of Aldgate here and even Sherlock Holmes once advised “Always carry a firearm east of Aldgate, Watson”.
Dorset Street is now the car park to the rear of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange but played host to one of Jack the Ripper’s murders. Mary Kelly, a local prostitute was murdered at the junction of Dorset Street and Crispin Street on November 9th 1888.
Two buildings dominate the Spitalfields area:
- Christ Church – built by Nicholas Hawksmoor (one of Sir Christophe Wren’s contemporaries) – it was built in a deliberately grand style to ensure that the migrant protestant Hugenots were reminded of the dominance of the Church of England
- Trueman’s Brewery – founded after the Great Fire of London in 1666 by Joseph Trueman – the sprawling complex covers some 11 acres, and while brewing ceased there in 1988, it is now a thriving cultural, artistic and business centre.